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Cold-Hearted King: A Dark Billionaire Romance by Piper Stone – Sample

Chapter One

Sebastian

I’d been called many things in my life. Playboy. Monster. Bastard.

I was all three, but no one could ever accuse me of not keeping a clear focus when it came to business. I had my share of enemies, both men and women determined to bring me down given my ruthless nature. Only a few were stupid enough to think I wouldn’t either catch them in the act or become determined to exact my personal brand of retaliation.

Destroying them completely.

It would seem I’d underestimated the stupidity of the man sweating in front of me. Or maybe he’d been foolish enough to think he could get away with attempting to undermine me.

“You can’t do this to me, Sebastian. I won’t stand for it. My investors won’t stand for it.”

“Quite the contrary. This is my company. I can do what I damn well please.” I eyed him, enjoying watching the worthless bastard squirm.

There was little I enjoyed more than crushing my enemies with my boot.

“You’re a bastard and exactly like your father.”

“That I am and I’m going to take that as a compliment.” While I smiled as I issued the statement, the truth was I loathed being compared to Dinalto Cawthorne. My father had never been a decent role model. The worst part about Casper’s statement was that he was correct. Through the years, I’d grown into a carbon copy of the unscrupulous man. At least I had extreme wealth to show for my hard work and forays into ruthlessness. However, I needed to remind myself that Mr. Jacobs was also an enemy, a man who’d done everything in his power to undermine our success over the years. It was time for his comeuppance.

And I was just the man to do it.

He’d once been considered the most powerful man in real estate development up and down the East Coast. He was the man to work for, the one to fear given his ability to cross the line when it was convenient and kept his deep pockets heavy.

Casper had used tactics that would rival any mafia organization, suspected of a half dozen disappearances of influential moguls in his thirty-year tenure. My father had apprenticed with him from almost the day he’d arrived in Miami, learning the man’s tips and tricks of success, remaining loyal when even the man’s partners had abandoned him.

Then out of the blue, Casper hadn’t needed him any longer.

I’d been a boy when my father had been tossed aside, which had changed him almost immediately. He’d regrouped in a couple of years, taking half of Casper’s business, determined that one day he’d destroy the man he’d once considered a mentor. That had turned my father into a brutal son of a bitch, his hatred for Casper and the rest of the world evident in everything he’d done since then.

Very slowly he’d drained the man of other clients until finally Casper came crawling back to my father, begging to work with our firm. I’d been appalled my father had taken him back with open arms, developing a different type of partnership. It had been years before I’d realized the cunning actions my father had taken were simply a savage game. Only when I’d taken the helm had I learned the truth.

What little I remembered about the early days immediately after my father’s rise to power was the move into a much bigger house with a pool and dozens of new, shiny toys. Maybe even as young as five I’d become determined to be like my father, a man I’d once considered a hero. Somewhere along the way, it would seem I’d lost my conscience.

It was funny how things weren’t always what they seemed, people ready to stab you in the back at a moment’s notice. That’s how powerful men and women jumped ahead of the line. That’s also exactly what I was doing. My father had trained me well. Exploiting weaknesses was a significant strength of mine. However, digging into someone’s past, using whatever darkness they kept hiding in shadowed corners and underneath their beds was my claim to fame. I was the best at it, better than my father.

And I intended on using it to become even richer.

After all, it was too late to change now.

I leaned over my desk, enjoying watching sweat roll down both sides of the pompous asshole’s face. Casper had believed that he could fly in under the radar, laying claim to the most profitable and expensive real estate deal Miami had ever seen. He’d thought wrong. Every enemy who’d dared try to undermine us had been wrong. There’d been countless scores of them over the years, although my savage reputation had prevented the little fish from attempting to attack the sharks. It would seem Casper was still too big for his britches.

My gaze fell to the horrific pictures photographed in vivid color I’d placed on the edge of my desk. I’d been eager to show the man my beautiful works of art that had taken me almost six months to obtain. The man had been damn good in hiding his proclivities, even going so far as to leave the city when he needed a fix.

And I wasn’t talking about illegal drugs.

He’d kept everything on the downlow, a prim and proper conservative on the outside, seemingly adoring his wife and family, including six grandchildren. All while being little more than a pedophile. I abhorred men who took advantage of children. Even if the boy in question was close to reaching the age of eighteen, that didn’t matter to me. By all rights, I should turn him into the police.

Maybe I still would.

That is if I had a conscience, which I didn’t.

Everyone had a secret, a dirty, nasty little secret hidden in the darkest corners.

“I suggest you rethink your decision, Casper.”

“You’re bluffing,” he snorted. “Those are doctored and you know it.”

“Are they?” I cocked my head, offering nothing but a sly smile. “I don’t think my buddy, the one I went to college with and the one who’s in charge of the police department will think so. Then there’s the girl from Channel 8 I dated for several months. I’m certain she’ll be thrilled to finally make her way into the upper echelon of reporters, perhaps even going national. But that decision is entirely up to you. Either way is fine with me.”

