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"How the hell did your bull end up in my mud bog?" Logan Taylor asked his best friend and neighbor, Fletcher McFadden. Fletcher had called Logan a half hour ago requesting help. Luckily Logan had his cell phone with him in the barn where he'd been mucking out stalls.
"Danny left the gate open again." Danny was Fletcher's seven-year-old son. The kid was a handful.
Logan didn't comment on the boy's carelessness. Danny was going through a rough patch after Fletcher and the boy's mother divorced. Come to think about it, all three of them—Danny, Fletcher and himself—had seen better days. "I brought a sling," Logan said. He'd also loaded a few hay bales into the truck bed. He'd spread the hay around the edge of the bog to help the bull gain its footing after the animal was freed. He motioned to Fletcher who stood knee-deep in muck. "What do you plan to do—push the bull end over end until he rolls out of there?"
"Ha, ha. Hurry up, hoss. My feet are numb."
Logan tossed two ends of the sling through the air.
A warm spell had ushered in the first week of December, but a chill hung in the early-morning air and white clouds puffed from Fletcher's mouth as he struggled to work the harness beneath the ten inches of space between the bull's belly and the mud.
"You ever think about fixing this bog?" Fletcher grunted.
Granted, Logan should have filled the mud hole long ago. The problem was he didn't give a crap about much anymore. After Bethany died everything had lost its urgency. He was marking time. Waiting for something to change his life. Waiting for… just waiting.
Although Fletcher had his share of troubles recovering from a divorce and raising a son, he'd tried to drag Logan back into the world of the living after Bethany's death. Logan appreciated his friend's concern but preferred a solitary existence.
"All set." Fletcher flung the ends of the harness over the bull's body and Logan secured them to the trailer hitch on his truck.
"I can't lose this bull to a broken leg," Fletcher warned.
The McFaddens raised some of the best breeding bulls in Texas. "How much is he worth?" Logan asked.
"So much he ain't for sale."
Logan removed a pair of wire cutters from his pocket and opened the bales in the truck bed. After tossing the hay along the edge of the bog he hopped in his truck.
"Nice and easy!" Fletcher hollered.
Nice and easy was the only way to pull a two-thousand-pound hunk of beef from a muddy hole. Logan pressed the accelerator and the truck's tires dug into the earth. He checked his side mirror. Fletcher had his shoulder jammed against the bull's side, trying to coax it to move its legs.
The animal slowly toppled onto its side. With steady pressure on the gas pedal, Logan moved the truck a few feet forward. For a second the bull sank beneath the mud, only the whites of its eyes visible. Logan gave the truck a little more gas and the animal's head emerged.
"Keep going," Fletcher said. "He's almost to the edge."
The diesel truck engine groaned in protest, but finally the bull reached solid ground. Logan dragged its body a few more feet until the bull lay on the hay, then he cut the engine and rushed to untie the harness from the hitch before the animal became tangled.
The bull's sides heaved with exertion but after Logan slapped its hind quarters, the animal scrambled to its feet, slipping once but remaining upright. He trotted off, bellowing in disgust.
"You coming out of there?"
"I can't feel my legs," Fletcher complained.
"Give me your hand."
"Sorry, buddy. No can do." Logan wasn't about to risk falling into the bog. "Here." He threw one end of the harness and Fletcher snatched it mid-air, then Logan tied the other end to the trailer hitch.
"Take it easy. These are my favorite boots."
Not for long, buddy. Logan hopped into the front seat and revved the engine. "Hang on!" As soon as Fletcher tightened his grip, Logan pressed the gas— hard—and the truck exploded forward. Fletcher flew through the air, sans boots, and landed on his belly at the edge of the bog. When he tried to stand, Logan hit the gas again and dragged Fletcher through the hay.
"God damn it, Logan!" Fletcher released the ends of the harness and attempted to stand. His feet slid out from under him and he went down a second time.
"You look like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz," Logan called out the truck window.
"Think that's funny, eh?"
Logan hopped out of the truck and went to help his friend stand. Fletcher grasped Logan's wrist and yanked. Logan stumbled forward, bumping Fletcher, and the two men toppled over like felled trees into the muck.
From there things went downhill faster than a California mudslide.
"You shithead." Fletcher flung a clump of mud at Logan's chest.
"You would have done the same thing if it had been me standing in that bog." Logan landed a mud ball against the side of Fletcher's head.
A mud-slinging battle ensued until every inch of their clothing was covered in smelly muck. "Enough!" Logan hollered, collapsing on the embankment, sides heaving with laughter.
Fletcher fell down next to him, chuckling. "Man, I haven't heard you laugh like that in a hell of a long time."
His friend's words sobered Logan. He struggled to catch his breath. Now that the fun was over, his body felt chilled.
A long silence stretched between the men, then Fletcher spoke.
"You think I should have given Sandi a second chance—for Danny's sake?"
The two men were thirty years old, their birthdays two weeks apart in July. They'd been friends since kindergarten and had stuck by each other through thick and thin. Through divorce and death.
"Did Sandi want a second chance?" Logan asked.
"Did you want a second chance with her?" Logan asked.
"No." Fletcher released a loud gust of air from his lungs. "If Bethany had cheated on you, would you have divorced her?"
"I don't know." Logan wished Bethany had cheated. Pretty damned difficult to work out marriage troubles with a dead spouse. "Stop beating yourself up over the divorce. Danny needs time to adjust is all."
"You're probably right." Fletcher punched Logan in the arm. "I met a woman named Daisy on MySpace." Fletcher had set up a MySpace page months ago and had tried to persuade Logan to join in the fun. He'd refused.
"Daisy? What the hell kind of name is that?"
"Everyone uses fake names on MySpace," Fletcher said.
"What's your handle?"
"Leonard. Lenny for short." He grinned.
"Yeah, well, good luck with your little flower."
They crawled to their feet. "Thanks for helping with the bull," Fletcher said.
Hobbling sock-footed toward his truck, Fletcher said over his shoulder. "I'm throwing steaks on the grill tonight. You're welcome for supper."
"Think I'll pass."
"If you change your mind, we're eating at six." Fletcher honked and drove off.
Logan watched the blue horizon swallow his friend's truck. West Texas was flat and barren and not a tree in sight. Most people considered this part of the Longhorn State the ugliest but the vast emptiness matched the way he felt on the inside.
Keeping to himself might be easier on the heart and mind, but it sure was damned lonely on the soul.
Logan's foot itched like the dickens, which meant only one thing—bad luck headed his way.
After helping Fletcher rescue the bull from the mud bog a week ago Monday, there hadn't been much excitement in Logan's day-to-day routine. The red Ford Focus hatchback winding its way along the ribbon of ranch road was about to change all that.
He slunk into the shadows inside the barn doors. He'd rather go another round with a mud-bogged bull than face the woman heading in his direction.
Three months had passed since he'd gone on a bender and had himself a hog-killin' time at Billie's Roadhouse ten miles south of Junket. When the local hairdresser had strolled into the honky-tonk, Logan's boot heel had been planted on the brass rail long enough to take root.
If Cassidy Ortiz hadn't left him a note the following morning, he would have speculated the rest of his years about who had worn the sultry scent that had clung to his pillow. Until now he'd been successful in avoiding the lady—not an easy task in a town the size of Junket, Texas. Population two-hundred-sixty-nine.
The hatchback stopped next to his truck parked in front of the house.
Turn around and leave. He slunk deeper into the shadows.
The car door opened.
A cowboy boot appeared, then a jean-clad leg. No need for a jacket since the morning chill had worn off. A sweater would do—like the tight one that hugged her breasts when she reached across the front seat for… A dish?
Object in her hands forgotten, he zeroed in on her curves. How did any man, even a drunk one, forget a body like Cassidy's? A tightening below his belt buckle suggested that certain parts of his anatomy had no trouble recalling her.
A wind gust blew her long midnight-colored hair against her face, blocking his view of her high cheekbones and dark, slanted eyes. She bumped the car door shut with her hip and strolled along the sidewalk. The swish-sway of her fanny reminded him that the stylist had nothing in common with Bethany, who'd been a small-boned, frail blonde.
Cassidy knocked on the front door.
