It's Gonna Be a Wild Ride Ben Noble needs to do some damage control. Fast. His heart has always been in ranching, but there's no escaping the spotlight on his high-powered political family. Now the only thing that can restore his reputation is a getaway to the fresh air of Aspen, Colorado. Not to mention that the trip gives Ben a second chance to impress a certain gorgeous mountain guide. But Paige Harper is nothing like the shy girl he remembers . . . she's so much more. Paige is serious about Ben, too: seriously annoyed that the playboy cowboy is using her mountain for his PR. Once upon a time, she fell for Ben's aw-shucks charm, but the fairy tale didn't end happily. Paige doesn't intend to let down her guard again. But keeping their relationship all business and no pleasure may be harder than she thinks-especially if the moonlight, the Rockies, and a certain irresistible rancher have anything to say about it . . .
Release date: October 27, 2015
Print pages: 369
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Something Like Love
Smile. Always smile. A smile communicates something positive in any language.
Paige recited the adage the perky instructor had indoctrinated into her during the daylong customer service torture—training—her boss had strongly encouraged her to attend.
Everyone is beautiful when they smile. Smiling can defuse even the tensest situation and soften even the worst temper.
Except she’d tried smiling all morning and it had gotten her nowhere.
Paige ground her trusty hiking boots to a stop on the side of the trail and glanced back to evaluate her latest group of “customers,” which consisted of an overweight insurance salesman from Oklahoma, along with his painfully polite and heavily made-up wife and three teenaged boys who had zero ability to look any farther north than Paige’s chest. Yes, she happened to be well-endowed (thanks for that, Gramma Lou), but she was also wearing a sports bra that happened to be the equivalent of one of those 1800s girdles, so what was that about?
Clomp, clomp, clomp. The group plodded up the trail a good quarter mile behind her, their cowboy boots scraping the packed dirt, metallic belt buckles glistening in the early morning sun. Not exactly ideal attire for scaling the side of a mountain to have a picnic at a lake.
Stifling the groan that thundered somewhere far beneath her ribcage, she studied the western horizon. The granite spikes of Castle Peak loomed high above, glaciers glinting with sunlit sparkles. Against the mind-blowing blue sky, those cliffs presided over the entire valley, presided over her. Lower, the cragged slopes gave way to the forested valley, which was crowded with towering green pine and plumes of aspen groves. Where the sunlight cut through the pine needles and leaves, bright green grass sprouted like tufts of a baby’s hair, new and shiny and soft. Wildflowers of all colors carpeted the valley floor—the red Indian paintbrush, the purple asters, the yellow alpine buttercups and, her favorite, the blue columbines. Paige inhaled the calming scent of the mountain air—that perfect blend of honeysuckle and evergreen and sun-ripened dirt. The vast wilderness that stretched out on all sides of her had become her refuge. It was both terrifying and beautiful, dangerous and yet the only place she felt safe enough to be true to herself.
Only, she wasn’t by herself. Her gaze settled back on the spectacle behind her. She’d lucked out by being the only Walker Mountain Ranch guide available to lead the Howdy Doody cast up a mountain.
Be nice, Paige. She was trying. God, was she trying. She’d even carried Hal’s pack for most of the trip, but…
A quick glance at her Timex sent her pulse into overdrive. Their opportunity to make it to the lake in clear weather ticked away with each second they dragged their boots on that packed trail.
“Hot diggity!” Hal called behind her. “Looks like it’s time for a break,” he wheezed.
She turned. Smile, damn it. Smile. “Um, Hal…we’ve had quite a few breaks. Don’t you think?” Her boots scuffed closer to his. “Why don’t you take a sip of water and we’ll keep going? Every time we stop we’re allowing the lactic acid in our muscles to—”
“Gals like you are a hell of a lot prettier when they’re quiet.” The man laughed. He actually laughed like he thought belittling women was some kind of joke.
