By Carly Bloom
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 30, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
One of Publishers Weekly’s Best Romances of 2018! After one too many heartbreaks, Travis Blake hung up his cowboy hat and put Big Verde, Texas, behind him. But when he gets the call that his young nephew needs him, he knows he has to return home. His plan is to sell the family ranch and hightail it back to Austin, but there’s a small problem: the one person who stands in his way is the one person he can’t resist. Maggie is pretty sure she hates Travis Blake. He’s irritating, he’s destroying her business, and . . . and he’s just so frickin’ attractive. But when they’re forced to work together, Maggie discovers that the Most Annoying Man in the World is more than he seems. He’s sweet with his nephew, he helps out in the community, and he makes her heart flutter. Maggie doesn’t want to risk everything on a man who wants to leave, but what if she can convince this wayward cowboy to stay? “Big Bad Cowboy is sweet and sexy!” — New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Ryan What readers are saying about Big Bad Cowboy… “I fell in love with this book…if you have a soft spot for dirty talking, alpha, sexy cowboys, then [Travis] is your guy.” “With its original storyline and the intense chemistry between the hero and heroine, I am one happy reader.” “Big Bad Cowboy is an amazingly good book.” “Big Bad Cowboy is a delightful western romance that is impressive on all fronts.” “Serious, funny, sexy, and just the right amount of angst.”
White caliche dust clung to Travis Blake’s boots as he slammed the squeaky door on the mailbox. Or tried to anyway. It was smashed nearly flat, because not much had changed in Big Verde, Texas, during the twelve years he’d been gone. There were still a few idiots who thought it was fun to hang out of truck windows while blasting down dirt roads taking out mailboxes with baseball bats.
Travis stuck the mail under his arm—he’d face whatever holy hell it contained when he got back to the house—and squinted up and down the dirt road. Whoever had destroyed his mailbox was long gone. He added Replace mailbox to his endless mental list of things to do and headed for his truck idling on the road.
He dumped the stack of mail on the center console and put the truck in Drive, just as a small voice piped up from the backseat.
“Uncle Travis, you’re not s’posed to leave me in the truck while it’s runnin’.”
Travis jerked and looked over the seat, blinking slowly until reality clicked into place like a steel vault door. It had been eight weeks since he’d gotten out of the Army with meticulous plans for the rest of his life, and six weeks since those plans had been annihilated by a phone call from a social worker.
Six weeks since he’d met his nephew, Henry, for the first time.
“You were fine. You couldn’t get out of that contraption you’re buckled into to save your soul. And even if you did, why would you be stupid enough to try to drive the truck?”
“Because I’m a kid!”
Travis didn’t have much experience with children, but Henry struck him as being smarter than the average five-year-old, which was probably the very worst kind of five-year-old.
Henry kicked the back of Travis’s seat because he knew Travis hated it, and Travis clenched his jaw and ignored it because he knew Henry hated that. He slowly drove up to the big iron gate adorned by the ranch’s brand, an H with a rising T in the shape of a horseshoe.
When Travis was thirteen, his father, Ben Blake, moved him and his brother from a trailer park on the outskirts of Houston to the two-hundred-acre Texas Hill Country ranch known as Happy Trails. Rags to riches. And often back again. That was high-stakes professional poker in a nutshell.
Being a naive kid, Travis had thought all three of them would immediately become real cowboys. His dad had even bought him a black gelding named Moonshine, who he’d promptly lost in a bet. The only thing the man had ever managed to hold on to was the ranch. Which was good, because Travis intended to sell it.
“Mrs. Garza says you don’t know what you’re doing,” Henry said, seeking another button to push.
“Well, thank God for Mrs. Garza,” Travis said. And he meant it, too. If it wasn’t for Mrs. Garza taking care of Henry after school and on weekends while Travis did light landscaping work, he didn’t know what he’d do. His final pay from the Army was being held up in a tangle of bureaucratic red tape, and he couldn’t start his new job in Austin until he’d tied up the loose ends at Happy Trails. He glanced at Henry in the rearview mirror. The child was more of a thrashing, uncontrollable projectile than a dangling loose end. It was hard not to feel sorry for him, though. Henry’s daddy was currently a guest at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. And his mama had just died of ovarian cancer.
The social worker seemed to think Travis was Henry’s only living kin not serving time behind bars.
Yep. Definitely hard not to feel sorry for the kid.
Travis pushed the remote on the visor and waited for the gate to open.
“That’s a bad word,” Henry spouted.
