Published by HQN Books on August 10, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Multicultural & Interracial, Small Town & Rural, Western, Romance
“Filled with deep emotion and intense spark, Marcella Bell brings grit, spark and brilliance to western romance! Marcella Bell is one to watch!”—Maisey Yates, New York Times bestselling author
The world watches on as reality TV meets rodeo in this competition like no other. In front of the cameras, Lil and AJ are each other’s biggest rivals. Off-screen, it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated…
At thirty-six, undefeated rodeo champion AJ Garza is supposed to be retiring, not chasing after an all-new closed-circuit rodeo tour with a million-dollar prize. But with the Houston rodeo program that saved him as a wayward teen on the brink of bankruptcy, he’ll compete. And he’ll win.
Enter Lilian Sorrow Island. Raised by her grandparents on the family ranch in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Lil is more a cowboy than city boy AJ will ever be. It shows. She’s not about to let him steal the prize that’ll save her ranch, even if he is breathtakingly magnificent, in pretty much every way going…
This summer, in this bold, uplifting novel, Marcella Bell reminds us that even when it comes to rodeo, romance is the wildest ride of all!
A Closed Circuit Novel
The Wildest Ride is a book from new-to-me author Marcella Bell, exploring the world of competitive rodeo with a male champion and a woman who just might win it all–including his heart. Here’s an excerpt from chapter one, and stick around until the end for my review of this excellent book.
On their own, the sheep weren’t that bad. It was the goats that were the problem. They gave the sheep ideas.
And what the hell sheep needed with ideas, Lilian Island did not know.
The dogs, Oreo and Carrot, had gone in opposite directions, each pulling wide to flank the scattered sheep on the left and right while Lil and her horse harried them from behind. As they picked up speed, her heart caught the rhythm of her horse’s hooves thundering against the ground as they chased the lead ewe together, two beings becoming one in motion.
The wind whipped across the shaved sides of her head, drowning out all other sounds beneath its gusty whoosh. It deposited traces of prairie dust in the loosely braided column of black hair that trailed back along the center of her head to hang down the midpoint of her spine.
Lil transferred the reins to her left hand in order to wrap them around the pommel of her saddle, steadying herself with her thighs as she did.
With her right hand, she reached for the rope coiled at her hip.
Her tornado-gray eyes, both narrowed beneath two thick black eyebrows, locked on the sheep like a missile on target.
Woman and horse flanked the sheep. Lil uncoiled the rope with a snap of her wrist while releasing the pommel with her other hand, letting her body tilt down the side of the horse until she was level with their quarry.
This close, she recognized the sheep as BB, or Bossy Betty, the herd’s matriarch.
It just went to show: a fierce woman could be counted on to keep everybody in line, but watch out when they got wild.
Lil surprised herself by laughing out loud as she leaped from the side of her horse to tackle the sheep. Catching three of its legs in her left hand, she quickly roped them off with her right.
She might not be quite as fast as she once was, but there was no denying she still had it.
After a few half-hearted attempts at resistance, BB heaved a huge sigh and slumped against the ground. To the tune of the occasional disgruntled bleat, Lil freed the defeated but unharmed animal.
She made the rope into a makeshift lead and tied the wayward leader to her saddle, giving her a consolation pat along the way, making a mental note to tell Piper that the herd was coming due for shearing.
Still smiling, Lil said to the sheep, “Inconvenient, BB, but it’s been a long time since I did any mutton bustin’.” With a final pat and chuckle, she added, “A damn long time.”
The lingering rush of the chase was familiar—once it got you, the thrill of the ride never really let go—but the wish to do it again, that was unexpected. She was a grown woman, well past her rodeo days.
Sharp barking approaching from her right signaled that Carrot and Oreo were on their way back with the rest of the flock.
Soon they would have the whole herd of them back in the yard, and then Lil could start her actual workday.
Feeding the barn stock was supposed to be her meditative morning ritual.
One that might need reconsideration, she thought as she hooked a foot into her stirrup and swung onto her horse.
The horse was the same stormy gray color as Lil’s eyes, with a black mane and tail matched to the inky midnight tone of Lil’s hair. Fanciful, Lil had named her Aurora, the most beautiful thing she could think of at the time, but everybody called her Rory.
Rory had been Lil’s twenty-fifth birthday present from her granddad. The last one he ever gave her.
