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June Grayson was so happy to be on her horse, Athena, that she had to concentrate on the beautiful Texas scenery to keep from crying. She was half afraid that if she started bawling her eyes out, she’d never stop.
“You okay?” Emily Sullivan asked.
Emily was her ride-or-die BFF. June knew she had to be careful with her answer because if Emily caught even a whiff of bullshit, she wouldn’t let up until June’s carefully duct-taped emotions burst free.
“I will be,” June settled on, guiding Athena down the new trails that the Three Sisters Ranch had built for Emily’s fiancé’s hunting lodge. “It’s good to be riding again after being cooped up inside for so long.”
Rehab had been a rude awakening and June had vowed to do everything in her power to make sure she never went back there. If that meant giving up on whiskey shots and tequila sunrises, it was worth it to not have to spend three more months of her life in a place that was part-hospital and part-prison.
At her last rodeo event, the shit had hit the fan. June didn’t remember a lot of what she’d done just before she’d blacked out, but she’d woken up in a jail cell. After a depressing talk with the judge and a few attorneys, it had been decided that if June did a mandatory stint in a rehab center, all charges against her would be dropped. She’d walked in there a Women’s Professional Rodeo Circuit All-Around Champion, and last week, she’d walked out unemployed, with the polite suggestion that she retire from the circuit.
She was twenty-six years old. June had been barrel racing all over the United States and abroad since she was ten. What the hell else was she going to do with her life? Not so deep down, June was hoping the WPRC would change their minds about her, once her sister, Merry, buried Shayna and won the championships out from under her. She wasn’t ready to give up that delusion just yet.
“Donovan better get back here,” June said to divert Emily’s attention. “I see feral hog tracks.”
Donovan Link was Emily’s fiancé. He and Emily had met when he’d rented some property on the Three Sisters Ranch, so he could host hunting parties. Then he fell in love with Emily, a die-hard vegetarian and animal rights activist. They compromised. The hunting parties were now only for population control. The rest of the time, he did nature safaris. Still, the feral hog problem gave him a steady amount of work. They were invasive, dangerous, and downright mean.
Emily made a face. “They deserve to live just as much as other wildlife.”
June hid a smile. Emily was also taking over managing her family’s cattle ranch from her father, who really needed to retire. The irony of it, though, was delicious. They raised cattle for slaughter, and Emily wouldn’t eat a steak if you held a gun to her head.
“Sure.” June nodded. “But letting them overbreed and starve is just cruel.”
“Go to hell,” Emily said, without any heat in her voice.
June snickered. Too bad Emily hadn’t risen to the bait. June had been looking for a good-natured argument, or at least a passionate debate about barbecue pork ribs. Maybe it would’ve gotten rid of the restlessness that was making her itch like a bad poison ivy spread. June and Emily had been friends since they were children. They had excelled in pushing the boundaries and their parents’ patience with their weekly capers.
“How’s April?” Emily asked. “Kelly’s been moping around ever since April finished up Trent’s taxes and went on to the next client.”
April was one of June’s older sisters, who was the same age as Emily’s sister, Kelly. April was a CPA and had been making the rounds of all the Last Stand businesses, doing their taxes and other financial stuff that June couldn’t care less about.
“She’s doing good. I’m going to see her on Sunday when she comes over for dinner at Mama’s.”
“Is Cole going to be there too?”
“Probably.” June rolled her eyes. “They’re attached at the hip.” April had found true love a little over three months ago. They were already engaged, and June was trying to keep her pessimism to herself.
It would take three years before June would think a man was worth keeping, and then only if he didn’t blow it in the meantime. She didn’t have anything against Cole. He seemed like a good guy and was crazy about April. It was just that June and her sisters had seen what quick relationships did to their mother, Penny. All three of them had different fathers and none of the men in their mother’s life ever stuck around for very long. Their fathers had cycled in and out of their lives—mostly just long enough to break their mama’s heart again before leaving.
Cole, at least, had good references. He worked here, at the Three Sisters Ranch, helping Trent Campbell—a former rodeo star—teach kids how to ride bulls. Like Donovan, Trent had also rented property and wound up marrying a Sullivan sister—Emily’s older sister, Kelly. Maybe June could ask him if he needed help training the kids on how to barrel race at his bull-riding school. Of course, Trent might not want to hire her, considering her reputation.
