The Rancher's Rules

By: Lucy Monroe
CHAPTER ONE




GRANT took a swig from his beer and set the long-neck bottle on the familiar oak surface of the kitchen table. He grimaced. It tasted like swill, and didn’t smell much better in his opinion, but it was all part of the ritual.

“Damn it, Bud, this is the third one in two months.” His date last night had ended the evening with a Dear Grant speech, and he hadn’t even been able to work up enough remorse to make her feel properly appreciated.

He’d been too busy trying to control the urge to follow Zoe and the guy on the Harley. He’d been looking after Zoe Jensen for as long as he could remember. Too long to take seeing some leather-clad joker with his hands all over her with any kind of equanimity.

Bud did not answer, and Grant took no offense. He stared morosely into his new friend’s beady but understanding eyes.

“Guess you understand, amigo. You got dumped too.”

Bud wiped his face and stared silently back at Grant.

Grant nodded. “Women. Who can understand them? Even Zoe is like a puzzle with a piece missing lately. You should have seen the loser she was with last night.”

Just remembering the thick-necked biker-wannabe who wore more leather than one of his bulls made Grant’s jaw ache. He knew Zoe had been going through some kind of emotional crisis since her dad had sold Grant the family ranch, but he hadn’t thought she would take it so far. She did not belong on a cattle ranch and she had to know it. He had expected her to come to terms with that truth by now.

If her recent behavior was anything to go by, she hadn’t.

He moved the hamster’s cage so that he could put his booted feet up on the already scarred oak tabletop. It was the oldest piece of furniture in a house that had been home to four generations of the Cortez family. Surprisingly, it had survived the decorating efforts of his grandmother, his mother, and then his stepmother.

Looking at Bud, he sighed.

A man who talked to hamsters probably had no room to criticize Zoe’s choice of dates. On the other hand, a hamster would make a better companion for her than the guy last night.

Grant stood up and put his now empty beer bottle on the counter. He could not stay still and he did not enjoy the feeling. Zoe had him tied in knots and she was not even his woman. But he felt as possessive of her as if she bore the name Cortez. He only wished he saw her as a sister.

His image glistened in the window behind the sink. He glared at his reflection. Disgusted blue eyes glared back. Almost black hair left a little too long brushed the collar of his denim shirt. For once, he looked like the rancher he was. He spent most of his time in suits, overseeing the Cortez conglomerate, but at heart he was every bit the rancher his Spanish great-grandfather had been.

Ramón Cortez had left his aristocratic roots and the country of his birth to make a new life for himself, and every generation after him had built on his efforts. There was no conceit in Grant’s belief that he’d increased the Cortez empire more than any man before him, only simple truth.

His father was a millionaire; Grant was a multimillionaire. Unlike the rich and famous who had winter homes in the area, his family had their roots in this small town. And, as wealthy as he was, he preferred the slow pace of life here to that in the big city, though his business interests dictated that he spend a fair amount of time there.

In fact, he had a business trip coming up he could not get out of. And maybe that was a good thing. He needed to get away from Zoe before he did something they would both regret. He wanted her, but his daddy had a saying and it made a lot of sense: “Don’t piss in your own backyard. It kills the grass and gets your boots muddy.”

Giving in to his desire for Zoe would be a very stupid thing to do, and Grant Cortez was not a stupid man.

He swung around and faced Bud’s cage again. Opening the door, he reached in and took the hamster out. The tiny furball started climbing up his arm. “Do you know what my problem is?”

The hamster did not pause in his ascent up Grant’s arm to answer.

“I need sex.”

Saying it out loud didn’t help, and neither did the idea that Zoe’s date might be getting more in that department lately than Grant was.

The hamster shifted his path to climb across Grant’s chest, unimpressed with the man’s problems. After all, the little rodent had gotten cut off too.

Grant petted the hamster curled up near his breast pocket. “Don’t worry, Bud. Zoe’ll take you in.”

She had a soft spot for animals that resembled a Double Tuffed down pillow.

He’d never forget the look on her face the day they’d met. He’d saved her life from a mountain cat, only to find out the reason the six-year-old had been wandering the range was that she had been trying to save her pet cow, Flower, from a stock sale. Her dad had been furious, but had reluctantly agreed to sell the cow to Grant instead.

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