When it’s time to get back in the saddle again, there’s no better place than the picturesque mountain town of Nugget, California . . . A financial whiz with her own advice show, Gia Treadwell is passionate about helping people maximize their potential. But when her boyfriend—make that ex-boyfriend—steals millions with an epic Ponzi scheme, Gia is promptly run out of town. It’s the perfect opportunity to revisit an old dream—one that apparently involves naked cowboys . . . Flynn Barlow didn’t expect anyone to walk in on him showering at the empty ranch where his family’s cattle have always grazed. Even more surprising, the new ranch owner plans to turn it into a residential training program for women who need a hand up. A smart, gorgeous woman with a worthy cause? In Flynn’s experience, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. Sharing the ranch doesn’t mean Flynn and Gia have to get along, but riding together isn’t the problem. It’s the scorching chemistry they can’t ignore. And if they figure out a way to add trust to the mix, they’ll soon be sharing more than just a ranch . . . Praise For Stacy Finz “Finz is a unique new voice. Nugget, California is a charming small town filled with inventive characters and sweet romance." —Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author of the Lucky Harbor Series "Tender and touching, Stacy Finz writes romance with heart." —Marina Adair, #1 National bestselling author of Summer in Napa
Release date: December 6, 2016
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 278
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On the vanity, next to a shaving kit, sat a pistol.
She froze, let out a bloodcurdling scream that anywhere else would’ve brought in the National Guard, and ran for her life.
But it was a huge, unfamiliar house, situated in the middle of nowhere, and by the time Gia found her way to the front room, feet from the door, the shower intruder was hot on her trail.
“Calm down, lady.” He fumbled with the buttons on his jeans while simultaneously dripping water from his bare chest onto the hardwood floor.
She quickly sized him up and came to the petrifying conclusion that he could crush her like a bug. At least six two, he had about seventy or eighty pounds on her, every ounce of it solid. Judging by his muscled arms, he could snap her neck with one fluid motion. Or just shoot her.
What if he was one of the men who’d sent the death threats? There’d been more than a dozen, some so graphic she’d had to double security before selling her penthouse.
But Gia was a New Yorker. Resourceful. Able to survive the mean streets of the city—and the wolves of Wall Street—on her wits alone. Too bad she’d left her can of pepper spray in her purse on the bed in the master bedroom along with her car keys.
She remembered a self-defense class from years back. The teacher had told a room full of attentive women that when under attack they should grab anything that could be used as a weapon. One of the students had bragged that she’d beaten a subway mugger into submission with an umbrella. Scanning the room, Gia’s eyes fell on a rifle hanging on the wall like a trophy. It was displayed under a moose head, clearly the weapon that had been used to kill the poor animal. She pried it loose from its bronze hanger and pointed it at shower man.
Unconcerned that she had a firearm aimed at his center mass, he gave her a brazen once-over. Then he motioned his head at the gun. “I don’t think it’s loaded, but you should never point a weapon at someone unless you mean to shoot him.”
“I’ll shoot you.” It was a bluff. If push came to shove, Gia didn’t think she could pull the trigger.
Again, he eyed the rifle with indifference. “Yeah, I don’t think so. Otherwise you would’ve removed the safety.”
“Give me your pistol,” she said. He looked confused. “The one in the bathroom.”
“I don’t have it.” He held out both his hands. “Feel free to pat me down.”
She wasn’t getting anywhere near him. “Back up real slow.”
He glanced behind his shoulder. “Where we going?”
“Into the bedroom.”
“Yeah? Sounds good.” He flicked his gaze over her, eyeing her from head to toe. The guy thought he was a real comedian. “Why don’t you let me—”
“Not now.” She needed to concentrate and was reevaluating the bedroom idea. But that was where her cell phone was. Gia hadn’t seen a landline since she’d gotten here. She lifted the rifle so that the muzzle was pointed directly at his chest.
He rolled his eyes but mercifully kept quiet. They made it to the master suite without incident and with one hand Gia held the rifle against her shoulder, using the other one to search her purse for the phone.
Eureka! She punched 9-1-1 with her index finger, put the phone on speaker, and dropped it on the bed so she could resume holding the rifle with both hands.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
Gia would’ve sworn she saw her captive snicker. She promptly ignored him and told the operator her situation. The cavalry was on its way, thank goodness.
“You think I could put my shirt on before the cops get here?”
“No funny stuff.” She followed him into the bathroom, ordered him to stand against the wall, and warily removed his pistol from the vanity.
