West Texas 1895
Trey March had done the one thing that most cowpokes in West Texas had the good sense to avoid. Heâ€™d gotten on the wrong side of Jared Barton.
It hadnâ€™t been intentional and he surely wasnâ€™t wholly to blame, but the end result had been the same. He had the scars, lingering pain and burning anger from that lesson to remind him how badly heâ€™d screwed up.
All because heâ€™d thought with his dick. All because heâ€™d stupidly trusted a woman to tell the truth.
Not just any woman.
Nope, heâ€™d surrendered to the temptation that glistened in the big innocent eyes of Bartonâ€™s daughter. How damn dumb could a man get?
The reality that sheâ€™d played him for a fool was never far from his mind. Itâ€™d festered in his gut month after month while he was laid up hurting so damned bad he wanted to die.
Only one thing kept him going. Revenge.
But he wasnâ€™t about to waste any more time on the female object of his scorn, which was why heâ€™d waited to come back until now. He didnâ€™t want to see her or hear her name mentioned.
He just wanted what heâ€™d worked hard to achieve. He damned sure wasnâ€™t leaving until Barton squared with him.
Trey swung off the gray gelding heâ€™d finagled in El Paso and looped the line through the fancy hitching post set in front of the big sprawling hacienda. It was as impressive as the hundreds of acres of land where Barton raised prime Herefords, but right now it looked as desolete as the West Texas soil.
Droughts had a way of reducing grandeur to nothing, just like this one was drying up creeks and wells and menâ€™s dreams. Good thing for him heâ€™d given up on wishful thinking six months back.
His personal deadline to claim his shares of the only home heâ€™d known was long past. Instead of going back to Wyoming, all he could do now was claim his money, his horses and start over again.
Forget the woman and remember the lesson.
He rolled his shoulders to ease the tension cobbling him. Dun grit covered everything, even the scrubby rose struggling to survive in soil that had baked adobe hard. Her yellow rosebush.
His gut twisted a bit tighter as memories of Daisy laughing and smiling and moving under him galloped through his mind, a torment that he couldnâ€™t forget. He cursed his own weakness for her still. Not that it mattered.
Sheâ€™d done her slumming with him last fall. By now sheâ€™d be married as her daddy had planned and living two counties away from here in another fine big ranch house. A rich rancherâ€™s wife.
Yep, heâ€™d timed his visit to the JDB just right. Wasnâ€™t it damned odd that these inhospitable conditions were a fitting welcome for him as he dared to brave Jared Bartonâ€™s ire?
Trey strode through the white picket gate liberally covered with dust and up the walk to the front door, his spurs chinking in time to the steady clang of metal on metal echoing from the blacksmithâ€™s shack.
This time of day the hands would be busy doing chores, though with the drought that equated to hauling water. Barton would be alone in his office hunched over his books, likely trying to find a way to hold on to what he had until the drought broke.
If Ned Durant was with him…
His fingers grazed the sidearm resting easy on his left hip. That sonofabitch wouldnâ€™t catch Trey off guard a second time.
He gave the brass knocker three hard raps then waited. When a good minute passed and Ramona failed to answer, he smacked the knocker harder, letting off some of the old steam that continued to boil in him whenever he thought of how heâ€™d let a woman play him for a damned fool.
He heard the housekeeper muttering a litany in Spanish long before she opened the big carved door. Ramonaâ€™s soft brown eyes rounded and her mouth dropped open, clear signs that he was the last person she expected to come calling.
â€œSeÃ±or March! Where have you been?â€ Her black eyebrows snapped together as she looked him up and down. â€œYou are too thin!â€
Rangy, claimed one of the gals who worked at La Valeraâ€™s Cantina where heâ€™d been laid up. Like a wolf too long on the range hunting for easy prey. But that predator would tell you there was no such thing in nature or life.
He managed a smile for Ramonaâ€™s sake, not the least bit surprised nobody had told the housekeeper what had happened to him. That kind of justice tended to be swept under the rug or buried six-feet deep. Heâ€™d come uncomfortably close to the latter.
