Published by Totally Bound, 17th November 2016 , £7.99
Available in paperback original for the first time
He wants her subject to his will. She's scared she may never want to get away.
The first time Sofia McBride meets the strong and determined Cade Donovan, he warns her to keep her distance. She tells herself to heed his words, but she's stunned to realise her depth of attraction to this intimidating man. She knows she should stay away from him, but try as she might, she's unable to resist him or his sexy, erotic demands. The deeper she becomes ensnared, the more she realises she may never want to escape.
All his life, enigmatic rancher Cade Donovan has chosen women who don't expect too much from him. But when a storm strands him with Sofia, his lovely, won't-take-no-for-an-answer event planner, all his dominant and protective instincts flare. Cade wants everything she has to offer, but he soon discovers Sofia's beauty hides a determination he hasn't counted on. Her untamed responses send him on a journey that will banish his demons and change them both forever.
Brand by Sierra Cartwright
“He’s a fucking badass. A hot fucking badass. But still, a fucking badass.”
“Who?” With a scowl, Sofia McBride looked up from her clipboard and glanced at her assistant.
She followed the direction of her assistant’s gaze.
Sofia wasn’t the type to swoon, but…
He was standing next to the registry station near the front door of the country club and was dressed in an athletic-cut black tuxedo that emphasized his broad shoulders and trim waist.
Rather than a typical bow tie, a sexy Western bulldogger tie was fastened around his throat. Intricately crafted leather cowboy boots were polished to a shiny gleam, and he wore a black felt cowboy hat.
Even from down the hallway, she noted his rakishly appealing goatee.
Though she’d never met him, she’d grown up in Corpus Christi, less than fifty miles from the Running Wind Ranch. Because his last name was Donovan, he was local royalty, and she’d heard of his exploits—fast cars, bull-riding championships, women—all the privileges money could buy.
He was mouthwatering. Given how tempting he was, no doubt he’d earned every bit of his reputation.
The woman at the front pointed toward the Bayou Room where Sofia and Avery were putting the finishing touches on the preparations for Lara and Connor Donovan’s wedding celebration. Cade touched the brim of his hat with old-world charm.
“He’s heading this way,” Avery said unnecessarily.
“You need to get going.”
“How about we switch jobs for the evening?” Avery suggested. “You can go to the
Oilman’s Ball, and I’ll stay here.”
“No chance.” Sofia’s answer had nothing to do with Cade and everything to do with her friend Lara, who’d just married into the family.
Even though there would only be a couple of hundred people at this evening’s reception and the country club was one of the best venues to work with, Sofia planned to be there for her friend.
“But, but… That’s Cade Donovan.” Avery exaggeratedly stuck out her lower lip.
And Sofia wanted to meet him. At dinner last week, Lara had mentioned that Connor was a Dominant. And Sofia was curious to know if the other brothers were as well. “I’ll take care of him.”
“You never were good at sharing, boss.”
“If you need anything, anything—”
“Good luck with Mrs. Davis.” Honestly, Sofia needed Avery’s skills at the Oilman’s Ball.
Five hundred people were on the guest list, and press would be in attendance.
Zoe, Sofia’s sister, had been at a downtown Houston hotel all afternoon, overseeing the setup of the challenging event. Mrs. Davis, the ball’s chairwoman, was notoriously demanding, and she’d been making changes to the plans for the last month. Avery’s ability to say no while keeping the client happy was a skill Sofia had yet to master. “You’re a cruel, cruel boss.”
“You might meet a rich oil baron.”
“There is that,” she conceded with a cheeky grin. Avery was twenty-nine, and she’d set a goal of being married by the time she was thirty. She didn’t lack interest from men, but she wouldn’t settle for just any man, insisting she wanted a man who could keep her in very expensive shoes and give her a monthly purse budget to match.
After gathering her belongings, Avery headed for the back exit through the kitchen.
Sofia straightened her shoulders and walked toward the front of the room to greet Cade, who had paused inside the doorway. His gaze locked on her. He didn’t blink, didn’t look away.
Instead, he perused her as if she were the only person on the planet.
It was discombobulating and heady.
Her sensible black skirt suddenly felt a bit tight, her patent leather heels a little too tall.
Still, she strove for professionalism she suddenly didn’t feel. “Mr. Donovan.” She gave him her best smile. “I’m Sofia McBride. Lara’s friend and the event coordinator.”
“I’m early.” He offered his hand.
Because it was the polite thing to do, she accepted.
His hand was so much larger than hers. All of a sudden, his presence seemed to consume her. His scent was leather laced with strength. He was exceptionally tall with a chiseled jaw, and it appeared that his nose had been broken, maybe more than once.
She had to look up a long way to meet his gaze, and when she did, she saw that his eyes were a chilly gunmetal. His posture spoke of a confidence bordering on arrogance, and he wore power as comfortably as he did his tuxedo jacket.
