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The Forbidden Brother

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Cody knew he needed to head back home. He didn’t usually grant himself perks like a midafternoon horse ride to clear his head—even on a mild, sunny Sunday like this one. But he didn’t know how else to fix his state of mind.

His bad mood could be traced back to Friday night and the arrival of Jillian Ross in town. Then he’d spent an unproductive Saturday arguing with the company fixing the ranch’s irrigation system. He’d handled it with so little diplomacy his contractor had walked off the job. Afterward, Cody had argued with Carson when his twin called to invite him to a Sunday noontime meal where Malcolm McNeill was going to be present.

As if he wanted anything to do with that branch of the family.

Giving Buxby, a retired stallion from the family’s quarter horse breeding program, a nudge to the flank, Cody steered the animal through a thicket of cottonwood trees toward the stables at the Black Creek Ranch. He had done his damnedest to put the sexy and deceitful location scout out of his mind after he’d walked her to her car on Friday. But she’d shown up in his dreams both nights since then, and she’d barged into his waking thoughts, too.

He found himself remembering her laugh during a meeting with his ranch manager on Saturday morning. And recalling the way she’d murmured his twin’s name at the peak of passion while Cody was directing the excavation for the irrigation system. He had been ornery and angry all weekend, and he blamed her.

He’d warned Carson about her presence in town when they’d spoken briefly on the phone this morning, skipping over the personal details of their encounter. Cody had thought it was important to let the family know that a Hollywood film company was angling to use McNeill land in a movie. He needed them to thwart her efforts, too. There was enough strife in the family over land rights and inheritance now that their estranged grandfather had entered the picture. Cody’s dad hated Malcolm and wouldn’t appreciate any of his sons or daughters breaking bread with their grandfather. But apparently, Cody was the lone holdout on that score. His half sisters had all decided Malcolm was a nice enough guy. Even Carson and their other brother, Brock, were coming around to recognize Malcolm McNeill as family.

That was fine for them.

But Cody’s allegiance was to his dad, a man who’d built a ranching empire on his own, without any help from the billionaire who’d raised him. Cody not only respected that, he admired it. And if that meant missing out on a Sunday meal with his siblings, so be it.

As he cleared the cottonwood trees and came within sight of the stables, Cody recognized the familiar silhouette of one of those siblings now. Scarlett, the youngest of his three half sisters, paced circles behind the stable, her red boots kicking up dust. Her long, dark hair spilled over the shoulders of a fluttery yellow blouse tucked into a denim skirt that was too damned short. She was talking nonstop on her cell phone.

When she noticed Cody, she quit pacing and ended the call, tucking her phone in her back pocket. Her dark bangs fell in her eyes as she peered up at him. She patted Buxby’s haunch when he slowed the horse to a stop near the paddock.

“Is it true?” she blurted without preamble. “Is there a film scout in town who wants to do a movie at Black Creek?”

“Hello to you, too, sis.” Hauling a leg over the stallion’s back, Cody swung down to stand beside Scarlett.

He took an extra moment to plant a kiss on her forehead, stalling just because she was clearly beside herself and eager for details. The least he could do was wrest a small amount of fun from tormenting his sister. His other half sisters, Maisie and Madeline, wouldn’t much care about a film crew in Cheyenne. But Scarlett had been born with stars in her eyes. While she could ride and rope as well as any woman he’d ever seen, she’d made it clear from the time she could talk that ranch life wasn’t for her.

“Hello.” Sighing, she arched up on her toes and landed a haphazard return kiss on his jaw. “Now, spill it. Carson said you met a location scout at Wrangler’s on Friday night. Is she still in town? Did you find out what movie they want to make? Or when?”

Cody passed off Buxby’s reins to one of the ranch hands’ kids. Thirteen-year-old Nate was as excited about working with the animals as Scarlett was about moviemaking, and Cody had given the okay for him to help out in the barns as long as his dad was overseeing him.

“Make sure you brush him down thoroughly, and water him, too.” Nate nodded as Cody kept talking. “Hang all the tack back where it belongs, and put the brush away afterward.”

While the kid took over the care of the horse, Cody headed toward the main house.

Scarlett kept pace beside him.

“Cody? I don’t respond well to silence,” she said as they passed her sporty silver Jag in the driveway. “And I drove all the way over here—”

“You live here,” he reminded her.

They’d all been raised on the Black Creek Ranch. Carson had moved out long ago to run another of their father’s holdings, the Creek Spill Ranch. And Madeline lived on site at the White Canyon, a small guest ranch. But all their places were within a dozen miles of each other.

Scarlett had remodeled an old bunkhouse after college when their father hired her to help the farm-operations side of the business. Technically, she was an assistant to the foreman. But lately she spent more of her time at the White Canyon with Madeline now that the guest ranch enterprise had expanded.

“But I hadn’t been planning to come back here, since I’m leading a fly-fishing outing for Maddy’s guests later,” she argued, following him into the equipment shed.

Halting beside an old International Harvester tractor he was restoring in his spare time, Cody turned on her. “That’s some outfit for fly-fishing.”

She grinned. “I’m glad to see your sense of humor is still in there somewhere.” She poked him on the shoulder. “Now spill it. What’s the deal with the movie?”

Leaning against the wheel of the tractor, she folded her arms and waited.

Cody entered the small space that served as an office and reached for a set of truck keys. There was a weather-beaten desk and a file cabinet they used to keep records on the vehicles. He took a seat on the desk. The shed was open to the elements on one side; the big overhead door was raised. They were alone, though, since most of the staff had Sundays off.