â€œSpent the winter in El Paso.â€ He had no time to waste on idle talk, even though heâ€™d have enjoyed visiting with Ramona. â€œI need to see Barton.â€
She clapped both hands over her mouth. â€œAi, yi, yi, you donâ€™t know?â€
â€œKnow what?â€ he asked.
Hell, had Barton packed up and moved to his other ranch? No, he wouldnâ€™t have left Ramona here. So why did the older woman look distressed?
â€œRamona, whoâ€™s there?â€ came a sweetly feminine voice from deep in the house, a voice that haunted his nightmares.
The hair on his nape lifted and the skin burned. What the hell was Daisy doing here?
He heard her heels strike the tiled floor in that slow Southern cadence that set a manâ€™s thoughts to lustier images. Any second sheâ€™d step into the hall, the gentle sway of her hips in contrast with the quickened beat of his pulse.
Every nerve in his body tensed, the muscles bunching of their own accord. There was no avoiding it. No way to temper the fact he was a heartbeat away from laying eyes on the woman with an angelâ€™s smile and the cold calculating heart of a she-devil.
â€œRamona, whatâ€™s wrong?â€ Daisy Barton stepped into the hall, looked his way and came to a dead stop.
He had the satisfaction of seeing her face leach of color. She even took one shaky step back. If she was smart sheâ€™d hightail it until he was gone, then he’d ride out of her life for good this time.
â€œAi, yi, yi.â€ The housekeeper shook her head, clearly distressed over the tension that was cracking in the air like sheet lightning between him and Daisy.
Hellâ€™s fire! She shouldnâ€™t be here. He shouldnâ€™t still feel that pull toward her like a bee to Texas bluebonnets.
She was married now. Not his. Never his.
Ramona mumbled a string of Holy Mothers. A waste of time. No amount of prayers would douse the rage blazing in his gut. Daisy had lied to him and betrayed him and damned near got him killed. Now she was looking at him as if he were the one whoâ€™d hurt her.
“Is Barton here or not?” he asked.
“Por favor, you must speak with SeÃ±orita Barton,â€ Ramona said, and then she scurried off with a kerchief pressed to her mouth.
SeÃ±orita Barton? Daisy hadnâ€™t married.
He could lie and say he didnâ€™t give a damn, but he couldnâ€™t deny he was curious to know what had happened after heâ€™d been dragged off. But the last person he aimed to talk to was Daisy.
By the way she was eyeing him from across the room, she was none too pleased to see or talk to him either. Well too damned bad.
He had no desire to tramp around the ranch to find a hand whoâ€™d tell him what the hell was going on with Barton or Daisy. He just wanted his due and then heâ€™d be gone.
â€œI donâ€™t know why you decided to come back now, but you can just turn around and take yourself off again,â€ Daisy said, chin high and voice catching with that soft Southern pride that she wore like battle armor.
Despite her full skirt and the oversized puff on her sleeves, she looked no more than skin and bones. Haggard even. But then she was dressed in drab gray â€“ a color heâ€™d never seen her wear before.
From this distance he could see that dark cresents streaked under her big eyes. What the hell had happened to put her in this state? Had Kurt Leonard learned she was a lying bit of muslin who was loose with her wares? Had he broken off their engagement and sent Daisy back here in shame?
Served her right if the rancher had dumped her. If her pa had to suffer the shame of her actions along with her. He could care less. She was nothing to him now. Nothing but a bad memory.
He aimed to say his piece to Barton, collect his due and vamoose. Whatever problems father and daughter were having here was none of his concern.
â€œI need to talk with Barton right now,â€ he said.
â€œDonâ€™t try stopping me, maâ€™am,â€ he interrupted, putting undue emphasis on Daisy’s address. â€œIf he isnâ€™t here, Iâ€™ll wait for him to come back.â€
She pushed back a strand of golden hair with a hand that trembled â€“ a left hand that was missing her betrothal ring. â€œAll right. Come back to Daddyâ€™s office.â€
She disappeared through the doorway like a thief, likely anxious to tell the old man that Trey had dared to come calling at the front door. He was tempted to wait here until she left Bartonâ€™s office for he wasnâ€™t in any mood to discuss his business while she was in the room.
