By Carly Bloom
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Ford didn’t plan on returning home—ever—but when he hears that the Kowalski ranch is in trouble, he hightails it back to town. He’s not eager to be reminded of the life he can never have, but his time in Big Verde is only temporary. He’ll stay long enough to get the ranch up and running, then hit the road again. But when Ford finds out the new foreman he’s training is Claire, still as stubborn and beautiful as ever, this cowboy is going to have to decide what matters most—repeating the mistakes of the past or fighting for a future with the only woman he’s ever loved..
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Claire Kowalski gazed across the table at Chad, her latest Sizzle match, and wished she'd swiped left instead of right. It wasn't his looks, because he was tall and trim with a full head of brown hair and a sexy Prince Charming cleft in his chin. It was literally everything else.
They'd suffered through enough stilted conversation during the appetizers to last Claire a lifetime.
You sell respiratory equipment? How exciting!
She'd worked hard at keeping her eyes from glazing over. He seemed equally unimpressed by her job at Petal Pushers, a nursery and landscaping business owned by her best friend, Maggie. But her rock climbing seemed to have piqued his interest.
"When you say rock climbing, you mean those walls in fitness centers, right? There are a few of them here in Austin." He winked at her and grinned.
She dabbed the corner of her mouth with a linen napkin, trying not to show her irritation with Chad, who really hadn't done a thing wrong other than be himself.
"I use walls for training, but I climb real rocks. Big ones. I'm the president of the Texas Hill Country Rock Climbers Association."
Chad raised his eyebrows. "So, like, you climb up sheer rock walls and stuff? I thought you had to be pretty strong to do that."
His eyes dipped down to Claire's ample cleavage. She shouldn't have forgone the "Sunday safety pin" she often used with the pretty blue wrap dress.
She didn't have the typical lean, athletic build of a rock climber. She was tall and curvy, and with what her mother referred to as a "shock" of red hair, she was easy to spot on a cliff. But looks aside, climbing required strength and agility, as did loading saplings and shrubs onto flatbed trucks, or holding down a calf who'd managed to get a strip of baling wire wrapped around its leg, which she'd done on her family's ranch earlier today.
Claire placed her napkin back in her lap, noticing the small angry puncture the baling wire had made in her palm. Her hands were the only things that might offer a hint as to her toughness. They were definitely not as soft and flawless as her carefully moisturized face, but her nails were freshly painted.
She picked up her fork, took a bite of dry salmon, and downed it with a substantial sip of merlot. "I'm no expert, but I've done some class five climbs."
She waited for him to ask what qualified as a class 5 climb. That's how this worked. It's your turn.
"I'm a runner," he said.
They were back to Chad's favorite subject: himself. That's pretty much all he'd talked about for the past twenty minutes.
"I see a lot of trail runners when I'm climbing," Claire said. "Do you run on trails?"
"I run at the gym," he said. "And I do CrossFit, of course."
"Of course." She squinted over her wineglass, which had miraculously worked its way back to her lips and concluded (a) he was everything she'd chalked him up to be, (b) his healthy glow came from a tanning bed, and (c) she might have to fake a text from her dying grandmother.
"This is Kobe beef, you know," Chad said, pointing to his plate. "You should have gotten the steak."
"That's not Kobe," Claire said. Kobe was extremely rare, and most places that claimed to sell it were outright lying. They got away with it because there were an awful lot of people willing to be duped if it made them feel special.
Two years ago, she'd fallen for a sexy, wandering cowboy named Ford Jarvis. He'd made her feel so stupidly special that she'd thought he might actually settle down. Ha! Zebras didn't change their stripes. Especially if they were dumbass cowboys, and even if they'd taken you home to meet their mother.
Ford had told her he'd never settle down. Not in a town. Not on a ranch. And not with a woman.
Put that on a bumper sticker, cowboy.
She'd been duped, and then she'd been dumped.
Now Ford was back in town. More specifically, he was back on her ranch.
Temporarily, of course.
Claire only had to survive the next six weeks. How hard could that be?
She desperately needed a distraction. Unfortunately, the only thing distracting about Chad was a bit of arugula stuck in his teeth.
Chad took a sip of wine. Would it free the arugula? He swallowed and smiled. Nope! That piece of lettuce was holding on like a grasshopper on a windshield wiper.