I took a few seconds basking in the moment of victory before sliding a pen, my favorite Montblanc, across the desk along with the contract. It would dissolve the limited partnership my father had entered into with the man, providing Casper with a mere token of appreciation and nothing else. What Mr. Jacobs didn’t know was that very soon he’d be penniless, his reputation and his marriage ruined. All in the name of revenge. What was the saying? It was best served cold? Well, it was frosty but would prove to be a shining hour.

Meanwhile, our firm would finalize the deal for a multimillion-dollar resort project that would place our corporation onto the map, solidly placing us in the lead for any future projects throughout the East Coast.

Stars were in my eyes as I thought about the adventures to be had in the future, additional cities to conquer. I turned away, allowing the man some privacy. There was no sound for almost a full minute. When I heard a rustling of paper, I glared at my reflection in the floor-to-ceiling window, thrilled at my accomplishment. It had been a hard-fought win but one worth a juicy rare steak and a glass of whiskey or two.

It was obvious he was leaving my office, even throwing open the door by making enough noise I huffed.

“Hear me. You won’t get away with this, Sebastian. I thought your father was the most ruthless man I’d ever met, but I was wrong. You’re an evil person. May you rot in hell. I assure you I’m going to help you carve your way into the flames. Mark my words. The reign you believe you have is getting ready to come to an end. When I find your weakness, you will be destroyed.”

“Good luck with that.” I might be one of the few men on Earth who had no weaknesses. I drank responsibly, didn’t smoke, certainly had never used recreational drugs, and succumbed to my love of women only when the need outweighed the high I achieved from making money and tearing people down.

Still, I had to give the man a small amount of credit. He’d managed to end our conversation with a useless threat.

He slammed the door as I knew he would. Maybe I was the devil in disguise. What did I care? I was rich. I had every toy a growing boy could need. Those who’d dared cross me had learned the hard way what I was capable of.

Exhaling, I glanced over my shoulder at the signed contract before walking to the bar I’d insisted on having in my office. It was time to celebrate. The whiskey was my favorite, the smooth taste exactly what would slake my thirst. Glass in hand, I returned to the window, staring out at the ocean waters of Miami Beach. Cawthorne Industries owned the entire building, our corporate offices taking up the top two floors of the forty-story building. From where I stood, I had a perfect view of the sweeping turquoise ocean and miles of the most exclusive restaurants and nightclubs.

I was a lucky man, affording anything I wanted in my life. Cars. Houses. Vacation homes. Yachts. I had them all.

As I took a sip, I found it disgusting that even with being able to purchase everything my heart desired, nothing had satisfied the darkness furrowing inside. My ex had explained in vivid detail that I had no clue how to be happy or appreciative.

And that I’d always be a lonely man until the day I died. Old and alone.

I’d laughed. Now I was beginning to wonder. I was almost forty years old, yet I’d had one relationship that had lasted longer than a couple of months. I took a gulp of my drink, shaking my head. What the hell was wrong with me? Maybe I needed to get laid. That would soothe the savage beast inside for at least a couple of months.

I heard a knock on the door and sighed. My work was never done. “Yes?”

The waning sun allowed me to realize my assistant had opened my door, something she only did if it was important. I turned around, curious what calamity had occurred now.

“I have a phone call for you. The man said it can’t wait,” Nora said, nervous as she always was when she interrupted me. I was known for my lack of patience and my temper.

“Who is it?”

“A man by the name of Hank Barclay. He says he’s your grandfather’s attorney and it’s urgent that he speak with you. Evidently, he’s been trying for a couple of days.”

“Hank Barclay,” I repeated. I did remember listening to a couple of messages, although he’d made no comment as to who he was or why he’d been trying to reach me.

There were few things that troubled me or caused me to pause even for a second. My grandfather was one of them. He’d been more like a loving father to me than my own dad, who’d been far too busy to give a shit about his growing sons or his wife for that matter. My father had pushed her away with his brutality and anger, something I’d yet to forgive him for.

My mother had run off with some Greek tycoon when I was barely seventeen and had just graduated high school. I’d hated her for years for leaving me and my brother until I’d learned what my father had done to her. Within two weeks, my father had sent my brother to boarding school and me to my grandfather’s ranch for the summer. That had turned into almost a full year, me spending my first year of college in Colorado. I’d hated it at first, the small town completely unlike Miami. Then I hadn’t wanted to leave, which certainly hadn’t sat well with dear old Pops.

All the happiness I’d experienced during the time that I’d lived with the man had been taken away, my father insisting I go to an Ivy League college closer to home instead. While he’d told me a community college wasn’t good enough for a Cawthorne, I’d known the truth even then. My father hated my grandfather for unknown reasons. They’d been estranged my entire life. Not once had my grandfather come to visit his grandkids or vice versa. My grandfather had even stopped calling and we’d just grown apart, the months turning into years. I’d always had a feeling he’d thought I’d abandoned him. The truth was I’d been forced to make a choice.