The air around Cade all but crackled with intensity, and part of her felt as if she’d been swept into some sort of vortex.
Last week, when she’d met up with Lara, her friend had confessed that she and Connor shared a BDSM relationship. The news had momentarily left Sofia speechless. She had read books and seen a couple of movies about the subject, but other than the fact sex was kinky, she hadn’t known much about it, and she’d never known anyone who was into it.
Once she’d gotten past the initial shock, Sofia had started asking questions. Lara had responded quite matter-of-factly, sharing enough information that Sofia was more intrigued than ever. When she’d gone home that night, she’d powered up her computer and done an
Internet search. Some of the things she’d seen had made her flinch, but the idea of being tied up had starred in a few of her recent fantasies.
Now, she wildly wondered if Cade was also into BDSM, and she had a disturbing, naughty image of being over his knee while he spanked her.
With a little shiver—part apprehension, part curiosity—she pulled back her hand. “We’re just putting the finishing touches on before Connor and Lara arrive,” she said, probably unnecessarily. Because the couple had married a few weeks before, the order of the evening was a bit unusual. The family was planning to meet at five for pictures, and the cocktail hour was scheduled for six, with dinner following at seven.
“Anything I can do to help?”
The offer caught her off guard. “Thanks, but I think we’ve got it covered.”
“If there’s anything you need, let me know.”
She questioned if she’d imagined a slight emphasis on the word anything.
The photographer shouted out a cheery hello as she arrived, and Sofia was grateful for the interruption. “There’s a bar near the restaurant, if you’d be more comfortable waiting there?”
A hint of a smile teased his mouth. Rather than softening his expression, it only made him look all the more dangerous.
“Are you trying to get rid of me, Ms. McBride?”
Yes. The man definitely unnerved her. “I just want you to be comfortable.”
“Can I get you anything while I’m there?”
“Thank you.” She shook her head. “But I don’t drink while I work.”
“Do you always follow the rules?”
Though his tone was light, the question sounded serious. “I like rules,” she replied.
“It helps keep my life in order.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“Isn’t it?” she countered. Even as she answered, she wasn’t sure why she was having this conversation, why she was revealing parts of herself to a stranger.
“Have you ever been tempted to say the hell with everything and explore all that life had to offer?”
“When it comes to business, yes.”
“And everything else?”
“No.” But honestly, she was now.
The photographer placed her backpack on a chair then moved toward them, sparing Sofia from further discussion.
Sofia introduced the pair, then excused herself to greet the DJ and show him where to set up.
Over the next ten minutes, three generations of Donovans began to arrive, and Connor and Lara took her aside.
“We need your help with something,” Lara said.
“Julien Bonds RSVP’d about ten minutes ago. He’s an old friend of Connor’s.”
Only professionalism kept her from dropping her jaw. There were a number of highprofile Texans on tonight’s guest list, including one senator, but Julien Bonds? The man’s genius was legend. She’d waited in line several hours to buy his latest wearable device at the opening of his newest flagship store, and he’d been at the event for a short time. He’d left only minutes before she would have gotten to meet him.
About two years ago, she’d written to the company, wanting an app that allowed her to do more impressive business presentations. Surprising her, one of Bonds’ engineers had responded. Within two weeks, two of her favorite programs had been fully integrated. The difference it had made in her success had been phenomenal, and she’d always wanted to tell him.
“He’s requested no pictures,” Lara continued.
“I see.” And since almost every person in attendance would have a cell phone, that presented a challenge. “We can ensure Heather won’t take any professional shots,” she said.
“How would you like me to handle the other guests?”
“I was hoping you’d have ideas.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” Especially when she, herself, wanted a photo with him. She nodded, hoping to convey confidence she wasn’t feeling.
“He won’t be arriving until nine.”
She checked her schedule. By then, the alcohol would have been flowing for a couple of hours. “Will he have anyone with him?”
Lara and Connor exchanged glances.
“Like security?” Sofia clarified. “An entourage?” He’d had about half a dozen people surrounding him at the store opening.
“Not to my knowledge,” Connor said.
“Can you find out?” People blocking views would probably be the best hope.
Connor stepped to the side to make a call.
“How are you doing?” Sofia asked Lara.
“Fine. Happy. Nervous.” She said it all in the same breath.
“I’ll be your designated worrier.” Sofia squeezed Lara’s hand reassuringly. “Your job is to enjoy the evening. I’ll be nearby if you need anything.”
“You look beautiful,” Sofia said. “The perfect Mrs. Donovan.” Lara radiated elegance and sophistication in her short, form-fitting, cream-colored lace dress. “Marriage is obviously still agreeing with you.”
