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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman dating in a small town will forever be matched with the exact same pool of bachelors on every matchmaking app known to womankind. Worse, if she’s lived in that small town for a few years, she’ll know every last one of them far too well to consider them as prospective romantic partners.
Dismally swiping left on the familiar lineup of a dozen faces in the latest app she’d tried, high school English teacher Emma Garcia sat at her desk after her students left for the weekend. Outside her classroom at Creekbend High School in Last Stand, Texas, she heard the diesel groan of buses leaving the parking lot, taking all the noise and restless excitement of her charges with them. Most of her colleagues were already pouring out the doors too, in spite of their teaching contract that said they needed to work for fifty minutes past the time of the bus departure.
How could she blame them on a Friday the week before their February break? Maybe if she had a life of her own—a family, a romantic partner—to go home to, Emma would be bolting for her compact car now too. Her one commitment was weekend dog-sitting for a friend heading out of town, but she wouldn’t receive her canine guest until tomorrow morning. Now, she glanced wistfully up at the Pride and Prejudice poster taped to her classroom wall and asked a question of the fictional Bennet sisters—Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Catherine “Kitty,” and Lydia.
“You thought dating in your time was tough?” she asked, eyeing each feminine face on the poster with an accusatory glare. “At least you had Darcy and Bingley taking up temporary residence in your town. And an occasional regiment of soldiers passing through to keep things interesting.”
Sighing, she shut off her phone and slumped back in her chair, only to be roused by a tentative knock on her open classroom door.
“Hello?” Her friend Alexis Harper stood in the doorway, a small bouquet of wildflowers—tied with a blue bow—in her hand. Trim and blond, she wore a long ponytail with all her hair scraped away from her face. “I came to bust you out of here.”
Alexis was the younger sister of Emma’s best bud, Keely, who’d been successfully enticed away from Last Stand to begin a new life in Chicago with hot baseball player Nate Ramsey. Before Keely left home to enjoy life on the road with Nate, Alexis had moved from Houston to spend time with their father whose health was declining. Being a caregiver for their alcoholic dad had been more work than Alexis had suspected, making it tough to get her physical therapy practice off the ground, let alone oversee the wildflower business that she was determined to keep up in Keely’s absence.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in weeks,” Emma exclaimed, rising and hurrying over to hug her friend. “I was just bemoaning my fate here since it seems like everyone in town has somewhere else to be this weekend.”
“Not me. I’m ready to start happy hour now if you are. It’s been one of those weeks that didn’t kill me, so I pray to God it made me stronger.” Alexis thrust the small bundle of primroses, daisies, and Texas mountain laurel toward her. “I brought these for you now that things are starting to bloom around the house.”
“They’re beautiful. Thank you.” Leaning over the bouquet to inhale the sweet fragrance she noticed the stems wore little caps of water to keep them from drying out. “And I’m sorry you had a rough week.”
She fingered the bell-shaped mountain laurel flowers, remembering the last time anyone brought her a floral offering. It had been her homecoming corsage from Wes Ramsey, senior year. A memory that brought with it a pang since she’d been thinking of him more than usual lately now that Keely was all but engaged to Wes’s older brother. But Emma had made a New Year’s resolution that comparing other dating prospects with Wes Ramsey was beyond foolish. Surely, she had romanticized their old relationship because he’d been her first love. They’d been drawn to each other because they were both driven and focused on their goals with a determination that set them apart from other kids their age. But things had faltered when those goals had been so different—him chasing his baseball dream and her going to college so she could secure a job in the town she loved. But there were other men out there, and she needed to get serious about looking at them.
Sure, he was an elite athlete with an invitation to attend a major league spring training camp two weeks from now. But she’d never been a superficial woman. She’d admired his work ethic, and his innate compassion. Also, his kisses made her forget her own name. But the time had come for her to move past the fanciful wishes of her younger years, and start the search for a mate who wanted the same kind of future she did. Marriage. Family. A life in Last Stand.
“I’m sure things will get easier.” Alexis wandered around the classroom, her gaze roaming from the poster of the Lady of Shalott to the heroine of The Crucible and, of course, the Bennet sisters. “I’m a little over my head taking care of the wildflowers. I would have never guessed there were so many farm chores this time of year. I feel like all I’ve been doing this week is planting and pruning.” She ran a finger over the worn spines of volumes on a low bookcase. “So what do you think about happy hour?”
“I’m in.” Emma dug her leather handbag out of her battered desk drawer and then locked it up again. “You can help me figure out my new dating strategy.”
“Really?” Alexis looked intrigued, turning toward her with comically wide eyes. She waggled her eyebrows. “Sounds juicy. I need a distraction that doesn’t involve potting trays or seeds.”
