Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Date Published: Nov 2017
“Dax Davenport didn’t like hanging around towns. He much preferred a campfire beneath the starry Texas sky with only wild coyotes for company. But it had been impossible to ignore the letter he’d received. So he’d come to Tender Heart . . . and waited.” –Tender Heart, Book Eleven
The cold front that swept in from the plains three weeks before Christmas didn’t bring snow. It brought something worse.
In his travels, Raff Arrington had driven in Minnesota blizzards, Washington rainstorms, Arizona heat, and even a Louisiana hurricane. But damned if this Texas ice storm didn’t beat them all. The highway outside of Bliss was slicker than an Olympic bobsledding run and sleet flew from the night skies like incoming artillery fire. Raff was creeping along at thirty miles per hour, and the back end of his ’67 Chevy pickup still fishtailed around every curve.
He hadn’t planned on stopping in Bliss. He liked to be as far away from his hometown as he could get during the holidays. But the weather had caught him by surprise on his way from Houston. Now it looked like he’d have to postpone the delivery he planned to make in Austin.
He glanced over at the 1873 Winchester rifle lying next to him on the bench seat. It was referred to as “the gun that won the west.” But in this case, it was more like the “the gun that tamed Texas.” He’d been looking for this particular gun for the last two years. And there had been a moment when he’d held the smooth wooden stock and cold steel barrel in his hands that he’d thought about keeping the gun for himself. But then he remembered his golden rule.
Never get attached to anything.
He planned to sell the gun and use the proceeds to build a house. A house that would hopefully ease the guilt that ate away at him. But it looked like he’d have to deal with the guilt another day. Ice had started to accumulate on the windshield so quickly it looked like the inside of a snow-cone machine. Luckily, he was only a quarter of a mile away from the turnoff to his ranch. Not that his acreage was still a ranch.
At one time, the Arrington Ranch had been the biggest ranch in Texas, but then his father and two uncles ended up in a dispute over how the ranch should be run—or Cole and Zane’s fathers ended up in a dispute. Raff’s father, Vern Arrington, was the easygoing middle son who didn’t fight for anything. Even things he should fight for. When the other two brothers had decided to split the ranch three ways, Vern had been stuck with the land least suitable for ranching and his great-great-great-grandfather’s old rundown cabin. Raff’s father had named the ranch after the famous Tender Heart book series written by his Aunt Lucy.
Lucy Arrington wrote the series in the 1960s and based it on the mail-order brides brought to Texas to marry the cowboys who worked the Arrington Ranch. As a kid, Raff had loved the series. He stopped loving it when he grew up and realized that happily-ever-afters were purely fictional.
Once he turned off the highway and onto the road that led to the Tender Heart Ranch, Raff switched the radio from the weather station to country oldies. Loretta Lynn was singing Country Christmas. Raff remembered the song from one of the many Christmas albums his grandmother had played during family holidays. He’d never been much of a singer, but that didn’t stop him from belting out the song. He cut off in mid-verse when a flash of red caught his attention.
At first he thought it was one of his cousin Becky’s Hereford cows running across the road. Too late, he realized it wasn’t a cow but a woman in a red dress. And she wasn’t running. She was standing right smack dab in the middle of the road.
“Shit!” He slammed on his brakes. The mud wasn’t as slick as icy asphalt, but it was slick enough to cause the tires to skid straight toward the wide-eyed woman who stood frozen in place. Raff cranked the steering wheel to the right, and the truck slid up a bank and straight into a wooden fence post.
If he had been in a new truck with airbags and a locking shoulder strap, he would’ve come through the accident without a scratch. But his vintage truck didn’t have those amenities. It had a lap belt that kept him in the seat, but didn’t keep his head from flying forward and smacking the steering wheel.
For a moment, he saw stars.
Then he saw nothing.
When he came to, it took him a moment to get oriented. His head hurt. His body was being jostled around. And he could smell chocolate . . . and wet animal?
He slowly opened his eyes. Two fuzzy red mountains greeted him. He blinked. No, not mountains. Boobs. A set of big boobs covered in red knit that showed off every luscious curve. Some guys like legs. Some guys like asses. But Raff had always been a boob man. He was thinking about burying his entire face between those lush melons of delight when his fantasy was interrupted by the woman’s hysterical voice. A voice that was sweet as southern tupelo honey and extremely familiar.
