Bet on a Cowboy Julie Benson Литагент HarperCollins EUR LOVE IS THE WILD CARDCommitment-phobic Colorado cowboy Griffin McAlister had it all figured out: do the reality dating show, get the money his family desperately needed and move on. Love was never on the cards…least of all falling for the show’s director.Maggie Sullivan knew she’d found a star in Griffin and maybe even something more… But she had a job to do and, besides, how could he notice her while he was busy wooing ten gorgeous women? Now Griffin had a choice: stick with the plan and lose Maggie forever, or risk everything for a chance to win her heart! All Maggie’s hopes of remaining in control flew out the window when Griffin answered the door. He stood before her in a terry-cloth bathrobe that reached only to mid-thigh, his feet bare and his hair rumpled. Her mouth went dry. Fearing she’d make a fool of herself, she focused on his face. As if that view was less distracting. Once Maggie trusted herself to speak she said, “I told you I’d be here at nine to pick you up for the shoot. You look like you just crawled out of bed. You’re not even dressed.” “I thought I was hitting the snooze button, but I must’ve turned the alarm off.” He grinned, and nodded toward his robe. “You’re lucky I put this on. I sleep nude.” She opened her mouth to say something—she had no idea what—but words failed her. The dreams this man inspired could wear a girl out. About the Author An avid daydreamer since childhood, JULIE BENSON always loved creating stories. After graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in sociology, she worked as a case manager before having her children: three boys. Many years later she started pursuing a writing career to challenge her mind and save her sanity. Now she writes full-time in Dallas, where she lives with her husband, their sons, two lovable black dogs, two guinea pigs, a turtle and a fish. When she finds a little quiet time, which isn’t often, she enjoys making jewelry and reading a good book. Bet on a Cowboy Julie Benson www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To Jo Davis, Jane Graves and Nancy Haddock, three of the strongest women I know. Thanks for talking me off the ledge and slapping me upside the head when I needed it. I’m blessed to have you as friends. To the Starbucks crew at Custer and Renner, in Richardson, especially Jennifer Jacobson, Jenny Shufutinskaya and Melissa Blume. Thanks for all your support and encouragement with this story. Chapter One “He’s married. I’m beginning to think this season is cursed.” Maggie Sullivan stared at the wedding picture of Rory McAlister, Devlin Designs’ cowboy model, on the Twin Creeks Ranch website. Tall, dark-haired and built like only a real cowboy could be, he’d have been perfect. Now here she was, two weeks from the start of taping for her reality show, Finding Mrs. Right, and they were short one key component—a bachelor. Samantha, Maggie’s assistant director, turned from her computer monitor. “Who’s married?” “Rory McAlister. The man we hoped would be this season’s bachelor.” “Isn’t it Kate’s job to check into that?” “She’s got the flu, and since we have to sign a new bachelor ASAP, I get to play casting director.” Maggie frowned. What luck. She’d also get to deliver the bad news about Rory to her boss. Right now having the flu sounded pretty good. When their quarterback bachelor unretired in midseason, the powers that be had decided to capitalize on the current popularity of cowboys, and hoped to sign Devlin Designs’ gorgeous new model as the next bachelor. The man was featured in every popular fashion magazine, and his rugged good looks were a hot conversation topic among women around office watercoolers all over the country. Maggie had been sent to research the idea, which led her to the unfortunate news of his marriage. Unfortunate for her, that is, not for Rory. “What’re we going to do now that our prime candidate is off the market?” “I’m working on plan B even as we speak.” However, all she’d come up with was an actor dressed up as a cowboy, but they needed authenticity. There was something about real cowboys. No one could define it exactly, but everyone knew when it was missing. Think. She fingered the sterling-silver frame holding the last picture of her and her mother together. What would her mom think of her only daughter, an upstate New York farm girl, working on a reality show in L.A.? I know it’s not what you would’ve wished for me, Mom, but the job will get me what I want out of life. “How about a rodeo cowboy?” Samantha asked as she rolled her desk chair across Maggie’s pristinely organized office to join her at her computer. “The National Finals are two months away. Anyone with a name is gearing up for that.” Maggie rubbed the back of her neck, trying to loosen the tension knot. When she scrolled further down the ranch’s web page, a picture of the wedding party appeared. Beside Maggie, Samantha sighed and pointed at the screen. “Look at the best man. He’s too good for words.” Slightly taller than Rory, the man had charisma that leaped off the screen. The tux fit him to perfection, emphasizing his broad shoulders. The sun highlighted the golden tones in his hair. “He’s definitely what great dreams are made of.” Maggie scanned the copy beside the picture. Hope eternal burst through her. “He’s Rory’s brother, Griffin. Could that be more perfect? We can still capitalize on Rory’s popularity if his brother is our bachelor.” She could see the trailer now: Rory McAlister is off the marriage market, but don’t worry. He has a brother. Tune in every week to Finding Mrs. Right, and meet Griffin McAlister! She frowned as another thought occurred to her. “How could a man this gorgeous be available?” Samantha clicked her ruby-red fingernail against the monitor. “Look at the wedding photos. Each one shows him dancing or cuddling with a different woman. No way is that guy in a serious relationship.” “I have to be sure.” “Then call him and ask.” Why not, since plan B stunk and plan C failed to materialize? Maggie clicked on the Contact Us page. “What do I have to lose?” “Exactly. We can’t be any worse off than we are now.” “Why don’t I find that comforting?” Maggie took a minute to compose her thoughts and study the Twin Creeks website, discovering the ranch offered horseback riding tours and other tourist activities. She’d lead with what a great opportunity being on the show was, emphasizing how the publicity would bring more visitors to the ranch and increase business. Then she’d tell Griffin how wonderful the bachelorettes were. With the conversation and her pitch mapped out, she located the ranch’s phone number, picked up her iPhone and dialed. “Cross your fingers.” Samantha crossed her fingers and held up her hands. Then she crossed her legs. “Extra insurance never hurts.” A smooth feminine voice answered, throwing Maggie off stride. Calm down. Just because a woman answers the phone doesn’t mean Griffin’s married. She could be Rory’s pretty little wife, or a family member. Barreling forward, Maggie explained she had business to discuss with Griffin, and asked to speak with him. A minute later, she had his cell phone number. Then as an afterthought, she blurted out, “I know this is an odd question, but is Griffin married or engaged?” Soft laughter floated over the phone lines. “Believe it or not, that’s not an unusual question, and no, he’s not married, or even dating anyone seriously.” Maggie ended the call. “He’s available.” “That’s good news,” Samantha said. She punched in Griffin’s cell number. When he answered, his low sexy voice rippled through her. His voice was as good as his looks. “Hello, Griffin. I’m Maggie Sullivan, the director on the reality show Finding Mrs. Right. We’re looking for a bachelor this season—” “I’m not interested.” “Being on the show would be great publicity—” “I’ve got horses to see to.” Then he hung up. Maggie stared at her phone. Their conversation had gone much better in her head. “He hung up on me.” She sat there, unsure of how to proceed. “He wouldn’t even let me make the pitch.” “Call him back.” “What makes you think the second time will go any better than the first?” “Divine intervention?” Samantha said, as she pointed upward. “I think the Lord might be a little busy.” But knowing she couldn’t give up, Maggie called again. This time when Griffin answered, she blurted out, “Don’t hang up. Give me a chance to outline my—” Click. Maggie clutched her phone so hard her fingers tingled. “Maybe we don’t want Griffin McAlister on the show. He definitely needs to work on his social skills—he hung up on me again.” “They say the third time’s the charm,” Samantha said encouragingly. “The best indication for future behavior is past behavior, and I’m sensing a pattern here.” “Then email him.” Maggie shook her head. “He’ll just delete the message without reading it. I need to see Griffin in person. It’ll be harder to dismiss me if I’m standing in front of him.” She tapped her neatly manicured nail against her desk. “I need to develop the right approach, because he won’t give me much time. I have to hook him immediately.” Samantha grinned and pointed to a photo of Griffin surrounded by women. “I know exactly what will work. Start with showing him the bachelorettes’ photos. That’ll get his attention.” “Are you sure?” Maggie still believed leading with the publicity for the ranch was best, but what she knew about men could be written on a matchbook cover. Samantha, on the other hand, could write a three-book series and have material left over. “After seeing him with all those women? Absolutely.” But before Maggie decided, her cell phone belted out “Defying Gravity.” Glancing at the touch screen revealed the number of the fertility clinic she’d