As the CEO of Brooks International, Ryan Brooks has money, power and a sought-after family name. But here on his sister's ranch in Claremont, Alabama, the billionaire only wants to be loved for who he really is. So when small-town shop owner Maribeth Walton ignores him and his valuable business advice, he's determined to figure out why. Problem is, Maribeth knows he's not sticking around and she won't let him get close. Or could it be she's keeping a secretone that may hold the key to why she's so reluctant to admit she's falling for the billionaire?
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Uncle Ryan, are you gonna watch me help the kids at the church camp today? I get to do all the activities and stuff with them, but I'm an instructor, too. See?" Abi, Landon and Georgiana Cutter's eight-year-old daughter, pointed to the sheriff's badge on her pink T-shirt. Sure enough, Instructor was printed across the middle.
Ryan Brooks still couldn't get used to the whole uncle thing. Technically, he wasn't her uncle. Landon was John Cutter's brother, and Ryan's sister Dana was married to John. That definitely made Dana Abi's aunt, but how Ryan got roped into this uncle business was beyond him. However, things worked differently in the South than in his Chicago world, and since the church camp occurred on his sister's ranch, where he was stuck for the time being, he might as well get used to "Uncle Ryan."
"I do see," he said. "What exactly are you instructing them to do?"
Her pigtails bobbed as she shook her head and gave him a little eye roll, strawberry lashes hitting her brows with the maneuver. "Riding, silly. How to put the saddle on, and why to wear a helmet and how to be safe." She glanced at Ryan's cast-bound leg. "And how not to fall off."
"Thaaanks," he said. The cast, or rather, the blown knee in it, was the entire reason he remained in Alabama instead of returning to Chicago and Brooks International. He'd let Dana talk him into running his business remotely while he went through rehab here for what the doctors called the unhappy triad: a torn ACL, PCL and medial meniscus. Or, in layman's terms, a blown left knee.
If Ryan didn't know any better, though, he'd say his sister was glad her new black stallion had tossed Ryan two weeks ago and equally glad that his therapy would take another month.
Abi, missing the sarcasm, sent a spray of freckles dancing with her smile. "You're welcome!" She'd spent the past fifteen minutes gathering red and pink azalea blooms from the bushes that lined John and Dana's porch, and she now clutched the bright blossoms in her hand like a wedding bouquet.
"I'm sure your mama will like those flowers," Ryan said.
"Oh, I took Mama and Aunt Dana some already. These are for Miss Maribeth. She's at the barn with Aunt Dana."
Maribeth. The unique name sparked the memory of the equally unique woman. He'd only met her once, with a brief introduction at John and Dana's wedding, but he remembered her vividly. Dark brown, nearly black hair reaching her waist. Olive skin and exotic eyes. A full mouth. Stunning. The word invaded his thoughts and remained there.
"You going back inside to work?" Abi asked, pulling his thoughts from the memory and reminding Ryan that the majority of his time since his injury had been spent either at rehab or in John and Dana's cabin. He was so ready to get back to living again, back to Chicago. But first he wanted to see if his memory had embellished the beauty of the woman with the unique name.
"No, I think I'll go out to the barn," he said.
"You want to go with me?" she asked, and Ryan noticed her frown slightly at the crutches propped against the porch railing.
"No, it'll take me a little while. You go on ahead."
"Okay," she said, unable to hide her excitement as she darted away.
Maneuvering on crutches from the house to the barn wasn't easy; the soft earth gave with every step, and Ryan had to concentrate more on his pace than on his goal. Halfway there, he met Abi, running from the barn toward her house, the other large log cabin on the Cutter ranch.
"Miss Maribeth loved the flowers!" she yelled, and continued her sprint without waiting for a response from Ryan.
He continued his trek toward the barn and wondered if it was actually as hot outside as it seemed. True, the first week of June would be naturally warm, but he attributed the heat he experienced to the workout from using the crutches in the soft farm dirt. Sweat beads pushed free from his temples the way they normally did when he worked out in the gym. And he was barely moving.
For a moment, he considered turning around, heading back to John and Dana's cabin and forgoing this bizarre curiosity toward his sister's friend. But then he got close enough to see around the barn's edge, and the vision nearly stopped him in his tracks.
