To become the man he’s meant to be, one cowboy will have to be the man he never wanted anyone to know he was…
Ryder Dent is a true-blue cowboy. A devoted son, husband and father, but one who is living a costly lie. When they were both young, Ryder and his closest female friend Andi thought they’d found the perfect solution to both their problems—she was single and pregnant, and he was secretly gay—so they got married and raised Jonas together.
When Ryder gets hurt at a party, his son’s new pediatrician comes to the rescue. The connection between Ryder and Dr. Declan Winters is sudden, powerful, and undeniable. Ryder loves Andi and the family they’ve created together—but they both need more. Can they pursue their hearts’ desire without destroying the life they’ve built and losing the son they love?
Praise for Z. A. Maxfield:
“Z. A. Maxfield has a lyrical way of writing that makes it easy to escape into the world that she creates for her characters.”—Night Owl Reviews
"The thing that you managed to pull off that made […] me happy was that ePistols at Dawn was also a damn good story and a hot, exciting romance.”—Dear Author
“Maxfield has written another gem and a winner. Run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Stirring Up Trouble today.”—ReviewsbyJessewave.com
Z. A. Maxfield started writing in 2007 on a dare from her children and never looked back. Pathologically disorganized, and perennially optimistic, she writes as much as she can, reads as much as she dares, and enjoys her time with family and friends. If anyone asks her how a wife and mother of four manages to find time for a writing career, she’ll answer, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you give up housework.”
Her published books include My Cowboy Heart, My Heartache Cowboy, My Cowboy Homecoming, Crossing Borders, Epic Award finalist St. Nacho’s, Drawn Together, ePistols at Dawn, Notturno, Stirring Up Trouble, and Vigil.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The hottest guy I ever saw was playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” on the piano while fifteen cagey preschoolers circled fourteen chairs. My father-in-law’s annual Fourth of July shindig—the biggest event of the year—was a family picnic. We’d set aside a play area for the littlest kids and I’d volunteered to supervise, but the piano man blindsided me and I nearly missed an outrageous hair-pulling incident.
Like a too bright pair of headlights on a moonless night, he was all I could see.
Mayor Calder Hamilton—a cartoon bear of a man with a white handlebar mustache—snuck up on me with one of those painful backslapping man hugs. “Ryder Dent, you son of a bitch. Which one is your boy?”
“That’s Jonas.” I pointed out my son. “Blue plaid shirt, cowboy hat. Crass determination to win?”
“I know that look, I see it every day when I look in the mirror. But how can that be him? Last time I saw him he was half that size.”
Why do people always say that? Is it some rite of passage? Am I going to be surprised kids grow someday too? “We had to buy him a new pair of cowboy boots just last week.”
“He’s a fine-looking boy. Where’s Andrea?”
“She doesn’t come to these things to hang around with me.” I glanced toward the windows. “You’ll find her wherever there’s dancing.”
“She leaves you in charge of Jonas?”
“Gosh, yeah. Andi’s the social one. She likes to kick up her heels and I don’t mind if she wants to have some fun.”
“So have you met our new doctor yet? Isn’t he something? I have never seen anyone play piano like that.”
“That’s Doctor Winters?” The doc had started playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” like a Russian folk dance, all the while yelling Hai! Hai! Hai! Hai! The music stopped and the chaos started. Jonas ended up on another chair.
“Go, Team Jonas!” I pumped my fist like a goofball.
“Yeah. Go, boy, go!” Hamilton was already tipsy enough to be unaware he was shouting right in my ear. It didn’t matter; I was going deaf from all the kids squealing anyway. “I’d like to ask your help with something.”
“Sure thing, Mayor. Shoot.”
“I need you and your family in a campaign ad.”
“My family?” Good grief. Bitterroot’s founding fathers would shit in their graves at such an idea. “I don’t think we’d make a very good ad.”
“C’mon.” He punched my arm. “You and Andrea are both attractive. Jonas is a cute kid. You had to make some tough choices in the beginning, but look where you are now.”
“Uh . . . I don’t think—”
“I need a family exactly like yours to represent my campaign to the twenty-somethings. I need them to believe they’re important to me.”
Me and Andi? My stomach did a full 360, front to back, as if I was on a Six Flags ride. Mayor Hamilton wanted some picture-frame perfect family, and we were not it. Plus, we hadn’t exactly voted for him. “I’ll ask Andi about it, but—”
“Andrea’s dad just told me he’s backing me all the way again this next election.”
“Is he?” That figures. Her dad likes politicians to owe him.
“So you just tell her you’re doing it, okay?”
“Sure, I’ll mention it, but—”
Hamilton’s wife, Sally, came up to collect him. “C’mon Cowboy. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
She grabbed his hand and, after a good-natured tug-of-war, they left together. I breathed again. Andi’s dad ran one of the most successful ranches in the area. If he wanted to see my family on a billboard, I’d have to figure a way to get out of it or learn to say “cheese.”
It was pretty hard to say no to Sterling Chandler. I’m not sure he understood the word.
The new doc managed to make “Pop Goes the Weasel” sound like a funeral dirge and the children all lurched around like little zombies. Then he turned it into a raucous honkytonk song. Who was this guy?
Jonas got eliminated fourth from last but he wasn’t crushed by the loss. His attention shifted right away to the buffet, where the cater-waiters had installed several trays of Texas-sized cookies, all colored with red, white, and blue sugar crystals in honor of the holiday.
Musical Chairs, the Survivor edition, came down to two particularly crafty-looking femme fatales. One wore a jeans skirt, cowboy boots, and a pretty white blouse, and the other had on a daisy-printed sundress with lacy socks and jelly shoes. Lacy socks girl won by body-checking white blouse girl out of the way and pouncing on the last chair. She gripped the seat so tight with both hands no one could get her off it for a good three minutes, even to give her the prize. Good times.