His wife, Brenda, fashioned her freshly slathered red lips into an apologetic smile, a silent I know, I know. He’s hopeless.
Disgust rippled Paige’s mouth into what her mother called a sour expression. Those faces will give you wrinkles, Paige. Who cared about wrinkles? This man was about to give her an aneurysm. Not only was he insulting her, they’d also been on the trail for about two hours and had maybe gone one mile. Seeing as how the entire trail up to the lake was only three and a half miles, it should’ve been a cakewalk, but Hal might as well have been scaling Mount Everest. About every tenth of a mile, he’d stop and double over and guzzle about a quart of water and Paige would have to wander away a couple steps before she blurted out the question that hammered her brain. Why had he booked a hiking trip when he could’ve taken the damn shuttle to the lake?
Miss Customer Service Trainer would definitely not approve.
It is never, ever, under any circumstances okay to curse in front of a customer.
Who the hell was that lady kidding? They were in the wilderness, for Mona Lisa’s sake! There were no “customers” out here. Only survivors. There was a reason she barked out orders and pushed her clients to the edges of their physical limits. Not because she enjoyed being a drill sergeant. When she met these people, when she shook their hands and looked at the eager faces, into their bright, expectant eyes, she made them a silent promise. I will keep you safe. She added their well-being to the weight stuffed in her pack. Things out here could change in the shift of the wind, in the slip of a boot. She knew that better than anyone.
So, while she had agreed to cut back on the whole swearing thing, she had a job to do. Like it or not, she had to lead the Funkleman family to their destination, whatever it took.
And she had to do it soon.
Paige shifted a wary gaze back to the horizon where a hearty thunderhead, swollen and black, encroached on Castle Peak, merely a few miles away. They had maybe another two hours before the clouds built and unleashed hell right on top of them. Thunderstorms above tree line brewed horror stories. No protection. Nowhere to hide. Just you and the millions of volts of electricity zinging across the sky. One cloud-to-ground current could take out an entire group.
What about that, Miss Customer Service Trainer? What would you say to that?
“Woo hoo!” Hal dumped half of his third water bottle over his head and shook like a drenched dog, jowls swaying and everything.
Oh no he didn’t. She plowed toward him, steam clouds rising from her mouth. “What did I tell you about wasting water, Hal?”
“Can’t help it. I’m parched.” He eyed her with a sheepish grin. “You got plenty more in your pack, Miss Paige. Am I right?”
It is inappropriate to argue with a customer. If they say something you don’t agree with, find a way to redirect them instead of firing back.
Redirect. Redirect…. She had to redirect before she sucker-punched the man. He was so not worth getting fired over.
“All right, guys!” Pivoting, she shifted back into cheerleader mode. “We need to hustle. Gotta get up there before noon.” Which meant…“No more breaks. We’re gonna keep moving.”
Sweat slicked Hal’s sideburns against his ruddy skin. He doubled over and peered up at her. “I ain’t movin’. I can’t. I might bust a lung.”
Every client said that at least once during a climb. She studied the others behind him. Brenda, his lovely wife, gasped like a beached trout. Surprisingly, her teased blond hair still stood about eight inches above her forehead, though her Mary Kay makeup had melted. The three boys, whom she liked to think of as Larry, Curly, and Moe, plodded behind their mother in typical sullen teenager fashion.
Okay. So. Cheerleader mode wasn’t working. It was time to level with this guy. She had never failed on a mission to get a client up a mountain, and not even Hal Funkleman would stop her from showing this family how it felt to stand up there and look out over the vastness of an endless beauty. It was power. It was fear. It was the reward. That moment made every step, every aching muscle worth it.
Assume the stance. She posted her hands on her hips exactly like a drill sergeant would and stomped over to Hal. “Stand up. We’re going.”
His jaw dropped and exposed four silver fillings.