“What are you doing with that?” Now he wasn’t so funny.
“Taking it for safekeeping.”
“Okay, that one’s loaded.” He lowered his voice like he was afraid of spooking her. “Let’s sit down and talk it out like two adults. But first, put the gun down.”
She shook her head. “Not until the police come. Go ahead and put on your shirt. I won’t shoot you unless you come at me. I promise.” Gia placed the pistol in her jacket pocket.
She watched him pull a T-shirt out of a monogrammed leather satchel. Pretty nice luggage for a feckless squatter or a deranged stalker—whichever he was—but she wasn’t taking any chances. Not after what she’d been through.
He saw her take note of his case, dragged the tee over his head, and said, “If you’d given me a chance to explain—”
“I’ll let you explain, but not in here.” She didn’t like her chances in the bathroom. Too many sharp objects and too many opportunities for him to overpower her.
“You must be having a seriously bad day.”
She couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or trying to placate her but responded, “You don’t know the half of it. What are you doing?” She poked the rifle at him just so he understood she meant business. And to think she’d counted on being safe here.
“Take it easy. I just want to put this on.” He shrugged into a western shirt and snapped it closed. She supposed he wanted to look respectable for the police.
“Let’s move back into the living room.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
Once in the living room, she motioned for him to sit on the couch. She preferred not having him tower over her. He sat, stretching his long, denim-encased legs wide, resting his head against the brown leather as if he didn’t have a care in the world. She sat across from him on the chair.
“Why is it you look so familiar?”
“How would I know?” She knew of course. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Well, you’ve seen all of me now,” he said, flashing a straight row of pearly white teeth.
“I wouldn’t be so proud of that.” She let her gaze lower to his crotch, pretending to be unimpressed. “You walk here?” She hadn’t seen a vehicle in the driveway. If she had, she wouldn’t have been caught off guard.
“I drove. My truck is on the side.”
She got up, inched her way around the sofas without taking her eyes—or the rifle—off him, approached a large picture window, and pulled the heavy drapery aside. Sure enough, a shiny Ford F-150 hitched to an equally shiny stock trailer sat parked on the road that led to the barn. Her stomach dropped. Maybe he was a worker, not a stalker. Someone Dana, her real estate agent, had sent to make sure everything on the property was in order. Still, what the hell was he doing in her house? In her shower? Workers didn’t have carte blanche to her private quarters. Dana never would’ve given him permission for that. She knew how protective Gia was of her privacy and personal safety. Especially her safety.
Yet he didn’t seem too concerned that she’d called the police. Nor had he tried to subdue or evade her. Gia wasn’t so deluded as to think she actually had the upper hand here. As he’d pointed out, she didn’t even know where the safety was on the rifle.
Okay, perhaps she’d overreacted. Then again, who takes a handgun to the bathroom with him?
“I’m a little jumpy these days.” She returned to her chair.
“I hadn’t noticed,” he drawled.
Hey, buddy, if you ’d been through what I have . . .
“Start explaining,” she said. “Who are you and why are you in my house, using my shower?”
He’d started to answer when sirens rent the air. It was about time, though the ranch was a good fifteen minutes from town. Perhaps living so far away hadn’t been such a smart idea, given the state of her life these days. She could hear her pulse pounding, surely the aftermath of the adrenaline rush.
Her prisoner actually had the audacity to yawn.
She started to lecture him on his insolence when the police, including the chief, burst into the house.
The chief surveyed the scene and stopped short. “Hey, Flynn.” He dropped his pistol into its holster, carefully removed the hunting rifle from Gia’s hands, and passed it to one of his officers.
“Hey, Rhys.” The man . . . Flynn . . . got to his feet and nodded at his rapt audience. “Nut job here went off half-cocked.”
“That’s not true. He was in my shower . . . with a pistol.” She carefully took Flynn’s gun from her pocket and handed it to Rhys.
Rhys let out a breath and looked at Flynn. “You had a semiautomatic in the shower?”
Flynn snorted “My Glock was on the sink. I’d just come back from riding in the hills. You never know what you’ll run into up there.”
Rhys let out a breath. She’d only met the police chief once but got the distinct impression this was one of the trials of being a country cop that he didn’t particularly enjoy. According to Dana, he’d once been a big-time narcotics detective in Houston.
“Gia, meet Flynn Barlow.” The chief said it as if the name would clear up everything. Well, it didn’t. She didn’t know Flynn Barlow from Adam. More than likely, though, Flynn Barlow was starting to put together who she was.
