Authors: Ann Major
Then she saw him – a real live Border bandit – lurking in the brush, staring holes through her, stripping her naked.
Just why she didn’t weep or scream in terror, she’d never know. Maybe it’s true what they say about curiosity killing cats.
Hunkered low over his saddle, the lone cowboy drilled her with such angry, laser-bright blue eyes, she knew he was bad. He had to be Cole Knight, one of the neighbours her daddy regularly cussed out. Even after he realised she’d spotted him, he didn’t avert his predatory gaze or smile or even bother to apologise.
He was as bad as any bandit.
“I’ve heard all about you,” she said. “You’re known to have a nasty, vengeful disposition. You’re a gambler, too, and you’ve got a bad reputation with girls.”
“Did your daddy tell you all that?”
When he edged his mount closer to hers, she instinctively backed hers up. He smiled and let his hot, sinful eyes devour the length of her body. “You’re not scared of me, now, are you?”
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THE HOT LADIES MURDER CLUB
To all my soul mates out there, especially in Texas,
who wanted to grow up and become cowboys,
only to have their mothers warn them, “Make up
your mind, girl, because you can’t do both.”
I must thank Tara Gavin for her friendship, support, trust, talent and faith.
And Karen Solem, who is a genius.
And Nancy Berland, who is also a genius.
And Dianne Moggy and everybody at MIRA Books for the wonderful job they are doing!
And Kelly Nemic.
And all my ranching friends who tell me stories – the Joneses, the Bateses, the Telleses, Becky Rooke and my aunt Mabel.
And Amber Maley, who works in the sheriff’s office at Rockport, Texas.
And Lady Liddington, who was my best friend from junior high through university.
Smart Cowboy Saying:
Just ’cause trouble comes visiting doesn’t mean you have to offer it a place to sit down.
he devil had dealt from the bottom of the deck one time too many.
An eye for an eye
, the Bible said. Or at least Cole Knight had heard somewhere the good book said something like that. To tell the truth, he wasn’t much of a Biblical scholar. But he loved God, he loved the hot, thorny land under his boots that by all rights should have been his, and he loved his family—in that order. He was willing to die for them, too.
Maybe that was overstating the case. In fact, Cole Knight wasn’t much of anything. Wasn’t likely to be, either. Not if Caesar Kemble and his bunch had their way.
But where was it written you couldn’t kill a man on the same day you buried your good for nothin’ father and set things right? Especially if that man was the cause of your old man’s ruin? And yours, too?
Hell, it was about time somebody stood up and demanded justice. The Knights had as much right—more right—as the Kembles to be here.
here. Trouble was, he didn’t own a single acre. The Kembles had stripped him to the bone.
The feud between the Kembles and the Knights went
back for more than a hundred and forty years. It had all begun when the first Caesar Kemble, the original founder of the Golden Spurs Ranch, had died without a will, and his son Johnny Kemble had cheated his adopted sister, Carolina Knight, out of most of her share. The Knights were direct descendants of Carolina Knight, whose biological father, Horatio Knight, had been a partner of the original Caesar Kemble. When Horatio and his wife had been killed in an Indian raid, Caesar had adopted their orphaned daughter.
As if being cheated hadn’t been bad enough, four more generations of Kembles had continued to cheat and collude and steal even more land from the Knights. Not that the Knights were saints. Still, the Knights’ vast holdings, which had once been even bigger than the Kembles’, had shrunk to a miserable fifty thousand acres. Then worst of all, not long ago, Cole’s father had lost those last fifty thousand acres in a card game.
Thus, Black Oaks had faded into oblivion while the Golden Spurs had become an international agribusiness corporation with interests in the Thoroughbred horse industry, the oil and gas industry, cattle ranching, recreational game hunting and farming. The Golden Spurs developed cattle breeds, improved horse breeds and participated in vital environmental research. The Kembles owned hundreds of thousands of acres and mineral rights to vast oil and gas reserves and were Texas royalty, while the Knights were dirt.
Cole had already been to the barn to saddle Dr. Pepper. No sooner had Sally McCallie, the last hypocritical mourner, waddled out of the dilapidated ranch house than Cole was out of his sticky, black wool suit and into his jeans and boots. A few seconds later his long, lean body was stomping down the back stairs into the sweltering, late July heat and the rickety screen door was banging shut behind him.
There was finality in that summertime sound. Thrusting
his rifle into his worn scabbard, he seized the reins and threw himself onto Dr. Pepper. His daddy was dead, his bloated face as gray and nasty under the waxy makeup as wet ash, and Cole’s own unhappy boyhood was over.
