I thought I had everything I could ever need right here on the Eagle Creek Ranch until Ethan Walker walked into my life. He was a city slicker right down to his polished dress shoes. He had no business being here, but I didn't want him to leave, especially since I can't seem to keep my hands off of him. Too bad he doesn't plan to stick around.
Forced to come to Montana from New York City for the reading of my estranged father's will, I knew I wouldn't be staying. I didn't even pack an overnight bag. I didn't plan on being here that long. Little did I know that my dead father had other ideas.
In order to inherit my father's ranch and save the men who worked there, I had to accept the conditions of the will. A year in hell was a small price to pay when I learned someone was stealing from the ranch, but it just might kill me. Literally. Someone is out to take the ranch and they need me out of the way to make that happen. My only chance is to put my trust one the one man I can't have.
"I'm in hell."
There was no other way to describe the small, backwoods, Podunk town I was driving through. If this was where my father had lived, no wonder he'd been such an asshole. There wasn't a single building taller than three stories, and I was pretty sure they rolled up the sidewalks when the sun went down. I hadn't seen a Starbucks since the airport, which was over a hundred miles behind me.
If this wasn't hell, then I was on an alien planet.
I followed the GPS through town, which took about five minutes, and then another twenty miles west of town before it said I had reached my destination. I slowed the car to a crawl and looked up at the big sign hanging over the driveway to my right.
Eagle Creek Ranch.
Apparently, I'd arrived.
I drew in a fortifying breath and then turned the car onto the dirt—I shuddered—driveway. Faded wooden fence lined both sides of the drive. Horses were in the field to my right, cows on my left. A mountain range was beyond the horses, but there were wide-open field as far as the eye could see beyond the cows.
It was a long driveway. I drove it slowly because I didn't know what I might run into. It still took about ten minutes before a house came into view. When it did, I almost backed back down the driveway and raced for the airport as fast as my luxury rental car would take me.
This was what my father had left me and my mother for?
I had a three-bedroom penthouse on Park Avenue. It was a showcase property, complete with a rooftop patio, Jacuzzi, and built-in bar. I could fit over a hundred people in the entire place and had on numerous occasions.
This was not that place.
I wasn't even sure what this place was. The lawyer I'd spoken to had told me my father—who I hadn't seen since just a few months after I was born—had made it a condition of his will that I be in attendance for the reading of the will. If I wasn't there it wouldn't be read. The lawyer only told me that because I hadn't wanted to come.
I prayed I had put the address into the GPS wrong.
I grabbed my leather briefcase and pulled out the address that had always been on my birthday cards and then double-checked it against the address I'd put into the GPS.
I hadn't gotten it wrong. This was my father's ranch. The ranch that he'd given me and my mother up for. The ranch that was more important than his marriage or his infant son. The ranch he'd lived on until the day he died.
I truly was in hell.
The ranch house was probably bigger than my entire penthouse apartment. I could see a first and second floor, but I wasn't sure if the windows at the top led to a third floor or an attic. For all I knew, they could have been there for decoration.
It looked sturdy enough, but the white paint on the outside was fading from years of Montana weather and what I could only assume was lack of upkeep. Strangely enough, the barn seemed to be in great condition, even if it was unpainted.
There was another weathered building between the house and the barn, but I had no idea what it was. It could have been a luxury outhouse for all I knew. My knowledge of life on a ranch was limited to what I'd seen on TV and in the movies.
I could ride a horse, but only because I'd had a client who'd had horses and he'd taught me. I wouldn't know the first thing about cows or steers or bulls or anything that mooed.
I parked my car in front of the house and climbed out. I stiffened when a large black and white dog came barreling around the side of the house, barking for all he was worth. I wasn't aware that dogs were allowed on ranches, but it made sense. They probably kept the critters away.
I stood my ground as the snarling beast stormed up to me. I knew better than to run or show fear. He was no different than some hoodlum protecting his territory in the inner city.
"Hello, boy," I said in a calm voice. "I'm not going to hurt you."
When the dog stopped barking and started sniffing the air close to me, I slowly held out my hand. He didn't bite it off, so that was something. I moved my hand back to stroke the fur behind his ear and then down his neck.
I squatted down and then quickly dodged the tongue aimed at my face as the dog went from ferocious to friendly. "Oh, you're a good boy, aren't you?"
I continued to pet the dog for several moments until I heard someone's loud shout coming from the same direction the dog had come from.
The dog stilled.