Another round of knocking. Then she crossed to the front window by the porch swing and peered inside.
Right then Twister loped around the corner of the house. Logan didn't know who was more surprised— the deaf German shepherd when he spotted the visitor or Cassidy when the dog snarled. Twister was all bark and no bite, so Logan didn't intervene.
She tossed a piece of whatever was on the plate to the dog. Twister caught the treat midair, then wagged his tail as if it were a checkered flag at a stock car race. Cassidy inched toward the porch steps, pausing every few feet to fling another morsel at Twister.
If you don't go out there and speak with her, she'll stop by again.
He'd lock the entrance gate off the main road.
He wouldn't answer the phone.
What if she's got something important to say?
If it was that important why had she waited all this time to come around? Aw, hell. He might as well get this over with. He made it halfway to the house before she noticed him. Her smile knocked him sideways, but he didn't break stride. "Cassidy."
"Hi, Logan. I was about to leave. I thought you weren't home." Twister growled and she jumped.
Logan stomped his boot on the ground and the dog immediately quieted. At Cassidy's raised eyebrow he explained. "Twister's deaf. He wandered into the ranch yard a few years ago after a tornado blew through." Logan shrugged. "Vet thinks the noise from the storm ruptured his eardrums."
"Oh, how sad."
"Is there a reason you stopped by?" Logan cleared his throat and she flinched at his rudeness.
Damn. He hadn't meant to sound like an ass. His social skills were rusty, considering he mostly kept to himself—except for that night at Billie's Roadhouse.
He blamed his behavior that day on the stupid drugstore window display in town. Who the hell put up Christmas decorations in September? Logan had snapped when he'd spotted the twinkling lights on the artificial tree and the toy train that circled the base. The cozy scene had dredged up memories he wanted no part of.
To run from the recollections of that fateful day just before Christmas the previous year he'd headed to the nearest honky-tonk. After three beers Bethany's memory had remained as vivid as ever and he'd switched to tequila shots. When Cassidy had strolled into the bar he'd been too drunk to hit the ground with his hat in three tries. No match for a pretty face and a sympathetic ear, he'd hadn't objected when Cassidy had offered to drive him home. Logan shook his head as he realized she was staring at him.
"I made you—" she glanced at the plate covered in green plastic wrap, then shoved it at him "—Christmas cookies."
Cookies? They'd had sex. One time. Maybe two. All that mattered was their relationship had lasted less than twenty-four hours. He hadn't called her the next day. Or the next. Or the next day after that. And Cassidy hadn't contacted him, leading him to believe that what had happened that night between them was over. Finished. Terminated.
The plate nudged his chest like a big fat finger poking his breastbone. There was only part of one cookie—a frosted reindeer head complete with antlers and a red nose—left. He gripped the dish. "Christmas is three weeks away." And he intended to allow the day to pass without any fanfare.
"Mom and I got a head start on our holiday baking."
She laughed nervously, and her breasts jiggled. He resisted the urge to rub his eyeballs, which suddenly felt too big for their sockets.
"There were a dozen cookies—" she glanced at the reindeer head "—but I gave the others to the dog, so he wouldn't attack," she said.
"He acts mean, but he won't bite."
"If you say so." Cassidy flashed a quick smile, showing off her pretty white teeth and full lower lip.
He really needed her to leave. When she didn't… "I'm busy. If that's all you—"
"Wait!" She stepped in front of him, blocking his getaway route. His damned foot itched again and a sense of foreboding settled in his bones like a bad case of rheumatism. He brushed past her and had almost escaped when…
"Logan, I'm pregnant."
The heel of his boot caught the edge of the step, sending him sprawling onto the porch. The cookie plate flew from his hand, bounced off the front door, then slid to a stop under the swing. Twister vaulted over Logan's body and snarfed up the broken reindeer head.
"Oh, my God. Are you all right?" Cassidy rushed to his side.
Shrugging off her touch, he crawled to his feet. His shins stung and his chin hurt like hell where he'd banged it against the step. But the worst pain settled in his chest—a tight squeezing pressure that threatened to suffocate him.
"Please listen, Logan."
His legs wouldn't move—his traitorous feet had frozen in place.