Tyler Whitmore knew the malicious gleam in his half-brother’s eyes meant trouble. It always did. Reed had hated him from the moment he’d been born, and there hadn’t been a day that went by that he hadn’t expressed that hatred.
With a sense of unease twisting through him, Tyler stepped more fully into the ranch office. Ignoring Reed’s smug expression, Tyler faced the man who’d raised him, loving him unconditionally, even though he’d been another man’s child. Landon—Reed’s father. “You wanted to talk to me?”
Determination filled Landon’s pale blue eyes. “I’m sorry, Tyler,” he said, his tone grim. “But I’m shutting down the reining operation.”
Shock momentarily rendered Tyler speechless. He’d spent three years raising, training and selling reining horses on Whitmore Acres. It had been a new venture for the ranch outside of breeding quarter horses and the cutting operation that Reed managed, but Tyler couldn’t fathom any reason to cease such a profitable enterprise.
Tyler shook his head, frowning. “I don’t understand…”
Landon sighed, suddenly looking as old and worn as his sixty-four years. “Reed tells me the reining operation is losing money.”
“What?” His tight, incredulous tone boomed in the small office. “How can I be losing money when I’ve made a substantial profit from each of the mares I’ve sold?”
“Your expenses exceed your profit.” Landon gestured toward the balance sheets spread out on his desk. “The books show a loss. The cutting operation can’t afford to carry both ventures any longer.”
Jaw clenched hard against the simmering anger, Tyler glanced pointedly at his half-brother leaning insolently against a tall filing cabinet across the room. When Landon had retired two years earlier, he’d appointed Reed in charge of the ranch’s finances. Knowing Reed’s weakness for drinking, gambling, and womanizing, Tyler suspected Reed was skimming from the reining profits to support his excessive spending habits. Yet he had no proof, and Reed was cunning enough to cover any trail of paperwork that would point a guilty finger his way.
But Tyler had no compunction voicing his own suspicions. “Maybe you ought to keep an eye on the person managing the finances.”
“Are you insinuating something, little brother?” Reed asked, his bland tone giving nothing away.
Tyler’s gaze narrowed. “Yeah, that you’ve been stealing, for starters, from my reining operation to cover your own losses.”
Reed had the audacity to look affronted. “That’s a mighty big accusation, and a defamation of my good character.”
Tyler snorted at that, knowing beneath the good-ol’-boy facade he put on for Landon’s sake hid a mean and spiteful person. “You just won’t be satisfied until I’m completely miserable, will you? Until you’ve taken away everything that ever mattered to me.” It had always been that way, Reed destroying or stealing whatever he’d coveted—and took pleasure in doing so. Why should this have been any different? Because he thought he’d had Landon’s support. That Landon didn’t believe in him hurt more than he thought possible.
“I think you’re taking this a little too personally, Tyler.” Reed’s tone was reasonable, which Tyler knew was all for Landon’s benefit. “I can’t help it if your reining operation is a big flop. We can’t have it sucking the ranch dry, now can we?”
Twenty-three years of his half-brother’s emotional cruelty came to a boiling head, filling Tyler with an impotent rage he couldn’t control. Crossing the room in less than two heartbeats, he grabbed Reed by the front of his shirt and slammed him against the wall. Reed didn’t struggle to defend himself. No, the look in his eyes dared Tyler to hit him, which infuriated Tyler even more. Reed always acted exemplary around Landon. Only Tyler witnessed and experienced the intensity of Reed’s hatred, and just how vindictive he could be. It would never change.
Tyler tightened his fists against Reed’s chest. “You son of a bitch,” he said in low growl of fury. “You know damn well that the reining operation is holding its own!”
“Break it up, boys!” Landon rounded his desk and pushed Tyler away from Reed, his expression thunderous. “I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior, Tyler.”
“The reining operation is mine,” Tyler said fiercely. He’d worked hard to establish himself, and despite Reed’s claim, he knew the venture was successful. “I’m not letting it go.”
Landon’s face turned an angry shade of red. “I’m not giving you a choice, Tyler. I’m cutting the reining operation loose and that’s final!” With those words ringing in the air, Landon turned on his booted heel and left the office.
Reed stepped toward the door and brushed carelessly at the wrinkles Tyler had put in his shirt. “I guess it pays to be the boss’s real son, doesn’t it? You’re nothing but a bastard, Tyler, a charity case our mother saddled Landon with when she left him. This precious ranch you covet will never be yours, because you don’t have an ounce of Whitmore blood running through your veins. Landon’s decision today proves that.” He stopped before leaving the office, a triumphant smile curling his mouth. “I wonder how your sweet, innocent Brianne is going to feel about you losing the reining operation, and that she’ll never have the ranch she loves so much.”
Tyler went stone cold inside. Brianne loved him, not Whitmore Acres, he wanted to yell, but his chest had tightened to the point that it hurt to breathe, and his half-brother had beat a hasty exit. As Reed’s words sank past his rage, he realized that Reed was right. Without the reining operation he had nothing to offer Brianne Taylor, the girl he’d meant to marry, and had sworn to take away from her drunken father’s neglect.
Tyler wanted to roar at the injustice of Reed’s cruelty, but what had transpired today with Landon was proof that he didn’t belong on Whitmore Acres. Within the hour he’d packed his meager belongings and left the ranch, determined to find work elsewhere as a reining trainer and prove Landon, and Reed, wrong.
It had taken him six weeks for his temper to cool enough for him to consider going home to mend the rift between him and Landon, and return for Brianne. Despite his brother’s claim, he couldn’t believe the girl he loved was shallow enough to want him only for the security Whitmore Acres offered.
He’d been wrong.
He’d arrived back in town on the very morning Brianne was to marry Reed. That bit of unsettling news had been imparted by Gus, the old man who owned and attended the small town’s gas station where Tyler had pulled in to gas up and mentally prepare himself for the confrontation that lay ahead.
Unwilling to believe that Brianne would be so faithless, he’d immediately headed toward the courthouse. He’d pulled up to a corner stoplight just in time to see a small crowd gathering outside, then Reed and Brianne descend the stairs hand in hand. In her plain white dress and the crown of flowers haloing her blond head, Brianne looked pale and fragile, but all Tyler saw was the scheming woman she’d become, settling for whichever Whitmore could offer her a better life. And with him off Whitmore Acres, Reed stood to gain everything.
Her betrayal cut as sharp as a knife straight to his heart.
Then he’d caught sight of Landon standing off to the side, smiling as he watched the newly-wedded pair, and something within Tyler died at that moment. In its place grew a black rage and bitterness. He was the bastard son, and he didn’t belong. Never would. After losing the reining operation, Landon’s respect, and now Brianne, there was nothing left for him to come home for.
Instead of making the left-hand turn that would put him and his truck in full view of the wedding party, he drove straight past…right back out of town. And he’d never looked back.