contacted. Once the years started zooming by and her eggs grew older, with no marital prospects on the horizon, Maggie had realized she had two choices—never have children or be a single parent. After tossing out a quick “I’ve got to take this call” to Samantha, she answered her phone. As she jotted down notes regarding the cost of the various procedures she would undergo for in vitro fertilization, she kept her responses vague and to a minimum. Whichever way she went, adoption or having a child with a sperm donor, achieving her dream wouldn’t be cheap. “Is everything okay?” Samantha asked when Maggie ended her call. “It was the dentist reminding me about my appointment.” She paused. Samantha tilted her head and looked as though she might probe further. “I’m glad there’s nothing wrong. You seem concerned.” She should tell Samantha something plausible. The woman was the biggest gossip on the show, and if she didn’t know the reasons for someone’s actions, she speculated instead, and the theory spread through the office like a cold in a preschool. “I need a filling replaced. I was a little surprised at how much it’s going to cost.” Having dampened Samantha’s insatiable curiosity, Maggie continued. “Now back to business. I’ve got to convince Griffin to do the show. We don’t have time to start the search process over.” “You really think if you see him in person you can change his mind?” “It’s worth a shot.” Maggie picked up her phone and dialed. “I need to book a flight to Denver.” HER SPEECH ALL PLANNED and memorized, the manila folder containing the bachelorettes’ photos on the passenger seat of the rental car, Maggie pulled into the Twin Creeks parking lot in Estes Park, Colorado. As far as she was concerned, NASA was right: failure was not an option. After parking, she grabbed the file of photos and decided to leave her coat in the car since the October day had turned out to be unseasonably warm. The beauty of the area left her breathless. The magnificent snow-capped Rocky Mountains filled her vision, majestic and strong, keeping watch over the town below. Trees, some gold now that fall had arrived, dotted the landscape, reminding her of autumn days on the farm. The quiet, so unlike Los Angeles, enveloped her. Gravel crunched under her Target flats as she walked toward the large reddish-brown, two-story ranch house, the file clutched in her moist hand. When she reached the split-rail corral fence, a beautiful chestnut horse whinnied and sauntered toward her. Unable to resist the gelding’s wide brown eyes, she stopped to look at him. The animal bobbed his head in greeting, and shoved his velvety pink muzzle under her hand. “Aren’t you the charmer,” Maggie said as she rubbed his forehead. “We haven’t been introduced and you expect my undivided attention.” If only she could captivate the right man as easily, then she could pursue motherhood the old-fashioned way. “That’s his name, you know. Charmer. He’s always been a lady’s man.” Despite the brevity of their conversations, Maggie instantly recognized Griffin McAlister’s voice. When she spun around, her heart rate soared and her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the cowboy in front of her. Griffin was even better looking in person. Tall enough for her at five-ten to look up to—the good Lord had taken his time when he’d created this man. Dressed in formfitting faded jeans, a tan shirt and scuffed cowboy boots, the golden god oozed sex appeal. He pushed the brim of his hat off his forehead. The fact that he knew how much power he wielded shone in his ocean-blue eyes. I bet this cowboy breaks hearts like I break a nail. A crooked smile spread across his face, displaying gorgeous dimples. “Charmer, there, likes to be caressed behind the ears. Don’t you, boy?” The horse nickered in response. Maggie slid her hand along the animal’s muscled neck to his ears and scratched behind them, but her gaze remained locked on Griffin. With a casual grace, he strolled toward her. “He’s putty in your hands now.” Rarely at a loss for words, Maggie scrambled to compose herself. Don’t stand here staring. Not that her gawking appeared to bother Griffin. This probably happened to him all the time. And he liked it. “Are you here for a horseback-riding tour?” he finally asked. “I’m afraid not. I’m here on business.” She waited for his eyes to fill with recognition at the sound of her voice, but instead they twinkled, giving her the chance for a fresh start. “What business would a pretty city woman like you have at a horse ranch?” Pretty city woman? Maggie almost laughed and asked him whether he was delusional or needed glasses. No one, not even her family, who loved her dearly, had ever described her as pretty. The closest she came was passably cute, and she hadn’t heard that word used in conjunction with her name since she was twelve. Obviously, the horse beside her wasn’t the only charmer around. “Have you ever thought about being on TV? You’re a natural.” Viewers would love Griffin. His charisma would leak out of televisions across America. He shoved his hands into his pockets, leaned back on his heels and smiled. Lethal. “I got to admit, a woman’s never used that line to get my attention.” He thought she was coming on to him? Once again she doubted his sanity. No way would a woman like her think she stood a chance with a man like him. Griffin belonged with models or Miss Colorado, not a plain Jane. “It’s not a come-on. I’m Maggie Sullivan. We spoke on the phone.” His smile evaporated. “I told you I wasn’t interested.” “Since I flew here from Los Angeles to talk to you, it would only be polite for you to hear me out.” “I didn’t ask you to come. That gets me off the hook.” He turned and stalked off toward the barn, Maggie chasing after him. She smiled. There was nothing better than walking behind a man with an exquisite butt in a pair of jeans. “I brought pictures of this season’s bachelorettes.” Griffin stopped at the barn door and faced her. “Lady, can’t you take a hint?” She held out the file. “Look at the women’s pictures.” “What part of I’m not interested is hard for you to understand?” “I understand it. I just don’t accept it.” He shook his head. “If I look at the pictures will you leave me alone?” “Absolutely.” She resisted the urge to shove the folder into his hand, and instead held it out. He took the folder and then reached for the barn door. Wood groaned and hinges squeaked as he tugged it open. They stepped inside. “If you have hay fever you should head out now.” He wouldn’t get rid of her that easily. Little did he know that a girl with three older brothers learned persistence as a survival skill. “Hay doesn’t bother me.” Griffin turned on the lights. Next, he pulled out the photos and flipped through them. Maggie shoved her hands into her pants pockets and crossed her fingers. She bit her lip. No smile. No twinkling eyes. Where was his excitement? From his deadpan expression, she’d guess he was reviewing his tax return rather than photos of beautiful women. How could the sight of that many gorgeous females fail to elicit at least a grin? “You’re right, the women are attractive, but I’m still not interested.” He handed the file back to Maggie, but she refused to accept it. “Oh. Wait a minute. Are you gay?” He stiffened, carefully set the folder on a stool and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “What makes you ask that?” “Most red-blooded heterosexual men show some interest when they look at pictures of stunning women, but you didn’t.” “You think I’m gay because I didn’t get all hot and bothered looking at those photos?” Griffin stepped closer until they stood inches apart. His sparkling gaze pinned her. When he glanced at her mouth, all coherent thought deserted her. He leaned forward as if he might kiss her, sending her body into overdrive. Reality check, Maggie. You’re not his type. He slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her against his hard form, leaving her dazed. She couldn’t breathe. His mouth moved toward hers. He’s going to kiss me. I can’t let him kiss me. Why would he kiss me? She jumped backward. Never graceful at the best of times, their feet tangled and she lost her balance. Her rear end hit the cement floor hard, with a decidedly unfeminine thud. “I bet you’re used to women falling at your feet all the time,” she quipped in an attempt to ease her embarrassment. “Not like this.” Griffin held out his hand, but she shook off his offer. As she stood, she resisted the urge to rub her sore backside. That fall would leave her with a nice bruise. “I am not gay.” “I believe you.” Maggie looked away from Griffin’s piercing gaze to regroup. Once in control again, she crossed her arms over her chest. “You didn’t read the bios on the other side of the photos.” “You said you’d leave me alone if I looked at the pictures.” No bachelor meant no show. No show meant no job and no money, which meant she’d have to put her dreams of motherhood on hold. “I know I did, but you don’t understand how great this opportunity is. The television exposure will be phenomenal. It could bring in a lot of business to the ranch, and who knows what other opportunities. Is there somewhere we can go to talk more?” “You’re as persistent as the horseflies around here.” “You might as well hear me out, because I’m not going away until you do.” He stalked across the barn, dismissing her. “I need to get to work.” Again she trailed after him as he strolled through the barn and stepped inside the last stall. A minute later he came out, a hay bale in his arms. His cotton shirt stretched tight across his chest. His biceps flexed and bulged. Maggie’s mouth went dry. If Griffin decided to go into politics he’d win by a landslide on the women’s votes alone, and he wouldn’t