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Toby’s eyes squinted open. The dimness of morning was blocked by cheap motel drapes. Thank God because his head was pounding. Kathleen…or was it Katherine? Maybe Kameron? Hell, he couldn’t remember. Some pretty, random blonde slept beside him, forearm flung over her head.
He rubbed the sleep from his face. What the hell time was it? How many shots had he downed?
It’d been a year since he’d drunk like that. A year(!) since he’d been such an idiot and vowed to his dying mother that he’d clean up his act. Who knew what all he’d done last night? Toby almost didn’t want to remember. There’d been a mechanical bull somewhere…at Amigo’s? That hole-in-the-wall at the end of town? Crap. There’d been tits, too. Whose, he didn’t know. Lots of laughter that made the whiskey-hazed memory right now clang like an old steam-engine bell in his brain.
He winced and rolled over, draping an arm off the mattress, and fished for his clothes on the floor, stifling a moan at the headache hammering a hole in his forehead. Someone was bound to gossip if he’d done anything stupid, and then all of Alpine, Texas, would know that Toby, the rich, third son of the Dixon Cattle Company dynasty, was living in the fast lane again.
Which would surprise no one.
His brothers would nail his sorry ass to the fence post and rip him a new one if they were here. God, “perfect Tyler” shaming him to grow the hell up was the last thing he needed, right alongside Travis staring at him with those cold eyes that had seen too much and knew firsthand how privileged they all were after returning from Afghanistan a changed man.
He slipped a foot onto the floor, bracing himself, trying not to dip the bed. He’d creep out of here if it was the last thing he did. Kristy, or Kallie—whoever—gave a soft snore and shifted at the shake to the discount mattress that—judging by the uneven springs—had seen a lot of mileage. He held his breath. Her bottle-blond hair, fanning across the pillow and smelling like cotton candy, tangled around her face, and she settled back to sleep.
Dammit, he cursed, standing and catching himself against the bedside table as dizziness threatened to send him to the floor on his bare ass. Toby had little recollection of her, barely remembered tossing her down onto the bed as she’d giggled and begged him for a good time and…
Had he passed out before they’d done the deed?
He’d left her hanging. She’d expected some horizontal two-stepping, but he’d collapsed on the pillow and crumpled right into it. Lights out. He was a damn lightweight these days. At thirty-one, he didn’t have that all-night stamina anymore. What the hell kind of asshole took a girl back to a motel room and then fell asleep?
Dude. What kind of guy takes a girl back to a motel room, period? That was perfect Tyler’s voice again—the lawyer, the dad, the Harvard grad, the Eagle Scout, the guitarist, and varsity football captain all rolled into one, who’d always been too damn good for his own good, the bastard.
Glancing around the seedy room, two red plastic cups and a half-empty fifth of Jack were tipped over on the table. Hot-pink panties were flung across the chair beside them, along with the microscopic skirt she’d been wearing.
Toby rolled his eyes at himself. He’d been so desperate to escape his sadness, he’d blown his plans the day before—just like the screwup he’d always been. Shit, he hadn’t even called to cancel his appointment with the Brewster County Junior Ranchers program, just tossed everything down and jetted. “K Girl” had made him forget his grief, if only for a little while.
His momma would be so disappointed in him.
He found his jeans wadded behind the table, fished his legs through the holes, and hooked the oval belt buckle. As he tucked his T-shirt under his arm, he felt his pockets. No wallet. Crap! Had he lost it? He searched the table, underneath the chairs, and knelt beside the bed, patting his hand underneath until he felt the fold of leather and his keys. He exhaled, then sifted through the contents, pulled out two twenties, and jotted a note on the motel’s pad of paper to use it for cab fare. Then he grabbed his socks and tucked them into his back pocket along with his handkerchief, jamming his feet into his shit-kickers.
He slipped out the door while it was still early and morning “rush hour” hadn’t hit. There was no way in hell he was sticking around for the whole of Alpine to see his ’88 Ford Bronco parked at God-Knows-Where so the rumor mill could start grinding out gossip.