The ugly truth was that my father had threatened me not only with my inheritance but by keeping my brother out of my life. I’d had no other choice. Oddly, the pain I felt from losing the aging man hit me hard, more so than I would have believed after all this time.

“I’ll take it,” I told her, waiting until she’d left before sitting down in my office chair, staring at the office phone. Exhaling, I finally picked up the receiver a few seconds later.

“Sebastian Cawthorne, my name is Hank Barclay.”

“Yes, Mr. Barclay. I understand you’re my grandfather’s attorney.”

“And his best friend. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for almost a week.”

No, it had been a couple of days, but I wasn’t going to correct him on it.

“I’ve been very busy with my business, Mr. Barclay, and in truth, I’ll appreciate if you get to the point.” I was already irritated by the man’s terse tone.

“Well, then let me be blunt. I’m so sorry to have to call you like this, but your grandfather had a massive heart attack and didn’t survive.”

Chapter Two

Sebastian

The man I most admired was dead.

I couldn’t believe it.

I glanced at my credenza to the single picture I had of the time I’d spent with him decades before. The fading color photo reminded me of a different time in my life when I’d actually been happy.

“Dead.”

“Yes,” Hank stated.

Who the fuck was this man? I’d never heard of him before.

No shit, Sherlock. You ignored your grandfather for twenty years.

Another harsh reminder that I was just like my bastard father. I sat back against the chair, my pulse immediately racing. I had no idea what to say, the ache in my heart instantaneous. What also struck me was that it didn’t sound as if the man was sad about the situation at all. “You’re his best friend?”

“Yes, for years. I know it’s a shock. It was to everyone who knew him as well. He seemed to be in the prime of his life.”

Christ. My grandfather had also been trying to get in touch with me. I’d been too fucking busy to take the call. I rubbed my jaw, furious with the asshole’s tone and with myself.

“Thank you for letting me know. When is the funeral?”

“A few days. All the arrangements have been made and I’ll be happy to send you an email with the details. But that’s not why I’m calling.”

“Hold on. Who made the arrangements?”

He seemed put off by my question, snorting as if I had no right to ask. “Why, I did when I couldn’t get in touch with you initially.”

Why the hell was I the responsible party all of a sudden?

“What is the real reason for your call, Mr. Barclay? As I said, I’m a busy man.” The ache increased, so much so I was taking gasping breaths as if I was the one having a heart attack.

“He left you everything in his will. Now, I was appointed by the courts as a temporary executor but I’m certain the judge will rule on the probate shortly. Although we do have a backlog in the courts right now.”

“Temporary executor?” I fisted my hand, furious with a man I didn’t even know.

“Yes, given it’s a working ranch and business operation, your grandfather felt it vital to ensure the bills were paid and other necessary items attended to in the event something happened to him. It’s just a formality. As you said, you’re a very busy man, which is what I understood from your grandfather. I’m prepared and happy to do anything I can to make the sale easier.”

“Sale?”

“I’m certain you’re interested in selling the ranch as soon as possible.”

The man was a presumptuous asshole. Why did I get the feeling there was a huge profit waiting for the man as soon as the ranch was sold off? Hmm…

I finally managed to exhale the strangled air, trying to keep my anger from exploding. “The ranch? Does that mean there was a change in how my grandfather ran the place?” When I was there, it wasn’t much more than a couple dozen acres and a rundown house, the ranch likely to foreclose. That hadn’t mattered. I’d loved every moment of being there. The nature. The mountains. I’d hiked for hours at a time, learned how to ride horses. I’d never laughed so much, my grandfather teaching me the ways of the Old West. We’d even camped out under the stars together. He’d told me the day I arrived he was going to drive the city slicker out of me.

And he had.

But it had been short lived.

Hank laughed. “It’s changed significantly over the years.”

“Interesting. It can’t be that much,” I said in passing.

Mr. Barclay laughed again. “You haven’t spoken with your grandfather in a few years. Have you?”

It was my turn to chortle, trying to remember the last time. “Over twenty.”

“How sad. Then you missed out on a lot. Walter turned the ranch into something special and a very profitable corporation. But as I mentioned and anticipated, I’m certain you’ll want to sell it, so I’ve taken the liberty of securing several potential buyers. One in particular is willing to pay top dollar in an all-cash deal. The transaction can be completed in days instead of weeks.”

“Whoa. Hold on. I’m a consummate businessman, Hank, which is something I’m certain my grandfather told you.”

“Unfortunately, he said very little about you over the years, which is why quite frankly I was shocked he left you almost everything.”

I rubbed my jaw. “I haven’t gotten to the pinnacle of my career without doing my due diligence on every business transaction. How much is the ranch worth?” I could tell he was irritated at my push back. Well, too fucking bad.

“He acquired a little over a thousand acres and built an entire horse facility including several new buildings. He boards and trains horses and their riders. He even has a veterinary facility on site. Early estimations are fifty million. Granted, a formal assessment has yet to be made but at least that. And again, I’m certain I can persuade the all-cash buyer to pay more than that.”

What. The. Fuck? A red flag was raised when I realized that either my grandfather had been intending to sell before he died, or the man had been dead for several days. “When did my grandfather die?”

