Authors: Carolyn Brown
Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Brown
Cover and internal design © 2010 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Randee Ladden
Cover illustration by Aleta Rafton
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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This book is for Joe and Ken Gray with much love!
“Ten, hell yeah!”
The women yelled with Gretchen Wilson as she sang “Redneck Woman” and asked the redneck girls to give her a big “hell yeah” as the New Year’s countdown began.
“Nine, hell yeah.”
“Eight, hell yeah.”
Everyone held up their plastic flutes of champagne.
“Seven, hell yeah!”
The men in the Honky Tonk beer joint joined in with the women.
“Six, hell yeah!”
“Five, hell yeah!”
Cathy O’Dell was halfway across the dance floor headed for the bar when she stopped to look at everyone who’d be kissing someone in four more seconds. She remembered the previous year when she’d had someone to kiss. Even if he did turn out to be a first-rate son-of-a-bitch, she missed the excitement of bringing in a brand new year with a kiss.
“Four, hell yeah!”
She looked up to see a cowboy coming right at her. She blinked several times. It wasn’t possible. Her imagination was playing tricks like it had for twelve years.
“Three, hell yeah!”
Watching him cross the floor in those long strides made goose bumps the size of mountains rise up on her arms.
“Two, hell yeah!”
Was he deranged or just drunk? If he didn’t stop soon he would plow right into her.
“One! Hell yeah!” The noise shook the rafters.
He stopped with the toes of his scuffed up boots barely an inch from her feet and wrapped his strong arms around her, tilted her chin with the flat part of his fist, and kissed her hard and passionately.
“Hell yeah!” the whole crowd roared when their kisses ended.
“Hell, no!” Cathy mumbled. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, but it didn’t take the red-hot sting from her lips.
He was exactly what she liked in a man. Tight jeans, denim jacket over a knit shirt, blond hair, and dear lord, were those blue eyes? He looked so much like a grown-up version of her first love that, after the kiss and when time and noise at last stood still, she wondered why he didn’t wear contact lenses. Eyes the color of a Texas summer sky stared down into hers from behind wire-rimmed glasses. A wide grin split his face, showing off perfectly even and white teeth. No one had teeth that perfect. No one except Bobby Cole, and that was water under a bridge that had been burned years and years ago. Evidently a million-dollar smile hadn’t left much for haircuts, though, because blond curls touched his shirt collar.
“Happy New Year.” He was surprised that he could speak a coherent sentence. He only meant to kiss the woman for New Year’s. He didn’t mean for it to glue his boots to the hardwood dance floor and put a shit-eating grin on his face. If he’d had to wipe the smile from his face or eat dirt, he’d have had to open up his mouth and shovel in a spoonful. Hot damn, but that woman had the softest, sexiest lips he’d ever kissed.
“Who the hell are you?” Cathy asked.
“I’m Travis Henry. I’m supposed to meet Merle and Angel Avery here. I am at the Honky Tonk, aren’t I?”
Cathy pointed to the pool tables. His name was Travis Henry but he damn sure reminded her of Bobby Cole with those pretty blue eyes. On second look, Travis had darker blond hair and wore it a lot longer than Bobby’s crew cut. After a third look she decided Travis Henry was a hell of a lot sexier.
“Angel, darlin’,” Travis yelled and left Cathy standing there with a bar rag thrown over her shoulder, a tray in her hand, a burning mouth, and a gushy warm feeling down deep in her gut.
She got out a dozen Mason jars for the next rush to the bar for beer. Her crowd might toast with champagne, but it wouldn’t be long until they’d be lined up wanting something to take that sweet taste out of their mouths. Besides, she needed something to focus on other than the tall cowboy who reminded her of the boy who’d set her hormones into overdrive when she was sixteen. He’d been so damn pretty and was the star of the football team. He’d been the one to kiss her the first time and then the next day he asked Alice James to the prom. He and Alice married right out of high school and he ran a service station in Mena, Arkansas. Alice worked as a teller at the bank and they had two kids in grade school.
“Who kissed you? You been holdin’ out on me. That is one fine lookin’ cowboy. If I was twenty years younger he’d be goin’ to bed with me tonight. Give me a Miller, darlin’. Gawd Almighty, but that champagne shit is horrible,” Jezzy said as she set her empty champagne flute on the bar and slid onto a stool.
“He just plowed through the door, came across the floor, and kissed me when the countdown hit one,” Cathy said.
