Prairie Heat

By: Tessa Layne

CHAPTER 1





Blake Sinclaire grunted as he maneuvered his Ford F150 into a tiny parking space in front of Frenchie O’Neill’s. The big truck stuck out like a sore thumb in the suburban Chicago neighborhood that was a mix of hipsters, young families, and scientists from Fermilab. He’d be on the road home again soon. But not soon enough for his taste.

He’d give anything for a cold beer and a sit-down on the porch with his brothers. After spending the week dealing with scientists and wranglers at Fermilab, and enduring endless rounds of networking, he was more than ready for the solitude of their ranch in the Flint Hills. He dug out his phone and hit speed dial.

His brother Ben picked up on the second ring. “How’d the transfer go?”

“Off without a hitch. The bull is temporarily isolated in a far corner of the grounds, the cow seems to be integrating well. I’ll check on the herd again early tomorrow, and then start the drive home. I’ll be damned glad when this is all over.”

Ben chuckled into the phone. “Gotta put that fancy MBA to use, big brother.”

Blake snorted. “As long as they purchase our livestock and meat, I’ll be happy. The director at Fermilab recommended I host a meet and greet here at Frenchie O’Neill’s. The chef is outstanding, and the scientists like to hang out here.”

“What’s the plan?”

“Get in, get out. Shake a few hands. Chef O’Neill’s well connected and invited a number of her colleagues. I instructed her to fill ’em up with food and booze.”

Demand for their bison was growing. Over the last few years he’d learned the easiest way to bring new clients on board was to let them taste the product first. Nine times out of ten they were hooked after the first bite. “I’ll leave them with my card and follow up when I get home. I’m confident our Chicago clients will double.”

Ben let out a low whistle. “That would be a big help.”

“It’ll tide us over until we can set up the hunting lodge and diversify our income. Did the plans arrive?”

“Yes.” Ben’s voice held a note of hesitation.

Blake was instantly on alert. “What is it? Old man Hansen hasn’t been mouthing off about us again, has he?”

“Man, you gotta let it go.” A note of exasperation crept into Ben’s voice. “I think you need to come up with an alternative building site.

“Like hell I will,” he growled. “You know I swore on mom’s grave we’d get our land back.”

“But we don’t need it.”

“Yes we do. It’s ours. It belongs to us. To our family.” Why couldn’t his brothers understand this?

“It’s only a few hundred acres. Is it worth tying yourself up in knots and continuing a family feud?”

Words caught in his throat. Ben was right. No one liked the longstanding feud with the Hansens, but it was all they knew. And he couldn’t let it go until he’d righted the wrongs done to his family.

“Hell, Ben. We’ve been over this before. It’s about the Sinclaire legacy.”

“All I’m saying is that the Sinclaire legacy can remain intact without that bit of land.”

“Not without the homestead.”

Ben made a disbelieving noise. “Just think about it on the drive home? Maybe we can come up with a different solution.”

Blake clenched his hand and softly beat it against the steering wheel. A sense of defeat settled over him. Hell and damnation. Discussing Warren Hansen always made him grouchy. Not the best frame of mind to be in before a final few hours of schmoozing.

After a moment he let out a frustrated sigh. “Fine. I’ll think about it.” He hated it when Ben was reasonable. “Gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow night.” He clicked off, jammed on his Stetson, and stepped out of the truck into the cold Chicago wind.

This day couldn’t end fast enough. He was a rancher, not Joe Schmoozer. As far as he was concerned, events like the one he was hosting were only slightly less awful than walking across broken glass in a pool of lemonade. But until his family’s operation could grow a little bigger, he’d have to continue wearing both hats. There was too much riding on the ranch’s future if things went sideways.

He wasn’t in a mood for small talk, but he’d endure it. Suck it up for the family, just like he always did. And if the end result was a hunting lodge and the diversified income necessary to secure his family’s legacy… well, he’d do that and a whole lot more. He’d do anything for his brothers and little sister.

The cocktail party was in full swing as he stepped through the door into the posh restaurant. An atmosphere of warmth and delicious smelling food immediately enveloped him. Handing his Stetson to the hostess, he surveyed the room. From the looks of it, the guests were enjoying themselves. Several servers circulated trays of food, and drinks were flowing.

Good.

Hope brimmed up, temporarily chasing away his foul mood. Load ’em up on great food and good booze and they should open their wallets.

He circulated through the room, shaking hands with the men he’d met over the week. If the happy smiles on their faces were any indication, the food was a hit. The ranch would be in good shape after tonight if they came on board.