Now Live!
Chapter 1
Sydney

Life changing moments rarely announce themselves. They prefer sneak up and sucker punch you in the face by way of greeting. That’s how it happened for me. It started as a day like any other. Until it wasn’t. Until it turned into both the best and the worst day of my life.

“Look at me, Sydney,” Frank calmly ordered from across his desk.

Frank Blackstone was always calm and always giving orders which was why I ignored the request and continued typing on my smartphone. A small snag in a contract for a property we were acquiring––and what I mean by “we” is Blackstone Holdings––needed my immediate attention. In all likelihood, it was going to keep me working throughout the weekend once again, but such was life as general counsel of this company. Frank was always either buying or selling something, and I’d known what I was getting into when I took the job. Not only did it not bother me, but I relished it.

“I said look at me, Sydney.”

Holding up an index finger, I continued to type one–handed. I’d tried to reschedule our usual Friday morning meeting only to be told in no uncertain terms to get my butt over to his office pronto. So here I was––butt in the chair across from him pronto even though the contract snag had to be untangled before the end of the week.

“Wilson & Bosch is trying to sneak in a last…minute…clause…bastards…”

Being a woman in a male dominated business meant I was often underestimated and seldom given the respect I deserved. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary, I used it to my advantage and laughed all the way to the bank. I was accustomed to this nonsense and had remarkably thick skin when it came to business. This eleventh hour BS, however, was a downright insult to my intelligence and they were about to find out who they were dealing with.

“I’m dying.”

“Just give me ooone more minute, Frank…” 

“Put it down, Syd. I’m not going to ask again.” The impatience in his voice told me to wrap it up. Frank was not the type you wanted to keep waiting. 

Hitting Send, I placed the phone on the antique walnut desk that separated me from my boss and glanced up, my eyes meeting the dark eyes belonging to the man I worshipped and adored. Sighing, he leaned back in his chair. Like the man, Frank’s office was eclectic. The furniture American colonial antiques, the art on the walls from the Surrealism period, and the rugs Persian.

“Done. You were saying?”

He adjusted the white French cuffs of his signature Turnbull & Asser shirt, laced his hands together, and placed them on his trim midsection. “I said I’m dying.” 

My smiled dropped as I processed the claim one letter at a time. This had to be a joke.

“Is this one of your pranks? Because I have a long day ahead of me and I really need to get some food before I go through the updated proposal and make sure they didn’t booby trap it.”

I couldn’t keep the skepticism off my face, nor out of my voice. And I wouldn’t have asked if the man in question wasn’t famous for pulling pranks. Frank once threw a ridiculously lavish party for a thousand of the world’s richest people, then sent them a bill for their share of the cost. True story. When they refused to pay, he threatened to publicize it in his newspapers. Frank owned three. Everyone promptly wired the funds and Frank donated the ten million dollars to Child Find of America. 

Was I privately pleased? Damn right, I was. Needless to say, Frank’s pranks were hilarious when I played accomplice. Not so much when the joke was on me. 

“With a little luck I could live another twelve months…” He sighed. “…but I’m not betting on it.”

I couldn’t wrap my arms around all the feelings I was simultaneously experiencing. Whatever force was holding me up vanished. Slouching in the leather wing chair, I began to sweat in my black Jill Sanders suit while my mouth ran dry. Mostly because I knew Frank better than I knew myself and his expression told me he wasn’t fooling around.

Frank Blackstone was not only my employer, but a many other things as well. Mentor. Friend. Father figure. The closest thing to a father I’d ever had. And most importantly, the only person who had never let me down. I loved him. He’d taken a barely-out-of-law school graduate and given me every chance to succeed. And succeed I had thanks to him, quickly climbing up the ranks at Blackstone to become Frank’s right hand. Being named general counsel of Blackstone Holdings at age thirty-four was an accomplishment few people could speak of and I would eternally be grateful to him.

“How?” Mired in shock, my voice sounded hollow.

As we stared at each other, the silence thickened. So many unspoken truths hung between us. Neither of us wanted to acknowledge that moments like this one, with the two of us sitting across the desk from each other, like we’d done for years, would soon go extinct.

“Melanoma.”

