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       Taking Charge (Lone Star Burn Book 4), p.1

           Ruth Cardello
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Taking Charge (Lone Star Burn Book 4)


  Also by Ruth Cardello

  Lone Star Burn

  Taken, Not Spurred

  Tycoon Takedown

  Taken Home

  The Legacy Collection

  Maid for the Billionaire

  For Love or Legacy

  Bedding the Billionaire

  Saving the Sheikh

  Rise of the Billionaire

  Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea’s Redemption

  The Andrades

  Come Away with Me

  Home to Me

  Maximum Risk

  Somewhere Along the Way

  Loving Gigi

  Recipe for Love (Holiday Novella)

  A Corisi Christmas (Holiday Novella)

  The Barrington Billionaires

  Always Mine

  Stolen Kisses

  Trade It All

  Trillionaires

  Taken by a Trillionaire

  Temptation Series

  Twelve Days of Temptation

  Be My Temptation

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  Text copyright © 2016 Ruth Cardello

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

  Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

  www.apub.com

  Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

  ISBN-13: 9781503939615

  ISBN-10: 1503939618

  Cover design by Janet Perr

  To my loving husband, who often jokes that I base all of my heroes on him. This time I did. Thank you for waiting for me, standing by me, laughing with me, and making every year better than the last. Nothing feels impossible with you at my side.

  Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Prologue

  Gorgeous men don’t flock to a town like Mavis. They don’t even drive through. I would have showered today if I’d known one finally would.

  Lucy held the door handle of her ranch home in one hand while she brought the other up to smooth her hair down. It sprang back defiantly, wildly. Probably because I didn’t shower yesterday, either. What day is today? Thursday? Monday? God, I’m a mess.

  You’d think I’d be back to normal by now.

  Does normal return?

  Maybe not. It hasn’t for Steven.

  Her brother, wherever he was hiding that day, was no longer the man he’d been before their father had passed. Like Lucy, he’d always dreamed of more than the ranch they’d been born on. Her parents had blamed the Internet and television for why both of their children had spent more time planning how to leave than learning the business side of ranching. They’d both left, too, as soon as they were old enough. Lucy had gone to college in New England while Steven went west to California. She’d chosen a business path, and he’d studied how to create video games.

  Lucy and Steven used to joke that they’d both been switched at birth. That in some far-off city there were parents who couldn’t understand why their children dreamed of riding horses and raising cattle.

  After their father died, Steven and Lucy, both worried about their mother, had come home, but Steven had been the one to take over running the family business. Lucy had done her best to help her mother through her grief, and, proud like their father, Steven hadn’t asked for help with the ranch.

  She’d never forget the day he told her how behind he was in the mortgage payments. She’d seen how deeply his pain ran when he’d explained how leaving had been his first mistake—at least in the eyes of their parents—but thinking he could step into his father’s shoes had been his worst failure, according to the bank.

  I shouldn’t have accepted it every time he told me things were fine. I had wanted it to be true, but I should have known better. No matter what he said, I shouldn’t have let him try to do everything himself.

  Then he wouldn’t be off in some bar today drinking himself to death the way Mom did. And I wouldn’t be a shell of my old self, waiting for him to leave me as well.

  Which brings me here, to answering the door of my home, unshowered and unable to remember how long it has even been since I bothered to.

  The tall blond man standing in her doorway removed his Stetson and smiled at her kindly. He introduced himself, but Lucy didn’t focus on his words. His deep voice felt far away, as if she were watching herself meet him. A part of her appreciated the wide, muscular expanse of his shoulders and the strength he exuded. He looked like a man who was not only used to manual labor but also comfortable in his own skin. The flicks of excitement that tickled through her surprised her. She hadn’t felt anything but sadness and anger in so long, she’d forgotten what it was like to be excited about anything.

  She clasped her hands together and watched the beautiful man continue to explain why he was there. Perhaps it was the number of nights she’d gone without sleep, but she fought back a punchy laugh. Her friends in Fort Mavis had sent this man, David Harmon, to help her save her ranch. Her old roommate from Rhode Island, Sarah Dery, was about to marry a local, world-famous horse trainer and was probably the happiest person in Texas. She also had a huge heart. It wasn’t a surprise that she’d go this far to help Lucy. How do I tell her that the ranch is fine now, but I’m falling apart?

  Lucy was broken.

  Defeated.

  The only reason she still had her ranch was the kindness a neighbor, Ted York, had shown. He’d given her a substantial loan when the bank would have evicted them. Steven had wanted to refuse his money. He’d suggested they both walk away from the ranch. Lucy hadn’t been able to. Her promise to her mother was all she had left to hold on to, the last shred of anything that made sense.

