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Ava settled back on the sofa with her sweet tea and smiled at the friends she had known for decades. Their group of five had supported each other through divorces and the deaths of husbands, worries about children and grandchildren, droughts, illnesses, injuries, and more. Only one thing had almost destroyed the friendships: Ava had won a billion-dollar lottery. Apparently it was easier to commiserate in times of trouble than resist envy over good fortune. But they’d worked through that, and the group was strong again. It had been a hectic year, but as Texas Hill Country shifted into autumn at the start of November, it was nice to relax with friends over tea and knitting.
“Did you hear about the new gentleman in town?” Teresa was the youngest of the group at fifty-six and kept her hair a startling shade of red.
“Oh, do tell,” Glenda said. “And by gentleman, do you mean someone our age?”
“Well, give or take a year.” Teresa glanced up from the purple scarf she was knitting. “Maybe a decade for some of you. But he’s definitely a silver fox.”
“A what?” Rhonda snorted.
“You know,” Teresa said, “a man with white or gray hair who’s handsome.”
Glenda patted her perm, which was as blond as it had been thirty years ago, thanks to regular trips to the hairdresser. “I don’t know why men get to be handsome when they go gray and get wrinkles, and we don’t.”
“Who says we don’t?” Ava set down her tea and picked up her knitting. “I stopped dying my hair ten years ago, and Rhonda never started.” Granted, she’d stopped when her husband died, because it didn’t seem worth the effort. But gray hair was in, according to the younger generation.
Glenda looked from Ava to Rhonda, pursing her lips. “Mm. But you know some people will say you look old.”
“We are old!” Ava said. “I’m turning sixty in a couple of months.”
The years had flown by. It was hard to believe her four sons were grown men, getting married and thinking about families of their own. It was even harder to believe her husband had died ten years earlier. He’d worked hard his whole life and had a heart attack at fifty-two, when their youngest was only seventeen.
Rhonda shook her head, her steel-gray hair held stiffly in place with hairspray. “That’s not old. Sixty is the new forty or something.” Rhonda was several years older than Ava, which might have influenced her opinion.
“I don’t mind turning sixty,” Ava said, “but I wish I still felt forty. I used to roll out of bed and head right out for chores. Now with my arthritic hips, I hobble around until the anti-inflammatories kick in.”
“As I’ve said, you need to start doing yoga.” Teresa was sitting cross-legged on the couch, the showoff.
“I am!” Ava said. “With a video. I don’t want to go to a class.” Last Stand had generally settled down after the excitement over the lottery win, but Ava was still careful about where she went in public, especially on a schedule, like a regular class. Plenty of people wanted a chunk of the Tomlinson fortune and weren’t afraid to interrupt a class, a restaurant lunch, or even church to ask for it.
“Aaanyway.” Glenda drew out the word. “New gentleman in town! I can’t believe you’re more interested in yoga and bad knees than that.”
“I can’t believe you’re panting over a new gentleman,” Barbara said. “It’s not like any of us would hook him. Well, maybe Ava, but that’s different.”
Ava focused on her knitting and ignored the comment. It wasn’t a compliment, since clearly Barbara meant Ava might hook a man with her money, not her personality or looks. Granted, the fortune was probably the most enticing thing about her.
Sometimes Ava tried to imagine how Kirk would have handled the lottery win. Would they have given the ranch to Josh and traveled the world? Moved into an expensive retirement community with a golf course, pool, and tennis courts? Joined a country club?
Probably not. More likely they would have bought land for the boys, and Kirk would have kept running the original ranch. The money meant they didn’t have to work, but none of them knew what to do with themselves if they didn’t have big projects. Josh had taken over the original ranch, with the herds of beef cattle and bison. TC bought a neighboring property and filled it with llamas and ostriches for his experiments in alternative livestock. Cody came home—the best thing about the lottery win—and was doing charitable work with the two small planes he’d bought. Those three had found women worthy of them, and Ava was confident the women weren’t after the money.