“More than I would have imagined.” Her friend flushed and fingered the stunning gold choker around her neck.
A series of diamonds descended from the metal to snuggle against the hollow of her neck. Because of their discussion, Sofia knew it was more than a piece of jewelry. The necklace was an outward symbol of Lara’s submission to her husband.
Sofia didn’t quite understand it, but she couldn’t argue that Lara seemed happy, satisfied in a way she had never been before. Even when Sofia had asked, Lara had said she wasn’t sure whether the feeling came from being married, from the strength of her new husband’s business acumen, or from submission. After a glass of wine, she’d mused that it was probably the combination of everything.
“It’s been a whirlwind, and I couldn’t have managed this without you,” Lara said.
“I wouldn’t have let you,” Sofia replied. “Please let me know if there’s anything you need.”
Connor returned and lightly touched his wife’s shoulder. “Julien will have two men with him. And it’s my understanding he’ll only be here a short time. Mostly he’s coming by to gloat.
He thinks he had a hand in making the relationship work, and he does enjoy feeling as if he’s a genius.”
“And did he? Have a hand in the relationship?”
“He’s a good friend with good advice,” Connor replied.
“I’ll talk to the DJ. I’m thinking he can play a song that will engage a lot of people. The twist, perhaps. Other than that, I’ll contact the country club personnel and security to see what we can do. Maybe we can bring him in the back way. Keep him on the patio or something.”
“You’ll work it out,” Connor said, his voice holding no trace of doubt.
She asked for a contact number for one of Julien’s people. “I’ll do the best I can,” she promised.
The photographer signaled she was ready for the bride and groom, and Lara and Connor excused themselves.
While the couple was busy, Sofia went in search of the country club security team.
They agreed that bringing in the Bonds entourage through the patio was the most feasible option and suggested she have a look for herself.
She greeted other arriving family members then confirmed the schedule change with the DJ and asked for his help in keeping the focus away from Julien.
“Not a problem,” the man assured her. “We can do some things with lighting and announcements about the photo booth and video greeting cards for the couple.”
“There’s a reason I like working with you, Marvin.”
“It’s the voice.” He dropped his tone until it sounded like honey drizzled over a jagged knife.
“You should have a radio gig,” she told him. “Nights, on an all-romance, all-the-time station.”
“I have the face for it.”
“You’re fishing,” she said.
“Yeah.” He shrugged.
“I’ll bite, though. You’re a handsome man.”
He straightened his tie, preening. Then, professional that he was, he made notes on his schedule as she walked away.
Before leaving the room, she couldn’t help but sneak a peek at Cade. Even though he stood next to his handsome brothers, he didn’t completely fit. His smile wasn’t as genuine as theirs, and his Western-style tux and hat set him apart. He was taller, broader, more… She considered herself pragmatic, but the only word she could think of was brooding.
After shaking her head, she went to check that everything was perfect for the cocktail hour in the other room.
The quartet was in place on a platform, and they were tuning up. Two servers stood behind an open bar. The banquet manager confirmed that hors d’oeuvres would be served at ten minutes after the hour. All the centerpieces and decorations were perfect.
Finally, she went outside to check the patio.
Right now, it was too hot and humid to be pleasant. The overhead beams had pendant fans hanging from them, their blades seeming to slog through the thick air.
Later, though, the lights off the bayou and the view of downtown Houston, combined with cooler temperatures, would make this an ideal spot.
She ordered a sparkling water from the bartender, enjoying the last few minutes of peace that she was likely to get for the next couple of hours.
“Lime, thanks.” After she had the drink in hand, Sofia walked around the patio. She found a gate that led to the side of the building. There was gravel there, with pavers. That could be the best way to get Julien into the party with as little disruption to the festivities as possible.
She paused at the back of the patio near a massive potted palm. If she could get some workers to move the plants around, they could block part of the area from view.
Cade emerged from inside. Without hesitating, he headed directly toward the bar.
Sofia told herself that he hadn’t followed her, but she couldn’t be sure.
The woman wrapped a napkin around a beer bottle and handed it to him.
Sofia watched as he dropped a bill into the tip jar. Judging by the bartender’s wide-eyed expression, it had been a good one. If she hadn’t already liked him, she would have changed her mind in that instant.
Then he turned toward her.
If she’d had any doubt that he’d followed her, it was erased.
He remained where he was.
Heat and feminine response chased through her. She shouldn’t be attracted to him, but damn it, she was.
Maybe she should have handled the Oilman’s Ball and left Cade to Avery. Even as the thought flashed through her mind, she banished it. No matter how badly he unnerved her, he ensnared her. Intuition told her to run before she couldn’t. Yet her body refused obey her mind’s orders.
She curved both hands around her glass as he approached.
“I would have gotten that for you,” he said, indicating her drink.
