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Nate Kershaw walked into his apartment and fell on his bed fully clothed. Dead tired didn’t begin to describe how he felt. He’d just returned to Whiskey River after flying a client to New Orleans and taking a couple of vacation days to have a good time with said client and his friends. Too good of a time. Since he never had more than a beer the night before he flew, he’d stayed an extra day but even partying while sober had taken it out of him. Damn, he was getting old.
When his phone rang with his mom’s ringtone he groaned and considered not answering. But his mom usually had a good reason to call him, so he picked up.
“Nate, you need to go check on your grandmother.”
“Does it have to be right now?” he asked her.
“Yes. She’s not answering her phone and you know what that means.”
His grandma was ninety-two and his mother tended to panic when her mother-in-law didn’t answer her phone. Truthfully, it worried him too. Grandma had fallen last year and broken her arm. Thank God it hadn’t been her hip. But Betty Kershaw was sharp as a tack, stubbornly independent, lived in her house by herself, and was involved in numerous activities in town. She might get irritated with Nate for checking up on her, but since he was the only family member who lived in the same town, she was used to it.
On his way Nate tried calling, but he couldn’t get an answer either. So he was pretty concerned by the time he got to her house. Getting no response when he rang her doorbell and knocked on her door, he got out his key and let himself in. He didn’t use his key often but kept it for emergencies. Which he was beginning to think this was. “Grandma,” he shouted. “Are you here?”
No reply. It didn’t take long to look through the house and out back and still see no sign of her or her dog Murphy. But her bedroom door was closed, which wasn’t like her. He knocked and opened it. Grandma sat on the bed, sobbing into her pillow, with Murphy beside her looking distressed.
The sight destroyed him. He’d never, not once in his thirty-one years, seen his grandma cry. Not even when she broke her arm. She was the toughest woman he knew. Life hadn’t always been easy for her, but she never complained. She just sucked it up and soldiered on. And lived her life to the fullest, determined to enjoy every day.
“My God, Grandma,” he said rushing in. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt? Did something terrible happen?”
She raised her head from the pillow and looked at him with tear-drenched eyes. She also looked every one of her ninety-two years. “Nate? What are you doing here?”
“You didn’t answer your phone so Mom and I got worried. What’s wrong?”
“I got some news from the doctor. You know, from the checkup I had day before yesterday?”
He remembered. He usually went with her but since the flight to New Orleans was already booked and Travis Sullivan, the other pilot at the Devil’s Rock Airport, had another client, he couldn’t get out of it. Grandma didn’t want to cancel, so her helper/driver had taken her. But Grandma wouldn’t let Louise go in to see the doctor with her. She’d only let family go in with her, which meant Nate, unless one of his parents or siblings happened to be in town. “What did the doctor say?”
She reached for a tissue and dried her eyes, giving Murphy a pat after she did. “I’m not dying,” she said with some asperity. “At least, not yet. But the doctor said I have AFib.”
AFib? “You have atrial fibrillation? That’s—” He started to say not good or even bad, but luckily stopped himself. “Did she say it was serious?” he asked instead. He’d seen the TV commercials. AFib could lead to a stroke. At Grandma’s age that could be really bad.
“She put me on a whatchamacallit—some kind of thinner.”
“A blood thinner?”
“That’s it. She said that would help.”
“Damn it, I knew I should have gone with you.”
“Why? Do you think I didn’t know what she was talking about?”
“No, but people do get confused. It helps to have someone else there. And you’re obviously worried or you wouldn’t have been crying.”
“I’m not worried. I’m ninety-two. I could die any day now, even if I didn’t have this AFib thing.”
“You’re not going to die, Grandma.”
“Hopefully not anytime soon. But I will someday and that brings me to why I was crying.”
“If it wasn’t over the diagnosis then what was it?”
“You, Nathaniel James Kershaw.”
Okay, it was serious when she called him by his full name. “Me? Why were you crying about me? I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. You pretend that you are, but I know you. I want to see you happy.”
“I’m happy.” Basically, anyway. Except for a certain stubborn, hardheaded cowgirl he wanted, who refused to see him as more than a friend.
“Happy and settled down with a good woman.”
