Series: Tough Texan Series #1
Genre: Contemporary Western Romance
Release Date: September 25, 2020
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MIRACLES ARE ONE THING… Stone Thurston refuses to see the ranch his family built through blood, sweat, and tears fail under his leadership. Praying for anything to save the Iron Horse Ranch, he’s shocked by the miracle offer from Wy Talbot.
A talented female landman, Wy has made an impressive career in the oil and gas industry and has worked with many handsome cowboys though she’ll be damned if she ever falls for one. But Stone’s sweet drawl and southern manners begin to break apart the walls she’s built around her heart.
UNEXPECTED DESIRES ARE ANOTHER… Stone has been so focused on the ranch and being a single father, he hasn’t given himself the chance to find love. As he works with Wy, passions grow and feelings deepen. But Wy never planned any life other than doggedly pursuing her career, and Stone can’t imagine her being anywhere but with him. When disaster strikes, will they witness the true miracle of love?
Stone wheeled his horse and dashed after the steer that had broken free of the herd. With little rain this year, grazing was poor. Hay crops up in North Texas had been below average, making round bale prices high. The ranch couldn’t afford to feed all the cattle through the coming winter, so this herd was going to auction.
The Iron Horse Ranch, his family’s heritage, had been struggling for years now. The drought that had lasted long past a decade had turned the ledger red until there were no savings left. The ranch had weathered Indian raids and wars and stock-market crashes, but this never-ending lack of rainfall could be the death of it.
He ground his teeth, his eyes closing in anguish. That the ranch might fail on his watch was unthinkable. Though he ran the place with his father, Stone was the eldest son. After attending college and studying agribusiness—ways to make ranching profitable in today’s market—he should be able to see a path through this. But even with new strategies and improvements, nothing could take the place of ample water.
His anxious thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of his cell. He didn’t recognize the number, but the ranch raised quarter horses, turning them into professional-quality reining prospects, so he answered every call. “Stone Thurston.”
“Hello, Mr. Thurston. I’m Wynona Talbot and I represent Blue Horizon Oil and Gas here in the Permian Basin. I spoke with your father, Eli, a few minutes ago, and he asked me to give you a call. I’d like to talk with you about a mineral rights lease if you have about a half hour sometime this week.”
Stone’s thoughts scattered. Oil on their property? This could be big if it panned out. But wait: did drilling mean fracking? Did he want that here on the Iron Horse? Shit! He hadn’t answered her yet. “I can do that. How about Thursday?”
“Sounds perfect. Shall we meet at the ranch or in town? It’s up to you.”
His dad needed to be in on the meeting, for sure, and North should be there. “Here on the ranch; but let me check with my brother. He’s an attorney and specializes in mineral rights. I’d like him to attend. If you don’t mind, can I get back with you on the time?”
She laughed softly, agreeing.
He realized at the sound that she was young, though her voice had been authoritative, throaty, and sexy as hell. And, hey, since when was a landman a woman? Thursday’s meeting would be interesting for a lot of reasons—and meeting Blue Horizon’s landman would be at the top of the list.
* * *
Wy followed the county road to the entrance of the Iron Horse Ranch. Wayne, her boss, had said that this could be an important deal for their modest-sized oil company, and she wanted the meeting to go smoothly. Her lease was pretty standard and, considering the way ranching was faring here in the Basin, most ranch owners jumped at the chance to explore the value of their mineral rights.
As she pulled into the circular drive, she realized why the ranch was called The Iron Horse. In the courtyard of the grand vintage home stood a life-sized black iron horse. How cool was that? She stepped out of her truck as a tall, handsome cowboy exited the beautiful entry of the house.
“Welcome. I assume you’re Wynona? I’m Stone.” He approached, reaching out his hand as she stopped in front of him.
She clasped it in a firm grip. “I love the horse. There must be a story there.”
A smile lit up his dark eyes and nearly took her breath away. It transformed his expression into one of raw masculine charm.
He nodded toward the horse. “There sure is.”
Her professional mask never slipped as she said, “I’d like to hear it sometime.”
Opening the door to let her pass, he said, “Well, then, you’re in for a tale.”
She gazed at the high, old-fashioned ceilings with their carved moldings. It was amazing how well the house had held up, given its probable age. Had this home always been in the Thurston family?
