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Either way, enjoy this enemies-to-lovers and grumpy sunshine romance!
Craving the Cowboy - Chapter One:
Dwayne Carver sat in the cab of his truck, taking an extra moment to prepare to get out for two reasons. One, it was mighty hot in Texas Hill Country this afternoon. Two, he’d have to smile and laugh and converse with people for the next few hours. For a man who spent most of his time with horses, dogs, and his parents, what he was about to do definitely required a second or two to gather his internal strength.
He exhaled and reached for the door handle. The heat hit him square in the chest, making his breath stick in his lungs. He’d been coming to the Peach Jamboree and the rodeo in Crawford for as long as he could remember. Born and raised in Grape Seed Falls, just a short fifteen minute drive from the county seat, Dwayne wouldn’t be Texan without attending at least one rodeo every summer.
As it was only June, Dwayne was getting his quota filled early. If only Mother Nature had gotten the memo that it was still early in the summer. He couldn’t even imagine what August would be like this year.
He pushed the weather from his mind as his boots drank up the dust during the long walk toward the festivities already in full swing. He usually stuffed himself full of biscuits and peach preserves, fried chicken and waffles, and more sweet tea than a person should be allowed to drink.
But not today.
Oh, no. Today, he was sitting in the dunk tank, determined to hold down his record of staying dry for the third summer in a row. A bit of pride swelled his chest, and he worked to squash it. His dad always said pride didn’t wear well on a man, and Dwayne couldn’t rid himself of the life lessons his parents had instilled in him.
“There you are.” Amelia Hardy approached, a round woman just a few years older than Dwayne.
“I’m not late, am I?” He didn’t wear a watch, but glanced up at the sky like the sun would confirm that he’d arrived on time.
“Our last participant went under so many times, he left early.” Amelia smoothed back her hair, the curly wisps of it making her seem a bit crazed.
“Well, I’m ready.” Dwayne glanced over her head to find the area in front of the dunk tank empty. No wonder Amelia was frazzled. Each throw cost a dollar and the church used the money they earned from the Jamboree to fund their music programs.
“You’re going in like that?” She scanned him from the tips of his cowboy boots to the silver cowboy hat on his head.
He grinned at her and pressed his right arm to his side as the tremors started to shake his fingers. “I’m not goin’ in.” He stepped past her, hoping his neurological disorder would quiet down. He prayed for it.
Just for a few hours, he thought. No tremors for a few hours, okay, Lord?
Dwayne climbed the ladder on the side of the dunk tank and balanced his boots on the narrow rail before sitting on the platform above the water. For a moment, he thought maybe he should pray someone would hit the button dead-on so he could cool off.
He swiped off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Ready,” he called to Amelia.
She picked up a megaphone and started calling for people to come “dunk the man who hasn’t gotten wet in three years!”
Only a few minutes passed before people started gathering around, their curious eyes all lasered on him. Dwayne worked to keep himself still. It wouldn’t do to show the crowd that he was nervous.
A boy no older than twelve paid for five baseballs, and Dwayne relaxed. He didn’t have anything to worry about with a kid. The boy threw the first ball and it didn’t even reach the dunk tank.
“C’mon!” Dwayne called good-naturedly. “You can get it here!”
Out of the five balls, only two made it anywhere near the tank, and that was only to bounce off the front of it.
A pack of cowboys came into view, and Dwayne’s chest seized. His cowboys hadn’t come. They hadn’t. Kurt had promised he’d—
The man leading them turned, and his trademark white cowboy hat testified that Kurt had fibbed. Because not only had he come, he’d brought all sixteen cowboys from the ranch with him. And they were all holding cash.
Dwayne called, “Nice try, boys. I’ve seen y’all throw ropes, and I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“We’re fixin’ to see you dripping wet,” Kurt called back, rotating his right shoulder as if stretching it out.
Dwayne scoffed, but a thread of nervousness pulled through him. He had seen Kurt throw a rope, and the man never missed. He wasn’t foreman at Grape Seed Ranch for no reason. His skills with a rope were the least of his qualifications, and Dwayne watched as he huddled up with the other men.
An order was clearly established, because Kurt stepped to the back of the line while the smallest cowboy—Austin—handed his money to Amelia. Dwayne couldn’t see the denomination from this distance, but Amelia held up the bill and proclaimed, “Ten baseballs for the handsome cowboy!”
She was married, but she looked and sounded absolutely gleeful at the amount.
Dwayne’s chest tightened. He couldn’t be dunked by one of his men. He’d never live it down, and every ranch function would become a constant ribbing of how he’d looked in soaking wet jeans and ruined cowboy boots.
He wasn’t going in. Not today. Not at the hand of a cowboy.
An hour passed while his cowboys tried to unseat him, as the crowd surrounding them grew and swelled. Laughter and catcalls and cheers filled the air, and still Dwayne stayed dry. The platform wobbled with the last of Kurt’s balls, which barely missed its mark.
“Awww,” the crowd moaned in tandem.
Dwayne grinned at his men. “Maybe next year, boys.” He inched toward the ladder, his back starting to ache, and his blasted right arm trembling no matter how hard he leaned into his palm on the wooden platform.
He’d signed up for a few hours, but he always got a break every so often.
“One more?” Amelia called, barely glancing over her shoulder.
Dwayne said, “Sure,” as he searched for the next person who thought they could dunk him when a herd of cowboys couldn’t.
The crowd stepped back and a woman met his eye. A tall, tan, raven-haired woman, who wore a black cowgirl hat with a red beaded hatband. With her long, jean-clad legs, the dark red cowgirl boots, and the canary-colored tank top, Dwayne had never seen such a heavenly vision.
His heart started pumping harder, and not because he was worried she could unseat him.
Who was she?
Dwayne had never seen her before, and he reasoned that he’d been out of the marriage market for a while. It was entirely possible that more females than he knew had moved to Grape Seed Falls in the past four years since he’d stopped dating.
He gripped the platform with all his fingers, watching her as her lips lifted into a smile. “You don’t think I can sink you, do you?”
Dwayne lifted his left shoulder a couple of inches. Might as well be honest. “Not really.”
She tossed the baseball from one hand to the other. Left to right. Right to left.
His elbow shook the tiniest bit, and he locked it. He didn’t want this woman to ever know about his time in the military, which had led to his traumatic brain injury, which had left him with this trembling in his right hand and arm.
At the same time, he wanted a lot more time to spend with her, and if he did that, he’d probably have to tell her about himself—including his time in the military, the explosion that had changed his life, and why his right hand shook at random times.
Like it was now.
“How many balls did you buy?” he asked.
“Just this one.” She gripped it in her right hand.
Just this one.
She was a confident little thing, and Dwayne’s admiration for her grew. Still, she couldn’t weigh more than one-twenty, soaking wet. And even that was generous.
“All right,” he drawled. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” He wanted her to throw already. Then he could get down for a few minutes. Get some of that sweet tea he loved so much. Get cooled off. Take some painkiller.
She planted her feet and cocked her arm. She threw, and Dwayne only had one second before he realized her aim was dead-on. One more second before the ball hit the button.
And then nothing before the platform disappeared beneath him. Cool water enveloped him, covering him from head to toe. His leather boots hit the bottom of the tank, and he came up sputtering, water dripping from the brim of his hat and soaking his jeans, polo, and boots.
Laughter and cheering met his ears, but Dwayne could only stare as disbelief and humiliation spread through him like poison. He met the woman’s eyes, and she ducked her dark cowgirl hat and disappeared into the mass of people.
* * *
On Monday morning, Felicity Lightburne woke with a buzz in her stomach that wasn’t exactly comfortable. She glanced around the still-unfamiliar bedroom, disliking the butter-yellow curtains as much now as she had when she’d moved in last week.
She sighed as she dragged her legs from under the bedspread and sat on the edge of the mattress. Felicity wasn’t bothered by the early hour. She was used to rising before the sun and being in the training ring with a horse by dawn.
She was used to sipping coffee in the dark, and smelling like dust and horse flesh, and showering in the afternoon just to get the layer of sweat and dirt off her skin.
But she didn’t want to go work at a ranch without her father. Didn’t want to work at a ranch that wasn’t her father’s.
“Couldn’t stay there,” she muttered to herself as she reached for the pair of jeans she’d worn yesterday. She could wear them again; all she’d done was wander around town and then attend the rodeo in Crawford. At least Grape Seed Falls and the other small Texas towns surrounding it possessed charm.
“Give me strength for this day,” she whispered as she moved into the kitchen. She set the coffee to brew, scraped her hair back into a ponytail, and ate a banana before leaving for the new ranch where she was starting her new job. Apparently, the owner needed to hire out the training of the horses as the ranch continued to grow and expand. He’d hired her over the phone, and he’d seemed nice enough. Impressed with her credentials. Relieved to have her.
But none of that relief entered her system as she set her car west and left the town proper of Grape Seed Falls behind. She kept her arm draped lazily across the steering wheel, as if this was just another day at work. Just another commute.
But it wasn’t.
Number one, she’d never commuted to work. She got up and walked out of the rambler where she’d grown up, crossed a few hundred yards, and entered the stables.
Number two, she’d never worked for anyone else. Her family’s cattle ranch sat just outside of Dallas, and she’d worked the land there and learned to train horses from the greatest trainer Texas had ever seen. Her dad.
His death punched her right in the face, making her eyes sting and her nose run. She hated the simultaneous hot-cold feeling, hated that all it took was a simple thought of his pale blue eyes and quick smile to make her breath catch and her chest feel hollow.
Felicity managed to master her emotions before she arrived at Grape Seed Ranch and turned down the drive. The homestead was handsome, with a beautiful yard surrounding the house. She parked by the biggest barn and got out of her car, wondering where to go next.
“Mornin’,” a man called, and Felicity turned, ready to pin her smile in place and make it through this day.
One day at a time, she coached herself. Her mom had told her that every day following Dad’s death. Felicity had tried to stay at the family ranch. She really had.
She turned, thinking this ranch already felt better. Freer. Like the air held oxygen instead of pure sadness.
