Authors: Janet Dailey
Christmas in Cowboy Country
Merry Christmas, Cowboy
A Cowboy Under My
Always with Love
Bannon Brothers: Honor
Bannon Brothers: Trust
Because of You
Can't Say Goodbye
Close to You
Crazy in Love
Dance with Me
Green Calder Grass
Lone Calder Star
Mistletoe and Molly
Santa in a Stetson
That Loving Feeling
To Santa with Love
When You Kiss Me
Yes, I Do
You're Still the One
Let's Be Jolly
Maybe This Christmas
Scrooge Wore Spurs
Searching for Santa
Santa in Montana
Shifting Calder Wind
Going My Way
It Takes Two
Happily Ever After
Try to Resist Me
Bring the Ring
With This Kiss
Man of Mine
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
hen Virgil “Bull” Tyler left this life, it was said that his departing spirit roared like a norther across the yellowed spring pastureland, shrilled upward among the buttes and hoodoos of the Caprock Escarpment, and lost itself in the cry of a red-tailed hawk circling above the high Texas plain.
Later on, folks would claim they'd felt Bull's passing like a sudden chill on the March wind. But his son Will Tyler had felt nothing. Busy with morning chores, Will was unaware of his father's death until he heard the shouts of the husky male nurse who came in every morning to get the old man out of bed and into his wheelchair.
Will knew at once what had happened. By the time his long strides carried him to the rambling stone ranch house, he'd managed to brace for what he would find. All the same, the sight of that once-powerful body lying rigid under the patchwork quilt, the lifeless blue eyes staring up at the ceiling, hit him like a kick in the gut. He'd lived his whole thirty-nine years in his father's shadow. Now the old man was gone. But the shadow remained.
“Do you want me to call nine-one-one?” The young man was new to the ranch. Bull had gone through a parade of hired caregivers in the six years since a riding accident had shattered his spine, paralyzing his hips and legs.
“What for?” Will pulled the sheet over his father's face. In the movies, somebody would've closed those eyes. In real life, Will knew for a fact that it didn't work.
“We'll need to call somebody,” the nurse said. “The county coroner, maybe? They'll want to know what killed him.”
Alcohol and pain pills,
Will surmised. But what the hell, there were protocols to be followed. “Fine, go ahead and call,” he said. “I'll be outside if you need me.”
Bernice Crawford, the plump, graying widow who'd been the Tylers' cook and housekeeper since Will's boyhood, met him in the hall. Tears were streaming down her apple-cheeked face. “Oh, Will! I'm so sorry!”
“I know.” Will searched for words of comfort for her. “Dad thought the world of you, Bernice.”
“He was a miserable old man,” she said. “You know that as well as I do. But he carried the burden God gave him, and now he's free of it.”
Will gave her shoulder an awkward squeeze before he turned away and strode toward the front door. He needed fresh air. And he needed time to gather his thoughts.
He made it to the wide, covered porch before the raw reality slammed home. Setting his jaw, he gripped the rail and forced himself to breathe. His father was dead. He felt the void left by Bull's passingâand the weight of responsibility for this ranch and everyone on it that was now his to shoulder alone.
The morning breeze carried the smells of springâthawing manure, sprouting grass, and restless animals. Hammer blows rang from the hollow beyond the barn, where the hands were shoring up the calving pens for the pregnant heifers that had been bred a week ahead of the older cows. The rest of the cattle that had wintered in the canyon would soon need rounding up for the drive to spring pasture above the escarpment on the Llano Estacado
the Staked Plain, given that name by early Spaniards because the land was so flat and desolate that they had to drive stakes in the ground to keep from losing their way.
Looking down from the low rise where the house stood, Will let his gaze sweep over the heart of the sprawling Rimrock Ranchâthe vast complex of sheds, corrals, and barns, the hotel-like bunkhouse for unmarried hands, the adjoining cookhouse and commissary, and the line of neat brick bungalows for workers with families. To the east, a shallow playa lake glittered pale aquamarine in the sunlight. It made a pretty sight, but the water was no good to drink. With the summer heat it would evaporate, leaving behind an ugly white patch of alkali where nothing would grow.
Will scowled up at the cloudless sky. Last summer's drought had been a nightmare. If no rain fell, the coming summer could be even worse, with the grass turning to dust and the cattle having to be sold off early, at a pittance on the plummeting beef market.
Will had managed the ranch for the past six years and done it as competently as his father ever had. But even from his wheelchair, Bull had been the driving spirit behind Rimrock. Now that Bull was gone, Will felt the full burden of his legacy.
