Blake Sinclaire grunted as he maneuvered his Ford F150 into a tiny parking space in front of Frenchie O’Neill’s. The big truck stuck out like a sore thumb in the suburban Chicago neighborhood that was a mix of hipsters, young families, and scientists from Fermilab. He’d be on the road home again soon. But not soon enough for his taste.
He’d give anything for a cold beer and a sit-down on the porch with his brothers. After spending the week dealing with scientists and wranglers at Fermilab, and enduring endless rounds of networking, he was more than ready for the solitude of their ranch in the Flint Hills. He dug out his phone and hit speed dial.
His brother Ben picked up on the second ring. “How’d the transfer go?”
“Off without a hitch. The bull is temporarily isolated in a far corner of the grounds, the cow seems to be integrating well. I’ll check on the herd again early tomorrow, and then start the drive home. I’ll be damned glad when this is all over.”
Ben chuckled into the phone. “Gotta put that fancy MBA to use, big brother.”
Blake snorted. “As long as they purchase our livestock and meat, I’ll be happy. The director at Fermilab recommended I host a meet and greet here at Frenchie O’Neill’s. The chef is outstanding, and the scientists like to hang out here.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Get in, get out. Shake a few hands. Chef O’Neill’s well connected and invited a number of her colleagues. I instructed her to fill ’em up with food and booze.”
Demand for their bison was growing. Over the last few years he’d learned the easiest way to bring new clients on board was to let them taste the product first. Nine times out of ten they were hooked after the first bite. “I’ll leave them with my card and follow up when I get home. I’m confident our Chicago clients will double.”
Ben let out a low whistle. “That would be a big help.”
“It’ll tide us over until we can set up the hunting lodge and diversify our income. Did the plans arrive?”
“Yes.” Ben’s voice held a note of hesitation.
Blake was instantly on alert. “What is it? Old man Hansen hasn’t been mouthing off about us again, has he?”
“Man, you gotta let it go.” A note of exasperation crept into Ben’s voice. “I think you need to come up with an alternative building site.
“Like hell I will,” he growled. “You know I swore on mom’s grave we’d get our land back.”
“But we don’t need it.”
“Yes we do. It’s ours. It belongs to us. To our family.” Why couldn’t his brothers understand this?
“It’s only a few hundred acres. Is it worth tying yourself up in knots and continuing a family feud?”
Words caught in his throat. Ben was right. No one liked the longstanding feud with the Hansens, but it was all they knew. And he couldn’t let it go until he’d righted the wrongs done to his family.
“Hell, Ben. We’ve been over this before. It’s about the Sinclaire legacy.”
“All I’m saying is that the Sinclaire legacy can remain intact without that bit of land.”
“Not without the homestead.”
Ben made a disbelieving noise. “Just think about it on the drive home? Maybe we can come up with a different solution.”
Blake clenched his hand and softly beat it against the steering wheel. A sense of defeat settled over him. Hell and damnation. Discussing Warren Hansen always made him grouchy. Not the best frame of mind to be in before a final few hours of schmoozing.
After a moment he let out a frustrated sigh. “Fine. I’ll think about it.” He hated it when Ben was reasonable. “Gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow night.” He clicked off, jammed on his Stetson, and stepped out of the truck into the cold Chicago wind.
This day couldn’t end fast enough. He was a rancher, not Joe Schmoozer. As far as he was concerned, events like the one he was hosting were only slightly less awful than walking across broken glass in a pool of lemonade. But until his family’s operation could grow a little bigger, he’d have to continue wearing both hats. There was too much riding on the ranch’s future if things went sideways.
He wasn’t in a mood for small talk, but he’d endure it. Suck it up for the family, just like he always did. And if the end result was a hunting lodge and the diversified income necessary to secure his family’s legacy… well, he’d do that and a whole lot more. He’d do anything for his brothers and little sister.
The cocktail party was in full swing as he stepped through the door into the posh restaurant. An atmosphere of warmth and delicious smelling food immediately enveloped him. Handing his Stetson to the hostess, he surveyed the room. From the looks of it, the guests were enjoying themselves. Several servers circulated trays of food, and drinks were flowing.
Hope brimmed up, temporarily chasing away his foul mood. Load ’em up on great food and good booze and they should open their wallets.
He circulated through the room, shaking hands with the men he’d met over the week. If the happy smiles on their faces were any indication, the food was a hit. The ranch would be in good shape after tonight if they came on board.
Chef O’Neill caught his eye and bustled over.
“You’re late, cowboy.”
“He who walks in last wins the deal.”
“I see. More wheeling and dealing tonight?”
“Never waste an opportunity.”
She raised her eyebrow archly. “Well then. You’ll be pleased to know the scientists love the tenderloin marinated in the Buffalo Sweat. Although it did raise a few eyebrows until I clarified it was a porter from Manhattan, Kansas.” She leaned in close. “And the chefs you invited are dying over the pâté and the bison bourguignon en croute.”
Impressive. She didn’t miss a thing.
She tugged on his elbow. “Come on. I’ve saved you a few bites.” She led him over to the buffet table and grabbed a plate covered in plastic. She removed the wrap and handed it to him.
