HER COWBOY BILLIONAIRE BOYFRIEND is coming on Thursday, but you can read the first two chapters right now! You can preorder the book on Amazon right now and have it show up on your Kindle on release day.
Andrew Whittaker cringed as the backdoor slammed shut behind him. Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone around to reprimand him, but his childhood memories about not slamming the door echoed through his head.
His dad in particular had not been fond of all the loud noises, but with four boys in the house, some concessions had to be made.
The scent of warm hay and horse flesh met Andrew’s nose and he took in a deep breath of it. He’d never considered himself to be a country type of person. Nor a man who could be content raising and riding horses.
But a strange sense of peace cascaded over him as he started the feeding. It was the same thing each day, and the thirteen horses that he and his brothers owned relied on Andrew to take care of them now that his younger brother, Eli, had moved to California to start a life there with his new wife.
Eli had bought most of these animals, and Andrew had not been happy to have them passed to him. At first. But now…now Andrew craved this early-morning animal care before he had to don the power suit and put on his public face for Springside Energy.
His older brother, Graham, was the CEO of the company, but Andrew had returned to Coral Canyon as the company’s public relations director about a year and a half ago. He had the degree, and his brother needed him.
Honestly, the older Andrew got, the more he realized how much family meant to him. Especially since he couldn’t seem to find someone to fall in love with and make a family of his own.
A cream and brown horse lifted his head over the door and snuffed at Andrew. “Hey, Wolfy,” he said, reaching over to stroke the horse’s nose. Eli liked Second to Anne the best, but that made sense since his late wife’s name had been Anne. But Andrew had taken quite a liking to Wolfgang, and the horse always seemed happy to see him, and they’d spent a lot of hours in the mountains surrounding the lodge where Andrew now lived alone.
Well, not really.
“Bree’s doin’ okay,” he told Wolfgang as if the horse had asked. The part-time interior decorator and gardener Graham had hired years ago had become full-time as she’d taken over Eli’s responsibilities around the lodge with scheduling the horseback riding and other events at the lodge.
So much had changed in just the few weeks since Eli’s wedding, with Andrew moving out of the basement and those rooms going up on the website for guests. Bree had moved into the room down the hall from Andrew, and he’d thought it might be awkward at first, with them being the only two living in the lodge now.
But it wasn’t. He’d entertained an idea about asking her out for about five minutes, but there was no spark between them.
Plenty of sparks when she’d accidentally put a bowl with metal around the rim in the microwave and then grabbed it out with her bare hands.
“The bandages are almost off,” he continued as he fed Wolfgang and moved down to the next stall. She still handled everything she needed to, because she could tap on a speaker icon and book groups for the theater room in the basement, or for horseback riding birthday parties, or whatever else she did.
Andrew wasn’t sure what the events at the lodge were, honestly. He spent so much time at Springside, with its building about ten miles northeast of the town of Coral Canyon, that he rarely got home before dark. Even then, he’d stop by the kitchen for whatever Celia had left for him, and stumble down the hall to his bedroom. He didn’t interact with guests or deal with much else at the lodge.
“Goin’ riding today?” he asked Goldie, an older horse at the end of the row. “I know you are. Make sure you edge over closer to a child.” The cream-colored horse was getting up there in years, which made her calm and approachable, but she couldn’t go as far as she used to.
“I’m gearing up for the unveiling of Graham’s robot. October first is the big day.” Not that the horses in the stable knew when October would come, but Andrew had just over three weeks to get everything in line for the huge announcement about a robot that would hopefully make Andrew’s job easier. Everyone’s job should be easier with the invention that would be able to detect the gasses Springside mined without having to drill.
After all, the majority of the protests he dealt with stemmed from the drilling of the Wyoming countryside. His shoulders tensed and he hadn’t even put on the fancy loafers or slicked his hair to the side yet.
He unconsciously reached up and pressed his cowboy hat on his head. He much preferred the simplicity of this life, and that had surprised him the very most about Eli’s departure.
He finished feeding the horses, promised them he’d be back that night, and walked back to the lodge. The scent of coffee met his nose, and he said, “Morning,” to Bree as he peered into the kitchen from the mudroom. He left his cowboy boots there and went to shower.
With the suit on, every crease exactly right, and his tie the color of watermelons with a white paisley stitched into it, he slipped on the expensive loafers and stepped into the bathroom. He sprayed the gel on his hair and combed it until it was just-so. He couldn’t afford to be anything but personable and professional when he left the lodge for work.