Xander, her baby at twenty-five, handled the finances for the ranch and took care of the other ranch animals—his rabbits, the horses, the dogs and cats. He hadn’t officially found a partner yet, but Ava had thoughts about Xander and Daisy, Rhonda’s niece who now worked in their office and lived in the ranch house. She’d just had a baby a few days ago, but the father wasn’t in the picture. Ava already thought of Daisy as a daughter and baby Avery as a grandchild, so if Xander got his rear in gear and courted Daisy, they could make it official.
The other women were still waiting for her reaction to Barbara’s statement. They had remained friends this long precisely because Ava was willing to ignore that kind of comment. “I’m not looking for a gentleman friend.”
“Heavens, I gave up looking long ago. But that doesn’t mean I won’t look.” Rhonda waved a hand. “You know what I mean. I can look without wanting to share my home with a man again.”
“That’s the only way to go about it.” Barbara’s divorce had been brutal.
“Be honest,” Glenda said. “Don’t you ever wish you could have another romance?” When no one immediately answered, she added, “Ava?”
Ava sighed. “Sure, sometimes. I do miss having a husband. It isn’t even about the sex.”
“Yes, it is!” Teresa said. That started a wave of laughter.
“Well, I’m not saying I’d turn it down,” Ava said, “but it’s not just about sex. Besides, imagine being naked in front of somebody for the first time now. It’s one thing when you can say, ‘I bore your children with this body. Of course it doesn’t look like it did when we met.’ And he’s seen you change over the years. But with someone new?”
Glenda ran a hand down her side and frowned. At a glance, it appeared Glenda had the trimmest waist of any of them, but that owed as much to sturdy foundation garments as it did to her exercise regimen. “Surely a man our age wouldn’t expect a woman to have the body of a thirty-year-old,” she said.
Rhonda scoffed. “Most single men our age seem to think they deserve an actual thirty-year-old.”
Ava nodded sadly. She’d had a few chances to date over the years since her husband’s death. At first, she wasn’t ready. When she managed to look up from her grief and glance around, the pickings were slim. She’d gone on a few dates with a man from church, but they hadn’t had a spark. A widowed farmer with teenage children showed some interest, but he seemed to want a laborer, for farm work and child rearing, more than a lover.
Should she tell them about the cute geologist? Her youngest son, Xander, had hired the man to survey the ranch land and determine the best place for windmills. Something about his picture had interested Ava. Enough that she’d done a little research—nothing creepy, just a basic internet search—and found out North Rabe was divorced and at least in his fifties. If she mentioned the man to her friends, they’d want to see the photo. Would they think he was cute too? Ava had kind of odd taste sometimes.
And of course he knew her family was rich, since Xander was hiring him. Mr. Rabe might have done a detailed financial check of the Tomlinsons, which would be fair if he was going to accept their contract work. Or maybe he’d simply heard about the family’s fortune, as most of the state had. Either way, no doubt he was perfectly aware of who she was and how much money she had. Or at least how much they had in theory. They’d put most of the money into the family fund, in order to keep people from asking any of them individually for charitable donations, loans, or whatever. But Ava was on the family fund board and active in determining who got the money, so even if it wasn’t literally hers, she got pestered by people who wanted a chunk of it.
Anyway, it wasn’t like she was interested in him romantically, or at least like she expected anything to come of it. It was only that with most of her boys moving out, she got lonely sometimes. She didn’t need a man though. She had her friends, she could visit her sons whenever she wanted, and now she’d even have Daisy’s baby to cuddle and spoil.
But once in a while, she still wanted someone of her own. She missed crawling into bed next to Kirk, waking up and hearing his snores—not something she’d ever expected to miss, but the bedroom seemed too quiet without it, even now so many years after her husband’s death. She didn’t want to complain. She’d never been a complainer, and she certainly couldn’t start now that she had more money than she knew what to do with. Being rich meant no one sympathized with you about anything, even if money didn’t buy love.
