This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from Tempted by a Texan, book four in the Texas Sweethearts series by Mindy Neff.
Becca Sue Ellsworth’s arms felt empty. It was an ache that went clear to her soul.
From her apartment window above her bookshop and antiques boutique, Becca’s Attic, she gazed out at Main Street, darkened now except for streetlamps casting shadowy arcs over the two-lane road. There was no traffic. The diagonal parking spaces in front of the sidewalks were deserted. Hope Valley was one of those small Southern towns that rolled up the sidewalks at dusk.
A deep sense of aloneness pressed against her chest. She’d just spent the evening with her three best friends—more affectionately known as the Texas Sweethearts—and their families. She wasn’t normally given to envy, and it made her feel small to covet her girlfriends’ children, pregnancies and happy families.
Oh, it wasn’t as though she begrudged them their happiness. She just wanted a piece of it for herself.
Younger by six months than Sunny, Donetta and Tracy Lynn, Becca had recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday. The magic number, it seemed, when a woman’s biological clock began to gong like a cowbell being beaten by a sledgehammer.
The incessant reminder was almost deafening.
She didn’t have the money for artificial insemination, which Tracy Lynn had tried. And she didn’t have a husband like Sunny and Donetta—and, of course, Tracy Lynn. Tracy Lynn had practically been forced into a marriage of convenience, which had ultimately turned out to be her heart’s every dream come true.
Sighing, Becca looked past her own reflection in the window and caught a glimpse of movement below. Her heart jumped into her throat, and with a silent yelp, she quickly ducked behind the silky Priscilla curtains.
The streetlight illuminated him as he walked down the sidewalk and paused outside his law office, which was right across the street from Becca’s Attic. He started to insert the key, then turned suddenly, looking directly up at Becca’s window.
She hit the wall beside the window with a thud, flattening her back against the blue forget-me-nots speckled across the antique wallpaper, and held her breath. It was a wonder she hadn’t wet her pants.
That was all she needed—to get caught staring at her ex-boyfriend.
Lord, the man could still make her heart bump against her ribs. More so lately. And all because of a silly promise made when they were both drunk on their butts.
Shoot, he probably didn’t even remember. It’d been seven years.
They’d dated, even tried living together for a couple of months one summer when Colby took a semester off from law school, but they’d soon found out that they were total opposites who drove each other nuts. She’d been a scatterbrained free spirit. He’d been a neatnik, stuffy
sort who hadn’t appreciated the fact that clothes lying about on the floor was an excellent way to preserve the life of the carpet.
Maybe she’d scared him off. At twenty-three, she’d been going through her I-want-to- get-married-and-have-babies phase. Colby was set on building a future in the field of law, not housekeeping. He’d told her he couldn’t give her what she wanted, that he had to let her go so she could find someone else who could fulfill her dream, give her the things she deserved— commitment and family.
Even now a wave of embarrassment washed over her as she recalled the pitiful plea in her voice: “What if that doesn’t happen? I’m all that’s left of my family, Colby. What if I turn thirty someday and haven’t found my soul mate?”
“You will turn thirty,” he’d teased. “And I’m sure a smarter man than me will have snapped you up way sooner than that.” “But what if?” she’d persisted.
“Then we’ll have a baby together,” he’d said, wiping the tears from her face, her alcohol- induced misery clearly too much for him to resist. “No strings attached. You’ll have your family, I’ll take care of the finances.”
Well, her birthday had already passed. And because Colby’s office was right across the street from her shop and apartment, she was hyperaware of his comings and goings. Every time it looked as though he might make the trek across the street, an adrenaline surge nearly knocked her to her knees.
Did he remember?
Neither of them had ever mentioned the words they’d said to each other seven years ago, words that made sense in the midst of an alcoholic haze, but could only be deemed ridiculous in the sober light of day.
Several times lately, though, when their paths crossed, Colby had given her a teasing, flirtatious wink and a knowing look.
What was up with that? And what in the world did it mean? She was becoming a wreck obsessing over it.
Gathering her nerve, Becca carefully inched to the side and sneaked a peek out the window. Colby was no longer on the sidewalk and a light inside his office indicated he’d gone in.
Both relief and disappointment washed over her.
Criminy, Becca Sue. Get a grip.
Most likely, she was merely projecting her own wishes onto Colby—thinking his overt glances in her direction carried undertones of their youthful baby pact.
Annoyed with herself at the silliness, she crossed the room, climbed into bed and snatched up a knitting magazine from her nightstand.
Neither she nor Colby would consider hopping in the sack just to produce a child and then go on their respective ways.
Besides, Colby Flynn had broken her heart. Oh, sure, she’d made a point of not letting him know that. She’d been determined to act sophisticated, to play off their breakup as no big deal, insisting they continue their friendship—which they had, albeit as slightly distant friends.
Sadly, she would never easily trust a man with her heart again. Especially Colby Flynn.
She flipped through the pages of the knitting magazine. It was the fall edition and she couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for trendy hat and sweater patterns when the temperature outside this week had barely made it below seventy degrees. In Becca’s opinion, it was silly to send out the fall issue of a publication in the middle of June.
After a few more minutes, she set aside the magazine and turned out the light. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, the barely perceptible smell of animals from the area’s horse and cattle ranches wafted in the gentle breeze, shifted the gauzy curtains at her window, and mingled with the lemon verbena scent of her linens. What would probably seem like an odd combination of odors to others was actually comforting to Becca Sue. With every breath, she felt wrapped in a sense of the familiar, in generational roots that went as far back as the defenders of the Alamo.
What was Colby doing at his office so late at night? she wondered. Darla Pam Kirkwell, Hope Valley’s self-appointed busybody, had mentioned that she’d heard he was leaving town, but then, Darla Pam loved to gossip and stir up trouble and her information was not always reliable.
