The Man Who Had Everything
Grant Clifton set out that sunny Sunday afternoon with the best of intentions.
He meant for Stephanie Julen and her mom, Marie, to know of his plans good and early, so they could start getting used to the idea. He had it all laid out in his mind, just how he’d tell them.
First, he would remind them that you can’t hold onto the past forever. That sometimes you’ve got to let go of what used to be, let the wave of progress and prosperity take you. Dump the excess baggage and move on.
In his own life, Grant was doing exactly that. And loving every minute of it. He would make Steph and Marie understand that it was time for them to move on, too.
Since the sun was shining bright and proud in the wide Montana sky, Grant called down to the stables and had one of the grooms tack up Titan, the big black gelding he rode whenever he got the chance—which wasn’t all that often lately. He worked behind a desk now. His days as a rancher were behind him.
In his private suite of rooms on-site at the Thunder Canyon Resort, he changed into Wranglers and boots and a plain blue chambray shirt. When he got to the stables, Titan was ready to go. The gelding whickered in greeting and tossed his fine black head, eager to be off. The groom loaned Grant a spare hat and he grinned to himself as he rode out.
A Clifton without a battered straw Resistol close at hand to stave off the glare of the summer sun. His dad would never approve.
Fact was, John Clifton probably wouldn’t have approved of a lot of things lately. Too bad. Grant settled the hat lower on his brow and refused to let his grin fade as he let Titan have his head and the horse took off at a gallop.
On Titan’s strong back, the ride to the house at Clifton’s Pride Ranch took about an hour. Once he’d left the sprawling resort behind,
Grant rode cross-country, stopping now and then to open a gate, going back and closing it once his horse went through.
In the distance, the high mountains still bore their white caps. And the grasses, which would be fading to gold soon enough, lay green and lush beneath the gelding’s hooves, rippling in the ever-present Montana wind.
As Titan ambled up and down the cuts and draws, Grant rehearsed what he would say. Yeah, he knew Steph and her mom would be disappointed. But he would remind them that he would always take care of them. He would make sure they had work when they left the ranch. That much would never change: He would watch out for them.
In no time, it seemed, he reached Clifton land.
He took a couple of dirt roads he knew of and then approached another pasture gate, patiently shutting it behind him once his horse went through. A few cows, lying down near the fence, got up from their grassy bed and looked at him expectantly. He tipped his borrowed hat at them, mounted up again and rode on.
Ahead, cottonwoods loomed, lush and green, lining the banks of Cottonwood Creek. They seemed taller and thicker than he remembered, obscuring the creek completely now. Grant clicked his tongue and urged the horse onward, his mind on getting it over with, getting Steph and her mom together and breaking the news that he’d had a great offer and he was selling Clifton’s Pride.
The horse mounted a grassy slope and carried him in beneath the screen of wind-ruffled trees, where the ground was mossy and soft and Titan’s hooves hardly made a sound. Grant could smell water, hear the soft gurgling of the creek not far ahead. He topped another slight rise and the creek lay below, crystal clear and inviting.
But it wasn’t the sight of the creek that stole the breath from Grant Clifton’s lungs.
He drew on the reins without thinking. Soundlessly, Titan came to a stop.
A woman stood at creekside. A naked woman. Beads of water gleamed on her golden skin and her hair, clinging in soaked tendrils to her shoulders, dripped a shining wet trail down the center of her slim, straight back.
She faced the opposite bank. As he stared, she lifted both hands and smoothed her hair, cupping the delicate shape of her skull, catching the wet strands at her nape, wringing gently, so that more water trickled in little gleaming trails along that amazing back, between those two little dimples that rode the base of her spine...
Grant’s gazed followed the path of the water. Sweet Lord. The lower he looked, the harder he lusted. He sat frozen in place astride the gelding, feeling the blood pool hot in his groin, his pulse pounding so deep and hungry and loud, he was surprised the woman didn’t hear it and turn.
What the hell was she doing there, naked beneath the cottonwoods on Clifton land?
Not that he planned to ask. Not right now.
He would have smiled—if only if he hadn’t been aching so bad with desire. Make no mistake. He’d find out who she was one way or another. He’d get to know her. Well.
