Read an Excerpt
One Year Later
Callie Mae Lockett channeled her concentration on the men seated at the table with her. She could do this. She could fight three of the most powerful men in the Texas Panhandle.
They had the Amarillo Hotel's lavishly appointed dining room to themselves. Dinner had been exquisite as alwaysroast sirloin of beef au jus and tender asparagus in cream sauce. The chocolate blanc mange had been heavenly, too. Now, only brandy glasses and crystal dishes holding ashes from expensive Reina Victorias remained on the starched white tableclothright alongside a detailed map of the sprawling C Bar C Ranch.
"This exposition will showcase the northern part of the state, Callie Mae." James T. Berry, a townsite developer, had been instrumental in growing Amarillo from a tent camp of railroad workers to the country's largest rural shipping point for cattle. "Folks will know we're more than cows and barbed wire out here."
"Oh?" She arched a brow and hid her annoyance with a cool smile. "I'm rather partial to those cows myself."
A fact every man at the table well knew. The C Bar C Ranch enjoyed a prominence in the area that cowmen with less range on their land deed envied. Thousands of head of cattle and more acres than most men could count made up the Lockett spread, all of it spearheaded by her mother.
Carina Lockett McClure. Her husbandCallie Mae's stepfatherPenn McClure, had been at her side every step of the way. Mother depended on him more than she'd admit, and over the past twelve years, they'd established the C Bar C as a formidable presence in the state of Texas.
One day, it'd all be Callie Mae's. Every square inch.
The Lockett legacy.
Meeting with these entrepreneurs was the first real opportunity her mother had given her to hold the Lockett reins in her hands. To feel the breadth of her power in a world dominated by men.
To wield it.
How she handled herself would be ruminated and scrutinized by folks living in a four-state area. As if she was a prize steer on the auction block.
Callie Mae couldn't fail the test. She had to defeat their proposition to buy prime C Bar C land for ill-gained profit. She had to prove to her mother she could be as smart and ruthless as the best of them.
But mostly, she had to prove it to herself.
The fact the entrepreneurs wanted a piece of the section where the beautiful Tres Pinos Valley was located further sealed her resistance to the deal. She'd earmarked that land for herself to live on with her husband. To raise a family, now that she'd come of age to marry. She refused to be crowded out by a foolish exposition.
"Of course you're partial to those cows." Joseph Glidden, owner of one of the first cattle spreads in Texas, the Frying Pan Ranch, nodded in concession.
"But folks need some place to go to be entertained 'round these parts. I'll guarantee the crowds will flock out here if we hold an exposition."
An event that would include horse racing and far too much drunken wagering. Contempt curled through Callie Mae. She knew the lure those things held for men, thanks to that no-good TJ Grier, once one of the C Bar C's best cowboys. Callie Mae and her mother stood together in refusing to allow racing and all the vices it brought with it to taint the C Bar C again.
"Can't you see how grand this venture will be?" Henry Sanborn owned enough property in the area to earn the title of Amarillo's founding father. He leaned forward, his eyes lit with excitement. "Hot-air balloons. Concerts. Exhibits. Cattle sales and contests. Fireworks!"
"What I see, Henry," she said firmly. "Is people's hard-earned money snatched up on races rigged to lose. I see harlots and con men taking advantage of the gullible. I see money wasted on whiskey and betting." She made a sound of disgust. "Need I say more?"
James puffed on his cigar. "Eighty acres, Callie Mae. That's all we're asking."
Her glance swiveled. "I'm sorry. No."
"The C Bar C won't miss the land. And we're willing to pay you top price to buy it."
"That's not the issue here, is it?"
"The issue is, the exposition could be a gold mine for everyone," Joseph said.
"The horse-racing part of it, you mean."
He hesitated. "The revenue would be a major factor, yes."
"Callie Mae." Henry's smile appeared forced. "It's clear the root of the problem here is your resistance to the sport the rest of us enjoy. Perhaps you should set aside your personal beliefs and think of this as a business matter, nothing more."
Callie Mae hung on tight to her poise. Mother would've been proud that she managed it.
"I believe men should work honestly for their money, Henry, and not have their fortunes handed to them by a racehorse," she said slowly. With enough emphasis that a child of three would understand. "Or have them taken away by one."
Amusement flickered across his features, but he had the sense to keep it banked. He inclined his head. "There are two sides to that coin, of course."
"And the business side of mine is to reject your offer to buy Lockett land."
Each man glanced at the other, and their demeanors turned grim. A tense silence descended over the table. Callie Mae waited for one of them to make the next move. She'd made hers and wouldn't budge.
"Perhaps it would be in our best interests to talk to your mother," Joseph Glidden said finally, finding fascination in the burning end of his cigar.
Callie Mae's nostrils flared. The insult stung. As a Lockett, she was capable of making this decision. She had the knowledge, the privilege. The power.
The threat to go around her and negotiate with her mother instead proved they saw Callie Mae not as an emerging cattle queen, heiress to the Lockett holdings, but as Carina Lockett McClure's daughter, and nothing more.
"It won't do any good," she sniffed.
"We completely agree on the matter."
"Carina is a shrewd businesswoman. She'll see the advantages of our proposition."
Callie Mae gritted her teeth. "She's in California."
Callie Mae hadn't wanted them to know, hadn't wanted them to think of her as a mere substitute for her mother's absence. That she was their last resort, and an inexperienced one at that.
James's gray brow lifted. "Oh?"
"Penn felt she needed a change."
An uncomfortable moment passed.
"Of course," he said.
She steeled herself against the sympathy in his voice and refused to look at the pity in each of their faces. It'd been a year since her young brother had been killed, and there were days when she thought she'd accepted the loss and moved on with her life.