Becca gave a start when she heard a noise coming from downstairs. A crash.
“Darn it, Trouble!” She threw back the bed sheet and got up. The silly cat was always getting into something he shouldn’t. Trouble lived up to his name nicely—although Becca should have tacked on the middle name of Klepto. Over the past few months, her cat had actually been stealing things from the neighbors! Shiny hair clips from Donetta’s salon, spoons from Anna’s Café, trinkets from the hardware store and saddle shop…it was starting to get embarrassing.
The cat was either going to get arrested or Becca would have to take her to a shrink. Perhaps she ought to rethink the kitty doors she’d installed. Clearly the little menace needed less freedom.
“I swear, Trouble, if you’ve broken any of my prize collectibles, I’ll take you to jail myself.”
Without bothering to put on a robe, Becca opened the door at the top of the steep staircase that led to her shop below and flicked on the light switch. The single, low-wattage bulb didn’t even have the courtesy to give a pop to let her know it was burned out. It simply didn’t come on.
No problem. She knew the layout of the building by heart, right down to the last creaky board, and she always kept a flashlight behind the cash register in case of major storms or power outages.
Besides, she was all too aware that Colby was right across the street, and since she rarely pulled the shades over the front windows, she didn’t particularly want to turn on the store lights. That would make Becca’s Attic the equivalent of a lighted aquarium, and Becca the parading fish.
Her bare feet made only a whisper of sound on the wood treads. She counted thirteen steps, then reached for the crystal knob she knew was right in front of her on the door at the bottom of the stairs.
She expected the shrill of squeaky hinges.
She did not expect the blinding pain when something slammed into her side. Or the next blow that buckled her knees.
* * *
Colby Flynn sealed another carton of law books and carried it to the growing stack piled neatly by the front door. He still had three weeks before he was scheduled to relocate to Dallas, but there was a lot of packing to do. He hadn’t realized how much stuff he’d accumulated since he’d been back in Hope Valley.
He also hadn’t realized how stupidly melancholy he’d feel about leaving his hometown and friends.
He touched the corkboard hanging on the wall by the front entrance. It was overflowing with lawyer jokes, some written on pieces of scrap paper, all of them held in place by colorful pushpins. Nearly everyone who crossed this threshold and saw the wall art ended up coming back and pinning their own joke to the board. Over the years, the collection had become vast.
This was his one and only concession to clutter.
Granted, he’d tried organizing the contents of the corkboard in the beginning, but it had been a losing battle. So he’d given in and let his friends have their fun—a difficult concession for a guy who’d attended military school and had organization burned into his brain.
Although some of the paper was yellowed with age, and the board looked like a scrap hoarder’s mess, Colby hated to part with the thing.
But this wasn’t the sort of art appropriate for the tastefully elegant walls of the Wells and
Steadman law firm, soon to be Wells, Steadman and Flynn.
Leaving the corkboard where it was for the time being, he pushed the stack of packing boxes against the baseboard and turned to see what else needed doing. A flash of light caught his eye and he paused.
For a minute he thought his tired eyes were playing tricks on him. He could have sworn he saw a beam of light coming from Becca’s shop, which had been dark for quite a while now. Her upstairs apartment lights had switched off almost an hour ago—yes, damn it, he reminded himself, he’d noticed.
Moving his law practice to the building across from Becca’s Attic last year had been both heaven and torture. Heaven because he got to see Becca’s cute little body sashaying in and out day after day.
And torture because he had to watch her cute little body sashaying in and out day after day—knowing he’d tossed away any chance of actually touching or holding her.
Although his regret was deep, he still believed that he’d done the right thing seven years ago by letting her go. She was a woman who deserved commitment, steadiness and roots.
Because of his family’s track record, those were the things in life he feared most—along with failure.
The narrow beam glanced off the darkened window again. Why would Becca be prowling around with a flashlight at midnight? Why not just turn on the lights?
He didn’t like the suspicions that came to mind. Curse of the profession—he’d been privy to way too many cases involving crimes where people stole from others because they were too damn lazy to go out and make their own money; or they were such slaves to drugs that their jo bs weren’t enough to fund their habit and they had to take what didn’t belong to them.
Well, by God, nobody was going to steal from Becca Sue. Not if he had anything to say about it.
He removed a Colt .45 handgun from the file cabinet and stuffed it in the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. Leaving his office, he sprinted across the street and slipped into the alley that led to the back entrance.
The door to her shop was ajar.
His heart lodged right up under his Adam’s apple and his mouth went dry. He slid the
Colt from his jeans and checked the safety.
Using his knuckles so he wouldn’t sully any potentially incriminating fingerprints with his own, he eased the door open the rest of the way and crept inside, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
Nothing moved. No sound.
He could hear his own breath loudly in his ears. A sixth sense told him he wasn’t alone.
Simultaneously, he heard a moan and the sound of a car engine roaring to life. The moan was female and coming from inside. The pitch of the vehicle’s muffler indicated it was accelerating away. Fast.
He slammed his hand against the wall, groping in the dark for the light switch. The side of his palm brushed the toggle and fluorescent lights blinked on, illuminating half the store.
Oh, man. Becca lay in a crumpled heap just beyond the stairwell doorway.
This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from Rescued by a Rancher , book three in the Texas Sweethearts series by Mindy Neff.
Sometimes a woman had to take charge of her own destiny. Tracy Lynn Randolph was doing just that.
Above her, puffy clouds cast huge shadows over the Texas hills, the sky so blue it almost hurt to look at it. A brisk November wind ruffled the spiky seed pods on the sweet -gum tree, scattering little sticker balls over the lawn and onto the steps of the redbrick courthouse.
Even if it hadn’t been such a glorious afternoon, nothing could have dampened Tracy Lynn’s mood. Her smile far outshone any smile she’d perfected in the dozen or so beauty pageants she’d entered in her youth. She pressed a hand to her chest as if to contain her giddy excitement.
