The Trouble with Texas Cowboys (9 page)

BOOK: The Trouble with Texas Cowboys
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“And to think come summer, we'll be doing this
and
hauling hay.” He sat down beside her, his boots only a few inches from hers when he stretched out his legs.

“But we will have help. At least two high school kids who are willing to work hard, especially if we're putting in more alfalfa acreage, and a kid to work the store in the afternoons to free us up from this job,” she said.

“Hungry?” he asked.

“Starving, but I can wait until we get to the bar. What I want is a big old greasy cheeseburger and French fries, even if I have to eat it on the run between customers. What about you?”

“Sounds good to me. Right now I want to sit here and let my feet rest.”

“This is going to sound crazy after only three days. But even with the feud and all the work, I feel like this is where I belong,” she said.

“It's not crazy at all. I've been lookin' for a place to light for almost two years now, and when I came up here to visit my cousin, it was like my soul came home to roost. Then when Gladys offered me the job, it was like I belonged on Fiddle Creek. Sometimes the time, past experiences, and future hopes all work together to make the whole picture.”

“Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, I'm livin' with a prophet.” She smiled.

“Pass the butter. I'll be glad to take on that job.”

“How do you do that?” she asked.

“Butter your butt? Well, first you drop your jeans and those fancy, red-lace underbritches,” he answered.

“I'm not wearing red-lace panties,” she snapped.

“In my mind you are. Then I melt some butter until…”

“Hush!” She held up her palm. “How do you go from making profound statements to joking without even thinking?”

He pushed up out of the chair and said, “My name is Sawyer O'Donnell. I come from a long line of Irish folks who have kissed the Blarney Stone, but there's also a few serious folks in me lineage too. I like Irish whiskey and I like to dance, and it's been said, like me Irish ancestors, that I talk too much, but it all goes together to make up Sawyer O'Donnell. Whether you like me or not is your privilege, m'lady, but as old Rhett said at the close of the movie, ‘Frankly, I don't give a damn.'” His fake Irish accent left a lot to be desired, but he was funny as hell.

Laughter filled the store again as he sat back down.

“You can leave a tip beside the cash register if that entertained you, darlin'.”

“And you can stop the Irish talk. Lord, I'd shoot Kinsey Brennan for a double shot of Jameson right now,” she moaned.

“I'd give you a whole bottle if you'd go on and take out Betsy Gallagher at the same time. There's one hiding back behind the Jack Daniel's at the bar, but nobody asked for it Saturday night.”

“It's probably there for Naomi Gallagher when she comes to town.”

“Will we have to pour beer on her and Mavis if they show up at the same time?”

“Probably, but I bet she could snap her fingers and transport herself back to Wild Horse in a split second. She steals pigs and makes them disappear into thin air. I met them both yesterday, and I liked them both better than I liked their grandsons. Maybe it would be different if I didn't feel like a prize Angus heifer at an auction. How about you? Did you like the grannies better than the granddaughters?”

“I didn't like any of them, period. And, darlin' girl, you could never be a prize Angus heifer. They've got black hair, and yours is red. You'd have to be a Guernsey or a Jersey heifer,” he teased.

She slapped at his arm, missing by six inches. “You know what I mean.”

He nodded. “Yes, I do, but they really want you. They just want this poor old rough cowboy without two nickels in his pockets to go away any way they can make it happen.”

She reached over and pinched his cheek. “You're so cute, they can't help themselves. And then there is the feud. Whichever side gets you gets a fine rancher, and the other side loses.”

A grin twitched the corners of his mouth and kept getting bigger until he chuckled. “And of course I am a stud bull.”

“Sawyer!”

“If you can be a heifer, why can't I be a bull?”

“What about a bull?” Gladys asked as she came through the back door.

“Jill says she feels like a prize heifer at the auction. Like the two feuding families are trying to outbid each other for her,” Sawyer said.

“And you're the bull that the women are fighting over?”

Sawyer blushed.

Gladys didn't wait for an answer. “I heard about the catfight and the carriage ride and that Tyrell is going to hog the jukebox tonight. There's a meeting going on at each ranch right now. They are talking strategy about you and this war that's come down because of Mavis's hogs. I haven't seen the feud heat up like this in more than twenty years. You two best dig in for the fight, because it's comin' from both sides.”