“I think as the event planner, it’s my job to make sure you’re taken care of.”
“Always the duty of a man to make sure a woman’s needs are met.”
He hadn’t said anything provocative, so why was she responding as if he had? “Thank you. But I’m pretty accustomed to taking care of myself.”
She noticed him glance toward her left hand.
“By choice?” he asked.
“That’s nosy, Mr. Donovan.”
“It is,” he agreed.
But Cade didn’t relent. Instead, he seemed genuinely interested in learning more about her. How long had it been since that had happened? Months? Maybe years? Then the truth hit her. She’d never had a man be so inquisitive and not back down when she called him out on it. He was unique among the men she’d known. That, more than anything, was what encouraged her to respond. “My mother was abandoned by my alcoholic father when I was very young.”
“I had to take care of my little sister. As soon I was able, I was helping my mother bake cakes and pies for local restaurants. Sometimes she’d stay up all night. I really don’t know how she did it. She remarried a wonderful man a number of years later, but I learned some important lessons early, and I’ve never forgotten them. I went to school on a scholarship. And I worked my ass off to buy my mom’s business and expand it.” Traces of irritation buzzed through her. “So it’s hard to say that anything was by choice. I’ve done what I needed to from necessity.”
“It appears you’ve done a fine job.” He never looked away. Instead, he tipped his beer bottle toward her in silent salute.
“I grew up in Corpus Christi,” she admitted. “I know of your reputation.”
“Yet you’re still talking to me.”
“Some of it was good,” she replied.
“That surprises me.”
“We come from very different backgrounds.”
“Do we indeed?”
There was something in his voice, an ache maybe. Pain, perhaps.
Because of his approval, the expression of his own angst, something went out of her. The fight? The need to explain, justify, defend the way she’d grown up? It hadn’t taken long for
Cade Donovan to have an impact on her.
Her text message alert sounded, and she put her drink on the waist-high adobe wall while she took her phone from her jacket pocket. It was the country club manager, as she’d guessed.
“Duty calls?” Cade asked.
“I hope to see you again later.”
She didn’t reply. The words sounded more like a promise than a statement, and a secret part of her hoped he was serious. She wanted more time with the darkly mysterious Donovan brother.
He went inside. After collecting her wits, she asked the manager to meet her on the patio.
She offered her suggestions, and the manager nodded and summoned a few members of the banquet crew. They brought out a hand truck to move around the big pots, creating a secluded area not far from the gate.
Once she was satisfied with the result, she informed Julien’s team of the plan then found Connor to update him.
The only part she disliked was the fact that once again she wouldn’t get to meet the elusive Julien Bonds and get his autograph on her cell phone case. What could be better than his signature right below the Bonds logo?
* * * *
Shortly before nine o’clock, she received news that Julien’s car had arrived.
After signaling the DJ and receiving Marvin’s nod in reply, she went outside to the gate to greet the party.
A beefy-looking man—security if the earpiece was anything to judge by—had a quick look around before nodding at her and speaking into a microphone on his lapel.
A moment later, Lara and Connor joined them in the makeshift meeting area.
The security guard positioned himself between the bar and the plants. She couldn’t have been more pleased with how the plan worked.
Sofia ordered another soda water. The sound of Lara’s laugh drew her attention, and
Sofia couldn’t resist taking a peek.
Julien wore a loose-fitting jacket, a white shirt and a skinny little tie that was knotted loosely. His trademark athletic shoes were an obnoxious magenta color, and the yellow laces quite literally glowed. He’d taken his tacky footwear to a whole new level yet he still pulled off the casual style that he’d become known for.
A woman, tall and willowy, with blonde hair cascading halfway down her back, stood next to him. She wore an electric-blue dress that flared around her in a style Sofia associated with Marilyn Monroe.
Sofia hadn’t heard that he was dating anyone, but the way his arm was draped around the woman’s shoulders and the way she leaned into him hinted that this was something more than casual.
The bartender handed Sofia the drink, and she turned to see Erin heading toward the private area.
Since she was the groom’s sister, Sofia didn’t try to stop her, and she nodded to the security guard to let him know that Erin should be allowed to pass.
“Let me know if you need anything,” she said to the security guy.
He nodded curtly but didn’t respond.
Sofia went inside and stood near the back wall, surveying the festivities. More people than normal were on the floor, showing off their moves, and some were even snapping selfies.
How they managed that, she wasn’t sure.
It was less than two minutes later when Erin returned, a pained smile on her face, her shoulders slumped a little.
Sofia thought about seeing if there was anything she could do for Erin, but the woman headed straight out of the front door.
Other than that, Julien and his date’s visit went smoother than she’d anticipated, but she still breathed a sigh of relief when the country club manager let her know that a limousine had whisked away the Bonds party.
