Authors: Katie Lane
Tags: #Fiction / Romance - General, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fiction / Romance - Western, #Western, #Erotica, #Fiction / Romance - Contemporary
“Well, we might not need to call the police on him, but we certainly need to call
the police on Minnie. That woman needs to be behind bars.”
A few weeks ago, Elizabeth would’ve agreed with her mother. But somewhere along the
line, Minnie had wiggled her way into Elizabeth’s heart. She was still a cantankerous
pain in the behind, but she was an endearing one. And Elizabeth wasn’t about to let
her mother harass the old woman.
“You aren’t going to call the sheriff, Mother. Minnie didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Nothing wrong?” her mother yelled. “What about corrupting my innocent daughter by
sending a no-good, lying man to her house—”
“That’s enough, Mother,” Elizabeth said. She didn’t know where the words came from.
She had never talked back to her mother. But once the words were out, others burst
forth like withheld water from a dam.
“I’m not an innocent child. I’m a thirty-seven-year-old woman who has lived on her
own for the last fifteen years. A woman who can think for herself and make her own
decisions. And if that includes having men over to my house, then that’s my choice,
not anyone else’s.”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “I know that growing up at Miss Hattie’s
couldn’t have been easy, and I don’t blame you for being a little jaded about the
hens. But I think you’re wrong about them being nothing but immoral prostitutes. They’re
people just like you and me. People who survived in the only way they knew how. I
can’t blame them for that, just like I can’t blame you for your hatred toward men.”
When the words finished spilling out of her mouth, Elizabeth fell back in her computer
chair in stunned silence. It was the most she’d ever spoken to her mother in her life.
And the only time she’d ever stood up for herself. It felt wonderful and liberating.
But it also felt sad. Because, for the first time, she realized what an unhappy woman
her mother was.
“Well,” her mother huffed, “it looks like Minnie has won again. She’s brainwashed
you, just like she tried to do to me.” When Elizabeth didn’t say anything, she continued.
“So I guess that’s that. It looks like you’ve made your choice.”
“I haven’t made a choice,” Elizabeth said. “You’re still my mother.”
There was a long pause before her mother spoke. “Not if you continue your relationship
with the hens.”
The phone clicked dead.
Most daughters would be surprised, but most daughters hadn’t grown up with a mother
as unbending as Elizabeth’s. After she set the phone down on her desk, she sat there
thinking. Not just about the phone conversation, but about her life up until that
point. Her mother was right. Elizabeth had been brainwashed. Just not by Minnie. Harriett
Murphy had brainwashed her daughter into believing that Miss Hattie’s was a skeleton
that needed to be hidden and that women were better off without men.
Except being at the henhouse had made Elizabeth realize that she should be proud of
her heritage, and being with Brant had proved that some men were well worth the effort.
She might not ever hear from Brant again, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t date
other men. And her brief experience with Brant had given her enough self-confidence
that when Peter Sanders showed up to install new software on her computer, she stopped
what she was doing and started up a conversation.
It proved to be a mistake. Not only was Peter boring, spewing out an overabundance
of technical words that Elizabeth didn’t understand, but he had the annoying habit
of cleaning his ear with anything that happened to be handy. His index finger. A key
on his overcrowded key ring. The eraser end of the pencil on Elizabeth’s desk.
She had just removed her favorite pen from his reach when her cell phone rang. Grateful
for the excuse, she grabbed her phone and walked out from behind the counter.
She expected to hear her mother continuing her rant. Instead, a deep voice had her
stomach fluttering and her heart tightening.
“Elizabeth? This is Brant.”
“Oh,” she said as if she was talking to a 411 operator instead of the man who had
her heart thumping like a kettle drum. “How are you?”
When he answered, there was a smile in his voice. “Fine. How are you?”
“I’m well. Thank you.”
For some reason, he laughed. “I’m glad to hear it. So what are you doing?”
She took a deep breath and released it.
Just answer the questions, Elizabeth. Nothing hard about that.
“I was sitting here talking with Peter.”
There was a long pause, and when he came back on, he didn’t sound so happy anymore.
“Who the hell is Peter?”
“The county computer tech,” she said. “He comes every other Friday.”
“Of course. Why would he bring someone?” She fiddled with the neck of her sweater
as she waited for him to speak again.