“That Toby Dixon, still hasn’t pulled his head out of his rich little ass… Mister and Missus Dixon would be horrified to see what their youngest son has become…” Or worse. The women. “Mmm…wouldn’t mind being a notch on that cowboy’s belt… Give me a chance to tame that bull…”
The remarks might make a sixteen-year-old pissant feel like hot stuff, but he wasn’t a kid anymore. And he had a reputation as “not the marrying type.” Love ’em and leave ’em. A good time. While his friends had started shackling themselves to the proverbial ball and chain, he found himself more and more alone. Poker nights were down to a scant few anti-ball-and-chainers as their buddies married one by one and moved on.
He squinted in the pre-dawn light, stark against the desert backdrop. Where the hell was he, and how had he ended up here? But as he got his bearings and his eyes adjusted, he simultaneously heaved a sigh of relief and groaned as he read the motel sign. God-Knows-Where turned out to be the King Pin Motel. This nasty joint? This place was slimier than a cowboy with a ten-gallon hat and no horse. Toby Dixon, the irresponsible brat of the family, could. Not. Be. Caught. Here. Dead. Or. Alive.
Still. Amigo’s was just across the street, where yesterday’s escapade had begun and thankfully ended. His jacked-up, unmistakable Bronco was still in the Amigo’s lot, parked haphazardly across two parking spaces. He shook his head and jogged across the quiet road as the lone stoplight this far out of town blinked yellow, dodging the few oncoming trucks on their way to work. He hopped over the guard rail protecting Amigo’s lot and yanked on his door handle to get the hell out of there. It took three yanks to realize that while he’d parked like he owned the lot—tip of the hat to the owner for not towing him—he’d somehow had enough presence of mind to lock the doors.
“Son of a…” he cursed, fishing out his keys, unlocking the truck, and climbing up into the cab.
A note was jammed under his windshield wiper, and he leaned out to snatch it up and read it aloud: “Hey, a parking spot just for you, F-ing jerk.”
F-ing jerk? He laughed. The person who wrote it had actually censored their complaint? He cranked down the window, fired up the Beast, pulled out onto the road, and headed for Stella’s, where he could wake up for a minute with some coffee and reevaluate how yesterday had gone so wrong. His headache pulsed hard, and he tossed the stupid note on his floorboard. He grabbed his cowboy hat and jammed it onto his head, grumbling. Need. Coffee. And some ibuprofen and a gallon of water because, dang, his mouth tasted like cotton. He also needed some of Stella’s famous B&G. The grease from those fluffy buttermilk biscuits and creamy sausage gravy was just what his stomach needed to glue itself together again.
The desert breeze washing over his skin through the window revived him. Thank God. He had things to do today. Missing appointments with program directors wasn’t going to help him achieve anything, and these childish escapades threatened to cheapen the long-standing good name of the Legacy. His great-great-grandfather’s legacy—and each father’s legacy after that. A legacy Toby had resented for too long…
A local summer camp was bringing their kids out to hike on Cerro Casas Grandes today, the plateaued uplift that loomed over the Legacy’s main house and surrounding desert like a sentinel. He’d offered to lead the tour.
“Add this to my list of things to do.”
He scoured a palm over his face. Groaned. There was a T-shirt order to sort, coolers to prep, a first-aid kit to restock. Ms. Shirley, a godsend, normally would have done it. This was his second year hosting the little buggers. Last summer he’d led three camp groups on the hike, and the program had asked to return this year, too, which is what had given him the idea for the Junior Ranchers. The Legacy stood on a prime piece of natural beauty, and he was fortunate to finally be able to share it with people who cared, without his pops putting his foot down and turning everyone away.
Toby pressed down the accelerator and glanced to the broken radio screen. What time was it? His cell phone was on the floorboard, and he snagged it. Thankfully it was still half-juiced, showing the time at barely after seven a.m. His lips flattened into a thin line. All right. He could manage it. It would be a really rough day, but he had just enough time to eat and get home.