  She could hear her mother’s voice in her head, asking her where her manners were and suggesting she invite the man inside or at least offer him a lemonade. Her mother had considered herself a Southern lady. Lucy doubted she’d ever looked or smelled the way her daughter presently did.

  “Lucy Albright?” David asked, as if he wasn’t sure.

  She wished she could deny it. “Yes.”

  “You look like you’re not feeling well. Do you need someone to run to the pharmacy for you?”

  “No, I have medicine here.” Crap. I should have said yes. That would have given me time to shower. Lucy looked down at her cutoff jeans and ratty college T-shirt she’d thrown on, seeking comfort. Sick sounded better than the reality. She coughed into a fisted hand, then lied while looking directly into his eyes. “It’s probably best, though, that you don’t come in. I could still be contagious.” She tried unsuccessfully to once
again tame a wild side of her hair.

  My life is in shreds. Why do I care what he thinks?

  Tired as it was, Lucy’s body knew why. It wasn’t simply that he was an attractive man; there was an instant sexual tension that invigorated her. She momentarily felt free from all that had happened until she caught a whiff of herself and reality slapped her in the face. “I could use ginger ale if you wouldn’t mind making a trip to town. It’s about fifteen minutes south of here.” Not that I will look much better, no matter how much soap I use.

  He replaced his hat and nodded. “Is there anything else you need?”

  Lucy’s stomach tightened pleasurably. Her mouth went dry. She held back another laugh as she pictured what he’d say if she told him what she was imagining they could do together. Then she shook her head in self-disgust. Why am I torturing myself like this? Do I really think someone like that would want someone like me? He is probably scrambling to think of an excuse to drop off the ginger ale and run back to Fort Mavis. I should seal the deal and ask him to pick up tampons while he’s there.

  She reached into a pocket of her shorts for the ten-dollar bill she remembered putting there earlier. When she pulled it out, a tear-soaked tissue clung to it for a moment, then floated to the floor. As if in slow motion, they both watched its agonizingly awkward descent. Their eyes met again while she held out the bill to him. “Please take some money for that.”

  “Uh—I’ve got this.”

  So that’s how this plays out—we’ll pretend things aren’t as bad as they are. Just like when you’re eating a salad and accidentally spit a leaf out on an acquaintance. You know they know where it came from. It’s better for both of you to pretend it never happened, though, rather than lean over and try to brush it off their cheek. Some things only get more painful the more you acknowledge them.

  Lucy closed the door after David left and sagged against it.

  I have thirty minutes to shower. Clean clothes. Clean hair. She glanced at herself in the mirror in the hallway. Makeup might hide the dark circles under my eyes. Might.

  Is it better to still look sick?

  Lucy pushed herself off the door and raced up the stairway to her bedroom. Nothing will change no matter how I look. Mascara or no mascara, I’ll still be me when he returns.

  What a cruel twist to meet a man I could feel something for at a time when I’m too numb to feel anything.

  Her body countered with a residual hum at the memory of David. Besides that.

  Why can’t I feel this way with Ted? She’d tried to tell herself that Ted had offered her a loan because he was a good friend, but she suspected he wanted more. Since she’d returned home, Ted had been a frequent visitor at the ranch. His friendship had made being home bearable. There had been a look of anticipation in his eyes when he’d offered to help her that made her feel guilty about accepting money from him.

  He wanted more than friendship from her.

  He’d taken her acceptance of money from him as a sign that she wanted more, also.

  She was already feeling guilty that she felt nothing toward Ted.

  David has to go.

  Before I hate myself more than I already do.

  If that’s even possible.

  A short time later, David returned with a bag of groceries. Lucy offered to take it from him, but he insisted that she sit and relax at the kitchen table while he put the soup, saltines, Popsicles, bread for toast, and ginger ale into the fridge and cabinets. He placed a bottle of ibuprofen on the counter along with a box of tissues and then said, “You look like you’re feeling a little better.” His eyes fell to the wound she’d inflicted on her leg while rushing to shave. Lucy glanced down and saw that it had started to bleed again. He handed the box of tissues to her. “Do you need me to pick up anything else for you?”

  Just my pride from the floor. Lucy ripped the box open and held a tissue to her cut. “Thank you. I am feeling better. I appreciate you getting food for me.”

  “Sarah said you were going through a tough time.” He looked at her with sympathy.

  “Nothing I can’t handle.”

  “You don’t have to weather this alone. I’ve managed Carlton’s ranch for a long time. If you need someone to help you look over your books or come up with a plan for how to repay the bank . . .”

  Lucy’s face burned at the humiliating idea of her situation being discussed by people who didn’t even know her. “The bank is no longer an issue, but I appreciate your concern. I’m sorry you came all this way. I have everything under control now. I should have called Sarah and told her I’d found a solution, but I didn’t know she’d send someone here.” Lucy smiled sadly. “She’s a good friend.”

