Authors: Charlene Sands
Callie might have expected this. She swallowed past the lump in her throat, hurt that he'd even asked. “Yes.”
Tagg inhaled sharply. “You were ticked at your father and youâwhat?âseduced me in order to defy him?” He turned to her then, his eyes black with fury.
“Tagg, listen. You're wrong. I can explain.”
“I don't think so. It all makes sense now.” He spoke with conviction as if nothing in the world could change his mind.
“I mean, that was only part of the reason.” What could she say now, that she'd come face-to-face with her fantasy man? That she'd seen an opportunity to finally take something she wanted, to go for broke, to do something wild and so out of character for her?
How could she tell him that? How could she tell him she loved him?
Have you ever met your fantasy man? Someone that is so perfect for you, deadly handsome and honorable with charm to burn, that his very perfection makes him unattainable in your eyes?
Lucky for me, I married my fantasy man, but that's another story for another day, so I figured why couldn't my heroine, Callie Sullivan, finally meet the man of her dreams?
Enter Taggart Worth, ex-rodeo rider, rancher, businessman and the owner of Callie's heart. The Worths are her father's fiercest competitors and all her life she's been forbidden to associate with any of them. But a chance encounter with Tagg and a heart full of yearning has Callie going for broke with her sinfully sexy fantasy man.
Welcome to Red Ridge, Arizona, and Worth Ranch, where skies are blue, the land is vast and mountaintops shine deep crimson.
I hope you enjoy Tagg and Callie's story! Look for more of the Worth brothers to come, including a prequel from Harlequin Historical, where we meet Lizzie and Chance and learn how the Worth legacy all began!
The Heart of a Cowboy
Expecting the Cowboy's Baby
Bunking Down with the Boss
Fortune's Vengeful Groom
Between the CEO's Sheets
The Corporate Raider's Revenge
Do Not Disturb Until Christmas
Reserved for the Tycoon
Texan's Wedding-Night Wager
Million-Dollar Marriage Merger
Seduction on the CEO's Terms
The Billionaire's Baby Arrangement
Carrying the Rancher's Heir
Lily Gets Her Man
Chase Wheeler's Woman
The Law and Kate Malone
Winning Jenna's Heart
The Courting of Widow Shaw
Abducted at the Altar
Taming the Texan
Â Â Â Â “Springville Wife”
Abducted at the Altar
Â Â Â Â “Wearing the Rancher's Ring”
Western Winter Wedding Bells
Award-winning author Charlene Sands writes bold, passionate, heart-stopping heroes and alwaysâ¦really good men! She's a lover of all things romantic, having married her high school sweetheart, Don. She is the proud recipient of the Readers' Choice Award and double recipient of the Booksellers' Best Award, having written more than twenty-five romances to date, both contemporary and historical Western. Charlene is a member of Romance Writers of America and belongs to the Orange County and Los Angeles Chapters of RWA, where she volunteers as the Published Authors' Liaison.
When not writing, she loves movie dates with her hubby, playing cards with her children, reading romance, great coffee, Pacific beaches, country music and anything chocolate. She also loves to hear from her readers. You can reach Charlene at www.charlenesands.com or P.O. Box 4883, West Hills, CA 91308. You can find her on the Harlequin Desire Authors Blog, and on Facebook, too!
For fun stuff, contests and more you can reach Charlene at www.charlenesands.com.
To my dear friends and high school buddies, Mary, Robin,
Allyson, Pam, Denise, Susan, Cindy and Kathy. Girls who
know a good “crush” when they see one!
Our friendship has aged well and I love you all!
A special thank you to Charles Griemsman,
my stellar editor, for his wonderful insights on this story!
he subtle sound of hooves pounding earth and good-natured snorts usually put a smile on Taggart Worth's face.
But not today.
Today, his gut was in a twist as he leaned on the corral fence drinking coffee, watching his three prize mares trot around the circular arena, the slight Arizona wind sweeping their manes. Once again, Worth Ranch had lost out on a lucrative cattle deal to Big Hawk Ranch. Hawkins Sullivan had outbid them and won.
He was their neighbor and a big thorn in Tagg's side. Though Worth Ranch held its own with their biggest competitor, Tagg hated losing this last deal. He'd been led to believe it was a sure thing.
Tagg took a sip from his coffee mug. The thick brew had grown as cold and bitter as his emotions. He splashed the remaining coffee onto the ground and set the empty cup on the
top of the rail post. His thoughts strayed to the one-night stand he'd had with Sullivan's daughter Callie last month in Reno. For weeks now, she'd been on his mind and that wouldn't do for the chief financial officer of Worth Enterprises.
While he should have been outsmarting and outbidding The Hawk, as he was known in the cattle business, Tagg had been thinking about Sullivan's daughter instead. The devil in him wondered if Hawkins had sent her to that Reno rodeo deliberately to distract him and throw him off balance. Sullivan was known to be ruthless in business but even he wouldn't go that farâsacrificing his daughter for a cattle deal. Callie didn't strike him as the type of woman who could be easily manipulated, either, but then Tagg had been wrong before when it came to women.
He'd known Callie as a child. Their ranches bordered each other, but he hadn't seen her in years until she'd pulled him off that bar stool in the Cheatin' Heart honky-tonk and dragged him onto the dance floor.
That night had been wild.
