|Cover Art by Meredith Russell|
Riley Hayes, the playboy of the Hayes family, is a young man who seems to have it all: money, a career he loves, and his pick of beautiful women. His father, CEO of HayesOil, passes control of the corporation to his two sons; but a stipulation is attached to Riley's portion. Concerned about Riley's lack of maturity, his father requires that Riley 'marry and stay married for one year to someone he loves'.
Angered by the requirement, Riley seeks a means of father's stipulation. Blackmailing Jack Campbell into marrying him "for love" suits Riley's purpose. There is no mention in his father's documents that the marriage had to be with a woman and Jack Campbell is the son of Riley Senior's arch rival. Win win.
Riley marries Jack and abruptly his entire world is turned inside out. Riley hadn't counted on the fact that Jack Campbell, quiet and unassuming rancher, is a force of nature in his own right.
This is a story of murder, deceit, the struggle for power, lust and love, the sprawling life of a rancher and the whirlwind existence of a playboy. But under and through it all, as Riley learns over the months, this is a tale about family and everything that that word means.
Book 1 - The Heart of Texas
Book 2 - Texas Winter
Book 3 - Texas Heat
Book 4 - Texas Family
Book 5 - Texas Christmas
Book 6 - Texas Fall
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On the list of reader's gay favourites 2012, on Jessewave's review site.
The Heart Of Texas receives 4.75/5 from Book Wenches - For its page-turning and affective drama, multidimensional characters, and well-crafted storyline, The Heart of Texas earns my recommendation as a good read. If you’re a fan of soap operas or dramas along the scope of Dallas and Dynasty, you’ll want to pick this one up for sure. If you’re not an aficionado of such programming (like me), give it a shot anyway. I think you’ll find it to be a welcome surprise.
Talking Reviews - "....The book is skilfully written and thoroughly addictive. There is a certain joy from sitting to read such stories when there are so many books out there where, at the end, one can’t help but roll their eyes at the drivel that some poor publisher decided to print...." --- "....The story is a great addition to Scott’s list of titles and worth the money spent to purchase it...."
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A 5/5 from Examiner.com - "....The characters are incredible. RJ Scott does an amazing job of making you love the compassionate characters and hate the downright dirty stinking evil characters. I was very impressed that RJ Scott, being a woman, was able to write from a homosexual male perspective and make it so believable. Truly a very well written and plotted out story.
There is not a single dull moment in this book and in the conflict resolution as well as character development throughout the plot is impeccable. The scenery makes you feel like you are (no pun intended) in the heart of Texas and each chapter makes you want to delve deeper and deeper into the lives and of Hayeses and Campbells.This is truly one of the best constructed stories that I have had the pleasure to read and I highly recommend it...."
Crystals Many Reviewers - 5/5 - "....The Heart of Texas gave me everything I love in a book – drama, suspense, secrets, lies, betrayal, murder, romance, love, really hot m/m sex, cowboys, and there was even a barroom brawl. I laughed. I cried. I smiled like a loon. I was so swept up into Riley and Jack’s story that I read into the wee hours of the morning, only stopping when my eyes refused to stay open any longer and picking it back up as soon as I could today – which was not quick enough for me. There are so many layers to the story that I am afraid to talk specific details for fear of revealing spoilers...."
Jeff was the mirror of his father, six-five, strong, not averse to getting his own way through means others might consider somewhat underhanded or devious. He'd achieved good things for Hayes Oil, very good things. Under his control, the company had grown in strength due to some well placed deals and some serious, if somewhat questionable, pay-offs to just the right people.
It was how Hayes Oil had gotten where it was today; the second largest oil company in Dallas, billions passing through their coffers on an annual basis, with a staff of over seven hundred in the head office alone. Jeff was a chip off the old block; he knew when to deal, and when to back off, when to buy off. It was a joy for an old man to watch. Jeff was sitting in his chair, his back straight. He was calm, with a virtually inexpressive demeanor, and his eyes were like chips of ice. He was dressed in dark gray Armani, perfectly groomed, his shirt crisp and white, and his tie a deep maroon. His hands were placed on the material of his pants, his nails perfectly manicured. He had an air of expectancy layered about him in palpable waves. Gerald couldn't have been prouder of his eldest son. Jeff was the right choice to form part of the new era of Hayes Oil, his student, and his success.
Riley, his middle child, only an inch shorter than Jeff and nearly as cold, was sitting just as calmly. Nearly. He too was wearing Armani, this time a charcoal black with a black silk shirt and no tie. He exuded the same confidence as his older brother, but with a subtle difference. He was an untamed version of his brother. His middle child had his mother's way about him and eenjoyed the money the Hayes family had, way more than was really necessary. But to give him his due, under his guidance, Research and Development had flourished, and Gerald was as watchful of Riley as he was of his oldest— but for very different reasons.