But now would probably be a bad time to introduce himself.
Light as a breath, he laid the reins to Titan’s neck. The horse started to turn—and the woman raised her slim arms to the sky and let out a laugh, a sound all at once free and husky and glorious.
His mind reeled. He knew that laugh.
It was Steph’s laugh.
Grant drew the horse up short again.
This beautiful, naked stranger, fully a woman…Steph?
His head spun with denials. Stephanie Julen was hardly more than a kid, she was like a little sister to him, she was…
Damn it. Impossible. Couldn’t be. No way.
The woman who couldn’t be Steph laughed again, and then, without warning, in mid-laugh, she turned.
And she saw him there, frozen in place, at the top of the bank. The green eyes that always looked at him with trust and admiration widened in shock as she formed his name on a low cry.
“Grant?” Frantic, she tried to cover herself, one hand to her small, perfect breasts, the other to the patch of dark gold curls between her smooth, amazing thighs. “Oh, God…”
At least he had the presence of mind to lay the reins at the horse’s neck again and, that time, to follow through.
Once he faced the way he’d come, he called over his shoulder, “Get dressed.” He kept his voice as calm and level as possible, given his own stunned, disbelieving state of arousal. “Ride on back to the house with me…”
Behind him, she was dead silent—except for a low, agonized groan.
“Come on.” He kept his gaze resolutely front and he forced all hint of gruffness from his tone. “It’s okay.” He spoke gently. Soothingly. “I’m sorry I…surprised you.”
Behind him, down the bank, he heard frenzied rustling sounds as she scrambled to get into her clothes. He waited, taking slow breaths, knowing he had to be calm and unruffled, totally unconcerned, in order to put her at ease again.
At ease. Damn. Didn’t he wish?
Within a couple of minutes that only seemed to last for eternity, he heard the soft thuds of hooves behind him. She came up beside him mounted on her favorite mare, Trixiebelle.
Unbelievable. He’d been so busy gaping at her naked backside and planning how he would get her into his bed, he hadn’t even noticed she had her horse down there by the creek with her.
Titan chuffed in greeting and Trixiebelle snorted a response.
Grant put on a smile and turned it on Steph, not allowing it to waver, even as another bolt of lust went zinging through him.
Her clothes were as wet as the rest of her. Her shirt clung to the fine, sleek curves he’d never noticed till moments ago—curves that from this afternoon onward would remain seared into his brain.
Impossible. Wanting Steph. It had to be illegal. Or, at the very least, immoral.
Her hair hung in damp ropes on her shoulders and her sweet, innocent face was flaming red. “How long were you…?” Her voice faltered. She swallowed and made herself finish. “…watching me?”
“I wasn’t,” he baldly lied, somehow managing to keep his easy smile in place at the same time. “I’d just topped the rise when you saw me.” He turned Titan again and started down the bank to creekside. She followed.
Since she would know the best place to cross, he pulled back once they reached the bank and signaled her to take the lead.
All too aware of the man behind her, Steph rode Trixiebelle into the shallows. Once on the other side, they climbed the far bank and emerged from under the dappling shade of the cottonwoods into open pasture. Grant caught up with her and rode at her side.
She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t bear to meet his eyes right yet—and if only her silly cheeks would stop blushing.
Really. It wasn’t that big a deal.
Okay, it was embarrassing. Way embarrassing. She’d never in a million years expected Grant to appear on horseback out of nowhere during the rare moment she’d chosen to indulge herself in a quick, private skinny-dip.
He had to know she hadn’t expected him—or anyone, for that matter—didn’t he?
After all, he hardly ever came to the ranch anymore. In the six months since he’d hired her to take over the job of foreman, this was the first time she’d seen him out on the land. As a rule, when he did drop by, he always stuck to the roads and arrived at the ranch house in that fancy black Range Rover of his.
Grant didn’t have time for the ranch these days. He was too busy at the resort. In two short years, he’s gone from sales associate to co-manager. And he played as hard as he worked. Not a lot of nights went by that he didn’t have some new out-of-town beauty hanging on his arm. The women loved him. He was thirty-two, single and getting rich fast.
