Date Published: Jan 2020
“I thought big city girls hot waxed from their eyebrows to their toes . . . including their womanly petals.”
Evie Gardener struggled to hold back her laughter at Raynelle Coffman’s inappropriate comment. Like everyone in Simple, Texas, Raynelle never minced words. She believed in saying what she thought as soon as it popped into her head, even if she was working the cash register at the Simple Market.
Ignoring the line of people leaning closer to hear her reply, Evie continued unloading her cart. “Abilene isn’t really that big, Raynelle. It’s only a little over a hundred thousand people.” Which was big when compared to the little over five hundred people who lived in Simple. Five hundred who would no doubt hear all about this conversation by suppertime.
“So you’re saying you don’t wax down there?” Raynelle slid the razor that had brought up the topic over the scanner. Evie wanted to ignore the question, but she knew if she did, the people standing in line would take that as confirmation and the gossip would be even worse. It was the one thing she didn’t miss about living in a small town. Probably because she’d been the brunt of gossip for most her life.
In Abilene, she was just a single mom who worked as a loan officer at a bank. Here in Simple, she was Evie Gardener, who’d had a string of bad luck. Bless her heart. She fell off a horse and broke her arm when she was five, dropped her baton five times in the twirling contest when she was ten, lost her mother from heart disease when she was thirteen, and got knocked up by some foreigner from Spain when she was fifteen. Now she lived in a big city and was waxing her womanly petals. Lord have mercy.
Evie finished unloading her cart and decided to answer truthfully. “Are you kidding, Ray? With a full-time job and a teenage son, I don’t have time to wax anything—not even my car or my floors.”
Raynelle laughed. “I hear you, sister. Raising boys is one tough job—a never-ending job if Clint turns out anything like my Brandon. Of course, that’s my own fault. I should’ve kicked that lazy boy out when he turned twenty-one. Or at least made him do his own laundry and cooking. I guess I’m just a soft-touch where my baby is concerned.”
Evie understood completely. Clint was her baby too. The precious boy who could brighten her day with just one smile. Of course, lately he hadn’t been doing much brightening. Her joyful little boy who had loved his mama to the moon and back had turned into an angsty, belligerent teenager who rarely shared a smile or talked with her—probably because she couldn’t help turning every conversation into a lecture.
But it was hard not to lecture a kid who refused to keep his room clean or do his homework or stay away from troublemakers. Since Clint entered high school, his grades had plummeted, he’d been arrested for drinking beer in the neighborhood park, and just recently he’d been given school detention for smoking on campus. He should be on restriction until the cows came home. Instead, he had talked her into letting him spend the summer on the Gardener Ranch with her daddy.
She had to be the worst pushover ever. Closely followed by Raynelle.
“Now my son has brought home his girlfriend to live with us. And that lazy girl don’t do laundry or cook either.“ Raynelle held up a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. “What are all these snacks for, honey? You plannin’ on having an engagement party for your little sister? Everyone in town is excited about Penny marrying that cute Cru Cassidy.”
Every muscle in Evie’s body tightened. Penny would marry Cru over her dead body. Her sister wasn’t ready for marriage. She was too young and naïve. Having spent most of her life under the thumb of their domineering father, she had rarely left the ranch or dated. She was sweet and innocent and believed in the goodness of people. Evie had once believed in the goodness of people too, but she knew better now. And she wasn’t about to let her little sister marry a wild Double Diamond boy and end up getting her heart broken.
“There will be no engagement party,” she said adamantly. “These snacks are for Clint while he’s staying at the Gardener Ranch. The boy can eat his weight in Doritos.”
Raynelle seemed a little surprised by the no engagement comment, but she recovered quickly and scanned the chips. “I heard Clint was helpin’ your daddy this summer. It’s nice he’ll get to spend some time with his grandfather.”
Evie didn’t think spending time with her father was nice, but obviously Clint did. As soon as she pulled up to the ranch, he’d hopped out and greeted his grandfather with a big hug. And Daddy had looked just as happy to see him. He’d thumped him on the back and told him all about the appaloosa horse he had gotten for him. Evie, on the other hand, had only gotten a lecture about not calling to say they’d be late. Of course, she hadn’t expected anything different. She and her father were like dynamite and a lit match. Any time they were together, things usually blew up.
Which is why she’d moved away. But she couldn’t deny her son a relationship with his grandfather. Or time spent on the Gardener Ranch. Some of her happiest memories were of living at the ranch. Of course, that was when her mother had been alive to soften her father’s stubborn nature.
“You plannin’ on staying at the ranch with Clint?” Raynelle asked.
“No, I’m going to stay a few days in town with my sister before I head home.”
Raynelle shook her head sadly. “I was sure sorry to hear about your daddy and Penny having that big fight and her moving out. Both of you girls should be staying at your home instead of at Dixon’s Boardinghouse.” Everyone in line who was listening nodded in agreement.