Leaning forward, she pressed the side of her face against Rory’s warm neck, breathing deep that unique-in-all-the-world scent that was horse.
Oreo and Carrot brought in the remaining six sheep, and Lil led the group back toward the yard.
The coyotes could have the goats for all she cared. They had been the ones to open the fence.
She turned to Oreo, on her left, “With my luck, they would just eat the coyotes, and then we’d still have the stupid things, plus an enormous vet bill, to boot.”
Oreo gave a cheerful whuff, and Lil tried not to wonder what it meant that the response satisfied her.
Lil led the sheep and dogs back into the barnyard and tied the gate shut with the backup rope. The broken lock needed replacing—another task she added to her mental list. Once a goat figured out the mechanism, you had to get a whole new style lock.
Shaking her head, she unsaddled Rory, brushed the horse down, gave her a pat of hay, and tossed her a handful of oats.
Wrapping up her morning routine, Lil spread feed out in the yard for the chickens. They’d eat bugs and other bits around the farmhouse throughout the day, but it was always a good idea to start the day with a hearty breakfast. Besides, there was comfort in the action of spreading feed, especially after the chaotic morning.
The familiar action finally brought her heart some of the calm she typically found in doing the morning chores. She might spend her days chained to a desk running the business end of things, but she was still a hands-on rancher at heart.
The chickens settled into contented clucking and rooting just in time for Lil to hear her grandmother shriek from the kitchen.
Lil was across the yard in four seconds, up the stairs, and into the kitchen in another two.
Her eyes and muscles worked faster than her mind. Before she knew what she was doing, her rope was out, its tail end lashing out to snake around the delicate wrist of the arm raised against the woman who had raised her.
A flick of Lil’s wrist and the stranger—a woman, after a second more processing—flipped into the air before landing hard on her back on the kitchen floor.
“Lil.” Gran’s voice was cross.
Lil crossed the kitchen in three strides, crouched at the stranger’s side, and rolled her over.
The woman’s face had gone pale and sweaty, all the more unfortunate for being paired with a green three-piece skirt suit with a little too much square in the shoulders. She was probably in her midforties and had a tight perm shorn close to her head. Based on the faint traces of grow-out, the woman was a natural sensible brown that she had dyed an even more sensible brown.
Lil considered the woman for a second longer before saying, casually, “I could shoot you, you know.” Granddad had always said calm was scarier. “You’re in my home, uninvited, and this is Oklahoma.”
“Lil.” Gran’s voice turned up a notch, breaking through the cold rage in her mind. “Apologize.”
Lil’s chin angled up, and her heels dug down, “I’m not saying sorry to this stranger. She was about to hit you.”
Gran’s face cracked with a smile that had a hint of bite in it. She patted the front pocket of her apron before pulling out her mace key chain. It was the color of a purple highlighter. “I might have said a few provoking words about her mother… But that’s beside the point. I had the situation under control. I’ve got my mace. Carry it everywhere since Granddad passed.”
Lil groaned, her mind filled with images of Gran spraying innocent fools in the face, all of which were more comfortable than knowing that carrying mace around was just another sign that Gran felt a little less safe in the world without Granddad around.
“Gran. You know that doesn’t make you any safer. And were you planning to wait until after she hit you to use it?”
The woman cleared her throat, the disapproving sound instantly transporting Lil back in time to her second grade teacher’s class, Mrs. Donkin. Students in Mrs. Donkin’s class were guests in her realm and were expected to act accordingly.
Lil hadn’t liked the sound coming from her teacher, and she certainly didn’t like it coming from a stranger in her own kitchen.
“I’m with the Bank of—”
Lil cut her off with a raised hand. “We all know you’re from the bank—” There were certain professions a person couldn’t hide, no matter how hard they tried—cops, bankers, lawyers, teachers, pastors, and cowboys—each one was obvious a mile away. “As modern bankers aren’t known for door-to-door recruitment, it then seems pretty safe to assume you’re from the bank we do business with, the Bank of Muskogee. Now, we don’t have much in our accounts, so we wouldn’t be the kind of clientele they’d send a representative out all this way to for a friendly check-in. That means you’re here about our larger investment, this ranch. I run the books here, so I can think of a whole host of reasons you might be interested in paying us a visit regarding the ranch. What I can’t think of, though, is a single damn reason you would be in my kitchen, in my home, lifting a hand to my grandmother. I find that so stupefying that it seems only natural to assume you’re capable of anything, moving me toward my only recourse—the use of force to protect myself from attempted injury.”