Steph dared to slide him a glance. He was looking straight ahead.
He was also way too handsome. Always had been. His profile could take a girl’s breath away: that sculpted nose, that fine mouth, that firm jaw. He was six-foot-four, lean, rangy and muscular—all at the same time. She had no doubt he’d seen a lot of naked women. To him, a naked female wouldn’t be anything new.
She felt a stab of pure green jealousy as she thought of all those beautiful women he dated. Stephanie had loved Grant Clifton with all of her yearning heart since she was five years old. Of course, she knew he would never return her love. He cared for her. A lot. But not in that way.
And she was okay with that…
Or so she kept telling herself.
And what do you know? She wasn’t blushing anymore. Her heart had stopped jumping around in her chest like a spooked jackrabbit and her pulse had even slowed a tad. Maybe hopeless blazing jealousy had its uses, after all.
So all right. He’d seen her naked. Best to get over it. Let it go. Move on.
But for some idiotic reason, she couldn’t stop herself from launching into a totally lame explanation. “Me and Rufus pulled a cow out of that pond in the far pasture…”
Rufus Dale had been the top hand on Clifton’s Pride for as long as Steph could remember. He’d stepped up to run things when Grant started working at the resort. But arthritis had forced the old cowboy to slow down and given Steph her chance to take over for him.
She babbled on, “I sent him on back to the bunkhouse. You know how he gets these days. He hates that he can’t do all the things that used to be so easy for him.”
Grant didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at her, either. Was he mad at her, after all, for being out there in the altogether where anyone could ride up on her?
She tried again. “I was covered in mud. I got to the creek and it was just too darn tempting. I jumped in with my clothes on, to rinse everything off at once and, well, then I was all soggy—like now.” She cast a rueful glance down at her wet shirt and jeans. “And it’s a warm day and I couldn’t help thinking how good the water would feel without…uh. Well, you know.”
He grunted. Didn’t he? Hadn’t that been a grunt she heard?
A grunt. A definite grunt. One with sort of a question mark at the end of it.
“I really didn’t expect anyone to ride by. I truly didn’t…”
She gulped. “Yeah?”
A pause. Her dread increased. Was he irritated? Amused? What? She just couldn’t tell.
Then he actually looked at her again and gave her one of those gorgeous heartbreaker smiles of his. “Don’t sweat it, okay? I know the feeling.”
She felt her mouth bloom wide in a giant smile. “You do?” God. She sounded like such a dumb, innocent kid…
But he was nice about it. He was always nice. “Oh, yeah. Nothin’ like a cold, clear creek on a hot day.”
She clicked her tongue at Trixiebelle, who was showing more interest in cropping grass than in moving it along. “Well,” she said, and couldn’t think of a single clever thing to say. She finished lamely,
They rode in silence the rest of the way. Stephanie tried to concentrate on the beauty of the green, rolling land around them and not to think about how he really must be irritated with her no matter how hard he tried to ease her embarrassment. He was so quiet, so reluctant to turn her way.
Bart, the old spotted hound, came out to meet them when they got to the house. He wiggled in delight, whining for attention from his old master.
Grant dismounted and took a moment to greet him, “There’s a good boy.” He gave the dog a nice scratch behind the ear.
Rufus emerged from the tack room as they walked their horses into the barn. He shook Grant’s hand in greeting and then started giving orders.
“Go on in the house, you two. Leave the horses to me. I’m still good for a few things around here, you know.”
So they thanked him and headed across the open dirt yard to the plain white-shingled two-story house. On the wide front porch, Steph paused to pull off her muddy boots.
Inside, the old wood floors had a warm scuffed gleam and a short walk through the front hall past the simple oak staircase led them to the kitchen in back.
Marie Julen had the oven door open. She pulled a sheet of cookies out and set it on a rack to cool. And then she turned, her face breaking into a welcoming grin at the sight of Grant. “Well, look what the cat drug in.”
Grant grinned. “Sure does smell good in here.”
“Get over here, you.”