“Shit!” Jill groaned.

Gladys pointed her finger at Jill. “I've told you before. Fiddle Creek isn't going to either one of those families, so if you liked the way either one of those cowboys kissed you last night, you'll do well to remember that I'd give it to a wildlife preservation group to raise wild hogs on before I'd let them have it. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma'am, and for the record, I wasn't too impressed with either of them,” she said.

Chapter 9

Jill tossed a small bale of hay over the side of the truck bed, put one hand on the edge, and hopped out to the ground. The cows were so tame that they didn't even hesitate to start feeding on it the minute she cut the baling wire and scattered it for them.

“Aunt Gladys called this morning.”

“And?” Sawyer asked.

“And she said that Wallace Redding down in Salt Holler called her with a good deal on hogs, so she needs us to come to the store as early as we can. I thought we'd go see Aunt Polly on the way.”

“Didn't she buy a hog on Monday?” Sawyer kicked the hay to scatter it a bit for the cows and got back in the truck to move on to the next pasture.

She settled into the passenger's seat. “Yes, but it's warmed up, and Wallace says he's got to sell a couple cheap because his freezers are all full and his smokehouses are going full-time. Long as it was cold, he could hang a few in a cooling shed, but not when it's getting up close to sixty degrees. He'll probably talk her into buying two, and our big storeroom cooler will be full.”

He put the truck into gear and eased on to the next feeding place. “Think any of it will ruin?”

“No, Aunt Gladys said that it's selling fast as she can cut it up. And since Mavis Brennan hasn't got any pork, she called her and made her a deal on buying a couple extra to sell her for her freezer on River Bend. That will just be a matter of delivery, but I bet Aunt Gladys makes a profit on that job.”

Jill got out of the truck and jogged to the gates into the next pasture, opening and closing them once Sawyer had driven through. Cattle moved along slowly in a single file against the fence row. An old black bull threw back his head and bawled when the cows behind him didn't keep up, as if telling them the breakfast buffet was about to be spread, and he wasn't waiting for grace.

She hurried from the gate to the truck and had tossed two bales out before Sawyer got out. “Slow movin' today, are you?” Jill commented.

“Had a call from Gladys right then. She wants us there soon as we get done here. Verdie is going to stay with Polly. We'll have to go see her again tomorrow. She sure looked better yesterday than I thought she would.”

“She's a tough old broad. I'm going to grow up and be just like her,” Jill said.

“I guess Mavis wants three hogs if Wallace is willin' to share them, and Gladys needs the ranch truck to go get it all. She said she's making a fifty-dollar profit to deliver them to River Bend,” Sawyer told her.

“Aunt Gladys could make money selling cow patties for chocolate.” Jill laughed.

“Why doesn't Mavis go to Salt Holler or send one of her hired hands to get the pork for her?” Sawyer asked.

“Because Aunt Gladys knows Wallace. I think they went to school together, but even she can't cross that bridge until he gives permission. Wallace comes out of the holler on occasion, but folks don't go into it. They're real superstitious down there.”

“Cross the bridge?”

“The way Aunt Gladys explained it to me is that about five miles from Burnt Boot there's a bridge that Wallace and his family built, so they own it. State, county, or city doesn't have any say-so over it. It's the only way into the holler for cars or trucks, and there's a gate at the end that's padlocked. So if you got business in Salt Holler, you'd have to get in touch with Wallace beforehand, and few people even have his phone number.”

“Their kids go to school?”

“Oh, yeah, they bring them to the bridge, and the bus picks them up, but it doesn't get on the bridge,” Jill answered.

“Why?”

“When I was a little girl, Aunt Gladys took me down there one time to see where it was, but we didn't cross the bridge, thank God. The people who live down there in the holler get across in pickups and cars, but believe me, I wouldn't cross it on a skateboard.”

“Does it cross a river by that name, or what?” Sawyer kicked the bales when she clipped the wires.

“A big gully that gets marshy in the springtime. Aunt Gladys said before they built the bridge, it would get so muddy that the bus couldn't get the kids for school, and the Reddings couldn't get out for supplies. It must have been a long time ago, because that bridge looks like it was built from scraps of the Ark, and I'm talking about the one that Noah built,” she said.