Riley made decisions driven by his heart, by immeasurable instinct, too many times to make Gerald entirely happy with leaving Hayes Oil under his control for any length of time. Still, Riley deserved a place at Hayes Oil; after all, he supposed, whatever his thoughts, and whatever decisions were made, it was his legacy too.
Riley looked tired today, and Gerald glanced down at the Dallas Morning News on his desk, knowing what was on page seven, the gossip page, knowing what was in evidence before him, and knowing it made his decision easier.
"How is Lisa?" he asked Jeff conversationally, glancing over at the pictures grouped on one side of his desk— his family, Jeff with his arms around his perfect blonde wife, with his two grandchildren posed just so. It filled him with pride to see the Hayes Oil generations all set to carry on the Hayes name. He glanced at photos of his youngest, Eden, and at Riley, both in their photos alone, both for very different reasons.
Sighing, he unfolded his arms, wondering if what he was about to say would change the face of Hayes Oil forever.
* * * *
Jim Bailey was furious. He could only imagine what Riley was going through at this very minute, and he knew someone had to go and find him before the middle Hayes boy took a gun to his father's head. He had watched as Gerald and the favored son had left. The older man's arm was loose across Jeff's shoulders, their heads close in conversation, and it cut him to the core. It was Jim who had prepared the legal papers, Jim who had argued against the idiocy Hayes Senior was proposing. Someone had to be on Riley's side in this whole freaking mess, even if it meant this was the end of his tenure at Hayes Oil, and he knew where to find Riley. Taking the elevator, he left at the sixty-fifth floor, following the darkening corridor to the map room. It was the one place where Riley could always be found if the stress of his family got too much, sitting cross-legged on the floor poring over his beloved maps. He would spend hours with the geological surveys, the statistical results, his instinct for oil leading R&D to make decisions that had quadrupled Hayes Oil's output over the last two years. It astounded Jim that such a young man, only twenty-seven, had such an instinct. IIt reminded him of the old days, when Gerald and Alan would fly by the seat of their pants to locate new oil reserves based on nothing other than instinct.
Jim hesitated outside the door, steeling himself for what he would find within. Riley was rightly going to be furious with him for withholding the legal changes at Hayes Oil from him. He considered Jim a friend and, as such, probably had the right to expect more. Breathing deeply, he pushed open the door to find the large room echoing and in darkness, the only light from the closing Texas evening and the growing glow of the city outside. It wasn't difficult to locate Riley. Jim could almost touch the anger radiating from the tall man standing at the window silhouetted in the increasing gloom. Jim said nothing, just closing the door behind him and leaning against it. He loosened his tie and focused hard on the dark form. Riley was locked into silent stillness, looking out through the glass.
"Twenty-two percent," Riley finally said, his words clipped and tense. Jim could see himself reflected in that same glass, hesitating, lost, just waiting for the explosion. Jim had known. He had known as soon as the figures hit the desk. For fuck's sake, he was the company's lawyer. He was the one to write up the contracts for handover, the one who'd known the full details for three days longer than Riley.
His anger at what Gerald had forced him to do was manifesting itself as guilt. God knows he had wanted to say something. Every time he looked at the young man who worked so damn hard for this company, he had wanted to tell Riley what Gerald was planning. Never the right moment, never the right reason, and now… now he was paying for the betrayal. "Riley?"
Temper snapped and spat from Riley. "Fucking less than a third, the same as my sister!" He started pacing, gesturing with his hands, frustration in every exaggerated movement. Jim grimaced, because he knew that the percentage Eden got wasn't the point of Riley's temper. Riley was close to his sister, loved her and her shopping ways, and didn't begrudge his Paris Hilton wannabe sibling anything. No, the point was that it hadn't been fair at all. His brother, his acknowledged bastard of a Stepford brother, had just been handed forty-eight percent of Hayes Oil, and effective control of the company.
In a flurry of sudden but controlled movement, Riley spun on his heel, throwing whatever was in his hand across the room, missing Jim by inches. It was a map-reader, fifty thousand dollars of technology smashed into fractured pieces against the glass wall, and then it began. The words that Jim had been expecting.
"He sat there, in his fucking throne room, and he took everything away from me and gave it all to Jeff!" The temper in him was high and rare, and Jim flinched as Riley stalked around the tables that separated them with no direction other than just to walk. "And do you know why?" He stopped, grabbed at the newspapers that were lying in a tangled mess on the final map table by the door, and in one motion, Riley swept everything other than one sheet to the floor. He jabbed at the picture that had been snapped the night before, Riley and Steve at a club, arms around each other, Steve with his usual wide smile, Riley looking somewhat worse for wear from his brush with Jack Daniels and José Cuervo. "This."