The new doc consoled the runner-up with a box of big-block Legos and gave the winner a play set with pink and purple Ponies but it seemed she thought she was getting the chair as her prize. Eventually her mom pried her up and they all wandered off to join the party outside.
Doc Winters was left to tidy up. I figured I ought to help, being family and all. Plus, it might get me out of small talk outside. But the doc was the best looking man I had ever seen up close. I was bound to mess up and say something super stupid, and Andi was going to hear about it, and then she was going to tease me for the rest of my life, because she was just waiting for me to lose my shit over some guy.
And Doc Winters, M.D., The Yankee Doodler?
He could be the guy.
Should I say something? He wasn’t looking at me. I might be able to put up the chairs while he fiddled with the piano. I might even be able to leave the room before he turned around.
Too late. Too late. Too late!
“Hello.” His cheerful little wave blasted a great big hole in my cool.
I swallowed. “It’s all fun and games until you get to that last chair. How’d you get roped into this gig?”
“Sterling made a rather large donation to Logan’s Dream Foundation. I’m on the board. He could probably ask me to jump through a flaming hoop.”
“He’s got me for that.” A little too much honestly, there.
“And what do you owe Sterling Chandler?”
I smiled tightly. “Not a damn thing.”
One of his eyebrows arched like it was trying to hide under his hair. It was awfully nice hair. Curly. Brown. “So why would you jump through flaming hoops for him?”
“I said, he would ask, not that I’d do it.”
Doctor Winters’s answering smile was a tractor beam of warmth and concern. He was freakishly clear-eyed. He probably saw right through my little lie. I could not look away.
“Listen, you want to join me for a game of Twister later this evening?”
“The game? T-twister?” My voice used to be a lot deeper, didn’t it? “The one where you spin a dial and—”
“Yes, the game.” He laughed at my confusion. Or because I sounded like I’d secretly been sucking the helium out of the balloons. “I’m organizing several games of Twister for midnight. I’m sure everyone will be well lubed up by then.”
“Excuse me?” He could not have said what I thought I heard.
“With alcohol.” His eyes sparkled like he knew the best secret ever.
“I’m going to need a lot of players for this. There’ll be a ten-dollar buy in per game, with the proceeds going to Hill Country Assisted Living, where Leon lives now.”
“Who?” I couldn’t keep up with the man. First the game, now what?
“The doc? The one whose practice I took over? Aren’t you from around here? I thought everyone knew Doc Frazier.”
“I did. I do. I never knew his name was Leon. He’s always been Doc Frazier to me.”
“And who’s your doctor now?” His head gave a tilt to one side, like he was sizing me up for one of those paper gowns.
“I haven’t been to the doctor since high school. I don’t get sick.”
“Ever? Not even a cold?” he asked.
“Are you trying to put me out of business? This is a small town. I figure I’ll need each person in it to spend at least five business days sick per year in order for me to make a go of things. If you’re not doing your part someone else is going to have to take up the slack. Do you want someone else to get sick because of you?”
“Are you serious?”
“Oh.” I laughed, and then I wasn’t sure if that was actually a joke or if he was making fun of me. Goddamnit. I’m not usually slow, but I felt slow next to him. I’ll bet cheetahs felt slow next to him.
“Hey.” His face did this kindly thing that probably came in handy when he was seeing patients. “That was meant to be a joke. You take things pretty literally, don’t you?”
“Maybe.” The back of my neck got a little hot. “If by that you mean when someone tells me something with a straight face I believe them. Yeah.”
“Fair enough.” He held out his hand. “Let’s start over. I’m Declan Winters. I’ve taken over Doc Frazier’s practice.”
“Ryder Dent.” I took his hand and gave it the manly shake expected of me. God, his hand was perfect. Clean and long-fingered with buffed nails. Those hands would never be rough like mine. They could never be sweaty or callused or scabbed up.
“I have a patient named Dent. Kid called Jonas?”
“That’s my son.” I turned to look for him. He wasn’t at the cookie table where I thought he’d be. “He was here a minute ago.”
“Wait—” The doc narrowed his eyes. “Isn’t he Sterling Chandler’s grandson?”
“So . . . Andrea Chandler is your . . . ?”
“Wife? Got it in . . . how many was that, three? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“No reason.” The words came too fast. Of course there was a reason. “Just putting it all together.”
“Dad. Dad!” Jonas tore back into the room just as we put the last chair away. “I saw Mommy dancing with some ladies. They’re laughing real loud.”
“Are they now?”
“I took her cookie, but she said it’s okay if I eat it. Do you want one? If you don’t, then I could eat yours too.”
“No way are you going to eat my cookie. Can you get me one?”
“Is it okay if I get another one for me?”
“How many have you had?”
“Um . . .” He held up one . . . two . . . three fingers, and then frowned. “I don’t know. Sheesh. Some.”
“One more. There’s going to be ice cream later.”
“I’ll be back with your cookie.”
“I want a whole one, no bites taken out of it.”
Jonas ran off again.
“Great kid.” The doc and I watched him run away.
“I think so, but I’m pretty partial.”
“I guess you would be.”
Jonas returned with two cookies and he let me choose one. I picked the one with white chocolate and macadamia nuts. “Thanks, chief.”
“That’s not the one I wanted anyway.”
“It’s getting dark. You ready for fireworks?”
Jonas clapped his hands. “Sparklers!”
Winters looked from me to Jonas and then back to me. He still wore a smile, but it didn’t look as shiny.
I got that kind of look a lot. I’d like to have said it didn’t bother me anymore, but that would be a lie. I don’t know what made the doc’s eyes glaze over, since he was new in town and he probably hadn’t had a chance to hear folks talk much yet. But he’d hear everything soon enough.
