As new president of the Texas Cattleman's Club, Case Baxter has his hands full. He needs a housekeeper, but he's been burned before by gold-digging employees. Still, when fiery redhead Melinda Winslow shows up, his attraction is undeniable.
Mellie has big plans for her small cleaning service. A powerful client like Case Baxter is a boon to her business. But falling for him could mess everything up. Mellie knows how to handle a mess if Case isn't too hot to handle!
Enjoy a special Texas Cattleman's Club: Lies and Lullabies
bonus prequel short story from Janice Maynard
Reclaimed by the Rancher
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
'To our new president!'
Three of the four men at the table lifted their glasses in a semicongratulatory toast. Case Baxter, the object of their wry tribute, shook his head and grinned. "Thanks, guys. You're all heart."
Mac McCallum finished off the last bite of his Angus burger and wiped his mouth with a linen napkin. "Seriously, man. What were you thinking? You're like all the rest of us up to your ears in work. Adding president of the Texas Cattleman's Club to your résumé means more headaches."
Mac was CEO of McCallum Energy and understood as much as anybody that success was a double-edged sword. Even so, with his big laugh and extrovert ways, he always seemed laid-back and easygoing.
Though the formal dining room at the Texas Cattleman's Club was an elegant venue, the majority of the diners were men like Mac and Case. Tough, honed by physical labor, perpetually tanned by the hot Texas sun. And wealthy wealthy enough to think they had the world on a string.
Case shrugged. "I know what you're saying. And you're right. But when the committee asked to put my name on the ballot, I could hear my great-grandfather cheering from the grave. It's an honor. And a privilege."
His companions hooted with laughter. Jeff Hartley wiped his eyes. "Of course it is. No denying that. But unless you have some magic formula for adding an extra eight or ten hours to every day, I'm not exactly sure how you're going to manage." Jeff owned and operated the Hartley Cattle Ranch. He knew more than a little about hard work and long days.
Case had an ominous feeling in his gut that said his buddies were right. The truth was, though, Case's family had lived in Royal for generations. They believed in tradition, honor and service. He hadn't been able to bring himself to say no to the nomination. Then again, he hadn't expected to be elected. The other two candidates were older and, as far as Case was concerned, more suited for the position.
But now it was too late for second thoughts. "I'm counting on the three of you to be my unofficial advisors."
Parker Reese leaned back in his chair. "Don't look at me. I'm a doctor, not a rancher. I can get your baby through colic, but all I know about cattle is not to wave a red flag in front of a bull."
In the general laughter that followed, Case spared a moment to marvel at how things had changed. Not long ago, women had finally been admitted into the hallowed halls of the club as full members.
Times, they were a-changin'
Case looked at Mac with a lifted brow. "I thought Logan was joining us for lunch." Logan Wade was Mac's best friend and one of his key investors.
"He bought three new horses last week," Mac said, "and they're being delivered today. You know how he is."
They all nodded. Horses and women. Logan's two favorite things.
Mac pinned Case with a knowing gaze. "Quit changing the subject. We were talking about you and your soon-to-be-impossible schedule."
"Gil Addison has a son and a wife," Case pointed out. "And he's been a great president. I'm blissfully single."
"True," Mac said. "You're forgetting, however, that Gil is Superman. No offense, buddy, but those are big shoes to fill."
"Your support is duly noted."
Parker, arguably the smartest man in the room, added his two cents' worth. "You've always liked a challenge, Case. Don't let them mess with your head. You've got this."
"Thanks." Case had enormous respect for the dedicated though reserved neonatal specialist. Royal's hospital was lucky to have a doctor of Parker's caliber on staff.
Jeff chimed in, mischief written all over his face. "Parker has more faith in you than I do. I've been in your house, Case. It's such a mess you can't even find the TV remote half the time. I'd suggest burning your place to the ground if we weren't in the middle of a drought."
Case's neck heated. Organization was not his strong suit. Another fact that called his ability to perform his newly acquired duties into question.
"I've already thought about that," he said. "And I have a plan."
Mac gave their waitress a smile as she brought their desserts. "Do tell."
Case stuck a fork in his apple cobbler. "I'm going to hire a housekeeper."
The other three men stared at him.
Mac lifted his spoonful of ice cream and waved it in the air. "You do know she would have to come inside your house for that to work?"