“Dance with me, cowboy. Show me your moves,” she said as she slid her arms around his neck and cozied up real close. Long dark waves fell in a tangle onto her back. She shimmied her body and sent him a smile that beckoned.
“Can you handle my moves?” He spread his hands on her hips and drew her tight against him. She felt like heaven, warm and willing. He was one whiskey away from pure miseryârodeos did that to him. Made him remember what he'd lost. All-grown-up Callie had caught the brunt of his dangerous mood.
“Oh, yeah, Tagg. I can handle any move you want to make on me.” Breathless, her lips angled up to his, so close, so tempting. She stared into his eyes with unmistakable
she had said with that look, tearing his waning willpower to shreds.
Rational thought had escaped him then. He'd been without a woman for months and Callie seemed to want the same thing as he had, a night of crazy-wild sex. She'd seemed eager for it and Tagg hadn't an ounce of self-control left. He'd grabbed her hand and taken her to his hotel room, no questions asked. They'd barely made it through the door before they'd tossed each other's clothes off.
“She's a fine-looking filly.”
Tagg turned to find his older brother standing at the corral fence three feet away from him. Tagg and his two brothers owned seventy-five thousand acres of prime ranch land in Red Ridge Countyâland that had been in the Worth family for generations. Clay lived at the main house, and Jackson spent most of his time in the penthouse, while Tagg lived up in the hills on the site of the original Worth cabin in a newly built ranch home.
“Trick?” Tagg nodded, glancing at the youngest of the three mares, a dappled gray. “She's from good healthy stock. The other females have taken to her just fine.”
“You named her Trick?”
“Long story, but she wasn't easy to acquire. In fact, it was damn tricky. I had to do some fast talking.”
They watched the horses settle down on the far side of the corral, the two older mares sandwiching Trick between them, mothering her.
“It's been a while since you've come down to the main house.” Clay tipped his hat back to look at him directly. “When I drove up you looked deep in thought. Everything okay?”
Tagg wasn't the kiss-and-tell kind of guy. He felt guilty about skipping out on Callie that morning, leaving a note on
the hotel bed in his wake. He'd never done that to a woman before. But he wasn't going to discuss that or the loss of the cattle deal to Sullivan with Clay this morning.
It was his problem and he'd deal with it.
Tagg liked his privacy and thanks to modern-day inventions like computers, the internet and iPhones, he didn't have to venture too far to conduct ranch business these days. Clay dealt with the ranch employees and Jackson took care of the other Worth holdings in Phoenix. All three of them didn't mind getting their hands dirty and working the land.
“Everything's fine. Just been buried under a pile of paperwork. How about you?”
“Busy with Penny's Song. The construction is almost complete. Our first young visitors are due to arrive in a few weeks.”
“That's good. I'm planning on lending a hand. Anytime you need it.”
Penny's Song was Clay and his estranged wife's brainchild, named after a local child who'd died from a debilitating disease at ten years old. With the Worth money and name behind it, the facility built one mile into the property would honor her memory and provide a safe haven for children recovering from life-threatening illness. From the get-go, it was designed to help mainstream those recovering kids into society in a dude ranch-type setting.
“We're counting on your help.”
“I'll stop by later today and check out the progress.”
Clay nodded and took a step toward his truck, but then turned and stared at Tagg for a moment.
He lifted his brows, curious at Clay's expression. “What?”
“It's been four years, Tagg.”
Tagg took a quick pull of oxygen. Noting the concern on his brother's face, he tempered his impulse to lash out with
careful words. “I know how long it's been. No one has to remind me.”
“Maybe it's time you gave yourself a break.”
He watched Clay turn around and get into the cab of his truck. The engine roared and red dust kicked up a fuss as he drove off, leaving Tagg alone with his thoughts. The way he wanted. The way it had to be. He'd lost his wife, Heather, four years ago and nothing would make it right. Giving himself a break wasn't on his agenda.
Callie Sullivan stood in the shadows of the Red Ridge Mountains, just steps from Tagg's front door. A tremble pulsed through her body. She recognized it as anticipation and not fear. She couldn't wait to lay eyes on him again even knowing he wouldn't be glad to see her. Even knowing that he'd never called, never tried to get in touch with her again after the night they'd spent together.
She strode up the porch steps and pulled the note he'd written to her on hotel-room stationary out of her jeans. She'd taken it out and read it so many times the paper had worn ragged and thin. She remembered how she'd felt when she'd woken up to find
and not Tagg in the bed beside her that morning. She knew the words by heart now; she didn't have to see them.
It was great. Heading home early. Didn't want to wake
As far as notes went, it wasn't much. Tagg wasn't a verbal man, but he'd sure made up for his lack of social skills in
the bedroom. Callie had no regrets about that night. She'd been restless, frustrated and unhappy during that trip to Reno until she had spotted Tagg sitting on a bar stool all alone. Something short of crazy clicked in her head and told her to go for what she wanted. She'd always wanted Tagg.
Callie, this is your chance.
She'd taken that chance and that night her “Tagg fantasy” had come to life.
She stood on his doorstep and knocked, the note tucked safely into the back pocket of her jeans.
Callie knocked again.
She stepped off his porch and with a hand above her brows she scoured the property, squinting against the afternoon sun, looking for some sign of Tagg.
