The Texas Rancher's Family
Erin Monroe sized up her big, strapping customer with a frustrated sigh. What was it about the Philadelphia-based Mac Wheeler that had all the women in Laramie County tripping over themselves to get a moment of his time? Was it his ruggedly handsome face? Dark hair? Breath-takingly sexy blue eyes? The fact the thirtysomething executive exuded confidence and determination? Or the easy masculine grace with which he carried himself?
All she knew for certain was that every time he came to Laramie County to try and drum up support for his solution to the county's electrical energy shortage, he created quite a stir.
And now he had his sights on her. Or on what she could do for him.
Fortunately for both of them, she wasn't about to sell the ambitious exec anything he didn't need and would probably never use.
With as much kindness as she could muster, Erin informed him, "Contrary to what my competitors would likely tell you, Mr. Wheeler, boots do not make the man. Even here in ranch country."
Mac Wheeler lounged against the checkout counter and drawled, "Now, that's an odd thing to say, given the fact you're one of the premier custom boot makers in Texas."
"But in your case it's true." Determined to be honest with him, Erin continued, "New footwear, custom or otherwise, is not going to help you close the deal on the proposed wind farm." There was too much opposition to it. Plus he had nowhere to situate the three hundred forty-two ridiculously huge and intrusive wind turbines he was proposing.
So there was no reason for him to be spending several thousand dollars on a pair of boots. Even if the sophisticated business clothing he wore now indicated he could well afford it.
Mac lifted a brow in surprise. Thus far, people had been politely listening to his suggestions. Even as they privately pooh-poohed his venture.
"This is oil and gas country," Erin explained. "Ranchers don't want miles of power-generating windmills scaring their cattle and horses, and cluttering up the landscape."
Mac straightened to his full height, thoroughly dwarfing her own five-foot-six-inch frame. "They'll change their minds once I have a chance to present my proposal to the Laramie County commissioners later this month." His voice dropped a persuasive notch. "And when I do that, I'll need to fit in."
Erin picked up a stack of new shirts and carried them over to the shelves in the center of the hundred-year-old clothing store, Monroe's Western Wear. Her skin tingled as he fell into step behind her. She wished Mac didn't smell so invigoratingly good, so woodsy and male.
"I understand wanting to connect with the people here, Mr. Wheeler." It was only natural. No one wanted to feel like an outsider. She turned to look him in the eye, and felt another disturbing jolt of awareness. "But dressing as what would likely be perceived as a 'drugstore cowboy' is not going to accomplish that for you."
If anything, it would make his discomfort with the locals worse.
Mac's brows knitted together in consternation. "I thought Monroe's sold only authentic Western wear."
"That's true." Their business sold everything a roper, wrangler or rider needed.
His curious glance took in the floor-to-ceiling shelves of denim that lined the entire back wall. "Then how could I wear anything you sell and not look like a genuine Texan?"
Aware that several ladies shopping nearby were listening intently, Erin propped her hands on her hips and looked him up and down. "You really want me to answer that?"
Sheer male confidence radiated from him as he stepped closer. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't," he retorted in the same low, droll tone.
Erin ignored the heat emanating from his tall, muscular frame. "Look—" she stepped back, until her spine came in contact with the nearby shelving "—I could put you in a pair of Wrangler jeans—"
Mac's confused frown deepened. "Don't you mean Levi's?"
What a gringo! Erin shook her head at his ignorance, explaining, "Wranglers have the heavier rolled seam on the outside of the legs. Levi's puts it on the inside. If you're a real cowboy and you're sitting in the saddle, you want the heavier seam where it's not likely to rub."
He seemed momentarily taken aback, apparently realizing that on his own he was likely to end up outfitted like a dude from the city instead of the real thing. "Oh."
Erin lifted a staying hand. "Not that I expect you to be in the saddle anytime soon," she quipped.
Amusement glimmered in his eyes. "You don't think I can ride?"
Could he? Erin tilted her head. He was fit and athletic. Broad-shouldered and powerful-looking, with big, capable hands. In fact, now that she thought about it, if he lost the ultra-sophisticated wool suit, starched shirt and tie, and traded in the wing tips for boots, he would look like he belonged out on the range, instead of behind a desk.