Pausing at the base of the Hope Valley courthouse steps, she closed her eyes and sent her thoughts heavenward.
Mama, are you watching? I’m finally starting on my dream. Our dream.
Her heart squeezed and her throat ached as she remembered the words her mother had uttered just hours before succumbing completely to the aggressive ovarian cancer that had been draining the life from her once-vibrant body for the past eight months.
“Give Daddy grandbabies,” Mama had said, her voice weak yet steady. “You were the only child I was able to have, and he so wanted a big family.”
“I will, Mama. Before I’m thirty.”
In those last few weeks they’d planned Tracy Lynn’s future—a future her mother, Chelsa, would never see, the fairy-tale wedding she would never attend. They’d even chosen names for the grandbabies, whose sweet, warm bodies her mother would never rock in her arms.
Those had been the very best weeks of Tracy Lynn’s life. And the very worst.
Ten years had gone by since her mom had died. Tracy Lynn had truly believed she’d be married long before she turned twenty-five—a reasonable assumption since she’d never lacked for dates.
But Prince Charming hadn’t arrived.
So she’d decided to go on without him.
Granted, she hadn’t actually met the deadline she’d so confidently promised her mother, but she was darn close. Next month, on Christmas Eve, she’d be turning thirty.
Before that auspicious day, though, she would be able to tell her dad that he was going to be a grandpa. The thought of Hope Valley Mayor Jerald Randolph bouncing his grandbaby on
his knee was enough to make Tracy Lynn laugh out loud.
She looked up as her dad pushed through the glass doors of the courthouse. He was a handsome man at fifty-nine, his dark hair graying at the temples, giving him a distinguished look. He was also still quite slim, due in part to his restless energy.
Jerald Randolph didn’t know how to relax; he had to be going somewhere or doing something all the time.
She waved and jogged up the half-dozen steps to meet him on the wide landing and give him a hug. “Hey, Daddy.”
His frown was both apologetic and confused as he pecked her on the cheek. “Did I forget an appointment, honey?”
“No. But I have some great news, and I couldn’t wait to share it.”
“Can you tell me in three minutes or less? You caught me on the way to a meeting.”
“I know. I called Alice and she itemized your schedule.” His secretary knew more about him than anyone else. Tracy Lynn had hoped to get her father alone so they could celebrate in private, but the man was a workaholic—had been all her life—and she’d learned to catch him when she could, often obliged to fall into step beside him as he rushed from one place to the next, conducting his mayoral duties or handling his commercial real estate investment business.
“That’s why I wanted to intercept you this afternoon, so you’d be the first to know. It’s all I can do not to climb the flagpole and shout it to the world.”
He gave her an indulgent smile. “In the interest of decorum, why don’t you just tell me and I’ll pass along whatever it is at the school-board meeting. That’d be a lot more effective. Those folks can spread news faster than a minnow can swim a dipper.”
Although he was smiling at her, she noticed that he looked pale, tired. But her fabulous announcement would perk him up for sure.
She took a breath, felt her eyes mist from happiness.
“You’re going to be a grandfather, Dad.”
He looked at her in confusion.
Dead silence met her words. Instead of the awe and exuberant hug she’d expected, his smile faded and his facial muscles went rigid.
A sparrow hopped off a nearby brick planter, then darted away in a flutter of wings. Somewhere, a woodpecker hammered his beak into bark in search of supper, the staccato sound matching the rhythm of Tracy Lynn’s heart.
Dread began to gather beneath her sternum as she waited for him to respond. Although they were the only two standing on the steps, he glanced around as if checking to see if anyone might have overheard her announcement.
This wasn’t the proud reception she’d expected. He appeared…embarrassed. “Daddy?” she prompted. “Aren’t you excited?”
Gripping her upper arm, he pulled her to one side of the landing, next to the iron bench and metal ash can county employees used during smoke breaks.
“What do you mean, you’re pregnant?” The question was a harsh demand. His gaze darted to her stomach, then back to her face. “Did you think this was good news? You’re not even married, Tracy Lynn.”
“Oh, Daddy.” She smiled and shook her head. “That’s not an issue in this generation.” “You damned well better believe it is in my generation! It’s vitally important for our
family to keep up a good image. If I run for senator, you can be sure my opponent will dig deep in our backyard, searching for old bones we can’t bury. My God, girl, you know how gossip is in a small town.”
“But this is good gossip. There’s no need to hide my pregnancy or the existence of my child.” The sting of rejection swarmed in her stomach like angry bees. She was both bewildered and terrified.
For the first time in her life, she wasn’t Daddy’s perfect girl. And she didn’t know quite how to react.
Jerald reached for his handkerchief and mopped his brow. “Who’s the father?”
“No one…” The gray pallor of his skin worried her, cutting off her explanation. He was breathing heavily, and she’d never seen him sweat so profusely. “Daddy? What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I asked you a question, girl. I—” He opened his mouth to continue, but his face contorted in pain. To her everlasting horror, he clutched his chest, and before her brain could signal her to reach out and catch him, he collapsed at her feet, his back scraping against the iron bench as he went down.
“Oh, my God! Daddy! Somebody, help!” She wasn’t sure if she managed to yell loud enough for anyone inside the courthouse to hear. Her purse slid off her shoulder as she dropped to her knees beside him.
She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. She felt as though she was having a nightmare—this couldn’t be happening! Every bit of first-aid training she’d ever learned—she’d needed it to care for her mother and later to work at the senior center—flew right out of her head.
“Don’t do this to me, girl.” He wheezed and gasped for breath. “I can’t have my daughter pregnant and not married. Tell me. We’ll make everything right. I need to know who fathered this baby—”
“I did, sir.”