Frank cut an imposing figure. He was large framed and big boned, a Mt. Rushmore of a man with the gravitas to match. Standing an easy six foot three at seventy-one meant that Frank had been even taller at one point. And not beyond getting his hands dirty. I’d once watched him change a flat on his Rolls Royce Phantom in under half an hour on the shoulder of the FDR––during rush hour. Even his driver, who had thrown out his back, was amazed.

And yet he looked smaller to me in that moment. 

For the first time since I’d met him, sitting in the oversized custom chair made to accommodate the bravado of a man who had built a global company from the ground up with a mere fifty thousand dollars, Frank Blackstone looked his age. 

“But…you beat it…”

His attention wandered out the floor to ceiling window, the Manhattan skyline grey and soggy. Only building roofs were visible from this height. He’d purposely designed the executive suite on the top floor to make sure his adversaries knew he would always look down upon them. I had thought the story over–the–top, dramatic as fuck but that was Frank in a nutshell.

“It beat back.”

Seeing him look so calm and accepting of the situation bothered me, made me feel powerless. And that was one emotion I didn’t handle very well. 

“Frank…”

He looked at me and his expression shifted, the change in him lighting quick. I wasn’t sure what triggered it, but stone–cold resolve replaced the vulnerability he’d worn only a moment ago. It was a look I’d come to know well, the same one Frank donned when he was going for the nuts on a business deal. I didn’t know what to make of it, my own emotions being on a rollercoaster and I hadn’t strapped in for the ride yet.

“I want you to do something for me.”

The inflection in his deep voice shook me out my heavy thoughts and sparked a heightened sense of awareness. Frank’s requests routinely ranged from just short of committing a felony to fetching him a glass of water and you never knew which one was coming because he delivered both in the same innocuous tone. “I need to know that Blackstone will stay in family control. I don’t trust the board to do right by Marjorie.”

Marjorie…my heart broke for her. Marjorie and Frank were inseparable. They still held hands at public events. Frank’s wife was one the kindest ladies I’d ever met. 

“Does she know?”

“Yes…we’ve known since September.”

It was the first week of December. My confusion quickly switched to anger and a sense of betrayal. Frank had never withheld anything from me.

“You’ve known for months and didn’t tell me––your general counsel? I gotta say, I’m kind of pissed.”

The chair squeaked as it tipped back a fraction, Frank’s stare flat. “I needed time.”

It was as cryptic a reply as he’d ever given me.

“Time for what? What did the doctors say? And why aren’t you at MD Anderson right now? You need to fight this!” 

The best defense was a great offense. Frank had taught me that. And yet he didn’t look like he was gearing up for a fight at all. “Attack first worry about the consequences later. Remember? You filled my head with that junk for years. Years, Frank. And now you’re just going to go quietly into the night?”

“Calm down,” he softly admonished. “I don’t have a lot of time left and I’m not about to spend it arguing with you.”

That knocked the fight out of me. With it went my frustration and my strength. “I’m sorry. I just…I can’t believe it.”

“I’m going to miss you too, kid.” A heavy dose of sympathy filled his eyes. An understanding passed between us. Bittersweet nostalgia. Neither of us was the type to emote and here we were, both emoting as all get out. “I want to make sure the line of succession is clear, that it won’t end up in court once I’m gone.”

Wallowing in my own grief, already mourning the loss of the one person I could always count on, I absently nodded. There wasn’t even a question––anything Frank wanted I would grant. Anything in my power to give was his to have.

There was only one heir available to step in. His son, Scott. Whether he deserved it or not didn’t matter. Devyn, his daughter, was happily married to a tech wunderkind and living in Silicon Valley. A mother to four girls, she had less than zero interest in Blackstone Holdings. 

I had little to nothing good to say about Scott because…well, to put it bluntly, Scott Blackstone was a loser. As much I hated the word, it was properly awarded in this case.

I’d met the heir apparent over a decade ago, at Frank’s daughter’s wedding, and had thankfully seen little of him since. Scott was a walking cliché, a proud club-carrying-member of the caveman association, addressing every woman––whether he knew her name or not––as babydoll. I mean really, who did this in 2019 the year of our Lord?