Rather than air the family dirty laundry, Evie tried to lighten the conversation. “But then I wouldn’t get to see you, Ray.”
Raynelle got a big smile on her face. “Well, there is that.”
After Evie paid for her groceries, she carried the bags out to her Camry. She’d bought the Camry used ten years ago and it had reached its expiration date. The air conditioner made a strange squealing sound if you ran it too high, two of the windows wouldn’t roll down, and the fuel gauge was broken so she had to guess at when she needed to get gas. She just hated to spend money on a new car when there were so many other things to spend it on.
She put her groceries in the trunk. Since she hadn’t bought anything perishable, she didn’t have to worry about driving them out to the ranch today. She would take them to Clint tomorrow and check to make sure her son still wanted to stay. A day with her grumpy father might be all he needed to change his mind. But right now, she wasn’t worried about Clint changing his mind as much as her sister changing hers.
Dixon’s Boardinghouse was located on the edge of town. The big plantation-style mansion sat back from the main highway and was surrounded by green lawn and shady oak trees. The house was three stories tall, including the attic rooms, and had been built in the 1800s by a wealthy cattleman for his new bride. The woman had loved the house, but hated the dismal Texas town it was in and had taken the first train she could get back to Chicago.
Not wanting to ruin his wedding plans, Dale Dixon had asked his Cherokee housekeeper to take her place. The marriage had turned out to be an affair of the heart and the couple had had seven children together. Unfortunately, six of those kids had greedily used up all the money and run the ranch into the ground. When the parents passed, all that was left was the house that they willed to the seventh child. With no way to pay for its upkeep, she’d turned it into a boardinghouse. It had been a boardinghouse ever since—except for a short time during the oil boom of the early 1900s when it had been turned into a house of ill repute. Something that Reba Dixon’s great-aunt, Miss Gertie, refused to talk about.
The tourists who stayed at the hotel loved the history of the boardinghouse as much as they loved sitting on the wide wraparound porch with tall glasses of mint juleps. As Evie climbed the steps, she smiled at the older couple sitting in the white rocking chairs.
“It looks like y’all are having a good afternoon. Nothing like sitting in the shade on a hot Texas day with one of Reba’s special mint juleps.” She glanced over at the man sitting on the other side of the porch. His cowboy boots were propped on the railing and his black Stetson cowboy hat rested at an angle over his face. But it was easy to tell by his fisted hands that he was awake and no doubt ticked she’d disrupted his sleep.
“Pardon me,” she said. “My mama always said I could call hogs to supper all the way from Oklahoma.” The polite thing would’ve been for the cowboy to at least acknowledge her apology with a nod. Instead, his hands fisted even tighter. Obviously, he wasn’t from around there. She turned away and smiled at the couple. “Y’all enjoy your stay in Simple.” She opened the screen door and then purposely let it slam shut behind her, hoping it really ticked off the rude cowboy.
Once inside the boardinghouse, she forgot about the man and looked around for Reba. She should’ve known she’d find her in the kitchen. Reba loved to cook. Which was a good thing since she had plenty of it to do.
“Good Lord, there must be enough chicken potpies to feed the entire state of Texas,” she said as she entered the kitchen.
Reba whirled from the stove and a bright smile lit her face. “Evie!” She hurried over and pulled her in for a tight hug. Reba had always been the best hugger, her body as soft as her heart.
“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.” Reba drew back and her brow wrinkled with concern. “Okay, what’s wrong? I know that troubled look. Is it Clint?”
“It’s not Clint this time. This time, I’m more worried about Penny. I guess you heard about her hooking up with Cru Cassidy.”
“I sure did. She’s been staying here in the garden room.”
“With or without Cru?”
“You know my aunt Gertie wouldn’t let any unmarried couples stay here on her watch.” Reba paused. “But that doesn’t mean that a slick cowboy couldn’t slip through the garden doors if he had a hankerin’.”
Evie gritted her teeth. “And I’m sure Cru has done plenty of slippin’. Are they here now?” If they were, Cru Cassidy was about to get a piece of her mind. And Penny too for being so gullible. Unfortunately, Reba shook her head.
“They left together early this morning. I guess he found a used house trailer that he wants to buy until they can build a house.”
“My sister is not going to move into a house trailer!”
Reba tipped her head. “Lots of good folks live in house trailers, Evie.”
“I have nothing against trailers. What I meant is that Penny’s not living anywhere with Cru Cassidy.”
Reba’s studied her for a moment before she glanced back at the simmering gravy on the stove. “Let me get this chicken filling into the rest of the pie shells and then we can get out of this hot kitchen and have us a good talk.”
Evie grabbed an apron and helped her by adding the crust to the top of each pie and crimping the edges. In a short time, they had the potpies in the commercial-sized oven and were sitting in a canopied swing in Reba’s beautiful back garden with big glasses of sweet tea.
