Ty Martin had never regretted the choices he’d made, until now. Shading his eyes against the sunlight glinting off the dial of his Rolex, he checked the time. Twenty minutes until life changed. Maybe temporarily. Maybe for good.
Tamping down the unease that always came with loose ends, Ty moved past the corrals where the cowhands were topping off the water troughs. Heads popped up like jack-in-the-boxes, but no one acknowledged him. Not a word, not a wave, not a nod. Instead, they stared as if he were some curiosity on parade.
Ty tugged the brim of his Stetson lower. At least being an outsider would make decisions easier.
Without breaking stride, he swept by the barn where the stalls were being mucked out and moved on past the low building that served as an office for the livestock rodeo company he would now head. Dust kicked up as he went, coating his custom-made alligator boots and threatening to settle on his black dress pants.
A steer bellowed in the distance, part of the ranch herd that had been brought in for culling.
He scanned the side parking area for a gray pickup truck. Silver metal glistened just a few feet away from his black BMW. At least he wouldn’t be the last one to walk into the lawyer’s office.
For most of his life he had run from anything to do with ranching, working his way through law school, scoring a job at a land development firm, and fighting his way to a partnership—only to eventually walk away. And now, here he was, heading up a livestock operation. A rodeo livestock operation.
Just a year. That’s what he had promised. Just enough time to decide the fate of the company that bore another family’s name. And they would hate him for it, or at least one person would hate him for it, if she didn’t already.
He clicked the remote in his pocket, and his car hummed in response. A few more steps and he pulled open the door. Semi-cool air blasted his face from the side vent, carrying with it that new-car odor. He slipped onto the sun-warmed leather seats, extracted a pair of Oakley shades from the center compartment, and opened the sunroof as he closed the door.
It was too damn hot for May in Wyoming, he thought, removing his suit jacket and hat and laying them on the passenger seat. He buckled up, popped on the sunglasses, and shifted into reverse. Gravel crunched under the tires.
Mandy Prescott would fight him despite this just being business. He might understand why the old man had worked it this way. She never would.
It would be easier if she wasn’t so damned attractive, and stubborn. A challenging combination he’d found tempting in the past. But the fact she was J. M. Prescott’s granddaughter had kept Ty’s pants zipped. He’d realized early on dallying with Mandy was not an option unless he was prepared to marry her. And that would never be the case—with any woman, but certainly not with a hardheaded, determined woman like Mandy, no matter how much she tempted him.
Ty shifted the car into gear. Of course, now that J. M. Prescott was gone, maybe a little fling with Mandy, if she was as inclined as she’d once been, would be just what he needed to fight this strange feeling that had come over him since JM’s passing. Like something important had seeped out of him, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but steady enough to leave an uncomfortable void.
Yup, Mandy Prescott’s feminine charms could be just what the doctor ordered, despite her current disposition toward him, because if life had taught him two things, it was that anything was possible and nothing was certain.
* * *
Mandy Prescott brushed the dust from her jeans and glanced at the old metal-rimmed clock hanging lopsided over the barn door.
She was going to be late, something she never was. Rays of sunlight streamed through the dirt-spattered windows highlighting the swirl of dust motes that accompanied the musty smell of hay. She turned her attention back to the young wrangler who stood before her with a somber expression and hope-filled eyes.
“Sure, Kyle,” she answered, even though she hadn’t a clue how she would juggle assignments to give Kyle the time off to attend that summer college course in equine studies at the university. He’d been the most recent recipient of the scholarship her late grandfather had established in Mandy’s father’s name.
She’d make do somehow. Kyle had been mucking out stalls and trailing after Harold, who headed up the breeding program, since he’d turned fifteen. Kyle’s father worked for Prescott on weekends in between ranching, as did Kyle’s older brother. Kyle’s need for Friday’s off during the summer, the busiest time for a rodeo company, was not good timing, but that wasn’t his fault.
His boy-next-door face broke out in a wide grin, showing a straight row of pearly teeth. At least she’d made someone happy.
Suddenly his expression turned somber again. “I’m sorry about JM. My dad’s really shook up about it. So is my brother.”
Mandy forced a smile. Kyle’s whole family had been at her grandfather’s funeral, but she hadn’t had the opportunity to say more than a few words to them or half the crowd of guests who had attended.
