Rose Landro is on the run. Seeking refuge at the Rimrock Ranch, she is finally ready to claim the land her granddaddy left her and make a fresh start. But her return is rife with controversy when cattle begin disappearing—and a handsome menace named Tanner McCade starts watching Rose a little too closely. Could the new cowhand be connected to the men she’s hiding from? Or is there another reason the rugged stranger is shadowing her every move?
He’s a man ready to fight boldly for his future . . .
There’s a secret in Rose Landro’s eyes, a mystery that Special Ranger Tanner McCade is determined to uncover. Even if the beauty isn’t behind the cattle rustling he’s investigating, she’s way too skittish, and all too exquisite for Tanner to just let slide past his piercing gaze. Then he discovers a vulnerability in Rose that has him aching to protect her—and longing to possess her. . . .
Praise for The Tylers of Texas series
“Big, bold, and sexy . . . Janet Dailey at her best!” —Kat Martin on Texas True
“Dailey fans will be delighted by Texas True. The gallant and charming Tyler brothers won’t soon be forgotten.” —RT Book Reviews (4 stars)
“Dailey does the genre proud with 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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Río Seco, Mexico April 1985
THE MEXICAN VILLAGE SLUMBERED UNDER THE LIGHT OF A WANING crescent moon. In the empty plaza, windblown shadows flickered over the cobblestones. The cantina was closed for the night, its outdoor tables and chairs locked away behind corrugated metal doors. A bat fluttered from the tower of the old adobe church and melted into darkness. A skinny dog foraged for leavings in the deserted marketplace.
The night was almost peaceful. But the stillness was heavy with tension — especially in one small adobe house on a dusty side street. Nothing in Río Seco was the way it had been before the Cabrera cartel took over the town. And for Rose Landro, after tonight, nothing would be the same again.
* * *
The click of a boot heel on the tiled patio startled Rose to full alertness. Lying fully dressed in the dark, she checked the impulse to sit up, fling aside the covers, and bolt out of bed. She was a small woman. Face-to-face, she'd be no match for the burly intruder who was stalking her. Her only chance of survival lay in surprise.
The loaded Smith and Wesson .44 was a cold lump under her pillow. As footsteps clicked across the patio, she closed her hand around the grip, cocked the hammer, and slid to the floor. Her free hand bunched the pillows into a semblance of her sleeping body and covered them with the blanket.
She knew who was coming for her. Lucho Cabrera, younger brother of the local cartel boss, was built like a short pile of bricks. He wore high-heeled cowboy boots to make him appear taller. The sound of those boots, clicking across the kitchen, chilled Rose's blood.
Gripping the heavy pistol, she crawled across the floor and pressed upward to stand against the wall, in the shadows behind the door. Her breath came in shallow gasps. Her pulse hammered in her ears.
The cartel would kill anyone who stood against them. They had already murdered Ramón and María Ortega, who'd taken Rose into their home twelve years ago. Rose would have fled for her life before now, but she could not leave without avenging the couple who'd cared for her like their own daughter.
Honor. The Ortegas had lived by that code. Now it was Rose's turn to carry on the tradition.
The footsteps were coming closer. Would Lucho stand in the doorway and fire at the lump in her bed, or did the sadistic pig plan on raping her first, as he'd done two months earlier when he'd caught her walking home alone after dark?
At the memory of his filthy, sweating body, her finger tightened on the trigger. If ever a man deserved killing, it was Lucho Cabrera. Only his older brother, Refugio, was worse.
The bedroom door creaked open. Rose held her breath as Lucho stepped into the room, his pistol drawn. The faint moonlight, falling through the high, barred window, cast black shadows across his fleshy face. As he neared the bed, he holstered the gun. One hand fumbled with his belt buckle. Good. This was almost too easy. She could shoot him now, in the back. But something in her wanted more. She wanted him to see her. When the bullet tore into his body, she wanted him to know who had fired it.
She forgot to breathe. Every muscle was a coiled spring as she waited for the right moment.
"Brujita fea ..." he muttered. The name, given to Rose because of the birthmark on her face, meant "ugly little witch." Over the years she'd learned to bear it with a measure of pride. Superstitious people tended to fear her, especially some of the men. But that wouldn't stop Lucho. He might even be planning to take a trophy back to his brother — an ear, a hand, or even her head — as proof of his bravery.
Still muttering, he loosened his trousers and jerked back the blanket. That was when he realized he'd been tricked. He spun around, cursing as Rose stepped out of the shadows, the .44 gripped between her hands.
"Muera, pendejo. Die, you bastard," she said, aiming the heavy revolver at his chest.
Lucho had no time to draw his weapon, but in the instant her finger tightened on the trigger, he lunged for her. The pistol roared, but Lucho's move had thrown off her aim. The bullet struck his right shoulder, barely slowing the brute's charge.
Slammed by the recoil, Rose staggered backward. Her feet tangled in the loose rug on the floor. Losing her balance, she went down hard, landing on one arm.
