Naked Cowboys, Book 7
Andrew “Mac” McDaniel comes to Saddle Wells, Texas, and buys the rundown HanniganRanch. But he’s not just in town to get the place back to its former glory. He’s on a mission to find the drunk driver who killed his twin sister, and his latest lead has brought him here. Once he arrives in town, he gets more help than he thought he wanted from a group of locals who want him to feel welcome, led by the sexy realtor who sold him the place.
When Nida Beloit hands over the keys to Mac’s new ranch, she can’t ignore whatever it is that sparks between them. But even as undeniable interest turns to hot nights together, Nida feels Mac’s obsession getting in the way of what could grow between them, and she’s not sure she can stand by and watch him destroy himself when his investigation sends him on a path toward a potentially disastrous act of revenge.
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Andrew “Mac” McDaniel drove slowly down the main street of Saddle Wells, called jokingly enough Main Street, taking in the ambience of the town. Less than ten thousand people didn’t require much of a main drag, he figured, but they’d done a good job with what they had. Attractive banners on old-fashioned street lights, tubs of colorful flowers and benches for people to sit on and gossip and unique storefronts gave the place a lot of character. Shoppers moved in and out of the stores or gathered on the sidewalk to chat. In front of a place called Cyn-sational Rub, a very attractive dark-haired woman was standing on the sidewalk holding a small platter, passing around what looked like snacks to a crowd gathered around her. He wondered what that was all about. If he bought the property he’d come to check out, he’d probably find out.
He wasn’t sure how much he’d really enjoy all this ambience, however. He had a mission that didn’t leave much room, if any, for pleasure.
Alicia would love this place.
As soon as the thought hit him, a sharp pain lanced through him. His twin sister would never again enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Some asshole going too fast had taken that opportunity away from her. Six months after the fact, it still hurt just as much. He supposed it was more intense because of the twin thing. The two of them had been close since they were infants, even able to read each other’s minds. He still felt as if he’d had a limb amputated and now had put the rest of his life on hold until the asshole who’d hit and run was caught.
After the accident, he couldn’t seem to get his life back on track. People kept telling him to get over it, get past it, get it behind him. The idiot who’d caused the accident, who had smashed the rear corner of her car so hard he’d run her off the road into a tree, hadn’t even waited around for the police. He’d just taken off, assuming no one would know who he was. To this day, according to the police, they still didn’t.
He couldn’t seem to make people understand that it wasn’t just the loss of his twin. It was the way it had happened, and the fact that the police were obviously sweeping it under the table. People had gotten tired of listening to him, and one by one, his so-called friends had begun to avoid him. Then there was the intense grief, reinforced every day by the pain his parents and Alicia’s fiancé felt. Even they wanted him to find a way to move past it, convinced the driver would never be brought to justice. Then his work at the investment firm had suffered because of it and his partners had begun to tell him he needed to pull himself together.
Finally, he’d leased out his condo and taken a leave of absence from work. His partners thought he was crazy, and maybe they were right. Consumed with grief and a thirst for revenge. That’s when he’d decided to move his base of operations. He wasn’t without resources. Through his contacts, he’d managed to find out that the driver lived in the Hill Country, somewhere in this particular county.
Out here, he’d be far enough away from San Antonio and everyone driving him nuts. He needed isolation. He didn’t want anyone’s company but his own. And the rundown property he’d found online looked as if it would just suit his purpose. No one would bother him, and as long as he could make it semi-habitable, he would be in good shape. So here he was, in tiny Saddle Wells, looking to begin his journey of vengeance.
At the end of Main Street, his GPS announced that he had arrived. He managed to score a parking place then hoofed it up to the entrance of the real estate office. The door was as western themed as the town, made of heavy carved oak with a lasso worked into the design. He truly felt he was stepping into another world, and that was probably a good thing.
The reception area was empty, but the jingle of bells over the door announced his presence. A woman walked out of one of the small offices with an expectant look on her face. Shockingly every cell in Mac’s body zinged to life. What the hell? Since Alicia’s death—murder, he amended in his own mind—he’d had zero interest in women or sex. He sure didn’t need the distraction. So what was going on here?