"Very funny." Case squared his shoulders. "I have the Texas Cattleman's Club to run now. I have to make compromises."
Jeff still seemed shocked. "But what about your rule number one? Never allow a female into the man cave."
"Unless she's a relative." Parker supplied the exception. "Is this new housekeeper a relative?"
Case deserved the inquisition. He was known for his only-half-joking rules for dealing with the female sex. When he was involved in intimate relationships, he preferred to spend the night at the woman's home. So he could leave when he wanted to. "I made the rules," he said, his chin thrust out. "And I can change them. This woman will be a stranger an employee. She won't be a relative, but she might as well be. I'm not hiring a womanI'm hiring a housekeeper."
He gave them a warning scowl. "I've learned from my mistakes, believe me." The men at the table knew the unsavory details of Case's not-so-happy marriage. He'd had a fling with his family's accountant, married her and soon found out that she was more interested in spending Case's money than in being a loving wife. It was a salutary lesson.
Jeff turned down a second beer but took a long swig of his water. "Hey, man. A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. And besides, up until the tornado last year, this club-president gig wasn't all that onerous. You'll be fine."
Everyone nodded, but Case saw his own reservations reflected on their faces. Ever since the F4 tornado that had decimated Maverick County and the town of Royal barely over a year ago, the Texas Cattleman's Club had become one of the anchors that held things together.
Coordinating rescue efforts, keeping up morale, applying for grants, planning reconstruction and renovationthe club and its president had served the people of Royal well. Life was mostly back to normal, but there was still work to be done. So Case couldn't kid himself into thinking that his new job title was ceremonial only.
Jeff interrupted the momentary silence. "If we're finished raking Case over the coals, I have a serious subject to bring up. Shouldn't we be worried about all the ranches and other parcels of land that have been sold in Royal lately? And almost all of it to a single buyer? Does anybody but me think it's a little odd?"
Mac shrugged. "I'm not really concerned. A number of people were demoralized by the storm or too strapped for cash to rebuild. It sounds like they're getting good offers and the chance to start over somewhere else."
Parker's brow furrowed. "I hadn't heard about this."
Case nodded. "Nolan Dane is back in town and is representing a company called Samson Oil in these acquisitions. It doesn't make sense to me, though. Why would an oil company be interested in the land? The tracts he's buying up were checked for oil decades ago." Nolan was raised in Royal, but had been gone for a long time.
"Maybe they're planning to use some of the newer technology and hoping to get lucky," Mac said.
Jeff shook his head. "Nolan seems like a decent guy, but I'm not a big fan of lawyers, particularly when someone else is hiding behind that lawyer's legal speak."
"We should give him the benefit of the doubt," Parker said. "At least as long as the people selling are getting a fair shake. It seems to me that Case will be in a perfect position to keep tabs on this kind of thing."
Case glanced at his watch. "Speaking of my upcoming lifestyle change, I have an appointment in forty-five minutes to interview my new domestic assistant."
"Is that the politically correct term these days?" Jeff seemed dubious.
Parker scrawled his name on the check, charging it to his club account as was their custom. "I think Case is trying to convince himself that a woman won't ruin his carefully preserved chaos."
Mac nodded, his grin broad. "I never met a woman yet who didn't want to domesticate a man. No matter how old she is."
Case lifted an eyebrow. "I am the newly elected president of a venerable organization whose members have run this town for over a century. I think I can handle a housekeeper." He stood, and his friends followed suit.
Mac shook his hand. "You can count on me in the days ahead, sir."
Case grinned. "Bite me."
Parker saluted. "Happy to serve under your command." Jeff bowed. "Mi casa es su casa if you need a place to hide out."
"Everybody's a comedian." As Case said his goodbyes and headed out to the parking lot, he reminded himself what a lucky man he was. He had a ranch and land he loved, a wide circle of friends, and now the respect and a nod of confidence from his peers who had voted for him.
If he could iron out this housekeeper thing, no pun intended, his life would be under control.
Mellie Winslow took in the sights as she made her way down the long driveway leading to the B Hive Ranch. Case Baxter's fields and fences were immaculate, several varieties of placid cattle grazing peacefully as far as the eye could see. She envied him the order and success of his thriving operation.
Though her own small business, the Keep N Clean, was doing well, it couldn't compare to the prosperity of this massive endeavor. Case must be an extraordinarily busy manhence his request for a housekeeper.
