The Billionaire’s Colton Threat
Part of the Coltons Series
In the latest The Coltons of Shadow Creek romance, a billionaire and his expectant bride put their lives on the line.
Single, pregnant and nearly bankrupt, Halle Ford makes a deal with a sexy Scottish devil: she’ll marry billionaire Alastair Buchanan. Why? For the sake of their baby—conceived after one night of passion—and to save her beloved Bluewood Ranch. They plan to divorce after one year, but their burgeoning Lone Star love might just surprise them!
But no sooner do the cowgirl and her Scotsman say, “I do,” than their very livelihoods are threatened. Someone begins sabotaging Halle’s ranch, while Alastair’s family whiskey empire comes under siege. Drawn together by passion and danger, can the newlyweds protect the family they’ve both come to cherish?
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
The Billionaire’s Colton Threat
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The Billionaire’s Colton Threat
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Halle Ford allowed her gaze to soak in the hill country that surrounded her family ranch. She’d been fortunate to travel around the country and world, but her heart always remained in Shadow Creek, Texas. Her family ranch, Bluewood, Ranch appealed to her inner cowgirl more than her slick corporate CPA job in Austin ever had. She leaned on the fence and sipped her morning cup of coffee, relishing this private time, her version of meditation. The split cedar logs that circled the paddock were as familiar as her father’s hug had been. As long as she didn’t think about how much he’d spent on the fancy fencing before he’d died. An Eastern Spotted Lizard was on the top of the fence, sunning himself in the autumn sunshine. “Hey, little guy.” He ignored her, stretching his neck and displaying his brilliant green skin covered with flamboyant spots to his advantage.
Running her father’s ranch had always been a far-off dream, but Chancellor Ford’s sudden death in a horrific car crash six months ago had turned her dream into a nightmare. Besides facing the fact that Dad was gone forever, she’d had to come to terms with how he’d been killed. He’d been taken away by a hit- and- run driver, the same woman who’d terrorized Shadow Creek for decades until her imprisonment. Her terror had continued after-since her escape from prison and until her presumed death six months ago. Livia Colton. Thanks to cop- bribing, prison- escapee Livia Colton, Halle’s life had been shattered and she had inherited Bluewood Ranch. At present, Bluewood wasn’t fairing well financially, much to her heartbreak. Even with her accounting and business acumen that she’d sharpened at the high-powered marketing firm in Austin, she’d been unable to bring the ranch back to life.
Yet. It had only been a little over six months, and the first six weeks or so after the accident didn’t count as far as she was concerned. The shock of her daddy’s death and her transition from an office career to running Bluewood Trails and Tours had been tough. The move back to rugged, beautiful Shadow Creek from her well-appointed Austin condominium had been an adjustment in and of itself.
A soft whinny floated on the chilly morning breeze and she smiled as she recognized Elvis’ voice. The gelding was a gift from her dear friend Jade Colton. Jade ran Hill Country Farms, an off-track Tthoroughbred rehab center. Jade had also sold Halle’s mare Buttercup to her after Chancellor Ford’s sudden death. Jade knew had known what the a new horse would mean to Halle. Buttercup, along with Elvis and the other horses, had kept her from going over the edge after Daddy’s death. Murder was more like it.
Not for the first time she wanted to hurl the blue stone-fired mug at one of the boulders that sat in the makeshift rock garden between the ranch house and paddock. To shattersmash the ceramic into lethal shards, as her heart had been when evil Livia Colton had killed her father. Even dead,after being presumably apparently killed in a freak flash flood right after the accident, Livia still haunted Halle. Halle She wasn’t one for superstition but it was hard to remain practical in the face of such tragedy. She’d heard that her friend and Sheriff Jimbo had discovered one of Livia’s signature pink handkerchiefs on the bank of the river, near where Livia’s empty car sat. More than once Halle wished she could bring Livia back from the dead so that she could confront the murderer. Livia Colton had destroyed so many dreams in Shadow Creek.
The reminder that she wasn’t the only one who’d had her life torn apart by Livia Colton was little consolation but it did shake her out of the pity party she was brewing. She needed to focus on what she could change and at the moment that meant getting new trail tours scheduled, increasing Bluewood’s revenue. Not the easiest in the middle of autumn, when kids were in school and her group tours had dwindled, making her tour schedule as spotty as her lizard buddy.
Her phone vibrated in her back pocket and she ignored it. The house phone was the main business line so she only answered her cell at her convenience. This was her rare quiet time in the day, the one part she kept sacred to herself unless she was on the trail with a ranch tourist guest. After the vibration stopped, a second, shorter burst of motion informed her there was a voice mail.
