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Winning Over the Cowboy (Texas Cowboys)

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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Chapter One

Her best friend wasn’t here anymore. And never would be again.

A knot clogged in Landry’s throat as she stood in the gravel drive. The early evening Texas sky blurred, and she blinked the moisture away.

The massive cedar structure with the endless green metal roof looked exactly as it had when she’d lived and worked here seven years before. The same as when she’d visited last fall. Nothing about the dude ranch had changed. Yet
everything had.

“May I help you?” A male voice.

Landry shaded her eyes from the mid-July glare, searched the porch. Eden’s brother? Or a ranch hand? Blinded by the sun, she couldn’t tell.

Besides, she’d only met the brother three times. Two funerals and a wedding. Sounded like some rom-com, but there was nothing romantic or funny about it.
“I’m Landry Malone.” Here to claim my inheritance. As she neared the house, her vision cleared. Despite the Stetson shadowing his features, she made out Eden’s brother. Green eyes, raven hair. But the similarities ended there. The brother was all male, stubbly beard and stiff posture—a cowboy to the bone.
His gaze narrowed as she stepped up on the porch. “I’m Chase Donovan.”
“We met here at—” A rush of memories choked off her words. The backyard draped in tulle. Eden so happy, rushing off in cloud of birdseed. The last time Landry had seen her. Nine months and one week ago. She swallowed hard. “At Granny’s—your grandmother’s funeral. At Eden’s wedding.” And again at her funeral.
“I remember.” His mouth tightened, but he clasped the hand she offered, stiff and somehow disapproving. Checked his watch, as if she were late.
But she wasn’t. She was exactly on time. Was he one of those uptight people who arrived ten to fifteen minutes early wherever he went? Surely not, with his nomad lifestyle.
“We’ll talk in the office.” Despite his dour welcome, Chase opened the door for her.
A blast of air conditioning pebbled her heated skin.
“I know where it is.” Her stomach sank. Did he plan to sell, without even talking it over? He couldn’t. Eden loved this place. Lived and breathed it. And it was their family’s heritage.
Same hardwood floors, log furnishings, cowhide chairs. Homey and safe. She wanted to look around more, but his hurried cowboy boots thudded behind her like he had somewhere else to be. One of his long strides ate up three of hers as she crossed the foyer.
She made it to the office doorway, blocking Chase with her hesitation. A silver-haired man sat at the rustic ash desk, black reading glasses resting on his bulbous nose. Granny used to sit there. And then Eden.
“Ms. Malone.” The man stood, clasped her hand and ushered her inside the room. “I’m William Abbott. We’ve been expecting you. Please, have a seat.”
Landry settled in a cowhide chair across the massive desk from him. Chase eased into the one beside her. His long legs sprawled in front of him. Totally at ease.
“As I told you on the phone, the senior Donovans left the Chasing Eden Café to their son, Elliot, and the Chasing Eden Dude Ranch to their grandchildren, Chase and Eden, effectively splitting the business.”
It was so much more than a business. It was Granny’s legacy. Eden’s heritage.
Landry’s cell buzzed, and her cheeks heated.
“Need to get that?” Chase drummed his fingers on the desk.
“I forgot to tell my mom I made it here okay.” With a wince, she fished her phone out of her pocket. “Sorry.”
“By all means, let her know you’re safe.” Mr. Abbott’s smile was understanding. “I have a daughter.”
Afraid to look at Chase, she focused on pulling up the message from Mama. R U there yet?
Yes. Talking to lawyer, she typed as quickly as she could, then turned her phone off. “Sorry.”
“As I was saying, upon Eden Donovan Miller’s death, her will comes into play,” Mr. Abbott continued, unhurried, patient. “Her last wishes were for her husband to take up to a year to decide if he had any interest in running the dude ranch.” He scanned the paperwork on the desk.
“Recently, Paxton Miller signed an affidavit that he has no interest in the dude ranch. So according to Eden’s will, her half of the business goes to Ms. Landry Malone. The two of you must run the business together for two months. After that, each party may choose to run the business together or appoint another party to run it for ten months.”