The woman huffed at Lil’s words but refrained from commenting until she’d risen to her feet, straightened her skirt, dusted off her suit jacket, and patted her hair.
Then she said, “I am with the Bank of Muskogee, and Miss Lilian—I assume you are the Miss Lilian described in my file—I would be happy to explain myself to the authorities, including how you assaulted me, so go ahead and call them.” She had patted her file when referencing it and now stood tapping her foot on the tile flooring. Lil and Granddad had spent weeks one achingly hot summer installing the incredible discontinued turquoise tile. Gran had gotten them for a steal, importing them direct from a Jamaica-based tile maker she’d met in an online forum about beading. The labor had been hard, the result worth it. No one else in Muscogee had a kitchen floor like Gran’s, which was just how she liked it.
The woman’s tapping was becoming irritating, so Lil smiled her mean smile and said, “Nobody said anything about calling anybody. I rather think I’d drive leisurely down to the station to let everyone know what happened after-the-fact if you understand what I’m saying.”
The woman’s mouth made a little O of outrage, and she clutched her file in front of her. “I assure you, I will make a note of this hostility in my file.”
Lil rolled her eyes before crossing her arms in front of her chest. “What’re you here for?”
The woman lifted her nose in the air. “As I was getting to before your grandmother verbally attacked me—”
Lil let out a low growling noise, and the woman stopped talking to take an audible gulp.
“As. I. Was. Saying. The Bank of Muscogee sent me to deliver the news that your bereavement grace period has ended. I am also to remind you that, as per the terms of the agreement, you, the heirs of Herman Island, may, without a down payment, begin making adjusted mortgage payments beginning November of this year. Alternatively, with a new down payment, an adjusted payment set at a rate equal to that of the average final six payments of the previous mortgage is available to you. If none of those options are feasible, you are free to leave the ranch and all of its associated troubles—my file indicates difficulties securing improvement permit approvals and equipment rentals, as well as challenges with making timely mortgage payments—to the bank.”
“Now, what nonsense are you talking about?” Lil asked, eyebrows and nose screwed up in genuine bewilderment. “That file of yours might paint a part of the picture true, but without a doubt, this ranch has one thing going for it, and that’s the fact that it’s paid for.”
The woman shook her head, the movement mechanical like a clock, her expression a blend of smug and pleased that Lil’s mind immediately coined smleased. “Not for the last six and a half years since your grandfather walked through the doors of the central street branch and applied for a reverse mortgage.”
“What?” Lil’s mouth dropped open this time. “You mean those things sleazy banks use to prey on lonely old folk without kin?”
The woman had the gall to look affronted. “Reverse mortgages are an important mode of financial freedom for seniors without traditional options!”
Lil shook her head, amazed. The woman moved like a clock and spoke with all the heart of a robot. “You’re telling me that the Bank of Muscogee somehow fooled my granddad into signing his land away?” Heat built in her chest, making its way upward toward her neck and face.
“The Bank of Muscogee was merely the facilitator. Your grandfather walked in, submitted the appropriate paperwork, and walked out with 1.2 million dollars.”
Lil laughed. “$1.2 million? Lady, you had me going. You truly did. But you lost me at 1.2 million dollars. I spent nearly every day of the last two years of his life with my granddad. If he’d have had a million dollars, I would have known about it.”
Gran, having been quietly observing the exchange, chose the moment to reenter the conversation. “She’s telling the truth, Lil.”
Lil’s head whipped around to face her gran. “That’s crazy, Gran. Where’d the money go if he did it?”
“I found the money.”
All the heat building inside abandoned Lil as swiftly as it’d arrived, leaving her shivering in the morning warmth of the kitchen.
“He set up a separate account. Most of it’s gone. Spent on the ranch before you go worrying,” Gran said, looking severe and firm. “Your granddad was a good man. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but the secret was his only sin.”
Some of the tightness left Lil’s chest at her gran’s words, but she mumbled, “It’s a big enough sin.”
“Lilian Island, I’ll not have you speaking ill of the dead.”
“How could he have done this?”
For a moment, it was as if the bank representative had disappeared, and it was just the two of them, a bewildered granddaughter trying to understand the world from her weary widowed grandmother.