“Dang it.” She pulled out the phone and saw that the message was from Jeremy Kincaid, her neighbor and friend. Halle pressed the callback button. Jeremy picked up immediately.
“Good morning, Jeremy .”
“Halle, how’s it going?”
“Right now, out here next to the stables? Great.”
Jeremy chuckled, low and deep. “That’s why we live here, right? Hey, I’m sorry to bug you so early but I’ve got an offer for you.”
“Okay.” She straightened from the fence and turned around, leaning her back against it. It wasn’t a secret that she was having trouble keeping Bluewood afloat, but Jeremy wasn’t about to offer her a pity job, was he?
“Don’t sound so grim. It’s a good thing. I have a friend in town who wants tois’s investing in the Austin tech scene, but he knows nothing about the area or Texas. I thought that if he booked a trail ride with you, it would be a perfect immersion experience for him.”
Relief thrummed through her. Jeremy was offering her a new client.
“Of course. When is he thinking of coming to Bluewood? And do you have any idea how long he wants to stay?” She figured a full- day ride would be what a techie business friend of Jeremy Kincaid’s would desire. Since Jeremy was a multi-billionaire and infamous in his field, chances were his friend would be as successful, too. Longer than a day away from business would be unbearable to a type -A computer nerd techie, no matter how rich. And there wasn’t Wi-Fi on the trail
“That’s the hitch. He’d like to start tomorrow, and he agreed to three days nights, the better part of four days.”
She put her mug of coffee on the fence post and the spotted lizard darted away. “Three days nights? Is it just him?” She’d taken out individual clients before, but she made sure they were safe with an indiscreet background check courtesy of Shadow Creek’s local PI, Adeline Kincaid, Jeremy’s new wife. She wasn’t sure it one could be done on such short notice, but if anyone could do it for her, especially in these unusual circumstances, it would be Adeline.
“He’s looking at a sizable investment in our area , maybe involving virtual reality. It’s something Shadow Creek and Austin would benefit greatly from. Since we’ve been friends for so long, I suggested he immerse himself in the local culture and start with you. before he makes such a big move.”
Relief that Jeremy knew the man so well allowed for a glimmer of hope. “A three to four-day trail ride isn’t going to tell him much about Austin.”
“No, but he’ll understand what makes a Texan tick. And I can vouch for him, Halle. He’s safe, the real deal. You don’t have to take an extra ranch hand with you.” Jeremy must have heard the trepidation in her voice. And he knew that paying an extra man to go on the trail would hurt her bottom line.
“You’re not playing matchmaker here, are you, Jeremy?” She kept her tone light .
“Well, you are both around the same age, and both single, but what you do with that is your business.”
They both laughed. Halle had missed the easy going friendships of the countryside. Austin was a friendly city, but it was still a city. She hadn’t felt as much a part of a community as she did in Shadow Creek.
“There’s one more thing, Halle.” Jeremy sounded pleased, the way he did when he’d introduced Adeline as his wife. As if he’d discovered the secret to happiness and wanted to share it with the world.
“He’s offered to pay extra for the late notice and one-on-one trail time.” Jeremy named a figure that made Halle glad she’d put her coffee mug down or she would have spilled it.
“That’s not , not necessary.”
“Rule one of business, Halle, is to never undersell your product. Since your expertise and knowledge are the product, one could argue that a place on a Bluewood Trails and Tours ride is priceless.”
He was right. Of course he was—he was a mbillionaire. He hadn’t earned his money because he didn’t understand the basics of business. “Thanks, Jeremy. I’ll expect him tomorrow morning. Better yet, have him call me before sundown so that I can figure out what his riding experience is.”
“He’s not going to have time to call, as we’re heading into Austin for an full day of meetings. He says he’s rode ridden his entire lifeon and off since he was a kid, and he’s about my size, same age, so you can plan for the camp food and equipment.”
“So he’s never really been on a horse for longer than an hour or two at birthday parties.”
Jeremy’s pause confirmed her suspicions. “He’ll take whatever direction you give him, Halle.”
“Okay, that’s all I need to know. He can sign the injury liability waiver when he shows up. And, Jeremy—thanks for this.” She knew there were other trails and ranch businesses that catered to tourists and Jeremy probably knew all of them. He was doing her a huge favor.
“Hey, it’s the neighborly thing to do. Besides, I wouldn’t trust him with anyone else.”
She wondered what he meant but wasn’t going to pose any questions that could rock this lucrative boat. “I appreciate your confidence in me, Jeremy. Tell Adeline I said ‘hi.’”
“Will do. She’s packing right row or I’d put her on.”
“Taking the family to Disney?” She knew Jeremy loved nothing more than spoiling pregnant Adeline and their child.