The remote for the gate didn’t work. Travis got out—turned off the fucking truck so Henry wouldn’t chide him about it—and trudged over to open the gate manually. A white piece of paper flapped in the breeze.
YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF AGRICULTURAL CODE 246.4B AGAIN. IT IS NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY TO KEEP YOUR COWS OFF MY PROPERTY. IT IS YOURS. FIX YOUR DANG FENCES.
Travis yanked the note off the gate, crumpled it up, and dropped it.
Henry was in prime form. He’d fallen asleep in the car seat, something he invariably did about three minutes before they got wherever it was they were going. Stopping the truck was like poking a nest of hornets, and that’s why Travis had left it idling.
He leaned over and grabbed the wadded piece of paper, held it up for Henry to see, and then shoved it in his pocket. The gate groaned loudly as he pushed it to the post and hitched it on the wire. Then he got back in the truck, started it, drove through the gate, stopped the truck, turned the goddam thing off while giving Henry the evil eye, and climbed out to close the gate behind him.
By the time he finally got back in, an audience had lined up on either side of the lane; young bulls on one side and heifers on the other. At least those fence lines were holding. The same couldn’t be said for the one separating his east pasture from Honey Mackey’s apple orchard. The crazy old lady kept leaving him threatening notes. He’d patched the fence multiple times, but it didn’t hold. It needed to be completely replaced. The only things required were time and money, both of which were in short supply.
The herd followed them along as they drove up the lane, even though the bed of the truck was loaded with a lawnmower and a weed whacker—tools of his temporary trade—and not hay. Henry waved at the cows until the truck turned left at the split and continued up to the house.
The windmill rose above the trees as they hit the top of the hill, and Travis automatically depressed the accelerator at the tug of its familiar silhouette. His dad, always full of cowboy dictums, had said windmills made a horse’s hooves trot a little faster and a man’s heart long for hearth and home. The effect it had on Travis was surprising, since neither hearth nor home had ever quite risen to the occasion.
Unlike the windmill, the sight of the house stirred no warm, fuzzy feels. The attic windows stared angrily, like a glowering monster. A new coat of paint would probably do wonders. Make the place more Southern Living and less Amityville Horror.
“Let me out!” Henry said. Then he convulsed and rocked in his seat until Travis reached back and sprung him.
“Stay out of the cookies. You’ve got to eat supper first.”
Henry jumped down, leaving supper—a greasy paper bag from the drive-thru hamburger joint—on the seat next to his backpack. It was the best Travis could do after a long day at work, where he’d grubbed, dug, and planted at the Village Chateau, the fanciest hotel in Big Verde. And when he was done with all that, he’d helped get the place ready for Annabelle Vasquez’s Halloween party. She’d kept a watchful eye on him as he’d installed a fake graveyard and set up a pumpkin patch. He’d politely turned down the invitation Anna had offered when he left. He didn’t much care for parties, and this one seemed especially awful as it required a costume. He shivered at the thought as he followed Henry through the back door.
Anna had also invited him to bid on a landscaping project for her new house. He’d turned that down, too. For one thing, he didn’t intend to remain in Big Verde long enough to complete a lavish Annabelle-style project that he was woefully unqualified to install. For another, it wasn’t a good idea to work for someone you’d slept with.
* * *
Fishnet thigh-high stockings with silly bows on the back and a skirt so short it might be illegal—both in red. Maggie sighed. Why had she trusted Claire to rent a Halloween costume for her? She kicked off her sensible shoes and tossed her jacket on the bed while eyeing her best friend and co-worker, who had never owned a pair of sensible shoes in her life. With dark auburn hair and curves right out of a 1950s lingerie catalog, Claire was the opposite of Maggie, who looked more like your average little sister. Or—she ran her hands over the area where most women had hips—your average little brother.
“What do you think?” Claire asked. One corner of her mouth twitched. She knew exactly what Maggie thought and was clearly enjoying the hell out of it.
“Were they all out of stormtrooper costumes?”
Claire rolled her eyes and then held up a microscopic wisp of fabric with laces. “This is going to look fantastic on you. Way better than a stormtrooper costume.”
“Is that a corset?”
Maggie had never seen a corset in real life, much less worn one. Maybe it would give her some curves if she yanked those laces real tight…
“Red will look great with your platinum blond hair.”
“It’s dirty blond, not platinum, and red washes me out. Also, stop trying so hard.”
She took the corset from Claire and held it up against her yellow work polo with the green Petal Pushers logo. Pop, her blue-haired French bulldog, gave a bark of approval.