But he wasn't wearing jeans now.
And he hadn't been—from all reports—on his first two trips to town, either.
Whether he knew it or not, that sort of sealed his fate.
The local constituency had decided who—and what—he was. And that meant they wouldn't trust him to solve their highly problematic shortage of electricity.
"No," Erin said finally, aware that he was still waiting for her response. "Although you're a heck of a determined businessperson, I don't think you can ride a horse."
A slow smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "You might be wrong about that," he taunted softly.
Aware that she hadn't been so captivated by a man in ages, Erin widened her eyes. "Am I, now?" she goaded right back.
His grin widened. "You'd have to agree to make me a pair of custom boots to find out."
"As I told you on the phone earlier, you're going to need to make an appointment for that."
He nodded, repeating dutifully, "And the first appointment is in six months."
"Correct. But if you like," Erin conceded, "my brother, Nicholas, could sell you off-the-rack whatever you think you need, including a pair of ready-made boots."
Nicholas waved from behind the counter. Mac acknowledged the sixteen-year-old with a genial nod, then turned back to her. "But you don't recommend I start dressing like a West Texan, do you?"
She wouldn't lie. "If there's one thing the residents of Laramie County want," she advised kindly, "it's a person to be genuine. They won't see anything honorable in pretending to be something you're not."
Mac rubbed his closely shaved jaw and peered at her. "So you really think I'd be better off talking to people as a misplaced Yankee in a suit?"
Erin stood her ground. "Don't you?"
A contemplative silence fell between them.
"As I'm sure you've heard, that hasn't been working so far," Mac said ruefully.
People had been polite, Erin knew, but not at all on board with what he was trying to sell.
She squinted. "So your plan is…"
He shrugged. "To do what I always do and try and 'speak the language' of whatever region I find myself in. And right now, experience tells me I won't ever be successful around here unless I can 'speak Texan.'"
One of the eavesdropping customers hurried on over. "Then you'll be needing one of these." She placed a Texas dictionary in his hand. The semihumorous tome was filled with Lone Star State vernacular.
"Thanks." Mac smiled.
"Maybe a hat," another woman said eagerly, joining the conversation.
Her shopping buddy agreed. "Something dressy that would go with a suit."
Erin tried to picture Mac in a Stetson or Resistol, and realized he would be sexy as all get-out in either.
"You can wear boots with a suit, too," another shopper pointed out.
Mac turned back to Erin. Smiled. Suddenly, at least a few of the locals were on his side. Of course, Erin noted a little irritably, they were all female. And single, at that.
"Or you could pay triple, and get an appointment for custom boots right away, like that country-and-western star who came in last month," Nicholas interjected as he stepped out from behind the counter.
At that, it was all Erin could do not to groan.
Her brother extended his hand to Mac and they shook. "By the way, I'm head of the environmental club at Laramie High School. We've all heard about what you're doing here…and it sure would be great if we could get you to come and speak about wind farms."
"I'll check my calendar and see what I can do," Mac promised.
A chime sounded as the front door opened, and Erin's two sons walked in from school.
As usual, eight-year-old Sammy's clothes were smudged with dirt. A fifth grader, ten-year-old Stevie was much more together.
"Hey, Mom!" they said in unison, stopping to give her a hug before circling around her to drop their backpacks on the shelf behind the sales counter.
Mac smiled at her boys with surprising warmth.
Surprised, because she hadn't figured the sexy bachelor would want much to do with kids, Erin made introductions. The boys shook hands obediently, then took off to get a snack from the fridge in the break room.
Mac turned back to Erin, his expression resolute. "About that appointment… How about five tomorrow evening?"
"It'll take at least two hours," Erin hedged, "and the store closes at six."
"So we'll make it four o'clock," Nicholas interjected practically.
Erin's jaw dropped. Since when did her brother schedule things for her?
He shrugged at her look.
The tall interloper beamed. "I'd sure appreciate that."
Erin gave up arguing about it. "It is going to cost you triple for a rush job," she warned. "Which means the price would likely be closer to twelve thousand dollars for a pair of boots, if you want them by June first."