When Rhys saw that the name Barlow wasn’t ringing any bells, he said, “He’s the guy who’s leasing your property . . . for his cattle.”
He was that Flynn Barlow. The previous owner, who was now serving time in prison, had made a deal with Barlow’s family that their cattle could graze on the thousand-acre ranch. As a term of the sale, she was forced to stick to their agreement.
“I don’t remember the lease including rights to my shower,” she huffed, but she was starting to feel foolish for her over-the-top behavior. But he’d had a gun, she reminded herself.
Rhys looked pointedly at Barlow.
“Old man Rosser said I should make myself at home until the new owner took over. The T Corporation”—Flynn glared at Gia—“wasn’t supposed to arrive for another week.”
“Well, the T Corporation is here, so don’t use her shower anymore. Problem solved.” Rhys turned on his heels and was about to leave when Gia stopped him.
“Escrow’s been closed since fall. This is my place.” She’d even purchased the furniture and the artwork, such as it was. She glanced at Bullwinkle hanging on the wall. “Mr. Barlow had no right coming into my house.”
Rhys pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ve established that. Are you saying you want to press charges? Is that how you want to play this?”
After the past six months she didn’t know how she wanted to play anything. That was why she’d blown off her meeting with her agent in New York and traveled to Nugget a week early. She’d needed peace to feel safe again. With the death threats, the surprise visits from the feds, the grand jury hearings, she was constantly on edge. That was why finding Barlow in her shower had been so frightening.
“No, of course not. But this house is off limits, Mr. Barlow.” It was supposed to be her sanctuary.
“Got it,” he said. “I’ll just get my bag and boots from your bathroom and move on.”
Rhys waited for Flynn to gather his things while Gia sat in the living room. The police chief probably thought she was a lunatic.
“You up for good now?” he asked her.
She nodded. For the second time in less than eight months she’d been told she was in the clear. But as long as her ex-boyfriend, Evan Laughlin, was missing, people would always suspect that she’d been part of his scheme. At least here in this Sierra Nevada railroad town, on this large parcel of land, she could hide from her former life. A life that had been abruptly ripped from her thanks to Evan and her stupidity about men.
“Is there really a T Corporation?” Rhys leaned against the mantel of her enormous fireplace, curiosity written in his body language. His backup had already taken off on another call.
She’d incorporated and bought the ranch under the phony name to hide her true identity, afraid that the media would catch wind of her multimillion-dollar acquisition. Buying a fancy estate while mired in the largest financial scandal in history wasn’t exactly prudent. But from the start, Rosser Ranch had called to her, representing everything she’d ever wanted in life. Security, roots, and the opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream.
“Of course there is,” she told him, knowing she wasn’t really answering the question. Last summer the town had discovered her true identity. But she’d never made it clear whether the T Corporation was a bona fide business or that she was its sole stakeholder.
“What is the corporation going to do with the place . . . or is it just you?”
Saving her from having to answer, Flynn came into the room carrying his leather satchel.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said, appearing somewhat contrite, though she suspected it was an act. With his perfect white teeth, chocolaty brown eyes, and cleft chin, the man obviously thought he was George Clooney and could talk his way out of anything. “See you around.”
God, she certainly hoped not.
Rhys followed Flynn out the door, leaving Gia alone in blessed solitude. She heard gravel sputter and watched out the front window as both men rode up her long driveway in their separate trucks. The place was all hers and Gia began aimlessly wandering the rooms of the eight-thousand-square-foot log home, taking in the soaring ceilings, the gorgeous hewn beams, and the views of endless fields, mountains, and the Feather River.
She’d planned to move in last fall, right after escrow closed. But the feds, who’d originally cleared Gia of collusion in Evan’s Ponzi scheme, had stunned her by reversing themselves and bringing her case before a federal grand jury. Jurors had ultimately failed to find enough probable cause to indict her. Nevertheless, her lawyers had advised her to stay in New York for the duration of the hearings.
Now she was here. Finally home, even if the place still felt foreign. She’d only been to Nugget a few times, once as a kid and then as an adult to scout out property.
Far from the ocean and with its freezing winters, this part of the state wasn’t the most coveted. But she’d liked what she’d seen. It was the way she remembered it from all those years ago. The last vacation before her dad had died from a massive heart attack. The town, which consisted primarily of a commercial district built around a verdant square, and the obligatory Main Street, wasn’t all that charming. Yet, only four hours northeast of San Francisco and less than three hours from Sacramento, it still managed to attract tourists.