Folks in Bitterroot thought Andi and me were too young to have a kid Jonas’s age, and some figured—given who Andi’s daddy was, how popular she’d been, and how pretty and all—Jonas couldn’t possibly be mine. Especially those people who, like the doc, might see his brown eyes and add them together with Andi’s and my blue ones and come up with shenanigans.
Some would love to actively shun us, but if you shun Andi, you shun Sterling Chandler, and for that you pay a high price around Bitterroot and the Rocking C Ranch.
If the doc was going to be judgmental, too bad. I tipped my hat and shot him a smile because that’s what I do, no matter what. “Nice meeting you, Doc.”
I’d promised that this year, Jonas could hold his own sparklers, so I carried him to the area Andi’s dad set up for the littlest kids, where some of the dads were teaching them to hold a sparkler carefully and put the hot discards into a bucket of water.
When I was Jonas’s age, my folks gave me a box of fairly safe fireworks and a lighter and then they taught me how to use them right, but as a dad, I couldn’t help seeing all the possible disasters. I held on tight to Jonas. He was only five, and a small five at that. I wasn’t sure about all this . . .
“S’okay, Ryder.” Jack Cantrell had seen me hesitate. He had a daughter Jonas’s age but he was several years older so you couldn’t call us friends. “It’s safe. We’re keeping an eye on them. Bring Jonas on up here and I’ll get him set up.”
“I’ll take care of him.” I set Jonas down and we approached. His little face was lit up with delight and dread when got our box. “Okay, son. This is serious business. Remember, fire burns, all right?”
He flapped his arms. “I want to hold it.”
“And I’ll let you. Just a minute. You’re gonna hold this part here and I’ll light the top. Don’t ever grab the part that glows, even after it’s out, cause it stays hot for a while, yeah? And don’t touch anyone else with the sparks. You stay clear of your friends while it’s burning and you put it in the water bucket when you’re done, okay?”
“Light it,” Jonas begged. “Please light it.”
“Alright.” The little booger could be mighty impatient. Still, he’d said please and he didn’t grab and my heart spun like a pinwheel. I got out my Zippo and flicked off the hood. “Ready? Here you go.”
The sparkler caught, and Jonas gasped, trapped between awe and terror. He froze, holding it as far out in front of him as possible, watching it burn, until it finally winked out. That went pretty much as I’d expected. The first time he ever tried anything new he was always hesitant. I was sure by the end of the evening he’d be running around with the other kids, waving his sparkler in the air, and my heart would fly to my throat like a bottle rocket.
I gave him another and lit it and, sure enough, he waved that one around. “Can you make a circle in the air? See how it looks like the light hangs there for a few seconds? Isn’t that weird?”
“Round and round.” He did it until the thing petered out.
Now there would be no stopping him until his box of sparklers was empty. I just let him go, making sure he stayed well clear of his pals and that he practiced safe sparkling. I saw his mom come off the dance floor. She caught my eye and waved. Jonas waved at her with his sparkler.
“Look Mama, I made you a heart!”
“Thank you, baby.” She waited until his wire sizzled into the bucket and then swung him up onto her hip. “Whoa. You’re so big now, I can’t hardly lift you anymore.”
This delighted him, at least until she stumbled. I caught them both, preventing a fall. “Watch it, honey,” I warned her. “Ground’s uneven there.”
She laughed that off. “What you’re too gentlemanly to say is your boy’s mommy has been drinking al-co-hawl.”
I laughed, cause, yeah. That’s the part I’d left out. Andi likes to step pretty close to the edge of inebriation at her dad’s parties, and I didn’t like calling anyone’s attention to it. She swung Jonas around and then handed him back to me.
“Imma go over there with my girlfriends.” She turned back to wave even as she sashayed off in the direction of the refreshments tent. “Dancing’s thirsty work.”
“Bye, Mommy. I’m doing more sparklers with Dad.”
“I’ll be watching.” She turned around and stumbled again, but her friend Brooke caught her and they broke into a giggly run.
“Mommy’s funny.” Jonas wrinkled his nose.
“She likes all that line-dancing stuff. You and me, we gotta see to the fireworks, right?”
“Right.” When he gave me a nod, his cowboy hat bobbed on his head. It had been a present from his grandpa, and it was a little too big still. I picked it off and let him shake out another sparkler. He went back to being mesmerized by the fire. I watched for a while, content to see him master something new.
You had to hand it to kids. Every day they learned a hundred—maybe a thousand—new things. They soaked up language and culture like little sponges. Sometimes I had to write a phone number on my arm, or a grocery list because I’d forget half of what was on it, even if there were only ten things, but Jonas was just learning new things all the time.
“Andi’s got high spirits tonight.” Jack Cantrell had apparently watched our exchange. He was looking at me like he didn’t know whether to pity me or call me a fool. I was used to that look. Folks had been giving me that look since I’d married Andi Chandler back in high school.
Andi was a wild, wild girl all right. There was no doubt about it. But she was as beautiful and talented as she was high-spirited. She was larger than life—larger even than Sterling Chandler’s massive slice of Texas and all the shit he owned on it.
“She’s having a good time.” I found her in the crowd again, back on the dance floor. “She looks forward to cutting loose every so often.”
The band swung into the intro of a song Andi loved and she whooped loud enough to wake up her ancestors. I knew what was going to happen next. Everyone knew. Andi was going to jump up on that stage and commandeer the microphone or die trying. When she got up there, the Hanks welcomed her. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? She could sing like a fallen angel. That’s another thing everyone knew about Andi.
“That’s Mommy!” Jonas tried to scrabble up my body. “Mommy’s singing. I want to see.”
Two things happened at once. Sterling Chandler made a furious beeline for me with a look of pure pain-in-the-ass written on his face, and my son pushed his red-hot sparkler into the palm of my hand.
My shocked shout tore through the air, but then I clenched my teeth to keep from cursing. The pain was fucking awful, so I yanked my hand back. Some of the skin pulled right off. Christ.
“Daddy!” Jonas gave a startled cry. He’d seen what happened and knew it meant he’d hurt me. He was going to cry too, I could see it coming. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
Sterling, who’d seen the incident, marched over and picked him up like he was a wayward barnyard animal. “Drop the wire, son. You’ve done enough damage for one night.”
Jonas let the spent sparkler fall into the bucket, put his head down on his grandfather’s shoulder, and sobbed.
“It’s all right, chief.” I cradled my hand against my chest. “Just a little ouchie. No worries.”
Sterling ignored Jonas’s tears. “You need to get over there and keep Andi from making a fool of herself.”
“Why? She’s doing great as far as I can tell. You know how she likes the spotlight.”
“Go get her. Let someone else watch Jonas.” He handed my son over to Jack. “Jack, can you keep the boy busy for a minute while my son-in-law collects his wife?”
I bristled. “Just let her finish the song, Sterling.”
He lowered his voice. “She’s a drunken mess, and she’s going wild in front of all my friends. Go get her before she does something I’ll have to pay for.”
I gritted my teeth against the searing agony from my hand. “I’ll see to my burn and then collect her.”
Sterling turned toward the stage, where Andi was singing with the lead guitarist. Maybe she was sexing it up a little. Tomorrow everyone would be gossiping about this. I couldn’t care less. Nobody understood her like I did—least of all her father. God knew what he saw when he looked at her. I saw a girl doing the best she could. I always had.
“She’s turning out just like her mother,” Chandler said grimly. “Unless you want her to make a laughing stock out of you, you’d better let her know who’s boss right now. You’re not kids anymore.”
“That’s your daughter you’re talking about.” I hated the way he talked about her.
“I know she’s my goddamn daughter.” He folded his arms. “If she wasn’t, she wouldn’t be welcome here any more.”
“Fine.” Hopefully, Jonas hadn’t heard that exchange. “Jonas, I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Okay, Daddy.” His lip quivered. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s nothing. I’m going to go inside and put a little butter on it.” Christ, oh, Christ it hurt. I gave him the best smile I had. “Back in a minute. Get ready to head on out.”
He swallowed hard and gave me a nod. I picked his hat up from the ground where I’d dropped it and popped it back on his head. After that, I jogged toward the house. With every step, my scorched hand throbbed and the pain grew worse. I burst through the door to the kitchen, past the cater-waiters, and shoved my hand under the tap.
“Shit.” The cool water stung like a bitch and I put my head on the granite counter. Tears stung my eyes as I ranted my ass off. “Oh shit oh shit oh shit fucking shit, shit, shit. Fucking goddamn shit fucking shit shit shit . . .”
“You kiss your wife with that mouth, Ryder Dent?” The amused voice made me lift my head. Oh, fuck me. Of all people, Bitterroot’s new doctor.
“Sorry, Dr. Winters.” I’m sure I flushed to the tips of my ears. “I burned my hand.”
“I can see that. Every year I try to tell people that fireworks are best left to the professionals, and every year, somebody gets hurt. Usually kids.” His words, delivered in his flat northern accent, had the strange effect of raising the hair on the back of my neck.
“You’re not saying I told you so, are you? ’Cause that would be adding insult to injury.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Do I seem like the kind of man who’d do that?”
“Um. Yes?” I admitted.
“Maybe I would, if I thought anyone would listen next Fourth of July. Let me take a look.” He held out his hand. “C’mon.”
“No.” I drew my hand back. Folding my fingers into a fist hurt like a bitch, but there was no way I was letting Dr. Winters take my hand.
“Are you scared of me?” His eyes were very kind.
“Yeah.” I hissed out a breath and put my hand back under the flow of water. “Also I’ll feel like a dumbass.”
“I have a first-aid kit in my car. Keep running cold water over your hand while I go get it.” He leaned over to get a good look at the burn. The flesh was torn and blistered. “That looks bad. Be here when I get back or I will hunt you down.”
Through the window, I heard the Lanky Hanks and Andi start up another number. Sterling was not going to be happy with me. In an odd way, that’s what made me decide to take my time. “All right. If you don’t mind.”
“I’ll be right back.”
While I waited in the kitchen for Doc Winters to return, I let cool water stream over my blistered hand. Outside the window, Rainey Cliff, the cashier from my family’s feed store, drifted by with one of Sterling’s hands. Tad something . . . Bowler?
“Oh my God. Andi has taken over the stage again,” she was saying. “That girl never did pass up a chance at the spotlight.”
“You know Andi pretty well, I take it?”
He leered. “Ain’t a hand at the Rocking C that don’t know Andi.”
The nasty implication to his words made my stomach churn.
“She does spend a lot of time out here, doesn’t she?” Rainey leaned against the deck support and Tad put his hand over her head, curving his body into hers, making her go all soft beneath his arm. “Seems like Ryder’s alone half the time.”
“She works with the cutting horses, but yeah. Whether it’s for the horses or the hands, she spends more time out there than I’d allow if she was my wife.” His laugh was low and cruel.
“Should I be worried you like her?” she asked. “’Cause I thought you an’ me were kind of working on something here.”
“You don’t have to be worried about Andi, honey.” He cupped her face and tipped her head back. “That girl’s still as reckless as they come. She’s way too wild for me. I like a nice girl.”
My face flamed, but before they said any more, Winters came back inside carrying a black doctor’s bag made of handsome, tooled leather.