So if that seemed utterly ridiculous to him…
To her frustration, it didn't.
"No problem," Mac said as he plucked his phone out of his suit jacket, checking the screen. "Sorry. I have to take this," he murmured, then stepped outside into the May sunshine.
"A little hard on him, weren't you, sis?" Nicholas asked, the moment Mac Wheeler was out of earshot.
Erin knew she hadn't been as warm and welcoming as she normally would have been to a customer. Maybe because she was way too attracted to the sexy businessman. And these days, with all she had on her shoulders, lust was the last thing she needed to feel. "It annoys me when people insist on jumping line. I think they should wait their turn like everyone else, no matter how much of a hurry they're in." She slipped behind the counter, where another box of merchandise waited to be opened.
"That's not the way the world works," Nicholas countered as he moved to help her unpack it. "Besides, it's not like we don't need the money. With the electricity rates and the property taxes on the ranch both going skyhigh, Bess and Bridget still in college, and me about to go next."
Their budget was stretched to the limit, despite the store's continued success.
The door opened. Mac Wheeler strode back in, sunglasses on. The set of his mouth was as tense as his shoulders. "I'm going to have to head East."
Erin nodded, not the least bit surprised to see him running off again. Wasn't that the pattern of all the men she was attracted to? Here one moment, gone the next?
He consulted the calendar on his phone. "I'll be back the day after tomorrow. So if we could move the appointment to Wednesday afternoon at four?"
He'd been a customer less than ten minutes and was already demanding more special treatment, Erin noted irritably.
Her little brother regarded Mac with hero worship. "No problem. We're here whenever you need us."
"I appreciate that." Mac touched an index finger to his forehead in a salute. "Nicholas, Ms. Monroe, I'll see you then."
Mac got in late and promptly took care of the personal situation that had summoned him home. Midmorning the following day, he stopped by corporate headquarters in downtown Philadelphia, to give his boss an update.
Louise Steyn motioned him into her office and shut the door behind them. Elegant as always in a tailored designer suit, she slipped behind her desk. "When do you think you'll have this deal wrapped up?"
Mac settled in a chair opposite her. "Another month, maybe two."
"What's the holdup?" she asked.
How could he explain that even their company's name—North Wind Energy—was offensive to the prickly Texans? "It's complicated."
"Laramie County should be jumping at the chance to lower their electric rates."
Maybe they would be if it had been a community comprised mostly of suburban homes, and the size of their electric bills was the only quandary, Mac reasoned. "There are a lot of ranches. The residents are very attached to the land, and how each property looks."
Louise shrugged. "They'll like clean, plentiful, renewable energy even more."
"I'm on it," he promised. All he needed was a decent forum to make his pitch, and a place to situate the wind farm. He had the first and was close to getting the other.
Louise paused to look him in the eye. "Everything okay at home? I heard there was some kind of crisis that brought you back to Philly last night."
Mac thought about the tears—from both females—that had greeted his arrival. "I'm handling it."
Louise gave him the same look she'd given him two and a half years before. "If there's anything you need in that respect." she volunteered.
He ignored the tinge of pity in her manner. Life went on. The difficulty he was navigating was only temporary. "Thanks," he said quietly, rising from his chair. "I'll keep that in mind." The meeting over, he turned and headed out.
Selling a project he could handle. Dealing with the domestic drama on the home front? He could manage that, too, with a few temporary adjustments. It was the pretty owner of Monroe's Western Wear who was a thorn in his side.
Mac knew she was one of the most respected business-people in town. Heck, if you considered the reputation of the boots Erin Monroe made, in the entire state. People listened to her. And not just because she was smart and savvy, warm and hospitable. Or had an enticing figure, honey-blond curls and big green eyes.
They paid attention to her because she was a natural leader. The kind of person who could make something take place. Or not.
If she was as against the wind farm as she had appeared in their brief conversation, he was going to have a tough time bringing North Wind Energy's biggest project yet to fruition.
But that had to happen—and fast—because making it a reality was the only way he was going to be able to get his home life under control, once and for all.