Read an Excerpt
It was Saturday night, and Cooper Drummond, five-time national bronc-riding champion, sat in a Hondo, Texas, bar, nursing his second beer. The barmaid flirted with him, as did rodeo fans who were trying to get his attention. They eventually gave up and turned to someone else when Coop didn't flirt back. He had a lot on his mind. It had begun to bother him that he had very little to show for five years of earning good money on the circuit. He owned a top-of-the-line Dodge Ram and a color-coordinated two-horse trailer. He had a suitcase full of flashy buckles, more than one man would ever wear. He'd lost count of his broken bones. Thank heaven they'd all healed. With luck he wouldn't have any more, now thatsix months agohe'd quit rodeo. He'd been working for Jud Rayburn on the Rocking R Ranch because he didn't want to go home to the Tripe D, which his older brother ran with an iron fistjust like he tried to run Coop's life. Tonight ought to be a typical Saturday night off from chasing rogue steers through dusty, cactus-littered arroyos. As a rule Coop would hit town with a group of other cowboys, and they all partied hard and two-stepped the night away with hangers-on from the rodeo days. But tonight, for some reason, his interest in dancing had disappeared. Some of his pals were playing pool in an adjacent room, but he wasn't moved to take part in that either.
On the jukebox, Reba belted out a song called "The Bridge You Burn." Her words, wrapped in upbeat music, bounced off the rafters and left Coop thinking about how many bridges he'd burned. A lot of them, for sure.
A hand clamped down on his shoulder, interrupting Coop's self-analysis. He turned on the bar stool, expecting to see one of the guys from the Rocking R. He didn't expect to see his older brother, Sullivan. Nor was Coop in any mood to have Sully pull out the adjacent stool and plant his butt there. The brothers had been at odds over almost everything since their dad died and Sully had nominated himself to fill his shoes.
Coop lifted his long-neck bottle and took a deep draw. "What brings you slumming tonight, big brother?"
"You. Why in hell are you working for the Rocking R instead of at home on the Triple D where you belong?"
"It hasn't been the Triple D since Dad died," Coop shot back. "You've made it the Single D."
"You want the brand changed to the Double D? It hasn't been double anything since you took off to prove somethinghell if I know what. You rode every ornery bronc in the southwest when you could've raised the most profitable herd of quarter horses in Texas. You thought being a rodeo bum was better than doing everyday ranch chores, yet you're working for Jud like a common drifter."
"I sold my stock except for two geldings, and two geldings don't make for good breeding, now do they? And Jud Rayburn treats me like a manlike I have a brain. He doesn't play lord and master like you do. But I'm leaving Jud's place and heading south. I read about a rancher advertising for a horse trainer down there."
"Really? Well, that makes this easier." Coop's brother pulled a sheaf of papers from the inside pocket of his corduroy jacket. "I've run the ranch alone for five years. I want you to sign Dad's third of the ranch over to my son, Gray." He unfolded the legal document and produced a gold pen that he held out to Cooper.
"Do you think this will force me to come back? Forget it! Gray's only six years old!" Coop set down his beer with a thwack.
"You were ten and I was fifteen when Mom died and Dad deeded us each a third of Drummond Ranch and renamed it the Triple D."
"Then we got equal parts of Dad's share when he died. So what?"
"After you graduated from college and got a harebrained notion to run off to the rodeo, I've pulled your share of the workload, along with Dad's and mine."
"That's why I went off to rodeo, Sully. You put yourself in Dad's boots. I didn't like you ordering me around then, and I don't need it now." Coop grabbed the papers, ripped them in half and let the pieces drift to floor. Then, in a fit of long-brewing frustration, he hauled back and socked his brother in the jaw. Jamming on his hat, Coop stalked out, stiff-arming his way through the swinging door. He leaped into his pickup and roared out of the parking space without glancing back.
Sully exited the bar, wiggling his jaw. His flinty gaze swept the area before his angry eyes fell on his pretty, red-haired wife, who waited for him near their car. She touched his face lightly and murmured, "Ouch. I can see that didn't go well. Shall we hike over to the diner and get some ice for your jaw, Sullivan?"
"I'm through with him, Blythe. He tore up the contract. I know, I know, you warned me against coming here. But I'm done, I tell you. Coop can't be a silent partner in the Triple D forever. I'm going to see our lawyer about voiding Coop's entire inheritance."
"Don't, Sully." Blythe gripped his arm. "Coop is family, and we have too little family left between us," she said, her eyes filled with sorrow. "Give it more time, then try again. Coop's young. He took your dad's death really hard. You know he thought Matt hung the stars and the moon." She sounded earnest. "Business at my clinic has picked up. You said stock sales were up, too. We're okay. Please, Sully. He's your only sibling, and Gray's only uncle. Please give Coop time to come around."
Sullivan, who'd loved Blythe since the day he met her in college, gave his jaw a last test before he sighed and kissed her. "Coop's not all that young. He's twenty-seven. Past time he grew up. What he needs is a good woman," Sully grumbled. "Yeah, he took Dad's death hard, but it's the way Willow Courtland dumped him that sent him off in a huff. She could've stopped him."
Blythe Drummond shook her head. "I don't suppose we'll ever know what really caused their breakup. Coop might have gotten over it if she hadn't married Tate Walker. That was like pouring salt in an open wound."
Sully yanked open the passenger car door and waited for Blythe to get in. "Yeah, but I say good riddance to Tate and to her. I wish Bart Walker would sell his ranch and leave. I can't prove he cut out some of my newborn calves and branded them with the Bar W, but I know there was bad blood between Dad and him over calf-rustling. All the Walkers are shady, to say the least."