Stone turned into a large family room and gestured to an older man who rose from a leather easy chair. “Wynona, this is my father, Eli. Dad, meet the landman for Blue Horizon Oil and Gas.” Stone grinned as he nodded toward her.
She was used to similar reactions from men. As a member of the tiny female minority of landmen, her prospective partners were always surprised to hear that a woman represented the company. Walking quickly to Eli, she offered her hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Thurston.”
He shook, saying in a firm voice, “Call me Eli, please.”
Just then, another man walked into the room. “Sorry I’m late.” Despite his more polished, business-like appearance, his western hat and boots still said cowboy.
Stone motioned him over. “We’re just getting acquainted. Wynona, meet my brother, North, the ace lawyer of the family.”
North laughed and reached out his hand. “Hi, Wynona. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.”
Eli clapped his hands. “Let’s find a seat. We’re all yours, Wynona.”
Smiling, she perched on the edge of the couch. “First of all, the only one who calls me Wynona is my dad. Everyone else calls me Wy, so I hope you will, too.” She handed a packet to each man. “This tells you a little about our company, and the lease agreement is attached for your review.”
Stone glanced over the information on Blue Horizon and turned to the lease, nodding at his brother. “North, I’ll leave the details to you. Wy, can you give us a run-down on the basics?”
She’d expected this. Leases were complicated documents, and most ranchers were a little overwhelmed when first presented with one. “Sure thing.” Taking her time, she went over the important items on each page. North asked a few questions as she went through it, but overall the men seemed satisfied.
“Let me take a look at it, Wy, and I’ll get back to you. Do you have a deadline on this?” North asked.
“The sooner the better, of course. Can you get with me sometime next week?”
North glanced at his father, who nodded. “Sure. I’ll give you a call.”
Stone stood as she rose from the couch and said, “Thanks for this opportunity, Wy, and thanks for driving out here to the ranch.”
His tall, well-muscled frame felt like a solid wall behind her as he escorted her to the door.
“Daddy!” A little boy no older than three or four scampered up to Stone, holding his arms up to his father.
Stone bent and picked him up. “Did you finish your snack?”
The boy nodded emphatically.
Stone kissed his forehead and turned to her, a proud smile on his face. “Wy, this is my son, Harley. His mom’s sick, so he’s staying with me for a few days.”
Stone cuddled his son to his chest, patting his back as though he were a baby. He obviously adored him. A sudden longing she had no name for grew inside her as she gazed at the sweet picture they made. Stone made her feel something no man ever had—utterly drawn to that bond between father and son. Her life was her job; one she’d worked years to attain. A man and a family weren’t in her plans, yet now she doubted her choice for the very first time.
Smiling, she reached for Harley’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Harley. Are you a cowboy like your Daddy?”
Harley grinned and nodded.
Stone bounced Harley up and down on his hip. “Say ‘Hello’, son.”
She waved at Harley. “Bye-bye.” She stepped out on the porch, turning back to Stone. “I hope we can make this work. It’ll be a wonderful partnership.” With a last handshake, she headed toward the driveway. Her smile changed to a grin. She hadn’t heard the door shut. The handsome cowboy was checking her out. And it wasn’t the hardnosed company landman who shivered happily at the goosebumps racing up her spine.
* * *
Several days later, Stone shoved the truck into park as his phone rang. He hated what this drought had done to the ranch. Watching it die a slow death, one herd at a time, was gut-wrenching. He let the phone continue to ring as his last head count reverberated through his brain. God, he’d never have believed ten years ago that the Iron Horse would be down to so few head of cattle. Jamming the irritatingly persistent cell to his ear without glancing at it, he growled, “Stone Thurston!”
North’s baritone voice came over the line. “Hey, brother, is everything okay?”
“Yeah, what’s going on?” Stone said in a more controlled tone.
“I finished reviewing the lease and, as I told Dad a minute ago, I approve. There’s one thing, though. Dad wants to add all of us kids to the ranch deed immediately, and then have the lease with Blue Horizon redrawn. He said cattle ranching has gone to shit, but the oil lease may be worth something.”
When Stone didn’t say anything, North continued cheerfully, “I’ll pull the deed out of the lockbox tomorrow and have the paperwork started at the title office. Later this afternoon, I’ll send our approval of the lease to Wy along with the pertinent information for the name changes, pending the deed update.”
