Excerpt – Lori Wilde

The Cowboy Cookie Challenge

Twilight, Texas: Book 16

Jazzy Walker watched her best friend, Charlie Cheek, trot across the barroom in an adroit Fred Astaire two-step, dodging tipsy patrons on his way to their bistro table in the far corner, balancing two candy cane martinis without sloshing a drop.

Medical personal from Twilight General Hospital across the road patronized the Recovery Room Bar and Grill, and at seven thirty on a Friday night, the seven a.m. to seven p.m. shift workers had descended on the waterhole en masse.

“You look thirsty, Lambchop,” Charlie hollered over the rowdy crowd and the jukebox blasting “Santa Claus Wants Some Loving.”

“Parched.” Jazzy reached for her drink, offering him a winning smile in thanks.

“Ready to blow off some steam?”

“You betcha! Karaoke ’70s contest here we come!”

“My little ray of sunshine.”

“It’s as easy to smile as frown.” Jazzy giggled.

“Good Lord don’t embroider that on a pillow.” Charlie raised his glass. “Cheers. Candy cane martinis ought to fix us right up for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’”

They clinked glassed and grinned with the ease of childhood friendship.

“So how was your week?” Charlie fished a plump cranberry from his drink and popped the tart fruit into his mouth.

“Pretty good.”

“Is this true or just generalized Jazzy optimism?” he asked.

“Pediatric admissions are down. That’s always something to celebrate. The only new admit I had today was a tonsillectomy.”

Charlie raised his eyebrows. “They admitted a tonsillectomy case?”

“Minor complications. No biggie. Doc Freeman will send her home tomorrow, but the excitement came when her father almost fainted. I caught Dad just in the nick of time. One second later and boom, he would’ve pancaked the floor.”

“Look at you, shero.” Charlie held up a palm.

Jazzy slapped him a high five and sipped her drink. The peppermint set her tongue tingling. She wasn’t a big drinker, and the martini packed a punch. If she wanted to sing a song as complicated as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” she needed to slow down. She ran her fingers over the glass stem, wiping away condensation.

“FYI,” Charlie said. “I ordered all-the-way nachos, so don’t be afraid to drink up. Gooey cheese will soak up any liquor.”

“Yay! Thanks. I’m starving. We were shorthanded and slammed, and I skipped lunch.” Slammed because she’d been tending the light-headed single dad of her tonsillectomy case; a gorgeous single dad, just to be clear. Not that she noticed. Much.

“Now the big question.” Charlie placed both palms flat. “Have you heard from Traveling Nurses? How did the second interview go?”

Jazzy crossed her fingers. “No news is good news, right? I don’t expect a call until after the New Year. Holidays get in the way.”

“You’ll get it.”

“Here’s hoping.” She crossed her fingers. “They were very encouraging.”

“Doubts?”

“A little. I’ve never lived outside of Twilight.”

“More reasons to hightail it out of town. It’s your big chance to see the world. I’m jealous.”

“Don’t be. I wouldn’t leave if not for . . .” She gulped. “Well . . . we won’t get into that. I’m going to miss everyone. You most of all.”

“I remember when we were kids, and you collected travel brochures and we spent hours in your hospital room poring over them and spinning Eiffel Tower fantasies.”

Yes, and until her high school sweetheart got engaged to her former childhood friend, Andi Browning, Jazzy had clung to hope that she and Danny would reunite, despite their incompatibility. When they were dating, people—Charlie chief among them—used to teasingly say, “Here comes Darkness and Light.” Once, she thought that meant she and Danny dovetailed. Now she knew that opposites had simply attracted. Not always a healthy combo.

Ahh, believing in fairy tales, legends, and myths. The downside to living in a tourist town that exploited its romantic history. Magical thinking. She’d cut her teeth on stories of “one true love” and reunited high school sweethearts. Such fables were pure bunk, and she’d stayed too long in a relationship that had run its course, because of a ridiculous belief in happily-ever-after.

“I should have left before now.”

“You weren’t ready. But the time has come.” Charlie hummed a few bars of “Time Has Come Today” and drummed the table.

It sounded ominous.

The heavy wooden door creaked open, bringing a blast of chilly December air. Jazzy turned to watch a lanky cowboy mosey in.

Charlie sat up straighter and readjusted the maroon beret that matched his scrubs. “Mmm, who do we have here?”

The cowboy navigated his way to the to-go counter and Charlie slumped back against his chair, disappointment tugging his mouth down. “Oh, it’s just Roan Sullivan. I thought we had a fresh face in town.”