Maribeth Walton stood beside Dana holding Abi's bouquet of flowers. Her inky hair caught the sun and shone brilliantly as it billowed against her back. Ryan would be lying if he said his interest hadn't gotten the best of him when Dana mentioned that Maribeth would be one of the counselors for the church youth retreats at the ranch this month. Their chance encounter at John and Dana's wedding had haunted him ever since. She'd appeared immune to the typical effect Ryan had on women, a fact that both irritated and intrigued him.
Unfortunately, he'd had the feeling once before, the first time he saw Nannette Kelly. Ryan set his jaw and reminded himself how that had turned out. But in spite of the memory of how his last infatuationokay, lovehad ended, he couldn't stop his progress toward the barn. Dana had already looked his way, and her visitor followed suit. Couldn't very well turn around and hobble back to the house now.
Hobble. How embarrassing. If he were a normal guy, Maribeth Walton wouldn't look at him twice, with his cast-covered leg and unshaven face. He couldn't recall whether he'd combed his hair.
But he wasn't a normal guy. In his world, how he looked or acted didn't matter. Nannette had shown him that females weren't interested in him; they only wanted what he could give them. Money. Power. The Brooks name.
Ryan shouldn't be concerned about whether or not he impressed Maribeth Walton. But even so, he couldn't take his eyes away from her as he neared the two women.
Today her hair fell freely, wildly, and she pushed the dark locks from her face as she tossed her head back and laughed at something Dana said. At the wedding, that thick mane had been braided and contained, a yellow satin ribbon woven within the dark locks. Ryan wasn't certain why he remembered the fact about the ribbon, particularly the color. He never paid attention to details. Those items didn't matter in the entire scheme of things.
"Note what's importantflush everything else. Don't waste precious brain cells on the negligible." One of his father's more notable spoutings of wisdom and typically a rule Ryan lived by.
So why did he remember her hair, or the ribbon? Or the fact that she'd smelled like cinnamon and apples? Or that she'd been dressed as if she was ready for a Parisian runway? She'd worn a flowing bright blue dress with silver accents and stylish, crazy high heels. Sure, everyone in town had dressed up for the occasion, but there was something different about Maribeth that set her apart from the rest. And at the reception, in spite of his past history with Nannette, Ryan had sought the lady out for conversation.
She'd coolly said hello and then left him to talk to someone else.
Today, in a bright yellow blouse, hot pink skirt and snazzy boots, she again stood out from the rural surroundings. Maribeth, this country girl in north Alabama, happened to be the only woman since Nannette who had caught his interest for more than a passing glance and the only one who didn't care whether he looked her way or not.
"Hey, Ryan, how was your rehab this morning?" Dana asked as soon as he was within earshot.
"It went okay," he said. John had taken Ryan to his therapy sessions since Dana's morning sickness got the best of her again. In her third month of pregnancy, she still had a tough go several mornings a week and hadn't ventured out of her bedroom before John and Ryan had left. Ryan hated being dependent on them to drive him around, but there was no way he could drive in this cast.
Then again, back in Chicago he had a driver to take him where he needed to go. But this felt different, having to rely on his family to help him out. He didn't mind paying employees for the task, but having people simply help him out of the goodness of their hearts wasn't something he was used to. Or something he wanted to get used to. He needed to leave Alabama. The sooner the better.
"You've met Maribeth, haven't you?" Dana continued, tilting her head toward the petite woman who looked even prettier close up.
Almond-shaped chocolate eyes locked with his, and a light breeze carried that scent of apples and cinnamon he remembered. She quickly glanced toward the horses grazing nearby. Normally when people met the CEO of Brooks International, they treated him with the same regard Ryan's father had always received when he led the Fortune 500 company. They stared or gawked or whipped out a phone and snapped a picture. The paparazzi typically followed Ryan around to snag photos of him at events, so he was used to the natural response.
But he wasn't used to this.
He cleared his throat. "Yes, we met at your wedding," he answered, giving his voice the tone he carried at a press conference or board meeting. One of power and authority. Confidence.
"Your speech will let them know you are in control. Always maintain control," Lawrence Brooks would say.
But Ryan's control slipped a fraction when the gorgeous lady turned her attention back to him, tilted her head and asked, "We met?"
