The Bull Rider’s Redemption
Angel Crossing, Arizona, Book 5

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Just like riding a bike, my aunt Fanny. The weighted edge of Clover Van Camp’s sequined, tailored gown and her three-inch stilettos were parts of a life she’d left years ago, when she’d gone to college and finally convinced her mother that statistics class would get her further in the fashion industry than pageants. This was a one-night only return to the stage as a beauty queen. Her mother had promised.

Clover handed the award to the man in the cowboy hat and Western tuxedo with buttons straining over his middle. She stood behind him as he spoke about his philanthropy to the crowded Phoenix ballroom. Her smile was pleasant, masking a desperate desire to move her pinned and sprayed head of “naturally tousled” red hair. La-di-da and fiddly dee, she said to herself, the joys of being a vice president of events for her mother’s fashion house. The clapping prompted her to step forward to direct the winner to the spot for his photo with the Junior League’s president. As she maneuvered him into position, his hand squeezed her sequined, Spanxed butt.

“What the hell?” she yelped, pushing him and knocking him off balance and into the Junior League president. Clover watched as the pinwheeling man and woman sprawled onto the wooden floor, as Grabby Hands’ white Stetson rolled off the stage. Crap. What was it with her and cowboys, gowns and trophies? That was exactly how she’d “fallen” for tall, blond, blue-eyed Danny Leigh years ago. She’d handed him the Junior Championship Bull Rider trophy and, in trying to get herself close to him for the picture, she’d stepped on his cowboy boot with the thin heel of her stiletto, skewering his foot and sending him into a jig that had them both tumbling from the platform.

Now in the Phoenix ballroom more than a decade later, this audience laughed politely, and Clover went on as if nothing had happened. She’d learned how to tape her breasts for the best cleavage and how to smile through anything on the pageant circuit. Good thing, too. She figured tonight’s spectacular cleavage (thanks to her taping skills) might make the cowboy forget she’d knocked him to the ground.

Two hours later and on the way to the airport for a red-eye flight back to Austin, Texas, Clover finally read the text from her mother: WTH. U punched award winner?

No punch. Accident. Will explain at office.

By then Clover would have a better, and more PR-friendly, explanation than that Grabby Hands should have kept his mitts off her. She’d already salvaged the situation to the best advantage for her mother’s brand—Cowgirl’s Blues. In two days, everyone would be talking about the new jeans that lifted butts and flattened tummies, not Clover’s stumble. Oh, the glamor of working in the fashion industry.

Was this what she’d pictured when she’d smiled for the camera with her new MBA diploma in hand? She was no closer to a position of real responsibility than a polecat with a ten-foot pole. Of anyone, her mother should be able to understand Clover’s ambition to be more than a clothes hanger with breasts. Clover wanted to be the kind of businesswoman her mother was, one who made her mark on an industry.

Why did she have to explain anything to her mother? Clover shouldn’t have been forced into the gown and into a position that should have been filled by an intern. The jet flew through the darkened sky and Clover made a decision she’d been working up to since her father had tempted her with a dream job: CFO of Van Camp Worldwide. She’d be second only to her father in power. But it wasn’t just the power that mattered, but also the fact that the position as chief financial officer would allow her to finally use her crazy fast and nearly supernatural ability to look at numbers and see where the problems were. She was done with fashion and more than done trying to please her mother and her Texas-sized ego. Why had she ever imagined that her mother would loosen her grasp on the reins of Cowgirl’s Blues?


Clover shoved her foot hard into the stiff boots she hadn’t worn since…well, since that summer, the one where she’d met Danny Leigh, lost her virginity and had her heart broken all in the space of a few weeks. Ahh, youth was wasted on youth. She grinned until she remembered her mission. She’d accepted her father’s challenge, after two weeks’ notice to her mother, who told her to leave immediately and not let the door hit her on the way out. Clover’s job over the next few months for her father was to prove her worth by convincing property owners and the town council that creating a resort out of Angel Crossing was the best way to save the Arizona town.

She checked over the packed luggage—jeans, cowgirl shirts and plain white undergarments. She needed to dress her part from her skin to her hat. Sure, the town would know her and her purpose. After all, Danny was the mayor now. She wondered if her father had sent her here because he remembered her relationship with the junior champion bull rider. Maybe. Her genius with numbers was matched by her father’s photographic memory.

Clover didn’t care. She was on her way and if she needed to use an old relationship to get what she wanted? So be it.

♥ š›š›š›š›š›š›♥ š›š›š›š›š›š›♥ 

“Hey, bidder, bidder.” The auctioneer started his patter as the sun beat down on Danny’s cowboy hat. He was waiting for someone to start the bidding. Then when it looked like the property was ready to sell, he’d jump in. The buildings at the very end of Miner’s Gulch, Angel Crossing’s main thoroughfare, were perfect for his plans because they were cheap, on large lots.

The crowd was sparse. Good. Probably meant the price would be even lower than he’d hoped. Finally the auctioneer accepted a bid. Danny held his number at his side. He didn’t want to jump into the bidding too early. Someone behind him and to the left upped the price by $2,000. The auctioneer looked pained.