Run it with Chase? After meeting him, in passing, three times? Now four. Or some stranger he’d appoint? This was her chance. Eden’s generosity had given her a reason to escape her hometown. Escape the pitying whispers. Here she’d be owner—or, at least, part owner—of a dude ranch. Instead of the jilted almost-bride. She had to make it work.
Her gaze drifted to the display of family photos on the wall. “And then what?”
“After a year, you each decide whether to keep your holdings or sell.”
Surely Chase wouldn’t want to sell his family legacy. But she remembered Eden saying he had no interest in running the dude ranch or the restaurant. That he was a free spirit. Instead of attending college, he’d traveled for several years.
“But she’s not even family. She can’t sell to some outside party.” Chase straightened in his chair, tapped the toe of his cowboy boot on the hardwood. “What if Ms. Malone opts out?”
She gasped. Was he already trying to finagle her out of her share? Why? He’d only returned from his gallivanting when Granny got sick. And he’d been content working as a trail, fishing guide and handyman while the rest of his family handled the business.
“That’s not an option for Ms. Malone. Her only choice is to maintain her share or sell.”
“We can’t sell.” She glanced at Chase, trying to keep her face neutral of the anger that was building. “Not without both of us agreeing. Can we? And how could we even sell the dude ranch when the restaurant is under the same roof?”
“The businesses are separate entities. According to Eden’s will, if one party wants to liquidate the dude ranch, the other has first opportunity to buy the selling party out and another six months to acquire the funds for a buyout. The cafe belongs to Elliot, no matter what’s decided about the ranch.”
The dude ranch was way out of Landry’s league. Her nails dug into the arms of her chair. She could never afford to buy Chase’s half on her own. Why had Eden involved her instead of simply leaving it all to her family?
“But we barely know each other,” Landry said. “I can’t live here with a man I don’t even know.”
Sarcasm coated Chase’s chuckle. “Do you really think Eden would saddle you with me if I were the boogeyman?”
True. Eden had been close to her brother. How many times had she tried to orchestrate a date between Landry and Chase? She would never have tried to fix Landry up with him all those times if he weren’t a good man. He was just stiff. And hurting just like she was.
“There’s a cabin on the property. I stay there.” Chase propped one booted foot on the other knee, drew in a sharp breath. “You can have the private quarters off the communal great room, where Granny lived. My parents’ private quarters are still on the other end by the kitchen.”
So he’d thought this through. Of course, he’d had more time to get used to the idea than she had. But at least she wouldn’t be under the same roof with him. Back when she’d lived here during culinary school, his parents had lived in the cabin.
“Ms. Malone, do you have another party in mind to manage the property after your two months here?” The lawyer peered at her over his glasses.
“No. I’m staying. If I decide I want to sell, I’ll stay until then.”
“Very well, then.” Mr. Abbott flipped through his calendar. “It’s Wednesday, July fifteenth. We’ll reconvene on Tuesday, September fifteenth.”
Landry had to make this work. And if Chase wanted to sell, she’d figure out a way to get a loan when the time came to buy him out. What other choice did she have? She had to keep Eden’s legacy alive. If she didn’t, she’d have to go home. Where her entire town felt sorry for her. And she’d have to add failure to her jilted title.
*
“Thanks for coming today, Mr. Abbott.” Chase stood, shook the lawyer’s hand and escorted him to the exit.
A temporary roadblock. That’s all Landry Malone could be. He needed to unload her. The sooner she sold, the sooner he could get on with his life. Figure out how to enjoy running the ranch without Eden.
His chest ached. Oh, how he missed her.
Landry Malone had no right to his heritage. Why hadn’t Eden willed the dude ranch within the family? They didn’t need any outsiders. How had this Malone woman charmed Eden into leaving her half of the dude ranch his grandparents had built from scratch?
Countless times, Eden had tried to get him to come home during his traveling years. To meet her friend. Had the fix-up been Landry’s idea, trying to get her talons into him, for the dude ranch? Was she some kind of player? Con artist?
