Start reading this book:
April Grayson clenched her jaw and tried not to cry as she removed her personal stuff from the desk she had busted her ass at for the last five years.
Carefully, she put the picture frames of her sisters’ rodeo championships in the copier paper box the security guard had handed to her. He was busy watching the other four people who had gotten the axe during the morning meeting as they also packed up their things.
She wasn’t sure what she was going to do now. She was still numb. Her fingers shook as she took down the map of Europe. April had marked all the places where she wanted to go with a smiley-face pin. Panic flared again before she could keep a lid on it. She had carefully planned out a European cruise and she’d almost had enough money to pay for it. Now, unless she tapped into that fund, she’d be lucky to afford the next three months in her studio apartment in downtown Austin. It wasn’t fair. She’d waited all her life to see the world instead of four cubicle walls and a computer screen. Maybe she could find another job quickly.
April didn’t like maybes. She liked absolutes.
Her cell phone rang. It was her mother. Oh hell, not now. But when it stopped ringing and immediately started up again, she locked eyes with the security guard.
“I’ve got to take this.”
He gave her a sympathetic nod. He knew she wasn’t the type of person to cause trouble. In fact, he had often let her into the building on weekends and signed her out late at night after everyone had gone home. She was the last person who should have been let go. But tell that to the corporate overlords.
“Yeah,” she said huskily into the phone.
“I know you’re working, baby doll. I won’t keep you long. I just want to know if you’re coming home this weekend.”
“I hadn’t planned on it.” Home had been a double wide in the Hickory Creek trailer park in Last Stand, until April had gone off to college and her sisters went off on the circuit. While her sisters had made a name for themselves being professional barrel racers, April had busted her butt getting her certificate of public accounting.
“I need you to come home right away.”
April closed her eyes. What now? If it wasn’t one emergency, it was another. Her two sisters were out on the rodeo circuit all over the United States. Not that they’d be a damn bit of help if her mother’s current crisis was financial—which it usually was. They spent money like it was a renewable resource and for them, for a very short window of time, it was. April didn’t begrudge her sisters their fun. They worked hard. They trained hard, and they put everything out there for their fans and for their love of the sport. But April was tired of being the sensible one. And she was tired of being the responsible one.
April had worked hard through college and all the way up to getting her CPA, much to her sisters’ and her mother’s amusement. Their eyes crossed whenever the talk of budgeting, money, or anything math-related came up. Her mother was a rodeo queen. Her sisters were rodeo queens. April was an accountant. That pretty much summed up her family dynamics.
“What’s wrong?” April had to force lightness that she didn’t feel into her voice, otherwise her mother might burst into tears and it would take longer to get the story out of her. Not for the first time, she felt like she was the mother instead of the middle child.
“He took everything,” her mother sobbed.
April pulled back her wheeled chair and sat down. This was going to be a long one. To satisfy the security guard, April tucked her phone between her cheek and shoulder and continued to empty the desk drawer of ramen noodle cups and bagged tuna fish packages.
“Johnny Ray?” April asked.
“No,” her mother scoffed. “I broke it off with Johnny Ray three months ago.”
“I can’t keep up,” she murmured. Mama went through men like they were jelly beans. Unfortunately, the ones she chose weren’t watermelon-flavored. They were like the prank jelly beans that tasted like vomit and ear wax.
“This was Stuart.”
Stuart was new. April usually heard about the boyfriends once the new car smell of them wore off. “What happened? Did he need money for his mother’s surgery? Or was it a once-in-a-lifetime investment?” April had heard this all before. Her mother never learned.
“He said he needed five hundred dollars to get his car back on the road. He had a job interview and he needed to pay the garage cash so they would fix it fast. He was going to pay me back as soon as he landed the job. But I haven’t heard from him in three days.”
“Uh-huh.” April threw out a squishy stress ball with Austin Accounting firm on it. The bright side to all this is she wouldn’t need that anymore. Now she’d have new stresses to worry about. “So all he got was five hundred dollars?”