In two long strides, he was across the room, grabbing Steph’s mom in a hug. When he pulled back, he held her by her plump shoulders. “You bake those cookies just for me?”
She grinned up at him. “Well, of course I did—even though I had no idea at all that you were coming to visit today.” She sent Steph a knowing look, taking in her soggy clothes and wet hair. “I’m guessing that cow is now safely out of the pond.”
Steph nodded. “And I really need a shower—hey!” She faked a warning look at Grant, who’d already grabbed a couple of cookies. “Leave some for me.”
“I’m makin’ no promises.” He winked at her when he said it and she dared to hope that the awkwardness between them was past.
She turned for the stairs as her mom tempted him with her fine cooking. “Pot roast for dinner.”
Stephanie’s heart lifted as she heard him answer, “Sounds too good to pass up. I’ll stay.”
Grant was downright relieved when Steph went upstairs.
He needed a little time to collect himself, to get used to the idea that she’d somehow grown up right under his nose, to get over his shock at how damn beautiful she was.
How the hell had that happened? She’d been a kid just yesterday, hadn’t she?
How could she have changed so much, so fast? Shouldn’t he have noticed she was becoming a woman—a beautiful woman—before now?
And damn it. He needed to stop thinking about her. He needed to remember his purpose here today. It wasn’t going to be easy, telling them about the sale.
But then again, now he’d said he’d stay for dinner, there was no big rush to get into it. He’d break the news during the meal. That way Rufus and the other fulltime hand, Jim Baylis, would be there, too.
He could tell them all at once, answer whatever questions they had right then and there, and reassure them that he’d find other work for all of them.
Steph already gave riding lessons at the resort, by appointment only. He was thinking he could get her something fulltime at the stables. And maybe he could arrange to get Marie something where there would be cooking involved. Not at the resort, but possibly in town. She did love to cook and she was damn good at it, too.
He washed his hands in the sink and took a seat at the kitchen table. Marie, as usual, read his mind.
She set the frosty bottle in front of him and then went back to the oven to take a peek at the other sheet of cookies she had baking in there. A born ranch wife, Marie loved taking care of the house and keeping the hands fed and happy. When she was needed, she would get out with the rest of them and drive cattle to higher summer pastures or work the chutes at branding time.
As he watched her bustling about, he couldn’t help comparing mother to daughter. Steph had inherited Marie’s light hair and green eyes, but she’d got her height and build from her dad. Andre Julen had been as tall and lean as Marie was short and round.
When Grant was growing up, the Julens had owned and worked the next ranch over, the Triple J. Marie and Grant’s mom, Helen, were the best of friends. So were Andre and John. Grant’s sister, Elise, and Steph used to play together, running up and down the stairs, giggling and whispering little-girl secrets while their mothers sat at the table where Grant sat now. Marie and Helen would drink strong black coffee and share woman-talk while they did the mending or snapped the beans for dinner.
Helen and Elise Clifton lived in Billings now. They’d signed over control of the ranch to him, though they still shared in any profits—including the big windfall that would come with the sale. His mom and sister seemed happy in Billings.
Marie and Steph, though….
For them, losing the Triple J six years ago had been like losing a husband and a father all over again. They were ranch folk to the bone….
“I heard that resort of yours is full up for the Fourth of July.” Marie put the lid back on the cast iron pot.
The Fourth was three days away, on Wednesday. Grant tipped his beer at Marie. “You bet we are.” Teasing her, he quoted from a recent brochure. “Treat yourself to magnificent mountain views, sumptuous luxury, and thrilling recreation at Thunder Canyon Resort.” He brought his beer to his heart and really hammed it up. “You’ve come to us for the best in winter sports and entertainment.
Now, you’re invited to explore our winding mountain trails, weaving in and out of lush forests, dotted with cascading streams.” He paused, dramatically, then announced, “Thunder Canyon Resort. The ultimate vacation or conference spot—peaceful, refreshing, with an endless variety of activities. Come to relax. Come to party. We offer fun and excitement, rejuvenation of mind, body, and soul in majestic setting, year-round.”
Marie laughed and clapped her hands and joked, “Sign me up.”
