Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Date Published: Sep 2017
Nothing had changed in Bliss, Texas.
Gracie Lynn Arrington took comfort in that.
Emmett Daily, who ran the only gas station in town, sat at a table arguing and playing dominos with Old Man Sims. Emmett’s wife, Joanna, hustled around serving cake to the guests and making sure the DJ knew what songs to play. Ms. Marble, a retired schoolteacher and the baker of the beautiful wedding cake, was getting after some teenagers for racing through the reception tent with sparklers. Mrs. Crawley was gossiping with a group of townswomen, her mouth going a mile a minute. Most of the people Gracie’s age were out on the dance floor, kicking up their heels.
Gracie would’ve loved to join them, but it was a little hard to kick up your heels when you couldn’t take a step without your walker.
“You want to give it a shot, Brat?”
She turned to find her half-brother Cole standing there looking as tall, dark, and handsome as ever in his white tux shirt and black pants. He was the spitting image of his daddy, while Gracie looked just like their mama.
“I think I’ll pass,” she said. “I’m stuffed after eating two slices of Ms. Marble’s wedding cake. I couldn’t decide on chocolate or strawberry. So I had both.”
“Why, you little piglet.” Cole reached out to ruffle her hair, something he’d done ever since she could remember, but then hesitated. “Emery says I need to stop doing that. She says women hate having their hair messed.” He glanced around and smiled slyly. “But since she’s not here to get after me . . . ” He messed her hair.
Gracie laughed and slapped at his hand. “Where is Emery, anyway?”
He rolled his eyes. “Where else? She’s at Aunt Lucy’s gravesite.”
Cole’s great-aunt Lucy Arrington had been the author of the classic Tender Heart series. It was a set of ten novels based on the mail-order brides who came to Bliss, Texas, in the late 1800s to wed the cowboys who worked the huge Arrington ranch. Lucy had died before writing the eleventh book in the series . . . or so everyone had thought until Gracie stumbled upon a chapter in the little white chapel. That night had changed her life forever.
And not in a good way.
She smiled and tried not to show the fear that always accompanied any reminder of the accident. “She loves Lucy. She’s probably just showing her respect.”
“Or looking for the rest of the chapter.” He waved at Emmett. Cole worked as a mechanic at the gas station, but he didn’t want to fix cars for a living. He wanted to breed horses. But in order to build his horse ranch, he needed money, something that had always been scarce in their family.
Gracie perked up. “The rest of what chapter?”
He turned to her, and his cheeks flushed a rosy pink. Blushing was the one physical trait he and Gracie had in common. They blushed when they were embarrassed or lying . . . or when they said something they shouldn’t have said.
Her heart rate picked up, and she squeezed Cole’s arm in excitement. “Emery found another chapter while I was gone, didn’t she? She was right. Lucy didn’t just finish one chapter.”
Cole glanced around before he shushed her. “Would you keep it down? Most of the town has been looking for that book since you found the first chapter. If word gets out we found another, there will be complete mayhem. Besides, Emery didn’t find another chapter in the cemetery. She only found one page.”
“But if she found one page, there has to be more.” She went to reach for the walker that stood next to her chair, but Cole stopped her.
“This was exactly why I didn’t mention finding the page. You don’t think clearly when it comes to that book.”
“But if we can find all the chapters, it will solve everything, Cole. With your share of the royalties, you can pay off my hospital bills and build new stables for your horse ranch—”
He held up a hand. “Stop living in a fantasy world, Gracie. That book has been missing for fifty years and only one chapter and a page have been found. If Lucy finished the book—and that’s a big if—the other chapters might not turn up for another fifty years. Which is why I’m thinking you should just sell the chapter that you found and be done with it.”
Her eyes widened. “I could never do that, Cole. Lucy wanted that book published as a complete novel. I know in my heart that she did.”
“You sound like Emery.” He paused. “Although since we’ve been married she hasn’t brought up the book much at all.”