“Yes,” her mother wailed. “It was my last five hundred dollars.”
That wasn’t exactly true. April had set her mother and her two sisters up with bank accounts that only April could access. Of course, they had their own checking accounts, but there was rarely more than a thousand dollars in them at any one time. A long time ago, the four of them agreed to direct deposit their paychecks into the accounts that April controlled. Otherwise, the money would be gone as fast as they earned it. A percentage of their paychecks went into their personal checking accounts, but most of their money went to pay their bills and into savings. Sometimes April felt like a control freak, but this process had kept phone calls like this to a minimum.
“How much do you need?” April would send her the money once her mother promised to go back to direct deposit.
“I need a thousand dollars.”
“What?” April barked.
The security guard frowned at her. She resisted the urge to give him the finger.
“For household things,” her mother said shakily.
Another frown from the security guard.
April had set it up that all her mother’s bills got paid automatically out of the locked-down account. A spare thought hit her, though.
“Did you get another credit card?” With her mother’s credit, that should have been impossible, but there was always a predatory company around that was willing to loan money to someone who was down on their luck—with an exorbitant interest rate.
Her mother sighed. “You’re going to be mad at me.”
Oh, this wasn’t good.
“I’ve been having Stella pay me in cash instead of direct depositing my check into that Fort Knox account.”
April’s computer access had been taken away. Otherwise, she’d be logging into that account now to see the damage. She didn’t dare try to do that on her phone while she was talking with her mother. The security guard giving her the stink eye as it was. April needed to hurry up and vacate the premises before they escorted her out. “I thought we agreed that you’d keep your tips for mad money and deposit your salary,” she said in a fast whisper.
Her mother worked as a hair stylist at the local salon. She had been one of the most glamorous rodeo queens in Last Stand and had a loyal clientele that loved how she transformed them with some of that star quality she still had. Her mother was magic with a curling iron and a pair of scissors.
“We did. And I know you’re right. But I didn’t want to wait until I saved up enough money to buy a few new dresses. Stuart liked to go out to fancy places.”
“Let me guess. You paid.” To heck with this. Austin Accounting could throw the rest of this crap out. April had to get out of here. She had her pictures and her favorite coffee mug. The less stuff she had to carry, the better.
“Well, it was just until he got this new job.”
“So what’s the thousand dollars for?” Shrugging into her coat, April placed her purse in the copier box, making sure not to scratch up the pictures of her cat Cheddar, and of Merry and June on their horses at the Women’s Rodeo World Championship last year.
“Mr. Jonas,” her mother said with a defeated sigh. “I’ve been sweet-talking him for a while now. But he’s going to kick me and Tulip out if I don’t pay him by tomorrow morning.”
Tulip was her mother’s pony from hell. He was a nippy little tyrant and April wouldn’t mind seeing him homeless. Unfortunately, he and her mother were a package deal. Still, April hadn’t been planning on making the drive to Last Stand tonight, even if her life hadn’t been turned upside down.
“Are you still there?” her mother said nervously.
“Yeah, sorry. I had to finish up something. I’ve got to go. I’ll call you right back.”
She hung up on her mother and slid the phone into her jacket pocket. Thrusting her copier box at the security guard, she tapped her foot impatiently while he made sure she wasn’t stealing office supplies. There was one good thing to all of this: April no longer felt like crying and she was mad enough at her mother that she took it out by glaring at all the managers on her way out.
Unfortunately, she lost her bravado on the way down to the parking garage. What the hell was she going to do? She had a thousand dollars in her own savings to cover her mother. But that wasn’t what she was worried about.
No, she was worried about paying her own rent and finding another job in this economy. A part of her wanted to go to Last Stand this weekend and stay there. April was sick of the city anyway, with the overpriced rent, overpriced food, overpriced everything. And she wasn’t ready to get another job where she was just a corporate drone in a soulless company. But what was the alternative?
