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Ruthless. Some said driven. An only child and self-made billionaire, John Carruth liked things his way. The sexy blond woman giving him five feet six inches of attitude clearly had no intention of giving in to his wishes. She stood in front of his desk in his new office, hands on her slender hips.
"Renaming the rodeo isn't a good idea. The people in No Chance, Texas, do things a certain way."
"Let's discuss it over dinner," he suggested. After working with Chloe Winters for two weeks, John knew she wasn't likely to jump at the opportunity. John figured he'd never really had a meaningful relationship, but he'd taken a lot of women to dinner. When a man made a lot of money, he had female companionship for the choosing. Ask Donald Trump.
Chloe shook her head, her eyes sparkling with temper and probably a naive assumption that it was inadvisable to mix business and pleasure. In John's opinion, it was always good to mix business and pleasureit made for more interesting dinner conversation. The lawyer in her no doubt dictated extreme professionalism, and anyway, John could tell from the way she carried herselfwith pride and a certain standoffishnessshe wouldn't be an easy woman to seduce.
He was sort of glad for that. It was time for him to give up women, maybe until he found "the one," or at least someone whom he could regard as "possibly the one." In fact, on this beautiful Texas June day, he told himself it was time to turn over a new leaf and take all women seriously before he ended up becoming a schmuck.
"Look, John," Chloe said, "you can't rename the rodeo without speaking to people who have lived here all their lives and believe their town name is part of their identity."
"No Chance is an awkward name. It's not attractive on billboards. Something like Windy Corners has better appeal. We need marketability."
It was probably too late to change the name for this year, anyway. The rodeo was in four weeks. Someone had told him they'd received around twenty rider entries. The name of the rodeo was a millstone dragging down its popularity, as far as he was concerned. He wasn't a romantic or a superstitious person, but what cowboy would want to enter a rodeo called No Chance?
The problem was obvious.
"Just because you have a major ownership stake in this rodeo doesn't give you the right to romanticize the town to suit your city ways," Chloe told him.
"I promised to give an honest appraisal of how to make this rodeo profitable. In the five years this rodeo has been in existence, it's barely broken even. First thing that needs to change is the name."
"In your opinion."
They were at an impasse. He hadn't officially renamed the rodeonot yet, anywaybut he'd had a full-color mock-up made of a brochure for when he met with the rodeo committee tomorrow. He'd wanted to test his idea on Chloe first, get her reaction, so he'd know how to sell his idea to the others. Chloe thought the rodeo's old name was appropriate, but he knew it turned off sponsors.
No big-name riders would enter without big-name sponsors. Life was simple when one understood money, and he'd quickly realized from the proposal the town of No Chance had sent asking him to invest in their rodeo that the people here had little understanding of the wonderful, alluring challenge of making money. Thanks to his parents, he understood money very well. Lured like a shark smelling blood, he'd left New York on a whim.
He'd expected resistance to some of his proposed changes. Yet something more romantic and yes, practical, was needed to save this rodeo, something befitting a community that didn't want to change but did want to grow. It was a too-still place, with few amenities. John felt he could change all that if he could work through the issues his way. Wait until they realized he planned to build a huge hotel here, make this backwater into a tourist destination that included an enormous Ferris wheel the size of the London Eye in England, and ultimately gambling casinos to rival those in Las Vegas and nearby Louisiana.
He was going to have to go slowly, but he would attain his goals in No Chance. The sweet sound of ka-ching! would have to serve as his applause. He doubted the good citizens would appreciate his plans for their downtrodden town, where the only plant had long since closed. Apparently, No Chance's paper plant had been run out of business by the neighboring town of Farmbluff. Feelings were still running hot about that, though ten years had passed.
Miss Ice Cool, with her smooth blond hair and constant opinions, saw herself as No Chance's protector. She was determined to thwart him, question his every move. And since she was the town's legal counsel, he put up with her debating. Truthfully, if he needed to boot any of the lawyers he had working for him, he'd consider hiring her. Chloe was tenacious and persistent, traits he admired in a tough lawyer. She could sway the close-knit coterie of the town council his way if she chose to, so he needed her support.