“Unfortunately, my dilemma is the opposite of juicy.” She grabbed her sweater off the back of her chair. “I’ve been staring at the same romantic candidates on my matchmaking apps for months, and I’ve decided to forge ahead and speed date my way through all of them to see what happens.”
“Nothing like jumping in with both feet.” Alexis tossed her head and laughed, ponytail swinging. “Hold that thought. This is a discussion that calls for tequila.”
They drove separately to the Last Stand Saloon, a town institution and the actual spot where the settlers had made their last stand in the Texas War for Independence. Locals took pride in the place and their history, one of many reasons Emma had fallen in love with this Hill Country town when she and her vagabond mom had first settled here. The original saloon was still standing, along with bullet holes from shots fired during the battle.
For Emma, the town had lived up to its name since she’d told her roaming mother she wasn’t moving again once they arrived—making a sort of last stand with her mother. To her credit, Adeline Bradford Garcia had managed to sit still long enough for Emma to finish high school, but the minute she’d headed to the University of Texas to begin her teaching degree, Adeline returned to her nomad ways.
Sliding into a booth in the back, Emma set her flowers on the table and took the seat across from Alexis. The place was already busy, the Friday happy hour starting early. While the jukebox blared an old George Jones tune, Emma waved at a few people she knew, not surprised to see a table full of the elementary school teachers toasting the start of their weekend.
“So what gives?” Alexis demanded, peeling off her sweater-coat to reveal a long-sleeved pink tee with the Windy Meadows Wildflowers logo. “Why the sudden rush to date your way through town?”
A waitress stopped by to take their drink order, interrupting Emma’s answer. Afterward, she took right up where they’d left off.
“For one thing, I don’t believe in wasting time,” Emma said carefully, having discarded the deeper, sentimental reason as too morose. The truth was she felt lonely. And that Wes Ramsey would be leaving Last Stand for the start of baseball season soon, ending any chance meetings with him for another eight long months. It bugged her how much she still looked forward to seeing him, a sure sign she’d given him too much of her mental real estate. “I’ve never dated just for fun, and I’m not interested in casual hookups. I really want to stay in Last Stand, and I don’t want to drive two hours to try out long-distance dates. I figured I might as well dig in and get to know potential like-minded men before I commit to another year of teaching in the fall.”
“Emma, don’t take this the wrong way.” Alexis stabbed an emphatic finger onto the table. “But do not breathe a single word of that speech to any guy you go out with.”
The server returned and set the drinks on the table along with salsa and tortilla chips, cocktail napkins and cardboard drink coasters from Outlaw Tequila, a local business. Emma lifted her longneck and clanked it against Alexis’s cactus-shaped margarita glass.
“Cheers to friends who don’t let friends scare away potential dates.” Sipping the pilsner, Emma tried not to be discouraged. “I’ll be more charming and less terrifying once I commit to the plan.”
Her phone chimed with a notification on her dating app that her first prospect was suggesting an outing tomorrow night—drinks and dancing at Hickory Hall. Emma took a deep breath and sent him a thumbs-up before she lost her nerve.
“You know you shouldn’t go out with men who don’t inspire you in the first place?” Alexis advised, plucking a chip from the basket while the jukebox shuffled to a newer country tune with more guitar than fiddle. “You make dating sound as appealing as visiting the dentist.”
Alexis smiled and waved at someone else in the bar while Emma answered her.
“Isn’t it? At least, that’s been my experience so far—” her experience with Wes not withstanding “—but I’m still hoping someone will surprise me.” Her most recent phone call from her mom had underscored how dire her dating prospects seemed, since Adeline had suggested Emma visit Beverly Hills if she “still found herself sitting alone every Friday night with only ice cream for company.”
Emma had not dignified that with a response, but the bleak description had been spot-on.
“Why are you hoping to be surprised?” The male voice from just over Emma’s shoulder was one she recognized all too well.
The familiar rush of awareness from seeing him made her skin heat. Had she conjured him out of her longing thoughts? He stood at the end of her bench seat, all six foot two of him with the strong shoulders of a power hitter. In faded jeans and worn boots, a blue flannel buttoned over a white T-shirt, he was dressed the same as the ranchers and locals that populated Last Stand Saloon. But his dark hair, green eyes, and chiseled jaw were so familiar to her. She’d kissed that mouth more times than she could count and still not often enough to satisfy her.
“Do you mind if we join you for a couple of minutes?” the guy behind Wes asked, making her aware Wes wasn’t alone. His friend dropped into the bench seat beside Alexis. “The place is packed.”