Sawyer laughed out loud. “You'll have to show me where that bridge is someday. Anything that scares you has to be pretty damn bad.”

Jill smiled. “Well, thank you! That's the best compliment I've had since I got here.”

“Aww, shucks! You mean you wasn't impressed when I told you those jeans looked better than the low-rise ones you had on that showed the strings of your thong when you bent over?”

She slapped at him, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her forward over the loose hay to hug her tightly. Her hands landed on his chest with a snap. She looked up, and before she even had time to shut her eyes, his lips were on hers. Warmth—that's what she felt at first. As the kiss deepened, it grew hotter, and when his tongue traced the outside of her mouth, it turned downright scorching.

Her knees had no bones in them when he broke the kiss, and she was glad he kept his arms on her shoulders when he took a step back.

“Well?” he said.

“Well, what?” she gasped.

“Judgment day. Did that do more for you than either one of the rich cowboys' kisses?” He grinned.

“To be fair, I might have to kiss them again.” She tried to control the breathlessness in her tone, but it still sounded hollow. “What about you? Did it do more for you than when you kissed Kinsey and Betsy?”

“I didn't kiss them. They kissed me. And it wasn't nothing like what we just shared. That flat-out made my knees go weak. I saw stars and sparkles, and even this old hay looks brighter. Hell, Jill, my mouth is going to feel warm all day after that kiss,” Sawyer said.

“You are full of shit, Sawyer O'Donnell. I believe that you invented the Blarney Stone instead of kissed it.”

* * *

Gladys was putting on her jacket when Sawyer and Jill reached the store. She grabbed her pickup keys and waved over her shoulder. “When Wallace gives a time for me to meet him, he doesn't wait one minute past that, even when he's selling a truckload of butchered hogs. He sets the time, and I always get there early and wait for him to unlock the gate. If I'm not there, he doesn't wait around. I heard that Mavis is still steaming, and that Naomi has twenty-four-hour guards posted around her place.”

“You really think that Naomi did something with those hogs?” Sawyer asked.

“Yes, I do. She probably turned them loose in the backwoods, and we'll have a whole raft of wild hogs sproutin' up in another year,” Gladys answered.

“If you get stuck in the mud, holler at us, and we'll come drag you back to civilization,” Jill yelled as the door closed.

Sawyer hung his jacket on the rack. “Is there a possibility that Gladys is buying stolen pork?”

Jill's eyes got wider and wider, then they went back to normal size, and she shook her head. “Folks down in Salt Holler grow hogs. They don't have cattle down in that place, and Aunt Gladys would have already thought of that. Besides, Wallace wouldn't take a chance on the law coming to investigate.”

“Why do they call it Salt Holler, anyway? These are just little rolling hills. The valleys aren't big enough to call them a holler by any means,” Sawyer wondered aloud.

“Aunt Gladys told me that the ‘salt' part of it is because those folks salt-cure the pork, and the ‘holler' has little to do with the land but the fact that it's not really very big. You can holler on one end, and they can hear it on the other.”

“How long has it been there?”

“Have to ask Aunt Gladys about that, unless you want to sneak past the guards and ask Naomi Gallagher. I hear she's got distant relatives down there even yet, so she might know.”

“I think I'll stay on this side of the fence and kiss you rather than talk to one side of the feuding family about pigs.”

She couldn't think of a single smart-ass remark, and the blush was still faint two minutes later when a dark-haired lady that looked vaguely familiar pushed her way into the store.

“Hi, Sawyer. How's the foreman business goin'? I heard it extended out to store-keepin' and bartendin',” she said.

“Looks like it.” Sawyer made introductions. “Jill, meet my cousin-in-law Callie. She and my cousin Finn live over on Salt Draw. You might have seen them in church last Sunday.”

Callie smiled. “We're the ones with the line of kids on the pew with Verdie.”

“Cute bunch of kids. How long have you been in Burnt Boot?” Jill asked.

Callie started putting items into a cart. “Only since the first of December. I understand you aren't really new to the area, just returning to it. When you have time, give me a call, and we'll sneak away for a girls' afternoon. Maybe a pedicure and coffee if we can't squeeze anything else in.”

“That sounds like fun. I've visited, but never lived here until now, and I got to admit, walking into a feud isn't what I had in mind.”

