Three cousins become cowboys when an unexpected inheritance leaves them with a ranch—and a future as wide open as the California sky . . . Sawyer Dalton may be an investigative journalist, but he has no interest in the story of the sexy stranger who has invaded his barn’s loft apartment on Dry Creek Ranch. After months on the road, he just wants to settle in. But according to his mother, publicist for the beautiful celebrity chef sleeping in Sawyer’s bed, Gina DeRose needs a place to hide out until a scandal dies down. And Sawyer can never say no to his mother . . . Gina is devastated that her hard-won career is about to collapse. Someone is stirring up sabotage. And when a hoaxter blows up the internet with incriminating photos, even brooding—gorgeous—Sawyer is convinced she needs his help. Once they join forces, there’s no escaping each other—and with the heat simmering between them, soon neither wants to try . . . “Stacy Finz delivers a fantastic tale of cowboys, cattle rustling and the power of love and family in the California gold country.” –Kate Pearce, New York Times bestselling author on Cowboy Up
Release date: July 7, 2020
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 230
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It was midday and Sawyer Dalton desperately needed a shower and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. He’d caught a red-eye from Heathrow to Sacramento after a four-day journalism conference where he’d spent his nights drinking and telling war stories into the wee hours of the morning.
As he pulled past the ranch gate, his chest gave a little kick, like it always did. Five hundred acres of the most pristine land in the Sierra foothills. Okay, he was biased. But Dry Creek Ranch, a working cow-calf operation, had been in his family for four generations.
On a clear day, you could see all the way to Banner Mountain. And the green, grassy hills rippled through the valley like a storybook version of the countryside. A series of gable barns, worn and weathered, dotted the landscape, their rooflines often hidden in the tall pines.
Now, the ranch belonged to Sawyer and his two cousins, Jace and Cash, an inheritance from his late grandfather. And while the ranch had fallen into disrepair, Sawyer and his cousins had big plans to someday restore the place to its former glory.
They just had to keep from losing it first.
He didn’t bother with the garage, just parked his Range Rover in his driveway. Slinging his duffel strap over his arm, he climbed the stairs to his apartment. It had once been the hayloft of an old livestock barn. He’d hired a San Francisco architect to convert it into 2000 square feet of kick-ass, mostly open, living space with lots of windows, open-beam ceilings, and modern amenities. The bottom had been turned into a garage and workspace, while still preserving the barn’s rustic charm.
When he wasn’t traveling for work—which was all the time—the ranch and the loft were home sweet home.
He made it to the top of the stairs and tripped over a pile of luggage on the landing. Louis Vuitton. Not his—he’d be the laughing stock of the press corps—and sure the hell not his cousins’. None of them owned anything remotely designerish, unless you counted Levi’s and Stetson. Besides, Cash and Jace both had their own homes on the ranch.
“Hello?” He craned his neck around the corner to find the house empty. Someone, however, had left a pile of dishes in the sink and cooking accoutrements all over the counter. It wasn’t like Cash or Jace, or their women, to lend out Sawyer’s house without permission.
Yet, there were people camping here and they weren’t cleaning up after themselves.
He supposed the mystery would soon solve itself when whoever it was returned to claim the luggage.
Unable to keep his eyes open, he headed to his bedroom, dropping his duffel on the floor. On his way to the bathroom, he dragged his T-shirt over his head, tossing it somewhere in the vicinity of the hamper. Next, he went to work on his belt, looking forward to cranking up all six jets in his walk-in shower. The water pressure in his London hotel had sucked.
“Who are you?”
He jumped at the voice, then whipped his head around to find a woman sitting in his bed with her legs drawn up and a laptop perched on her knees. She looked vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough to be in his bedroom.
Yep, apparently he’d missed the memo that his home had been turned into an Airbnb in his absence.
“I’ll ask you the same,” he said. “And since this is my house, you go first.”
She flicked her gaze at his bare chest, then went back to studying her laptop. “You must be Wendy’s son,” she said, distracted by whatever was on her screen. “She’s been trying to reach you.”
Ah, his mother.
Why she’d sent a complete stranger to his apartment was beyond anyone’s guess. “I’ve been on an airplane for the last fourteen hours.”
“That’s probably why she couldn’t reach you.” She tapped the space bar on her keyboard, completely absorbed in whatever she was looking at. “She said you’d be gone awhile and it would be okay if I stayed here.”
“She did, did she? Well, I’m home now, so that obviously won’t work.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. That’s what she said. I saw a big house on my way in. Can’t you stay there?”