“Thank you, Kyle. It’s going to be tough on all of us without him. But for his sake, Prescott has to go on.”
“Guess you’ll take over, and Ty will be moving on.”
Kyle said it matter of factly, with no hint he’d prefer her over Ty, or vice versa.
“JM laid out his plans for the company in his will, so we’ll know soon enough. But whatever those plans are, I know it is going to be what is best for Prescott.” Over the last few days she’d certainly recited that line enough to almost believe it.
Kyle nodded and shoved his hands in the pockets of his faded and dirt-streaked jeans. “I heard the will was being read today.” Little happened around the company without the hands knowing all about it.
And she’d had to swallow a gallon of pride when JM, his health deteriorating from cancer, had installed Ty Martin as head of the company just a few weeks before his passing. Temporarily, her grandfather had said. Nothing personal. But it had felt personal. Very personal.
For ten years, since her father’s untimely death, she’d made it her mission to be ready to lead the company when her grandfather retired. All through high school and college she’d worked after classes and every weekend, missing football games, dances, proms, just about any social occasion. Extracurricular activities had been raking out stalls like Kyle had been doing, training horses, loading trailers, and organizing rodeo events. Every college course she took, even attending business school, had been with one goal in mind—to be ready to lead Prescott Rodeo Company. The few guys she had dated had either been rodeo hands or rodeo cowboys, but none had understood her drive or tolerated it for long.
She’d been the only Prescott interested in running the company, much to her grandfather’s disappointment, apparently, given the “temporary” hiring of Ty Martin—an arrogant man, full of himself, and as strikingly handsome as Michelangelo’s stone statue of Apollo, and just as cold. A man who was a lawyer by degree and a land developer by trade. A rancher’s son who, at the first opportunity, had gotten as far away from herds as a prairie dog facing a stampede. Just like he’d gotten far away from her ten years ago.
“Mandy, you okay?” Concern etched Kyle’s young face.
“Fine,” she said, determined to be fine. With whatever her grandfather had decided. She had to be. She’d have no choice in the matter. “You just reminded me I’ve got to get moving, or I’ll be late for that will reading.”
Kyle nodded. “Thanks again for your understanding, about the schedule and all. It will just be for this summer. I promise.” He brought his fingers to his hat in a gentle salute and then ambled off on his long, lean legs toward the far end of the barn.
She glanced at the clock again. She really was going to be late. And being late was so not like her.
“Did you eat lunch?” her mother asked as soon as she stepped into the well-appointed ranch home’s kitchen. Sheila Prescott, every strand of her chin-length blond hair in place, stood in the hallway, looking the picture of elegance in a tailored black dress and heels.
“I’ll fix you something now.” It was half question, half command.
“We’re late. We’ve got to go.”
“You can’t go dressed like that.”
Mandy looked down at her dust-speckled T-shirt, jeans faded to a slivery-blue, and scuffed leather boots that had lost their shine, and let out a sigh. “I was working with the bucking horses this morning. There isn’t time to change. And besides, it should just be family.” Though at the sight of the empty spot where Ty’s car had been, she’d almost gone back to the barn. She’d had to convince herself that the absence of his car was a coincidence and didn’t mean he’d be at the reading of the will.
“Fine,” Sheila said, giving the word as much disapproval as tone could offer.
Mandy had never been the girly-girl type, much to her mother’s chagrin. She only had one fashion obsession—boots. She had ones made of leather, python, lizard, and caiman. She had red ones, white, gray, brown, black, tan, honey, and even a purple pair that she bought on an impulse after a really bad day. Snip-toed, rounded, pointed, and squared. Embroidered, embossed, distressed, and inlaid. Every famous maker, several no one ever heard of, and, of course, a number that were custom made. Most fell into the cowgirl category, but there were a few that were spiked heeled and knee high, and one dominatrix-style thigh-high black pair she’d bought to impress a certain cowboy she’d been dating—but never had the courage to wear. That was the extent of her fashion sense, or lack thereof, depending on how one felt about her taste.
Growing up around a company of men, she and her younger brother, Tucker, had spent their days tagging after their father. After all, what he did seemed exciting, to her young mind. If Jim Prescott had been alive, there would be no questions, no doubts, about whether a Prescott would be at the helm. Things would have been different. She would have been different.