Jeremy chuckled. “No, but we are going out of the country for a much-needed break. You can always reach me on my cell phone, no matter where I am.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t say it but she’d never bother them while they were on vacation, unless it was life or death.
“And by the way, Halle? Your guest’s name is Alastair Buchanan. Adeline says to tell you he’s safe.” Jeremy ended the call.
Halle shoved the phone into her rear pocket, heat hitting her cheeks as she realized she hadn’t asked the client’s name. Jeremy knew her, so he didn’t think she was careless, but she’d come off exactly how she never wanted to. Desperate. But if Adeline Kincaid said he was safe, he was. Adeline ran a top-notch service as a PI and the The Kincaid’s were a family of their word. And Adeline knew more than anyone the importance of personal security, after all she’d been through with the son she’d been a surrogate mothercarried to for Jeremy and his first wife Tess, now deceased.
The sad memory of Tess’s death, and the initial suspicion that Livia Colton had been involved, threatened to sabotage the good news Jeremy had just given her. Bluewood had a new client.
Halle grabbed her mug and rolled her shoulders back as she headed towards the ranch house. The best way for her to stop obsessing over her own tragic loss was work, and she had a three-day trail ride to prepare for. She’d be grateful for this, no matter her grief.
The next morning Halle sprang out of bed an hour before dawn, unable to sleep with the anticipation of a full three–day trail ride galloping through her mind all night. She took her time with her shower and watched the sky start to lighten as her coffee brewed. With a full, hot mug, she headed for the paddock fence to greet the day.
Leaning against the fence, she wondered if her father had done this, too, after her mother had died when she was a toddler. Soothed his broken heart with the beauty of a Texas sunrise.
“Whoa!” Halle startled, spilling some of her coffee on her bare hand. She spun around from her morning meditation spot on the fence.
“Mr. Buchanan!” Her sole guest stood in front of her, dressed to ride in a combination of what she considered very high-end outdoor clothing and more practical items like blue jeans. His height was impressive, as was his physical bearing. This wasn’t a man tied to a desk all day, not with those broad shoulders that filled out his Western snap-front shirt and olive pull-over. His tapered waist was that of a man with abs of steel, and a vision of her fingers touching said stomach made them tingle. He was the full package, but that wasn’t what drew her, pulled her to look up into his eyes, brilliant flashes of the North Sea reflecting back at her. It was his essence. Alastair Buchanan had a spirit about him that intrigued her. It wasn’t anything she could chalk up to his ability to afford the top-end cowboy boots or hat he wore with the ease of the financially sound.
The expensive accessories were Nothing nothing she’d afford for a long while. She’d donated all but two of her career professionalbusiness wardrobe suits to the battered women’s shelter in Austin, so determined was she to make a go of the ranch and leave her old life behind . Because the ranch property was so deep in debt she’d only been able to put together her newer clothing from the big box superstore in nearest to Shadow Creek, on the way to Austin. Would someone like Alastair Buchanan know from how she was dressed that she was barely keeping her business afloat?
More importantly, why did she care?
“I wasn’t expecting you for another hour.” She struggled to shove down her self-consciousness.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” His Scottish accent was at odds with their surroundings and yet he looked comfortable as he watched her, one side of his mouth lifted as if he was holding back a smile. As if he belonged in Shadow Creek, fancy hiking clothes excused. Crazy thought, since billionaire Alastair Buchanan had only arrived this week. Her quick iInternet search hadn’t told her a lot, except that Alastair was one of the most eligible bachelors in the UK. He owned a whiskey business that had been in his family for generations, and invested all over the globe in other ventures. Clyde Whiskey remained its core, but Clyde Whiskey had morphed into a global conglomerate, including tech. Tech was one of his favorites. “I can sit on the porch until you’re ready to start the tour.”
“We’ll start in a bit.” She sized him up but hoped she came off as a caring hostess. Ready? Alastair Buchanan would find out soon enough how “‘ready” ’ she, and Bluewood Tours and Trails, were. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Buchanan?”
“No, thanks, but I’d appreciate a cup of tea if you have it.”
“Sure thing. Follow me.” She held her breath until he fell in next to her. “I’m not used to my trail guests being ready to go so early.”
“I’ve always been up with the sun.” The words rolled from his mouth like music and she had to force herself to stop staring at his lips. Well-formed, sensual,. male lips. And that voice—she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed hearing thate brogue until now. As a junior in college, she’d spent the a year abroad in Scotland and loved every minute of it. But she hadn’t met men like Alastair when she was at university.
What the heck was going on with her? Clearly she’d been holed up at Bluewood for too long, not seeing the usual bevy of attractive men she’d gotten used to at her job in Austin. She couldn’t help her primal physical response to him or any man, but clients were out of bounds . She didn’t go there. But if she could, Alastair would be a temptation.
