Home » , , , , , , » The Callahans (Prequel - Tempted By A Texan Series) by Laurie LeClair

The Callahans (Prequel - Tempted By A Texan Series) by Laurie LeClair

Reaching over, Annie Callahan turned up the knob on the kitchen radio and danced to the snappy tune. “’Bout the bass,” she sang, wiggling her hips.

A cough from behind her startled her. Whipping around, she stared at the older man.
The Callahans (Prequel - Tempted By A Texan Series)
The Callahans (Prequel - Tempted By A Texan Series) by Laurie LeClair
“What is he doing here?” she asked the moment she saw him fully enter her kitchen. “He’s nothing but trouble, if you ask me.” “Gran, I invited him.” Travis, her oldest grandson, held up his hands and intervened. “He’s helping me with the tractor this morning.” “Geezer,” she muttered, going back to her task. In the meantime, she lowered the radio, but still sang a line or two. Clutching the basket of fresh biscuits as the two men stomped their boots on the rug near the back door, and then headed for the long rancher’s kitchen table, she watched. “Mean, I tell you.” The old man shook his head, his graying hair clean and short. But he looked over his shoulder and caught her eye, winking. “Two can play at that game,” Gran muttered under her breath. She sashayed over to the table, plopped the basket down and noted how he had shaven today. She scowled at him. He cleaned up nicely. But why in the middle of the week? He usually left that chore for church on Sunday. He had a nice firm jaw, sparkling blue-gray eyes and a wicked smile. Not that she noticed or anything. Not that she looked at him closely over the last five decades or anything. Her neighbor irritated her to no end. “Travis, honey, can you round up those brothers of yours for me?” she asked sweetly enough. “They’re coming. Slow as molasses, but they’re on their way from the barn.” Well, there went that idea to get the geezer alone and give him a piece of her mind again. She sighed, and then turned and went back to the stove. “Cassie should be here tomorrow afternoon. My, it will be nice to see my girl.” Travis grunted. “Another one for me to get after.” But there was a smile in his voice. He may be the oldest and the least to show his emotions, but he did love his five siblings. And he missed his sister the most. Gran stirred the hash browns, cut the heat on the eggs, and then dished out the sausage patties to the serving plate. “She’s been gone far too long. Time for her to come home.” “Don’t you mean, time to get her hitched, woman?” the geezer asked. “You’ve been itching to get all your grandchildren married off.” Her back stiffened. “I need to see them settled before I die. Is that a crime?” He chuckled. “You’ve been ‘dying’ for at least ten years now.” Nodding to Travis, he asked, “Starting with this one here?” “That’s my business, old man. Not yours. About time you mind yours, don’t you think?” She twisted the knob on the stove, and then hefted the pan of eggs and slammed it on the waiting mat on the counter. “Silly old man, you never worried about any of us,” she muttered. “I heard that,” he snapped. “Look—” Four young men came rushing through the back door, causing a ruckus. They were talking loud and laughing, making her smile. Her grandsons trampled in. Each one stopped long enough to kiss her on the cheek, wish her a good morning, and then they lined up to wash their hands. Their voices filled the awkward silence between the geezer and her. Travis rose and came to the stove, lifting the heavy pan of oatmeal for her. He held on while she spooned it into the serving dish. “Easy, Gran,” he murmured, but they both knew it wasn’t about the food; it had everything to do with the man he’d invited to breakfast. When she finished, he put down the big pan. She snorted. It was always the way with Travis: trying to be the man of the family, taking the lead in a charged situation, and bringing peace. It began the day over ten years ago when his parents died in a plane crash one hundred fifty miles away. He was just a young, carefree college boy until that moment. Without any one asking, he chose to become a man that day. Her sigh shuddered out of her, letting go of the long standing bickering with geezer as memories of losing her son and his wife in that crash rushed up. Raising their six children on her own had been a necessary blessing. “No need getting my panties in a wad, is there?” His chuckle warmed her chilly heart. “Visual, Gran. How many times have I begged you not to give me those visuals?” Annie smiled, quick and easy. “I’ve got to get you to loosen up somehow, don’t I?” “Let’s find another way, all right?” He leaned down and kissed her on her temple. “Here, let me help you with this.” He grabbed for the dish and just then his brothers came in. Travis handed Colt the oatmeal, Quinn the sausage, and told Ethan to wait for the eggs. “Plates, Luke.” He nodded to the stack. “Yes, sir,” he said with a big grin on his face. Travis shook his head, and then directed the boys to place everything on the sideboard. In minutes, they’d filled their plates and were seated at the long, scarred and worn table. “Say grace, Quinn,” Travis ordered. “Grace,” the youngest brother shot back. “All right. I was just kidding. You don’t have to shoot me that scary look of yours.” “I’ll do it, if you don’t mind,” the geezer offered. Gran jerked her head up and eyed him closely. “Suit yourself.” But the twinkle in his eyes did strange things to her. She brushed it aside, knowing a seventy-three-year-old woman raising six grandchildren shouldn’t be thinking the things she was thinking right now. His smile stretched from ear to ear before he bowed his head. “Lord, thank you for this fine woman who cooks like a dream, even with a scowl on her brow.” She grit her teeth. “And, Lord, thank you for the mighty fine boys sitting here. You sure did a good job with them. Oh, yeah, Annie did, too.” Peeking from under her lashes, she watched her grandsons glance at one another, wondering what would come next. “Now, I know you’ve got plenty of prayers to answer, and I’ve asked this one dozens of times already, but, if you’ve got a spare minute or two, could you just take that foul mood and the constant meddling out of this old woman once and for all. Amen.” Snapping her head up, she said, “Geezer, no one but you could ruin a prayer.” Her grandsons tried to hide their smiles, but she knew those sly looks like the back of her hand. “Thanks, Gran.” Travis began to eat and moaned. “Best cook in town.” The other boys agreed between tastes of each dish. “Divine,” Geezer said, smacking his lips, but looking directly at her. “Shut up, you old coot,” she shot back. “Foul, I tell you, simply foul.” “Stop buttering me up.” She sent him a tight smile. That shameful man smiled widely and winked at her again. She narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out what he was up to this time. Annie Callahan would not stand for any of the geezer’s shenanigans. Not ever again. Chapter 2 Travis Sitting in the quiet, peaceful office, Travis Callahan heard his brothers’ boot steps clattering down the stairs and then the door slam. Another night out. He gazed down at the pile of paperwork in front of him. Sighing heavily, he sat back in his chair. “How am I ever going to get them to take this seriously?” Blowing out a hot breath, he went back to the computer and started plugging in the figures from the receipts. In the back of his mind, he calculated just how much each business raked in over the last week. As the head of the Callahan clan and business, Travis had diversified over the last few years. When his siblings came of age, they were given an opportunity to be responsible for their own business within the ranch. Breeding cattle and horses, running a thriving saddle shop, raising goats, growing fruit and vegetables to sell at their farmers’ market, cultivating fields of lavender for bath products and teas, and promoting all of it were huge endeavors and big risks to take on an established ranch. His sister seemed aware of that fact, as she traveled extensively to get the Callahan name known and products on shelves. His brothers, not so much. Now, if only they’d treat it not so much as a playground and more like a much-needed addition to their family business, Travis would be happy and could relax a little about the state of affairs of the bustling property. Travis thought giving them their own segment of the ranch, something to carve out and make their own, would corral their energies and keep their attention for more than ten minutes. It hadn’t. “Maybe Gran is right…” “What’s that?” Gran stood at the door with a tray; two steaming mugs and a plate of cookies sat on top. “I’m right?” Rising quickly, he went to take the heavy tray from her. “You heard.” She came into the big book-lined library and office and eased into one of the tan and white cattle-hide chairs across from his as he placed the tray on the desk and handed her a mug of hot chocolate. “And? You going to tell me the rest?” “The boys and Cassandra. Maybe it is time to get them married off. Settle them down.” He took the coffee and sat back down. “You, too.” She nodded. “‘Bout time you set an example.” He cringed inwardly. Marriage? That involved spending precious time away from the ranch business and wooing someone. In all practicality, he realized someday he’d have to find a wife. He wanted kids. To him, that meant having a wife, a partner in life, to have them with and raise them together. But all the women he’d known—some he’d dated—in the end wanted more. Much, much more than he could give them. His heart would stay intact. Emotions were foolhardy and dangerous. Look where it had gotten his parents. On a besotted whim, his father had arranged to extend their trip to the cattle rancher’s meeting in Fort Worth and dash over to Vegas, giving his beloved wife a taste of the high life, or so Travis recalled the excuse. Chartering a private plane, one his father hadn’t checked out, all due to his mother’s dislike of crowded airports, changed everything. The rash decision had cost them their lives and had landed their six orphaned children on their elderly grandparents’ doorstep. Travis dropped out of college to care for them all. As the oldest, he felt it was his duty. He’d done it then. And was still doing it. Marriage could wait. He had to take care of his family. “Them first.” Travis could easily make that excuse. “Then I can concentrate on a personal life.” Like he really wanted to at this point. Work was his life. Gran smirked. “Don’t think I don’t know you’re dodging this.” “You know me so well.” He smiled back before he took a sip of the fragrant black brew. Its hot, bitter flavor suited him at the moment. “What about you? You game?” She laughed out loud, nearly spitting out her hot chocolate. Coughing a few times, she finally cleared her throat. “You’re looney tunes if you even think that. I’m set in my ways. And I’m not about to train another husband…” “Gramps,” he said wistfully. He had a soft spot for the man who had taken Travis under his wing and schooled him on the ranch and especially life. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “The way he was, that is.” “Gran, can’t you try to be happy?” “Who says I’m not? That geezer you dragged in this morning?” Smiling, Travis said, “Fireworks whenever you two come within ten feet of each other.” “More like gun fire. If only I’d had my rifle handy…” “Whoa now!” Travis held up his hands. “He’s our chief mechanic round these parts. You can’t be putting him out of commission or we’ll all suffer.” “That’s the only thing that keeps me from strangling the poor buzzard.” Travis rubbed a hand over his face. “Oh, Gran. Why do I have to be the grown-up around here?” “And I’m not?” “You’re my biggest worry.” She stuck out her tongue. “Am not!” His grandmother had just proved his point. Somehow, she turned a blind eye to her own antics and still denied it. He grew serious. “What’s going to happen to you when you marry all of us off?” Her face fell. His heart hitched. “I’ll still be useful.” But doubt clouded her words. “Of course you will be.” She would still find a way to meddle in their lives. He could be certain of that. “Great-grandkids will come along.” Her face brightened up at that. Placing her mug down, she rubbed her hands together. “That’s it! Now, who shall we start with first?” That gleam in her eye scared him. “Babies?” “Spouses! Don’t worry, Travis. I’ll save you for last.” He shuddered, hoping she’d be too vested in his siblings’ affairs to keep her sights off him. If only… She grabbed a pencil and piece of paper and began to scribble a list. Her mumbles worried him even more. Watching her, he noted her short graying blonde hair in soft waves brushing along her forehead and her drawn-in brows and her tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth. It clued him into her intense concentration. Trouble! Could he stop her? Business needed to come first and foremost. Two hundred thousand acres of land, the animals raised there, the planted crops, and the staff who did all the hard work needed his upmost attention. That and starting interior businesses for his siblings to run stretched his resources. With Gran in the mix, playing matchmaker, this could end up being detrimental to his plans. What had he started? “Now, the way I see it, we start with Cassie. It’s time she came home for good and made a home.” Looking up at him, she tapped the yellow number 2 pencil against her lips. “Who would we get for her?” “A business?” he asked hopefully. Yes, bringing his sister off the road would do wonders for his grandmother’s heart and ease her worry about her granddaughter. His sister, strong and stubborn, might resist. Sandwiched between her three older brothers and two younger ones, she’d fought for her opinions and ideas to be heard. And won. “Give her something that’s hers,” he suggested. “A man should provide for her.” His grandmother’s old-fashioned views made him smile. “You going to inform her? Good luck with that.” His grin widened. His sister had taught him quite a bit about women standing on their own two feet. “You didn’t help matters.” “It wasn’t like I had a choice. I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and got on with raising all of you. There was no other way.” He contemplated that for a few moments. “You did a good job, Gran. We’re Callahans to the core. You instilled that in us. Family. Integrity. Pride.” “Damn right I did. Now, who the hell are we going to find for Cassie?” Something nudged him. Perhaps it was a pang of guilt. “Maybe we shouldn’t be arranging the man for her.” “A prenup.” She went back to her list, scribbling some more. “For all of you.” “A standard Callahan prenup?” He joked, but by the look on her face she took it into consideration. “Hmm…won’t work. You have more control, so yours is more important. Good that you’ll be the last one married off. That gives me more time to work on your papers.” He sat up. “Gran. This is foolish.” It sank in. “We can’t control the boys and Cass even now. What makes you think we’ll have any say-so in selecting their spouses?” “Don’t you worry your pretty little head off, Travis. I have a plan.” He groaned. “The last time you had a plan, we nearly lost half of our profits for the year.” “We earned them back and more,” she countered. “With a heap of scrambling on my part,” he muttered, recalling her madcap idea of buying a herd of goats, milking them, making cheese, and selling both. He’d objected. She’d persisted. It worked beyond her wildest predictions. “We’re a good team. You and I are going to get those pesky siblings of yours hitched, if it’s the last thing I do.” An image of a bull standing its ground and digging its hooves in place flashed through his mind. “Oh, I’m in trouble now.” “That smart mouth of yours will get you in hot water, sonny.” She chuckled. Sitting on the edge of her seat, she asked, “Do you want to hear it or not?” Travis spread out his hands. “Give it to me.” She drummed her index fingers on the desk. “Drum roll…Why, we start a weekend singles getaway!” He dropped his hands to the desk top. “A what?” “Dude ranch singles mingles weekend.” “Here?” “Where else? We can redo the empty bunk house. Bring men and women for a three- or four-day weekend. Match-make them. Get them out on the land, camping, trail riding even, camp cooking. Down and dirty.” “No, no way. It’s another business venture with an outlay of capital.” “Cassie would be in charge. Her travel contacts, marketing and promotion skills, added to her ranch skills…” His grandmother brushed her hands together as if it were a done deal. “Perfect match. And we’ll find the man for her.” “Gran, you’re not kidding, are you?” Her wide grin said it all. His heart dropped. She’d stop at nothing. When the time came, what lengths would she go to in order to find him a wife? Chapter 3 Cassandra (Cassie) Cassandra Callahan threw a handful of clothes in her already stuffed suitcase. “You can’t go,” he whispered, coming up behind her and hugging until she stopped. His warm, strong arms felt so good. He nuzzled her cheek. Cassie sighed, giving in to the yearning sensation. “I have to.” Her body contradicted her words. Turning her face, she met his lips. Gentle pressure turned quickly into a hungry, desperate need. She reached out, cupping his face and then slipped around in his arms. Cassie allowed him to gather her close against his bare chest and deepen the kiss. “I…can’t help myself when it comes to you.” The scrape of his five o’clock shadow sent a surge of desire through her. She