He sat beside her and sighed. “Grandma, we’ve been over this.” About a million times. If he couldn’t have the woman he wanted—which appeared to be the case, damn it—then there wasn’t a reason in the world he should settle down.
“I want to see you married before I die.”
“What?” Nate asked. “Did you say…” Surely he’d misunderstood.
“You heard me. Married. I want you to get married.”
“Grandma, I’m not even dating anyone seriously. You can’t expect me to get married. That’s ridiculous.”
“I didn’t mean right this minute. But it’s time you settled down.”
He shook his head. “Not happening, Grandma. Not even for you.”
Damned if she didn’t start crying again. “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. I didn’t mean—I didn’t say I’d never get married.”
“You might as well have. What good will it do me if I’m dead before you ever make up your mind?” She reached for another tissue and dried her eyes. “You’ve dated a lot of women. I know you have. Can’t you see yourself falling in love with one of them?”
“No.” He was already in love with one of them and had been almost since the first time he’d seen her, at the Whiskey River rodeo over two years ago. She hadn’t been competing since it was a youth rodeo, but she’d been in charge of one of the events. Seeing her on one of her paints was something. Talk about a natural in the saddle. As a male he appreciated a beautiful woman riding a stunning black-and-white paint. He’d asked his buddy and fellow pilot Travis Sullivan if he knew who she was.
“Sure,” Travis had said. “That’s Damaris Walker. And before you ask, no, she’s not married.”
“Hallelujah. Introduce me.”
After the rodeo Travis had introduced them. Damaris was even prettier up close. Classic features—a mouth made for kissing, big, brown, beautiful eyes, and a tanned, healthy, flawless complexion. She wore a beige cowboy hat over her long, wavy, dark brown hair, and a tight T-shirt with a picture of a paint horse and the words ‘Walker Paints’ beneath it. She wore beige and brown leather chaps over blue jeans, scuffed cowboy boots obviously meant for hard work and not for show, and she had some kind of championship buckle on her belt. Damn, he hadn’t realized just how much of a turn-on chaps could be. Worn by the right woman, anyway.
He hadn’t really fallen in love at first sight, but he’d sure as hell fallen in lust. Everything went great until their third date. That was when Damaris put him squarely in the friend zone. And there he’d stayed. To top it off, she was always setting him up with other women. He’d go out with them but none of them lasted long. Because they weren’t Damaris.
“Nate, you have a funny look on your face. Are you sure there’s no one you’re interested in?”
“Grandma, you’ve just given me a great idea.”
“I hope it involves a woman.”
He stood and grinned at her. “Oh, it does. It definitely does.”
Damaris Walker was no stranger to physical work, but it seemed to her that someone else should be around to muck out the stalls. But the teenager who normally helped them was out sick. Her brother Marshall had taken his wife off to see the bluebonnets that were gorgeous this time of year, and Chase, one of her other brothers who also worked the ranch, was busy taking Ella, his pregnant wife who was also their ranch manager, to the doctor.
Which left her to do the dirty work. Her brother Gabe was a metal artist who lived in his own house on the ranch with his wife, who was also pregnant. Damaris only asked for his help in an emergency. Meaning, guess who shoveled out horse shit?
Of course, anyone who owned horses and particularly someone who was partner in a business raising paints and bucking horses was used to mucking out stalls more than a time or two. But tonight was girls’ night out at Booze’s Bar and Grill, and if she was going to make it in time she’d have to hurry. Sometimes they went to Jalisco’s for margaritas, or they had mani-pedi girls’ night out at Rosario’s Salon. But Rosario was out of town tonight so they’d chosen one of their favorite hangouts. Booze’s—the locals’ place for food, drink, darts, pool, and gossip.
“Hey, Damaris. What’s up?”
Startled, since she hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her, she turned around and frowned at her visitor. “You scared the hell out of me, Nate. You’re lucky you didn’t get a shovelful of horse shit thrown in your face.”
Nate just grinned, stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned back against the opposite stall. “Your reflexes are pretty quick, so I’d only get that shovelful if you were mad at me. You’re not, are you?”
“Why would I be mad at you? Just because the last woman I set you up with told me you said you’d call her and you didn’t?”
He shrugged. “It’s only been a week. I’ve been busy.”