“Six days ago. As I said, I did try and call but given my close friendship with Walter, secondary options had already been established in case I couldn’t get in touch with you.”

Why did the entire situation sound like a masterful railroading job?

I bristled with anger but realized there were many legalities that would need to be sorted through. I was no attorney, but I certainly knew my way around contracts.

As well as liars.

Something about his timeline and story already bothered me.

“Would you like me to email you the proposals? We can handle the business without you coming here if you’d like. I can handle all aspects of the sale, including sending you whatever documents that will need your signature.”

It was obvious the man considered me naïve or stupid. I had no intention of selling the property without seeing it first. “I’m coming to his funeral, Mr. Barclay. Please have the particulars of the estate and grounds emailed to me, including all financial records. I want to learn everything about the operation as possible post haste. We’ll discuss opportunities when I arrive. Make certain you attach all your contact information as well. And make no mistake, Mr. Barclay, I will take over as executor as soon as I arrive.”

I could sense the man was put off. What the fuck did I care? Why did I have the distinct feeling the man was hiding something from me?

“That’s not how it works here in Colorado.”

“Well, that’s how it’s going to work, Mr. Barclay. So you’re aware, the law firm that handles my billion-dollar business has a subsidiary in Denver. I’m certain you’re heard of it: Washington, Hills, and Thompson, LLC?” I could tell I got him with the name alone. They were considered the most respected attorney’s firm in the United States.

His breathing suddenly became more labored.

“I understand, Mr. Cawthorne. I will have the desired information in your inbox within the hour.”

It was fascinating how his tone changed completely.

“See to it that you do, Hank. I’m certain you don’t want us to get off on the wrong foot. Now, do you? I’ll call you when I arrive.” There was no reason to give a shit about his answer.

I held the phone against my forehead, closing my eyes as I remembered some of the good times I’d shared with the man. Walter Cawthorne had always been a character. I’d experienced that while living under the same roof. He could drink almost any man under the table and still be up at four in the morning, prompting me to get my ass out of bed and do my chores, which had consisted of feeding the three horses he’d owned back then. Up until that experience, I’d never done a lick of hard work in my life.

As soon as my father could hire a staff to do everything for him, including running his errands, that’s what he’d done. I rubbed my jaw, finally opening my eyes after visions of my grandfather’s face faded into the ugly shadows in my mind.

Another knock on my door not only drew me out of the bittersweet memories but also pissed me off. At this point, I wanted to spend time reflecting on a life I’d been forced to give up, a decision I’d questioned more than once. To sell or not sell the ranch already weighed heavily on my mind.

My father waited for no man, including his own son. He rushed into my office with a look of victory firmly planted on his face. “I noticed Casper was in a hurry to leave your office.” He eyed the signed contract before I had a chance to tell him what had gone down in the meeting. He picked it up, nodding even before he read the contents. “You did good, son. Really good. I’m proud of you.”

It was funny how when my father said he was proud, it was tough to believe.

Or give a shit about.

I sat back, kicking my feet up on my desk, bringing the drink to my lips as I studied him. Not only had my father taught me about ruthless behavior, he’d also ensured I had a firm hold on dressing for success. My nineteenth birthday present had been a suit handmade in Italy. I’d flown out for the fitting, losing my virginity at the same time. I’d used nothing but Italian tailors since then.

“Grandpops is dead.” I issued the statement without emotion, studying his reaction. It was just as I expected. My father clenched his lips, barely glancing up from his glee in studying the contract. As if he didn’t know what had been checked and rechecked by our piranha of an attorney.

“Good riddance.”

The comment pushed my irritation into absolute rage. “What the fuck did you have against the man?”

“What does it matter, son? He’s dead. Hopefully he rots in hell where he belongs.” He placed the contract on my desk, giving me a hard onceover. My father did that at least once a week, likely attempting to see if I was still following in his footsteps. “Don’t forget you have a meeting in New York on Friday. I’ll expect you to get a signed contract before you leave.”

I’d been slightly on the fence about my quick decision to head to Colorado. Not any longer. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it.”

“And why the fuck is that?”

“Because I’m attending my grandfather’s funeral and handling the distribution of his will.”

He snorted, glaring at me as if I’d just told him I’d committed a murder. Oh, wait. He wouldn’t have cared if that had occurred as long as it was for the benefit of the company. Fuck the man. I was angrier than I’d been in a long time.

“That’s ridiculous. You haven’t seen that… man in twenty fucking years.”

“That’s the point, Dad. Now, he’s dead.”

My father’s face twisted. “Then I’ll send your brother to New York. Jackson will finish the job. Maybe he’ll be the one to take over the company. My company.”

The same threat, a different day. I rose to my feet, offering the same smile to the man who’d provided sperm as I had to our number one enemy. “There’s only one problem with that, Pops. Jackson wants nothing to do with your brutal regime. I think you’re stuck with me. It’s funny how Grandpops left me the ranch, not you. I wonder why.”

“You need to sell that rattrap.”

