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Authors: Lauren Smith

The Gilded Cage

The Gilded Cage

Book 2 in the Surrender Series

Lauren Smith

New York    Boston

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To the Colorado city of Steamboat Springs, whose white Aspen trees in the fall cast an enchanting spell over my heart.

Writing a book is a lot like raising a child; there’s often more than one party involved in making a story wonderful. I have to thank Amanda, who sat down with me for four hours a day for almost an entire week at a little library in Santa Monica, and wrote alongside me when I started this book and didn’t give me funny looks when I told her I was googling bull riding techniques. For Aimee, who read a beta of
and helped me reach that next level of awesome when it came to Fenn and Hayden’s spicy romance. For Estelle, my amazing publicist and friend, who keeps me sane, smiling and digging deep within myself to be not only a better writer, but a better person. For Fareeda, my publicist at Grand Central, who does such an amazing job getting the word out on my billionaire bad boys. For Rhenna, Dena, and Lorenda, who have become my go-to girls once a month in our Tulsa Romance Writers meetings. And last and most importantly, my editor Lauren Plude; I couldn’t ask for a better editor, one who loves my characters, keeps giving me such wonderful opportunities and works with me as a partner to make my dreams come true.

Chapter 1


New York Times
, October 1990

he bull charged down the metal rail-lined run and into the narrow chute. Fenn Smith gripped the rusted railing and pushed his hat down harder on his head as he studied the beast.

Tabasco. A black bull with the temper of the devil himself. Just the sort of brute that would give him one hell of a wicked ride. The crowds in the stadium shouted and hollered encouragement as he maneuvered over the top rail and onto the beast. The stadium lights created a glare over the tan sand and heated Fenn’s body despite the cool weather. Sliding himself down over the bull, he carefully settled on its back. It kicked and fidgeted, but there wasn’t enough room to buck.

Fenn tightened his gloves on his hands and wiped away a fresh line of sweat off his brow. The beast between his legs tensed, every raw bit of muscle rippling and tightening as it waited for the moment the gate would spring open and it could toss him.

“Give him hell, Smith!” One of several bull riders hanging on the side of the chute called out to him.

He laughed and smacked his hand on the bull’s neck. He planned to do just that. If there was one thing he could do, it was ride bulls.

Fenn gripped the braided bull-rope that was wrapped around Tabasco’s flanks. The resin-treated rope would be easier to grip the more heated it became during the stress of the ride. A good thing because Tabasco was a notorious head-down spinner. Like a whirling dervish, he threw more men off in any given rodeo season in the state of Colorado. Men traveled from all over the country to ride him. Some bulls bucked straight ahead, others spun in circles. The key was to watch a bull a few weeks before you planned to ride him and get a feel for his style. Fenn had spent the last two months studying Tabasco. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake tonight, not when everything depended on this ride.

Shifting his weight, he kept his dominant hand in an underneath grip on the bull rope and sat as close as he could to his hands. He leaned forward so that his chest was almost over the bull’s shoulders.

“Riding now is Fenn Smith, a Walnut Springs native. He’s competing for the grand prize, a cash award of fifty thousand dollars. The bull is Tabasco, rated by our rodeo staff as one of the tougher rides here tonight.”

Fenn ignored the announcer’s opening speech and focused on the ride. The scents of cheap beer, hay, and manure, aromas he’d grown up with, were strong yet comforting. This was his town, his stadium. He could do this. He had to do this. Visualizing the ride, he pictured the way he’d have to read the bull’s body language to stay on for eight seconds. Just eight seconds.

Fifty thousand dollars. It was enough to reinstate the mortgage loan on Jim and Callie Taylor’s Broken Spur Ranch. He wouldn’t have risked his neck on this bull for any other reason. Old Jim was in his fifties and his twenty-year-old daughter Callie needed to be looked after. They were his family and he’d risk his neck if that’s what it took to help them. He licked his lips, rolling his hips as Tabasco shuddered and huffed.

“The gate opens in five…” The announcer began the countdown.

Almost instantly, an awful creeping sensation rippled over his skin, like beetles were scuttling over his flesh. With a roll of his shoulders he tried to shake off the unsettling feeling.

“Four, three…”

The bull shuddered beneath him.

