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Stepbrother Master

By:Ava Jackson

Chapter One


Emma


I expected my mother's fourth wedding to be business as usual. I'd take a few days off work, fly to some exotic locale, stand around smiling at everybody, and pretend like it all wouldn't end with Mom crying to me over the phone. But her latest fiancé owned a ranch in Montana—and he'd invited me to stay with them for the summer of their wedding.

I tried to decline in every way I possibly could. I'd just graduated from Stanford, after four years of working my ass off, and in the fall I'd start teaching at an inner-city D.C. high school. This was my last free summer before Real Life reared its ugly head. I just wanted to relax.

Then Mom visited me at school, and all my carefully thought-out reasons collapsed. “This one's different, Emma,” she'd said. “I've finally found my soul mate. And you're going to be so busy soon. Please think about coming ... it would mean a lot to me.” There was no way I could resist Mom Guilt that strong. Even as I cursed my lack of backbone, I caved.

The private jet was my first indicator that my soon-to-be stepfather might really be different. Namely, in the sense that he was rich as hell. Maybe Mom's finally found someone who won't take her for every penny, I thought as I sipped white wine in my window seat, admiring the American West spread out beneath me. Although, if he’s this rich, I’m sure there’s a pre-nup.

The jet landed on a private airstrip in the middle of nowhere. As soon as the flight attendant opened the door, a warm, bone-dry wind smacked me in the face, tightening my skin into a mask. Even my hair felt brittle. Blinking away tears, I picked my way down the airstairs.

An honest-to-god cowboy leaned against a shiny black and chrome pickup truck nearby. With the ten-gallon hat, the scuffed cowboy boots, leather vest, and the droopy white mustache, he could have stepped out of a John Wayne movie. I tried not to stare as he wordlessly hauled my bags from the belly of the plane and tossed them into the truck bed. Good thing I didn't pack anything too fragile.

“Thanks,” I said after a while.

He gave a short, sharp nod. “Ma'am.” Then he climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine. Oh-kay, then. Getting in the truck now ... before he drives off without me.

The grassy foothills seemed to roll on forever, and the cowboy didn't speak for the entire ride. My questions about Montana were met with grunts or jerks of his chin. I eventually gave up and concentrated on watching the horizon, where a tiny dollhouse grew into a sprawling rock-and-log mansion.

A short while later, we slowed at the front gate of Wild Cliffs Ranch before continuing on to the house. The cowboy got out and threw my bags onto the front porch. I sat in stunned silence as I took in the mansion before me. It was a far cry from the condo in Napa that Mom had gotten from Husband Number Three in her last divorce. My escort stuck his head back into the truck’s cab and looked at me, brow furrowed with annoyance. He said nothing, but he obviously was waiting for me to get my ass out of the truck. I nodded awkwardly and pushed open my door. I slid out, wondering if I’d fall on my face, but then my feet touched the running board. I’d barely shut the door behind me before he drove off, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake and me in this strange new world.

A shirtless man rounded the corner of the house with huge bags of what looked like rocks hoisted on each shoulder. He tossed them to the ground like they weighed nothing. And he had my full attention. Hot. Damn.

He had the kind of body you didn’t expect to see outside of men’s fitness magazines.

I snapped my mouth shut and bit my lip to make certain it didn’t drop open again. Is this guy for real? Tanned, with broad shoulders, perfectly formed pecs, and a defined six-pack. My eyes dropped lower. Scratch that—eight pack. I forced my gaze higher and realized he’d paused in his task.

Had he caught sight of me? The brim of his straw cowboy hat shielded his eyes. His body was hard, and what little I could see of his face was even harder: chiseled cheekbones and a square jaw punctuated by full lips.

Shit. I’m staring, I scolded myself. But then his hat tilted lower, and I had to assume he was doing the same thing. Reflexively, I brushed the wrinkles from my pink-and-yellow sundress, wondering what he made of my travel-rumpled state.

I forced myself to step forward and head up the walk. I couldn’t stand here like a moron all day. A second man joined him, younger, leaner, and somehow … greener. They both watched me as I made my way to the house. Both hats tipped, but neither said a word.

I had no idea why my heart pounded as I passed by them, but it did. I grasped the door handle, feeling his eyes on me as I stepped inside.

Maybe this summer won't be so bad after all.

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