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The cell door clanked shut behind him.
J.D. Holt stumbled over his own booted feet and landed face first on the single hard cot.
“Stay there,” Sheriff Jim Muldoon advised gruffly. “Calm down. Chill out. Sober up. Get a grip. And see if you can figure out where you left your brain, for God’s sake, J.D.!”
The keys rattled in the lock.
“What the hell were you thinking, taking your boss out with one punch?” Jim demanded through the bars. “And Trey Phillips, for heaven’s sake! That’s like hitting God in these parts!”
As if J.D. didn’t know that already.
Jim shook the door to make sure the lock had caught, as if J.D. was some hardened criminal who was going to break out. Fat chance. He didn’t care if he ever saw the light of day again.
“Get your head straight,” Jim ordered. “Take some deep breaths, think for a change, you damn fool. Then give me a shout and I’ll let you make a call. Okay?”
J.D. didn’t answer. He had nothing to say.
Jim tapped his boot as if waiting for a reply. Finally he sighed heavily. “Been a long time since you’ve pulled anything this dumb, J.D. Thought you were over this sort of stuff.” Another long wait.
J.D. didn’t move.
Jim jingled the keys in his hand, then muttered something under his breath and finally walked away.
J.D. listened to him go. He lay with his face pressed into the thin cotton mattress and wished it was smothering him. His head pounded. His body throbbed. His knuckles hurt.
From where he’d connected with Trey Phillips’s jaw?
Unlikely. He hadn’t hit the old man hard enough.
Some tiny fragment of common sense or self-preservation had made him pull his punch at the last instant. It certainly hadn’t been out of any compassion for Trey Phillips. Not when the old man had betrayed him by selling the ranch he’d promised to sell to J.D.
And Trey took a swing at him first!
Of course, it didn’t matter a damn to Trey. The old Holt place was nothing to write home about, nothing to get rich on, no more than a fly spot on the map compared to the legendary Phillips spread. Five generations of Phillipses had bought up so much of Montana that their ranch covered parts of half a dozen counties and was home to more cattle than J.D. would own in a lifetime.
But he’d never cared. It was what he had—or had been promised—that mattered. Not any other place. He’d cowboyed for Trey Phillips—had been his foreman—for the past three years. And he’d never wanted any of it.
He’d only wanted his own place. The old Holt ranch. Dan Holt’s spread.
The ranch J.D. had grown up on. The one he knew every inch of. The one place he loved like he’d never loved anything or anyone—the only thing that had never let him down.
The Holt ranch was in his sweat. It was in his blood.
It was to save the ranch as much as his father that he’d come back five years ago. He’d been determined to hold it together when the old man had got sick and couldn’t do it alone anymore.
He and Gus, his younger brother, had been on the rodeo circuit then. Gus was in the top fifteen, doing far better than J.D. ever would. Gus lived and breathed it. J.D. didn’t. It was horses he loved—training them, not bucking them. But he’d gone because his old man had insisted.
“Get out and see some of the world. You’ll regret it if you don’t,” his father had told him.
J.D. wasn’t convinced, but Dan had been adamant, and so, reluctantly, J.D. had gone. But he’d come home as soon as his illness had become too much for Dan to hide. Still, his father hadn’t encouraged him to stay. J.D. just refused to leave.
“I went,” J.D. told him flatly. “Now I’m back. And you’re not gettin’ rid of me again.”
Dan had given him a steely glare, but J.D. had glared right back. And it was likely testimony to how much his illness had taken out of him that Dan didn’t fight him further. J.D. had stepped in without having to argue much at all.
“You should go out and get a real job,” was all Dan had told him.
“This is a real job,” J.D. had reminded his father. “You been doin’ it all your life.”
J.D. had been glad to give his dad the help he needed and, at the same time, he’d followed his own dream of building and running a horse training business of his own.
He’d started slow, begun to build his name, get a reputation. And eventually, he’d promised himself, he would get there—in five years or ten. After the ranch was his—and Gus’s—after the old man had passed on.
Then the old man did pass on.
And J.D. found out he and Gus didn’t own the ranch at all.
Trey Phillips had quietly bought it for back taxes two years before.
In his illness, Dan hadn’t remembered that such things as taxes existed. And having his hands full with the herd and with his own horse training, J.D. had left the finances to his old man. The paperwork side of ranching had always been his father’s province. J.D. hadn’t given the taxes a thought.