Gran shook her head, the motion small for all the volumes it spoke. “He must have had a good reason.”
The woman from the bank cleared her throat. “Yes. Well. Your grandfather’s motivations notwithstanding, it is my task to get your signature on this paper, which states I’ve informed you of the terms of the reverse mortgage.” She held up a multipage form, the top few pages folded back to reveal a signature line at the base of a long page, which she jabbed with a finger Lil knew had done more than its fair share of pointing.
Gran’s eyebrow ticked up, and Lil’s stomach tightened on reflex—years spent under the woman’s watchful eye had taught her to be wary of that look.
Gran was irritated and through with the woman’s presence in her kitchen.
Without speaking a word, with barely even a glance in the woman’s direction, Gran’s arm flashed out and signed the paper, the whole motion eerily like the one she had so often reached back and used to smack some sense into her old fool cowboy of a husband.
Lil wondered if the millions of tiny memories she stumbled into each day on the ranch would always hurt. This deep into them with no sign of abating, she’d nearly reconciled herself to the fact that chances were they would.
On a groan, Lil said, “Gran, you can’t just sign like that. You didn’t even look at the document.”
The bank woman virtually salivated. “Thank you, Mrs. Island. I’m sure the bank will be pleased with your response.”
Gran scoffed, still not looking at the woman. “I’m sure they will be SherriDawn Daniels, but, as I was saying before you so rudely lost your temper after I invited you into my home, it won’t get you any closer to knowing who your real daddy is.”
Lil grimaced, and SherriDawn—old enough to be Lil’s mother and, who had, according to Gran, been one of the wild girls Lil’s mother had palled around with as a teen—actually growled.
Lil’s hand tensed at her side, ready to repeat the scene from earlier if need be.
But this time SherriDawn held her temper, instead, plastering a broad smile on her face, saying through clenched teeth, “I’ll just be on my way, now, Mrs. Island. It was nice seeing you again.”
Gran cackled. “Don’t you lie to me, SherriDawn. I’ve seen right through you since you were fifteen years old, and don’t pretend like it isn’t true.”
The growling sound moved lower down into her throat, but this time SherriDawn took the wise course: she shut her mouth, clasped her briefcase, and swiveled narrowly to the door.
Watching her walk away, so prim and proper that it seemed anally uncomfortable, it was hard to imagine SherriDawn might have been wild enough to ride with her mother. In Lil’s mind, her mother represented all that was wild and dangerous, as well as what happened when you chased after it. She’d been wild enough to run around and have herself a baby by a mystery man she refused to name at sixteen. Wild enough to run off and never come back, leaving that baby to be raised by her grandparents.
SherriDawn didn’t seem like she had the balls for all of that.
After the door slammed shut, the old screen let to fall without care by SherriDawn on her way out, Gran gathered herself with a shuddering breath, which she then let out on a long theatrical sigh.
Lil’s Spidey senses tingled.
Given what Gran already seemed to know about things, the whole scene with SherriDawn now seemed put on. And Gran’s long sigh was telling. That meant that all of it—goading the bank woman, the dramatic reveal, perhaps even the sheep and the goats, now that Lil was thinking about it—was part of one of Gran’s plots then.
If she knew her gran, and she did like the back of her hand, this one would be related to the reverse mortgage but would be no less outrageous for being grounded in their real problems.
Gran put on a sober look before sighing. “Everyone ought to be here—I only want to say this once.” Then she opened her mouth and hollered at the top of her considerable lungs, “PIPER! TOMMY!”
Piper, their petite red-haired farmhand, came running in first, clearly having grabbed the closest thing at hand to use as a weapon if needed—a horseshoe.
Tommy, Lil’s live-in cousin from Granddad’s side, had a rifle.
Steady, dependable, Tommy.
“What’s going on?” they asked in unison.
“You’re all going to want to sit down for this,” Gran said with an arm toward the kitchen table and more weariness in her voice than the unveiling of a scheme usually allowed.
Following her grandmother’s gesture, Lil noticed for the first time the plaid thermos of coffee that sat in the center of the round table.
It wasn’t the new stainless steel one.
Gran had taken out the plaid one. She reserved the plaid thermos for tough conversations.
Four chairs sat around the table, each with an empty coffee mug in front of it.