"Is that your name?" I asked. "Are you Sampson?"
He could be a Sampson. He was some sort of sheepdog, but he was huge. When I stood, his back came up nearly to my waist.
I glanced up just as a man came storming around the side of the house. He was dressed as I imagined a cowboy would be dressed—jeans, heavy-duty button-down shirt, cowboy boots, and hat—although, he was a little cleaner than I thought cowboys were.
That was a plus.
"He didn't hurt ya, did he?" the guy asked.
"No," I replied as I continued to pet the dog. "He was just greeting me."
The man stopped a few feet away from me and tipped his hat back. "Well, that's the darndest damn thing I've ever seen. Sampson don't like no one."
"Really?" I glanced down at the dog, who had sat down at my feet and leaned against my thigh, and he wasn't light. "He seems friendly enough to me."
"Last man that done drove up to the main house unannounced walked away with teeth marks in his hand."
"Huh." There was a lawsuit waiting to happen. "Well, he's been nothing but friendly to me."
There was the whole licking thing, but I could let that pass.
"You here to see Mr. Maddox?"
"I'm sorry, who?"
"Asa Maddox, the ranch foreman. He's in charge now that Mr. Walker done passed away."
I smiled. It was the same smile I gave a judge when I couldn't tell him to go fuck off. "I can assure you, Mr. Maddox is not in charge." Especially since I'd never heard of the man. "Would you happen to know where I can find this man?"
"This time of day, he should be in the office."
"And where is the office?"
It was like pulling teeth.
The guy smiled as he pointed to the house. "Mr. Maddox moved into the main house when Mr. Walker died. He took over Mr. Walker's office."
"He moved into the main house?"
The cowboy shrugged. "Mr. Walker don't need it no more."
I reached down and patted Sampson's head. "You go chase rabbits or herd sheep or whatever it is you do. I need to go meet Mr. Maddox." And toss him out of my house. I smiled at the cowboy. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr..."
Well, at least manners were not lost on him.
"Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Colby." I held out my hand.
"Oh, it's just Colby." Colby wiped his hand on his jeans then shook my hand.
"It's nice to meet you, Colby. I'm Ethan Walker."
Colby's jaw dropped. "You're...you're..."
Colby's eyebrows drew together in the cutest little frown. "But, Mr. Maddox said you was some city slicker who'd never set foot on a ranch."
Good god, the man's grasp of the English language was atrocious.
"Considering I've never met Mr. Maddox or even knew who he was before you mentioned him, I find it highly unlikely that he knows anything about what I would or would not do."
"But, your pa said—"
"My pa"—not a word I'd give to the man who had contributed to my birth—" knew me about as well as your ranch foreman thinks he does."
Which was not at all.
"I'm real sorry your pa died, Mr. Walker."
"Thank you." I didn't have much more of a response than that. I hadn't known my father and he hadn't known me. Other than a quarterly support check he sent to my mother—which stopped when I turned twenty-one—I hadn't heard from my father since the day my mother left home with me when I'd been just a few months old.
Well, there was the birthday card with a hundred dollar bill in it that came once a year on my birthday. That had been cool when I was a kid, but it quickly lost its luster when that was all I got from my father. If we'd ever spoken, I had been just months old.
I hope I drooled on him.
"I'm supposed to be meeting my father's lawyer here. Do you know if he's arrived?"
"I ain't seen hide nor hair of anyone but you, Mr. Walker."
The education system in this backwater town needed a serious update.
I sent Colby a polite smile then gestured toward the house. "It was nice talking to you, Colby, but I'm going to head inside now." I would have preferred climbing back in my car and driving back to the airport, but I didn't see that happening.
Once the will was read, I'd be free.
"Oh, I can let you in." Colby raced up the steps before I could stop him and opened the front door. Sighing because I knew I had no other choice at this point, I followed.
I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting when I stepped inside, but it wasn't what I found. The open floor concept was nice, but the furniture was so outdated, it might actually be back in style. Very nineteen-seventies. If it wasn't so worn out, it could have been chic. It was also very rustic, with lots of wood.
A. Lot. Of. Wood.
It was surprisingly clean.
Colby walked over to a door on the far side of the room and knocked. "Mr. Maddox, sir?"
I heard a muffled reply, but couldn't quite make out what was said.
"Mr. Walker's son is here, sir," Colby said.
He jumped back a moment later when the door was wrenched open. A tall clean-shaven older man stood there. Considering we were on a ranch, I was a bit surprised he was dressed in slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie.