The whole setup fit in perfectly with her long-term plan. All of it except Flynn Barlow and his cattle. But what could she do? His lease had been a condition of the sale and she’d wanted Rosser Ranch more than anything she could remember.
Gia continued to walk from room to room. The house dwarfed her New York penthouse, which she’d sold for a hefty sum. The first thing she’d do here was get rid of the animal-head trophies. Ray Rosser had been a big-game hunter and liked showing off his prizes. His last kill had been of the human variety, landing Rosser in prison for life.
Despite its ginormous size, the house was warm, like a ski lodge. In the kitchen, a caterer’s dream, there was a big basket on the center island. Gia read the card from Dana and unwrapped the cellophane to find a treasure trove of local delicacies, including chocolates, jams, beer, and two tickets for a train ride through Gold Country. She would thank her real estate agent later that evening, during dinner. The two had plans to meet at the Ponderosa—the only sit-down restaurant in town.
Small-town life would certainly take some getting used to. In New York she could eat at a different restaurant every day for years. But there was no turning back from this new leaf and even if Gia could, she didn’t want to. Not after what she’d been through. There was something that felt inordinately innocent about this mountain town.
Yeah, she laughed to herself, a place where a person felt perfectly entitled to sneak into her house and take full advantage of her shower.
Still pent up from the ordeal, she decided to take a stroll down to the barn. The sun was out and the air warm—a beautiful April day. She supposed spring came earlier in California than it did on the East Coast. The walk did her good after being crammed on an airplane all morning and then in a car for the forty-five-minute drive to Nugget.
She took her time hiking down to the paddocks and stable, stopping to admire a patch of yellow poppies and the clear blue sky. Nothing like the layer of smog that hung over Manhattan like a smoke cloud. The property went on forever. And despite the drought, there were plenty of lush, green fields, which Gia attributed to recent rain showers. Across the pasture, she saw cows—dozens of them—and let out a huff of frustration. The animals would put a crimp in her plans. But as she always said, where there’s a will there’s a way. Gia had plenty of determination left in spite of everything that had happened in the last several months, including losing a multimillion-dollar franchise. Her television show, her syndicated column, her financial self-help books, and her high-paying public appearances were all gone. Dust in the wind.
But Gia had this, she thought as she gazed out over miles upon miles of breathtaking land. The smell of bark and wildflowers and fresh grass . . . and something else. She would’ve sworn it was the musky scent of horses. But Rory wasn’t due to arrive until later in the week.
That was when she heard a soft neighing and followed the sound into the stable. There, in the end stall, was a black gelding. The quarter horse had to be at least sixteen hands high with a coat as shiny as a newborn foal’s. The big fellow was throwing his head as if happy to have company. The question was, where had he come from?
She flashed on Flynn Barlow’s stock trailer and the answer became all too clear. Apparently the SOB wasn’t satisfied to just steal the use of her shower; he’d helped himself to her barn as well.
The last man Gia knew with that kind of chutzpah had not only stolen her money and ruined her career, he’d stomped on her heart.
By the time Flynn got to Highway 70, Gia’s identity hit him like a lightning bolt. Funny how he’d watched her on television for years but out of context couldn’t place her.
Her financial show had always impressed him. Beauty and brains, a lethal combo where he was concerned. Who would’ve guessed she was crazier than a loon?
Then again, who would’ve guessed Miz Money Wizard would sleep with a crook?
Flynn had been watching the Evan Laughlin case play out in the media with a keen eye. It was just the sort of case he handled, first as an FBI agent, then as a federal prosecutor, and now as a defense attorney. Smart lady like that should’ve seen right through an investment fraud of that scale. Promises of 50 percent returns in ninety days. Yeah, Flynn laughed to himself, and I’m Santa Claus.
He could see why the feds were looking at her hard. In their position, he would’ve suspected she was either an accessory or an early stakeholder who’d made plenty of cash off the new investors and kept her mouth shut when she realized there were no legitimate earnings. That the whole thing was a house of cards.
Though he’d read somewhere that her lover had bilked her out of half her fortune before absconding with twenty billion dollars from thousands of investors, it could’ve been a cover the two had cooked up to make Gia look innocent. In a case of this magnitude who knew what to believe?