Lil’s seat, where she sat now that she knew what was going on, was the east point of the compass of their table.
Gran sat in the north, Tommy the south, and Piper the west.
Granddad had always been in the northeast, a steady anchor between Gran and Lil.
Without him, they held each other as best they could, but both had become more prone to drifting.
Gran waited for everyone to pour a cup before she spoke. “I’ll start with the good news. We have each other. We have our stock, and, for the moment, we have the land.”
“Not a promising start, Gran,” Lil observed.
“It is when it might be all we’ve got,” Gran said simply. “Unbeknownst to me, Granddad took a reverse mortgage on the ranch in the years before he died. I received a letter informing me of this in the mail last week.”
Lil frowned. That Gran had sat on information this critical for a week settled about as well as lemon juice in cream.
Gran continued, “After some digging, what I can piece together is this: about five years ago, Granddad lost the Wilson drive contract.”
Lil shook her head. “That’s impossible. He went right up until he died. That’s half the reason he got sick in the first place.”
Gran placed a hand on Lil’s wrist, just below where the hand attached to it had clenched into a fist.
Gran, never one to pull her punches, said: “He didn’t go. He kept a separate bank account for the money, and he tracked his expenses. He spent the time in Tulsa at a hotel renting movies and ordering room service.” A half smile broke through the frustration. “Greedy old cuss.”
But it wasn’t an endearing foible to Lil’s frame of mind. He had lied to them, and, in his own words, like all lies, it had spiraled into an avalanche of deceit.
“In the agreement, he included a provision to give us extra time before we had to make a decision, but that time is up. We have sixty days to come up with a down payment for the ranch, following which the bank will establish monthly mortgage payments. Every way I’ve looked at it, it’s our only option. We would never be able to afford the payment the bank offered without the down payment. But nobody is going to evict us from land my husband’s family has held on to, hardscrabble as it’s been, through hell on earth.” The last she directed specifically to Lil and Tommy. Through their granddad’s line, Tommy and Lil were Muscogee Creek Freedmen, the descendants of enslaved people under the double burden of being property during the relocation and later forced removal of the Muscogee from their homelands in the southeast. And after the tribe disenrolled the freedmen in the seventies, their citizenship revoked in a blow her granddad had never quite recovered from, this land, this dry patch of Oklahoma allotted to their family after the Civil War—insignificant dust mote of a ranch that it was—was the only proof they had left, the only hint as to how their family had ended up in Oklahoma in the first place. Tearing folks from their history was one of the ways to break them, so Lil’s family had held on to theirs through their land—through cultural hostility, the dust bowl, outright deception, attempts to steal, and everything else that time and life had thrown their way.
They had refused to sell even when their neighbors, cousins, and relatives packed up and left, seeking the green of other pastures and the heat of other suns. The Islands had stuck it out, and the reward was being able to say they’d held on to the first and only thing they’d ever been given.
Lil was glad she had taken Gran’s advice to sit down. The floor had become somewhat less substantial beneath her boots.
It occurred to her that they were nice boots. She could probably sell them for some quick cash. It wouldn’t be anywhere near enough if what she thought might be true was true.
Sixty days wasn’t enough time at all. Lil frowned. They had a cash reserve of five thousand to keep them and the stock fed through a pinch, and they had the value of their stock itself, which could bring in another eighty thousand in a quick sale at auction, but as far as she knew, they didn’t have any other assets.
Her 1980s Toyota was too beat up to be worth anything, and she didn’t own any personal items of value.
Finally, she found her voice. “But why would Granddad do something like that?”
Gran sighed. “I don’t think that he could admit he was too old to do it all himself anymore. Looking at his paperwork, in addition to withdrawing the amounts it took to look like he’d still been going on the drives, it looks like he’d been dipping in those funds rather liberally.”
“Rory…” Lil grimaced. She had wondered where he’d scrounged up the money for a papered Arabian filly.
Now she knew.
Gran nodded. “And Gorgeous,” she said, referring to the brand new Subaru station wagon that sat in her driveway, souped-up with every safety and luxury feature available.
Lil brought her fingers to her temples and rubbed. “So how much is left in his secret pot then?” she asked.
Gran shook her head. “Just ten thousand.”
“What?” Lil gasped.
Whining wasn’t her usual way, but, as the woman from the bank had gone, and there was no one left to throttle, it was the only option available.