The question threw him for a second. “Uh, no, because I live here.” What part of that was she having trouble understanding?
“Okay, then I’ll stay in the big house.”
Wow. He shook his head.
“Yeah, I don’t think so. My cousin and his two kids and fiancée live in the big house. Last I heard, they weren’t taking in boarders. Why don’t we start with you telling me who you are?” He’d take up the rest of this freak show with his mother.
“Son of a bitch!” She slammed her laptop closed, scrambled off the bed, and swiped a smartphone off his dresser—which was now covered with women’s lingerie—punched in a number and started yelling at someone.
He listened in because he was nosy and because she made it difficult not too. People on the other side of the continent could hear her, she was that loud. From her side of the conversation he extrapolated that it was a business situation. Someone was pulling out of a deal and she was going apeshit over it.
He searched his duffel for his own phone and took it into the living room. Sure enough, there were four missed calls from his mother and a CALL ME ASAP text.
He took a long, calming breath and dialed.
She answered on the first ring. “How’s London, darling?”
“The trip was great until I got home.” He leaned against the wall and cradled the phone to his ear with his shoulder. “Who is she and why is she here?”
“Oh, boy.” Long pause. “You said you’d be overseas until August.”
“I got all my interviews done for the piece I’m writing and came home a week early. Who is she, Mom, and why have you foisted her on Dry Creek Ranch?”
“You didn’t recognize her?” His mother was pacing now; Sawyer could hear her high heels clicking on the marble floor in her office. “I guess that’s good. She’s Gina DeRose.”
“That FoodFlicks chick?” Sawyer had caught her food show a few times. Not because he liked to cook, but because Gina DeRose was hot. At least on television. It was amazing what makeup and good lighting could do.
“Not just FoodFlicks. She owns an entire culinary empire. Cookbooks, kitchenware, pots and pans, her own line of seasonings, cake mixes, and packaged frozen foods.”
He moved to the kitchen and rummaged through the fridge, looking for a bottle of water. They seemed to have all disappeared.
“What did she do, murder someone?” If Sawyer’s parents were representing DeRose, she had to be dealing with a professional crisis of significant proportions. Dalton and Associates wasn’t your garden-variety publicity firm. His parents’ company specialized in making career-killing mistakes go away for anyone rich enough to afford its services.
“She’s accused of having an affair.”
“People still care about that?” Call him jaded, but show him a celebrity, politician, or sports figure who hadn’t been caught with their pants down. He wasn’t condoning it, but society seemed immune, especially in the Hollywood-type world Gina DeRose ran in.
His mother sighed. “She broke up Candace and Danny Clay’s marriage. There are pictures circulating all over the internet.”
Sawyer knew the Clays also had a cooking show, kind of a Lucy and Ricky bit. He’d caught fleeting minutes of the program while channel surfing.
“It’s a mess,” his mother continued. “Candace’s fans, of which there are legions, called for a boycott of Gina’s show. When sponsors started pulling ads, FoodFlicks canceled the rest of the show’s season, including reruns, and suspended negotiations for next season. Investors are talking about walking away from the retail end: the cookware, the prepared meals, and all the rest of it. And—”
“Okay, okay.” He was too tired to hear anymore. “What do you want me to do?”
“Let her stay on the ranch. Everywhere she goes, she’s chased by paparazzi. Your father and I just want her to lie low while we manage the bad press and stop the bleeding. And a hotel or a resort…she’s too recognizable. I know I should’ve gotten your permission first. But we were desperate. She can’t even leave her house without being ambushed. And Jace said it would be okay.”
“When did you talk to Jace?”
“When I couldn’t reach you. He let her in…gave her his spare key.”
Sawyer rubbed his hands down his face. “I’ll find her something,” he said, though he didn’t know what. “But she can’t stay in my place.” Besides the fact that he only had one bedroom, the apartment was also his office and writing cave. Then there was the fact that he’d never been good with sharing his space.
“Somewhere on the ranch, please.” When he muttered that he would, she said, “Thank you, Sawyer. You’re a good son.”
“You mean I’m a sucker. Bye, Mom.”
Gina came into the kitchen, looking like a bird had nested in her blond hair. She had bags under her eyes and the cleavage she was famous for was hidden underneath an oversized T-shirt. Either that or she wore a really good push-up bra on her television show.
“How’d you get here?” he asked, suddenly realizing he hadn’t seen a car.
“To the kitchen? Or here to Timbuktu?”
He rolled his eyes and stifled a pithy comeback. The sooner he got her settled, the sooner he could sleep. “Did you drive and if so, where’s your vehicle?” He said it slowly, enunciating each word.
