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Authors: Becky Barker

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Bridleton

BOOK: Bridleton
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BRIDLETON

Becky Barker

 
 

Original copyright © 2010 by Becky Barker for Cerridwen Press.  Second edition, 2011.  
ISBN 978-1-4524-3567-1
All rights reserved. 
Cover art by Rachel Conner

 

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

   

Author’s Note:  All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.

 

Trademarks Acknowledgment

The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction: Stetson, John B. Stetson Company. Future Farmers of America: Future Farmers of America DBA National FFA Organization

Dedication

This one’s for the two newest loves in our lives, Aaron Michael and Aidan Matthew, born February 7, 2008.

  

Chapter One

Thinking only of the distress call that had her racing across two continents, Andrea Bartell paused in the library door of her childhood home. Her gaze immediately focused on the silver-haired woman sitting behind a massive walnut desk.

Great Aunt Nanette, who’d been more like a mother to the Bartell brood, looked alive and well. Andrea fought a dizzying wave of relief as she stared at the much-loved matriarch. Nanna’s wrinkled, leathery skin creased in a cautious smile. Aquamarine eyes, a Bartell family trait, glittered with genuine warmth.

“Welcome home, dear. We’ve been expecting you.”

The calm, matter-of-fact statement staggered Andrea’s breathing for an instant. She’d been in Paris when she gotten the telephone message about a dire family emergency. She’d been frantic when she couldn’t get details from anyone here in Texas. All sorts of horrible scenarios had gone through her mind, especially that Nanette might be dying or dead.

She’d been sick with worry, unable to eat or sleep for the last twenty-four hours. A wild mixture of emotions churned inside her now. Relief mingled with frustration, confusion and exhaustion.

“I got a message about an emergency,” she said, “and I’ve been trying to reach you for the past two days!”

“I returned calls to the apartment where you were staying in Paris and your cellular telephone but I couldn’t reach you. You know I don’t talk to those answering machines.”

Andrea shook her head at her aunt’s eccentricity. Then another terrible thought struck. “Zack and Chey?”

“Your brother and sister are fine,” assured Nanette. “The emergency is of a financial nature.”

“Financial?” Andrea repeated the word numbly. She’d skipped out on a major ad campaign to help deal with family finances? The idea was so crazy it wouldn’t register in her sleep-deprived brain. She didn’t know a thing about the ranch finances.

Striving for calm, she swung her gaze around the familiar book-lined room until she noticed the other occupant. Noah Courtland stood silent but watchful. The sight of him packed quite a punch.

A crushing tightness filled her chest, squeezing out her breath in a silent whoosh. All the fine hairs on her body stood on end as she came face-to-face with the reason she hadn’t been home in the past five years.

Andrea’s blood did a slow burn and then quickly chilled. Her pulse raced and her heart battered her ribs, momentarily rattling her composure. She’d loved him and hated him, wanted him yet despised him. He’d been both a dream come true and her worst nightmare.

Noah had worked on the ranch for over a decade and was the ranch manager now. Standing at the fireplace with an arm stretched casually across the mantel, he looked big and tough, his expression unreadable.

Time had brought a hardening to his features that hadn’t been there when she’d left. He’d gotten broader of shoulder, more muscled and mature. His skin stayed bronzed and his fair hair bleached blond by hours of working in the sun. His demeanor was that of a confident, self-assured man. A man used to getting his own way. He looked different yet achingly familiar.

“Noah.” She greeted him with a small nod of the head, not allowing him the slightest glimpse of her chaotic emotions.

It annoyed her that being near him could still threaten her composure. He was just a man, and not a particularly handsome one. His jawbones were too prominent while his lean face held deep grooves at each cheek, a too-stubborn chin and firm, straight mouth. His brooding gaze and unnerving scrutiny rattled her nerves.

He had an untamed look about him, every inch the rugged outdoorsman who’d spent his thirty-plus years wrangling with the elements. A breed of man far removed from the type she’d surrounded herself with these past few years.

He returned her greeting with a nod. “Drea.”

His low, sexy drawl drew out the two syllables of her nickname as no one else ever did. Despite the years that had passed, she still heard it occasionally in her dreams. The lazy pronunciation sounded so painfully intimate it made her breath hitch again. Shaken, Andrea refused to show any reaction and shifted her attention back to her aunt.

