Date Published: Jan 2019
May in West Texas was as wild as a March hare. Dust devils swirled amid the mesquite like mini tornadoes, and tumbleweeds bounced across the two-lane highway like a bunch of prickly playground balls. The wind was so strong that Austin Reeves could feel the pull of the steering wheel as the gusts tried to push his half-ton pickup off the highway.
He smiled. Damn, it was good to be home.
San Diego weather was almost too nice. There were no extremes. Wind was soft breezes. Rain a gentle drizzle. Sunshine a mild warmth. In Texas, the elements were more aggressive and real. You could feel the grainy grit of the wind. The driving force of the rain. And the scorching heat of the sun.
When he was in high school, Austin had played football in all types of Texas weather. Coach Slate Calhoun had taught him early on that going up against the elements was just part of the game. You couldn’t fall apart because the wind snatched the ball from your hand during a third down. Or the rain caused you to slip and fumble. Or sweat in your eyes caused you to throw an interception. As a football player, making allowances for the weather was part of your job. And Austin Reeves was a football player.
A world champion football player.
He glanced down at his hand on the steering wheel and the multi-diamond Super Bowl ring that sparkled in the sun. He felt a little weird wearing it. He wasn’t a flashy kind of guy. His truck was an ordinary blue. His cowboy boots a basic brown. And his house in San Diego a modest three-bedroom stucco. The only flashy things in his life were his Super Bowl ring and his fiancée.
Fiancée. It was still hard to believe that in a month he would be getting married. Suzette Marquette had been the star of a hit teen series on the Disney Channel and, now in her mid-twenties, was trying to make it on the big screen. Which was how she and Austin had met.
Her first big role was a romantic comedy about a young woman who inherits her father’s football team and falls in love with the star quarterback. Suzette had wanted to do research for her role. So her agent had gotten in touch with Austin’s agent and they had set up a time for the two to meet. Austin wouldn’t call it love at first sight. More like lust. Suzette was damned good-looking, and despite her innocent television persona, she wasn’t one to beat around the bush where sex was concerned. She wasted no time getting Austin into bed, or letting him know that she didn’t like clingy men. Which worked out well for him. Football took a majority of his time and had ruined more than one relationship. With Suzette, she had her acting, so there were no hard feelings when he couldn’t attend one of her Hollywood events. Or when she couldn’t attend his games. Although it would’ve been nice if she could’ve come to Bramble with him. He’d really wanted her to be part of his homecoming.
He didn’t like to brag, but he was somewhat of a hometown hero. He’d helped win the state football championship three years running and was the only quarterback from Bramble High to be drafted in the first round of the NFL. He glanced down at the large Super Bowl ring. And now he was bringing home the ultimate football trophy.
Yep, the town was sure going to be excited to see him.
Which explained why he hadn’t told them he was coming. He didn’t want them making a big fuss, especially when his wedding was going to be enough of a fuss. There was no way the town was prepared for a huge Hollywood wedding. Austin wasn’t sure he was prepared either.
He hadn’t wanted a big wedding. Something simple would’ve been fine with him. But Suzette’s publicist felt an over-the-top wedding would go perfect with the release of Suzette’s romantic football comedy. And since Austin wanted the movie to be a success, he’d agreed to let the studio hire a wedding planner and turn his wedding into a three-ring circus.
But he’d put his boot down when they wanted the wedding to be at some snobby resort in California. If he had to suffer through a big wedding, he wanted to do it in his hometown. A hometown that would be devastated if their favorite son got married somewhere other than Bramble. Besides, he wanted Suzette to get to meet the people of the town and fall in love with them like he had.
At that exact moment, a sign came into view that made his heart swell and a smile tip his lips. Welcome to Bramble. Home of the State Champion Bulldogs and NFL Quarterback—the smile wilted as he blinked at the graffiti sprayed over his name.
A siren pulled his attention away from the sign to his rearview mirror. A sheriff’s car was gaining on him with lights flashing and siren blaring. Since Austin was going over the speed limit, he might’ve been worried if he hadn’t recognized the deputy sitting behind the wheel.
Deputy Kenny Gene was one of Austin’s biggest fans and would be happier than a rookie on game day to see him. Especially when Austin had brought him the football he’d scored the Super Bowl winning touchdown with. The thought of how thrilled Kenny would be with the gift made Austin feel a little better about the vandalized sign. Although he planned to talk to Mayor Hope Lomax about fixing it as soon as he got into town.