wanted him again. He moaned, taking and giving at the same time. His lips, warm and firm, slid along hers. “My flight. I’m late.” She gasped as she broke away. “Be later.” He stopped, pulling back until she met his warm brown gaze. Cassie’s breath hitched. She licked her swollen lips. “Better yet. Don’t go,” he said softly, hope shining in his dark eyes. She memorized his features, allowing herself to take in every nuance. Strong, wide face with the small dimple in his chin… Her nerves tingled. “If only…” Leaning close, he kissed the tip of her nose, her forehead, and then her eyelids. “Tears, Cassie? You?” He licked them up and then kissed her again. The taste of her salty tears shook her. She did not cry, not at the little things, sometimes not even at the big things. She recalled the day the principal had knocked on her sophomore classroom door, the brief intense exchange between him and her English teacher followed. They found out. It wasn’t hard in a small ranching community. News like that spread like wildfire. But, in the early morning hours, she snuck away from the ranch, wanting to take her English exam, and longing to have one last sense of normalcy in her life before the world discovered and pitied her and her brothers. Her teacher and principal looked back over their shoulders at her. The shattered look in her favorite teacher’s eyes when she’d called her in to the hall to tell Cassie her parents had died in a tragic plane crash seared in her memory. I know. I wanted to forget. For just a moment. Her numb mind went on autopilot. Hushed words came: an offer to help, and permission to cry. But tears hadn’t come then. So why now? Why with him? “One more night?” A fresh curl of heat tugged at her. She bit back on a moan. “And then?” Will that be enough? “We meet again.” A wistful smile lifted the corner of her mouth. “Bits and pieces? Is that all we have?” With everything in her screaming in protest, Cassie dropped her hands to his arms, her fingers wrapping around his thick, muscular biceps. She swallowed hard and shoved away. He released her, stepping back. “That’s your choice.” “My family comes first. You know that. You’ve known that for years.” “At the exclusion of all else.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact. He dragged his hands through his dark, wet hair. A groan bubbled up inside her. He could be on one of those calendars. Hot. Chiseled. “Cass, you’re throwing us away.” She avoided his direct stare. Gulping hard, she nodded. Turning away, she finished packing, shoving and jamming clothes and shoes in the nooks and crannies of her check-in suitcase. Aware of the yawning silence, she glanced over her shoulder. He was gone. She twirled around to see his broad, stiff back as he walked out of the room. There would be no intimate goodbyes this time. Her heart clutched. *** The packed flight dragged on, uneventful and tedious. Five hours later, the wheels touched down on the tarmac and Cassie itched to depart. Back in Texas now, she ached to see Gran and brothers and then head to the horses on the ranch. She’d been gone too long this trip. He’d played a role in her tardiness by two days. His West Coast flight delays in getting to meet with her in New York made her want to see him even more. Their brief meetings scattered all over the country weren’t enough any longer, for either one of them. She craved him. That frightened her. A few minutes later, Cassie crossed the noisy Austin Bergstrom Airport, snagged a ride on the escalator, and, looking down, she smiled widely when she saw her oldest brother waiting near the luggage carousel for her. “Travis,” she squealed, rushing to him. Turning to her, she caught his flash of a smile. Several women nearby stopped, turned, and murmured. Yes, her big brother caught the attention of many, but none were returned. Cassie threw her arms around him. “I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since I’ve seen you.” He scooped her up in a hug, lifting her off her feet. “Little sister, you’re a sight for sore eyes.” Lowering her back to the floor, he asked, “You all right?” He flicked a finger under her eye. “Not sleeping?” That was Travis for you. Always seeing too much, like the things she wanted to hide. “Long trip, boring flight…” She shrugged, not wanting to tell him she’d walked away from this incredible guy she’d been secretly seeing for ten months. The long distance and not meeting families was a bone of contention between them, so much so it had become a very sore subject and they’d skirt around it until they couldn’t any longer. Looking away, she spotted her suitcase coming around the conveyor belt. “That one’s mine.” Travis shouldered his way through the bustling crowd and easily snatched it up in one hand. Coming toward her, he grinned. “What did you do, pack everything you own in this thing?” He lifted it up, making it seem light as a feather. “Rocks? Bricks?” She jabbed him in the arm. “Funny. I did buy some shoes.” Wincing inwardly, she did not want to look at that receipt again. “Ah, shoes.” He shook his head. “Was it worth it?” Recalling her shopping trip reveal to him in nothing but her ridiculously high glittery silver heels and his reaction, she’d say yes indeed. Warmth bathed her cheeks and she looked away. “Worth every penny.” But would she ever be able to look at them again or even wear them now after the amazing love-making that came next and she’d never have again? *** With Travis behind the wheel of his truck and Cassie settled in the passenger seat, she clutched the handle. “Don’t worry, we’ll be out of this traffic soon enough,” he soothed. “With all your traveling, you’d think you’d be used to the horns honking, cars nearly cutting you off, fingers flipping—” He slammed on the brake as some fool in a Smart car wasn’t acting so smart. Her knuckles turned white. “Most places I hire a driving service and try to ignore it.” She glanced down at a little car beside her. “Eww! I don’t think that old guy has pants on.” She shuddered at the sight of his scrawny legs and even scrawnier…uh…you-know-what. “In this big thing, I can see way too much of everything.” He chuckled. “We’ve got another thirty minutes before we’re out of the city, off the highway, and headed on the back roads to home. Give me ten seconds and your mind will be off this mess.” Snapping her head around to look at him, she glanced at his profile. “What is she up to now?” “Ah, you know Gran so well.” His quick smile appeared to soften the blow. “Her sights are on you.” “Me? What have I done?” Her heart skipped a beat. Had Gran guessed at her love affair? Even two thousand miles away, she was sure to find out if only she was concentrating on her granddaughter. Her grandmother’s focus was legendary. “She’s got me in her crosshairs! Oh crud!” “Wants you off the road.” Now why did it seem as if he wasn’t telling her everything? “She’s been after me for the last year to ditch it and hire someone to take over for me.” So what’s new? “She’s got a business venture she wants you in charge of.” “Existing? Or new?” “Brand spanking new, kiddo.” Inwardly, she smiled at the nickname her big brother had given her. But she frowned at the thought of a new business. “You are going to tell me, aren’t you? You’re not going to make me wait for Gran to tell me, are you?” “Dude ranch.” “Huh?” “You will run a dude ranch. With your marketing skills and connections, you can get it up and running and booked in no time. Four months should do it. Just in time for spring.” Cassie peppered him with questions, but he held up his hand and said he’d save the details for Gran to explain. Curiosity poked at her. “Why?” “Brings you back home.” It sunk in. She’d be off the road. No more traveling. No more weeks away. No more him. She sucked in a sharp breath. It nearly cut her in two. If she were alone, she’d have doubled over from the pain. But she blinked the tears smarting her eyes and let out a slow, steady breath. Somehow they’d both known they couldn’t go on like this any longer. She wouldn’t budge to his suggestion. And she wouldn’t compromise her ideals. But this was real. This was a definite, clear-cut ending. There would be no more chance or engineered meetings on the road, in airports, or in hotel rooms. How was she going to live without him in her life? *** “My sweet Cassandra!” Gran cried as she rushed to her, hugging her close. Cassie held on tight. Her grandmother may be in her seventies, but her strength could match anyone half her age. “Gran,” she whispered, fighting back tears. Again? She was never like this before. “I missed you.” The one person she needed right now with the no-nonsense, straight to the heart of the matter talk didn’t even know what she’d been hiding all these months. Inhaling, she caught the combination of rose water and