by AC Arthur
Book 7 in the Donovan Friends
Opposites attract…for better and for worse.
Fitness guru, Tyler West’s life comes crashing to a halt with the news of his parents’ death. Now, he’ll be reunited with his brother on his family’s land as they debate the fate of the ranch. And when the charming interior designer arrives to update the home before sale, the former stress of returning to his hometown takes a back seat to the passion he finds in her arms.
Gabriella Bennett’s first career assignment has her nervous and excited. As the youngest of the prestigious Bennett family she’s determined to succeed in spite of her family’s doubts. But the moment the sexy cowboy hat-wearing owner kisses her, she knows that all is lost.
Desire sparks quickly and burns fiercely between them, so much so, that neither of them notice the threat to their lives…until it’s too late.
Book 7 in the Donovan Friends
She dreamed of him. His arms held her close in a circle of warmth and comfort. His
breath whispered over her neck as he dropped a kiss there and then moved slightly so that the next kiss brushed along the line of her jaw. She closed her eyes and let her head loll back, enjoying the streaks of desire shooting through her at his touch.
He pulled away, with a quick jerk as if she’d slapped him. She stumbled back in an attempt to keep herself from falling, but it didn’t work. Her feet caught on something and she felt her body going down. Slamming onto the floor hurt worse than she imagined it would. Sharp, shooting pains ricocheted from her lower back to her abdomen. She cried out, but even that sounded more distressing than it should. But it was when she held her hands up to him that she received the shock of her life.
He didn’t take her hands. He didn’t do anything to help her up. And she couldn’t get up on her own. The lower half of her body was still while she dropped her arms, flattening her palms on the floor, in an attempt to push herself up. Her legs did not move and her hands slipped on something warm. When she looked down, a strangled cry caught in her throat and she blinked furiously to keep the tears at bay. It was futile, the tears came anyway. In steady streams down her cheeks as she realized her hands were in a puddle of blood.
With a jerk of her neck she looked up at him once more. This time she opened her mouth to speak, to call his name, curse him for not helping her, something. Anything. Nothing. There was no sound. And he was gone.
Gabriella awoke with a start, sitting up in her bed, her eyes scanned the dark room for a sign. Of what, she didn’t know. Or she did know, but didn’t want to acknowledge her digression.
It was over between her and Austin. It had been for a while now. With a hand touching her chest where her heart still pounded, Gabriella closed her eyes and sighed. She was happy about the break-up and proud of herself for walking away and never looking back.
Even if the dreams continued to haunt her.
Two Days Later
Hobbs Creek, Texas
Westwind Ranch & Resort
Tyler grit his teeth and held back a curse. He was not in the mood for another one today. Or this month. Why couldn’t they accept that he hadn’t made up his mind yet and when he did, he would call them? This was beyond unprofessional.
And she was woefully overdressed. Westwind was a horse ranch and resort. If she wanted to book a room, she was in the wrong place. The resort was down the winding path, closer to the road. It was a little after one so Dessie would probably be at the front desk right now. She would gladly book this woman—with the white painted toenails—a room. Or a weekend package, Tyler thought wryly. Her pedicure and the sky-high Manalo heels she wore looked expensive.
And she speaks, Tyler thought with another sigh.
He made one last scrape against Golden Glory’s hoof, holding the pick tightly in his right hand and her foot in the other. He was bent over in the stall with his back facing the entrance, that’s how he’d glimpsed the woman’s shoes before she spoke. He wasn’t in a hurry to change his position or answer her.
“I’m looking for Tyler West,” she continued.
GG whined and Tyler frowned up at the horse. Traitor. He didn’t want to answer the woman and he didn’t care if he was being rude. He was grieving and trying to take care of ranch business. He did not have time for another real estate agent poking their nosy little head into his business. When he decided whether or not he wanted to sell his father’s ranch, he would contact an agent to do so. It was that simple.
When Tyler noted he’d been raised better, he eased GG’s foot down and turned slowly toward the voice. Damn. This might not be as simple as he thought.
“I’m Tyler West.”
Her smile was slow and as potent as three fingers of whiskey straight.
“I’m Gabriella Bennett. I’m the designer from The Proctor Group. Dessie Gwynne said I should come out to talk to you today. Is now a good time?”
“Dessie’s down at the resort,” he replied. “If you get back into your car and make a left instead of a right at the end of the driveway, you’ll run right into the back parking lot.”
She was tall, somewhere around five feet eleven inches in those heels. He was six feet four and a half inches, his height being a big part of the reason that fashion scout had approached him twenty years ago. The slim fingers of one hand clutched the straps of a Noe Saint Laurent tote, while the other rested confidently at her side.
“I’ve already met with Dessie and her husband Clyde, who I believe is the West family attorney.” She stopped and lifted her free hand to tuck dark hair behind her ear.