“Getting up early will serve you well on the trail. We’ll get to cover more land the sooner we’re on the trail each day. And other than tonight, it’s supposed to stay clear and dry.”
“Rain isn’t an issue for me. I’m from the a land of rain.” Alastair’s lilt made her want to sit down and listen to him tell his life story. But this wasn’t a pub in Glasgow Edinburgh and he wasn’t Robert Byrne. He was her client;, this trail ride was her job.
Get it together, girl.
“We’ll get going as soon as we have our tea time.” She opened the door to the ranch house and motioned for him to enter, shushing the barking Australian shepherd dogs. “Guests first. Don’t worry about the pups—, they think it’s their job to herd ranch guests, but they don’t bite.” He looked a little put off at going in before her, underscoring his so far impeccable manners. He walked across the threshold and she caught a whiff of his soap. The sexy combination of sheets dried in the sun with Buchannan musk had to be soap and Buchanan musk ,had to be some super expensive cologne, because no soap scent had ever made her skin tingle. She held back a groan as she watched his impeccably shaped ass in his jeans. This was going to be one heck of a ride.
Alastair shrugged out of his thin over-layer as he followed Halle Ford to her house. He appreciated the brief respite from her penetrating gaze and obvious appraisal of him. Normally he enjoyed the sexual tension of a female’s assessment, but his blood had rushed so quickly to his dick he’d gotten flustered.
He, Alastair, the family rock who kept their business afloat and globetrotted with the best of them, felt like an adolescent at Eton who’d snuck his first glance at a naked woman.
“Once I have the ranch fully up and operational, we’ll have a full guest building with at least four or six rooms and a total of twelve bunks. For now, the guest room is the house. While you won’t be staying here as we’re heading out today, feel free to leave any luggage or extras you don’t want to bother with on the trail.” She glanced up at him and he was jolted by her no-holds-barred beauty. Unlike the women he was used to in Glasgow and even here since his arrival in Texas, Halle showed no signs of make-up. She didn’t need it, not with that peachy cream skin and blinding smile. And her lips.
He fought to keep his erection at bay but it was futile. His body was reacting to something beyond him, something intangible. The Halle effect.
“I didn’t realize your business was new.” He took off his cowboy hat and removed his boots, shadowing her movements as they entered the small house. Three herding dogs swarmed around them and he smiled.
“Sorry about the doggies.” She offered a half-grin.
“Are you kidding? I adore dogs.” He crouched down and held his hands out for sniffing. It took a few minutes but eventually all three allowed him to scratch behind their ears.
“They don’t usually warm up this quickly to strangers.” At the hoarseness of her voice, he looked up. Was that tears in her liquid brown eyes?
Halle cleared her throat and motioned for him to stand. “Bathroom’s on the right. I’ll be in the kitchen making tea.”
“Thank you.” Alastair didn’t really need to use the loo, but again found himself needing a bit of a buffer between he and Halle. Or was it more that he needed space from the sexual awareness arcing between them? As certain as he was that it was mutual, he’d only just met the woman. So why did he feel as though he’d known her his entire life?
After she had another fortifying cup of coffee and made her Scottish client tea, she gathered what she’d packed last night for the ride and escorted Alastair Buchanan back outside, nearer the stables.
“Let me start over, the right way, Mr. Buchanan. Welcome to Bluewood Ranch in Shadow Creek, Texas. We’re an authentic Texas cattle operation with two and a half head herds of cattle. A head herd of cattle for our ranch is approximately forty one hundred steer and our product is longhorn steer.” Halle smiled and opened her mouth to continue her usual opening remarks, words she shared with every tourist group she hosted on her ranch. With perfect timing, a bug flew into her mouth. Halle’s throat squeezed into a spasm and she started to cough uncontrollably. She stomped the dirt in front of the broken corral fence and clutched a weathered post for balance as her body rejected the horsefly that had obviously been aiming for her tonsils. Alastair gracefully took her mug out of her hand, allowing her to cough more forcefully.
Her momentary hacking fit wouldn’t have been so bad if she were addressing a group of local elementary school students, or tourists who simply wanted a taste of the Wild West by working a cattle drive. But her audience was none other than a tall, incredibly hot man whose left hand was bare. And he had a delicious Scottish brogue. Halle’s love life had been dry for so long she might have thought any single man looked good, but this Scot in fancy cowboy clothes was looking mighty tasty to her.
Unlike the flavor of Texas dirt the fly put in her mouth.
“Excuse me.,” Halle held up her index finger, hoping her mascara wasn’t smudged by her streaming tears.