Several times during the next couple of hours, she caught Cade watching her, and she had to force herself to concentrate on her job and not the wild, crazy things he did to her
* * * *
“When is it your turn?”
In the waning hour of the reception, with strains of music spilling from inside the country club, Cade thumbed back his cowboy hat and turned to face his younger sister. Half-sister, really. But the fierce and loyal Erin Donovan would protest that distinction. In her mind, as well as those of his half-brothers Connor and Nathan, they were family, no arguments.
Cade loved all of his siblings, but Erin most of all. Ever since she’d been a toddler, she’d been a pest, smothering him with adoration and love even when he didn’t want it or deserve it. “My turn?” he repeated, stalling.
“Don’t play dumb. When is it your turn to get married?”
“Not happening,” he replied, even though he knew she would push the point. Erin worried about him living all alone on the ranch. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing but cattle, deer, horses and wilderness in South Texas. It didn’t matter to her that he employed dozens of people, many of whom he interacted with on a daily basis. He also traveled more often than he would like. He drove to Corpus Christi at least once a week, flew to Houston almost every month for family business meetings, and he spent more time in the nearby town of Waltham than he cared to.
“Are you at least finally seeing someone?” she pressed.
“You know the answer to that,” he responded.
“I keep hoping.”
His father’s death had devastated him, shattering his sense of self in ways he was still trying to comprehend. It was almost as if that event had divided the old Cade from the new
Cade. In his late teens and early twenties, he’d been a bit reckless. The whispers about him, the way he didn’t deserve the life of privilege he’d ended up with, had gnawed at him. He’d set out to banish the voices as well as to prove himself. He’d lived hard, tried to make his mark on the world, taken unnecessary chances bull riding, racing motorcycles then eventually, cars.
When Jeffrey Donovan had been buried, Cade had resolved to be a better man, to live up to the expectations placed on him. He’d thrown himself into his responsibilities and obligations, letting them consume him as he attempted to redeem himself.
He’d shut himself off from distractions, including dating. At one time he’d been active in the local BDSM community. Until this evening, when he’d walked through the door and met the curvy, sexy Sofia McBride, he hadn’t had much interest in women lately. His attraction to her had jolted him and he wasn’t sure he liked it. Hell, it had been at least three months since he’d attended a leather party, even longer since he’d hosted a submissive at the ranch.
Penance was a bitch.
Realizing that Erin had rested her fingers consolingly on his wrist, he shook off the melancholy. Tonight was supposed to be a celebration of love, of marriage, of the future. He wouldn’t be the one to bring it down. “How about you?” he asked, redirecting the conversation.
“Me? Seeing someone? Are you kidding me?” She dropped her hand. “I’m too busy helping Julie get the corset shop going in Kemah. And trying to find someone to run the foundation. I’m pinch-hitting for now, but…”
“You’re exhausted,” he guessed.
She shrugged. “It’s a lot of hours.”
As head of HR for Donovan Worldwide, Erin didn’t have an easy job. Filling high-level vacancies was difficult at best, and their aunt’s decision to spend more and more time with her younger beau complicated matters. The Donovan Foundation had always been run by a member of the family, but now they would have to look to an outsider to fill her position.
And, in spite of their youngest brother’s objections, Erin had gone ahead with plans to assist a friend in opening a fancy lingerie shop. When the woman had admitted she didn’t have the funds to open the store, Erin had supplied that, as well. No matter the challenge, she accepted it.
“How are plans coming for the centennial celebration?” she asked, changing topics to one Cade hated only slightly less than the subject of his non-existent love life.
The Running Wind Ranch, which had been in the family for five generations, was going to be celebrating its centennial in early fall. He would have pretended it wasn’t happening, but his grandfather, the Colonel, had recently announced that he wanted the family to host a gala, inviting neighbors, friends, vendors and business associates. Many of them had never been to the ranch. Others remembered a time the Colonel and Miss Libby had hosted grand events, the last one about twenty-five years ago. It was a headache Cade didn’t want, but a duty he knew he’d fulfill. “My mother said I personally have to check out the caterers.”
Erin grinned. “Excellent idea.”
“Not sure why she couldn’t do it.”
“You really expect Stormy to take the blame if the food is awful?”
“Well said.” Around Erin, he freely spoke about his mother. Neither Connor nor Nathan had ever said a negative word about her. On the other hand, none of them had ever discussed her involvement in the business, either. The Colonel had spoken fewer than a hundred words to her in over thirty years, and Stormy said she preferred it that way. When Cade’s father had gotten her pregnant, she’d been offered a significant amount of money to go away quietly. If she’d been the type to do that, no doubt his father wouldn’t have fallen in love in the first place.
“Do you have anyone lined up yet?”
“A new bakery opened in town, a couple of doors down from the pharmacy. So I stopped in.”
