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Authors: Victoria Vane

Two to Wrangle

BOOK: Two to Wrangle
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Also by Victoria Vane
 
Hell on Heels
 
 
Published by Lyrical Shine
Two to Wrangle
Hotel Rodeo Series
Victoria Vane
LYRICAL SHINE
Kensington Publishing Corp.
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
I wish to express my deepest gratitude to my street
team, Victoria's Vixens, with a very special thanks
to Annette, Ivy, Jill, Karla, and Lacy, for dropping
everything at moment's notice to beta read various
projects for me. This past year has been a real trial
that I never could have survived without your
ongoing encouragement and support. I love
you ladies!
Chapter One
T
y Morgan licked lips that had never felt drier and swallowed with a throat that had never been more parched as he sat staring through a lens of shimmering amber and gold. The row of bottles sat just out of reach on the top shelf in front of the antique diamond-dust mirror, the shelf he'd been painfully aware of but careful to avoid for seven long and sober years. But now he needed something, anything, to numb this desperate ache deep in his chest.
The craving for a stiff drink that had begun hours ago as a soft, sultry siren's call was now a steady and relentless pounding against his eardrums. Noticing the direction of his gaze, Gabby slid a foamy mug of beer in front of him.
Ty pushed it away. “Jim Beam Black. Gimme a double.”
If losing the one person he cared for most in the whole world wasn't good reason to get shit-faced, he didn't know what was.
Gabby's brows drew together. “Thought you didn't touch that stuff.”
“Only on rare occasion,” he said slowly. “And this one is pretty damned rare. In fact, I'd even call it raw.” The man who'd been a surrogate father to him was gone.
Gabby leaned her elbows on the bar, getting up close and personal, her brown eyes soft and sympathetic. “I know you're hurting, Ty. We all are, but you can't let this get to you. You've come too far to fall off the wagon.”
“I was never on the fucking wagon,” he snapped. “I just didn't want to drink anymore, okay? Now spare me the platitudes and gimme the bottle, Gabby, before I climb over this bar and get it myself.”
Gabby pulled back reluctantly to take down the bottle, but poured only half the amount he'd demanded into the glass.
Ty snatched it up and downed the bourbon in one burning swallow. Relishing the sensation of heat that spread slowly through him, he shut his eyes on a sigh. The welcoming warmth enveloping him was second only to being inside a woman, an experience he hadn't enjoyed for far too long. The last time was the morning he'd shown Monica the sunrise from the terrace outside his bedroom. Then, only hours later, the only woman he'd made love to in his own bed in almost eight years had walked out on him and back into her ex-fiancé's arms.
Fuck that.
He had Gabby pour him another. The second shot went down smoother, but then again, his throat was still tingling from the first. He'd tried to tell himself he didn't give a shit, but he did. The abject pain in Monica's eyes when he'd broken the news about Tom had almost broken him. His feelings for her confounded him. Outside the bedroom they mixed about as well as oil and water, but between the sheets they were fire and gasoline. And he still wanted her. He couldn't understand why he was so damned attracted to a woman who didn't have the slightest interest in his life or in his world.
For weeks now he'd been wound as tight as an eight-day clock. He slumped back on the stool, finally beginning to relax a little. He reached for the bottle Gabby had left on the counter. This time he didn't bother with the glass.
Gabby's frown deepened to a scowl as he took a long, savoring swig. “Maybe you should slow it down a little, Ty. The memorial service is in less than an hour.”
