CJ Wesley values his privacy more than anything. If TV news star Natalie Baker reveals he's really a Beaumont heir, the media will go wild. That's when a surprise snowstorm strands the beautiful reporter in his house—and in his bed. Soon he'll learn how much she's discovered…and how much he wants her.
CJ defies Natalie's expectations. The gruff, sexy cowboy knows how to heat up a snowbound cabin and make Christmas magical. Exposing the elusive Beaumont brother will save her job—but only at the price of their passionate connection. It's a holiday dilemma…but will the right choice lead to forever?
Rich Rancher for Christmas is part of The Beaumont Heirs series.
Beaumont Bastards: Book 2
Dec. 2016 from Harlequin Desire
ISBN-10: 0373735022 ♦ ISBN-13: 978-0373735020
An old-fashioned bell chimed as Natalie Baker shoved the door open at Firestone Grain and Feed. Oh, the amount of dirt on that thing—she hoped it hadn’t ruined her expensive skirt. Except for the pine boughs and holly that hung in the windows, the entire store looked like it had been rolled through a pasture. She was a long way from downtown Denver.
“Help you?” a man wearing suspenders over a flannel shirt asked from behind the counter. His eyes widened as he took in her five-inch heels and her legs. By the time his gaze had worked its way back up to her perfectly contoured face and professional blow-out, his mouth had flopped open, too. The only thing missing was a stick of grass hanging out of his lips.
“Hello,” Natalie said in her best television voice. “I could use a little help.”
“You lost?” He looked her over again and she had to wonder if he’d ever had a woman in heels in this feed store before. God knew she wouldn’t be here if there were any other option. “You look lost. I can get you back to Denver. Take a left out of the parking lot and—”
She managed an innocent blush and then looked up at him through her lashes. His eyebrows rose. Excellent. He was a malleable kind of man.
“Actually,” she began, practically purring, “I’m looking for someone. I was hoping you might know him?”
The old man’s chest puffed up with pride. Perfect.
She was looking for someone—that part was the truth. Her information was that Isabel Santino had married a local rancher by the name of Patrick Wesley in the small ranching town of Firestone, Colorado. It had taken Natalie months to track down the marriage certificate in the county courthouses.
That’s how long it had been since the Beaumont bastards had revealed themselves to the public, back in September. Zeb Richards was the oldest of Hardwick Beaumont’s illegitimate children. Through a great deal of underhanded dealings that were rumored to be possibly illegal and definitely unethical, he had taken control of the Beaumont Brewery. When Richards had done so, he had had another one of Hardwick’s bastard sons, Daniel Lee, standing next to him. The two brothers now ran the brewery and, according to their last quarterly statement, their market share was up eight percent.
But there was more to the story than that. Richards had slipped up at a press conference when Natalie had flashed her very best smile at him and he had admitted that there was a third bastard out there. She hadn’t been able to get any more information out of him, but that had been enough.
The Beaumont bastards were big, big news. Natalie’s show, A Good Morning with Natalie Baker, had been milking the Beaumont family drama for months. It’d been easy, for a while. Zeb Richards had taken over the brewery and then had gotten the brewmaster pregnant. Apparently, he had fallen in love with Casey Johnson—or, at least, they were putting on an exceptionally good public face. They had mostly been seen at the playoffs and the World Series—and at their wedding, of course. That alone had fueled a twelve-percent ratings jump throughout the fall.
But it was December now. Richards and his new wife were old news and would stay that way until she had her baby. That was a good six months off and Natalie’s ratings couldn’t coast that long.
She had tried to dig in to Daniel Lee’s past, but that had proved nearly impossible. It was as if he’d been erased from the public system. No one knew anything about him other than he’d started running political campaigns a few years ago but even then, she couldn’t find anything. He was reputed to play hard and dirty—just like a Beaumont, she figured—but any question Natalie had asked about Lee had been met with a blank stare and a shrug.
That left her with one option and one option only. The mysterious third Beaumont bastard. Which presented its own special set of challenges because no one knew anything about the man except that he existed.
Natalie needed this story because she needed her show. Without it, what did she have?
“Well now, I know just about everyone around these parts. I’m sure I can help you out,” the old man said. “Who are you looking for?”
“I believe his name is Carlos Julián Santino? He also might go by Wesley.” She batted her eyelashes at the old man. “Do you know where I might be able to find him?”
The old man’s grin cracked and he looked significantly less welcoming. “Who?” he asked after a long moment.
That long moment told her things. Specifically, it told her that this feed-store owner knew exactly who she was talking about—but he wasn’t about to give it away. Interesting. She was getting closer.
“His mother’s name was Isabel? She might go by Isabella.”
“Sorry, missy, but I don’t know anyone by those names.”
“Are you sure?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “I can make it worth your while.”
The old man’s cheeks shot red. “Can’t help you,” he grunted, retreating a step. “Do you need any cat food? Dog food? Horse feed? Salt licks?”
Dammit. She was getting closer, she could feel it—but she had overplayed her hand.
An insidious voice whispered in the back of her head—you can’t do this. Natalie tried to push that voice away, but it was persistent. It always was.
She needed to find Carlos Julián Santino. A Good Morning was everything she had and she couldn’t let a little something like the lack of exclusive celebrity gossip be the final thing to take her down.
Still, she wasn’t going to find out anything else in this feed store. Maybe there was a café or a diner in town. She’d only started here because, as far as she could tell, Patrick Wesley owned a ranch where his family raised beef cattle and surely, cattle ate…something. She wasn’t even sure if the Isabel Santino who had married Patrick Wesley was the same Isabel Santino listed on the birth certificate from the Swedish Medical Center in Denver. There was no mention of any child in the marriage certificate and, try as she might, Natalie had been unable to turn up any adoption record between Patrick Wesley and Carlos Julián Santino.