He’d never felt more helpless. Give him a complex piece of machinery to repair or a steer to brand and he had complete confidence. But when two women had started smiling and shoving food at him, flipping through pictures of weddings and birthdays, offering him tiny plates filled with bizarre concoctions, he’d been overwhelmed and speechless. “Buffalo chicken wing cupcakes?”
“Were they good?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t bring myself to pull it out of the frosting. How the hell do you eat something like that?”
“I see your point. I guess she was going for something sweet and savory in the same bite.”
“Cupcakes should be sweet,” he said.
“The whole world isn’t black and white, big brother.”
“I have rules, Erin.”
She grinned. “Got it. Cupcakes are sweet. Women are spicy?”
“Don’t you have someone else you can bother?” he asked pointedly.
“Seriously, Cade, you don’t have time to put an event together. You need a company to manage it, invitations, decorations—”
“Absolutely. Flags. Bunting. Maybe a take-home memento, like a Christmas ornament or something.”
“Flowers,” she continued. “And entertainment. Perhaps a band. Live music is always good. People will come just for that. Oh, and a bounce house for kids. Margarita machines, for sure. You’ve only got a few months.”
Until now, he’d figured he’d need about ten minutes to put it together. Throw some burgers on the barbecue, smoke some brisket, maybe get some of the ranch hands to roast a pig… But with the scowl on Erin’s face, he saw he’d made a huge miscalculation.
“Have you sent out a save-the-date announcement?”
“Seriously?” She rolled her eyes. “Ask Granddaddy and Grandmother for their guest lists, and Connor. Better yet, ask Connor and Thompson. Thompson has Connor pretty well organized. He’ll know who’s who. Don’t forget Nathan. My mother may want to invite a few of her friends.”
He hadn’t considered that. But it made sense. Though he’d never spent much time with Angela, she had been married to his father.
“Do you want me to ask her?”
“That’s thoughtful of you. But no. I’ll do it.” Or find someone else to do it.
“I have a few people I’ll want to invite. And we’ll need to contact the cousins.
Granddaddy’s the best person for that, too.”
“Are you sure all of these people have to come?”
“You’ll be haunted to the grave if you forget anyone. No matter what you say, who you apologize to, it will be taken as a personal affront. You’re welcome to run the whole thing by me. We probably do need to limit it at some point.”
“To a hundred?” he asked hopefully.
She scowled. “I was thinking a thousand.”
A cold frisson of panic clutched him. “What?”
“People, Cade. A thousand people. I was joking about the horses. Tell me you’ve at least decided on a date?” she persisted.
“I was thinking about October, maybe November. I don’t suppose you—”
“Oh, hell and no. No chance. I can help you find someone, but I can’t handle everything from a distance.”
“What about Miss Libby?” He’d heard rumors that their grandmother used to host some of the best parties in South Texas. And she’d hosted many of them at the ranch.
“It’s been too many years. She can give you pointers, but she doesn’t know the companies down in that area any longer.”
“Your mother?” he asked desperately.
“Again, too far away. You’re welcome to meet with both of them, but your event person may want to do that.”
“I’ll try to have some people for you to interview by the first part of the week.”
He nodded. A runaway train was easier to stop than Erin. This time, he was grateful.
“You’re going to be fine.”
He’d rather climb on the back of a roaring, snorting sixteen-hundred-pound bull than deal with a guest list.
Inside, the DJ announced that it was time for a line dance, and Erin gave a quick excuse then hurried off.
He went to the bar and ordered his second beer of the evening. Other guests were reaching for glasses of champagne, but he preferred to drink Santo, a rich, thick brew that suited his personality.
Because of the heat and late spring humidity, there weren’t a lot of people outside, but he still wandered to the far side of the courtyard and leaned against the outer adobe wall. In a crowd of any size, he tended to seek out quiet corners.
Now that the toasts and obligatory pictures were out of the way and the party was in full swing, he loosened his bulldogger tie and unfastened the top button of his Western shirt. He took a deep drink and glanced toward the clubhouse.
Inside, his new sister-in-law was also participating in the line dance. He wasn’t sure what radiance looked like, but Lara had to come close. She and Connor had gotten married in a private ceremony weeks before. He’d only met her the previous evening, but he’d instantly seen why his brother had been attracted to her. She was witty, beautiful and elegant, a fitting partner for the ruler of the Donovan empire. Connor was clearly besotted, if the fact he couldn’t keep his hands off Lara was any indication. When she’d briefly left the room, he’d followed her movements and momentarily lost track of the conversation.
Until he’d seen the two together, Cade had been a bit skeptical of love. To him, it seemed like an emotion that fucked with people’s common sense, something with the power to be dark and destructive.
