Date Published: Nov 2019
Everything looked exactly as Cru Cassidy remembered it. Flat, rocky buttes jutted up to the vibrant blue skies while shadowy, dark ravines carved their way down into the reddish-brown earth. Full junipers and straggly mesquite trees sprang from the rich soil. As did the native grasses that grew as high as wheat along the rusty barbwire fences. They waved in the stiff spring breeze like a big ol’ Texas hello as Cru sped past. Not a soul traveled on the two-lane highway, and he took advantage of the fact by pressing down a little harder on the gas pedal. His Porsche 911 growled like a hungry cougar suddenly released from its cage, and he grinned as the tires ate up the narrow blacktop.
Cru was addicted to speed. The faster things went, the better. He loved fast cars, fast food, and fast women. Of course, sometimes fast could get you into trouble, a lesson Father Stephen at the St. James’s Home for Children had tried, unsuccessfully, to teach him.
The thought of Father Stephen caused his joy to fade. He would miss the old priest. While he’d been too busy with the home to give Cru a lot of attention, he’d always been kind. And Cru knew he hadn’t been an easy kid to be kind to. He glanced at the glove compartment. He didn’t know why he’d brought the letter along. Especially when the person who wrote it meant nothing to him.
He pressed a little harder on the accelerator and cranked up the country satellite station he was listening to. He was so busy singing along with Blake Shelton about the love of a good woman that he missed the turnoff . . . almost. He took it going fifty, fishtailing and kicking up a billow of red dust and gravel.
He laughed and kept the pedal to the metal. But his laughter died when he sped out of the dust cloud and spotted a horse and rider crossing the dirt road. He slammed on the brakes and cranked the steering wheel, but not in time. The car skidded sideways straight toward the wild-eyed horse. Luckily, the black stallion jumped out of the way at the last second. Once the car came to a jarring halt, Cru hopped out of the car to apologize. Apologizing was his forte. He’d had to do it a lot in his life and he’d acquired a way with words. But when he got a good look at the rider, he was struck speechless.
The person struggling to calm the frightened horse was a beautiful woman. Not beautiful like the women Cru dated. Those women were almost too perfect. The better part of their days were spent following crazy diets, sculpting their bodies at a gym, enhancing their features at a makeup counter or with a plastic surgeon, and picking out just the right clothes. This woman’s beauty was natural—like she had been formed from the world around her.
Her wild mass of hair was a mix of the deep burnt red of the clay soil and the glittering golden rays of the sun. Her eyes were the brilliant, unmarred blue of the Texas sky. And her lips the soft blush of the blooming spring flowers.
But her physical features didn’t intrigue him as much as the way she handled the horse. The big black stallion continued to dance and rear, but she didn’t seem concerned. She kept a tight hold on the reins and a secure seat in the saddle. When she spoke, her voice didn’t hold a trace of fear. It was firm, yet soothing.
“It’s okay, Severus. Calm down, baby. I’m right here.”
Cru wasn’t surprised the horse calmed. If he had been beneath her, he would take her instructions too. He never had a problem giving women control in bed. And if he played his cards right, he might just end up between the sheets with this fiery-haired cowgirl.
He pinned on his most charming smile. “Severus? Are we talking the evil Professor Snape from Harry Potter?”
She completely ignored him and continued to focus on the horse. “That’s it.” She stroked the horse’s withers. “Just relax. You can’t let some irresponsible jerk get you upset.”
Irresponsible jerk? Cru’s smile got even bigger. He liked feisty women. He took off his new Resistol straw cowboy hat and held it over his heart. “You’re absolutely right, ma’am. I had no business taking that turn so fast. And I’m truly sorry for upsetting your villainous horse.”
She dismounted in one graceful movement and picked up a battered cowboy hat that looked like it had seen better days. She dusted it off on her leg and strode toward him, her sky-blue eyes snapping with temper.
“If you’d read the entire series, you’d know that Severus wasn’t a villain,” she said. “He was a misunderstood hero who—” She cut off and those eyes widened with surprise. Cru smiled. After years of striking women speechless, he’d figured out that females liked his looks. Which worked out well for him because he liked females.
