"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 water coolers 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 wanted 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 shoulder. 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 tourists 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. It 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."
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—"
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 five-ten. The good Lord had taken his time when he'd created this man.
Dressed in form-fitting 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.
"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 photos 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 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 woman's vote 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?"