cinnamon. She giggled. “You’ve been baking again.” Pulling back, Gran cupped her cheeks in her hands, saying, “Your favorite.” She kissed her on the cheek. “Now come on and tell your Gran about all your adventures.” She turned to look at Travis coming around the truck with her suitcase in hand and then looked at her grandmother. “Oh, I hear you’re the one cooking up a new venture for me.” “Travis Callahan, why did you go and spill the beans?” “Just some. Not all. That’s up to you.” He ushered them in to the kitchen door. A few minutes later, as Cassie sipped the warm honey lemon tea, she gazed at her grandmother with raised eyebrows. The woman must have turned five shades of pink and nudged a big cinnamon roll in her direction. “Here, take a bite. I swear I outdid myself on this batch.” Her oldest brother came back in the room from taking her suitcase upstairs and pulled out the chair at the head of the table. The legs scrapped along the wide planked gleaming wood floors. He plunked down and accepted the treat his grandmother handed to him. “Spill it, you two.” Cassie’s nerves jumped, assuming there was even more to it than Travis had hinted at. “A dude ranch?” “You told,” Gran accused Travis, turning sharply to him. “Just that part.” The look they exchanged made her hairs stand on end. “Gran, what’s this all about?” The older woman hmmphed. “Well, if you must know, you’ll be in charge, of course.” “Of?” She narrowed her eyes as her gran looked down at the table and straightened the nonexistent wrinkles from the napkin. “It’s progress. It’s perfect for you.” She gulped down her tea and nearly sputtered. Travis reached over and thumped her on the back. She wheezed and coughed. “Gran?” “No need to worry, dear,” she whispered, taking a sip this time. “It’s just so exciting.” “Annie Callahan, what in the world do you have up your sleeve this time?” Her weak smile should have made her sympathetic, but the gleam in her gran’s eyes put her on notice. “Just a little get-together, on weekends, here at our new dude ranch.” Frowning, she asked, “Get-together?” Why didn’t this sound so simple? “Matchmaking,” Travis said, sitting back and smiling. “Singles mingles,” Gran corrected. “What better way for two people to get to know each other but in nature? Horseback riding, camping under the stars, singing around the campfire…” Shaking her head, she said, “No. No way. A singles weekend? Me? You want me to be a part of fixing up couples on our ‘dude ranch’ experience?” The last thing in the world Cassie needed was to be around a bunch of smitten, horny people trying to get it on in front of her when she was trying to get over a broken heart. “Gran, what have you done to me?” Chapter 4 Colt Colt Callahan rode his paint horse along the ridge of the property. He took pride in the great stretch of land, dotted with oak and cedar trees his family owned. If he had his druthers, he’d be riding, roping, and training the horses all day, every day. But business was business. And he had to do his part for his family. “Yo,” Nolan, his foreman, called to him as he guided his horse toward him. “Got a fence post down on the north side.” “Send the twins out to fix it. They ride the fastest and they’ll get it done by nightfall.” “Yep. Will do.” He swung his horse around and Colt nudged his to match the other one’s strides as they headed back. “New filly in town. You up for a night out with the other ranch hands or does the boss got standards now?” He couldn’t imagine who it was. Hardly any new folks moved to this little ranching town in Texas. Not single females anyway. “There’s a story there, I’m sure.” “Ripe for the picking.” “Not interested.” “What with you being a married man and all,” Nolan baited. Ex married, formerly married, or whatever people called it. “Divorced.” That one word snapped out of him like a whip hitting the hard ground. It still stung. By now, he and Molly should be married with a couple of kids and right on track. He wanted a family, longed for one. But she decided otherwise. It felt like someone punched him in the belly every time he thought of what he could have had. Married a day after high school graduation, Molly and he were love-struck teenagers hell-bent on proving they could make it work in spite of the dire predictions of her parents. Six years later, she’d raced out to him on horseback, confronting him. Their marriage was over. Just like that. He’d never seen it coming. There was no other man. They’d married too young. She wanted more than to be a housewife and a ranch wife. He breathed in sharply through his nose and reared back, like a threatened horse. In a matter of hours, she was hightailing it out of his life. “Maybe she’ll like you best of all,” his friend joked. “They seem to go for the hard to get ones. The challenge, I guess.” Colt grunted. This had been a longstanding up-for-debate conversation between them. “I’m not playing that game, Nolan. You want her, you go get her. Leave me out of it.” “Come on. What are friends for anyway?” “I’m nobody’s bait. Got that?” It had taken some time before he realized some of his single guy friends dragged him along to put him on display. Quietly drinking a brew and with his head down, the ladies flocked to his side. He’d gently decline and then his friends would swoop in for the dance and more if they got lucky. “Geez, what the hell is eating you?” “Not a thing.” He tipped his hat, tugged on the reins, and then guided his horse toward the barn. When Nolan kept complaining and then calling out, Colt nudged his horse into a saunter, easily putting distance between them. It took him another hour before he brushed his horse, fed him, and then cleaned himself up in the little cabin he’d built for him and his wife years ago. “Molly.” He whispered her name. The echoing silence seemed to throb in the cabin, like it, too, missed her. “Stop talking to yourself, Callahan.” Looking in the mirror, he combed his fingers through his wet sandy brown hair and then allowed himself to meet his own gaze in the reflection. Lonely. Achingly lonely. He pulled back, not realizing until this moment that it resided so deep. Surrounded by four brothers, a sister, a grandmother, and beloved ranch workers, cattle, horses, and all sorts of animals all his life, Colt should be the least alone person on the planet. But he wasn’t. All he longed for was his wife back, a couple of rug rats running around making god-awful noise, and the life he dreamed he’d have with Molly. A life filled with love and happiness. But he had none of that and only work and more work. Work he cared about. Work he excelled at and had made a huge name for himself in the breeding and training arena. The accolades seemed hollow now. An ache a mile wide shot through him. “Maybe after Cassie’s homecoming dinner, I will head on out to the bar.” A smile flickered across his lips. “Life’s too short. Time to start living again, Callahan. Hard and fast.” Chapter 5 Lucas (Luke) Lucas Callahan took a swig of his beer and welcomed the taste of the ale. He set the bottle down on the bar with a dull thud. “You buying?” Vic plopped down in the bar stool beside him. He smacked his lips. “Thirsty.” Luke chuckled. “When aren’t you?” He nodded to the bartender. “Two more, Len.” “Coming right up,” he called out, acknowledging the drink order while he served the pretty little lady at the end of the bar. He tapped his friend on the arm. “Over there, Vic. Isn’t that Cricket Montgomery?” “No sh—” He stopped himself. “All dolled up, too. You making a play?” Rearing back, he said, “Me? I’m not into stealing fresh fillies out from under the teats of their mommas. She’s barely legal.” “I got no shame. I’ll give it a shot.” “You may get shot for trying,” Luke mumbled under his breath as he took another swallow of brew. His friend didn’t hear or didn’t pay him no mind; he sauntered over with a swagger in his walk. Their murmured exchange reached him, but the words did not. For a weeknight, the bar was only a quarter full. Most of the patrons were shooting pool, the balls clicking together and then clunking into the holes of the table. Some guys were at tables, eating and watching a game on the television. But her, she was the only girl in sight. Surprisingly, the conversation lasted quite a bit. “Go figure. Vic’s got more than a couple cuss words to share.” He grinned. His drinking buddy from the neighboring ranch may get lucky after all. It was about time. The grisly bearded Victor struck out about ten times more than he scored. The bartender set down the two bottles. He tilted his head toward the new couple. “Been in every night this week. Soda on the rocks. No booze. Stays until we close down. Never goes home with any of them, either.” He shrugged. “Tight-lipped around me. Not telling her story.” “Local girl. She’s been gone since