“Look,” he sounded annoyed, “I was calling to see what you were doing, but if you’re
“I’m not busy,” she said a little too quickly.
“Does that mean you might be interested in seeing me this weekend?” The smile was
back in his voice.
The fluttery feeling came back even more intensely, but she held it together and walked
farther away from the desk so Peter wouldn’t eavesdrop. “You can come by on Saturday
night. But I’d appreciate it if you’d park your
truck down the street. And you’ll need to leave before the Tates get up.”
“That sounds nice,” he said, “but I was thinking more of taking you to dinner.”
“Why would you do that?” she asked.
“Why the hell wouldn’t I?” He sounded angry again.
“Because we decided we were just friends with benefits,” she explained. “Which means
you don’t have to wine and dine me. I’m what you guys refer to as a sure thing.”
“Damn it, Elizabeth!” Brant swore. “I’m taking you to dinner.”
“Fine,” she said, no longer feeling all aflutter. “But we can’t go to Josephine’s.
Not unless you’ll enjoy being tarred and feathered for dessert.”
“I was thinking more of flying you to Houston for the weekend.”
“Flying? Like on a plane?”
“Are you afraid of flying?”
She wasn’t afraid of flying. She was more than a little afraid of losing her mind.
She had never felt so loopy in her life. Still, there was no way she would decline
another night spent with Brant Cates.
“What time do I need to be ready, and what is the attire?”
“Four… and I liked those baby dolls quite a bit.”
“I can’t wear pajamas out to—”
He laughed. “I’m teasing, Elizabeth. I’ll pick you up at your house on Saturday, and
whatever you choose to wear is fine.”
The phone clicked, and Elizabeth stood there staring at it until a smile tipped up
the corners of her mouth.
It looked as if the old maid of Bramble had a date.
Henhouse Rule #49: If you’re gonna sling chicken shit, prepare to get hit.
HE MISSION-STYLE MANSION
was twice as big as Brant’s own house back in Dogwood and surrounded by three times
as much land. The house had been built by Lyle Dalton, a man Brant had met on more
than a few occasions and liked. What he didn’t care for was the way Lyle had run Dalton
Oil into the ground. Of course, Lyle’s bad business decisions had fed right into Brant
and Billy’s plan to destroy Bramble. A plan that had dissolved when Billy fell in
love with Lyle’s widow.
Brant parked the beat-up truck he’d borrowed from the owner of the airstrip in front
of the large mansion and climbed out. The flight from Dogwood had taken less time
than he’d thought. And since Elizabeth didn’t get off work for another two hours,
he had plenty of time to visit with his brother.
Seconds after Brant rang the doorbell, the door was pulled open by a boy no bigger
than a gnat. From behind him came the sounds of a large family. The low mumble of
a television. The hard thump of rap music. A baby’s squeals of delight. Husky feminine
laughter. And the scream of an angry sibling.
“I swear, Jesse Rutledge Cates!” A dark-headed teenage girl raced past the door. “If
you don’t stop taking things from my room and selling them…”
Brant stared down at the little boy who didn’t seem to be concerned at all by the
racket going on around him. He just stood looking at Brant and stroking the wild blond
hair of his naked doll.
“Hi,” Brant said, trying not to think about the fact that B.J. had been close to the
same age as this little boy when he’d died. “My name is Brant Cates. Is your…” He
tried to remember if Billy’s adopted kids called him Daddy or by his name. Before
he could decide, the door slammed in his face.
Brant blinked, then reached out and pressed the doorbell again. With all the racket,
it took a full five minutes for it to be pulled back open. This time by a sullen-looking
kid with mussed red hair and calculating brown eyes.
“You here for the iPhone, Mister?”
“No. I’m here to speak to my brother, Billy Cates.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed, but before he could slam the door, Brant caught it with the
toe of his boot. Sending the kid a warning look, he pushed it open and stepped into
“Jesse, honey,” a woman called out. “Who’s at the door?”
“That Bad Bwant!” The little demon who had first answered the door popped up from
behind a couch and started shooting Brant with a squirt gun. And not a little squirt
gun, but one almost as big as the kid. Brant was thoroughly doused before Billy came
around the corner.