His sprawling one-story home sat atop a hill and afforded a panoramic view of the Red Ridge Mountains. The picturesque scene reminded Callie why she loved this part of Arizona so much. More than an hour away from the bustling city of Phoenix with its legendary historic districts, sports centers and trendy shopping, Tagg's ranch home seemed far removed from that life.
It's the way he wanted it, she thought. Everyone knew his past history. The bronco champion married to the rodeo queen. It had all been so perfect. A real fairy-tale ending.
And they lived happily ever after.
But they hadn't. Because Heather Benton Worth had died in a small-plane crash on an airstrip on Worth land and Tagg's life had been engulfed with grief. The details of how it had all come about were sketchy and if anyone knew, not a soul in the county spoke about it. It had been a tragic end to a beautiful life. And it had been as if Tagg had died that day, too. He'd
quit the rodeo, leaving his friends and his career behind to build a modest home in the hills. Callie's father had said that Clayton Worth made Tagg the CFO of the company to pull him out of his grief, and his solitary life on the ranch had begun.
Off in the distance, Callie spotted a lone rider coming in from the range. She took a few steps forward to be sure. Her heart sped. Emotions washed over her. She hadn't seen Tagg in five weeks. Five weeks too long. She held a secret close to her heart. One she wouldn't yet share with him.
Long and tall in the saddle, Tagg was just as much a cowboy as he was CFO of Worth Ranch. He wore tan leather chaps over Wranglers and a blue work shirt. Dark Ray-Bans blocked the penetrating sun. As he rode his mare up the dirt path to the barn her breath constricted in her chest. Every nerve ending pulsed.
If Tagg seemed surprised to see her, he didn't show it. He kept his expression blank as he swung his leg up and dismounted the gorgeous bay mare; her coat was glistening with sweat. Callie put a hand on the horse. “You're such a pretty girl,” she said, taking hold of the bridle and stroking the mare's forelock. She had a soft spot for all animals, but she loved horses and considered herself an expert horsewoman.
Tagg stood several inches taller and she had to look up to see his face. He folded his arms across his body and leaned back. “I could say the same to you.”
She couldn't see his eyes, but was fairly sure he'd just complimented her. “Hi, Tagg.”
“Callie.” He looked her up and down through his sunglasses, making her wish she'd worn something frilly and feminine instead of blue jeans. “You looking for me?”
He rubbed the back of his neck and let go a deep sigh. “Listen, I'm glad you showed up hereâ”
“You are?” Callie couldn't help herself. She'd been afraid Tagg wouldn't want to see her again. So this was good news and she couldn't hide it in her voice.
He removed his sunglasses and dark silver-blue eyes narrowed in on her. Excitement raced in her veins. Those eyes had seen every ounce of her, had traveled over her body with admiration and desire. Callie would never forget the hot gleam and what it had done to her.
Growing up, Callie had been forbidden to have anything to do with the Worth boys. Her father's rules. The Worths hadn't been
of the Sullivans. In her father's mind, no one was good enough for Callie. But she'd known Tagg at school, had seen him around town and later had watched him bust broncos in the rodeo.
Simply put, Taggart Worth had owned her teenage dreams. She'd thought the sun rose and set on his broad shouldersâthe chisel-jawed, dark-haired, handsome neighbor boy she wasn't allowed to get to know. Six months ago, when she'd returned home from Boston to care for her father after a slight heart attack, nothing had changed except that Callie was her own woman now. And her father's staunch restrictions no longer applied.
“Yeah. I've been thinking about you.”
Callie held her breath and on to the hope that surrounded her.
He wrestled with his words. “I'mâ¦sorry. About Reno. Shouldn't have happened.”
She deflated faster than a birthday-party balloon. Her stomach clenched tight and a slow burn began inside her belly. She'd been bold with Tagg that night. She'd never be sorry for
taking what she wanted. For giving Tagg all she had to give. She'd relinquished more than her body in Reno. And now he was apologizing? Telling her it shouldn't have happened?
Pride and anger replaced her disappointment.
“I don't walk out on women like that, usually.”
How many women? How many one-night stands? She wished they'd woken up in each other's arms that morning and declared undying love for each other. But she wasn't foolish enough to believe that would happen between them.
“You left a note,” she reminded him in a tone that made him wince.
His look of deep, honest regret overpowered her. He regretted everything while she held close to her heart those wonderful memories.
“I should have stayed and explained.”
“Nothing to explain, Tagg. We both got what we wanted.”
Tagg shook his head. He didn't believe it.
Unable to stomach his remorse another second, Callie looked away, glancing at the mare. “Are you going to comb her down? She's breathing hard.”
Before he could answer, Callie took the reins and walked the horse inside the barn. “Come on, girl,” she cooed. “Let's get you out of the hot sun.” The familiar musky scent of straw, feed and dank earth wafted in the air. She'd grown up around those barn smells.
Tagg stood there a moment watching her, his expression tight, giving nothing away. Then he strode into the barn behind her. Callie had never felt so raw inside. So unnerved. But she came here to tell Tagg something and she wouldn't leave until she did.
She took off the mare's bridle while Tagg began removing the saddle.
“You don't have to do that,” he snapped.
She'd annoyed him. Good. “It's second nature with me. I grew up on a ranch, too.” She shot him a smile.
“Kind of hard to forget our biggest competitor.”
She set the bridle on a hook and grabbed a grooming brush. “Is that the problem? I'm The Hawk's daughter?”