high school. Three or four years, I suppose.” “Round over here,” one of the two ranch hands watching the last half of the game called out. His team sunk the shot and he cheered, ribbing his buddy. “Coming up!” To Luke, he said, “Keep an eye on her, will ya?” He didn’t agree or disagree; however, he thought it was strange Len would ask him of all people. Back in the day, he’d have tried it himself. Now, he had more of a radar when it came to trouble. Too bad Vic didn’t. The girl sitting at the end of the bar wasn’t looking for just anyone. No. She had that gleam in her eye every time the door opened. She was waiting on someone. Someone who didn’t seem to give a damn about her, too. Or he’d have found her nights ago. Luke grunted. He snagged the two bottles between his fingers. They clanked together and he headed for a nearby table and the show. Twenty minutes later, leaning back and with his booted feet propped up in a chair and crossed at the ankle, Luke watched the two people at the end of the bar. “He’s a regular Casanova,” he murmured as his friend touched her arm lightly and she giggled in return. “Maybe she found what she was looking for.” With that, he tipped the last of the bottle to his lips and drained it dry, and then plunked it back down on the rustic tabletop. At this angle, he could watch the game and the couple, so he laced his fingers behind his head and smiled. “Yo, brother,” Cassie called out, coming up and nudging his arm. “Hey, Cass,” he said, looking up in surprise. “Fancy you being here.” They’d only had a few minutes to chat earlier, but he was glad she’d found him here. He nodded to the chair to the left of his. “Pull up a seat.” “Not cramping your style?” She looked around. “Where’s all the women in this place?” She plopped down and reached for the second beer. “Don’t mind if I do.” “Help yourself,” he said a tad late. “Oh, yeah, you already are.” “You always liked the good stuff,” she said, holding out the bottle to read the label. “Gran’s at it again.” “Didn’t take long. What’s she up to now?” Did he really want to hear it? She brushed back her long, wavy blonde hair and shot him a grimace. “You’re off the hook for life. Play fast and loose and you get a free pass. She thinks she can’t catch you.” “Or pin me down.” He liked it that way. With his family, friends, and especially the women. “I got a whole lot of living and loving to do.” He grinned slyly. “And you’ve only just begun, right?” She shook her head. “Crap! I thought I could count on you backing me up on this one.” “Which is it now? Let’s see…Goat farming, milking, and making cheese. Nope, done that. Setting up a tourist center, horseback riding and roping tours…Nope, cross that off the list—” “Matchmaking weekends, with me leading the pack,” she cut him off. “What? At the ranch?” His gran really did have a wild imagination. “On the trail. Sort of a mix between a singles mingle and a dude ranch experience, or so she explained.” “Travis agreed?!” She smacked her hand on the table, jangling the bottles. “Can you believe it? He’s over there smiling from ear to ear, and I’m caught in her target.” “Oh, her baby. See what you get for being a girl among all us boys?” “Shut up, brother. I need your help and pronto.” “No way. Next thing you know she’ll be roping us all into getting hitched.” He jerked upright, dropping his feet to the floor. His sister’s wide eyes stared at him. “Tell me she’s not.” “You gotta stop her.” He tapped his hand on his chest. “Not this cowboy.” “You think I want to?” “Holy cow patty, Cass! You’ve got to stop her.” “As if anyone can. What are we going to do?” “Say no. Just say no.” She snorted. Well, it was a thought. “Delay. Distract. Dodge.” “We have four months until this thing happens.” “Colt’s the only one who put the ring on it. He still wants a bride and a couple of babies. Put him up to bat.” “Then what, Luke? She’ll go after the next one and the one after that until we’re all sunk.” He hung his head and shook it. “I need a drink. A real, honest-to-goodness one.” “Liquor is quicker,” she agreed. “Who’s that behind the bar? Lenny or Lonny?” “Len.” “They both look alike to me.” Shoving back her chair, she headed to the bar. “Double shots.” Luke rose and went to join his sister. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vic and Cricket waltzing by. She crashed into him. “Whoa! You all right, little girl?” “Girl?” She pulled back and craned her neck so she could look him in the eye. Even in her cowgirl boots, the top of her head barely came up to his shoulder. “You see a girl around here, Callahan?” “Nah, honey. Luke,” Vic said out of the corner of his mouth. “Don’t blow this for me.” Holding up his hands, Luke backed away. “My bad.” But she drilled him with her sharp green stare. Frowning, he said, “Say hey to your momma and daddy for me.” He actually liked her folks. They were good church-going country people who gave him a lift when his truck broke down a couple of months ago. Fire burned in her eyes. “Tell them yourself, Lucas Callahan. I’m not your messenger.” She stormed passed him and out the door. His buddy smacked him in the stomach. “Hey, what did you do that for?” “Do what?” He scratched his jaw, wondering what just happened. “Go on, make sure she gets home all right. And no touchy-feely, got it?” “Not like you wouldn’t try it on any girl who smiled your way,” he grumbled as he strode for the door. “I’m warning you, Vic.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Warn away.” That sly grin made the beer curdle in Luke’s belly. “She’s old enough to decide for herself,” Cass said, dragging him by the arm to her side at the bar. “Sit. Talk. Drink.” He gulped down the shot Len placed in front of him. “More,” he said hoarsely as the liquid fire burned down his throat. The second shot went down slightly easier. Cassie choked and he reached over to thump her on her back. “Thanks, brother.” “Plan. Need a plan.” “You’re better at this than I am. Hell, you’ve been rascally since the day you were born, Luke.” He smiled widely. “That I have been, sis.” Her scowl faded and her lips tugged up at the corners. “That’s it! We play along.” If he’d had a drink, he’d sputter right about now. “What?” He leaned over and grabbed her untouched second shot and downed it. Smooth. “We tell the other brothers—” “Not Travis.” “No, not him since he’s in on her scheme. We tell the others, turn it around on Gran.” Dawning sunk in. “I get it. We ‘fall’ for the wrong person and rattle her cage.” “Bingo, bro!” Len brought another round of shots. “Looks like you two need these.” “Best bartender in town,” Luke said. Turning to his sister, he raised his glass and she did the same with hers. They clinked them together. “Here’s to outfoxing the fox.” Trouble with a capital T just hit the fan. Chapter 6 Ethan Ethan Callahan flipped through the pages in front of him. “Temp’s good. Right on schedule,” Guy said, nodding to the vat of churning goat’s milk. “Numbers look good, too.” “Good idea your gran had buying the goats and all.” Shutting the book, Ethan looked at the young, eager kid they’d just hired to learn the goat cheese making process. “No need to kiss up to me.” He grinned at the stunned look on the young man’s features. No one expected Ethan to be blunt or funny. Ethan loved surprising people. “Ah…Mr. Callahan,” he stuttered, turning red. “Save it for Gran. She eats that stuff up.” He whistled as he exited the old building, leaving the silent, openmouthed kid behind. “Something I said, little brother?” Travis asked, pulling up in an ATV, the engine purred. Ethan shook his head and pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “New guy. Breaking him in.” Travis laughed. “Better him than me. Come on, I’ll take you back.” That could only mean one thing. His big brother wanted to talk business. Sliding in to the front passenger seat, he gripped the rail with his right hand and asked, “Give it up.” Stepping on the pedal, Travis steered them down the dirt lane. “Gran.” “What’s she up to now?” His voice held a mix of a smile and dread. “New venture. Pulling funds to make it happen.” “And what, may I ask, is this new venture?” He hoped it didn’t involve him. “I need you to run some numbers for me. She wants to bring in singles for a dude ranch matchmaking experience.” “What?! No. I’m not doing it. She roped me into the goat business.” “It’s your lucky day. Not so much Cassie’s.” He leaned back and laughed. His big sister had nothing to do with hookups and everything to do with marketing their ranch and its various businesses and products. When Travis remained silent, Ethan grew sober. “Come on. Matchmaking? Out here? Who’s going to want to do that? Dude ranch, yes. I admit, that would be plausible, even profitable.” His mind worked out the costs, roughly calculating the cash outlay. “Fix up