Houston

Texas Rowdy, Book 1

Raising my six siblings after our folks passed away twelve years ago when I was twenty-one hasn't been a walk in the park. Running the Rowdy Ranch that's been in my family since the Old Three Hundred followed Sam Houston to Texas back in 1822 was even tougher still.

But I'm not alone in this fight. My family is my posse, and we're cut from rugged cowboy cloth. We arm wrestle difficulties and eat them for lunch.

Until now…

The day that started all the trouble, as late summer bled into fall, I was up before dawn as usual, racking my brain over our last gambit to save our family’s beloved ranch.

By the time the sun mosied its way up and splashed orange-pink streaks across the morning sky, I'd already finished my chores without any hint of what was in store.

The aroma of sizzling bacon wafted through the air, teasing my nose. It was Tyler's turn to whip up grub for our crew of eight, and unlike our sister Wimberly, the registered nurse, Ty considered pork belly a major food groups. Soon, the bell once used to summon the ranch hands in from the fields would clang.

But I had just enough time to survey the old barn and start making a list of what I'd need to transform the dilapidated relic into a thriving wedding venue.

Yep, hosting weddings was our Hail Mary pass to keep from selling off precious chunks of land to keep our heads above water.

What did I know about running a wedding venue? Why, a grand total of nothing. It was why I put out feelers for a wedding planner. Not that there was a bounty of applicants in a one-stoplight town like Whistling Hollow. Nor were we ready to start hiring yet, but I like to get ahead of things.

I've warded off the wolves for over a decade now, but the relentless drought and hellfire heat of the last couple of years taxed us to the breaking point. We're pouring every last drop of our pitiful savings into this risky wedding gambit.

If it doesn't work...

"Well, not gonna dwell on worst-case scenarios,” I mumbled to myself. "It's gotta work. I'll make damn sure it works, one way or another."

The soft white clouds floated on past. A chorus of lowing cattle greeted me and I crossed the pasture toward the barn my granddaddy built back in the 1940s, right after WWII.

My late father, God rest his soul, put up a bigger, fancier barn in the late 1990s—that's where we keep the hay and horse stalls these days. Granddaddy's old barn has been left to the elements, but the bones are still solid.

Or so I kept telling myself.

"Sure miss you, Pop." The old grief sent a quick shiver over me, but I pushed it aside.  What would my father think of turning the family ranch into a wedding venue?

Our milk cow ambled up to the fence, her full bag swaying.

"Hey, Bessie," I greeted her.

Bessie let loose with a long moo, telling me she needed milking.

"It's Abi's turn to milk you. She'll be out soon," I assured the Jersey.

Bessie bellowed again and batted her doe eyes.

“Right after breakfast," I promised.

With morning dew dampening my worn work boots, I circled the perimeter, making a note of rotted boards needing replacement and snapping pictures to show to Slim at the hardware store.

The telltale scrape of a cowboy boot being dragged through the dirt told me Dallas had joined me without a word, as usual. He was the next eldest after me, and he got discharged from the Army six months after shrapnel tore through his kneecap.

Dallas will never be able to walk without a cane from here on out, but at least he gets to keep the leg. For a while there, we were afraid he might lose it altogether.

He served our country with honor, and I'm damn proud of him. His wound made him a mite prickly, though. So, I'd never dare thank him for his service. Praise embarrasses and shames my brother, so I kept my trap shut.

"Mornin’.” Dallas sidled up beside me to eyeball the barn.

"Hey." I lifted my Stetson, scratched my head, and turned to face him. This wasn't the first time we’d had this conversation. “How'd you sleep?”

Dallas winced. "Did I wake you?"

His room is next to mine, and I heard him holler out in his sleep like he did most nights. PTSD is a bitch.

"Nah," I hedged, not wanting him to worry him. "I was already tossing and turning."

"You still hellbent on trying to pull off this wedding venue idea?" he asked, nodding at the dilapidated structure.

I toed the dirt. “You got a better idea?”

He didn't have to say anything. I knew he didn't.

We'd already tried every other side hustle under the sun to keep this place afloat—leasing out the back pastures to hunters, raising German shepherd pups, giving riding lessons, boarding horses, selling homemade jams and jellies online, cutting and selling firewood. You name the ranch-related gig, and we've worked it.