Tagg's mouth twisted. “No.”
She handed him the brush and their fingers touched. Briefly. For a split second. It was electric, a jolt that tingled down to her toes. She saw a flicker in Tagg's eyes, a gleam that lit up before fading into his unreadable expression once again.
“I wasn't expecting flowers and candy,” she said quietly.
“You got less than you deserved.” He set the brush on the mare and began grooming her with long sweeping strokes.
“I knew what I was doing, Tagg. It wasâ¦pretty amazing. Are you going to deny that?”
Tagg stopped brushing the mare and turned to her, his eyes dark and hard. “No, I won't deny that, but it can't happen again.”
“I don't want it to,” she said quickly, her pride taking hold. “Just so you can get your ego through that barn door, I'd better say what I came here to say. I thought you'd care to hear this from me rather than from your brother. You're going to see me around Worth Ranch from now on. I'm volunteering at Penny's Song. It's a worthy cause that I'm fully behind and I can't wait to get started working with the children.”
“You?” Tagg silently cursed. Callie Sullivan was the last person he wanted to see on Worth land day in and day out. He couldn't believe she'd shown up here today. He'd been thinking about that night in Reno for weeks now. Remembering how good it was with her. His blood pressure escalated the second he'd spotted her on his property. And in that instant when
they'd touched, memories of hot sweaty mind-numbing sex had rattled his brain.
“I told you. I want to work with children. I've got a degree in psychology and I know I can be an asset at the facility. Clay thought I'd be perfect, since I'm good with horses, too.”
He was going to have to talk to his brother. Never mind that Callie Sullivan was Hawkins Sullivan's daughter and they'd already beat Worth Ranch out of one big cattle deal this year, Tagg didn't need the temptation Callie posed to him.
He resumed brushing down the mare. Clay had no clue about Tagg's one-night stand with Callie and he wasn't going to bring it up. If word got out, the family would try their hand at matchmaking. Lord knows, they'd tried before. But Tagg wasn't shopping for a relationship and he'd made himself very clear. “Well, thanks for telling me.”
“It's a pretty wonderful charity. Your brother is a good man for doing this.”
“I told him to forget I'm The Hawk's daughter while I'm on the ranch. My focus will only be on helping to get Penny's Song off the ground.”
“I'm sure he appreciates that.” He patted the mare's rump then turned to fill a steel bucket half-full of oats. He'd ridden the horse hard while on the range.
Before he could get the oats to the mare, Callie stepped up, bumping him slightly. He caught a whiff of her perfumeâflowery but earthy, as if she'd stamped her own unique scent on it. Memories flooded back instantly. That sultry dance in the bar. Her long black hair flowing wild and free. The way her moist skin tasted when he'd kissed her.
“I bet she'll like this more.” Callie reached into her front pocket, coming up with half a dozen sugar cubes. She opened her palm to the mare. A pink tongue came out to lap up Callie's treat. She slid her hand along the mare's mane. “Are we friends now, girl?” Her tone was soft and soothing, as if they'd just shared something intimate. “Yeah, I think we are.” She turned to Tagg, her eyes bright. “What's her name?”
Tagg set the bucket down in front of the horse and moved to the wall to hang up the brush, leaving Callie and her tempting scent behind. “Russet.”
Callie smiled wide. “That's perfect.”
Tagg nodded, watching Callie interact with his horse. She wore jeans and a soft cotton shirt, nothing daring, nothing that would raise a man's temperature. Except that he knew what was underneath her clothes: soft creamy skin, hips that flared slightly and perfect breasts that when freed of constraints could bring a man to tears.
She knew horses. Knew how to talk to them, how to treat them. That didn't surprise him as much as please him. He leaned back against the wall watching her until Callie realized what he was doing.
Her brows lifted, a question in her expression as she looked at him.
“Why'd you do it, Callie? We barely knew each other. Why me?”
Deep in thought, she studied him, and Tagg wondered if she would tell him the truth. A moment ticked by and then she tilted her head slightly. “When I saw you sitting on that bar stoolâ¦you looked how I felt.” She stood with set shoulders near his mare. “Lonely. Disappointed. Wishing things in your life were different. I thought we needed each other. That maybe we could help each other.”
Tagg hadn't expected that much honesty. Callie had looked
into his soul and really seen him. He never spoke of Heather to anyone. It was as though if he didn't say the words aloud, they wouldn't be true. They wouldn't hurt as much. Except now, with Callie, he felt a need to explain, if only this one time. “It was the anniversary of my wife's death. She was
to me. I went to Reno on the pretense of business, to forget.”
Callie cast him a sympathetic look, her eyes filled with under standing. “I'm sorry.”
“No sorrier than I am.” He looked away, gazing out the barn doors to the land that had belonged to the Worths for generations, not really seeing any of it. He pushed images of that fiery split-in-two plane on the tarmac out of his mind. He'd seen it enough in his nightmares. He turned to her then, looking deep into her pretty brown eyes. “When I said that night shouldn't have happened, I meant it. Nothing's gonna come of it, Callie. It'd be best if we put it out of our heads.”
“Agreed,” she said instantly, her eyes firm on his. “Like I said, I'm here to break the ice. In case we should bump into each other at Penny's Song. I'm not good with awkward.”