Since she couldn’t seem to speak, he did. “I didn’t read the series, but I did see the movies. While Snape was only doing what Dumbledore asked him to, he was still a real asshole to Harry. Not that Harry is my favorite character, mind you. The kid is a little too morose for me. I loved the Weasley twins. Now those two knew how to enjoy life.”
As he talked, he took in every one of her features: the high forehead, the delicately arched eyebrows, the cute nose with its sprinkle of freckles, the stubborn chin, and the bowed mouth that was the prettiest pink he’d ever seen. Although the full lips looked a little chapped and he suddenly had the strong desire to give them moisture . . . with his mouth. Instead, he lifted a finger and brushed off the streak of dirt on her cheek. “You have a little—” Before he could finish, she jerked away and stepped back.
“Don’t touch me, Cru Cassidy. Don’t ever touch me again.”
She tugged on her hat and swung back up on her horse before he could get over the shock that she knew his name.
“Wait! How do you know me?”
She wheeled the horse in the opposite direction. “You figure it out.” She made a clicking sound and the animal responded better than Cru’s Porsche. He had to jump out of the way as the horse took off.
He stood there watching that flame of fiery hair grow smaller and smaller and tried to figure out where he’d met the woman and how he had pissed her off. He usually didn’t piss women off. They would get upset when he ended things. But he always talked his way out of any long-lasting hurt feelings—mostly because he never made promises he had no intentions of keeping. He was out for a good time and a good time only. And he always made that perfectly clear.
As he climbed back in his car and continued down the road, he puzzled over how he knew the redhead. He’d only spent one summer in this area when he was fifteen. And the only girl he could remember from that summer was a pretty blonde with a great set of tits. Ava. No, Evie. Evie Gardener.
Evie had been sexy as hell and he’d wanted to touch her phenomenal boobs in a bad way. He spent most of his summer working his charms on her. But he’d never tried to charm a feisty redhead. He would’ve remembered that.
He reached the fork in the road and took the left tine. After only half a mile, he saw the entrance to the ranch. He wasn’t a sentimental type of guy. He’d learned long ago that getting attached to anything only caused unnecessary pain. But he couldn’t help the twinge of something that felt a lot like sentimentally when he saw the rusty metal sign with the two bucking broncos on either side of the Double Diamond Ranch.
Fifteen years earlier, he had felt only anger when he’d seen the sign. He’d been pissed about having to stay on a boys’ ranch in the middle of nowhere when he could’ve spent the summer in Dallas with all his friends. But Father Stephen had thought it would be good for Cru to get away from the orphanage for a few months. Or maybe the Father just needed a break from Cru.
Once Father Stephen had driven under the entrance to the ranch, Cru had apologized for stealing money out of the collection plate and smoking a joint in the confessional and streaking naked through the nuns’ quarters. But to no avail. The father had driven right up to the sprawling ranch house and dropped him off with the two brothers who ran the place, with only a pat on the shoulder and a “God be with you” before he hopped back in the parish Oldsmobile and took off as if the hounds of hell were after him.
Back then, Cru probably had acted like a hound from hell. And he hadn’t really changed that much.
But the ranch had.
As he pulled up to the sprawling house, he was saddened to see the place in such disrepair. The front porch sagged, shingles were missing from the roof, and the paint on the siding was peeling and blistered from the sun. The barn looked just as pathetic. And what happened to the corral? All that was left were a few fence posts and a field of weeds.
He turned off the engine and got out, feeling completely blindsided by the state of the ranch. The Double Diamond had once been a thriving business, with a barn filled with horses and pastures filled with cattle. Inviting troubled teenagers here for the summer hadn’t been a moneymaking project as much as a charitable act for the two brothers. They’d had a rough childhood and were going down a troubled path when an old rodeo cowboy had taken them under his wing. They had wanted to do the same for other boys who were struggling to find their way. Cru had to admit he’d learned a lot the one summer he’d spent there and thought about the two old cowboys often. He liked picturing them riding and roping and swapping rodeo stories around an open fire. Now, even the old fire pit was gone.
