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“What the hey? Did someone die and no one told me?” Cody McCall strolled in to The Giddy Up, his recently polished boots softly scraping over the well-worn threshold.
He tipped his tan cowboy hat back and frowned at the low murmurs of the thin Friday night crowd. With their heads hung and the air flat, Cody wondered if he’d stumbled in to a funeral home instead of his favorite bar.
The last thing he’d expected at prime time was a bunch of sad sacks. “Seriously?”
His oldest brother Caleb and youngest brother Conner had forced him to come to town and shake off the dust of his nearly ten days working the cattle and land at their family’s ranch.
Not a whole lot of shaking going on here.
They’d stayed behind at the house to play cards with their widowed Gramps—his brothers’ Friday night ritual with their grandfather and some of his old cronies and longtime neighbors.
Gramps was their top priority. Nothing else mattered to the McCall brothers. Not one damn thing!
Keeping Gramps well and cared for proved tricky when he hardly ate. The shock at seeing him drop a few more pounds this time away still rocked Cody.
Of course, the same question rushed back to him time and time again. What could he do to get his beloved Gramps to want to really live again? He’d give everything just to see the best man he ever knew to be happy, to see that genuine smile come easy and stay.
Cody had to find that one thing.
He’d been hard pressed to leave Gramps at the McCall ranch forty minutes ago. Cody found his grandfather firmly in the clutches of grieving for his late grandmother. Eight months still wasn’t long enough to dull the edges of that pain. Maybe nothing would after fifty years of wedded bliss.
Piled on top, suspended in disbelief, there hung the stunning knowledge that he’d heavily mortgaged the ranch to pay the hefty medical bills from Grams’ illness and expensive treatments.
The latest notice from the bank sat in bold black letters against the stark white paper in the center of Gramps’ oak desk. Staring at it made everything more real and urgent. Cody’s mind blared with the shocking tidbit. Time was running out for the McCall family…
“First up on the agenda: save the ranch.” It would kill Gramps if he lost his home, too.
He blew out a pent-up breath, forcing the fresh, gripping waves of mourning to ease from behind his ribs. It barely shifted.
Looking around the interior of the bar now—the walls lined with posters of country music legends, the pool table stood empty and silent, and the dust motes floating in the dim lights from the antler chandeliers—he shook his head in disgust.
“And I thought I was coming for a good time, too.”
The rustic bar—the wood weathered to a warm, honey color—spanned nearly the width of the long room with a few of the stools occupied. The cowboys there glanced over their shoulders and then turned back again, like bobble heads on a stick.
It wasn’t much better at the tables lining the smooth, worn dance space. He recognized every one of the nearly dozen people here. Who wouldn’t in the small ranch community?
His cursory look took in his cousin with his white cowboy hat pitched down to cover his eyes and a former high school friend at one table, sprawled in chairs with their legs stretched out. If they sank any lower, they’d slide right out of their chairs and under the dang table.
And on the other side, the three hometown girls were huddled off to his right, tucked in a corner. They whispered like a bunch of buzzing bees now.
Where was the band? The tiny platform, littered with discarded instruments, stood empty and silent. Don’t tell me there’s no music, too!
Never mind that. Where was his best friend, his cohort in all things fun and outrageous? A pang shot through him.
He hadn’t come back from working long, back-breaking days at the McCall ranch only to be met with listlessness. Cody needed to keep his bottled-up emotions from burning a hole clear through him, like a powerful fireball shot through his middle and leaving flames behind. He’d kept a lid on his wild side far too long already.
“Oh, hell no!” Cody whistled between his lips. The others jarred, straightening their spines and taking notice. “Wake up, people! Cods is in town and we’ve got a party to start.”
Finally, his cousin, Jacob, shoved back his hat, jumped to his feet, and then rushed to greet him. Reaching out, he shook Cody’s hand and slapped him on the back. “Hey, about time you got here and livened things up.”
“You think? What, do I have to do everything around here? Can’t you lug heads do anything without me?” He grinned.
“Thought you’d never get back, cuz.” A wistfulness edged his words.
“Yeah, it’s been too long.”
“How’s Uncle Left doing?” A shadow crossed his young, expressive features. As a Laramie, he favored his father’s side—dark hair and blue eyes. But he had his momma’s tender heart.
The knot tightened in Cody’s gut. “Worse. He could use some of Aunt Sissy’s award-winning fried chicken.”
“Coming right up. Mom loves spoiling her big brother.”
Cody greeted more of his friends with a handshake or a fist bump. “How’s it going? Good to see you.”