Tracy Lynn turned quickly to see who had spoken. Lincoln Slade—bad-boy-turned- rancher. She watched, heart in her throat, as Linc bent down, loosened Jerald’s shirt buttons, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Now, let’s calm down and leave this discussion until later.”
Tracy Lynn was so distraught she could hardly think past the fact that her strong, youthful father was lying at the top of the courthouse steps gasping for breath. In some rational part of her mind, she noted that Linc already had his cell phone against his ear.
Oh, God. Hers was in her purse. She hadn’t even thought—
“I need rescue in front of the courthouse,” Linc said into the phone. “Patients name is Jerald Randolph. Early sixties. Appears to be a heart attack. Tell the paramedics that if they look out their door, they’ll see us.”
She glanced down the street. It felt as though the fire station was ten miles away instead of a mere block.
“Do you have any aspirin, babe?”
“I have Tylenol.” She snatched up her purse, dumping the contents on the cement. “Will that work? Wait. Maybe I’ve got—“
Her head jerked up, fear ripping at her insides.
Her father’s eyes had rolled back in his head.
His chest wasn’t moving.
Linc dropped the phone and went into action.
Paralyzed by shock, Tracy Lynn stared as he checked her father’s pulse, his breathing, then shook him and shouted his name. Only seconds passed before he tilted back her daddy’s head, breathed deeply into his mouth, then began CPR compressions.
“Breathe for him, Trace,” Linc said. “I’ll pause on ten. Come on, now. Get it together.” Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely position her father’s chin.
“And nine, and ten,” Linc counted. “Now!”
Tears streaming down her cheeks, she tried to blow air into her father’s mouth, but terror and anguish made her own breath shallow. She choked on a sob, didn’t even have enough air in her lungs to lift his chest.
“Damn it, Tracy Lynn. Snap out of it!” Linc resumed chest compressions, palms cupped, counting even as he shouted at her. “This isn’t about you. Princess. Now breathe for him or kiss him goodbye!”
Tears dripping onto her father’s face, she did as she was told, Linc’s forceful words finally penetrating her stupor. Between Linc’s compressions, she transferred her breath into her father’s lungs for what seemed like hours.
At last sirens screamed from half a block away. Tracy Lynn wondered why in heaven’s name the paramedics hadn’t just grabbed their gear and run the short distance.
As she bent to cover his mouth once more, Jerald took a breath. His eyes opened and he looked around wildly as though he had no idea how he’d ended up lying on the cold concrete.
Paramedics appeared at her elbow. One of them was Damian Stoltz. She’d dated him a couple of years ago, but things hadn’t worked out between them.
She felt Linc’s hands on her, urging her to her feet, shifting her out of the way so the medics would have room to work. Her body trembled and her teeth chattered, more from fear than the chilly afternoon air.
“You did just fine, babe,” Linc said, drawing her against his side, his hands chafing her arms, her back, bringing warmth to thaw the icy shock.
She shook her head, didn’t deserve his bolstering. She’d been worse than useless, frozen in blind terror when she should have acted. “He wasn’t breathing. His heart stopped. Linc, what if—“
“Shh. He’s in good hands now.”
The other paramedic was Mason Lowe, who she’d also dated. Thank heaven she remained friends with guys when the relationships didn’t work. She’d never seen Damian or Mason so serious and efficient.
Or Linc, either.
She leaned into his warmth. He’d only been back in Hope Valley for four months, showing up the day his brother, Jackson Slade, had married Sunny Carmichael—who happened to be the town’s veterinarian and one of Tracy Lynn’s best friends.
“I’m so glad you were here,” she said.
He didn’t respond. Lincoln Slade was one of those men who could be stingy with words. Just when she thought her nerves were about to get a reprieve, there was a scurry of
activity and a volley of words between Damian and Mason.
“V-fib,” Damian said. “Charging to two hundred joules.”
Daddy! Tracy Lynn automatically lunged forward, but Linc hooked his arm around her waist and held her back.
“What’s wrong? What are they doing?” She could hear the fear in her voice as she struggled against Linc’s hold. “Let me go. I need to see what’s happening.”
“Shh.” He pressed his mouth to her hair near her ear. “Let the professionals do their work, babe.”
Her fingernails dug into the sleeve of his brown suede jacket, his arm remaining as taut as a safety harness around her middle. One of the monitors on the ground emitted an escalating whine. A discarded wrapper, ripped open in haste, skipped away with the wind, tumbling across the courthouse lawn.
“Everybody stay back,” Mason said, quickly checking to ensure their compliance. “I’m clear,” he said. “You’re clear. Everybody’s clear. Shocking at two hundred joules.”
Tracy Lynn realized what was going on a bare instant before the defibrillator paddles sent an audible jolt through her father’s body, a jolt that lifted his upper body right off the ground. “Nothing!” Mason reported. “Charging again to three hundred.”
She couldn’t watch. Twisting in Linc’s arms, she rested her forehead against his chest and gripped the lapels of his sheepskin-lined suede jacket, horribly aware of her own moan as the second shock, then a third reverberated behind her.
Linc’s hand cupped the back of her head, applying firm and steady pressure, his other hand stroking the length of her back over her cashmere sweater. His hold was both comforting and protective, shielding her whether she wanted him to or not.
If she’d been capable of speech, she would have told him that there was no danger of her stealing a look.
She couldn’t bear to watch another parent die before her eyes.
This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from Surprised by a Baby , book two in the Texas Sweethearts series by Mindy Neff.
Donetta Presley’s nerves were flat-out wrecked. And no wonder! She’d had another run-in with the town’s new fire marshal; the contractor who’d renovated her trendy hair salon and her upstairs apartment wasn’t returning her phone calls; and, despite feeling like road kill and hugging the porcelain throne more times than she cared to remember, she’d actually given a haircut to a toy poodle named Debbie!
On top of that, she’d had to drive clear over to Austin just to buy a home pregnancy test. Hope Valley had the fastest gossip mill in Texas and she did not want the whole town discussing the nature of her purchase before she could even get home and remove the cellophane from the box.
She could have saved herself the trouble. Pretty soon everyone would know anyway.
She wiped her clammy forehead with the back of her wrist, tempted to lower the thermostat on the salon’s air conditioner another notch. That probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Her clients were shivering as it was.
Trying to take shallow breaths, praying the nausea would pass, she removed the last few bobby pins and rollers from Millicent Lloyd’s blue hair and tossed them into an open drawer. The pink-and-gray perm rods she’d used on a client who’d left more than an hour ago were still scattered in the shampoo bowl. Too bad the scent hadn’t gone with the woman, because the acrid smell of ammonia that wafted from the shiny black sink bowl made Donetta’s stomach revolt anew.
Wasn’t that a hoot? The owner and operator of Donetta’s Secret, the only hair salon in Hope Valley, Texas, couldn’t bear the smell of permanent wave lotion.
Lordy, she didn’t need this grief. Her schedule was so messed up she was now juggling three clients at once. And Miz Lloyd expected to leave here at two-forty-five on the dot—same as every Friday.
She patted the woman on the shoulder. “Be patient with me, okay, Miz Lloyd? I’m tryin’ my best to get you out of here on time.”
She reached for a bottle of finishing spray and gave Millicent’s short barrel curls a squirt, then pumped a couple of aromatic spurts into the air.
Millicent’s blue-tinted eyebrows shot up. “Did you just blast me with air freshener?”
Donetta forced a smile and retrieved her small teasing brush from the top drawer of the laminate workstation. “No, silly. It’s finishing spray. It sets the curl and gives your hair more body. Don’t you just love the way it smells?”
“You’ve never used it on me before,” Millicent said, her light-blue eyes narrowing. Donetta looked down at the sectioned curls. “It’s a new product. Just came in this week.”
“Expensive, I bet. Ought to have a care about wasting it.” She sniffed, still clutching her taupe gloves in her age-spotted fist. Millicent Lloyd never went to town without matching gloves, shoes and pocketbook. “Squirting it all over the place like it was toilet water perfume from the dime store. Why, if I wasn’t trussed up in this cape, I’d be needing a bath.”
“You’re fine,” Donetta soothed. “It’s not sticky.”
As she backcombed Millicent’s thin hair, she glanced at the chrome clock above the front door and checked the minute hands, shaped as neon-red scissors. Barring any more interruptions, she could probably finish these last three clients within the hour and close up early.
Then again, maybe not.
Her hand tightened around the red plastic handle of the brush when she saw the sheriff’s car wheel into a diagonal parking space in front of her salon.
He was her best friend’s brother—an ex-Texas Ranger who was now the sheriff of Hope Valley.
And he was the last person Donetta wanted to see today.
“I declare, Donetta. You’re about to snatch me bald-headed.”
She jolted and quickly smoothed out the two-inch-long section of hair she’d just teased into a ball of frizz.
“Sorry, Miz Lloyd. My mind wandered.”
“Good thing you didn’t have a pair of scissors in your hand. No telling what I’d look like.” She cut her eyes toward the front window, then back to Donetta’s reflection in the mirror. “That Carmichael boy is heading this way. Is that what’s got you in such a tizzy?”
Storm Carmichael wasn’t anybody’s idea of a boy, Donetta thought, which was partly the reason her knees were shaking. Thank God she hadn’t worn her miniskirt today. The man was more observant than a hawk, and Donetta had learned a hard lesson about showing vulnerability.
“Just running behind schedule is all that’s wrong with me,” Donetta said.
The door swished open, sucking out precious degrees of the salon’s cool air. And there he stood, Sheriff Storm Carmichael, six feet five inches of sinfully delicious masculinity in boots, jeans, a khaki uniform shirt with a sheriff’s star pinned above his breast pocket, and a Stetson sporting a cattleman’s crease.
The very man responsible for this god-awful, debilitating morning sickness.
His gaze locked onto hers and never wavered, yet she knew he could probably give a detailed description of every customer in the salon, as well as the hairstyle models in the photos on the walls. Despite her outward control, her heart galloped like a thoroughbred on an open range.
She’d had a major crush on him when she was a dreamy ten-year-old and he was sixteen. But that was twenty years ago—and at this particular moment, puppy love was not the emotion she was feeling.
“Excuse me just a minute, Miz Lloyd.” She set the brush on her station, then strolled toward the reception desk to head him off in case he had any ideas of coming in and getting comfortable. Not that he’d ever hung out in the salon, but he looked like a man with something on his mind, a man willing to wait until she was finished with her clients.
That was all she needed, she thought with a mental sigh. To have Storm’s eyes trained on her backside while she worked. She’d likely give Darla Pam Kirkwell a Mohawk.
She stopped at the reception desk, realizing she’d almost walked right up to Storm to automatically give him a hug.
That was what happened when a person had sex with a friend. Normal, lifelong habits became awkward. She’d always greeted him with a hug—even if she was miffed at him. Now she was afraid the simple gesture would give away more than she wanted him to know.
Wishing she could sit down for about five hours, she leaned against the red laminate counter and put on her polite, welcome-the-customer face. It took a Herculean effort. She felt about as sociable as a she-bear in satin.
“Afternoon, Sheriff. What can I do for you?”
His eyes blatantly lowered to her V-neck tank top that sported a large, dramatic face of a cat, then to her slim khaki pants and open-toed platform shoes. Although it was October, a warm front had moved in from the Gulf, making it feel like the middle of summer. Storm Carmichael’s visual caress cranked up her internal thermostat to triple digits.