Mac stared at the woman, trying to figure out where the zap of invisible electricity was coming from. He guessed her to be mid-thirties, maybe five foot five, and dressed in what he guessed was Saddle Wells professional attire. But her neat black slacks couldn’t hide the graceful curves of hip and thigh and a tailored blouse of some soft fabric caressed her breasts. Midnight-black hair was pulled neatly back in a clip and he had a sudden itch to free it and run his fingers through the silky-looking strands. Creamy skin, emerald-green eyes and naturally thick lashes accented a heart-shaped face. Unlike the businesswomen he was used to in San Antonio, she’d ditched high heels for comfortable flats, probably to accommodate all the walking through properties she did. Point to her for practicality without sacrificing appeal.
“Mr. McDaniel?” Her voice was a low, smooth, warm contralto that wrapped around him like a soft blanket. “I’m glad you found the office without a problem.”
He managed to pull his tongue back into his mouth. “It wasn’t too hard.”
“No, I guess not. Saddle Wells isn’t exactly San Antonio.” She laughed softly and held out her hand. “Nida Beloit. It’s very nice to meet you.”
The skin of her hand was soft, but her grip was strong and warm. The surface of his palm where they connected tingled as if little needles danced on it. She wore minimal makeup, but to his eyes, she really didn’t need it. Her lips were plump and full, enhanced only with some soft gloss, and a touch of mascara to enhance the thick curtains of her silky eyelashes. Something warm flowed through him, and he had to resist the urge to yank his hand away from hers.
Why the hell was he even noticing anything about Nida Beloit? These days, he barely paid attention to any females at all. His awareness of her shocked him, and he did his best to ruthlessly suppress it, putting on what he hoped was his business face.
“Sorry I couldn’t get here this morning,” he apologized. “I had some personal business to take care of. Hope that didn’t inconvenience you.”
“Not at all.” She flashed him a smile. “I made sure my schedule was flexible today. Why don’t you step into my office for a second while I get everything together?”
He hoped she didn’t think he was here for polite chitchat. He wanted to get this taken care of with a minimum of fuss. Then he could get away from her and figure out why his libido, that he was sure had been buried under a ton of grief, had picked today to suddenly come to life.
“I’m really anxious to get this taken care of,” he told her.
“Understood. I just want to be thorough.” She picked up an iPad from her desk. “I know you said you were only interested in the Hannigan place. However, so we don’t miss out on anything, after your phone call, I pulled some similar properties I thought you might be interested in. Places that are in slightly better shape.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you but—”
“Everything is on the way” she assured him, “so we really won’t be wasting time. And I feel obligated to give you some options.”
“I’m really not—” He caught himself. It would be faster and easier to let her do her thing, get to the place he was interested in and take care of business.
She frowned. “You know the place is in a total state of disrepair, right? I’m not sure the pictures really showed you how bad.”
“It must really be bad to go for the price that’s listed.”
“It is.” She shook her head. “It’s so sad, because it used to be a thriving ranch with bulls from excellent bloodstock.”
“What happened, if I might ask?”
“That’s a long story. If you are still interested after you look at it and see the shape it’s in, we can chat about it.”
“The price interests me,” he told her. “That can cover up a multitude of sins.”
“You’re the client.” She picked up her briefcase and car keys and tucked her iPad under her arm. “Well, let’s get right to work then.” She walked to the front door and turned the lock. “I’m parked in the back.”
Mac looked around. “Are you a one-woman operation here?”
She grinned. “Sometimes I think so, but, no. There are four of us, but the others are all out showing properties and our part-time receptionist is running an errand. Shall we go?”
He didn’t know what he’d expected her to drive but not the hog of an SUV with oversized tires sitting in its spot.
“Is this yours?” He couldn’t help asking, eying the big black vehicle.
“Mine and the bank’s,” she joked, cranking the ignition. “A lot of the places I go to show properties don’t exactly have paved roads. This is ranch country, Mr. McDaniel, not the city.”
Mac noticed two things as they drove down Main Street. One, the sidewalks were still as busy and the same woman was giving away snacks. And two, Nida Beloit was wearing some kind of tantalizing floral scent that was making him unexpectedly horny. If he could just shut off his sense of smell, maybe he could concentrate a little more.