Tyler followed each movement and took in each detail and then frowned because he couldn’t figure out why.
“I was told to speak to you about a tour of the ranch house and how best to stage the place before the listing goes public.”
“I haven’t decided whether or not I’m selling the ranch,” he snapped and turned back to his horse.
The horse he’d inherited three weeks ago when his parents were found dead in a burning truck. His fingers tightened on the pick as he struggled for composure.
“He’s a beautiful Appaloosa. Do you get the chance to ride him often or is he part of the shows that take place at the resort?”
In response to her question Tyler looked back at GG’s chestnut blanket coat. It wasn’t strange that he knew what type of horse GG was without a second thought because he’d grown up on a ranch. As for the woman with the perfectly manicured nails and silky hair, well, she didn’t look like the type to get dirty riding horses, let alone hanging out in stalls long enough to learn the names of the breed.
“They have quarter horses down at the resort. Nevil Snyder is the new head wrangler, he handles all the horses and other animals for the show. This is Golden Glory. He was my dad’s horse.”
The one quick reply wiped the smile from her face and simultaneously increased Tyler’s irritation.
“Look, I’m kind of busy right now.”
She nodded. “That’s fine. Is there a better time for me to come back? Dessie and Clyde stated that they’d like to have the ranch on the market in the next month. Considering I’ll be working on the staging of the main house, employee residences and the resort, I’ll need to get started pretty quickly.”
She’d just said a lot, most of which he hadn’t deciphered because he’d been stuck on the part where the ranch would go on the market for sale in the next month. That decision was his, and well, Jagger’s. But who knew when, or if, his younger brother would decide to make an appearance. He hadn’t been able to pull himself away from his “important business deal” three weeks ago when Tyler called to let him know about their parents’ death. So Tyler had returned to Hobbs Creek to handle everything himself, just as he used to do when they were kids.
“No,” he said when she looked like she was about to speak again. “I can’t do this right now. Come back later.”
“If you’d like to give me a specific time so I’ll be sure to not interrupt you again,” she said.
“Right,” he replied with a curt nod. “Tomorrow. In the evening, around six I guess.”
“That will work. In the meantime, I can draft some ideas for the resort and visit the employee residences. So when we meet, all I’ll need to do is tour the ranch house. Then we can schedule another time to go over my thoughts and hopefully get started.”
Again, she was saying a lot and Tyler just did not want to hear it. He didn’t want to hear anything but the sounds of the ranch, the periodic whine of horses, the bleat of Spanish goats, squeal and grunts of the pigs. The Longhorn cattle would be out to pasture, releasing an occasional bellow or snort. And at night, after dinner when he sat on the porch, staring up to the starry sky the memories came. The ones he loved and would forever miss and the ones that still brought fresh pain.
“Fine. Tomorrow at six. We’ll have some dinner and sit on the porch to talk about your plans,” he said and waited for her to walk away.
She didn’t and he wanted to frown or possibly yell. He did neither. Instead, Tyler did what he always did instead of asking the next question or waiting for uncomfortable conversations to run their course. He returned to the work at hand as if he’d never been interrupted.
At some point he suspected she’d left because by the time he finished all four of GG’s hooves, had brushed him down and offered the gelding his favorite treat—apple slices—she was gone.
That was a relief. Tyler didn’t want to be bothered with people right now. Truth be told, he hadn’t wanted to be bothered with anyone or anything since hearing of his parents’ deaths.
Their bodies were found three weeks ago, each with an execution style gunshot to the back of their head, seated inside their F-350 while it burned to a crisp. A family on their way to the resort to check-in had stopped at the sight. They immediately called 911 and just four hours later, Sheriff Fred Alvarez called Tyler. It had been almost three o’clock in the afternoon for Tyler in Los Angeles that day, and he’d just finished a meeting with the marketing team for his new sportswear line. He didn’t know how long he’d stood in the hallway of the office building trying to digest the news. But Bez, one of the guards Tyler’s agent insisted he needed, had eventually led him to the SUV parked at the back of the building. A while later Tyler arrived at his apartment. He’d been texting his assistant Mellie, during the drive, so by the time he made it home, all he’d had to do was pack a bag and then he was back in the truck heading to the airport.
That’s when he called Jagger.
“It’s Mom and Dad,” Tyler had said, his voice gruff with all the emotion he was trying to contain. “There’s been an accident. The truck was on fire and they’re…dead.”
He hadn’t known any other way to put it. George and Verna West, life-long residents of Hobbs Creek, Texas; owners of the Westwind Ranch & Resort; and, parents to Tyler and Jagger West departed this world on June 12th. That’s how it read in the Hobbs Gazette and the obituary that had been distributed to the more than two hundred people who attended the funeral one week later. Jagger hadn’t said much on the phone when Tyler called, just that he was in Paris about to close a big deal and would be unable to return to help Tyler with the funeral plans, or anything else.