I grabbed my keys and phone, moving away from my desk. My father’s visit had left a bitter taste in my mouth. “Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. Who knows. Maybe I’ll keep it as a place of refuge. Watch your back, Dad. It would seem you have enemies out to get you and your company.” I headed toward the door, not waiting for his ridiculous comeback.

In a move unlike me, I enjoyed slamming the door.

Fuck my father.

Chapter Three

Sebastian

Who the fuck was Sarah Logan and why had my grandfather left her a tidy sum in his will?

That wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.

The man had been generous to a fault, but he was already paying inflated salaries to his employees. If he’d kept going this way, he would have found himself in the red in a few years. Sure, the value of the property alone was significant, but his business of both breeding and raising horses as well as boarding and training them was down by over twenty-two percent in recent years. Maybe part of the reason had been he hadn’t bred a real prize winner in almost five years. Hell, I hadn’t known he’d gotten into that aspect of horse ranching.

So much had changed.

I rubbed my jaw, my eyes exhausted from reading over the limited information Hank had sent as well as the fucking plane ride. Somehow, I had a feeling he’d been less than enthusiastic about my request. Well, fuck him. If I wanted to get a decent price for the ranch, I’d need to do my due diligence. That included determining which employees should be terminated and which could stay until the end.

And the crap about having a buyer waiting in the wings only kept me ticked off.

The girl’s name stuck in my mind. Why was she included in the will when my brother had been left off completely? It didn’t make any sense. Granted, Jackson had never had the opportunity to get to know Walter, only talking to him a couple of times on the phone. It was sad really.

I’d been asking myself the same questions since I’d read over one of the documents Hank had finally sent, although it had taken him much longer than an hour. There was no explanation and Hank certainly hadn’t offered any.

She was the only other person mentioned, other than ensuring Mr. Barclay’s legal expenses were paid. I had no issue with that since I wasn’t certain I liked the man. Sadly, the reason Hank had slipped into the temporary position as executor was because I’d refused to take the man’s phone calls. An addendum had been placed in the will in that if direct contact hadn’t been secured with me within forty-eight hours, Hank would be placed into a temporary role.

Why did I have a feeling it had all been perfectly orchestrated?

I would discuss this with my attorney, but not until I tried to figure out what Hank was trying to accomplish. It was possible I was simply too jaded given the work I did, but I hadn’t liked the man’s attitude from the get-go.

The entire situation had left a very bad taste in my mouth. With millions at stake, I could certainly see anyone becoming greedy. What I’d yet to determine was whether Hank would benefit from the sale of the ranch. However, there were still volumes of paperwork I’d need to go through.

“How’s Colorado?” Jackson asked when I grumbled under my breath.

I fastened my trousers and belt and headed toward the sink, quickly glancing into the mirror. “Cold as a witch’s tit,” I said, grinning at the man staring back at me. Although I’d heard on the new forecast in the airport that this was considered mild, pleasant weather in Colorado. It was all coming back to me, including that winter I spent huddled around a fire.

Holy crap. I looked like shit.

There was no other way to describe my disheveled appearance. That’s what an unexpected layover due to a ridiculous late season surprise of a snowstorm had caused. After being caught in the Chicago airport, forced to sleep on stiff metal and plastic chairs that should be used as kindling for a dumpster fire, I’d made a mental note that upon my eventual return to Miami, I’d purchase a Learjet. My father had decided to take a last-minute trip using the corporate jet. It had been his way of icing the bitter cake.

Even my rental car had been handed off to another customer given my eleven-hour late arrival. I’d been lucky to obtain a pickup truck instead. And not a new one either. Fuck. I needed a gallon of coffee given the early hour and lack of sleep. While I’d arrived late according to the schedule I’d wanted to keep, it was still earlier than what I’d told Mr. Barclay. I had plans on spending a full day without his involvement, seeing the ranch as an outsider before launching into my decision of what to do with the place.

That also meant I was staying in a shitty motel since it would appear Montrose didn’t have any five-star lodging. Hopefully, I could still find a juicy steak in town, or all bets were off.

“What? First class must have treated you well, brother,” Jackson said as he laughed.

“You need to get out more. It’s something our grandfather used to say.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know him. Remember?”

“You would have liked him, Jacks.”

“From what you told me, I’m sure I would have.”

That was another sad truth about our family. Our father had kept us like an island, which was one of the reasons he’d driven our mother away. The dark circles under my eyes had upholstered bags. I half laughed at myself. I drifted from exhausted to slightly out of my mind.

“Fuck. Me,” I huffed as I stared into the cracked mirror secured to the ugly green tile covering the walls of the gas station bathroom. It had been so long since I’d been to town that everything appeared different, my GPS going crazy trying to get me to my grandfather’s ranch. I barely recognized anything in the small town as I’d passed through. Now I had a terrible feeling I was hopelessly lost.

“You alright, bro?” Jackson asked, obviously amused by my painful exclamation.

“Yeah, peachy. Remind me never to make off the cuff decisions again. And research private limos for me. Will ya?” I raked my hand through my hair before sniffing one armpit then the other.