“Let’s go, then.” Mandy fumbled her keys out of their nest in her denim pocket.
One thing was for sure—in a short while everything would be different.
Mandy’s misstep on the tan carpet of the law office’s hallway almost caused her to stumble. Ty Martin stood in the conference room doorway, looking like he’d strode out of an Old West wanted poster, given his six-foot height, the stubble shadowing his firm jaw, and the black suit jacket outlining his broad shoulders. Dark eyes peered at her from under the brim of a Stetson pulled low enough for the back of his ebony-colored hair to feather the crisp white collar of his shirt. Neater than an outlaw, maybe, but no less threatening.
“I didn’t know Ty would be here, did you, Mandy?” her mother whispered, leaning closer as they walked and bringing a whiff of Chanel No. 5 with her movement.
“No.” Her heart pounded hard against her ribs, like it wanted out.
Brian Solomon, the family attorney, had said only the main beneficiaries of her grandfather’s will would be in attendance. To her that had meant family. But there was Ty, leaning against the doorjamb with arms crossed and an annoying smile gracing a face she’d once found attractive.
Devils were always tempting.
“Ty.” She nodded, barely able to get the single syllable past her dry lips as she stopped outside the doorway.
“Mandy.” He touched the brim of his hat. “Mrs. Prescott.”
“I’ve told you, it’s Shelia, Ty. Mrs. Prescott makes me sound old.” At forty-eight her mother was still an attractive and vibrant woman. It was a wonder she’d never remarried, given it had been over ten years since Mandy’s father had died.
“Sheila it is.” The lines around his eyes crinkled as his smile broadened and he trained those dark orbs on Mandy. “I was worried about you, Mandy. Thought you might not be feeling well since you’ve yet to meet with me about the Greenville rodeo.”
“I’ve been busy.” She hoped he didn’t miss the edge in her voice. After all, her grandfather’s funeral had only been a few days ago. The grief was still raw. Of course, with Ty everything was business. That’s what J. M. Prescott had liked about him. Because that’s the way her grandfather had been.
Nothing personal, just business.
“I think I’ll freshen up a bit,” Sheila said, taking a step back. “Before the reading of the will starts.”
“I’ll come with you,” Mandy offered. Anything not to be left alone with Ty. Not now. Not here.
“Stay, dear, in case Brian comes in. He’ll want to get started right away, and I’ll only be a minute.” Sheila smiled at Ty before she turned and continued down the hall toward the restrooms at the far end. Mandy didn’t follow. After what her mother had said, she’d be admitting she didn’t want to be alone with Ty, and she wasn’t about to give him that satisfaction.
Still leaning against the doorjamb, he shifted slightly so she could pass, pushing back his hat and flashing that disarming grin of his. A grin that had surely lured more than one woman to a broken heart—including Mandy. But that was long ago.
“So maybe we should talk about it now. While we’re waiting,” he said as she slid by so close she could feel the heat of his body, smell the fresh scent of his soap. It distracted her. She didn’t want to be distracted. Not today.
“About Greenville?” Mandy shrugged in an attempt to look unruffled despite the churning inside her, like beaters in a mixing bowl of nerves. It was a good thing she hadn’t eaten.
She circled the oval wood table, putting it between them, and looked at him through the narrow space framed by two chrome pendant lights dangling from the high ceiling. She’d been in the long, narrow conference room once before, but she remembered nothing about that day. She’d been crying too hard. “What do you want to know?”
Mandy pulled out one of the table’s black leather chairs and sank into it, taking refuge in its overstuffed comfort as she set the large purse she carried on the floor.
“Everything,” he said, still standing in the doorway like some gatekeeper controlling who entered and exited. “What stock you’re pulling, how many of the crew you’re using, your expense estimates, how much you expect to make on the event.”
This from a man who knew nothing about supplying stock. Those beaters inside her whirred faster.
“Everything,” he repeated.
“You can get that from Karen, our admin.”
Ty’s mouth drew in, and his eyes narrowed as he stepped into the room, covering the distance to the table in two long strides. He placed his hands on the table’s polished surface and leaned forward until he was mere inches from her face. She tightened her grip on the chair arms as her pulse quickened, determined to meet his steely gaze with a glare of her own.
If he was trying to intimidate her, it wouldn’t work.