A slamming screen door had him turning to the house. The older brother, Chester, stood on the porch holding a double barrel shotgun. While the rest of the ranch looked completely different, Chester had changed very little. His skin still looked like the leather of a beat-up football and he still sported a handlebar mustache that drooped down past his chin—although now it was as white as the hair on his head. He was a small man, but wiry and strong. This was proven as he lifted the shotgun with one hand and pointed it at Cru.
“You got bid-ness here?”
He didn’t know why the gruffly spoken words made his chest tighten. He ignored the feeling and smiled. “I was wondering if you had room for a delinquent kid.”
“We don’t take in boys no more. We only did it one summer before Hank Gardener and the townsfolk put a stop to it. Assholes.” He spit out a stream of chewing tobacco that landed inches from Cru’s boots.
Cru had known he and the other boys were the first group to come to the Double Diamond. He hadn’t known they were the last. But it made sense. While Chester and Lucas had kept them in line most the time, there had been a few incidences in town and with the owner of the neighboring ranch.
“We were a little ornery that summer,” he said.
Chester squinted at him, then shifted the gun to his other hand and pulled out a pair of glasses from the front pocket of his wrinkled western shirt. Once he had them on, he still had to take a few steps closer before he recognized Cru.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. If it ain’t Cru Cassidy.” He leaned the shotgun against the house and carefully made his way down the porch steps. The way he moved made Cru realize that, although he looked the same, Chester had gotten older.
“How are you, boy?” Chester thumped him on the shoulder. “You’re a little sturdier than the skinny kid I remember.”
“I’m good. How are you?”
Chester stared at him, his eyes magnified by the thick lenses. “My eyes ain’t what they used to be. The doc says I need cataract surgery, but I ain’t going under the knife for any young know-it-all doc.” That was so like Chester. He had always been the stubborn one. The one who didn’t listen to anybody and lived by his own set of rules.
Cru grinned. “I don’t think they use a knife. I think it’s a little more high-tech than that.”
“High-tech. Hhmmph. That’s even worse. I’m not having some space-age beam of destruction pointed at my eyes.” Chester studied him. “So what are you doing in these parts? Last I heard you were selling cars in Dallas.”
“I did sell cars for a while in Dallas. And in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Galveston. I’m what you call a traveling car salesman.”
Chester snorted. “You always were an antsy kid.”
It was the truth. Cru never could sit still. The nuns at the orphanage had been convinced he had an attention deficit disorder. And he probably did. But the way he’d felt the last two months was more than just antsy. Even when he was traveling, negotiating a deal on a car, or having wild sex with a beautiful woman, he felt like something just wasn’t right. He probably could’ve ignored the feeling—he was good at ignoring feelings—if the chest pains hadn’t started.
Worried he had a heart condition; he’d gone to see a doctor. But he’d passed all the tests with flying colors. So he’d decided it was Texas that was making him feel restless. He’d lived here for far too long. He needed to see more of the country. More of the world. He’d planned to start with California where the sand was as hot as the women. But then he’d spotted a road sign for Simple, Texas. The next thing he knew he was heading toward the Double Diamond Ranch.
“Well, I’m glad you stopped by to see a couple of old cowboys,” Chester said. “Grab your gear and come on inside. I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”
Chester made the worst coffee this side of the Pecos and tried to pawn it off on everyone. When he was fifteen, Cru had drunk it without complaint to prove he was tough enough to handle strong black coffee that would curl your toes. Now he was willing to give up his pride and save the lining of his stomach.
“I’ll pass on the coffee,” he said. “I can’t stay long. I’m on my way to California . . . to see a sick friend.”
The disappointment on Chester’s face was easy to read, and Cru started to wonder if stopping by had been a good idea. He didn’t need to add guilt to his restlessness. Thankfully, Chester made light of it.