Pretending not to notice the ice in his stare, she gestured to Brenda and the Three Stooges. “Come on. This way. Step around him and keep hiking.” One by one, his family obeyed, casting apologetic glances at the head of their household. Apparently, they feared her more than him. That was a good thing.
Hal pushed off his knees and stood at full height, his grizzly-bear-like body towering over her. “Are you crazy, lady? I can hardly breathe up here. You’re gonna kill me.”
“This will so not kill you.” She smiled. “It’s good for you. Just take deep breaths and walk slowly. As long as you keep moving, you’ll be fine.” She’d taken three-hundred-pound clients up to the lake, and nearly cried at the look of accomplishment on their faces when they saw the view.
The man faked a hacking cough.
Brenda glanced back with worry furrowed into her forehead, but Paige swept her hand through the air in a silent command for her to turn around. That’s right, Brenda. Keep on movin’. Nothin’ to see here. She’d take care of Hal, no problem. He might be a big guy, but how tough could he be?
Let’s find out. She stepped up until they stood toe-to-toe, like two cowboys about to duel. Except she didn’t have the belt buckle or the boots or the stubble on her chin. But that’d never stopped her before. She’d held her own with plenty of Hal Funklemans. If she could handle Shooter, she could handle Hal.
“I’m not goin’ nowhere.” He glared down at her, cheeks splotched, lips crusted with spit, eyes crazy with the stress of physical exertion. “No, sir. I don’t take orders from people like you.”
“People like me.” Women. He meant he didn’t take orders from women. That’s it. For two hours, she’d babied him, smiled, and encouraged him. You’re doing great, Hal! Looking good! Keep it up! She’d given the customer service method her best effort—for Bryce and Avery—and it didn’t work. No amount of customer service training could change the fact that she was responsible for what happened out here. Screw being nice. She’d have to resort to what she did best: tough love.
Paige pushed up the sleeves of her thermal. “See those clouds over there?” She pointed above Hal’s head. “Those are called thunderheads.”
He assessed the clouds with a shrug. “Yeah. So?”
“Have you ever stood above tree line during a lightning storm, Hal?”
“Sure haven’t.” He tugged on his belt as it seemed to have slipped, exposing the fact that his flannel shirt had been tucked into plaid boxer shorts.
She averted her eyes back to his. “Let me tell you something about lightning. One cloud-to-ground strike at this altitude could fry your body like a piece of bacon.”
At the mention of bacon, Hal’s eyes lit.
Okay. Bad idea distracting the man with pork. She tried again. “I mean, it’ll stop your heart instantly, burn your skin to a crisp.”
“Like bacon.” Hal nodded, his eyes gleaming with a frightening hunger. “You know what? I got some jerky in my pack. Seems like a good time to stop for lunch, don’t it?”
If you feel yourself losing your temper with a customer, be sure to stop, smile politely, and count silently to ten. Refrain from lashing out.
Was she starting to lose her temper? Yes. The answer flashed in the heat of her cheeks like a glowing neon sign. Inhaling a cleansing breath, she tried it out. One, two, three…oh screw it. They were engaged in some kind of weird chauvinistic power struggle, and he couldn’t win. Not out here. “What I’m trying to say is, we don’t have time for jerky, Hal. We’re not stopping.”
His chin tipped upward in defiant child fashion. “That’s not your call.” He shimmied out of his backpack straps and let the thing fall to the ground with a thud. “I believe we’re the ones payin’ for this here hike.”
“And I believe I’m here to make sure everyone gets to the lake alive.” Her jaw ground out the words. “That means we have to bag this thing by ten. Get off the trail by noon. Before we get struck by lightning. Got it?”
Hal’s eyes searched the sky above her head. “Don’t look too bad to me.” As if proving he wasn’t the least bit concerned, he plopped down. Well, as much as a heavy-set man can plop. It was more like a grimacing collapse that ended in a wince. “A little rain never hurt nobody.” He pawed through his pack. When he pulled out the bag of jerky Paige could’ve sworn she saw tears of joy in his eyes.