She wouldn’t tell the ladies about North Rabe. They’d get the wrong idea, and ask about him every time they saw her, and nag her into doing things she didn’t want to do, or things she did want to do but didn’t have the nerve to do.
“It doesn’t matter,” Ava said. “I don’t expect another romance. For one thing, I had mine.”
Her marriage had been good. Not perfect, but generally satisfying. Not everyone got that. She should be grateful for the years they’d had together. She was grateful. A decent marriage, four healthy sons, and now millions of dollars? She’d had more than her fair share of luck. It seemed to be tempting fate to even wish for more.
“What’s the other thing?” Teresa asked.
“Huh?” She’d gotten caught up in her thoughts.
“You said for one thing, you had a good marriage,” Teresa said. “What other things make a romance impossible now?”
“Well, as Barbara hinted, my money might attract a man. I don’t want a man who’s primarily interested in my money.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Barbara said. “You could hire a young gigolo. All the fun and none of the stress!”
Ava obligingly gave a weak chuckle as the others laughed.
“But how will you know?” Teresa asked. “I mean, if you assume a man is only interested in your money, you’ll never give him a chance to prove otherwise. I, for one, believe in love!”
Unfortunately, Teresa had a good point. Ava didn’t want to believe no man could possibly be interested in her for herself. And she didn’t want to believe the worst of all men. How could she, having raised four sons?
Barbara leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what you need to do. You need to go incognito! If they don’t know you’re rich, you won’t have to worry about interest only because of your money.”
Ava’s laugh came more easily. “That’s not a bad idea. People in Last Stand know me by sight, but the boys grabbed most of the attention from magazines and newspapers.” Billionaire Bachelor Brothers grabbed more media attention than Widow Wins Fortune. “A few old photos of me got published, but nothing recent.”
Nothing that showed her gray hair and the last ten pounds, not to mention the wrinkles that multiplied after she hit fifty.
“You should totally do that!” Glenda said.
“But where would I find men who don’t already know me?” Ava asked. “It’s not like I want to join a dating site or go to a singles mingle in Austin or someplace.”
Teresa clapped her hands. “I know! We’ll have a little tea for the new guy, to introduce him to the neighborhood. We’ll have twenty or thirty people, and that way you’ll blend in and he won’t know you’re anyone special.”
“I like it,” Glenda said. “We’re just welcoming him to Last Stand. It won’t be an obvious setup.”
“Uh-huh,” Rhonda said. “And the rest of you definitely won’t be trying to grab him for yourselves, right?”
Glenda patted her blond hair and avoided eye contact.
Teresa shifted in her seat, smoothing her tie-dyed skirt. “I mean, it’s not like a contest.”
Rhonda leaned toward Ava. “They’re gonna move faster than a toupee in a hurricane.”
“If one of you can get him, you can have him,” Ava said.
“I just want to see what happens.” Barbara grinned. “It will be a social experiment.”
The other women immediately started discussing who they’d invite, what they should serve, and so forth. Okay, it looked like this was happening.
Ava knew what she had to do. “Y’all will let me pay for the catering,” she said.
They nodded, not making even a token protest. When you had millions of dollars—many, many millions of dollars—even your friends took that kind of thing for granted. How could a man do otherwise? She couldn’t imagine falling in love with a man who wanted to live off her money. She couldn’t imagine a man wanting to date a super-rich woman and still pay for everything himself. She wasn’t old-fashioned—she was fine with women paying their own way, especially since it gave them freedom to make their own choices. She didn’t think men had to make more money than their wives. Josh and Carly were perfect together, and if it weren’t for the lottery win, Carly would have made more as a lawyer than Josh ever would have through ranching.
But it was hard to imagine a man who wouldn’t be interested in her purely because of the fortune, intimidated by her fortune, or disappointed that she was so entirely ordinary despite her fortune. It was a conundrum. Oh, well. As Barbara said, she could always look. Looking was free, and so was dreaming. As for the rest, well, she’d simply be grateful for what she already had.
End of Excerpt