Or at least I could have brought myself a few motivational reminders. A copy of my latest bank statement: overdrawn. Or some other paperwork threatening foreclosure.
I guessed instead I could conjure up the mental image of the one person who had made me an offer on the place. Lymon Culpepper. What a name, and he had to be the creepiest guy I’d ever seen. He’d missed his calling. He really should have gone to Hollywood. He could star as the villain in any James Bond film. With a bloated, round face and shiny, beady eyes he looked exactly like a toad. Always mopping the sweat off his pale forehead with a handkerchief, always with that 250-pound goon next to him. Anyone who traveled around with a bodyguard in sleepy, rural Montana had to be up to no good.
His offer had been so low I figured I’d find more in loose change under the couch cushions. But worse than his low-ball offer was the way he looked at me, slimy, beady-eyed like a toad. I got the feeling he wasn’t just talking about buying the ranch. No, I wouldn’t sell to him, not if I could help it.
The elevator finally arrived. Inside, the only thing not fancy and polished was me. My boots had gone from defiant and proud to filthy and ancient.
When the doors parted I saw a bathroom and ducked straight into it. Breathing hard, hand to my stomach, I looked at myself in the mirror. Strands of blonde hair had escaped my ponytail and flew wispy around my flushed cheeks. My white t-shirt suddenly looked thin and flimsy. Why hadn’t I worn a power suit, black and angry with big buttons down the front? Maybe because I didn’t own anything even remotely like that.
Shit. I couldn’t believe I was about to see him again. Even worse, I was going to ask for him for money. I hadn’t seen or heard a word from him in six years. A lot could change in six years. It should change. I should have moved on, for one. At 24 you should be well and good over the man you’d loved at 18.
That was another thing, I had to stop thinking of it as love. Infatuation or obsession, that was more like it. Sure, it had felt like love back in the day, but over the years I’d tried to talk myself out of that storyline. It felt a hell of a lot easier to dismiss a summer of pure lust. Didn’t that describe most summers for most teenagers? It felt a lot easier to live with that than the idea that early on I’d met the love of my life and he’d turned his back on me. Left one day without warning, not so much as a backwards glance. He hadn’t even left a note.
I’d sworn off men afterward. Around town, guys knew better than to try anything with the ice princess. And when truckers passing through stopped at our diner, I had no trouble saying no. It was easy to stay the virgin up in the tower when you honestly weren’t motivated to climb down. No one interested me like Declan, even though Declan hadn’t been interested in me.
I didn’t know what I feared more, him refusing help or offering it. If he didn’t help me, I’d have to go to the toad man and I couldn’t imagine doing that. But if he did help me, what would he ask for in return?
He’d be back in my life. And he might drive a hard bargain. He’d shown me he could be ruthless.
But now wasn’t the time for thinking about that. Now was the time for me to bring it, tough, driven, all business. This was an investment opportunity for him. I’d pay him back with interest. I needed nerves of steel. I couldn’t let him get to me, even though he was the one man who’d gotten to me like no other.
Through giant glass doors, I entered Declan’s gleaming, high-ceilinged office space. A woman sat behind a huge desk, a picture window behind her overlooking the city of Billings. Spotless and sparse, not a thing was out of place. I guessed it was his waiting room, like a doctor’s or dentist’s, only Declan’s had no old magazines, dog-eared issues of Good Housekeeping with the best recipes torn out or American Cattlemen with all the latest farming and ranching news. Two leather armchairs and a coffee table sat beneath a large polished gold plaque embossed with “Obsidian Investors.” It might as well read: “This Place Makes a Shit-ton of Money.”
The tables sure had turned. Back in the day, I’d been the spoiled, sheltered girl living up in the big house on the hill. He’d worked for my daddy, without a dime to his name. But now Declan held all the cards. He had the upper hand. And I was walking right into his den, the lamb leading itself to slaughter.
As I approached, the woman behind the desk gave me the ‘one minute’ sign with her index finger. On the phone, I realized. She had her hair pulled back into a severe bun and wore a crisp, white button-down shirt. All business. I should take notes, somehow channel her cool demeanor.
“May I help you?” she asked once she was free. She maintained her cool composure, neither rude nor dismissive, yet at the same time I could tell I looked nothing like Declan’s typical business meeting.
“I’m here to, um… I’m 11 o’clock?” Off to a great start.
She murmured something into her headpiece. I stood there trying not to think about the fact that just a door and a wall separated me from Declan Hunt. My knees shook. I felt like one of those small, vulnerable animals whose only defense is to puff up and try to look big. A tiny bird could fluff up its feathers and play pretend, but it wasn’t fooling anyone.
She put down the phone and gestured to one of the leather armchairs. “Just a moment. Wait right here.”
In his office, surrounded by his wealth and power, I felt so vulnerable. I was at the mercy of this man whose memory still woke me up at night. This many years later I still had nights when I’d open my eyes with a moan on my lips, panting, yearning, sheets twisted around me, on the brink of an orgasm from a dream about him.
I sat down and waited. Even though everything in me told me I should run.
