The last thing in the world Zane McCord wants is a wife. But after returning home to the family ranch in Montana to help his cousins search for the lost treasure that is their legacy, Zane can't help notice that love and marriage seem to be contagious. Both his cousins have succumbed, but he refuses. Determined to stay a bachelor till he dies, Zane wants to devote his time to filming documentaries and taking care of the ranch...and then Riley Mason walks into his life. The last thing on Riley Mason's mind is romance. Sent to the McCord ranch to save the family's accounting problems, she only wants to impress her firm in Helena and be on her way. Life as a single mother isn't easy and she needs to impress her bosses for a raise. But when Zane McCord opens the door, her breath catches in her throat and a desire she's never experienced before takes over her. When the McCords insist that she and her daughter, Summer stay at the ranch, she's forced to give in and before long, she's pulled into their search for the long lost treasure. But she absolutely draws the line at getting involved with Zane McCord, playboy and heartbreaker extraordinaire. But as they all get closer to finding Coot's lost treasure, a dangerous series of accidents target Riley and her daughter Summer. Can Zane keep her safe while trying to win her heart?
Release date: November 1, 2010
Print pages: 382
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R. C. Ryan
Hey, guys. Wait for me.” Six-year-old Zane McCord struggled under the weight of the saddle and watched in consternation as
his cousins, eight-year-old Wyatt and nine-year-old Jesse, started out of the barn on horseback.
“We’re heading up to Treasure Chest Butte.” Jesse pulled down the brim of his hat. “Catch up if you can. We don’t have time
to wait for babies.”
From his position in one of the stalls, wrangler Jimmy Eagle watched as the little boy used an overturned bucket to finally
get the saddle in place. Chubby little fingers struggled to tighten the cinch.
It was on the tip of Jimmy’s tongue to offer to lend a hand, but he knew he would be rebuffed. Zane McCord may be the youngest
of the three cousins who lived here on the Lost Nugget Ranch with their parents and grandparents, but he was already a tough-minded,
independent little cuss.
Minutes later Zane used the same overturned bucket to pull himself onto the back of his horse. By the time he’d cleared the barn, he could just make out two wide-brimmed hats in
the distance as his cousins’ horses topped a ridge.
Half an hour later, when Jesse and Wyatt finally slowed their mounts to a walk, Zane and his pony caught up to them.
“You should’ve waited.” His face was red, his shirt stained with sweat from the broiling sun.
Jesse grinned at Wyatt. “You should’ve asked one of the wranglers to help you with that saddle.”
“Why should I? You don’t ask for help.”
“I’m not little.”
“Neither am I. And I don’t need anybody’s help.”
His two cousins shared a laugh before starting up at a brisk pace.
If they’d thought to leave Zane behind again, they were soon reminded of his steely determination when he urged his pony into
a gallop to take the lead, leaving them to eat his dust.
Hours later the three boys sat on a rock shelf, surveying the lush rangeland spread out before them as far as the eye could
Wyatt polished off the last of the sandwiches the ranch cook had provided. “What’re you going to be when you grow up, Jesse?”
Their oldest cousin never even hesitated. “A cowboy. Like my dad and Coot.”
Their grandfather, called a crazy old coot for spending a lifetime searching this land for a fortune in gold nuggets that
had been found and then lost by his ancestors, had embraced the nickname. Even his grandsons called him, with great affection,
“How about you, Zane?”
“Yeah. A cowboy. But I don’t want to work with cattle.” The youngest chugged from a canteen of lukewarm water. “See those
mustangs?” He pointed to a herd of wild horses grazing across the valley. “I’d love to spend time with them. See if they’d
trust me enough to let me ride one.”
Wyatt chuckled. “You’ve been watching too many movies. People don’t live with mustangs.”
Jesse nodded. “Coot says they eat our crops, trample our rangeland, and steal some of his best fillies every spring.”
Zane got to his feet, shading the late afternoon sun from his eyes. “I think they’re beautiful.”