“You are kidding. Right?”

I snorted. “Yes, I’m kidding. It’s just way too small for me here.” Or maybe I was feeling suffocated because of how many years had gone by.

“Well, at least you got away from the office.”

“Please tell me you didn’t go to New York.”

“Hell, no. Dear old Dad will need to handle some business all on his own. I’m about ready to quit.”

“Ah. I’m so sad for him.” I shifted to speakerphone so I could wash my hands. “And don’t you dare quit. I don’t have anyone else I can trust.”

I heard my brother’s deep sigh and knew why. He’d met our grandfather once, but he’d been so young I doubted he remembered. “You know what I was thinking? I should have gone with you.”

“Well, you have your life, and you didn’t know Walter, but you’re welcome to come out and see how small the place is yourself,” I said as I grabbed a paper towel.

“Don’t put it past me, bro. It depends on how much dear ole Daddy tries to mold me into a carbon copy of you while you’re gone.”

My younger brother could always make me grin. “I’ll call you in a couple days. Don’t allow Dad to convince you to head to New York.”

“Not a chance. I hate that place. Enjoy your time in cowboy land.”

I laughed as the call was ended. From what I’d remembered about Montrose, Colorado, it had been a small town, a good place to raise a family. At least that’s what my grandfather had told me more than once. It had definitely grown in population but from just driving through, I could tell it still had that smalltown atmosphere. I grabbed my phone, shoving it into my pocket before heading out to grab a huge cup of coffee. I stopped short, the robbery in progress not something I’d seen every day.

“Don’t make a move, little bitch,” some asshole was saying. “Just do what I say and you won’t get hurt.”

Morning light had just crested over the horizon. I hadn’t paid attention to the person standing behind the counter when I’d walked in. Seeing it was a beautiful, young, and likely helpless woman, I was momentarily stunned by the fact she was alone. And by the girl’s stunning beauty.

She was a gorgeous redhead with freckles covering the bridge of her nose, her faded blue jeans and oversized sweater unable to disguise her hourglass figure. My cock immediately twitched.

“I don’t think so, buster.”

Her comment to the man who held a gun in her face dragged me from my ridiculous moment of appreciation. What the hell did the girl think she was doing? The assailant’s back was to me, but I was able to see her scrunched-up face clearly. Even her body stance, especially after she planted one hand on her hip, glaring at him, was capable of provoking someone with more honorable intentions.

It was too bad I hadn’t brought my registered Glock with me. I inched closer and had no doubt the girl could see me out of the corner of her eye. Thankfully, they didn’t even flicker in acknowledgement of my presence, but I noticed her other arm was slowly sliding down the side of her body. Ah, shit. I had a bad feeling she was reaching for a panic button.

I was no expert on criminals, but I could tell by the way the asshole shifted from foot to foot, his body shaking, that he was trigger happy. Any move she made could likely cause a reaction she wouldn’t recover from. I was no one’s hero, but I wasn’t going to allow someone so enticingly beautiful to die in my presence. Just what the hell was I supposed to use to counter the fact his finger was firmly positioned on the trigger?

“You wanna die today, bitch?” the asshole asked.

I’ll be damned if the woman wasn’t ready to issue a nasty retort. A split second later, a wash of electricity rushed into my system. The lovely woman had grown irritated I was standing just off to the side. Instead of a look of relief, I sensed annoyance. Then again, she had no clue what I was capable of.

With stealth-like actions, I inched closer, noticing an object I believed would work. There was no time for hesitation. I grabbed the oversized can, my actions catching the robber’s attention, which was exactly what I’d hoped would occur. The gunman turned slightly and at the same time, the beauty yanked a shotgun from under the counter.

I tossed the can, hitting the asshole squarely in the forehead, knocking him down to the floor, the gun flying out of his hand. Lunging forward, I kicked the weapon away, immediately pressing my foot against his neck.

“Nice move, slick. You could have gotten me killed.”

Her voice was sultry, deeper than I’d expected and full of anger.

“Slick? I was in full control,” I told her as I glanced over my shoulder, adding enough pressure the gunman was choking. She remained with the double barrel pointed at my chest, her look of disdain making even a man like me uncomfortable. “So, sweetheart. Are you going to shoot your savior or call the police?”

“First of all, I’m not your goddamn sweetheart. Second, and perhaps of utmost importance is that I’m the one holding the weapon in my hand, city slicker. I suggest you respect the woman behind it.”

“Touché. What do you prefer I call you?”

“Nothing. I’d prefer you’d leave.”

“Like I said, I’m just your savior.” She was perhaps the most challenging woman I’d ever encountered. Why did I have the burning desire to tame the savage beast? The thought tightened my balls, filthy thoughts running through my mind.

Her light green eyes flashed another moment of rage, her fingers locked around the weapon. She wasn’t shaking nor could I sense any fear. Maybe it was still the Wild West out here. I almost snickered from the thought.

