Riding High

Nugget Romance #8
December 6, 2016
Kensington Publishing (Lyrical Shine)
Available in: e-Book, Trade Size

Riding High

When it’s time to get back in the saddle again, there’s no better place than the picturesque mountain town of Nugget, California . . .

A financial whiz with her own advice show, Gia Treadwell is passionate about helping people maximize their potential. But when her boyfriend—make that ex-boyfriend—steals millions with an epic Ponzi scheme, Gia is promptly run out of town. It’s the perfect opportunity to revisit an old dream—one that apparently involves naked cowboys . . .

Flynn Barlow didn’t expect anyone to walk in on him showering at the empty ranch where his family’s cattle have always grazed. Even more surprising, the new ranch owner plans to turn it into a residential training program for women who need a hand up. A smart, gorgeous woman with a worthy cause? In Flynn’s experience, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Sharing the ranch doesn’t mean Flynn and Gia have to get along, but riding together isn’t the problem. It’s the scorching chemistry they can’t ignore. And if they figure out a way to add trust to the mix, they’ll soon be sharing more than just a ranch . . .

Chapter 1

There was a man in Gia Treadwell’s shower. A strange, naked man. She’d come into her master suite to unpack her suitcase and heard the water running. Figuring the cleaning people had inadvertently left it on—not good in a drought—she went into the bathroom to turn the faucet off. That’s when she saw him through the clear-glass shower enclosure, scrubbing his back while singing at the top of his lungs in a wobbly, deranged baritone. Something about Tennessee whiskey.

On the vanity, next to a shaving kit, sat a pistol. She froze, let out a bloodcurdling scream that anywhere else would’ve brought in the National Guard, and ran for her life. But it was a huge, unfamiliar house, situated in the middle of nowhere, and by the time Gia found her way to the front room, feet from the door, the shower intruder was hot on her trail.

“Calm down, lady.” He fumbled with the buttons on his jeans while simultaneously dripping water from his bare chest onto the hardwood floor.

She quickly sized him up and came to the petrifying conclusion that he could crush her like a bug. At least six two, he had about seventy or eighty pounds on her, every ounce of it solid. Judging by his muscled arms, he could snap her neck with one fluid motion. Or just shoot her. What if he was one of the men who’d sent the death threats? There’d been more than a dozen, some so graphic she’d had to double security before selling her penthouse.

But Gia was a New Yorker. Resourceful. Able to survive the mean streets of the city—and the wolves of Wall Street—on her wits alone. Too bad she’d left her can of pepper spray in her purse on the bed in the master bedroom along with her car keys. She remembered a self-defense class from years back. The teacher had told a room full of attentive women that when under attack they should grab anything that could be used as a weapon. One of the students had bragged that she’d beaten a subway mugger into submission with an umbrella.

Scanning the room, Gia’s eyes fell on a rifle hanging on the wall like a trophy. It was displayed under a moose head, clearly the weapon that had been used to kill the poor animal. She pried it loose from its bronze hanger and pointed it at shower man. Unconcerned that she had a firearm aimed at his center mass, he gave her a brazen once-over. Then he motioned his head at the gun. “I don’t think it’s loaded, but you should never point a weapon at someone unless you mean to shoot him.”

“I’ll shoot you.” It was a bluff. If push came to shove, Gia didn’t think she could pull the trigger.

Again, he eyed the rifle with indifference. “Yeah, I don’t think so. Otherwise you would’ve removed the safety.”

“Give me your pistol,” she said. He looked confused. “The one in the bathroom.”

“I don’t have it.” He held out both his hands. “Feel free to pat me down.”

She wasn’t getting anywhere near him. “Back up real slow.”

He glanced behind his shoulder. “Where we going?”

“Into the bedroom.”

“Yeah? Sounds good.” He flicked his gaze over her, eyeing her from head to toe. The guy thought he was a real comedian. “Why don’t you let me—”

“Not now.” She needed to concentrate and was reevaluating the bedroom idea. But that was where her cell phone was. Gia hadn’t seen a landline since she’d gotten here. She lifted the rifle so that the muzzle was pointed directly at his chest. He rolled his eyes but mercifully kept quiet. They made it to the master suite without incident and with one hand Gia held the rifle against her shoulder, using the other one to search her purse for the phone. Eureka! She punched 9-1-1 with her index finger, put the phone on speaker, and dropped it on the bed so she could resume holding the rifle with both hands.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

Gia would’ve sworn she saw her captive snicker. She promptly ignored him and told the operator her situation. The cavalry was on its way, thank goodness.