“I guess you didn’t see that red tag on the door,” he said in his perfectly charming Texas drawl. He was one of those men whose smooth baritone voice had an innately sensual, teasing tone. His thumbs were hooked in the front pockets of his jeans, a purely masculine gesture that drew the eye and put a woman in danger of losing her good sense.
“Now, don’t you start in on me, too, Storm. As soon as I get ahold of my contractor, he’ll take care of everything. And park those eyeballs back in your head, why don’t you. I’m not in the mood to deal with one more condescending male today.” She’d couched her annoyance in her trademark sultry tone, but for once, she wasn’t quite certain she’d pulled it off. She knew just how to flirt with a guy, to let him down easy without making him feel as though he’d struck out. It was her means of holding men at bay. The trait was pretty much the only useful lesson she’d learned from a mother she hadn’t seen in eight years.
“Can’t blame a man for admiring. All these bold colors in here, and you still stand out like a million-dollar supermodel.”
She arched a brow. “Flattery, Sheriff? My goodness, you must want something.”
“Oh, I want a lot of things,” he said softly, making her shiver even though she was burning up. “Right now, though, I’ll stick to business. That citation on your door isn’t part of a beautification project. It doesn’t say ‘Pretty please’ and it doesn’t mention a thing about phoning your contractor. It’s an official injunction mandating you to vacate these premises until the issues that have been itemized for you—more than once, I’m told—are corrected and in compliance with county and state building codes.”
At the formality of his words, Donetta’s heart pounded with a mounting sense of dread. This was Storm Carmichael the cop. Not Storm Carmichael the friend she’d slept with, the man who held her heart and didn’t even know it.
“Now, I don’t know how these infractions slipped through the cracks for two years, but the improvements on this unit have been declared unsafe by the fire marshal—”
“Would you just hush?” she whispered fiercely. “I know what the damn thing says.” She looked around to see if any of the customers were listening. Of course they were. The three elderly women were practically leaning forward in their chairs, not even trying to disguise that they were exercising what they clearly viewed as their God-given right to eavesdrop.
“Listen, Storm, this will just have to wait.” He wasn’t wearing a gun belt and she didn’t see any handcuffs, so it was a safe bet that he wouldn’t actually arrest her for violating a court order. Hope Valley was a relaxed small town. The judicial system was naturally a bit more laid- back. And she wasn’t ignoring the stupid paper—even though she’d flipped it the bird as she’d unlocked the front door this morning to open for business.
“I intend to take care of everything,” she said, “but first I need to finish styling Miz Lloyd and rinse Darla Pam before the bleach fries her hair. And I promised Cora I’d have her out of here before three o’clock. She has errands to run and has to be home before dark—you know she can’t drive at night.”
Glancing down, she skimmed a fingertip over her appointment book, noticed that her acrylic nail was chipped at the very tip. Swell. One more thing she could add to her to -do list. She swallowed back the queasiness again working its way up her esophagus. She really, really didn’t feel good.
“Why don’t you give me a call around five,” she said, fully aware she wouldn’t be here. Millicent, Darla Pam and Cora were her last three clients for the day. “I should have a break by then. Meanwhile…” She stepped back and fixed a phony smile on her face. “You have yourself a real nice afternoon, Sheriff, ya hear?”
This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from the first book in the series Courted by a Cowboy by Mindy Neff.
If today had been a fish, Sunny Carmichael would’ve pitched it right back into the water.
She swept up the broken water glass and dumped it into the trash can, adding the clear shards to the shattered jelly jar already there. The jar’s sticky contents lay smeared over the crumpled paper plates and napkins like a gooey mosaic decorating the den.
Putting away the broom, she noticed that her Doc Martens made sucking noises on the faux marble floor. Oh, well, she thought, sitting down at the kitchen table. She wasn’t the greatest housecleaner. Animals were her forte.
Simba lumbered over and rested his huge head on her knee, looking up at her with velvety brown eyes that had snagged her the moment she’d seen him in the pound four years ago, surrounded by a litter of kittens. Part Labrador retriever, part Irish Wolfhound, and part who-knows-what, he was roughly the size of a month-old colt, with a tail that could knock a bull on his butt in one exuberant swoop, and a canine smile that apologized beforehand for his clumsiness.
“What’s next, Simba? Mama says things break in threes. We’ve had two in one day…” She patted Simba’s wide skull. “Three, if you count Michael.”
Michael Lawrey had been her fiancé for the past two years—until three days ago, when he’d dumped her. Wealthy, passably handsome and powerful, he was on a political climb with an eye toward the governor’s seat.
Evidently, he’d decided she no longer fit in with his plans.
Sunny stared at the sticky floor, but couldn’t work up the energy to do anything about it. She was bored and vaguely upset, when she should have been totally torn up. After all, the man she was to marry had chucked her. Something was wrong that she felt more embarrassed and inadequate than heartbroken.
She wasn’t sure what to do with herself. Here she was on a beautiful summer Saturday evening, sitting alone in a plush condo in Malibu.
Finding herself all alone felt weird. The condo was quiet. The right side of both the bathroom cabinet and bedroom closet were empty. Michael had always stored his personal items for the nights he stayed over on the right because he was left-handed. He claimed it gave him more elbow room to brush his teeth, blow-dry his hair and dress.
“Why in the world didn’t I object to the way he’d taken over?” she asked Simba. “It’s my house. Maybe I would have preferred the right side.”
Simba’s tongue snaked out to lick her wrist. His eyes darted away as though he had no idea who’d delivered that sandpapery slobbering caress. It was a vice she’d yet to break him from. Like a chocoholic sneaking sugar, Simba sneaked licks.
Lately, he was the only mammal she cuddled, and that seemed wrong. Her love of animals was part of her life, a soul connection, deep and profound. It was what had compelled her to become a veterinarian in the first place.
The phone rang, and Sunny jumped. She didn’t immediately answer, even considered letting the machine pick up. By damn, she wasn’t up to a pity call now—or talking to some shallow gossipmonger spouting false concern just to get the skinny on what had happened between her and Michael.