“You look like an official country doctor carrying that.” My hand still smarted but the water had cooled it down some. I was hesitant to pull it out from under the stream—now that the pain was bearable.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here.” He started pulling out supplies: gauze and bandages and creams. He was all business this time, laying out his things just so and snapping on exam gloves before he even glanced up at me again.
“You’re prepared for anything, huh?” I stalled.
He shrugged and held out his left hand. “I’m a first responder. I’ve got to be prepared.”
There was no help for it; I laid my hand on his, palm up. Casually, he sort of twined his thumb and little finger with mine so I couldn’t flinch back. Tricky bastard . . . I’d have to remember that move. Jonas was a serious flincher. I’d had to chase him around with tweezers to get a splinter out of his finger just the day before.
Doc Winters gently dried the palm of my hand. I’d been right, some of my skin had torn away, and that area glistened, burning painfully when the air hit it. Tomorrow it would be all crusty and crack whenever I flexed my hand, and I had to work. Shit.
“How’d it happen?”
I shrugged. “I put my hand on a hot wire without thinking.”
I don’t know why I didn’t tell him Jonas’s part in the incident, but I figured it didn’t matter exactly how it happened. I winced as he cleaned the skin.
“Smarts a bit, does it?”
I let out a shuddering breath. “Yep.”
“Sorry.” His blue eyes met mine and God, how had I missed those eyes when I’d talked to him before? They were as blue as the Wedgewood holiday ornaments my stepmother collected, set in a face as chiseled and fine as a marble statue. His skin was flawless except for some freckles. I’d never seen a man like him, except maybe on a movie screen. He seemed a touch above most of the men I knew. More refined.
I was a big dumb ox next to a man like that.
“It’s all right.” I swallowed the urge to say more. Being that close to him stole my breath.
“What do you know about burn injuries?”
I glanced down. “They hurt like a motherfucker.”
He laughed at that. “I’ll bet. This one’s not too bad. Mostly first degree, some second. It’s deep in some areas, though. I’m going to leave the blisters intact, clean the rest, and put a salve and a light dressing on it. I’ll give you something for the pain tonight, but I want to see you in my office tomorrow. I’ll write you a scrip then, if you need more relief.”
“In your office?” There had been clown paintings in the exam room last time I went. Sad clowns. Christ. “I usually heal up just fine.”
“Do you want to take a chance on an infection, Mr. Dent?”
“Do I really need to come in? I’ve been hurt lots worse before and come through just fine.”
“I want to make sure the wound is healing properly.” He swabbed my palm with something kind of greasy and wrapped it up in gauze. “I’ll feel better if I can take a look at it again tomorrow. The palm of the hand is a tricky place to get a burn. Scarring could cost you some dexterity. You may even need to see a specialist later, if it doesn’t heal right. If you don’t tell, I won’t charge you for an office visit.”
He leaned toward me and, Christ, he smelled so good I wanted to close my eyes and simply breathe him in. Bourbon and oranges and mesquite smoke from Chandler’s Barbecue. How could anyone smell that good after baking in the hot Texas sun all day along with the rest of us mere mortals? It was . . . delicious.
“C’mon. When’s the last time a doctor ever offered you anything for free.” He considered my stunned silence a no and his cajoling smile just knocked me out. Dr. Winters was trouble I’d never seen coming. He was trouble I’d never even imagined. “I see you’re going to be a hardass. All right, I’ll throw in a toy from the treasure chest but that’s my final offer.”
“I—” I searched for an excuse to stay away. “Tomorrow might be busy at work.”
“Do I have to threaten to hunt you down again?”
“Daddy!” Jonas’s booted feet thundered over the kitchen tiles before he launched himself at me.
“Hey, chief.” I caught him in my arms. His eyes were red-rimmed from crying. “What are you all worked up about?”
“I know I burned you when I stuck you with my sparkler. I’m sorry.”
Dr. Winters’s eyebrows rose at that. “It’s nothing. Is your mama still singing?”
“Grandpa made her stop.” He glanced around and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “They’re yelling.”
I stood. “That’s my cue. Thanks, Doc, for wrapping me up.”
“Call me Declan. You aren’t allergic to any medications? Aspirin? NSAIDs. Opiates?”
I shook my head. “Not that I know of.”
Dr. Winters stood and pressed a paper packet into my shirt pocket. “I’m giving you three painkillers. Take one when you get home and after that every six hours as needed. Don’t drive while you’re taking them. When was the last time you got a tetanus shot?”
“I have to get a shot?” Jonas screeched, ready to cry all over again.
“Not you this time, Jonas,” Doc Winters reassured him. “I might have to give your dad one though. Think he can take it?”
Jonas stuck his chin in the air. “My Daddy can handle anything.”
“Probably not anything, son. Not like Iron Man.” His faith in me made my heart swell with pride. “We’ve gotta go, Doc. Thank you.”
“You’re entirely welcome.” He turned away to pack up his doctor’s kit. I was frankly glad to leave him to it. At least he’d stopped trying to make me promise him I’d come by his office.
When we stepped out onto the porch, I heard Andi’s angry voice coming from the shadows on the side of the ranch house. “It’s a party. I’m just having a little fun.”
“It’s time for you to grow up, Andi. You have a family for God’s sake.”
“Why don’t you let me worry about my family? I’m not hurting them one little bit by singing at your goddamn party.”
“Everyone’s not my daughter.”
“And I’ll bet they’re all thanking their lucky stars for that.”
That was followed up by a crack that could only have been Sterling slapping her.
Oh no he did not.
I put Jonas down, barely controlling my rage. “Wait here, son.”
“Grandpa’s awful mad at Mommy again, huh?” His eyes were so wide they shone white around the irises.
“Sounds like it. I’ll be back. You wait right here.” I ran to intervene. I found Andi holding her cheek, but Sterling was gone. “Did that bastard hit you?”