The front door closed behind the lawyer.
“Are your parents here?” Heels clicked across the foyer behind him.
He checked his watch. “By now they’re gone to evening Bible study. It’s their turn on the rotation schedule.” His grandparents had set up the system years ago, always assuring every staff member had the opportunity to attend church at least once every week.
“I remember.” Wistfulness filled her tone. She cleared her throat. “Do you ever talk to Paxton?”
Why was that any of her concern?
“I mean—I know it’s none of my business.” She lifted one shoulder. “But I’m just curious why he’s not interested in Eden’s inheritance.”
“He moved back to Lubbock, where his family is.” His sigh came up from the toes of his boots. “We try to keep in touch. But it’s stiff. It’s like talking to each other brings back Eden’s death. Mom and Dad, too. We love Paxton, but it’s hard. For all of us.” An understatement.
And why was he telling her this, anyway?
Because it weighed heavy on him. “It’s like the piece of the puzzle that connected our lives is missing.”
“Have you talked to him about this decision? I mean—if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Paxton doesn’t feel like he has any claim to the ranch. That it should return to Eden’s family. He thought by opting out, it would revert to me. Or Mom and Dad.”
“Oh. And then my name popped up.” Her tone sounded apologetic.
If she was a scammer, would she be concerned about Paxton? Or maybe her compassion was part of her act.
“Well, I guess I’m it, then.” She blew out a big breath. “The first thing we need to do is get this place running smoothly. What about staff? Are the Fletchers still here?”
It was already running smoothly. “Yes. They helped me manage the place during the legal stuff.” Until Paxton had come to a decision to forfeit his share and unintentionally saddled Chase with Landry.
“We need to look at the books, the schedule, and figure out what needs to be done. Do you know anything about running a dude ranch?”
“I know my way around.” The nerve of her. Maybe she was so uptight because she was roasting in that pin-striped business suit. “I grew up here.” Where were you? Out scamming? “I’ve worked here the last three years. I’ve overseen operations since Eden’s…wedding.”
Color drained from her face, effectively brightening her strawberry blond waves. “So, you…you were here last fall?”
He knew what she was referring to. Eden had gone to be in Landry’s wedding, but for some reason the nuptials hadn’t happened. His sister had returned early with Landry in tow and invited her to stay—for free—after the busted romance.
“I was.” For almost two weeks, she’d stayed holed up in her room, only coming out for Eden’s wedding, then leaving immediately afterward.
Her cheeks flushed. She knew that he knew. Her dark chocolate gaze darted away.
“I worked here for a year and a half when Granny was still alive, while I attended culinary school.” She headed back to the office. “Then as a chef at a dude ranch in Aubrey since then. So I can handle the scheduling and cleaning and help with cooking duties if needed. Let’s check the schedule.”
“I know the schedule.” He tailed her. Who did she think she was? Some interloper trying to take over? Not on his watch. This whole thing was surreal. “Nu nu, nu nu, nu nu, nu nu.”
“The Twilight Zone theme?” She turned to face him. One eyebrow quirked.
“I kind of feel like I passed through the portal.”
She snorted. “I love that show.” She turned pink, seemingly from embarrassment, then schooled her features back into all business. “Do we have guests booked?”
“We’re at the halfway mark of summer break. With school starting up in five weeks, we’re about to be inundated with families grabbing their last opportunity at fleeing their ordinary existence.”
He’d spend the rest of the day going over the schedule with her, introducing her to staff, familiarizing her with the workings of the dude ranch, the kitchen, especially the cleaning closet. Then he’d hit her with memorizing their rates and accommodations. Maybe she’d run screaming from the place.
But he doubted it. Something told him it wouldn’t be easy to get rid of Landry Malone. Yet he’d find a way. And the fact that she appreciated his favorite vintage television show wouldn’t sway him.
*
Chase had followed Landry around for the rest of the day, stiff and unfriendly. Nothing like Eden. Nothing like their parents. Nothing like Granny. Would his parents be glad to see her?