Wow. This guy was unbelievable.
If a disagreement arises, gently sway the customer using positive tactics. Listen first, then reiterate your point of view.
Yeah. Right. Maybe that worked with reasonable people. She had half a mind to swipe that bag of jerky out of his greedy hand and tie it to a stick so she could lure him up the mountain like a carrot leading a donkey. “I’m not talking about a little rain, Hal,” she spat. “I’m talking about an electrical storm.” Memories shivered through her. “Trust me. I’ve been there. Lightning so close you can hear it zing in the air. The hair on your head and arms standing straight up—”
“And you didn’t get struck down, didya?” Obvious disappointment tugged at the corners of his mouth.
If all else fails and you feel you can no longer serve the customer, remove yourself from the situation for a moment. Gain some perspective and go back to the customer when you’re ready.
Paige grinned. Now that she could do. At least the training day hadn’t been a total waste. “You know what, Hal? Forget it.” She spun away. “You go ahead and take a long lunch break. We’ll see you in a few hours.”
“You can’t leave me by myself! What if I see a bear? A mountain lion?”
She glanced over her shoulder. Smile politely. “If I were you, I’d make sure my hands didn’t smell like jerky.”
And with that, she blazed up the trail to join the others.
How’d this happen? How the hell did this happen?” Benjamin Hunter Noble III clicked off the big screen and bolted across his bachelor kitchen—all streamlined stone and dark wood—and poured himself a glass of whiskey. Swirling the ice, he edged to the bay window and gazed out into the dimming light of the evening sun at the thousands of acres that made up his sprawling ranch. That land—his land—stretched all the way to the horizon.
Damn. He’d give his left testicle to be out there, galloping across that Texas prairie land on Keg’s back, wind in his face, the thud of hooves in his ears, life-altering disgraces left in the dust.
“I told you she was trouble.” Gracie Hunter Noble, whom he’d called “Mother” until he graduated from college and she insisted he start using her first name, followed on his heels in the regal stance she’d perfected as a senator’s wife. “I knew it the moment I laid eyes on that girl. She couldn’t be trusted.”
“Are you kidding? You practically picked out china for the two of them!” This from his sweet sister, Julia, who steered her wheelchair close enough to run over their mother’s toes. “She had you eating out of her hand.” J clutched her hands under her chin and batted her thick eyelashes. “Oh, Mrs. Noble, I just love your dress, your hair, your lovely makeup. Why, I’d happily wipe your prim bottom, if you asked me to,” she purred like a southern belle.
He busted out a laugh. He couldn’t help it. J never missed an opportunity to poke fun at their tightly wound mother. She’d always gotten away with a hell of a lot more than him.
Gracie’s lips puckered into a disapproving frown. “Don’t be vulgar, Julia. It’s not ladylike.”
Ha. They all knew Julia had given up on the ladylike thing a long time ago. Though his sister was the image of their mother with those movie-star cheekbones, pouting lips, and thick, shoulder-length chestnut hair—which his mother had to pay a fortune to maintain—the two of them were complete opposites in every way. It always made for interesting family gatherings.
“Forget who’s to blame.” Kevin Mackey, his senatorial campaign guru, clicked the television back on, mouth pulled into that grim look he always wore. With his dark slicked-back hair, pale skin, and pointed chin, Kev looked like he could’ve fit right in with the Addams Family.
“What matters is how we handle it.” His eyeballs scrolled back and forth as if he was reading the news ticker that ran across the bottom of the screen.
Ben took another shot of whiskey and welcomed the sting. He didn’t need to look up to know what the news outlets were saying.
Famous catalog model—there was an oxymoron if he’d ever heard one—Valentina Giovanni, girlfriend of senatorial candidate Benjamin Hunter Noble III—make that former girlfriend—exposes his blatant mistreatment of the cattle and land on the Noble ranch in a series of shocking photos she captured on her cell phone.