She managed to keep a one-handed grip on the gun, but now he was standing over her, blood streaming down his sleeve. She could hear the hiss of his breath between his teeth as he reached for his holster, then paused, cursing. That was when Rose realized her shot had disabled his shooting arm. The flicker of distraction as he switched to draw with his left hand gave her the only chance she had left.
She cocked the .44 and pulled the trigger.
This time she didn't miss.
Steeling her shattered nerves, she scrambled to her feet. Her knees quivered as she stepped over Lucho's supine body. He was dead, all right, his trousers gapping open to tell the story. Rose fought back a wave of nausea. This was no time to fall apart. The sound of gunfire was bound to alert the cartel. If she wanted to live, she had to collect her wits and get out of there.
Her duffel was already packed with the few clothes and necessities she owned. What she needed most was hidden outside.
The patio was eerily silent. Knowing she'd have to run, Rose had already given her beloved goats and chickens to the neighbors. All that remained was to move aside a potted palm, lift up the tile underneath, and scrape away the earth that covered a small, rusting metal box.
The box contained her U.S. birth certificate and the American dollars that her self-appointed guardian Bull Tyler had given Ramón toward her keep. Ramón, kindly man that he was, had refused to spend a cent of it, instead putting the cash aside for the day when Rose would need it. Now, after twelve years, that day had come.
Rose opened the box and checked to make sure nothing was missing. Then she snapped it shut and shoved it into the hip pocket of her jeans. Back in the house, she glanced around for anything else she might need. The .44 lay on the kitchen table where she'd left it. She thrust it into her belt and flung Ramón's old woolen serape over her shoulders to hide what she was carrying.
From the next street over, she could hear dogs barking. Someone could be here any minute. After snatching a set of keys from a nail inside the cupboard, she grabbed her duffel and raced across the patio, out the back door.
One key opened the padlock on the shed behind the house. Inside, covered by a canvas tarp, was the 1947 Buick that had been Ramón's pride and joy. The cartel knew about it, but none of the swaggering thugs who trailed after Don Refugio wanted an old car. They wanted new cars, sleek and fast and showy. None of them had tried to claim it.
There were tools in the shed, as well — hammers, saws, picks, shovels, a coil of rope, and more — tools she would need where she was going. With the car uncovered, Rose flung them all, along with her duffel, into the Buick's cavernous trunk. Last of all, she took her grandfather's double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun from its hiding place under Ramón's workbench, wrapped it in a blanket, and laid it at the back of the trunk along with a box of shells. After closing and locking the trunk, she opened the shed door wide, climbed into the car, and turned the key in the ignition. The powerful V8 engine purred to life. Ramón had taught her how to maintain his treasure, and Rose had learned her lessons well. The tank was full of gas, the oil changed, and the battery charged. With luck, she could make it across the border without needing to stop at a station, where the distinctive car and the port-wine blaze down the left border of her face would make her all too easy to remember.
The cartel would be after her — that much she knew. Don Refugio would not rest until he'd hunted down his brother's killer and made her pay.
With the shed door locked behind her and her headlights turned off, she drove through an alley and took a back lane out of town. Where the lane met paved road, she swung onto the narrow highway, switched the lights on high beam, and punched the gas pedal to the floor.
By now someone would have heard the shots, found Lucho's body, and most likely broken into the locked shed to discover that the old Buick was gone. It could be a matter of minutes before Refugio's goons were on her tail. While she could, she needed to gain as much time and distance as possible.
Her plan was to stay on the highway until first light. After that she would cut off into the maze of rough back roads that connected the scattered villages between here and the border at Piedras Negras. Her birth certificate was proof of citizenship and should be enough to get her into the United States. The car was another matter. Ramón had never licensed it in Mexico. But its Texas plates were eleven years old. The registration in the glove box bore the name of Carlos Ortega, Ramón's late brother who'd worked for Bull Tyler's father on the Rimrock Ranch. And Rose was driving it without a license.
Getting the Buick through customs could be trouble. Should she concoct a believable story and hope for the best? Or should she turn aside and look for a spot where smugglers and coyotes crossed the river? Never mind, she had time to make a plan. Right now all that mattered was staying ahead of the cartel.
Once she crossed the border, her final destination would be the Rimrock Ranch and the thirty-acre parcel of land she'd inherited from her grandfather — the land she'd left in Bull Tyler's care. But there'd be no safe refuge for her anywhere, not even on the Rimrock.
She'd been just fourteen when Ham Prescott, Bull's powerful neighbor, had shot and killed her grandfather before her eyes. When Ham came to silence her, Rose had blasted the old man to death with her grandfather's shotgun.
The incident was seared into her memory — the gleam of moonlight on Ham Prescott's pistol, the weight of the heavy shotgun in her shaking hands, and the blast that had nearly knocked her over backward. Afterward there'd been the sight of the old man's body sprawled on the ground and Bull running toward her across the yard.
To save her from arrest and vengeance, Bull had spirited her to Mexico and left her with his friends, the Ortegas. For twelve years she'd been safe. Now she'd be returning to face the consequences of what she'd done. Would she be jailed and hauled into court to stand trial? Would Ham's son, Ferg Prescott, be waiting to avenge his father's death?