have to say a word. After dumping the bale on the cement floor, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out wire cutters, drawing her attention to his rear end again. The faded denim emphasized his rock-hard thighs, and the air around her grew thin. The temperature in the barn was sweltering. He snipped the twine and pulled off a hunk of hay. Bits of golden dust swirled in the air, the musty smell tickling her nose. “I can’t take time off work. My answer is still no.” His earthy male scent, mixed with the fragrant hay, wafted over her as he strode into the next stall. “Did I mention we’ll pay you three thousand dollars an episode?” This time when he exited the stall, his eyes gleamed with interest. “You should’ve told me that first.” Men went on her show for one of three reasons—the money, the gorgeous women or the exposure. She and Samantha were wrong. Neither the women nor the publicity interested Griffin. Money was the key. “How many episodes are we talking about?” He pulled off another chunk of hay and walked into the next stall. Maggie followed. “Ten. That’s three thousand an episode for ten weeks. Thirty thousand dollars. That’s what you’d be paid in compensation for taking two and a half months off work.” Inside the stall, the cinnamon-colored mare’s ears perked up at Griffin’s entrance, and the magnificent animal whinnied. “I know, girl. I’m running late and you’re a little ticked with me. It’s not my fault.” He nodded toward Maggie. “Talk to her. She’s slowed me down this morning.” Maggie wanted to laugh. He had to be kidding. Griffin possessed the air of a man who took his sweet time and figured the world would wait for him. Looking at the animal, she said, “My apologies. I’m sure it’s my fault Griffin’s tardy this morning.” “On the rare occasion I’m running late, she forgives me because of my sparkling personality. Don’t you, pretty lady?” Maggie bet the horse wasn’t the only female who ignored his tardiness. “Sorry. I’ve got to call you on that one. I’m guessing that’s your fatal flaw.” His eyes widened as if he couldn’t believe what she’d said. Women probably overlooked his little white lies all the time. “You’re wrong. My mother was a stickler for punctuality and drilled that trait into me.” “Then what is your fatal flaw?” He smiled, revealing his killer dimples. “What makes you think I have one?” Maggie paused to collect her thoughts. She could barely see straight, much less talk with him looking at her. She’d have to get over that little problem when they started filming. A man like Griffin wouldn’t give you a second look. True, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the scenery. “Are you telling me you’re perfect?” Griffin sauntered across the stall, the horse trailing after him. As he dumped the hay in the trough attached to the far wall, he said, “That’s what my mom says.” “That doesn’t count. It’s a law that mothers have to say that about their kids.” Maggie smiled. “Even mine cuts me slack for my overly competitive nature. What if I asked your brother?” For the briefest second, Griffin’s eyes narrowed. “Rory would tell you I’m too laid-back, but with him you have to factor in the whole sibling rivalry thing, so you can’t trust his opinion.” Something told her that for Griffin this was more than your average sibling rivalry. “I have three older brothers. They can be a pain and definitely are judgmental.” “Your brothers gave you a hard time?” “Constantly and mercilessly.” As Maggie stared into Griffin’s eyes she couldn’t remember what they’d been talking about. She thought for a minute. That’s right. They’d been talking about his fatal flaw. Oh, this cowboy was good at getting around uncomfortable questions. He lifted the remaining hay. Strong arm muscles rippled under his shirt as he strolled out of the stall. Sweat glistened on his bronzed skin. Yup, God had done some of his best work with this man. “What if I agree to be the bachelor on your show? What happens next?” “First of all, I want to make sure we’re clear on one thing. You do realize the purpose of our show is to find you a wife, right?” Chapter Two Every good deal had a catch, and this show’s was a doozy. But for thirty grand, Griffin would do pretty much anything to help his mom, as long as it was legal. Times were tight financially. The sagging economy had hit Twin Creeks hard. Tourism was down, causing a dip in their revenue from horseback-riding tours. People had less disposable cash, which meant horse sales were down. Then there was his mom’s experimental cancer treatment, not covered by insurance, which put a huge strain on the family finances, and they’d learned she needed another round. Rory had done his part, taking a modeling job with Devlin Designs—a huge sacrifice, considering his camera shyness. Griffin tried to find extra work as a hired hand, but every ranch in the area was experiencing similar trouble, and just hoped to keep the hands they had. And ranch work was the only job Griffin was qualified for other than flipping burgers, neither of which would get him the kind of money he needed to pay for his mom’s latest round of treatments. Now the perfect opportunity had landed at his door. What could be better than getting paid to date pretty women? Talk about a dream job. All he had to do was find a way to avoid proposing at the end of the season, and if he couldn’t, no big deal. No one would be surprised when a reality-show relationship failed. As he stared at the plain woman in front of him, he mulled over her proposition. She’d pulled her long brown hair away from her face into a big ponytail, which only made her angular features sharper. Why did women wear their hair like that? No female past high school should wear her hair back unless she was working out. If there was an opposite of his type, Maggie was the shining example. While he liked ’em tall, she damn near looked him in the eye. Given the pants and long, shapeless sweater she wore, who knew what her figure was like? He went for females who possessed great assets, and dressed to show them off. On top of that, he’d pegged her as a good girl. The kind who expected a ring after dating six months. The kind he crossed the street to avoid. “Sure. I know the goal is to get the bachelor married.” Just because that was the show’s intention didn’t mean he had to succumb. There were always gray areas. He just had to find one. Griffin had always loved women. Even as a child he’d run past his grandfather to reach his grandmother first. But that didn’t mean he wanted to walk down the aisle anytime soon. In fact, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to make that trek. “I have a contract in the car. Once you’ve signed—” “Hold on. I have some questions, such as where’s the show filmed?” Maggie, her eyes shining with enthusiasm, said, “This season we’re filming in Las Vegas. Normally, the first thing we have our bachelor do is fill out a questionnaire and meet with our marriage counselor. Then we select ten bachelorettes ideally suited for him.” “What do you mean, normally?” “We’ve already signed contracts with this season’s bachelorettes.” “Because?” he prodded. The woman had talked his ear off, and now she went quiet? “Our scheduled bachelor backed out at the last minute.” “Does he know something I don’t?” Griffin asked as he tossed a hunk of hay in Sugar’s trough. “He was a retired pro football player who returned to the game. We picked out bachelorettes for him. Of course, there’s a possibility some of the women will leave when they learn we have a new man.” “You’re saying they’ll think I’m a scrub replacement?” Maggie gasped. Embarrassment flamed across her cheeks. “I’m not saying that at all. I apologize for my poor choice of words. No woman would see you that way.” He couldn’t keep from grinning. “I had you worried, didn’t I?” She laughed, but not one of those dainty, practiced, feminine giggles. Joy rang out in her full, honest laughter, and her face lit up. “That was a good one. You really had me going.” “You’d think with three older brothers you wouldn’t be so gullible,” Griffin retorted. She crossed her arms over her chest again. “In my defense, I’m in work mode right now. Believe it or not, very few people tease me when I’m discussing business. Are you always so vexing?” “Pretty much.” Maggie’s melodic laughter reverberated through the barn once more, but Griffin sobered. An athlete. That meant they’d probably picked women who liked sports and the outdoors. Ones who’d be comfortable on a ranch. Not exactly what he wanted. “You want me to pick a wife from women you selected for another man?” he asked, already slipping into the charade. Wouldn’t that be what a man who really wanted to find a wife would say? “You’re not going to get me again.” “This time I’m serious.” “Sorry. The altitude must be messing up my radar.” Maggie frowned and tucked a stray brown curl that had escaped from her ponytail behind her ear. “I think you’ll be happy with the women we’ve selected, and if for whatever reason any of the bachelorettes choose to not continue with the show, the new candidates will be selected specifically for you.” “What if I’m not satisfied? After all, my happiness isn’t your main concern. You’ve got to pick candidates who’ll make good TV.” His main concern was avoiding marriage, while getting the thirty grand. He ran his hand along Sugar’s expanding belly, and her foal moved under his palm. The horse swung her head toward him. “I know, girl, you’re ready for this baby to be here, aren’t you?” “Watching a foal coming into the world must be such a miracle,” Maggie said. “Changing the subject won’t work. What happens if I’m not happy with who you’ve picked?” “Out of ten women, you really think you might not like any of them? Come on. No man can be that particular.” She had no idea how picky he was about to become. “We’re talking about finding me a wife. I need to be sure I can spend the rest of my life with one of these ladies.” He almost smiled at how easily he played the game, telling Maggie what she wanted to hear without technically lying. He’d find someone to spend his life with about the same time he decided to work a nine-to-five desk job. “We’ve never had a bachelor unhappy with our choices before.” “When I’ve studied the bios, if I don’t like what I see, I want veto power.