Authors: Carolyn Brown
Copyright Â© 2011 by Carolyn Brown
Cover and internal design Â© 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Vivian Ducas
Cover illustration by Chris Cocozza
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It was just a white frame house at the end of a long lane.
But it did not have wheels.
Liz squinted against the sun sinking in the west and imagined it with multicolored Christmas lights strung all around the porch, the windows, even in the cedar tree off to the left side. In her vision, it was a Griswold house from
that lit up the whole state of Texas. She hoped that when she flipped the switch she didn't cause a major blackout because in a few weeks it was going to look like the house on that old movie that she loved.
Now where was the cowboy to complete the package?
Christmas lights on a house without wheels and a cowboy in tight fittin' jeans and in bootsâthat's what she asked for every year when her mother asked for her Christmas list. She didn't remember the place being so big when she visited her uncle those two times. Once when she was ten and then again when she was fourteen. But both of those times she'd been quite taken with the young cowboy next door and didn't pay much attention to the house itself. The brisk Texas wind whipped around ferociously as if saying that it could send her right back to east Texas if she didn't change her mind about the house.
“I don't think so,” she giggled. “I know a thing or two about Texas wind, and it'd take more than a class five tornado to get rid of me. This is what I've wanted all my life, and I think it's the prettiest house in Montague County. It's sittin' on a foundation, and oh, my God, he's left Hooter and Blister for me. Uncle Haskell, I could kiss you!”
The wind pushed its way into the truck, bringing a few fall leaves with it when she opened the truck door. Aunt Tressa would say that was an omen; the place was welcoming her into its arms. Her mother would say that the wind was blowing her back to the carnival where she belonged.
The old dog, Hooter, slowly came down off the porch, head down, wagging his tail. Blister, the black and white cat, eyed her suspiciously from the ladder-back chair on the tiny porch.
Her high heels sunk into the soft earth, leaving holes as she rushed across the yard toward the yellow dog. She squatted down, hugged the big yellow mutt, and scratched his ears. “You beautiful old boy. You are the icing on the cake. Now I've got animals and a house. This is a damn fine night.”
The key was under the chair, tucked away in a faded ceramic frog, just where her Uncle Haskell said it would be when she talked to him earlier that afternoon. But he hadn't mentioned leaving the two animals. She'd thank him for that surprise when she called him later on.
She opened the wooden screen door and was about to put the key in the lock when the door swung open. And there he was! Raylen O'Donnell, all grown up and even sexier than she remembered. Her heart thumped so hard she could feel it pushing against her bra. Her hands were shaky and her knees weak, but she took a deep breath, willed her hands to be still, and locked her knees in place.
“If it's religion you're sellin' or anything else, we're not interested,” Raylen said in a deep Texas drawl. He'd been pouring a glass of tea in the kitchen when he heard a noise. Hooter hadn't barked, so he figured it was just the wind, but when he opened the door he'd been more shocked than the woman standing there with wide eyes and a spooked expression on her face.
She wore skintight black jeans that looked like they'd been spray painted on her slim frame. Without those spike heels she would've barely come to his shoulder, and Raylen was the shortest of the three O'Donnell brothers, tipping the chart at five feet ten inches. Her jet-black hair had been twisted up and clipped, but strands had escaped the shiny silver clasp and found their way to her shoulder. Her eyes were so dark brown that they looked ebony.
“Raylen?” she said.
Her voice was husky, with a touch of gravel, adding to her exotic looks. It made Raylen think of rye whiskey with a teaspoon of honey and a twist of lemon. He'd heard that voice before. It had been branded on his brain for eleven years, but she couldn't be Haskell's niece. Liz wasn't supposed to be there until the first of the week at the earliest.
“That's right. Who are you?” he asked cautiously.
“I happen to own this place,” she said with a flick of her hand.
“Liz?” Raylen started at her toes and let his gaze travel slowly all the way to her eyebrows. She'd been a pretty teenager, but now she was a stunning woman.
“Surprise! I guess this chunk of Texas dirt now belongs to me. What are you doing here?” she asked.