“Don’t tell Coot that. He says the only thing they’re good for is the glue factory. Come on.” Wyatt pulled himself into the
saddle. “We’ve got a long ride ahead of us if we’re going to make it home by dark.”
As they headed back to the house, Zane trailed behind, his gaze wandering again and again to the herd. He was fascinated by
the way the stallion patrolled the perimeter, keeping his mares safe from predators.
He knew what the ranchers around here thought of mustangs. It didn’t matter. There was just something about a herd of wild
horses living free on open rangeland that stirred his young heart. Not every creature, he thought fiercely, should be tamed.
“Here, now.” Jimmy Eagle had spotted a light on in the barn and ambled in only to find twelve-year-old Zane McCord busy tying a bedroll behind his horse’s saddle. “It’s almost midnight, son. You ought to be asleep up in the big house.
What’re you up to?”
Zane ducked his head, hoping to hide his tears. He was too big to cry. If his cousins found out about it, they’d never let
him live it down. “I’m leaving.”
“I can see that.”
Very deliberately the wrangler forced himself to lean on the rail and assume a relaxed pose. He’d already heard about the
latest fight between the boy’s folks, Melissa and Wade. For years Wade’s wife had been pressing to leave the ranch and its
simple lifestyle for a more glamorous life far from Montana. If the rumors were true, this time she’d managed to push Wade
over the edge, and he’d agreed to take her wherever she chose to live.
“Where’re you headed?” Keeping his gaze averted so the boy had time to wipe away his tears, Jimmy stuck a piece of straw between
Zane pulled himself into the saddle. “I don’t know. I just know I can’t stay here.”
As he started out of the barn, Jimmy opened a nearby stall and led his horse into the night air. He had no need of a saddle.
A full-blooded Blackfoot, he’d spent his childhood on the reservation riding bareback. It was second nature to him.
When Zane heard the sound of a second set of hoofbeats, he turned. “You going to try to stop me?”
Jimmy shook his head. “Just figured I’d ride along. That is, if you don’t mind some company.”
“Suit yourself.” Zane dug in his heels and his big black gelding broke into a run.
Behind him, Jimmy’s spotted pony kept up an easy pace as they ate up the miles of rangeland under a full moon.
When at last they came to the top of a rise, Zane slowed his mount and slid from the saddle by the banks of the creek. Jimmy
did the same. The boy dropped down in the dew-dampened grass, choking back the lump in his throat.
A short distance away the two horses stood, blowing and snorting from the exertion.
Zane looked up at the moon. “Dad said we have to leave the Lost Nugget. He said he’s been selfish to keep Mom here all these
years. Now it’s her turn for some happiness, and we just have to suck it up.”
Jimmy held his silence, knowing the boy needed to get it all out.
Zane turned to the man who had always been his best friend. “How can I leave here, Jimmy? How can Dad ask me to? I love it
here. I can’t stand the thought of not being with Coot. With Jesse and Wyatt. With you.”
Jimmy took a blow to his heart.
“Oh, Jimmy.” The boy buried his face in his hands and gave in to a fresh round of tears.
Jimmy gathered him in his arms and let him cry until, with a shuddering sigh, Zane pushed away and blew his nose in his bandanna.
A light came into his eyes as a thought struck. “You think maybe I could find a herd of mustangs and just live with them?”
“I suppose you could. If you were older. Right now, you’ve just got to do what your ma and pa want you to do. Whether you
like it or not.”
“But what am I supposed to do in California?”
“Is that where you’re headed?”
“Hollywood.” Zane spit the hated word.
Jimmy chose his words carefully. “The way I see it, wherever you’re planted, you’ll need to go to school and do a heap of
growing up. And when you’re old enough to make your own choices, you’ll have the smarts to make wise ones.”
“What if I never get to see you or Coot or this ranch again?”
Another blow, and Jimmy absorbed the pain. He knew exactly how Zane felt. He couldn’t imagine life here on the ranch without
this boy who had been his shadow since he was little more than a pup.
“The good thing about life is that we can’t see what tomorrow will bring. If we did, son, some of us wouldn’t want to live
another day. But this much I know: You’re tougher and smarter than most. For now, for the next few years, you just have to
stay the course and endure whatever life hands you. And if it’s meant to be, you’ll find your way home.”