“Here’s the thing, Mandy. I want the information from you. And I want you to go through it with me, number by number.” His tone was matter of fact, even if those tantalizing lips of his had flatlined.
“I need to understand the business if I’m going to lead it. And you’re the best one to show me.”
She could feel the blood pulsing at her temple, which meant she was on her way to an epic headache. Breathing deep, she cocked her head to get a better bead on his arrogance. “Here’s the thing, Ty. After today, I expect the family to own the required shares to vote you out of your role.” She prayed she was right. “And you won’t need to understand anything about the business.”
Leather creaked as Ty folded his long, lean, undoubtedly buff body into the padded chair while his dark eyes scrutinized her, as if her words puzzled him. She thought she’d been pretty darn straightforward.
Six tension-filled beats of her heart passed before he finally spoke.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see about that.”
At that moment JM’s nephew and Prescott’s livestock foreman, Harold Prescott, sauntered in, escorting her mother back from the ladies’ room. Weathered and graying, Harold was all cowboy, long and wiry with a conversational repertoire of a cigar-store Indian. Not that it mattered, since Harold dealt primarily with the animals and was as loyal as they came.
Mandy took a calming breath as greetings were exchanged and the two sat down, her mother next to her, and Harold on the other side of her mother. Taking pains not to spare Ty another glance, she looked past him to the doorway in search of her younger brother. Tuck was never one to worry about what time a clock chimed, so she was relieved to see him enter with Brian.
Except for the blond hair, Tucker Prescott was the spitting image of their late father, with his blue eyes and high-school-quarterback looks, though genes were all the two men shared. While her father had been deep into the business before his death ten years ago, Tuck preferred to ride in rodeos rather than stock them, adding to JM’s dismay. Tuck maintained he didn’t want to end up like their father, working too hard and never enjoying life. Instead, Mandy had taken up the mantle. Or tried to.
After giving both women a peck on the cheek and greeting Ty and Harold with a handshake, Tuck sank his long-limbed body into the chair next to Ty and across from his mother. Brian too went out of his way to shake everyone’s hand before settling into the head seat.
Mandy struggled with the unsettling prospect that Ty Martin might still be leading her family’s business after the reading of the will. Her leg jiggled seemingly of its own volition.
Had it come to this? Had JM held such little faith in her abilities?
It was hard to keep the doubts at bay when her mind replayed snippet after snippet of failures. And her grandfather’s corrections. Like the time she’d underbid a rodeo and her grandfather had docked her salary the five-thousand-dollar difference to make up for it. The time she’d brought too few rough stock to an event and her grandfather had to call in favors from other rodeo suppliers. The time she’d understaffed a rodeo and her grandfather had to hire temporary chute help from among the contestants. But she’d learned from those mistakes. She hadn’t repeated them.
What of your successes, Amanda Prescott? Those should count too, she reminded herself. How about wooing the largest rodeo within the Montana circuit and raising two National Rodeo Finals broncs, one of which achieved ProRodeo Riders Association horse of the year? What about hiring away one of the top pick-up cowboys in the business, increasing attendance by promoting the matchups between cowboy and the particular livestock, and bringing every rodeo in on budget for the last two years?
She shifted in her seat. Maybe Ty had been left some small remembrance, and she was fretting for no reason. Anything was possible.
“Now that everyone is here, we can get started.” There was an uncharacteristic officiousness in Brian’s voice as he shuffled through sheets of paper. Distinguished, late fifties, impeccably groomed, Brian had been the family lawyer for the past ten years. He read off the standard opening paragraphs of the will, which stated this will superseded all other wills and that her grandfather had been of sound mind. Mandy half listened. The other half of her mind was working through the odds of her taking over Prescott Rodeo Company. So far she hadn’t been able to get above fifty-fifty.
“I’ve a copy of the will for all of you, so I’ll just provide a summary of the pertinent facts. First off, your grandfather made a number of bequests.”
Brian proceeded to rattle off the cowhands who had been with Prescott Rodeo Company from the early days and the generous sums attached to each of their names. He ended with Mrs. Jenkins, JM’s housekeeper, who had come to work for him after Mandy’s grandmother had passed a few years ago.
It wasn’t clear where Mrs. Jenkins would end up now. It would depend on who would get her grandfather’s ranch house, Mandy supposed. Her bet was on Tucker.