“Looks like we'll be planning a funeral.” The dry voice startled Will before he noticed the old man seated in one of the rocking chairs with Tag, the ranch Border collie, sprawled at his feet. Jasper Platt, Bernice's older brother, had been foreman since before Will was born. Now that rheumatism kept him out of the saddle, he was semiretired. But Will still relied on him. No one understood the ranch and everything on it, including the people, the way Jasper did.
“When did you find out?” Will asked.
“About the same time you did.” Jasper was whip spare and tough as an old saddle. His hair was an unruly white thatch, his skin burned dark as walnut below the pale line left by his hat. The joints of his fingers were knotted with arthritis.
“You'd best start phoning people,” he said. “Some of them, like Beau, will need time to get here.”
“I know.” Will had already begun a mental list. His younger brother Beau was out on the East Coast and hadn't set foot on the ranch in more than a decadeânot since he'd bolted to join the army after a big blowup with their father. The rest of the folks who mattered enough to call lived on neighboring ranches or fifteen miles down the state highway in Blanco Springs, the county seat. Most of them could wait until after the date and time for the funeral had been set. But Will's ex-wife, Tori, who lived in Blanco with their twelve-year-old daughter Erin, would need to know right away. Erin would take the news hard. Whatever Bull had been to others, he was her grandpa.
Neither call would be easy to make. Beau was out of the army now and working for the government in Washington, DC. He had kept them informed of his whereabouts, but an address and a couple of phone numbers was all Will knew about his brother's life out East.
As for Toriâshort for Victoriaâshe'd left Will five years ago to practice law in town. Shared custody of their daughter had kept things civil between them. But when they spoke, the tension was like thin ice on a winter pond, still liable to crack at the slightest shift.
The nearest mortuary was in Lubbock. He'd have to call them, too. They'd most likely want to pick up the body at the coroner's.
Hell, what a cold, unfeeling process. Too bad they couldn't just wrap the old man in a blanket and stash him in the Caprock like the Indians used to do. Bull would have liked that.
As if conjured by the thought of Indians, a solitary figure stepped out of the horse barn and stood for a moment, gazing across the muddy yard. Fourteen years ago, Sky Fletcher, the part-Comanche assistant foreman, had wandered onto the ranch as a skinny teenage orphan and stayed to prove himself as a man known across the state for his skill with horses.
“Does Sky know?” Will asked Jasper.
“He knows. And he said to tell you that when you're ready, he'll crank up the backhoe and dig the grave next to your mother's.”
“Sky's got better things to do.”
Jasper gave him a sharp glance. “Bull was good to that boy. He wants to help. Let him.”
“Fine. Tell him thanks.” Will looked back toward the barn, but Sky was no longer in sight.
Squaring his shoulders, Will took a couple of deep breaths and crossed the porch to the front door. It was time to face the truth that awaited him inside the house.
His father was deadâand the void he'd left behind was as deep as the red Texas earth.
hen it came to big gatherings, there was nothing like a good old-fashioned Texas funeral.
From the doorway of the cavernous ranch house parlor, Beau Tyler sipped his bourbon and studied the Texans who'd come to mourn and swap stories about his father. Now that Bull was properly eulogized and planted in the family cemetery, the real get-together could begin.
From the pit-barbecued beef in the backyard to the salads, casseroles, and desserts the neighbors had brought along, there was plenty to eatâand to drink. Guests heaped their plates from the groaning buffet table, filled their glasses at the bar, and took advantage of the rare chance to socialize.
After eleven years away, Beau felt like a stranger. Children had grown up in his absence. Middle-aged folk had grown old, and some of the old ones had passed on. Scanning the crowd, he could spot only a few people he recognized. Every now and then he'd spot a familiar face but rarely could he link a name with it. He supposed it was to be expected.
Catching the sound of the front door closing, Beau automatically glanced in its direction, obeying the well-honed instinct to locate and assess the person coming up behind him. His gaze landed on a big, burly bear of a man, dressed in the uniform of a local law enforcement officer, in the process of removing his hat. There were more lines in his craggy face and some gray in his hair, but Beau had no trouble recognizing the county sheriff, Hoyt Axelrod.
At almost the same moment, the sheriff spotted him, briefly narrowed his sharp eyes, then nodded his head in recognition. “Beau Tyler.” He walked straight toward him, a hand outstretched in greeting. “A lot of people around here were wondering if you'd come back for the funeral. Some were even placing bets on it.”
“Someone got lucky, then.” The handshake was firm but brief.
“I'm sure your brother appreciates having you here. Sorry I couldn't make it to the funeral, but I got tied up at the courthouse.”
“Duty first,” Beau responded. “Comes with the badge.”
“That's right. You'd know about that, wouldn't you? You're an agent with the DEA now, aren't you?” Axelrod asked.