“What the—?” When he saw Brant dripping on the tile, Billy’s eyes widened and he burst
out laughing. He
laughed so hard that Brant wondered if he was going to drop the little girl he held
in his arms.
“Just what is so doggoned funny, Billy Cates?” A stunningly beautiful woman strutted
out from behind Billy, along with the teenage girl. They both took one look at Brant
and joined the laughter.
“I’m glad you find this amusing,” Brant said, just as another stream of water hit
him in the ear.
The woman stopped laughing long enough to take the squirt gun from the little boy.
“I think that should about do it, Brody.”
“But he’s Bad Bwant, Mama,” the little boy yelled in a voice too deep to belong to
a kid. Billy hooted even louder as Brant shot Brody an annoyed look.
“That would be Uncle Bad Brant to you, Squirt.”
Shirlene handed the gun to the teenage girl, and her smile faded. “Well, it’s sure
nice to know you got yourself a little sense of humor, honey. I was startin’ to have
Brant pulled off his hat and glanced over at his brother, who had finally pulled himself
“I think she’s still a little miffed about you not showing up to the wedding,” Billy
“The wedding I could live with.” Shirlene’s eyes narrowed. “Shutting down Dalton Oil
is another matter.”
Hooking an arm around his wife, Billy pulled her close. “I thought we’ve been over
this, Sugar Buns. If you forgave me for trying to shut it down, I figure you can forgive
“Only because you changed your mind.” Shirlene looked back at Brant. “He hasn’t.”
Brant had never enjoyed eating crow. But the few times it had been served, he’d eaten
it without complaint.
“You’re right,” he said. “I didn’t think Dalton Oil was worth the time or effort.
But my brother here proved me wrong. After looking at the quarterly reports, I’d say
that Dalton Oil is doing much better than I expected.” He brushed the water off the
brim of his hat. “And about the wedding, I’d like to apologize for not being there.
I’d planned on it, but I ran into a bit of unexpected trouble on the way.”
“Unexpected trouble?” Shirlene studied him, her green eyes delving and intense. After
a few seconds, however, the smile returned. It was just as contagious as Billy’s and
Beau’s. “Well, I guess I can understand that. I’ve had my share of unexpected trouble
in the past year.”
Brant held out his hand. “So is it too late to welcome you to the family?”
Shirlene’s eyebrows shot up. “Not like that, honey.” In two steps, she had Brant in
a bear hug. Although she pulled back in a hurry. “Lord, you’re soaking wet.” She hooked
an arm through his. “Come on, honey, let’s get you dried off.”
Fifteen minutes later, Brant was dressed in his brother’s western shirt and sitting
on an opulent white couch with a margarita in his hand. His image of a money-grubbing,
snooty gold digger had been replaced by the charismatic woman who sat on the couch
across from him. A woman who didn’t seem to mind if Brody got chocolate from the brownie
he was eating on her designer jeans or if Baby Adeline drooled on her expensive blouse.
She was as patient as a saint with the kids, getting up numerous times to walk over
to the breakfast bar and help Jesse and Mia with their homework.
But it wasn’t Shirlene’s way with the children that won
Brant over as much as her way with Billy. People had always thought Billy was an easygoing
redneck, but Brant knew that beneath his good ol’ boy smile was an intensity that
bordered on anal. Billy had been almost as wrapped up in the Cates Curse as Brant
was. He was the one who had discovered that William Cates’s body had never been returned
to Lubbock. The one who had plotted Bramble’s demise with Brant. That intensity was
gone now, replaced with a contentment that seemed to be centered around the redheaded
woman who snuggled beneath his arm and looked up at him with adoring eyes.
“… and you better not be gettin’ any ideas about hangin’ out at Miss Hattie’s,” Shirlene
said. “I’m an extremely possessive woman.” She reached out and smoothed down Billy’s
The sight brought a pang to Brant’s stomach. Mandy had always straightened his shirt
collars. Something he’d tried to forget.
Billy grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind, Shirley Girl.” He looked over at Brant. “I
still can’t believe you let Beau buy into a house of ill repute.”
Jesse’s head popped up from his homework. “House of Ill Repute? Is that like The House
of Screams that they have in Houston? Man, that’s so cool. I can’t wait to tell my
friends that my uncle owns a haunted house. Can they all get in for free, Uncle Brant?”