"Well, a guy from the gym told me they serve Kobe here. And I'm pretty familiar with what constitutes a fine cut of beef." Chad picked up his knife and poked at his steak. "Look at this beautiful marbling."
"Marbling is just fat, and it's usually the result of corn feeding, which is not very good for the animal or the person consuming it. Have you ever been to a feed lot? Have you ever smelled one?"
"You act like you grew up on a ranch."
Claire sat up straight, pride swelling in her chest. "That's because I did. My family owns Rancho Cañada Verde."
The ranch had been in the Kowalski family for five generations, and at twelve thousand acres, it was no small family farm. In recent years, it had become a household name among the growing organic, grass-fed market, and Claire's expertise—she had a degree in fashion merchandising—had played a big part in it. It didn't matter whether you were pushing pencil skirts or skirt steaks, it was all about branding and positioning. She was good at marketing. Because of her, the ranch's brand was even gracing grocery store shelves on the labels of salad dressings, salsas, and marinades.
"Never heard of your ranch," Chad said. "Where is it?"
"It's in Big Verde, which is about an hour southwest of here."
Big Verde was barely a pinprick on the map, but thanks to the beautiful Rio Verde and its various springs and swimming holes, it attracted a fair number of tourists.
"I think we rented a cabin there once," Chad said.
"Really? Do you know who owned it?"
Chad shook his head, as if he could barely remember the cabin, much less the owner.
"There's an adorable little Airstream trailer on Rancho Cañada Verde that we used to rent to tourists," Claire said. "But I live in it now."
She'd optimistically moved out of her parents' ranch house in the hope that she'd need privacy for herself and the Prince Charming she'd find on Sizzle. But so far, the only person to experience the new Egyptian cotton sheets and their ridiculously high thread count in the trailer's newly renovated loft bed was her.
"You live on your parents' property? In a trailer?"
"The ranch is twelve thousand acres."
Chad stared blankly.
"It's a fifteen-minute drive from my trailer to my parents' house," she said. "It's hardly a camper in the backyard."
Claire didn't go into how the refurbished trailer, which she'd named Miss Daisy, had appeared in a magazine spread featuring unique Texas getaways. And although it wasn't anywhere near her parents' house, it was pretty dang close to the foreman's cabin.
Claire's eyes were on Chad, but every cell in her body vibrated like a tiny traitorous compass pointing toward Ford. She could literally feel the man's pull.
He was probably already done unpacking his measly belongings—Ford bragged that everything he owned fit in the back of his pickup with room to spare—and not thinking about her at all.
"I wouldn't have pegged you as a small-town country girl," Chad said. His eyes dipped down to her chest again, as if small-town girls were also expected to have small boobs.
Claire gently tugged at her neckline and gave Chad the steely gaze she'd learned from her father. Big Verde men might not have fancy gym memberships, but they knew not to stare at a woman's chest.
Chad cleared his throat. "Do you have cows and stuff on your ranch?" he asked, shoveling another bite of steak into his mouth.
Cows and stuff were what turned a chunk of land into a ranch. "Yes. And I typically don't eat anything with four legs unless I knew it by name. Or at least its tag number."
"That's kind of…morbid, isn't it?" Chad shuddered a little.
Maybe a little, and it was probably why she tended not to eat beef. "I consider myself a pescatarian, for the most part."
"Pescatarian? Your profile says you're Baptist," Chad said. "I'm pretty sure they eat meat."
Claire lifted her wineglass. "It's drinking they don't do."
She checked the time. How had it only been six minutes since the last time she'd looked? She set her phone down only to see Chad pick his up. He was probably looking at more Sizzle profiles.
Yep. His thumb swiped right.
Claire cleared her throat, and Chad hastily set his phone down. "Sorry," he said. "A message from my grandmother."
Claire raised an eyebrow. She'd offer a few more discussion prompts for Chad before politely declining dessert, coffee, and—if she was reading him right—fellatio. Then she'd chalk him up as another Sizzle "fizzle" and be on her way.
Chad cracked his knuckles. Maybe he would be the one to end the date early. "I was thinking we could go back to my place after dessert."
Claire folded her arms across her chest and placed her napkin on the table. "This has been fun, Chad, but I really need to be getting back—"
"What for? What could possibly be happening in Little Big Town that you need to get back to?"
Somebody really wanted his blowjob.