Could Raylen really be the cowboy Santa was going to leave under her Christmas tree? He'd sure enough been the one she had in mind when she asked for a cowboy. She'd visualized him in tight fittin' jeans and boots when she was younger. Lately, she'd changed it to nothing but a Santa hat and the boots.
His hair was still a rich, dark brown, almost black until the sunlight lit up the deep chestnut color. His eyes were exactly as she remembered: pale, icy blue rimmed with dark brown lashes. It all added up to a heady combination, enough to make her want to tangle her hands up in all that dark hair and kiss him until she swooned like a heroine in one of those old castle romances she'd read since she was a teenager. Speaking of kissing, where in the hell was the mistletoe when a woman needed it, anyway?
roots, not wings. Don't get involved with one or you'll smother to death in a remote backwoods farm or else die of boredom
. Her mother's voice whispered so close to her ear that she turned to make sure Marva Jo Hanson hadn't followed her to Ringgold, Texas.
Raylen stood to one side. “I came to feed and water Hooter and Blister. Haskell asked me to do that until you got here. We met when we were kids, remember?”
“I do,” she said. How could she forget? She'd been in love with Raylen O'Donnell since she was fourteen years old.
“Haskell said that if you didn't like it here, he'd sell me your twenty acres.” Now that was a helluva thing to blurt out, but he couldn't very well say that she'd grown up to be the most exotic creature he'd ever laid eyes on. He'd thought she was cuter than any girl he'd ever seen when she was about fourteen or fifteen, but he hadn't realized that she'd only been the bud of the rose. The full-blown flower was standing before him right then, making him fidget like a little boy.
“I'm going to live here. Uncle Haskell said if I like it, he'll deed the place over to me in the spring. The place isn't for sale and won't be,” she said.
“And do what? Ringgold isn't very big.”
She shrugged. “I don't know. Pet the cat. Feed the dog.”
“That won't make a living, lady,” Raylen said.
She popped both hands on her hips. “I don't reckon what I do for a living is one damn bit of your business, cowboy. Do you intend to let me come into my house?”
Why in the hell was he arguing with her? Never in all the scenarios that she'd imagined did he cross her. He'd kissed her. He'd swept her off her feet and carried her to a big white pickup truck and they'd driven off into the sunset. He'd smiled and said that he remembered her well and she'd grown up into a beautiful woman. But he hadn't argued.
Raylen motioned her into the house with a wave of his hand. She brushed across his chest as she entered the house and was acutely aware of the sparks dancing all over the room but attributed it to anger or disappointment, maybe even a bitter dose of both. She'd had Raylen on a pedestal for more than a decade and he didn't even recognize her. He was probably married and had three or four kids too. That was just her luck!
When she fanned past him he got a whiff of a sensuous perfume that went with her dark, gypsy looks, and he wanted to follow after her like a lost puppy dog.
“I'll take over feeding the cat and dog,” she said.
“Okay, then here's the key Haskell gave me.” He dug into his pocket and handed her an old key ring with two keys on it. “Welcome to Ringgold, Liz. I still live on the ranch that surrounds this land. Haskell sold me most of his ranch six months ago, all but the part the house sits on.”
“He told me.”
Raylen headed for the door, “The O'Donnells are your closest neighbors. Come around to see us sometime. Be seein' you.”
She wanted to say something; she really did. But not one word would come out of her mouth. Raylen in her living room, looking even sexier than he had when he was seventeen and exercising the horses. Raylen, all grown up, a man instead of a lanky teenager, talking to herâ¦ it was such a shock and a surprise that she was speechless. And that was strange territory for Lizelle Hanson.
“Dammit!” she swore.
The noise of the truck engine filled the house for a moment then faded. She'd been so stunned to see him that she couldn't think straight. She hadn't known what to expect, but it sure wasn't what she got. She fished a cell phone from her jacket pocket and punched a speed dial number.
“I'm here,” she said when her mother answered.
Liz giggled nervously. “It's bigger than I remembered, and there's a sexy cowboy who lives next door but he's probably married and has six kids because no guy that pretty isn't taken. I'd forgotten how big the house is after living in the carnie trailer.”