Alastair didn’t seem to notice that she was choking to death. In fact, the VIP, whiskey billionaire for whom Jeremy requested she provide a “‘special”’ no-notice tour, was decidedly bored.
“You can skip the touristy chit-chat, Ms. Ford. Call me Alastair, and save the riding lesson, as well. Once you catch your breath, feel free to give me the basic overview of the land. Keep it simple. I’m not asking for anything more than you usually do.” He flicked his North Sea– blue gaze from her to the countryside, as if measuring her against the rugged backdrop. The outskirts of Austin, Texas— and Shadow Creek in particular— weren’t noted for appearing civilized anything but the wild countryside it was. In his quick glance she felt measured against her native surroundings. His stern stance made her feel as though she hadn’t met measured up to whatever his yardstick was. Did he think she was in over her head?
“If you’re sure about ignoring the riding safety review…” She’d had him sign the appropriate paperwork. He couldn’t sue her if he fell off his horse.
“Certain.” His voice was sexy even when he was being a jerk typical successful businessman—emotionally detached and certain his way was the only way. Which he was. Halle had handled tourists of all ilk on her ranch and it took a lot to rattle her. Alastair Buchanan’s know-it-all air of know-it-all shook her usually relaxed demeanor and it annoyed her. “Can we get moving, Ms. Ford?”
Well, all righty, then. “Sure thing. If you’re Alastair, I’m Halle. You did say you’re an experienced rider and camper, and you’re a party of one, so I’ll forgo the preliminaries. Are you interested in Central Texas history at all?”
The man had offered to pay five times her usual fee for a group of up to twelve people. All she had to do was promise it would be an exclusive, private tour. With the ranch’s accounting books decidedly in the red this past quarter, she couldn’t afford to not please her client. Her horses needed to eat. At his stiff silence, she belatedly added a smile to her query. “I was a history minor in college.”
“History always interests me. I’m here to try to absorb the lay of the land, to get a feel for its appeal.” His blue gaze steadied on her again with laser accuracy. His eyes had been the first things she’d noticed about him, after his ruggedly tall frame. His mouth twisted. “I know I sound like an ass. I apologize. I’ve been distracted with business issues. Thank you for agreeing to take me on such short notice. Jeremy told me it was pure luck that you had the next few days open. And while I appreciate you rolling out the red carpet, the next seventy-two hours are my only chance to see the countryside surrounding Austin before I fly back to Glasgow. I hope I can put you at ease by assuring you that I’m adept on a horse and I’ve done my share of roughing it.” He offered her a lopsided grin, which she much preferred. “And I’ve swallowed a mosquito or two myself.”
Halle sucked down half of the contents of her refillable water bottle, watching Alastair as she did so. She wanted to inform him that she wasn’t merely a local bumpkin, that she’d in fact spent her junior year of college in Glasgow. But it wasn’t her job to tell a client off. This was Jeremy and Adeline’s friend, so ending the tour here and now was out of the question. And her overdue utility bills demanded she complete the job and get the paycheck. But while she’d play the hostess- with- the -mostestgracious hostess as best she could,s , she didn’t have to take Alastair’s attitude. He was on her turf. This was Texas, and she was born and bred by one of the most outstanding Texans ever to live in these parts. Stinging tears tore at her already wet eyeballs at the reminder of her father. She drew in a shaky breath and steeled her spine.
“Excuse me, Alastair. We grow our bugs a bit bigger in Austin than you do in Glasgow. Same for our countryside—it’s easy to think you know where you are, that you’re on the path you started out on, and that you’re safe. But the hills and desert can turn life threatening in a blink.”
“I’m sure they can.” Spoken like the wealthy man he was. Her iInternet search last night had yielded that Alastair had surpassed “‘wealthy”’ a decade ago. He was indeed one of the richest men in the UK. Halle didn’t give an armadillo’s ass. Rich or destitute, all men put their Wranglers on the same way. Although not all fit as well as Alastair’s jeans.
Another reminder that since her father’s death she’d been too busy to date, to contemplate being in a man’s arms. The thrum that Alastair’s good looks spiked in her core underscored her unwitting sexual fast.
“The best equipment in the world, the finest trail horse, the most proficient riding technique—none of them matter if you get lost in the desert, or stranded by a lame animal. It always boils down to wit and humility.” She didn’t mean to sound so bossy but something about the tall Scottish dude and his burr was making her crazy. He looked at her as if she was irking him, too.
“Got it.” His gaze flickered to his mount. “And your best horses are these two? Won’t we need a third for the camping gear?”