If only the urn hadn’t come yesterday—
“Shut up,” he growled to himself as he straddled the Texas speedbump on the road—poor little armadillo—and finally rolled up to the local diner.
The lot was full, with three RVs in addition to the few regulars’ vehicles, including a local cop and a neighboring rancher. The lot wasn’t that big to begin with, and except for a spot on the end that no one had tried to use because a van had parked over the line, there was no place for Toby’s Bronco.
He roared into the lone spot, riding over the curb to make room. Okay, so it was annoying when people did a lousy job of parking, he would admit it, glaring at the offending vehicle that’d stolen two spots. But to his credit, the Amigo’s lot never filled up. The happy-ass-windshield-note writer could have parked somewhere else other than right beside him. He snatched up his cutoff T-shirt from where he’d tossed it upon leaving the motel and made a beeline for the front door, lifting his Stetson to drape the rumpled fabric over his head, then plopping it back down onto his mop of unwashed hair. Shit, he’d never found his boxer briefs. These jeans were gonna chafe his balls like sandpaper on kiwis.
The noise from the unusual crowd at Stella’s hit him in the frontal lobe as soon as he opened the door. He squeezed between a herd of customers, young people who he’d never seen before, and found an empty stool at the counter, glancing up to see the now-fading photo of his brother, Travis, from fifteen years ago, in his Class As before he disembarked for the Middle East. Nestled around it were photos of Alpine’s finest who’d served in the military, a tribute wall Stella had started after 9/11. Dang, Trav had been such a baby-face then. He’d been so friendly and talkative, until the war had stolen his innocence and returned him to the States a silent man.
“Well, well, if it ain’t Toby Dixon.” Stella smiled, taking in his disheveled look as she refilled coffee at the end of the counter, thankfully cutting off his wistful memories.
She made her way to him, plopped a mug in front of him, and filled it to the top with her elixir of life. Black. Hot. Strong. Though this morning he might need to jumpstart his engines with a little sugar, too.
“Haven’t seen you in here in a while,” she said. “You only pay me a visit when you’re having a rough morning after a loca night.”
He didn’t acknowledge the comment as he surveyed the room while tipping the sugar dispenser over his brew: the regulars, the cop at the end of the counter who he’d gone to high school with, and the two tables in the window filled with college-aged students on some sort of a trip.
“The RV culprits,” he muttered to himself, nursing a sip.
He couldn’t recall any festivals nearby, especially in the heat of June. And who traveled this time of year to West Texas who didn’t have to travel? Only students and professors. Anyone else had enough brains to avoid heat stroke and put off their trip until October at least.
They looked scientific, geared out in Columbia and Patagonia—and a tank top on that one chick. She’s gonna be nursing a Texas-size sunburn—with just enough edgy style to indicate they came from a metropolis. Because if they’d come off a ranch, they’d have on some work boots, sturdy denim, and dirt.
“Kinda busy for a Tuesday before work, ain’t it?” Toby muttered, taking another sip.
“Yup,” Stella remarked, hanging an order for her B&G on the swiveling ticket holder without asking him.
In no time, she slapped his breakfast onto the counter. He took off his hat and propped it on his knee, cutting into the smothered biscuits while taking another generous sip of coffee that had finally cooled to a drinkable temperature. He loaded his mouth, chewed, swallowed, repeated—the only way to cope with the intrusive din, which irritated his headache like nails on a chalkboard through an amplifier.
“Some folks need to take it down some decibels,” he grumbled.
“Maybe you should just get enough sleep,” Stella retorted.
Again, he ignored her comment. Stella always spoke her mind, and he liked that about her. He washed another bite down with a liberal swallow of coffee, when a laugh caught his attention. Gentle. Sweet. Melodic. And the only sound that didn’t grate on his last damn nerve. He turned over his shoulder, licking a smear of gravy on his lips as his fork hung suspended, dripping, to locate the source.