Ty Lambert had been a fixture on the Houston Stars roster for the last few years, even though he’d been hurt in a motorcycle accident last season. Emma had seen Ty a few times at the baseball camp Wes’s brother, Nate, started last summer while recovering from an injury. Ty had volunteered too, bringing star power to the camp and ensuring the venture was a huge success. Emma had heard Ty was sweet on Alexis, making extra trips to Last Stand even after the baseball camp ended, but Emma hadn’t seen the two of them together until now.
Alexis gave a flirty laugh, her eyes lighting up at the sight of him. “As long as the next round is on you.” She scooted deeper into the bench seat to make room for him. His deeply bronzed skin made his pale, blue-green eyes stand out all the more. His dark hair fell across one eye, the ink of a few tattoos visible above the collar of a gray button-down he wore with his jeans. To Emma, Alexis said, “You’ve met Ty Lambert before haven’t you?”
Emma offered her hand across the table, trying to focus on Ty and not the rush of awareness that came as Wes took a seat beside her. “Emma Garcia. I saw you at the Stars camp a few times this summer.”
“Nice to meet you. I knew you looked familiar,” Ty said before the server returned to take their drink order.
Wes and Ty ordered beers and Alexis asked for a second margarita, but Emma declined. She couldn’t afford to dull her wits with Wes next to her. They’d crossed paths a handful of times during the off-season, but hadn’t spoken beyond pleasantries. And they certainly hadn’t been in such close proximity since their breakup the summer after freshman year of college.
A break taken for sensible reasons since Emma guessed that Wes would get drafted before he finished his four-year degree. She’d recognized it wouldn’t be fair to tie him down when he was launching a career that would have him traveling all over the country, being pursued by rabid fangirls. They’d pretended the split had been amicable, but there’d been plenty of heartache beneath the surface on her side. Wes told her he understood, and sharpened his focus on baseball. Emma had sobbed her eyes out and bitterly regretted her inability to live in the moment.
“Emma, we’ll give you space as soon as a spot opens up at the bar,” Ty assured her as their server left the table. “Alexis won’t thank me for cutting in on her friend time.”
“You’re fine,” Emma insisted, forcing herself to relax back against the seat cushion. “We’re just celebrating the start of the weekend. And, for me, two whole days’ respite from writing up learning outcomes and justifying teaching objectives.”
She loved teaching and working with her students, but the emphasis on testing in the school system frustrated her to no end.
“You’re a teacher?” Ty asked at the same time laughter erupted at a table nearby.
“Ninth-grade English,” she said, before steering talk away from her work. “Which isn’t nearly as interesting as what you do. I’m sure you’re looking forward to training camp.”
Ty shrugged as he cut eyes toward Alexis. “Actually, I’ll miss hanging out in Last Stand when I leave for Palm Beach.”
Ty’s Houston-based team trained in Florida while all the Ramsey men would attend spring training in Arizona. Cal and Nate in Mesa, and Wes in Scottsdale. The Defender, the local newspaper, had spelled that out in their sports section last week, along with updates on the local bull riders.
The server returned with their drinks, and Emma noticed Ty used the interruption to speak privately with Alexis.
Wes turned toward Emma and lowered his voice. “Ty might be indifferent, but I’m definitely ready to go to camp.”
She couldn’t help the stab of disappointment that he was eager to leave town even though she’d always known a spot on a major league roster was his goal.
“You’ve worked hard for this chance, Wes.” She fidgeted with the bow tied around the bouquet that Alexis had given her—a bouquet she’d brought into the bar to flaunt and maybe boost her friend’s flower business. She wanted to be better about supporting local entrepreneurs. “Congratulations on getting the invitation.”
“Thanks. But it’s not going to be easy getting on the roster. Their second baseman has two Gold Gloves.” He took a drink of his beer before eyeing the label from a local brewery.
“According to your dad, they could put you in left field.” Emma glanced toward Alexis to check in with her friend, but Ty had her smiling. There was definitely a spark between them.
“Why am I not surprised you’ve heard my father’s views about my potential position?” Wes asked dryly.
Clint Ramsey had a long, storied career as a major league pitcher and had passed his baseball skills to all three of his sons. But Cal, Nate, and Wes also dealt with their dad’s criticisms. Their mom had given Clint his walking papers long ago, and the Hall of Famer now lived in a mansion across town with a superficial gold digger who’d once told Emma that she should have really set her sights on someone with a more established baseball career than Wes. As if the goal was the income and not the man.