Heat rushed her face. “All of the horses at Bluewood are exceptional. I rotate the workload amongst them, and several are in need of a rest. Buster and Buttercup will serve us well. I’ve packed very lightlyas lightly as possible, just with enough for the two of us for four days and three nights . I always take a little extra in case of an unexpected event. We’ll I can guarantee you that we’ll be hungry when we get back at the end of that last night,day, and we’ll have a hearty meal here.” Her other horses were having annual checkups while they were out. Even though her veterinarian gave her a huge discount, it was going to be another costly bill. She’d had the lousiest luck with the timing of ranch and animal maintenance expenses lately. As if someone or something was trying to tell her that she’d never get Bluewood Ranch up and running at a profit again. She shook off the shudder thant raced down her spine. Superstitions were nonsense. Not something she was going to share with this billionaire bronco rider wannabe, though. “You’ll have a great ride with Buster.”
“How do you know these two won’t fall ill?”
“They’re perfectly healthy. My vet checked them over last week.” She patted Buttercup’s side and watched Alastair as he smoothed his large hand over Buster’s spotted neck. The pinto was still a bit of a handful but Alastair had insisted on him over Buttercup. Elvis was behind her in the paddock, where Charlie, her ranch hand, had put there him as she’d spoken to Alastair by Charlie, her ranch hand. While she would have loved to take Elvis today, he’d just finished up two daylong trail rides in a row. And Buttercup was in need of exercise.
“You’re anxious to let off some steam, aren’t you?” Alastair’s brogue was low and sexy as he spoke to Buster. Something shifted in Halle’s defenses. A man who cared about a horse he’d only just met couldn’t be all bad.
He’s a client. Nothing more. It was sad that she had to talk her hormones down from the ledge that would have her jumping on Alastair in an Austin minute.
Client. He’s a client. It could be her new mantra.
“How long have you known Jeremy, Alastair?”
“Long enough to trust his business judgment. He says Austin is the new Silicon Valley—the place for tech.”
“Yes, but you’re smart to check out the rest of Austin.” The real Austin, as far as she was concerned. Away from the congested city and ever-expanding suburbs.
“Am I?” His patronizing expression galled her. Again she wanted so badly to set him straight, tell him that she knew a hell of a lot more about the socio-economic status of a city in which she’d held down a high-level corporate job in, but she shoved it down. With what she earned this trail ride, she might be able to pay off the remaining bills for the cedar rail fencing and the latest round of vet expenses.
“Well, then, let’s get moving.”
“After you.” He took his cowboy hat off and used it to emphasize the sweep of his arm towards the start of the trail. A trail etched on Halle’s heart long ago, worn smooth by rides with her father. She looked at the sky to confirm what she already knew—the weather wasn’t on their side today.
“Thank you, Alastair. Normally I’d spend a little more time going over our itinerary with you before we set off, but with the cold front coming in I think it’s best we get a move on. We want to pitch our camp ahead of the rain.” She waved towards the thin silver line visible across the mostly flat parcels of land. Before they made camp the clouds would grow, the wind increase. Winter was coming in its usual, no-nonsense Texas manner.
“A gal after my own heart—I wouldn’t mind making camp sooner, either, as I have some work to do. On my phone, of course.”
“I can guarantee you there won’t be any Wi-Fi where we’re headed, and cellular signal strength isn’t dependable.”
“Ah, ye of little faith, Ms. Ford. I have magic in my pocket that will take care of that.”
“Halle. Call me Halle.” She choked on her words as she really, really wanted, to add a playful comment about what exactly the sexy Scotsman had in his pocket but didn’t want to risk that he’d think she was coming on to him. Or that her tourist business offered anything more than a foray into Texas Hhill Ccountry. She almost laughed out loud at the thought of her trail company becoming an escort service.
The morning sun cast long shadows of their figures upon the rolling hills outside the corral. Since Alastair said he knew how to ride, she’d given in to allowing him to ride Buster, her tallest horse by far at 17 seventeen hands. She hated to admit it but his tall, lanky frame fit Buster’s muscular structure perfectly. Alastair Buchanan looked like every woman’s dream of a sexy, chiseled cowboy.
Not her dream, of course. She didn’t care whether her client was attractive or not.
“Jeremy mentioned you’re here to scout out Austin. Are you planning to start a business here?”
“Yeah. Maybe. Something like that.”
She hadn’t meant to sound nosy. “What kind of horse do you ride in Scotland?”
“A big one.”
Halle couldn’t help the glare she knew she shot him when she glanced his way. The crinkles around his eyes made her want to dig her heels into her mount and take off for the hills—the hell with impressing Jeremy’s important friend.
Alastair let out a short laugh. “I’m sorry, Halle, but you’re so serious. I understand that you probably deal with a lot of beginnering riders out here, as well as wilderness newbies. I’m not that person. I meant it when I told you that I’m interested in seeing as much of the countryside as three days allow me to. There’s no need to put on your regular show for me, or to be so polite with the cocktail banter. Please, can we be a bit less formal?”
