His long and winding road has brought him to a legendary western ranch—to the brothers he calls friends…and a woman who could change his roving ways…
Turning his back on his American father’s business empire was the smartest decision Rio Martinez ever made. Now, after a high-flying career on the rodeo circuit, the world champion bull rider is ready for a change of pace. A summer hiatus working the Morgan brothers’ California ranch turns into the hope of forever when Rio meets a beautiful French baker who makes him realize what’s missing from his restless life.
After her husband abandoned her, Yvonne Payet threw herself into running the café that was her dream. In the welcoming community of Morgantown, she found a place to call home. She cherishes her hard-won independence, and doesn’t need another handsome heartbreaker calling the shots. But Rio isn’t just the sexiest, most arrogant cowboy she ever met—he’s got great ideas for expanding her business. With a reality TV show on the horizon and her ex demanding a second chance, Yvonne has to decide which sunset she wants to ride off into…
“Ah.” Yvonne Payet kicked off her shoes, leaned back precariously in her chair and flung her arms wide. “Sunday.”
It was the only day of the week when she didn’t have to get up at four in the morning to start baking for her coffee shop. Of course, she would have to go to bed early for the Monday morning start, but at least she’d had four glorious hours of extra sleep. She led such a glamorous, exciting life. …
A tap on the back door had her turning her head.
“Hey, Yvonne! Can I come in?”
“Be my guest, January. Door’s open.” Her apartment was actually above the shop, but she was currently sitting in the stark steel splendor of the industrial kitchen, where she did all her baking. She’d come down to get some croissants out of the pantry, and never made it back up the stairs.
She smiled as January Morgan breezed in, and took a seat opposite her at the table. Her friend wore her usual jeans, and a yellow Morgan Ranch T-shirt topped with a cozy blue fleece.
“You ready?” January looked expectantly at her.
Yvonne blinked. “For what?”
“You’ve forgotten, haven’t you?” January sighed.
“No, I haven’t forgotten. I’m just …” Yvonne waved a vague hand around her head. “Okay, I’ve forgotten. Just don’t tell me I promised you five hundred choux buns for your guests at the ranch this morning?”
“Nope. You agreed to come up to the ranch and have lunch with me.”
“Is that all?”
January widened her eyes. “What else would it be?”
“You and Avery have a terrible habit of introducing me to attractive men.”
“That’s terrible?” January did the wide-eyed innocent thing, but Yvonne wasn’t fooled.
“Well, not exactly, terrible, but I’m not really in a position to date anyone at the moment. I work fourteen-hour days, I’m still getting over being dumped by you know who, and I’m picky as hell.”
“Like that’s supposed to stop us?”
Yvonne sighed. “Obviously not. Just because you and Avery are insufferably happy with your Morgan brothers doesn’t mean that you have to try and match all your friends up as well.”
“Yes, it does,” January pointed out. “It’s the rule. We love you, and we’re determined to find a man worthy of you, unlike He Who Shall Not Be Named.”
“Isn’t that Voldemort?”
“You know who I mean,” January said darkly, and made encouraging motions at Yvonne like she was herding chickens. “Go and get ready. It’s almost eleven o’clock.”
Grumbling, Yvonne rose and headed for the stairs. “I’m not going riding.”
“I didn’t say you had to,” January called out. “By the way, do you have any éclairs left over?”
“Pink box on the second shelf in the large refrigerator. It has your name on it.”
Yvonne had already showered, so all she had to do was pick something to wear that she didn’t mind getting ruined at the ranch. It wasn’t the sort of place where you sauntered around in designer heels without getting horseshit all over them.
She carefully applied her makeup, and brushed out her long, dark hair. No jeans because that might create the impression that she was willing to get back on a horse, so capri pants, old shoes, and a striped T-shirt in navy and white.
“Very French,” she murmured to herself, grabbing a jacket and sliding her feet into her favorite pair of old wedges. “Tres jolie.”