But there were other times, like now, when she knew she hadn't.
She stifled her hate for TJ Grier and pasted a smile on her mouth. "Mother has never seen the ocean, you know. Penn insisted on taking her there forfor a vacation. It took some doing, but he finally managed to get her on the train."
"It's good that he did. Carina works too hard. Harder, I suspect, since Danny died," James said, not unkindly.
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. "Hard" failed to describe the way Mother had driven herself these past months, fighting the grief from TJ's betrayal and losing her only son. If Penn hadn't stepped in, the exhaustion would have destroyed her.
"Penn wants their whereabouts kept secret," Callie Mae added, lest the men attempt to contact them across the wires. "They won't be back for quite some time. The end of the month, at least." She drew in a breath, forced herself to stop babbling over the information she'd wanted to keep private. "So you see, gentlemen, you must deal with me. There's no one else."
"We're prepared to draw up a charter of incorporation tonight." Henry tapped the sheaf of papers in front of him. "What'll it take to convince you to let us get started?"
At the desperation in his expression, a sense of control returned to Callie Mae. "I do believe you've tried everything already."
"But we're not giving up." Resolve threaded his words. "There's not a better place in the Texas Panhandle to hold that exposition. We need that land to make it happen."
"My answer stands. Now, shall we call it an evening, gentlemen?" She stood and shook each man's hand as they rose with her. "Until we meet again."
"And we will." Henry gathered his papers and tucked them under his arm. "You have my word on it."
"You'll find nothing has changed."
He grunted, muttered something under his breath, and they left. After the door closed behind them, silence filled the dining room.
Callie Mae let out a slow breath. Eased back down into her chair. And turned to the man beside her.
Kullen Brosius looked unexpectedly troubled sitting there with his fingers steepled and his ankle crossed over his knee. Dressed in a high-priced gray suit and white shirt, he looked impossibly handsome, too.
Up until the day she died, he'd been her grandmother, Mavis Webb's, attorney and had drawn up her most important papers, including the inheritance Callie Mae stood to gain upon her twenty-third birthday, coming in a few weeks' time. Her grandmother had trusted him implicitly, and so did Callie Mae. "You could've said something, you know," she said, fighting a pout. "Maybe then, they wouldn't have been so persistent."
Kullen sat up straighter. Sighed heavily. And leveled her with his hazel gaze. "The land isn't yours to sell, Callie Mae. I chose to keep from revealing that particular piece of information for obvious reasons."
She searched his expression for signs of teasing. And found none. But two could play his game. Her mouth curved in amusement. "Well, if those acres aren't mine, my dear Kullen, then whose are they?"
Her amusement died. "That's not funny."
"It's true. Richard informed me of the matter only recently." His mouth quirked. "And Richard never makes mistakes."
Richard Randolph was her mother's lawyer. He'd handled her affairs since the time she and Penn had married. His revered position in the Lockett dynasty was one Kullen hoped to have for himself one day. Why hadn't Richard told her of Mother's plan?
Kullen slid the big map across the tablecloth and positioned it in front of her. He tapped his finger on the very spot Henry Sanborn had outlined in bold black as the perfect location for the exposition. "Carina earmarked this section of land for TJ last year as a gift. A bonus, if you will, for being her favorite cowboy." Kullen's lip curled. "I had no idea Henry and the others chose it for the event until this meeting."
The part about TJ being Mother's favorite was true, she knew. He always had been, for as long as Callie Mae could recall.
But still she resisted.
"No," she said. "There must be some mistake. She would've told me. Of course, she would've told me."
"You were in Europe at the time, traveling with Mavis. You were gone the whole summer. Perhaps it slipped her mind."
It wasn't like Mother to be so careless. And yet, soon after Callie Mae's return, Danny had been killed. Their lives were filled with chaos and heartache.
"It doesn't matter why she never told you, anyway." He regarded her with the shrewdness that made him the fine attorney he was. "What matters is what you're going to do about those eighty acres."
Callie Mae stilled. He was right, of course. Because suddenly, everything had changed. She wasn't in control anymore.
TJ Grier was.
Once Henry Sanborn and the others found out TJ owned those prime acres laying smack dab in the middle of the C Bar C, they'd find him and make him the same generous offer they'd made Callie Mae.
And he'd take it, given his greed and disgusting penchant for horse racing. How much more convenient could the exposition be?
Kullen sat a moment, watching her, and she sensed how his thoughts mirrored hers. No wonder he looked so grim.
She thought of Danny, of the beautiful Tres Pinos Valley. "I can't let him do it."
"No," Kullen said.
"I have to find him. Insist that he not"
She halted and fought the first stirrings of panic and frustration. Could she do it? Would he even listen?
It'd been so long since she'd seen TJ, had wanted to see him, that
"I know where he is," Kullen said. "We can ride out today. Now, in fact."
The C Bar C was just about the only home TJ had ever had. Thinking of him living somewhere different was vaguely unsettlinguntil she stopped herself from thinking it. TJ lost his esteemed place in the C Bar C outfit through his own fault. No one else's.
Yet her belly lurched at the prospect of seeing him again. The last time had been awful. The night Danny had died. She could still feel the pain, the despair, from what TJ had done.
But she had to go to him. To keep horse racing and its demoralizing grip away from the C Bar C for as long as she could. To keep the beauty of Tres Pinos Valley for herself.
Her resolve strengthened. "I'll meet with him and inform him I won't tolerate racing, gambling and drunkenness on the C Bar C under any circumstances. I'll insist he not sell that land to Henry and the others."
Kullen smiled, as if he looked forward to the challenge she'd taken on.