“In the garage or barn, or whatever is below us.” She pointed at the floor. “We’ll need to keep the door closed at all times. I don’t want the vultures to know where I am.”
“And who would the vultures be?”
“Reporters. Bloodsuckers, every last one of them.”
He reached into his back pocket, held his press pass in front of her face, and hitched a brow. “Don’t worry, I only cover real news. Let’s go.”
For a second, she looked afraid, like he might root through her garbage or snap pictures of her naked. Then she must’ve realized that his mother—her crisis manager—wouldn’t have sent her to the lion’s den, and she went back to copping an attitude.
“Where?” She folded her arms over her chest.
“To your new safe house.”
She perked up. “I hope it has a pool. It’s hot here.”
He was pretty sure that was her lame attempt at sarcasm.
“Yep. Five-star accommodations,” he tossed back. “Pack up your stuff.”
He got a fresh shirt from his closet, sent the rest of her luggage down in the hay elevator— one of the things he’d kept before the redo—and met her at the bottom of the stairs. She scrolled through her phone while he loaded her baggage into the back of his Range Rover.
“Careful with that,” she said as he hefted one of her suiters. “My laundry service pressed everything and I doubt there’s a good dry cleaner’s anywhere around here.” She stared out over the pastureland and shuddered as if she were stuck in a hellhole.
He held his tongue, looking forward to being rid of her. Never mind that the ranch was his lifeblood, everything that mattered.
“Hop in,” he said, blasted the AC, and got on a rutted dirt road that followed the creek through a copse of trees that opened up to a clearing of green-colored fields. In the distance, the Sierra mountain range, covered in Ponderosa pines, loomed large. And green. It had been a wet winter.
Not a mile away, he cut the engine in front of a small cottage. The now-vacant log cabin used to be his cousin Cash’s and every time Sawyer saw the broken steps, the sagging porch and the screen door that hung on one hinge, he hummed a few bars of “Dueling Banjos.”
“Welcome home.” He reached across her lap and swung open the passenger-seat door.
“You’re kidding?” She squirmed. “You’re punking me for calling you a bloodsucker, aren’t you?”
“I’m not that petty.” The heat hit him the second he jumped down from the cab. Hopefully, Cash had left the old swamp cooler in the cabin when he and his daughter, Ellie, moved across the creek.
“Watch your step, now.” He waited for her to trail him up the rickety stairs, found the key under the mat, and held the door open for her.
“Uh-uh, I’m not going in there first.” She waved her hand over the threshold for him to take the lead.
He went inside and flicked on a light. To air the place out—it stunk of dead animals—he opened a few windows.
There wasn’t much to the cabin. Just one large space that made up the living room, kitchen, and eating nook. Off a narrow hallway there were two bedrooms and a bathroom. The smaller of the two bedrooms had been decorated in pink and white stripes when Ellie had come to live with Cash. The rest of the cabin was a depressing beige, although some of the walls were made from rough-hewn logs.
“Can’t beat the views,” he said and gazed out the window. “You can fish right off the front porch.”
Even if the porch appeared to be held together with a piece of chewing gum, it was safe. “It’s been here for a hundred years; it’s not going anywhere.”
She lifted her chin and locked eyes with him. “Sotheby’s called and said to tell you you’re fired.”
Sawyer ignored her. “It’s also furnished.” He motioned at a dun-colored sofa that he was pretty sure Cash had found on the side of the road somewhere.
“Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn?” She folded her arms over her chest and clenched her jaw so tight Sawyer thought she might crack a molar. “I can’t possibly stay here.”
The cabin might not be the Palace of Versailles, but it was certainly livable. Cash and his now thirteen-year-old had managed here just fine. All it needed was a good scrubbing and, depending on how long she planned to stay, Ms. FoodFlicks Star with the stick up her ass could afford to buy herself some decent furniture on the internet.
He brushed by her and hauled her luggage inside. “Well, I’ll leave you to unpack and get settled. Just holler if you need anything.”
He was making his way down the front-porch stairs when a Louis Vuitton cosmetic bag sailed past his head and landed in the dirt. “You cannot leave me here. This place…this dump…it should be condemned.”
He pointed across the creek to another cabin. Unlike Gina’s, that cabin had graced the pages of Sunset Magazine and Country Living. “My cousin and his wife and kid live there. Aubrey’s an interior decorator. For the right price, she’ll hook you up.” Sawyer kept walking.
“Why do you hate me?”