“You think I could put my shirt on before the cops get here?”

“No funny stuff.” She followed him into the bathroom, ordered him to stand against the wall, and warily removed his pistol from the vanity.

"What are you doing with that?” Now he wasn’t so funny.

“Taking it for safekeeping.”

“Okay, that one’s loaded.” He lowered his voice like he was afraid of spooking her. “Let’s sit down and talk it out like two adults. But first, put the gun down.”

She shook her head. “Not until the police come. Go ahead and put on your shirt. I won’t shoot you unless you come at me. I promise.” Gia placed the pistol in her jacket pocket.

She watched him pull a T-shirt out of a monogrammed leather satchel. Pretty nice luggage for a feckless squatter or a deranged stalker—whichever he was—but she wasn’t taking any chances. Not after what she’d been through. He saw her take note of his case, dragged the tee over his head, and said, “If you’d given me a chance to explain—”

“I’ll let you explain, but not in here.”  She didn’t like her chances in the bathroom. Too many sharp objects and too many opportunities for him to overpower her.

“You must be having a seriously bad day.”

She couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or trying to placate her but responded, “You don’t know the half of it. What are you doing?” She poked the rifle at him just so he understood she meant business. And to think she’d counted on being safe here.

“Take it easy. I just want to put this on.” He shrugged into a western shirt and snapped it closed. She supposed he wanted to look respectable for the police.

“Let’s move back into the living room.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

Once in the living room, she motioned for him to sit on the couch. She preferred not having him tower over her. He sat, stretching his long, denim-encased legs wide, resting his head against the brown leather as if he didn’t have a care in the world. She sat across from him on the chair. “Why is it you look so familiar?”

“How would I know?” She knew of course. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“Well, you’ve seen all of me now,” he said, flashing a straight row of pearly white teeth.

“I wouldn’t be so proud of that.” She let her gaze lower to his crotch, pretending to be unimpressed. “You walk here?”

She hadn’t seen a vehicle in the driveway. If she had, she wouldn’t have been caught off guard.

“I drove. My truck is on the side.”

She got up, inched her way around the sofas without taking her eyes—or the rifle—off him, approached a large picture window, and pulled the heavy drapery aside. Sure enough, a shiny Ford F-150 hitched to an equally shiny stock trailer sat parked on the road that led to the barn. Her stomach dropped. Maybe he was a worker, not a stalker. Someone Dana, her real estate agent, had sent to make sure everything on the property was in order. Still, what the hell was he doing in her house? In her shower? Workers didn’t have carte blanche to her private quarters. Dana never would’ve given him permission for that. She knew how protective Gia was of her privacy and personal safety. Especially her safety. Yet he didn’t seem too concerned that she’d called the police. Nor had he tried to subdue or evade her. Gia wasn’t so deluded as to think she actually had the upper hand here. As he’d pointed out, she didn’t even know where the safety was on the rifle. Okay, perhaps she’d overreacted. Then again, who takes a handgun to the bathroom with him?

“I’m a little jumpy these days.” She returned to her chair.

“I hadn’t noticed,” he drawled. Hey, buddy, if you’d been through what I have . . .

“Start explaining,” she said. “Who are you and why are you in my house, using my shower?”

He’d started to answer when sirens rent the air. It was about time, though the ranch was a good fifteen minutes from town. Perhaps living so far away hadn’t been such a smart idea, given the state of her life these days. She could hear her pulse pounding, surely the aftermath of the adrenaline rush. Her prisoner actually had the audacity to yawn. She started to lecture him on his insolence when the police, including the chief, burst into the house. The chief surveyed the scene and stopped short.

“Hey, Flynn.” He dropped his pistol into its holster, carefully removed the hunting rifle from Gia’s hands, and passed it to one of his officers.

