Date Published: Dec 2022
Wedding receptions were the perfect settings for bad choices.
Not that Everly Grayson had ever made good ones. Her choices in life had always leaned toward the bad. Which is how she ended up quitting high school and running away to Dallas to become a tattoo artist. Falling head over heels in love with her best friend. And managing a bar in a Podunk Texas town when she hated small towns with a passion.
But last night at Buck and Mystic Kingman’s wedding reception she had taken her bad decision-making one step further.
Everly stared at the man lying in bed next to her. His features were identical to his twin brother’s. But she had always been able to tell the two apart. Mostly because Chance Ransom scowled whenever she was around.
He wasn’t scowling now. His face was relaxed in sleep, his lips slightly parted and emitting a huff of air on each exhalation. His sandy locks were usually styled back from his face with not a hair out of place. This morning, the thick strands shot up in spiky tufts that softened his stern features and gave him a boyish look.
Although there was nothing boyish about the dark stubble that covered his strong jaw.
Everly had always loved a little stubble. She liked the way it looked and she liked the way it felt against her skin when a man’s face was right between her—
Hell no, Everly James Grayson. Don’t you dare let your libido take charge like you did last night. You already made a mistake. You don’t need to compound it.
She reached over and shook Chance awake. “Time to rise and shine.”
Chance’s long lashes slowly opened. The early morning light coming in the window must have been too much for him because he cringed and slammed his eyes shut again. She figured he had one helluva of a hangover. Her head pounded and she hadn’t downed half as much wedding punch as Chance had.
What the hell had been in that punch?
Chance massaged his temples and groaned. “Good Lord.”
“I don’t know if the Lord had anything to do with last night,” she said.
With a jerk of his head, Chance turned to her. She’d thought his eyes were the same soft brown as Shane’s. But this close, she realized that there was nothing soft about Chance’s eyes. The pupils were hard onyx surrounded by a ring of steamy coffee. The mixture was deep, dark . . . and sexy. They held surprise for a split second and then horror, like she was the worst possible nightmare he’d ever had.
She figured to a pastor, she was.
She grinned. “Good mornin’, Preach.”
He continued to stare at her. “What are you doing in my bed?”
She stretched her arms over her head and yawned loudly. “I think that should be my question, Goldilocks.”
He sat straight up, cringing from the pain that no doubt ricocheted through his head. He looked around the room and then back at her before he covered his face with both his hands and muttered, “What have I done?”
She was feeling the same way. But she had never been someone who spent a lot of time on regret.
“Now, Preach,” she said. “It’s not a big deal. All people sin from time to time. Even holier-than-thou preachers. I’m sure God will forgive you for one night of debauchery.”
He lowered his hands and stared at her. “Debauchery?”
“Well, maybe not debauchery as much as a little wicked fun. And there’s nothing wrong with a little wicked fun.” Everly reached out and patted his forearm.
It was hard not to notice the flex of muscles beneath her palm . . . or the ones stacked up his stomach to his chest like building blocks. Chance’s physique had surprised her. She’d thought a preacher’s body would be pale from lack of sun and puny from lack of exercise. But she’d been way off base. A caramel tan covered defined pectorals, biceps, and two rows of tummy muscles. Shane had a nice body, but if Everly was honest—and she was always honest—Chance’s wasn’t just nice. It was . . . lickable.
Not that she had licked it. Or that she would ever lick it. But last night, eating him like salted caramel frozen yogurt had crossed her mind.
Her gaze slid over his chest . . . and it was still crossing her mind.
Chance uttered a very un-preacher like curse beneath his breath and jumped out of bed.
Or tried to.
The sheet caught around his feet and he almost took a header to the floor. He kicked free and got up. She tried to look away—okay, maybe she didn’t try that hard. Speaking of hard. She got a glimpse of a great ass and an impressive morning erection before he grabbed the sheet and wrapped it around his waist.
He stared at her. “Tell me what happened.”
