Marriage at the Cowboy's Command(2)

By: Ann Major

Chewing a fingernail, she went to the window and stared out at the sea of brown grasses. The early December air had been cool and crisp an hour before dawn, when she’d arisen. Her only indulgence before coming to her office was a single cup of strong black coffee.

To give me strength, she thought as she circled the cold cup with her fingertips.

What could she say to a stranger who probably knew little about ranching, even if he’d spent time in Texas? How could he—a wealthy, sophisticated man, who lived in London—possibly appreciate the calamity the worst drought in decades had wrought on her ranch and horse farm? How could a bachelor sympathize when she told him she’d been distracted and unfocused after her husband’s death, when she’d had her grief, his work and hers and her son to take care of? How could a billionaire understand the effect of an entire country mired in recession? Everybody wanted to sell their horses, not buy hers. Her income had diminished while her expenses had continued to mount. Business was picking up. But not quickly enough.

Swigging back the last of her cold coffee, she tried not to think about being the second Cooper to lose the ranch despite all her sacrifices to save it. The biggest sacrifice being her marriage to Robert, when she’d found herself pregnant and alone nearly six years ago. Not wanting to remember what had led to her wedding day, she fled to the stalls to feed her beloved horses.

Sensing her anxiety from the rapid ring of her boot heels on the concrete floor of the barn, Angel and the other horses swung their necks around and watched her with their concerned brown eyes. Their tails lifted and swished expectantly while the barn cats swirled at her feet.

Odd, the profound comfort she always felt when alone in the barn with these huge animals. Their soulful silence as she stroked them brought her peace during times of stress.

Angel nuzzled Caitlyn’s hand with her whiskery muzzle, searching for a treat. “Robert was a bad manager,” Caitlyn whispered to the horse, “and I’m no better. I spend too much money on all of you, my precious darlings.” Angel nickered softly as if she understood. “I need a miracle, and soon.” Angel snorted.

“Well, it’s possible! Hassan says his son is a billionaire, that there’s nothing he can’t fix. Raffi made his fortune in a mere five years, you see, by buying distressed companies.”

Perhaps she could convince him that a distressed ranch wasn’t that different from a company in trouble. She felt a faint twinge of hope as she remembered what Hassan had said when he’d shamelessly bragged about his son.

In a recent phone conversation, when she’d complained of her escalating expenses, Hassan had told her she was a woman of talent who shouldn’t have to worry about money.

“I will send my son to devise a plan to put you on sound footing. He will know just what to do once he takes a look at your operation. He is a brilliant businessman.”

She’d been scheduled to meet this brilliant businessman six months ago, when the sheik had flown her to Deauville to work with Sahara. Hassan had told her that Raffi would dine with them, but his son had been unexpectedly called away on business.

To prepare for their meeting today, she’d researched Raffi, but there hadn’t been many articles about him or a single good photograph. Most of the stories rehashed the event that had brought Hassan and Raffi together, a tale she’d heard from Hassan.

Five years earlier, after Raffi had single-handedly confronted three terrorists to rescue Kalil, Hassan had hired him. Raffi advanced rapidly and, with the sheik’s money behind him, had soon branched out on his own. The sheik had sealed their bond by making Raffi his honorary son. During their shared dinner in Deauville, Hassan had confided that he would like to see Raffi settle down and raise a family.

From what she’d gleaned on the internet about the younger Mr. Bin Najjar’s private life, he went through women the way some men ran through cigars. But a woman like her—a horse trainer who wore old jeans and rarely bothered with makeup—wouldn’t interest him.

“What do you think, Angel? Should I go the extra mile and put on lipstick?”

Angel whinnied enthusiastically, probably because Caitlyn was holding a carrot.

“Lipstick it is, then. Maybe Mr. Raffi Bin Najjar will give us our very own miracle.”

As Caitlyn stroked the mare, she relaxed.

Only later would she wonder why she hadn’t had the slightest premonition that Raffi Bin Najjar was no stranger to Wild Horse Ranch—or to her.

By the afternoon, Caitlyn had forgotten all about the need for lipstick. All it had taken for her day to spin hopelessly out of control was one phone call.