“Two, one…”

The gate flew open and the bull shot out. Fenn scrambled to stay on top of the bull as it ducked its head, preparing to tilt-a-whirl. The uncomfortable flank strap infuriated the beast and it would do anything to kick it off. Tabasco’s front feet came up off the ground and Fenn leaned forward, squeezing his legs and maintaining a tight grip. If he could keep his hips square and centered…

A woman’s scream penetrated his mind, tearing through his skull like a knife. Flashes…strong and powerful images flickered like broken fragments on an old film reel. Cracked columns broken by moonlight cutting through shattered glass windows. Ivy crept along a staircase that
led to the floor of a mansion that had long since crumbled to the ground below. A deep baritone laugh, the explosion of bullets, a sound from his deepest nightmares…

His stomach clenched and churned, and his dinner worked its way up through his throat. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t hear anything except the screaming inside his head as terror he hadn’t felt in years gripped him. He was…he was…a lost, frightened little boy again.

“No!” The cry barely left his lips before the world went to hell around him.

Tabasco reared his head then dipped down, his back legs going straight up in an unexpected move. Fenn’s grip on the bull rope slackened completely.

“He’ll send another…when I’m gone, another will take my place…He wants you dead.”

Words—not his—scratched across the back of his eyes and burrowed into his mind like scorpions, leaving only stark fear behind.

The stadium lights spun in wicked patterns as he was launched into the sky. Wind whistled past him, cutting across his face before he smacked onto the ground. Something in his leg twinged and he had no air to let out the choked guttural scream just on the tip of his tongue. Pain rippled through him, starting at his head and working its way south to his feet. He couldn’t move, not even an inch. Every sound, every sensation, was dulled by the agony surging through his body.

The bull would charge, wherever the hell he was, and it was only a matter of seconds before Tabasco would trample him and gore him with his horns. His face was angled to the right and he could see his favorite hat lying upside down ten feet away. The hat rocked back and forth. He blinked, feeling grains of sand in his eyelashes.

Images flashed across his vision again. Strange sensations filled his body. Hands that gripped uselessly at sand felt more like they were holding a woman in his arms instead. But that was insane; he was face down on the ground, not clutching at some phantom woman.

“Smith! Move your ass!” George Romano, one of his friends and fellow riders, shouted. He was directly in Fenn’s line of sight, climbing the fence at the arena’s edge.

Move? He couldn’t. Not happening. A brilliant splash of red caught his eyes. A drop dead gorgeous woman in a tight red dress, red hair flowing about her shoulders, was scaling up the arena fence in her bare feet. George dove for her, but she threw her legs over the side of the fencing and dropped into the arena.

Son of a—

“Fuck!” Fenn growled as adrenaline spiked through him. Tucking his arms under his body he pushed his chest off the ground.

This had to be a dream. A bad one. There was no way a woman in a slinky red dress was sprinting past him, waving her arms at…Tabasco. Fenn craned his neck so he could see over his shoulder as the charging bull slowed to a stop and seemed to consider the woman. The brute huffed and pawed the sand, brown eyes locked on her. After a few long seconds, it whipped its head back toward Fenn.

A piercing whistle cut through the air. The crowd had gone silent, except for the cowboys hollering for the rodeo clowns. They were usually a welcome distraction when riders got thrown and the bulls wanted to charge them, but the clowns were too late to save him now. The whistle sounded again and this time Tabasco must have decided the girl was more of a target than he was. It kicked up the sand and started a steady trot in the woman’s direction.

“Smith! Get moving!” George bellowed. He and three of the riders had tossed their hats to the ground and were heading over the top of the railing into the arena. A few more riders were working on opening a gate a few yards away.

Fenn found enough strength to roll over and struggle into a hunched sitting position. His lungs still worked to suck in much needed air. His vision swam and a heavy pulse beat in his head. He blinked, the simple action feeling like sandpaper scraping across his eyes. Thoughts weren’t forming quickly, and he could barely think beyond being dumbstruck at the sight ahead of him. The cute red-headed woman was flying across the sand, kicking it up in small puffs as she fled to the other side of the arena. The bull was picking up speed and running after her. When she reached the open chute, a rider reached down over the fence and she grabbed his arms. With one quick jerk, she flew upward over the fence and disappeared from view and out of harm’s way. The bull ran into the chute and the gate clanged shut, sealing him off from the arena and leaving Fenn safe.