“Come on, folks,” he said. “These properties are worth a whole lot more than that.”

That little push got another person to up the price. Then Danny nearly bid when the auctioneer looked like he was going to call everything done.

“You’re making me work for my money, aren’t you? I see John back there? Are you bidding?” Silence. Danny saw the auctioneer lifting the gavel to start the count down.

Danny held up his number and nodded. He was sure he’d be the winning bidder now…then a feminine voice said, “$155,000.”

That put the properties near the top of his price range. He and the all-male crowd looked around for the woman in their midst. Though he was tall, all he saw were hats. The high desert where his town sat might not get boiling temperatures—except in the dead of summer—but the sun was just as fierce as anywhere else in the Grand Canyon state.

“Mayor?” the auctioneer asked. Danny nodded and gestured that he’d match the bid and add $1,000. The bidder’s voice sounded familiar but wasn’t an Angelite.

“It’s back to you, Mayor. The little lady does seem determined.”

Danny nodded and added $2,000 to her bid of $166,000. He’d already gone beyond what he had to spend. She must have nodded because the auctioneer pointed at Danny again. Damn. If he begged friends and family he might be able to cover the check. He did more calculations in his head. Could he still come out with a little bit of profit after converting the properties? He had to shake his head no. Converting the old warehouses into homes might put money in his pocket in the long-term and make Angel Crossing a better place, but he’d be in the red on the project for longer than he could afford. Maybe if he was still bringing in the big purses from his bull rides. But not now.

“Sold,” the auctioneer said. “To the lady in the pink hat.” Now Danny saw her. About the same height as the men around her, although she’d still be shorter than him. He had to know who’d just bought a chunk of his town. He quickly moved toward her as she walked to the legal eagles ready to sign over the properties, as is.

“Pardon, ma’am,” Danny said, raising his voice a little to catch her attention. She turned and he stopped. Hells no. “Clover?”

She smiled, her perpetually red lips looking as lush and kissable as they had been on that rodeo summer. The one where he’d won his buckle, lassoed a beauty queen and lost his virginity.

“Hello, Danny,” she said, a light drawl in her voice. “I heard you were mayor here. Congratulations.” She smiled again. Not the real one he’d come to love, but the staged one that stretched her lips, lifting her cheeks but never reaching her bluebonnet eyes.

“Why?” he asked, not exactly sure what he meant.

“Good investment.” She turned back to the paperwork.

Danny wouldn’t be dismissed this time. He’d let her take the lead when they’d been teens because she was older than him by two years. He’d seen her as a woman of the world. Not now. Not all of these years later. He wasn’t a horny sixteen-year-old with more hormones than brains.

“What exactly do you plan to do with the properties?”

She continued to sign where the official from the county tax sale office pointed but didn’t answer.

“I’m mayor and chair of the revitalization committee,” he added. True, though the “revitalization committee” was just him. He wanted Angel Crossing to thrive and he had plans that built on some of the changes that were already taking place. He didn’t want any of that to be ruined.

Clover nodded but didn’t turn. He was starting to get annoyed. He didn’t expect her to fall all over herself for an old boyfriend or even because he was mayor. He did expect her to be courteous enough to answer his very legitimate questions. He wasn’t moving until she did. Folding his arms over his chest, he stared at her…hat—not her jean-clad rear and long legs. It didn’t look like she starved herself anymore. Her mother had been big on her daughter becoming a model for her clothing line, so Clover had watched every morsel that passed her lips. He remembered her almost drooling while he’d eaten a greasy, powdered-sugar-covered funnel cake. It had taken the enjoyment out of eating it.

Slowly, deliberately, he thought, she put down the pen and took the papers before turning to him. Her expression pleasant even without her wide smile. “What did you need, Danny?”

“I don’t need anything. I would like to know your plans for the properties, strictly as an official of the town.”

“I don’t think so.” She looked him in the eye, nearly his height in her impractical pink cowgirl boots, matched to her cowgirl shirt—probably one of her mother’s designs. She looked the same, yet different. A woman grown into and comfortable with her blue-blood nose and creamy Southern-belle skin.

“There must be some reason you won’t share your plans.”

“It’s business, Danny. That’s all. You were bidding against me. You must have your own plans.” There was a question in there somewhere.

“I’m mayor. Of course, I have plans. But you work for a clothing designer, don’t you?”

“I understood you only became mayor because you lost a card game.”

That damned story. It had gotten picked up by a bunch of papers and repeated on a ton of websites. “Not exactly.”

She smiled politely. Waiting.

“The vote for mayor was a tie and we drew cards to decide the winner.” He didn’t need to tell her that he’d been a write-in candidate as a joke. He could have turned it down, but by then he’d decided to step away from bull riding while he was at the top of the profession—he’d just won his champion buckle. That’s what he’d told the reporters. It was true enough. He’d had his place in Angel Crossing and the town seemed as good as any to put down roots after years on the road. Anyway, who wouldn’t want to be mayor, he’d thought at the time, imagining all kinds of cool things he could do.

“Drawing cards. That’s very Wild West, isn’t it?”

“I guess. But I’m still mayor.”