Claire could have explained that Big Verde was in for some weather tonight—thunderstorms coming from the east—but instead, she dug in her purse and pulled out two twenty-dollar bills. She dropped them on the table and then slammed back the last of her wine. "Dang," she said. "That's a decent merlot."
* * *
Thunder rumbled through the Texas Hill Country as Ford Jarvis leaned back in his kitchen chair, balancing on two legs. It had been raining on and off all day and, according to Gerome Kowalski, had been doing so for the better part of a week, making the ranch soggy as hell.
Beau Montgomery, head herdsman, was taking credit for it. He'd killed two rattlesnakes in one day and hung them on the fence.
You've got to put them belly-up if you want it to rain.
Cowboys were a superstitious lot when it came to the weather. Heck, they were a superstitious lot period. And although Ford liked to poke fun, he was no exception. When he'd seen two heifers in the creek-side pasture running with their tails up this afternoon, his first thought had been, Here comes a flood.
And the first thing he'd done when he'd moved into the cabin was turn the horseshoe over the door right-side up, because everybody knew an upside-down horseshoe was bad luck.
He glanced out the window and thought about those heifers. The ground was saturated, the creeks were full, and if the sky opened up, they might, indeed, see some flash flooding. He checked the weather radar on his phone.
He let out a low whistle that earned him a glare from Oscar. While some guys had friendly dogs to ride in the back of their pickups, Ford had a mean, bony cat.
"Damn," he said. "Things are about to get worse."
Oscar pulled his tiny ears back tightly against his head.
The scraggly cat had shown up on a stormy night much like this one while Ford was living on a ranch outside of Sonora. He hadn't wanted to take the nasty creature with him when he'd left for Wichita Falls, but he'd been afraid the other ranch hands would let the poor thing starve. Same story when he'd moved to El Paso, and from El Paso to Big Verde.
Four ranches in two years; five if you considered he'd hit Big Verde twice. He didn't have many belongings, so packing up and heading out was easy. It was just him; his trusty adopted wild mustang, Coco, who he'd broken himself; and Oscar.
Of all the ranches he'd worked, Rancho Cañada Verde was the finest. It wasn't the biggest or the fanciest, but it was the gem of the Texas Hill Country, and Gerome Kowalski was a rancher any cowboy would be proud to work for. Nevertheless, Ford had been very firm with Gerome about this stint as ranch foreman being temporary. He'd committed to a roundup in West Texas in six weeks.
He didn't like staying in one place for too long.
There was something about the newness and excitement of going from ranch to ranch that agreed with him. And he liked leaving folks behind while he could still tolerate them, before they'd had much of a chance to wear on his nerves. He especially enjoyed knowing that the ones who did wear on his nerves would soon be nothing more than an image in his rearview mirror.
Six weeks. Surely, he could last that long. All he had to do was keep his mind, eyes, and hands off Claire Kowalski, aka the rancher's daughter.
How hard could it be?
He swallowed. Twelve thousand acres wasn't that big. And he and Claire had a history together that involved their clothes falling off any time they were within ten feet of each other.
She'd been nowhere to be seen when he'd visited Gerome's office at the ranch house earlier. Beau—the rattlesnake slayer and resident busybody—told him that Claire had moved out of the ranch house and into a silly little Airstream trailer practically within spitting distance of the foreman's cabin. Well, maybe not spitting distance. Ford couldn't see Claire or her little tin can from here.
He swore he could feel her, though.
That tug. Whenever he thought about Claire—and he'd thought about her plenty over the past two years—it was as if someone was yanking on an invisible band attached to his midsection. The first time it had happened, he'd thought he was having a damn heart attack.
He was used to it now. The feeling kind of went along with the other chronic aches and pains of cowpunching.
Had he fallen in love with Claire?
Was the condition permanent?
Most definitely not.
Jarvis men didn't fall in love and stay that way.
The Jarvis curse.
Some of the men in his family took it seriously. As in, they literally believed in a curse. His family's colorful history included a story about Ford's great-grandfather messing with the wrong bruja.
Ford didn't believe in witches, Mexican or otherwise, and he found the idea of a curse to be utterly ridiculous. But whether it was the result of a bruja or a family disposition, the fact remained that Jarvis men were cursed with being incapable of settling down. And when they tried, bad luck always came knocking.