“What the hell?” he muttered. That woman could have been killed.

If I ever get my hands on her, her ass is mine.
Having anyone, let alone a woman, save him was not acceptable, especially when she put her own life at risk. Damn buckle bunnies, always wanting attention…

Two pairs of arms gripped him under the armpits and hauled him up onto his feet.

“That was way too close,” George panted.

“Shit!” Fenn’s ankle went electric with pain and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head.

Please let it be a sprain.
He couldn’t afford a broken bone.

“That crazy girl saved you,” George announced with a mixture of amusement and relief.

“Tell me that really didn’t happen,” Fenn demanded as he accepted his hat when one of the other riders held it out to him. He smacked it roughly with his palm, creating a cloud of sand and dirt around it.

“Oh, it did,” George chuckled. “A woman just saved your sorry ass. A hot one, too. She’s probably a buckle bunny. Play your cards right and you might be riding that tonight. I hope you can last longer than eight seconds!” George whooped and slapped him on the back as they walked toward the open gate.

Eight seconds? He wouldn’t need eight seconds; he’d put that woman over his knee and tan her hide for risking her pretty little neck. It niggled at him that he was the one who should protect a woman, not the other way around, and he definitely didn’t need strange women saving him. He wasn’t helpless. Would
be helpless. A black cloud rolled through his mind, whispers of the past…he slammed mental gates down, blocking it out.

Fenn hobbled, leaning against George’s shoulder every few steps. He threw one glance back to the other side of the arena and caught sight of the siren in the red dress standing behind the fence, watching him. Long waves of red hair danced about her shoulders, playing across her collar bone. Her full lips were parted as though she was surprised. She was a real vixen. God didn’t make many women who looked like her. Full curves, sculpted features, a mouth made for sin…And she’d been the one to save him. That pissed him off.
pissed him off.

He turned his back on the woman and looked straight ahead.

“How many seconds did I make it before…” He trailed off, unable to look at George. Shame prickled beneath his skin. He hadn’t been thrown that badly since he was sixteen.

“Uh…seven point three seconds. Sorry.” George had known how important this was. If a rider couldn’t stay on for eight seconds, he didn’t qualify for a score. No score, then no shot at the winnings and therefore no shot at saving The Broken Spur Ranch from foreclosure. In just one night he’d gone from having total control over his life, knowing he could save the ranch by winning the prize money, to having a shitload of nothing. Not having control made him cagy and restless.

The ranch was the place he’d spent the last half of his life calling home. If he couldn’t save it, he’d be losing the only place he felt any connection to. He refused to fail, refused to let Callie and Jim down.

“Is Callie here?” He didn’t bother looking around. He wouldn’t be able to spot her if she was here. The crowds were always heavy in the fall, when the stadium was filled with bigger rodeo competitions. The small Colorado town of Walnut Springs exploded with tourism several times a year between summer hiking, fall rodeos, and winter and spring skiing.

“Callie came. She said Jim’s still in the hospital. Should be let out tomorrow. I saw her—”

“Fenn!” A little female blur of color tackled him just as he passed through the last gate and exited the stadium.

“Oomf!” He grunted at the impact of Callie’s body against his. “Ease up, kid. Wounded man here,” he cautioned, but smiled at her when he saw the concerned expression straining her lovely features.

She was only twenty, a sweet kid, and more like the little sister he’d always wanted, but she was also strong both inside and out.

“Sorry.” Callie dropped her arms and bit her bottom lip. Tears welled up in her hazel-green eyes. “I saw you fall out there and freaked out.” Her hands smoothed down her western-style pink plaid shirt, and she shuffled her booted feet in the dirt.

“Hey, it’s okay. You know I’d never go and die on you, sweetheart.” His brotherly instincts kicked in, and he pulled her into his arms, pain be damned. Her honey blond ponytail swished a little as she tried to turn her head and burrow into him. He gently released her and stepped back.

“How’s Jim? I thought he was getting out today. George said he’s not leaving until tomorrow.” Fenn cut his gaze to George, who gave him a curt nod and left them alone.

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