“Well, it was nice to see you, Danny.” She turned from him before he could say anything else. Damn. What was he going to do now? He watched Clover walk away. A beautiful sight, as it always had been. Tall, curvier than she’d been at eighteen and proud. He knew she worked for her mother. A friend of a rodeo friend had told him that years ago, thinking he’d be interested. He hadn’t been.

Now, though, what she was up to was important to Angel Crossing. He wasn’t the big dumb cowboy who was led around by his gonads anymore. He was a responsible adult who had a town to look after.

♥ š›š›š›š›š›š›♥ š›š›š›š›š›š›♥ 

Clover kept her head high and her steps confident as she walked away from Danny. She could feel his eyes on her. She refused to acknowledge that she knew he was watching. She definitely didn’t want him to know that the corner of her heart still ruled by her teenaged self liked his denim-blue gaze on her.

Clover disciplined her thoughts by going over the numbers and how these properties fit in with the ones that Van Camp Worldwide already owned. The buildings were slated for demolition, despite their sturdy brick walls. Most places in Angel Crossing were made of wood or adobe, but not these. What had Danny planned for them? Didn’t matter. They were hers…well, VCW’s.

She walked to the small, fully furnished house she’d rented—simpler than staying at the hotel nearly half an hour away or in Tucson. There used to be an old grand dame of a hotel in Angel Crossing, but it had closed years ago and sat empty, beginning to sag and rot. The town had little future on its current path. It would end up like the other Arizona ghost towns, a place on the map that tourists visited hoping to see spirits of the Wild West.

Next on her to-do list was finding the owners of six other key properties. She had done what she could from New York, but she needed to go to the courthouse in Tucson to start pulling records. She got in her rental car and fired up the GPS, telling her phone to call her brother, Knox, so she could speak with him about the purchase and any other issues he might know about, having worked for their father for years.

It took extra rings for her brother to answer, but he was willing to talk.

“Make sure the attorneys go through the deeds and the town’s regulations with a fine-tooth comb,” Knox said around a yawn. It was early, early in Hong Kong. “They’ll assume they’re a bunch of yahoos and blow off a full review,”

“I’m on my way to Tucson to check on the ownership of the other properties. I should be able to straighten that out by the end of the day. I think the purchases will be completed faster than we’d calculated. Good thing because this town is definitely on a downward slide.”

“What about the mayor?” Knox asked. She could picture her dark-haired brother squinting at his phone because he’d left his glasses somewhere.

There was more to the question than what sat on the surface. “You mean, what’s it like catching up with an old boyfriend? We were kids. He’s just a retired bull rider and accidental mayor of a dying town.”

“You might be interested to know that he’s been buying properties along the main street—Miner’s Gulch.”

“That explains why he was bidding against us today.”

“Interesting. Do you think he’s a front man for another company?”

Clover was getting used to the suspicion and worry that ran through VCW. “I doubt it. I don’t see Danny Leigh allowing himself to be used that way, but I’ll have New York check into it if you think it’s important.” Maybe she should meet with Danny to figure out why he’d wanted the properties. All business. Clover was no longer the beauty-queen cowgirl looking for her one and only cowboy. She had plans, including turning Angel Crossing into Rico Pueblo. With that accomplished, her father would make her CFO. It might feel good, too, knowing that she’d fix something Knox had messed up—for the first time in their lives maybe.

“If you have any other questions, just give me a call,” Knox said. Why was he being so nice? “It’s great having you with the company.”

“Thanks,” Clover said before she hung up. She didn’t really believe Knox wished her well. They had always been in competition, especially for their parents’ attention. He’d agreed to help her now, even though their father had sent him to Hong Kong. She knew there was more to his banishment to the China office than he was letting on.

She shook her head, wondering if siblings ever got past being ten-year-olds with each other.

Outdoing Knox wasn’t childish, though. It would get her the job she’d trained for at the Wharton business school and really start her life as an adult. No more picking out tablecloth colors or deciding whether roses or lilies were better in the centerpieces, as she’d done for Cowgirl’s Blues. She would be reshaping a town and leading VCW into an entirely new business venture. First, though, she needed to find the owners of the next properties on her list, then make offers. That would provide VCW with enough land to begin the process of rezoning.


Clover turned onto Miner’s Gulch—the name of the street would need to be changed. Picturesque for a ghost town, not so much for a fun, yet sophisticated village and resort that would be Rico Pueblo. She reached for her phone on the passenger seat to record a reminder about the street name. Where was it? She turned to look and saw that it had slid out of reach. She glanced back to the road. “Oh, no!” she said, seeing a dog cowering in her path. She slammed on her brakes and swerved just as the dog unfroze and ran toward her turning car. The thud of car into dog made Clover wince and cry out.

She couldn’t see the animal. Her heart beat in her ears. She put the vehicle in Park, her hands shaking as she turned off the engine and hurried out of the car. She didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to see the animal’s mangled body. But it might be alive. She walked toward the side that would have hit the dog. No body, but there were drops of blood. She’d definitely hit the dog. She left the car and followed the trail of red dots toward an alley. Should she call someone for help? Her first thought was Danny. No. She’d deal with whatever she found when she reached the end of the blood trail.