“The hell it is.” I didn’t know if anyone was close by, but I knew well enough the lightning speed with which gossip traveled in Bitterroot. “C’mon. We can talk in the car.”
I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her along to the porch where Jonas waited. He wedged between us, grabbing my good hand and his mommy’s so he could swing between us and pull our arms out of their sockets—his favorite thing.
Jonas’s jump took Andi by surprise and she stumbled.
“Whoops-a-daisy.” She laughed and righted herself.
Jonas laughed and called out, “Again.”
“Do you know what my father did?” Andi asked me. “He hired a couple of new hands from New Mexico to manage the horse barn. He said he did it so I can stay home and take care of my family.” Her voice carried, and that meant people were probably listening in. “Can you believe that? He doesn’t even want me around the horses anymore. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
“Hush, now. We’ll figure something out.”
“One goddamn mistake. He’ll never forgive me for—”
“Andi,” I said sharply. Sometimes she forgot little pitchers had big ears.
“Don’t you shush me too, Ryder Dent.”
“I just want to talk where people can’t overhear us.” I glanced meaningfully at Jonas.
She took the hint and shot me a wan smile. “Right. Sorry.”
Eventually, we got to the area where everybody’d parked their trucks and found ours. As I helped her buckle Jonas into his car seat, he was unusually subdued.
“I’ve got an idea,” I said to Andi. “Why don’t you jump in the back with Jonas and give him a private concert while we drive home?”
She leaned over and asked him, “Would you like that, honey?”
“You’ll sing the headlice song?” Jonas loved Carrie Underwood’s revenge song, “Before He Cheats.” It took us forever to figure out he was saying the word “headlights.”
“Sure.” She climbed up into the back with him and I got into the driver’s seat. A quick check in the rearview mirror showed Jonas smiling up at Andi, a look of pure adoration on his face. She took a few sips from a pretty, bling-encrusted flask before giving him a bright smile.
“That’s new. Where’d you get it?” I asked.
“Bought it at the mall last week. It’s fun, isn’t it?”
“Keep it out of sight. I don’t need an open container citation. Don’t even know what your dad would say to that.” Her party drinking got her dad riled up, but I sometimes thought that’s why she did it. She hardly drank like that at home.
They had their problems, and mostly I tried to stay out of them, but not anymore. Not when he’d hit her. I fumed at that.
She started to sing and then nudged Jonas. “Gonna sing with me or not?”
He clapped his hands and I pulled my truck away from the others. It took a half hour to get home, so I could expect fifteen more songs or so. I even sang along, taking the tenor part, harmonizing with Andi like in the old days when we were in choir together at school. By the time I pulled into our driveway Jonas had gone silent and me and Andi were singing “Wide Open Spaces.”
We’d left the porch light on and it made our tiny house look welcoming in the darkness. It wasn’t much, barely eight hundred square feet. Andi’s dad bought us the place when we got married, just a month before Jonas was born. A shotgun shack, he called it, but that was just his poor poke at our circumstances. It was a little square house, two bedrooms and one bath. It sat in the town of Bitterroot proper, close to the schools and the feed store I managed for my folks.
I was pathetically grateful I didn’t have to live at the Rocking C Ranch compound, under Chandler’s iron thumb. He would always be the man of the house there, and I liked having a place where I didn’t have to fight for my spot in the pecking order.
I opened the truck’s rear door to help Andi out. She held two fingers to her lips to indicate Jonas was asleep. “Shh.”
I nodded. We carefully freed him from his car seat and then I carried him into the house. His little legs were long enough they dangled from my arms now.
It is amazing how fast they grow.
After I laid him on the bed, we undressed him and got him tucked in. It used to seem so odd, standing in the doorway to his room with my arm around Andi’s shoulders, looking at Jonas one last time before we turned out the light.
It seemed like a slice of someone else’s life—as if we were going through the motions in some play, acting our parts, being the dutiful parents, but after the lights in Jonas’s room went out we ought to head off the stage, back to our own lives, our own thoughts, our own demons.
Being Jonas’s dad was easy. It was the rest of my life that baffled me. I had no clue what the hell I was supposed to do when I wasn’t actively being Jonas’s dad.
I got a glass of water from the kitchen tap and took out the packet Doc Winters gave me. Should I take the pill? Just how strong is it? With Andi reeling from her night at her dad’s party, I wasn’t sure I ought to take it. One of us should be clearheaded, right? But my hand fucking throbbed. It was so painful it brought tears to my eyes. I tried to imagine going to bed, lying there, trying to sleep while it throbbed away at the end of my arm like someone was scraping off my skin with a wire brush.
In the end, I gave in. I only hoped it didn’t knock me out so bad I’d be dead to the world if Jonas needed me.
The sound of water running told me where I’d find Andi. I opened the bathroom door and found her sitting on the lip of the tub, tipping back the last of the vodka in her flask, fully dressed.
Since she didn’t look like she was planning to shower any time soon, I turned off the water. Our water heater was the size of a postage stamp, and Andi hated to run out of hot water before she rinsed her hair. “You need anything?”
She shook her head, but as if I’d said some magic word, she started crying.
“Aw, honey.” I sat down beside her and let her fall over onto me.
“Daddy doesn’t want me to come by the ranch anymore. He says—”
“Shh. Tempers were running high tonight.” I felt sorry for her, I really did. She’d started life as Sterling Chandler’s little princess, sure of her place in the world. Now they spent all their time at each other’s throats. “I’m not sure if you should talk to him when you’re alone anymore. I won’t let him hit you again, Andi. That ain’t right.”
“He said some awful things. He said I distract the men too much. He said they laugh at me and call me—”
“He wishes you’d made some different choices, is all.”
