Texas tycoon Jason Rayburn had been raised to take charge. To make decisions. To avoid emotion. So when he's forced to return to Brighton Valley to inventory his grandmother's small-town ranch for sale, the executive delegates the work to his new hire, local waitress Juliana Bailey. Jason never mixes business with pleasure, but even he can't ignore his attraction to the redheaded beautyin spite of the secret she's clearly hiding
For Juliana, the job at the Leaning R was too good to be true, offering her a place to lie low until she could confess her pregnancy to her familyand avoid local scandal. But she hadn't counted on the searing sparks flying with the corporate cowboy! Now, the expectant assistant knows the billionaire boss is no family man. But she'll fight for the right to show him he's got daddy potential!
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Jason Rayburn had never considered himself an early bird, but as the morning sun began to rise over the Leaning R Ranch, he found himself pouring his second cup of coffee.
If his father hadn't died, he'd be in Houston todaystill in bed, most likely, but with thoughts of hitting the gym instead of repairing the barn door. After a good workout, he'd take a shower, then head to the downtown high-rise he owned and take the elevator to the top-floor office of Rayburn Energy Transport, where he was the founder and CEO.
With the recent death of his father, he now controlled Rayburn Enterprises as well, not to mention his new role as the sole trustee of the Charles Darren Rayburn Family Trust.
What a mess dividing that was going to be. And that's what had led him back to Brighton Valley.
The Leaning R had been part of his great-grandmother's estate, rest her soul. And Rosabelle Rayburn had left it to Charles with a stipulationthat it be divided equally to his issue upon his death. She'd wanted his children to be in complete and wholehearted agreement about its daily operation and/or division.
Yeah. Right. Jason and his half siblings had never been in agreement on anything. Granny, of all people, knew that. And he suspected it was her last-ditch effort to draw them together in a way she'd never been able to do while she was alive.
But there'd been a reason for that. Jason, Braden and Carly had so very little in common they might as well be strangers.
So that's why he had to get the Leaning R up and running again and ready for sale. Because there was no way his brother and sister would make good business partners. He just hoped he could get them to agree on a real estate agent and a price.
When Jason was a kid, spending summers and the occasional holiday at the ranch, he'd dreamed of being a cattle rancher. But those days were long gone. He was a busy CEO now.
On rare occasions those old dreams might come back to haunt him, but there was a reason for that. He'd spent enough time on the Leaning R with Granny Rayburn growing up that he'd actually felt more at home here than he had anywhere else. Of course, that wasn't the case anymore. He was a city boy nowand eager to get back to his life in Houston.
He didn't have time for reminiscing, especially when some thoughts were so bittersweet they could make a grown man actually choke up like a little boy. Yet as he walked through the house, assessing the work that needed to be done, the still-lingering scents of lemon oil and Granny's trademark lavender hand lotion assailed him in every room. So it was nearly impossible to escape the memories.
But he wouldn't allow himself to lollygag in the past. He had too much to do, and he was determined to get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, as quickly as he could. In the meantime, he'd set up a home office to work remotely. The corporate world didn't stop spinning just because he had to handle some family business.
He would have to hire a couple of extra ranch hands to help Ian, the foreman, get things done. But that didn't mean he wouldn't have to work along with them. He didn't mind the physical labor. It actually drew him back to the time when his great-grandma was still alive, when he was a boy who loved to ride the fence line with the cowboys who'd worked on the Leaning R.
Too bad Granny wasn't here to fix him silver-dollar pancakes for breakfast or to tell him about more of Grandpa Dave's escapades.
He glanced at the faded blue wallpaper with pictures of straw baskets holding wildflowers. Now yellowed with age, the colors had once brightened Granny's kitchen.
Damn, but he missed that sweet old woman. She'd been the closest thing to a mother he'd ever had.
The coffeepot gurgled, and he took one last sip of his morning brew before dumping the remainder in the sink. It wasn't Starbucks, but at least it was caffeine.