Or would they resent her, too? She held her breath as Chase opened the kitchen door for her.
His parents’ sported disposable bouffant food prep caps, their heads bent over the counter.
Janice looked up from kneading dough, her apron dusted with flour. “Landry.” She wiped her hands on her apron, scurried over and greeted her with a hug. “How nice to have you here.”
Elliot’s smile awakened the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. “It’ll be a relief to have another chef to share kitchen duty with.”
“Oh dear.” Janice patted at the flour her hug had deposited on Landry’s lapel and only made it worse.
“It’s okay. It’s washable.” For the first time since her arrival, she felt welcome. “I’m so glad to see y’all.” Her vision blurred with the sudden longing to cry with relief.
“It’s almost nine o’clock.” Janice went back to her dough. “When did you get here?”
“About five.” Chase answered for her. “Y’all were gone to evening Bible study by the time we finished with William.”
Landry stifled a yawn. “Chase has been showing me around, getting me familiar with operations.”
“You must be exhausted.” Janice frowned. “Get her settled in, son.”
“But shouldn’t we go over the kitchen schedule?” Chase settled on a stool at the breakfast bar, his long legs still reaching the floor.
“We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“Yes ma’am.” Chase stood.
“Sleep in tomorrow.” Elliot gave her wink.
“Don’t mind Chase.” Janice turned the dough. “He never runs out of steam.”
“Have a good night.” At least his parents were on her side.
Chase, ushered Landry out, handed her a key. “I had Ron put your things in Granny’s room. You know where it is.” He headed for the front door, exited.
Leaving her standing there, uncertain, clearly unwanted. Did he treat all guests like this? Probably just her. Because she didn’t belong.
Becca and Ron descended the stairs, laughing together. The Fletchers hadn’t changed. Becca with her long brown hair, painfully thin frame, and kind blue eyes. Ron was still thick and stocky—the same height as his wife, ruddy complexion and thunderous voice.
“Landry!” he boomed.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re back.” Becca clasped both her hands.
“Thanks.”
“We were just leaving. But since you’re here—”
“Y’all go. I was headed to my quarters myself. We’ll catch up tomorrow.”
“See you then.” Becca gave her a quick hug, then linked fingers with her husband and exited.
Two more allies. With Chase’s chill toward her and quiet wariness from the rest of the employees—food preps, wait staff, cleaning personnel, ranch hands—she felt like a definite outsider. They probably saw her as an intruder just like Chase did. Possibly worried about their jobs with so much change.
Landry crossed the foyer, cut through the great room and unlocked the door to Granny’s private quarters.
The entire dude ranch was constructed with exposed massive beams, rock work and wood everywhere. Log furnishings, nail heads, leather, cowhide and deer antler chandeliers. But Granny’s quarters had drywall and were filled with Victorian rose fabrics, lace and white wicker. A sanctuary.
Landry perched on the end of the bed and closed her eyes. After all the guests were settled, she and Eden used to spend hours in this room. Still in college, they’d shared their hopes and dreams with Granny, giggled over guys, tried on new makeup and hair tips. Had it really been seven years ago? Seemed like yesterday. It was here that Landry’s dream was born. To own a dude ranch someday.
Last fall when she’d visited, Granny had been gone. Eden had lived in these quarters then and had tried to put Landry back together after Kyle had dumped her. All in the midst of getting ready for her own wedding.
Landry had never imagined it would be the last time she’d see her best friend.
Never imagined she’d end up as part owner here. Without Granny. Without Eden. But with Chase.
A chorus of crickets, owls and frogs echoed outside. It was too quiet in this huge house. Even with Janice and Elliot, a few of the staff and several guests, Landry felt alone.
But tomorrow they’d be hopping, according to the schedule. Staying busy would keep her mind off missing Eden. Missing Granny. Missing what her life was supposed to be.
She strolled to the window. The light from Chase’s cabin glowed in the distance. Such a peaceful night. But she’d never sleep.
