He’s the prodigal son ready to claim his legacy . . .
He came home to sell his family’s failing ranch, but once twenty-year-old Bull Tyler sets foot on the Rimrock, he’s determined to tame the rugged land and make it his own. First he’ll have to take on the powerful Prescott clan, who’ll do anything to get their hands on the Tylers’ holding—even murder. Then Bull sets eyes on the breathtaking woman earmarked to be Ferg Prescott’s bride. Now nothing will stop Bull from taking the land—or the lady who stirs his blood like no other—and building a dynasty worthy of both . . .
She’s the pampered beauty he won’t let get away . . .
She was born to privilege, and raised to do the right thing. But Susan Rutledge has never felt anything like the fire she feels for Bull Tyler. Yet can she defy her father’s strong will and leave her secure life for a ramblin’ rodeo man? She’d have to be crazy—or crazy in love . . .
“Big, bold, and sexy . . .Janet Dailey at her best!” —Kat Martin on Texas True
“Plenty of intrigue, subplots, twists, and of course, love. Fans and newcomers alike will revel in this ride.” —Publishers Weekly on Texas Tall
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The rodeo grounds simmered under a torrid Texas sun. The dusty air was rank with tobacco smoke, diesel fumes, and the earthy smell of manure. Cattle shifted and lowed in the stock pens. Flies swarmed in the heat. Riding the updrafts, a lone buzzard circled in the sky.
Behind the chutes, cowboys waited their turn to ride for glory. Some lounged, chewing wads of tobacco and spitting in the dust. Others paced. A few of them prayed.
They were young, mostly, all of them hungry to win prize money and the coveted belt buckles that served as both honor badges and woman-bait. The cowboy who wore one could count on plenty of attention from the rodeo groupies known as "buckle bunnies."
From the arena beyond the chutes came the sounds of cheers, groans, and occasional laughter. The Pecos Rodeo claimed to be the oldest in the country — which meant that it was most likely the oldest rodeo in the world. Size-wise it might not be up to much. But the fans loved it, and they crammed the covered bleachers for every event.
Not that Virgil Tyler gave a damn about the rodeo's history or its crowd size. He was here to ride bulls for enough cash to get him to the next rodeo town and enough points to boost him in the rankings. If he won, he'd have his choice of the buckle bunnies, too. But right now his mind was on other things.
At twenty, he'd been on his own, and on the circuit, for three years. Big and rangy, with dark hair and arresting blue eyes, he'd started with broncs and last year moved up to the ultimate ride — the bulls.
He'd broken his wrist and his collarbone, cracked three ribs, and dislocated his shoulder so many times that he'd stopped counting. None of the injuries had kept him from missing a ride. He'd taped up, clenched his teeth, and climbed into the chute every time. Eight seconds to hang on to a bucking, twisting three-quarter-ton tornado of an animal. For eight seconds, he could stand any pain.
His dogged determination had earned him a new nickname — Bull. Bull Tyler. He liked the sound of it — helluva lot better handle for a cowboy than Virgil. Maybe he should use it in the arena. But he would think about that later. Right now the PA system was announcing the rider just ahead of him in the lineup.
Tex Holden was a good cowboy, and he'd drawn a decent bull. But the groans of the crowd told Virgil he'd barely made it out of the chute before being tossed off in the dust. The rodeo clowns were already rushing in to head off the bull while Tex scrambled to safety. Now, with the bull headed into the pens and the arena clear, it would be Virgil's turn for the last ride of the day.
His bull, a foul-tempered Brahma–Angus cross named Sidewinder, was already in the chute. Virgil had ridden him before. On a good day, Sidewinder's spirited performance, which counted for half the score, could rack up the points. On a bad day he could be peevish, surly, and downright murderous. When Virgil settled onto the wide, brindled back and noticed how the brute tried to crush his leg against the chute's metal side bars, he figured this was one of the bull's bad days.
