Authors: Carolyn Brown
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To Leah Hultenschmidt
Behind every author is a brilliant editor.
Thank you for everything.
There are always more people than just the author behind the making of a book. Those who deserve so much more words, but please know my heart is filled with gratitude to all of you. Thank you to my publisher, Grand Central and the Forever imprint, for buying the Lucky Penny Ranch series. Thank you to my absolutely fabulous editor, Leah Hultenschmidt, for working with me to make this a stronger book. To all those folks behind the scenes who created the amazing cover, who copyedited, who worked in promotion, and those who have helped in any way to take this from a figment of my imagination to the book it is today, thank you! Thank you, once again, to Mr. B, my husband, who endures long days of living with an author who walks around arguing with the voices in her head.
Thank you to Elizabeth Rodriguez, whose bid won the right to name a character in my next book. Alora Raine, aka Allie, is that awesome character.
And a big thank-you to all my readers who continue to support me by reading my books, by telling your neighbors about them, for writing reviews, for sharing them with your friends, and everything else that you do. Without readers there would be no need for authors so y'all really are the wind beneath my wings.
Until next time, may love surround you and your life be filled with happy-ever-afters!
Welcome to Dry Creek, Texas, and the Lucky Penny Ranch!
It is always so exciting to start a new series, to find new friends in the characters and new places to visit. When I went looking for the perfect place to set the Lucky Penny Ranch series I knew I'd found the fictional ranch down in the country where the mesquite and cow tongue cactus can take over the land in a hurry if it's not controlled.
Throckmorton County really does exist and most of the towns mentioned in the book are real. The town of Dry Creek is fictional but it's very real in my head as well as Allie and Blake and all the folks who live there. I sincerely hope that as you read this book, it becomes as real to you as it is to me. As I finish
Wild Cowboy Ways
, it's spring in southern Oklahoma and north Texas. The roses are beginning to bud out and irises are blooming along with the tulips. But when you pick up Allie and Blake's story it will be winter, so grab a quilt, a cup of hot chocolate, and curl up in front of the fireplace for the debut book in the Lucky Penny Ranch series.
he Lucky Penny had never lived up to its name and everyone in Texas knew it. Owners had come and gone so often in the past hundred years that if the deeds were stacked up, they'd put the old Sears catalog to shame. Maybe the two sections of land should have been called Bad Luck Ranch instead of the Lucky Penny, but Blake Dawson couldn't complainânot for the price he, his brother, and cousin had paid for the place.
A cold north wind cut through Blake's fleece-lined denim jacket that January morning as he hammered the bottom porch step into place. The wind was a bitch, but then it was winter, the first Monday in January to be exact. And that damn robin out there pecking around in the dead grass sure didn't mean spring was on the way. No, sir, there would be a couple of months of cold weather. If they were lucky, they wouldn't have to deal with snow and ice. But Blake wouldn't hold his breath wishing for that. After all, when had anything in this place been lucky? Besides, in this part of Texas weather could change from sunny and seventy to blustery and brutal with a foot of snow within twenty-four hours.
He finished hammering down the last nail, stood up straight, and stretched. Done. It was the first job of too many to count, but he sure didn't need someone falling through that rotted step and getting hurt. His dog, Shooter, had watched from the top of the four steps, his eyes blinking with every stroke of the hammer.
Shooter's ears shot straight up and he growled down deep in his throat. Blake looked around for a pesky squirrel taunting him, but there was nothing but the north wind rattling through the dormant tree branches. Blake gathered his tools and headed back into the house for another cup of hot coffee before he started his first day of dozing mesquite from the ranch.
Clear the land. Plow it. Rake it. Plant it and hope for a good crop of hay so they wouldn't have to buy feed all winter. His brother Toby would bring in the first round of cattle in early June. Blake had promised to have pastures ready and fences tightened up by then. Meanwhile, Toby would be finishing his contract for a big rancher. His cousin, Jud, would be joining them, too. But he was committed to an oil company out in the panhandle until Thanksgiving. So it was up to Blake to get the groundwork laid for their dream cattle ranch.