Stone blinked. It took a moment for the words to register. Him—a part owner of the ranch? Wait—and he’d receive a share of the money should they find oil? He took a deep breath. No more scraping together pennies to pay his child support. No more wondering how to pay for feed. This had to be a dream.
“Stone? You there?”
“Yeah. Dad’s wonderful, isn’t he?” He still couldn’t believe it. “Keep me posted, and let me know if you need anything. Thanks, North, for taking the lead on this.”
When he hung up, Stone sat in the truck a while longer, letting the news sink in. It could all come to nothing if Blue Horizon didn’t find oil, but, damn, what if they did? He slung his door open, suddenly full of energy he hadn’t felt in years. Striding to the barn corrals, he started the afternoon feeding early. A celebration was in order tonight.
Later, back at the ranch house he’d built on the Iron Horse as a newlywed, he decided to grill himself a steak and potato. It had been weeks since he’d taken the time to do anything other than microwave a crappy dinner before going to bed. Of course, he was always welcome to eat with his parents, but his foul mood as things had gone from bad to worse on the ranch had made it hard for him to be around anyone and make nice.
Though it was October, the evenings were still mild unless a storm blew in. It would be great to spend the evening on the patio. Once he had a glowing bed of coals going, he put his steak on to cook and settled back in a chair with a cold beer.
Wy returned to his thoughts as she had every day since they’d met. The dark-haired beauty had captured his imagination. She couldn’t be more than thirty, if that. How had she become a land negotiator so young? Did she have connections or was she just that damned good? If she was, the grit and determination it must have taken to achieve her position amazed him. Being beautiful must make her job more difficult—make it harder for men to take her seriously. But once she started talking, her intelligence and knowledge of her industry became obvious.
She sure could fill out a pair of jeans. And since when did an oil company work shirt look sexy? Her dark hair was so damned cute pulled into a ponytail under that Blue Horizon cap. Tomboy pretty, she looked good enough to eat.
Now that the ranch was going through with the lease, he and Wy would be working together quite a bit. His dad had said that he wanted to take a back seat and that Stone should handle regular communication with the oil company.
Wy could be a lot of fun. That little laugh of hers had been damn near irresistible. He loved a woman with a sense of humor. He slammed his longneck on the table and checked himself hard. What was he doing? He’d created a whole fantasy around his landman—a business relationship that had to work. Shaking his head, he got up to turn his steak. What an idiot he was. Just because he was a bachelor who hadn’t dated since Priscilla had walked out on him, that didn’t mean Wy’s life was the same. A woman like her surely had a man somewhere. He tilted his beer up, drinking it to the last. He didn’t like remembering that agonizing time when post-partum depression had robbed him of his precious family.
Striding into the house for another beer, he mentally kicked himself. Living in the boonies did something to a man. He spent too much time in his own head. The next time he saw Wy, he would keep his thoughts professional, and as far as mooning over her, that shit had to stop. As he told himself that, her smiling face appeared before him. Cursing, he grabbed his beer and slammed the refrigerator door. This wasn’t going to be easy.
* * *
Wy had been thinking about Stone Thurston a lot lately. The good-looking cowboy persistently took over her thoughts. It was crazy. Guys just didn’t affect her like this. She was normally immune to men—to their looks, their smiles, and the advances they inevitably made. Though marriage and a family were not in her plans, there was something about this one. The Texas cowboy seemed so real, so naturally sure of himself, centered in a way that she envied. He didn’t give off that I could swallow you whole vibe that most men did when they looked at her. How disappointing it would be if Stone turned into one of those when they began to work together.
North had faxed her the new deed a few days ago and the updated lease document had arrived today. Time to call Stone and set up a meeting to sign. While the phone rang, she envisioned his face with its strong jaw and piercing eyes, his lips hinting at a smile. Her pulse picked up and tingles raced through her. Damn, could she be professional here, please?
He answered, his deep voice giving her tiny little chill bumps. “Stone Thurston.”
“Hi, Stone. Wy here. I have the lease ready. Can you get everyone on your side together for signatures?”
“Do you have any preference on days and time, Wy?”