Tagg smiled. “Me, neither. Never had any social skills.”
She chuckled deep in her throat and nodded in agreement. He almost took offense but then Callie's lips parted slightly and she spoke soft words that couldn't be misconstrued. “You make up for it in other ways.”
“Do I?” Always nice to know a female companion had no complaints when he took her to bed. Tagg's mind drifted to the beautiful brunette with soulful caramel eyes moaning his name as he drove deep inside her. Oh, man. He shook those thoughts free before Callie caught a hint of what he was thinking.
He wondered what she needed to forget. What kind of loneliness and pain had she been clinging to that night? But
Tagg wasn't going down that road. He didn't want to know. He didn't want any more involvement with Callie Sullivan, pretty as she was.
Callie pursed her lips and nodded. They stared at each other silently.
“I should go.”
“Okay, then.” She walked out the barn door and Tagg followed quietly behind her.
But then she stopped, turned on her heels abruptly and he nearly mowed her down. Their bodies connected; his chest knocked her backward. On impulse, he shot both arms out to keep her from falling. “Damn, woman. Give a man some warning.”
And there he was, holding soft, pretty Callie Sullivan in his arms. Her hair fell back, and when he righted her, the shiny strands came forward and tickled his fingers.
She blinked. Looked up into his eyes. “Thanks.”
“Why'd you stop so quickly?”
“I had something else to say.”
“Say it.” That musky flowery scent invaded his senses and reminded him once again about their night together. He released his hold when he was sure she was on level footing. Callie set her hands on her hips, the exact place where his hands had been. It was an unconscious gesture on her part, but one that tugged at his cold heart.
“I don't usually pick up men in bars.” She shot him a bold look that dared him to doubt her.
Tagg arched his brows.
Color rushed to her face. “I mean to say, I've never had a one-night stand before. It's not myâ”
“Got it.” He wanted out of this conversation and the reminder of that night.
“You do? You believe me?”
“Doesn't make a bit of difference if I believe you or not, but yeah, I do believe you. I may not have social skills but I've got good instincts.”
“It makes a difference to me. I'm glad you believe me. I mean, since we'll be seeing each other from now on. Your opinion matters.”
It shouldn't, he wanted to say, but kept his lips sealed.
His cell phone rang and he was glad for the interruption. Callie had a vulnerable expression on her face and Tagg was a sucker for a female in distress. He lifted up the phone. “Gotta get this.”
She smiled weakly and nodded. “Goodbye, Tagg.”
He watched her walk to her car and get in. Once she started the engine and circled around to the gravel road, he answered Clay's call. “What in hell were you thinking hiring on Sullivan's daughter?”
“I'm so glad you called, Sammie. I really needed to hear your voice today.” Callie leaned back on her bed, resting her head against the daisy pillow sham, speaking on the phone with her best friend and onetime college roommate.
Her bedroom on Big Hawk Ranch looked the same as it did when she was a child. The pale yellow and cornflower blue walls spoke of a brightness that Callie didn't feel these days. She'd come home from Boston because her job there had ended just about the same time her father's health had taken a turn for the worse. She felt the timing was right. She'd missed living in Arizona. She'd missed the ranch. But once she'd returned, she'd found that while everyone else had moved on with their lives, Callie's life had remained stagnant. The room her mother had decorated when Callie was just a girl was one
of many perfect examples. The Hawk never wanted the room changed and Callie had acquiesced.
“Yeah, you sound down this morning. There's something wrong. So what's going on?” her friend asked.
“Iâ¦I just miss you.”
“I miss you, too,” Sammie said. “And you know there's nothing holding you there. You can come back to Boston anytime. I've got an extra room in my apartment that has your name on it. But, hon, I know that missing me isn't what's putting that tone in your voice. What's up?”
“You know. The usual. My father.”
“The Hawk? He's at it again? What did he do this time?”
“It's a little complicated right now.”
Callie wasn't ready to share everything with Sammie, especially the guilt she felt about her secret. But she could tell her the most basic truth, which was that she'd reached her boiling point with her father last month. She'd thought that having a college degree, having lived off the ranch for several years and having reached her twenty-sixth birthday would have made a difference with her father. But she'd come to the bitter realization that he would never change. Oh, she did love him. In many regards he was a good father, but his need to control the outcome of her life had gotten out of control lately.
“You know I was dating a man named Troy, right?” she asked.
“Right. The tall, blond carpenter.” He'd come to the ranch to build a new pool house and Callie had hit it off with him. “I thought you were
dating. I mean, the last time we talked you didn't say you weren't.”
“I didn't tell you what The Hawk did because I was so furious with him, I needed some time to let it sink in. My daddy just doesn't get that I can make decisions for myself.
He can't see it as a control issue. He thinks he's looking out for me the way a father should.”
“He's overcompensating for you not having a mother. Trying to be both parents at once.”
“I've always understood that. I cut my father slack because I knew he grieved for my mother. But Mom's been gone eleven years and instead of him moving on with his life, he tossed all of the love he had for her onto me. I'm on the receiving end of a doting, controlling, overpowering father. Lucky me.”
“Oh, Callie. Sorry. I thought he'd lighten up after you got home from Boston.”