He found it. Standing with her back to him was a woman—dark, curly hair tumbling past her shoulders, full of natural bounce just like her laugh; hands jammed into the pockets of her North Face hoodie, unzipped (the days might’ve been boiling, but the mornings were sometimes cool); worn boot-cut jeans that hugged a pert little rear and long, slender legs, ending in scuffed hiking boots. Cute, yes, but totally not his type. For starters, too much clothing.
Just wait till the sun is blazing, sweetheart, and you’ll shed that North Face like a prom dress at the after party.
He turned back to his food, pushing his bite around his puddle of gravy, and kept his ear open to eavesdrop on tidbits of conversation.
“Professor So-and-So…” “You know how he is about grading…” “The department pays the TAs slave wages…”
Grad schoolers, as he’d suspected. He could spot the academics a mile away, considering he’d once toiled in that academic hell.
“Much younger than early Holocene…” “Probably protohistoric, based on pottery designs…” Okay, now they were just talking shop, fancy terms most people didn’t understand. Typical pretentious bullsh—“Rose.”
He thought. North Face Girl with the wonderful laugh was named Rose.
The name was cute, kind of like her. He cut the remaining bite of biscuit, but curiosity got the better of him and his head snaked back around to look at her. He wanted to see her face. A couple of her companions caught onto his staring and leaned closer to mutter to her, flashing looks his way. And then she glanced back at him. Their gazes locked.
For that split second, Toby’s headache lulled. He stopped chewing, even though a gravy-laden crumb clung to the corner of his mouth. He turned back toward his plate and made a concerted effort not to look back again. Those hazel-brown eyes, widely set; long lashes; soft, full lips—not an ounce of makeup—would stay with him permanently. She might not have been dressed for the club, but she was beautiful. She looked smart, natural, like a model for a hiking gear ad, except her gear actually looked worn down from use.
“See something you like, mi querido?” Stella said in Spanish, leaning into his ear.
“Just checking out the scenery,” he quipped.
Yeah, I see something I like. He stared at his plate, brow furrowed, and for a moment felt guilty. She wasn’t a no-name girl. She was Rose. He’d just finished not-shagging some blonde in hot-pink undies named…named—aw, fuck it, her name was Blonde Chick from here on out—and already he was checking out Rose’s backside.
As for her impression of him? Well, she would have no way of knowing that he—at a mere thirty-one years of age—sat on several million dollars and owned one of the most prominent ranches in the area, if she’d even given him that much thought. His appearance marked him as just another Texas redneck driving a jacked-up Bronco. Hee-fucking-haw.
He gave Stella a lazy finger lift. The woman brought more coffee and refilled his mug, sliding a packet of ibuprofen across the counter, too.
“Ah, you know just what I like, woman,” he teased, winking, and she threw her head back and laughed a loud, husky laugh.
“Lord have mercy!” she exclaimed into the noise. “By the time I got done with the likes of you, Toby Dixon,” she continued, leaning onto her arm and causing her hefty breasts to squeeze upward while she muttered conspiratorially, “you wouldn’t be able to mount up for weeks.”
He chuckled languorously. “Is that a challenge?”
She shook her head. “That’s a fact.”
“Ah, that’s a fact,” he repeated, smirking, as she moseyed off to find her rag again when a shift in the air told him that he had company.
A waft of freshness and the faint smell of tea tree breezed against his face, and he inhaled reflexively.
“Yeah, but judging by your pathetic state right now, I’d say some lucky woman done wore you out already,” Stella said over her shoulder with a waggle of the eyebrow, before spotting the customer beside him and cutting herself off.
It was Rose. He knew it.
Any other day, he would have laughed off Stella’s harmless teasing. But it bothered him now. Rose must have heard, and she probably wasn’t impressed by his prowess. Or lack of prowess, if last night’s failed one-nighter was any indication. A stupid thought, too, because it wasn’t like her opinion of him mattered.
“It’s Rose, right?” Stella said with a smile as she came back to serve the young woman standing beside him.
“Yes, ma’am,” Rose replied good-naturedly with a mock salute. “You’ve got a good memory.”
“Like a steel trap,” Stella concurred with a wink, refilling another customer’s cup at the same time. “What can I do y’for?”
“Payin’ up, hitchin’ up, movin’ out. Giving you back your restaurant.” Rose grinned, and Toby couldn’t resist a sidelong glance that skimmed down her body. She pushed a mishmash of rumpled bills across the counter. “Sorry. We all pitched in. It should be more than enough.”
Stella pulled their ticket from her apron and counted the heap. “That’s thirty bucks change coming your way.”
“Nope.” Rose gestured. “We’re a rowdy lot. Keep it.”
A rowdy lot? Surely she was joking. Toby snorted, feeling Rose’s sidelong glance. “Rowdy” was when a biker lost at pool and snapped his cue over someone else’s head, inciting a brawl that shut down Amigo’s for a week to patch up damages, not a group of kids taking up space at a diner and talking a little too loudly for a man with a hangover.
Rose started to leave when Stella said, “Have you met Mister Dixon yet?”
Toby froze mid-sip. What the hell was Stella playing at, trying to introduce a woman to him at a time like this?
“Nope,” Rose replied. “I emailed him yesterday afternoon when I never got confirmation back from his office manager but didn’t get an answer.”
Toby slid his phone out from under the counter and tapped his email app. No. Way. Not. Possible. An email from R. Morales from the University of Texas at Austin sat at the top of his inbox. The subject line: Archaeology field school confirmation.
Crap, crap, crap! And he had his crew of mini hikers coming by mid-morning. Shirley normally handled the field school details, too. Things were slipping through the cracks in her absence. The woman was getting a raise when she came back to work, and it would be worth every penny.
For the past two summers, the grad students had come out to excavate and record data in one of the ranch’s gorges, Ghost Canyon, at a rock shelter known among Texas archaeologists as the panther shaman site. It had first been discovered by his great-great-granddad in the 1910s, and three years ago, at his mother’s design before she’d fallen ill, a crew had come out to record the site’s degradation and conduct an excavation. When Shirley had told him they wanted to return this summer, he’d said sure, signed off on the contract, and not thought another thing of it. He’d probably been too busy falling off the wagon yesterday to hear his email ding.
“Well, you’re looking at Mister Dixon right now, rancher extraordinaire at the Legacy, Dixon Cattle Company.” Stella nodded to him with a shit-eating grin.
Screw. Her. Toby wiped a paper napkin across his mouth and looked up. “You’re R. Morales?”
“In the flesh.” She smiled with a cute shoulder shrug.
And some flesh it is, he thought, wiping his hand on his jeans and taking her hand in his, shaking. “Uh, sorry I didn’t get back to you yet. Got tied up yesterday.”
Stella chuckled with a shake of her head as she walked down the counter to check on some other customers. Had she just muttered a joke about him being tied up under her breath?
Oh, you’re gonna pay, old woman, he thought, glaring at her back. “Don’t mind her,” he dismissed, giving Rose a lazy smile. “She’s just one of the town’s old biddies. Gotta stir up gossip every chance she can get.”
Rose laughed again. Man. He liked that laugh. “Are you ready for us? I wasn’t able to touch base with Shirley last week.”
“Yeah, her dad just passed on, so I sent her home. Sorry about that.”
“Oh no,” Rose said, her face dropping. “I’m sorry to hear that… So will we be staying at the same campsite?” she asked.
Which site, which site… He ambled through his foggy mind as if it were the old-school rolodex Shirley still used on her desk.
“Near the outhouse?” she reminded him, grinning knowingly.
Dude, she can totally tell you were wasted last night. “Yup, that nice flatland near the main house. It’s all yours. Ran some plumbing and a spigot out there this spring, so you’ll have water right by your door.”
