Cowboy Up

by

Michelle Beattie

He’d never mixed business with pleasure…until now

When Dallas Granger left his family’s Last Stand, Texas, ranch, he hadn’t planned on returning. But when a medical emergency calls him home and a legal matter affects his business, suddenly his family isn’t the only thing in need of a re-build. Unfortunately his new project involves building a house for a woman who not only awakens his desires, but also his fears. But if he wants to claim her as his own, he’ll have to tear down the walls he’s built around his heart.

Single mom Ashley Anderson knows all about juggling. Between an assortment of part-time jobs and raising her sixteen-year old daughter, she doesn’t need a hunky construction worker with an attitude as a distraction. Even one who steps in to help her when she needs it most. But life has taught Ashley that when the going gets tough, she’s on her own. It’s going to take a man with a Texas-sized heart to show her that this cowboy isn’t going anywhere.

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“You’re shitting me, right?”

It probably wasn’t a good idea to talk to the San Antonio Police Department that way, but Dallas was so surprised by the officer’s statement the words flew out of his mouth before he could stop them.

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

The cop settled his hand on the butt of his holstered pistol. His steely gaze never wavered from Dallas’s. His mouth was flat and hard. No semblance of a smile softened his face. Behind the officer’s back, the red and blue lights of his police cruiser flashed ominously. No, he sure as hell didn’t look like he was kidding. In fact, there wasn’t anything humorous about the situation Dallas Granger currently found himself in.

“Look, officer, I explained what I was doing with the nail gun.”

“A stolen nail gun,” he corrected.

“Yeah, I’m not denying that. But I didn’t steal it. I told you it was one of my guys. I’d sent him to the hardware store to get nails and, for whatever dumbass reason, he decided to steal the gun out of the bed of another customer’s truck.”

The officer jutted his chin toward the Granger Construction logo on the side of Dallas’s white pickup.

“That customer ID’d this truck.”

“No, he ID’d one of my trucks. You said yourself the witness didn’t get a look at the driver.”

“And you’re saying it was your employee?”

“I’m telling you it was Vince Chapman.”

“Because you caught him with it.”

Dallas ground his teeth. Dammit, they’d gone through this already.

But he couldn’t afford to lose his temper so he took a deep breath before continuing. “That’s right. And it was a stroke of luck, if anything can be considered lucky in this situation. I wasn’t supposed to be at my shop, but my office manager is pregnant and she wasn’t feeling well. So, not long after I’d sent Vince for nails, she called to tell me she was going home. Normally, I’d have told her to lock up but we were expecting a delivery and someone had to be there to sign for it, so I went back to the office.

“When I heard someone drive in the yard, I thought it would be the delivery truck, but it was Vince. I went out to see what he was doing because he should have gone straight back to the jobsite. That’s when I looked in the box of the truck and saw the nail gun.

“Since Vince lives in an apartment and wouldn’t have need for one personally, I asked him what he was doing with it.”

“And he admitted it he took it?”

“Yeah, eventually.” After a little shoving and more than a few threats. “That’s when I fired his ass.”

The cop’s gaze remained a mask of granite. If he was buying Dallas’s story, it was anybody’s guess.

“But you didn’t call the police.”

Dallas shook his head, rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck. Dammit, he knew how it looked. “No, that’s when the delivery truck showed up. After that, I made some calls and by then it was pretty much time to close so I just figured I’d take it to the station myself.” He sighed. “And that’s when you pulled me over.”

Hindsight was a bitch and Dallas could easily see his mistake. He should have forced Vince to come with him but he’d been so furious he’d just wanted the prick off his property and out of his sight. He shook his head in disgust. He’d been livid that not only had one of his employees stolen, but that he’d done it on company time, in a company truck. Both of which reflected poorly on Granger Construction. But who was the one pulled over by the cop?

He’d been about to drive out of the industrial park when the officer had lit up the cherries and swung in behind him. As it was just past five o’clock the road was busy with men and women leaving for the day. They all slowed and stared as they rolled past. Not exactly the kind of advertising he wanted for Granger Construction.