“How’s it feel to be back in Last Stand?” Emily asked.
“Like I never left, especially since I’m staying in my old room in Mama’s trailer.”
“I bet she’s happy to see you.”
“She is. And it’s good to see her, too. I just wish it was temporary while I waited for the next rodeo.”
“I bet they’ll change their minds and let you compete again. Just give it a few months.”
June shook her head. “I doubt it. They don’t want my element messing up their family values.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Emily said stubbornly.
“Yeah, but everyone doesn’t get into a fight with Shayna James.” Rodeo princess and two-faced bitch, Shayna was all down-home sweetness for the cameras, but used a hot stick to prod her horse to go faster. Six thousand volts of electricity was a hell of a motivator.
“I can’t believe she tried to claim that the cattle prod was yours.”
That had been Shayna’s first mistake. It had put Shayna on June’s other sister, Merry’s, radar. Merry didn’t care who it was, she’d go after anyone who messed with her family. And she’d go full out. No hair pulling or scratching. Merry would use that cattle prod on Shayna if she got a chance. June might be powerless, but her sister wasn’t. It was something.
“Well, you’re the only one,” June said. She would never put a spur on Athena, let alone zap her into going faster. And anyone who had ever seen her with her horse should have known better.
But June and Merry weren’t well liked on the rodeo circuit. They didn’t kiss ass. They didn’t do the mean girl shit, and they certainly didn’t cheat. But they weren’t perfect little rodeo queens, either. She and Merry liked to party, and other people liked to gossip about that. Maybe they would have been better liked if they didn’t win as much as they did.
June loved the attention though, good or bad. The fans, at least, appreciated the Grayson sisters. June had never wanted to be a role model for younger girls, but she and Merry were always flooded after the events for autographs and pictures. It had been nice to have that type of validation. June even wore a black hat with the words Bad Reputation in sparkles around the brim. Unfortunately, you start to speak your fate into existence by doing things like that.
“Did you really cut her ponytail off with a switchblade?” Emily asked.
“That’s what they say,” June said. That was one of a few instances that June couldn’t recall.
What she did remember was catching Shayna with her hand down Dustin’s pants. And she remembered screaming at Dustin for cheating on her, and for his lousy taste in choosing Shayna to screw around with. Then June remembered polishing off half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, as she got angrier and angrier. And the last thing she remembered was doing an obscene mechanical bull ride for a bunch of cheering rednecks at a bar. Things got fuzzier after that.
At one point, June must have caught up with the happy couple again. Her knuckles had been busted open and Dustin had a broken nose. June had a vague memory of being sprawled out in the hay and mud, and Shayna kicking her in the stomach and ribs. Then there was nothing.
“You’re lucky no one caught the action on their phone.”
June nodded. She had half expected it to be all over the internet with memes and videos. But that hadn’t happened. “I guess Shayna has friends in high places. That video would have ruined her image.” June had gone searching for it once the rehab center let her have her phone back. The only thing she had found was Dustin and Shayna’s engagement photos on Instagram.
Shayna looked like a Karen with short hair. Dustin looked sexy as hell. Damn him. He must have got his nose set right away because there wasn’t even a bump to show for the fistfight.
It had been his dumb idea to become exclusive. June had resisted doing that for so long, because she knew how men were. She’d had a ringside seat while growing up for the fiasco that was her mother’s love life. Penny had become a chameleon, changing to fit whatever man she was with. She went through a homemaker phase, and one as a sex kitten. One month Mama was a rock groupie, and the next she had traded in all her concert T-shirts for conservative blouses and had become a church lady. It was enough to give a girl whiplash.
There was no way in hell June was going to put herself through that. She had been happily ignored to do whatever she wanted during her childhood and she was determined to keep it that way.
But Dustin had been persistent. And hot. Against her better judgment—and a lot of begging—he had worn her down. Finally, she’d agreed that they would be exclusive with each other. To be honest, it had almost been a relief not to wonder who she was going home with. Two weeks later, though, he was getting a handy from Shayna James in her horse’s stall.
“At least Merry kicked her ass in the championships.”
“Shayna’s lucky that’s all Merry did.” June had been unable to take or make phone calls or have any contact with the outside world for a month after she had been forced by Sinclair Thompson, the head of public relations at the WPRC, to check into rehab. She had been terrified Merry was going to take revenge and wind up in a jail cell.