Too bad, because he’d really admired her. On her show, geared toward the average Joe, she broke down everything from the complexities of retirement funds to the pros and cons of reverse mortgages in simple, layperson terms. His own mother, who was financially illiterate, had learned how to follow the Dow by reading one of Gia’s Investing for Dodos books. With all the self-help crap out there, someone like Gia Treadwell made a difference.
She’d turned herself into a small media empire. The show alone had probably catapulted her into the seven-figure income bracket. The books, public appearances, and syndicated column were just gravy.
But Flynn had learned long ago that some people were never satisfied. Greed could be a powerful motivator. Whether she was involved or not, it would be best to keep a wide berth. And after this morning he didn’t think that would be too difficult. Gia had made it abundantly clear she didn’t like him.
He shook his head; the crazy broad should keep away from guns.
Flynn headed to his family’s spread in Quincy, about a forty-minute ride away. Most of the time, he lived in Sacramento, where he ran his law practice. But his parents were getting up in years and he and his brother were slowly taking over the family’s cattle operation. With the spring calving, he was living up here almost full-time, racing back and forth between Quincy and Rosser Ranch. Because of the drought they’d leased the Nugget property for more grazing land so they wouldn’t have to cull their herd. Between the two ranches, the Barlows, unlike a lot of California cattlemen, were doing okay. As long as the price of beef held, they’d even make a profit this year. He had enough good people running the law firm that he could get away with telecommuting most days. Sacramento was close enough for him to make his court dates.
About ten miles out of Nugget, Flynn got a flat. He pulled over at the first turnout, hopped out, and found what he thought was a barbed-wire puncture in the front right tire. One of the casualties of ranch life. In the bed of the truck he found the jack but took one look at the spare and let out a frustrated breath. The tire was low on air, not safe for towing a twenty-four-hundred-pound stock trailer.
“Ah, crap,” he muttered, then grabbed his cell from the cab’s console. A few seconds later he had the local tow service on the phone, told the owner his location, and flipped down the tailgate to wait, wondering how the day had turned out so shitty.
Hey, he reminded himself, no one died. A vision of Gia holding Rosser’s Winchester on him roused a chuckle. Nutjob lady didn’t even know where the safety was. He was sitting there soaking up the sun when a Ford, traveling east, turned off the road and parked next to him.
“You need a ride?” It was Clay McCreedy. They’d known each other since they were knee-high boys, competing at the Plumas County Fair for the best 4-H steer.
Even though Flynn had grown up in Quincy, he knew a lot of people in Nugget. The beauty of a rural county was that everyone roamed the same mountains and knew everybody else.
“I’m waiting for a tow. Tire’s flat and my spare isn’t much better.”
“You call Griffin Parks at the Gas and Go?” Clay got out of his truck.
Clay grabbed a seat next to Flynn on the tailgate and said, “I could hitch your trailer to my truck and park it at my place until you get your tire repaired. I don’t know if the tow truck can handle them both.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
“Not a problem. How’s things?”
“Good. Met your new neighbor.” Flynn grinned at the thought of the little blonde walking in on him in the shower.
“Yup. You meet her yet?”
“Not formally. But ever since last summer the whole town’s been talking about her. You think she was in on her boyfriend’s scam?”
“I couldn’t tell you, Clay. But innocent until proven guilty.” Flynn wouldn’t publicly hypothesize about her; it wasn’t right.
“You know what she’s planning to do with that ranch? There’s a lot of concern that she’ll turn it into a shopping center. That land is zoned agricultural.”
Flynn laughed. “A shopping center . . . in Nugget?” The population, even when the weekenders descended, wasn’t more than six thousand.
“You know what I mean.”
Flynn did. Farm and ranchland was shrinking all over the Golden State. Strip malls and track homes now dotted what used to be fruit and nut orchards, ground crops, and grazing land. “Our meeting was short and not very friendly. I doubt she’ll be telling me her plans anytime soon.”
Clay raised his brows. “What happened?”
Flynn told him about the shower incident and how Gia had called the cops on him. Clay got a good chuckle over the story. It had been a long time since they’d gotten a chance to talk, so they spent the time catching up on each other’s families, friends, and the cattle business.
When Griffin arrived, Clay helped Flynn unhitch his trailer. They hooked it up to Clay’s truck. Then Griffin attached the hook and chain from his tow truck to Flynn’s Ford.
“All set?” Griffin asked. The tow-truck driver was not only the proprietor of Nugget’s sole gas station but owned a planned community on the edge of town where he was slowly selling off second homes to vacationers.
Flynn had heard through the grapevine that Griffin was part Native Ame. . .
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