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “Veto power? Tell me you’re not a control freak.” “Like I said, I’m pretty laid-back, but I’m not big on trusting someone I just met with something this important.” Maggie bit her lip, and her leaf-green eyes focused on him. He froze. The intensity in her gaze surprised and intrigued him. Such fire. If it weren’t for her gorgeous eyes, he’d call her plain, but they changed everything. A woman with that much heat flashing in her eyes, but dressed in pants two sizes too big and a baggy cardigan, made Griffin wonder what she wanted to hide and why. “If we break the bachelorettes’ contracts we still have to pay them. That would cost the show money. But more importantly, recasting would take time we don’t have. We’re scheduled to start shooting in two weeks.” “You could always find another bachelor. But if you do, it’s your loss.” He shot her the smile he’d used with his high school teachers whenever he asked for an assignment extension. It hadn’t failed him yet. “It seems unreasonable for you to have complete veto power.” When faced with her resistance, he paused to calculate his next move. He wanted to be able to make changes in case there weren’t enough career-minded types. The last thing he wanted was ten women looking for a man to save them from whatever mess they’d made of their lives, financially or otherwise. Still smiling, he stepped toward Maggie. Their gazes locked. He lowered his voice and whispered, “I’m not asking for much. Surely you can give me this.” A smile spread across her face. Her eyes twinkled. He had her. “Nice try turning on the charm, but this is a business deal, and that’s how I’m treating it.” Now that was a curve he hadn’t expected. Where had he gone wrong? Women worked hard to please him, and rarely gave him grief. “Then we’re at a standoff.” “I’ll give you two vetoes,” Maggie countered. “Six.” “Out of ten women? Forget it. Three. That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.” He thought about countering with five, but the iron resolve on her face, the confidence in her eyes, along with her braced stance, told him she wouldn’t budge. “Deal. I want it added to the contract.” He hadn’t won, but on the upside, he hadn’t lost, either. “I have to run it by my boss and Legal, but I think they’ll go for it. Once they approve the change, I’ll have them email me a new contract. Is there anything else you need to know before you sign?” How do I avoid proposing on the last show? No, he didn’t need advice. He’d ended enough relationships to have a stockpile of strategies. “After the women are selected, do I start dating?” “I’m guessing you don’t watch our show.” Why would he? Dating and playing pool beat the hell outta watching some poor schmuck who couldn’t find a wife on his own date a bunch of women picked by someone else. “Nope. The only reality shows I watch are Survivor and The Amazing Race.” “On our show, the early episodes are mixers,” Maggie explained. “You go to the mansion where the bachelorettes live. You circulate among the women, spending time getting to know them.” And all of them would want to catch his attention and please him. Now that was his idea of a good time. “I’ll know where the women are living. Will they know where I’m staying?” “No. Both your contract and theirs state that your contact is limited to the dating situations. We have cameras positioned all over the bachelorette mansion, and they’re monitored and taping twenty-four/seven. That way we can obtain footage of the women interacting and talking about you. It also allows us to know if anyone leaves the house.” Cameras? Everywhere? That little tidbit threw a kink into things. He wasn’t keen on being on TV, and even less thrilled about living in a fishbowl, especially considering the game he’d be playing. “Are there cameras where I’ll be staying?” Maggie shook her head. “Since none of the dates will occur there, we didn’t go to the expense.” Griffin relaxed, thankful for budget-conscious executives. “I’m staying in a house, with all the hotels in Las Vegas?” “We like to maintain a low profile, to keep details like who you eliminate each week a secret until the episode airs. That would be difficult to do in a hotel, with other guests and staff around all the time.” That made sense. “When you’ve picked the two finalists, we do a getaway weekend,” Maggie continued. “The only segment that’s live is the finale. Taping allows us to edit each week’s footage for the most impact, and we air the show two weeks later. After a break for the Christmas holiday, we shoot the finale where you choose your Mrs. Right.” Not if he could help it. “When can you send the contract with the changes to me?” The sooner he signed, the sooner he started working and earning money. “Legal should be able to deliver it tonight. I’ll bring the paperwork over as soon as it arrives.” No way would he risk Maggie returning to the ranch and getting anywhere near his mom. The longer Griffin avoided telling his mother what he’d done, the better, because that task would take major planning. “How about you go to your hotel and contact Legal. I’ll finish my chores and clean up. When you have the contract ready, call me. By then I’ll have studied the bios. We can take care of business and go somewhere for dinner.” She frowned again. The woman sure did that a lot. Life was too short and precarious to worry that much. “I’m not certain that’s a good idea, since we’ll be working together.” “That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.” She flinched. Damn. Now he’d hurt her feelings. She had the same look on her face that his sister, Avery, had had as a child when he and Rory said she couldn’t tag along with them. “Come on, I’m fun to be around,” Griffin cajoled, trying to lighten the mood. “Ask any of my friends. You’re not the only one who can be persistent. You might as well give in.” His words coaxed a smile out of her, easing his guilt over his carelessness. “All right.” She sighed. “I have your cell number. I’ll call you when I’ve got the contract.” AS GRIFFIN STOOD OUTSIDE Maggie’s hotel room door at seven-thirty that night, he wondered why he’d suggested they go to dinner. She’d offered to bring the contract to the ranch, and next thing he knew the invitation had jumped out of his mouth before he’d thought things through. Didn’t matter. He could use tonight to find out more about what he was getting into. Plus, he’d need a friend when he got to Vegas, since he’d have to be on guard with the women he was dating. Saying the wrong thing or picking the wrong one could cost him money, and his mother couldn’t afford that. Convinced he had valid reasons for seeing Maggie, and confident it wasn’t because she had the most beautiful eyes in the world, he knocked on her door. A minute later she answered. The first thing he noticed was her hair. Unlike earlier, when she’d had it in a ponytail, long, glossy chestnut waves now flowed around her face, softening her sharp features, making her look almost pretty. She pointed to the far side of the room. “The contract’s on the desk. You can go over it while I finish getting ready.” Maggie headed into the bathroom and Griffin sat at the desk, knowing he’d have plenty of time to examine the document. No woman he’d ever met, other than his mother, was ready when she said she’d be. The agreement seemed fairly straightforward. He chuckled when he read how the producers and “anyone associated with the program are released from liability for any consequences, emotional, medical or otherwise, resulting from any sexual intimacies entered into by participants during the filming of the show.” From what he’d learned from his sister when he’d questioned her earlier, reality shows played up the sexual tension. They worked hard to create it, pitting people against each other and kept the alcohol flowing. Then they had the nerve to say they weren’t responsible for what happened? At least Griffin wouldn’t have to worry about those issues, because no way was he getting sexually involved with any of the bachelorettes. That would only complicate things. Nothing changed a relationship like sleeping with a woman. He kept reading, finding nothing in the contract that bothered him. Right up until he hit the misrepresentation clause. If the producers determined he “wasn’t sincere in his desire to get married, if he withheld any personal or professional information that would impact his suitability as a husband, or in any other way compromised the integrity of the show,” he forfeited all monies earned and faced possible legal action. He read the clause twice to make sure he understood. Damn. Getting out of proposing might not be as easy as he thought, but how could he turn down earning some fast cash to help the family? He had to pull this off. His mom needed him to. The clause meant he’d have to do some fancy dancing and watch his every word to avoid proposing without breaking the misrepresentation clause. A plan. That’s what he needed. If he came up with a good one, remained focused and clearheaded, he could do this. “Maggie, has the show ever used the misrepresentation clause?” “No, though we came close last year.” “What happened?” She poked her head out of the bathroom door, a frown causing little worry lines on her forehead. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Of course he was, but not for the reason she thought. “I answered that question this afternoon. My concern is that this clause gives you the right to ask for your money back for vague reasons.” The lines above the bridge of her nose deepened. “As long as you’re up front and honest about everything you’ll be fine.” A knot formed at the base of his neck at her choice of words. Honesty. He’d be straddling the line with that one, but honesty didn’t mean a man had to share everything. Plus, he was going on the show for a good cause. His mom. That had to more than balance the scales. “Then there’s no problem,” he said as Maggie stepped out of the bathroom. As far as he could see the only thing she’d done was put her hair in a ponytail, pulling it back so tight she had to have a headache. “Why’d you change your hair?” “If I don’t put it up it gets in the way.” “It looked better down.” She blushed and smoothed her hand over her hair. “You think so?” “You should wear it down all the time.” He grinned. “I’ll wait while you change it.” “It’s fine. No sense in taking time to mess with it.” She nodded toward the contract. “Do you have any more questions?” Instead of answering, he picked up the hotel pen beside the phone, initialed the contract where indicated, and scrawled his signature on the last page. No turning back now. “We need to talk about the women.” He’d spent the afternoon scrutinizing the bios. Not wanting to be sidetracked by a pretty face, he’d flipped the photos over and concentrated on the facts. Reading the bios made his decisions easy. He concentrated on women who’d find ranch life or moving difficult. Since relocating to Colorado would force the lawyer and the dentist to start over with their practices, they went directly into his keep pile. The job prospects for an opera singer in Estes Park were worse than dismal, and wouldn’t she want to live in New York? He pulled two pictures from the inside pocket of his leather coat and placed them on top of the contract. “I want to use my veto on these two.” Maggie picked up the first grade teacher’s photo. Griffin figured if the woman faced a class full of ankle biters, what were the chances that he could scare her off? “You can’t veto her. Every season we need a woman who tugs at viewers’ heartstrings. This year it’s the teacher. She’s sweet, loves the outdoors and has a great sense of humor. Her husband was killed in a plane crash two years ago. Our viewers will go crazy over her.” “I didn’t agree to my vetoes being conditional.” Maggie pointed to the contract. “You did when you signed that. It states that you are ‘allowed to veto three of the selected bachelorettes unless removing said bachelorette will detrimentally change the dynamics of the show.’ In our eyes, removing the teacher does.” He’d read the stipulation, but hadn’t thought anything of it. “There has to be someone else the viewers can root for.” “This decision comes from higher up.” He thought about pushing the issue further, but would doing so make Maggie suspicious? When they’d first met, he’d tried to charm her into viewing things his way, but she’d seen through his ploy. If a man were looking for a wife, this teacher would be at the top of the list. He couldn’t risk tipping Maggie off and losing thirty grand before he even started. “Why don’t you want her on the show? Is it because she was married before?” “I don’t want to talk about it, and since she’s staying, it doesn’t matter.” That was true enough. “Finding Mr. Right is in the works. To get the show off to a good start, we want our first bachelorette to be someone the viewers are familiar with. Someone they’ve gotten to know on a previous season. The teacher’s one of the names being talked about, so the producers would like her to stay as long as possible.” Griffin shoved his fisted hands into his coat pockets. What had he gotten himself into? Maggie lifted the other photo. “This veto is fine, but may I ask why?” When he’d first read this bio, he couldn’t believe a single mother would come on the show. How could she leave her son for ten weeks? How could she put her love life or fifteen minutes of fame above her child? Sign her up for mother of the year. “I’d rather not say.” Maggie picked up the photo and scanned the back. “If you tell me what the problem is I will avoid finding a woman with a similar issue.” “I can’t respect any woman who leaves her kid for ten weeks to go on TV.” Maggie’s eyes widened and her brows knit together, as if she couldn’t believe the thought occurred to him. “I agree. There’s no way to explain leaving like that to a four-year-old.” “Something tells me the boy isn’t going to have a Brady Bunch childhood.” Maggie nodded. “Once I get back to Los Angeles, I’ll find a replacement.” She placed the bios and contract inside her briefcase beside the desk. “We need you in Las Vegas immediately. Is that a problem?” The sooner he started working, the sooner he could pay his mom’s medical bills. “I need to find someone to fill in at the ranch, but that shouldn’t be hard.” “Is there any way I can help? What do you do?” The innocent question hit Griffin like a hard gut punch, because to tell the truth, he really didn’t know how he fit in at the ranch. He frowned. With the lousy economy a lot of folks needed extra income. Hell, a high school kid could do what he did. Toting hay bales, watering the horses, and fixing busted fences took brawn, not brains. Basically, he was a glorified ranch hand. Jack of all trades, but master of none. “Let’s get outta here.” He walked across the room to the door. “A friend of mine’s band is playing at Halligan’s tonight. You up for some dancing?” Maggie tilted her head and studied him, making him wonder if she’d let his sidestepping her question slide. “I love listening to bands, but dancing isn’t my thing. I tend to step on my partner’s toes more than I do the dance floor.” “Maybe you need a better partner.” Chapter Three Maybe you need a better partner. Maggie knew Griffin hadn’t meant anything by his comment, but his words made her stomach do cartwheels. Charmers like him tossed out phrases like that the way other people fed birds—liberally, and to any bird that showed up. Everything told her going out to dinner with Griffin wasn’t a good idea, but then he’d also said the words that killed a woman’s dreams. The ones that no matter how many times she heard them still left bruises. That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. The simple phrase told her everything she needed to know. Griffin saw her like every other man she’d met did. She was a great gal pal, but lacked the necessary girlfriend qualities, which was exactly why she needed in vitro fertilization to have a child. Maggie’s head knew that, but her heart kept hearing his silky voice wrap around her when he’d said she needed a better partner. His sparkling gaze had peered into her soul, as if she were truly special. Get over it. You’re seeing things like the time you had a high fever and saw purple giraffes. She couldn’t afford to let her romantic nature run amok. Her brothers always chided her for expecting life to be like a romance novel, where the hero swept into a woman’s life, recognized her for how wonderful she was on the inside, and declared he couldn’t live without her. So what if Griffin thought of her as a friend? No one had enough of those. Keep telling yourself that. Maybe eventually you’ll believe it, and his words won’t hurt as much. Despite that, when she and Griffin stepped inside Halligan’s Saloon, she vowed to enjoy the night. The down-to-earth restaurant hummed with activity. People sat on industrial-style, padded metal chairs, clustered around simple Formica tables. Laughter rang throughout the room, bouncing off the walls. The smell of French fries and burgers wafted through the air, making her mouth water. “This is great.” “I’d have thought a California city girl would be more comfortable somewhere more upscale.” “I’ve only lived in Los Angeles a few years. Sometimes things there feel so artificial. I prefer places where I can be myself.” “No one puts on airs here, because if he did, someone would kick his ass.” As they walked toward a table, Maggie glanced at the room to her right. “They have pool tables. Will we have time for a game before the band starts playing?” Griffin held her chair for her. “You might not want to play with me.” “Is that a challenge? If it is, you’re on.” A mischievous gleam in his eyes, he said, “Eight ball, for five bucks a game?” “I hope you’re a good loser.” Maggie smiled. Beating her brothers and their friends at pool had earned her more money than her childhood lemonade stand. At least until the guys wised up and quit playing her for cash. Before Griffin could respond, a slender waitress with dusty blond hair sprinkled with gray strolled to their table. “Good to see you, Griffin. Who’s this you brought with you?” “Cathy, meet Maggie Sullivan. She came here to talk business with Rory. I figured she couldn’t leave town without a night at Halligan’s.” If Maggie didn’t know better, she’d never suspect he’d just told a little white lie. He was good, but she was onto him. He turned to her. “This is Cathy. She’s a regular institution around here.” The woman frowned and swatted Griffin’s arm. “You make me sound like I’m two steps away from the grave.” He flashed the waitress a brilliant smile, the wattage nearly blinding Maggie. Then he placed his large hand over the older woman’s. “Don’t be mad at me, Cathy, honey. Haven’t I always said a man couldn’t find a woman better than you?” She shook her head. “If only I were ten years younger, Griffin