Basically, he was a rich asshole who spent his time fucking and fighting, traveling the world in search of the latest party and the next adventure. The opposite of everything I deemed good. Not to mention the oversized ego on him, which was record–breaking.

According to Scott, every woman who had the good fortune of crossing his path fell at his feet in a puddle of overwrought hormones. He’d even accused Frank’s longtime secretary, Diane, of “fondling his package” once. Right before, God rest her soul, Diane passed away of a heart attack at the tender age of sixty-nine while sitting at her desk.

Yeah, the man was unbearable. But I would bear him––for Frank. I’d help Scott transition into the role of Blackstone’s honorary CEO. And that’s all he’d be because no one on that board was going to allow Scott to do anything other than decide which restaurant the company holiday party should be held at. And even that was iffy due to the very real danger of Scott choosing an upscale strip club. 

“Have you spoken to Scott?”

“I haven’t been able to reach him.” Frank’s lips thinned and the lines around his eyes became more pronounced. He exhaled tiredly, which often happened when he spoke of his only son.

“How’s this going to work? Is he going to handle day to day decisions?” It was intended as a joke and Frank knew it. Scott had not done an honest day’s work his entire worthless life. Frankly, I had my doubts about how long he’d last in an honorary position. And it wasn’t even for lack of intelligence. The only thing Scott lacked was character.

“I’m giving you controlling interest, to act as Marjorie’s proxy…I want you to take my place.”

There was a loud buzzing in my ear, then a pop. Like my brain had overheated and shut down. I started laughing. Partly relieved, partly nervous. “Now I know this is a prank. Woosh.” I gestured a swipe of my brow because no one loved drama more than Frank, so I gave him some. “What a relief. You got me, Frank. But seriously. I have a shitload of work to do––”

A paw sized hand landed on the desktop, the slap exploding throughout the office. Surprised, I flinched, the amusement draining out of me all at once.

“This is not a prank.”

“Okay…okay,” I said, backpedaling as fast as I could. “I apologize…” A deep breath later I tried again. “You know I love you Frank and I’m flattered. I would do anything for you. Anything. But putting me in charge will guarantee this ends up in court.”

“Correct. Which is why you’re going to marry Scott.”

The buzzing was back. I couldn’t possibly have heard him correctly. “Come again?”

“You’re going to marry my son.”

Had the cancer traveled to his brain already? That’s the only plausible excuse I could think of. “You can’t be serious.”

“As serious as melanoma.”

“Frank––” I said as gently as I could. The word tippy–toeing out of my mouth. One could only push Frank so far. Then he transformed into something akin to Juggernaut, complete with metal head he liked to bludgeon people with.

“Sydney,” he countered, cutting me off. “This is a business arrangement. You will marry Scott. You will stay married to him for three years. During that time the two of you will behave as a married couple in public. You will not do anything to besmirch the Blackstone name. You will manage this company successfully thus ensuring the board will shut the fuck up about it. After which you two can do as you please. Get a quiet divorce. Whatever your heart desires. Scott can go back to doing whatever the fuck Scott does and you will continue to helm this company as a Blackstone. Have I made myself clear?”

He hadn’t been kidding when he said he needed time––and he’d spent that time drawing up the plans from hell. Frank, however, had always valued my opinion and my metaphorical balls. He would’ve never made me second in command otherwise. I had never shied away from giving it to him straight before and this time was no different. 

“I…can’t.”

Frank frowned. More a puzzled look than one of disapproval. After a meaningful pause, he asked, “Are you in love?” Doubt softened his tone. As if it only now occurred to him that I could be unavailable. Then again, in all the years I’d known him I’d never brought anybody to any of the numerous company events I’d attended. And he had no idea about Josh.

“No.”

“Dating anyone worthwhile?”

I almost laughed. Dating? What was that? I hadn’t had time for a date in double digit months. Working seventy–hour weeks wasn’t exactly conducive to a kick–ass social life. “No, of course not––”

“Then what’s the problem?” he said, jumping in. “Or is it the marriage you take issue with? Do you consider it sacred?”

That pulled a smile out of me. “No.” 

“So there’s no ideological reason you’re refusing to close the deal of the century?”

Frank and his hyperbole. I had to put a stop to this thing before it gathered steam.