It was the usual blurred image from the paparazzi who followed Riley, the playboy prince with a bottomless pit of money, everywhere he went. He shook his head. Now he was really confused and couldn't understand what Riley was getting at. Gerald had explained very clearly that his eldest son was the best for the company, the one switched on to commerce, the one with the business brain. He hadn't listened when Jim had pointed out the amazing upturn in R&D, the increase in oil locations, the way Riley was so committed to Hayes Oil. He had just shaken his head as if he couldn't believe, or didn't want to believe. "The photo?" Jim wasn't stupid; the picture didn't exactly show Riley in his best light. There was the blur of his smile and an unwarranted amount of skin on display as he tumbled half in and half out of the cab, stopping obviously to pose with his best friend.
"He said," Riley paused, a sneer on his face, "that the friendship I have with Steve is unhealthy— unhealthy, shit. He was concerned by Steve's association with Campbell!" The name Campbell came out on a spit and a sneer, the perfect take-off of how Gerald Hayes would have said it, how Jim knew he would have said it. "Oh, and also, because I haven't got myself a brood mare like my oh so fucking perfect brother, then of course I must be confused about my sexuality."
Jim winced, both at the description of Jeff's wife as a brood mare, and at the whole confusion statement. Steve Murray, Riley's best friend since college, was openly bisexual, but Riley, despite having a history of mixing it up with men as well as women, was a lot less defined by a label. He had a different woman every night, younger, older, richer, poorer, it didn't matter, and neither did the boys he did on rarer occasions in the bathrooms of wherever they were. However it panned out, Riley always had tail.
"Said I should look at him and Mom." Again came the sneer, and Jim saw how the temper twisted his normally calm face. "Fuck. Like my mom had the perfect husband in my dad, like Jeff had the perfect fucking marriage with Lisa and her drinking." His voice trailed off, the venom in it spitting and harsh as he dismissed the marriages of his closest family as society based, financially arranged facades.
"Riley," Jim started, thinking maybe a time-out here, some down time, might be good.
"No, Jim. No," Riley interrupted, his hands clenched in fists. "Know what he said?" Riley stopped. Of course Jim knew what Hayes Senior had said. After all, it would have been Jim who had written the damn contract. Riley bowed his head, his face revealing disappointment at his friend's betrayal. Jim prayed that Riley could see that Gerald had forced him into this position. "He said it would be okay if I just got myself married in the next three months—if I found myself some stable brood mare time, and stayed married for a year. Then he would hand over more of Hayes Oil. Not based on the work I do, or the fact that, without me, Hayes Oil would have been landless for the next eighteen months, but based on a marriage. I mean, what the fuck, Jim? This is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth."
"I know," Jim said simply, holding his hands up in his defense. "I tried, Riley, I tried to get him to see sense. I'm so sorry." He knew his voice sounded exhausted, sad. All the emotions that were trapped inside at what he'd had to do came swimming to the surface, puncturing the civility he had to show to the world whenever he was at the office. It was almost as if his words pushed through Riley's temper as suddenly and as finally as the thrust of a knife, and Riley visibly deflated in front of him. His head was bowed, his short blond hair disheveled. He looked calmer, but Jim knew this man well; his temper was clearly just below the surface.
"How do I do this, Jim? How do I fucking show the bastard that he can't win, that he can't push me to marry just to get what was rightfully mine anyway?" He looked up at him, the dim light from outside the window casting shadows across high cheekbones and green-hazel eyes. His lower lip was caught in his teeth, and the pain on his face was something Jim had never seen before. "I work fucking hard for this company. What more can I do?"
"So we find someone for you to marry, Riley, some quiet Texan debutante who will agree to a pre-nup, yeah? Someone who ticks the boxes, and then after this prescribed year is up, you can quietly divorce."
Jim could see that Riley wanted to say he couldn't do that, wanted to say that no woman in her right mind would agree to this, but they both knew it would be easy to find a bride. Both knew that the chance of marrying Riley Hayes was going to bring everyone out of the woodwork, fairly begging for the chance.
"I can't do that," Riley said simply. "I won't give Dad the satisfaction of winning like this."
Jim sighed. "So you let him win by not doing it, then. For him it's a win-win situation. Let's face it, you either let him win by doing something, or you let him win by doing nothing. Either way, Riley, you're fucked."
Steve climbed over Riley's long legs to settle himself in the corner. His face twisted in concern.. For yet another night, Riley had pushed it so far with the drinking that he was nearly unconscious. Riley had told him the whole sorry mess, even to the point that he knew his own very fluid sexuality had been brought into play, as well as his less than liked friendship with Elizabeth Campbell. He was sorry. He'd even said so to a clearly drunk-under-the-table Riley and gotten himself verbally bitch-slapped for it. Then he'd been hugged until he couldn't breathe, with undying promises of forever friendship carried on vapors of neat whisky into his ears. So here they were tonight. With just one more day added to the list of days where Riley didn't go to the monstrosity in the sky that was Hayes Oil. One more day where alcohol pushed him to unconsciousness in Steve's company. Steve had kind of reached the limit of how much more he could watch his best friend go through.