Though this had been no surprise, Tyler was still disappointed and angry with his younger brother. For as long as he could remember, Jagger had left everything to Tyler. From the time Tyler was five years old he’d had chores on the ranch. They’d started with simple things like assisting the ranch hands with feeding the pigs and goats. By the time he was eight he’d been bumped up to feeding the chickens by himself and cleaning the horse stalls. Jagger was six by that time and was supposed to assist Tyler. But the first time George pulled one of his surprise check-ups and yelled at his youngest son for not closing the door to the chicken coop, set the stage for Jagger’s life on the ranch. Nothing the younger West son did was right in George’s eyes, which for Jagger meant, he never had to do anything. Tyler, who watched the ranch hands like a hawk because he didn’t want to incur his father’s wrath, did everything to George’s satisfaction. So Tyler was the worker while Jagger became the playful West brother. The prankster and the star of the football team, Jagger was voted most likely to succeed in his graduating class. His brother went on to do just that after obtaining an MBA in marketing and landing a job at one of New York’s most prestigious PR firms.
Tyler had achieved success as well, although if anyone from L.A. saw him walking out of the stable three hours after he’d gone in, they might not recognize him. His jeans were dusty in some places, caked with mud in others. The white t-shirt he wore looked more gray at this point, while the boots he’d just purchased a couple days after arriving in Texas, were now scuffed and splattered with a variety of animal fluids, dirt, mud and grass. He slapped the worn Dodgers cap he kept stuffed in his back pocket, down over his head as the late afternoon sun blazed as high and hot as it had early this morning.
This Tyler West was a far cry from the easy-smiling, charismatic model turned fitness guru that lived in a three bedroom townhouse in Chatsworth, California and had earned millions of dollars over the last twenty years. That Tyler wasn’t a rancher by any stretch of the imagination, because he’d left everything about his childhood in Hobbs Creek the day after his eighteenth birthday when he’d packed a bag and flew to New York at the urging of Lorinna Holt, an agent at the KMC Modeling Agency that he’d met one day at the local mall.
Tyler hadn’t fallen in love with modeling the way Lorrina had promised all those years ago, but he had enjoyed the money that he made doing the job. To stay in shape he’d spent a lot of time at the gym. Not ready to go back to Texas, his overbearing father and the ranch, he’d used the proceeds from modeling and everything he’d learned at the gym to fund his own workout video. That was when he was twenty-five years old. Now, thirteen years later, Ty-Fitness Inc. was a nationally recognized brand producing workout videos, meal plans and exercise apps, and in a few weeks a full brand of fitness wear for men, women and children.
Tyler was now a brand. He was not a rancher.
Yet, here he was, walking up the steps to the front porch where he’d broken his finger while wrestling with Jagger and Noah Windmyr, the former ranch manager’s son. He was going to walk through those massive oak front doors and into the main foyer of the house and remove his hat and dust his feet on the rug just inside the doorway before moving any further. Because old habits die hard, if they ever died at all.
Despite how he felt or how he’d left, Tyler was back at Westwind. And he wasn’t leaving until he found out who killed his parents.
“He’s an arrogant jerk,” Gabriella said into the phone as she plopped down on the bed.
Her suite at the Westwind Resort was lovely. From the gorgeous dark stained real hardwood floors to the heavy cherry oak furniture and the detailed stone fireplace, it was a vacationer’s dream. In fact, from her walk around the interior of the resort, Gabriella saw very little that needed staging, a fact that made her wonder what she was doing here.
“Well, unfortunately, we’ve met a few of them in our lifetime,” her sister, Adriana replied.
“And we’ll probably meet more,” Gabriella chimed in.
A king-size bed was way too big for her because it reminded her that she was in bed alone. A fact that used to be liberating. In the five months that had changed.
“At least you’re at a resort. You can work and play, right?” Adriana asked.
Rubbing a hand over her closed eyes Gabriella took a second to re-focus herself. She spent way too much time doing that, but feared it couldn’t be helped.
“There’s a great outside pool, but the gym is on the small side. There’s no spa. I think adding one would definitely increase the asking price. And there are horses.”
She opened her eyes and stared up to the beige painted ceiling with its thick wooden beams.
“I visited the stables today and the horses there are beautiful,” she told Adriana. “I can’t remember the last time I rode a horse.”
“Senior year of high school when you worked at the Lehigh Summer Camp,” Adriana said. “That’s the year Dad sold the two Thoroughbreds he’d let us ride occasionally. I believe they both went on to win races for several years after that.”
“I never cared about the racing. I just liked riding. There was something really invigorating about it.”