“I know. We had a taste of it over on Salt Draw, but it seems to have blown over us now that we are married. I heard there's two ladies after Sawyer, though, and a couple of cowboys fightin' for your hand.” Callie smiled.

“It's not me they're after, it's Fiddle Creek,” Jill said and then changed the subject. “So where did you meet Finn?”

“He was a sniper and I was his spotter when we were in the military. It's a long story that I'll share sometime when we have more time.” Callie's green eyes glimmered. “Maybe that's why those feudin' fillies left us alone. Once they found out I could shoot and wasn't afraid to use a gun, things died down a little bit.”

“Well, shit, Sawyer. I just need to wing one of them, and they'll leave us alone,” Jill said.

“Sounds like you've got the right idea.”

Jill pointed to the truck pulling up outside the store. “Speak of the devil, and me without my shotgun. Some days it don't pay to get out of bed.”

Callie leaned over and whispered, “I've got a twenty-two pistol in the glove compartment of my truck. If it gets too heated, I'll sneak out there and get it for you.”

“I do believe we are going to be more than spa buddies,” Jill whispered back.

Betsy breezed into the store, didn't even look sideways at the two women, but went straight to Sawyer. “Hello, handsome,” she said.

“Betsy.” He nodded. “What can I do for you today?”

“Granny needs five pounds of sugar, but while we're talkin' about sugar, I can think of a few things you could do for me today.” She smiled up at him.

Jill peeked around the end of the aisle where she and Callie had been conspiring. “Need some chickens? Aunt Gladys has a sale on whole fryers today and tomorrow.”

“Good Lord, no! Grandma raises her own chickens. She's pretty picky about the henhouse. It won't be long until she has baby chicks everywhere, and then in the spring, she'll get them ready for butcherin' day. She's real prone to chicken and dumplin's, and believe me, she wouldn't think of makin' it with anything but her own range chickens. All I want is five pounds of sugar and a sexy cowboy to take home with me for the weekend. I'll be gentle, Sawyer,” she flirted.

Jill picked up a bag of sugar and handed it to Betsy. Maybe if she had something to hold, she wouldn't find an excuse to put her hands on Sawyer. After the way his kiss affected her that morning, she damn sure didn't want another woman—Brennan, Gallagher, or even a Redding—to be getting too close to Sawyer.

Betsy told Jill to put the sugar on the River Bend account, and was reaching for the doorknob when Kinsey pushed her way inside. They reminded Jill of two stray bitch dogs circling and measuring each other up before the big fight.

“Too late, Kinsey. I've already branded him. He's mine,” Betsy said.

“The war isn't over until there's a gold band on his finger,” Kinsey growled.

Yep, a couple of mongrel bitches. Not even purebreds
, Jill thought.

“Speakin' of war”—Betsy's tone turned threatening—“we know you took Granny's pigs, and you will pay for it.”

“Prove it. We didn't start this pig war, and we won't take the blame for it,” Kinsey said with a flip of her long hair. “Sawyer, darlin', my grandmother sent me to buy a dozen of Gladys's premade shish kebabs for supper tonight. Tyrell is grilling for a few of us. Oh, and a bag of sugar. She's run out, and we're havin' sweet tea with lunch today.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Sawyer said.

“I'll be glad to take fourteen if you'll come to supper with me. Big old rough cowboy like you wouldn't be satisfied with one little shish kebab, would he? I bet he likes seconds on everything.”

Jill had never heard talk of shish kebabs sound so seductive. She rolled her eyes toward Callie and made a gun with her forefinger and thumb.

Callie took a step forward and whispered, “Sawyer best put his boots in the closet and get out some runnin' shoes. We can always hide him out on our ranch if it gets too tough. I thought Finn was the only one who drew women and trouble to him like a magnet, but it must be all the O'Donnell cowboys.”

“You got that right, and it gets worse some times,” Jill said. “There are times when he infuriates me so much, I'd like to throw him out there for them to fight over like two old hound dogs with one ham bone between them. Then there are times when he's so damn sweet, I'd pen them up like hound dogs and starve them to death before I let either one of them even get close to him.”

Callie laughed. “Been where you are, and don't want to go back. Pull out your phone, woman. You need to program in my number in case the fire gets too hot and you need a place to go or someone to talk to.”

BOOK: The Trouble with Texas Cowboys
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