“Sweet Baby Jesus! Everything has just gone to heck in a handcart. First, Miles runs out on my beautiful August wedding, ruining my plans to become a perfect southern wife and mother. Then my interior design business almost goes bankrupt, ruining my plan to be a successful, independent woman. And when I finally come up with a plan to fix at least one of those problems, I end up stranded on a muddy country road in a freezing snowstorm that completely ruins my cashmere sweater dress and Valentino leather shoes. And if that isn’t enough to make a grown woman cry buckets, I’m now responsible for keeping a jerk of a cowboy alive.” Her breasts rose and fell in an exasperated huff. “If I didn’t know better, Lord, I’d think you were out to get me.” She tried to shift gears, and the loud grinding noise finally had Raff sitting up.
Pain ricocheted through his head like a pinball, but it was the needling pain knifing through his balls that got his attention. He glanced down to see a soaking wet cat using his lap as a scratching post.
“What the hell!” He shoved the fur ball to the floor. It yowled as the truck swerved to the side of the road and barely missed hitting another fence post before it slammed to a stop. Raff grabbed on to the dash and put an arm out to keep the woman from suffering the same fate that he had. Soft breasts pressed against his forearm as he turned to her.
In the light from dash, she looked like the victim of a drowning. Her wet hair was darker than the usual vibrant red and plastered to her head like a skullcap. Mascara ringed her big blue eyes. And freckles that he hadn’t known she had peppered her pert little nose and high cheekbones. The only makeup that had survived the storm was her lipstick. Her lips looked like they always did. Like an early summer strawberry that had been smashed just enough to spread out the corners but leave the center all plump and juicy.
“Savannah.” The word came out sounding like a death knell. Which was appropriate. Of all the women he’d met in his life, there was only one that annoyed him to distraction. This one. And it appeared that the feeling was mutual.
She pushed his arm away and looked at him like he was a bug stuck on the sole of the sky-high heels she always wore. “Well, at least we know that the accident didn’t knock you senseless—or not any more senseless than usual.” She reached down and lifted her Persian cat from the floor and hugged it to her generous breasts. “Miss Pitty Pat? Are you okay, honey? Did big bad Raff hurt you?”
“Hurt her? That beast sank her claws into my balls.”
Savannah glared at him. “Gentlemen don’t talk about their private parts in front of a lady. And the only reason Miss Pitty sank in her claws was because you frightened her when you sat up like Dracula from his coffin.” A splatter of sleet had her looking at the windshield. “Good gravy, it’s a nasty storm. I thought Bliss didn’t get snow.”
“This isn’t snow. It’s ice. Now would you like to explain why you were standing in the middle of the road in an ice storm?”
She flapped a hand as if she were sitting on the front porch of an antebellum mansion swatting flies. “Carly invited me to spend the holidays with her and Zane. I told her no at first, because the holidays are an extremely busy time at my interior design shop in Atlanta—what with all the people wanting to decorate for Christmas, Hanukah, New Year’s, and such. But then . . .” She paused and bit on the lower half of that plump strawberry mouth. “I had a change of heart. I mean the holidays should be spent with friends and family, don’t you think?”
“And since I was coming out,” she rattled on. “I thought why not come out early and help Gracie decorate her new house and Emery decorate the baby’s room.” Raff’s eyes felt like they wanted to roll back in his head. And not from his injury. Listening to Savannah always made him feel like he wanted to lose consciousness. “I was thinking of a pony theme because of Cole’s horse ranch. But not the dirty, shaggy kind of ponies with wild eyes. I was thinking more of glittery pink ponies with fluffy manes all dancing in a meadow of flowers. Wouldn’t that just be the cutest?”
He stared at her. “So that’s your plan to save your business? You’re going to charge Emery a fortune for decorating her kid’s room with stupid ponies?”
Her eyes widened. She had weird eyes. One second, they could look a startling bluebonnet blue, and the next second, a deep lavender. They were bluebonnet at the moment. “Who told you my business was going bankrupt?”
“You did when you were blabbering about all your woes.”
She blinked. “I do not blabber. Nor would I ever take money from a friend. I have other plans to save my business.”
“Let me guess. You’re searching for another sugar daddy after your first one left you at the altar.”