Kara Brooks. I stood, tense, looking out the window of my office. On the sidewalk below people passed each other by like ants. She might be one of them. Had she driven in this morning from the ranch? Was she still hauling around in that broken-down pickup truck? Bessie, she’d called it. So sentimental about an old heap of junk.
Kara never met something broke that she didn’t want to fix. Including me. I’d washed up on the shore of their ranch when I was 21, a long list of foster homes plus some time at a youth correctional facility as my references. But just about any man who’d grown up in Montana knew his way around a ranch, and I was no exception. I’d heard from some guy who knew a guy that Harlan’s ranch needed seasonal help. The rest, as they say, was history.
Why the hell was Kara coming to see me? Why now? I could have found out, picked up the phone and saved her the trouble of driving up all the way to Billings to talk to me. I could have checked in on her, asked how she was like an old friend. But I wasn’t an old friend, now was I? I was a bastard who liked the idea of her driving all those miles to come see me, up in my office, on my turf, on my terms.
It had always been the other way around, back in the day on her family’s ranch, working for her daddy. He’d made it clear right from the start, I was good enough to work his land and tend his cattle, but not good enough for his daughter. She’d been the princess up in the house on the hill, the golden girl I could never have. Out of reach, always tantalizing, but never mine.
Now I could show her that I’d made good. My hunch about the money in wilderness tourism, or “Rustic Luxury” as we called it, had been dead-on. The more people got wired into their laptops, iPads and iPhones, the more they’d pay to get away from them. We made it part of our ad campaign: unplug. Of course you could still get wireless access at all of our facilities if you needed it, and they all did, but escaping it all was the grand façade. It turned out that the ultra-rich—L.A. movie moguls, New York finance guys, Palo Alto techies—they were all pretty much the same. They wanted to be pampered and surrounded with every comfort and more, while made to feel as if they were authentically roughing it. My resorts offered exactly that. And I made money hand over fist.
Now I had a chance to show her. Six years ago I’d left her ranch with a massive chip on my shoulder and a burning desire to pr
ove myself, show what I could do. She’d been too good for me back then. Now, I’d get to see her face as she realized my success. Would she feel nervous? Intimidated? Turned on?
My cock pressed hard against the seam of my zipper. She’d always done that to me, the thought of her lush lips, the sensuous swell of her full breasts, her mile-long legs. I shifted and strode over to pour myself a glass of water.
What really pissed me off was that all it took was the mention of Kara, her name on my calendar, and that was it. For the past two weeks I’d had no interest in anyone else. That was a long dry spell for me, especially when I had a good sub. I’d enjoyed my most recent playmate, seeing her arousal heighten through submission, watching her reach the intense pleasure she could only access through my discipline. But she no longer captured my interest. The moment I thought of Kara, everything else seemed dull and boring.
I realized I was pacing the floor of my office. I’d worked out that morning for over an hour, pouring with sweat, but my fists still clenched with pent-up energy. Kara Brooks. In my office in a matter of minutes.
Back in the day, she hadn’t belonged to me. She’d been the perfect cheerleader dating the mayor’s son, the quarterback of the high school football team. You’ve seen that movie. It was playing right now all across small towns in America. Who knew, by now Kara was probably married and pregnant with her third. She might walk right into my office with two toddlers hanging off her legs. I’d probably still find her hot.
Those tank tops she used to wear, one thin strap carelessly sliding down her creamy shoulder, the top of her breast rising out of her exposed bra. Such a deadly mix of innocence and need, inexperienced but her body had wanted me to teach it. I could see it in her widened eyes when I’d catch her looking at me, her quickened breath, her taut nipples.
Around Kara, I got real good at exercising restraint. I could turn my back on the most tempting sights. I’d throw myself into physical labor so demanding I almost forgot about the skirt she had on, so short you prayed she’d drop something so you could watch her bend on over, ripe ass spread and offered up.
“Mr. Hunt? Your 11 o’clock is here.” My assistant’s voice blared from the speaker on my phone.
“In a minute.” I moved to pour myself another glass of water. Cold water. Like spritzing a mister onto an inferno.
I was Declan Fucking Hunt. I sat down behind my large, imposing desk, pulling myself together. I didn’t get all worked up. I commanded and controlled. “Send her in,” I ordered.
I didn’t know why Kara Brooks was coming back into my life, but I wasn’t going to make it easy for her. She’d never made it easy for me. No, whatever it was, I was going to make her work for it.
Kara walked through the door. I was glad I was sitting down. My cock swelled even more, rigid and thick at the sight of her.
Slightly out of breath, she entered my office, those long legs wrapped in soft, faded jeans that molded to her curves. She wore a white t-shirt, thin cotton. On anyone else it might look casual and forgettable. On Kara, she filled it out like a swimsuit model, just enough coverage to make you think hard about what was underneath. I could see the outline of her bra, a hint of lace along the edge of those generous curves. And she wore cowboy boots. Fuck if I couldn’t instantly see her in nothing but those boots, spread across my desk, my mouth buried in her pussy, making her come screaming my name.
“Declan.” She breathed it out like it was difficult for her to say it, flushed and nervous standing before me.
“Kara.” I assessed her coolly. I wasn’t giving her anything. I wanted to make her play her hand first.