“He wishes I’d never been born. He even said that. How could he say that to me? How does my own father say that?” She turned to me, her eyes full of hurt pride. “I would never, ever say that about Jonas. I would never say—”
“Hush.” I didn’t want her to say the words now, not even if Jonas couldn’t hear her. Anyway, I knew she’d never regretted bringing Jonas into the world. No one knew that better than me. She wound her arms around my neck and buried her face in my shoulder.
“I hate him.”
“You don’t really mean that. And your dad doesn’t mean what he said either. He’s an arrogant ass who gets hot under the collar when he’s trying to impress all his fat cat friends. You know that.”
“He’s ashamed of me.”
“He’s—” I didn’t know what to say to that. It was probably true. “He had expectations from when you were a little girl. He wanted you to go to college and then marry some nice neighboring rancher and add more land to the Rocking C.”
She sniffed. “It sounds so easy when you say it like that.”
“Well, your dad’s a straightforward guy. You—” I amended that. “We kinda threw him for a loop.”
“I ruined everything for everyone. My life. Your life . . .” That made her cry again. I was glad she didn’t get this drunk that often. We’d have a tough time keeping her in tissues. “You didn’t ask for any of this, and here you are—”
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think how lucky I am.” I leaned over and got right in her face so she could read the truth in my eyes. “Not a single day.”
“Because of Jonas. Not—” She bit her lip. “Never be-because of me.”
“Not true, Andi. You’re my family,” I insisted. “I love you both.”
That started a fresh wash of tears, and I began to worry. All Andi’s regrets, anxiety, unhappiness, and pain came to the surface when she argued with her dad. Alcohol, her father’s obvious disapproval, and the stress of a big shindig where she was bound to see old friends . . .
That was a recipe for disaster.
In a small voice, she said, “I thought everything was going to be so different.”
“I know, sugar.”
“I thought I could make Tyler Halsey love me. I thought you and me could do this. I thought I’d be happy as long as I had Jonas and you and the Rocking C. I never get anything right.” She tipped her head down and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Sometimes I wonder what Tyler’s doing right now.”
I made light circles on her back with the fingers of my good hand. Tyler Halsey could go fuck himself. Andi’d had her big secret affair with the infamous rodeo star and now she paid for it every goddamn day. We paid for it. I reached for the box of tissues and held it out to her. She took one and wiped her eyes.
“We’ve got Jonas to think about now,” I said. “I know it’s hard, but we have to put him first. We agreed to this.”
She blew her nose. “I know it’s wrong to want more than this, I know it, but I gave up school and music. Working with the Rocking C’s horses made me feel like I was still part of something bigger. Part of the legacy or—I don’t know. I thought it would help Daddy and me get past all the garbage between us. Now we won’t even have that anymore.”
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“No. I’m sorry.” She let her head fall so her hair hid her face. “At least I had my Cinderella ball. What have you had? Besides diaper duty and sleeplessness and all the neighbors gossiping because of me? Not a whole helluva lot.”
“I am not sorry.”
“Right.” She turned away but I caught her shoulder with my good hand and turned her back around.
“No. Listen to me. I am not sorry for one minute. I could never be sorry for being a part of Jonas’s life, or anything that makes me feel this way. This is—”
“Normal?” she supplied. “That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? A way to be normal. As long as you’re with me and Jonas, people don’t see a queer boy when they look at you.”
That stung. Christ. I guess she’d decided to share her pain with me. It didn’t come as a surprise. She wasn’t the nicest drunk. I stood to leave. “I was going to say ‘anything that makes me feel this content.’”
“Wait.” She held out her hand. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. Or I did mean it that way, but I’m feeling shitty right now and you sure as hell don’t deserve that. I don’t know why I do that—take things out on you, when everything’s my goddamn fault.”
“We are in this together,” I said firmly. “You and me and Jonas. No matter how we got all this started we’re a family now and family sticks by family.”
“Yeah, right.” She snorted. “Tell that to my dad.”
“We’re not like him. We’re not going to be like either of our dads.”
When she nodded, her hair slid forward, covering her face. “What about when I need more than you can offer?”
My heart staggered, limped for a beat, and then raced to catch up to her. “Explain, so I understand what it is you’re saying.”
“Is this all I’m ever going to get? A few nights with Tyler Halsey and an eternity of waiting and wondering what it would be like to be with someone else? To have someone want me again?”
“I don’t know. Is it? Is there someone else? I’m . . . I can’t—” I sat down heavily beside her again. “What about Jonas.”
“This isn’t about Jonas.”
“Everything’s about Jonas.” She probably didn’t need reminding. “You know that.”
“I know.” She scrubbed her face with both hands.
“On the one hand, everyone already thinks the worst—”
“About me. I know.” She laughed bitterly. “Believe me, I know. To hear the talk around town you’d think I was selling my ass on the courthouse steps.”
“So?” I glanced over at her. “Would it be so bad to find someone who can keep his mouth shut and give you what you need? You could do that. It wouldn’t hurt me none. I’d feel better if you were happy.”
She laughed at that. “I wish it was that simple. Have you ever been in love? Was there ever a man who made your heart clench and your dick hard and your gut tighten?”
“Shh.” I hissed for her to be quiet, but who did I think would overhear? Jonas was fast asleep and there was no one else. Still, my heart thundered at the thought of being found out. “No.”
“Have you ever even kissed a guy?”
Declan Winters appeared in my imagination like a bright light you can still see even after you’ve closed your eyes.
“It doesn’t matter,” I snapped at her. “I don’t wander around looking for more than what I’ve got. I have what I have and I try to be grateful for it. That’s what I do.”
She paled at that, then lurched to the toilet and lost her dinner. Christ.
I gathered her long chestnut hair and held it away from her face while she was sick. She had such pretty hair, thick and straight. It shone with health—just like the rest of her—when she wasn’t puking.
When she was done, she laid her cheek on the toilet seat, exhausted.
I tried not to think about how germy that probably was. “I didn’t realize you were so unhappy.”
“Is it really so wrong to want more?” I watched her eyelids drift closed, then open again. She blinked. “I didn’t think it’d be like this.”
“Neither did I.” Her words had re-opened a wound I’d hoped would stay closed forever.
“You know what I think?” she asked in that same sad, sleepy voice. “I think despite how much we love each other, you and I might be the loneliest people I know.”
By the time Andi went to bed, I was feeling no pain. None at all. I was no lightweight—I’d been drinking since junior high, I’d eaten plenty at the barbecue, and I could hold my liquor—so I never figured that a single pain pill could knock me on my ass like that.
It was good to be free of pain, but I still felt dirty and tense. The day had been long and hot, and I could never rest easy after Andi and her dad had one of their set-tos.
I pulled off the bandage Doc Winters had so carefully placed on my hand, and then turned on the shower. What little hot water we had—even coming out of the ancient, scaly showerhead—would help relax me. I stood with one hand pressed to the tile and one up in the air out of the way, letting hot water ease the tension from the muscles of my back. Without taking too long, I soaped up and then shampooed my hair with some of Jonas’s baby shampoo. I rinsed off and pressed my forehead to the cool tiles.
At some point I’d dropped my hand to my side. The hot water stung my wound, but the pill distanced me from the pain.
I sent a brief, silent thank you to Dr. Winters, but of course that brought a fresh and relatively impure image of him to my mind. My reaction to that was entirely predictable. I was a gay boy living a too-tight life of lies, and he was as handsome as a movie star. I felt some slim thread of shame when I leaned my forearm against the wall and took my cock in my good hand.
What would Doctor Winters say to that, I wondered? And what would his careful, gentle touch be like on my cock? He’d had that trick of not letting me escape as he probed my wound. Maybe he’d be equally determined with my dick—holding me there, stroking my cock with his clean, clever fingers. Maybe he’d hold me tight with both hand until . . . until . . .
I bit my wrist to keep from crying out, over and done, quick as always. Quick as when I fantasized about the hands at the Rocking C, or surfed the Internet for gay porn. What that said about me, I don’t know. Probably, I’d be a piss-poor lover. I wasn’t ever going to find out. I didn’t have the time—or even if I did—it wasn’t like I’d take a chance on getting caught by anyone from around town.
I gave myself a last rinse, and then I had to grab the showerhead to keep from stumbling out onto the bathroom rug.
I dried myself sitting down, giving in to the memory of Doc Winters again. How old was he anyway? He looked and acted like a man in his mid-twenties, but he had to be older than that. Medical school took something like eight years, didn’t it? He had to be thirty, at least. He was probably thirty, and in damn good shape. Gym-rat shape, not hefting hay bales shape.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love Ryder Dent. This man is a tried and true southern gentleman and he’s just one of those characters I would love to befriend in real life. He’s a good ole’ boy without being a bigot. At seventeen he stepped up to the plate when his best friend needed him and they built a family together so that she didn’t have to deal with her father once her pregnancy came to light. He raised her son as his own with no one the wiser – no matter how much conjecture there was as to how two blue-eyed people could not produce a brown-eyed child (and I loved that genetics lesson). Ryder has a big heart so even when he screws up, it always comes from a place of love and never out of malice or meanness – something both Ryder and Andi were subjected to growing up. And above everything, he loves his son unconditionally, biology and blood be damned. Maxfield created such a great character in Ryder, I’d be hard-pressed not to love him and that makes Andi and Declan’s love for him understandable. Ryder has never regretted his choice to marry Andi and step up as Jonas’s dad. He gave up a scholarship and college education to become a father, remain in town, and run his father’s business. Once he realized he was gay at age fourteen, he accepted that he could never live as a gay man in his hometown and the family he created with Andi and Jonas made up for that because he loves them both. They are his world. He was content to live out the rest of his life that way until Dr. Declan Winters moves to town and Ryder finds himself in a situation he’s never encountered before – wanting to pursue another man. When Ryder and Declan eventually get together, they are seriously hot together. Thankfully Declan gave Ryder another chance after he screwed up their first encounter so completely. I will admit that I spent a good deal of the book disliking Andi. Oftentimes the things she said to Ryder and the way she interacted with him made her seem selfish in my book. Her refusal to contact Jonas’s biological father to ask him to terminate his parental rights so that Ryder could adopt Jonas really ticked me off at her – it seemed as though she was more willing to risk Jonas’s happiness than deal with a situation the was upsetting for her. Her plans to tour with the band coupled with her father’s extreme dislike of Ryder just spelled disaster and while I’m glad the author didn’t take the story in the direction, it just added one more mark against Andi for me. Thankfully she got her act together by the end and wiped the slate clean. My main complaint about My Cowboy Promises is that I felt as though it ended too soon. I would have liked to see what Ryder’s father did once Helen got through to him; just as I would have liked to see whether or not Andi’s father was brought to heel. I can only hope that the next book in The Cowboys series gives us an opportunity to catch up with Ryder, Declan, Andi, and Jonas to see how they’re faring in their new family. I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Reviewed by Angela at Crystal's Many Reviewers!
This was my first ZA Maxfield book and I look forward to more of her work. It started off pretty slow for me, but that was due to situational setup. There were several elements to the conflict so it took time to build. When the poo hit the fan, it REALLY hit, but I liked the resolution. The story was very family focused in multiple ways which I loved and appreciated. The characters stayed true from start to finish and, including flaws, were very endearing. I didn’t always love Andy, but she came through in the end, as did the men. Overall, it was a very sweet, compelling read. My Cowboy Promises is a complicated story about love and the significance of family. It’s a pretty awesome and emotional read!