Despite his best intentions, he couldn’t help noticing Nida’s very curvy body, the tiny dimple at a corner of her mouth when she smiled or the vivid green of her eyes. Or the soothing tone of her voice as she did a little narrative about the area. In another situation, he’d already be itching to have his hands all over her, cupping those plump breasts in his palms and teasing her nipples with his thumbs. He certainly would have had his mouth on her very kissable lips.
Mac was a man with strong sexual appetites. Always had been. But in the wake of the tragedy, it seemed every pheromone and hormone in his body had taken a nose dive. He had no intention of being distracted by a reaction to a woman. Any woman. In fact, under the current circumstances, he was shocked he felt any reaction at all, much less one so intense.
Deliberately, he forced himself to turn his head away from her and watch the landscape unroll past his window. As they drove down the two-lane highway, Nida gave him a description of each of the other properties in her low-pitched musical voice.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” he interrupted, “but let me save you some time. That one property is the only one I’m interested in.”
“Let me at least drive you past the others so you have them fixed in your mind. The Hannigan place might be in more disrepair than you want to deal with.”
Mac had specified a place outside the town limits, no close neighbors, someplace where he could enjoy solitude. Nida Beloit probably thought he was a hermit. He just wanted to be away from civilization while he did his investigation and plotted his revenge. He had a clue as to where the killer lived and a general idea of the guy’s situation, but he needed to narrow it down to the actual person. That was why he figured Rowan County was the best place to set up his headquarters. The county wasn’t that big and he just needed some place to camp out where no one would bother him in his manhunt.
They checked out the first four on the list and he assured her none of them was suitable. But when they finally pulled down the long driveway of the place he’d specified, he realized her description hadn’t done it justice. To say the ranch house and surrounding land were in pretty bad shape was a huge understatement.
“I hate to say it,” Nida told him, “especially since I’m hoping to make a sale, but this place is pretty dilapidated. It’s been neglected for some time.”
She parked in a gravel parking area, now choking with the same weeds strangling the front lawn. The house needed painting and the shrubs needed either a trim or a funeral. Two barns stood in the back beyond the house, doors hanging open, roofs partially caved in, paint peeling. Everywhere Mac looked—the corral, the rotting fence line, the sad-looking trees—he saw the same depressing scene.
He got out of the car, and in a moment, Nida came to stand beside him.
“We can go into the house and take a look, if you still want to, but…” She let her words trail off.
“I want to. Let’s go in.”
How could he tell her this was exactly what he wanted? A place where he could work off some of his rage, one that was so horrific no one would come looking for him.
She heaved a sigh, pasted her real estate agent smile back on and led the way up the three steps to the porch. She worked a key into the rusted lock, but it stuck when she tried to open the door.
“Here. Let me.” Mac put his shoulder into it, and the door finally came unstuck and creaked inward.
He was glad he walked in first, because the inside was even more depressing than the outside. Dust covered everything and flew in the air on the current caused by the opening of the door. He turned to Nida.
“You don’t need to walk me through here. This is no fit place for you.”
She laughed, a sound that teased at his senses. “It’s my job, Mr. McDaniel.”
“Mac, please. And I know that, but it’s okay. Really. A little dust won’t hurt me.”
Referring to her notes on the property, she led the way from room to room. The place was big, and Mac could see that at one time it had been magnificent. Now, though, the hardwood floors were scarred and damaged, the walls grimy, and everything was coated with a thick layer of grunge. Still, the very condition of the place was sure to discourage visitors, and he could see there were possibilities. Before he went into the investment business he and a friend had collected a nest egg by buying houses, rehabbing them and flipping them. Lately, with Alicia’s death, he’d lost his taste for the business world and thought about returning to his roots, so to speak. Maybe he could work off some of his rage on this place.
It annoyed him that while he was absorbing the appearance of the house, he still couldn’t keep his eyes off the sway of Nida Beloit’s hips encased in well-tailored black slacks or the way the fabric of her blouse lay softly against nicely rounded breasts. It was the first time any woman had drawn even a smidgen of interest from him since the night of the accident.
No. Not an accident. A jackass driving way too fast on a quiet residential street had pointed his vehicle just as if it had been a gun. The cops had let Mac read the report, and every word of it was burned into his brain. They suspected the driver of the other vehicle was going so fast he might actually have bounced off Alicia’s car.
Excessive speed. Smashed rear of vehicle with enough force to push it into a tree.
No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t get the gruesome pictures of the scene out of his mind. He had haunted the cops for weeks afterwards to see if they’d identified the other driver. The murderer. The answer remained an unbreakable no.
An attorney friend of his had told him he’d heard a rumor that the cops actually knew who it was but there was a lot of pressure to lose the paperwork. With his rage boiling over, he’d invaded the police station and demanded answers. Everyone had told him that just wasn’t true, but the way they’d said it had made his neck itch. That’s when he’d begun his own campaign. Mac had his own resources. So far, he’d been able to determine that whoever it was lived in Rowan County. Someone had told him the father was a big shot rancher who’d spread a lot of money and influence around to make this go away.
Now he had a plan, and moving out here in the middle of nowhere was the start of it.
The real estate agent’s low, pleasant voice broke into his thoughts and he realized he’d spaced out standing there.
“Sorry.” He shook his head. “What were you saying?”
“I wanted to point out to you that the barns were probably not worth saving, nor the corral. And if you plan to eventually raise cattle or horses here, you’d need all new fencing. That can be quite expensive.”
“Not a problem. I don’t plan to go into the ranching business.”
She tilted her head and gave him a curious look. “It’s really none of my business, but why on earth would you want a place like this, especially if you don’t plan to build it up again. There are a lot of other properties in far better shape. We haven’t seen them all.”
He shook his head. “No. This one suits my purpose just fine.”
“If you say so.”
But he heard the skepticism in her voice. He moved to stand at a big picture window in the breakfast area of the kitchen, taking in the depressing view beyond it.
“You said you’d tell me what happened to this place. Before I make an offer, I’d like to know.”
Nida sighed and shook her head. “It’s such a sad story, really. Buddy Hannigan inherited a thriving operation from his father and built it up into a million-dollar operation. It was the showplace of Rowan County, maybe even the entire Hill Country. Private plane. Big parties. People bowing and scraping. After his wife passed away, he kind of lost all restraint. Turned out to be an obnoxious bully, and his son, Cade, grew up in the same mold. They treated people like crap.” She touched a finger to her lips. “Oh, sorry. I should watch what I say.”
“Why, if it’s the truth?” Mac snorted. “I know too many people like that.”
And some of them are my clients. Maybe getting away from them is a really good thing.
“Well, yes, don’t we all? Anyway, Buddy dropped dead one day of a heart attack and Cade came to find out his father had gambled it all away. Every last nickel of it.”
“What?” Mac’s eyebrows shot up. “All of it?”
“Every last red cent went to satisfy debts. Between the creditors and the IRS, there wasn’t a penny left anywhere. Nobody wanted the ranch itself, although they sold off all the surrounding property he owned. This is what’s left. The county’s been trying to sell it for taxes, but no one’s buying.”
“What happened to the son?”
Nida grinned, and he thought her eyes twinkled. “There’s a real fairy tale for you.”
Mac frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“He was left with nothing, and after the way he’d treated people, no one wanted to give him a hand. You’ve heard the expression so far down he’d have to look up to see the gutter? That was him.”
“That doesn’t sound much like a fairy tale to me.” Mac had a hard time keeping the skepticism out of his voice.
“Yes, well, when he was literally down to his last penny, he realized he had to get his act together or life was over for him. He cleaned himself up and talked Georgie Zelinski, who bought the old B&B, into hiring him to help her rehab the place. Best thing that ever happened for both of them.”
Mac suddenly found his interest piqued. “How so?”
“She kept him on the straight and narrow, they fell in love and got married, and now they run the place together. Making a nice living with it.”
“Does he ever talk about this place?” Mac was curious. “Miss it? Think about trying to get it back and doing something with it?”
“Heavens, no.” Nida chuckled. “No one in Saddle Wells thought they’d live to see the day, but Cade’s a new man. I think he sees this place as the root of his troubles. He avoids it like the plague.” She studied his face. “And to tell you the truth, Mr. McDaniel—”
“Mac,” he interrupted. “Call me Mac. Please.”
Now why the hell did he do that? Being more formal and keeping his distance was what he did these days.
“Mac, then.” She favored him with another of her smiles, and unexpectedly, he focused on the fullness of her lips slicked with a soft red gloss. “As I was saying, I feel it’s my responsibility once again to point out the benefits of almost any other place I’ve shown you. And some we haven’t even seen.”
But Mac had already made up his mind. The location of this property, right in the center of the county, was what had drawn him to it originally. In its dilapidated state, it certainly wouldn’t draw any visitors and would serve as a good base of operations for his plan. Once people found out about the death of his twin, they would chalk up his need for isolation as a way of dealing with his grief. Good. They’d leave him alone.
He stood looking out through the grimy window for a long moment before turning back to Nida.
“I want this place. I’ll take it.”
He saw shock wash briefly over her features before she pulled herself together and gave him her best professional smile.
“Okay. The customer is always right. But still—”
“What do we need to do next?” He was impatient to be done here. To finish his business and get away from this woman whose nearness did strange, unwanted things to him. “I’d like to get this done as soon as we can. Who still holds the paper on it? And why are they letting it go for so little? If they fixed it up, they could bump the price.”
“You’re in luck.” She picked up her briefcase from the counter and her car keys. “The county took possession of it because the taxes haven’t been paid for the past two years. Just on the parcel that’s left, I mean. They’re willing to let it go for that amount just to get it off their books. It’s not as if anyone’s been beating down their doors to get it. Which, when you look at its condition, isn’t hard to understand.” She shook her head. “I’m almost ashamed to show it to you.”
“But the land is worth something, isn’t it?”
She shrugged. “Yes, but not much the way it is. I think everyone just wants this off the market and the whole nasty episode forgotten about. Cade’s turned his life around and I think he’d like it gone too. Besides, the neighboring ranches are claiming it devalues their property.”
Mac frowned. “If this place was worth what you said, those taxes have to be pretty damn hefty. I’m not looking to break the bank.”
“When the other debts were satisfied, the taxes were paid to that specific date. What’s accrued since then is on a devalued piece of property. I can assure you the county will be glad to get it off the tax rolls.”
As he followed her out of the house to her vehicle, he noticed again the sexy sway of her hips and once more caught the teasing spice of the scent she wore. How the hell could he even be thinking of anything like that considering the circumstances? Since Alicia had been killed, he might as well have been a eunuch for all the appeal women had for him. So what was it about this woman that suddenly made his dead senses leap to life? He didn’t have time for this right now. He could not afford to be distracted.
When they were back in her SUV he asked, “Okay, how do we move forward?”
Nida looked at her watch. “We can try to catch the tax collector in her office, but she may be out at a meeting. I can set something up for tomorrow. Will that work?”
“It will. I need to call my bank and move some money around anyway.” He glanced at the dashboard clock. “Damn. I’m going to hit all that rush-hour traffic when I get back to San Antonio.”
Nida backed around and headed toward the road. “Why don’t you stay the night? We don’t have a warehouse-type store here, but if you need anything you can probably pick it up at Gray’s Pharmacy or This and That.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “This and That?”
She laughed, and he thought again what a pleasant sound it was. “We get a lot of tourists here, as you can imagine. Sometimes they decide to spend the night. And those that come for the weekend usually need something. You know, this and that.”
“Thanks for the info.”
She cleared her throat. “If you want a place to stay in town until the property closes, the Hannigans’s Butterfly Bed and Breakfast would be a good place. It would give you a chance to meet Cade.”
“It might be hard for him to talk about what’s happened with the ranch,” he guessed.
“I don’t think so. He’s a much different person now. He had the strength to turn his life around, and he’s done a magnificent job of it. He might even be glad to know someone’s finally going to buy it. Anyway, you’ll enjoy them. They’re a really nice couple. It’s the middle of the week, so they won’t be full.”
“I might do that. Better than making the drive.” He thought a moment. “You’re sure he’ll be okay with it when I tell him why I’m here?”
“Like I said, it might even give him a feeling of relief. But if you’re concerned, how about if I give them a call,” Nida suggested. “Kind of smooth the way for you.”
Mac actually found himself smiling, a strange phenomenon after all these weeks. “You’re kind of the everything agent, right?”
“That’s just how we do it in Saddle Wells,” she acknowledged.
“Well, then, if you don’t mind, that would be great.”
He settled back in his seat and wondered if the tiny edge of anticipation had anything to do with finding a place to use as a base of operations or the woman sitting next to him who continued to addle his senses.
November 13, 2017