“So what are you going to do with yourself?” Emily asked the question that had been haunting June ever since she’d come back to Last Stand.
“I guess I’ve got to get a real job.”
June shrugged. “I’m computer illiterate. I’m not cut out for customer service, though. Maybe I’ll open up a brothel. I think I’d make a good madam. What do you think?” June waggled her eyebrows at Emily.
“I think that’s illegal in Texas.”
“I suppose I could go to Nevada.”
“Do you have the money to start a new business?”
“Jeez Louise, you’ve been hanging around with April too much. No. I’ve got enough to last me a few months and then I’m going to beg the manager at the H-E-B to put me in the stockroom.”
“You wouldn’t last the week,” Emily said.
“You don’t know that.” But June agreed with her. This was a depressing subject, so she changed it. “Are you ready for your bachelorette party?”
“I am, now that you’re here.”
“Do you have any idea where we’re going to take you?” June asked.
“No, but I’m pretty sure that wherever we go, there’s going to be a lot of shots involved. Are you going to be okay with that? You can tell my sisters, and they can make other arrangements.”
Keeping away from the booze wouldn’t be an issue.
“I’m not an alcoholic.” June fixed an evil eye on Emily’s expression, looking for disbelief or pity. “Even Linda, my counselor at rehab, said so. I honestly don’t want to drink anymore. The thought of it turns my stomach.” She swallowed hard. “I can’t tell you how scared I was not to remember everything I did. I could have hurt someone. I probably did hurt someone, but they deserved it. And I got beat up. I think Shayna was responsible for my cracked ribs.” They still twinged. June rubbed them absently. “I’m not going to make myself a target again. No cold beer after a long day is worth that. I’m keeping to seltzer water for now.”
“How’s that working for you?” Emily asked.
“It gives me the burps something fierce.”
“Can you burp the alphabet?”
“Is that a new party trick of yours?” June asked.
“I’m just being silly because the conversation is taking a serious turn. You’d tell me if you had a problem, right?”
June scoffed. “I’m a big girl. I can handle being at a party where there’s drinking. I can even have a shot if I want to. I don’t want to.”
“Why?” Emily asked.
“I liked drinking because I liked how out of control I felt. It was like being on one of our capers. But that last time…” June shook her head. “I’ve never felt that way before. I drank a lot, don’t get me wrong. It was like everything ramped up in a hurry.”
Emily frowned. “Are you sure someone didn’t slip you something?”
The thought left June cold and she rubbed her shoulders. “I don’t know.” She had wondered that herself in the long months she was in the facility. No one seemed to believe that it could have happened, so she’d put it out of her mind. Shaking off the gloomy feeling, she said, “If I do decide to have a drink, it’s not like I’m going to get blackout drunk again. That was a onetime only affair, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t worry about anything but having a good time. And of course, doing shots off of the stripper’s taut six-pack abs.”
“How exactly does one do shots off of a man’s abs?” Emily asked.
They both tilted their heads and thought about it for a minute or so.
“I think the stripper would have to be lying down,” June said.
“That’s so not happening. Do you want me to be divorced even before I get married?”
“It’s a bachelorette party,” June reasoned. “These things happen. What do you think the guys are going to be doing?”
“They’re going to be playing poker.”
“Strip poker?” June asked, rubbing her hands together.
“I really doubt it, and it’s guys only. No women allowed.”
They reached the end of the trail, so they circled their horses around and headed back to the ranch.
“I’m bummed that Merry can’t make it back for the party. I haven’t seen her since before I went into rehab. And with her schedule, it looks like I’m not going to see her until Thanksgiving.”
“No,” Emily said. “She promised me that she’ll be at the wedding at the end of the month.”
June didn’t want to burst Emily’s bubble, but she didn’t think Merry was going to be able to make it. Of course, Merry was crazy enough to take a red-eye flight for a couple hours just to go to a wedding and then take another red-eye flight back, and still be ready to compete later that day. But June didn’t want Emily to concern herself with anything but having fun. If it hadn’t been for Emily’s letters, and eventually her weekly phone calls while June was in rehab, June would have gone absolutely crazy. Emily had promised when she got out, that they would go on capers again, just like they’d done when they were younger. June had a few in mind, but with Emily being so busy with the ranch and planning for her wedding, they hadn’t had a chance yet. Yet. June hid a grin at what she had planned for drumming up excitement for Emily’s bachelorette party.