“Now do you want to explain why you’re so unhappy about Penny falling in love?” Reba asked.
“I want Penny to find someone to love. But true love doesn’t happen when you only know a person for a few months. That’s called lust. And you can’t build a good relationship on lust.”
“According to what Penny says, they’ve known each other since they were thirteen and fifteen. Cru was one of the troubled boys who stayed at the Double Diamond Ranch.”
“I know exactly who Cru Cassidy is. And trouble is the perfect word for all the boys Chester and Lucas took in.”
“Which is why I’m upset as heck my mother sent me to fat camp and I missed out on all those delicious-sounding delinquent boys.”
“Believe me, you didn’t miss anything.”
Reba took the lemon slice off the rim of her glass and squeezed it into her tea. “I don’t know if Cru is any example of the boys who spent the summer there. Besides being faint-worthy in the looks department, he’s charming, funny, and a true gentlemen. He saw me starting up the lawn mower the other day and insisted on mowing the entire acre. He looks at Penny like she not only hung the moon but also all the stars. He even won over Aunt Gertie and you know how tough she is to win over.”
Evie set her glass on the table next to her. “That’s exactly why the Double Diamond boys are so dangerous. They come off as perfectly harmless. Like they’re these misunderstood boys who didn’t have a fair shake in life. But every single one of those boys deserved to be at a boys’ ranch for the summer. Every one is a wolf in sheep’s clothing just waiting to pounce. And I’m not going to let my little sister become a wolf’s supper.”
Reba smiled. “I wouldn’t mind being a wolf’s supper. I’ve always liked my men a little ravenous.” She stood. “Speaking of supper, I need to check the potpies and get the salad made.”
“I’ll help you.” Evie started to get up, but Reba waved her off.
“It won’t take me any time. You sit right here and enjoy the garden.”
It was a beautiful garden—if not a little chaotic. There were flowers and plants of every variety growing with no rhyme or reason. Amid the profusion of color and greenery were gray stone benches, bubbling fountains, statues of garden fairies . . . and a little golden rabbit that looked almost lifelike. When it twitched its tiny black nose, Evie realized that it was alive. The rabbit stared at her with big brown eyes for just a second before it disappeared behind a bush. The big pink roses on the bush reminded Evie of her mother’s rose garden.
Helen Marie Gardener had married into the right name. Her green thumb had been legendary and won her more than a few blue ribbons at the county fair. No flower could die when showered with her mother’s love and attention. She’d showered the same love and attention on her two daughters and they had grown and thrived—until their beloved gardening mother had died.
Then it was like the sun had left the garden and the water had all dried up. Like her mother’s roses, Evie had wanted to shrivel up and die too. But she couldn’t. Not when she had a little sister to care for. So she’d pushed down her grief and become Penny’s surrogate mother.
And she wasn’t done with her job yet.
She pulled her cellphone out of her purse and glanced at the time. It was close to five o’clock. Surely Penny would be back by now. Evie got up and headed along the path that led to the garden room. She weaved her way through the overgrown flowers, pushing lilac bushes and drooping sunflowers out of the way as she went. Stepping around a rosemary plant that had to be five feet wide, she stopped in her tracks.
A man lay in the hammock strung between two flowering mimosa trees. It was the same man from the front porch. His booted feet were crossed at the ankles, his hands rested on his stomach, and his black cowboy hat covered his face. After she slammed the screen door, he must’ve decided the garden would be a quieter place for a nap.
She didn’t usually pay much attention to men’s bodies. She was too busy working and raising a son to let a few well-placed muscles turn her head. But this man didn’t just have a few well-placed muscles. Every muscle seemed to be exactly where it should be.
Broad shoulders, a defined chest, and knotted biceps filled out his black t-shirt like it had been painted on. His flat stomach made Evie wish she’d gotten the salad instead of the chicken nuggets when she and Clint had stopped for lunch, and his long, lean legs made her wish she’d brought her iced tea with her. Her mouth felt suddenly dry. It got even drier when her gaze settled on the bulge beneath the worn fly of his jeans.
Yes, the man definitely had nice muscles.
The sound of a throat being cleared had her eyes flashing up. With a cringe of embarrassment, she realized that, even though his hat was tipped low over his face, she could still see his eyes glittering from the brim’s shadow. And if she could see his eyes, he could see her. As she struggled to come up with some plausible excuse for ogling him like a decadent dessert at a buffet, he removed his cowboy hat.
The sight of his face had her exhaling in a startled whoosh. The dark brown eyes were as piercing and unrelenting as they’d been fifteen years earlier. The cheekbones as high and chiseled. The lips as stern and unforgiving. When he spoke, his sexy Texas drawl made all the memories she’d tried to dam up come flooding back.
“Checkin’ out my sheep’s clothin’, Evelyn . . . or the wolf beneath?” (Taming a Texas Rebel Excerpt by Katie Lane)