But maybe it was for the best that she was on hand. Maybe she should hear what heâ€™d come back to retrieve, for then sheâ€™d see he hadnâ€™t been a drifter. Heâ€™d had plans for a better life for himself. For them once he felt worthy of her.
Maybe sheâ€™d feel a smidgeon of remorse once she learned that sheâ€™d killed every bit of respect heâ€™d had for her.
If only he couldâ€™ve done the same about this intense desire for her, but it was still there. Another thorn in his side to bear. Reminding him how good it had felt to hold her, love her, make her his in the most elemental way.
He wasnâ€™t about to give her the satisfaction of knowing how badly he hurt â€“ how much he still hurt â€“ how much she crossed his mind when he least expected it.
Trey ambled down the hall, his spurs chinking on the tiles to beat out the annoyance that hammered in his blood. Heâ€™d never come in the front door before. Heâ€™d been one of the hands and when he had business to discuss with Barton heâ€™d used the back door.
A far cry from his life on the Crown Seven, but heâ€™d learned that too was just another bump in the road for him. A home and family given to him only to be snatched away just when he was starting to let down his guard â€“ just when he was starting to trust.
Heâ€™d been born unwanted and nothing much had changed of late. No sense dwelling on that simple fact.
Trey pushed into the office and came up short. Instead of Barton presiding over the room from his big leather chair, Daisy perched on it like a nervous bird about to take flight.
The man in question was nowhere to be seen.
“What the hell are you trying to pull?” he asked.
Her spine went stiff at that. “I am trying to manage this ranch in my daddy’s stead which isn’t easy to do when his trusted hands take off without a by-your-leave and then return half a year later and act like the world owes them a living.”
The realization that something was dead wrong here slipped past his anger. He took in the pile of papers on the desk, the tray holding a teapot and uneaten wedges of toast. Somebody had spend a considerable amount of time right here and he knew it had to have been Daisy. But why?
“Where is Barton?”
She stared at him straight on with the same delicate strength as a bluebonnet defying the punishing West Texas sun. “Daddyâ€™s dead.”
Her lips trembled and she worried her hands again, a tell that told him she wasnâ€™t as strong as she was putting on. But somehow she surprised him and fought back the tears that were threatening to fall.
Damn, he hadnâ€™t expected that news. It was clear she was in dire straights here holding the ranch together. He wasnâ€™t going to feel a smidgeon of pity for her. Not one damned bit.
But he was curious, worried even, for Bartonâ€™s fate could have a negative impact on his own.
Her chin came up and she fixed accusing eyes on him. “Daddy had a stroke a couple of months after you left. It took him right away.”
â€œDamn! Youâ€™ve been managing the ranch since then?â€
â€œAlone?â€ he asked, because sheâ€™d never had a lick of dealing with ranch business, never done anything but be her daddyâ€™s spoiled little girl, and sheâ€™d been engaged to marry one of the richest young ranchers in the state.
â€œI donâ€™t see where thatâ€™s any of your business, Mr. March.â€ Her features hardened like tempered porcelain, as if challenging him to ask more probing questions.
Oh, he had plenty of them to ask, but he wouldnâ€™t. That would be admitting to being curious and he preferred her to think that sheâ€™d never crossed his mind these past six months.
â€œNow that you know, you can leave,â€ she said.
â€œIâ€™ll gladly do just that after I collect whatâ€™s owed me.â€
â€œYou shouldâ€™ve collected your pay before you left the JDB,â€ she said, the heat back in her tone.
â€œYour daddy had other ideas, and you damned well know it.â€
â€œAll I knew was that youâ€™d packed up and left.â€
Heâ€™d been lassoed and dragged near to death, but maybe Barton hadnâ€™t shared the details with her. He sure as hell wasnâ€™t about to tell her the particulars.
â€œWhatâ€™s it going to be? You going to pay up?â€ he asked.