He dropped an arm around Zane’s shoulders as the two walked back to the horses.
They rode the entire distance back to the ranch in silence.
By the time the sun rose, the boy and his parents were in their van, heading down the long, gravel road. Away from all that
was familiar and loved, and toward the unknown.
Jimmy Eagle stood in the dust and watched until they were out of sight, and fought back tears of his own.
Hoo, boy.” Zane McCord grinned when he walked into the big kitchen of the Lost Nugget ranch house and caught sight of his cousins,
Jesse and Wyatt. “You two look a whole lot better’n those cows I’ve been tending.”
Jesse grinned. “Two weeks up in the hills, and you look more like a grizzly than a human.”
Zane ran a hand over his rough beard. “The cattle don’t care what we look like as long as we deliver food in the snow.”
Though spring had arrived in Montana, the mountains were still hip-deep in drifts. A storm had dropped nearly a foot of snow
the previous weekend.
Cal Randall, foreman of the Lost Nugget, turned from the stove where he was filling a mug with coffee. “These late snowfalls
play hell with the calving.”
“Yeah. But the flip side is”—Zane pulled a tiny video camera from his shirt pocket—“I got some fabulous shots of the hills buried in fresh snow. They’ll make a great background for the introduction I’m planning for my documentary. I
can see the camera panning a vast, snow-covered wilderness, while a voice intones, ‘When Coot McCord died, the town of Gold
Fever called him crazy for having spent a lifetime searching for the lost treasure of his ancestors. How could anyone in his
right mind believe one man could find a sack of gold nuggets in such a primitive setting? But Coot’s grandsons pledged at
his graveside to carry on his search. This, then, is the record of one family’s dream, and the successful conclusion of a
treasure hunt that began in 1862, at Grasshopper Creek, in the Montana wilderness.’ ”
“Sounds great, cuz.” Wyatt punched his arm. “Especially that part about the successful conclusion. The sooner the better.”
“Yeah. Hey, it’s slow going, but we’re all committed.”
Jesse nodded. “I’ve found another piece of equipment I’d like to have shipped out here as soon as the snow melts up in the
“Good. I wish we could find a piece of radar that could see through tons of rock.”
The three shared a grin as Jesse added, “If such a thing is ever invented, we’ll be the first to buy it.”
“Hey, Zane.” Jesse’s wife, Amy, stepped into the kitchen. “Welcome back to civilization.”
Jesse and Amy embraced and even when they moved apart, Amy kept her arm around his waist.
“You staying for supper?” she asked Zane.
“Depends. What’s Dandy fixing?”
“Slow-cooked pot roast.”
Their ranch cook had been with the family for more than thirty years, and he knew just how to please a hardworking cowboy. From fiery chili to perfectly grilled steaks, nobody in
Montana made better meals than Dandy Davis.
“I’m definitely not giving up Dandy’s pot roast for Daffy Spence’s greasy burgers.”
At his reference to Daffy, owner of the Fortune Saloon in the nearest town of Gold Fever, the others began laughing just as
Wyatt’s bride, Marilee, stepped through the doorway and paused to brush a kiss over her husband’s cheek. “Hello, you.”
“Hello, yourself.” Wyatt affectionately brushed a lock of red hair from her eye.
Zane turned to Cal with a mock shudder. “There’s just way too much of this newlywed affection going on here. I hope it isn’t
“I wouldn’t worry, if I were you.” Cal shared a laugh with the others. “We’ve seen the way you keep cutting fresh fillies
out of the herd and then discarding them.”
Zane smiled. “So many women. So little time.”
“So I’ve noticed.” Cal grinned. “I think your bachelor days won’t be threatened until you’re old and gray.”
“Like you, Cal?”
The old cowboy chuckled before ducking his head in embarrassment.