Roan Sullivan. The father of Jazzy’s four-year-old tonsillectomy patient, Trinity. The guy who’d almost fainted.

“You know him?” she asked.

Handsome, lean, and muscular in the wiry way of men who performed physical labor for a living, Roan was drool-worthy. Dark, thick hair and soulful brown eyes.

Just her type.

Jazzy recognized his sexiness when she’d taken his elbow and eased him down in the waiting room chair that morning. He smelled nice too, like pumpkin spice and sandalwood soap. She didn’t lust after her patients’ parents, but something about Roan stoked her interest.

And her empathy.

He’s a single father raising a daughter. You identify with him because of you and your dad.

Roan Sullivan appeared worn and frazzled. Her heartstrings tugged anew, and her nurturing instincts flared. She ached to tell him Trinity would be fine. He had nothing to worry about.

Charlie planted his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Roan’s a cutting horse rancher and he owns a small spread halfway between Twilight and Jubilee, but he’s also an accomplished cowboy chef. Two years ago, he won a campfire cook-off competition on the Food Network and set the town buzzing.”

“Oh yeah.” Jazzy crinkled her nose. “I remember hearing something about a local man winning a national cooking challenge.”

“It was so sad.”

“Winning the competition?”

Charlie clicked his tongue. “No. While Roan was out of town competing, his wife scheduled a minor surgical procedure and she ended up dying on the operating table. A reaction to the anesthesia, I believe. Not at Twilight General though, thank heavens. She was in a Fort Worth hospital.”

“Oh my goodness, the poor man.” An icy chill passed through her and she rubbed her arms.

She studied Roan from across the room. His back was against the wooden shiplap wall, his muscular arms folded across his chest, a distracted furrow creased his brow. His Wranglers fit him like a second skin, showing off muscular thighs.

“Jazzy.” Charlie drew out her name. “What’s going on in that noodle of yours?”

“Nothing. Why?”

You’ve got that I-need-to-fix-somebody light in your eyes.”

“I do?”

Charlie nodded. “It’s the same look you got when we were fourteen and you tried to kiss me before I’d come out to you.”

Jazzy’s cheeks pinkened. “That was stupid of me. I didn’t understand. I thought you were cute and needed a girlfriend.”

“I know. And I realize you know there was nothing in me to ‘fix.’” He reached across the table and laid his hand on hers. “But remember, not everyone needs fixing and even if they do, you’re not in charge of the cure.”

“My fatal flaw.” She sighed. “Wishing everyone a safe and happy life.”

“Being ever ready to help is an endearing quality.” He chucked her under the chin. “But you can’t control other people.”

Yes, yes, she’d learned that lesson the hard way with Danny. Disconcerted, Jazzy slipped off the barstool.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll just be a sec.”

“Jazzy . . .”

Before she reached Roan, the bartender leaned over to hand him a white paper to-go bag branded with the golden Recovery Room logo.

Roan grabbed the sack and headed for the door.

Jazzy popped into his path, blocking his exit. “Hi!”

Roan stepped back, blinking like Rip Van Winkle. “Oh,” he said. “It’s you.”

She’d caught him off guard. She should have listened to Charlie and kept her butt parked on the barstool. “Hey.”

“Hello, Nurse Walker.”

His eyes were soft and kind, and she was glad she’d come over. “I noticed you standing over here by yourself.”

“Got a burger. The hospital cafeteria was already closed.”

“How’s Trinity?”

“She seems okay. I didn’t want to leave her, but my mom dropped by to check on us and insisted I take a break.”

“Smart mother.” Jazzy waved at Charlie, who motioned her back to their table. “Would you like to join me and my friend for a drink?”

“I appreciate the invite.” Roan shifted his weight and shook his head. “I don’t like leaving Trinity for too long.”

“Her grandmother is with her.”

“I better not but thank you for taking such good care of her.” He paused. “And me when I got light-headed after talking to Dr. Freeman. Sorry I was such a wimp.”

“Just doing my job, Mr. Sullivan, and you weren’t a wimp. You had a stressful morning. Normal reaction.”

“Please,” he said. “Call me Roan.”

“Only if you call me Jazzy.” What are you doing? Stop this.

“I’ve watched you with Trinity. I’m bowled over at how gentle you are with your patients. More so than the other nurses. Although, everyone’s been great. You’re just more.”

She heard gratitude in his voice and saw it in his chocolate brown eyes. This was the praise she lived for. The reason she’d become a nurse, to help sick children and their families.

