One Good Cowboy

By: Catherine Mann

One

“Gentlemen, never forget the importance of protecting your family jewels.”

Unfazed by his grandmother’s outrageous comment, Stone McNair ducked low as his horse sailed under a branch and over a creek. Gran prided herself on being the unconventional matriarch of a major jewelry design empire, and her mocking jab carried on the wind as Stone raced with his cousin.

Alex pulled up alongside him, neck and neck with Stone’s quarter horse. Hooves chewed at the earth, deftly dodging the roots of a cypress tree, spewing turf into the creek.

Even as he raced, Stone soaked in the scents and sounds of home—the squeak of the saddle, the whistle of the wind through the pines. Churned earth and bluebonnets waving in the wind released a fragrance every bit as intoxicating as the first whiff of a freshly opened bottle of Glenfiddich whiskey.

This corner of land outside of Fort Worth, Texas, had belonged to the McNairs for generations, their homestead as they built a business empire. His blood hummed when he rode the ranch. Ownership had branded itself into his DNA as tangibly as the symbol of the Hidden Gem Ranch that had been branded onto his quarter horse’s flank.

Outings on the ranch with his grandmother and his twin cousins were few and far between these days, given their hectic work schedules. He wasn’t sure why Gran had called this little reunion   and impromptu race, but it had to be something important for her to resort to pulling them all away from the McNair Empire.

His other cousin, Amie, galloped alongside Stone, her laughter full and uninhibited. “How’re the family jewels holding up?”

Without waiting for an answer, Amie urged her Arabian ahead, her McNair-black hair trailing behind her just like when she’d been ten instead of thirty. Rides with their grandmother had been a regular occurrence when they were children, then less and less frequent as they grew older and went their separate ways. None of them had hesitated when the family matriarch insisted on an impromptu gathering. Stone owed his grandmother. She’d been his safe haven every time his druggy mother went on a binge or checked into rehab.

Again.

Damn straight, he owed his grandmother a debt he couldn’t repay. She’d been there from day one, an aggressive advocate in getting the best care possible to detox her crack baby grandson. Gran had paid for her daughter to enter detox programs again and again with little success. Year after year, Gran had been as constant as the land they called home—for his cousins, too.

And she’d given each one of them a role to play. Alex managed the family lands—Hidden Gem Ranch, which operated as a bed-and-breakfast hobby ranch for the rich and famous. Stone managed the family jewelry design house and stores. Diamonds in the Rough featured high-end rustic designs, from rodeo belt buckles and stylized bolos to Aztec jewelry, all highly sought after around the country. If everything went according to plan, he intended to expand Diamonds in the Rough with international offices in London and Milan, making the big announcement at a wild mustang fund-raiser this fall. And Amie—a gemologist—was already working on designs for new pieces to meet the expected increase in demand.

Yes, the world was finally coming back together for him. After his broken engagement knocked him for a loop seven months ago...

But he didn’t want to think about Johanna. Not today. Not ever, if he could avoid it. Although that was tough to accomplish, since Johanna worked for Hidden Gem Stables as a vet tech. He’d missed her this morning when they’d saddled up. Would he bump into her after his ride?

The possibility filled him with frustration—and an unwanted boot in the libido.

Gran slowed her favorite palomino, Goldie, to a trot near the pond where they’d played as kids. Apparently race time was over. Maybe now she would explain the reason for this surprise get-together.

Stone stroked along Copper’s neck as the horse dipped his head to drink. “So, Gran, care to enlighten us on the reason for this family meeting?”

His cousins drew up along either side of her.

She shifted in the saddle, her head regal with a long gray braid trailing down her stiff spine. “The time has come for me to decide who will take over the reins of the McNair holdings.”

Stone’s grip tightened on the pommel. “You’re not actually considering retiring.”

“No, dear...” Gran paused, drawing in a shaky breath at odds with her usual steel. “The doctor has told me it’s time to get my affairs in order.”

Her words knocked the wind out of him as fully as the first time he’d been thrown from a horse. He couldn’t envision a world without the indomitable Mariah McNair.