“I’m not trying. This will look great on you.” Claire lifted a few strands of Maggie’s hair out of her eyes. “And you call this pixie cut dirty blond?”
“Well, it’s not platinum.” Depending on how much Maggie was outdoors—which was a lot since she was a landscaper—her hair color ran the full gamut of sun-streaked caramel to light blond. People thought it was lighter than it was because of her ridiculously dark eyebrows and brown eyes. “And it’s not a pixie cut,” Maggie added, tossing her bangs out of her eyes. “A pixie cut is a hair-do and I don’t do dos. Anyway, I can’t wear this costume. It’s demeaning.”
“It’s sexy. You can’t clunk around a client’s masked gala in a stormtrooper costume.”
The client was Annabelle Vasquez, who was doing her best to spend a recent divorce settlement. “Would you stop referring to this silly Halloween party as a masked gala?”
“That’s what the invitation said.”
Annabelle was a pretentious snob. But Maggie really wanted to do the landscaping for the McMansion she’d plunked on top of the highest hill in Big Verde. It would be a challenge to make something out of that mound of limestone, but Maggie was looking forward to it. It wasn’t often that she was able to work on a project in this small town that utilized her master of landscape architecture degree from Texas A&M.
“Travis Blake better not bid on that job,” she said.
A couple of months ago it would have been a given for Petal Pushers, the garden center and landscape business Maggie owned, to win the contract. But now she had competition. Travis Blake. Just the thought of him made her shudder in revulsion.
“He’s been aggressive about getting business since moving back to Big Verde,” Claire said. “So, I’m actually not surprised.”
“He’s nothing but a glorified lawn boy,” Maggie grumbled. “He’s not remotely qualified, and besides, I bet his landscaping business isn’t even a legit operation. You know he’s an ex-con, right? He’s probably a bookie, and the landscaping thing is just a front.” She didn’t know what a bookie did, but it was something shady and involved gambling, which was a known Blake family vice.
“I don’t think it’s a front,” Claire said, picking up the micro-skirt Maggie was expected to squeeze into and holding it up to her own frame. “And besides, he’s not an ex-con. You’re thinking of his brother, Scott.”
Nice boys, those Blake brothers. One of them—Maggie didn’t even know which—had married Lisa Henley, knocked her up, and then, in the words of Maggie’s dear dead grandmother, Honey Mackey, That boy done run oft.
Lisa had recently passed away, leaving behind a young child. Maybe that was why Travis was back. The kid must be his.
“Maybe you could take him a pie,” Claire continued. “And sit down like neighbors to discuss his power grab.”
Maggie laughed at the audacity of taking Travis Blake a pie. And only a girl like Claire, raised on a twelve-thousand-acre ranch, would consider Maggie and Travis neighbors. Maggie couldn’t even see the Blake house from hers. And unbelievably, she hadn’t seen Travis either. She wouldn’t know him if he held a door for her while tipping his hat. Although she doubted he was that polite.
“You really shouldn’t mess with him the way you do,” Claire said. “You know, just in case he is every bit as horrible as you like to imagine.”
“I don’t mess with him. I leave informative notes on his gate. He needs to keep his scraggly cows on his side of the fence.” She smirked and added, “I quoted agricultural codes.”
“You know agricultural codes?”
“No, but I’m betting he doesn’t either.”
Claire crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “You weren’t terribly bothered by the cows getting into Honey’s apple orchard before Travis got here. I think you’re just itching for a fight with a Blake boy.”
Grandma Honey had engaged in an epic battle of wills with Ben Blake over the damn cows getting in her apple orchard. But when he’d passed away four years ago, and Lisa and her baby had moved into the ranch house, Honey had merely chased the cows back in with a broom and a few choice words, because That girl’s got enough problems.
Now that both Honey and Lisa were gone, and Travis Blake was back—stealing landscaping accounts instead of mending fences—Maggie had gleefully revived the battle in true Hatfield and McCoy style. “I won’t have Blake cows destroying Honey’s apple orchard,” she said. “It’s mine now, and I intend to defend it against all enemies.”
Maggie walked to the window and squinted in the direction of the Happy Trails’ ranch house. A patch of cedar trees blocked her view, which was just as well. Honey had said the place was pretty run down. It was more than Lisa had been able to keep up with on her own, even before she’d gotten sick.
“I hear he’s really cute now,” Claire said, joining Maggie at the window.
“I’d forgotten he even existed,” Maggie said. He’d been a couple of grades ahead of her, and it wasn’t as if she’d had a social life. Not unless you considered cow tipping with the Future Farmers of America a social life. She’d been the only girl in Big Verde High’s FFA program.