"I saw ya, in' parkin'," Riley mumbled, his eyes half closed with exhaustion and whisky, his hands gripping hard on Steve's arm. Steve blinked carefully, not sure where this was starting, but pretty sure it was going to end up with a pity party for one. "With tha' Campbell girl." Riley seemed proud of himself that he had managed to string those few words together and smiled. But the smile didn't reach his blurred and fatigued eyes.
"Beth is my friend," Steve said. It was the easiest way to defuse the comments Riley would start making about his dad and the Hayes-Campbell feud.
"Sheessa Campbell," Riley slurred, nodding to emphasize the words, spilling half his whisky over his jeans and downing the rest in one heated swallow. Steve sighed. So, this evening was going to be one of the Why does my family hate the Campbells? evenings. Instead he was surprised when Riley suddenly lifted his head, fire in his eyes. "Thas' it, I'll marry Beth Campbell." Steve's felt his stomach churn at the casually thrown out words. Riley and Beth?
"Riley, man, Beth just turned twenty."
Riley looked momentarily confused, blinking steadily. "I'll marry Josh 'en," he declared carefully.
"Josh is already married." Steve was seeing where this was going. That only really left—
"Jack," Riley muttered under his breath. "That'll fuck'em. He's gay. J-ack."
Steve carefully prised off Riley's fingers from his arm, opened his cell and called for a cab. When his friend started talking stupid like this, it really was time to get him home.
* * * *
Riley grimaced as Jim stared at him with a horrified expression on his face.
"Are you sure that's even legal?" his friend demanded.
"Isn't that your job to find out, Mr Legal Person?" Riley asked simply. "I looked on Wikipedia." Jim snorted, clearly offering his succinct opinion on Wikipedia as a resource. "You do the research then, but I did mine, and one thing I know is this, if you believe what is being said, then the Campbells are in deep shit since Alan died."
"Riley." Jim apparently wanted to stop this particular train of discussion. Riley wasn't going to let him.
"Jim, this could make it a win-win situation for me and for Campbell."
"You've been with Dad since before I was born. You gotta know all there is to know about the Campbells and this whole feud we got going on. Talk to me." It was a plea rather than an order, but Riley could still see Jim flinch. Placing his best and most earnest expression on his face, he added the one word guaranteed to get anyone to do his bidding. "Please?"
"Hell." Jim rubbed his hands over his face. "They had money to begin with. From the early oil days. Alan and your father made a pretty damn good team, back then. After the split… Well, Alan always had schemes and dreams and carried his family along from one money-making idea to another. Then there was the lawsuit with your dad— trying to prove he deserved part of Hayes Oil. Somehow, through a combination of gambling and shady deals, Alan Campbell managed to lose what was left after the lawyers had their cut. He liked to live fast and paid the price. You know the story. He died while the kids were still young. Drunken fool wrapped his car round a telegraph pole. Jack was just about finished with high school, Josh was away in Berkeley, studying law, and the little girl was in and out of the hospital, sick. She wasn't much more than kindergarten age I guess."
Jim walked to the window and stared out. Riley waited patiently, wondering if perhaps the other man wasn't seeing the towering office blocks of downtown Dallas, but a much older vista. "Beth had been born prematurely, a late baby. She had a congenital cardiovascular defect." He didn't need to tell Riley what the hospital bills would have been like once the insurances had played out. "It would have cost a fortune to get Josh into law school and keep him there. Alan didn't leave a will. Just debts a mile high. The ranch was mortgaged to the hilt— still is. So Donna carried on, selling off the best of the stock."
"Horses. She owns the Double D ranch. Inherited it from her daddy. That's where its name came from— Derek Campbell and his only kid, Donna. Derek had some of the best quarter horse brood mares in the state and had a fine young stallion at stud. He trained 'em as well. Prize winners. Cutting horses that could turn on a dime and stop dead. Could get you close enough to a steer to kiss it on the nose." He shook his head. "Donna sold them. That's what put Josh through college, and young Beth through her surgeries. But Jack has been building up the stock again. Last I heard he'd raised a pair of very good brood mares as well as some horses in training for other owners."
"How come they've still got the ranch?" Riley wondered aloud. A memory was stirring in the pain-ridden sludge that currently passed for his brain. He squinted, trying to concentrate on it. "I find it hard to believe that Alan didn't get to use it as surety against loans."