He glanced at the cat-shaped clock on wall, its drooping black tail swishing back and forth with each tick-tock. Time to get moving. He had a lot to accomplish today.
Headlights flashed through the kitchen window, and tires crunched on the gravel drive as a vehicle pulled into the yard and parked. He wasn't expecting anyone this early, but it wasn't as if this was the Wild West and he needed to protect his homestead.
Looking out the kitchen window, he watched a woman climb from the small pickup, her hair pulled into a topknot. Instead of heading for the front door, she went straight for the back entrancejust as though she owned the place.
His half sister had said she'd come out and help him inventory the household furnishings for an estate salethe most difficult part of the job, which he had yet to face. But he hadn't been expecting her until tomorrow. What was she doing here nowand at the crack of dawn? She'd never been an early riser, at least not that he could recall.
Jason was already in the mudroom when the door swung open and Carly stepped inside.
"This is a surprise," he said. "You're a day early. Want some coffee?"
"No, thanks. I can't stay."
"What's going on?" he asked.
"I just got offered a singing gigan important oneand I have to leave town for a few weeks. But I wanted to let you know that there are some boxes in the attic that Granny was keeping for me. I don't want you to throw them out or sell them. That's why I agreed to help you inventory things, especially since I think you're being way too hasty in selling the ranch."
He knew how she felt. But it made no sense to keep the Leaning R going when there was no way the three of them could work together. And he had enough on his plate already.
"You could let Braden run things," she added.
Hell, he and Braden rarely spoke. How in the world were they supposed to be business partners? That was one reason he was in a hurry to get the estate settledso the three half siblings could each go their own ways. Not that he wouldn't keep in touch with Carly. But with her heart set on singing and acting, that just went to show that they had nothing in common except the DNA they'd inherited from their old man.
"I also have some things to drop off for Braden," Carly added, "but since he's not home, I'm going to leave them here for him to pick up."
"What are you talking about?"
"Braden asked a friend to drop off some stuff with me. I've had it a week, but I'm leaving and already gave notice at my place. So I don't want him to worry about where it is if he needs it."
Jason kept in closer contact with Carly than he did their half brother. When they'd been kids, Jason had blamed Braden for the divorce that had sent his mom into an emotional tailspin. Of course, as he grew older, he realized Braden had been as much a victim as he'd been. But you couldn't fix a relationship that had never really developed.
"Slow down," Jason said. "Where is Braden?"
"I'm not sure. I think he's in Mexico. It was all pretty cryptic. His friend pretty much just dropped the painting off, along with a couple of boxes. He said it was important that I keep it for him."
"Why can't you leave it at Braden's ranch?"
"There must be a reason why he wanted me to hang on to it. Braden's supposed to explain more when he comes to pick it up. He said he'd owe me onebut now he'll owe you."
Jason was about to object, but it wouldn't hurt to have his half brother indebted to him, even if none of this made any sense. "Did he say when he'd be back?"
"As soon as he can, apparently. A few weeks at the most."
"What the hell? I want to get this property listed for sale. I can't be away from my office while you and Braden are out traipsing around and going on with your lives. It's not fair. And who's going to help me pack up all this stuff?"
She blew out a ragged breath. "Talking to you is just like talking to Dad. I knew you'd never understand."
Her words struck like the flat of a hand against his cheek. For as long as Jason could remember, he'd been trying to win his dad's approval, by following in his footsteps, by attending the same college, becoming a business major, starting his own company. Yet he'd never meant to become a carbon copy of the man. "Try me," he said.
She merely rolled her eyesbig and blue, just like her mother's.
Jason didn't blame her for being skeptical. He and Carly had never been particularly close. For one reason, at twenty-four, she was six years younger than he was. She'd also been into music and the arts, while he'd been more interested in sports and, later, getting his MBA.
But since the three half siblings would have to compromise during the division of the estate, a task that seemed nearly impossible considering they couldn't figure out a way to be in town at the same time, it was imperative that they learn to find some kind of common ground.
