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Cal Lincoln was damned tired of the four walls in the fancy travel trailer he'd lived out of all over the country for the past few years. What had always been his haven away from the grit, the chicks and the testosterone of rodeo felt more like itchy wool pajamas now. Which is why he'd carried his sad ass down to the Barbwire Grill for a stack of Freda Gonzales's fluffy buttermilk hot-cakes. He liked his cakes swimming in syrup and melted butter with a cup of coffee that could peel paint off the walls. The fact Willie Amos and his brother Jeb were raising hell at the cash register over a charge for extra bacon didn't bother him at all. In fact, it was the most excitement he'd had in weeks. Until she walked in.
The door opened, spilling in light, and there she stood, brown hair falling in waves around bared shoulders. Two-inch straps held up a halter top thing that hugged a pair of magnificent breasts or a really good padded bra. But it was her lips that got him. They were coated in glossy lipstick that was a soft pink. Made a man think of dirty, dirty things.
"Uh, hello," she said. Because everyone in the joint had stopped chewing, cussing and staring at their phones in order to feast their eyes on the cool drink of water framed in the doorway. Cal swore he could have heard a mouse fart.
"I'm looking for, uh, a Mr." she pulled a piece of paper out of a purse he happened to know cost the price of a lawn mower and squinted at the page "Lowery. Anyone know Charlie Lowery?"
Freda glanced cautiously over to Cal. Then she lifted one shoulder. "Sure, I know him, but there ain't one good reason anyone would want to find him."
Cal took a sip of coffee, nodding at the truth. He no longer owed any loyalty to Charlie. If the man was in trouble, nothing Cal could do. That ship had sailed long ago.
The pretty lady allowed the swinging glass door with the words Barbwire Grill scrawled inyou guessed itbarbed wire to close behind her. The door bumped what looked to be a spectacular ass, pushing her forward. And that's when Cal got a look at pretty legs nicely highlighted by a pair of shoes that had a wedge. She looked sexy as hell, though he guessed she'd been going for sophisticated casual with the shorts and top. She gave a confident smile. "I'm assuming by your tone Mr. Lowery's a ne'er-do-well type?"
Freda glanced again at Cal. He didn't move a muscle.
"I reckon that's a good way to describe him," Freda said.
Cal noted the Amos brothers' eyes took on a particular gleam.
"Why you wantin' ol' Charlie for anyhow? Most people avoid him like they do cow shit. He ain't exactly friendly," Willie said, revealing his badly worn-down canines.
For the first time she looked wary. "I have an appointment with him."
Her accent was definitely not Southern. And sure as hell wasn't Texan. She sounded like some of those fillies who liked to frequent the rodeo arenas when they were vacationing in Vegas. Flashy jeans, too-white teeth and an upper-crust clipped tone. Of course, no matter the brand name on their jeans, they liked riding a cowboy just as well as the small-town Tammy Jos and Jolenes.
"An appointment?" Freda prodded, handing Willie his change with a no-nonsense glare. "For what?"
"Well, that's really not the point," the woman said, looking around the diner, which had thinned out once the sun had risen above the scraggly tree line. Coyote Creek wasn't known for lushness. Her gaze glanced off him, but he saw the telltale flicker acknowledging his presence.
He knew he was a good-looking son of a gun. He'd known it ever since he'd caught his mama's friends sneaking a peek when he came in from baseball practice. It was like being born rich. He used what he had to get ahead. He'd never had much but a good smile and tight ass. A kid, raised in a used single-wide trailer his daddy bought right before he ditched him and his mama, had to use what the Good Lord gave him to get by. So the dimples, the body made for sin and the aw-shucks charm were bread and butter for him.
But this woman didn't flutter over him. She had too much poise for that.
And despite her obvious frustration with Charlie not being where he was supposed to be, she gave off a cool air, like she couldn't be bothered with anyone in the dumpy two-horse town.
"What's the point, then?" Cal asked, finally piping up. Least he could do since Charlie was a no-good drunk who stuck to things like spit sliding off a greased pig.
The woman settled her gaze back on him. "I'm sorry. Perhaps, I wasn't clear. I'm trying to find the gentleman who was supposed to meet me at the town hall. I've been waiting since seven thirty this morning. I thought one of you might be willing to help me. Always heard Texans are friendly."
Cal dropped his feet from where they'd been propped on the opposite booth. His old boots made a decisive slap. He ignored the twinge of pain in his ribs. "You heard right. We're friendly. But when strangers amble in asking about one of ours, we sorta get suspicious-like."
He wanted to laugh at himself for the affected good-ol'-boy verbiage, but he couldn't help himself. Not only did she make him want to find out how good those slick lips tasted, but her horrified expression over the not-so-fancy diner and its salt of the earth patrons got his dander up. So they were hicks? Big deal. She didn't have to look like she'd stumbled on a den of cockroaches.