“Don’t be theatrical.” Gran’s comment was automatic, so much so that Lil wasn’t even sure the woman noticed she’d made it, nor that, as far as statements went, it was the pot calling the kettle. “They want twenty percent for the down payment. We don’t have that.”
Lil groaned. “Nor enough for the mortgage payments after that. We’re barely making it by as is.” Lil couldn’t tell the truth: they weren’t making it. She had been contemplating selling equipment to stretch the final distance to make ends meet. Every month it was a struggle, but Lil had been somehow managing, just eking it out of the red. A mortgage payment, any mortgage payment, would break them.
Gran waited a beat after Lil’s interruption, punctuating the unspoken admonishment with a lifted eyebrow and communicating clearly without words: Are you done yet?
“But—” Gran continued. “We have each other. And we have Lil.”
The way her gran said her name made the hair stand up on the back of her neck, but when she opened her mouth to question, her grandmother lifted her palm to her, a signal to Lil to hold her tongue.
Out of respect, she did.
“Lil. You’re on temporary reassignment.”
“What are you talking about?” Lil asked.
“I’m the owner, aren’t I?” she asked.
“Yes, but we agreed that I was in charge of daily operations.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“I can do your job. Nobody but you can do what we need you for now.”
Here was the plot then. Lil’s skin crawled with a warning, but she asked anyway, “And what is that?”
Gran handed her a glossy quarter sheet flyer in response. Lil read the largest print and then set it facedown on the table and brought her fingers to her temples.
Gran’s voice was soft when she next spoke. “We need the money, Lil. I don’t see any other way.”
Gran added, “You’re the best there’s ever been.”
The old woman wasn’t pulling any punches.
Lil’s voice flirted with the edge of hysteria. “Says a nobody’s grandma with a stopwatch and pasture.”
“‘Nobody’s grandma?’ Excuse you.” She pointed to the third line of the flyer, “Did you see the prize? There are no points required, just a qualifier. It’s part of the whole thing. Like American Idol.”
Lil went ahead and dove fully into hysteria. When she spoke, her voice squeaked high to low like a pubertal boy. “American Idol?”
Gran’s next words had the same effect as being hit by a bucket of cold water: “You could ride a bull.”
Lil’s body froze and tingled at the same time.
She hadn’t stepped foot in an arena in years and never competed in a PBRA-sponsored rodeo.
She had walked away a junior champion and ridden pro a few times in the Indian National Rodeo rodeos. Still, the world of rodeo mostly had forgotten about her—except for the few administrators who would always remember her as the girl who had tried and failed, over and over, to get women into the PBRA’s, the Professional Bull Riders Association, rough stock events. Because in Lil’s mind, what did it matter if she won every other event if she couldn’t win on the back of a bull?
She was skilled enough to have made a good living between women’s events in the PBRA and the Indian rodeos, but if she couldn’t ride a bull under the banner of PBRA, she didn’t want any of it.
So she rode for a college scholarship and then quit when she graduated instead. And then she’d come back to the ranch. End of story. And that was good enough for her.
Since her retirement, rodeo had opened up a lot, and she was happy for the younger generation. A handful of girls had even been allowed on top of bulls. None had made it far, but Lil knew it was only a matter of time.
She shook her head with a sigh. “I can’t, Gran. I’m rusty as an old nail, and there’s just too much to do around here. Besides, the ranch is too much for Tommy and Piper to run on their own.”
Gran snorted. “You work in the office most of the day, anyway.”
“Gran, you don’t have the energy for it,” Lil insisted.
“Energy? Hell, after more years of doing it than you’ve been alive, I could do the ranch’s books half asleep—and have! I just let you take over because it’s a snoozefest.”
“Snoozefest? Gran, do you hear yourself?” Lil turned to Piper and Tommy for help, “You don’t support this, do you?”
Piper said, “We trust Gran.”
Gran crossed her arms in front of her chest and lifted a brow. “They trust me.”
“It’s a lot more work,” Lil tried.
Tommy said, “We’ve been doing more and more of it while you’ve been up there pinching pennies.”
Lil’s cheeks heated, but she didn’t contradict him. He and Piper had been pulling more and more of her weight as she tried to do the impossible.
The impossible that she wasn’t very good at. The impossible that Gran could do in her sleep—which was true. Gran ran a tight ship, whatever ship she came to, and she had been far more organized in running Swallowtail Ranch than Lil could ever hope to be.