Then suddenly, it hit her. She could go out on her own. After all, she was a CPA and tax season was coming up.
April broke out in a cold sweat. Start her own business? She’d have to do a cost analysis. Weigh the pros and cons. This wasn’t something she could do on an impulse. Hell, she couldn’t do anything without overthinking it. Her family had lived their entire lives by the creed, “What have you got to lose?” but April wasn’t wired that way. April had spent her whole life making sure she had a plan, and everyone stuck to it or there would be hell to pay. She followed all the rules because her mother and sisters didn’t think rules applied to them and April had seen firsthand how well that had turned out. So instead, she played it safe, going into accounting after high school. There were no gray areas in numbers. Numbers didn’t lie. They always followed rules and they were easy to predict. Her sisters went on to build their rodeo careers up until they were big stars. They partied hard and dated sexy cowboys and lived for fun and excitement.
Excitement for April was ordering Chinese food midweek.
She shook her head, disappointed in herself. Look where being safe and secure had gotten her. Her sisters were having the time of their lives doing what they loved, and she’d just been let go from a job she’d almost got an ulcer for. Now the clock had already started counting down—she’d soon be homeless as well as jobless. She wondered how her sisters would react when she told them that Austin Accounting had thrown a grenade in the middle of her ten-year plan.
June would laugh and then drag April out to get drunk. After all, if something didn’t work out for June, she always seemed to find another opportunity right around the corner. As the baby of the family, June considered the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as her personal anthem.
It should have been annoying, but June always knew how to cheer her up and put a positive spin on everything. Of course, she also had the most outrageous ideas and would run headlong into schemes without thinking them through. While April’s head would practically explode thinking of all the ways things could go wrong, her sister just shrugged off consequences. In fact, April felt a little bit of that panic creeping up her throat right now.
Merry, on the other hand, would have to be restrained from storming into Austin Accounting and kicking someone’s ass. Anyone’s ass. Merry took her role as big sister to heart. She was the family’s avenging angel—even when they didn’t need to be avenged. Everyone knew to stay out of Merry’s way when she was on a tear. She could be a gold-star diva when she wanted to be, but if she liked you, you’d never doubt that she was in your corner.
April should call them, but it was the middle of the day and they were probably in the barn or with their horses. Besides, she should probably come clean and tell her mother first. She needed to understand that April was in a difficult place.
Her mother would be terrified when she found out that April had lost her job. April was her rock. The person she could go to for a thousand-dollar loan because she knew April would have it in her savings. But April was terrified too. Her savings was about to be plundered like a pirate chest in the Caribbean.
It seemed like forever, but she finally made it through the walk of shame and was standing by her car. She shoved her box into the passenger seat, and then got in the car. She just stared out the windshield, trying to take it all in. April had made a vow a long time ago that she would never allow herself to be at the whims of fate. This wasn’t her role in life. She was the quiet one, the reliable one. The one who everyone went to when their lives fell apart.
Sure, she was twenty-seven years old and this was the first time the shit had hit the fan for her. That wasn’t so bad, right?
It wasn’t…except there was no one she could turn to for help.
Her phone rang again.
“Here we go.” April put the car into gear and had the call go through the car’s speaker system so she could talk hands-free.
“I need you to bring him the cash,” her mother said as if there hadn’t been a break in their conversation. “Mr. Jonas is not going to trust a check. The bank has declined the recurring payment for the trailer park rental.”
“Was it worth it, Mama?” April said, unable to keep the sigh out of her voice.
“While it was happening, yeah. Now, not so much. Maybe if you went a little wild once in a while, you’d know what it was like.”
Yeah, right. Someone had to be the adult in this family. But she didn’t say that. Her mother had been hurt enough. And if her mother hadn’t learned by now that life wasn’t about living in the moment, she wasn’t going to.
“I can’t come down this weekend.” April had to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
“B-but…” Her mother’s voice was high and panicked.