“Just the opposite. He wanted me to work for him when I got home. Laid the guilt on pretty thick too this last time. The Sullivan legacy will die if I don't take the reins at the ranch. All that he'd built up will go to ruins. The sky will fall and crush everything he's worked so hard for. Finally, I gave in. I worked with him for months. And I tried, Sammie. But The Hawk and I just don't see eye to eye on things.”
Which was a nice way of saying her father was too ruthless a businessman for Callie. She had strong professional ethics that he didn't understand. They'd butted heads over business decisions constantly. “I finally told him no, not at this time. I want to work in the field I'm interested in, the field I studied for four years. And he backed off, a little. And then he pulled his Hawk maneuver with Troy.”
“What did he do?”
“Troy's a really great guy. I liked him, but it wasn't earth-shattering or anything.” Nothing compared to how she felt about Tagg Worth. Especially now, but she had to hold those feelings close to her heart for the time being. She was purposefully deceiving Tagg with a sin of omission, but it couldn't be helped.
Restless, Callie rose from the bed. She moved over to the
window and smiled when she looked down from the second story to find her palomino, Freedom, prancing around the perimeter of the corral. When her mother was alive, living on Big Hawk Ranch had given Callie so much joy. She still loved the ranch, but couldn't abide her father's way of doing things.
“I'd only dated him for a month. Daddy kept asking questions, hinting that Troy wasn't good enough for me, just because of what he did for a living. Apparently, blue-collar workers aren't good enough for a girl raised on a cattle ranch,” she added with sarcasm. “I was really beginning to like this guy and then he stopped calling. I couldn't reach him by phone, so one day I stopped by his office trailer outside of town and asked him what happened. And you know, I have to give Troy credit for telling me the truth.”
Before Callie could respond, Sammie sighed. “Oh, your father threatened him?”
Callie turned from the window, tempering the anger she felt at her father's manipulation. “No, noâ¦nothing that blatant. He offered Troy a lucrative job doing a remodel for a friend's ranch in Flagstaff. Would take about six months at the very least. The only stipulation was that he break off all contact with me.” Callie laughed without humor. “Can you imagine? I about died of mortification and whatever I had building with Troy had been sullied, ruined by The Hawk, even though Troy had turned my father down flat.”
“Oh, wow, Callie. That's too bad.”
Callie thought so, too. After that humiliating experience, Callie had packed her bags and driven to Reno to blow off steam. Her cousin, Deanna, lived there and she had an open invitation to visit. For the first few days, Callie could barely see straight for the anger and humiliation she'd felt and she
vented to her cousin, who'd lent a responsive ear. She was on her way back home when she'd stopped at the Cheatin' Heart and spotted Tagg sitting on that bar stool.
Callie's fantasy man.
And her father's worst nightmare.
Callie took the opportunity presented to her. No, that wasn't entirely true. She had to be totally honest with herselfâshe'd
things happen with Tagg. Because she wanted him and because she'd been sorely exasperated with her father. She wasn't sure if one or the other alone would have sparked her bold move, but the combination of both was too tempting to resist. She couldn't possibly have predicted how that night would end.
Because Callie hadn't
on falling in love.
Or conceiving Tagg's baby.
Yet, both had happened.
Callie finished her conversation with Sammie and placed the receiver back onto its cradle. With a hand to her belly, she marveled about the new life growing inside her, wondering whether it was a boy or a girl. Wondering if the baby would have her brown eyes or Tagg's beautiful silver-blue ones. Would the child have a golden bronze complexion like the father or be fair-skinned like Callie?
In only her most selective, perfect fantasies did she entertain thoughts of a future with Taggart Worth. She wouldn't use the baby as bait to lure him into a relationship. She wouldn't trap him into marriage. Yes, he had a right to know about the baby, but not yet. Shoving aside the guilt that burdened her by not revealing the truth to him, Callie held firm to her convictions. She needed a little time and a chance to win him
over. She'd fallen in love with him and wanted nothing less in return.
she told him she carried his child.
Callie had set the wheels in motion. Tomorrow she would begin working with the Worths at Penny's Song.
agg's eyes nearly crossed as he stared at the computer screen. He'd been intent on doing an inventory of Worth Ranch holdings and had spent the better part of the morning staring at numbers.
Tagg's office space, which was an appendage of his main house, consisted of three rooms. The room where Tagg would conduct business if need be, he had designed himself. Rough wood beams angled across the ceilings, wall-to-wall walnut bookshelves and cabinets spread across the entire perimeter, and his wide desk faced the door. The other two rooms were smaller with walls painted in rustic gold. One he used as a makeshift lounge area, complete with a wet bar, built-in refrigerator and a chocolate leather sofa. The other room was where he kept old file cabinets and outdated equipment. All of the Worths' business machines and electronics were state of the art now, upon Jackson's insistence.
“Enough,” he muttered as he shut down the computer. He
squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. At the age of thirty-one he was too damn young to be feeling so weary before noon.
“You're doing too much,” his brother Jackson said as he walked into the office. “Why the heck don't you break down and get yourself some help? A secretary, for Pete's sake. You know, someone who can answer phones and file, crunch those numbers you're staring at too long.”
“When the hell did you get here?” Tagg asked, baffled. He was concentrating so hard on his work, he hadn't heard Jackson drive up and walk into his office.
“Don't change the subject. You know I'm right.”
Tagg glared at him. His brother was two years older and a whole lot more polished than Tagg. He wore six-hundred-dollar snakeskin boots and dressed like a fashion model for
Cowboys & Indians
magazine. He operated the Worth offices in downtown Phoenix.