His dad would love this. Joe Granger had never approved of his son moving off the ranch and striking out on his own. But Dallas had other plans, other dreams that weren’t his dad’s. Selfish, Joe had called him. Among other things. Then he’d threatened to disown him. And if there was one thing his old man didn’t do it was give idle threats.

Dallas rolled his shoulders. It was water under the damn bridge and he’d made it, dammit. He’d built Granger Construction. He’d left Last Stand and the Diamond G Ranch and made something of himself in nearby San Antonio. And even though there were times he missed riding, missed the open spaces, and the smell of crisp clean air, he didn’t regret leaving.

“So what happens now?” Dallas asked, shifting his attention back to the present.

“You’ll be charged with possession of stolen property. If the video surveillance at the hardware store proves you didn’t steal it, then there won’t be any other charges. Otherwise you’ll also be charged with theft. Either way, you’ll have to go before a judge.”

Dallas turned his head and swore. He wanted to punch something. God dammit, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans before they curled into fists. Not that he’d ever hit a cop, but he didn’t need the cop thinking he was a threat either.

“So I get charged even though I didn’t do anything but try to return stolen property?”

The officer handed Dallas back his license and registration. “I don’t write the law. If it’s any consolation, you’ll likely only get a fine and some community service, especially if you plead guilty.”

Dallas shook his head. “Some consolation.”

“You want to run that by me one more time?”

Dallas’s probation officer—Justin Finkel, according to the cheap metal nameplate perched precariously on the edge of his cluttered desk—had the damn nerve to smile.

For a moment, the man’s verdict was lost to Dallas as the wrinkles on Finkel’s face multiplied with his grin until he resembled one of those wrinkly dogs. Only this guy wasn’t tan colored. He wasn’t colored at all. Bright white hair, pale white skin, and stiffly starched white shirt. The only bit of color was the large brown age spot that kept drawing Dallas’s attention to the old man’s forehead.

“It’s really quite simple, Mr. Granger. The judge ordered you to pay a thousand dollar fine and—”

“Yeah, I heard that. I’ve got no problem paying the fine. Nor do I have an issue fulfilling my sixty hours of community service.”

In the weeks since he’d been pulled over, Dallas had accepted what had happened. The officer was bound by the law and Dallas respected the man more for upholding it than he would have had he let Dallas go without consequence.

Besides, once the cop had verified through security footage that it was indeed Vince who’d stolen the nail gun, he’d tracked Dallas down to personally tell him that his ex-employee had been charged with theft.

Since Dallas had been sanding some cupboards in the shop at the time, the conversation had shifted to carpentry and by the time Officer Leman—Jack—had left, Dallas had the man’s number and an appointment to meet him and his wife about new cabinets for their kitchen.

But as well as that had turned out, it didn’t change Dallas’s current predicament.

“The judge didn’t specify where or how I had to spend those sixty hours of community service,” Dallas reminded the older man.

“No, Mr. Granger. That’s not his job. That’s up to my discretion.”

“So, can’t your discretion find another place for me to work?” he pleaded.

Finkel folded his veiny hands on his desk. “Now why would I do that when I’ve found the perfect place for you? I’ve researched your company. Granger Construction has a great reputation here in San Antonio. I’ve read several reviews on you specifically.” Light shone in the man’s pale blue eyes. “You’re very good at what you do, Dallas. Otherwise, I wouldn’t put you on this project.”

Great. His dad couldn’t acknowledge his own son’s skills, would rather cut out his tongue than ever praise Dallas, but this stranger was telling him he was so good he was getting assigned to a project he didn’t want any part of.

“I may have the skills for this job, but that doesn’t make me a good fit. I don’t support this cause. Never have.”

Finkel’s jaw went so slack Dallas half expected the man’s false teeth to fall out of his mouth.

“It’s Houses of Hope,” he stated as though that alone should be enough.

“I know what it is. A bunch of volunteers getting together to build houses that some people are going to get for free. Like I said, I don’t support it.”

Finkel pursed his lips. “What do you know about Houses of Hope, Mr. Granger?”

“I know I’ve busted my a—” He swallowed the word, started again. “I’ve busted my back to get what I have in life, Mr. Finkel. Nobody gave me a hand or a handout.” Especially his own father.