“No problem. All the spare rooms are filled with junk that Lucas has collected over the years anyway. I’ve never met such a hoarder in all my born days.” He headed to the house and Cru hurried to help him up the steps, but he should’ve known better. Chester immediately swatted his hand away. “I’m not some feeble old man who needs help up a few stairs.” But even as he said the words, he missed the first step and would’ve fallen if Cru hadn’t steadied him.
Chester jerked off his glasses and crammed them in his shirt pocket. “Damn things. Can’t see with them and can’t see without them.”
While the outside of the house looked different, the inside of the house looked much the same. The front entryway still held a bunch of hooks for coats and cowboy hats and a place beneath to store your boots. Since it was late March, Cru wasn’t wearing a coat, but he put his hat on a hook, and then toed off his cowboy boots.
If on cue, Lucas’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “You better not be tracking horse shit on my floors, Chester! Now hurry up. Lunch is almost ready.”
Chester cringed. “Lord help us.”
Cru was confused by Chester’s remark. Lucas had always been an amazing cook. Cru had never eaten so well as when he’d stayed at the ranch. Lucas’s meals were the kind that stuck to your ribs: buckwheat flapjacks piled high with real maple syrup and sausage or bacon on the side, thick porterhouse steaks straight off the cow with steaming baked potatoes and a side of brown sugar baked beans, and heaping bowls of Lucas’s famous beef chili with thick slabs of cornbread covered in melting honey butter. Cru’s mouth watered just thinking about all the meals he’d had there.
But when he walked into the kitchen, the smell that hit him didn’t make his mouth water. It made him a little nauseous. Whatever was cooking smelled like burnt rubber. He glanced around and became even more confused. Lucas had always kept his kitchen immaculate, but now it looked like a class of kindergarteners had been cooking in it. There were pots and pans piled high in the sink, an inch of grease and spatter on the stove, and boxes and bottles of cooking ingredients cluttered the counter.
And Lucas looked even worse.
When Cru had spent the summer there, Lucas had always been clean-shaven, without a hair on his head out of place. His western shirts and Wranglers had been pressed to perfection and his boots polished to a mirrored gleam. Now, he looked like he’d just crawled out of bed. His hair was messed, his jaw unshaven, and his shirt wrinkled. But what concerned Cru the most was the way he limped over to the refrigerator.
When he spotted Cru, he froze. A big smile split his face. “Cru Cassidy.” He limped over and pulled Cru into a tight hug. “Ain’t you a sight for sore—”
The front screen door slammed, cutting him off and the fiery redhead strode into the kitchen. She didn’t look surprised to see Cru there. Just annoyed. But the annoyance drained from her pretty blue eyes when she turned them to Lucas and Chester. Her face softened with a smile that changed her from beautiful to breathtaking. There was something familiar about the smile. He did know her. Or, at least, her smile.
“How are my two favorite cowboys today?” She walked over and kissed Chester on the cheek before doing the same to Lucas and handing him a pharmacy bag. “Here’s the muscle ointment you asked for. But I still think you should see a doctor.” She glanced down at his ankle. “And until you do, you shouldn’t be walking on it.”
Lucas took the bag. “It’s just a little ol’ sprain. Don’t you worry about this old man. Especially now that one of our boys is back.” He glanced at Cru. “You remember Penny Gardener, don’t you, Cru?”
It took a moment for the name to register. When it did, his eyes widened with surprise. He remembered the skinny little girl with braces who had trailed around after him all summer with adoring eyes. He just hadn’t thought she’d grow into a sexy cowgirl who looked at him like he’d just crawled from beneath a rock.
“You’re Evie’s little sister?” he said. “The one who had the crush on me?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Those blue eyes flashed with temper. “That was before I knew what a jackass you were.” She turned on a boot heel and walked out.
As soon as the screen door slammed behind her, Chester and Lucas looked at each other and laughed before Chester lifted a white bushy eyebrow at Cru. “I’d say the crush is over.” (Taming a Texas Bad Boy by Katie Lane)