Wrapping the rope around his gloved left hand and gripping the leather-bound handle, he raised his right hand high in the air and gave a jerk of his head. The gate opened, and Sidewinder barreled out of the chute in a cloud of dust and fury. The heavy bell that hung from the rope behind the bull's front legs clanged as he bucked across the arena.
Using his core strength to balance, Virgil dug his blunt-rowel spurs into Sidewinder's loose hide and hung on. The bull jumped like a rocket and landed like an earthquake. Pain from old injuries shot through Virgil's body as the huge beast tilted, spun, and changed direction with dizzying speed. Just a few more seconds ...
The buzzer signaled a successful ride. Virgil tensed for the dismount and flung himself free of the raging animal. Only then did he realize that the rope had tangled around his hand, tying him to the bull. He landed upright. But when Sidewinder swung his upper body around, trying to hook him with a horn, the sudden strain pulled Virgil off his feet and almost yanked his arm out of its socket. He fought to get his legs under him. If the brute broke into a run, he could be dragged to death.
The two rodeo clowns, heroes in face paint and baggy clothes, charged in to save him. While one distracted the bull, the other managed to free Virgil's left hand from the tangled rope. He would've helped Virgil out of the arena, but Virgil motioned him away and walked to the gate, alone, head high and hurting like hell, to the cheers of the crowd.
Safe behind the gates, he sank onto a bale of hay. Nothing was broken or bleeding, but he felt like he'd been run over by a freight train. He swore as the announcer gave his score. Seventy-eight points out of 100 — respectable but barely in the money. He loved the challenge and the danger of bull riding. But at times like this, it struck him as a crappy way to make a living.
From the tobacco plug that he'd buttoned into his shirt pocket, he twisted off a wad of chew and slipped it into his mouth. Filthy habit, but at least it helped calm his nerves.
"Virgil?" A familiar voice spoke his name. "Damn it, but you're a hard man to track down!"
"Jasper!" He stood to greet the cowboy who'd worked on his father's Rimrock Ranch since Virgil was twelve. Jasper Platt would be in his late twenties by now. Beanpole thin with a drooping mustache and a slow way of talking, he was the best all-around rider and cowhand Virgil had ever known. Maybe the best human being, too.
Virgil might have hugged him. But sore as he was, the best he could offer was a handshake. He hadn't seen anyone from the ranch since he'd run off at seventeen, after a gut-wrenching showdown with his father. The fight had been a long time coming. When it was over, Virgil had bundled up his gear, walked two miles to the highway, hitched a ride on a cattle truck, and never looked back.
"Bless my soul, boy, you've sprouted like a blasted weed! What are you now? Six foot two?" Jasper stepped back to look him up and down. "You're a grown man, all right. But what a sorry sight you are! You look like you got run down by a cattle stampede!"
"Did you see me ride?" Virgil asked.
Jasper nodded. "Not bad."
"Not bad?" Virgil had hoped for higher praise from his old friend.
"Let me tell you a hard truth," Jasper said. "A big hombre like you ain't got a chance in hell of makin' it to the top as a bull rider. It's those quick, little wiry guys that can stick on and bounce off like monkeys that rack up the points. You might be strong, but you're draggin' those long arms and legs and that extra weight. And I'll tell you somethin' else. The way you were gettin' slammed around by that bull, if you keep it up, you'll be crippled by the time you're twenty-five — if you even live that long."
"I'll keep that in mind." Virgil studied the man who'd been like an older brother to him during his early teenage years. Jasper wasn't here by chance. He'd clearly gone to a lot of trouble to find him. There had to be a reason.
"What are you doing here, Jasper?" he asked. "You didn't track me down just to see me ride bulls."
Jasper lowered his gaze to his dusty boots, as if summoning his resolve. In the beat of silence that passed before he spoke, Virgil sensed what might have brought him. But Jasper's words, when they came, still struck hard.
"Your dad's gone, Virgil. He passed away two weeks ago."
"Two weeks." A strange numbness was setting in. Two weeks? "What the hell happened? Was he sick?"
