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Her Cowboy Billionaire Boyfriend: A Whittaker Brothers Novel (Christmas in Coral Canyon Book 3) by Liz Isaacson (1)

One

Andrew Whittaker cringed as the backdoor slammed shut behind him. Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone around to reprimand him, but his childhood memories about not slamming the door echoed through his head.

His dad in particular had not been fond of all the loud noises, but with four boys in the house, some concessions had to be made.

The scent of warm hay and horse flesh met Andrew’s nose and he took in a deep breath of it. He’d never considered himself to be a country type of person. Nor a man who could be content raising and riding horses.

But a strange sense of peace cascaded over him as he started the feeding. It was the same thing each day, and the thirteen horses that he and his brothers owned relied on Andrew to take care of them now that his younger brother, Eli, had moved to California to start a life there with his new wife.

Eli had bought most of these animals, and Andrew had not been happy to have them passed to him. At first. But now…now Andrew craved this early-morning animal care before he had to don the power suit and put on his public face for Springside Energy.

His older brother, Graham, was the CEO of the company, but Andrew had returned to Coral Canyon as the company’s public relations director about a year and a half ago. He had the degree, and his brother needed him.

Honestly, the older Andrew got, the more he realized how much family meant to him. Especially since he couldn’t seem to find someone to fall in love with and make a family of his own.

A cream and brown horse lifted his head over the door and snuffed at Andrew. “Hey, Wolfy,” he said, reaching over to stroke the horse’s nose. Eli liked Second to Anne the best, but that made sense since his late wife’s name had been Anne. But Andrew had taken quite a liking to Wolfgang, and the horse always seemed happy to see him, and they’d spent a lot of hours in the mountains surrounding the lodge where Andrew now lived alone.

Well, not really.

“Bree’s doin’ okay,” he told Wolfgang as if the horse had asked. The part-time interior decorator and gardener Graham had hired years ago had become full-time as she’d taken over Eli’s responsibilities around the lodge with scheduling the horseback riding and other events at the lodge.

So much had changed in just the few weeks since Eli’s wedding, with Andrew moving out of the basement and those rooms going up on the website for guests. Bree had moved into the room down the hall from Andrew, and he’d thought it might be awkward at first, with them being the only two living in the lodge now.

But it wasn’t. He’d entertained an idea about asking her out for about five minutes, but there was no spark between them.

Plenty of sparks when she’d accidentally put a bowl with metal around the rim in the microwave and then grabbed it out with her bare hands.

“The bandages are almost off,” he continued as he fed Wolfgang and moved down to the next stall. She still handled everything she needed to, because she could tap on a speaker icon and book groups for the theater room in the basement, or for horseback riding birthday parties, or whatever else she did.

Andrew wasn’t sure what the events at the lodge were, honestly. He spent so much time at Springside, with its building about ten miles northeast of the town of Coral Canyon, that he rarely got home before dark. Even then, he’d stop by the kitchen for whatever Celia had left for him, and stumble down the hall to his bedroom. He didn’t interact with guests or deal with much else at the lodge.

“Goin’ riding today?” he asked Goldie, an older horse at the end of the row. “I know you are. Make sure you edge over closer to a child.” The cream-colored horse was getting up there in years, which made her calm and approachable, but she couldn’t go as far as she used to.

“I’m gearing up for the unveiling of Graham’s robot. October first is the big day.” Not that the horses in the stable knew when October would come, but Andrew had just over three weeks to get everything in line for the huge announcement about a robot that would hopefully make Andrew’s job easier. Everyone’s job should be easier with the invention that would be able to detect the gasses Springside mined without having to drill.

After all, the majority of the protests he dealt with stemmed from the drilling of the Wyoming countryside. His shoulders tensed and he hadn’t even put on the fancy loafers or slicked his hair to the side yet.

He unconsciously reached up and pressed his cowboy hat on his head. He much preferred the simplicity of this life, and that had surprised him the very most about Eli’s departure.

He finished feeding the horses, promised them he’d be back that night, and walked back to the lodge. The scent of coffee met his nose, and he said, “Morning,” to Bree as he peered into the kitchen from the mudroom. He left his cowboy boots there and went to shower.

With the suit on, every crease exactly right, and his tie the color of watermelons with a white paisley stitched into it, he slipped on the expensive loafers and stepped into the bathroom. He sprayed the gel on his hair and combed it until it was just-so. He couldn’t afford to be anything but personable and professional when he left the lodge for work.

Today was no different, though the tension in his chest felt stronger than it normally did for a Wednesday. He drove the ten miles to Springside in a nondescript sedan, just like he had for months. His route took him past the front of the building, where he’d turn and park in the back, behind a coded gate.

As he eased past today, the group of people gathered there made him groan audibly. Another protest. Great. Just what he needed today.

Andrew eyed a woman with slightly frizzy, light brown hair. She attended every single protest, and as she walked from person to person and said something, Andrew suspected she actually organized the demonstrations.