  “Yes, she is. She speaks highly of you, too. She said you two met in college.”

  The mention of college brought back memories of happier times. “We did. Although that feels like a lifetime ago.” Lucy pushed herself back to her feet. Part of her wanted him gone now, but she was also grateful that he’d driven all the way from Fort Mavis to check in on her. “It’s a long drive home for you, isn’t it?”

  David shrugged. “I rented a room in town.”

  Of course you did. Sarah probably made you promise to stay until I’m okay. Go home, David. Lucy swallowed hard. “If I felt better, I’d show you Mavis.”

  “My schedule is open. I don’t mind hanging around until you’re back on your feet.”

  Lucy’s breath caught in her throat, and she swayed. There was something heady about the idea of a man like David taking care of her. What would it feel like to rest her head on those broad shoulders? To have those strong arms close around her? Her gaze went to his lips. To feel any part of him on any part of me.

  If I were actually sick, you could be my cure. Rub yourself all over my chest, like Vicks.

  She pressed her lips together. But I’m not sick. I’m fucked.

  And apparently delusional now.

  “That’s a kind offer, but, really, I’m fine.”

  There was a stubbornness in his beautiful blue eyes. “I told Sarah I’d make sure you’re okay. I wouldn’t feel right about leaving before I can say you are.” He picked up a pen and a piece of paper from the counter. As he wrote, he said, “This is my phone number. Get some rest today, and I’ll take you to lunch tomorrow. If you need anything before then, call me.”

  He handed the paper to Lucy. The brush of his hand against hers sent unwelcome shivers of desire through her. Passion lit his eyes, and everything else faded away. For a moment, she was just a woman who wanted a man. Sexy. Young. Alive.

  And he wanted her with the same intensity.

  I can’t do this.

  How would this make anything better?

  All it would do is hurt Ted. Even if I don’t feel this way about him, he has been kind to me. He deserves better. I’ll find a way to pay him back and break it to him gently that I’ll always care about him, but I don’t want more than friendship.

  “I probably won’t feel much like eating tomorrow or seeing anyone, either.” Lucy sighed. Nothing about where she was or what she was doing felt good.

  His eyes held hers, and Lucy’s heart began to pound wildly. “I’ll call you. You might feel better in the morning.”

  Lucy couldn’t imagine how she could, but she found herself agreeing. Really, when he stood there, looking down at her that way, she didn’t have the strength to deny him much.

  She paced the downstairs of her house for a long time after David left. She should have said no to him. She should have sent him back to Fort Mavis. Instead, she would likely spend the rest of the day thinking about him, anticipating his phone call, and hoping she hadn’t found the only way to make her situation worse.

  That morning, she’d woken up numb, as if she were slowly dying from the inside out. She’d yearned to feel something, anything.

  She could have, however, done without the lonely ache that meeting David had left her with.

  A week later, David sat at a table
in a restaurant in Fort Mavis along with some of the men who worked for him on Tony Carlton’s horse ranch. There was a time when they used to gather off property to discuss the business side of training and selling horses because the climate on the ranch had been hostile, but that had changed when Tony met his fiancée, Sarah Dery.

  A good woman could do that to a man. She could change the way he saw everything. Until he’d met Lucy, David had thought his place was in Fort Mavis, but after spending a day with her, he wasn’t so sure. She was all he could think about.

  Lucy was a complicated woman who was going through a difficult time. David admitted to himself that she brought out a protective side of him. He’d never been one to walk away from someone in need, but Lucy’s hold over him was much more than that.

  Yes, she was beautiful. She had large dark-brown eyes a man could lose himself in. Her body was rounded in all the right places. And that hair—long, thick, and wild. He’d imagined it spread across his bed while he made love to her again and again.

  That part of their relationship would come soon, he hoped. For now, it was enough that she was beginning to trust him. She said she wasn’t ready to see him again yet. If the breathless way she answered his calls was anything to go by, whatever was holding her back wouldn’t for much longer.

  His fascination with her hit him on every level. He admired her for coming back to care for her mother after her father had died. She could have sold the family ranch and moved back to the city, but she’d stayed out of a sense of duty to family. The more he learned about her, the more he wanted to make her his. And not just for a night; although that would be a fine place to start.

  He smiled down into his coffee. He and Lucy had gone to lunch at a restaurant similar to the one he was presently at. After a tense drive into town, and twenty minutes or so of awkward conversation, Lucy had finally relaxed around him.

  They’d sat and talked long after finishing their meal. Two cups of coffee later, they were laughing and sharing childhood stories. It had been hard to reconcile the woman across the table from him with the one who’d answered the door the day before. He’d almost said as much, but stopped himself. He wasn’t sure any woman would see the compliment in that observation.

 
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