“Not the same without you, bud.” Sterling Tucker clapped him on the shoulder. “Got some serious drinking to do.” His high school buddy, known for slugging back a few too many, grinned from ear-to-ear. Not much changed in the last eight years since graduation for good ol’ Tuck—work the range and party harder. Throw in a few pretty girls now and then and the man stayed happy.
A sliver of awareness snaked through Cody. Maybe he wasn’t that much different than his friend. He brushed that bothersome thought away. Too many truths were surfacing since Grams passed.
He stood in the midst of his cousin and friends, catching up on the rodeo circuit, the bucking broncs he used to ride, and the upcoming season.
“Pop’s setting up a training center, Cody.” Tuck nodded his head. “You know, these young guns need some help learning the ropes. I’m up for steer wrestling. Got a spot open. You interested in teaching bareback bronc riding?”
“Me?” A part of Cody itched to get back in the ring. Leaving the circuit last year to come home due to Grams’ declining health hadn’t fazed him. He’d walked away for his family. No regrets!
However, staying away after she passed, his sponsors dropping him, and hurting for cash to give to Gramps reminded him he wished he could slip back in that life. That and loving what he did—the horses, the challenge, the rush.
But his history, first watching his parents and then Grams leave, proved he didn’t want to lose any more of the people he loved than he already had. Can’t walk away from Gramps or my family.
“He wants you. The best. Good pay, too. Come on, what do you say?” Tuck rubbed his hands together. “Aren’t you just dying to get back on one of those broncs?”
Sterling Sr. mentored him as a kid. Good man. “You had me at I’m the best and good pay.”
He chuckled and his cousin and friends joined in.
“Hey, Cody. You ready to dance?” Sandy Owens slid up beside him and nudged his arm. The pretty brunette batted her eyelashes at him.
Turning, he found the girls eyeing him and his friends. They were younger, gussied up in brand spanking new duds—two dressed in Daisy Dukes, tight shirts, and pastel-colored cowgirl hats firmly in place. He glanced down at Sandy’s bright, orange-flamed boots. “Whoa, girl! You’re gonna burn up the floor with those beauts.”
“Don’t you know it, Cody McCall. And I’m giving you first dibs on helping me break them in.”
His cousin and friends ribbed him. “Go for it, Cods!”
Cody scratched his clean-shaven jaw, wondering if her offer held more than he’d willingly seek. Dancing and having a good time seemed all he could muster tonight. Flashy, needy girls weren’t his type. Heck, relationships weren’t his type. With Gramps and Gram setting the bar high, not just any girl would do. “Don’t think I got the fire extinguisher handy.”
“I got it for you, girl!” Tucker hooted, making her smile and look him up and down.
The rest of them chuckled at the pair’s eagerness now.
A shrill whistle rent the air. His heart jumped. Cody knew that sound. He taught her that.
Grinning, he jerked around. He found her easily coming up behind the waiting group of cowgirls. Beautiful. Blonde—she’d cut her hair to shoulder-length and added a sweep of bangs—and with big, brown eyes staring him down, she was the best thing he’d seen in weeks. She barely reached five-foot-two, standing with her hands planted on her hips and tapping the toe of her pretty pink boot.
“About time you got here, Cods!” Hannah Prescott laughed, well, more like shrieked, and then launched herself at him.
Cody caught her up in his arms, holding her off the ground and to his chest. Tiny and petite, she fit perfectly. It felt far too good to hug his best friend again after weeks of missing her. And she smelled like sunshine, warm, fresh and breezy, and home.
Longing and nostalgia coupled and sucker punched him square in the chest. He shook those strange feelings off and focused on the moment and getting back to an even footing. “Dang, girl! Did you shrink while I was gone?”
“Funny, McCall.” She pressed her face to his cheek. “Missed you, cowboy.” She squeezed him around his neck one last time before he set her down. Then she jabbed him in the gut. It packed about a tenth of her power and strength.
“Is that all you got? You’re getting weak.” He laughed at the flash of mutiny in her eyes. Cody loved pushing her buttons.
“Just for that you’re buying me a drink.” She grabbed his arm and steered him away from the others.
“Not even a howdy do first?” But he went along as the guys and girls called them back. She directed him to a stool near the end of the long bar.
“Come on, Hannah. Don’t keep him all for yourself.” Jacob tried to intervene. “The band will be back any minute and you’re stealing the life of the party away?”
“Simmer down. I’ll send him along before it gets dark out.” Her sass met with more joking from the guys, but they had come to life and began to flirt with the girls nearby.