When Yvonne got downstairs, January was sitting at the table texting. She looked up and nodded her approval.
“I don’t know how you get ready so fast. You always look so chic.”
“All those years in France at catering college rubbed off on me, I suppose.” Yvonne grimaced at her striped shirt. “Maybe I should put on a beret, and bring one of my French sticks to look really authentic.”
“Or a bicycle and a string of onions around your neck?” January asked helpfully. “I don’t think you need too many accessories.”
“Less is certainly more, especially on a cow farm,” Yvonne muttered as she picked up her purse and put on her sunglasses. “Let’s go.”
She enjoyed the drive out to the ranch, which was just outside the boundary of Morgantown, where she lived and worked. The ranch had been there for over a hundred and fifty years and was still run by the Morgan family. The town — the second attempt to found a settlement in the area — was also named in their honor.
January had come to the ranch to complete her research for her doctorate and had ended up marrying the oldest son, Chase Morgan, who was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur on the side. Chase was also a good man who adored his wife, which made him okay with Yvonne.
“Is Avery going to be there?” Yvonne asked.
“Yup. I think everyone but Rachel is home for a change.”
“Nice. Morgans everywhere.”
January chuckled. “It does get a bit overwhelming sometimes.”
“Yes, all that testosterone in one place.” Yvonne mock scowled. “All those hot, unattainable men.”
“Like you were ever interested in any of them.” January snorted.
“True. I’ve never had a thing for cowboys. I like my men docile, subservient, and beta.”
“Yeah, right. Good luck with finding that around here.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Yvonne said. “I’m just too busy to give some man the attention he thinks he deserves. Running a business is hard.”
January shot her a concerned sideways glance. “You certainly work too hard. Have you thought about getting an assistant?”
“Finding a good assistant out here is like finding a good man now that all the Morgans are taken,” Yvonne said firmly.
“You should ask Avery. She has lots of contacts in the hotel industry.”
“I have asked her.” Yvonne sighed. “It’s the fact that we’re out in the sticks and I can’t pay much that sucks.”
“What about finding someone to train up?”
“I’ve been doing that, but it’s very time consuming. Every time I get them to a decent level of competence, they leave for the big city and I’m back at square one.” Yvonne fiddled with her seat belt. “Want me to get the gate?”
“No need. They’re all automatic now.” January punched in a code. “Chase set it up last week. We’re expecting our first full guest list over spring break, so he wanted to make sure everyone would be secure.”
“Are you excited?”
“Excited and terrified at the same time. I don’t think we’re going to fail, but you never know what’s going to happen when you put horses and new riders in the mix together.”
Yvonne patted her friend’s arm. “You’ll be fine. I bet Chase has a plan for every contingency.”
“He does.” January chuckled. “Including one for an alien invasion, or California experiencing a massive earthquake and us ending up in the sea or on the coast.”
“If I didn’t know your OCD, nerdy husband, I’d be laughing right now, but I suspect he really has got plans for that.”
January drew the big truck up in the circular driveway in front of the old ranch house. It was a Victorian structure with a slate roof, a deep porch, and fancy spiral woodwork. The original barn now housed the new and improved horse stables, and the tastefully designed guest cabins were secreted behind the new welcome center on a downward slope.
Yvonne sucked in a great big lungful of fresh air, and sighed happily as she alighted from the truck. She loved the ranch and enjoyed spending time there. Opening the rear door, she gathered up the pink boxes containing extra lunchtime treats and balanced them carefully in her arms. There were already several trucks parked in the driveway, and one fancy car.
“Who does that car belong to?” She pointed at the Mercedes.
“One of Chase’s partners is here,” January said way too casually over her shoulder. “Didn’t I mention that?”
“No, strangely enough, you did not.” Yvonne followed her friend up the steps to the main house. “Traitor.” She sniffed appreciatively as January opened the screen door. “Ruth’s cooking a roast. My favorite thing to eat on a Sunday.”