McAlister. I’d give the girls around here a run for their money chasing you.” “They wouldn’t stand a chance. Course, I don’t think John would like the idea much.” Maggie smiled. Griffin should wear a sign like they posted on dangerous roads, because a woman could certainly spin out of control when his charm zeroed in on her. “You’re right. John’s a good man, but he’s not that understanding.” Cathy tossed Maggie a motherly glance and hooked her thumb toward Griffin. “You watch out for this one.” No kidding. “I have been since the moment we met.” “Good for you. You keep him honest.” When Griffin opened his mouth to protest, Cathy hushed him. “I need to take your orders. I can’t stand here talking all night.” After she departed, an awkward silence stretched, baffling Maggie. She was the type of person who met people and within five minutes knew their life stories. How come Griffin left her tongue-tied? Sure he was good-looking and charming, but all the bachelors had been. This did not bode well for the next few months. “How long have you been a director?” Griffin finally asked. “This is my first season, but I’ve been with the show from the start.” Cathy returned, a tray of drinks in her hand, placed a glass of beer in front of each of them and moved on. “What made you choose a career in television?” Griffin asked after taking a long drink. “I feel like I’m in a job interview. What’s the deal?” “I’m curious. Television can’t be an easy career to break into. But if you don’t want to tell me, we can talk about the weather.” “Not that! I’ll talk. I’ve always been interested in the theater. As a kid I wrote and performed plays. When my brothers wanted me to help them with their chores, I made them agree to act in one of my productions.” “You drove a hard bargain.” “I had to. How many boys want to star in The Princess and the Shoe Salesman?” Griffin shuddered. “I gotta side with your brothers. That could kill a guy’s reputation.” “You laugh, but it was one of my highest-grossing shows.” “You charged people to attend your childhood plays?” “You bet. Money was tight.” Thanks to her father cleaning out the bank accounts when he ran off. Familiar anger surged inside her. Two months after her father had entered college, her mother had discovered she was pregnant. He’d quit school, got a factory job and dutifully married her. However, he never hid his resentment over being “trapped” into marriage. Let it go. “Then I went to New York University to study film making, and here I am.” Maggie sipped her beer. The cool liquid slid down her dry throat, soothing as it went. “What about you? Did you ever want to do anything other than work on a ranch?” Griffin’s smile tightened for a second, then brightened again. Had she hit a sore spot? “Life on the ranch is dull compared to working in television. What made you choose to work on a dating reality show?” She’d definitely hit a sore spot. Why else would he keep steering the conversation back to her? She decided to let it go for now. She’d wanted to work on a critically acclaimed drama or comedy, but those jobs were hard to come by. In the end, she’d taken what she could get to pay her bills. Working on a reality show had stripped off her rose-colored glasses, romantically speaking, but people didn’t want to hear that. They wanted the fantasy. “I love watching couples fall in love, and knowing I played a part in bringing them together.” Griffin laughed. “How often do you practice that speech in front of the mirror?” This wasn’t the first time she’d defended her work, but how had Griffin guessed she actually had practiced? And how dare he throw it in her face? “What I said may have sounded rehearsed, but what we do isn’t that much different than a dating service.” Except for the group dates, exotic locations, hidden agendas and cameras. “What about finding love yourself?” The innocent question left her reeling. The last thing she wanted to discuss with a gorgeous man who’d probably never been turned down for anything, was her love life, or lack there of. Thankfully, Cathy arrived with their food. Maggie picked up her knife, cut the huge buffalo burger Griffin had recommended in half, and took a bite. “This is wonderful.” “Would I steer you wrong?” In a New York minute, and she wasn’t sure she’d care. “You’re avoiding my question about why you haven’t found love.” You bet she was, and his words stung as much the second time as they had the first. “They ask contestants fewer questions on Jeopardy,” Maggie said. “My turn now. What’re you looking for in a wife?” Griffin stared off in the distance, his gaze clouded. “That’s not an easy question.” “The good ones never are.” But they often revealed the most, whether a person answered or not. His hand gripped his beer glass. “I like Elizabeth, Rory’s wife. She makes him laugh, but she gets her dander up when she thinks someone’s not treating him right. She’s a little dynamo in a knockout package.” Maggie tried not to flinch, and slouched in her chair when Griffin said he liked petite, attractive women. “I’ll keep that info in mind when I select a new bachelorette.” “You better do right by me.” Despite his light tone, she sensed a genuine request behind his words. “You can count on it.” For a moment, his sky-blue eyes focused on her. The words hung between them. The light manner in which they’d spoken was contradicted by the undercurrents passing back and forth. “This conversation has gotten way too serious.” Griffin scooted his chair back from the table. “You ready to lose at pool?” Before she could answer, a sexy feminine voice called Griffin’s name. Off to his left stood a tall blonde in sleek designer jeans and a low-cut, tight sweater that revealed a figure probably earned through more hours in a gym than Maggie spent at work. The woman licked her lips, fluffed her hair and set out on a direct course for Griffin. “Where have you been?” She leaned forward, kissing him on the cheek and offering him an unobstructed view of her generous cleavage. Maggie tried not to wince, feeling like a child’s finger painting hanging next to a Van Gogh. Didn’t he say he liked petite women? The one talking to him now was tall, and she and Griffin clearly knew each other well. “It’s been ages, Griffin.” The woman practically started drooling. Could she be more obvious? “I’ve missed you. A lot.” Her hand trailed up his chest and slipped inside his shirt. Apparently she could. “Sorry, Britney. I was chained to Rory’s desk while he was in New York.” Griffin turned to Maggie and introduced her. Britney mumbled a hello without even glancing at her. How come pretty women felt they could get away with being rude? Oh, yeah. That was because people let them. “A bunch of us are having a party tonight for Jackson’s birthday. You should join us.” Britney finally looked at Maggie. “Of course, you’re welcome to come.” Sure. She was as welcome as poison ivy on a scout camp-out. “Though I don’t know how much fun you’d have, since everyone’s been friends since high school,” Britney added. “I love meeting new people,” Maggie countered. Take that. She’d learned long ago not to let beautiful women intimidate her, because if she did, she’d spend all her free time home alone. “I can’t, Brit. I promised Jamie I’d be here tonight,” Griffin said. “Oh, come on. You’ve heard him play a million times.” Britney licked her full lips again and pouted. Maggie almost laughed. And Griffin had accused her of practicing before a mirror? “I can’t let a friend down.” Britney smiled, leaned forward and whispered something in his ear. Then she kissed him again, this time long and deep. Maggie stared at the table. “You know where to find me if you get bored and change your mind,” Britney said. Silverware clanged as patrons enjoyed their food. Heels clicked on the wooden floor. Water ran in rivulets down her water glass. “It’s safe to look up. She’s gone. I’m sorry she was rude.” The fact that Griffin noticed Britney’s behavior surprised Maggie more than his apology. Men usually forgave beautiful women almost anything. “Is she what you’re looking for in a wife?” Instead of the comment sounding light and inquisitive, Maggie’s words came off petty. “I’m tired of talking shop. How about that game of pool?” As Griffin escorted Maggie into the pool room, he found himself having fun. Something he never expected with a good girl like Maggie. He usually went for women who were sexy, sultry, looked fine on his arm and weren’t the brightest penny in the piggy bank. “You don’t have to entertain me if you want to go out with Britney. I can go back to the hotel.” “I meant what I said. I promised Nick I’d be here, and I said we’d go dancing.” Maggie’s eyes widened. Why did she find it so shocking that he kept his word? The blow stung. He’d been glad to have an excuse to get rid of Britney. He never returned to a relationship once he ended things. He grabbed a cue from the rack on the wall. “You ready to play, or have you changed your mind?” “I don’t scare easily.” After he racked the balls, he bowed. “Ladies first.” “You said you were chained to the desk while Rory was gone. I take it you didn’t enjoy running the ranch?” Maggie lined up her shot, and with precision, sent the cue ball racing across the table. Balls scattered, with the two ball darting into a side pocket. “I’m still having flashbacks whenever I see piles of papers.” Griffin shuddered. Despite hating the spotlight, Rory had stepped in front of the camera to earn the money for their mom’s first round of treatments. While he modeled, Griffin had managed the ranch. Now it was his turn to sacrifice. “The job was a major pain in the ass. I didn’t have time or energy to do anything else. I don’t know how Rory stands it, sitting at his desk the better part of the day and