Kael Carmody was back, and everybody in Rascal, Texas, knew the minute he breezed into town. His name set off sparks from Mildred’s Diner to the all-night Laundromat on First Street to Dorothy’s Curl-Up-and-Dye.
Nothing in Rascal had changed in the seven years he’d been away. Kael still set matrons’ tongues wagging and young women’s hearts swooning.
Everyone except Daisy Hightower.
Daisy was twenty-six. She was also independent, hardworking, and as stubborn as Kurt McNally’s old mule. She could also carry a grudge longer than anyone in the Trans-Pecos.
Kael found that out the hard way.
But he had other things on his mind besides Daisy when he strolled into Kelly’s Bar off Highway 17, looking for liquid refreshment and an order of Kelly’s famous chicken-fried steak.
“I don’t believe my eyes,” Joe Kelly exclaimed, resting a bar towel on his shoulder and extending a palm. “Kael Carmody, as I live and breathe.”
Taking care to minimize his limp, Kael hitched himself up to the red vinyl bar stool, doffed his straw Stetson, and clasped Joe’s hearty handshake. Back in high school, he and Joe had played on the Rascal baseball team together.
“How’s the leg?” Joe asked, casting a glance downward.
Kael wasn’t ready to talk about the accident or his shaky prognosis. The less said, the better. But avoiding the topic in Rascal posed a real challenge. Thankfully, the tavern was empty at one thirty in the afternoon, except for the two guys shooting pool in the corner, and Kael didn’t know either of them.
“You gonna be able to ride again?” Concern knotted Joe’s mouth.
“Sure.” Kael pulled a confident face that was complete bluster. “Just home recouping for a few months.”
“Gotta be tough.” Joe nodded.
“Yeah. How ’bout a longneck and an order of chicken-fried steak? I’m starved for your cooking. There’s nothing like it.”
Joe beamed at the compliment and pulled a beer from the ice. Twisting the top off, he slid the bottle across the bar to Kael. “I’ll go start your order.”
Kael swiveled on the bar stool, sipping his beer. He swung his gaze around the bar. There was still a tear in the screen door. The same posters hung on the rough-hewn, shiplap walls. An oscillating fan rotated at the back of the bar. The windows were open, bringing in the scent of high desert, sand, and long-buried memories.
Memories he’d rather forget. Memories that had kept him away from Rascal for so long. Memories of Daisy and their lost love.
If he closed his eyes, he could still see her firm, tanned figure in that purple bikini, still smell the coconut aroma of her sunscreen, still taste the frosty Italian ices they’d shared at Balmorhea Springs in the summers.
Why was he thinking about that hardheaded creature? He’d gotten over her years ago. Just because he’d come back home to recover didn’t mean he was entertaining any ideas about getting together with her for old times’ sake.
Knowing Daisy, if he dared show up on her front porch, she’d tell him to scat before she sicced the cops on him. Who needed that kind of grief?
“Here we go,” Joe said, proudly sliding a plate of chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and cream gravy in front of Kael. “Bet you haven’t had steak this good since you left Rascal.”
“You’d bet right.” Kael dug into the food.
“Hmm,” Joe said. “Just you wait. I’m having a blow-out barbecue at my place for the Rodeo Days celebration in June, and you’re invited. Not just invited, but as the most famous person from Rascal, you’re the guest of honor.”
“I’m not that famous.”
“The heck you’re not.” Joe snorted. “How many people have made it to the Professional Bull Riders Championship in Las Vegas three straight years in a row?”
And, Kael wondered, how many of those people got so badly wounded doing it, they lost their careers or even their lives?
“Only folks who follow rodeo have ever heard of me,” Kael said. “Besides, that and five dollars will buy you one of those fancy coffees at Starbucks.”
“Like you have to worry about money.” Joe shook his head. “You’re the only child of the wealthiest family in town. You’re destined to inherit a two-thousand-acre cattle ranch. What’s the problem?”
Kael didn’t know what would happen if his leg didn’t heal. Three different specialists had come to the same conclusion. Slim chance he’d ever ride again without a radical new surgery. But it was no panacea. Even though his manager, Randy Howard, was pushing the operation, Kael hesitated.
If something went wrong, he might never walk without a limp.
Kael winced. What was he going to do? Bull riding was his life, his identity since he was twelve years old. Sure, he could follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rancher, but Kael possessed such a strong case of wanderlust that he couldn’t envision himself settling down any place. Especially in a dried-up, go-nowhere town like Rascal.
His nomadic nature was what killed things between him and Daisy. Kael winced and ran a palm along his jaw.
One of the pool players sauntered over to the old Wurlitzer, and Dolly Parton’s voice filled the room.
Kael finished his food and pushed the platter across the bar. “So how are things in Rascal?”