He shrugged. “I admit, after Independence Day, things’ll slow down. But hey. We’re doing all right—and Marie. You’ve got to quit calling it my resort.” Grant did have shares in the partnership, but the resort had started out as the dream child of the most powerful family in the area, the Douglases.
“They’re lucky to have you working with them,” Marie declared, loyal as the second mom she’d always been to him.
He thought about the sale of the ranch again. And hated himself a little. But he’d made his decision. He was never coming back here and neither were his mom or Elise. For the old man’s sake, he’d given Clifton’s Pride his best shot, but he wasn’t a rancher and he never would be. Better to get out while a great offer was dangling right in front of his nose.
Marie added, “Everyone knows it was your idea to keep the resort open year-round. ‘Nother beer?”
Grant thanked her, but decided to stroll on out to the barn and have a few words with Rufus instead.
The grizzled cowboy sat on a bale of hay, his hat beside him, rolling a cancer stick in those stiff, knobby hands of his.
“Try not to burn the barn down while you’re killin’ yourself with that thing,” Grant advised.
Rufus only grunted and stuck the rolled cigarette behind his ear. “You leavin’ already? I just took the saddle off your horse.” Stiffly, shaking his grey head, he started to rise.
Grant waved him back down. “I’m staying for dinner.”
“Smart thinkin’. That Marie, she can cook.” Rufus nodded sagely as he settled back on the bale. “Pot roast, I hear.”
“That is the rumor…”
The old cowboy took the cigarette from behind his ear, shook his head at it, and stuck it back there without lighting it. “She’s doin’ just fine, in case you wanted to know.”
Grant knew exactly who “she” was. But for some reason he refused to examine too closely, he played it dumb. “Who? Marie?”
“No,” Rufus said with great patience. “Not Marie. I mean little Stephanie—who ain’t so little as she used to be, in case you didn’t notice.”
Grant ordered the image of her glorious bare backside to get the hell out of his mind and played it noncommittal with a deceptively easy shrug. “Yeah. Seems like only yesterday she was running around the yard in pigtails.”
“She’s a born rancher, that gal. Works hard. And loves every minute of it. And smart as a whip. You keep her on as top hand, I got a feeling she’ll shock us all and make this ranch a profitable operation.”
Clifton’s Pride turning a profit?
Now, that would be an accomplishment. Even John Clifton, who’d given it his all, hadn’t really managed to do that. Somehow, the Cliftons always got by. But a profit?
Not a chance. And for seven years after his dad’s tragic death, Grant had tried his damnedest to make a success of the place himself. Same old, same old. Somehow he stayed afloat. Barely. But that was the best he ever did.
It had been the same when Rufus took over. The ranch had yet to go under, but it was no moneymaker and Grant didn’t believe it ever would be.
He sent Rufus a narrow-eyed look and muttered darkly, “You weren’t thrilled in the least when I hired her on to take over for you. And now, all of a sudden, you’re her biggest booster?”
Rufus picked up his hat and hit it on his thigh. “It’s true. I had my doubts about her runnin’ things. But I’m a man who’s willing to give credit where credit is due. That girl has got gumption. She’s got stamina. She knows what she’s doin’. She also has ideas and they are good ones.”
“Damn, Rufus. You’re starting to scare me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so gung ho about anyone—or anything—in all the years you been working here.”
Rufus chortled and said something else.
But Grant didn’t hear a word of it. He just happened to glance toward the wide-open doors that led to the yard.
He saw Steph.
Steph. In clean Wranglers, fresh boots and a little red shirt that clung to those fine slender curves he’d only that very day realized she had. Her golden hair hung, dry now, sleek and shining as pure silk, to her shoulders.
And those slim hips of hers? They swayed easy.
She tempted him with every step and all she was doing was walking toward him.
Grant watched her coming, struck dumb all over again by how beautiful she was. His breath was all tangled up in his throat and his heart was doing something impossible inside his chest and all of a sudden his jeans were too damn tight.
Damn. He was making a total fool of himself.
All Rufus had to do was look down to see how sweet, innocent, smart-as-a-whip Stephanie affected the boss.
How in the hell, Grant wondered, could this be happening to him?
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