"Couldn't. If I remember rightly, all eight hundred acres of it were tied up in Donna. She'd taken out the mortgages, but Alan couldn't touch it. I guess Derek read his son-in-law right and made sure it was watertight fixed to his daughter and grandkids."
"Watertight. Yeah. That's what I need." A drunken conversation, whispered in confidence, and it could prove to be the lever he needed if Jack Campbell refused to play ball. His stomach churned uneasily. "Get me everything you can on the middle Campbell and the ranch. Then write up the marriage contract, and we'll call a meeting, get Campbell here to…" Riley's voice tailed off. He swallowed, standing to look out of his office window, his head thick with hangover, finding it hard to string sentences together with the whisky-scarred thunder in his head.
"To propose a same sex marriage that probably isn't even legal?" Jim offered helpfully. Riley grimaced. When Jim put it like that, it did sound kind of bad.
"Yeah," he said a little uncertainly, twisting one hand in another and then he dropped his hand and squared his shoulders, sudden steel where his spine had been.
"If your dad finds out I had anything to do with you and this stupid idea…" Jim winced as Riley stood tall and leaned down to his old friend.
"I will get my share, and I will fuck with my dad. I will get Jack Campbell in, and I will get him to agree to marry me."
Jack Campbell pushed his way through the revolving doors of the tower, the dust of Texas on worn jeans, a battered Stetson in his hand, and denim stretched tight across his shoulders. He paused on the threshold and scanned the foyer, stamping stable dirt off his boots onto the pristine carpet with calm deliberation and cast his eyes down the list of offices held in the tower. It wasn't difficult to spot Hayes Oil on the list, given that they covered floors forty-five to seventy-three. His walk to the elevator was blocked by a security guard who casually looked him up and down and then placed a strong hand on Jack's arm. Jack tensed. He'd been ready for confrontation, but had assumed he would at least make it to the sacred altar of Hayes Oil before he was turfed out.
"Sir? Can I ask you to book in at the front desk?" the guard said quietly, in a clearly non-confrontational I-do-this-all-day kind of way. Jack shrugged off the touch and turned on his heel, slapping his Stetson against his jeans and releasing a small cloud of dust into the rarefied air-conditioned coolness.
"I sure can," he drawled and strode towards the long front desk and the section marked with the Hayes Oil logo. The woman behind it was young, no more than twenty, and clearly a little shocked by the man standing before her. Jack imagined she was used to urban style; city suits, perfect hair, and clipped tones that bordered on rude. Not, for want of a better word, the dirty just-off-the-range Texas cowboy leaning down on her counter. He knew there was three days' worth of stubble on his face, and he was redolent with the smell of the outside. She traced his face with her gaze, and he smirked inwardly as she had to push her professionalism to the front to force out the standard words. He was used to shocking these city types on his rare visits to town. He made a damn fine cowboy, if he said so himself. It wasn't that he was bigheaded, but he knew he looked good, confident, and just a little on the rough side, a little bit dangerous.
"Welcome to Hayes Oil. How may I assist you?" she finally managed to say.
"I have a meetin', darlin'." He intentionally played up his Texas accent, his voice verging on a drawling growl and his g's getting lost in the translation.
"Can I ask your name?" she asked, her fingers flying over the thin keyboard.
"Campbell," he informed her, "Jack Campbell, C. A. M. P. B. E. L. L." She typed the letters in without hesitation, and Jack smiled wryly. She was apparently new to Hayes Oil if she hadn't been privy to the office gossip around the Campbell/Hayes state of affairs.
"That's fine, sir." She scanned and handed him a security badge with the Hayes Oil logo and a code. "If you take the elevator to the sixty-fourth floor, someone will be waiting for you, Mr Campbell."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said softly, clipping the security pass to his shirt, brushing at dirt he spotted on one cuff. He moved past the guard, nodding in polite acknowledgment and receiving a cautious nod in return. Waiting for the elevator, he wondered not for the first time what the hell had made him come here today. Jack Campbell knew he was the personification of a fish out of water and so did the guard.
The elevator arrived, pulling him from his introspection. Ever the southern gentleman, he moved to one side, letting other people in, before joining them inside and selecting his floor. The elevator was all glass and moved upward along an external wall. Uncomfortable with this, he moved to the middle of the small box. He had never really liked heights, and the single layer of glass between him and a fall to his certain death was enough to get him humming in his head to refocus himself. The haze of afternoon sun was glinting from mirrored glass everywhere, the rush of people a fluid river below. Jack was convinced this was some form of technological trauma on all who visited the tower, wearing visitors down until they broke. The girls who had gotten in the elevator with him were laughing and giggling behind him, talking in hushed whispers so as not to be heard. But he did catch the words cute and ass, and dirty cowboy, and assumed they were talking about him.