He picked up a round of toast spread with pâté and popped it into his mouth. She’d outdone herself. He tasted the bite of cognac, but it didn’t overpower the flavor of the bison. The result was rich and earthy. Next, he bit into the bison bourguignon. Again he was surprised. He was used to bison fajitas, steaks and chili. This elevated the meat to a whole new level.
“Chef, if you ever want a ranch job…”
She shook her wild red curls and rolled her eyes. “It’s Jamey. Didn’t we agree to dispense with this cheffy business? And I have everything I want right here, thanks. But put a good word in for me with the other chefs. The kitchen is still a man’s world.”
“Of course. Anything else I can do for you?”
She brightened, her eyes sparking devilishly. “Well there is one thing. I have a friend I’d like you to meet. She doesn’t get out much.”
He worked to keep his smile from slipping. He didn’t want to come across as an ingrate, but the last thing he wanted this evening was a set-up.
“You know how these scientists are. She’s a bit shy.”
Before he could stop her, she spun on her heel and ducked through the heavy velvet curtain separating the restaurant from the bar.
Great. Now he was on the hook for entertaining a socially awkward scientist. Hopefully she’d know a few people in the room and he could leave her with them and make his excuses.
Shaking off his irritation, he stepped over to the beverage station. “Scotch. Neat.”
Jamey had tried to sell him on Irish whiskey, but he was a scotch man through and through. He savored the smoke as the liquor slid over his tongue.
She popped back through the curtain and tugged at his elbow. “Come with me.”
Downing the scotch faster than he liked, he placed the empty glass on a tray and followed her through the curtain to the bar. The atmosphere was much more relaxed – a nice contrast to the upscale velvet and leather in the front. Here, he could exhale and loosen his tie.
The bar was filled to capacity. Patrons spilled out onto the tables next to the dance floor. A small band was setting up onstage. Jamey bobbed through the crowd and stopped halfway down the bar.
No. No f*****g way.
Of all the gin joints.
It had been fifteen years, but he’d recognize her anywhere. Large sapphire eyes rimmed with square black glasses frames. Eyes that were the spitting image of her father, Warren Hansen. The din of the bar faded as his focus narrowed to only her.
Something passed between them that was at once both deeply familiar and disconcertingly erotic.
His mind went blank and his c**k surged in awareness. It didn’t matter that he was in Chicago for the sole purpose of peddling his bison, or that his family hated hers. All he wanted to do was devour the full, sweet mouth tilted up at him. He fought the urge and groaned inwardly as her tongue darted out to wet her slightly parted lips. God, he wanted to taste her.
He glimpsed surprise and curiosity in her blue depths. And was that a hint of something else? An invitation for him to forget everything but the two of them? He hoped so. But whatever he’d observed quickly faded as startled recognition clouded her eyes.
Jamey flipped her head and smiled broadly. “Blake Sinclaire, this is my best friend and roommate–”
“Madison Hansen,” he finished for her. Roommates, huh? Best friends?
“Wait.” Jamey slid a sly glance at Maddie. “You know each other?”
Maddie smiled tightly, her eyes snapping. “Ah… Yes. Yes, we do.”
It could have been worse. She could have denied ever knowing him. He’d take a small victory.
He leaned in close to her, kissing her cheek. “Try not to look so shocked, sweetheart,” he murmured low into her ear. “I promise I won’t bite.”
“I’m not your sweetheart,” she hissed back.
Jamey clapped her hands. “Excellent. I’ll let you two reconnect.” She winked at him. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of your guests until you’re ready to rejoin the shindig.” She scooted past him and disappeared through the curtain that separated the bar from the restaurant.
He’d never forget the first time he’d met Maddie. The event floated in front of him, crystal clear.
He’d been driving home from the Feed ’n Seed in Prairie, the small town near their ranch, when he caught sight of a group of kids in the vacant lot down the street from Dottie’s Diner. Something about the scene up ahead hadn’t felt right. He’d driven by slowly and seen Kylee Ross with her usual entourage—including his brother, Brodie, who was always trying to impress her. The g**g had surrounded a girl and dumped the contents of her backpack on the sidewalk. They seemed to be chanting something.
Maddie had been scrawny back then, all elbows and knees, her hair bleached nearly white from the sun. Her face had been pinched in anger and defiance. He’d slammed on the brakes and pulled a u-turn, rolling down the window and shouting for her to get in.
Stalking around the truck, he’d blasted everyone, but especially his brother for picking on a girl. Then he’d picked up her school things, shoved them in the backpack, and tossed it in the back of the truck. He remembered being surprised that she hadn’t cried. She’d been tough as nails.
“You’re one of the Hansen kids, aren’t you?”
She nodded, refusing to look at him. “Maddie.” She looked out the window.
“You want me to take you home?”
“Hey.” He reached over and ruffled her hair. “You okay?”
She nodded, still refusing to meet his gaze.
“Wanna talk about it?” His little sister wanted to talk about everything all the time.
She pursed her lips and shrugged again.
He noticed her b****y knees. “Who did that?” His voice sharpened in anger. “It wasn’t my brother was it? I’ll beat him good if he laid a finger on you.”
“Kylee Ross.” She practically spat the name.