“Savior, huh? I doubt you could save yourself out of a paper bag, slick. Didn’t you know? There’s no such thing as a fucking hero,” she hissed, darting her venomous eyes to the floor and back up, sneering as if shaming me for my attire. So I wasn’t dressed in faded jeans. So what?

It usually took a woman a solid two hours before she hated me. “Then the sooner we can get this under control, the quicker I’ll be out of your hair, darlin’,” I tossed back in her direction. Few women had managed to get under my skin, but this one had. Maybe it was her fiery attitude or the fact I wanted nothing more than to run my fingers through her silky strands of hair that had taken my breath away. However, the girl needed a lesson in not biting the hand that fed her, at least metaphorically.

We had a little stare down, neither one of us blinking. I had to admit, my mind drifted to filthy places. Meanwhile, the idiot on the floor was moaning, blood from the can smashing into his head trickling down his face.

“Like I said. Why don’t you contact the police?”

“Sure. I’ll call them,” she snarked. “Don’t do anything else stupid or I’ll have to shoot you.”

“Do you have any rope by any chance, sugar? It might be good to keep him wrapped and ready when they do arrive.” As if to prove my point, the fucker tried to jerk up, immediately reaching for his weapon. I wrapped my hand around his hoodie, yanking him off the floor and issuing a single brutal punch to his face. At least the force knocked him out cold.

I was only looking for a little thanks for potentially saving her life. When she started clapping, I slowly turned my head in her direction. She was even more beautiful up close, her porcelain skin shimmering from the first rays of morning light streaming in through the glass doors and windows. I lifted my eyebrows, giving her the same glare.

“Yeah, really nice going, slick.” She placed the shotgun on the counter. “Keep him occupied, will ya? Oh, and I’m no one’s sugar, especially you.” She grabbed a phone from under the counter, heading to a door leading into the back room.

I glanced down at my wrinkled suit and sighed. She had no clue who she was talking to. Maybe that was a good thing. It seemed like I’d met my match.

But what fun it would be to try to tame her.

Jessica

Fucking men.

The two words continued to shift back and forth in my mind.

“Please get to the point, Mr. Barclay, because I’ve had a shit day.” That was putting it mildly. After almost being gunned down by a druggie who needed money for his next fix, followed by some slick he-man thinking I was going to kiss his ass for tossing a can of peaches at the asshole’s head and my truck not starting when I was late picking up my girl, I was ready to bite the head off a bat and enjoy it.

About the only good aspect to the shitty day had been the Good Samaritan who’d had jumped cables. Now I prayed to God my truck wouldn’t break down on me before my next payday. I couldn’t afford a new battery, let alone something worse. I had a terrible feeling the alternator was going. If that was the case, I was screwed. I was busy shoving a couple of things into Britta’s overnight bag, including her favorite two books. When two pages fell out, I grimaced, throwing my arm into the air and giving a one finger salute.

My luck wasn’t just bad, it had been in the toilet for years, ever since my son of a bitch ex had cleaned out my savings for spite. Okay, so I’d threatened him with going to the press with the fact he was a deadbeat dad. He’d deserved it. Unfortunately, I’d underestimated his desire for revenge and his hatred of me.

I dropped to the floor, forced to reach under her bed to try to grab one of the fallen pages. I knew my daughter. She’d have a meltdown if her favorite fairytale about some prince on a majestic horse wasn’t readable. At some point I’d have to burst her bubble that there was no such thing as heroes or knights prepared to slay the dragon.

No matter what the city slicker had believed himself to be.

Even I wasn’t cruel or jaded enough to burst the bubble of a five-year-old. Ugh. I hated my life.

Dealing with a sleazy attorney just bottomed out the entire moment. I could swear I could sense the man’s lewd thoughts.

“Alright, Ms. Logan. I just wanted you to know that given Mr. Cawthorne’s untimely death, it’s quite possible you’ll need to move. I’m putting you on notice.”

I jerked back so quickly that I banged my head on Britta’s bedframe. “What did you say?”

“The ranch is up for sale. My guess is the new owner won’t want interlopers to remain on the property. If all goes well, the sale will go through in a couple of weeks given its likely to be an all-cash offer.”

Hold on. What? Where had this come from?

Interloper? So many horrible words came to the forefront of my mind. I’d adored Walter, the older man treating me as if I was kin to him. He’d allowed me to live in his caretaker’s house for free, as long as I groomed his horses, occasionally giving riding lessons to the kids. He’d told me he had no clue how to handle children, but he’d read to Britta for hours at a time on more than one occasion. I remained in a state of shock from hearing about the man’s death. However, I had a rental agreement Walter had made me sign. He’d told me it had been for my protection.

I tried to pinpoint where I’d put it, my heart racing. It was inside this house somewhere.

“I have a lease agreement, Mr. Barclay. You can’t go evicting me.”

“No, I can’t but if the party who now owns the property for the moment decides to sell, all contracts and agreements will become null and void. You should allow me to take a look at your lease. Maybe I can provide you with some good advice. I’d be happy to spend some quality time with you. We could have dinner.”