“I never figured you were the kind to go into law enforcement. Growing up, you always seemed more interested in good times and partying,” the sheriff remarked, while his gaze made a fresh study of him in this new light.
“People change,” Beau replied, and idly swirled the bourbon in his glass.
“That they do,” the sheriff agreed. “And Lord knows, there isn't a part of this country that isn't plagued by drug problems of some kind. I'm just glad we aren't any closer to the border than we are. But this isn't the time or place for shoptalk.” The cell phone hooked to his belt beeped, advising the sheriff of an incoming text message. Axelrod darted an apologetic glance at Beau, checked his phone, then hooked it back on his belt. “If you're going to be around a few days, maybe you can stop by my office and we can trade some stories.”
“I've got a flight out tomorrow. Maybe another time.”
“I'll hold you to that,” the sheriff replied, giving no sign he meant it any more than Beau did. Immediately he shifted his attention to the people milling in the parlor. “You wouldn't know where I might find your brother so I can offer him my condolences?”
“Last time I saw him, he was by the bar.”
“I'll find him. It's good to see you again, Beau. I'm just sorry it had to be under these circumstances.”
Beau nodded in response and watched as the sheriff began making his way through the throng of mourners toward the bar. He knew he should mingle with the guests, but he didn't feel like making small talk. He was about to turn away from the parlor when he caught sight of a face he recognized at once.
There was Tori, Will's ex-wife, in a knee-skimming black lawyer suit. Tall and slim, with sun-streaked hair, she looked classy as hell. Beau had always thought she and Will were meant for a lifetime together. Whatever had driven them apart must've been bad. But then Will was capable of being a stubborn, insensitive jackass, especially when it came to women. And Tori had never been one to quietly knuckle under.
Tori had been cornered by a neighboring rancher, Congressman Garn Prescott. Prescott had given the eulogy at the funeral, which was surprising since Bull and Prescott's late father had hated each other's guts. But a lot could change over time, and there was an election coming up this fall.
Reading Tori's body language, Beau surmised that the man was invading her personal space and all she wanted was to end their conversation. He was weighing the wisdom of going to her rescue when he felt a touch on his arm and heard a soft voice.
“Are you my uncle Beau?”
Beau turned to the young girl by his elbow. She looked about twelve, with intelligent blue eyes and a dark blond ponytail tied with black satin ribbon. For a split second he failed to recognize her. Then he recalled glimpsing her at the service, next to her mother.
“Erin? Is that really you?”
The grin that lit her faceâa miniature of Tori's but with Will's blue eyesâanswered his question.
“I can't believe it!” Smiling, he shook his head in mock amazement. “The last time I saw you, you were still in diapers!”
Her laugh was musical. “Not anymore. I'm almost in eighth grade. Someday I want to be a lawyer like my mom, or maybe a vet like Natalie.”
Natalie. Something like an unhealed scar pulled inside him. He'd heard she was in veterinary school, and later on that she'd finished and married Slade Haskell. But nothing more. Not in years. He'd almost succeeded in forgetting her.
As if any man could forget his first timeâand hers.
“My dad told me you were in a war. He said you got shot.”
“I was, and I did. But I'm okay now.” And he was okay. The nightmares about the action he'd seen in Iraq still plagued him sometimes, but he'd learned to deal with that. As for the bone-shattering shoulder wound that had gotten him sent stateside, it did no worse than hamper his racquetball game and stiffen up in cold weather. He'd been lucky over there. Damned lucky.
“And now you catch bad guys that sell drugs. That's what my dad says.”
“Well, I used to. Now I get to boss other people who catch them.”
“Can I get you a sandwich or something?” Erin asked. “I'm helping Bernice today. She said I could be her gofer.”
“I'll grab something later. But thanks for the offer.”
“Time for me to get gofering.” She wrinkled her lightly freckled nose. “I hope we can talk some more while you're here. When I grow up, I want to see the whole worldâjust like you.”
“I'm leaving tomorrow. If there's anything you want to talk about, we'd better make it soon.”
“I'll do my best. But right now Bernice needs me to fetch more napkins.” She flitted off through the crowd. Beau's gaze followed the path of her bobbing ponytail. A smile edged the corners of his mouth. The kid was a winner straight out of the gate.
At least Will and Tori had done something right.
Tori's hand cramped around her glass of iced tea. Her black stiletto pumps were killing her feet. The tightness at the back of her neck signaled an oncoming headache, and Congressman Garn Prescott, who'd backed her against a leather settee, wouldn't get out of her face.
Keep skunks and politicians at a distance.
Bull's words came back to her as she fought the urge to shove the man away.