“Looks like he’s big buds with Angel Avery. Guess he didn’t kiss her because Garrett had a lip lock on her. Wonder if Garrett’s kiss is powerful enough to throw her off her pool game. Handsome as that Garrett McElroy is, it would damn sure make me think about something other than racking up wooden balls if I was thirty years younger.”
Cathy drew up a quart of Miller and set it in front of Jezzy. “Who were
“See that big old biker back there with the Celtic cross tat on his arm?”
Cathy looked across the room at a middle-aged biker with a Mohawk haircut, a braided goatee, and a leather vest with enough chains to rope in a forty-acre farm. She quickly scanned the rest of the room and didn’t see another tattooed cross.
She couldn’t take her eyes from the biker. “Are you serious?”
“Not him. That cute little feller next to him in the red sweater. Couldn’t you just take him home and eat him up for a midnight snack?” Jezzy fanned her face with her hands.
Cathy sized up the man. Tall, lanky, middle-aged with a few wrinkles. Definitely not sexy and absolutely not Jezzy’s type.
Jezzy laughed so hard that she lost her breath. When she finally got control, she wiped her eyes with a paper napkin then held up her finger and thumb like a gun. “Bang. You’ve been had. I really did have you goin’, didn’t I? I kissed the biker, Cathy. That man next to him is married. His wife is in the bathroom. Can’t you see the cottontail expression on his face?”
“I’ll get even,” Cathy said. “And what is a cottontail expression?”
“Little wifey is in the bathroom. He’s imagining that all the cute little things with perky boobs and barely enough on top to cover them are honing in their sights on him. He’s gettin’ ready to run faster than a cottontail with a coyote hot after his cute little white tail.”
“Because if the wife comes out of the bathroom she’ll think he encouraged the women to make a play for him and he won’t get anything but a cold shoulder tonight. And he only gets
once a year on New Year’s when she’s about half plastered,” Jezzy explained.
“You should write a book,” Cathy said.
“Not me. I’m no writer. I’m a plain old beer-drinkin’, good-timin’ woman who’s going to learn the difference in bull balls and cow udders if it kills me. Don’t be oversleepin’ tomorrow mornin’. Dinner is at noon. Come late and you might find yourself goin’ hungry.” Jezzy picked up her beer, slid off the stool, and carried it over to the table where her friends, Leroy and his daughter, Sally, waited.
Cathy made her way down the bar, refilling pint and quart Mason jars of beer, making an occasional mixed drink, and wiping the spills. When she reached the end toward the pool tables, Travis waited with a bill in his hand.
“One of them big jars of Coors and not that damned light stuff either. And Angel wants a margarita,” he said.
She reached for the bill and he dropped it. They both grabbed at the same time and their hands touched, sending sparks flashing around them like a meteorite shower. It didn’t surprise him since he’d always been drawn to tall blond girls. Besides, she was downright hot. Cheap whiskey hitting an empty stomach wouldn’t be a bit hotter than that kiss. He got a sudden visual of those long legs stretched out beside him on a bed with her hair spread out on a pillow right beside him. It put another idiot grin on his face.
“Patron or Jose?” she asked.
“Patron. Only the best for the Angel.” He liked the bartender’s voice. Just enough husky to go with that deep southern accent.
“You from Alabama or Georgia?” he asked.
“Neither. I’m from Arkansas.” She filled the beer first and slid it toward him.
He reached out, stopped the motion, and brought it to his mouth for a long draw. He’d grown up in Fort Smith and he didn’t have that much of a Southern accent. She must be from way down south toward Louisiana.
Anger rose from Cathy’s boots all the way to the top of her blond hair. Travis had kissed her and minutes later ordered an expensive drink for another woman. Something damn sure wasn’t right with that picture other than it was a hell of a way to start the New Year!
Someone plugged coins into the jukebox and Gretchen’s voice singing “Redneck Woman” once again had dancers on the floor with the women yelling “hell yeah” every time Gretchen asked for it.
Travis scanned the crowd, but there was no way to know which woman owned the place. With a name like Cathy, he’d imagined her to be about fifty. She could be that redhead over there sitting with the dark-haired man and younger girl. Or perhaps she was the gray-haired woman sitting in the back corner with a table of other middle-aged women. He’d ask Merle or Angel to point her out before they left. He sure didn’t want to get on her bad side. Not when he’d be living right there in Mingus.