Mellie knew that a good word from Case Baxter could be a boon to her business. What she didn't know was whether or not Case would accept her proposition.
When at last she pulled up in front of the charming ranch house that had housed generations of Baxter men and their families, she noticed something odd. Apparently, Case's cattle received more attention than did his aging home.
It would be an exaggeration to say the place looked run-down. That wasn't it at all. But the two-story white ranch house with blue shutters seemed tired. Although the wraparound porch was large and appealing, no flowers were planted at its base. No colorful cushions bedecked the porch swing. No toddler bicycles or teen sports equipment lay scattered about the yard.
Although the B Hive Ranch had been in the family for decades, everyone in Royal knew that Case's parents had both died young, and Case was an only child. It would be sad to see the place end up in other hands if Case had no heirs.
It was a possibility, though. Case was in his midthirties and apart fromor perhaps because ofhis youthful marriage, which had ended badly, he showed no signs of settling down.
Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Mellie reminded herself that this was not her first rodeo. Keep N Clean had just celebrated its eighth anniversary. Mellie herself was a seasoned businesswoman. There was no need to feel intimidated by the power and stature of Case Baxter.
She didn't know him well. Really only in passing.
Hopefully, that was about to change.
Along with her stylish tote that served as purse and catchall, she picked up a navy-and-lime-green folder that she now handed out to all prospective clients. Though the expense of producing the upscale advertising materials had been wince-worthy, she hoped the professional presentation would take her expanding company to the next level.
For some reason, she'd expected someone other than the owner to answer her knock. But only seconds passed before the tall blue-eyed man with dark brown hair opened the door and swung it wide.
He greeted her with a polite smile. "I'm Case Baxter. I'm assuming you're here for the interview?" He filled the doorway, lean and long and wildly handsome.
Mellie shook his hand, feeling his large, warm fingers momentarily squeeze hers. Wow. His photograph in the newspaper didn't do him justice. His short hair was neatly cut, though an unshaven chin gave him a rakish air. His clasp was not a second too long. Nothing out of the ordinary.
But her heart beat faster.
He was the perfect specimen of a Texas male. He wore faded jeans that molded to his body in interesting ways scuffed hand-tooled cowboy boots, a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up and an expensive watch that looked as if it could pick up cable channels on Mars.
She found her voice at last. "I'm Mellie Winslow. I own Keep N Clean."
Case frowned slightly. He didn't invite her in. "I thought I was interviewing a prospective housekeeper."
"Well, you are," she said, squirming inwardly. "The truth is, Mr. Baxter, I've been expanding my business. Things are going very well. But when you called asking for help, I decided I wanted to take this job myself."
It was a valid question. She decided that honesty was the way to go. "May I come in so we can talk about it?"
"I supposed so." He led her into the adjoining dining room, where a large formal table groaned beneath the weight of stacks of mail. In the few places not covered by papers, a layer of dust coated the wood.
"Have a seat," he said. "As you can see, I didn't exaggerate my need for assistance."
Mellie sat down, and when he did the same, she slid a Keep N Clean folder across the table. "My rates and services are all listed here. The reason I'd like to do this job myself, Mr. Baxter, is because all of my current staff have taken on as much as they can handle. But I don't want to turn you away. Having the newly elected president of the Texas Cattleman's Club as a client would be invaluable advertising."
"Always assuming you're as good as you say " He opened the folder and scanned testimonials she'd included from satisfied clients.
Mellie frowned. "I'm a hard worker. I'm meticulous. Also, I don't need anyone to hold my hand every moment. Once you tell me what you require and give me detailed instructions about what I should and should not muck with in your home, I'll be invisible."
Case leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest and stared at her.
She refused to fidget. If this silent showdown was part of his interview strategy, she would pass muster or die trying.
At last he shrugged. "Your rates seem fair. But how do you propose to run your business and at the same time keep my house in order?"
"How do you propose to run your business and still keep the TCC in order?"
Sarcasm was one of her failings. Having a smart mouth was not the way to win over prospective clients. Fortunately for her, Case Baxter laughed.
His eyes went from glacial blue to sunshiny skies when he was amused. "Touché." He tapped the fingers of one hand on the table, the small restless gesture indicating some level of dissatisfaction or concern.