Ford's dad, Johnny Jarvis, was a retired rodeo bull rider who'd earned the nickname Johnny Appleseed because he'd fathered nine kids with eight women. All of them, except for Ford, were named for the cities they were born in.
There was his oldest brother, Dallas, who'd been only two when their dad had met a woman in San Antonio, which resulted in Tony. Two years later, he'd met and married his "real" soul mate in Laredo, producing Larry. Like clockwork, it was two more years before a pretty little rodeo queen—Ford's mom—attracted Johnny's attention in Dallas.
Nine months later, Ford was born. And since there was already a Dallas in the family, he'd been named for the literal place of his conception, the backseat of a Ford Fairmont.
That union lasted the longest, and in two years the little family had moved to Abilene, where Abby, Ford's only full sibling, was born. After his parents' divorce, Ford gained four more half-siblings: Houston, Austin, Odessa, and Worth (they'd left off the "Fort"), who was the baby of the family.
Spreading "seed" here, there, and everywhere wasn't a lifestyle Ford aspired to, and he was disappointed that some of his brothers had already followed in their father's footsteps.
Curses were hard to break.
Nobody knew if Jarvis women were afflicted with the same curse. Odessa was twenty-two and seemed hell-bent on independence. And Abby had died when she was only ten years old.
She'd drowned in a creek when a flash flood had come out of nowhere.
Ford was supposed to have been watching her. And he had been. Just moments before…
That's why they called it a flash flood.
Lightning lit the sky again, and the rain picked up. A shiver ran up and down Ford's spine. Wailing Woman Creek felt a little too close for comfort.
Claire stamped her feet on Maggie's muddy welcome mat and hesitated briefly before knocking on the door. It was nine thirty—possibly too late to show up unannounced on her best friend's doorstep—but the gate to Happy Trails ranch had been open, and if Claire didn't vent to someone, she was going to erupt.
She felt like giving up. Maybe it was time to stop searching for Prince Charming since all she could find were frogs and toads—and since this was Texas, most of the toads were horny.
With comedic timing, a toad hopped out from behind an overturned cowboy boot nestled in the corner of the porch. Claire stifled a squeal, but her pulse raced like the engine of her shiny new car. She raised an eyebrow at the toad as he hopped away, blissfully unaware of how close he'd just come to being impaled by a stiletto heel.
She started to knock on the door again when she clearly heard laughter coming from inside the house. She tried the knob. It turned, so she pushed the door open a few inches and hollered, "Knock, knock! Anybody home?"
"In here!" Maggie shouted.
Claire walked past the staircase to the den, where Maggie was doubled over in laughter. Her husband, rancher Travis Blake, was sitting on the couch with his head between his knees. Alice Martin, the town's librarian, hovered by the coffee table while clutching a book to her chest. Her brown eyes were wide with concern. "I'm so sorry, Travis," she said.
Claire couldn't possibly imagine what Alice needed to apologize for. "I thought you were going to stop saying you're sorry all the time," she said.
"In this case, I need to," Alice said. "Poor Travis!"
"I don't care about people saying they're sorry," Travis said, lifting his head from between his knees. "But I could do without the poor Travis business."
He was as pale as an oyster, or as at least as pale as someone who'd just eaten one and hadn't much cared for it.
Maggie straightened up, cheeks still pink from laughing. "Alice, all you did was bring over some pregnancy books. It's not your fault that Travis opened one up and had a fit."
Maggie, who was about four months pregnant, looked like she might laugh again.
"This one is about labor and delivery," Alice said to Claire, squeezing the book even more tightly, as if it housed an evil entity. "And look what it did to poor…" She winced. "Sorry." Then she stomped her foot, causing her ponytail to swing frantically. "Dang it!"
Maggie ruffled Travis's hair. "And to think that just this morning Travis bragged to the doctor about how prepared he is for the birth because he's"—Maggie made air quotes with her fingers—"pulled plenty of calves."
"Oh dear," Alice said.
Claire gasped. "Travis Blake, you did not compare childbirth to pulling calves."
Travis stood up, a slight bit of color returning to his cheeks. "It's actually very similar, according to that damn book," he said. "More similar than I was expecting."
He looked at Maggie and went a tad pale again. Maggie leaned into him and rose up on her toes, an act that didn't do much to add to her five feet and two inches of height. With her short hair and small stature, she looked like a little blond pixie. But she was tough as nails.