“Hey, Rhys.”

The man . . . Flynn . . . got to his feet and nodded at his rapt audience. “Nut job here went off half-cocked.”

“That’s not true. He was in my shower . . . with a pistol.” She carefully took Flynn’s gun from her pocket and handed it to Rhys.

Rhys let out a breath and looked at Flynn. “You had a semiautomatic in the shower?”

Flynn snorted “My Glock was on the sink. I’d just come back from riding in the hills. You never know what you’ll run into up there.”

Rhys let out a breath. She’d only met the police chief once but got the distinct impression this was one of the trials of being a country cop that he didn’t particularly enjoy. According to Dana, he’d once been a big-time narcotics detective in Houston.

“Gia, meet Flynn Barlow.” The chief said it as if the name would clear up everything.

Well, it didn’t. She didn’t know Flynn Barlow from Adam. More than likely, though, Flynn Barlow was starting to put together who she was. When Rhys saw that the name Barlow wasn’t ringing any bells, he said, “He’s the guy who’s leasing your property . . . for his cattle.”

Shit! He was that Flynn Barlow. The previous owner, who was now serving time in prison, had made a deal with Barlow’s family that their cattle could graze on the thousand-acre ranch. As a term of the sale, she was forced to stick to their agreement.

“I don’t remember the lease including rights to my shower,” she huffed, but she was starting to feel foolish for her over-the-top behavior. But he’d had a gun, she reminded herself.

Rhys looked pointedly at Barlow.

“Old man Rosser said I should make myself at home until the new owner took over. The T Corporation”—Flynn glared at Gia—“wasn’t supposed to arrive for another week.”

“Well, the T Corporation is here, so don’t use her shower anymore. Problem solved.” Rhys turned on his heels and was about to leave when Gia stopped him.

“Escrow’s been closed since fall. This is my place.” She’d even purchased the furniture and the artwork, such as it was. She glanced at Bullwinkle hanging on the wall. “Mr. Barlow had no right coming into my house.”

Rhys pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ve established that. Are you saying you want to press charges? Is that how you want to play this?”

After the past six months she didn’t know how she wanted to play anything. That was why she’d blown off her meeting with her agent in New York and traveled to Nugget a week early. She’d needed peace to feel safe again. With the death threats, the surprise visits from the feds, the grand jury hearings, she was constantly on edge. That was why finding Barlow in her shower had been so frightening.

“No, of course not. But this house is off limits, Mr. Barlow.” It was supposed to be her sanctuary.

“Got it,” he said. “I’ll just get my bag and boots from your bathroom and move on.”

Rhys waited for Flynn to gather his things while Gia sat in the living room. The police chief probably thought she was a lunatic.

“You up for good now?” he asked her. She nodded.

For the second time in less than eight months she’d been told she was in the clear. But as long as her ex-boyfriend, Evan Laughlin, was missing, people would always suspect that she’d been part of his scheme. At least here in this Sierra Nevada railroad town, on this large parcel of land, she could hide from her former life. A life that had been abruptly ripped from her thanks to Evan and her stupidity about men.

“Is there really a T Corporation?” Rhys leaned against the mantel of her enormous fireplace, curiosity written in his body language. His backup had already taken off on another call. She’d incorporated and bought the ranch under the phony name to hide her true identity, afraid that the media would catch wind of her multimillion-dollar acquisition. Buying a fancy estate while mired in the largest financial scandal in history wasn’t exactly prudent. But from the start, Rosser Ranch had called to her, representing everything she’d ever wanted in life. Security, roots, and the opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream.

“Of course there is,” she told him, knowing she wasn’t really answering the question. Last summer the town had discovered her true identity. But she’d never made it clear whether the T Corporation was a bona fide business or that she was its sole stakeholder.

“What is the corporation going to do with the place . . . or is it just you?”

Saving her from having to answer, Flynn came into the room carrying his leather satchel. “I’m sorry I scared you,” he said, appearing somewhat contrite, though she suspected it was an act. With his perfect white teeth, chocolaty brown eyes, and cleft chin, the man obviously thought he was George Clooney and could talk his way out of anything.

“See you around.” God, she certainly hoped not.

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