Jack smirked. Hayes was not going to be expecting a man hot from half a day's work, come straight to the city with the dirt of honest labor on his body and sweat dripping from every pore. There had been absolutely no way Jack was going to make a freakin' effort for any Hayes, much to his mother's disgust.
"You're as good as they are," she had said as he climbed into his battered Ford truck. "Going as you are, what are you trying to say?"
"That I work hard and I don't have time for their bullshit, Momma," he'd said tiredly, pulling her into a final hug as she tutted and fussed with his shirt, fastening more buttons and hiding his chest from view.
They had looked at the letter again this morning as he considered the final decision whether to go or not. It wasn't even direct from Hayes Oil, but was a private letter from a Jim Bailey, inviting him for a discussion with one Riley Hayes at 2 pm on the next Tuesday. Today. The letter had said they hoped he could make it, and that the reason for the meeting couldn't really be detailed in the letter. It was a sensitive subject and one that might well be to Jack Campbell's advantage.
"I don't like it." Donna had looked concerned when she read it. It was a perpetual expression on her face these days, and Jack hated that there was seemingly nothing he could do to help, or to make her life easier.
"I'm just going to see what shit they're trying to stir. I'll be there and back in an afternoon."
"Don't agree to anything. Don't sign anything."
"Momma, I'm not Dad."
They had no secrets, not a single one between Jack and his momma. Jack was more than aware of the kind of deals and plans his dad had made that had pulled the D lower and lower every week. Sunk into depression and drinking, Alan Campbell was far from ideal parenting material, and not very much of a husband. Jack was the unofficial man of the house from the minute Josh had left to go to the University of California's Berkeley School of Law. That didn't change when his father died or when Josh returned. Josh didn't stay long. He moved out to practice law in Fort Worth. Jack and Donna juggled the ranch, the only thing left to the Campbell family now, and that only because it had remained outside of his father's involvement altogether.
"You will never be like your dad."
His mom's words resonated in his head, and Jack held on to them as the elevator lights indicated each floor. The whispering girls got off on thirty-nine, Jack inclining his head politely as they left. This left him and a suited guy on his cell phone tapping furiously at tiny keys and muttering under his breath. Business guy got out at fifty-seven, which left Jack with, he guessed, thirty seconds to prepare himself for whatever was behind the doors when they opened on the floor he needed.
Casually he turned away from the glass and to the mirrored wall that was at the back. What he saw made him smile wryly again. He was the epitome of cowboy rancher, from the dirt under his nails to the Stetson that was worn for practicality and not for fashion, to the scruffy leather boots on his feet. He didn't know what Riley was expecting, didn't really know much about the middle Hayes at all.
"Riley is the middle child. I don't hear much in the way of bad things about him, but you got to know he's a Hayes."
"He's different than Jeff, but still—"
"Stop worrying, Momma. He's a kid with too much money and no sense to back it up. I can handle this."
Sure he could handle this, he thought wryly, and sighed as the elevator indicated his floor and he turned to face the front. He stood waiting for the doors to open, blinking at the man who stood on the other side of the glass door. He looked to be in his late forties, with a neat beard and a sharp, clearly expensive, pale gray suit. His hands were in his pockets and his face prepared with a practiced smile. The doors slid open, and he extended a hand to Jack in immediate welcome.
"Mr Campbell," he said politely as they exchanged a firm handshake. "Jim Bailey, personal lawyer for the Hayes family," the man continued, inclining his head for Jack to walk with him. "I guess you got my letter." It was a rhetorical question, and if he was expecting Jack to be so stupid enough to answer it, he was swinging in the breeze. "Mr Hayes is waiting for us in the map room," he finished carefully, stopping at the door marked with a simple room number and nothing else. He knocked, listened for the "Enter" and opened the door, standing aside to allow Jack to go in first.
It was brightly lit inside the room this Bailey guy called the map room, and Jack's first glance showed him charts adorning walls, large papers rolled in piles to one side and others spread out on tables alongside PCs. Each table was under-lit, for seeing small details on the topographical maps, Jack guessed. No sign of the elusive Riley, he thought as he scanned the room, then started as a face suddenly appeared from behind one of the map desks. Bizarrely, the man had been sitting on the floor hidden from view. Now, he unfolded long legs to stand tall in front of him.
"Campbell," Riley Hayes said simply, and he extended his hand in greeting. Not much Texan in that voice, it seemed.
Jack moved forward, cocking his hip against the table and leaning. "Hayes," he replied, his voice deliberately redolent of the south. He grasped the outstretched hand and shook it firmly.
"You got our letter." Riley released Jack's hand quickly and eased away.