“Lamb, I believe,” January said. “With all the trimmings.” She hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. “Matt is a really nice guy. I think you’ll like him a lot.”
“Well, look who’s here!” Ruth Morgan, the tiny woman who ruled over the whole Morgan clan, looked up from stirring something on the stove, and smiled at Yvonne. “I haven’t seen you for ages.”
“I’ve been really busy.” Yvonne placed the boxes in the old green 1950s refrigerator. “Business has picked up.”
“It’s the same around here. I never thought I’d live to see the ranch thriving like this.” Ruth lowered the temperature and peered into the pan. “I never thought I’d get all my grandchildren back either. God is very good.”
“Amen.” Yvonne crossed herself out of habit. “Can I help you with anything?”
“Not yet. Why don’t you go into the parlor and keep Matt company while I finish up?”
Yvonne meekly did as she was told. It seemed the whole Morgan family was intent on finding her a new man. …
* * *
An hour later, she was sitting at a packed table, jostling elbows with various Morgans and their wives and girlfriends in a somewhat competitive match to get as much food on their plates as humanly possible. Boy, those men could eat. Matt was seated opposite her, and he occasionally smiled like they were united as outsiders in the noisy fray.
He was a nice guy. Good looking in that blond California nerd way and intelligent enough to immediately grasp what her business entailed, and how hard she worked. He’d asked some great questions and given her a couple of things to think about.
“The lamb is excellent, Mrs. Morgan.” A new voice entered the conversation.
“Thank you, Rio,” Ruth said. “And how are you settling in, dear?”
Yvonne looked down the table at the speaker, who was wedged between Ry and HW Morgan. He wore a black shirt with some kind of logo on it, and had the tanned, outdoor look of a cowboy. His accent held a hint of southern America, but she couldn’t pin it down more than that. Having been to Sunday lunch at the Morgans’ before, Yvonne figured he must be one of the new spring hires being welcomed onboard.
“I am settling in very well, thank you, Mrs. Morgan. I grew up on a ranch, so this feels very much like coming home.”
His voice was soft and so melodious that Yvonne found herself smiling. He caught her staring and winked at her. Maybe not so young and sweet after all …
“Who’s ready for dessert?” Ruth stood up. “I have cheesecake, and whatever Yvonne brought from the store.”
There were several fake groans, but no one seemed willing to say no. Yvonne jumped up to help while the others cleared the table. The cowboy helped as well, stacking plates into the dishwasher with great speed and efficiency.
“Let me get that for you.” Matt held the door of the refrigerator open as she took out the desserts.
“Thanks.” She flashed him a smile. “Do you like éclairs, cream slices, or meringue?”
“I like all of them.” He patted his stomach. “Unfortunately, my personal trainer would kill me if I ate any of them.”
The new cowboy gave a hastily concealed snort. Yvonne offered him a sharp look and received a sunny smile in return.
“We won’t tell him if you don’t.” Yvonne set the boxes on the countertop and looked around for some plates.
“Here you go.” The cowboy slid a pile of plates in front of her. Up close, he had very brown eyes and long eyelashes that she immediately coveted. He wasn’t that much taller than her in her two-inch wedges, which made him around five-foot-ten.
“They look good. Where did you buy them?”
“Thank you. I got them at the coffee shop in town,” Yvonne said as she expertly decanted the cream slices onto the plate without breaking the thin layers of pastry and custard.
“That fancy place with the pink and white awning, and the tables outside?”
“Yes.” Yvonne offered him a brief smile. “I own it.”
“Yeah? That’s awesome.” He took two of the plates and transferred them to the table.
Now his accent sounded typically American. …
She allowed him to help her liberate the rest of the pastries and then sat down, helping herself from the carafe of French vanilla coffee Ruth placed on the table.
“These are great, Yvonne.” January made a moaning sound that drew the immediate attention of her husband. “If I could marry twice, I’d marry this éclair.”
“Marrying the pastry chef would be the best idea,” Matt chimed in. “Then you’d have a renewable resource.” He beamed at Yvonne. “We should talk about that.”
