And he thought he was getting there.
While not nearly as big as it had been in its heyday, The Silver C was now regarded as being one of the best-managed spreads in the country, lauded for its breeding program and producing award-winning bulls. He had a waiting list as long as his arm for buyers wanting to purchase his quarter horses, and he ran the entire ranching operation with the utmost professionalism and integrity. And by doing so, he’d recently been inducted as a member of the Texas Cattleman’s Club.
Daniel sat up, rested his forearms on his thighs and shoved his hands through his hair before running his palm over his stubble-covered jaw. He watched as Alex picked up a sweatshirt—one of his—and frowned when the voluminous fabric covered her to midthigh. She then pulled her hair out from under the band of the garment and gathered it into a messy knot on top of her head, and he thought that he’d never seen anyone so naturally beautiful, so effortlessly sexy.
“I’m going to make coffee. Do you have time for a cup?”
Daniel glanced at his watch and nodded. “Yeah, I do. Thanks.”
He watched Alex leave the room, her hips swaying seductively as she did so. She’d been pretty as a teenager but she was spectacular as a grown woman. Blue eyes the color of the summer sky, high cheekbones and that luscious, made-to-kiss mouth. Yards and yards of fragrant, wavy hair. And... God, that body...lean and slender, finely boned but with curves and dips and flares that made his mouth water.
At eighteen he’d thought he’d loved her, but now, ten years later, he knew that he’d been blinded by lust, had confused love with desire. He didn’t believe in romantic love and Daniel sometimes wondered if he ever, deep down, really had. God knew he hadn’t been exposed to any marital, or even family, harmony growing up.
He was the unwanted son of Rose’s daughter, who had also been raised in a tense household. There had been little love between Rose and his maternal grandfather, and his mother, Stephanie, wasn’t able to love anyone but herself. He’d been the unwanted result of one of Stephanie’s many bad decisions when it came to men.
Daniel had no idea who his father was and one of Stephanie’s favorite games had been to play “Who’s Your Daddy?” She’d thrown out names to tease, later telling him that she’d made up names and occupations to amuse herself. It was cold comfort that Stephanie had also played Rose like a fiddle, using him as her bow.
Thanks to his dysfunctional childhood, he was cynical about love. But he did believe in family, in loyalty, in hard work and respect—Rose had shown him the value of those traits, in both word and deed. She’d never lied to him, not even during those worst times, when Stephanie was crazier than a wet hen.
So when his grandmother expressed her reservations about his teenage romance with Alex, calmly pointing out that he’d be throwing away his future at the ranch to follow a girl he thought he might love, he’d eventually listened to her advice. And why wouldn’t he? She was the one stable adult in his life, the only person he’d ever felt was looking after his best interests.
And yeah, after emotionally and physically divorcing himself from his mother, he vowed that he’d never let anyone emotionally blackmail him again.
Shaking off his disturbing thoughts, Daniel stood up, strode to the small bathroom next to the only bedroom and used the facilities. He returned to the master suite, smiling as he remembered how surprised he’d been when he’d first laid eyes on this renovated tree house.
Gone was the rickety structure from before. Now a sleek, beautifully designed house rested in the massive cypress trees overlooking the river that meandered its way through both The Silver C and the Lone Wolf ranches. Instead of a one-room platform, the tree house consisted of a master bedroom, a sleeping loft above the main living space, this tiny bathroom and a small kitchenette. The abundance of windows and a sliding glass wall allowed for amazing views of the river and Lone Wolf land. He wished he could lie on the sprawling deck, beer in his hand, Stetson over his face, soaking up some winter rays. But there was work to do, and the needs of The Silver C Ranch always came first.
Hearing Alex walking up the stairs to the bedroom, he stepped into his jeans and pulled on his shirt, then his fleece-lined leather jacket. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he reached for his socks and boots, lifting his head as Alex appeared in the doorway. He took the cup of coffee she held out—hot and black—and sipped gratefully. Another three of these and he might feel vaguely human.