“Miles did not leave me at the altar.” She tipped up her chin. “He left me three days before. And he wasn’t my sugar daddy.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Really? It seems like more than a coincidence that your business is going bankrupt right after your fiancé leaves you at the altar.” The flush on her cheeks confirmed his suspicions.
She cleared her throat. “It’s bad manners to talk about money with a stranger. Now if you’re done with your interrogation, we need to get you to the closest hospital.” She settled the cat on her lap, and then ground the gears as she tried to shift into first.
Raff wasn’t attached to possessions, but he couldn’t sit there and let the vintage truck he’d spent months restoring be abused. He covered her ice-cold hand with his and stopped her from changing gears. “I don’t need to go to the hospital.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Have you gotten a good look at that goose egg on your head? You look like one of those Klingon guys in that Star Trek movie. You could be hemorrhaging internally. Or have a cracked skull.”
“Stop with the dramatics. I’m fine. Now move so I can drive.”
“Sorry, no can do.” She forced the stick into first gear and took off down the road. “While I don’t particularly care if you brain hemorrhage to death, the rest of your family will. And I wouldn’t want to offend the Arringtons. I like them. You I merely tolerate.”
He couldn’t tolerate her for a second longer. He reached for the key and turned off the engine. Before his truck rolled to a stop, he had Savannah on his lap—cat and all.
She was wet. Not just a little wet, but soaked. The front of his jeans immediately grew damp . . . and snug. Because while Savannah was the most annoying female on the face of the earth, she was also built like a brick shithouse. Being a man, it was hard to ignore the full curves of her wiggling ass against his crotch or the weight of her generous boobs brushing his arm.
“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” She struggled to get out of his hold, and the cat jumped over to the driver’s side. “If you think that just because I’ve been without a man for one hundred and seventeen days that I’m interested in a little slap and tickle, you can think again. I have standards and you do not come close to meeting—”
His arm tightened around her waist, and when she stilled, he held one finger to his lips. Her mouth spread into a thin line of angry strawberry jam as he spoke. “I’m not interested in a little slap and tickle.” It wasn’t a lie. His brain wasn’t interested. His cock was a different story. But Raff never let his rooster make his decisions. “Nor do I care about how many days you’ve been without a sugar daddy to buy you diamonds and furs. All I care about is getting you to Zane and Carly’s and me home to my nice quiet—” He froze. “Dammit!”
“Don’t cuss.” She swatted at his shoulders. “And would you release me?”
“Believe me, I’d like nothing more. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re stuck with each other for a while longer.” He plopped her none too gently on the passenger’s side, picked up the cat and set it on her lap, and then slid behind the wheel.
“What do you mean we’re stuck?” she asked.
He started the truck. “I forgot that Carly and Zane aren’t home. Zane texted me to tell me that one of the ranch hands hurt his shoulder this afternoon, and he and Carly were taking him into Austin for x-rays. With this storm, I figure they’re not coming home tonight. Didn’t Carly call you?”
“I ran my phone battery out using GPS. Which is why I couldn’t call 911. I guess you’ll just have to take me to Cole and Emery’s.”
He put the truck in reverse so he could turn around. “They’re Christmas shopping in San Antonio.”
“Dirk and Gracie’s?” Her voice had a frantic pitch to it, and he knew how she felt. He was getting pretty frantic himself. But there was no help for it.
“Same shopping trip.” He headed down the road toward his cabin.
When it finally registered where they were going, she slowly shook her head. “Oh, no. Miss Pitty and I are not staying in that shack of a cabin with you. I’d rather stay at that hideously decorated motor lodge in town.”
“Sorry, but I’m not getting back on the highway. The trip from Houston was hell.” A thought struck him, and he glanced around. “Where did you put my Winchester?”
“My gun?” He pointed at the bench seat between them. “The gun that was sitting right here.”
She petted the wet cat more rapidly. “Oh, that gun. Well, I couldn’t stretch you out on the seat with a big ol’ gun in the way. So I had to move it.”
A bad feeling crept up his spine. “Move it? Where? Behind the seat?”
“Oh, I could never actually pick up a gun. My Aunt Lily told me she blew her left pinkie toe right off when she picked up her husband’s gun to put it away in the gun safe. And even a good pedicure couldn’t hide her disfigurement. No, I just sorta pushed it.”
He stopped the truck and turned to her. “Where. Did. You. Put. My. Gun?”
That pretty strawberry mouth tipped up in a smile. “About a mile up the road.”