Gretchen sang that folks might think she was trashy and a little too hardcore but that she was a redneck woman and not a high-class broad. Travis eyed the bartender up and down and decided that she was the poster child for the song. She might look the part of the Barbie doll with all that height, blond ponytail, and flawless complexion, but she was a redneck woman for sure. Her jeans stretched tight across her rounded bottom and cinched into her small waist with a tooled leather belt laced on the edges with silver. A bright blue T-shirt, tight enough to hug every curve, was tucked into the jeans. Heavy lashes framed her steely blue eyes. Her face was angular but soft, and those full ripe lips begged to be kissed again. She definitely brought in the customers and was damned efficient behind the bar. Other than the bouncer sitting beside the door making the Terminator look like a pansy, she was alone and nothing appeared to rile her.
He touched his lips where her kiss was still warm. He’d never done anything so impulsive in his life, but when he walked in the Honky Tonk door and the countdown had begun, well, he wanted to bring in the New Year with a kiss. And there she was in the middle of the floor looking around like she was lost. He hadn’t realized she was the bartender until after a jolt of desire shook up his insides and had his heart pumping like a field mouse with a buzzard zeroed in on him.
“Too bad,” he muttered.
Leroy perched on the stool next to him. “What’s too bad?”
“Nothing,” Travis said. “Hey, what part of Arkansas are you from?” he yelled at Cathy above the noise of a full house and the music from the jukebox.
“Why?” Cathy said.
“Ever been to Fort Smith? That’s where I grew up,” he said.
“I know where it is,” Cathy said. She touched her lips. They hadn’t burned completely off her face but they were still pretty damn warm.
Leroy signaled for another beer. He was Jezzy’s best friend and lived with her out on the ranch. A heavy sprinkling of gray salted his dark hair. His face was a study in angles and planes and his eyes didn’t miss a thing, including the puzzled look on Travis’s face. His green eyes were set in a face that had more secrets than the government. He’d spent twenty-five years in the marines and had seen four stints in two separate wars.
“I’m Leroy Folsom, and you are…?” He bumped Travis on the shoulder.
Travis peeled his eyes off Cathy. “I’m Travis Henry. Pleased to meet you. Is that lady you are sitting with the owner of this place?”
“Hell, no! Jezzy owns a spread between here and Gordon. She don’t know jack shit about cows or ranching. I came down to these parts to teach her. Haven’t seen you around before. What are you doing in Mingus?”
“Then who’s the owner?”
“Here’s your beer, margarita, and change. Angel likes them stout with a double shot of Patron, if you’re wondering why it’s so expensive. What can I get you, Leroy? Something to get that champagne out of your mouth?” Cathy asked.
Leroy nodded. “I need an icy cold Coors. Damn champagne tastes like warm piss.”
“How would you know what warm piss tastes like?” Cathy asked.
Leroy leaned across the bar. “I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”
“That line is so old it’s threadbare.” Cathy handed him the beer, took his money, and headed down the bar where someone waved to get her attention.
“You know Cathy?” Leroy asked.
“Nope,” Travis answered.
“Then why’d you kiss her?”
“It was just a New Year’s Eve kiss,” Travis said.
“You stole my kiss,” Leroy told him.
Cathy had worked her way back down the bar and got in on the end of the conversation. She shook her finger at Leroy. “He didn’t steal your kiss. You were locking lips with that cute little brunette out there on the dance floor and I wouldn’t have kissed you anyway, Leroy. You are old enough to be my father.”
“Hey, I’m only eighteen years older than you. That’s not even enough for a May December?”
“My father was only eighteen when I was born.”
Leroy sighed. “When I was wearing a uniform women didn’t hurt my feelings like that.”
“You are out of uniform now and you’re too damn tough for your feelings to be hurt,” Cathy said.
Leroy chuckled, picked up his beer, and carried it back to the table where he and Jezzy put their heads together.
Cathy shook her head. “That was an obvious fishin’ expedition.”
“What?” Travis asked.
“Nothing. You’d better get that drink over to Angel before it gets warm.”
“Guess so.” Travis carried his beer and Angel’s margarita back to the tables.
Cathy had pegged Angel Avery and Garrett McElroy for a couple, but maybe she’d been wrong. They’d gotten on like wildfire from the moment they were introduced. They both loved eight ball and they looked so danged cute together; Angel with her kinky red hair and feisty attitude and Garrett with his dark brooding looks. Cathy could see their relationship going into one of those things that lasted right on past life and into eternity. At least until Travis Henry arrived. If he was the thing that kept them apart, she’d never forgive him.