“Try three and you have no intention of calling her, do you?” Damn. Sometimes she wished Nate wasn’t such a pleasure to look at. Even after being friends with him for over two years she still had a gut-punch reaction to seeing him sometimes. Like now. His light brown hair was medium length. He didn’t go in for some of the more fashionable looks but kept a regular haircut, a little longer on the top than the sides. His eyes were hazel and changed color with his emotions or what he was wearing. Right now, he wore a sky-blue, short-sleeved T-shirt with Devil’s Rock Airport and their logo—the rock it was named for—imprinted on it. So his eyes were blue today, not quite like the sky but close. He was long and lean, wore jeans like he’d been born to wear them, and wore running shoes.
He was no cowboy, although she’d taken him riding before and he wasn’t bad, considering he didn’t manage it often. No, he was a private airplane pilot, and a successful one as far as she could tell.
God, he was cute. No, he was hot. Really hot. Unfortunately.
Sometimes she wished she hadn’t put him so firmly in the friend zone. She was human. She’d wondered more than once what it would be like to have Nate as a lover. But Nate was simply too tempting. He was a player, and Damaris didn’t date players. Damaris had been burned badly by a very tempting player. Hell, Warner had been a philanderer of the first order. At least Nate wasn’t that bad.
“I need a favor,” Nate said, ignoring her question.
“Sure.” She leaned on her shovel. “What is it?”
“I need you to be my girlfriend. And maybe my fiancée.”
She couldn’t have heard him right. “You need what?”
“A girlfriend. Then a fiancée. Possibly.”
“And you want me? Are you crazy?”
“Not for real, so don’t freak out. Just for a while. Until I can figure something out to satisfy her.”
She leaned her shovel against the wall and put her hands on her hips. “Nate, what in the hell are you talking about? And who is ‘her’?”
“Let’s go sit down and I’ll tell you.”
Thoroughly mystified, she followed him out of the barn to the bench that sat beneath the big live oak by the corral. It was a gorgeous April day, beneath a blue, cloudless sky. A little cool and not terribly humid, which was a bonus any time of year in central Texas. “Okay, talk,” she said as they took a seat.
“It’s about Grandma.”
“Your grandma Kershaw?” She’d met her before. Several times, in fact. Enough to be really fond of her. Nate’s grandmother was quite a character and beloved in the community.
“She’s the only one I have. Of course, Grandma Kershaw.”
“What about her?”
“She wants me to get married. Before she dies.”
“Your grandma is dying? Oh, Nate, I’m so sorry.”
“She’s not dying. But she was just diagnosed with AFib and she’s freaking out.”
“That’s serious, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but it can be controlled. It’s not likely she’s going to keel over any day. At least, I hope not. But she is ninety-two, so I guess she’s feeling old on top of this new diagnosis. She’s always been healthy as a horse.”
“She thinks she’s dying so she wants you to get married.”
“You got it. I tried to convince her she’s not dying but she keeps saying she’s ninety-two and at her age you can’t tell.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “Which isn’t an unreasonable thought, unfortunately. She wouldn’t answer her phone so I went over there to see if she was okay.” His eyes met Damaris’s and she could see the worry in them. “She was crying, Damaris. I’ve never seen Grandma cry. Ever. And worse, she wasn’t crying about the diagnosis. She was crying about me.”
“But…she can’t expect you to just up and marry someone. She’s bound to know you aren’t serious about anyone. You never even go out with a woman more than once or twice.”
“That’s a slight exaggeration. But it’s one reason I thought of you. She knows you and really likes you. She knows we’ve been friends for a long time. It’s not much of a stretch to convince her we’re in love.”
“You realize this idea is completely insane, right? Besides, why me?”
He looked annoyed. “I just told you. Besides that, it wouldn’t be fair to anyone who might develop feelings for me.”
“I have feelings for you. I feel like you’ve lost your freaking mind.”
“Ha-ha. Come on, Damaris. Be my girlfriend. It’s not that much to ask.”
“You said fiancée, not just girlfriend.”
“I said maybe my fiancée. Whatever, it’s all for show so what difference does it make?”
Okay, she must be as crazy as he was. Because she was considering saying yes.
End of Excerpt