She was right, of course. He should slow it down. He should push the bottle away. A couple of good drinks usually mellowed him out, but three was his limit. Any more than that always sent him over the edge. He stared at the bottle as reason warred with emotion, but the mind-numbing bourbon had already taken possession of him.
“Some memorial,” he scoffed. “Monica has it all wrong if she thinks Tom would want everyone weeping and wringing hankies in some musty funeral parlor. He despised that kind of thing. He'd be the first to tell us to open some bottles and have a drink in his memory.”
Ty slapped the bar. “Hell, he'd want an open bar shindig.” Almost as soon as the words left his mouth, a slow smile spread over his face.
Dressed in a black Prada dress and stiletto heels, Monica Brandt slid across the seat in her hired limo to join the man inside. She gazed sightlessly out the window as the car swept away and merged smoothly into the flow of Las Vegas traffic, bound for the Desert Palms Crematorium. Her mind was still numb with disbelief, and her chest ached with the dull, incessant throb of grief.
“Are you okay?” asked a familiar baritone.
She glanced up, half-expecting to see Ty Morgan's whisker-shadowed and careworn face, but it was Evan's instead. Evan's eyes searching her face. Evan's hand reaching out to take hers. This was a kinder, gentler Evan than she'd ever seen before. Although he despised emotional displays, he'd surprised her by remaining by her side instead of making an excuse to return to New York. Did he actually care about her loss, or was he just putting up a good front?
“No,” she replied. “I don't know if I'll ever be okay again.” She choked back a sob, but her burning eyes remained dry. She had no more tears left. She'd lost the only person who'd ever truly cared about her. Tom had taught her what it was like to be loved. Deep down it was the only thing she'd ever truly wanted—to love and be loved. But now Tom was gone, and it hurt beyond belief.
Was it only a month ago that Tom's first stroke had put her on the plane from New York to Las Vegas? Was it only three days ago that she'd boarded Evan's private jet, determined to return to New York? It seemed more like a lifetime ago. No, it actually seemed more like someone else's life.
“Look, I won't pretend to know what you're going through,” Evan said, “but he's gone now. Once this is over, why don't you come back to New York?”
“It's too soon, Evan. I'm not ready to discuss it yet.”
“There's nothing left to keep you here once you sell the hotel,” Evan continued. “Let's start over again.”
Did he really want her back, or did he only want the real estate she now controlled? Did it matter? Either way, she was selling out . . . severing all ties to Ty. Ty was the real reason she'd boarded the plane with Evan, but Tom's sudden death had brought her right back again.
It was Ty who'd broken the news to her and Ty's strong arms that had held her as she wept. It had been too damned easy to fall right back into those arms and just as difficult to pull away again. But she
had
pulled away—to the safety of Evan, a man who didn't love her any more than she loved him.
Chapter Two
W
alking into the memorial chapel, Monica was struck at once by the overwhelming, almost nausea-inducing perfume of flowers, and an odd sense of foreboding. White wreaths filled the chamber almost to capacity, but the place was deserted.
Where the hell was everyone? She'd sent out notifications to half of Las Vegas.
“Ms. Brandt!” The mortician rushed to greet her with a panic-stricken look. “I swear to you there's nothing I could have done to prevent this.”
“Prevent what?” Monica asked, her heartbeat accelerating with trepidation.
“Your father's remains have somehow been . . . er . . . misplaced.”