She stepped further into the room, moving with a willowy, long-legged grace that was second nature to her after years of walking the fashion runways of the world. The hardest lesson she’d learned in her profession was to maintain her poise no matter how tangled her emotions.

Still, it was a relief to sink into a big, cushioned armchair in front of Nanette’s desk. Sighing inaudibly, she tried to block out thoughts of Noah and direct her full attention to her aunt.

“You look like death,” said the elder Bartell in a voice husky with age. “What have you been doing to yourself?”

Andrea lifted a brow. Her aunt had never sugarcoated anything. She’d always been autocratic and demanding. She was also very loving, fiercely loyal and totally devoted to her family.

“I was working until I got a message about a family emergency.” She dropped her purse and kicked off her shoes, stretching the tired muscles of her feet and ankles. “I’m guessing you didn’t try too hard to reach me because you knew I wouldn’t race home to discuss money issues.”

“There’s an emergency financial situation here at Bridleton and it’s imperative that I discuss the matter with you. It’s not something we can deal with over the telephone.”

“Why didn’t you just ask me to come home?”

“I stopped asking three years ago when all I got were excuses,” said Nanette, her tone heavy with disapproval.

Andrea felt Noah’s disapproval as well. He didn’t utter a sound but she felt the intensity of his gaze singeing her skin. She refused to even glance his way.

“I’ve been busy with work,” she said. The excuse sounded as lame as usual but she was too tired to come up with a better one. “The modeling profession offers a limited window of opportunity.”

“Isn’t your window about to close?”

The barb stung. Inwardly Andrea flinched yet she didn’t let it show. At twenty-eight, she knew her career had already peaked. Her agent still got her decent assignments but her time in the limelight had diminished.

When she didn’t comment, her aunt continued, “Aren’t you tired of bouncing from coast to coast and country to country?”

Andrea hadn’t been home in years but she phoned regularly and knew that Nanette still helped with ranch business. “You’re more than twice my age and you haven’t retired.”

The atmosphere in the room crackled with tension as the two strong-willed women stared at each other, neither batting an eye. Nanette’s scowl deepened. “I didn’t bring you here to argue.”

“Why did you bring me here?”

“Because I’ve decided if the family can’t or won’t work to get Bridleton in the black before the end of the summer, I’m turning over controlling interest to Noah.”

The declaration hit Andrea square in the heart, staggering her breathing and draining the blood from her face. Her aunt couldn’t be doing this. The idea wounded her beyond tears and tantrums and objections. Pride wiped all expression from her face. She wouldn’t let either of them see how much the threat of disinheritance hurt and confused her. Stomach rolling, she lifted her brows in disdain. Bridleton had long been a bone of contention between her and Noah. He’d always been obsessed about the ranch and she’d hated coming second in his affection.

She glanced at him, their gazes locking. A shiver coursed over her at the dark determination in his expression. Her mind whirled while she returned his steady regard. The property valued in the millions. Before coming to work for her grandfather he’d been a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks. What had he done or said to prompt this decision?

Shifting her gaze back to her aunt, she said, “You swore you’d never allow Bridleton to leave the family.”

“That was in better times. The property value is depreciating daily,” she explained. “Since you and your siblings don’t care to make this a permanent home, I want to leave it to someone who does care.”

Andrea didn’t try to control the contempt in her gaze as it settled on Noah again. She’d once accused him of being willing to sell his soul for Bridleton. Now he seemed to be doing it by preying on the vulnerability of an elderly woman.

“Let me get this straight. Noah has been managing the ranch for the past few years. Now that the value has depreciated, you’re going to reward him?”

Looking directly at Noah, she challenged him with unblinking intensity until his eyes narrowed. He had the most incredible blue eyes. As clear and blue as the summer sky, they’d always fascinated her but she refused to be hypnotized by their startling clarity now. She also refused to be intimidated.

Bridleton included one hundred thousand acres of prime Texas ranch land. Coupled with the main homestead and dozens of smaller properties, it held tremendous emotional and financial value to the family and community. Still, she knew that didn’t mean it had any great value in today’s shaky real estate market.

The ranch had always been Nanette’s greatest passion. There’d never been anything or anyone who could tempt her to part with it, though plenty had tried. Was she serious about giving it to Noah or was this just a plan to exert control over her wayward family?