He shucked out of his coat and hung it on the rack inside the front door and went straight to the kitchen. Sitting at the table, he wrapped his big hands around the warm mug. He was deep in thoughts about clearing acres and acres of mesquite when he heard the rusty hinge squeak as the front door eased open. He pushed back the chair, making enough noise to let anyone know that the house was no longer empty, when he heard the shrill, muffled giggle.
Surely folks in Dry Creek knocked before they plowed right into a person's home. Maybe it was a prank, kind of like an initiation into the town or a bunch of wild kids who had no idea that the ranch had been sold. Whatever was going on, his instincts had failed him or else his neck was still too damn cold to get that prickly feeling when someone was close by.
Shooter, who had been lying under the table at his feet, now stood erect and staring at the doorway. Blake would give the joker one more chance before he let him know he was messing with the wrong cowboy.
“Who's there?” he called out.
“Don't play games with me, Walter.” The voice was thin and tinny and definitely not a teenager.
“And who are you?” he asked.
“Don't be silly. You know who I am, Walter.” The voice got closer and closer.
What the hell was going on?
Back in the summer when the Lucky Penny went on the market, Blake, Toby, and Jud decided that they didn't believe in all that folderol about bad luck. The Lucky Penny's previous owners clearly just hadn't put enough blood, sweat, and tears into the land, or it would have been a productive ranch. They hadn't understood what it took to get a place that size up and running and/or didn't have the patience and perseverance to stick it out until there was a profit. But now Blake was beginning to question whether the bad luck had something to do with the supernatural.
He scooted his chair back and stood, Shooter close at his side, hackles up and his head lowered. Blake laid a hand on the dog's head. “Sit, boy, and don't move unless I give you the command.” Shooter obeyed, but he quivered with anticipation.
“Walter, darlin', where is she?” If it wasn't a ghost, then whatever mortal it was with that voice should audition for a part in a zombie movie.
Before Blake could call out a response, a gray-haired woman shuffled into the kitchen. The old girl was flesh and blood because no self-respecting ghost or apparition would be caught anywhere looking like that. She wore a long, hot-pink chenille robe belted at the waist with a wide leather belt, yellow rubber boots printed with hot pink flamingos, and her thin hair looked like she'd stuck her finger in an electrical outlet. The wild look in her eyes gave testimony that the hair wasn't the only thing that got fried when she tested the electricity that morning. He felt a sneeze coming on as the scent of her heavy perfume filled the room.
“Aaaaachoo.” He grabbed a paper napkin from the middle of the table in time to cover his mouth, when it burst from him like a bomb.
“I hope you're not getting sick, Walter,” she said as she marched across the room, grabbed his cheeks with her cold hands, and pulled his face down to kiss him on the cheek. “Katy's wedding is coming up, and I don't want a red nose and puffy eyes.”
“Of course not. Just a tickle in my nose, that's all.” Best thing he could think to do was play along until he was able to find who the hell the old girl was talking about.
The woman hung her cane on the edge of the table and plopped into a chair. When she sat down the tail of her robe fell back to show that she was wearing jeans underneath it. She must have escaped from an institution, but Blake couldn't remember anything resembling a nursing home closer than Throckmorton or Wichita Falls, and the old gal would have frozen to death if she'd walked that far.
She laid an icy hand on his forearm. “Is she out feeding the chickens? Are we safe?”
“I'm not sure.” Blake eyed her closely as he sat back down.
She squeezed his arm pretty damn tight for such bony fingers. “Aren't you even going to offer me coffee? I walked the whole way over here to see you, Walter, and it is cold as a witch's tit out there.”
Holy smokin' shit! Would the real Walter please stand up and do it in a hurry?