"It's gonna take everything we got to pull this off," he said.

"Yep."

"All our money, too."

"It's a gamble."

"So many memories here,” Dallas murmured.

Hand to my nape, I studied the weathered planks, rust-pitted nails, and cracked glass windows of the old barn. I breathed in the familiar tang of sunbaked cedar and dry hay.

Reaching out, I traced the timber with my fingers and caressed the presence of those rugged ancestors who carved this ranch from the Texas soil with their bare hands—the scored marks of their axes still visible like scars adorning the ancient beams.

Dallas nudged open the creaky double doors. The rusted hinges groaned in protest, and we stepped into the musty gloom. Dusty beams of morning light filtered through cracks in the roof, striping the warped floorboards.

The pier and beam foundation would need extra support posts, and we'd have to replace the rotted roof sooner rather than later. This stalwart edifice defied the march of time, a monument to my granddad's hard-won mastery. He'd built it from cedar logs—a natural deterrent against termites and woodborers. Not a single beam showed signs of insect damage.

I pulled out my phone and dictated, updating the supply list I'd started. "Saw blades, framing nails, extra drill bits."

"A square, plumb bob..." Dallas added.

At least we would handle most of the renovation work ourselves. The biggest challenge by far would be restroom facilities—until we could afford to build our own, we'd have to make do with renting out a bank of porcelain thrones for wedding events. Not classy, but hey— we'd be giving the city-slicker guests a down-home, authentic country experience.

Dallas's keen eyes swept over the ramshackle interior, assessing. "You figure we can get this place whipped into shape before wedding season kicks off?"

"If we put our minds and our backs into it, there is nothing we can't accomplish." I envisioned the barn restored to its full glory—whitewashed planks, festive lights glinting off sleek timber beams. The sounds of joyous laughter. Music spilled from the open doors as a radiant bride and groom emerged, hand in hand. “It's put up or shut up."

"At least there's seven of us."

"Our greatest strength." I smiled. "Family."

"Well, c'mon then." Dallas clapped me on the shoulder. "No sense in frettin'. Breakfast is waiting."

We headed back toward the house in our customary, companionable silence. I couldn't have shouldered this load and kept our family together without Dallas.

A purring engine shattered the morning quiet. My head whipped around at the sound of tires crunching on the gravel drive.

A sleek white Porsche slid to a halt, flinging pebbles in its wake.

"Who the hell is that fancy piece of work?" Dallas grunted beside me. "You got some high society company coming?"

"Can't say as I do." I squinted against the sun’s brilliant glare.

The driver's side door swung open, and out stepped a pair of tan, shapely legs.

I blinked, my eyes struggling to adjust as a gorgeous blonde vision emerged in a gauzy floral sundress.

"Wow," Dallas said.

She looked familiar, but it took me a moment to place her. Then it hit me like a bucking bronco to the chest.

"Sweet spirit of John Wayne, is that little Angel Townsend?" Admiration laced my brother's voice.

It was indeed.

Angel Townsend.

My old buddy Charlie's baby sister, the mischievous little scamp who used to gallivant after us, pigtail braids bouncing, missing teeth and all. But the young woman gliding toward us with feline grace was a sophisticated beauty—all lush curves and effortless grace.

My pulse kicked up a few notches for no good reason while my throat went as dry as an August drought.

Her body, though I knew better than to ogle, was toned and tempting, those round hips and shapely thighs tiptoeing right up to the edge of improper.

I wrenched my gaze upward.

Most striking were her sapphire blue eyes glittering like gemstones in the soft morning light. No longer the adorable tag-along kid sister. This was a full-grown woman, polished and refined by a world far beyond the boundaries of our humble town.

If I'm being honest, I was glad to see her escape this one-horse burg and chase her dreams in the bigger arenas of life. My buddy Charlie didn't speak of her much after she got out, so I had no idea if this was a nostalgic visit home or something more.

Though I couldn't imagine what would bring her waltzing through our yard looking like a billion bucks.

"Good morning, Rowdies," she called.

"Mornin'." Dallas tugged his Stetson brim in a gentlemanly gesture.