Maybe fresh air would clear her mind. Stop it from spinning. She crossed the great room and the foyer, then stepped out.
Into a solid wall. “Oomph.”
“Whoa.” Chase’s strong hands on her shoulders steadied her. “Watch where you’re going.”
A nervous giggle tangled in her throat. “I would if I could. But I can’t see a thing.”
“Ever heard of a flashlight?”
“I thought you left for your cabin. What are you doing lurking on the front porch?”
“I own this front porch. Half of it, anyway.” The challenge echoed in his tone. “I was just trying to relax in the swing, heard somebody moving about, thought it was Mom and Dad.”
“Oh.” She hugged herself. “I just needed some air.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then.” The porch creaked with his heavy footfalls as he strode away from her. She heard the crunch of gravel and after that…silence.
Slowly her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and she made her way to the porch swing, settling in the already warm middle part of the cushion. So he’d told the truth. He hadn’t been lurking. Yet she got the distinct impression Chase Donovan didn’t trust her.
But he needed her. And tomorrow, she’d just have to show him how indispensable she truly was.
*
Chase stopped on the porch and steeled himself, then opened the door to the ranch house.
Landry greeted him from the check in counter with a bright smile, framed by the huge metal Lone Star on the wall behind her.
He’d half expected her to sleep in her first morning here. But here she was. She’d fastened her hair up into a high ponytail with the sides swooped low, covering her ears.
“Morning.” He tipped his hat.
“Good morning. What’s on the agenda today? I mean—other than three families arriving with numerous kids in tow.”
So she’d studied the reservations for the day. “There’s a drip under the sink in the Rest a Spell Room—and the toilet flushes slow in the Trail Boss Room. Don’t guess you know anything about plumbing.”
“I know a coupling from an elbow.”
“Really?” His voice and eyebrows kicked up a notch. “Want to be my plumber’s helper?”
“Sure.” She scurried out from behind the counter as if this was the highlight of her day. Wearing jeans, a casual purple blouse, tennis shoes. At least she was dressed more appropriately for work on a ranch than she had been yesterday.
Was she trying to impress him? Win him over? Don’t hold your breath, sweetheart.
He strolled through the office to the maintenance closet, grabbed his plumbing box, turned and almost crashed into her.
“Oh, sorry.” She reached for the box. “Need anything else out of there? I can carry something.”
So eager to please. “I’ve got it.”
She turned away, crossed the office and headed for the stairs.
“It’s the third room on the—”
“I remember.”
He followed her up the stairs in silence, their footfalls echoing. He hadn’t figured out just how yet, but someway, he’d send Landry Malone screaming all the way back to Aubrey, Texas. By the end of the week. If not sooner.
At the top, she headed straight to the Rest a Spell Room, unlocked the door, held it open for him.
“This room was always one of my favorites.” She spun a circle in the middle of the space, scanning the barn wood walls and ceiling, then ran her hand over the suede bedspread. “So soothing, lives up to its name. I stayed here when Ky— I stayed here last fall.”
When Ky what?
He slid the barn door open, strolled into the bathroom, set his toolbox down, opened the cabinet under the sink and knelt in front of it with a flashlight.
“Looks like a simple coupling on the cold.” He ran his finger along the dripping pipe.
“Do I need to turn the water off?”
“I can do that here.” He turned, eased onto his back, leaning on his elbows, and stretched his legs out in the cramped space. “Can you hand me that hacksaw and find the smallest coupling?”
“You mean the half-inch?” She settled on the floor cross-legged with her knee almost touching his, dug the hacksaw out of the plastic toolbox and handed it to him.
“You know your stuff.” In the three times they’d met, she’d been mostly quiet, maybe even uncomfortable. Because of Eden’s attempts at a fixup?
Despite his determination to resent her, she kept impressing him. Add to that, she was easy on the eyes with her unruly strawberry blond waves, enormous brown eyes a man could drown in and a smattering of freckles across her perky nose.