going over accounts, trying to save a few pennies.” “The four ball in the corner pocket.” Maggie flawlessly executed her shot. Maybe she hadn’t been overly confident. “Now that your brother is back, what’re you doing?” As soon as Rory had returned, Griffin reverted to his hired hand job. But instead of saying that, he plastered a smile on his face. “I see to the horses and maintain the property.” “If I hadn’t gone into television I wanted to work with animals.” Too bad he hadn’t gotten to choose because he’d had a different plan for his life. He’d expected by now to be a national bull-riding champion, but those dreams had died five years ago when his dad suffered a heart attack behind the wheel and crashed the truck they were in. Because of a broken back and damaged vertebra, not only had Griffin been forced to give up the rodeo, he hadn’t been able to ride a horse since. Another fall could result in a severe spinal cord injury. Although he’d wanted to risk returning to the circuit, his mother begged him to quit, saying she couldn’t stand worrying he’d end up in a wheelchair every time he stepped in an arena. He shook off the memories. Life was what it was. No point dwelling on the past. Maggie called out her next shot, making that one, too. “Hey, you gonna give me a chance, or am I just here to watch?” “I warned you.” She kissed the three ball off the nine into the side pocket, and taunted him with a saucy grin. “How’d you get to be such a shark?” Her smile faded. The little V appeared above the bridge of her nose. In the short time he’d known her he’d learned that probably meant she was worried or upset. “My father liked to go to Charlie’s Tavern on Saturdays when Mom worked. He took me and my brothers along. Since there wasn’t anything else to do, we played pool.” The tight tone in her voice made Griffin think her being upset was the likelier option. He wondered what she’d left out of the story. “Five ball in the corner pocket.” This time her shot went right. Yup, she’d definitely left out something important. “Griff,” a familiar voice called out. Turning toward the restaurant, he spotted Hunter and his girlfriend, Denise, making a beeline for him. The last thing he wanted to do was explain Maggie to his friends, but unless he made a break for it, he was stuck. “I heard you’d been set free.” Hunter slapped him on the back. “The town’s still buzzing about Rory shooting that commercial at Twin Creeks. I never pegged him as the model type.” No kidding. “I think it was temporary insanity.” Griffin lined up his shot and sank the ten ball in a side pocket. “I saw his billboard. It’s amazing,” Denise interjected in a dreamy voice. Then she walked across the room to Maggie. “Since Griffin appears to have forgotten his manners, I’ll introduce myself. I’m Denise.” She pointed to her boyfriend. “That’s Hunter.” After the introductions, Hunter looked at Griffin, nodded toward the table filled with stripes and asked, “What’re you, solids?” “Unfortunately, I’m stripes.” Griffin sank his next two shots before he missed. “Looks like you’re going down in flames.” “Thanks, I hadn’t noticed.” What was the big deal? Griffin was secure enough that a woman beating him at pool didn’t bother him. His friends witnessing the event and ribbing him about it, though, was something different. “I was a gentleman and let her go first. I won’t make that mistake again.” Maggie lined up her shot, sank the last solid and then the eight ball. “You owe me five bucks.” As Griffin paid up, Hunter said, “I should’ve caught this monumental occasion on my iPhone so I could post it on YouTube.” Just what Griffin wanted—viral humiliation. Then a thought hit him. This embarrassment was nothing compared to what he’d suffer when the show hit TVs across America. “Hunter, I’ll take you on if you think you can beat me,” Maggie taunted as she leaned on her pool cue. “I’ll even let you go first. Unless you’re afraid to lose to a woman.” She flashed his friend a wide grin, as if she were a cat telling a mouse she’d give him a head start before she gave chase. Smart enough to seize a diversion, Griffin added, “Put up or shut up, Hunter.” “I like a challenge.” “You won’t sound so confident in a few minutes,” Griffin muttered. Maggie racked the balls and Hunter lined up his shot. “Ten says she beats you,” Griffin taunted. Denise turned to Maggie. “Hunter thinks he’s the best pool player since Minnesota Fats. I’d love to see you put him in his place. Then maybe he wouldn’t spend all his free time playing pool, reading about pool—” “Aw, babe. You know that’s how I relax after a long day.” As Hunter took his shot, Denise asked, “How do you know Griffin?” “We’re working together on a TV show.” “We’re working on a Twin Creeks’ project.” He and Maggie spoke simultaneously. “What show?” Denise asked, completely ignoring Griffin. Hands fisted inside his front pockets, Griffin barreled forward, hoping to avert impending disaster. “You wouldn’t have heard of it.” He flashed Maggie a play-along-with-me glare, but unfortunately, her attention remained focused on the pool table. “Maybe Hunter hasn’t, but I bet Denise has. She’s our target audience. I’m the director on Finding Mrs. Right.” Hunter sank his shot, and then Maggie glanced Griffin’s way. She paled when she spotted him scowling at her. Too late now. Griffin held his breath. If Lady Luck shined on him, Denise wouldn’t have heard of the blasted program. “Isn’t that the dating show you make me watch with you every Tuesday night?” Hunter blurted out, and Denise nodded. Griffin cursed Lady Luck’s fickle nature. How could she turn on him? Nothing he could do now but brace himself for the oncoming assault. Hunter’s loud guffaws echoed through the room. “You’re going on that show? Why in the hell would you do that? Have you run through all the local girls and need to widen the market?” Damn. That made him sound like a lecher. “Excuse me?” Maggie straightened, hands on her hips, her eyes flashing daggers at Hunter. Go get him, Maggie girl. Take the heat off me and give me time to regroup. “No offense meant, ma’am.” “It’s too late for an apology.” She waved her hand toward Denise. “Not everyone is as lucky as you’ve obviously been in finding someone wonderful.” Bless her for feeling the need to defend her show. “Thank you.” Denise beamed at Maggie. “I’ve been telling Hunter for years that he doesn’t know how lucky he is.” Griffin glanced at his watch. “As much fun as this is, Nick’s band is about to start playing. I’m heading into the other room.” He turned and walked away, leaving a good chunk of his pride behind. AS MAGGIE AND GRIFFIN found a table near the stage, Hunter and Denise headed straight for the bar, claiming to need a drink. Not that Maggie blamed them for wanting to get away from the awkward undercurrents between her and Griffin. They’d been having so much fun until she’d spoiled everything by bringing up the show. How could Griffin expect her to know he didn’t want his friends finding out about his plans? He should’ve briefed her before they arrived. This wasn’t her fault, and she wished he’d quit glaring at her. Not wanting to see annoyance flashing in his eyes, Maggie stared at the neon guitars and rope lights hanging above the stage. Plinking sounds as the band tuned up floated through the air, mingling with laughter. “You had no business telling my friends about the show.” Griffin’s low, soft voice rattled through her. “You do realize they’d find out anyway? You’re going to be on national television. That’s a hard secret to keep.” “I wanted to tell everyone in my own way. I definitely wanted my family to know first.” “Why on earth haven’t you told them?” “We signed the contract tonight and came straight here. When was there time?” “I’d have told my family before I signed the contract.” That came out way more judgmental than she’d intended. She paused and softened her voice. He had a point. Just because she’d have handled the situation differently didn’t mean that was right for him. “Are you worried they won’t approve?” “No.” His stiff posture and clenched jaw contradicted his confident response. Something was going on, and he didn’t want her to know about it. Maggie thought about confronting him, but what could she say other than she didn’t believe him? Calling the bachelor a liar. Not the best way to start out their working relationship. “Just remember in the future not to share my personal information without asking me. Now let’s drop the subject and have some fun.” His jaw relaxed. The sparkle returned to his eye. Dizzy from his abrupt shift, Maggie had no idea how to respond, or what had caused his instant turn around. Griffin stood and held out his hand. “Let’s dance.” She glanced at the bodies moving in synchronicity on the wooden floor. No way could she execute those precision steps. The last time she’d line danced was at home, before she headed for NYU, and she’d been lousy then. “It’s been years since I’ve done this. The moves have changed a lot.” “Then you’re in luck, because I’m an excellent teacher.” Now that she believed. “People who have two left feet dance better than I do.” “Trust me.” His husky voice reached deep inside her, evaporating any fear of embarrassment. He looked at her in a way no man ever had, as if he truly cared about her. As a woman. She’d be seeing purple giraffes any time now. He was simply being nice. A gentleman. There was nothing more to his actions, but maybe for tonight she could pretend. Maggie placed her hand in his callused one and stood. Big mistake. Her pulse quickened. Her world spun, and she’d only touched his hand. Lord help her if the band played a slow song and Griffin put his arms around her. She’d probably spontaneously combust. On the dance floor, she tried to follow