Today was no different, though the tension in his chest felt stronger than it normally did for a Wednesday. He drove the ten miles to Springside in a nondescript sedan, just like he had for months. His route took him past the front of the building, where he’d turn and park in the back, behind a coded gate.
As he eased past today, the group of people gathered there made him groan audibly. Another protest. Great. Just what he needed today.
Andrew eyed a woman with slightly frizzy, light brown hair. She attended every single protest, and as she walked from person to person and said something, Andrew suspected she actually organized the demonstrations.
“It’s fine,” he muttered to himself as he turned the corner and headed for the back lot. If they didn’t bother people, they could camp on the sidewalk in this early September heat wave Wyoming was experiencing. Andrew would keep an eye on them from his air-conditioned office on the sixth floor.
His morning passed with the chants beyond his window permeating the bullet-proof glass every half an hour or so. After a while, he didn’t even hear them when they started up again, as he had a difficult article to respond to and a new blog post to write about the robot.
“How’s the Gasman?” Graham asked as he came into Andrew’s office.
“What are you doing here?” Andrew stood and gave his brother a slap on the back.
“I’m in the basement until next week. Only a few more weeks until we reveal this thing to the whole world.” Graham swallowed like he was nervous, which Andrew knew he was. Graham had spent plenty of time in Andrew’s office detailing how nerve-racking it was to have something from his mind splashed on the front page of newspapers and the covers of magazines—and worse, in little headline boxes with click-bait titles below.
Andrew was used to the pressure of journalism and dealing with the media. He had a degree in journalism and public relations, and he’d literally spent his adult life writing press releases, articles, and those Internet blurbs Graham hated so much.
“How’s it going down there?” Andrew leaned against his desk, wishing he could come to work in jeans, cowboy boots, and an expensive polo the way Graham did. He looked polished and professional, and everyone knew who he was, but he didn’t have to wear the suit to be in the electronics lab—or the basement as he’d taken to calling it because of the cold temperatures in the room.
Funny thing was, the huge, floor-sized laboratory was on the third floor, nowhere near the basement of the building.
“It’s going fine,” Graham said, stepping over to the wall of windows behind Andrew’s desk. “What are they mad about today?”
“It’s been a while since they’ve been here.” Andrew joined his brother. “I don’t know what their problem is now.” Only about thirty people had gathered on the sidewalk, and only a handful of them had signs. Weak ones too, scrawled on with thick, red permanent marker.
Red? Was that the only color in someone’s purse?
He found the tall, slender woman with the frizzy hair. She’d pulled it back into a ponytail and carried a sign that read MAKE WYOMING FREE AGAIN.
He had no idea what that meant. It wasn’t like the state had succeeded from the Union or anything. And Springside doing the hydraulic fracturing as they extracted the gases in the rocks beneath didn’t bind Wyoming or its residents in any way.
He turned away from the window just as a swell of sound rose up from the crowd. He spun back to find the majority of them swarming a woman as she walked toward the building.
“It’s Mom,” he said, his pulse skipping around his chest.
“Mom?” Graham asked, peering out the window, but Andrew headed for his door. The protestors could march in their circles, chant their rhymes until they went hoarse, and then pack up and go home. But they could not approach visitors to the building, nor employees. The rules had been made very clear.
“Call Security,” he said to Carla, his secretary. “The protestors are approaching a guest.” He skipped waiting for the elevator and practically ripped the door to the stairs off its hinges. So maybe he was a little riled up because the guest was his mother. But she’d been through enough already, and she deserved to come eat lunch with her sons without having to deal with protestors at her late husband’s business.
He burst out of the lobby to a wall of heat, suddenly wishing for those arctic conditions of the Wyoming winter, which he’d cursed for the entire month of February.
“Hey,” he called, drawing the attention of a few of the people on the edge of the crowd. “Step away from the guest.” He strode forward with purpose, his anger barely simmering under control. He was aware that thirty people had phones and anything he said or did could be recorded, put online, and shown to the world.
A tall, black-haired man emerged from the crowd, and Andrew really didn’t like that he couldn’t see his mother. “Who are you?”
“You know the stipulations of the protest on our property,” Andrew said. “We allow you to peaceably assemble, but you aren’t allowed to interact with anyone coming in or out of the building.” He tried to see past the man, but he must lift gorillas for a morning workout, because he was impossibly wide.