“I see. Well, Mr. Granger, my decision stands. In fact, after listening to you, I’m even surer of my choice. And I think the recipient of this house won’t be the only one benefitting from this project. You’re in for a surprise, Mr. Granger.”

So was the guy who jumped out of a plane only to find his parachute was broken. Surprise didn’t always mean a good thing, but clearly there was no explaining that to Finkel.

Cheery as a bird first thing in the morning, his probation officer picked up a few sheets of legal-looking paper. As he passed them over to Dallas, his wrist bumped his nameplate off the desk. It clattered to the dull gray cement floor.

Dallas retrieved it for the man and set it back on the desk before taking the papers from Finkel’s hand.

“The foreman on this project is Rick Redmond,” the man began. “You’ll have to set up your schedule with him. You’re not the first person I’ve sent his way so he knows what he needs to do as far as paperwork goes.

“Make sure you have him sign or initial each day to verify the hours worked. You have ninety days to complete your assigned hours. Once you’ve finished, bring the forms back to me. As long as everything is in order your restitution to the state and the community will be considered complete. Good day, Mr. Granger.”

Before Dallas could attempt another last-ditch argument, Finkel’s phone rang. “Good afternoon, Justin Finkel speaking,” he said into the receiver. He dismissed Dallas with a shooing motion of his bony fingers.

Knowing there was no changing Finkel’s mind, Dallas turned on the heel of his work boot and wove through the maze of cubicles and straight out the front door of the court building. Straight into a deluge.

Despite getting wet, Dallas was more than happy to leave the stale air, office chatter, ringing telephones, and muted conversations behind him.

He’d known from an early age that office work wasn’t for him. School was a necessity and a means to an end but he’d always resented being contained inside four walls, chained to a chair. While construction work also required being inside, at least he was able to move about and he got more than his share of fresh air hauling in supplies or working on outside projects. And best of all it gave him the chance to use both his brain and his back.

Ranching had too, he remembered with a stab. And once upon a time he’d envisioned doing both. Not a large spread like the Diamond G, but a few horses, a small herd. Something he could manage while still pursuing his dream of owning his own construction business. But the more his dad had pushed him into ranching the more Dallas had come to resent it. Until he’d wanted no part of ranching at all.

He leapt over a growing puddle and dodged another handful before reaching his truck. Inside, he ran a hand through his wet hair then wiped the moisture onto his jeans. Respectfully, he’d kept his ball cap in his truck, but he hadn’t bothered to dress up. This little meeting was already eating into his workday and he hadn’t wanted to waste more time going back to his place to change before heading back to the jobsite.

Dallas turned over the engine, pushed the controls over to defrost since his breath and the moisture from his wet hair were fogging the windshield.

He supposed it could have been worse. Finkel could have sent him on garbage picking duty, or graffiti cleanup. He could have had him scraping gum off the plastic walls of the bus shelters. At least the man had taken into account Dallas’s skills.

With that in mind, Dallas clicked on his seat belt, flipped on his wipers, shoulder checked, and pulled away from the curb. He increased the volume when he recognized Luke Bryan’s new song coming through the radio. But just as Luke hit a high note, the song was interrupted by an incoming call coming through his Bluetooth.

Dallas hit the button on the steering wheel to accept the call. “Granger Construction, Dallas here.”

“Dallas, it’s Ken. Richard just slipped off the ladder. He hurt his ankle pretty bad. Might be broken. Danny’s taking him to the hospital now.”

Dallas had three crews out at the moment and he knew which man worked at what site. Ken, one of his foremen, was working on a new garage in one of the more established areas of San Antonio. They were scheduled to start shingling the roof that day.

“It’s pouring rain. What was he doing on a ladder?”

“That was my fault. They’ve been forecasting rain for days and nothing’s come of it. I thought maybe we’d get lucky and it wouldn’t happen today either. Or, if it did, we’d have time to get down before it got too wet and slippery. Dallas, I’m sorry, this was my call, but honestly, the sky just opened up.”

Since he’d walked into Finkel’s office dry and had gotten soaked within seconds of leaving, he couldn’t argue.