"I got the letter from Mr Bailey," Jack agreed carefully, his eyes trailing across every inch of the man in front of him. It was the first time he'd met Riley. Their social circles were very different. Beth's friend, Steve, though, moved cheerfully between both. The Murray family had money and standing, and Steve had a lot to say about the older Hayes brother, none of it complimentary. Jeff, it seemed, loudly expressed the same hate for anyone with the Campbell surname as Hayes Senior did, and he wondered if Riley felt the same way.
"It was deliberately vague," Riley began, "because there is something, well, quite a few things, we need to discuss."
"I'll leave you both," Jim said abruptly and left. Jack had the feeling the man wasn't one hundred percent behind his boss on whatever this was. He was curious, but he was not going to show it.
"Is your daddy joining us?" he finally asked, cataloguing every expression that crossed Riley's face at his words. Disbelief? And was that anger? Interesting.
"What we talk about here has nothing to do with my father," Riley said firmly, and pressed his lips together in a determined line. One of his hands moved to touch his hair and then dropped. Jack followed the action, taking in the perfectly gelled spikes pushed back off a high forehead, the hand that hovered uncertainly and then dropped. It was telling to see an unconscious habit that maybe Riley was trying to contain, along with any hint of personality in his thousand dollar suit and his carefully knotted sapphire blue tie.
"So why am I here, Hayes?" Cut to the chase, always the best way.
"Riley. Please… call me Riley."
Jack narrowed his eyes. This was altogether far too friendly. No Hayes ever approached him, let alone asked him to call them by their first names.
"Jack," he finally offered, then followed Riley as he walked through a side door and into an office. There was no name on the door, but it was a plush, thickly carpeted corner space, shiny and wooden-smart, with a stunning view of the city.
"Coffee?" Riley offered, gesturing towards some kind of coffee machine that had possibly been made from bits of the space shuttle, going by all its gleaming silver shine.
Jack was not going to be pandered to. "Let's just get on with whatever Hayes scheme is gonna screw with the Campbells this time," he stated almost tiredly. He owed it to his family to find out what they wanted, but playing games was not on his list of priorities. Riley stood motionless by the desk, just stood there, his hands in his pockets, and Jack stared back, for the first time actually looking at his nemesis. Riley looked to be younger than him by three or four years, was maybe a couple of inches over six feet, definitely taller than Jack himself, who was just shy of an inch below six. The middle Hayes was very handsome in a smooth urbanite way with his tailored suit, silk tie, and clean-shaven face, and his complexion was the light tan of a man who was mostly indoors and only had the Texan sun on his face during weekends.
His eyes were a mix of autumn brown and green, and he was worrying his lower lip with his teeth, a sure sign of nerves if ever Jack had seen one. His blond hair was short and spiky, in a structured style. They hadn't talked before, never had occasion to, and despite often seeing Riley's photos in magazines and papers, Jack had never actually seen hazel eyes so clear or cheekbones so defined in a man. He was certainly easy on the eyes, Jack couldn't discount that, well-proportioned and almost poured into his dark suit, definitely someone who would catch his eye if he were out looking.
"Not wanting to screw with you, Jack, just want to talk," Riley finally said, sitting down on one of the sofas to the side and indicating Jack should join him. He took his time, sliding to sit across and almost opposite, hands and Stetson on his knees. "I know about the ranch," Riley started cautiously.
"The ranch?" Jack kept the tension out of his voice. He hadn't been expecting that to come up. He'd assumed it was some shit about his dad again. The ranch had been nothing to do with his dad. It was his mom's, his, no one was gonna mess with the ranch.
"I know you have financial difficulties there, that times have been kind of hard. The mortgage is a hell of a drain on your resources." Steel shot through Jack's spine, and he sat up from his relaxed slouch, suddenly and oh so very straight. "I want to offer you a way of getting out of that, of not losing the ranch," Riley finished, nodding, probably expecting Jack to say something positive back to him.
Jack blinked steadily. What the fuck?
"We are not for sale," he answered coolly. His heart was thumping in his chest, belying the calm on the surface.
"No, I'm not looking to buy the D," Riley reassured instantly. Jack frowned. That playboy Hayes even knew the name of his family's ranch was a shock. "I'm looking for another way that maybe I can help you. Pay off the ranch debts, the death taxes, and release you from the burdens of it all so you can make the place pay for itself again." Jack scooted forward, his temper starting to build in the base of his spine. What the fuck is this man on? Riley hesitated, standing and crossing to the window to stare at the city far below.
Jack didn't push. He remained sitting, dusty and temper-tight in worn denim, watching Riley who was clearly struggling with whatever he had to say.
"A year," he finally started. "I would need your help for a year, with a contract. In return I would agree to pay off every debt, and pay you on top of that."
"A year of what? Working for you?"
"No." Riley sucked in a huge lungful of air and then let it out in a noisy exhale. "A year of marriage. I want —need— a partner, to be married for one year and for many reasons. Not the least of which is giving me a win-win situation with my father."
