Alex turned when the door next to her right elbow opened and Rose Clayton walked into the reception area via the side entrance. Cool gray assessing eyes met hers and Alex reminded herself that she wasn’t eighteen anymore, so the unofficial queen of the Texas Cattleman’s Club should no longer intimidate her.
But she did.
Over that long summer ten years ago, Rose waged a war to separate her and Daniel, Rose’s beloved grandson and heir. Gus, her own grandfather, had done the same. Because God and every Texan knew, family loyalty and a decades-old feud between Gus Slade and Rose Clayton trumped first love. At the time, she and Daniel had been the Romeo and Juliet of Royal, minus the death by poisoning.
Losing Daniel had felt like another death—she’d missed and mourned him that much. Alex remembered her tears, the desperation and loss she’d endured when Daniel refused to leave Royal with her so she could attend school out of state.
Daniel had said he belonged at The Silver C, but she disagreed, proclaiming they belonged together. They’d yelled; she’d cried. Daniel’s stubbornness and intransigence, his unwillingness to choose her—them—ultimately killed their relationship.
Yes, they’d been young but, in his own unique way, he’d abandoned her. Unlike her parents, her childhood friend Gemma and, just last year, her beloved grandmother Sarah, Daniel had left her life through choice and not death.
And that somehow hurt more.
Rose approached her and a part of her still wanted to curl up in a ball when faced with Daniel’s imperial grandmother. Annoyed with herself, Alex straightened her spine and managed a jerky nod. “Miss Rose.”
Alex rolled her eyes when Rose turned her back on her and glided away, five foot something of sheer haughtiness and holier-than-thou poise. If not for their volatile history, she might even admire the woman for her steely self-assurance, her ability to carve out her rightful place in a world filled with take-charge alpha men.
But Rose was a Clayton and, as such, a sworn Slade enemy. Alex and her brother knew the basics of the Slade-Clayton feud: a half century ago, Gus, her grandfather, left Royal to make his fortune on the rodeo circuit, believing that Rose Clayton would wait for his return. He saved enough to buy a small spread next to the Clayton ranch and went to propose to Rose, excited to start his life with the woman he desperately loved. But Rose had married Ed the year before.
In doing so, Rose fired the first shot and war was declared.
Gus’s marrying Rose’s best friend—Alex’s beloved grandmother Sarah—just escalated the conflict. And her grandfather buying up more portions of the once-mighty Clayton ranch was a nuclear strike. Families took their feuds seriously in Texas, and although sides were most certainly chosen, the Texas Cattleman’s Club remained the demilitarized zone.
The Slades and Claytons, both old and young, were all members, and here within these walls, they had to play nice. Or when that wasn’t feasible, they opted to ignore each other as much as possible. Just like Gus was ignoring Rose, and Alexis was ignoring Daniel, which was, annoyingly, very damn hard to do.
What woman with a pulse could? Surrendering to temptation, Alex looked toward the bar...and at the devastatingly handsome man who she’d once considered to be the love of her life. She drank in every inch of him. The black curls he hated—but she loved—and those mysterious dark brown eyes he’d inherited—everyone presumed—from his father, because his mother was light skinned with blue eyes. Boring brown, Daniel had once called them, but Alex vehemently disagreed. They could be as rich as expensive coffee, as deep as the night. However, they could also turn as hard as ship-destroying rocks on a jagged, inhospitable coastline.
So much had changed over the years, Alex mused with a wistful sigh. Her once-gangly boyfriend was now taller, broader, every inch a man. He was still lean but with hard muscles and a harder streak. Strong stubble covered his jaw and he looked as good in a tuxedo as he did in worn jeans, but neither was his sexiest look.
A naked Daniel Clayton, as she’d discovered when she was younger, could easily be classified as one of the wonders of the world.