“I'm thinking about it.” He hated to admit it. His brothers were always on his case about hiring someone to help out. The trouble was that Tagg liked the solitude of the ranch. He liked keeping his own hours without answering to anyone. He liked being alone with his thoughts. An employee would cramp his style.
In his younger days, he'd spend all-nighters with the rodeo boys, drinking whiskey until the sun came up without one iota of sleep. But his eyes never burned like they did now, spending hours in front of the computer screen. Of course, after a long bender like that, he'd felt no pain anywhere on his body.
Tagg smiled thinking about his crazy rodeo days and the friends he'd left behind. But then, dark memories immediately flooded in, reminding him why he left the rodeo.
“Well, I'm glad to hear you're thinking about it,” Jackson
remarked. “I can have Betty Sue take a look at the list of rÃ©sumÃ©s we have at the main office. That woman is great at hiring the right employees for the company.”
Tagg waved him off. “Maybe. But not now.”
Jackson persisted with a coaxing smile. “There's no time like the present.”
Tagg rose from his seat and shot his brother a look. “Give it a rest. I said I'll think about it.”
Jackson took Tagg's suggestion and shrugged with nonchalance. “Fine with me. So, are you helping this afternoon with Clay's project?”
“Yeah, I'll be there. He wants me to pick out the right horses for the kids coming to the ranch. You going?” He gave the tailored suit his brother was wearing the once-over.
“Not today. I have a meeting in the middle of the day. Gotta get back to Phoenix.”
“Maybe. I'm thinking the Worths should get into the restaurant business.”
Tagg shook his head. “What?”
“Could be a really sweet deal. We could franchise, eventually.”
Tagg shook his head. Jackson was the go-getter in the family and had done very well for himself outside of Worth Enterprises. He had a gift when it came to making money. “That's out of our comfort zone a tad bit, isn't it?”
Jackson smiled wide. “Nah. I'm thinking it's time to broaden our horizons.”
“Cattle, land development and now restaurants? You've got too much time on your hands, Jack.”
“Not true, I'm busier than ever.”
“Then maybe you need some outside interests that don't include work.”
“Look who's talking,” Jackson said with a grin. “This, coming from a man who doesn't step foot off Worth land. Maybe you need to get a life.”
“I've got a life, right here. I'm not a recluse. I go out.” Rarely. But he did venture out on occasion. The last time he left town, he'd gone to Reno and had a sizzling hot night of sex with a sultry brunette.
“Okay, whatever you say. You got some time to feed me before you head over to Penny's Song?”
“Yeah, I think I can wrangle us up some lunch.”
An hour later, Tagg got into his Jeep Cherokee and drove over to the Penny's Song site. He had to hand it to his brother. Clayton Worth, country-western superstar, had retired from singing at the ripe old age of thirty-seven to live a simpler life on the ranch. Along the way, he'd had the inspiration for Penny's Song and was making it a reality. All three brothers had pooled their resources and invested in its development. But Tagg felt close to this project for his own reasons.
He climbed out of his Jeep and studied the construction site. At least a dozen workmen applied their trade, though most of the major construction was complete. Shingles were being nailed down, barn doors were being set on hinges and new buildings forming an old-town-style street were wet with paint announcing Sheriff's Office and General Store. The Red Ridge Saloon had an attached kitchen where the meals would be served. The bunkhouse where the kids would sleep would be run by well-screened volunteers.
“It's coming along,” Clay said, walking up to him. He pushed his hat back on his head.
“It's looking better than I imagined. The kids are gonna love it.”
“That's the plan.”
Tagg captured his brother's attention. “So, no hard feelings about the other day?”
Clay chuckled and shook his head. “You mean when you barked at me for not turning down The Hawk's daughter? Nah. No hard feelings. I've never held Callie responsible for her old man's doings. Even after you explained he'd just beaten us out of a big deal, I can't fault her. She's capable and more than qualified. Our mama didn't raise no fool,” he said with a grin. “I know a good thing when I see it.”
Tagg held his tongue as Clay continued, “Fact is, she came up with a great idea for the general store. The kids are gonna get tokens every time they complete a chore. And then they can barter them for something in the general store. She's donating little prizes and gifts to put in there.”
“That so?” Tagg had to admit it was a good idea. What child wouldn't feel a sense of accomplishment being given a little reward for a job well done? His own father had instilled in all three of his sons the idea that hard work paid off. If you do a good job, you reap the benefits. “You should've thought of it.”
Clay's eyes gleamed. “Maybe, but I was smart enough to hire on a pretty gal who knows child psychology. I'm taking full credit for that.”
Before Tagg could respond, his thoughts were interrupted by a burst of laughter coming from behind him. He turned around to find Callie Sullivan in the midst of a group of workmen by the barn, her head thrown back in amusement. All of the men in on the joke had their eyes on her, laughing along with her.
Something churned inside his gut. Seeing her again, smiling and happy around the crew, put him in a foul mood. She looked beautiful, even in faded jeans and a soft plaid work shirt with her hair pulled into a ponytail. She didn't
need frills to get him hot and bothered. Didn't need her hair wild and loose to remember how soft those strands felt falling through his fingers.
She turned her head and caught him staring, then smiled wide, her dark eyes still glistening with mirth. She lifted her hand in a slight wave.