She fluffed the pillows and reclined back on them, uncaring of where the sheet settled. Chance’s gaze lowered to her bare stomach for a brief second before it quickly lifted. The annoyance in his eyes was easy to read. He obviously didn’t like the shorty tank top she slept in. Or maybe it was her belly button ring that ticked him off. Whatever it was, she refused to let his censorship make her feel inferior.
“You should’ve seen the piercing I had in my nose. I hated to get rid of it, but it kept getting caked with boogers.”
His censorious look grew. “Do you have to share everything?”
She shrugged. “I thought the Bible says, ‘The truth will set you free.’”
“Jesus wasn’t talking about telling everyone your personal information. He was talking about the truth of the word of God. If you know God’s truth, it will set you free.”
She studied him. “Hmm? You know God’s word and you don’t seem very free. In fact, you seem as tense as a clock that has been wound too tightly and needs to be sprung in order to keep ticking.” She laughed. “And it looks like all you needed was a little spiked punch to get sprung.”
“It’s not funny.” He ran a hand through his hair and looked around as if searching for help. “What happened last night was wrong. All wrong. I shouldn’t have even attended the reception. I shouldn’t have accepted the cup of punch. Or any of the ones after. And I certainly shouldn’t have gone to bed . . . " He glanced back at her. “With you.”
The entire scenario of a Ransom twin telling her what a mistake he’d made by sleeping with her was like déjà vu. Shane might have been a lot nicer with his rejection after their night of drunken college sex, but the message was the same—Everly wasn’t the girl they wanted to find in their beds the following morning. Suddenly, she wasn’t having fun anymore prodding the preacher. So she decided to let him off the hook.
“Well, you certainly aren’t my first choice either, Preach. So I guess we’re both lucky that nothing happened last night.”
He stared at her suspiciously. “Then why am I naked?”
“Because you stripped off all your clothes before you passed out in my bed. I found you after I closed up the bar.”
“And you joined me instead of trying to wake me up?”
“I was a little tipsy myself. Not to mention exhausted from pouring drinks all night for the entire town. Walking down the hall to the other room seemed like too much trouble. Besides, it’s my bed. You were the interloper. And what did you want me to do? Send you home falling-down drunk? If I had let the new preacher get run over or stumble and crack open his head, the town would tar and feather me. If word gets out that Nasty Jack’s tattooed bartender lured you into her bed, they still might.”
She saw the strong need to believe her in his eyes. Finally, his shoulders relaxed and he released his breath. “Thank God.” Holding the sheet like a shy virgin, he picked up his clothing scattered over the floor and walked out of the room. A few seconds later, she heard the bathroom door slam shut.
She blew out her breath and rubbed her aching temples. “Way to go, Everly. You just couldn’t learn your lesson the first time, could you?”
The toilet flushed, making her realize how badly she had to go. She got up and searched for her jeans. Once she pulled them on, she headed downstairs.
Nasty Jack’s was a typical small town Texas honky-tonk. It had a well-worn pool table, a bootheel-scarred dance floor, an old .45 jukebox, a bunch of mismatched tables and chairs, and a long bar that covered one entire wall. Christmas lights hung year round above the bar and classic beer signs glowed from the walls.
The only thing that made Nasty Jack’s different from most small town bars was the pie. The owner’s wife made them from scratch and Gretchen Kingman knew how to bake a pie. The short time Everly had managed the bar, she had become addicted to the tasty treat. There was something about the flaky crust and gooey fillings that made her feel better about her bad life choices.
So after using the women’s bathroom, she headed to the kitchen in search of some pie comfort. She found half of a raspberry peach pie hidden beneath a dishtowel. After making a strong pot of coffee—another addiction—she poured herself a mugful, grabbed a fork, and sat down at the prep island to indulge.
As she ate, her thoughts drifted back to the preacher . . . something that had been happening a lot lately. He was as different from his brother as night and day. Shane wore all his emotions on his sleeve while Chance seemed to hide all his behind the fake smile he gave his entire congregation. Having grown up with phony parents, Everly could spot a fake a mile away. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she knew the story behind Chance’s fake smile.
The sound of clicking bootheels drew her attention away from her thoughts. She figured Chance would sneak out the door without a word. So she was surprised when he walked in through the swinging door.