Gracie understood why. It was hard to discuss Tender Heart with a non-believer. And as much as she loved her brother, he was a non-believer. Tender Heart was just a fictional series to him, written by a selfish woman who hadn’t left a dime of her royalties to her family. But Lucy had left the final book for the Arringtons to find. Gracie was sure of it.
Something over her shoulder caught Cole’s attention, and she didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. His eyes filled with happiness and unconditional love. “I’ll talk to you later, Brat,” he said. Gracie watched as he moved around the tables to the tent opening where Emery stood. He pulled her into his arms as if he couldn’t wait to touch her.
The sight made Gracie happy and a little envious. What would it be like to have a man love you like that? Her gaze swept over the wedding guests, but the cowboy she searched for was nowhere in sight.
The loudly spoken word caused her to swivel in her chair. Her cousin and best friend Becky stood there, looking a little worse for wear. Her golden brown hair was falling out of its up-do and her mascara was smudged beneath her dark Arrington blue eyes. Eyes that twinkled with mischief as she drew back her arm and threw her bouquet like a slow-pitch softball. The flowers hit Gracie right in the chest before she caught them, sending pink rose petals to her lap.
She laughed. “What are you doing?”
Becky slipped into the chair next to her. “What does it look like I’m doing? I just tossed my bouquet.”
Gracie rolled her eyes. “You can’t toss it to only one person, Beck. You have to give all the single ladies a chance to catch it.” She went to hand the bouquet back, but Becky refused to take it.
“I’m not tossing it for Winnie Crawley to catch. I couldn’t live with myself if I helped saddle some poor guy with that woman.” She smiled. “Besides, I want my favorite cousin to be next in line for a wedding.”
Gracie set the bouquet on the table. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Few men want to be stuck with a crip—”
Becky cut her off. “Don’t you dare say it, Gracie Lynn. Not when you just got through walking down the aisle without one stumble.”
“Only because I had a walker to hang on to.”
Becky’s chin turned stubborn. “Two months ago, you were in a wheelchair. I’d say that walking with a walker is a pretty big accomplishment. And in another month, I have no doubt that we’ll toss the walker like I did my bouquet.”
That’s what her physical therapists at the Dallas rehabilitation center, where she’d spent the last few months, believed. In fact, they believed that she should already be walking on her own. But not one of her therapists had ever been thrown from a horse. Or woken up in a hospital unable to move their legs. Or spent months in a wheelchair. They didn’t understand the trauma her body had been through.
Gracie needed the walker. Her legs were still too shaky and undependable. And she worried that they always would be. But before she voiced her fears, Becky’s brand-new husband walked up.
Mason Granger was as tall, dark, and handsome as Cole, but a lot more serious. Gracie couldn’t help but wonder how her vivacious cousin had fallen for such a stoic man who liked to give orders.
He held out a hand. “Dance with me.”
Becky ignored his hand and sent him a sassy look. “I think you forgot the magic word.”
Mason cocked an eyebrow, then smiled brighter than Gracie had ever seen him smile. “Please, Mrs. Granger.”
The sassy look turned to one of adoration as Becky took his hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. She gave him a brief kiss before she turned to Gracie. “Come on and dance with—”
A loud rumble cut her off, and all three of them glanced up. Another rolling rumble had the music stopping and the guests freezing in place as they looked up at the tent ceiling and waited. They didn’t have long to wait. The next peal of thunder was followed by the splatter of raindrops on canvas.
“Yee-haws” filled the tent as the entire crowd moved as one to the opening. It had been a hot, dry summer. They badly needed the rain.
It took Gracie a while to follow. She had been sitting for too long and her leg muscles had tightened up. Terrified that she would fall, she went slowly. By the time she made it outside, the rain was coming down harder, and the entire town was dancing around in celebration.
She stood in the shelter of the tent and watched with a full heart. She’d missed her family and the people of Bliss more then she could ever put into words when she’d been at the rehabilitation center for over two months. This was the only home she’d ever known. The only place she ever wanted to live.