Chloe supported nothing but the side she was on. John tried his winning smile on her. "You and I have got to work together better."
"I have no problem working with you."
"Working against me."
"Your words, not mine." She glanced down at her notepad, marshaling her next argument.
He sighed. "I have to consider the bottom line. If the rodeo is going to become the staple of this town, the town may have to consider a name change."
Chloe shrugged. "Good luck with that. I certainly appreciate your efforts to better our situation. But I hope you won't mind me saying that our positions come with a certain amount of conflict built in. You'll find most of us here a stubborn breed."
He raised his hand. "I know, I knowyou do everything your way. And yet, the town came to me to finance the rodeo. My opinions come with the deep pockets."
"We were hoping for a more silent hero."
"You and I will probably argue a lot," he warned.
"Not me. I'm all about peace and quiet."
"Sure, sure." John wondered if she allowed anyone a peaceful moment.
"So," Chloe said, "let's get back to this brochure"
One of the rodeo clownsa beloved stalwart of No Chancerushed into the room. "Chloe," he said, "we've got a problem."
"Calm down, Cody," she said, reaching out to soothe the elderly gentleman. "What is it?"
He glanced at John. The billionaire was considered very much an outsider; no one was sure what to make of him. Some people said he was cold, too business-like. Others liked him, thought he was working hard to improve matters, had a strong guiding hand which had been sorely lacking in the town's business matters before. Chloe respected John. He was a smart man, but he was too handsome, too magnetic and too self-assured for her taste. John was tempting as sin and happily arrogant.
"It's okay," Chloe reassured Cody. "What's up?"
"Jessup's here, causing a ruckus. He's telling everyone that our rodeo will never take off because Farmbluff 's already setting one up. Got a backing of two million dollars, he claims, from the old coot who owns the paper plant. Some of our boys are about to give Jessup a bit of a lesson he won't soon forget." He glanced at John, not certain if he should continue. "The sheriff's on his way."
"I'll go," Chloe told John, but he followed her out of his office and down the narrow aisle as Cody hurried off.
"This type of thing won't help the rodeo," John observed, and over her shoulder Chloe sent him a look of pure annoyance. "Bad reputations are hard to change. This is the third fight we've had here this week, and it's not good for the town's reputation."
"Do you ever think of anything besides the bottom line?" Chloe demanded.
John shook his head and kept walking.
Jake Fitzgerald saw that the visiting cowboy was more than drunk. He looked a bit crazy, but that was nothing new for Jessup. It was a warm day, maybe already ninety-seven degrees by the noon hour. Everything was melting in the heat, yet Jessup was still spoiling for a fight. Jake watched as the ever-efficient Erin O'Donovan peered at Jessup lurching down the walkway between the stalls. He'd known Erin since first grade. For some reason she'd moved to Farmbluff six months ago, a mistake in his opinion, but there was no stopping Erin once she got an idea in her head. There never had been. She'd been first in all their classes, gone off to study medicine at Columbia, grabbed a few scholarships. Erin was a whirlwind of activity, and Jake had always had a secret yen for her.
He was a bull rider, always on the circuit. He had nothing to offer a petite high-energy redhead. At the age of thirty-two, he had almost nothing to offer anyone. A saddle, a truck, some riding equipment, a hundred acres south of town. He looked at her legs beneath her emerald-green skirt, and with a certain hunger he had no intention of satisfying admired the way her white blouse skimmed her curves. Gentle Dr. Erin, committed to patching up cowboys at rodeos. Thing about Erin was, despite moving to the enemy town, she'd never forgotten where her real friends were. She came back all the time to check on them, most particularly Cody and his dicky heart.
Erin could check on his heart any time.
"Jake," Erin said, startling him. "Have you met the new rodeo director and general partner, John Carruth?"
He put his hand out to the suit-wearing city slicker. "We've spoken once. Welcome."