It occurred to Zane that the only woman who ever really got Cal’s attention was their aunt, Cora McCord. An artist who was
a bit of an eccentric, she was more comfortable wearing her brother’s cast-off clothing while she worked in her studio. And
though her paintings brought fabulous sums of money from art patrons around the world, she remained a simple woman who had
turned her back on the European art scene to live in her beloved Montana.
“Where’s Aunt Cora?”
“Off on one of her nature campouts. While a spring blizzard rages.”
Zane heard the worry in Cal’s voice and was quick to soothe. “She’ll be fine, Cal. And if she doesn’t check in tonight, we’ll
send the cavalry after her.”
“I’ll be leading the charge,” the foreman said firmly.
Zane gave him a long look. “Is that a clean shirt in the middle of the day?”
Cal nodded. “Thought I’d clean up for the interview.”
“Interview?” Zane glanced around. “What’ve I missed?”
Cal took a sip of coffee before saying, “With Coot gone, I’m buried in paperwork. I complained to our accounting firm in Helena,
and they agreed to send me their new hotshot bookkeeper to clean up the mess.”
“A hotshot bookkeeper is coming all this way?”
“Schooled in the East.” Cal took a sip of coffee. “Guy named Riley Mason.”
“A city boy?” The cousins shared a grin. “How long do you think he’ll last out here?”
Cal shrugged. “Depends. The last one they sent lasted all of four days before he said he needed to get back to civilization.
Can’t say I blame him. If he’s used to spending his off-hours at coffeehouses or bars, there’s just not that much to entice
him into feeling at home here. And after a visit to town, and a night at the Fortune Saloon, what’s left? So I told them to
send someone who’s not only sharp, but willing to spend a lot of his downtime doing ordinary things like reading or watching
Zane nodded in agreement. “How long would you like him to stay?”
Cal thought about it. “I guess that depends on what he finds. I figure he’s going to need a couple of weeks, maybe months,
to get everything into a computer database so the Helena firm can handle all those mysterious government forms that need to
be filled out in triplicate.”
“Where will he stay?”
Cal pointed his mug toward the doorway. “He can have his pick of empty rooms. There’s that bedroom next to the office that
would probably work best.”
“If he doesn’t mind living in a cave.” Marilee gave a throaty chuckle. “Maybe you can keep him chained to his desk, Cal. Then
he can clear up the paperwork in half the time.”
“Believe me, I’d be happy to, as long as I wouldn’t have to deal with legal documents ever again. I don’t know how Coot could
stand doing all the paperwork involved in running this place.”
“Good luck with the interview. I’m more interested in supper.” Zane turned away, rubbing a hand over his bristly beard. “Excuse
me while I head upstairs for the longest shower and shave in history.”
He ambled out of the kitchen and was heading through the great room on his way to the stairs when he heard a knock on the
Since nobody but a stranger would ever use the front entrance, Zane was grinning good-naturedly as he grasped the knob and
threw open the door to admit the accountant.
Zane knew he was staring, but it took him a moment to switch gears. He’d expected a dark suit and he wasn’t disappointed.
And a firm handshake, which he returned woodenly. But the image of the nerdy accountant in his mind was replaced by a gorgeous female, dark hair slicked back into a knot at the back of her head, trim figure encased
in a knee-skimming dark skirt and figure-hugging jacket. And that was quite a figure to hug.
Then there was the voice. Soft and breathy, with just a hint of nerves.
“I’m Riley Mason. Are you Cal Randall?”
“No. Cal’s in his office.” Because she was female, and because it came naturally to him, Zane gave her one of his most charming
smiles. “My name’s Zane. I’ll show you the way.”
“That’s all right.” She took a step back, studying him warily. “Maybe I’ll just wait here and you can tell him I’ve arrived
for my interview.”
He realized, too late, that he probably smelled like a barnyard and looked like a trail bum, causing her to be completely
“At least wait inside.” He held the door wider, and she was forced to accept his invitation to step inside.
She did so hesitantly.
As she brushed past him, he breathed her in. Her hair smelled like a spring garden. Something light and floral and fresh as
For two long weeks he’d smelled nothing but horses and saddle leather and unwashed wranglers.