“Permission to speak freely?”

“Permission granted.”

“How can I put this nicely…Scott’s a pig. I wouldn’t marry him if I had a gun to my head.”

Frank chuckled. “He’s rough around the edges.”

Understatement of the century. “I’ve always loved your ability to look on the bright side. He’s the worst misogynist I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting.”

His grin widened. “He’s a man’s man.”

“C’mon, Frank. Even you know––”

“Fine. He’s not your type. I get it.” He leaned forward in his chair. As if everything he was about to say next was going to be of the utmost importance. “He doesn’t have to be, Syd. He only needs to be your husband for enough time to show the board that you’re more than capable of taking charge of this company. And for that to happen without them trying to undermine you every step of the way, you have to have Scott at your back. He’ll be a powerful ally.”

Scott––an ally? He was barely awake during the day, but whatever. I wasn’t about to quibble over details. My resolve was fading fast, however. I didn’t want much. Outside of my career, I didn’t expect anything out of life. My childhood had taught me that the hard way. Wanting led to disappointment and that I’d had plenty of. But this…this I wanted, this made my blood hot and my pulse quicken. Running Blackstone Holdings would be the crowning achievement of my life.

Sinking further into the chair, I tipped my head back and studied the original René Magritte painting on the wall. A business man with a window to a cloudy sky for a face. I was pretty sure there was heavy meaning in there somewhere. “Can I think about it?”

“Sure. You can contemplate it on the way to Wyoming. The Blackstone jet is on standby at Teterboro.”

Frank was railroading me, and I was letting him. He’d had a way of sucking me into his schemes from day one.

“But…”

“Sydney…” Frank’s expression was suddenly grave. “You’re the son I never had. I won’t rest in peace knowing anyone else will take my place.” The heartfelt sentiment wrapped its fingers around my throat and squeezed. “You’ll have status, money, the front cover of Forbes, possibly Time magazine, in exchange for a mere three years of your life.”

If I did this––and it was still a big IF––I wouldn’t be doing it for status (which I didn’t give a fig about) or the cover of Time magazine (which I did) or money (which I had already). I would do it for Frank.

“What’s in Wyoming?” I sourly muttered.

A slow smile spread across Frank’s face. “Your husband.”

“My husband…” I repeated, head shaking at the absurdity of it all. This was shaping up to be a perfectly normal Friday until this. “Does Scott know––about your illness? And this cockamamie plan?”

“Not yet.”

Weighty sigh. My eyes fell shut as I rubbed the throb developing between them. “What makes you think he’d even consider going along? He could be in a serious relationship for all we know.”

A bark of dry laughter shot out of him. “Scott? In a serious relationship?” It was more than a reach. It was a last–ditch attempt to derail this runaway train. “He’ll go along with it or I’ll cut him off without a red cent to his name.”

Scott was married to money. How else could he live the life of a profligate wastrel. The only hope I had of disentangling myself from this arranged fake marriage was if Scott flat-out refused, but under that threat of disinheritance there was no question he’d capitulate––and quickly.

“What about the Wilson & Bosch deal?” I was stalling and we both knew it. Still, I had to try. Every bone in my lawyer’s body told me so. For the first time in my life I felt in over my head.

“Hastings can handle it,” Frank casually replied, not knowing it was anything but casual to me. Max Hastings was my “arch nemesis” in the company if you will. The one person who had been actively campaigning to steal my job the moment I got it. “You won’t be gone more than a few days anyway. By the time you get to Wyoming, I’ll have everything worked out with Scott.”

“Then why am I going?” I said, already stewing over the Wilson & Bosch deal.

“Proof. Otherwise he’ll think this is one of my pranks.” I had to agree with his logic. “And, Syd?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t mention the cancer. I don’t want him to do this out of some misplaced sense of duty.”

I had no clue what Frank meant by that. And I’d given up trying to make sense of the off–beaten paths his mind took a long time ago. He seemed to think extorting his son was fine but having him act out of duty wasn’t. Whatever. Who was I to argue. 

“Anything you want, Frank.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Scott

“Scott! Phone call for you!” Laurel screamed at the top of her lungs.