He quickly pulled to the shoulder of the highway and watched in his side mirror as Kenny Gene stepped out of his patrol car. The deputy had put on a little weight since Austin had last seen him. Since it was a known fact that his wife Twyla wasn’t much of a cook, it probably had more to do with all the free chicken fried steak he received at Josephine’s Diner. Josephine had always believed in supplying good meals to Bramble’s local heroes. After winning a big game, Austin had gotten more than his fair share of free chicken fried steak. And he figured since he’d just won the biggest game, he was in for one amazing dinner.
With his stomach grumbling, he rolled down his window, then reached for the cowboy hat on the dash. The hat had been a gift from Coach Calhoun, and even though it was in pretty pathetic state—the brim curled and misshapen, the hatband sweat stained, and the crown sporting a hole in the straw the size of a silver dollar—Austin couldn’t seem to give it up. It held too many memories.
He pulled the battered hat low on his head as he waited for Kenny Gene to approach. The deputy still had more gadgets than Batman dangling from his belt: handcuffs, pepper spray, baton, a Scooby Doo flashlight, and a holster and gun. Seeing the gun, Austin wondered if Sheriff Hicks allowed Kenny to keep it loaded. Kenny was as hardworking, loyal, and honest as the day was long, but he was a few screws short of a hardware store. This was demonstrated when he tried to write down Austin’s license plate number.
First, he couldn’t locate his pen, and when he finally found it behind his ear, he spent five minutes shaking it, trying to get it to work. Then the wind caught his hat and blew it across the highway. And by the time he retrieved it from a mesquite bush, he’d lost his pen again. While he was bent over looking under the truck, Austin grabbed a pen from his console and held it out the window. Although it took him tapping it against the side mirror before Kenny noticed and walked up to the window.
Austin kept his head tipped down and his cowboy hat pulled low. “Is there a problem, officer?”
Kenny took the pen and pulled out his citation pad. “I don’t know how you folks drive in Callie-forn-i-a, but here in Texas, we don’t race around like a cat with its tail on fire.” He touched the tip of the pen to his tongue before he started writing.
Austin bit back a smile and thickened his Texas twang. “I’m shore sorry about that, officer. I guess I was in a hurry to get to Bramble.”
Kenny stopped writing out the ticket. “You have kin in Bramble?”
“Well, I guess that depends on what you consider kin. My grandparents and mama moved away a few years back so most folks would say that I don’t have any kin left at all. But I’ve always been a firm believer that kin is just another word for people who have loved and supported you over the years. And that being the case, I have lots of kin in Bramble.” He pushed up his cowboy hat and smiled brightly at Kenny Gene. “Hey there, Kenny.”
Kenny’s mouth dropped open for a second before a big smile split his face. “Why, hot damn!” He slapped the roof of the truck. “If it ain’t Austin Reeves. I didn’t think you was comin’ back so soon. Especially after the Super Bowl win and you gettin’—” Just that quickly, his smile dropped to be replaced with a frown that almost touched his chin. Before Austin could ask what was wrong, Kenny filled out the ticket, ripped it off the pad, and rammed it in the window.
“Kin wouldn’t do what you done, Austin Reeves.” Kenny whirled on a boot heel, his gadgets banging the truck door as he stomped back to his car. Only seconds later, he whipped the car around in a U-turn and headed off in the opposite direction while Austin sat there stunned.
What the hell was going on?
He glanced back at the sign for a few seconds before he took a deep breath and collected his thoughts. The graffiti was no big deal. All towns had teenagers running around doing stupid things. And Kenny being mad wasn’t unusual either. A lot of people had gotten upset at Austin since he’d become famous. Kenny was probably just mad because Austin hadn’t responded to one of his tweets or Instagram posts.
Austin started the truck and pulled back onto the highway. Once he got into Bramble, he’d finally get the welcome he’d been looking forward to. And maybe that was it. Maybe the townsfolk had figured out he would be coming back and set up the sign and Kenny as a ruse to distract Austin while they got a really big welcome pulled together.