John shook his hand. Neither of them were very warm about the encounter. Chloe had preceded John into the enclosure to look at Jessup and she sent Jake a brief smile. He nodded, then went back to perusing Erin. Something possessive he hadn't expected reared up inside him insisting he somehow make certain the new Rodeo Savior in town didn't get an itch for Erin.
They watched the drunk cowboy shadow-box a few circles, jabbing at the air occasionally, doing himself more damage than anyone else. Cody put a hand on the cowboy's shoulder to calm him, then jumped back when an errant swing whizzed by his ear.
The sheriff spoke up. "Mr. Carruth, you're probably the one who should decide if you want to press charges of any nature. Maybe Jessup just needs a nice, comfy jail cell until he cools down"
"Well, Counselor?" John said. "Would you advise that?"
"I suppose he really needs a safe place to sleep it off," Chloe said.
Sheriff Whitmore nodded. "We might see if we like him any better when he dries out, Mr. Carruth."
"Please, call me John."
Jake bet the man had probably said that a hundred times since he'd come to town. He was trying hard to fit ineveryone said so. Yet no one really seemed to warm up to him.
"I'd say the show's over," Sheriff Whitmore said. "Deputy Gonzalez, cuff our visitor, please."
Chloe frowned. "Did anybody ask him why he thinks our rodeo is destined to fail?"
"It is," Jessup said, whirling to face her. "Farm-bluff already has all the best names lined up. I just came by to tell you not to waste your time." He tipped to the left, putting himself out of reach of Deputy Gonzalez's cuffs, then righted himself. This whole drama was typical bad behavior for Jessup, nothing new, but John Carruth stood awkwardly in a corner, looking uncomfortable and out of place in his suit. He didn't seem to know what to think about small-town intrigues.
Jake caught John staring at Chloe, who didn't seem to notice the man's attention. It would be amusing to watch Mr. Suit try his city-slicker skills on Chloe. Chloe was married to her horse, like any good barrel rider.
"Chloe, weren't you here since about four this morning working Brandy?" Sheriff Whitmore asked.
"Yes." Chloe sank down on a concrete block next to Erin. "John was here, too."
All heads turned to stare at the outsider with the stiff suit and the rare smile. John shrugged. "Workaholic, what can I say?"
"I never saw Jessup, though," Chloe added. "I don't think anybody in No Chance would serve him so much liquor."
Sheriff Whitmore scratched his head under his straw Resistol hat. "Jessup, you didn't need to come here and tell us y'all's rodeo is better than ours," he said as Deputy Gonzalez finally succeeded in cuffing the man, earning more curses from the drunk cowboy. Jake decided to go do something productive and leave the rodeo politics to Mr. Suit. It'd be a great initiation for him. Personally, Jake thought it was dumb that the man was brought here in the first place. All No Chance wanted from John was his wallet; he could have sent his money and stayed in Manhattan.
"Does anyone think Mr. Carruth and Jake share a resemblance?" Chloe asked suddenly. Even Jessup stopped fighting as all the occupants of the crowded breezeway glanced at Chloe, then John. "It's just unusual to see two men who are the same height, dark-haired, square-jawed, each with really blue eyes," she pointed out.
Jake halted, turning to stare at John. His gaze swept John's suit with displeasure. He would never wear his hair that short, eitheralmost military-style. "No."
John considered Jake's dirty jeans, worn-out boots, and seen-better-days cowboy hat under which shoulder-length dark hair flowed. "I have to agree with him."
Cody the clown chuckled. "Twins," he said.
Everyone laughed at the absurdity of that statement. Erin stepped over to Jake, surprising him by sliding off his hat. He let her, smelling her perfume and the delicious scent of warm, clean Erin.
"You do have some resemblance," she said. "Mostly around the eyes and chin. And the same hair color, a nice charcoal." She slipped his hat back into place and stepped awayhe'd been electrified the second she'd moved so close to him. His throat was dry; his blood beat hard.