Roan wore a red plaid shearling coat over a green Western-style shirt. He looked like Christmas itself. The smell of juicy cheeseburger wafted between them and when his eyes latched on to hers, it seemed everything around them halted and it was just the two of them in the bar.

Goose bumps sprang up on her arms, and her pulse kicked.

Roan was in his early thirties, at least ten years older than her own twenty-three years, and he possessed an air of steady responsibility she seldom found in men her own age. This cowboy knew his worth and made no excuses for who he was. Those qualities appealed to her. Jazzy liked him, this single dad who knew how to cook over a campfire.

Flirting isn’t an option. He’s the parent of your patient. Just don’t.

A patient on tomorrow’s discharged list. She had him alone. This was her chance to ask him out. How could she let the opportunity slip away?

“My friend tells me you’re a professional campfire cook.” She pointed toward Charlie with her thumb.

Charlie was still waving her back to the table, an exasperated but loving expression on his face that said, Leave that poor man alone, you hussy.

“That’s true,” Roan murmured.

“I’m sorry about your wife. That must have been so hard.”

“Small town folks love gossip.”

“I hate you had to go through that.” Jazzy was itching to touch his forearm as a gesture of comfort, but his stiff body language warned her off. Boundaries, Jasmine.

He shrugged. “It’s been two years since we lost Claire. Trinity and I are still getting used to being alone.”

“Your daughter seems happy and well-adjusted. She’s a bright little girl.”

Roan gave a rueful sigh. “I don’t think Trinity remembers her mother at all. Which is sad. I do the best I can to keep her mom’s memory alive. Tell my daughter stories, keep photos of her mom around, and show Trinity that I love and cherish her mother. I pray it’s enough.”

“Your love is enough,” Jazzy said, thinking about how she and her dad had formed an unbreakable bond after her mother, Crystal, had abandoned them. Her situation wasn’t the same as Trinity’s, but there was more than one way to lose a mother. “It must be challenging to raise a four-year-old on your own.”

“Oh, I’ve got lots of help,” he said. “Claire’s mom is a gem, and my mother and sister, Rio, are always ready to pitch in. Sure, we’ve had bumps in the road like any other family, but I consider myself a lucky man.”

“That’s a healthy attitude,” she said. “I’m glad you’re able to see things that way. Not everyone is so resilient.”

“Why thank you, Ms. Jazzy. I appreciate you saying so.” He moved as if to tip his cowboy hat, then looked embarrassed when he realized he wasn’t wearing one and dropped his hand. “I better be getting back.”

“Yes. Well . . .” Jazzy stuck out her hand. “Nice seeing you.”

He stared at her hand.

Ninny. Quickly, she retracted her palm at the same time he shifted the paper bag to his left arm and extended his right.

She rushed to take it, but in the meantime, he pulled back.

Their gazes met, and they laughed, and then they shared an awkward handshake. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” oozed from the jukebox.

“I have an extra ticket to the annual Twilight Christmas pageant,” Jazzy blurted. She’d bought the ticket for her mom, so they could do a mother-daughter thing, but Crystal had announced last minute she was spending Christmas in Aspen skiing with her new husband and couldn’t use the ticket. “I’d love for you to be my guest at the Christmas Eve performance.”

What in the heck are you doing? Shut up!

“Er . . . my family has plans for Christmas Eve.”

“Oh yes. Right.” Her laugh sounded ridiculously forced, and her stomach churned. “Of course, you already have plans. Forget I asked. It was a half-baked idea . . .”

“Did you ask me out because you feel sorry for me?”

“No, no,” she denied.

“It’s okay.” He shrugged again. “I’m used to it. Whenever women find out that I’m a widower with a young child, they pity me. It’s not a good feeling, but it is what it is.”

“I do apologize,” she said, uncertain how to respond.

“It’s not romantic,” he said. “And I’m not sure why women think a widowed dad is romantic.”

“I don’t think that.”

He cocked his head, his gaze drilling into her hard. “Thank you for the generous invitation, Ms. Walker. I’m so grateful to you for taking good care of my daughter. But I’m just not into pity dates. I hope you understand.”

“Good night, Mr. Sullivan.” She wriggled her fingers and hurried back to the table to find that Charlie had eaten all the nachos.

Her friend took one look at her chiding face and deadpanned, “Hey, you left me alone with a plate of all-the-way nachos, Lambchop. It’s your fault for trotting off and trying to fix a broken man.”

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