"Marriage." What the hell? "You— and me?" Jack managed to form that simple question on sheer shock alone as Riley nodded earnestly. Jack couldn't bring himself to move. He just sat there, stunned.
"So what do you think?" Riley finally asked as Jack rose to his feet.
For several beats, Jack neither moved nor spoke. Tension coiled in his body, what he imagined to be a combination of shock and disbelief.
"I'll tell you what I think, Hayes." Riley's surname dripped acid as Jack snarled the single word. "Your family has fucked with me and my mine one too many times."
"It would be beneficial to us both."
"Fuck! What kind of planet are you living on?"
"I don't understand."
Jack shook his head, Riley looked confused. He clearly couldn't see that he was crazier than a cat hill coot.
"This crazy shit is a fuckin' bad dream and a waste of my time." He'd had enough.
"Jack, please, can you just listen?"
Jack paused with his hand on the door handle.
"Fuck you." Distaste and furious anger dripped from his voice as he turned the knob.
"I know what you need. I know about Elizabeth." There was sudden steel, and a sly superiority in Riley's words. Clearly the younger Hayes was finally showing his true colors.
Jack stopped, the door half open. Grief and a sudden anxiety twisted in him before calm returned and he analyzed Riley's words dispassionately. Anyone who read the Dallas Morning News knew about Beth. It was open knowledge she suffered from a congenital heart problem, had been ill on and off for most of her life, and had spent more time in the hospital than out. But Riley's tone, the sly use of the words "I know about Beth" set Jack's teeth on edge. Something didn't sound right.
Medical bills had piled up, but the Campbell family had worked their way through. It was what they did. They dealt with the crap, pulled together, and made a difference to their lives through sheer single-mindedness. It left them near broke, but it didn't matter. Beth had gotten her medical treatment, the operations, and the drugs she needed. They managed, and they certainly didn't need any help, financially or otherwise. So if Riley freaking Hayes thought that bringing up Beth was gonna swing things his way, he had another thing coming.
Jack laughed low in his throat. "Hayes, after the Dallas Times spread, everyone knows about Beth," he said over his shoulder. That article had hurt. It must have been a slow news week, because some low-life journalist had decided to dig up the old feud story and focus on the next generation. It had headlined as The Campbell Curse Strikes Again. Josh was portrayed as abandoning his family, Jack as the useless high school dropout, Beth as the poor little innocent, suffering nobly under her death sentence. "There is nothing you can give her that is better than what we can. That was lame and kinda sad." He turned back to the door ready to walk away. Game over.
Riley's next words froze Jack to the spot. "My money can't help make her better, Jack, but it can help her get through her pregnancy."
Emotions flooded through him— shock, disbelief, pain, and anger at the blatant lies. He turned slowly, willing the panic, the fury, to stay behind his mask. What did Riley mean? She couldn't be pregnant. The doctors had said carrying a child full term could kill her. They had warned that her heart couldn't take it.
Riley visibly winced, and Jack knew his mask had cracked. He tried damned hard to regroup, to settle his disbelief.
"Fuck you, Hayes!" he hissed. "Pregnant or not, we'll manage. She'll have an abortion." That was the only solution. If this was true, then she'd just have to terminate. He wasn't going to lose his sister after trying for so many years to keep her alive.
Riley hesitated, clearly measuring his words, his expression carefully blank. "All you can hope is that she lives through it. It's too late to abort now, far too late." Riley's words dripped like ice, and Jack's eyes widened even as he tried to tell himself this fucking bastard was lying. The thought of his sister pregnant, close to killing herself, not telling him… Skepticism shot through him. No. She wouldn't have kept it a secret. She would have told him or Josh, if not their mom. Wouldn't she?
The overwhelming force of what Riley was saying hit Jack in the gut, exposing an unexpected vulnerability. He knew then he would do anything to protect his sister, and he prayed Riley couldn't see it. Jack straightened his spine, shoulders back, armor reinforced.
"Marry me," Riley blurted out suddenly. "Marry me and I will get the best doctors. I know people, my money can buy people. I can get the best for Beth and have medical help on call twenty-four seven. All you have to do is say yes. Just one year, and your debts are paid, the ranch is free from mortgage and death duties, and your sister lives. Just one year."
Jack blinked steadily, his head spinning, his heart pounding in his chest. He couldn't focus on the monologue Hayes was spouting or register what the other man was saying. He needed to see Beth. She would tell him this was all wrong, that Hayes was lying.
Without another word Jack left, pulling the door shut behind him. He hesitated only briefly, getting his breathing and emotions under control, before heading to the glass elevator. He wasn't aware of what he was doing, or where he was going, he only knew that Hayes didn't follow. He thanked God for that, because he knew he would have likely killed him.