Stopping for a red light Dallas said, “It’s okay, Ken. Accidents happen. As long as Richard is getting looked after, that’s all that matters.”

Since Richard had just forked over a couple grand on car repairs and couldn’t afford to be out of income Dallas asked, “You tell Danny to make sure he brings back a copy of the doctor’s report?”

The sooner Sherry, his office manager, had it and sent it off to the worker’s compensation board, the sooner Richard would get his benefits. And, in the meantime, if he needed it, Dallas could provide him with a loan.

“Yeah, I did,” Ken answered.

“Okay then,” Dallas said as the light turned green. “There’s no point in you guys staying there now. Without shingles on, the insulation and drywall we were planning on installing would just get wet if the rain comes through the cracks.”

Which meant there wasn’t anything more they could do at that site today. And since another of the three projects on the go was building a large two-tiered deck off a bi-level, there was no point sending them there either. The third project in the works was a complete basement overhaul after the sewer had backed up in it.

“Sean with you?” Dallas asked of Ken’s son. He was a university student and was working for Granger Construction for the summer.

“Yep.”

“Take him and head to that basement job in Alamo Heights. I’ll meet you there. If it’s too crowded I’ll take some back with me to the shop. I can put some to work there.”

While most jobs were on location, Dallas had a workshop along with his office in the industrial park. They did some prefab work there, like build cupboards, entertainment units, shelving units, as well as stain baseboards and doors. He could already think of a handful of jobs that needed doing.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you there.”

Dallas had no sooner disconnected the call when another came in.

“Mr. Granger, it’s Lorne Shilling from the San Antonio Development Services Department. I was scheduled to come to one of your sites in Alamo Heights this afternoon.”

Dallas’s grip tightened on the wheel. It had nothing to do with the red traffic cones that converged the two-lane street into a one-lane road and everything to do with the tone of the inspector on the other end of the call.

“Yes, you were,” Dallas confirmed. “And I hope you still are because with this rain I have three crews over there. The plumbing was approved yesterday but without your go ahead on the electrical we can’t do anything else.”

And then what the hell was he supposed to do with his men? He specifically always tried to have at least one inside project on the go at a time for this very reason. While he could use some men at the shop, there wasn’t enough room or work for all of them there.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Granger, but an unexpected matter has arisen that I must attend to.”

“And what about what I must attend to? I have men I need to keep working not to mention clients who are tripping over themselves upstairs because what could be salvaged from their flooded basement is now stacked in their hallways, living room, and kitchen.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Granger, I really am. But there is nothing I can do about that today. I’ll see you there tomorrow, you have my word.”

The inspector hung up before Dallas could say anything else. Well, now what was he supposed to do?

If only it would stop raining. But Mother Nature had a nasty sense of timing and the black sky opened even further, forcing Dallas to slap his wipers on high speed while raindrops the size of pancakes hammered his windshield.

When his phone rang again, he was sorely tempted to ignore it. Unlike the other two calls he’d answered blindly, Dallas shifted his gaze to the display screen on his truck to see who was calling. And then did a double take when he saw it was Gage.

Though it wasn’t unusual to get a call from one of his four brothers, it wasn’t all that common either. The Granger brothers weren’t exactly tight.

That Gage would call midmorning wasn’t a good sign. Especially considering he worked as an EMT. Dallas’s first thought was that it had something to do with their brother Hudson, who was serving overseas. But Ryker and their dad lived in Last Stand, and Cam still used it as a base between rodeos, so it could be about any of them as well.

Dallas’s gut tightened. Somehow, he knew this call wasn’t going to be good.

Anticipating that, he took a last-minute turn into a gas station that appeared through the curtain of rain. The car behind him blared its horn as Dallas pulled to the side, shifted into park, and answered the call.

“What’s up, Gage?”

Hearing sirens, Dallas turned in his seat and looked around. It took a moment to realize they weren’t coming from the nearby street but rather through the speakers in his truck.

“It’s Dad,” Gage said. “He was just brought into the hospital. I don’t know any details other than he’s unconscious. Get down here, Dallas. Now. I’ll call the others.”

The line went dead and Dallas was left staring out into the wall of gray.

End of Excerpt