No doubt his father had loved his mother, but he hadn’t been strong enough to tell his own father to fuck off so he could be with the woman he loved. Instead, he’d married Angela
Meyer. She was obviously a fine woman, if his half-siblings were anything to judge by, but
Cade had seen the way Jeffrey looked at Stormy up until the day he died.
Love for a man she could never have had kept Stormy stuck, and it wasn’t until a year ago that she’d even gone on a date.
But watching Connor opened Cade’s jaded eyes, just a little.
A few minutes later, champagne in hand and a stupid smile on his face, Connor wandered over.
“Congratulations,” Cade said.
“Glad you could make it.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it,” he replied. He’d talked to Connor when Lara had approached him with her bold proposal to save her family’s business. Cade had offered his support, but he’d urged his older brother to exercise caution. He’d sacrificed a lot to take the helm of Donovan Worldwide. He should have had years to travel, learn the business, date. But he’d never complained. He’d simply done what he’d needed to. All without blaming Cade for anything. “You look…happy.”
Connor grinned like a fool. “I am.”
“Here’s to many joyful years together.” He lifted his beer bottle and Connor tapped the rim of his glass against it.
“You’re going back in the morning?”
“Figured I’d head out after breakfast. Get in a half-day’s work, at least.” Cade didn’t have to explain. More than any of his half-siblings, Connor understood him, his need for solitude, to roam the land in endless search of healing. His grandfather, behaving more like a general than the colonel he was nicknamed after, often insisted that Cade needed to spend more time with the family, so it fell to Connor to cover and make excuses. Cade appreciated it. “I’m told I need to ask you for a guest list for the centennial.”
“That’ll take some thought. I’ll try to remember to ask Thompson.”
“Since you’re technically on your honeymoon starting tonight, I’ll get with him. He’s here tonight, isn’t he?”
“Somewhere. But wait until Monday. This is supposed to be his day off.”
“It’s a Donovan curse.”
Cade nodded. Their father had always told them it was their responsibility not to fail.
And none of them wanted to be one to let down the previous five generations. “Speaking of work…”
“I should have guessed.”
“When you’re back from your honeymoon, I could use some time to discuss some ideas for the ranch.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Ah. You mentioned something about this being your reception?”
They exchanged shrugs.
Connor glanced back inside, evidently to ensure his wife was occupied. “Make it quick.”
“I’m thinking of offering limited tourism. Maybe seasonal.”
Connor took a drink and regarded Cade. “On the whole section?”
He shook his head. “Just section one.”
“That one’s yours. You don’t need to run anything past me unless you’re looking for a second opinion.”
“It’s your heritage, too. But there are fiscal aspects to consider. Could make money. Could lose it.”
“What are the net benefits?”
“More people get to enjoy it. It provides employment opportunities for people living in town. Considering allowing tubing on the river. Horseback riding. That sort of thing. If it makes money, we could consider expanding the conservation area into section one.”
“Because I live there, it could mean some loss of privacy. Increased insurance premiums. Environmental impacts, for sure. We’d need parking, restroom facilities, vans or some way to move people around.” They already offered hunting, fishing and birding trips. But those were on the southernmost portion of the land. “There have to be another dozen things I haven’t considered.”
Connor nodded. “Have you consulted with Ricardo?”
Ricardo was the foreman of that section. More than anyone, he would know some of the pitfalls. “I was going to do that next.”
“Good plan. Then have him contact Nathan. Nathan can work on a feasibility study, work up a cost analysis.”
“You don’t mind me asking?”
“Why the hell would I mind?”
“He’s got real work to do for Donovan Worldwide. This would be a distraction.”
Connor’s eyes, so similar to Cade’s, narrowed. “Don’t make me knock some sense into you in front of the family.” Connor’s voice held shards of ice.
“I’m still bigger than you,” Cade reminded him.
“But I’m more pissed. And you’ve fucking had it coming for a long time. Five years, at least.”
Cade took a swig of his beer, considering. Connor was right. Something raw and nasty gnawed in Cade’s gut. Guilt. Anger at the unfairness of it all. Part of him wanted Connor to take a swing. Maybe it’d give him some fucking release.
Nathan strolled over.
The tension between Cade and Connor continued to roil, just beneath a polished veneer.
“Private party?” Nathan asked.
“Brotherly love,” Connor returned. “Welcome to the brawl.”
“Damn. We haven’t had one of those in what, seven, eight years?”
Cade remembered the fucking miserable summer night in Corpus Christi. Middle of
August. Eighty-something degrees, ninety percent humidity, making the air as suffocating as a wet blanket. Only two things had been moving, rattlesnakes and tempers.
“What are we fighting about?” Nathan sounded interested.
“Same thing as last time,” Connor replied.