She leaned back then and stared at him. â€œI only have your word that Daddy owes you. For all I know you could be trying to bilk me out of more money.â€
He planted his fists on the desk and glared at her, taking small satisfaction when the pulse in her throat warbled to a nigh frantic beat. â€œI wouldnâ€™t do that and you damn well know it.â€
â€œIâ€™ve learned that I donâ€™t know you at all.â€ She turned in the chair and stared at the window. â€œNot that it matters. If Daddy owes you, I still canâ€™t pay. Iâ€™ve spent everything on hauling water and doing what I could to keep the herd alive.â€
He took in the proud tilt of her head and unflinching gaze and knew she was telling the truth. Like hundreds of other ranchers, the JDB was in poor financial straits due to the drought. Now he was shit out of luck.
â€œPaying to haul water is a losing proposition,â€ he said. â€œSurprised Ned didnâ€™t balk at doing that.â€
â€œIt was his idea.â€
â€œA piss-poor one.â€
â€œI suppose you have a better idea?â€
He shrugged. â€œBarton wouldâ€™ve moved the herd to his other ranch that wasnâ€™t hit so hard by the drought.â€
Barton wouldâ€™ve sold off the excess as well. But the rancher was dead and his daughter was calling the shots now.
Daisy didnâ€™t know a damned thing about ranching. She was relying on Ned to guide her and the foreman was leading her down a path toward bankruptcy.
But why? What the hell did Ned hope to gain if the ranch bellied up? What would Daisy do if she lost the ranch?
Donâ€™t dwell on her problems. Donâ€™t dwell on her. Best thing he could do was cut his losses and ride out.
â€œI donâ€™t have any cash to speak of,â€ she said again, â€œbut you are welcome to take a cow and a calf to cover a monthâ€™s pay.â€
â€œA monthâ€™s pay? Sweetheart, your daddy owes me over two thousand dollars.â€
Far from a fortune, but it amounted to a yearâ€™s worth of scrimping and saving. â€œThat didnâ€™t count the horses I won. Barton let me keep them on the Circle 46. Aim to go get them when I leave here.â€
Youâ€™d think heâ€™d said ten times that amount of money, seeing as the color drained from her face. â€œWhy would Daddy owe you so much?â€
It was a question that deserved an honest answer. â€œI agreed to take half my pay up front the whole time I worked here and let Barton hold the other half for me. Did a couple of drives for him on the side and had him apply the whole of that pay to my savings. Check his ledger. Itâ€™s listed in that old battered trail log he kept in the back of the bottom drawer of his desk.â€
Trey had stood here month after month while Barton jotted down the amount he held on to for Trey before he collected his pay. Heâ€™d had dreams of claiming his share of the Crown Seven Ranch with that money.
Barton became the bank that wouldnâ€™t let him withdraw money without thinking it through first. For the first time in his life, heâ€™d amassed a fair amount of money.
Yet as it stood now the end result was the same.
While he was laid up in El Paso, the deadline to claim his shares passed. Heâ€™d lost the Crown Seven. And without the money heâ€™d worked for, he wouldnâ€™t be able to buy a ranch either.
Hell, he didnâ€™t have any money. With the drought burning West Texas to a crisp, ranchers were laying off cowboys, so he could damn well forget about getting work in these parts either.
â€œI didnâ€™t know this was in here,â€ Daisy said as she brought the worn ledger out and laid it on the desk.
Had she just stepped in here and not given the papers a thorough inspection? Had she any idea of half the deals her old man had made with his hands, ranchers, and buyers?
Nope, heâ€™d bet she left those details in Nedâ€™s hands. That explained why she was losing money. Why she was clueless about the deal Trey was calling her on.
Her fingers fumbled to untie the worn leather thong holding the ledger together. She turned the pages slowly, scanning each one, her frown deepening as she went through the book.
Surprise and shock registered on her face. When she got to the pages that the old man had devoted to Treyâ€™s dealings with him, she downed her head and bowed her shoulders.
He started to reach for her again and just barely quelled the yearning. Damn if heâ€™d let history repeat itself with her.
â€œThe amount Daddy held for you matches what youâ€™re asking.â€ She closed the book and her hands fluttered nervously over the leather. â€œI donâ€™t have the cash, but I can give you the equal value in stock.â€
Prime stock too, or they had been before the weather took a toll on them. Still it was a tempting offer and likely would be his only chance to amass a sizable herd and recoup some of his losses.