“Security,” a man called behind him, and the crowd dispersed then. Andrew darted into them, searching for his mother. It seemed like the arrival of security had caused a panic, like his team of four men could arrest anyone. They were simply bulky like that black-haired man, meant to break up conflicts with sheer intimidation.
Someone elbowed him in their flight, and he dodged left, only to be knocked sideways by another man. “Mom?”
He thought he heard her call his name, but he still couldn’t see her. Someone moved, and there she stood, a look of determined fear on her face. Andrew took two steps toward her when he got struck with a protest sign.
He tried to stay on his feet, but it was inevitable. Gravity pulled on him as pain exploded behind his right eye and down into his neck and up toward his skull. His right hand went to the injury, which meant he only had one hand to catch himself.
More pain in the knees and tailbone and wrist. Andrew honestly wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew blood dripped from his nose. He cradled his face, already imagining what the headlines would say and accompanying pictures would look like if he got photographed.
“Andrew.” His mom reached him, and he grabbed onto her arm.
“Let’s get inside,” he said quickly, gaining his feet as fast as possible. He kept his hands up to cover his face while a security guard ushered them inside and locked the doors behind him.
“This way, sir,” Neil said, and Andrew didn’t question his head security detail. He followed the beefy man down a hall and into the bathroom, his best suit already ruined.
“You just hit Andrew Whittaker,” Raven said, and Rebecca Collings flinched.
“I did not.”
“With your sign.” Raven nodded toward the man in the expensive suit as he hurried away with the woman who had shown up. Neil, the head security guard, glanced over his shoulder and seemed to zero in right on her as if he’d be back later to take care of the situation.
Of course he would.
Becca knew the rules Springside Energy had provided. They could assemble. Chant. March.
They could not leave flyers on cars. Or use chalk on the cement. Or lipstick on the sliding glass entrance.
And they absolutely couldn’t approach or speak to anyone coming in or out of the building. She wasn’t even sure how the crowd had swelled and swarmed toward the woman when she’d arrived.
Becca had tried to stop them. Honest, she had.
She looked down at her protest sign as if it would have the DNA of who she’d hit. No way it could be Andrew Whittaker. Not that she’d ever met the man, but she felt like she knew exactly what kind of man he’d be just from reading his ridiculous blog posts, Internet articles, and interviews.
And of course she’d recognize him. The guy wasn’t shy in front of the camera, and just because he was the most handsome man in the entire state didn’t mean what he wrote about his company was true.
“It couldn’t be him.” She examined the end of her sign, which was just a yardstick from her garage. Did it have a spot of blood on it? Andrew Whittaker’s blood?
The man and his family owned and operated Springside, and pure mortification streamed through her.
“Ma’am.” A huge man appeared at her side, making her visibly flinch and setting her pulse into an irregular rhythm. “I’m going to need the sign, and you need to come with us.” He held out his hand, the black sunglasses on his face almost as dark as his skin.
With slightly shaking hands, she passed over the yardstick with a piece of poster board taped to it. So the protest had come together last minute. The quality of the signs didn’t determine the worth of the message.
“Why do I need to come with you?” She glanced at the slightly smaller bodyguard behind the first man.
“We have a few questions.”
They weren’t cops. At least she didn’t think they were. She ran her hands over her head, wishing her frizzy hair would lie as slick and flat as Raven’s, who stood a few feet away. Pure anxiety flowed from the dark-haired woman who believed in the same causes Becca did.
Raven lifted her chin and stepped to Becca’s side. “You can ask them here.”
Sunglasses barely moved his head in Raven’s direction. “You assaulted a man on our property. The authorities have been called, and I need you to come inside while we wait for them.”
Becca’s legs trembled, but she stayed standing. “All right.” The words could barely be heard, and she started walking.
Raven jumped in front of her. “You can’t go in there.”
“I’ll be fine,” Becca said with more confidence than she felt. She eyed the building like it was a monster, with all that glass glinting down at her like sharp teeth. “I’ll call you tonight.”
Raven wore a look of panic, but she didn’t try to stop Becca again. The air conditioning inside the building was a welcome change from the insufferable heat outside. The lobby smelled like lemonade and roses, completely unlike what she was expecting. Everything sat in its place, and she’d be hard-pressed to find a speck of dust.