“Listen, there’s something you should know,” Claire said, chewing on her fingernail.
Nothing good ever followed Listen, there’s something you should know. “Spit it out.”
“Travis did the new landscaping at the Village Chateau.”
The Village Chateau was the nicest hotel in town and the venue for the night’s gala. More important, it was Maggie’s landscaping account.
“Are you sure?”
Claire nodded while twisting an auburn strand of hair around her finger. “I’m sure. He started doing the upkeep a few weeks ago, and when they expanded the courtyard, they asked him—”
“But we have a maintenance contract with the Chateau. That’s our job,” Maggie insisted.
“We never had a contract.”
They should have had the Chateau under contract. They’d been careless and overly confident.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I wanted to! But I knew it would make you all splotchy…”
Maggie glanced in the mirror above the dresser. Dammit. “I can’t attend a party at the Chateau—an account we just lost—dressed like a hooker.”
Claire pulled a shiny red cape out of the Halloween store bag. “You’re not a hooker. You’re Little Red Riding Hood. And the fact that we just lost an account is the very reason you must go. We’re going to make sure Petal Pushers wins Anna’s project. Not Travis Blake.”
Maggie crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the costume. She might as well be going as a sexy nurse or a French maid. “More like Little Red Riding Whore.”
Claire snorted. “You’re going to look sexy as hell while kicking ass. Maybe you’ll even have fun. And JD will be there.” She looked at Maggie as if she’d just said checkmate.
Maggie had chased after JD Mayes, with pigtails flying, since she was ten years old. Honey had always said, “You’re like a dog chasing a pickup truck, Maggie. If you catch that boy, you won’t have the slightest idea what to do with him.”
At twenty-seven, Maggie knew exactly what to do with JD. If she ever caught him. Unfortunately, he was like all the other guys in Big Verde and saw her only as a friend. A good friend, which made it even worse. She held the corset up again, scrutinizing her image in the full-length mirror. She didn’t look awful. Even with her grubby jeans on the bottom.
“You haven’t seen the best part,” Claire said.
What could possibly top the micro-miniskirt, corset, and snappy little cape and hood?
“Ta da!” Claire held up two shiny red boots. “You didn’t think I was going to let you get by with garden clogs, did you?”
Well, no. But Maggie had thought maybe her red Converse high-tops would work in a sporty Red Riding Whore way. But these boots were better. “There’s only one more fashion accessory I need,” she declared.
“No.” Maggie took the boots from Claire’s hand. “A cowboy to wrap these around.”
Travis put Henry’s hamburger and fries on a plate and squirted ketchup onto a saucer, so it wouldn’t touch the rest of his food. The kid was weird about that.
“Henry!” he shouted. “Come eat.”
Henry was settled in front of the television, not budging, and prying him away from it would be a bigger battle than Travis had the energy for. He popped a TV tray up in front of Henry, set his food on it, and went back in the kitchen to get his own burger. Maybe he’d eat in front of the TV, too. He didn’t even care what was on.
His phone rang as he grabbed a plate. It was the realtor, George Streleki. “Hey, George,” Travis said. “What have you found out? When can we get this place on the market?”
“Well, that depends,” Streleki stated simply.
“Scott and I inherited Happy Trails when our dad died. And we both want to sell.” Was Scott’s latest incarceration the problem? The idiot had been caught with drugs at the Mexican border.
“I believe you,” George said. “But I’ve got to get something from your brother stating his intent to sell.”
Travis should be able to get that. It would be unpleasant—every interaction with Scott was—but not difficult. “No problem.”
“And did you know there’s a lien against the property?”
This was news. “A lien? Why? How?” Shouldn’t he have known about something this important?
Maybe if you’d ever bothered to check on your brother’s wife and son, you’d know what the fuck was going on.
After their dad died, Travis had told Scott that he and Lisa could live on the ranch for as long as they wanted. What did Travis care? He didn’t want it. All he asked was that they take care of the cattle to hold on to the agricultural tax exemption and…pay the fucking property taxes. He swallowed. Hard. Scott had been busted shortly after that conversation.
“You’ve got some back taxes built up,” the realtor said. “You’ll get a hell of a lot more money for the place if you can pay those off. Otherwise, folks will just be looking to take advantage of you.”
The knot Travis had swallowed rose back up.
“Shit,” Travis said. “I’ll get back to you, George.” He slammed down the phone.