Squinting, I glanced up from the injured calf one my guys had brought in to be patched up and watched her approach. The sun was out today, and even though winter had set in, on a day like this it could cook you to well–done.

Damn. You could see the scowl she was wearing from a mile away. She’d hauled her tiny butt all the way across the football field–sized parking lot to get to the round pen near the stables and looked none too happy about it. Throwing the reins of my buckskin mare to one of my ranch hands, I went to meet her halfway. The farther she had to walk the more she’d complain about it later.

“Are your fingers broken?” she barked. I was almost one hundred percent certain it was a rhetorical question, but one never knew with her.

Laurel Robinson was a large, loud person stuffed into a pint-sized female body, petite all over with the exception of her double Ds. Top heavy would be the best way to describe her. Also, the best office manager anyone could wish for. Without Laurel walking me through the day to day of running a cattle ranch when I first bought this place, I wouldn’t have lasted a New York minute.

“…well, are they?”

The shell covered snaps of her flannel shirt were in imminent danger of bursting wide open. Behind me, I heard some of the ranch hands taking bets on exactly when that would be.

“No, ma’am,” I replied with a half-cocked grin. I’d learned early that a well–placed “ma’am” in addition to one of my dimpled grins went a long way to smoothing her ruffled feminine nerves.

Jogging ahead of her, Romeo and Juliet greeted me with a tail wag, their wet noses nudging my hands. As much as I loved Laurel, having her work for me was sometimes a fate worse than having to work for my old man. She’d raised five boys, the last two still living at home, so maybe that had something to do with her attitude. It was probably also why she ran such a tight ship.

 “Then why aren’t you answering your cell? Your father’s on the landline again.”

My smile moved aside for a grimace. My father had been blowing up my phone for days and that was never a good thing. Which was why I wasn’t answering.

“I got bad knees. I can’t be chasin’ you around this property because you’re a sullen boy with daddy issues.”

At the ripe old age of thirty-eight, I was neither a boy nor did I have ‘daddy issues.’ The sullen part was debatable, but I wasn’t in the mood to debate Laurel. Not when I had one waiting for me on the phone in my office. It would go better for me if I kept my trap shut anyway. I’d learned that early too.

“Didn’t I say that if he calls to tell him I’m out checking the fence line?” The question came out harsher than I’d intended, the impending phone call making me irritable.

“I told him that the last three times he called. He’s no fool, Scott, and I don’t like to lie. He’s your father. Just speak to him. Swallow your medicine and be done with it.” Laurel loved nothing more than to dispense wisdom that I had no use for. Regardless, I’d swallow my medicine.

The sound of jeans–clan thighs rubbing together told me she was struggling to keep up. I slowed down to let her catch me. There would be hell to pay if I got to the office before she did. Then I’d really never hear the end of it.

 

The hold button on the phone that sat on my desk flashed. Looking over my shoulder, I glared at Laurel who was watching me with her hands on her hips and her mommy face on. I kicked the door shut.

Things had been strained between me and my old man for a while. Basically, since I’d cleaned up my act, bought the Lazy S Ranch, and turned it into a profitable investment. Which was weird. We’d gotten along perfectly well when I was partying my life away. And yet lately, we could barely exchange two words without arguing. I’d become the man my father wanted me to be, had pushed me to be, and then it had gone to shit between us. Go figure.

He was pissed that I hadn’t come home and taken my rightful place working beside him at Blackstone Holdings––everyone in the family knew it––but he’d never come out and said it. And knowing my father, it was his pride that wouldn’t allow it. I was under no false illusions, however. It was only a matter of time before that showdown happened, and it would be an ugly one because I wasn’t going back to New York––not ever if I could help it. 

I hit the button I’d been staring at for a full minute. “What’s up, Dad?”

“I don’t know what’s more surprising, the fact that you finally took my call or that you remembered you have a father.”

Gritting my teeth, I answered with the truth. “I’ve been busy.”

“Still carousing? I had my share of fun before I married your mother, but this is shameful. Even for you.”

“Carousing? Is that old timey speak? Next you’ll accuse me of chasing skirt.”

“Quit the shit, Scott. I’m being serious.”