It was just as well. Not that he had much to show for it. He’d had to quit college after his older brother, Shanghai, who’d been putting him through school, had unearthed some incriminating original bank documents and journals, which proved Carolina had been swindled. When Shanghai had threatened to sue the Kembles, Caesar had run him off or so people had thought. His disappearance was something of a mystery. Shanghai had left in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye. Without Shanghai’s help and with an ailing father to support, Cole hadn’t had money to pay tuition much less the time to spend on school.
Twenty-four and broke, Cole was the last of the line and going nowhere. At least that’s what the locals thought. Like a lot of young men, he seethed with ambition and the desire to set things right. He wanted the ranch back, not just the fifty thousand acres, but the rest of it, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to get it.
Too bad he took after his old man
, local folk said. Too bad his brother Shanghai, who’d shown such promise as a rancher, had turned out to be as sorry as the rest of the Knights when he’d abandoned his dying father.
Cole felt almost good riding toward the immense Golden Spurs Ranch. Finally he was doing something about the crimes of the past and present that had made his soul fester. Partly he felt better because he couldn’t get on a horse without relaxing a little. Cowboying had been born in him. It was as natural to him as breathing, eating and chasing pretty girls.
For the past three years, Cole had wanted one thing—to get even with Caesar Kemble for cheating his daddy out of
what was left of their ranch and for running his brother off. Those acres weren’t just land to Cole. They’d been part of him. He’d dreamed of ranching them with his brother someday.
Not that his daddy had given much of a damn that the last of the land that had once been part of their legendary ranch had been lost.
“Leave it be, boy,” his daddy had said after Cole had found out the ranch was gone. “It was my ranch, not yours. Maybe Caesar and me was both drunk as a pair of coons in a horse trough filled with whiskey, but Kemble won Black Oaks fair and square with that royal flush.”
“The hell he did, Daddy. The hell he did. You were drunk because he
you drunk. Caesar Kemble knew exactly what he was doing. What kind of fool plays poker drunk?”
“I’m not like you, boy. I play poker for fun.” But his old man’s explanation didn’t mollify Cole.
“Black Oaks wasn’t just yours. You didn’t have the right to gamble it away. It was mine and Shanghai’s.”
“Well, it’s gone just the same, boy. You can’t rewrite history. You’re a loser, born to a loser, brother of a loser. History is always written by the winners.”
“I swear—if it’s the last thing I ever do, I’ll get Black Oaks back—
“You’ll get yourself killed if you mess with Caesar Kemble. That’s what you’ll do. My father was a hothead like you and he went over to have it out with the Kembles and vanished into thin air. Don’t get yourself murdered, boy, or run off, like Shanghai did.”
“As if you care—”
His easygoing daddy hadn’t cared much about anything other than partying and getting drunk.
With his Stetson low over his dark brow and longish black hair, Cole followed a well-worn dirt pathway through sandy
pastures choked by huisache, ebony and mesquite. Dr. Pepper trotted for at least a mile before Cole’s heart quickened when he saw the billowing dust from the herd rising above a stand of low trees like yellow smoke to dirty the sky.
The vaqueros and Kemble’s sons, who worked for the Golden Spurs, had been gathering the herd for several days in the dense thickets that had once belonged to the Knights. Rich as he was, Caesar, who like Cole, loved cowboying more than he loved anything—including cheating at cards—would be out there with his men and sons. Cole hoped to catch him alone in some deep and thorny thicket and have it out with him once and for all.
Yes, sirree, that’s just what he hoped until he saw Lizzy Kemble through the dense brush. Somehow the sight of the slim, uncertain girl on the tall black gelding struggling to keep up with the vaqueros and her younger, more able brothers, cousins and sister stopped him cold.
Lizzy was fair-skinned and didn’t look like the rest of her family, who were a big-boned, tanned, muscular bunch—a bullying bunch, who thought they were kings, who lorded it over everybody else in the four counties their ranch covered.
The spirited horse was too much for her, and she knew it. Her spine was stiff with fear. Anybody could see that. Her hands even shook. She was covered with dirt from head to toe, and her hat was flat as a pancake on one side, which meant she’d already taken a tumble or two.
She might have seemed laughable to him if her eyes weren’t so big and her pretty, heart-shaped face so white. She looked scared to death and vulnerable, too. Sensing her fear, the gelding was stamping the ground edgily, just itching for trouble.
Cole shook his head, ashamed for the girl and yet worried about her, too. What the hell was wrong with him? He should be glad Caesar Kemble’s teenage daughter was such a miserable failure as a cowgirl.
He had a mission. He should forget her, but Cole couldn’t stop watching her, his gaze fixing on her cute butt in those skintight jeans and then on the long, platinum, mud-caked braid that swung down her back.
Not bad for jailbait.
His former glimpses of her in town hadn’t done her justice. She’d grown up some since then, gotten herself a woman’s soft, curvaceous body and a woman’s vulnerability that appealed to him much as he would have preferred to despise everything about her. It didn’t matter that she was a Kemble, nor that the Kembles had been swindling the Knights for more than a hundred years. Something about her big eyes made him feel powerful and want to protect her.