“What’s wrong?” Henry asked. He was covered in ketchup.
He was going to need real money to pay off the taxes. There was no point in hitting Scott up for it. And the change he was bringing in mowing lawns was putting food on the table, but that was about it.
He chewed his lip. Where the hell could he come up with a big chunk of money? The check he was expecting from the Army most likely wouldn’t cover it. He stared at the invitation to Anna’s costume party resting on top of the mail, the one she’d handed him as he left the Village Chateau. The Dia de los Muertos skeletons and their taunting, garish grins stared back.
“Henry, I’ve got to go out tonight. Will you be okay if Mrs. Garza comes over?”
Henry’s eyes lit up. He’d seen the party invitation in the truck. “You’re going to the costume party? Can I go?”
“Believe it or not, it’s just for grown-ups.”
Henry shot past him and ran up the stairs. “I’ve got a mask for you!”
Travis wasn’t going to wear a mask. He dumped his hamburger in the trash and went upstairs to the bathroom. He needed a shower if he was going to the party. He sniffed a pit. And even if he wasn’t.
While Henry scrounged around for a mask Travis had no intention of wearing, Travis stripped and stepped into the shower. He turned the water on full throttle, nice and hot, so it could pummel his sore shoulders and back.
God, he dreaded this party. He’d intentionally kept to himself since moving back to Big Verde. He hadn’t exactly made a ton of friends here as a kid. And of all people, it sucked that it was Anna holding this power over him. But there was a chance her landscaping project would pay enough to take care of the back taxes.
He snorted, remembering himself at seventeen. He’d been a clueless, puny bookworm, and Annabelle Vasquez had never paid him any mind until he started mowing her family’s lawn. He could still see her standing at her bedroom window, curling a strand of shiny black hair around a finger and licking her lips while she watched him work.
She’d been his first crush, and it had been a thrill. But after doing an awful lot of Anna’s homework assignments, he’d realized he was being used. He’d tried to end things as politely as possible, but it was Anna’s first taste of rejection, and she hadn’t much cared for it. She accused him of stealing a bracelet out of her car. Her father had even filed a police report. Nothing had come of it. There had been no witnesses, and of course, Travis hadn’t stolen the damn thing. But he was embarrassed by it.
He’d worked so hard to be the Good Blake Boy. But he and his family were outsiders in Big Verde. Folks had believed Anna, their hometown girl, and everyone suddenly claimed to have seen it coming:
Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Poor kid didn’t have a chance.
How else was he going to turn out?
He groaned as the shower head did what it was supposed to, and his muscles melted beneath the pounding stream. He’d work up a bid for Annabelle as soon as he got out of the shower. How hard could it be? It wasn’t as if you needed a damn degree in landscaping to move dirt or plant shrubs. Although some people seemed to think so.
Mary Margaret Mackey had gone to A&M and earned a degree in landscape architecture. Travis knew this because he’d stalked her LinkedIn profile after damn near every business in town had told him Petal Pushers did their landscaping: a college degree, an internship at a big company in Fort Worth, followed by a questionable move back to Big Verde, where she obviously hoped to impress everyone with her vast knowledge of potted plants. Petal Pushers—what the hell kind of name was that? Did she flounce around in a pink sundress and fancy hat?
He turned off the shower and shook his head like a dog as Henry pounded on the door. “Uncle Travis!”
Travis ran a towel over his body and wrapped it around his waist. He didn’t trust the old lock and didn’t need another bathroom invasion resulting in an awkward conversation about the size of his penis.
“What is it, Henry?” It could be something as simple as wanting a cookie. But it could also be the beginning of a fit. Travis hadn’t spent any time around Henry before Lisa died. He didn’t know if the fits were typical shenanigans for a five-year-old kid, or if they were the result of loss. Either way, he dealt with them. He seriously doubted his idiot brother could do half as well. He’d had little more to do with Henry than Travis had.
- "Sexy, smart, sensational!"—New York Times bestselling author Lori Wilde on Big Bad Cowboy
- "Big Bad Cowboy is sweet and sexy!"—New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Ryan
- "Fans of Susan Elizabeth Phillips will delight in this funny, optimistic, quirky contemporary."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "A smart, sizzling read."—Entertainment Weekly
- "Heartwarming, hysterical and completely sexy & charming, Big Bad Cowboy was an outstanding start to the Once Upon a Time in Texas series... A series that I expect to be a huge hit with rom-com fans."—Harlequin Junkie
- "A remarkable love story."—Fresh Fiction
- On Sale
- Oct 30, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages