The Rancher's Fake Girlfriend - Leslie North
If the scowl on his face didn’t tell the world he was in a crappy mood, the slamming door definitely did.
“Morning, Chad!” His sister-in-law Noelle smiled at him from behind the counter at Magpie Bakery as she filled a display tray with cranberry scones. When she looked up and saw his expression, she froze. “What’s wrong?”
The advantage of coming to the bakery was that Noelle was the best damn baker he’d ever met, and she gave Chad the family discount. The disadvantage was that she was also nosy as hell, and now that she was married to Jett—his bossy oldest brother who still treated Chad like he was a twelve-year-old in need of constant supervision—she’d started thinking she was justified in prying into Chad’s business.
He shrugged and threw himself into a chair in the back corner of the cheerful bakery. “Nothing.” He wrenched his hat off and tossed it on the table.
“You’ve never been a good liar,” she said, wiping her hands on the front of her apron. “The usual?”
Chad hunched over the table as the sound of the cattlemen’s laughter reverberated in his head. He shut his eyes and tried the deep breathing technique Shane had taught him, the one his former rodeo star brother used to use to calm himself before a tough ride.
He still wanted to flip a few tables.
“Here,” Noelle said, placing a cup of black coffee and a cinnamon sugar morning roll in front of him. “I warmed it up, just how you like it.”
“Thanks.” He gulped the coffee then ripped off a piece of bun like he was angry at it.
Noelle pulled out the chair next to Chad and sat down, concern etched on her usually smiling face. “Hey.” She reached out and placed her hand on top of his. “What’s going on with you?”
Chad was about to give her another evasive non-answer when someone swept out from the back room. Noelle’s new employee. Both Noelle and Jett had mentioned her in passing, but Chad hadn’t had the chance to meet her. He usually only came into town from the ranch once a week or so, and while he always stopped in at the bakery, she was normally doing hands-on work in the kitchen whenever he was there. So he’d seen her, but never spoken to her before. He kept forgetting her name, but there was no way he could forget her face—or the rest of her. She had the irresistible combination of dark hair, wide green eyes, and an ass that made him want to thank her momma. She was exactly the kind of girl he could usually win over with a smile and a few two-steps, then take her home for some dancing between the sheets.
Noelle squeezed his hand. “Hey, did you hear me, or are you too busy drooling over Hannah?”
Hannah. He wouldn’t forget her name again. But once he dragged his eyes away from her, his current problems crashed over him again.
He scowled and considered putting Noelle off again … but he knew that she’d get it out of him eventually. And the cinnamon sugar morning roll was pretty amazing. Maybe he should make her happy and tell her what was going on. “I just left the Cattlemen’s Association meeting. Turns out Ralph Evans is retiring after fifteen years, and they’re going to be electing a chairman in a month. And I want a shot at it.”
“That’s a great idea! You’ve worked at so many ranches, and you’ve got a different perspective than all those old-timers who’ve only ever worked their own ranches.”
“Exactly!” He slammed his hands on the table. “That’s what I think! I’ve done time on ranches from Oregon to Virginia and everywhere in between. I’ve basically got a traveling cattleman’s degree, and they’ve been doing the same thing the same way forever.”
“You’re right.” Noelle nodded supportively. “And Radford Ranch shouldn’t be the only property that benefits from everything you’ve learned.”
“I know,” he said as he ripped another hunk off the morning roll. “But when I said I wanted to run, they laughed.” He chewed faster, washing the bite down with a sip of coffee, trying—and failing—to swallow some of the bitterness he felt, too. “They thought I was kidding.”
“But why …”
“Hank Greeley pulled me aside in the parking lot after the meeting ended. We’ve always had an understanding, me and Hank. He told me that the board members know that I have strong ideas, but they don’t see me in a leadership position.” The roll was