Misplaced
?” Monica gasped.
Evan stepped forward. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“The urn has gone missing,” the mortician replied. “We can't find it anywhere. I assure you this situation is unprecedented. I placed the urn in the chapel myself. A few minutes ago, I found this envelope in its place.”
Monica snatched the envelope from his hands, tearing it open with trembling fingers.
“Did you call the police?” Evan demanded.
“Yes,” he answered. “They should be here any minute. Please rest assured that we're doing everything in our power to recover the remains.”
Evan replied with a cold smile. “And you may rest assured that we'll sue your ass off if you don't.”
Monica scanned the terse note.
The farewell party has been moved to the Last Chance Saloon.
Her next breath had Ty's name spilling from her lips. “The police won't be necessary, Evan.” Seething with suppressed rage, she shoved the note into her purse. “I know exactly who did it.”
 
The Last Chance Saloon was so packed that Monica wondered that the fire marshal hadn't been summoned. It wasn't only the number of people who crammed the bar that amazed her, but the mix of mourners—high-profile Vegas hoteliers rubbing elbows with cowboys, showgirls, and even a few Elvis impersonators. She wondered cynically how many of the assemblage had actually known Tom or whether they'd just come for the free drinks.
Scanning the room, it didn't take her long to spot Ty, standing on the bar, hat askew and shirttail hanging out, holding a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam. He was also hugging a worn pair of cowboy boots that she recognized as belonging to Tom. Ty looked much as he had when she'd first met him, right after Tom had suffered his stroke—expression haggard and eyes red-rimmed and deeply shadowed. She forced her way to the front of the bar as he raised his bottle in salute and began a slurred eulogy.
“I know this is a mighty unconventional way to conduct a memorial, but Tom was an unconventional man. He was an old-school cowboy, the kind whose church was the range and favorite choir was lowing cattle. So we're gonna say goodbye the way
he
would have wanted. Like many ol' timers, Tom was a lover of cowboy poetry. So rather than prosing on about shepherds and valleys, I'm gonna share a few verses from ‘The Lost Range' by Henry Herbert Knibbs.”
Monica stepped forward to put an end to the performance just as every cowboy in the joint doffed his hat, holding it over his heart in a salute to Tom. Her protest died in her throat.
Ty took a swallow from the bottle and began to recite, “Only a few of us understood his ways and his outfit queer, His saddle horse and his pack-horse, as lean as a winter steer, As he rode alone on the mesa, intent on his endless quest, Old Tom Bright of the Pecos, a ghost of the vanished West.
“He made you think of an eagle caged up for the folks to see, dreaming of crags and sunshine and glories that used to be. Some folks said he was loco—too lazy to work for pay, but we old-timers knew better, for Tom wasn't built that way. He'd work till he got a grubstake, then drift, and he'd make his fire, And camp on the open mesa, as far as he could from wire. Tarp and sogun and skillet, saddle and rope and gun . . . And that is the way they found him, asleep in the noonday sun.
“They were running a line for fences, surveying to subdivide, and open the land for the homesteads—‘The only place left to ride.' But Tom he had beat them to it, he had crossed to The Other Side. Tom wasn't strong for parsons—so we didn't observe the rules, but four of us sang, ‘Little Dogies,' all cryin'—we gray-haired fools. Wishing that Tom could hear it and know that we were standing by, wishing him luck on the Lost Range, down yonder, against the sky.”
Ty's gaze held Monica's as he continued, now swaying on his feet, “Tom Brandt was the kind of man who treated every stranger like a friend, the kind who'd even take on a troubled boy and raise him up as his own.” His voice broke. He swallowed hard and finished, “And that's all I've got to say.”
As soon as he finished, Monica went into full offensive. “All right. We're done here. Party's over,” she barked out. “Clear it out. We're shutting the place down.”
Monica searched the crowd for Gabby and the bouncer, Gus, who stood in the wings. A nod sent them scurrying to help Ty down from the bar. Gabby took the bottle from his hands, but Ty clutched the boots even tighter, hugging them to his chest.
Once he was safely back on terra firma, Monica demanded, “Where's the urn, Ty? You had no right to take my father's ashes. I want it back. Now.”
“The urn's right there.” He inclined his head to the counter behind the bar. “You can help yourself to it . . . But Tom's not in it.”
“What the hell do you mean he's not in it?” she asked, struggling to keep her rage in check.
“He's right here.” He patted the boots clumsily. “He always said he wanted to be buried with his boots on. I intend to honor that wish.”
“My God, Ty! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I'll tell ya wass wrong. I just lost the man who meant more to me than anyone in this world. I feel like my fucking heart's been ripped out. Thas whass wrong.”
Ty's hazel eyes were filled with a sorrow that more than matched her own, and she was barely holding it together. Suddenly she understood. He'd acted out of deep and abiding grief.
She sighed, a mixture of compassion and defeat. “Come on upstairs, Ty. You need to sleep this off. Let's get you to bed.”
 
