Gold Valley’s rodeo champion is facing the toughest challenge of his life — a Christmas wedding!
Legendary bull rider Jake Daniels has only one plan this Christmas — to ignore the pain the season always brings. Until his best friend, Callie Carson, shows up on his ranch with a marriage proposal! Jake has lived so close to the edge it’s a miracle he’s still alive — he knows all about risk. But marrying the woman he craves more than anything feels like the biggest risk of all.
Callie Carson may be rodeo royalty, but to fulfill her dreams of riding saddle bronc, she needs her inheritance. And to access that, she needs a husband. But Jake the husband is deliciously different from Jake the friend, especially after the wild heat of their wedding night. He was only supposed to be her cowboy for Christmas, but Jake’s every heart-stopping touch has Callie questioning how she’ll ever be able to walk away…
JAKE DANIELS HAD grown up knowing that life was short. When he was in high school, he’d lost his parents, and along with them, the sense that anything in this world was guaranteed.
That kind of thing changed a man.
It could make him afraid of his own shadow, worried about taking risks and filled with a sense of self-preservation.
It was either that, or he realized since there were no guarantees, he might as well go all in. Push those chips out to the center of the table and see if the gamble paid off.
He’d done some admittedly dumb stuff as a kid. Not gambling so much as acting out. But the rodeo had changed him. It had saved him.
He’d spent the last eighteen years gambling and doing pretty damn well for himself, it had to be said. Years spent in the rodeo, flinging himself around on the back of enraged bulls, had netted him a decent amount of money, and now that he was more or less ready to get out of the game, those winnings, and the amount of money his parents’ life insurance had left behind, had gotten him a big spread in Gold Valley.
He was going to be a rancher.
Not cattle, like his cousin Ryder. No. He was getting into horses. High-value breeds. Another gamble. It would either pay off, or ruin him.
That was the kind of life he liked. That was the kind of thing that made him feel alive.
And if this was retirement, hell, he was pretty damn into it. Thirty-two years old, and wealthy enough to figure out a way to live his dream. Not bad at all.
Of course, there were things he would miss about the rodeo. The people on the circuit were practically family now. So many years traveling around the same venues, getting busted up together, competing fiercely and going out for a beer after.
But it had been time to leave, and all it had taken was one fierce accident to teach him that.
And Gold Valley was his home, so this had been the place to go to when his time in the rodeo was done.
The day his parents had died, his aunt and uncle had also died, along with the mother of one of his closest friends. That had left a passel of orphaned children, a big old ranch that had once been run by their parents and a whole lot of chaos.
But it had been a good life. Other than all the crushingly sad parts.
His cousin Ryder had taken care of all of them, since he was the only one who’d been eighteen when the tragedy had happened.
He often wondered how they’d made it through without Ryder punching them all in the damn face.
He was sure that Ryder had wanted to from time to time.
Hell. Jake and Colt had been absolute assholes. Neither of them had handled losing their parents well. Well, was there a good way to handle that? He didn’t know. But at seventeen and fifteen, he and his brother had been mad at the world, and kicking against the one person who had been doing his best to help them.
They’d both left home and joined the rodeo, the Western take on running away and joining the circus.
It had taken some years and some maturity for him to fully appreciate what he’d had.
Because what Ryder had given to them had been bound up in his loss, and until he’d been in his midtwenties probably, he hadn’t fully been able to separate those two things and think of home, and his cousin, without a measure of pain and anger.
Even now, when he pulled into Hope Springs Ranch, a strange sensation took hold of him.
Nostalgia, grief and home, all rolled into one.
He’d been contending with it a lot lately, because his—for lack of a better word—retirement was still fairly new, and being in one place and not on the road was unusual for him.
But that was a choice he’d made, and one that was taking a bit of time for him to settle into. It had been just over three months, and it still felt…wrong in some ways.
It was easier to pretend that all your demons were dealt with when you just spent a good portion of the time running from them. Made things simple. At least as simple as they could be.
The problem was his demons had done a decent job of catching up to him on the circuit, and that was when he’d decided it was time to move on.