Jasper shook his head. "His horse came home late one mornin' with an empty saddle. Carlos and I went out lookin' for him, but it was almost sunset before we saw the buzzards and followed 'em. We found him in the escarpment at the bottom of a cliff. I'll spare you the details, but it looked like he fell off the top."
"That doesn't make sense. My dad knew every inch of those canyons. He would never have wandered up there and fallen off a cliff."
"It didn't make sense to us, neither. But since he wasn't shot or stabbed or anything like that, the sheriff called it an accident. We put him in the ground next to your ma."
Virgil's jaw tightened as the news sank in. Williston Tyler had been a miserable son of a bitch who took out his failures on his motherless son. Virgil's last words to him had been, "Go to hell!" Now Virgil didn't know what to feel. Grief, anger, and numb indifference warred inside him.
"The Rimrock is yours now," Jasper said. "It's in a pretty sorry state, but your dad left the land free and clear — not a cent owed on it."
Virgil had given little thought to the ranch — two-thousand-some-odd acres of scrub below the caprock escarpment that separated the rolling hill country from the high, flat Texas plain. His memories of the place were mostly bad — drought, mesquite thickets, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and skinny cattle that were always getting lost. He'd spent his childhood riding herd, eating dust, and growing up with a father who'd never forgiven him for being born and causing the death of the wife he'd loved.
He'd have to be crazy to go back there.
"The Prescotts have been itchin' to add the land to their big spread," Jasper said. "I can't tell you how many offers they made your dad over the years, but even when he was as poor as Job's mule, he always turned 'em down. Now that you're in charge, you'll no doubt be hearin' from 'em."
"How much do you figure the ranch is worth, Jasper?" Virgil asked, thinking of all he could do with the money if he sold out to their wealthy neighbors.
Jasper scowled. "I reckon that's up to you. But remember what your dad always said. 'Trust a skunk before a rattler, and trust a rattler before a Prescott.' "
"I know what he said. But I sure as hell could use the cash."
"Money goes, boy. Land is forever, and there's only so much of it on this earth. That's another thing your dad used to say. That ranch is your legacy, boy. Think long and hard before you let it go for a stack of paper that'll be spent and gone afore you know it — especially if you're dealin' with the Prescotts. Those rich buzzards will take one look at you and see fresh meat. If you let 'em, they'll strip you to the bone and pick you clean."
Jasper glanced at his battered Timex wristwatch. "The day's gettin' on. I didn't come all this way to talk to you. I came to fetch you home." He fished a ring of keys out of his pocket, took a few steps, and glanced back over his shoulder. "Well, are you comin' or ain't you?"
Virgil sighed. He'd sworn he would never set foot on that ranch again. But now that the place was his, he had little choice. One way or another, he needed to settle his father's unfinished business. "I'm coming," he said, spitting his chew in the dirt. "Just let me pick up my prize money and get my gear."
There wouldn't be much money to collect, or much gear to haul away. The rusty, old pickup he'd driven here had blown a head gasket and wasn't worth fixing. Aside from that, and his modest savings account in the First Texas Bank, all he owned was a bedroll and a duffel with a shaving kit and a few changes of clothes.
Walking to the office to pick up the few hundred dollars he'd earned, he met Tex Holden, the cowboy who'd ridden just before him, coming the other way.
"Sorry about that last ride, Tex," he said. "Bum luck."
"It happens. At least I made it off the critter in one piece." Tex gave him a good-natured grin. "Will we be seein' you in Abilene?"
"Not this time." Virgil shook his head. "I'm headin' out. Got word my dad died, so I'll have business at home to take care of."
"Sorry about your dad," Tex said. "But I'll wish you good luck, all the same. See you around, Bull." He ambled off toward his truck.
"Bull?" Jasper had been close enough to hear.
"It's a nickname. That's what they call me these days," Virgil said.
"Bull Tyler ..." Jasper rolled the name around on his tongue, trying it out. "Sounds like somebody you wouldn't want to mess with. I kinda like it."