After getting rid of Evan, Monica and Gus half-coaxed and half-carried Ty up to the owner's suite. She'd been enraged when she'd first walked into the bar tonight, but her rage had mellowed to mere annoyance once they were alone. “That was quite a stunt you pulled tonight, Ty.”
“Iss what Tom woulda wanted,” he replied sullenly.
“For you to get drunk and make a total ass of yourself?” she snorted. “You really think so?”
“You don't get it, Monica. You never will. Thiss ain't your world.”
“You're right about that,” she confessed with a dry laugh. “But you still had no right to do what you did.”
“I knew him longer,” he replied. “I earned the right to say goodbye my own way.”
“I never would have denied you that, Ty. I'd intended all along for us to take his ashes back to the ranch. I know he'd want that.”
“Yes. He would,” Ty agreed, his features softening with surprise. “Are you saying you'd go to Oklahoma?”
“Well, yes,” she said. “That's what I'd planned.”
He threw his hat down and raked his hair. “Then why the hell didn't you tell me?”
“I don't know.” She shrugged. “Maybe I wasn't ready to deal with you yet. It's too soon . . . after everything that happened.”
Only a few days ago, she was on the brink of falling hard for him when reality had slapped her in the face.
I told you I answer to nobody. I'm not about to tell you how to live your life, and I don't cotton to anyone dictating mine.
Why was she destined to love someone who could never love her back?
“What
happened
wasn't what you thought,” he said grim-faced. “You jumped to conclusions about me and Cassie.”
“So you say, but it doesn't matter anyway.” She shook her head sadly. “We could never work, you and me.”
His brows knit. “Why the hell would you say that?”
“Because I could never trust you. Because I don't believe cheaters ever change.”
“Cheaters?” He pinned her with his bloodshot stare. “You think I'm a
cheater
?”
“I've heard some talk . . .”
“If you mean about me and Delaney, that's ancient history that has nothing to do with us.”
“But that's just it, Ty. There's never going to be an ‘us.'”
She'd once hoped there could have been, but not now. Seeing him with another woman was all the wake-up call she'd needed. It had hurt like hell, still did, but it also made her realize she'd only deluded herself. Once a player always a player. And Ty was a major-league player.
“Why's that?” he asked. “You've tried and found me guilty just like that?” He attempted to snap his fingers and missed. “I don't even get a chance to tell my side of the story?”
“All right, Ty. Since you're feeling so damned talkative tonight, have it your way.” Pushing his booted feet out of the way, she plopped down on the far end of the sofa on which he lay sprawled. “What's your side of it?”
“You really going to listen this time?” he asked. “Or are you only going to hear what you wanna hear?”
“I'm sitting here, aren't I? I could have walked out.” And probably should have, but this was a side of Ty she'd never seen before—sorrowful, earnest, and vulnerable. The alcohol had taken his guard down. If she really wanted to know what made him tick, this was her chance. She might not get another. “Yes,” she said. “If you really want to talk, I'll listen.”
“First off, that business with me and Cassie the other night was just that, Monica—business. I was entertaining a potential investor—which, as you might recall, was somethin'
you
suggested. Cassie only came to give me some archi-architeshural renderings and then asked to join us for the bull riding. We went as a group. There was nothing else to it.”
“You had your hands all over her,” she accused.
“Then you were seeing things. I had one arm around her shoulders, 'cause she'd had a bit too much to drink.”
“I saw how she was looking at you, Ty, like she wanted to eat you up.”
“Look, Monica. Les jus' cut to the chase here. If you wanna know if I ever screwed her, the answer is yes. More than a few times, but never since I met you. I could have brought her up here to this room after you tossed your little hissy fit and stormed out the other night. Maybe part of me wanted to, just to spite you for it, but I didn't. I know you're gonna believe the worst of me, as you always do, but that's the truth.”
“All right,” she replied warily, still unsure if she could believe him, but wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. “If I did jump to conclusions, what did you expect after you acted so vague and mysterious. You really hurt me.”
“I never meant to,” he said softly, remorsefully. “I'd planned to tell you everything if it panned out, but the whole deal was still hanging in the air at that point. I didn't want to jinx myself by talking about it.”
“Why didn't you ever tell me about Delaney?” she asked. “You were married, for God's sake! Why did you let me think you'd never been in a serious relationship?”
“Because my marriage was a total fuckup. Probably the biggest of my life. I'm no good at relationships. I said that from the beginning. So mebbe you can understand why I don't like to talk about it.”
“But I thought you just said you wanted to tell me your side of the story.”
“You really want to know all about me and Delaney?”
“Yes, Ty,” she said. “I do.”
He blew out an exasperated breath. “All right. If that's what you really want, I'll tell you the whole damned story.” He slouched, flinging one arm over the back of the sofa. “We first met at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I was there riding bulls and raising hell with my best buddy, Zac McDaniel. Delaney had just been crowned Miss Yellow Rose and was campaigning for Miss Texas.” His eyelids drooped to half-mast as if he were re-watching it in his mind.
“She was completely out of our league, and we both knew it, but given that Zac and me were always fiercely competitive, we both set out to get her attention. It really wasn't much of a contest 'cause Zac'd never put himself out for a woman before. The more he ignored 'em the more they flocked to him, but Delaney wasn't like that. She took a little finessing, which was right up my alley.”
“I'll buy that. You're quite the Casanova when you want to be,” Monica said, tamping down a jealous twinge. “So what exactly did this
finessing
entail?”
“It started with a two-step on the dance floor of the Stockman and ended a few hours later in the backseat of my truck.”
“That was fast work,” Monica remarked dryly.
“Yeah, well,” he gave a dry laugh. “Unbeknownst to me, she was already primed for some slumming with cowboys. Delaney resented that her rich family had her future all planned out, so she'd decided to take the bit between her teeth that night. All I knew was that she was rich, beautiful, and wanted sex, at least with me. By the time I realized she was a virgin, it was too damned late. We eloped that night. I was twenty-four and she was nineteen.”
“You eloped that same night?” she asked incredulously. “No wonder it was doomed for disaster.”
BOOK: Two to Wrangle
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