“Have you unpacked? You can turn around and come back right now. You could be here in time to take your shift tomorrow night, and my brother can sell it to those horse ranchers next door to him.”
“Not yet. I was on my way in the house when Raylen opened the door and scared the hell out of me. Hooter and Blister are still alive and well. I'm not ready to throw in the towel yet.”
“Raylen?” Marva Jo asked.
“The sexy cowboy. I met him both times I came to visit Uncle Haskell. Remember when I told you about the boy that tried to beat me walkin' the fence when I was ten? That was Raylen.”
“You are right. He's probably married and has a couple of kids. I was hoping the house would be butt ugly to you.”
“No, ma'am. I squinted real hard and even imagined it with Christmas lights. Looked pretty damn fine,” Liz said.
“We'll be in Bowie in a few weeks. By then you'll be sick to death of boredom. You were born for the carnie and travel,” Marva said.
“I will have the Christmas lights on the house when you get here,” Liz said.
“A house not on wheels with Christmas lights and a cowboy.” Marva laughed. “Be careful that the latter doesn't cut off your beautiful wings, because that part of the country produces a crop of hot cowboys every generation.”
“Good night, Momma. I love you,” Liz said.
“Love you too, kid. Go prove me right about getting bored to tears. It's only half an hour until time to tell fortunes and I still have to get my makeup on. Does that make you miss me?”
“Not yet. I only saw you this morning. Hug Aunt Tressa and I'll see you in a few weeks.”
Raylen drove down the lane and stopped. The left blinker was on, but he couldn't make himself pull out onto the highway. The whole incident at Haskell's place had been surreal. Haskell said his niece, Liz, was going to take over the property. He remembered Liz very well. She was the ten-year-old who'd walked the rail fence better than him even though he was thirteen. She was the fourteen-year-old who rested her elbows on the same rail fence and watched him exercise the horses. Now she was so pretty she sucked every sane thought out of his brain.
He finally pulled out on Highway 81 and headed north a mile, then turned left into the O'Donnell horse ranch. She'd find out pretty quick that a person couldn't make a living by petting the cat and feeding the dog, and when she did he intended to be the first in line to buy her twenty acres. It was the only property for a three-mile stretch down the highway that didn't belong to the O'Donnells.
He parked in the backyard, crawled out of the truck, and sat down on the porch step to his folks' house. Dewar drove up, parked next to him, hopped out of his truck, and swaggered to the porch. Just a year older than Raylen, Dewar was taller by several inches. His hair was so black that it had a faint blue cast as the sunrays bounced off it. His eyes were a strange mossy shade of green and his face square. His Wranglers were tight and dusty; his boots were worn down at the heels and covered with mud.
“Y'all get those cattle worked at Rye's?” Raylen looked down at his own boots. They were just as worn down at the heels and covered with horseshit. His jeans had a hole in one knee and frayed hems on both pant legs. His shirt looked like it had been thrown out in the round horse corral for a solid week and then used for a dog bed a month after that. Damn it all to the devil and back again. He'd planned on at least meeting Liz the first time in clean duds, not looking like a bum off the streets.
“Yes, we did, and we would've got them done sooner if our younger brother would've helped,” Dewar said.
“Aww, y'all didn't need me. And besides, if you worked harder and played with Rachel less, you'd get more done.”
“Bullshit! You're just tryin' to find excuses.” Dewar grinned.
Rachel was their oldest brother's new baby daughter, the first O'Donnell grandchild, and only a few months old. Her father, Rye, was Raylen and Dewar's oldest brother. Her mother, Austin, had been a Tulsa socialite until she inherited a watermelon farm across the river in Terral, Oklahoma, and fell in love with Rye. Rachel was getting to know her two uncles and it was an ongoing battle about which one would be the favorite.
“Want a beer? I swear I'm spittin' dust and hot summer is long since past,” Dewar said.
“I'd drink a beer with you,” Raylen said.
Dewar disappeared into the house and brought out two longneck bottles of Coors, and he handed one to Raylen. “So you got the chores done around here or am I going to have to do those too?”