But Wes had borne far worse growing up in the Ramsey household, between the constant pressure to improve his game and the need to win his father’s approval that always remained just out of reach. Sometimes she’d wondered if Wes pursued his dream for himself or because it seemed to be expected, but if she’d learned one thing about him while they were dating, it’s that he wouldn’t put the dream aside for anything. So, regretfully, she’d stepped away on her own terms before that drive of his ripped him out of her arms for good.
“He was holding court during the tree trimming at the Corbyn family’s mansion before Christmas,” Emma recalled before she took another sip of the pilsner. “But it wasn’t just to talk about you. He was giving everyone updates on Nate and Cal, too.”
Wes’s jaw flexed and she guessed that his tense relationship with his father hadn’t eased over the years.
“On to more interesting subjects,” Wes spoke more loudly when Ty and Alexis went quiet on the other side of the table, including them in the conversation even though his green eyes remained on Emma. “I heard you say you hoped someone would surprise you when we first got here.” A teasing note entered his voice. “What was that all about?”
Alexis leaned closer, her pendant of a silver rose banging the table as she grinned. “This is a good story. Emma, you should run the plan by the guys and get their take on it.”
“It’s not really a story I planned to share.” She glared at Alexis meaningfully while Wes swiveled in his seat to face Emma more.
“Now I’m intrigued,” he said, drumming his fingers against the tabletop. The wood vibrated under her elbows. “What are you up to?”
Alexis dipped a chip in salsa, adding, “It’s not like your scheme will remain a secret if you opt to move forward with it.”
Sighing, Emma couldn’t deny her friend had a point. News traveled fast in a small town.
“Fine.” She sipped her beer and reminded herself she had no reason to be embarrassed even though Wes probably had women throwing themselves at him daily while she struggled to meet anyone. “I’m thinking about speed dating my way through the only prospects that show up on my dating app to get an idea of whether or not I can afford to spend another year in Last Stand.”
Ty’s eyebrows shot up. Wes frowned.
“Let me get this straight.” Narrowing his gaze, Wes spoke coolly. “You’d actually consider leaving Last Stand if there are no good romantic candidates?”
Ty slapped the table with his palm and said, “Brilliant. Emma, I think you’re on to something. Why stay in a geographic area with no prospects? If you were a wild animal, you’d move to a new hunting ground. This is no different.”
Wes shook his head, a lock of dark hair spilling onto his forehead. “It’s very different since Emma is a woman and not a wolf. She can’t change her whole life just because the dating pool isn’t up to her standards.”
She bristled at his words. Or maybe it was how he said them. As if she was being overly picky.
“It’s not really that,” she clarified. “I just don’t want to waste time dating someone who doesn’t want the same things as me. And I’m not interested in a long-distance relationship. So I figured I’d better get to work and see if there’s anyone out there in Last Stand for me.”
“And if not?” Wes’s jaw flexed, the dark shadow of stubble shifting with the movement. “You’d honestly move away just to find better dates?”
He made it sound frivolous.
So of course she committed to the plan all the more. “Absolutely.”
They stared at one another under the yellow glow from an overhead pendant. Ty reaffirmed that he thought it was a good idea. Wes didn’t speak. So when the tune on the jukebox changed to something slow, Ty slid out of the booth and beckoned to Alexis.
“Come on, Alexis. Let me show you my dance moves.” Ty drew her toward the planked dance floor, weaving through patrons that crowded the area behind the bar.
Once they were gone, Wes scowled at Emma while he finished his beer in silence.
Twitchy and anxious at being alone with him, Emma pulled her flowers to her nose to inhale the fragrance, taking comfort from them since one Harper sister had planted them and the other one had picked them for Emma. With the aromatherapy soothing her nerves, she decided to say what was on her mind since she most likely wouldn’t be seeing Wes again before he left town.
And if she decided to leave Last Stand for greener dating pastures, she’d move in the summer before he finished the baseball season. The thought of never seeing him again unsettled her, even though they’d split long ago.
“So I take it you think it’s a bad idea?” She tried to keep her voice light since it was just idle conversation. She made her own decisions.
“I didn’t say that,” he replied slowly, withdrawing his wallet and tucking a few bills under his empty beer bottle. “I just find it ironic that you wouldn’t consider leaving Last Stand while we were together, and I was entering the draft. But now you’re ready to pack your bags for the sake of a date. Guess it shows where I ranked.”
Rising to his feet, Wes wished her a good night while she tried to process what he’d just said. By the time she did, he was walking his very fine self right out the door.
Indignation had her out of the booth, her purse and flowers in hand. She’d never been the kind of woman to chase a man, but if Wes thought he could make a pronouncement like that and then walk away from her, he didn’t know her at all.
End of Excerpt