“And you were good at it. So why don’t you book a horse ride while you’re there?” Adriana asked. “I mean it, Gabs, you should take some time to relax.”
Gabriella chuckled. “For the last seven years everyone in the family has been asking, ‘When are you going to get a job?’, ‘What are your plans for the future?’ Now that I have a job that I really enjoy, you’re telling me to take some time off.”
“No, I’m telling you to enjoy your life,” Adriana said. “For the past five years I’ve watched nothing but turmoil erupt around the people I love most. It started with Roland Summerfield and his crazy daughter Larice nursing broken hearts and harboring grudges bringing all kinds of stalking and shoot-out drama to our family. Then Parker’s family deals with their own secret son drama complete with more shoot-outs and murders. And, as if we’re keeping some type of tit-for-tat going on, Rico and Eva were just re-visited by very emotional media coverage about the two-year anniversary of her brother being killed by that cop.”
Gabriella recalled each situation and all the different reactions each incident had stirred between members of her family and by extension, the Donovan, Lakefield and Desdune families. It had been a rough patch of years for all of them, she readily admitted that. Just as she reminded herself that keeping her own little drama a few months ago to herself was still for the best.
“I understand,” she told Adriana. “I haven’t taken a trip since your wedding last year. And I definitely have a nice vacation on the radar. But not until I finish this job. If all goes well I could land an exclusive design deal with The Proctor Group.”
“They’re a trading group, right? Explain to me again, how this works out for you and your interior design career?”
Sitting up now, Gabriella kicked off her sandals and tucked her feet beneath her. She loved talking about her work, especially to her family since it had taken them all so long to see how serious she was about her career choice. Gabriella had known immediately that she didn’t want to work for Bennett Industries, a global communications company, alongside her father, Marvin, and brothers Alex and Rico. Her other brother Renny was a sculptor and her only sister, Adriana, had first gone into modeling, but was now starring in a popular television drama and two new movies next year. Waiting until she was twenty-seven years old to finally decide where she would work had been an ongoing source of frustration for her parents and siblings. But Gabriella knew that she needed to take her time figuring out what career would be best for her. Now, she knew she was doing what she was always meant to do.
“My degree in Design Strategy & Innovation allows me to be flexible in what jobs I take. The Proctor Group specializes in the sale of home/businesses, such as farms, wineries and ranches. My job is to meet with the client to ensure that their ultimate goal is to sell. In that case, I work primarily as a stager, getting the properties ready to secure optimum value for the client. On the off chance that there’s a change of mind and the client decides to stay in their property, I’m still available with an assessment regarding interior design. It’s a win/win situation.”
“Okay, if you say so,” Adriana said with a chuckle. “I’m just glad to hear you sound excited about something.”
“I am excited.” Gabriella admitted. “Even if the client was a rude brute earlier. I plan to wow him with my winning smile and charm tomorrow evening at dinner.”
“You’re having dinner with your client?”
“A dinner meeting, I suppose. He suggested it so I’m just going to show up and play things by ear. Which reminds me, I have to go. I want to do some more research and beef up my preliminary report on the resort.”
“Okay, I’ll let you go. But I want to tell you something first.”
Gabriella stood from the bed and headed to the desk near the window where her laptop was already set up. “Sure. What’s up?”
There was a pause and for a moment Gabriella became nervous. Was something else going on with Adriana and her new family? The Donovans had been through a lot in these last three years and because she was married to Parker, that meant Adriana had been in the thick of things. With the death of Roslyn Ausby, the woman responsible for the blackmail and murders that plagued the family, Gabriella and the rest of the Bennett family had breathed a sigh of relief that now, finally, all would be well.
Everything stopped. And then moved with a speed that made Gabriella suddenly lightheaded. The room was spinning and her hands were shaking. So much so, she almost dropped the phone.
“Gabs? You still there?”
“Ah, yeah. Yeah,” she said after all her effort went into holding that phone tightly to her ear. She’d leaned against the desk and hoped her legs wouldn’t totally give out and she crumbled to the floor.
“That’s great. I mean, you’re happy right? You and Parker wanted to have kids?”
Gabriella’s throat was suddenly dry as she balled her other hand into a fist and pounded lightly between her eyes.
“We’re ecstatic! We haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted to call you before I called Mom and Dad because I know sometime during the course of that conversation they’re going to ask if I’ve spoken to you,” Adriana told her.
Gabriella shook her head. “Not with the news of another grandchild,” she said dryly.
Renny and his wife Bree had two-year old triplets—Delia, Desirae, and Daniel. Those three currently held the hearts of Marvin and Beatriz Bennett. Adriana’s baby would capture them next. And Gabriella was just going to have to accept that.
No matter how much it hurt.