“Sure. For the record, though? I don’t put on a ‘show.’ What you see is what you get. I’m interested in anyone who’s thinking of adding to our area. I love this land and make no apologies for it.”
“I’d expect no less.” There he was again, being all polite and sensible, almost gallant. She snorted. Alastair’s voice might sound like she imagined a knight’s would have five centuries ago, but he had very modern sensibilities. Billionaire instincts.
They rode for a few minutes, silent save for the creak of their saddles. Alastair kept looking at his cell phone, which he’d rested on the front of his saddle in some kind of contraption that she’d seen a few clients bring along. She’d required them to put their phones away, for safety. But since Alastair claimed he was an expert rider, she said nothing. If he ended up on his butt because he missed a rough spot in the trail, so be it. As long as he didn’t injure her horse. Or blame her for the fall.
Halle cleared her throat. “So what do you want to know about Austin?”
He switched off his screen and she found herself the sole object of his attention. It was at once intimidating and stimulating. “What brought you here, Halle? To Bluewood, Shadow Creek?”
“That has nothing to do with your exploration of the area, Alastair.”
“It does. You’re young and can manage a ranch. Why not use your talents in another business, something more lucrative?” So he had noticed the worn-down ranch, her inexpensive riding gear.
“I grew up on this ranch. The only time I left was for college, after which I worked for several years in the city. I returned here to run the ranch for personal reasons.”
“What did you do in the city?”
She paused. Alastair was a client, period. She owed him no explanation for who she was, why she was doing this. Working the ranch that had been her father’s heartbeat.
“I’m a CPA. Corporate business.” She looked at her interrogator. “If it’s all right with you, since you’re an experienced horseman, I’m going to take the lead. The horses will appreciate a good workout.”
“Lead on.” Again, the gentlemanly nod. It would look ridiculous if it were any other man doing it, but Alastair Buchanan didn’t strike her as any other man.
Alastair didn’t mind the rear view he had of his fearless tour guide as he and Halle trotted, galloped, and strode over mile upon mile of rough, Central Texas ranch land. It seemed he didn’t mind any view he had of her since they’d met. How was it that this woman, a complete stranger to him before this morning, was absorbing all of his attention? He had his pick of women, and enjoyed them as he could while running the family whiskey and investment business. This had to be a result of knowing he was going to be alone with her for several days, with no interruption. He trusted Jeremy implicitly—his friend wouldn’t steer him wrong as far as suggesting he get to know more about the Texas countryside with Halle. And Jeremy had encouraged him to flirt with her.
It wasn’t Jeremy’s fault that Alastair had fought against his boner since meeting Halle.
Telling himself to get a grip, Alastair forced himself to concentrate on the countryside instead of Halle’s ass. If only for a minute. Or thirty seconds.
It was different from any other kind of land he’d seen before. Flatter and far less green than his family properties in Scotland, but stunning in its plain ruggedness. And the unexpected copses of trees in Texas—they were unique, as were the several creeks and rivers they’d rode around and through all day. The sun was warm and the breeze almost crisp. He had a hard time believing it was due to storm any time, soon, as the skies were bluer than Loch Ness in September. Save for the line of clouds at the very edge of the northwestern horizon . He already felt connected to this land, something he didn’t experience with every business deal to be sure. Alastair enjoyed travel and prided himself on learning about local cultures wherever Clyde Whisky had interests. But Texas already felt far more important, far more significant to him than a place to invest in tech. His gut told him his fearless tour guide might have something to do with it, but it wasn’t just about sexual attraction.
Used to trusting his intuitive hunches in business, he was thrown off balance by how strongly he felt about Halle and Texas. It was more than a good hunch, it was more like a soul moment.
The jet lag must have caught up to him. He’d faired fine over his first week, but now, in the Texas wilds, his circadian rhythm was doing a quick two-step.
“Let’s stop over there for lunch.” He heard her suggestion with great relief. Food, that was what he needed. Sustenance. Halle’s profile was partially hidden under her cowboy hat as she spoke over her shoulder. He tore his gaze from her body, a body that filled out weathered blue jeans in a way that made it easy for him to imagine her naked. Halle sat upon in the leather saddle as if it were a part of her. He reluctantly looked at the trees she pointed at to.
“Looks like the perfect spot.” He guided Buster to the shady area under several willow strees. They dismounted and he followed Halle and Buttercup. In the few short hours they’d been riding, he learned that in Texas, where there were trees, there’d be some water nearby. Unlike his native Scotland, where lochs and rivers were liable to spring up without any surrounding forest. Sure enough, a small creek gurgled just past the slight rise of mossy ground, beyond the willows.