But when he rolled into town there weren’t any bands or parades or banners. In fact, Tyler Jones at the gas station wouldn’t even come out when Austin pulled in for gas. And when Austin stopped at the town hall to tell the mayor about the graffiti, he was rudely informed by the ex-mayor, Harley Sutter, that Hope and her husband Colt were out of town at their daughter Daffodil’s equestrian competition.
From there things only got worse: Rossie Owens at Bootlegger’s Bar refused to serve him a beer. And before he could even step foot inside Josephine’s Diner for his free chicken fried steak dinner, the waitress Rachel Dean locked the door and flipped over the closed sign.
At that point, Austin was starting to lose his temper. Didn’t anyone in this crazy town know how to greet a Super Bowl Champion?
Slapping his hat against his thigh, he whirled away from the diner’s door. He had almost made it back to his truck when a loud rumble had him looking down Main Street. A monster truck drove down the middle of the white line, its deep-treaded tires eating up the asphalt and its chrome grill gleaming in the late sun. On either side of the cab, two huge flags flapped in the stiff wind.
Austin covered his heart with his hat. Not only for the stars and stripes and the Texas state flag, but also for the truck that was pretty much the mascot for Bramble.
Bubba, or Billy as folks called him now, was one of the coolest guys in town, and his big ol’ monster truck only added to his coolness Billy and his brothers owned the oil and gas company that kept Bramble on the map, and if anyone would know why the crazy town was giving Austin the cold shoulder, Billy would.
Austin quickly hopped in his truck, but by the time he pulled out of the parking lot, the monster truck had disappeared. Figuring Billy must’ve turn off on one of the side streets, Austin trolled the neighborhood until he found the truck parked in front of a white picket-fence house that had once belonged to the town librarian.
It was a pretty house. The siding was painted a powder blue and the trim and fence white. And with the navy blue door and gold flowers blooming along the porch, it was the exact colors of Austin’s San Diego Chargers jerseys. All it needed was a number 12 for the address.
He hopped from his truck and headed for the front gate. It got stuck, but Austin knew how to jiggle it just so to get it to open. On the porch there were more pots of gold flowers and a swing that held two gold throw pillows with blue stripes. He knocked on the navy door, and then stepped back to wait. He had just started to get pissed that everyone in town was ignoring him when he heard the music. It was a country song that he recognized immediately, a song about a woman who wanted to kiss another woman because her lips tasted like some guy. His teammates thought it was as sexy as hell, but Austin just thought it was kind of creepy. It certainly didn’t seem like the type of song Billy Cates would listen to.
Curious, he walked down the porch steps and followed the music around the side of the house to an open window. When he peeked in that window, his jaw dropped and his breath rushed out like he’d just been driven to the ground by a three-hundred-pound tackle.
A woman stood with her back to the window wearing nothing but sexy red cowboy boots and an itty-bitty thong. The thin band of pink material ran across her lower back and disappeared between two perfect butt cheeks that made Austin’s fingers twitch with the strong desire to palm the plump flesh just like he palmed a football. Then he wanted to encircle the trim waist to see if he could easily span it with his hands before he tiptoed his fingers up her spine and into the mass of jet-black hair. Hair that hung like a river of midnight down her back. He imagined fisting his hands in the silky strands and tugging until her sweet ass was snugged tight against his rock hard—
The sound brought him out of his fantasy, and he finally noticed the riding crop the woman held in her hand. She brought it back and then whipped it forward with so much force it whistled before landing with another smack that made Austin cringe.
“Take that, Miss Suzie Q!” The cowgirl dominatrix yelled. Then she continued her assault, the crop landing with vicious force. He would’ve intervened if Miss Suzie Q had been voicing any objections. But not one peep came from the bed. Which meant that Austin needed to mind his own business and leave. He had just turned to do that when he came face to face with the woman next door.
Wilma Tate stood in her yard wearing a huge gardening hat with a felt beehive sewn to the brim. Out of the hive three little bees bounced on wires as she yelled for her husband.
“Elmer! Get out here and whup this pervert that’s peeking in Miss Cates’ window!”
Miss Cates? Austin’s gaze snapped back to the bedroom. The woman had turned and was now staring at him in horror. It had been awhile since he’d seen her. Gone were the acne, glasses, and skinny body. Now there was nothing but flushed smooth skin, clear grayish-blue eyes, and a full-figured body that made his mouth dry. So dry that he could only get out one word.
“Mia?” (My Big Fat Texas Wedding by Katie Lane)