She smiled, pleased at his courtesy, though part of her job was to be at his beck and call. “You tell me what works for you. I’ll manage.”
“That’s kind of you. Let me contact everybody, and I’ll come up with something. It shouldn’t take long to set up. We’re all pretty excited about this.”
Imagining his smiling face on the other side of the call, she had to tamp down the tingles of desire crawling up her belly. “I’m happy this worked out,” she said in her most professional voice. He mustn’t know how he affected her.
“I’ll talk to you soon, Wy.”
She dropped her cell on the desk, disappointed at her lack of self-control. Stone Thurston was just another nice-looking cowboy. They were a dime a dozen in her line of work, especially here in Texas. She’d see him again soon and, damn it all, she would have her emotions under control by then.
* * *
When Wy arrived at the ranch the next day, several trucks were in the drive. Eli had a daughter named Katherine who would be there, and Wy wondered what she would be like. Was she a cowgirl or had she decided on another life for herself? Given how handsome her father and brothers were, Wy bet she would be beautiful. Grabbing her briefcase, she stepped from her truck.
Stone must have heard her arrive. He strode in her direction down the sidewalk. “We’re all here. How are you?”
His smile did something to her insides, and she gritted her teeth. Not today, girl. “I’m ready to get this partnership started.”
He swung in alongside her and walked her to the door, allowing her to precede him inside. “We’re in the family room. Do you remember the way?”
“Sure do.” His bass voice reverberated through her—gentle yet strong. He probably sang beautifully. She bit her lip. There she went again.
As she paused in the doorway, his fingertips touched her arm, urging her into the room. “We saved a chair for you. I’ll sit with my sis.”
“Wy, let me introduce you to my mother, Jewell.” He gestured toward a pretty, stylishly dressed, slightly older woman with auburn hair sitting next to his father and holding Harley on her lap.
Still sizzling from the touch of his fingers, she strode to his mother’s chair. “It’s wonderful to meet you.” She shook Jewell’s hand.
Turning toward the younger woman, Stone said with a grin, “This is my baby sister, Katherine.”
Making eye contact with the other woman and ripping her mind from Stone, Wy took the few steps to the couch. “Katherine, I’m Wy, it’s wonderful to meet you.”
“Call me Katy,” she said as she stood and offered her hand. “It’s great to meet you, too.”
Wy eyed the beautiful Thurston daughter, her dark-blonde hair a perfect complement to her large deep-blue eyes. She wore it long and straight down her back. A western hat lay in front of her on the coffee table and she had on a pair of brown fringed chaps. So, Stone’s sister had chosen the cowgirl life. “You grew up in a house full of guys. So did I. Makes you tough, doesn’t it?”
Katy laughed. “Sure does.”
As Stone took his seat, Harley climbed down from his grandmother’s lap and up into his daddy’s.
Stone kissed the top of his head and wrapped his arms around him.
Wy had that odd sensation again as Stone bounced his son up and down on his knees. What was it about Stone that drew her in? She yearned to be part of that twosome—to have that same loving connection. She shivered. This was all too new, too strange.
Wy took a seat and reached into her soft leather briefcase. “North already reviewed this revised lease for the family, so you’ll just sign it today if everyone is in agreement. I’ll send you each copies of the signed document, of course.”
She smiled and passed it to Katy. Silence reigned as the papers made their way around.
Eventually, Stone handed the lease back to her with one of those smiles of his.
Clamping down hard on her reaction, she gave him a half-smile.
Jewell stood. “I have coffee and cake prepared in the dining room. Won’t you join us, Wy?”
She glanced at Stone as her body strummed in response to the handsome cowboy. No, not a good idea.
He reached across the short distance between them and touched her arm. “Come on, take a little time off. We’d love for you to stay.”
Heat shot through her as she sensed his skin through the cloth of her shirtsleeve.
“Besides, I haven’t told you about the iron horse yet,” he said in a beseeching tone.
She caved. The man was irresistible. “That sounds wonderful, Mrs. Thurston. I was too busy for breakfast today.”
Jewell smiled. “Follow me. It’s a lemon pound cake, one of Stone’s favorites.”
Ever the gentleman, Stone stood and waited for Wy to precede him from the room.