Seemed kind of out of place.
The hair was jet black without a gray strand in sight, making me wonder if he dyed his hair or had touch-up work done. It was clear from the wrinkles on his pudgy face that he was an older man.
The mustache was just as bad as the dye job. Maybe worse. It curled into one of those handlebar mustaches. It even had a curl at the tips.
All that black made his skin look pasty.
"Who is here?" the man barked out.
Colby pointed to me. "Mr. Walker."
I arched an eyebrow when the man glanced at me. "Mr. Mattox, I presume?"
I wasn't sure what to think of the man at first, but I knew I didn't like him when he flashed me a huge smile with lots of sparkly white teeth. I shivered at the slimy feeling it gave me. It was the same one I got when some stupid, slicked back, ambulance-chasing lawyer tried to get one over on me.
"Ethan," the man said as he walked toward me, his hand outstretched, "I wasn't aware you'd be coming. I had the impression that you didn't leave the city."
"Believe me, I don't want to be here anymore than you want me here, but—"
"Now, that isn't true."
Oh, yes it was.
I wasn't too thrilled with the guy calling me Ethan either. I didn't know him, had never met him, and I certainly had not given him permission to use my first name.
It just wasn't worth fighting at the moment.
"Just call me Maddox. We're all friends here."
The hell we were.
"My father's lawyer called me and informed me I needed to be here for the reading of my father's will." I glanced at my gold Rolex watch. It was eleven forty-five. "He asked me to meet him here at noon, so I assume he's on his way."
"I see." For a moment, the man's mask slipped and I saw the rage steaming inside of him, but then the smile was back as if it had never been gone. "Well, that makes sense, of course, what with you being Mr. Walker's son and all."
"Can I get anyone coffee?" Colby asked.
"We're talking here, Colby!" Maddox snapped, and just that quickly, he went from charming to asshole.
"Sorry, sir," Colby whispered before darting away.
I arched an eyebrow at Maddox. The man might have a couple of inches on me and more than fifty pounds, but I'd been eating assholes like him for breakfast for years. I wasn't intimidated in the least.
"My apologies," Maddox said before sending me another one of his slimy white teethed smiles. "Colby can be a bit of a chatterbox at times, always walking around with his head in the clouds. He'll talk your ear off if you let him."
Funny, that hadn't been my impression of Colby. He seemed kind of quiet and timid. I had no idea how he had survived on a ranch.
Maddox waved a hand back toward the room he'd walked out of. "Why don't we go wait in my office? Mr. Anderson should be here soon."
I didn't bring up the fact that we were walking into my father's office. For all I knew, it could be Maddox's office now. I didn't care either way. I was just here for the reading of the will. I had a return flight ticket for this evening in my pocket. Maddox could do what he wanted with the office, the house, and the whole fucking ranch.
I didn't want it.
I hadn't been planning to come at all until my mother learned my father had put me in the will. She's the one who insisted I go. I could have cared less. The man had done nothing for me when he was alive. I had no reason to think that might have changed now that he was dead.
I had no idea why he thought leaving me anything was a good idea.
I hoped this didn't take long. Staying this far away from civilization could quite possibly make me break out in hives.
"Please, have a seat." Maddox waved his hand toward one of two chairs sitting in front of a massive wooden desk. He walked around it and sat down in a chair equally as large.
I had to wonder if the size of the furniture was meant to intimidate me. I'd seen people do try something like this before. I even remember one guy having his desk up on a platform so he was above anyone he was speaking to.
Some people could be really stupid.
I was a man who was comfortable in my own skin. I had been for a very long time. My mother had instilled a strong sense of self-worth while she was raising me. I hadn't even been worried about people's reactions when I came out as gay.
Technically, I hadn't "come out". I'd simply brought my first boyfriend home to meet my mother, and that was that. She knew I was gay. I knew I was gay. Beyond caring about who I was dating, I didn't care what others thought.
Some considered it a flaw. I considered it the building blocks to a life where I had no problem telling someone to go fuck themselves.
"Can I offer you some coffee?"
I gave Maddox the same smile I'd used before. Colby had offered the same thing and he'd jumped down his throat. "No, thank you. I don't intend to be here that long."
That statement seemed to make Maddox happy. His smarmy smile brightened. "That's too bad. I'd love to show you the ranch. We've been able to build it up over the last few years."
"I have no interest in my father's ranch, Mr. Maddox."
The man frowned. "Then why are you here?"
"My mother insisted."
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