April took a deep breath. She had to get a word in edgewise. “I just got laid off from my job. I need the weekend to consider my options and I can’t do that in Last Stand.” It was like she had just ripped a bandage off a fresh wound. She felt raw and exposed.
Her mother’s attitude switched from helpless maiden to avenging Valkyrie. “Yes, you can. You come home right now. You can stay here. I’ll take care of you. I’ve got some hamburger in the freezer and I’m sure there’s some wine around here somewhere.”
April felt a smile tug on her lips. Her mother had a lot of faults, but she loved April and her sisters fiercely. “I need some time to process this all on my own. But thank you.”
“I heard that Trent Campbell is looking for an accountant to help him with back taxes,” she said.
“Where did you hear that?” Trent had married Kelly Sullivan last year and the two of them had built a house on her family’s ranch. April and Kelly had been good friends in high school, but after Kelly had gotten pregnant and left Last Stand, they had grown apart. But they’d reconnected earlier this year when April had been in town, visiting her mom. Kelly was now six months pregnant and had morning, afternoon, and evening sickness. The only thing that helped her was ginger tea and shortbread cookies. There was a tearoom in Austin that carried both and April had been sending Kelly a stash every week. But her friend hadn’t mentioned any tax problems when they’d chatted last week.
“He put up signs around town and a few people were talking about it in the salon. He wants to hire local. It’s temporary, but at least it would be something.”
“I’m not local,” April said, getting into the slow lane so the car crawling up on her could pass.
“Of course you are. You’re a Grayson. We’re famous in Last Stand.”
Infamous was more like it. June had done a Lady Godiva down Main Street one summer to advertise a community theater production. Merry had chased off a bunch of city punks who had come into Last Stand to cause trouble by roping a few of them and bringing them to Police Chief Highwater. And Mama had stormed the announcers’ table at the Last Stand Rodeo and demanded over the PA system that she’d “had enough of all these cowboys. Where the hell were the cowmen?”
April snorted. “I’m not one of the wild Graysons.”
“Of course you are. Or you could be, if you gave yourself the chance.”
It was laughable, but at the same time a spark of longing hit her deep in her soul. What would it be like to just let go and let life happen organically?
“Last Stand is your home, April.”
“I don’t know, Mama.” April put on her blinker. She definitely wouldn’t miss the commute to downtown Austin every day.
“What have you got to lose?”
April’s gut clenched. She had lost her job and was probably going to lose her apartment. If she could get ahead of things, though, she might still be able to realign her goals to her ten-year plan. “I’ll give Kelly a call. I’ll wire her the money and she can pay Mr. Jonas, but you’ve got to promise me that you’ll ask Stella to go back to direct depositing your paycheck.”
“I will,” her mother said. “I promise. Come home as soon as you can.”
“We’ll see,” April said, hanging up.
The way April saw it, she could curl up in a ball and lament that her carefully laid plans had been shredded, or she could pivot and use this as a way to reinvent herself. Did she like having everything planned down to the last minute?
No, but it was comforting in its own way.
But comfort was starting to feel like a prison.
How would her life have been different if June had been riding Ares that day? Was there an alternate universe out there where April Grayson was a rodeo star? Was she happy? Her mind flitted back through all her regrets.
She regretted choosing Ares because he was a gorgeous horse instead of looking at his temperament.
She regretted not kissing Cole Lockwood when he gave her a ride home from the rodeo.
She regretted not taking a year off to travel between high school and college. She had been too afraid to stay at the youth hostels. And too afraid to leave her mother and sisters alone.
Playing it safe hadn’t saved her job. Fear had driven most of her life decisions. And she hadn’t been able to escape it. Fear was in the backseat, waiting to jump into the driver’s seat even now. But April couldn’t let that happen. Not this time. And yet there had to be a way she could step out of her comfort zone without going crazy.
For once she was glad of the heavy traffic—it kept her mind off all the ways things could go wrong if she threw caution to the wind and became what she’d always wanted to be—a wild Grayson sister.
End of Excerpt