The security guard led her down a hallway and through a door, with the second man behind her. She didn’t like the sandwich-y feeling, but she couldn’t do much about it.
“Wait here.” The guard indicated a tiny ten-foot-by-ten-foot room, and Becca entered it without question. The door closed behind her, the click so final Becca felt it all the way down in her stomach.
The Whittaker’s had money, and she had no idea what would happen next. As it turned out, only time passed. Becca didn’t wear a watch, and she wasn’t quite sure where her phone was at the moment. But it felt like quite a long time was just slipping through her fingers.
The air conditioning blew through the vents overhead, but there was no music filtering through the building—at least not in this room. She sat in a hard chair, with a small table in front of her, and nothing else.
The more seconds that passed, the more frustrated she got. Did this Andrew Whittaker think she had nothing better to do than wait for him? Surely he wouldn’t come in. Maybe the police were taking his statement and then they’d come talk to her.
“Calm down,” she whispered to herself, wondering if solid walls had two-way mirrors in them. This room had no windows, no mirrors, and only the door. No cameras in the corners. She could talk to herself freely.
“They can’t arrest you,” she said. “The Whittakers have money, but they’re not cops.”
She glared at the door, but it still didn’t open. Did they think she just had unlimited time on her hands?
“Well, you do,” she said to herself. She’d finished up her freelance consultation with the State Wildlife Division, and she didn’t have anything else lined up yet. Thus, the impromptu protest this morning. At least it got her out of the house, right?
Still, sitting in this silent room was a form of torture Becca never wanted to experience again. Her impatience swirled through her, driving her emotions toward the breaking point.
So when the door opened, Becca jumped to her feet. “It’s about time,” she said to the men entering. “You know you can’t just keep me here.”
The two security guards came in and took positions in the corner of the room, allowing space for another man to enter.
Becca sucked in a breath that tightened her chest. Her heart zinged around inside her chest at the nearness of him.
He exuded power from his shoulders though the suit had been replaced with a black polo that stretched nicely across his chest. Maybe she’d had to wait for him to drive home and change his clothes.
Or his driver, because Andrew Whittaker didn’t seem like the kind of man who did anything without an entourage.
She cut a quick glance to his security detail, a flash of pride at her assessment striking her bloodstream and giving her some confidence.
“The door wasn’t locked.” Andrew gestured to her chair. “Please, sit.” He spoke in an even tone, perfectly political and polite. Professional all the way to the very last cell of his body. This was the Andrew Whittaker he allowed other people to see, and Becca squinted at him, wondering if she could get close enough to him to find out the real dirt.
She gave herself a little shake, hiding it by stepping over to the chair she’d burst out of. She sat and folded her arms, her insides quaking and this the only way she knew how to keep herself from saying or doing something she’d regret later.
Andrew exhaled as he sat too, and Becca couldn’t see any evidence of his injury. “I’m sorry,” she blurted anyway, immediately wishing her mouth would just stay shut. Apologizing was practically an admission of guilt, like she knew she’d done something wrong and needed to make it right.
Andrew cocked his head slightly. “For what?”
She cut a glance at the security guard standing a few feet from her. “I…don’t know?” Now that she looked at him a little closer, his nose looked a little puffy, and he definitely had a skin-colored bandage on his right temple. Maybe she’d had to wait so long so someone could dye the bandage to match his skin.
He gazed at her evenly, which she found absolutely unnerving. Somehow, she managed to stare right back. She might not have his millions. Or his finesse. In fact, she wanted to reach up and smooth down the frizz she knew stuck up from her scalp. But she’d gnaw off her own hand before she’d allow herself to do that.
“Are you going to arrest me?” she asked, lifting her chin. If he didn’t have such beautiful eyes—green with a lot of brown in there—it wouldn’t be so easy to look right at him.
Andrew did the strangest thing—he tipped his head back and laughed.
Confusion raced through Becca at the speed of sound. And it brought with it all the wonderful undertones of his laughter, infusing into her soul and making her want to be alone with him while they walked down the street, or maybe into the theater, him laughing at something brilliantly witty that she’d said. Then he’d kiss her and they’d get in a fancy limousine.
She startled at the strange, fantastical paths her thoughts had just taken.
“No,” Andrew said, around a mouthful of chuckles. He sobered and looked right at her again. Past all her defenses. Past the protest signs and the prickly personality. “I’m here to offer you a job.”