But Trey had. Because, damn it, that was how Phillipses thrived! They’d got more than one piece of land that way over the years!
And not only land . . .
As usual Trey had never even bothered to mention the fact. He’d never said the place belonged to him until after the old man died. He’d just let them go on thinking the ranch was theirs.
And then, after the funeral, when the will was read, there was no ranch. Just cattle. And a mountain load of debt.
“What happened to the ranch?” J.D. and Gus had asked Clarence Best, the old lawyer who’d written Dan’s will ten years before.
And Clarence had smiled a sad, sympathetic smile and told them Trey had bought it. “Helped Dan out,” he’d said. “Paid the back taxes. Bought the land so’s Dan could keep the herd.”
So Dan could keep the herd. But not the ranch on which they grazed. Not the place that Dan Holt and his sons had sweated blood over for years and years. Trey Phillips just upped and bought it—and never said a word!
And then later that night after they found out, when J.D. and his brother Gus were left staring at each other over a bottle of whiskey and wondering where the hell they were going to get the money to pay off all the debts, damned if Trey hadn’t showed up—and offered to give it to them!
As if he gave away ranches every day of his life!
Hell, J.D. thought furiously, he was such a rich old bastard, maybe he did!
Well, there was no way on God’s green earth J.D. was going to be beholden to Trey Phillips.
“No, thanks,” he’d said through his teeth.
Trey had stared at him, jaw dropping.
So had Gus.
But J.D. knew what he was doing. He wanted nothing to do with Trey Phillips. No more than his old man had. There had been bad blood between Trey Phillips and Dan Holt since before J.D. was born. For years he hadn’t known why.
Now he did. And he didn’t want any gifts from Trey Phillips. He’d stalked to the door and held it open, waiting for Trey to leave. “You know what you can do with your offer, Mr. Phillips.”
Trey Phillips opened his mouth. Then his hard blue gaze collided with J.D.’s ice-blue one and Trey shut his mouth again. The look they exchanged seemed to last for hours.
It could have lasted for eternity; J.D. wouldn’t have blinked. I don’t want anything of yours. Ever, he told Trey Phillips with his eyes. He would never have looked away.
At last Trey had. He’d sighed and shook his head. Then shrugging, he’d said, “Suit yourself. Let me know when you change your mind.”
Wasn’t going to happen. J.D. could have told him that. Instead he’d just shut the door in Trey Phillips’s face. Then, back against the door, he’d turned to face his brother, daring Gus to contradict him.
Gus hadn’t. He’d only stared. Shocked. Later he’d said, “You love this place, J.D.”
J.D. had ignored him.
“What is it with you an’ him? What’d he ever do to you?”
J.D. had ground his teeth. “It’s what he did to the old man.”
Gus scratched his head. “The old man and Trey Phillips? They ain’t hardly ever spoke.”
“Years ago,” J.D. said.
“What happened years ago?”
J.D. shook his head. “Never mind. Let it die with them.”
Gus hesitated, then shrugged. It didn’t matter to Gus. It never would. He left the next morning to go back down the road. Rodeo was what mattered to him, anyway. Broncs and beer and girls.
J.D. wished he felt the same way.
He wanted the ranch. He needed the ranch. He’d always expected to come back, to make his life here. He’d counted on it.
But he would never accept a gift from Trey Phillips. A week later, though, he’d showed up on Trey’s front porch.
At Trey’s surprised look, J.D. shook his head, then faced him square on. “I’ll buy it from you,” he said. “How much do you want?”
He’d enjoyed the look of astonishment on Trey Phillips’s face. He hadn’t much liked the look of speculation that had followed.
He definitely hadn’t liked the price Trey asked.
“Work for me.”
“Work for me and I’ll sell it to you.”
J.D. didn’t even hesitate. He turned around and headed for his truck. But the closer he’d got to his truck, the slower his steps had become.
Finally he turned back and scowled at the old man. “What do you mean, work for you?”
Trey had shrugged. “I could use a good foreman.”
Foreman? J.D.’s eyes narrowed. He hadn’t been expecting that.
Ranch hand, he’d figured. Lowest of the low. Or maybe, if Trey had some respect for his ability and had heard of his fledgling reputation, a horse trainer. But foreman?