“What do you want, Dad?” I asked, exhaling tiredly. I could sense the conversation was going to quickly escalate into yet another argument. “I’m working. I’ve got my hands full day and night managing thirty thousand head of cattle. I wish I had time to chase skirt. Now, unless it’s important I need to get back to it.”

“It’s important.”

There was no escape. If I brushed him off, he’d only get more persistent and my father could throw his weight around better than any prized Angus bull. Putting my feet up on the corner of my desk, I tipped back my chair and hunkered down for a longer conversation than I’d hoped for. “I’m listening.”

“It’s far past time you came home.”

And there it was…

“I am home. Going on eight years now.” I glanced out the picture window, at the Grand Tetons. At the powdered sugar–capped peaks. At the miles of open snow–covered land. It was winter now, but in the summer the mountains would grow brilliant green, and in the fall the autumn aspens would turn every shade of gold.

I’d made mistakes in the past, paid the price, and found my feet again. This place had given me a second chance. An opportunity to redeem myself. And I had.

Wyoming had saved me. It had sunk its claws into my bones and leaving would be like ripping out what held me together. Nothing and no one could pry me away from this land.

“I’m not getting any younger and neither is your mother.” My father’s voice trembled, and the first pang of guilt made its presence felt.

In truth it was always there, eating away at the lining of my stomach. This conversation was inevitable. My parents were in their seventies. And although Dad was built like a brick shit house and had an army of people working for him, it was only a matter of time before his age finally caught up to him. I couldn’t ask Devyn, my sister who lived in California, to uproot her family and move back east. Which left me––the bachelor son.

“I know.”

“I’m retiring…” Part of me breathed a sigh of relief––he couldn’t go on dominating the world forever without it taking a toll on his health. The rest of me was in a state of high anxiety for what came next. “I’m going to hand the reins over to Sydney.”

I sat up abruptly, the heels of my boots hitting the wide plank flooring with a loud thud.

Sydney Evans…

I’d met her over a decade ago––at the height of my party days––and vaguely recalled kissing her at my sister’s wedding. I also recalled it being pretty damn good before she kneed me in the nuts. I was trashed out of my mind that night, but no man forgets a woman that almost made a eunuch out of him. Yeah, I remembered her. She was a cold, uptight bitch. Pretty if you liked nondescript vanilla blondes. Which I didn’t. Curvy brunettes were more my style. Ones with blood rather than antifreeze in their veins. Ones that enjoyed sex as much as I did.

My father had sung her praises for years. She had a head for business and a thirst for blood equal to his. I never cared for it––the blood, the kill. The art of the deal. I preferred open land and clean air.

“Good,” I said, a major weight being lifted off my chest. I wasn’t being asked to step up and that’s all that mattered to me. “She’s more than capable.”

“Yes, she is. Unfortunately, the board won’t see it that way. They’ve been waiting to install their person for the past decade. They’ll fight her tooth and nail.”

“You’ve never backed down from a fight.”

“I’m glad you remember that.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up straight. I could almost underscore the pronounced evil glee in my father’s voice with a pencil and being intimately acquainted with it I knew it would only spell trouble for me.

“I need you to do something for me, Scott. I need you to marry Sydney.”

I couldn’t possibly have heard that right. My father couldn’t have asked me to marry a woman I could barely tolerate. He couldn’t have asked me to marry anyone. That only happened in bad romantic comedies and my life wasn’t fodder for anyone’s entertainment.

“I don’t have time for your jokes, Franklin. It’s been fun. Say hi to Mom for me.”

“This is no joke. The only way to ensure the board won’t tie this up in court for years is if she’s a Blackstone. And aren’t I a lucky son of a bitch––here I am with one past–his–prime son in need of a wife.”

I wasn’t buying it. My old man was a notorious prankster. “Who you calling past–his–prime, old man? And the last thing I need is a wife.”

“Frankly, I don’t care what you need, Scott. You’ll do this for me, or I’ll write you out of the will and the tap gets turned off. You get me?”

“Well played, Darth Vader, but we’re all stocked up on funds here. The ranch has been turning a nifty profit for some time now so go ahead and write me out.” Which was the absolute truth and something I was damn proud of.

“What about your pet project?”