Andrea flashed him a congratulatory smile that made his jaw clench and his eyes glitter angrily. Five years ago she’d accused him of using both her dead sister and herself to get his hands on their inheritance. Now it seemed he’d decided to use a different Bartell.

“Bridleton still belongs to you,” she said, switching her attention back to Nanette. “I don’t really have any say in the matter, so why did I have to come all the way to Texas to hear this news?”

After a brief, pregnant pause, her aunt began to grumble. “I thought you might care. Bridleton is your home and your heritage.”

Andrea kept her tone bland even though her insides shook with emotions she didn’t have the energy to examine more closely. “I’m sorry but I’m too tired to even get my mind around it right now.”

She already knew the most important detail. Noah’s obsession with Bridleton and his iron determination to make it his own. He’d had years to exploit the situation. Another dark thought crossed her mind. “When I called yesterday, I spoke with someone named Meredith Courtland.”

“Meredith is my cousin Seth’s wife. He’s serving in Iraq.” Noah drew her attention to him again. Their gazes clashed in silent battle but Andrea forced herself not to react.

“Noah doesn’t have a wife,” said Nanette. “I hired Seth’s wife to cook and keep house for us when Rosemarie retired.”

The unbidden wave of relief Andrea felt underscored her physical and emotional exhaustion. For some illogical reason the thought of Noah being married had upset her as much as the thought of Nanette being at death’s door. That shook her confidence as nothing else could have done. To hide her reaction she faked a yawn and covered her mouth with her hand. Rising from the chair, she smoothed a crease from her slacks and turned toward the door. “I think I’ll take a nap. I hope I can still have my old room.”

“Of course,” snapped Nanette in exasperation. “This is still your home, whether or not you take an interest in it or anything that goes on here.”

“Oh I have an interest. Your emergency call upset me but I understand why you weren’t more specific. You wanted to disinherit me in person. What’s the point if you can’t witness the effect?”

The words were cruel yet she didn’t attempt to soften the truth. She heard Nanette’s sharp inhalation and Noah’s low growl of censure. She didn’t look at either of them. She’d inherited her share of Bartlett arrogance and used it when she was feeling threatened or wounded.

Turning at the doorway, she threw him one last scathing glance but spoke to her aunt, “Am I the last one home?”

“Cheyenne and Zackary arrived earlier in the week.”

The thought of seeing her big brother and baby sister lifted her spirits considerably. There was a genuine smile in her voice when she responded.

“I can’t wait to see them.”

She and her siblings had shared letters and phone calls over the past few years but with Cheyenne in college and Zack traveling the globe on engineering projects they rarely got together for personal visits.

“You’d better get some rest first or you’ll scare the daylights out of them. You look dreadful,” said Nanette.

Andrea didn’t appreciate the criticism, especially in front of Noah. Her temper spiked, her self-control slipped and she glared at her aunt.

“After I got the emergency message I worked twelve straight hours to fulfill my obligations in Paris. Then I flew to New York, showered at a friend’s place and got the first available flight home. I’m so tired I don’t know whether it’s yesterday or tomorrow or even next week.”

Nanette remained unsympathetic. “Don’t blame me for not taking better care of yourself. You don’t have to cross an ocean to make a living. Surely you had the opportunity to rest somewhere along the way.”

Andrea clenched her jaw in anger, her control slipping another notch. “I spent most of the time worrying myself sick about you.”

Her aunt flinched at that, which made Andrea feel guilty and even more miserable. She dearly loved Nanette even though she hadn’t been very good at showing it these past few years. The last thing she wanted to do was cause more hurt feelings.

Turning lightly on her toes, she left the room and headed down the wide, elegant hallway toward the front of the house. Her stocking feet slid over the polished hardwood floor, the soft sound echoing in the silent opulence of the foyer. With sheer force of will, she pushed the confused, angry thoughts from her mind. Taking a deep breath, she drew in the scent of the house and allowed herself the simple pleasure of being home.

When she reached the winding staircase, she wrapped her hand around the newel post and closed her eyes. Memories of love and laughter bombarded her. Her dad and his two wives had never made much time for their offspring but her Granddad Bartell and Aunt Nanette had been wonderful surrogate parents.

They’d given her the very best upbringing a child could want. They’d been strict disciplinarians but they’d tempered it with love, respect and pride in their family. The house had always been filled with warmth and happiness.

BOOK: Bridleton
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