“It’s fine,” he muttered to himself as he turned the corner and headed for the back lot. If they didn’t bother people, they could camp on the sidewalk in this early September heat wave Wyoming was experiencing. Andrew would keep an eye on them from his air-conditioned office on the sixth floor.

His morning passed with the chants beyond his window permeating the bullet-proof glass every half an hour or so. After a while, he didn’t even hear them when they started up again, as he had a difficult article to respond to and a new blog post to write about the robot.

“How’s the Gasman?” Graham asked as he came into Andrew’s office.

“What are you doing here?” Andrew stood and gave his brother a slap on the back.

“I’m in the basement until next week. Only a few more weeks until we reveal this thing to the whole world.” Graham swallowed like he was nervous, which Andrew knew he was. Graham had spent plenty of time in Andrew’s office detailing how nerve-racking it was to have something from his mind splashed on the front page of newspapers and the covers of magazines—and worse, in little headline boxes with click-bait titles below.

Andrew was used to the pressure of journalism and dealing with the media. He had a degree in journalism and public relations, and he’d literally spent his adult life writing press releases, articles, and those Internet blurbs Graham hated so much.

“How’s it going down there?” Andrew leaned against his desk, wishing he could come to work in jeans, cowboy boots, and an expensive polo the way Graham did. He looked polished and professional, and everyone knew who he was, but he didn’t have to wear the suit to be in the electronics lab—or the basement as he’d taken to calling it because of the cold temperatures in the room.

Funny thing was, the huge, floor-sized laboratory was on the third floor, nowhere near the basement of the building.

“It’s going fine,” Graham said, stepping over to the wall of windows behind Andrew’s desk. “What are they mad about today?”

“It’s been a while since they’ve been here.” Andrew joined his brother. “I don’t know what their problem is now.” Only about thirty people had gathered on the sidewalk, and only a handful of them had signs. Weak ones too, scrawled on with thick, red permanent marker.

Red? Was that the only color in someone’s purse?

He found the tall, slender woman with the frizzy hair. She’d pulled it back into a ponytail and carried a sign that read MAKE WYOMING FREE AGAIN.

He had no idea what that meant. It wasn’t like the state had succeeded from the Union or anything. And Springside doing the hydraulic fracturing as they extracted the gases in the rocks beneath didn’t bind Wyoming or its residents in any way.

He turned away from the window just as a swell of sound rose up from the crowd. He spun back to find the majority of them swarming a woman as she walked toward the building.

“It’s Mom,” he said, his pulse skipping around his chest.

“Mom?” Graham asked, peering out the window, but Andrew headed for his door. The protestors could march in their circles, chant their rhymes until they went hoarse, and then pack up and go home. But they could not approach visitors to the building, nor employees. The rules had been made very clear.

“Call Security,” he said to Carla, his secretary. “The protestors are approaching a guest.” He skipped waiting for the elevator and practically ripped the door to the stairs off its hinges. So maybe he was a little riled up because the guest was his mother. But she’d been through enough already, and she deserved to come eat lunch with her sons without having to deal with protestors at her late husband’s business.

He burst out of the lobby to a wall of heat, suddenly wishing for those arctic conditions of the Wyoming winter, which he’d cursed for the entire month of February.

“Hey,” he called, drawing the attention of a few of the people on the edge of the crowd. “Step away from the guest.” He strode forward with purpose, his anger barely simmering under control. He was aware that thirty people had phones and anything he said or did could be recorded, put online, and shown to the world.

A tall, black-haired man emerged from the crowd, and Andrew really didn’t like that he couldn’t see his mother. “Who are you?”

“You know the stipulations of the protest on our property,” Andrew said. “We allow you to peaceably assemble, but you aren’t allowed to interact with anyone coming in or out of the building.” He tried to see past the man, but he must lift gorillas for a morning workout, because he was impossibly wide.

“Security,” a man called behind him, and the crowd dispersed then. Andrew darted into them, searching for his mother. It seemed like the arrival of security had caused a panic, like his team of four men could arrest anyone. They were simply bulky like that black-haired man, meant to break up conflicts with sheer intimidation.

Someone elbowed him in their flight, and he dodged left, only to be knocked sideways by another man. “Mom?”

He thought he heard her call his name, but he still couldn’t see her. Someone moved, and there she stood, a look of determined fear on her face. Andrew took two steps toward her when he got struck with a protest sign.

He tried to stay on his feet, but it was inevitable. Gravity pulled on him as pain exploded behind his right eye and down into his neck and up toward his skull. His right hand went to the injury, which meant he only had one hand to catch himself.

More pain in the knees and tailbone and wrist. Andrew honestly wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew blood dripped from his nose. He cradled his face, already imagining what the headlines would say and accompanying pictures would look like if he got photographed.

“Andrew.” His mom reached him, and he grabbed onto her arm.

“Let’s get inside,” he said quickly, gaining his feet as fast as possible. He kept his hands up to cover his face while a security guard ushered them inside and locked the doors behind him.

“This way, sir,” Neil said, and Andrew didn’t question his head security detail. He followed the beefy man down a hall and into the bathroom, his best suit already ruined.