“The real meat and potatoes of J. M. Prescott’s will has to do with Prescott Rodeo Company, and everyone at the table today is concerned by virtue of the contents of that document,” Brian explained.
As if synchronized, all of them turned their attention to Ty, including Mandy. Ty’s smile was closed lipped, his dark eyes never flinching under the scrutiny.
Beneath the table, she felt her mother’s cool, soft hand close over hers. A squeeze followed. It was her mother’s way of telling her to stay calm. Mandy squeezed back. Her mother didn’t remove her hand.
“As a privately held company, your grandfather had more flexibility to do as he saw fit than if it was a publicly held company. And JM took advantage of that fact, as you will soon learn.” Brian raised his gaze from the sheaf of papers he held. “I feel obligated to tell you all that I do not countenance everything he did in this document, but I don’t think any of you can question whether he was in his right mind a month ago when he drew up this new will. I’ll also caution that I am a fairly good lawyer, so I don’t expect there will be grounds to break his will.”
Sheila squeezed Mandy’s hand harder. This was going to be worse than she ever imagined. She couldn’t bear to look at Ty. If the man had duped her grandfather, there might be nothing she could do about it.
“Mandy, you and Ty Martin have been named as trustees of the scholarship fund named in your father’s honor for a worthy student from the local community college who wishes to go on for a four-year degree. I believe, Ty, you were the first recipient of that scholarship.”
Maybe that was why Ty was here. Nothing to do with PRC. Of course, that would make sense. Mandy began to relax. She was worrying about nothing. She might have to see Ty more than usual, but that wouldn’t be as horrible as him running her company.
She met Ty the summer following her father’s death, her life having been upended by that catastrophic event. In what would become a tradition, her grandfather offered the recipient of the scholarship a summer job helping out on the ranch. She remembered stumbling upon Ty in the barn, his shirt off, as he cleaned the stalls. It had been hot, and the flies were biting as her seventeen-year-old self had sauntered in to fetch a bridle out of the tack room. She’d wanted to take a dip and planned to ride out to the creek that ran through the western side of the ranch.
She’d been stopped in her tracks by flexing muscle and slick flesh. With dark, cropped hair, angular features, and a lean, lanky body, it had been crush at first sight. And he’d barely noticed her as he cleaned out the barn stalls. As she’d scooted into the tack room to catch her breath, she’d vowed to make him notice her—and soon. Little did she realize what a mistake she was making.
“In addition, Sheila, JM left the Prescott ranch land and ranch herds in your trust for Mandy and Tucker, who hold equal shares of the ranch enterprise, which, as you know, is a separate entity from Prescott Rodeo Company. He made provisions for Prescott Rodeo Company to continue to lease from the trust the portion of land it uses for its enterprise at reasonable fees. The will grants half of those rent monies to you as income for as long as you live and the ranch stays in Prescott hands. There are provisions, should the company change hands, for you to continue to receive a stipend from the proceeds of that sale equivalent to the projected rental stream, as if the company continued to lease the land from the trust.”
“JM was always generous,” Sheila said as she dabbed a hankie to her glistening eyes.
During his lifetime, JM had provided for her mother, given she was his only child’s widow and the mother of his grandchildren, but now her mother would have her own income, making her an independent and well-to-do woman. As to the company changing hands, that would never happen as long as Mandy had breath left in her.
Brian laid aside the sheet of paper he’d been reading and turned his attention to the next page.
“Harold, you are bequeathed shares equal to nine percent of Prescott Rodeo Company and, at a minimum, your current salary for the rest of your life, whether you work or not, to be paid out of company funds.”
“I know. JM told me. And of course I’ll be working as long as the young’uns need me to.” He spared a smile with a nod in Sheila’s direction as if the two had already spoken about it.
“Of course we need you, Harold,” Mandy piped up. People were the fabric of the company and, regardless of who was running it, Mandy would let nothing destroy that fabric.
“Tucker, you inherit a twenty percent stake in the rodeo business. JM wants me to note that it could have been more if you’d been willing to help run the company.”
“So he told me,” Tucker said with good-natured resignation. “I’m okay with the way things are.”
Brian raised his gaze and stared at Mandy a moment too long for good news. Her heart sputtered in her chest like an engine choke that couldn’t take hold. JM, it seemed, had spoken to everyone but her about the contents of the new will.