Angel's gaze slid right past him, pinning me to the spot like a tranquilizer dart. "Hey, Houston."

"H'lo, Angel," I mustered, aiming for an outward display of casual indifference my pounding heart didn't feel.

A playful smile curved those lush lips as her eyes roamed over me. Bordering on appreciation if I didn't know better.

"The Clements down at the hardware store said y'all are fixing up your granddaddy's old barn. Turning it into some kinda wedding venue for the city folk. That the real story?"

My mind flashed back to when we were kids, running wild through the same crumbling barn. Angel was a regular little Houdini, always managing to tuck herself into the most impossible hiding spots between the hay bales and dusty rafter beams.

Thinking about it, my memories took on a warm, nostalgic glow.

Her piercing eyes bored into mine, her smile fading into something more intense, and set my nerves jangling. She was a feast, and my gaze couldn’t stop gobbling her up.

"Well? Is it true?" she asked.

I cleared my scratchy throat. "Sure is."

Angel shaded her eyes against the growing glare, head swiveling to study the tumbledown barn and take its measure. An odd, almost electric tension thickened the air between us.

Or maybe desire was going straight to my head. I'd never have expected myself to be on the receiving end of...attraction...for a woman an entire decade my junior, but hot dang, if I wouldn't open a vein for her if she asked.

"Gonna...go wash up for breakfast." Dallas took off, leaving me alone with this luminous specter from our past.

Angel's smile bloomed anew, cherry lips parting to bestow on me the full weight of her attention. Loops of golden hair swayed weightlessly against her honey-tan skin as she tipped her head, a spark of something deeper flickering in those azure depths.

My mouth went desert dry. I waited for her to make the next move, powerless against my unholy fascination.

Her plump bottom lip poked out a little as she moistened it with the tip of her pink tongue. I willed my eyes not to follow the tantalizing motion.

"This is...kinda weird, isn't it?" she said.

"How's that?" I asked, feigning ignorance of the sizzling, inexplicable connection snaking between us.

One delicate eyebrow arched upward. "You know. Me applying to work for you."

"Oh." I rocked back on my bootheels as her meaning penetrated. "Wait, are you saying you want a job as our new wedding planner?"

She worried her bottom lip again—a nervous, childlike habit at odds with her grown-up sensuality. "That's why I'm here."

"For real?"

"I need a job, Houston."

I stared in disbelief, my eyebrows hiking up on my brow. "You're back in town for good, then?"

"I am.” She nodded.

"Huh." Much as I itched for the full story of what brought her running back home to Whistling Hollow with her tail tucked between her legs, that would be overstepping. None of my business.

"Home for good." She gave a shaky laugh.

"And you...want to come work for me?" I asked. "As a wedding coordinator?"

"That's right." A brief hesitation, followed by an emphatic "Very much so."

I searched her lovely face. What in the world transpired in La-La Land to draw her back to this puny farming community? "Why's that?"

The question rattled her. She recoiled a bit, chin lifting as her soft Bambi eyes turned flinty. Those provocative lips pressed into a thin line, and a pained expression creased her brow as she lowered her eyes in a fluttering sweep of soot-dark lashes.

"Let's say Los Angeles isn't my scene anymore," she said.

I didn't pry further, though questions buzzed in the back of my mind like a wasp swarm. If I hired her, I had every right to inquire about what happened to end her previous employment, but this was Whistling Hollow—a town where everybody knew everybody else's business before they did. It wouldn't be neighborly to go poking into any raw wounds she might be nursing.

I shifted my weight, shoving my hands deep into my jacket pockets. "Well, it's good to see you again, Angel, but I reckon I should tell you straight out—"

"Please, Houston." She cut me off, palms pressed together in a beseeching pose. Her eyes, those incredible azure pools, radiated a plea I felt in my bones. "I'll work harder for you than any employee you've ever had."

“I—”

"That might sound like an empty boast, but I mean it with every fiber in me." One slender hand drifted up to rest over the rapid flutter of the pulse at her throat. "I don't just want this job...I need it."

Was that a telltale quiver I detected in that full bottom lip? What had the big city done to my buddy's kid sister to reduce her to this state of desperation? From what Charlie had told me, Angel was on a fast track to the top, managing big-money automobile shows and high-profile events. She was always too busy building her career for more than flying visits back home for the holidays.