“Wow, thanks, that’ll be helpful.” She smiled.
“It’s a bit of a hike from the trailhead down into the canyon,” he continued. “Kinda dangerous if you’re not used to it. You sure your crew is up for it? ’Cause it looks like their maiden voyage.”
“I laugh in the face of danger,” Rose joked with an acted-out laugh, and he saw something so genuine, so fun loving, so eager to embark on a new adventure, he wanted to bottle it and use it for his own motivation. “Yeah, that’s a line from The Lion King… Never mind.” She brushed her hair behind her ear self-consciously. “I’ve been out in these conditions a lot, as have a few of my crewmembers. The others better get used to it, or they’ll make piss-poor archaeologists.” She laughed again, except clearly this time she had made herself nervous with her silly joke.
Probably because you didn’t react at all, dumbass, he scolded himself, except Toby couldn’t help smiling. Okay. She was kind of weird. Mock salutes, cartoon quotes. But he liked it. She’d probably quote Star Wars and Monty Python, too. “Took me a minute, but I got it. My nephews love that movie.”
She shifted uncomfortably, so he took the lead, taking his hat off his knee and putting it on the counter.
“Well, no sense in y’all having to find your way. I’m headed home, so you can follow me. I’ll meet y’all in the parking lot. Just, uh, give me a minute.”
“Yeah, you need more than a minute, cowboy,” Stella goaded under her breath as she swept by.
“Ain’t you got somethin’ to clean?” Toby grumbled, but Stella only chuckled.
“I’ll let you two duke this out.” Rose grinned, turning back to her crew. “See you outside.”
He stood, towering over her, and swilled the last of his coffee. Not. Enough. Coffee. He tossed a ten spot on the counter, then made a straight line to the toilet.
Locking the door, he was grateful for the quiet. He opened Rose Morales’s email and skimmed it. They needed sawhorses for their screens and a water hookup, wanted to use a couple stalls in his barn to set up their field lab, wanted to know where to find the supplies for the outhouse so that he and his ranch hands wouldn’t have to deal with their mess…
He looked at himself in the mirror. Shit…
He ran a hand over his stubbly face. He looked plain awful. There was no other way to describe the tired sag to his eyes, his disheveled bedhead and rumpled T-shirt. And his headache was so intense he was certain his vision was warped. He probably wouldn’t start feeling human again until the evening.
“Suck it up, bro, and get your ass in the saddle.” There was an ongoing agreement with this research team. That he’d completely forgotten about it wasn’t Rose’s fault.
Add it to my growing to-do list.
He took care of business, zipped up, washed up, splashed water liberally on his face to wake the hell up, and tore open the ibuprofen packet with his teeth. Only two hundred milligrams. Man, it would maybe take the edge off but sure wouldn’t cure it. Straightening upright, he pushed out of the bathroom to face the day’s music while rubbing his T-shirt on his face to dry it.
“Forgot your hat, cowboy,” Stella said as he passed. He paused to grab it, when she grabbed his arm, sliding a to-go coffee into his hand. With her voice lowered, she looked gently at him. “She’s different than the others, isn’t she, mi querido? You keep looking at her.”
“Different from what?” he asked lamely, having heard her call him my dear a number of times when she was concerned about something. But he knew what the woman was getting at. And it made him nervous.
“Your mami used to tell me she was certain a woman would throw you for a loop one day,” Stella added.
He flashed a cocky grin to shake off the disorienting feeling. “You and her been trying to get me hitched since forever. Rose is a woman, no different than any other. There ain’t no one woman for me.” Yeah, after a yearlong dry spell, there hadn’t been any.
With that, he plopped his hat back onto his head and walked out, ignoring Stella’s dismayed shake of the head, and headed toward the herd of graduate students in the parking lot standing behind the RVs. Rose turned to see him, and dammit if he would ever be able to look at her again without hearing Stella’s words.
She’s different than the others.
What if the old woman was right?
End of Excerpt