“Baby Girl!” Becky’s brother and Gracie’s cousin Zane came out of the crowd and scooped her up into his arms like she was a toddler, splattering her dress with the rain that dripped from his cowboy hat. Of course, a second later she had more than drips on her when he stepped out in the rain and spun her around. Then he passed her to Cole, who took a turn spinning her before passing her to another person who passed her to another. By the time she was set on her feet, she was soaked to the skin and completely out of breath from laughing.
She stood there for a few moments enjoying the celebration until she realized she didn’t have her walker. She glanced around and found it sitting by the opening of the tent, a good ten feet away. Panic gripped her. She had walked more than ten feet without her walker at the rehabilitation center, but never without parallel bars to grab onto. Nor had she done it in a soaking wet maid of honor’s dress that suddenly felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
But she didn’t have much choice.
The heels of her pink cowboy boots had sunk into the wet ground, and it took all her concentration to lift one foot. After only five steps, her muscles trembled like leaves in a strong wind, but she wasn’t sure if that was from her fear of falling or the stress of walking. Fortunately, she didn’t have that much farther to go. She bit her lip and took another step. Then another. But this time, the toe of her boot came down on the hem of her wet dress. The slight tug was all that was needed to send her sprawling to her hands and knees.
Humiliation welled up like the mud through her fingers. But before she could glance around to see who was watching, strong arms lifted her off the ground and cradled her against a hard chest. Her wet hair covered her face, but she didn’t need to see to know who held her. Her body had grown a sensitivity to only one man.
“I got you, Miss Gracie.”
The words spoken in the familiar deep East Texas twang had her heart thumping overtime and her cheeks burning in mortification. She wanted to hide behind her hair forever, but she finally pushed it out of her face and looked at the man who held her.
Dirk Hadley had gotten even more handsome while she’d been away. He looked taller. His shoulders seemed wider. And the biceps that flexed beneath his wet, transparent tuxedo shirt appeared even bigger. The Texas summer sun had lightened his hair to golden honey and toasted his skin to a rich brown. The tan made his grayish-blue eyes look even grayer and his smile even whiter. He flashed that smile. And just like that, Gracie forgot to breathe.
“You okay, Miss Gracie?” he asked. “You need me to call for Cole? Or maybe the doc?”
She looked away from those mind-altering eyes and shook her head. “I’m more embarrassed than hurt.” She noticed the mud she was getting on his white shirt and lifted her hand from his chest. “I’m getting you all dirty.”
His arms tightened. “A little dirt never hurt anyone. And as for embarrassed, there’s no reason to be. All these yahoos are too busy celebrating to notice you taking a little spill.”
But Dirk had noticed, the one person she didn’t want to see her wallowing around in the mud like a dressed-up sow. Another roll of thunder rumbled through the skies, and the rain turned into a downpour.
“We better get you out of this,” Dirk said.
He carried her around the celebrating townsfolk to the little white chapel where Becky and Mason had just gotten married. It had been built in the late 1800s so the mail-order brides would have a respectable place to wed their cowboys. And for one brief moment, Gracie pretended that she was one of those brides. Not an original bride, but her favorite fictional Tender Heart bride Daisy McNeil. While Gracie was nothing like feisty Daisy, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine Dirk as the charming Tender Heart hero Johnny Earhart.
As Dirk hurried to the chapel, he bent his head so the brim of his cowboy hat shielded her head from the rain. With his face so close, she could see the darker bursts of deep blue in his gray irises and feel the heat of his beer-scented breath on her lips.
Suddenly, she felt lightheaded and woozy, as if she’d downed an entire six-pack of beer instead of two glasses of non-alcoholic punch. And when he shifted her to open the door, her arms tightened around his neck, her fingers brushing the heated skin beneath the damp collar of his shirt. The contrast of her cold skin to his hot had him pausing and glancing down at her.
The smart thing to do would be to remove her hand and look away as if nothing had happened. Unfortunately, her mind was too immersed in her Tender Heart fantasy to be smart. It prompted her to do something stupid.
Something very, very stupid.