“I guess I should mention that before JM made this will, he also completed a transaction with Mr. Martin here. Ty currently owns twenty percent of Prescott Rodeo Company, bought and paid for under terms advantageous to Prescott, I might add.”
Mandy couldn’t stifle the gasp that left her lips, even as her mother’s hand tightened its hold. It was just as she’d suspected. Ty had wormed his way into her family’s business for reasons that eluded her. Tension pressed in on her chest, making it hard to breathe. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, look in his direction. But she could see his hands, half-fisted, on the table. Large hands. Masculine hands barely weathered by the outdoors but no doubt used to doing dirty work.
“I imagine you all must be wondering what has happened to the other fifty-one percent.” Brian stated the obvious. “Mandy, you will receive twenty percent of the company outright, bringing you equal to Tucker and Ty. But because Mandy is willing to take over the business one day…”
Mandy clenched her teeth and braced for bad news. Brian had used a future tense in talking about her taking over.
“The remaining thirty-one percent will also go to Mandy, from which she will receive the dividend stream…”
Mandy let out a breath of air in relief. She would have controlling interest. And the authority to hire—and fire.
“And Ty Martin will hold the voting rights to those shares.”
And just like that, her empty stomach turned over. She swung her gaze to Ty, whose face was grimmer than she expected for someone who had just been handed the keys to the company. If looks could kill, she meant hers to strike him dead.
“What do you mean, the voting rights are held by Ty?” her mother asked.
“Just what I said, Sheila. JM had this block of stocks issued as a separate class, so Mandy will get the dividend stream, but the voting rights fall to Ty for a period of time.”
Ty leaned forward, his Stetson dipping lower on his brow, shadowing his eyes. Definitely an outlaw. “Mandy, it’s only for a limited time.”
“What do you mean, a limited time? How long?” she snapped as she grappled with the emotions whipping through her. Anger at Ty, frustration with Brian, and betrayal by her grandfather, the man she loved and admired and had tried so hard to please.
Brian looked at the assembly. “May I have a moment with Ty and Mandy alone? The major portions of the will have been read. What I have to say really just concerns them. You can get copies of the will from my secretary.”
Harold and Tuck stood up in unison. Apparently neither wanted to be in the room when the bullets started flying. Mandy held on to her mother’s hand even as Sheila rose.
“I’ll be right outside, dear,” her mother whispered. “Hear what Brian has to say.” Mandy felt the warmth of a quick peck on her cheek as Sheila drew her hand away.
Mandy waited for the door to close, her leg jiggling beneath the table. At the click of the lock, she let loose.
“You low-life lizard.” She grounded out the words through a jaw held so tight it ached. “You clawed your way into my grandfather’s good graces so you could steal the company from his family. And in his ailing health, he handed you voting rights to fifty-one percent of the company.”
Her worst fear had come true.
Ty leaned back in his seat, drilling her with his hard, stoic gaze. If he thought he could shut her down with a stare, he was about to find out how mistaken he could be. She’d have her say. By God she would have her say.
“JM made those terms so I can make decisions unimpeded over the next year. And I only bought into the business because he needed capital to acquire more bulls in hopes of getting a supply contract with the American Federation of Bull Riders—an opportunity that could help future prospects of the firm.”
Mandy was well aware of her grandfather’s plan regarding the AFBR, since she had suggested it as a way to improve their bottom line. But she had no inkling he had sold shares in the company to raise capital to buy those five young bulls in their corral—and to Ty Martin, of all people.
“Given the credit crunch, we thought this would be a better way to fund,” Brian offered. “And Ty, who, I’m pretty sure, had no intention of owning a rodeo company anytime soon, agreed. It was generous of him.”
Mandy rubbed a hand across her eyes and wondered if the world had gone mad. Generous of Ty? He was buying into one of the most respected rodeo suppliers in the business and now had the majority vote. How did that make Ty generous?
“As for the time period, this is where your grandfather recently changed the will.” Brian shifted his gaze to include Ty. “And this is where I parted company with him regarding the terms. I want you both to know that up front. I do not approve of these terms. Absolutely I do not.”
Panic rose up inside of Mandy as rapidly as flood water from a hurricane. This was going to be bad. Very bad.