the bunkhouse. Transportation from the airport, bus station, train… We’ve got the horses and some of the ranch hands can be guides or we hire a few more locals. Food. Campfire. Doable.” “Just add in the singles angle and you’ve got it.” He groaned. “She’s serious?” His head throbbed. “Insurance. Liability. What if we’re sued? You know, that alienation of affection or whatever they call it thing. Oh no, what about accidental pregnancies? Is she going to offer condoms, too?” Travis chuckled. “Your mind goes to some strange places, brother.” “It has to with a grandmother like ours.” “You ain’t saying anything I haven’t heard before about her.” “Or said yourself,” he added, cuffing his brother on the arm. “You got me.” “Travis, you going along with this load of horse shit?” Shrugging, he said, “Who can stop her?” “That’s what I was afraid of.” *** While his two oldest brothers turned the sizzling beef on the grill in the huge homemade barbeque pit, Ethan pulled his sister aside. “Spill it.” She looked at him as if he’d grown horns. ‘Trip was productive. Our clients in the East are happy with the Callahan barbeque sauce and rub. There’s a high interest in the goat cheese. They’ve gotten great feedback from their customers. I’ll email you the report later.” “Not that.” “You don’t want to hear about sales and money?” She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. “No fever.” “Quit it.” He brushed her hand away and leaned against the picnic table. “I’m not sick. Sis, you know about Gran and what she has planned for you. You all right with that?” “As if?” she mumbled as she stuck her hands on her hips to watch her sly grandmother meddle in the cooking process. “So what are you going to do about it?” “Not me, brother dear. Us.” “Us? Like how us?” “Luke and I are working on it. We’ll fill you, Colt, and Quinn in on it after we get it all mapped out.” “Smart not getting Travis in the mix. Big brother would surely blow it up.” Cass nudged his arm. “Tell me, Ethan, do you want to get married? Not like years from now. Months.” “To who?” He practically shivered in disgust at the thought. There were eligible women in this town, most older, some younger, but few his age. Quickly, he assessed the candidates and shook his head. “Dating, married, divorced. Not for me.” “So that’s a no.” She sighed. “Same here. Not ready. Don’t want to. Do I get a choice, though?” “Not with Gran.” Layer by layer, his sister’s concerns spilled over onto him. When Gran got a thought in her mind, good or bad, she wouldn’t let go of it. Look at how she’d pestered him for ages to get the milking goats; next it was they had too much for just the family—sell the milk; too much of that—so make cheese. It began little and had exploded in production in a matter of months. Now it was a whole entity onto itself. Ethan liked the numbers involved with the daily counts, readings, distribution schedule, and doing the books for this venture. “Gran’s scary,” he muttered. “Stubborn scary,” Cassie agreed, eyeing the smiling woman directing the oldest brothers on everything from the seasoning to the grill marks on the steak. He groaned. “I take that as you’re in with Luke and me, right?” “In it to win it our way. For once,” he said, but his conviction wobbled as Gran turned her full force on them. “What are you two up to now?” “Need-to-know basis, Gran. It’s a surprise. For you.” Oh, there would be hell to pay, one way or the other. Chapter 7 Quinn “Mom, Dad, how’s it going?” With his arms full of tools and fresh plants, Quinn Callahan halted in front of the weathered gravestones in the family cemetery on the Callahan ranch. “What a mess you two have gotten into since the last time I’ve seen you. That cold snap, rain, and wind didn’t do much good, I see. Leaves piled high.” He whistled as he cleared the brush out and plunked the soggy mess down in the nearby wheelbarrow to haul away. “Ladies first,” he said, swiping the gray speckled marble with a rag to get all the dirt off. Once finished, he did the same for his father’s side. “Better. But there’s more.” He tugged out the spray bottle and a clean cloth. “Shower time. Close your eyes now and I’ll get you all spiffed up in no time.” Quinn put some elbow into it and scrubbed the grime away. There were only two places where he felt the most peace: here and any place where he could sink his hands in the rich soil, digging, planting, and watching a seed transform into a stalk and then a flower or crop. But here, where his strong desire brought him close to them, he could be himself, talk about all his hopes and dreams of proving he could be a big part of honoring the Callahan name. At eleven, he’d had so little time with his parents before they’d died in that small plane crash. His memories did include the fun and laughter; however, it also hung onto the devastating loss and the aftermath. “Thanks to Gran and Gramps for taking us in, raising us, and keeping our heads on straight. “Okay, Mom, sorry I have to do this, but I need to get your backside.” He grinned, recalling how his dad would be the one Mom called in to wash her back when she took her nightly bath. “Yours, too, Dad. I’ll make it short and quick.” Shadows crossed the sky and soon dusk would fall. But Quinn kept at it until he’d polished every inch of the large combined stone. Next, he went to get the fresh plants. As he placed the new plants around the stone, he said, “Looking good, you two. Mom, it’s Saturday night, you’ve got your dancing shoes on? Dad, your boots shining? No decent cowboy would dare go to a dance without the dress-up cowboy hat and with his boots gleaming.” Behind him, he heard the motor. It halted a few feet away. Rising, Quinn brushed his hands off. A rock dropped into his belly. This was his private time with his folks. Now, someone invaded it. “Quinn?” Cassie asked. He blew out a hot breath. How could he be mad at his sister? “Cass.” She drew near. “You did a good job. As always.” Shrugging, he said, “Well, who else could make it look so pretty?” Cassie chuckled and jabbed him with an elbow. “Green thumb.” “Brown thumb,” he countered. “You and all your other siblings. You’d think they can raise the best horses and cattle in the region, but can’t get a plant to grow.” “They’re your siblings, too. When we decide to claim one another, that is.” Quinn grinned right along with her. “You’ve got Mom’s talent when it comes to growing things. Heard your lavender fields produced so much this last year that Gran’s putting you second in charge. Making soaps and lotions out of all the crops was brilliant. My clients ordered double for the holidays and sold out. So, I’d say, little brother, you’re a success.” He grunted, folding his arms across his chest. Looking at her now, he said, “Thanks, but second in charge is like being the first loser.” Frowning, she said, “Give it time. Gran likes to be in control.” “No kidding.” He shook his head and went back to gathering his gear. He’d seen her now and again over the last couple of days but not alone or for any length of time. “You here for a reason?” Her silence fell between them. “Why don’t you do that one, too?” “The…baby?” he choked out. She murmured. “He wasn’t even born. Just in Mom when they died.” Why couldn’t he bring himself to touch the small Angel stone? “Four months along.” She gulped hard; even he could hear it. “She hadn’t even told us yet.” “Before they left for the Vegas airport, they called. She told me they had a surprise for us…I can only imagine it was that.” “You never told us that! Why not?” “Eleven. Traumatized.” He shrugged. “Didn’t speak for a year.” “Quinn, you all right? I mean, Gran and the brothers say you come out here a lot, talk to them as if they’re real.” “Maybe because with a house full of yackety-yakking family this is the only place anyone listens?” He laughed, but deep down there was a kernel of truth there. “I see your point, brother. Now, tell you what, you join in with our plan against Gran, and I’ll listen to anything you have to say, anytime.” He held up his hands. “Oh no, you’re not roping me into one of your schemes, Cassandra Callahan. Been there, done that, got chewed out and then some.” “Come on, Quinn. All of us need to be on board with this or it’s not going to work.” The tools clattered together as he pitched them into the back of his beat-up pickup truck. “Work yours and it will surely derail mine.” Nothing could deter him from his dream of raising field after field of grapes for making wine, peach trees for pies and preserves, massive vegetable gardens, all kinds of flowers, and anything else he could legally grow. He, Quinn Callahan, knew deep down he was a farmer, not a rancher. “If you don’t even know it yet—” “Don’t need to, big sis. No one bests the best at her own game. Just ask Gramps.” She marched to his side and