“Your folks don’t keep you up to date?”
“They spend most of their time in San Antonio these days and leave the running of the ranch to the foreman, so they miss out on the local gossip.”
“Well.” Joe steepled his fingers. “The drought’s been rough on everyone.”
On the drive in, he’d noticed parched pastures, scrawny cows, and the dried-up stock ponds. Rascal was in the high desert of the Davis Mountains, so there wasn’t ever lush greenery, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing the place this barren.
Luckily, his parents divested their holdings and could weather a few lean years, but that wasn’t true of everyone in Presidio County.
“A few farmers have gone bankrupt.”
Kael clicked his tongue. “I hate hearing that.”
“Cattle prices are the lowest they’ve been in sixteen years.”
“That’s what my dad’s been telling me.” Kael knew about the drought and the farmers’ problems. What he hungered for were details on the townspeople… and one special person in particular.
“Guess who I saw yesterday?” Joe asked as if reading his thoughts.
Kael shook his head and took another swallow of beer. The outside of the bottle was sweaty. The coolness already dissipating in the heat. “Who?”
His heart stilled, but he kept a nonchalant expression on his face. “Yeah?”
“She’s just as fine as she was in high school. Maybe more so.” Joe swiped a damp towel across the counter.
“Good for her. She always was a beautiful woman.”
“Waste if you ask me.”
“What’s a waste?” Kael quirked an eyebrow. Despite his best intentions, he couldn’t deny the curiosity zipping through him. He’d love to see Daisy again. Question was, would she love to see him?
“The girl never dates. Stays home, works those beehives, and looks after her sister’s boy. She’s turned into a regular hermit.”
“Rose has a child?” Startled, Kael frowned.
“Rose is no longer with us.”
“You mean Rose is dead?”
Joe nodded solemnly.
Jolted, the news hit Kael like a slap, and he almost choked on the swallow of beer he’d just taken. Why didn’t he know this? “What happened?”
Joe made a face. “She abandoned the boy right after he was born. Left him for Daisy to raise. Then two years ago, Rose overdosed on sleeping pills in some New Orleans flophouse. Real sad.”
“No kidding?” An icy blast chased down Kael’s spine, and he regretted eating the greasy food. The news left him shaky.
“You remember how wild that girl was, partying nonstop, a different boyfriend for every night of the week. I’ll admit it. I kept company with her a time or two myself. Who didn’t?”
I wish I hadn’t, Kael thought, the old self-loathing returning with a vengeance.
“Daisy’s had a hard time.”
“I imagine she has, raising a kid on her own,” Kael mused.
“Uh-huh. She legally adopted Travis.”
“Nobody could accuse Daisy of slacking.” Kael peeled the label off his beer bottle. And avoided Joe’s eye.
“You ain’t got no interest in rekindling old flames?” Joe settled his elbows on the bar and leaned forward to cup his chin in his palms.
“With that fiery redhead? You gotta be kiddin’. I’d just as soon stick my hand in one of her beehives. It’d be a lot less painful.” Kael snorted, but inside dormant feelings stirred. Feelings he didn’t care to examine too closely.
“Want another beer?”
“Nah.” Kael shook his head. “I better be getting home. Mom’s cooking up a big dinner tonight and inviting all the relatives over.” Truthfully, he’d heard enough gossip for one afternoon.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Joe said, “anytime you wanna talk rodeo, you got an audience.”
He didn’t need a reminder of that, either. Why torture himself? Until he decided one way or the other about the surgery, he didn’t want to discuss bull riding. Kael could just see himself whiling away the days, hanging out in Kelly’s Bar and gabbing about what used to be or what might have been.
Daisy Hightower and bull riding. The two things he’d loved most. The same two things that had caused him the greatest heartache in life.
Snagging his Stetson off the bar, Kael dusted the brim, then settled it on his head. He took money from his pocket, but Joe held up a palm.
“This one’s on me, good buddy.”
“Come on, Joe, take the cash.” Kael pushed the twenty at him.
“You tryin’ to insult me?”
“All right, have it your way.”
Kael folded the twenty and stuck it back in his pocket. He wasn’t about to let Joe get away with this. They’d been friends since high school, and although Joe earned a fair living running the bar, he had a wife and three kids to support. The guy just might wake up one morning to
find a new freezer sitting on his front porch waiting to take the place of the one wheezing in the back room.
“You oughta go see the woman,” Joe said as Kael reached the door.
Kael turned to look at his friend. “Who?”
“Daisy. You never know. She might have changed her mind about you.”
“Are we talking about the same Daisy?”
“Motherhood has mellowed her.”
“Like it mellows grizzly bears?” Kael lifted his shoulders. “No, thanks.”
“Yeah.” Kael stepped out into the oppressive heat.
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