Then came the sound bite. “I loved Ben very much, but when I realized what he was doing, how he was treating these innocent animals, how he was raping the land, I couldn’t stay silent. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak out.”
Yeah right. Her speaking out had nothing to do with a bribe from the Democratic Party. He should’ve known something was up when she’d suddenly traded in her small two-bedroom apartment for a swanky downtown loft. Not that he’d been able to find any proof, but he knew how these things worked.
Nausea thundered through him. He peeked up at the television screen. Sure enough, the pictures were there. Pictures she had to have doctored because he’d never once in his life taken a shovel to a steer’s head. Crazy as it was, he loved his cattle like they were his kids, even gave a couple of ’em names. But somehow she’d managed to make him look like a monster. Damn Photoshop.
“That’s bullshit!” Julia growled, waving an arm at the screen.
“This is defamation!” Gracie cried. “Slander!” She spun to him. “How could you let her do this to us? To this family? To our name?” When her hands clutched at her chest, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Simmer down, Gracie.” Her overreactions always made him feel like they were on some shitty primetime sitcom. As his late father had been fond of saying, she’d missed her calling as a low-budget actress.
Steering his eyes clear of the television, he cruised to the sectional and sank into the leather. “How the hell could I have known she worked for the Democratic Party?” Those bastards had gotten desperate. After a successful stint in Congress, Ben’s popularity had skyrocketed. The opposition knew he’d be elected, and they weren’t about to let that happen. So they’d found Valentina somewhere and set him up.
He’d met her at a fund-raiser for the Paralympics. She was a gorgeous woman, no doubt about it, but she also seemed genuinely interested in his desire to increase state funding for people with disabilities. People like Julia.
Pushing that legislation was the reason he’d entered the race. Actually, it wasn’t all his idea. After being a congressman for two years, he was burned-out on the whole thing. But Granddad wouldn’t let it go. He was the one who’d talked him into it. It’s what your father would’ve wanted, Ben. You owe it to the family. Yada yada yada. Besides, it’ll be good publicity. God knows the family needs it. You can show the world we’re not a bunch of rednecked Republicans who don’t know horseshit from cow dung.
He’d smiled, then, when all this was still just an idea. But we are a bunch of rednecks, he’d reminded Granddad. Always had been, always would be, and he couldn’t give a damn what anyone thought about it. He lived for the ranch, lived for the expanse of space, the manual labor, the freedom the land gave him. Still, the man had a point. Ben owed it to the family. To Julia, mostly. This was his chance to do something for her. Once he was in the Senate, he could introduce the bill Julia had been helping him write. It was one of his campaign platforms. Most accident victims in her situation didn’t have access to the same therapies and rehabilitation opportunities she’d had. Their parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing every therapy available. It killed J to see people who couldn’t afford it being sent away while she continued to improve and regain movement in her legs.
The bill had become their project together. It’d given her purpose, brought them closer. They both knew that helping other victims would make what happened to her count for something. He wasn’t naïve enough to believe it would atone for the past, but he had to make sure the accident wasn’t for nothing.
He’d never forget the truth. Wasn’t for him, she never would’ve been in that accident. Her legs never would’ve been crushed beyond recognition. She’d be walking and jogging and riding and living the party life of every other twenty-seven-year-old. Instead she was confined to a chair.
And that made him crave another drink. He stood and sauntered across the room to get a refill.
“We have to go on the offensive.” His mother nodded once, her mind made up. “That’s what we’ll do. We’ll dig until we find something in that tramp’s past. Then we’ll prove she’s a liar and a fraud and no one will believe a word she says.”
Ha. She’d been living in her semi-royalty fairy-tale land too long. The damage was done. It would be her word against his. He couldn’t prove she’d fabricated those pictures. To the rest of the world, she’d been his adoring girlfriend, and it “broke her heart to have to do this.” No one would believe that she was really a conniving backstabber with ties to his opponent. Hell, Gracie had her checked out by a private detective and everything about her seemed squeaky clean.