So she could still be wrong. But given the feed-store owner’s reaction? She didn’t think she was.
She slipped one of her business cards out of her coat pocket and forced her most winning smile back onto her face, as if she weren’t grossly disappointed. “Well, if you hear anything, why don’t you give me a call?” She pushed the card across the counter.
The man did not reach out and pick up the card, so Natalie left it in the dust. She turned to go…only to find herself directly in the sights of a tall, dark and extremely handsome cowboy.
“Oh!” She put a fluttering hand to her chest, playing up her delicate sensibilities to the hilt. “I didn’t see you there.”
The cowboy’s face was in dark shadows under the brim of his black hat, but she could tell he was watching her. Had he been there the entire time? It would be easier to flirt with him if he hadn’t seen her flirting with the old man.
Of course, it would be easier to flirt with this cowboy, period. Even though he was wearing a thick sheepskin coat, she could tell his shoulders were broad. He didn’t look like a man pretending to be a cowboy—he looked like a man who worked with his hands day in and day out. What kind of muscles were underneath that coat?
“Who are you looking for?” he asked, his voice deep and low and carrying just a hint of menace.
A delicious shiver went through her that had nothing to do with the cold. Her gaze dropped to where his hands rested on his hips. Dear God, look at those hands. Massive and rough-looking—a working man’s hands. Not smooth and polished and manicured. Not perfect. But real. How would those hands feel on her skin? Her body tensed at the thought of his fingers tracing a line down her chest, circling her nipples…
Oh, she could have a lot of fun with a cowboy like him. If she hadn’t had an audience, she might’ve told him that she was looking for him.
But she did have an audience. And a lead to chase. So she put on her most sultry smile. “Have you ever heard of Isabel Santino or Carlos Santino?”
His reaction to these names was so subtle she almost missed it, but a muscle ticked in his jaw. He tilted his head back—not far enough that she could see his eyes, but far enough she knew he was looking her up and down. She rolled her shoulders forward and popped out a hip—her Marilyn Monroe pose. It was usually very effective.
Today must not be her day, though. Not even the best that Marilyn had to offer got anything out of this cowboy. He might look like a fantasy come to life, but he clearly wasn’t going to play along. “Wilmer’s right—I’ve never heard of either of those people, certainly not here. And this is a small town.”
“What about Wesley?”
She saw that muscle in his jaw twitch again. “Pat Wesley? Sure, everybody knows Pat.” He tilted his head down again, hiding the rest of his face in shadows. “He’s not here, though.”
All the smiling was beginning to make her cheeks tight. “Where is he?”
She had couched the question in a sultry tone but the corner of the cowboy’s mouth twitched up—was he laughing at her?
He leaned an elbow against a stack of feedbags. He wasn’t her type—but there was something so gritty about this cowboy that she couldn’t look away. “Why do you want to know? Pat’s just a rancher. Keeps to himself—lived here his whole life. Not much to tell, really.”
This cowboy was not following the script. He wasn’t taking her seriously and he wasn’t falling under her spell. Most importantly, he wasn’t giving her anything she could use. Quiet ranchers who kept to themselves did not make for good headlines.
“Do you know if he has an adopted son?” She knew that Carlos Julián Santino would be thirty-four years old. She didn’t know how old this cowboy was—there was no way to tell, with his face in the shadows like it was.
There was that twitching in his jaw again. But he said, “Ma’am, I assure you he does not.”
What if she were wrong? Of course you’re wrong, the voice in the back of her head scolded her.
It was ridiculous for her to have thought she could find the one man nobody else could. She was ridiculous, pinning all her hopes and dreams for ratings gold, for fame and fortune, onto the Beaumonts and their various and sundry bastards.
She swallowed down the bitter disappointment. Unexpectedly, the cowboy tilted his head to one side, letting a little light spill across his features. It was a damn shame he wasn’t more helpful—or more interested—because he was simply gorgeous. He had a strong jaw with a healthy two-week stubble coming in that made her want to stroke his face and other things. What color were his eyes?
No, she shouldn’t be thinking about this guy’s eyes. She should be focused on her end goal—finding the lost Beaumont bastard. What would his eyes be like? Dark? Or light? Zeb Richards’s eyes were a bright green—which really stood out on a black man. She didn’t know if Carlos Santino’s eyes would be light or dark.
Still, she wanted to see what this cowboy’s eyes looked like. Would they tell her something that his body wasn’t? If she could get a good look at his eyes, would she see wariness—or want?
He tilted his head back down, throwing his face completely in shadows again. Crap. This was not her lucky day. This man was immune to her charms and she couldn’t stand in a feed store all day. She might not be very smart, but even she knew when to cut her losses. She pulled out another card and offered it to the cowboy. “If you find out anything, I can make it worth your while.”
He didn’t take the card. “I’m sure you can, Ms. Baker.” He stepped toward her and Natalie tensed. He knew who she was? Was he a viewer? A fan? Or was he one of those anonymous internet trolls who made her skin crawl even as she craved their attention?
Because when they were insulting her, at least they were paying attention. She was someone, even if she was someone they despised.
But he stepped around her, careful to cut a wide enough berth that there was no accidental touching. Instead, he went to the counter and leaned against it, his entire body angled toward Wilmer.
The body language was clear. It was them against her.
She did what she always did when she felt insecure—she took up as much space as she could. She straightened her shoulders and shot another one of her best smiles at the two men.
She said, “Gentlemen,” even though it was pretty clear that was a loosely applied term at best. And then, head held high, she walked out of the Firestone Grain and Feed and contemplated her next move.