Noah

The Cowboys of Calamity, Texas: Book 1

Noah Tanner itched everywhere. Weddings had always made him uncomfortable, but he’d never actually broken out in hives before. An unusual reaction, but then this was an unusual wedding.
 
His ex-fiancée was marrying his best friend, and half the town of Calamity would be there to witness it, but the real draw was to see Noah standing up as the best man, an object of pity—or scorn—depending on your point of view. The Tanner men were known for making a few enemies in their time.

If Noah was lucky, one of those enemies would shoot him before he made it into the wedding chapel. But in his twenty-eight years, he’d never been that lucky. Especially with women. They’d been leaving him since he was eight years old, so he should be used to it by now. It was the pity of the people around him that he couldn’t stand. That was one of the reasons he’d offered to be Shawn’s best man, so he could face down the nosy townsfolk.

What else was a jilted cowboy to do?
 
For six long months, he’d endured the unwanted attention and curious glances of just about everybody in town. Heard the gossips whisper about him whenever he ventured into his favorite diner or tavern. The day after Amber McNair dumped him, the neighboring ranch families had felt so sorry for him they’d even started a meal train, dropping off casseroles and baked goods to his ranch house for a solid week.

That’s why he intended to stand up tall and proud as the best man, proving to friends and strangers alike that his heart was just fine, thank you very much. And that he wished nothing but the best for the happy couple.

If he could just stop itching long enough to do it.

Angry, red welts covered his arms and torso. That was the only reason he was still in the chapel parking lot with only a short time to spare before the Saturday evening ceremony was set to begin. He sat in the driver’s seat of his blue Ford pickup truck, his white dress shirt unbuttoned and spread wide open as he rubbed calamine lotion over his bare chest. After squeezing out the last pink drop from the bottle, he wiped the lotion off his hands with an old gray towel that he kept under the seat. Then he buttoned up his shirt and used the rearview mirror to put on his black tie.

Thankfully, most of the hives would be hidden by his rented tux. He did have one near the base of his right thumb, and another behind his left ear, but as long as he could refrain from scratching them, they shouldn’t be too noticeable.

They itched like crazy though since he hadn’t treated them with the telltale pink lotion. His friends used to tease him unmercifully about his aversion to marriage. He didn’t want them to know that matrimony actually caused him to have an allergic reaction. Which was why he usually avoided weddings.

Until now.

It might be understandable for the bride or groom to get cold feet, but not the best man. Hell, he wanted to be there for Shawn and Amber. If for no other reason than to dispel the ugly rumors going around Calamity that he was a lonesome, heartbroken cowpoke.

He pulled on his black suit jacket, then heaved a long sigh. It was almost time to face the music. To Noah, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March sounded like a funeral dirge. It was, in a way, since it signaled the death of a man’s freedom. Hard to believe it had only been four months since Shawn had sheepishly asked for Noah’s blessing to date Amber. And he’d given it without hesitation, hoping his best friend since first grade would have better luck with love.

Now the happy couple were ready to vow until death do us part. A cold shiver ran up his spine at the thought of walking into that overcrowded chapel. But what choice did he have? There were more than three hundred guests inside, all waiting to see how Noah would react to his ex-fiancée exchanging vows with his best friend. He’d have to stand up in front of all of them and not flinch under their eagle-eyed scrutiny. Nor scratch at any of the hives that were currently driving him mad.

He adjusted the awkward boutonniere on his lapel. The floral decoration of wild lavender sprigs and fresh eucalyptus refused to stay upright on his jacket. Sweat beaded his brow, even though the September sun hung low in the cloudy sky, painting the horizon with dazzling hues of yellow, orange, and red. He cracked open his driver’s side window and gulped in a breath of cool Texas air.
 
It smelled like rain.

A moment later, his cell phone buzzed on the console. He looked down to see a text message from the groom pop up on the screen. Picking up his phone, he saw five words written in all caps: WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?

He glanced at the time. “Damn.”

It was six forty-five and the ceremony was due to start promptly at seven. The last thing he wanted to do was show up late. He picked up his black felt cowboy hat from the passenger seat and placed it on his head. Then he turned and reached into the back seat for the wedding gift he’d bought for the happy couple.
 
The sound of loud, screeching tires drew his gaze to his back windshield just in time to see a shiny black pickup truck racing out of the parking lot, taking the corner on two wheels.

The next moment his passenger door was yanked open, and a young blond woman leaped into the front passenger seat. “Follow that truck!”

Noah shifted around and gaped at her. “What?”

“Go!” she shouted, a high flush in her cheeks. “I can’t let them get away!” Then the stranger turned to him, her smoky-blue eyes wide and frantic. “Move it, cowboy!”