“I can’t tell you anything about the film.” He’d been far more interested in flirting with the stranger than asking her name, let alone asking about her job. Truth be told, he was mad at himself for thinking he could get away with some kind of anonymous encounter with a woman.

One-night stands were for other guys. He’d never been that person.

“Why not?” Scarlett asked, hitching the heel of her boot on the chair rung. “Didn’t you meet the location scout in person?”

“I did.” Which was an understatement. What he’d shared with Jillian Ross would be filed away in his memory banks for the rest of his days. “When she asked about filming, I told her absolutely not. End of story.”

Scarlett pursed her lips. She had a big, expressive personality. Most of the time she was a sweetheart. Kind and thoughtful. Still, she definitely had a steely side that he’d rather not tangle with.

“You’re not the only member of this family. I’m not sure that’s your call to make.” She straightened, putting both feet on the floor.

“Honey, I know you have stars in your eyes—”

“No.” She cut him off with a fierceness he had never heard from her. “Do not patronize me. Being feminine and having ambitions outside of this ranch doesn’t mean I have stars in my eyes.”

He drew a breath, wanting to apologize. To backtrack.

But she lit right into him again.

“Furthermore, did you ever consider how the exposure would help the White Canyon?” She planted her fists on her hips, warming up to her argument.

“Madeline deserves that kind of spotlight, Cody. She’s worked hard to make the guest ranch a success, and she’s not the only one who would benefit from a film crew up here.”

Cody cursed his twin for sharing the news with the rest of the family before he’d had the chance to. And yes, he cursed himself, too, for not making his stance clearer when he’d written to Jillian.

Although then he never would have met her. Never would have tasted her or touched her. And that he would have regretted. Even if he resented the hell out of her deceit.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” He said the necessary words before his sister started in again. “I was only thinking about how Dad likes the privacy up here. You know how resistant he was to the guest ranch from the start.”

Their father’s fight against commercial development in the area had deep roots in his feud with his own father. When Donovan McNeill had first come to Wyoming and married Kara Calderon, they had soon run into financial trouble with her ranch, and had asked for his billionaire father’s help, only to have Malcolm McNeill attempt to build a hotel on it. When Kara’s father, Colt, protested, Donovan had nearly bankrupted himself hiring attorneys to untangle the mess and keep the peace. But the incident had created as many hard feelings between Donovan and his father-in-law as it had between Donovan and Malcolm.

When Kara died just a few years later, leaving behind three orphaned sons, Donovan had soon remarried, this time taking Scarlett’s mother, Paige, as his bride.

And the land around the Creek Spill Ranch—land that extended all the way to the White Canyon—was still zoned to allow hospitality development, thanks to Malcolm McNeill’s thwarted project. But to this day, Donovan didn’t want anything to do with resort hotels. The guest ranch had come about only because he’d bought a failing bed-and-breakfast from a couple who were looking to retire and Madeline had wanted a shot at making it work.

“Dad doesn’t make all the decisions for this family any more than you do,” Scarlett reminded Cody. “We’ve diversified. Brock has the horse breeding business. Maddy has the guest ranch. Carson and you still work the cattle. But your business isn’t more important than anyone else’s in the family.”

“Cattle brings in the bulk of the income.” To an extent, each sibling’s financial prospects were tied to the herd production, since all six of them owned a share. Their father had put some of his money in a trust for them, but the land and the businesses had been divvied up when the youngest—Scarlett—turned twenty-one.

“Yes, but since we each still have a stake in the Black Creek Ranch operations, we all have a voice in how it’s run.” Scarlett gave him an even stare.

“You’ve gone along with every decision I’ve made about purchasing bulls or negotiating prices on our calves, but now you’re going to assert your authority over some film project you know nothing about?” Resentment stirred. He tightened his fist around the truck keys. He needed to move on with his day.

To put all thoughts of Jillian and her movie in the past.

“If I think the publicity could help us in the long run, you’re damn right I’ll assert my authority.” She withdrew her phone from her pocket and passed it to him. “Now, would you like to write down the name and contact information for this location scout? Or did you want to give me the original letter she sent you and I’ll track her down from that?”

If his sister were digging in her heels about anything else, he would have applauded her fierce defense of family and business. But Cody didn’t appreciate her efforts when they flew in the face of what he wanted for the Black Creek Ranch.

“I don’t know what I did with her letter.” But he took the phone and typed Jillian’s name on the notes screen. “This is her name, though. She was staying at the Cheyenne Suites last I heard.”

He’d asked Jillian that when he walked her to her car, wanting to make sure she didn’t have far to drive in the rain.

Scarlett raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment as she took back the phone and jammed it in her pocket.

“Thank you. I’ll get out of your way now.” Turning on her heel, she flounced toward the open door and out into the afternoon sun, the wind ruffling her dark hair.

He wanted to tell her that there was no way in hell he was letting a production company onto the family land, no matter what she said. Yet sometimes these disagreements fizzled out before he had to draw a line in the sand. With five siblings, he’d learned a few things about dealing with conflict over the years.

Still, seeing the determined set to his sister’s chin as they’d argued told him it might not be that easy. He could only hope Jillian wanted to get out of town—and away from him—as much as he needed her gone. Their sizzling chemistry sure didn’t pave the way for a smooth working relationship. Her deceit had only made it worse.

.

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