Okay, so maybe that was his presumption. She hadn't sniffed disdainfully or reached for hand sanitizer yet.
She narrowed her eyes at him but then offered a nice smile. "I forgot my manners. Sorry. My name is Maggie Stanton. I'm here about the Triple J ranch. Technically, I'm the new owner."
Freda dropped a plate of sausage on the floor.
Willie elbowed Jeb, then doubled over, honking like a goose.
Punch, Freda's husband, turned from the setting of eggs he'd been scrambling on the grill and said, "Do what now?"
Cal wanted to join in the incredulous laughter, but the look on Maggie's face prevented him. She had no clue what she'd said.
"What's wrong?" she asked, looking confused. "Why is he laughing?"
Her gaze landed on Jeb, who looked as if he might collapse to the floor in a fit, so Cal stood and popped him a good one on the back.
"Ow," he squealed, straightening and rubbing his shoulder.
Cal pushed on by Big Willie and Jeb and walked to Maggie, who clutched her leather bag so tightly her knuckles turned white. First hint of being unnerved.
"I'm Cal," he said, sticking out the hand he could use fairly well. The dull throb in his opposite shoulder reminded him he still needed to pop the halved pain pill he carried in his front pocket.
She eyed his hand before setting her own in his. "Nice to meet you."
Of course he knew it wasn't really nice to meet him because she stood in a diner full of strangers who were laughing at her or rather the idea she was the new owner of the dilapidated house and barn sitting on close to four hundred acres of hardscrabble.
"Why don't you let me buy you a cup of coffee?" he asked, shelving the hick routine. She didn't need that on top of the others' reactions.
Her brow furrowed. "But I really need to"
"Just sit a spell. Punch makes the best coffee this side of the Brazos."
Punch lifted his flipper in salute and turned back to his grill. Freda watched with hawk eyes as Cal took Maggie's elbow and escorted her over to the booth he'd vacated seconds ago. Willie and Jeb recovered enough to waddle toward the exit. The two truck drivers both turned back to their steak-and-egg platters. Show over.
Maggie sat down, placing her bag on the bench beside her and her sunglasses on the table. "I don't understand what's going on."
He motioned for Freda. "You want coffee?"
"I don't drink coffee. Maybe some herbal tea?" she asked.
The face he made was answer enough.
"I'll have a diet soda," she said when Freda butted her rounded hips up to the table.
"Sure, we got that," Freda said, eyeing Cal. She tapped on her order pad for a few seconds. "And you watch out for this one here. He's got sweet words that'll have you outta your drawers before you can blink."
Maggie looked at Cal like he was a cottonmouth curled up on a rock.
Cal gave Freda his patented smile. "Don't be scaring the little lady just because Punch won't let you come play with me, querida"
"If I did play with you, cowboy, you'd have no good reason for looking for any other fun. I have a big playground right here," she said, smacking her large backside and laughing.
"Wait a sec, I'm here on business, not" Maggie started.
"Relax, she's just flirting with me. Did you see Willie and Jeb? Ain't much to mess with around Coyote Creek." Maggie gave a lift of a delicious shoulder. "Okay, so can you give me some information about the Triple J, Mr "
"Lincoln. Cal Lincoln."
"As you can tell, I'm not from here."
"No way," he joked with a smile.
He saw her relax a little. "I'm from the Northeast actually. Uh, Philadelphia. This is my first time in Texas."
"Welcome to the Lone Star State."
"Thank you," she said with pretty manners. Her eyes were the color of smoky brown topaz. His mama had had a ring with the stone when he was a boy. She dragged it out every time she went to church which wasn't much since she'd worked days at the Coyote Creek Motel. She'd loved that damn ring.
For a few seconds they didn't speak. Freda plopped a huge glass of Diet Coke down in front of Maggie. After a few seconds of neither Maggie nor Cal talking, Freda sighed and went back to her usual spot wiping the counter down. Her ear remained tuned in their direction.
"Are you kin to Old Man Edelman? He croak or something?"
"He passed away last month," Maggie said, her eyes shadowed with sadness. "He was a good man."
"You related to him?"
"No. I was his administrative assistant."
"How'd you end up with his place, then?"
Her expression grew guarded. "People down here sure are nosy."
"Part of being a Texan. We're friendly and nosy." Cal picked up his half-finished coffee and took a sip. It had grown cold so he motioned for Freda to give him a warm-up. She ignored him. "Might as well spill right here and now."
"Well, if you must know, he grew sick in his later years. I was his assistant, helping him run his day-today affairs. When he passed and the will was read, I found out he left the Triple J to me. I expected nothing, of course, since I was an employee. But Mr. Edelman was a good man. His children made a bit of a fuss, but what Bud Edelman wanted he got even in death."