She was taking a dangerous risk returning to the Rimrock. But she had no other place to go — and no other spot on earth that was hers by right of inheritance.
Bull had promised her that, when it was safe to return, the land would be waiting for her. But over the years he had never come back for her or contacted her in any way.
Could something have happened to him? That was possible, she reasoned. But it made more sense that Bull had simply taken the land for himself and left her stranded in Mexico.
Rose's hands tightened on the steering wheel. She owed Bull Tyler her freedom, and maybe even her life. But the one thing she did not owe him was her grandfather's land.
He might have taken advantage of a powerless girl, but she wasn't fourteen anymore. She was twenty-six years old and strong enough to fight for what was hers.
The Rimrock Ranch The end of the following day
Behind the Caprock Escarpment, where the land rose sharply to the west, the sunset's fiery blaze had faded to hues of mauve, purple, and deep indigo. Shadows darkened the steep-sided canyons and lengthened across the scrubby foothills and greening pastures of the Rimrock. The evening wind carried the aromas of sage, damp earth, and cattle.
Sore and dirty after a day on the spring roundup, Bull Tyler parked the pickup in the ranch yard and eased his aching body out of the driver's seat. He was barely thirty-four, but the pounding he'd taken in his early years as a bull rider was catching up with him. After ten hours in the saddle, his arthritic hip hurt like hell. A shot of the Jack Daniel's he stocked in his liquor cabinet would ease the pain some. But before he went inside, he had something important to do.
The two dogs, brothers, both of them old and shaggy, trotted off the porch to greet him as he walked around the truck. Bull ignored them. Useless damn things, always had been. But he kept them around because Susan had loved them. The fool dogs, his two boys, and the portrait that hung in the great room of the house were all he had left of her — unless you counted the memories.
After opening the truck's passenger door, he gathered up the handful of spring bluebonnets that lay on the seat. With the drooping bouquet bunched in one hand, he set off along a worn path that led from behind the house and across the brushy open land to a small rise, flattened on top and crowned with a low wrought iron fence. His spurs clinked with each labored step as he climbed the slope, startling a raven that had perched on a corner post. The grim bird croaked and flapped into the sunset, leaving a black feather on the ground.
The dogs had trailed him up the hill, but when he opened the gate, he made sure they stayed outside the fence. To Bull, this was sacred ground.
Three graves lay inside the enclosure, with space for one more. Bull had never known his mother, who'd died giving birth to him. Her grave, by far the oldest, barely rose above ground. His father, who'd passed away while Bull was working the rodeo circuit, was buried next to her. A few years after his death, when he could afford it, Bull had replaced their weathered wooden markers with a shared granite headstone. Nothing could replace family. That was a lesson Bull had learned the hard way.
Susan's grave lay next to the space where his own would be. Grimacing with the pain in his hip, Bull crouched next to the weathered mound of earth and laid the bluebonnets at the base of the white marble headstone. Susan had loved bluebonnets. Once he'd tried to grow some on her grave, but they'd withered in the dry summer heat, and he hadn't tried again.
Her death, six years ago in a highway accident, had torn the heart out of him, leaving a black hollow its place. Except for a brief affair with a Comanche woman, which had left him more wounded and bitter than ever, it was as if he'd shut down for good. If he had any love left in him, it was for his two boys — and for the land he would leave them.
Straightening, he turned away from the graves. From the hilltop, he could look out over the heart of the ranch — the house, which he'd finished in grand style for Susan, the barns and sheds, the bunkhouse for the hands, the hayfields and pastures, and the teeming paddocks where pregnant cows and heifers had been brought down for calving.
In the thirteen years since he'd left the rodeo and come home to a run-down ranch, he'd nearly doubled the original acreage, adding enough land to run 4,000 head of cattle. He'd built a small duplex behind the house, half for Jasper Platt, the mentor and friend who was now his foreman, and the other half for guests.
After Susan's death, Jasper's widowed sister, a plump, cheerful woman named Bernice, had come to keep house and look after the boys. She'd moved into Jasper's old apartment in the rear of the house and had proven herself to be a treasure.
Bull closed the gate on the sad little graveyard and moved down the hill. By now, Bernice would have fed the boys their supper and sent them off to do their homework. Bull's own supper would be warming in the oven. He would eat it alone, or maybe with Jasper if they needed to talk. He didn't see much of his sons; but then, he'd never had much use for children. When they were older, he would teach them to be men and to run the ranch. Right now the most vital thing he could do for them was to build and preserve their legacy.
Family and land. In the end, nothing else counted.
Jasper was waiting at the bottom of the hill, a lanky, scarecrow figure against the fading sky. Knowing that Bull liked to be alone here, he wouldn't ordinarily have come this far. Not unless there was trouble.
"What is it?" Bull sensed that the news wouldn't be good.
Jasper scuffed out the cigarette he'd been smoking. "Just got word from the boys coming in off the range. We're short six head since last month. No sign of carcasses anywhere, not even bones."
Bull mouthed a curse. "Rustlers. Got to be."
"Rustlers — or maybe the Prescotts." Jasper hated their powerful neighbors as much as Bull did.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Texas Free"
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