"I'm not the first woman to give birth," she said softly while stroking Travis's cheek. "I'll be fine."
Travis sighed. "I know. And I'll be there for you." He swallowed audibly and gave Maggie a squeeze. "Always."
This. This is why Claire hadn't given up on finding her own Prince Charming.
"You ladies shouldn't stick around too long," Travis said, letting go of Maggie and heading for the stairs. "We're in for a downpour."
As if on cue, it started to rain again.
"I'm not staying long," Claire said.
Travis furrowed his brow. "There are two low-water crossings between here and Rancho Cañada Verde."
Travis was right. And once Claire got onto her family's ranch, she'd have to go through another one to get to Miss Daisy. But she wasn't stupid, and she knew how to take care of herself. She'd driven in the rain a million times.
Seven-year-old Henry appeared at the top of the stairs. "Dad, I'm scared."
Travis was Henry's uncle, but he and Maggie had adopted him when he was six years old. Soon, a baby girl would be joining their little family.
"I'm coming, buddy. We'll count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder."
Claire's heart started to melt as she watched Travis ascend the stairs, and it didn't stop melting until it came to the tiny, frozen nugget of jealousy in the center.
She wanted this. Or some version of it, anyway. She was the freaking "Cupid" of Big Verde. If it weren't for her, Maggie and Travis wouldn't even be together. Why couldn't she find someone for herself?
She'd turn thirty later this year. According to a book Alice had shared with her, only twelve percent of her eggs remained viable. What was the point of being the sole heir of a ranching empire if the empire would die with her?
"Come and sit for a few minutes," Maggie said, pointing at the couch. "How did your date go?"
Claire sighed and sat. Something sharp poked her in the butt, and she yanked a toy tractor out from between the couch cushions.
"Sorry," Maggie said, snatching it up. "Tell us everything. Was there spray-on hair involved? Did he have red wine trapped in his Invisalign braces?"
Claire shivered. She'd encountered both of those situations on previous Sizzle dates.
"His name was Chad, and he sells respiratory equipment to hospitals."
Maggie shuddered. "How dreadful."
Claire nodded in agreement. "Chad likes sushi and fine wine, and he's super smart. I know he's super smart because he told me so. And he does CrossFit."
"Of course dudebro does CrossFit," Maggie said, nodding.
"Maybe you need to stop trying to hook up with city slickers and stick closer to home," Alice suggested. "It doesn't seem like you've had much in common with any of your Sizzle dates."
Claire wanted to point out that she didn't see Alice dating any local Big Verde guys, but she wasn't sure Alice ever dated anyone. She was cute, smart, and independent. And she seemed perfectly content to remain that way. Claire, however, wanted what her parents had, and what Maggie and Travis seemed to have. And she wanted it yesterday. Was that asking too much?
As if Maggie had read her mind, she said, "A watched pot never boils, Claire. Maybe if you stop trying so hard—"
Claire sighed. "I've dated every single man in Big Verde, and none of them have tickled my fancy."
"If I remember correctly," Maggie said with an impish grin, "Ford Jarvis tickled it three times in one night."
Alice gasped. "Really? Three times?"
Claire's cheeks heated up. Yes, three times. But sex was all Mr. Fancy-Tickler cared about. It was probably why he was so dang good at it.
Alice stood and headed for the door. "I'm going to ruminate on that when I'm in bed tonight."
"Heading out?" Maggie asked.
"Yes. I've got a library board meeting in the morning. I need to hit the sack."
Maggie started to rise.
"I can let myself out," Alice said. "You sit tight."
Maggie sank back into the chair and rested her arms on her belly, even though her baby bump was barely visible. "Maybe I'll bring Henry to story time. He really loves it."
"Isn't he getting a little old for that?" Claire asked.
"Nobody is ever too old for once upon a time," Alice said.
Claire wondered if they got too old for a happily-ever-after.
With a little wave, Alice headed out the door.
"I should probably get going too—"
- "Readers are sure to enjoy this sweet, gentle love story."—Publishers Weekly, on Cowboy Come Home
- "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, on Big Bad Cowboy
- "A smart, sizzling read."—Entertainment Weekly on Big Bad Cowboy
- "Heartwarming, hysterical and completely sexy and 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 Big Bad Cowboy
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2020
- Page Count
- 512 pages