Everyone in Coyote Creek knew old Bud Edelman had more money than hell had sin. He owned a company that sold ice cream all over the country. The Triple J had been a self-indulgent lark for the old tycoon. He'd shown up every summer for a month and played at being a cowboy before he went back to Pennsylvania and his millions. But the place hadn't been occupied in over ten years and had been left in the care of Charlie Lowery, an irresponsible drunk.
"That's quite a story," Cal said, eyeing this woman who'd flown out to look over the ranch. What in the world had possessed her to come to Coyote Creek? Nothing glamorous about the small Texas town, nothing particularly pretty about it, either. "But why did you come all the way out here?"
She looked at him like he was a moron. Which some would say was accurate but Cal wasn't admitting to it. "Because I'm a responsible person who can't ignore something she's been gifted. I called the town hall to inquire about the property and someone named Millie gave me Mr. Lowery's name and number. Took me a week to get in touch with him. He told me the place needed a good scrubbing, but there were cows and a horse. He wanted me to wire him money. But I'd rather meet him and view the property in person."
"If you were Bud's assistant, how come you didn't know all that to begin with?"
She looked annoyed at the question. "Mr. Edelman liked to take care of matters with the Triple J himself. My job was to transfer money into the ranch account. He handled everything else."
"Millie should have given you the number to a good realty company and saved you the trip out here."
"You're assuming I'm selling the place?" she asked, placing those plump lips around the straw. He noticed. Gosh damn, did he notice those lips.
"I ain't assuming nothing. Tell you what. I'll drive you out to the ranch," he said. She needed to see what she was getting herself into. He hadn't been out that way since he'd come home last time, but he knew all the local kids sneaked out there to drink and shoot Coke cans. Someone had mentioned a load of feral cats in the barn, too. Supposedly, Charlie had allowed it to slide into disrepair which was a damn shame because it had once been a nice place.
"I need the keys. Otherwise I could have gone myself, Mr. Lincoln. I do have a navigation system."
Cal smiled. "Of course you do, but the thing is, some of these Texas roads aren't on the map."
"This one is. But I figured it would have a gate or something. Mr. Lowery said he'd bring all the keys and show me around. I'm not sure I could even get on the property without a key."
Cal smiled. "I guarantee I'll get you to the front door."
"I suppose I can follow you in my rental," she said, like any good city girl who knew better than to climb into a pickup truck with a stranger wearing Wranglers with holes in the knees. Of course his straw hat was new and expensive not that a girl from Philly would know.
"Sure," he said, motioning for the check. This time Freda hurried over.
"You paying for her Coke?" she asked, hooking an eyebrow.
"No, here, let me," Maggie said, reaching for her bag.
Cal plopped a twenty down on the handwritten ticket Freda had ripped off and sat on the chipped Formica. "I always buy pretty ladies a drink."
Maggie made a frowny face which made her look cute. Still sexy. But cute, too. "Thank you."
"Keep the change, Freda. I'm going to take Mrs .
"Miss," Maggie conceded.
"Miss Stanton out to the Triple J. Send the sheriff if I ain't back in two days," he joked as he grabbed his hat and slid out of the booth.
He was damned glad to know she wasn't married. Not that it really mattered. She'd take one look at that dump out on Highway 139 and all he'd see was a trail of dust out of Coyote Creek. In fact as soon as his body healed, he'd be hitting the road, too. The day-to-day boredom paired with his mother harping about him getting killed, about him finding something safer to do about him being too much like his deadbeat father drove him crazy. His cracked ribs were better and the punctured lung had healed, but his shoulder still hurt like a bitch. His agent called every other day wanting to know his progress. PBR and PRCA reps called, too. His sponsors emailed him. Friends texted him. Everyone wanted him back on the tour come August, except for his mother. And maybe the bulls. They'd never liked him much 'cause he could stay on almost half the time.
"Wait," Maggie said, rising beside him. "Why would someone have to come get us? What are you guys not telling me about this place?"
"No worries, Maggie," he said, gesturing toward the door before sliding the pill out of his pocket and popping it in his mouth. Only half the dosage. He had to wean himself from the painkillers. "I'm banged up but perfectly capable of looking after you."
"I don't need looking after. I'm a grown woman," she said, quite serious about it.
"Don't think I didn't notice," he said, refusing to slide his eyes suggestively down her body like he wanted to. Didn't want her to think he was a pervert. She looked skittish enough at the thought of following him out to the Triple J.
Freda snapped her fingers. "See? Don't say I didn't warn you about this cowboy."
Maggie shouldered her bag and perched her sunglasses atop her head. Then she gave Freda a wry smile. "I'll be sure to keep my legs crossed."
Cal barked a laugh. "I want to see you drive with your legs crossed."
Maggie let a self-deprecating laugh escape. "Dear Lord, what am I doing?"
"I don't know," Cal said, pushing open the door to greet the sunny morning. "But I'm kinda glad you're doing it with me this morning. I've been bored as hell around here."