He stopped and turned around to face her. “I don’t hate you, I don’t even know you. But to be real honest, you haven’t made the best impression. You seem pretty damn self-entitled, if you ask me. This isn’t a resort: It’s a working cattle ranch. And I’m not your servant. The only reason you’re still here is because I love my mother. She’s a pain in the ass, but there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”
She started to respond and he held up his hands. “I haven’t slept in three days. I’m going home now. If you need your car—which, by the way, prevents me from parking in my own garage—just follow the dirt road we took to get here. There’s a grocery store and a coffee shop in Dry Creek, thirteen miles from here off the highway, when you get hungry.”
He got in his Range Rover, discovered he’d hit that point where he was too exhausted to sleep, and headed to Jace’s ranch house instead. Sawyer was greeted with a snout in his crotch by Sherpa, Jace’s Australian shepherd. Scout, the other mutt, rolled on his back for a belly scratch. Sawyer obliged, then let himself in the back door.
“Anyone home?” The house was unusually quiet.
“In here,” Jace called from his study.
Sawyer found him behind his desk, staring at a spreadsheet. He sank into the sofa. “Where is everyone? And what are you working on?”
“Ranch expenses.” Jace looked up from his paperwork and rubbed his hand down his face. “Charlie’s with Aubrey at a flea market. Justin and Grady are at friends. How was your trip?”
“Good, until I got home.”
Jace laughed. “Your mom called. I know all about your houseguest. I never heard of her, but Charlie and Aubrey went nuts. They say she’s a big deal. Has a cooking show, huh?”
“Yep, or rather she had a cooking show.”
Jace nodded. “Though your ma didn’t get into too many details, it was clear this DeRose woman is on the tabloids’ shit list.”
“She’s probably on everyone’s shit list. Have you met her yet?”
Jace jerked his head in surprise. “Last night for a few minutes, after I gave her the key to your place. She seemed more than pleasant. Friendly, self-deprecating. Likes dogs.”
Sawyer didn’t think they were talking about the same person. “That must’ve been her nicer twin. I moved her to Cash’s old cabin. Hope you’re okay with that.”
“It’s vacant.” Jace hitched his shoulders. “Better her than varmints.”
Sawyer leaned back on the couch. “I’m not so sure about that. Unlike you, I had a different experience. Only thirty minutes in her presence and I already can’t stand her.”
Jace chuckled. “How long is she staying?”
“I’ve got no idea. I guess until her troubles blow over and there’s a new celebrity scandal for the public to obsess over. As long as she keeps out of my way, I don’t care.”
Sawyer bobbed his head at Jace’s spreadsheet. “You figure out how to pay for this place yet?”
The Daltons had always been cattle ranchers. But when the drought came, Grandpa Dalton had been forced to cull the herd. Now, Sawyer and his two cousins ran about a hundred head. The income it generated wasn’t enough to cover the expenses of the taxes, insurance, and upkeep on 500 acres. Their goal this summer was to find sustainable ways the ranch could bring in more money.
“Working on it,” Jace said. “A lot will depend on how well Charlie and Aubrey’s home goods store and design studio does. If the business takes off and brings traffic to the ranch, we’ll have a better chance of leasing out space to other shops.”
Sawyer wasn’t thrilled with the idea. He didn’t want a business park on the unspoiled land that had been in the Dalton family for four generations. But he supposed it was better than developing the property and turning it into a gated community of mini-mansions, swimming pools, and clubhouses. Or even worse: A Sam’s Club with a giant parking lot.
“Let’s make sure these shops have an agritourism vibe and not an outlet center feel.”
“You think Cash and I would do that? Give me a break, Sawyer. We’re looking at Harris Ranch as a model.”
Besides producing something like 150 million pounds of beef a year, the Harris family had turned their San Joaquin Valley cattle ranch and feedlot into an attraction for motorists traveling between Southern and Northern California. They offered luxury lodging, dining, and a gift shop. The whole setup had become a California institution, as well as a license to mint money.
“A bit of a tall order, don’t you think?” Sawyer stretched out, hanging his boots off the edge of the couch. “What makes Harris Ranch work is that it’s halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and there’s nothing else for miles. Dry Creek isn’t on the way to anywhere.”
Jace wadded up a piece of paper and threw it at Sawyer. “Whatever happened to your standard ‘Go big, or go home’? We’re on the route to Reno. Best ski resorts in California are only an hour away. But you don’t have to be so literal about it. I’m using Harris Ranch in theory. We’re not talking about building a one-hundred-fifty-room inn or a steak house. Just businesses that subscribe to the ranching way of life that’ll attract tourists and locals.”
“Hell, I don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
“Maybe we could become a halfway house for disgraced celebrity chefs.”
Jace’s lips twitched at Sawyer’s sneer. “She really got under your skin, didn’t she?”
“She’s a piece of work. Threw a bag at me because she didn’t like her accommodations. The woman’s lucky I didn’t throw her out in the street and drop a dime to a food blogger friend of mine at Eater.”
“I don’t think your folks would be too thrilled with that. But we have some horse stalls that need mucking if you want her to earn her keep.”
The idea appealed to Sawyer. Nothing like shoveling horse shit to bring a person down to earth. “Hopefully, she won’t be here long. My gut tells me after a few days in the heat without air-conditioning, she’ll pack up and book herself into a Ritz-Carlton somewhere.”
Sawyer’s stomach growled. Besides some nuts and pretzels on the plane, he hadn’t had a real meal since leaving the UK. “You got anything to eat?”
“I think there’s some leftover meat loaf in the fridge. Help yourself.”
Sawyer got to his feet and wandered into the kitchen. It was the best room in the house, which was saying a lot, because the log rancher was a showstopper. His grandfather had spared no expense on the house, with its thirty-five-foot high ceilings, enormous stone fireplaces, rough-hewn log walls, and enough windows to take in views of the foothills on four sides.
Jace had grown up in the ranch house and had been raised by their grandparents after his mother, father, and baby brother had been killed by a drunken driver on Highway 49.
Although Sawyer had grown up in Los Angeles, he’d spent much of his youth sitting at the massive center island in this room, sneaking his grandmother’s home-baked cookies from the pantry before dinner, and eating countless pancake breakfasts with his cousins. As kids, he and his sister, Angela, spent every holiday and summer at the ranch.
Dry Creek had always felt more like home than his parents’ sprawling Beverly Hills compound.
He found the meat loaf and a bowl of leftover mashed potatoes, fixed a plate, and heated it in the microwave. While waiting, he nursed a bottle of beer. It looked like his afternoon nap was on hold. Probably better to stay awake until his regular bedtime to fight his jet lag anyway.
“You get a lot out of the conference?” Jace joined him at the island.
Sawyer shrugged. “It was mostly a bunch of journalists drinking and networking. At least while I was there, I did a few interviews for a piece I’m working on for Forbes about globalization.” He was happy to be back in the swing of things. For the last year, he’d been chained to a desk, writing a book about the war in Afghanistan.
The microwave dinged and Sawyer took his food to the breakfast table. “You on call today?”
“I’m always on call; the joy of being sheriff. So far, though, it’s been a slow Saturday.”
“Nice,” Sawyer said around a mouthful. “What’s Cash up to?”
“Dunno. Probably with Ellie. She might’ve had a horse show today. Have you seen her jump? The kid’s good. We might have an Olympian on our hands.”
“Sounds like she takes after Angie, huh?” Unlike the rest of them—and much to their grandfather’s horror—Sawyer’s sister had preferred English riding to Western. Grandpa Dalton had given her no end of grief about her preference.
Sawyer would do anything to be able to tease her about it again.
He ate the last of his meat loaf and potatoes and polished off the rest of his beer. A second wave of exhaustion hit him and he considered taking a dip in the creek to wake himself up.
“Thanks for the meat loaf.” He cleared his plate. “We grilling tomorrow?” It was a Sunday tradition Jace had started last summer. They gathered in his backyard around the outdoor kitchen for suppertime and ended the evening with the kids roasting marshmallows over the firepit.
“Yep,” Jace said. “Bring beer. None of that weird shit.”
Sawyer rolled his eyes. Jace’s taste was as pedestrian as anyone’s. Cash’s wasn’t much better. “Sure, something from 7-Eleven, preferably in a can. While I’m at it, I’ll get some boxed wine.” He headed out, calling behind him, “See you tomorrow.”
When he got home there were four missed calls on his phone. All from his mother.
Gina walked around the cabin, trying to decide whether to find the nearest hotel or haul ass back to Los Angeles. Ultimately, the prospect of the paparazzi chasing her down Interstate 5 convinced her to stay put.
But this place.
She held her nose and spent the next ten minutes wheeling her suitcases into what served as the master bedroom. With an old dish towel from the kitchen, she dusted down the closet and bureau before unpacking. Terry cloth wasn’t enough to clean the bathroom. A gallon of gasoline and a match might be the only way to save it.
Nevertheless, she found a can of scouring powder and some steel wool under the kitchen sink and we. . .
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