Blythe swung her legs into the car. "Sully, you work too hard. And you worry too much about the Triple D, and about Cooper." She raised one hand. "No, no tirade. I don't care how much you gripe, I know you want Coop to come home. Why not hire someone to help you part-time for a few months? Coop's left the circuit for good. Give him until the holidays to work this out. Have you ever met a cowboy who doesn't get homesick at Christmas? If Coop doesn't wander home by then, we'll hunt him up and extend one last olive branch. Okay?" She smoothed a hand down Sully's rigid arm.
He blew out a breath. "If Coop comes home, we'll see if I feel inclined to give him a pass for the way he hit me. He had no call. And if I extend any olive branch, he'll have to show up at the Triple D to collect it."
Steamed that Sully had shown up at the bar unexpectedly, adding to his already disgruntled mood, Coop weighed his options on the drive back to the Rocking R. He had some money left from what he'd earned working for Jud. And some savings from when he sold the herd he'd built up before attending Texas A&M.
It was while he was in college that he'd developed a hankering to rodeo. But if his dad hadn't keeled over from a heart attack, and if Sully, who was five years older, hadn't taken it upon himself to run everything on the ranch, including him, things might have panned out differently. Maybe he wouldn't have fought with Willow. But then again Ah, hell! Coop jammed in a CD and cranked up the sound. He hadn't thought about Willow in weeks. It didn't help now that Lady Antebellum filled the cab with "Need You Now."
He popped the disk out midsong and shoved in another that was better suited to his current mood. George Strait singing "All My Exes Live In Texas."
Coop didn't have any idea if Willow still lived in Texas. All ties were cut when she'd married Tate-the-jerk-Walker. His friendsand enemiesknew better than to mention either of their names to Coop. But it still hurt that she'd married that blowhard over him. They'd both vied for her attention from the day Willow's folks moved to Hondo when she was in the sixth grade. She knew how tough his dad's death had been on him. And she knew he hated the way Sully took charge of the ranch and ordered him around. Still, she'd chose that bad time to give him an ultimatum. Rodeo or her.
Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, Coop felt the old gnawing emptiness well up again. Yes, her dad had been left wheelchair-bound from bull-riding. But she wouldn't listen when Coop explained that bull-riding was far more dangerous than busting broncs, something he'd done for easily half his life.
The song ended and George started crooning a mellower tune.
All of that was ancient history. Sully had already settled down, happily marrying Blythe Thompson, who'd become a veterinarian. Now they had a son. Coop hated to think that part of his attitude toward Sully was jealousy. But he would've married Willow, and they would've had a kid or two by now. Crap, he never should've come back to Hondo. It would be best if he packed up and left tonight, he decided. Like he told Sully, he had other options.
Coop had made up his mind by the time he reached the Rocking R. He went looking for Jud Rayburn. "Your roundup's winding down, Jud. I've decided to mosey down south. According to an ad in the newest Horse Trader, there's a rancher down near Laredo who is looking for a horse trainer. Everyone knows I'd rather work with horses than with cattle."
"I hate to lose you, Coop. Rest assured I'll give you a great reference. But surely you aren't leaving Hondo for good? I know Sully hopes you'll return to the Triple D."
Coop shook his head. "I doubt Sully still feels that way, Jud. He and I just had a run-in at Homer's bar." Coop flexed his right hand. "Sully's got a rock-hard jaw and I guess you could say I have an equally hard head. This wasn't our first argument."
"That's too bad, son. Matt would've wanted you boys to share the running of a ranch he loved. When your mom died, and Matt had to bury her, you and Sully were all that kept him sane. Kept him working and building up the ranch so that one day you boys would raise your families on the Triple D."
Swallowing a hard lump that came into his throat, Coop said, "Yeah, well, that's working out for Sullivan and Blythe. Me, I'm not ready to let one woman tie me down."
Jud Rayburn cocked a shaggy eyebrow as he peeled off several twenties from a money clip and handed the bills to Coop. "There's a lot to be said for crawling into bed with the same woman every night, son. A woman who knows your weaknesses, but who only sees your strengths. When you land in Laredo, phone me with your address so if I haven't paid you enough, I can send you a check after the Rocking R accountant tallies your time sheets."
"This more than makes us square, Jud. Anyway, I don't want to make it easy for Sully to run me to ground." Coop shook hands with the rancher who'd been his dad's best friend. Crossing to the corral, he cut his two cow ponies out of the remuda, loaded them into his trailer and left.
Coop drove until midnight, then booked into a motel outside Laredo. He didn't sleep well. He was plagued all night by dreams of losing his mom when he was ten, then repeating the loss with his dad when he was in college. Coop had idolized Matthew Drummond. Tossing and turning, he punched his pillow into a ball. He wasn't ready or willing to admit how much like their father Sully had become. A quiet solid man's man. A good husband and dad, by all accounts. A hard worker. A pillar of the community.
Throwing back the covers, Coop hit the shower. He'd squandered too much of his rodeo earnings on a truck, and on beer and women. Coop let the water sluice over his body until it ran cold. He was sure his dad wouldn't be any happier with him at the moment than Sully was. Matt Drummond had been a peacemaker. Not liking the direction of his thoughts, Coop slapped off the faucets, dried quickly and dressed.
The late-June sky was streaked purple, red and orange when he threw his duffel bag into the pickup's cab and made his way out of Laredo to the McHenry spread. Summer heat would soon shimmer off the asphalt highway.
Bob McHenry was a big, bald, tobacco-chewing guy, who spat twice before telling Cooper he was darned sorry, but he'd already hired a horse trainer.
Coop thanked him and returned to his pickup after asking if he could water his horses at Bob's nearby trough. The whole spread was a nice, well-kept ranch, staked out by white tri-rail fences. Coop was disappointed he'd shown up too late. He would've liked working here, he thought.