When Cal had fallen…
How could he live with something happening to his mentee? Cal was his best friend and with his guidance had gotten hurt.
No, that had brought him back to a dark, raw place. One he didn’t want to visit again.
That calm before the storm. That bright ray of sunshine revealed to be the headlights of a Mack truck bearing down on him.
He’d read that poem that said nothing gold could stay.
In his experience, it turned out gold was fleeting. And revealed to be fool’s gold on top of it.
Good never lasted.
And it was rarely real, anyway.
He’d been… Well, he hadn’t been thrilled about Cal wanting to come for Thanksgiving, but he felt responsible for the accident so in the end he hadn’t been able to say no.
He pulled his truck up to the front of the farmhouse, and the door opened, three dogs spilling out the front and down the front steps.
“Back, mutts,” he muttered when he got out of the truck, smiling affectionately at the creatures as he bent down and scratched them behind the ears.
He looked up and saw Sammy standing on the top step of the porch, her baby on her hip. Sammy was married to his cousin Ryder now, but she was another member of their ragtag family. She hadn’t lost her parents, but her situation at home, as he understood it, had been unacceptable, and when she was sixteen she’d come to live with them. She’d never left, and she and Ryder had gotten married a year earlier.
Finally, in his opinion.
The two of them had spent way too long dancing around the truth. Not that he could blame them. Nothing in his life had ever made marriage look particularly appealing. His parents…
His parents had been unhappy, slaves to a ranch and their children, to marriage vows they’d said to each other and had always seemed like they might regret.
For just a moment it had seemed like it might all be fixed. For just a moment it had seemed like they’d be okay.
Then it had all been destroyed.
That bright spot of hope swallowed by reality.
After years of unhappiness, his parents had just died.
Jake couldn’t imagine that kind of life.
“How you doing?” he asked.
Sammy shifted the baby from one hip to the other, the little girl reaching out and grabbing her mom’s blond hair. Sammy laughed and unwrapped the chubby fist from her curls. She looked happier than he’d ever seen her before.
He supposed for some people there was something to be said for this life.
God knew Ryder seemed happier.
But then, it was impossible for Ryder to seem more grim. Jake felt pretty guilty about that with the benefit of age and wisdom.
“Great,” Sammy said. “We’ve been seeing so much of you lately. I feel spoiled.”
“Well, that’s good, because it won’t take long for you to just feel sick me.”
“Never,” Sammy said, coming down the steps and offering him a hug.
Sammy was like that. Effortless, easy affection with people around her.
He admired it, but he’d never much understood it. There was only one kind of touch he was free with. Sex was simple. And being a champion in the world of rodeo meant there was no shortage of buckle bunnies lining up to see if the rumors were true. His bull rides lasted eight seconds, and a ride in his bed lasted the whole night.
He took a lot of pride in the fact that he had staying power. That he gave a damn for the pleasure of the women who passed through his hotel rooms.
But that was as deep as he got.
“Come on in,” Sammy said. “Logan and Rose are already here. Iris and Griffin are on their way.”
It was strange to him that everybody had paired off now. Everybody except for himself, and his brother, Colt, who would rather take a stick between the eyes than settle down.
Jake was confident that would be his brother’s stance.
His brother was still going out hard in the rodeo. As far as Jake knew he wasn’t even interested in coming back to town and settling down the way Jake was, let alone getting married.
He walked into the living room, and noticed all the little changes.
Since Ryder and Sammy had gotten married, the place, which had actually been basically the same in all the years since their parents had died, had gotten a bit of a facelift.
Sammy had added a whole lot of real grown-up touches to it. Pretty things.
It was weird. Weirder that he cared.
Ryder came through from the kitchen and offered a greeting. “Good to see you.”
“You, too. Hey, Sammy,” Jake said. “Would it be all right if my buddy Cal came for Thanksgiving?”
“Sure,” Sammy said. “The more, the merrier.”
He was glad Sammy was thrilled. He was less thrilled. But there were a spare few things on God’s earth he saw as sacred. His friendship with Cal was one of them.
The accident might have been a catalyst for Jake deciding to leave the rodeo, but it was just damned cowardly to then deny his friend’s request to come visit. Why? Because he felt guilty about the fall?