They had supported her through the last sad and stumbling years. Participating in this crazy scheme was what they were asking of her in return.
Mentally sweating, Lil pushed her chair back, its legs screeching across the floor, and stood up. Turning around, she headed to the door without saying another word.
“Where are you going, Lilian?” Gran only used her full name when she got stern.
Lil stopped mid-step. “I’m going to clear out my desk,” she said.
Behind her back, Gran smiled. Lil didn’t have to see it to know it was true. Gran always smiled when she got what she wanted, and she always got what she wanted.
“Don’t worry about that now. You’ve got training to do. Gotten a bit out of shape, if you ask me.”
Piper erupted in a fit of witchy cackles as Lil stormed out of the kitchen. Ignoring them all, Lil went to her office.
On the second floor of the farmhouse, the room used to be her gran and granddad’s bedroom, but she and Gran had turned it into the office after he passed. Gran said she couldn’t bear to sleep in there alone.
It made a lovely office—wide and bright, with delicately framed French doors that led to a weight-bearing balcony. Weight-bearing because Lil’s summer project last year had been to reinforce the support beams, replace the decking, and weather coat the whole thing.
She figured that should get her five years’ worth of good use of Muskogee’s extreme annual mood swings before she’d need to do any repairs. That is if she kept up on refinishing it every year, which she had planned to, since walking out on the balcony had preserved her sanity after a long stint of pushing paper many a time.
She walked through the doors and stood there now, enjoying it while she could still call it hers. There were bills to pay, orders to fulfill, and emails to respond to, but that wasn’t her job now. Now her job was to enter a rodeo contest and try to win some money to save the ranch.
And to think she’d thought the goats were bad.
Excerpted from The Wildest Ride by Marcella Bell, Copyright © 2021 by Marcella Bell. Published by HQN.
The Wildest Ride is one of those books that I read the last page and said to myself, “I really loved this book.” That doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but going on the rodeo circuit with handsome AJ Garza and the spunky underdog Lil Island was very enjoyable to read. I learned a lot about rodeo’s and the events that can be held, as well as just how much two people who are attracted to each other can take before they combust.
Lil’s grandfather had taken out a loan on their family ranch before he died, and now the bank has come a knocking on their door. They need to make a million dollars fast to pay the money back or lose everything. Grandma signs Lil up for a reality television-meets-rodeo-circuit, knowing that Lil had been one of the best at it in the circuit she’d done when she was younger. Lil won’t go down without a fight, so she packs everything up to see if she can make it to the top of the heap. She’s small, ruff and tumble, and knows how to not let people walk all over her–and she’s just what this modern version of the rodeo needs: a strong, empowered woman who can get the job done better than the men can.
AJ Garza is geriatric in rodeo terms as a thirty-six year old, but his slow slide into retirement is taking longer than anyone thought it would. His mentor runs a group where disadvantaged youth are taught rodeo skills, and this organization is now hurting for money. Since the old man won’t take money directly from AJ, the champion figures he can win the million dollars for them–and bow out of the rodeo for good afterward. He didn’t intend on encountering an intriguing woman, so intimidating and take charge that he knows he’ll have to bring his A-game to win. But he also didn’t intend to fall for her hard and fast, no matter how resistant they both are to a relationship.
I give The Wildest Ride a five out of five. I was all in with Lil right from the start. She’s smart, funny, tough, and very practical, and totally refreshing to read about. Lil’s grandmother is a firecracker and one of my favorites from this book. The romance between AJ and Lil is slow burning and the tension simmers right beneath the surface, but once it spilled over it was hot, hot, hot. The author has written characters and events that are part of her family’s history, and I really loved to see this type of diversity and tribute to ancestors brought about through the characters and situations. This blending of cultures and strong, unique characters left a lasting impression on me, and I will definitely check out more books in this series in the future. While I enjoyed the ending, I really wanted to see a little more from AJ and Lil… Hopefully in a future book we’ll see more of them.
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About Marcella Bell
Marcella Bell was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She is a registered yoga teacher, an avid reader, a honeybee enthusiast, and a lover of travel, corvids, and karaoke. A wife, mother, and child of a multicultural household, Marcella is especially interested in writing novels that reflect her family history, as well as the people and places she’s known throughout her life.
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