confronted him. “She’s going to marry us off. One by one. Until all six of us are sunk. By this time next year, she’ll be gloating as we’ll be reeling at how she pulled off the impossible.” He jerked back. “Marriage?!” The one word came out sounding as horrified as he felt. Her smile grew. “I knew you’d see things my way.” Quinn threw down his gloves. “Son of a biscuit!” Chapter 8 Gramps Whitfield Callahan peered out the kitchen window facing the big house. He could get at least six of his small cabins in that gigantic ranch house. Her light upstairs flickered on and off and on and off and then stayed on. “Hmm…” A smile curved his lips. Signal. He stayed staring at the house for what seemed like hours, but were only minutes. All the lights were out except that one beaming from the second floor. A short time later, he saw the shadowy figure slip out the back door and glide down the path connecting the two homes. Whitfield waited. His door opened with a squeak. “About time you did something about that, old geezer,” she grumbled, coming in without knocking or being invited. “Don’t like it, don’t visit.” Slowly, he turned and crossed his arms over his barrel chest. The lone nightlight in the kitchen bathed her in a buttery yellow light. Her hair was freshly styled, her body scrubbed and lotioned, too, he judged, by the lavender scent he inhaled. And the simple dress hugged her small waist, flaring gently to her knees. She jammed a hand on her hip. “You don’t want me here?” He arched an eyebrow. “No sassing. Not in my house.” Sticking a thumb over his shoulder, he said, “You run that one the way you want to, Annie Callahan. Have been for over twenty years now. But not this one.” She hmmped in defeat. “Never could get you to do what I wanted to do, old man. Why do you think I kicked you out?” “The happiest day of my life,” he baited. “Mine, too.” “Yes sirree. I can do as I please here. Leave the paper on the table, all spread out.” “And dirty dishes in your sink overnight,” she said, nodding to the few plates sitting there now. “Drop my socks and drawers wherever I please.” She wrinkled her nose. “And collect everything under the sun.” “Nothing wrong with a man needing things, knowing they’re going to be there when he needs them…” He gulped hard, realizing he revealed too much. “You need me, Geezer?” Her voice wobbled a tad. “Yep,” he admitted, but tacked on, “Tonight’s good for me. Seems like for you, too.” “That’s not what I meant and you know it.” “Good enough for now.” He wanted her. But not on her terms. It had been like that all their fifty plus years together. He dismissed the musings and came back to the here and now. Scratching his jaw, he asked, “What’s the song you were swinging to this morning?” Even from here he could tell she blushed, a slight one high on her cheeks. “I like it.” “Me, too. Sing it.” “It’s the bass one.” Smiling, she began to sing the snappy lyrics of the pop song and tap her foot. “Show me what you’ve got, Annie.” She did a few steps, singing along, and then twirled around and shook her backside to him. “’Bout the bass…” He chuckled, the first real one since she’d snuck out of his cabin two mornings ago. How long were they going to keep it a secret from everyone, especially their kin? How in the world did he and their grandmother tell their grandkids that Gran and Gramps were getting it on after all these years apart? Now, there would be some fireworks! From them or from his wife, he couldn’t be certain… THE END Here’s a sneak peek at Travis, Book 1 in The Tempted By A Texan series: TRAVIS TEMPTED BY A TEXAN – Book 1 Chapter 1 “What the—?” Travis Callahan gained the crest of the grassy hill. No, he wasn’t seeing things. Calico was down. He slammed the gear in place, shut off the engine, and then jumped out of his ATV. He took two steps and nearly froze. “Me and a horse?” he muttered. His shoulder throbbed with recalled pain just thinking of getting near one again, never mind one flailing around. The irony did not escape him. A rancher by trade, Travis, surrounded by animals, avoided the interaction; he’d always come out on the losing end. Her loud, desperate whinnies hit him in the gut. He couldn’t turn away from her agony. Travis rushed to the sick, writhing mare with his heart clenched. No, not that. Don’t feel. Just think! “Is she dying?” He dropped to his knees and shucked off his work gloves. Lifting her head, he found wide, glassy eyes and her tongue hanging out, along with her labored breathing. He gently laid her head down on the cold March ground and let his hands travel over the rest of her. Hot, clammy body; distended belly. “Easy, girl!” With a slight shake in his hands, he ran his palm over her sweaty coat. Hooves kicked from inside her. The mare thrashed. Travis dodged her legs at the same time he realized the foal was breech. Alone, he cursed his bad luck. Animals were his brother Colt’s forte, not his. Travis had sent him over a hundred miles away on ranch business. And why in the world had he let Luke go on that ten-day vacation anyway? Glancing around, Travis craned his neck to see the outbuildings, faded gray planks from years in the hot Texas sun, in the distance. Cattle grazed or lapped up water from the manmade pond in the valley. “Not a person in sight.” Where were all the ranch hands when he needed them? On a ranch a quarter of the size of a small state, couldn’t at least one or two hang back to lend a hand? Saturday night. What did Travis expect? They rode hard and worked even harder; this was their one night to cut loose. “There’s got to be somebody? Anybody?” Panic gripped him in his throat. His mission in life was to run the Circle C, his family’s ranch, and bring it back even stronger than ever before. Raising the best award-winning cattle in the state proved a round-the-clock endeavor. They were the mainstay of the ranch. Thanks to his brother, horses were becoming second. Travis made the deals, bought the top-of-the-line stock, hired the vendors and ranch hands and helpers, checked on the saddle shop business, tended to the finances, and ran a tight, well-run ship. It worked. Most of the time. He did not, and had not, been a hands-on animal handler. He left that chore to his four brothers and sister, when she was in town. It’s not that he didn’t like the creatures. No, they didn’t like him; every time he’d mount a horse, he’d been thrown. A hundred and one times and you’re out. Travis winced and rolled his left shoulder, recalling the near crippling tumble almost a year ago. Laid up for six weeks in a cast, he realized he’d tried taming his last one and centered all his attention on the running of the place. Now, that worked. With a lot of trimming the fat, pushing into profitable ventures, and reworking everything from the help to the computer programs, Travis steered the bull by the horns. Only now did he see they reaped those rewards with the continual positive attention the ranch gained these last few years. “Now this.” They couldn’t afford to lose their prized mare or her foal. Recalling the radio in the ATV, Travis rushed to it. “Callahan One to the ranch house. Gran, you there?” It took a few seconds, but her voice came over the line. “Travis? I thought you were in your office? Where are you, son?” “On the north side. Look, Calico is birthing early and breech. Get someone out here. I don’t care who—just get me some help. I don’t have the first idea what to do.” “Will do. Pronto! Be back in a flash.” Smiling at Gran’s words, he headed back to the horse’s side with the portable radio. Gran was a piece of work, but the one person who he and his younger siblings could always count on. Hadn’t she and Gramps taken them in and raised them like their own when his folks died in that plane crash? Hadn’t she stuck by them every step of the way? She had her schemes cooking most of the time, which he’d spent countless times trying to curb, but she’d been the glue to keep them together. The horse bellowed and Travis winced at the obvious shafts of pain shooting through the animal. “I’m here,” he soothed, patting her long neck. It went on over and over again, and sweat popped out on his forehead. He swiped at it and kept checking on the progress. Knowing he wasn’t cut out for this; he wished he was back at the ranch house, holed up in his office and on the phone to the vendors they worked with. Travis wasn’t a hands-on kinda guy, not when it came to four-legged creatures. The business end of things, yes: not the business end of animals. The radio crackled. “Travis, I got the vet’s new assistant patched through.” New assistant? When did Doc Ferguson hire someone for anything? “Mr. Callahan, I’ll walk you through the birth.” The warm, feminine voice jolted him. That and her words. He keyed the mic. “Aren’t you coming?” Her chuckle, light and