"Tell me about your singing gig," he said.
She unfolded her arms and cocked her head slightly to the side, studying him as though she'd never met him before. Then she slipped her thumbs into the front pockets of her jeans, rocked forward and smiled. "I'm starring in a nightclub near the Riverwalk. It's a six-week run, but it could work into something biggerbetter"
She made it sound as if she'd been asked to star on Broadway.
So what would it hurt for him to pretend that she had? "That's great, Carly. I hope things work out for you." She paused a beat, then tucked a loose blond curl behind her ear. "So you're not going to fight me about storing Braden's stuff while he's gone?"
He hoped that didn't mean holding off the sale longer than he'd planned, but if he really thought about it, his relationship with his half brother was in far more need of repair than his and Carly's. And if that meant doing Braden this favor now, then how could he refuse?
"Can you stick around until I find someone else to help me go through the household items?" he asked.
"I'm afraid not. I start tonight, and I have to get back to San Antonio for a wardrobe check this afternoon. It's a long drive."
Crap. How was he supposed to go through the house on his own, plus supervise the ranch workand hold down the fort at Rayburn Energy, as well as Rayburn Enterprises, without help?
Besides, he'd been hoping Carly would agree to go through the household items. It was hard for him to do it. Everything he saw, everything he touched, reminded him of Granny, and well, it was hard. Damn hard. And Carly would know better than he would what should be kept and what should be tossed or sold.
"I'm going to have to find someone to help," he said. "And quickly. If they can live in, then all the better."
A slow grin stretched across Carly's face, and he was struck by how pretty she was, even without any makeup. She'd always favored her mother, a popular country-and-western music star and who'd retired recently to marry a state politician. But he hadn't realized how much until now.
"I know someone who'd be perfectand she's looking for work."
"Remember my friend Juliana Bailey?" Red hair, pigtails. Big brown eyes and a scatter of freckles across her nose. "The one I used to call Bird Legs? What about her?"
"She's been working in Wexler at an art gallery since graduating from the junior college, but she was laid off recently. Now she's back in town and waiting tables part-time at Caroline's Diner. But she needs to find something that pays better. I'm sure she'd do a great job. And maybe, if you were happy with her, it might work into something more permanentand in the city. I know she'd love to find something outside of Brighton Valley."
"I wouldn't want to give her any false hope about working at either Rayburn Energy or Enterprises. I leave the hiring up to the HR department. It makes my life a lot easier if I don't get involved with the personnel. But I definitely need some temporary help here on the ranch, and I'd be willing to make it well worth her time."
"You won't be sorry. Juliana is bright, professional and well, whatever it is HR departments are looking for in new hires. I'm not sure why that company in Wexler let her go. They'd have to be crazy or going out of business, because she had to be their best employee ever."
"You don't have to sing her praises. I'm a little desperate right now."
"Good. I think she's working this morning. I don't have her new number, but you could stop by Caroline's and talk to her. I know she's been staying with her mom and grandmother in a small apartment near Town Square, so she'd probably work for room and board and a fair salary."
Seriously? "You think she'd be interested in a simple offer like that? Even if it's only temporary?"
"Well, that and the opportunity to at least have a chance at an interview with the HR department at one of your businesses. It wouldn't hurt to ask."
"Okay, I will."
"Thanks, Jason. You won't be sorry."
For some reason, he was sorry already. But he set his mug on the counter and followed Carly out to the yard, catching up to her about six feet from the pickup. "How many boxes are there?"
"Twoone containing some ceramic stuff and another with paperwork. There is also a painting." She opened the tailgate, then reached for a box. "Here. Can you carry this one into the house?"
Jason took the carton she handed him, although he had half a notion to drop the damn thing on the groundor take it and dump it off at Braden's ranch, which was ten miles down the road.
"Have you tried calling him?" Jason asked as he and Carly carried the boxes back into the house.
"Several times, but apparently he doesn't have cell reception wherever he is."