â€œWith the market as tight as it is and the cattle in poor condition, Iâ€™d need twice as many to get my price out of them,â€ he said, not about to question why he was being straight with her. â€œI couldnâ€™t do that alone and every man I hired would need to be paid. Fact is, I donâ€™t have a place to hold stock until the conditions get better.â€
She bit her lower lip, as if thinking something over. â€œYou can keep them here.â€
He laughed at that notion. â€œAinâ€™t no way Iâ€™d do that.â€
Her chin came up and pure hurt shadowed her eyes. â€œAre you arguing just to be contrary? There are only two choices. Take your cattle or leave them here with JDB stock.â€
He wanted to think she was just being sassy, but it was clear she believed her own words. â€œWhy didnâ€™t Ned move any of the herd to Bartonâ€™s old homestead?â€
â€œHe told me the trail would be too hard on them in these conditions,â€ she said.
â€œHarder than them dying of thirst here?â€ He shook his head that sheâ€™d caved to Ned so easily, but then Ned had been the old manâ€™s foreman for ten years. Sheâ€™d likely not seen that Ned was out to gain control of the ranch little bit by little bit. â€œIf money is so tight, how are you paying the hands?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re working for room and board right now with a promise to pay them back wages once I get back on my feet. All except Ned. He wanted stock up front instead of money.â€
â€œHow many head has Ned taken off your hands?â€
A frown pulled at Daisyâ€™s smooth brow as she opened a different ledger and ran a slender finger down the line of entries, her lips silently moving as she ciphered the sum. â€œA hundred and ten head.â€
â€œWhatâ€™d he do with them?â€
â€œKept them here, I suppose,â€ she said. â€œI didnâ€™t ask.â€
He settled his hat on more firmly. â€œMaybe youâ€™d best find out what your foreman is doing with his herd and yours before he owns all of your daddyâ€™s stock. Hell, I doubt you have enough cattle to cover whatâ€™s due me.â€
He turned to leave, knowing a losing hand when heâ€™d been dealt one. Heâ€™d lost it all but the horses, and without land heâ€™d have to drive them to San Angelo and put them up for auction.
â€œWait!â€ She rounded the desk and crossed to him. â€œDo you really think we could save the herd by moving them to another ranch?â€
â€œI surely do.â€ He scraped a thumb over his chin, thinking. â€œDrought ainâ€™t near as bad up on the Concho River.â€
â€œIâ€™ve heard Daddy talk about the old ranch but he never took me there, and I donâ€™t think Mama ever was there either.â€
Trey wasnâ€™t surprised. Heâ€™d heard Barton lost his first family at the Circle 46. Heâ€™d moved on, and for reasons that were solely Bartonâ€™s it appeared he didnâ€™t want his new family mingling with memories of the old.
God knew the house wasnâ€™t nothing to brag on.
Heâ€™d spent a week there last fall when Barton sent him and a couple of hands to San Angelo to buy thoroughbreds heâ€™d had his eyes on. Thatâ€™s when Trey won his horses. Theyâ€™d driven them all back to the old homestead and set about turning it into a stud farm. It wasnâ€™t much to look at then, but the foreman was a good man.
â€œUnless the river has suddenly gone dry, the old ranch will beat this dust bowl youâ€™re living in now,â€ he said, stating the obvious as he turned to face her one last time. â€œYouâ€™re the boss, Daisy. Tell your foreman you want that herd moved.â€
She stared at him, as if shocked by the idea of going against Ned. Sheâ€™d transferred her allegiance to him now that her daddy was gone.
Tied her cart to a dead horse was more like it.
Trey turned and headed for the door, hating Ned more with each breath he took. Maybe revenge wasnâ€™t such a bad idea after all. God knew heâ€™d gain satisfaction meting out just a portion of what the foreman had heaped on him months ago.
â€œWhy donâ€™t you do it?â€ she asked.
Her words lassoed him and brought him up short again. He slammed a palm on the doorjamb and stared at the far wall, hating the thrill that hit him at that suggestion.
She couldnâ€™t mean it. He had to have misunderstood her, for Ned would pitch a shit fit if Trey stepped in now. Hell, he had to be loco for just considering it.