Blake opened his mouth to tell her that he was not Walter, but then clamped it shut. If he made her mad, he'd never find out her name and without that, he wouldn't be able to get her back where she belonged. He could call the police, but Dry Creek depended on the sheriff's department out of Throckmorton for emergencies and he didn't have that number.
“Yes, let's get you warmed up. You take cream and sugar, sweetheart?” he drawled.
“Oh, sweetheart now, is it? You know very well I take it black, Walter.”
“Should I call you baby? Sugar bun? Hot lips?”
“Irene will do just fine,” she harrumphed, but Blake could see a smile tilting her lips.
He patted her hand as he pulled his arm away and got up from the table to retrieve a second coffee mug. “How about a toaster pastry to go with that?” he asked. Maybe if he got some food in her, she'd snap out of it and figure out he wasn't Walter.
“What in the hell is a toaster pastry? Your mama usually makes gravy and biscuits.” The smile faded and her eyes darted around the room.
“Not this morning, darlin'.” So the woman who put even more craziness in the old gal's eyes wasn't Walter's wife but his mother.
“I keep telling you to move out on your own,” Irene continued as he placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of her. She wrapped her hands around it like a lifeline. “If you had your own place, I'd leave my husband and we could be together all the time.” She pursed her mouth so tight that her long, thin face had hollows below the high cheekbones. “A man who's almost forty years old has no business living with his mother, especially one who won't make you a decent breakfast.”
“But what if she can't get along without me to help her?” Blake asked.
She shook her fist at him. “You've got four brothers. Let them take a turn. It's time for you to own up to the fact that this ranch is bad luckâalways has been, always will be. You aren't going to make it here, but we could do good out in California. We'll both get a job pickin' fruit and get us a little house in town. I always wanted to live in town.” She took his hand, hope shining in her eyes. The old girl just about broke Blake's heart.
“Let me make a call and see what I can do,” he said gently.
The only phone number he had for anyone in Dry Creek was right there in bold print on the bottom of a 1999 feed store calendar hanging on the wall beside the refrigerator. Strange but January 4 was on a Monday that year, too. Blake wouldn't even need to get a new calendar.
Maybe the folks from the feed store would know who to call. He hoped to hell that phone number hadn't changed in the past seventeen years.
“Well, what in the hell are you waiting for?” she yelled, all the piss and vinegar coming back in a hurry. “Call one of them. Call them all. I don't really care but it's time for you to cut the apron strings and get on with your life, Walter.” She picked up the coffee and sipped it. “And put that dog outside where he belongs.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said.
The wild look in her eyes got even worse. “Don't you ma'am me! I'm not an old lady, by damn. I'm a woman in her prime and don't you ever ma'am me again.”
He had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. Whoever this woman was, she wasn't about to let anyone steamroll her.
“And after you've called and we've had our coffee, we can fool around until
gets back in the house.” Irene smiled up at him.
As if Shooter understood he wasn't welcome, he circled around the table, keeping a wary eye on the newcomer until he got to the back door where he whined. Glad to have an excuse to leave the table, Blake went to open the door and let the old boy out, wishing the whole time that he could escape with him.
Just exactly what did she mean by “fool around”? Did it mean the same in her demented mind that it did in today's world. If so he'd have to make that cup of coffee last until someone could come get this woman or else learn a whole new level of bullshitting his way out of a messy ordeal.
He eased the cell phone out of his pocket and poked in the numbers from the calendar. Irene seemed very content to sip her coffee and mumble about a damn dog being in the kitchen where womenfolk made food. Dog hairs, according to her, were covered with deadly diseases that could kill a person if they got into their fried potatoes.
“Dry Creek Feed and Seed. May I help you?” a feminine voice answered on the third ring.
“Ma'am, I'm the new owner of the Lucky Penny, and an elderly woman named Irene showed up at my door this morning. It's starting to rain andâ¦” He didn't get another word out.
“Oh, no! Just hang on to her and I'll send someone for her in the next few minutes. Don't let her leave,” the woman said, and the call ended.