"Look, Angel," I said. "I should be upfront with you. We haven't even started the renovation yet—"

She bobbed her head. "You'll need plenty of help fixing the place up first before it's ready for weddings."

I raked her from head to toe, taking in the expensive pale sundress, designer sandals, and expensive jewelry. The trappings of a big-city princess, nothing like the overalled little tomboy Charlie used to haul around. She was sure as heck easy on the eyes in both iterations—  whether dressed fancy or streaked with dust, as I remembered, but damn if it wasn't a risky proposition.

"I don't mind getting down and dirty, Houston," she said with a teasing smile as if reading my thoughts. One slim hand trailed down to settle at her hourglass waist.

Well, she'd garnered my complete undivided attention.

"I, uh..." I coughed and tugged at my collar.

"I shoulda thought to dress down for this job interview." A self-deprecating chuckle curved her mouth into a grin. "I wanted to make a good first impression."

Mission accomplished on that front, darlin'. My first impression was wrestling with a saloon's worth of unbecoming thoughts about my best friend’s kid sister.

I blew out a steadying breath and rubbed the back of my neck where the tension always pooled. As pretty and personable as Angel had grown up to become, bringing her on board was a terrible idea for any number of reasons. How would Charlie feel about me hiring his sister, for one? And what about these unsettling undercurrents of attraction I was picking up from her that made my palms sweat?

"What happened with your last job?"

One corner of her strawberry-colored mouth twitched, but her eyes never wavered. "Might as well lay it out for you."

“Oh?” I was intrigued.

She sucked in a fortifying breath, inhaling the same air I’d just exhaled, and tipped her chin up. "I might've decked a big-shot A-list Hollywood celebrity after he..." Her words trailed off as her eyes cut away. “Dared to grab my butt at an auto show event."

I pressed my lips together to smother a reflexive smirk. Well, well...that sounded like the same feisty little hellcat I remembered from back in the day. Never took flak from anybody.

“In one ill-placed punch, I ended my career.” She bowed her head, interlaced her fingers, and brought her hands to heart as if creating a protective shield around herself.

Impulse nudged me to put my arm around her and offer comfort. Instead, I fisted my hands inside my pocket and shoved them in deeper. “Why didn’t you report him for harassment?”

She sent me a pitying look that said I didn’t understand a thing about the rich and powerful, and by gosh, she was right. I didn’t.

My roots were buried deep in Texas soil, my hands were calloused from hard labor, and the only time I had a big pile of money was when I sold cattle, but I had to make it last an entire year.

“Please, Houston.” She pressed her palms together, her eyes beseeching me. “I can help you turn this into the most popular wedding venue outside San Antonio.”

“Here’s the God’s honest truth, Angel.” I gestured toward the barn. “Finances are tight. I don’t know where I’d scrap up the funds right now. I hadn't figured on hiring a wedding planner until the barn was finished.”

“Oh.”

“The drought these last two years…well, it’s why we’re building a wedding venue in the first place. Gotta diversify. Multiple streams of income, you know.”

“How about this…” Desperation laced her voice. “You don’t have to pay me until I bring in clients. When they pay you, you pay me.”

Now, there was an offer I wouldn’t field from anyone else. I sized up my options. Hiring Angel was still a bad idea for so many reasons.

“I don’t pay you a dime if you can’t bring in clients?” I asked.

She notched up her chin and met my gaze head-on. “I’ll bring in the clients.”

Gotta admire her tenacity. What would it hurt to give her a shot?

My mind was filled with a dozen scenarios of what could go wrong. What if Angel got hurt on our property? What if hiring her created conflict between me and Charlie? What if these weird feelings I was having for her grew? What if…

“Under those conditions, I suppose there’s no downside in giving you a trial run.”

“Oh, Houston, thank you!” Her face lit up.

Knowing I’d put a smile on her lips heated my entire body.

She launched herself into my arms, knocking me so off balance I almost stumbled. Her sweet, rose-scented fragrance washed over me, stealing my breath away.

She pulled back, her blue eyes searching mine. “I promise you won’t regret it.”

But as hot tingles and unexpected desire churned through my body, I realized I already did.