“We’ll let them get their fill first.” Halle’s voice was quiet, almost contemplative. Alastair stood next to her, their horses providing a sense of privacy on either side.
“It’s amazing how a ride in which your animal does most of the work has the same effect as several hours in the gym.”
Her sharp amber gaze raked his face, as if surprised. “Yes. When I lived downtown, I belonged to a gym and hated it.”
“You prefer the outdoors?”
Her eyes widened and he wanted to check himself. Why did everything he said to her sound like a cheap come-on?
“I don’t mind a fun class with lots of loud music, but when the day’s done, I’m most at home here.” Her guard was back up. What made her so wary, so suspicious?
“Do you ever feel threatened out here? With your clients?”
“I have Adeline run a background check whenever I get a request for a privaten individual tour. As for you? I trust Jeremy and Adeline. The Kincaid’s are good people. They wouldn’t send me anyone who I needed to be afraid of.” Her tongue flicked out and licked her lip right before she bit into the plump skin. Instant erection. Holy hell, what was he, an adolescent a teenager? He tried to recall his most recent dates. He’d only left Scotland a little over a week ago. That meant he’d been away from a woman’s company for what, ten days, a fortnight? Not enough to be losing his cool in front of a sexy Texas babe.
“Er, no, I’m certain they wouldn’t, either. About where we’re spending the night—will there be a shelter of some sort?”
Halle snorted. “I’ve brought two quick- set-up tents, one for each of us. This isn’t the Appalachian Trail, Alastair. We don’t have lean-to’s out here, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“I assure you I can manage. And I’d prefer to sleep under the stars sans any tent or structure. I asked about the shelter to offer it to you .” And to see if they’d be alone the entire three four days. He was finding he rather enjoyed the prospect of alone time with Halle Ford.
Save for his work. It seemed he was never without work, never had a break from worrying about his investments. Hiking in the wilderness had always been his way to let go of his responsibilities. He’d camped often as a boy, and enjoyed it through university. When Jeremy had suggested he do this with Halle, Alastair had relished the idea of sleeping on the ground again. What he hadn’t anticipated was such an attractive companion. He’d mistakenly thought he’d regret that anyone was with him, as Alastair’s solitude was his most precious possession. Somehow, Halle didn’t intrude on that for him.
“I’m sure you’re quite the camper, from what you’ve said.” Her tone indicated she didn’t believe it in the least.
“Before you judge me, I have to tell you that there are some business items I still have to take care of, even out here. Is this a good time for me to send off a few emails?”
He walked to the far side of the shady area and pulled his phone off his saddle . He felt guilty, as if he were infringing on the serenity of their surroundings, on the delightful companionship he was finding with Halle. His gut kept tugging at him, telling him that for some inexplicable reason his time with Halle Ford was precious.
He sighed and started to take care of business. Sooner done, sooner he’d be able to fully enjoy Halle’s company.
More than for calls or texts, it washis phone was a mini-satellite reception tower, all in one unit that fit in his pocket. Being a billionaire had its perks, one of which included solid Wi-FIFiI in the middle of Nnowhere, Texas. He’d lied to Halle, too. He wasn’t checking email—he was checking the London Exchange, and the New York Stock Exchange. One thing that he’d inherited from the long line of Buchanan men who’d turned a farm distillery into a single malt Sscotch global empire was his killer business instinct.
And right now, someone was trying to kill his life’s work, his legacy. Someone, either an entity or group of investors, was attempting a hostile takeover of Buchanan Clyde Whisky, and he’d seen signs this morning that they were going to go for Buchanan Industries Whiskey , too. It was strange, as it had popped up only since he’d arrived at Bluewood. He didn’t have the solid proof yet to alert his team, but he knew it the same way he knew why his family’s scotchfamily’s Scotch recipe was singularly the best of the best.
A crisp dry beating sound drew his gaze from his phone screen to the brush under his feet, next to the clay of the riverbank. He’d seen enough nature programs to recognize the A copper-skinned diamondback rattlesnake reptile as a rattlesnake. It sported a black diamond pattern and was no faurther than three feet from him. As thick as his wrist and coiled into a tight ball, its rattles shook inside the tail, indicating it was a highly agitated snake. He’d watched enough BBC nature programs to know that much.
Alastair also knew he had no defense against the deadly creature. He was rooted to the spot, afraid a sudden movement would force the snake to strike. No way would he be able to outrun its deadly speed, either. And if he got struck, he wouldn’t be able to warn Halle. Was this how he was and Halle were going to meet his their end? In the backwoods of Texas?