Pure heaven, he thought as he gave her one last look. “I’ll go get Cal.”
He sauntered away, leaving her standing in the foyer, staring after him.
Riley didn’t relax until the cowboy disappeared along a hallway. She’d known, of course, that the Lost Nugget was a working ranch. But she’d assumed that she would be isolated from the wranglers, since she’d been told they lived in
bunkhouses scattered across thousands of acres of rangeland.
Not that she felt herself above working cowboys. She’d been working since she was fifteen, and she was proud of it. But if
the men on the ranch looked anything like that one, she preferred to give them a wide berth. There had been a fierce, dangerous
look to him. Like a throwback to the cowboys of the Old West who could calmly shoot a gunslinger, toss back a glass of whiskey,
and ride out of town without a backward glance.
Silly, she knew. She’d always been cursed with a wild imagination. But being on a ranch in Montana was about as far from her
comfort zone as possible.
“You’re not in Philly anymore, little girl,” she muttered.
She watched the approach of a handsome, white-haired man. Now this was how she’d envisioned Cal Randall, foreman of the Lost
Nugget. Tall, rangy, weathered, and extremely courtly as he extended his hand.
“Riley Mason? Cal Randall.”
“So nice to meet you, Mr. Randall.”
“That’s too formal for my taste. Call me Cal.” He put a hand beneath her elbow. “Let’s go to my office and chat.”
They passed through an enormous room with a four-sided fireplace surrounded by comfortable furniture. The floor-to-ceiling
windows offered an incredible view of the towering spires of the mountains in the distance. Riley caught her breath at the
sheer beauty of it.
Before she could take it all in, Cal led her along a hallway and paused to open a set of double doors. Inside was a purely masculine retreat, complete with walls of shelves holding an assortment of leather-bound books and yet another
Cal settled himself into a leather chair behind an oversize desk littered with paperwork. He indicated a chair across from
him and Riley perched on the edge of the seat.
Seeing her nerves, he strove to put her at ease. “Tell me about yourself, Riley.”
“I’m twenty-four. Fresh out of college.” She flushed. “I took some time off to work, so that set me back a bit. I’ve worked
since I was fifteen. Mostly as a clerk in a local store, and at a coffeehouse off-campus. I’m trained in accounting. But I
have to be honest with you.” She stared openly at the mountains of paperwork that spilled from open file drawers and was piled
haphazardly on top of every available surface. “I just don’t know how much help I can be until I have a chance to look over
some of this. It looks—”
Cal interrupted. “I know what you mean.” He tapped a pen against the desktop. “It intimidates the hell out of me.”
That had the desired effect, causing her to relax a bit as she matched his grin.
“I’m current with state and federal guidelines on fees and assessments, and even though I haven’t been in Montana long, I
know I can get up to speed on local issues as well.”
She dug an envelope out of her pocket and set it on the desk. “Our firm suggested independent assessments of my work. These
are the e-mail addresses of my immediate superiors at our Philadelphia firm, and also my college professors who are familiar
with me. They agreed to answer any questions you might have about my abilities. They were in contact with the firm in Helena
before I was hired.”
She took in a breath. “I’ve been apprised of your business and I’m of course prepared to handle daily sheets and payroll.
I think I could get all the necessary paperwork ready for our CPA firm in Helena. And though I can’t promise miracles, I’m
pretty sure I could get most of this”—she indicated the desk—“cleaned up and in some sort of order. But, as I said, neither
of us will really know what I’m capable of until I take a look at the work you need done.”
Cal grinned. “That was quite a mouthful.”
Riley flushed, knowing he had seen through her prepared remarks. She’d rehearsed them all the way out here.
“I don’t value speed nearly as much as I value efficiency. I told the firm that I want someone who will take the time to simplify
this paperwork and make my job run smoothly.” Cal leaned back in his chair. “And, to make your job a bit easier, I’m prepared
to offer you a room here.”
She seemed surprised. “The firm didn’t say anything about living on the ranch.”
“Is that a problem?”
She hesitated. “Before driving out here, I arranged for a room in Gold Fever, with a lady named Delia Cowling, who was recommended
by a banker in Helena.”