The threat left a chilly silence in its wake. I knew that tone. It was quintessential Franklin Marshall Blackstone going for the kill. “You love that land, don’t you? All the millions and millions of acres you’ve had me buy up over the years. The ones you want turned into a national park. I’ll break it apart and sell it off.”

Adrenaline and a heap of anger burned through my veins. I shot out of my chair and marched to the window, the phone cord stretching as tight as my nerves.

Land preservation was the only thing I truly gave a shit about, and he knew it. My ranch was run responsibly in respect to the environment, an expensive endeavor that required very careful management. Most operations couldn’t afford to work that way. They encroached on federal land, which forced wildlife to either retreat of be slaughtered. Buying up the land, placing it in a trust, and turning it into a national park ensured that it remained wild for generations to come.

It was the only leverage he had over me. It was the only thing I’d ever asked of him. A little at a time my father had managed to accrue more open, virgin land than cable giant John Malone, an accomplishment he loved to brag about.

“You bastard––”

“I’m only protecting what’s mine. My family. My business––”

“Do you hear yourself? C’mon, Dad! This has nothing to do with you protecting family. This is you playing God with other people’s lives to suit your needs.”

As much as my father had mellowed over the years, his first inclination was still to subjugate something or someone. It didn’t matter which or who as long as he got what he wanted. That’s who he was in essence. Despite the white hair, he would always be that man, and I didn’t hold any illusions to the contrary.

“Whatever it may be, you will marry Sydney and stay married to her for three years. That’ll give her enough time to prove to the board that she’s the right person to run this company successfully. With the Blackstone name attached and you to back her up, they won’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

Sucking in a deep breath, I exhaled slowly, an exercise I’d learned in an effort to control my emotions and “become a better person.”

“This isn’t the tenth century, Dad. I’m not marrying someone I hardly know to satisfy your hunger for world domination.”

“Have I ever asked anything of you?”

And there was the knockout punch. My parents had never asked anything of me. I’d been left to do as I pleased since graduating business school, and pleased myself I had.

Panic shifted into a familiar feeling of inevitability. My palms began to sweat knowing he had me by the throat. When my father set his mind to something, not even Atlas himself could move him.

“No,” I conceded. “Don’t make me do this.”

“Jesus Christ. Don’t sound so fucking devastated. Marriage is not the worst thing in the world. You might actually like it if you let yourself––”

“I’ll like it as much as I’d like getting gored by one of my prized bulls.”

I rubbed my face, trying to restore feeling. If there was one absolute truth I knew about myself, it was that I had terrible judgement in women. I’d begun to suspect it shortly after growing fuzz on my peaches, and a string of disastrous relationships in my twenties confirmed the notion. I’d pretty much accepted that I was never going to have what my parents had and I was okay with that. Then Charlie and Meghan happened, and the proverbial coffin was nailed shut.

“Do what you will in your spare time, but hear me, son––you have to sell it. All outward appearances must say you’re a happily married man. That means no skirt chasing and having the pictures end up on the cover of the New York Post.”

What the hell did that mean? That I’d have to keep all future hookups a secret? I knew for a fact that Sydney Evans would sooner see me dead than let me within arm’s reach of her, and celibacy for the next three years was out of the question. So where did that leave me?

Sitting on the window ledge, I considered begging. I wasn’t too proud if it meant I’d get to keep the millions of acres intact and myself free of this mess.

“Tell me this is another one of your pranks.”

“I can’t do that.”

Shutting my eyes, I pinched the bridge of my nose. An involuntary reaction. Much like the urge to get in my truck and make a run for the border at the mere thought of marriage. “Sydney hates me––”

“Good news, Sydney wants the job more than she hates you. Your part is to convince her you’ve changed. That you’re not the same degenerate fool you were when she met you. And fair warning, that may be an insurmountable task.”

Something didn’t feel right––apart from the fact that I was being blackmailed into marriage. A stretch of silence continued with no end in sight, and with it my unease grew. “Dad, you okay?”

“Hmm.”

The noncommittal answer did nothing to allay my suspicion. I pushed it aside and chose to focus on the disaster–in–the–making I had on my hands. The walls were closing in; I could feel them bearing down on me. “And if she decides against it?”

One could hope.