Every woman in Last Stand was invited. Emily’s sisters had rented the back of Callum’s Country Party House and sent out pretty invitations. Callum’s was a fun date night spot, but tame. People went there with the expectation of playing games and having a few drinks. It had the potential to be an unforgettable night, though. Especially if June got people in the mood for a raucous time. Booze or no booze, she was champing at the bit. She wasn’t used to spending time in one place, doing quiet things. Sometimes she wondered if the most exciting years of her life were behind her, now that she was out of the rodeo. The idea of being bored for the next sixty-odd years was terrifying.
“Do you think Shayna and Dustin check out my social media pages?” June asked.
“Why do you care?”
“Okay, so I want them to boil and writhe with jealousy at what a fantastic time I’m having. Especially since the last three months have been such a drudge.”
“I think no news is good news,” Emily said. “Let them wonder what you’re up to.”
“Hmmm,” June said. But her mind was still on revenge. It wasn’t healthy and she should probably talk about it with Linda. “I would also like to get on Sinclair Thompson’s nerves.”
“I don’t think that’ll help get you invited back to the WPRC.”
“He goes out of his way to protect Shayna. I bet she’s his secret love child or something.”
“Maybe she’s sleeping with him?” Emily said.
“Gross.” June shuddered.
“You need to move on.”
“I need to get even with them first. Merry will make sure Shayna is number two. But Dustin and Sinclair need to suffer too. You need to help me with this.”
“As long as we don’t get arrested,” Emily said, sighing in resignation.
“When have we ever gotten caught?”
“We were a lot younger then and there weren’t cell phone and security cameras everywhere.”
That was true.
“But I’ll think about it.” Emily gave her a conspiratorial smirk.
As they rode along the back trails, June really appreciated the fresh air and the sounds of nature. After spending most of February, March and April locked up in a soulless gray facility, it was absolutely liberating to feel the sun on her face while she and Athena moved like one unit. It had been hard not to be on horseback for three months, and while she probably was going to be sore tomorrow morning, June didn’t care.
“Can’t you give me even a little hint about the bachelorette party this weekend?” Emily said.
“Well, doing shots off strippers is now out. Thanks a bunch.”
“You could still do shots off the strippers’ abs. You don’t have a fiancé wondering what the hell you’re doing.”
“Shots of what?” June asked. “No alcohol, remember?”
Emily grimaced. “Yeah, I suck. I totally didn’t think. But hey, it’s a bar. They’ve got mixers. Do a shot of orange juice or shot of club soda or something.”
“Why don’t I just snort some hot tea while I’m at it? I feel like a grandma.”
“Don’t let my mother hear you say that. She can’t wait.” Sarah Sullivan was already a grandmother. Kelly’s daughter Alissa was growing like a weed and Kelly had another bun in the oven and was about to pop. At least June wouldn’t be alone in not drinking.
“Does that mean your mother’s going to do shots off of the stripper’s butt?” June asked, trying to picture it.
“Now it’s off their butt?”
“You’re the one who had a problem with abs.”
“I had a problem with putting my mouth near a naked body that wasn’t my fiancé’s.”
“Or maybe you and your mom are prudes.”
“Let’s face it, if anyone is doing a shot off a stripper’s butt, it’s your mom.”
“That’s pretty much a given.” Merry and June were known as the wild Grayson sisters in the rodeo circuit. But they got that title from the original wild Grayson—their mother, Penny.
Mama was a hairdresser in town at the Clippety-Do-Da salon. And she was thrilled that June was home for good. She offered to share her tips with her if she shampooed and conditioned her clients’ hair and swept up afterward. Mama thought June would be a big draw for the local women.
June thought having to explain the same things over and over again to every customer who came to gawk at her would drive her nuts in no time.
“I hope a lot of people come to my party,” Emily said in a small voice. “I wanted the whole town to celebrate. It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone.”
“Don’t worry,” June replied. “I’ve got a surefire plan for that and you’re going to help me.”
“Great. It’s not like I don’t have a thousand things to do today.”
“I just need you to be my getaway driver.”
“Oh, June.” Emily shook her head.
“That’s not a no.”
End of Excerpt