By the time she got to the phone, the machine had switched on. The sound of her mother’s heavy Texas drawl made her stomach lurch.
Just what she needed. A lecture from her mom on the merits of hanging on to a man. Still, nothing said she had to tell her mother about the breakup. Anna Carmichael was clear over in Austin. It wasn’t as if she would know what was going on in Los Angeles.
Sighing, Sunny finally reached for the receiver. “I’m here, Mama,” she said, cutting off Anna in mid-syllable.
“Oh, I’m so glad I caught you at home. This being a Saturday night, I worried you and Michael would be out.”
“Michael’s out.” Literally. “I’m not.” Obviously.
Anna paused. “Is everything all right? Are you and Michael having troubles?”
Sunny sighed again. Trust her mother to hone in on the “man” angle. Accurately this time, damn it. She ought to keep her mouth shut, but knew she wouldn’t. Some strange failing inside her made her feel that she was sinning if she didn’t admit every little thing to her mother.
“Michael and I are splitsville.”
“We broke up.”
“Oh, Sunny. What did you do?”
“Me?” Her voice trembled despite her efforts to keep it even. “Why do you assume it’s something I did?”
“Perhaps I stated that poorly. You misunderstood.” Sunny didn’t think so. She’d spent twenty-nine years trying to measure up to her mother’s expectations and Southern standards of what a woman should be. She didn’t think she’d hit the mark yet.
“Sunny?” Anna said when the silence stretched. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine, Mama.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“There’s not much to say. Michael and I were trying to mesh our calendars and carve out a convenient time for a honeymoon, but he seemed to have a conflict with every date I chose.” More likely, he hadn’t wanted to take time off. He’d reminded her that they were both aiming for the top of their respective fields, and it was imperative that they not let the competition get there first.
“He is busy, Sunny.”
She felt her insides clench, but continued on with the conversation. “Yes, but so am I. Which is neither here nor there at the moment, since there won’t be a honeymoon, anyway.”
“Is this a problem the two of you might overcome?”
Sunny leaned against the kitchen counter. “No, Mama. Despite what you might think of me and my single status, I do want children and a family someday. Michael doesn’t.”
“Not at all?” Anna sounded scandalized.
Sunny found she could smile after all. Her mother believed in family, reminded Sunny and her brother, Storm, at every opportunity that she wanted to be a grandmother, that it wasn’t fair Trudy Fay Simon continually lorded it over her about her fifth grandchild when Anna had yet to claim even one.
“Not at all,” Sunny echoed.
“Well. I knew that man wasn’t right for you in the first place. He had one of those phony-politician smiles. His teeth were simply too perfect”
Sunny felt her heart soften. She and her mother had had their trials, but when it came down to it they were family. And even if they didn’t often agree, family stuck together. “He paid a fortune so those teeth would be perfect.”
“Figures. So what will you do now?”
“Actually, I’ve taken some vacation time so I don’t have to answer a lot of questions.” “Then I called at the right moment. Come home, Sunny. Your room’s just as you left it.” Returning home was an ongoing argument, one they had often. Anna didn’t seem to respect or place any importance on what Sunny did in California. “You know I can’t—”
“You must. We’ve got trouble and we need you in Hope Valley. You’re the only one we can trust to handle it.”
Sunny was momentarily speechless. Her mother had admitted a need. That was a first. But Sunny could only focus on the words Hope Valley. Her hometown was a blip on the
Texas map. It lay just west of Austin, where verdant grass carpeted the ground in a feast for the eyes, and livestock grazed contentedly on ranches that ranged from small family operations to million-dollar enterprises. The town was quaint, and truly Southern in attitude. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, and the townsfolk accepted it as their God-given right to pass along every morsel of gossip that came their way.
Sunny had been born and raised in Hope Valley. Her family and her childhood friends were there. She’d lived and laughed and loved there.
And she’d had her heart broken there.
What she felt now after her split with Michael was nothing compared to the devastation she’d suffered in Hope Valley ten years earlier.
She twisted the phone cord around her finger and closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself. Simba, who’d been lying on the cool kitchen floor, scrambled to his feet and pushed against her leg in his canine version of a hug. How this goofy-looking dog was so attuned to her every emotion was uncanny.
“What kind of trouble?”
“On Jack Slade’s ranch. Now, hear me out,” Anna said, obviously knowing Sunny was about to object. They’d made a shaky deal years ago not to discuss Jackson Slade. Anna didn’t always keep up her end of the bargain. Especially when Hope Valley had been close to economic ruin and Jack had returned to town like a prodigal son. He’d taken over his father’s ranch and turned it into a highly prosperous spread.
From the moment he’d come back to the small community, everything he touched seemed to thrive. Where once he’d been a motorcycle-riding, earring-wearing, bronc-busting heartbreaker, now he was Hope Valley’s golden boy, and there were very few people around these parts who weren’t eternally grateful to him. According to Anna Carmichael, the guy had single-handedly made the town flourish once more.
Of course, Anna rarely missed a chance to remind her daughter what she’d given up.
Sunny rubbed her temples where a headache was forming. “I’m listening.” “This is for your ears only, and it could well be nothing.”
“What, Mama?” She wasn’t in the mood for a whispering campaign.
“Jack’s had some cattle up and die on him. We don’t want Hope Valley splashed across the national newspapers, with speculations on mad cow disease or something.”
Her fingers tightened on the receiver. “Does Jack think it’s mad cow?” The thought was horrifying. So far, livestock in the United States had escaped that epidemic. More t han likely her mother was only using the term because it was familiar.
“I don’t know, dear. That’s why I’m calling you.”
“How many cattle?”
“One or two, I think.”
“Only in Jack’s herd?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“What does the vet say? What are the symptoms?”