“I love the girl. I’m not about to willingly torture her to make a point. If she can’t tolerate you, give her a divorce.”

I hadn’t realized how deep my father’s affection for Sydney ran until this moment. Or how little faith he had in me, which, frankly, was a letdown. “What about the living arrangement? How’s she running the company from here?”

“She’ll do two weeks on and off for now. Unless you’d like to move back to New York and take the job yourself?”

A humorless bark of laughter rose up my throat, edged with scorn and sounding like defeat. “You’ve thought of everything.”

“I always do.”

“I stay here, or you can forget it.”

“Fine. She’s boarding the company jet as we speak.”

“For shit’s sake, don’t I get any time––”

“To do what?” my father cut in. “Change your mind? You should’ve thought of that when you didn’t return my calls. Don’t fuck this up, Scott.”

The soft click of the call disconnecting might as well have been as loud as a shotgun blast. The quiet peaceful life I’d built was over.

Sydney

A four–hour plane ride wasn’t exactly how I’d planned to spend my Friday afternoon. It did, however, offer me the opportunity to hammer out the all the issues with the Wilson & Bosch contract and more importantly thwart any plans Max Hastings had to steal my thunder. Short of bringing him the heads of his competition, Hastings had been doing everything to get into Frank’s good graces, to replace me as Frank’s second in command. No bigs. Max was just one more in a long line of testosterone jacked bullies I’d dispatched over the years.

Frank had emailed me that the conversation with Scott had gone according to plan. It was anyone’s guess what that meant and calling Frank to clarify didn’t hold any appeal. I’d know soon enough anyway. Despite what Frank believed––that the marriage was a done deal––it wasn’t. I needed to gather intel on the enemy. To get a firsthand assessment of what I was dealing with. If Scott was still as horrible as I remembered, I’d be forced to decline. Nothing was worth my mental health. Not even the job opportunity of a thousand lifetimes.

By the time the Gulfstream touched down in Jackson Hole, I had a room booked at the Four Seasons. Clean sheets, a comfortable bed, a hot meal. These were the things that made me happy, gave me pleasure, and since I could afford it, I never went without. And going without was something I was intimately acquainted with. My grandparents had seen to that, the memories still as fresh as a third–degree burn. 

The ranch where Scott lived was located half an hour out of town. That nugget of information was met with some serious freaking side-eye. Because…Scott? On a ranch? C’mon. This was the same Scott Blackstone who had beauticians from Frederic Fekkai come to his penthouse apartment to style his hair. The same Scott who didn’t launder his Tom Ford boxer briefs. He threw them out and wore new ones at seventy–five bucks a pop. 

The same Scott whom I had loosely agreed to marry––God help me.

I knew all this because I’d hired his cleaning lady when he moved out of town and Thea and I had hit it off. Over the years we’d become friends and Thea loved nothing more than to share Scott stories over cocktails. At some point I’d asked her to stop because the more I learned about Scott, the more it turned my stomach.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped into the hotel lobby wheeling the overnight bag I always kept at the office for emergency trips. My head was spinning from all that had transpired, and a hot shower and cool sheets would go a long way to fix that. A good night’s rest would give me the strength to face…whatever it was I was facing.

And whatever it was, it was going to be handled either way. How could I possibly convince the board of directors that I was the right person to fill Frank’s considerable shoes, able to run a Fortune 500 company with subsidiaries all over the world, if I couldn’t manage one overgrown, spoiled manchild.

The back of a very large cowboy caught my eye as I strolled past the lobby bar. He must be a cowboy. Who else would wear one of those corny checkered shirts with a tooled belt? Despite the fashion emergency, I couldn’t help admiring broad shoulders that tapered down to a lean waist. A muscular butt that perfectly filled out the softly worn Levi’s he wore. This man did not neglect his squats.

It had been a long time since I’d admired a man’s body. Too much work. Not enough time to daydream. Maybe it was the crisp clean air clearing out my clock that made me notice. Maybe this three–day trip would do me some good. Minutes later I was sliding my keycard in the door of my south–facing room. The bed was a fluffy masterpiece that put a smile on my face. I had a feeling I’d be dreaming about cowboys tonight.

2015  Paola Dangelico All Rights Reserved