“More or less,” Cade agreed. Back then, Cade had been in college, and Connor had recently graduated from high school. Though their father had insisted Cade receive a good education, it had been clear that Connor would inherit the majority of the family’s money and interests. Cade hadn’t objected. After all, he’d had no desire to move to Houston. He’d liked his life the way it was. All he’d needed was the rodeo, his ridiculously fast cars and motorcycles and a place to stow his gear.
None of them had known that it would be the last time they’d all be together with their father still alive. The four had spent the day on the land. Their father, Jeffrey, had told them the history of ranch, shared his memories, the dreams he’d had for it. And they’d all heard the regret in his tone. He’d loved the ranch, and that he wasn’t able to devote time to it had bothered him.
Connor had said that Cade would make it all happen. Cade, feeling like the outsider he was, hadn’t wanted something that rightfully belonged to his brother. He’d said he’d be moving along after he’d earned his degree.
Later that night, Connor had sought him out, called him a quitter and told him he had the same obligations as any other Donovan.
All his life, Cade had heard the whispers. He was a bastard, an imposter.
His frustration at being told to step up and behave like a member of the family had made him furious, and he’d thrown the first punch.
Connor had gone down, but he’d grabbed Cade’s ankle and yanked him off balance, slamming him to the ground. He might have been bigger than Connor, more accustomed to barroom and street brawls, but he had been dazed, and Connor had taken advantage of that.
He’d still been pummeling Cade when Nathan had joined them and pulled Connor away and stayed between them until the tensions had eased.
“I’d prefer not to spill any of this mighty fine cabernet. But if necessary…” Nathan put down the glass on a nearby table. “Whose side am I on? Or am I just supposed to separate the two of you?”
“Your choice, big brother,” Connor said to Cade. “You can continue to be a jackass or you can lose the chip on your shoulder and realize no one objects to you owning section one.” He narrowed his gaze. “Or the house. If you want to burn the thing down or sell it, turn it into a bordello, that’s your right. You owe us nothing.”
“A bordello?” Nathan asked. “Now there’s an idea.”
“Whether you like it or not, we’re brothers,” Connor persisted. He didn’t even bother to direct his gaze toward Nathan. “If you have a personal business idea, we sure as hell should be the people you turn to first, for advice, feasibility studies, financing. It’s what family does.”
He got that Erin, Nathan and Connor did that for one another. But Cade spent the majority of his time alone. Always had. “What’s it going to be, Cade?” He put down his champagne glass. “You going to take the help? Or are you going to continue to be an asshole with some fucked-up version of reality in your head?”
The laughter and revelry from the reception spilled around them, yet the tension continued to draw and stretch. Cade had no doubt Connor was serious. He’d fight for family, even if Cade didn’t think he deserved it. And Connor threw a wicked punch. He’d go for a quick one-two to the gut then the jaw. Cade was fast and big. Both had reserves of anger to draw from. But on principle, Cade wouldn’t hit as hard. He wasn’t sure he wanted to drive back to the ranch with a dislocated jaw.
In the end, it was Nathan, as always, who defused the situation. “My jacket is brand new.
I’d hate for my biceps to tear it.”
“Your biceps?” Cade repeated, feeling some of the tension begin to ease from his gut, even though Connor still looked pissed.
“Been keeping myself fit so I have the energy to shoot down the ideas that everyone else thinks will make millions of dollars,” Nathan said.
He was damn good at it. Not only did he have the patience to drill down on the most mundane details, he had a sixth sense when it came to evaluating a company’s place in the market.
“Takes talent to thrash the wheat from the chaff.”
“True,” Connor conceded.
“Let me at it,” Nathan continued. “You can email me or I could come down.”
A few seconds stretched, the silence tenuous.
“That’d be good. It’s been a while,” Cade agreed.
The angry tension drained from Connor’s face, and the knot inside Cade began to dissipate. He was smart enough to realize that he didn’t deserve the family who so lovingly accepted him.
“I’ll email you on Monday and set up a time,” Nathan said. “Maybe stay a couple of days.”
“You’ve got a room waiting.” More like a wing, and if he wanted even more privacy, there were an additional three guest cottages on the property. Eighty years ago, the size of the house had made sense. Now it stood mostly as a museum.
No matter what the will or Connor said, Cade believed it belonged to his siblings every bit as much as him.
“Lara and I might come down, too,” Connor said, as if Cade hadn’t just been on the edge of fracturing their relationship. “When he was here, Julien mentioned he may want some time to ride horses.”
“Bonds gets his prissy ass on a horse?”
“Inconceivable,” Nathan added.
“He’s welcome. I’ll keep a guest house ready.” The ranch had a short landing strip and a helicopter pad, making it easy in and out for a notorious recluse.
Any lingering emotional strain was shattered when Cade saw Lara and Erin heading toward them. Erin’s hand was firmly clamped around Sofia’s wrist.
The evening was looking better every moment.