Right. The man was a crocodile in cheap suits and nothing more. My skin crawled just thinking about it.

“Thank you but that won’t be necessary. Now, who the hell is this person taking over?” I would give him or her a piece of my mind.

“Walter’s grandson, some guy I’ve never met but he’s a bigwig developer himself. He’ll either want to sell or turn the place into condos. You might want to try and find another place to live just in case.”

Who was he kidding? I couldn’t afford another place to live. I was struggling to make ends meet as it was. Sure, my rent was paid for, but I had electricity and gas, medical bills and paying for the worthless attorney I’d hired to fight my ex, and my little girl had to eat. I didn’t have ten bucks left at the end of a paycheck. Given the economy was down, tips at my second job had sucked over the last few months. At this rate, I’d need to get a third job, only I couldn’t rely on my best friend for childcare forever. I was shaking partly out of anger but mostly from fear. Taking the job at the gas station had been my last resort, and I was drained from the horrible hours.

When Britta came running into the room with a paper airplane in her hand, her buzzing sounds at the top of her lungs, I almost lost it. I’d been through so damn much in the last few years, but I’d refused to cry, instead resorting to anger. Right now, all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, sobbing like a baby. Unfortunately, other than my best friend, I had no one to wrap their arms around me, telling me everything was going to be okay.

I took the airplane from her, and I was certain my little happy girl was going to burst into tears. I wasn’t certain I could handle a meltdown right now. “Make certain this grandson talks to me, Mr. Barclay. I refuse to be shoved out of here. That’s not what Mr. Cawthorne would have wanted, and you know it.” The man had never liked me. From the first time we’d met, Hank Barclay had been rude, but only when Walter hadn’t been around. Now he wanted to help me? Right. He just wanted to get into my panties. That wasn’t going to happen.

For all I knew, the bastard was lying about the sale. But what if he wasn’t?

I didn’t give him time to object, ending the call and tossing the phone onto Britta’s bed. “Okay, girlie angel. It’s time for you to grab Mr. Unicorn so we can head out.”

“Where are we going again, Mama?”

“Remember, the sleepover at Auntie Megan’s house? You and Ashley are going to make some popcorn balls and watch a movie. It’ll be so much fun.” Of course, Megan wasn’t related to me. She was one of the first people I’d met when I’d moved here some four years before. I’d accidentally stolen her sandwich at the local diner and somehow, we’d been fast friends ever since. Other than Walter, she was the closest thing to family I’d had in a long time.

Britta scrunched up her nose. For five-year-olds, she and Ashley could fight like they were teenagers. They had a love-hate relationship that defied all odds.

“Uh-oh. Are you and Ashley fighting again?”

“She doesn’t like that I prefer to read, Mommy. How can an intelligent girl not want to read about the universe?”

There were far too many times it was easy to forget she was only five years old given her amazing vocabulary. I bit back a laugh since she was being completely serious. “Well, how about this. For tonight, be a little girl. Tomorrow, you can be a nuclear physicist.”

“A what, Mommy?”

It was good to see I could still stump her. That likely wouldn’t be the case in a few short years. “Never mind, angel. Go get Mr. Unicorn and I’ll grab your coat.”

“You’re going to be gone all night, aren’t you?” The hint of sadness in her voice all but broke me every time.

“Mommy doesn’t want to, baby. She has to work late tonight, and my fairy princess needs her beauty rest, or she won’t be able to attract her own personal Prince Charming.”

She giggled and rushed toward me, wrapping her arms around my legs. “I love you, Mommy. When I get rich and famous, I’m going to buy you a house.”

I was able to laugh even though a single tear slipped past my lashes. She was the most generous soul I’d ever known, her heart made of gold with sparkly shimmer. I wanted our time together to last forever. I only prayed I could give her everything I never had.

With one exception.

There would never be a father in her life. I wasn’t going through that again.

As she grabbed her favorite stuffed animal, I couldn’t help but think about the man who’d called himself my hero from this morning. Even in his disheveled state of dress, he’d caught my eye immediately. I’d always been a sucker for hot, muscular guys with hair the color of silky milk chocolate and eyes the vivid hue of my favorite whiskey.

However, usually they were rugged cowboy or biker types, not men dressed in six-thousand-plus-dollar suits, his watch alone capable of buying me a house. Yeah, I knew my men’s attire. I’d made it a point of knowing the clientele who stepped inside my bar. I’d been on the short end of a stick more than once, thinking some jerk could pay for a meal or a few drinks when I’d been the one to fork out the tab. That had turned me off men forever.

Plus, even if Mr. City Slicker was handsome, that certainly didn’t mean he was a good guy. He could be a smarmy bastard just like my rough around the edges ex.

Granted, if he hadn’t come along, I don’t know what would have happened. Still, I refused to be blindsided by beauty or anything else.

I had to figure out a way to stay in my little house, no matter what it took to make that happen.

“Come on, pumpkin. Ready for an adventure?”

“Yeah!”

At least Britta was enthusiastic. Me? I doubted I’d ever feel that way again.

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