Brothers of Cooper Ranch

By: Leslie North

'All her time' is still an understatement, Sawyer thought. She's spent an entire life trying to please you.

He noticed Bella over Mr. Whitmore's right shoulder. She stood closer to their conversation than he remembered, still politely engaged in her own discussion, but Sawyer could swear that her head was angled slightly toward them. She was eavesdropping…and hearing every sexist word that fell out of her father's mouth.

"Little lady actually thinks she'll be named CEO of my company!" Mr. Whitmore grunted and raised his wineglass to his lips. Sawyer thought the other man had already drunk more than enough but said nothing. He unfortunately found himself aboard the runaway train that was Tristan Whitmore's nasty stream of consciousness. "As a cowboy, Sawyer, I'd expect you to understand the place women occupy in our society…and it's not in the boardroom. Yes, women have their place, and Bella needs to learn that."

Sawyer took a long swig of his whiskey. It burned him up on the inside as much as Mr. Whitmore's words did, but in the aftermath of being subjected to old New England philosophy, it was a purifying fire. Over Mr. Whitmore's shoulder, he noticed Bella's face flame as scarlet as her dress before she turned away. If she had been planning to enter their conversation at some point, her plans had clearly changed.

"You know, Mr. Whitmore," Sawyer said, broadcasting his voice loud enough that the conversations around them suddenly stilled. "That's an interesting take for a businessman. Seems to me that if you go through with that plan, you'd be losing the best person to take your business into the future—and I hope you’ll be losing her and her talent for bringing in business to me. Unlike some men, I'm not afraid to let a woman take over."

A murmur of astonishment broke out around them. Mr. Whitmore stared at Sawyer as if he had just lapsed into a foreign language…and said something that was still observably insulting. Sawyer deposited his empty whiskey glass on a passing waiter's tray and moved toward the exit. He brushed by Bella on his way out. Her lips were parted, and her thickly-lashed eyes flung open in shock. Speechless, Sawyer recognized with some amusement. He had never known Bella to wear that particular expression before.

He would have loved to stick around and get to know her look better, but he’d had enough of Boston art galleries for one night. It was enough to make him miss the ranch back home in Montana. Sawyer rarely allowed himself to acknowledge his roots, even privately, in such elite company, but he'd had his fill of New England for a while.

It was time to head home.



Bella struggled against the darkness.

As she fought to awaken, she was gripped by the singular, panicked sensation that she had been fighting for consciousness all along and was only just now beginning to resurface. What happened? she wondered. And when did I fall asleep…?

She peeled her eyes open. An ornate ceiling fan rotated overhead, gusting cool air down onto her face. Her cheeks and temples were damp, but it didn't feel like perspiration. She reached up and found a damp towel balanced gently on her forehead.

The immediate situation began to solidify, and Bella realized she wasn't lying in her own bed. Where was she? A hotel? Someone else's bedroom? Her head was pounding, but surely she hadn't had so much to drink at the art opening that she went home with someone…?

Sawyer Cooper's handsome face flashed in her mind. No, no, no, Bella thought. Impossible. Even after watching him defend her to her father, there was no way she had given in to the undeniable sexual tension that sizzled between them. It would take a lot more than that for Sawyer to get her between the sheets.

Wouldn't it?

"Hello?" she called out. Her voice was a tiny rasp she barely recognized, and the room she had woken in was large enough to swallow it, but at once she heard footsteps approaching rapidly from the hallway. Bella pulled the bedsheets closer.

Oh God, she was wearing a nightgown.

"Bella!" Bella was startled to find that it was her personal physician, Dr. Billson, standing in the doorway. The doctor crossed quickly to the bed as she tried to sit up. "Lie back, Bella. You're all right now. We've been waiting for you to wake up."

"'We'?" Bella asked uncertainly. "Is my mother here, too? My father?" Where am I? There were so many questions buzzing around her head like gnats that she found she couldn't reach out and seize one to focus on. "Who else is here, Doctor?"

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