“Attacking her is not our best move.” Kev joined him at the bar and leaned close enough that Ben caught whiff of that strange scent that always hazed around him. Smelled like some kind of BBQ rub—cumin, brown sugar, garlic. It’d sure be good on a rib eye.
“His image is already bad enough. An attack would make him look desperate.” He filled a Mason jar glass to the brim with whiskey. “Besides, if we get pulled into an all-out war, who knows what she’ll dig up on him.” Those pointy eyebrows raised in a warning. Ben got his meaning.
They might start asking more questions about Julia’s accident.
Dad was a senator when it’d happened. Every detail about the crash was carefully guarded, altered. His PR people had spun it into a senseless tragedy, a result of a rainy back road. But they all knew what the world didn’t. Ben could’ve prevented that accident. If he would’ve been a better man, he would’ve prevented the accident. All the whiskey in the world couldn’t change that fact.
Maybe that was why he’d liked Valentina. She couldn’t have cared less about his past. Never even asked him what happened to his sister. Apparently, the whole time she’d only been interested in ruining his political career. God, he was a fool. Truth was, he should’ve seen it coming. The woman hailed from Dallas, which wasn’t exactly ranch country. More like fake everything country—hair color, breast implants, acrylic nails. Well now he’d learned his lesson. He’d had enough fake. His next woman had to be real. He didn’t want be with someone who kept a strict regimen of spa treatments and cleanses and Pilates. He wanted someone who could hang with him when he felt like surfing in Australia or paragliding in the Andes or skiing the Matterhorn…
Kev dug his phone out of pocket and started to type. “I’ll have Carla release a statement citing the accusations as false. And I’m sure there’ll be some kind of investigation. But in the meantime, we have to improve your image. In a big way. A visible way.”
“We’ll make another donation to the zoo.” Gracie walked briskly to her purse as though she planned to write out the check right there. “A million. They can build a new habitat or something.”
“The zoo?” Ben shot her his best are-you-kidding-me look. “We’ve already made three donations to the zoo. Hell, the damn conservatory is named after Granddad.”
“Stop swearing, Benjamin. Really.” She frowned, but dropped her purse back to the counter.
“What about one of those reality shows where they dump people out in the wild so they can survive the elements?” J’s voice sounded a little too innocent, a little too sincere.
Sure enough, a glimmer in her eye clued him in on her intent to shock their mother again. “There’s this new one on Discovery Channel. The people run around buck naked! You should see their—”
“Julia Grace Hunter Noble!” The words sailed out in a horrified gasp. “That is disgusting. What kind of trash television—”
“Ben’s right.” Kev downed the rest of his whiskey. He seemed to drink about ten times more whenever Gracie was around. Come to think of it, they all seemed to drink about ten times more when she was around. “Money’s too easy. Everyone knows you’ve got plenty to go around. It won’t carry the impact we need.” Kev gave Ben’s mother a pointed look. “We have to find something that’ll prove he’s all about animals and the environment.”
“I still say we stick him out in the wilderness,” Julia muttered. “Have some cameras follow him around. Maybe he could rescue a wounded rabbit or something.” Her eyebrows shot up. “Nothing more appealing to female voters than a naked man saving the planet.”
Nice. Ben walked past his sister and ruffled her hair.
Gracie pressed a hand to her forehead like she might faint. He wouldn’t put it past her.
“Actually, it’s not a bad idea,” Kev said.
“Running around naked in the woods?” The guy had lost his mind. He’d completely lost it. But still…he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to rile up Gracie. “Guess I could try it. I’d have to hit the tanning booth, first. No doubt about that.”
“You will do no such thing, Benjamin!” His mother stalked away from him and perched on the couch in a pout.
“I’m not talking about the naked thing.” Kev rolled his . . .
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