“My parents own a Christian bookstore with a coffee bar. I’ve helped my dad with lots of plumbing over the years.”
“So you’re a Christian?”
Silence. Maybe not.
“I am. But I’ve had a lot going on. Haven’t been to church in a while.” Her gaze dropped to the floor, then bounced back up to his. “You?”
“He got me through Eden’s death.”
“Me, too.”
Maybe they did have something in common. Other than Eden. But he couldn’t let his guard down with her. He lay back and stuck his head under the counter, banging his elbow in the process.
Heat shot through the length of his arm. “Ouch. That was my funny bone, and I didn’t find it humorous at all.” He clutched his right elbow.
“Sorry.” Sympathy edged her voice.
He reached for the coupling, and her fingers grazed his. “Do we have any disinfectant mold killer?”
“I think I saw some.”
He slid the hacksaw into the tight space, drew the teeth carefully across the pipe. There was a trickle of water. Then a burst of it spewed everywhere.
Landry screamed as he fumbled with the shutoff valve got the spray of water back to a trickle, then nothing. He wiped his face and slid out from under the cabinet.
“You did that on purpose.” She sat in a tight ball with her back to him. In a puddle, hands covering her head, drenched from head to toe.
“I didn’t.” But he could barely keep the laughter at bay. “We got to talking and I forgot to turn the valve off. Here. Let me help you.” On his knees, he offered his hand.
Her head popped up, drenched tendrils framed her dripping face. She gave him a steely glare, ignoring his offer. But when she tried to get her feet under her, she slid in the puddle.
“Let me help you.”
Another glare, but she clutched his hand. She slipped again, tugging him off balance. They both ended up in the puddle side by side, on their backs and soaking wet. He couldn’t keep from laughing any longer.
“I know you did that on purpose.” She clambered to her knees. “You want to get rid of me. To get me out of your way.”
Uh-oh. She was on to him. “I honestly didn’t mean to spray you with water. But you’re right, I can’t say that I really want you around and I don’t understand why Eden left you half of my legacy.”
She propped her hands on her hips. “I’m not going anywhere. For whatever reason, Eden wanted me here.”
Had that really been his sister’s wish? Or had Landry scammed her into thinking she did? He rolled over, managed to stand.
“I didn’t do it on purpose. I promise.” But maybe he should have. If he made her miserable enough, maybe she’d leave. If she left, surely he and his parents could manage to buy her out.
“Let me help you up.” He offered his hand.
Her gaze bored into his. But with little choice, she laid her hand in his.
Just outside the puddle, he braced his feet and helped her up.
Her feet slid, but he steadied her with his hands on her waist.
Standing in the middle of the puddle, eyes intense, she pressed her face close to his. “I. Loved. Her. Too.” Her words came through clenched teeth, as a tear slid down her cheek.
His gut turned over. If she was an actress, she was a good one. Good enough to take Hollywood by storm. Could she be for real?
There was a knock on the door, and it quickly swung open as Becca stepped in, spied them in the bathroom. “Oh. I’m on cleaning rounds.”
“We had a little mishap.” His arms dropped to his sides, then clasped Landry’s fingers in his. “Careful. Don’t slip, now.”
She tiptoed out of the puddle, then jerked her hand out of his grasp.
Becca’s wide eyes took in all of it, pinging from one to the other.
“Don’t worry about this mess. I’ll handle it.” He stepped around the pooling water, grabbed a towel and then mopped up the worst of it.
“Yes, sir.” Becca exited.
Landry shivered, then hugged herself. “Thanks to you, I must look like a drowned rat.” She spun on her heel and stalked out of the room.
A pretty drowned rat. A dangerous one.
Yet her intensity when she’d claimed to love Eden, too, tugged at him. But he couldn’t just blindly trust a stranger with half of his inheritance at stake.
As soon as he got a minute, he’d Google her. He should have done it when William first told him about her being in Eden’s will. But he’d been too busy keeping the dude ranch running.
It was time to check this woman out. If Landry Malone had skeletons in her closet, he’d find them.

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