Damn, she loved a man in a Stetson. The brown felt of his hat matched his eyes and made them even more intense. But the rest of him looked pretty pathetic. His dress shirt and pants were covered in wrinkles and the skin under his dark stubble had a grayish tinge. Like a true Texas gentlemen, he removed his hat when he reached her. His sandy hair still stuck up in boyish tufts and Everly had to stifle the urge to reach out and ruffle it even more.
He cleared his throat. “I owe you an apology, Everly. I shouldn’t have assumed you were responsible for me being in your bed.”
She took the last bite of pie and shrugged. “No sweat, Preach. I’ve had worse assumptions made about me.”
“Well, I was wrong. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t . . .” He let the sentence drift off, but she knew what he was asking.
She mimed zipping her lips. “My lips are sealed as tight as my grandmother’s fruitcake.” She glanced up at the ceiling. “God rest her soul. Grandma wrapped that cake in so many layers of plastic wrap it took you from Thanksgiving to Christmas just to get into it. Not that it was worth the trouble.” She shivered. “Worst cake you’d ever eat in your life.”
“Well, thank you for not saying anything to anyone about last night.”
“No problem. Although you’re still going to be the subject of gossip.” She sent him a saucy smile. “I don’t think the town realized how well their new preacher could dance.”
He stared at her. “I danced?”
“A lot. You even dipped Miss Kitty.”
Chance rubbed his temples and groaned. “I’m sure the church board is already planning a meeting to fire me.”
“Doubtful. If they didn’t fire you for punching a Kingman—and we all know how much they worship the Kingmans—I doubt they’ll fire you for doing a little drinking and dancing at a wedding.”
Everly had been at the bar fight between the Ransom brothers and the Kingman brothers. Wolfe Kingman had been about to rough Shane up for breaking Delaney’s heart when Chance appeared out of nowhere and started throwing punches. It had surprised everyone. Everly included. She had thought preachers believed in turning the other cheek. Obviously, not when it concerned their family.
“They should fire me,” Chance said. His face held guilt and the deep pain it always held. It was the pain that got to her.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You were just enjoying a wedding reception like everyone else in town.”
His eyes narrowed. “Except for you. If I remember correctly, you weren’t enjoying the reception.”
“I was bartending.”
His gaze grew more intent. “And watching Shane.”
It was more than a little annoying that he couldn’t seem to remember what they had done last night, but he had no trouble remembering other details. Details she’d just as soon forget.
She shrugged. “What can I say? Shane is a good dancer. Did you two take lessons when you were kids?”
He didn’t fall for the subject change. “Give it up, Everly. Shane is happy.”
The pie in her stomach threatened to come back up. She pushed the metal pie plate away and took a sip of coffee before she spoke. “You don’t have to tell me. I know your brother is happy.” She knew it all too well.
“Do you?” He set his hand on the stainless-steel island and leaned closer. “Then why did you take the job here in Cursed, Everly? With your business degree and experience managing restaurants, you could have easily found a managerial position anywhere. Why here?”
“Wolfe and Gretchen Kingman needed help. What can I say? I’m a giving person.”
Chance shook his head. “That wasn’t the reason. The real reason is that you’re still not over my brother. And you think if you hang out long enough in Cursed, Shane will realize what a mistake he made marrying Delaney and come running back to you.”
She snorted. “Wow, you have some imagination, Preach. I’m not still pining for Shane.”
“Really? What color shirt did he have on last night?”
As much as she didn’t want to know, she did. Green-and-yellow plaid with a touch of baby blue. She got up on shaky legs that didn’t feel like they could support her. But Everly had always been good at beating the odds.
Except for love.
Those odds had beaten her soundly.
She forced a smile. “Sorry to cut you off, Preach, but I’ve got better things to do on my day off than listen to a sermon from the town pastor.”
She went to sweep past him, but his hand shot out and grabbed her arm. His dark eyes glittered with warning. “Shane is never going to leave Delaney for you, Everly. I’ll make sure of it. So go home to Dallas. There’s nothing for you in Cursed.” (Charming a Christmas Texan Excerpt by Katie Lane)