He forgot Caesar and concentrated on the girl, who didn’t seem like she fit with her clan at all. She was Caesar’s favorite, and despite the fact she seemed the least suited to ranch life, the bastard wanted to make her his heir. All of a sudden Cole’s quest for revenge looked like it might take a much sweeter path than the one he’d originally intended.
But then that’s how life is. You think you’re fixed on where you’re going and how you’ll get there—then you come to a tempting fork in the road that shows you a much sweeter path.
Lizzy Kemble, who was seventeen, had more important things to do than ride a horse all day long in this godforsaken, hot, thorny country—even if it
her family’s immense ranch. And not on just any horse—Pájaro!
Why had Daddy insisted she could ride Pájaro? The horse had a bad reputation. Why did Daddy always have to challenge her?
“Challenges build character, girl.”
Daddy had the sensitivity of a bulldozer. You’d better do what he said or get out of his way.
Lizzy Kemble was tired, bored, saddle sore, sunburned and scared to death she’d fall off again. Not to mention her imagination was running wild. Every time she got lost in a thicket, she conjured some wild bandit up from Mexico or a drug runner lurking behind every bush just waiting to snatch her.
She wished she was home talking on the phone or reading a book. Why couldn’t she have been born to a normal city family who thought it was natural to hang out in malls?
Indeed she wished she was anywhere except on this monster called Pájaro, getting her fair skin burned to a crisp and scratched up on thorns while she choked on dust and horse flies. Not to mention the bruises on her bottom. Pájaro had thrown her twice already.
She was thinking that Pájaro was a bad name for a horse because it meant bird in Spanish, and the last thing Lizzy, who’d been run away with before, needed was another horse that could fly.
The herd was deep in these horrible thickets made of thorns and cactus. She’d never been on this particular division of the ranch, and she hoped she’d never set foot on it again. Because the land here was too wild and rugged for pens or helicopters, the cattle simply melted into the thickets. Yes, Black Oaks was the only division where a real, old-fashioned roundup was still necessary.
If she had to do this, oh, how she wished she was on her gentle mare, Betsy! But Betsy had gone lame, so here she was trying to stay on this black monster with a wide chest and shiny-muscled back, whose hooves tapped so lightly over the earth, she was gut sure that at any moment he would bolt or fly.
The thicket grew denser and Lizzy strained to find her daddy’s sweat-stained, battered Stetson bobbing above the bawling herd. She saw Uncle B.B. riding tall, as handsome
as a prince. Much as Lizzy wished she could give up and go home, she couldn’t. Not with her black-haired brothers, Hawk and Walker, and her sister, Mia, who was a natural born cowgirl if ever there was one, making bets about the exact hour Lizzy would chicken out.
She was used to people regarding her with secretive, speculative glances when they thought she wasn’t watching. She supposed they did so because everybody—her siblings, her aunts and uncles, even her mother—was jealous of her since she was Daddy’s favorite. She hated the way her father’s favoritism caused her problems on every level.
Hawk had said he’d give her an hour in the heat and thorns at best; Mia had said two. When Lizzy had heard Walker and her cousin, Sam—who never laughed at her—laughing, too, she’d made a bet of her own that she’d make it the whole day, even if every second of it was torture. Hawk and Mia had really smirked at her then, which was why she had to stick it out.
She’d show Hawk and Mia and Daddy, too. She’d show everybody, even Mother, who took such pride in Mia—she’d show them, she was a true Kemble if it killed her!
But even though she was Daddy’s favorite, she didn’t feel
like a Kemble, and she never had. She often felt she’d been
born into the wrong family
On the Golden Spurs taking part in roundup was a sacred family tradition. Every family member was expected to participate alongside the hands. Even Aunt Nanette flew in from Montana to help work cattle and prepare the camp lunch. Of course, the lunch was always fancier than their normal fare when bossy, stylish Aunt Nanette took charge. She hired half a dozen caterers and had them flown in by private jet from Dallas.
For a hundred and forty years, Kembles had been working this land. They’d endured bandit raids, Union soldiers,
drought, the Depression, inheritance taxes and now, in the twenty-first century, family dissention and constant lawsuits. They’d come close to selling out and giving up on the ranch dozens of times. Then oil and gas had been discovered, and there was too much at stake to sell out.
“As long as the family sticks together, the ranch will survive,” was the family motto.
Being a Kemble was like being part of a football team or being a believer in a cult religion, or maybe it was worse, more like the Mafia, because it was family. There was a do-or-die feel to being a Kemble. You were supposed to feel your Kembleness in your bones, to dedicate your entire life to the ranch. Or you were the worst kind of traitor.