In the dining room, Jewell indicated Wy’s chair near the head of the table, and Stone promptly sat next to her. Was he feeling it, too? Was he as drawn to her as she was to him? Lashes lowered, she glanced in his direction. He appeared calm and collected, as usual. Maybe this was only in her head—only her body responding like a guitar playing his tune.
Jewell served coffee to each of them as they talked about the weather; though “Hot, dry and more on the way” didn’t go very far as conversations went.
Katy passed the cake around after serving herself a hefty slice first. If she ate that way all the time, her slender yet muscular body looked none the worse for wear.
Stone took a slice of cake for himself and handed the cake to Wy. Their hands brushed in the transfer, sending a shockwave through her. Their eyes clashed as his pupils dilated. So he felt it too. Dropping her gaze to the cake, she concentrated on transferring a piece to her plate. Everything about her was out of whack. She didn’t react this way to men. Not ever. Her mind and body were like alien artifacts—unrecognizable. Passing the cake to Eli, she gathered herself together.
Stone cleared his throat.
She jumped, her nerves edgy and raw.
“I’ll tell you the story of the iron horse now, if you like.”
She swallowed hard and met his gaze. “I’d like that.” Hell, he was handsome. And rugged. And so damn cowboy she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“My great-great-grandfather came west carrying a big iron horse with him. He planned on raising a new kind of cow horse when he got to Texas and he brought Morgan and Thoroughbred bloodstock with him when he settled here in the Permian Basin. Of course, it wasn’t called that back then. It was Indian country, and the government had just opened it up for homesteading. Great-granddad staked out the 38,000 acres of this ranch and bought it. As planned, he placed the iron horse in the center of the courtyard and named the place the Iron Horse Ranch. After building this house and buying our cattle herds, he was out of money. The ranch had to be self-sufficient. We became a tough group of Texans, defending our home and ranch from hostiles and thieves. Over the years, weather did its damage and our mascot needed protection, so the original iron horse stands in a place of honor in the barn. Years ago, we ordered our new iron horse that you see today.”
Lost in his eyes, in the charm of the story, she answered, “What a history. How wonderful that you saved the old iron horse for posterity. I’d enjoy seeing it.”
Stone smiled, sending a swoosh of warmth through her. “I love this place. I’m counting on this oil lease to pump some of the life back into it that the damned drought has sucked out.”
Her heart fell. Though there was a good chance of finding oil or her company wouldn’t be interested in the property, too many owners ended up disappointed. “I hope that happens, Stone. I really do.”
Smiling at his mother, she said, “Jewell, thanks for the lovely cake. It really hit the spot.” Pushing her chair back, she stood and noticed that Stone did, too. “Eli, I’ll get with you when we’re ready for the next steps.”
Eli waved his hand. “Just let Stone know. He’s my point man on this. He and I talk every day, so he’ll keep me up to speed.”
She nodded. “Will do.” She smiled at North and Katy. “Nice to meet you, Katy. I’ll send copies of the lease in a few days.”
Stone walked her to the front door.
What was she going to do about this attraction to him? Her body was so tuned to his that she could feel him next to her as if she were touching him.
He opened the door and turned to her. “Don’t be a stranger.” Smiling, he braced his hands on his hips, meeting her gaze.
Was this a pass?
“Do you like to ride, Wy?”
Oh God, it was a pass.
“We have a sweet little mare with the softest gait. She’s good for a beginner or for an experienced rider. I could show you some of the ranch.” Still smiling, he waited for her response.
“I like to ride, though I don’t do it often. I usually use English tack, but I’ve ridden western.” She was stalling. Seeing a client? Not her style.
“So, come on out. We’ll take a ride. I’ll be gentle with you.” He grinned.
Her eyes narrowed. “I can handle myself, Texas. You’re on. When and where?” Dammit, now she’d done it. Let pride get in the way of good sense.
“Tomorrow at the barn, ten-thirty.” Still grinning, he said, “We’ll see how you do.”
She nodded, “I’ll see you in the morning, cowboy.”
He laughed as she strode out the door, and she realized she’d been played. Smiling, she unlocked her truck and tossed her briefcase in. It would actually be fun to ride again. She’d bring a map with her of the potential drill sites. Maybe they could head to one of them tomorrow. Her belly fluttered at the thought of being alone with Stone. Damn.
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