Cal smiled. “I know Delia. Her brother was owner of the Gold Fever bank before his untimely death.” He thought a minute. “As
you know, the ranch is an hour’s drive from town. Living here could save you time, as well as gas and wear and tear on your
The way she was chewing on her lower lip told Cal that something was bothering her. “Of course, the decision is up to you,
Riley. I certainly don’t want you to find yourself in an uncomfortable situation.”
She took a deep breath. “I didn’t come to town alone. I have a four-year-old daughter.”
“Oh.” It was Cal’s turn to be surprised. “Is your husband okay with the hours you’ll be away?”
Her head came up. “My husband?”
“I figure he’ll be stuck with some of the child care if you sign on for this.”
Riley realized she’d been sitting on the edge of her seat. She sat back in the chair and met Cal’s questioning look directly.
“I didn’t mean to mislead you. I don’t have a husband. I’ve never been married. There’s just Summer and me.”
“I see.” He saw more. Much more. Though the job interview may have unnerved her, questions about her private life were infinitely
more painful. This was obviously not the first time she’d been asked about her unmarried status. Though she was direct and
honest, she didn’t volunteer any more information than necessary. Despite her honest explanation, he could see the way her
chin came up, waiting for him to throw the first punch.
“You haven’t said if you’d be willing to live here on the ranch.”
“I… I’d be more than willing, as long as you understand that I’d be bringing along my daughter.”
“That’s fine with me.” Cal stared at the envelope she’d dropped on his desk. “I don’t need to check any further references,
Riley. Our firm in Helena had nothing but good things to say about your work. That’s good enough for me. So, if you’re agreeable,
I’d like you to get started as quickly as possible.”
His abrupt end to the interview caught her by surprise. She’d expected Cal Randall, once he’d heard about her daughter, to use her references, or possibly her lack of experience, as an excuse to dismiss her. She’d expected him to be
like so many others who judged her without even knowing her.
And he had, she realized. But he was judging her by her work ethic, and not by her personal life.
Cal got to his feet and leaned across the desk to extend his hand. “If you’d like to wait in the great room, I’ll phone the
firm in Helena and affirm your employment.”
She was reeling from the speed with which he’d come to a decision.
She stood and offered her hand. “Thanks for giving me this opportunity, Cal.” She turned toward the door.
“Can you find your way?” he called to her retreating back.
“Yes. I’m fine with it.” Riley closed the door and backtracked until, pausing in the massive great room, she sank into an
overstuffed chair, feeling a wave of giddy relief.
Needing to calm her nerves, she closed her eyes and took long, deep breaths until her heartbeat returned to normal.
Zane was whistling as he descended the stairs and headed toward the kitchen. He’d noted the door to Cal’s office was closed,
and he wondered about the foreman’s reaction to the new guy, Riley. That had Zane grinning. It was a natural mistake, and
they’d all been guilty. Who’d have believed the new hire would be female? And so darned pretty.
In the great room he came to an abrupt halt. The object of his thoughts was seated in a chair, hands folded in her lap, head back, eyes closed, practicing some sort of deep breathing.
Yoga? he wondered.
He took that moment to study her more closely, enjoying the way a lock of dark hair had fallen from that prim knot to curl
against her cheek. Such a pretty, dimpled cheek. Everything about her was pretty. And soft. From the lips, pursed as though
in prayer, to the gentle curve of her eyebrows.
Just then her eyes opened and she caught him staring.
At the sound of his voice her eyes widened in recognition. “You’re… the one I met at the front door.”
“Yes, of course. Zane.”
“When do you get to tackle Cal’s office mess?”
“Whenever he wants me to start.”
“I’d say the sooner the better. Cal doesn’t have much patience with paperwork.”
“That’s what he told me.” She laughed. “Fortunately, it’s what I do best.”
Just then Cal stepped into the room. “You two getting acquainted?”
“Yeah. When does Riley start?”
Cal turned to her. “You’ll need tomorrow to move your things out here and get settled in. Then you can start the following
. . .
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