Hell, yeah, he did.
But that didn’t mean he had to be happy about the visit. Though even just being away and out of the game, knowing he was just out of it now for good… There were things he missed. He was looking forward to having a few beers and talking about old times.
“Good,” Jake said.
Eventually, Iris and her new husband arrived, followed by Pansy and her husband, West, and West’s teenage brother, Emmett. West and Pansy had taken over the raising of the kid, since West’s mother wasn’t hugely into the maternal thing. Putting it mildly.
And while everything with his family was good—it always was—there was an indefinable feeling of…change.
Right. Well, you haven’t been here very much, so you don’t have the right to have an opinion about how things have changed.
That thought galled him a little bit.
And it was true enough. He’d been gone, seen to his own affairs all this time, and something that had given him a small measure of comfort was the fact that he could come home at any time and things would be roughly the way that he left them. But not so much anymore.
There were new people. New plates. The house was fuller than it had ever been, but that made it a little bit unrecognizable, too.
It was a whole damn thing.
He finished eating, and hung out for a while.
Then he bid everybody farewell, got in his truck and started on the road back to his ranch.
Settling in Gold Valley.
There was a time when he’d been sure he’d never do that. And as he drove down the familiar highway he had a strange sense of…dread.
He hated that.
He chased dread. The kind of fear that held other people down, he pursued it. He’d spent years riding bulls because he’d figured why not give fate the biggest middle finger of all.
It was the quiet moments that seemed to bring the fear. The still moments. The golden hour, when the sun lit up the world around him and everything looked new. And there would be a moment. A breath. Where peace rested in his soul.
And right on its heels came the hounds of hell.
The arena had stopped it. The pounding of hooves, the danger.
It was just that it had followed him to the arena now so he’d figured he’d take his chances here.
Maybe that had been a mistake.
Too late now.
He drove through town, trying to get a look at how it might seem if he were an outsider. If he was someone who hadn’t grown up here. The brick facades were the kind of thing tourists lost their shit over. But he lost the ability to see them a long time ago.
For him… For him, Gold Valley had just represented everything he lost.
He’d been running when he’d left.
He’d run for a long time. And he’d achieved a hell of a lot.
But whatever he thought he’d feel when he got here… He didn’t.
And so he was trying to see everything with new eyes, like he was a new man, because he felt just so damned much like the old one. And he wasn’t the biggest fan.
Hope Springs always put him in this kind of mood.
So he shrugged it off and started mentally going over the timeline that he had in place for getting his ranch going. His first five horses were coming at the new year.
It was a new challenge. And it reinvigorated him. That was the problem. The rodeo had gotten stale. He’d want everything twice. You didn’t get better than that. He’d done it twice in a row, and he didn’t want to get to the point where he wasn’t winning anymore.
He’d peaked. Basically.
So now he had to go find somewhere else to do that.
That was something, anyway.
It was one reason he’d backed his cousin Iris when she had decided to open her bakery.
He knew all about needing a change.
Maybe that meant he actually was still running.
None of it mattered now, though.
He hadn’t had enough to drink tonight because he’d needed to get his ass home, but he was going to open some whiskey the minute he got in the door.
The place was out about ten miles from town, a nice flat parcel of property with the mountains behind it. The house itself was a big, white farmhouse with a green metal roof. Different to the rustic place at Hope Springs, but he liked it. The driveway was gravel, long and winding, with tall, dense trees on either side of the road.
But when he came through the trees into the clearing where the house was, there was a surprise waiting for him in front of the house.
An old, beat-up pickup was parked there, and he could see a lone figure leaning up against the hood. He parked the truck and got out, making his way over to the figure.
In the darkness, he couldn’t quite make it out, but he had a feeling he knew who it was. Early and unannounced.
Entirely in keeping with what he knew of his friend.
And two wide, brown eyes looked up at him from beneath the brim of a white cowboy hat, long, glossy brown hair shifting with the motion. “Jake. I’m really glad to see you. Because… I don’t just need a job. I need a husband.”
Release date: 1st December 2021