“There she is,” Clay said. He immediately gestured for her to come over. “I was darn surprised when she landed on my doorstep the other day inquiring about Penny's Song. I hadn't seen her in years.” Clay narrowed his eyes and shot a glance Tagg's way. “But then, she stopped by your place, too, didn't she? Enough to get you riled.”
Tagg bit his tongue. He'd seen enough of Callie Sullivan to occupy his dreams. “She didn't rile me,” he said through tight lips. With Callie fast approaching, he couldn't say much more to his brother.
Callie smiled at him then focused her attention on Clay. A piece of straw was stuck to her hair and Tagg had an uncanny urge to pluck it free. He focused on that strand of gold sticking out while Callie engaged in conversation with his brother.
“I'm so proud to be a part of this, Clay. Don't forget, I'll be happy to help with fundraisers, too. I've got some ideas that might bring the community together on this.”
“That's real thoughtful, Callie.” Clay reached up and pulled that piece of straw from her hair. Tagg ground his teeth, watching Callie touch her hair and smile at his brother, like he'd just cured world hunger.
Clay nodded and continued, “We're depending on volunteers right now, but eventually, if all goes well, we'll need more funds and have to hire on permanent help.”
“Keep me in mind.”
Clay smiled. “I surely will.” He turned to Tagg. “Actually, I'm glad you're both here. I've got a job for the two of you.”
Callie shot Tagg a quick look then focused back on Clay. “Okay, I'm ready for whatever you have in mind.”
“We need to decide which horses will work best for the kids. Their ages range from six to thirteen. We need the tamest of the string, the horses with the most patience. We can't afford to give up too many of our own trained cutting horses, but if you could select a few for now from our stables then we'll go from there.”
Tagg could do this with his eyes closed. There was no need to involve Callie.
“I'd love to,” Callie said immediately.
“I can get this done, Clay,” Tagg stated. “If you need Callie for something else.”
Callie turned his way and he sensed her stare. He kept his gaze trained on his brother, not willing to see the recrimination in her eyes.
Clay shook his head. “No. I need you both for this. You each know horses, but Callie's worked with children. And since none of us Worths have been around kids much, the two of you will make a good team.”
Tagg shrugged, giving up. Wasn't as though he couldn't spend an afternoon with Callie without jumping her bones. “Fine. We'll pick out a few gentle mares from the string.”
Clay glanced at his watch and winced. “I'm running late. I'm gonna have to leave the crew in your hands today. I've got an appointment in town. Tagg, keep those boys in line for me. Seems every one of them is already smitten with Callie.” Clay winked at her and the sound of her sweet throaty chuckle set Tagg's nerves on edge.
“Something tells me Callie can take care of herself.”
Clay narrowed his eyes and the conversation quickly died.
After a few seconds of silence, Callie chimed in, “Now, don't you go worrying about me. Those boys are treating me just fine.”
“Glad to hear it.” Clay darted them each a curious look as if trying to figure out something.
Tagg set his jaw, waiting for his brother to leave.
“I'll be in touch,” Clay said finally, then bid them farewell.
Tagg stood alone with Callie in front of the general store. They stared at each other for a few uncomfortable seconds until Callie's smile brought him up short. “Well, I'm glad I stopped by your house the other day to break the ice. Because
Callie's remark broke the tension. Tagg relaxed and sent her a smile. “Do you always blurt out whatever's on your mind?”
Callie smiled back and her caramel eyes lit up. “Yeah, most times I do.”
“What about those other times, when you don't? How does that work for you?”
Callie thought about it for one second then replied, “It works fine. When I keep my words in check, it's usually to keep the peace with my father.”
“The Hawk,” Tagg bit out.
“Are you afraid of him?”
“Heavens, no. Let's just say it's usually easier to deal with him without hysterical drama. Which is what it would be if I really let loose on him.”
“So you hold back.”
“I deal with him in my own way and, most times, I'm successful at making my point. What about you, Tagg? Do you always hold in your feelings?”
Tagg didn't like speaking about feelings. What man did? “What feelings are you talking about exactly?”
Callie got a distant look on her face and then blinked it away. “Scared feelings. Like leaving a girl a note on the hotel bed instead of facing her.”
Tagg wasn't going there. He chose to ignore Callie's comment. It was safer that way for both of them. He put his hand to her lower back and applied slight pressure. “Let's get to those horses. I'll drive.”
They strode toward the Jeep in silence, Tagg aware of Callie right beside him. Her unique scent wafted up to tease his nostrils and remind him of things he wanted forgotten. His foul mood kicked up a notch. When they reached the vehicle, he opened the door for her before he walked to the driver's side and got in. He turned the engine key and gave it gas, but didn't put it in gear. Hesitating, he stared out the dashboard window.
They'd both entered into the one-night fling. Callie wasn't completely off the hook. She'd done her part in tempting him beyond his willpower. But Tagg never shied away from his responsibilities. And he had felt responsible for what had happened between them because he knew going in that Callie Sullivan was off-limits for more than one good reason. She was the daughter of his biggest competitor. She was his neighbor and a woman he'd be bumping into at times. But perhaps most importantly, Tagg knew Callie wasn't the one-night stand kind of woman. She didn't play loose and fast, which was the only kind of woman Tagg ever got involved with these days.