brief, surprised him. “No can do. I’m up to my armpits in mud and other brown stuff at the moment. Mrs. Wheeler’s pig has a twisted colon. I love my job.” The hint of sarcasm brought a smile to his lips. He suppressed his own bubbling chuckle. Who was she and why hadn’t he heard there was a new assistant in their small town? Like his brothers and sister teased him, he needed to get out and about more. Paperwork was fine, but humans weren’t half bad once you got to know them. Or so they claimed. “You’re on your own until I can get some of the ranch hands over to you. If they haven’t all left, that is,” Gran said. “Go on, dear. Do your thing.” “Thanks, Mrs. Callahan. Now, Travis—I can call you Travis, can’t I? After all, you’re going to be blushing by the time I get through with you.” Heat bathed his cheeks already. Was she flirting? He definitely wasn’t used to a woman speaking like this to him. He mostly dealt with men, and the few women he did talk to were females he either grew up with or were all business like he was. His affairs, usually an extension of business relationships, were mutually convenient and brief, the way he liked it. They’d agreed until they got too close, or wanted more, and then he shut it down. The horse writhed again. “Call me whatever you want. Just tell me what I can do for the mare and her foal.” He shrugged off his coat, rolled it up, and placed it under Calico’s head. “You know where to find her vagina, don’t you?” the assistant asked a little too sweetly. “Why don’t you tell me where it is and what it’s used for?” Sarcasm went both ways. It was nearly two hours later, and after much dirty talk from the vet’s assistant, Travis, shoulder deep in the horse’s birthing canal, was able to coax the foal to the proper position and tug on two spindly legs and the body soon followed. Slimy and skinny, it slipped in his hands. He held it to his chest, getting soaked through with a mixture of watery blood and slime. At least it was still warm. “Travis? You got our baby out?” Exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, he laughed. Gingerly, he reached over and grabbed the mic. “Baby is good. Alive.” “Boy or girl?” “Don’t know.” “Look then. You know the difference, right?” “I’ve seen my share before.” “Stick or no stick?” He groaned. Travis shifted the animal and took a peek. “It’s a girl.” “Yeah! We had a little girl!” She cheered, choking up in the middle of it. Gulping hard, he frowned. Sniffles came over the line. “Nah, she couldn’t be,” he muttered. “Are you crying?” “Of course, I am. We saved her.” They did share that. But did she have to get all weepy about it? Travis didn’t do emotions, either. “What are we going to name our beautiful baby girl?” “Ours?” A sinking sensation shot through his gut. Not because she asked, but because he wanted to name this shivering little filly with her. His iron-clad policy of getting personal with anything outside of family shifted. “Ah, hell no…” Chapter 2 Skye Walker eased the old truck through the huge stone pillars guarding the Callahan property. With her jaw hanging open, she pressed her body forward and gazed up to see the long, intricate entwined pieces of arched wood proclaiming it the Circle C Ranch and lights, now off, were wrapped throughout. “Must be a sight when it’s lit up,” she murmured. She swallowed hard. “You can’t hide money.” Skye should know; her granddaddy had flaunted it to no end. His Caddie, classic and shiny red, blared wealth and power. The diamond on his pinkie sparkled whenever it hit the light. That and the custom suits and alligator boots he’d favored were crystal-clear memories she wished she’d forget. Oh yeah, and his criminal ways, too. Pressing her foot slightly down on the accelerator, Skye aimed the vehicle to get through the entrance and away from her troubling thoughts of what she’d recently run from when he resurfaced in her life. The creaky truck bumped along down the long gravel drive. Her heart hammered the closer she got to the huge stone and wood ranch house with the wrap-around porch with several white rockers on it. New to town, she’d yet to meet the Travis Callahan, oldest brother of the much-talked about rambunctious clan. However, she’d certainly heard many a story of the founding family of the quaint town and especially the son who’d lost his parents, kept the family intact, and brought the ranch back from near ruin, all before the ripe old age of thirty. Worth a pretty penny, the rancher seldom socialized, focusing on business and his family. Like a champion bull rider, his laser-sharp grit and determination earned him legendary status. The wagons full of gold and respect followed. A jab of longing shot through her as she drove past well-tended acres of fields, cows in the far-off pastures, well-worn barns and sheds, metal shoots for roundups and branding, and the horse corral with a half dozen prancing beauties in it. “You done good, Mr. Callahan.” Warm sensations tugged to life as flashes of when she was growing up on her great-aunt’s farm and the sight before her merged into a familiar ache. Surprise bumped on its heels; in all the years she’d been gone and all the places she’d been, Skye had never had this sweet feeling of home wrap around her like this land had. The brakes on Doc Ferguson’s truck squealed as she came to a halt near the front door and yards away from three trucks of various ages and wear and color. A few minutes later, Skye looked at the big oak door in front of her. The lump in her throat grew. Her knuckles stung from knocking. “This is a house? Cripes, it looks like a fortress.” Her nerves jumped at the increasing noise on the other side of the door. Would the Callahan clan, the most respected ranchers in Texas, be able to tell right away what a fake she was? Would Travis? He didn’t get to where he was without a lot of hard work and a whole lot more smarts. His voice and his laughter haunted her through the night. Why? The foal? Their sharing the tense moments? His disbelief at her tears made her smile. They were real, the only real thing about her now. Skye wasn’t even certain if Doc believed her story… The huge door swung open and three incredibly handsome young men, in their twenties, crowded in the wide opening, pushing and shoving each other. “Hey, hey, hey, I got it,” one of them said, and then shot her a big, easy grin. His blue eyes twinkled. And with his light brown hair rumpled as if he’d just woken up, he was quite endearing. “It’s a girl,” another chimed in. This one seemed like a slightly younger version of the first. “Haven’t seen many of those?” Skye asked with a chuckle. Really, you’d think they’d been riding the trail and hadn’t seen another human being in days. “Whoa, guys! Back down.” This advice came from a deep male voice behind the trio. His tall frame came into view. Close-cropped sandy brown hair and penetrating blue-gray eyes captured her full attention. She swallowed hard; she’d recognize that voice anywhere. Travis. Her baby daddy. But to see him for the first time was a sight to behold. At least six inches taller than the others, wide shoulders, and a commanding air, Skye felt her knees wobble. He’d finally gotten the guys to move aside and there he stood. His eyes, more gray than blue up close, scanned her, somehow taking her all in with one fell swoop. Heat warmed her where he gazed. “Mind if I return the favor?” She didn’t wait for his answer. She looked her fill. Nice, long body, trim—she’d bet good money there was a pack under that denim shirt—and a take charge kinda guy with his hands on his hips and his legs slightly apart. “You’ll do.” He frowned. “For what?” “Our baby’s daddy.” The sharp intake of breath sliced through the air. “The radio. Yesterday.” “What’s going on, Travis? You know her?” The third onlooker scowled, but it didn’t mar his good looks. This must be Colt, the brother people talked about in hushed tones. Sticking out a hand, she introduced herself to Travis. “Skye Walker. Do you like hyphenated names? You know, after we name the baby. Mine and your last names.” His lips twitched as he took her hand. His was big and strong and engulfed hers. Skye felt off-kilter. “No hyphens.” He arched an eyebrow. “Not in my world. She’s a Callahan.” “Okay.” She gulped at the strange sensation of having tunnel vision with him; everything in the background faded—the three other guys, their chattering, even the huge homey foyer of the ranch house, and whatever that delicious scent wafting from the back of the house happened to be. “But I get final say on her first name. Deal?” “No.” “Huh?” She tugged her hand back and curled her fingers into her tingling palm. “I mean, yes.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Wanna bet?” “Sure, if you like losing.”

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