Griffin’s moves. She scooted right, then left, tapping her heels and toes, usually seconds after everyone else. Finally thinking that she might pull this off without too much embarrassment, she zigged when she should’ve zagged, and tromped on Griffin’s right foot. “I’m sorry. Let’s sit—” “I’m fine. Maggie girl, just keep moving and have fun.” After two rousing line dances, the band played a slow ballad. The gentle strains about a cowboy and his lost love flowed over her. She stared into Griffin’s mesmerizing eyes. He’d say they should take a breather. Get a drink. Go to the restroom, or some other excuse to leave the dance floor. She knew the drill, because that’s what happened with other men whenever the music slowed down. Instead, Griffin placed his hand on her back, leaving her shocked and thrilled. He stepped closer. She inhaled deeply and his earthy scent filled her. She’d died and gone to heaven. Please don’t let me step on his toes again. I can’t bear to spoil this moment. As Griffin glided her around the dance floor, for the first time in her life Maggie felt graceful. His attention focused on her. He wasn’t glancing around the room to trade up. She could get lost in this man, and not care if anyone ever looked for her. Stop this. You work together. Nothing but disaster can come from thoughts like that. And at the end of the season he would propose to another woman. She never should’ve danced with him. She should’ve said she had a migraine. Or a raging toothache. A sudden case of the flu. Anything to avoid being in his arms. How would she ever watch him flirt with other women? Watch him hold the bachelorettes and kiss them? She’d never before wanted to trade places with the women on her show, but now she found herself eager to do just that. Knowing all of those reasons why she shouldn’t have danced with him, Maggie wouldn’t have given up the experience for anything. But now the ball was almost over, and she had to think of Griffin like every other bachelor she’d worked with in the last six years. But how? She’d need a fairy godmother’s intervention to pull off that trick. Chapter Four Sleep eluded Griffin until three, by which time he’d hammered out his strategy to deal with the proposal issue. His other concern, his reaction to Maggie, had him stumped. He’d asked her to dinner for a simple reason: to keep her from coming back to the ranch and running into his mother. He’d figured they would eat and listen to Nick’s band play a few songs. Nothing more. Night over. After all, what about Maggie would tempt him? Griffin liked his women as curvy as a mountain road, with legs longer than a Colorado winter night. Who knew if Maggie possessed any curves at all under those ugly clothes she wore? He swore a feed sack would fit better. No, he hadn’t worried about being with her, but he’d enjoyed her company, and when they danced she’d felt good in his arms. Too good. That was last night. Today his mind focused on business. As he walked into the ranch’s office and threw himself into the leather wing chair, he said, “I’d like to take ten weeks off. Matthew Davis can take over my duties until I get back. Is that okay with you?” His big brother looked up from the stack of invoices on their dad’s large oak desk. Griffin thanked the good Lord that mess wasn’t his responsibility, as it had been a couple months ago. “We can’t afford to hire anyone right now, even temporarily,” Rory said. “I’ll pay him out of what I make.” He frowned. “I don’t have time for games. What’s going on?” “You’re not the only one who can land a high paying gig, bro. I found a way to put some serious money into the family coffers.” Griffin stretched his legs out in front of him. For the first time since the accident, he had a purpose and a way to ease the family’s financial problems. Damned if he didn’t like the feeling. “I could use some good news. Tour bookings are down this month, and our cash flow is more like a trickle. What’re you going to do?” “The director from the reality show Finding Mrs. Right was here yesterday and asked me to be their bachelor.” “A reality show? Don’t tell me you’re considering it.” Rory leaned forward and his chair squeaked. “Wait a minute. You said you’d be the bachelor. Is it one of those dating and marriage shows?” He nodded. “I can’t believe you want to get married.” “I don’t. Why would I order the same meal every day when I haven’t sampled the whole menu?” “I’m discovering a lot of benefits to marriage.” A dreamy look filled his brother’s eyes. Rory was whipped. “As lovely and captivating as my sister-in-law is, there’s a reason they call marriage an institution.” “But getting you married is the show’s goal.” “Oh, come on,” Griffin scoffed. “People don’t expect those relationships to last.” Rory shook his head. “At least tell me they won’t be filming here on the ranch.” Griffin shook his in turn. “We’re shooting in Las Vegas.” “Good. The last thing we need is a repeat of what happened to Mom when we made the commercial here.” When Devlin Designs had filmed Rory’s jeans commercial at Twin Creeks, their mother discovered Rory had agreed to model because of the ranch’s poor financial state, which was news to her, and to pay for her treatment. When the truth came out, she’d gotten so upset she’d collapsed, scaring the daylights out of everyone. “The way I see it, I pretend to search for the future Mrs. Griffin McAlister. The key is to pick the woman who’ll fit into my plans. I’ve got it all worked out.” Rory leaned back in his massive leather desk chair—now, that part of the job Griff had appreciated—and put his hands behind his head. He grinned. “This I’ve got to hear.” “I eliminate anyone who’s not career driven or wants more than one kid. Then before the finale, I drop the little bombshell that I want a whole houseful of them, and I want my wife to stay home to raise them. Telling the final contender I want to keep her barefoot and pregnant should send her screaming into the night, never to return. It’s perfect. I propose. She says no. I’m in the clear.” “Did I ever mention how career driven Lizzie was when we met?” “As far as I can see she still is.” Since moving from New York to Colorado, Elizabeth, a whirlwind of activity, had revamped the ranch’s advertising and marketing campaign. In addition, she was knocking on every door in the county, trying to drum up more business for her ad agency. “Career women like Elizabeth would never be happy staying at home raising kids.” “What if you’re wrong?” “I thought about that. If my original plan doesn’t work, I can turn into a nightmare fiancé.” He’d spent the better part of the night sorting through potential problems and devising solutions. “I’ll get possessive or insult the future in-laws. I don’t know. I’ll work something out.” “Your arrogance could get you into trouble.” Griffin smiled. “Thanks for giving me another strategy. I can turn into a complete ass.” “That shouldn’t be hard for you.” Rory, the serious one, always played devil’s advocate. However, that tendency often dampened Griffin’s enthusiasm or drained the fun out of his idea. No way was he letting his wet-blanket big brother do that with this sweet deal. “Thanks for having faith in me,” he snapped. “But seriously, Griff, when relationships from reality TV go up in flames, the whole thing gets played out in the tabloids. If you act like an ass to get her to break up with you, it could backfire. She’ll probably do interviews. That could affect our ranch business, and we have to be able to face everyone here.” Rory had a good point. “So I’ll tone it down, but I can still pull this off. Every woman has a deal-breaker issue. All I have to do is find it.” “You don’t have to do this. We can find another way to come up with the money for Mom.” Their mother, the rock of the family even before their dad had died over two years ago, was in a tough battle against cancer. After every traditional treatment failed to shrink her inoperable brain tumor, they’d heard about an experimental procedure. Not only was it expensive and in Portland, insurance didn’t cover the costs. “Seems I said the same thing to you when you announced you were going to model. As I recall, you did it anyway.” Rory folded his arms across his chest. “That was a job. This is a show to find you a wife. That’s your life. This will put everything you say and do on display for millions of viewers.” “The spotlight’s never bothered me, and I see this as a job. It’s a sweet deal. They’re going to pay me three thousand an episode to date women whose only objective is to please me and get my undivided attention. What could be better than that?” “The saying if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, might be worth mentioning here.” Griffin leaned forward. “Think about this, Rory. The show runs ten weeks. That’ll go a long way to covering Mom’s medical expenses. If I do this, you won’t have to sink to modeling underwear.” He shuddered. Rory’s boss at Devlin Designs was pushing him to model other items in the men’s line, especially their newest product, boxers and briefs. The only reason Rory was considering the proposal was because of the money. “No one wants to see that. You could scar thousands of kids for life if a commercial of you in tighty whities came on during SpongeBob.” “Very funny. But I’ll do whatever’s necessary for Mom.” “You’re not the only one who loves her, you know. My going on this show can make a big financial difference for the family, for Mom.” “You sure?” “I need to do my part, and I’ll never find a better way to make some quick money. Who wants a washed-up rodeo cowboy with no education?” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39872264&lfrom=390579938) на ЛитРес. 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