“Honestly, Sunny, I’m not the one to be asking these questions. You need to come see for yourself.”
“The vet, Mama…” she prompted.
Anna sighed. “Doc Levin skipped town. We have no earthly idea why. Just packed up his belongings and that young lady he’d taken up with, and left us high and dry. And it’s just as well, if you ask me. He never did fit in. We need one of our own here, Sunny. Someone who cares about us. To investigate, to get to the bottom of this sudden illness, give us an unbiased report so we can handle it quickly among ourselves.”
That was how the people of Hope Valley had always operated. As a community. “If it’s just a couple of steers, that’s hardly an epidemic. Still, you know I’m bound by law to report any outbreaks of infectious diseases once they’re confirmed.”
“Yes, I’m aware of all that, and I’m certainly not advocating we hide anything. But we can trust you not to jump the gun. You’re the best there is, Sunny Leigh. The only one who can do this. We don’t want to be gettin’ the wrong dog by the tail and startin’ an uproar of hysteria.”
Sunny slid down the kitchen cabinet and sat on the floor. Her heart pounded and her brain felt fuzzy.
You’re the best there is, Sunny Leigh.
How many years had she yearned to hear those words? Words of acceptance. Of praise. From her mother.
This was truly out of character for Anna. Sunny had rarely gotten more than a “That’s nice, dear” when she’d called home with career news.
Now Jack was in trouble. It bugged her that even after all these years, Anna’s immediate concern was for him, not her own daughter. But this was the first time her mother had reached out to her, hinted at pride in Sunny’s successes, recognition for the professional she’d become, acceptance of the choices she’d made.
You’re the only one who can do this. Powerful words to a woman who’d longed for years to hear them.
Sunny looped her arm around Simba’s thick neck. She had a month’s vacation and comp time coming to her. Lord knows her life in Los Angeles hadn’t turned out the way she’d thought it would.
She could use some weeks away, time to reflect on the influence her relationship with Michael had had on who she’d become.
Because if she was truthful, she’d have to admit that what she’d started out wanting in the beginning had morphed into something entirely different.
She needed to clear her head. Go back to chasing her dream. Learn to be a woman who stood firmly on her own two feet, made solid decisions based on the facts as she saw them, and stuck by them.
And by God, the lure of showing her mother her expertise was too great to ignore.
Plus, the opportunity to connect with true friends, the kind you could always depend on, was a draw she couldn’t resist.
Sunny, Donetta Presley, Tracy Lynn Randolph and Becca Sue Ellsworth had called themselves the Texas Sweethearts. They’d formed their secret society when they were kids. Even years and miles hadn’t dampened their bond. Seeing her pals again would be good.
“I’ll square things away here and be out there by Wednesday,” she said.
The problem was, if an infectious disease was plaguing Jackson Slade’s cattle, even
Wednesday might be too late to save his herd.
July is the time of year that most of us are beginning to get excited, or nervous, about going to the National RWA conference. Some of us are hoping to meet with an editor or agent, some are desperately longing to start a career, others perhaps wanting to change their careers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell ourselves. Not the stories we tell in our books. I’m talking about the stories that are deeply embedded in our subconscience. The voices that whisper that we’re not good enough, or smart enough, or that we have to be perfect, that we can’t look or act foolish, or human, or that we’re shy, that we don’t do well speaking in public, that we became a writer because we’re introverts, and having to pretend to be an extrovert for four whole days is going to shred our insides to bits.
Our stories also tell us that we should never admit to these failings, that we’re the only ones who feel so out of control, or so inadequate, or so inept. According to the book, Becoming Real, Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back, by Gail Saltz, M.D., every one of these stories is a lie. But until we learn to recognize them and rewrite them we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over. These stories will hold us back by making us afraid to reach out, by convincing us that we’re not deserving, or good enough, or popular enough, or by reminding us that we’re shy and scared out of our minds that someone is going to judge us and find us lacking.
I want each and every one of you to know that you do deserve to have your heart’s desire. You are worthy. You matter. And you are not alone. Do not listen to those self-defeating stories!
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at functions as large as the RWA National Conference. That’s one of the reason’s our OCC conference volunteers, Michelle Thorne and Lana Krevis, have worked so hard to make sure there will be an OCC suite available in Reno where everyone can come to see a familiar face, network, attend parties, or simply retreat to catch your breath.
To kick off the conference in style, we’ll be playing a game of Reno Bingo at the Wednesday night literacy signing. Be sure to pick up a bingo card at the door, then stop and speak to each of our OCC authors and get your bingo card stamped . You shouldn’t have any trouble finding us ,we’ll be the ones with the really cool flower pots and “orange girl” signs in front of us.
After the literacy signing, we’ll be throwing a pizza party in the OCC suite and inviting all of our authors to bring their editors and agents. Everyone is welcome. Come and mingle with friends or make new ones. There will be prize drawings, giveaways, and a really good time! Then, of course, we will be having our Saturday night RITA bash to honor all of our RITA and Golden Heart finalists and winners. Lots of food, drinks and fun. So, whether you want to attend a really cool party, or you just need some down time–or you find yourself at loose ends and don’t want to sit in your room by yourself or cruise the bars looking for your pals, the OCC suite is there for you. Come and help out, or just come and hang out. It’s going to be a blast!
A Slice of Orange is an affiliate with some of the booksellers listed on this website, including Barnes & Nobel, Books A Million, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords. This means A Slice of Orange may earn a small advertising fee from sales made through the links used on this website. There are reminders of these affiliate links on the pages for individual books.
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A Slice of Orange is an affiliate with some of the booksellers listed on this website, including Barnes & Nobel, Books A Million, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords. This means A Slice of Orange may earn a small advertising fee from sales made through the links used on this website. There are reminders of these affiliate links on the pages for individual books.