Maribeth saw the flash in the rich guy's eyes when she didn't acknowledge their first encounter at the wedding. And when Dana's laughter filled the air, she had to bite her inner cheek to keep from laughing, too. Undoubtedly, Ryan Brooks felt he was worth remembering. She knew the type, despised the type, and was ready for this conversation to be over so she could prepare to welcome the kids to camp.
"Wow, Ryan, you must have really made an impression," Dana said, attempting to smother her giggles with her hand.
"Obviously." He studied Maribeth as if she'd sprouted another head, and again, she looked away. Easier than staring at the beautiful male and giving away the fact that he made her knees a bit weak. It bothered her more than she cared to admit that she noticed the way his beard shadow highlighted the strong line of his jaw, or how his sandy hair complimented the blue in his eyes, like sand meeting the sea. Or that he was taller than she remembered, several inches taller. And that his shoulders were broader than she recalled.
Had she really noticed all of that in her brief glance?
She swallowed. Who was she kidding? Practically every woman in the U.S. had seen the magazine covers featuring America's most eligible bachelor billionaire. He was a modern JFK Jr., with the looks and the money that went along with the title, exactly the kind of guy Maribeth would have given everything tohad given everything toseven years ago.
Not again. Never again.
She'd moved to Claremont to get away from the possibility of falling for another guy like Ryan Brooks. What were the chances of running into a wealthy man who'd sweep her off her feet and smash her heart in this tiny town?
Pretty good, when you considered the fact that Dana Brooks had become Dana Cutter and had also become one of Maribeth's dearest friends. Naturally, her brother would visit.
But that didn't mean Maribeth had to be overly friendly to the guy.
As it was, though, she wasn't even being nice. Not very Christian, in the whole scheme of things.
Help me, God. This is my weakness, guys like him, and for some reason, You 're putting me face-to-face with it, with him. And Ryan Brooks? He 'd be number one on the list of way too handsome and way too rich for his own good. Definitely for my own good. Are you trying to teach me to be strong, Lord?
Maribeth remembered the Bible verse from First Corinthians that Brother Henry had discussed in yesterday's sermon. The one that said God will not let you be tempted more than you can bear.
Okay, God. I can be nice.
She forced a tiny smile. "I think I do remember meeting you at the wedding." When she saw the curve of a grin tease the edge of his beautiful mouth, she added, "I believe you wore a navy suit." Maribeth knew for certain that he'd worn a gray Brioni Vanquish valued at the same price as a modest Claremont home. She actually had a photo of Ryan Brooks wearing a similar suit on the wall at her store, and she chastised herself for the lie. She'd just promised God she'd be nice! Forgive me, Lord.
What made her want to goad this guy?
Any impression of a smile disappeared. "I don't think so," he said, studying her as though he knew she remembered the exact color of suit he wore to the event. And the fact that it fit him perfectly, the same way she tried to fit her customers when they visited her consignment store.
"Oh, Maribeth," Dana said, still smiling from her laugh, "his suit was gray. I asked Ryan to wear gray, since that's what color John and Landon wore. Remember? You helped me pick out all of the colors for the wedding."
Maribeth nodded. "Yes, that's right. I do remember now." She picked at a loose string at the end of her sleeve to keep from looking at the guy. Then she heard the blessed sound of crunching gravel and turned her attention to the driveway, where an older-model silver BMW made its way toward the barn. "Oh, there's Jessica Martin. She said she'd be bringing Nathan and Lainey a little early. I'll go make sure all of their paperwork is done." She turned and started walking away from Dana and her way-too-attractive brother.
"Good to see you again, Maribeth."
She could keep walking and pretend she didn't hear him, but she was less than six feet away. So she pivoted, forced another smile and then, unfortunately, emitted another lie. "You, too."
Please, God, forgive me again. And if it be Your will, send him back to his home and away from mine.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I always enjoy "visiting" Claremont. And I really enjoyed getting to know Maribeth and Ryan. They were both badly hurt by people they loved and trusted. And as a result, they find it very difficult to trust others. Maribeth especially has good reason not to trust men. She has a deeply buried secretthat she fears ever coming to light, because it wad extremely humiliating and received a great deal of media attention at the time. She is afraid of what people will think of her if they learn the truth out her past. It is a good reminder that people can change a great deal over the years so we shouldn't judge someone based on what we once knew about them long ago, especially when we have worked hard to overcomr our pasts, with God's grace. Anyhow, great story. Wonderful message.