“You don’t have a foreman.”
It was common knowledge that Trey Phillips was his own foreman. He made his own decisions, ran his own spread. Even when he’d been a practicing attorney, his first love had always been his ranch. And not even his son Rance had been able to wrest control away from him. Not much control anyway.
“I’m not going to live forever,” Trey said in that gravelly voice of his. “Runnin’ this place has taken all my time for years. I got things I want to do. Places I want to go.”
“What about Rance?”
Trey had shrugged. “He’s around. But he’s got his law practice. And I can’t just hand it to him to run.” The pugnacious Phillips chin lifted.
J.D. understood. It was also well known around the valley that Rance was as stubborn as his father. He had never let the old man tell him what to do.
“And you think handing it to me would work any better?” J.D. was frankly incredulous.
“I’m not handing it to you,” Trey retorted sharply. “I’m the boss.”
Could he work for Trey Phillips?
J.D.’s first answer would have been, Never in a million years. John Ransome Phillips, III was stubborn, pigheaded, and arrogant. He’d always got his own way, done what he pleased, had what he wanted. He was way too confident of his own importance to suit J.D.
But he was also a realist. Trey Phillips could have no illusions about exactly what J.D. Holt thought of him—and he was offering him the job anyway.
“Why?” J.D asked suspiciously.
No shrug this time. Just Trey’s level blue gaze that met his own.
“Why do you think?” The words were hard and flat and uncompromising. They weren’t even a question. Not really.
They both knew why.
“Don’t do me any favors,” J.D. bit out.
Trey Phillips’s smile was cool. “It’s no favor to take on this place. I can promise you that. But I’ll understand if you turn it down. Ain’t every man can do this job.”
J.D.’s jaw locked. Trey Phillips’s mouth curved slightly. There was challenge in his unblinking blue gaze. After a good half minute of silence, the old man allowed one brow to quirk slightly.
Can’t you do it? J.D. heard it ask him. Not man enough?
“How long? How much?” he asked sharply.
Trey smiled. He opened the door fully. “Come in,” he’d said. “We’ll work it out.”
That had been three years ago. Three years in which J.D. had worked his butt off as the Phillips foreman and been rewarded with greater and greater responsibility. Three years in which he’d discovered he had a talent for overseeing a huge spread and had found he liked making decisions that had far-reaching impact. Three years in which he had managed to put aside a good sum of money to buy back the Holt ranch and had, to his enormous surprise, discovered a grudging respect for Trey Phillips.
Three years of scrimping and saving and determination and respect which Trey Phillips had blown straight to hell!
“It will be yours,” he’d promised the day J.D. had promised to work for him.
And now he’d sold it—to someone else!
It had been Gus who’d told him, Gus who had called and said, “You coulda tol’ me,” in a put-out accusing tone. “I know you don’t text, but you coulda picked up your damn phone.”
J.D., who’d just got back from a tiring two days over near Miles City where he’d gone to some horse sales, wasn’t in the mood for guessing games. “What the hell are you talking about? Told you what?”
“That you’d changed your mind about the ranch.”
J.D. hadn’t known what his brother was talking about, so Gus spelled it out for him. “Trey Phillips sold the place. Dad’s place,” he emphasized, in case in J.D.’s mind there could possibly be any other.
“Like hell.” J.D. had stood stunned for a minute. Stone cold and then filled with a flaming fury. “Sold it? He sold it?”
“That’s what Shane told me,” Gus said. “I was talking to him about teachin’ at one of those rodeo schools Taggart Jones has, and Shane said he’d heard it from Rance.”
Did everyone know but him? J.D. wondered. He paced the living room, kicked the coffee table out of his way, slammed his fist against the wall.
“You didn’t know?” Gus sounded surprised.
“I didn’t know.” J.D. ground his teeth, his fury was banked now, but no less hot. He could feel it seething inside him, a burning pain so sharp licking at his innards that he spoke tightly, barely letting the words past his lips.
“That’s weird,” Gus said, perplexed. “Why would he—?”
Weird didn’t begin to cover it. Anger didn’t begin to cover it.
“Gotta go,” he told his brother. He hung up the phone. Then he picked up the cup of coffee he’d been planning to drink.
Instead he threw it across the room.
Then he’d gone looking for Trey.
End of Excerpt