“How can I convince you, Tori?” The congressman was fifty-two, a big, handsome, graying man whose breath smelled of the Scotch he'd been drinking. “A woman like you, your talents are being wasted in a backwater town like Blanco Springs. As a member of my Washington staff, your salary would be twice what you're making here. And the connectionsâmy dear, there's no limit to where you could go.”
Does that include your bed, you lecherous old goat?
Tori scanned the room over Prescott's shoulder. She spotted Will standing near the massive stone fireplace, his broad-shouldered frame and dark brown hair a beacon in the crowd. But his back was turned toward her. And Will Tyler was the last man she would ask to ride to her rescue.
“Say the word and I'll make it happenâfull benefits, your own town house, the works.” Prescott gave her arm a proprietary squeeze. “It'll be the best decision you ever made.”
Freezing at his touch, Tori shook her head. “I have a daughter, and she's happy here. I'm not about to haul her across the country, away from her father and this ranch. Sorry, Garn, but my answer is no.”
“Dinner, then, at least. Give me one more chance to convince you.”
Tori's patience had reached the fracture point, but she didn't want to make a scene. She was groping for a civil response when she felt a light touch at her elbow. Swiveling her gaze, she looked up into Beau's mischievous hazel eyes. Her lips moved in a silent
“Congressman.” Beau's greeting was friendly but firm. “Hope you'll excuse us, but the lady is urgently needed elsewhere.”
Taking Tori's arm, he steered her toward the front entry. “How about some fresh air?” he muttered.
“Yes. Please. This place is a zoo.”
“And I've just rescued you from the gorilla.” His grin dazzled as he opened the door and led her out onto the porch. Kicking off her pumps, Tori set her glass aside and sank onto the double swing. The dog, drowsing on the top step, raised his head, then settled back into his afternoon nap.
“This is more like it,” she breathed. “Another thirty seconds with that man and I'd have slapped his smarmy face. I don't even agree with his politics, let alone want to work for him.”
“Well, you can't blame him for trying.” Beau settled at the other end of the swing, leaning into the corner so he could look at her. The two had been friends since first grade, and nobody had been more pleased than Beau when, after law school, she'd married his big brother.
She turned her face to the slight breeze that was blowing and drew in a deep breath. “Mmm, the air smells so good and clean after yesterday's storm,” she declared, then added with a trace of wistfulness, “I just hope it means we'll get our usual spring rains and end this drought.” Her gaze traveled back to him. “The storm made it tough for you, I hear. Will told me your flight was forced to divert to another airport. What time did you finally get to the ranch?”
“By the time I got a rental car and drove here, it was after midnight,” Beau admitted. “By the way, I met your daughter in there. She's a gem.”
“Erin's the best thing that ever happened to me. At least Will and I accomplished something good when we brought her into the world.”
“I was thinking the same thing earlier.” Beau kicked the swing into motion. The light, creaking sound blended with the distant calls of spring meadowlarks. “You and Will were the real deal. I lost my faith in true love when you split up.”
Tori sighed. She should have known the conversation would go this way.
“What happened?” Beau asked.
“What has Will told you?”
“Nothing. You know Will.”
“Do I?” Tori still wondered about that. She hadn't been much older than Erin when she'd fallen in love with Will Tyler. But he was older, and he'd paid her scant attention until years later when she'd returned home to Blanco Springs with her law degree. Their passionate whirlwind courtship had allowed them little time to get reacquainted. By the time she woke to the realization that she'd married a stranger, she'd been pregnant with their daughter.
“It's past and forgotten, Beau,” she said. “Let's talk about something elseâlike you. Any special lady in your life?”
Beau shrugged. He'd always been the handsome brother, with a runner's long bones, light brown hair, and a roguish charm that matched his looks. Will, on the other hand, was chiseled in his father's dark, solid image, and he was just as intractable as Bull had been.
Bull Junior, Tori had called her husband during one of their arguments.
“Special ladies take time,” Beau said. “And they expect things, like being told where you are, who you're with, and when you'll be home for dinner.”
“Sounds like a passel of excuses to me.” Tori gave him a roguish wink. “You'd make time for the right woman if you found her.”
Beau's gaze traced the sun-streaked curl that trailed along her cheek. He knew better than to think Tori was flirting with him. They'd been friends most of their lives, but there was no romantic chemistry between them. And even though she was legally free, to him she would always be his brother's woman.
“Maybe I'm just not the right man,” he said. “The kind of work I do can make you pretty cynical.” He gave the swing another push with his foot. Sex was something he could get any time he wanted it. There were plenty of single, pretty women in Washington, most of them ambitious as hell. For them, a roll in the hay was just a way to let off stress, or maybe a leg up to the next level of wherever they were headed. Beau had long since learned to settle for that.