“What’ll you have?” He spotted Buzz hauling in two cases of beer.
“Whiskey, Buzz.” Hannah leaned across the wood surface to get the bartender’s attention when he dipped his head, the bottles clinking as he filled up the cooler.
“Be right there.” He nodded.
“We celebrating?” Something clamped around Cody’s windpipe. He coughed to clear it. “Did he ask you yet?”
“Rodney Ellis, you mean? That man…” She plopped down on the seat, her hair swinging across her lips. She hooked the piece behind her cute little ear. “Wait a minute. You knew?”
“I saw him before I headed out and you were—where, again? On the road, somewhere. He’s got the fever. You know, the one where he turns all red and blotchy when he even thinks about popping the question.”
“Ah, are you talking about yourself here?” She made a noise in the back of her throat. Angled toward him, she crossed her jean clad legs, swinging her bright pink cowgirl boot. “Where were you when I needed you to talk about this last week? You could at least pick up or text me back.”
“What am I supposed to do with a cell out on the range? Climb to the top of the ridge and stick my arm to the north and my leg to the east to try to get reception.” He chuckled.
She folded her arms over her chest and stared him down.
Cody gulped hard. He’d been that guy—the fever fella. He suspected Grams getting sick and her last wish to see all her grandsons married had something to do with it. He’d gotten within a hairsbreadth of proposing to Tabitha a year ago. Thank God he’d changed his mind—or someone else had helped rub the dust off his eyes—in the nick of time. Wake up call! Thank you, Jesus!
“Yep, life of the party Cody. That’s me. Why mess with a good thing?” But it stung to recall how close he’d gotten to ruining his entire life. What a fool he’d been to think she’d want the same things he did! The ranch, ha! She’d rented a high-priced apartment in Austin and planned on moving there the moment the I-dos were a done deal.
“Escape artist. How did you do it? Tell me, so I can, too.”
“Shots.” Buzz, tall and thin and about as weathered as the bar looked, plunked down the glasses and poured. Once done, he gave them a jaunty salute. “Holler when you want some more, y’all.”
Hannah nudged Cody. “Advice. Fast.” She picked up her drink when he did.
“He’s a decent guy.” He shrugged. Safe. Boring.
The pale tenderfoot didn’t seem up to her usual tough cowboy standards. He couldn’t picture Hannah settling for him. His chest tightened at the thought of her with Rodney or anyone, for that matter. Whoa! Where did that come from?
“I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” She grimaced. “Or lose his daddy’s business. He wants to team up with me and be a stock contractor. Him?”
“Timid. Tame for you.” The words tumbled out of him, fast and blunt.
“Exactly. Not my type.”
“Why’d you date him, anyway? His bankroll?” That was not like his Hannah.
“Skip it. Next question, Cods.”
“Escape plan, anyone?” He lifted his glass and they bolted back the whiskey at the same time. His lips tingled and the burn slid down until it hit his belly. The instant warmth spread through his body.
“Whoo!” She slammed down the shot glass. “You, my friend, need to tell him for me.”
“Huh? Why me?”
“Because you owe me, big time for saving your butt.”
He scowled. “How so?”
“Ah, like, every time a woman comes around. They think since we’re such good friends there’s a thing going on.”
“I figure that works both ways, Hannah Banana.” He grinned when she grimaced at his nickname for her.
“So, use it this time. Good ol’ Rodney is clueless.”
A commotion from the platform caught their attention as the three-man band came back in, grabbed up their instruments, and then hunkered down. Gunther tapped the keys of the old, upright piano, Jackson—another cousin and Jacob’s brother—adjusted the mic. Harv softly tapped the bow on the fiddle.
Hannah plucked off Cody’s cowboy hat and then settled it on her head. Next, she reached over and ruffled his hair. “Show us your moves, Cods!”
She hopped off the bar stool, clutched his hand, and then walked backward, dragging him to the dance floor.
Jackson strummed his guitar. The first few chords of the familiar, rowdy tune cut through the stale air.
“Now, we’re talking.” Cody grinned as their friends joined Hannah and him. “That’s right! Low places…”
They sang along, dancing and hooting and hollering. He swung a laughing Hannah around and nearly bumped into Tuck and Sandy. Cody tugged Hannah a little closer, protecting her from poking elbows and stomping boots.
Looking up, way up, at him, she captured his stare. Her tender smile spread slow and wide and her brown eyes sparkled, melting him. His breath hitched. A steady buzz hummed in his blood.
It was the whiskey, right?
Tell me, it’s just the whiskey whooshing through my veins and nothing else!
End of Excerpt