“Our wedding or the cakes?” she countered.
He laughed, and the conversation went off in another direction.
Despite everyone protesting, Yvonne somehow won the right to finish cleaning the kitchen with the cowboy and Matt. Ruth was watching TV in the parlor, and everyone else had dispersed. Yvonne had a thing about leaving her workspaces clean, and actually enjoyed the process of restoring order. Matt had no idea what to do, but was willing to be ordered around, and the other guy, Rio, just got on with it, seeming to know instinctively what to do and how to do it. He’d make an excellent kitchen assistant if he weren’t already a ranch hand.
They kept the conversation to a minimum, giving Yvonne plenty of time to consider what she thought about Matt and his prospects as a boyfriend. The major issue was that he lived in San Francisco, which, although quite close, was still a plane or long drive away. January and Chase managed their relationship like that, but they were very committed to making it work.
Matt did have a lot of the qualities she liked in a man. He was intelligent, good looking, but not out of her league, and he really did listen when she talked. But there was no “‘zing” there, nothing that made her want to kiss his socks off, no hint of sexual attraction. But she’d been there, had that, and had the broken marriage to prove it. Perhaps it was time to start with a friendship and hope it would grow into something more durable.
Matt would certainly understand her work schedule, seeing as he was pretty committed to the angel venture capital company he ran with Chase and Jake. And maybe not having him around all the time would work, too. They could both concentrate on their businesses and enjoy their relationship on the side.
Matt’s cell buzzed, and he fished it out of his pocket and grimaced. “Sorry, I’ve got to take this. Back in a minute.”
Yvonne carried on putting things away, finishing with the huge pile of silverware, which she carefully dried, and polished with the dishtowel.
“Do you know where this should go?”
She blinked into the gorgeous brown eyes of the cowboy, and then let her gaze fall to the glass bowl cupped in his large, capable hands.
“Up there.” She pointed over her head. “Second cupboard on the right.”
“Thanks.” He reached up and put the bowl away. “I’m glad someone knows where everything goes. I’m working on it, but there are still a few things that elude me.”
“Are you here for the season?” Yvonne asked.
“Kind of.” He considered her, his keen gaze taking everything in. “I know Ry and HW from the rodeo. They asked me to come and help out.” He barely paused to breathe. “Would you consider going on a date with me?”
She blinked at him. “What?”
He pointed at his chest. “Me.” Then pointed at her. “Go out with you.”
Great … her one day off, and someone was hitting on her. She put up with it at her café because pouring hot drinks over customers’ laps was apparently bad for business, but she didn’t have to smile and let it happen right now.
“I heard what you said, but … I think they’re trying to set me up with Matt.”
“Okay. Do you like Matt?”
Yvonne frowned. “I’ve only just met him.”
“But you’d go out with him?”
“Then seeing as you’ve only just met me, you could go out with me instead.”
“Your logic is …” She shook her head. She really didn’t want to deal with another cocky cowboy, but he was a guest of the Morgans. “So, so lame.”
The door banged and Matt came back in. “Sorry about that.” He looked around the kitchen. “Looks like you two have everything covered. Shall we go and join Ruth in the parlor?”
* * *
Rio watched Yvonne leave the kitchen with Matt, the exasperation at his expense still lingering in her eyes.
Jeez. Talk about messing things up from the get-go. He wanted to slap a hand over his own mouth. He was supposed to be a smooth-talking charmer, yet he’d come across like a two-bit bumbling teenager asking out his first girl. No wonder she’d looked at him with such bemusement. A woman as beautiful as Yvonne Payet was probably used to dealing with drooling fools, which was exactly what he’d turned into the moment he’d seen her.
And then he’d had to listen to the Morgans working out how they were going to fix her up with Matt, who was a really nice guy, but —
“Hey.” HW put his head around the door. “What’s up?”
“Just getting myself more coffee.” Rio busied himself finding a mug. “What’s the plan for the afternoon?”