"Yeah," Virgil said. "Me too."
They'd eaten dinner in Pecos and spelled each other driving for the rest of the night. By the time they pulled into the small town of Blanco Springs, the morning sun had cleared the caprock escarpment, which rose above the ranchland in a labyrinth of cliffs, turrets, and deep, shadowed canyons.
Above and to the east of the escarpment the land leveled off to a high plain so vast and flat that the early Spaniards who rode across it had driven stakes in the ground to mark their path and keep from getting lost. They had named it the Llano Estacado, the staked plain. Three centuries later, in the canyons below, the Comanche nation had made a last bloody stand against the invading whites, who slaughtered their horses by the hundreds to make sure the tribe would never ride to war again.
To the young man who called himself Bull Tyler, this was the country where he'd grown up — the country he'd never wanted to see again.
As Jasper drove the familiar road into Blanco Springs, Bull could see little that had changed. They passed the high school, which he'd left a year short of graduation. There were two churches — Protestant and Catholic, neither of which he'd ever attended. There was the movie theatre he'd snuck into because he was too poor to buy a ticket, and the Blue Coyote Bar, where he'd waited outside in the truck to drive his father home after a drunk.
The little mom-and-pop grocery store was the same, as was the garage and gas station. But there was a shiny new restaurant on Main Street called the Burger Shack. This was where Jasper pulled in, parked, and turned off the engine.
"They're open for breakfast," he said. "Might as well fill up and get coffee here. No tellin' what you'll find at the ranch."
"Isn't Carlos there?" Bull remembered Jasper mentioning the Mexican cook earlier.
"Carlos hasn't been paid since before your dad went missin'. He promised he'd stay and take care of the stock while I went to look for you, but don't expect a meal on the table. Come on. We'll both feel better with somethin' in our bellies."
Aching in every joint and muscle, Bull climbed out of the truck and followed Jasper into the restaurant. If Carlos hadn't been paid, then Jasper probably hadn't been, either. And what about the other ranch hands? If Carlos was tending to the stock, they'd probably left to find other work.
What was he going home to?
The Burger Shack was clean and cheerful with photos of classic cars on the walls and red Formica-topped tables in the booths. The menu was posted above the counter.
The waitress, a shapely brunette in a pink uniform, gave Bull a look that only a blind man could've missed. Bull didn't miss it — and he didn't miss seeing the gold band on her finger.
"Howdy, Jasper," she said. "I see you brought in a new friend. How about an introduction?"
"Sure," Jasper said. "Bonnie, this here's young Bull Tyler. Bull, this is Bonnie Treadwell, the best damn waitress this side of the Rio Grande."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Bull said, tipping an invisible hat.
"Tyler?" Her eyebrows rose slightly. "Then this must be Williston's boy. I'd know those blue eyes anywhere."
"That's right," Jasper said. "If you're ready to take our order, we'll have coffee and two breakfast specials."
"Comin' up," she said. "And I'm right sorry about your father, Bull."
Bull already had his wallet out to pay. He handed her a twenty. She brushed his hand as she took the bill. Up close she looked about thirty, but she was pretty enough to stir a tingle with her touch. His gaze caught the sway of her hips as she walked back toward the counter.
"Don't even think about it," Jasper said. "She's married and she's trouble."
"Not to worry. Don't get me wrong, I like the ladies. I've had my share of the kind that hang around rodeos waiting to give a bull bucker a different kind of ride. But I know better than to mess with other men's wives."
"Smart." Jasper glanced toward the counter where Bonnie was setting up their coffee mugs on a tray with cream and sugar. "Her husband's a trucker. Good man. Loves her like crazy. But when he's on the road she gets lonesome, and she's got a powerful itch for young cowboys. Not that I know firsthand, mind you, but I've heard the other guys talk. Trust me, you don't want to get involved with her."
"Got it. I'll keep that in mind."
Excerpted from "Texas Fierce"
Copyright © 2017 The Estate of Janet Dailey.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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