And yet wouldnâ€™t that sate a good deal of the desire for vengeance boiling in him? To get back at the man whoâ€™d left him for dead? To have the woman whoâ€™d shunned him crawl back and ask for his help?
No, he wasnâ€™t that way. Never had been. The best thing for him to do was to put this behind him and head out.
Instead, he found himself asking, â€œJust what are you suggesting?â€
â€œYou help me and Iâ€™ll help you,â€ she said. â€œDrive the herd up to the Circle 46 and agree to be the foreman until the drought breaks.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve got Ned to do that for you.â€
â€œI donâ€™t trust him.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t trust me either.â€
She didnâ€™t deny it, but she obviously placed him on a rung above Ned. He took no satisfaction in that, for when heâ€™d needed her to step forward, sheâ€™d hid out.
Thatâ€™s what he ought to do now. But he couldnâ€™t seem to make his feet move, even though he heard the rustle of her skirt over the pounding of his heart and knew she was coming toward him.
â€œI know you donâ€™t want to stay around here,â€ she said, her voice soft as velvet, â€œbut Iâ€™m asking for your help. Just for a few months.â€
Trey didnâ€™t want to help her. This downfall was just punishment for the Bartons. He should walk out with a smug smile on his face just knowing that the mighty were tumbling. Yep, he should cut his losses and skedaddle.
But heâ€™d be lying if he said he wasnâ€™t tempted by her offer. He could come out of this disaster ahead of the game and give Ned his comeuppance for damned near killing him.
â€œThatâ€™s all you want from me then?â€ he asked. â€œMove the herd and take my due when we part ways in a few months?â€
He heard her nervous sigh and caught the subtle scent of roses. She was right behind him. So close all he had to do was turn around and take her in his arms. Take her here and now and end the damned dreams that wouldnâ€™t die.
â€œYes,â€ she said.
Taking her up on the offer was worth the aggravation of working for her for heâ€™d gain cattle in the bargain. Theyâ€™d be his start for his own spread.
But he still didnâ€™t have a place to run them and the open range was over. What little remained had been eaten clean in this drought. So all he could do was sell them and bank his profits or do as she suggested.
â€œSam Weber still the foreman on the Circle 46?â€ he asked.
â€œIâ€™m not sure. Ned told me that daddy hadnâ€™t run much there but a small herd of longhorns and some mustangs,â€ she said. â€œAfter Daddy died, Ned thought it best to have a couple of men there to keep vandals from running off with the stock. He said the foreman decided to move on.â€
Sheâ€™d been fed a line of whitewash if she thought those horses were wild. It was mighty clear she hadnâ€™t had the inclination to visit the place herself to see what needed to be done. Clear too that Sam hadnâ€™t come down to discuss what should be done with the thoroughbreds, though he could see where the man wouldnâ€™t want to work for Ned.
â€œI want it in writing that Iâ€™m the new foreman at the Circle 46 for the next two months,â€ he said.
Brittle silence cracked in the room, and for a heartbeat he suspected sheâ€™d refuse. â€œWhat if I donâ€™t find somebody to replace you by then?â€
Not his problem. â€œOne other thing. I wonâ€™t work with Ned.â€
â€œNo, you wonâ€™t,â€ she said. â€œHe was Daddyâ€™s pick. Not mine. Itâ€™s time to part ways.â€
â€œHe wonâ€™t go easy.â€
â€œI know,â€ she said at last but didnâ€™t say why.
Not that she needed to give him a reason. It was clear that Ned had been taking advantage of her naivetÃ©. Just like that bastard had accused him of doing.
â€œIâ€™ll draw up the papers,â€ she said.
He gave her time to return to her desk before turning around. But she hadnâ€™t moved.
She stood before him, chin high and big eyes full of worry and heartache. He stilled the urge to reach for her, to pull her into his heat and hardness and drink from her soft lips.
Heâ€™d hired on to do a job and he aimed to put himself first this time. Sheâ€™d soon find out he wouldnâ€™t bow to her every whim. He damn sure wouldnâ€™t be lured back into her bed again.
Now if he could just convince his body that he didnâ€™t want her…