“You must be Felicity.” The cowboy drew closer, and Felicity sucked in a breath when she recognized him.
He froze in the next nanosecond, obviously recognizing her too.
He was the cowboy she’d dunked with a single throw, after plenty of capable men hadn’t been able to get the job done. And by the dark look filling his face, he wasn’t happy to see her again.
Craving the Cowboy - Chapter Two:
“Yes, I’m Felicity Lightburne,” she managed to say. She stepped forward and extended her hand to him.
“I’m Dwayne Carver.” He took her hand, his fingers warm and wonderful against hers. He easily stood over six feet tall and sandy blond hair peeked out from under his cowboy hat. A different one from Friday night, Felicity noted.
“Sorry about the dunking,” she added as he pumped her hand. Sparks traveled up her arm and popped through her shoulders. He pulled his hand away quickly and stuffed it in his pocket.
“You ruined a three-year record, I’ll have you know.” He sounded grumpy about it, and his bright blue eyes crackled with lightning. “And my best pair of boots.”
She glanced at his footwear, which seemed just fine to her. “I played softball growing up.” She didn’t mention her father had coached her. It seemed like every thought in her mind contained the painful reminder of her dad, even here, miles and miles from where all the memories had been made.
“One ball.” He shook his head, the hint of a smile pulling at his strong mouth. A twitter started in her stomach, one that chirped of his handsomeness, his chiseled features, his strong arms, and legs, and spirit.
Felicity tamed her thoughts and adjusted her hat on her head, certain the morning sun wasn’t the only thing warming her. “So I was told I could board my horses here.”
Dwayne glanced at her car, his eyes stalling there as he took in the bright red muscle car. “You drive that?”
“It’s a mustang,” she said with a little shrug.
He chuckled. “A mustang. Right. So you didn’t bring ‘em with that.”
“No, my brother brought the horses when I moved here last week.”
“Last week,” he said softly. Then he perked up. “You’re boarding?”
She nodded, almost wilting with his proximity. “Yep, boarding.” Her voice scratched against her throat, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Let’s go get ‘em. You have a trailer?”
She met his eyes again, almost falling into their depths. Catching herself before she turned into pudding at this cowboy’s second-hand boots, she said, “No trailer. Can’t pull it with that.” She smiled at her car. It had been good to her over the years.
“No, I don’t suppose you can.” He grinned too, making him so good-looking, it should be a crime.
“Where you livin’?” He took slow steps away from the parking area, and she went with him.
“Out near the Hammond peach orchards?” Why she phrased it as a question, she wasn’t sure. “I’m renting a cottage on Bartlett Street.”
“Yeah, I know the area.” He cast her a quick smile and ducked his head. “So I’ll hook up my trailer and we’ll go get your horses. Then I can show you around the ranch and we can talk about what we need you to do here at Grape Seed.”
He obviously wasn’t the one who’d called and interviewed her. She’d remember his rich baritone voice, as it sent a bolt of heat straight through her. She needed to get a grip on her emotions before they stampeded her.
He’s just another cowboy, she told herself as she followed him toward a four-bay garage. He’d either find her too masculine for his taste, as most of the other men she’d dated had. Or he’d treat her as just one of the guys, overlooking her femininity completely. She preferred both of those to the men who seemed cowed by her, and at least he hadn’t done that.
She jumped in to help him hitch the trailer to the truck, and then she climbed into a new, nice vehicle. Black leather and the scent of oranges greeted her, and she realized that this ranch had a lot more money than the one she came from.
“All right,” he said in that sexy-sweet drawl of his. “So you must have your horses over at Levi’s.”
“Yeah,” she said. “How’d you know?”
“He’s the only operation with horse boarding.” He filled the seat next to her, his cologne like a siren’s call to her. She hadn’t come here to find a boyfriend. Hadn’t even thought about dating a man in a few years now. She’d just needed somewhere that wasn’t filled with memories of her father. Somewhere to find refuge from the storm her life had become without her dad in it.
But as Dwayne rumbled down the lane and then turned on the road and headed back to town, Felicity thought he might just be an added bonus to her move to Grape Seed Falls.
* * *
Say something, Dwayne told himself. Say something. Say something. Say something. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say to the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on.
Finally he came up with, “So what brings you to Grape Seed Falls?”
“This job,” she said, almost woodenly. He cut her a glance but didn’t know her at all and couldn’t tell if his question had annoyed her.
“My dad said you trained horses at a ranch near Dallas.” His curiosity had always gotten him in trouble, but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted to know everything about her, including how long she thought she’d be with the ranch.
“I did.” Another two-word answer. Anxiety attacked him, making his leg muscles tight and the tremor in his right hand more pronounced. He’d trembled the teensiest bit while they were shaking hands too, but he’d pulled away quickly and hid his hand in his pocket. Felicity hadn’t seemed to notice, something for which Dwayne was grateful.
“Who taught you how to train horses?”
“My dad.” She folded her arms over her stomach, and Dwayne took it as a hint to stop asking questions. He gripped the steering wheel with his right hand to keep his infirmity dormant. At least Levi’s farm was on the west side of town, same as the ranch, so the drive wouldn’t take long.
They arrived in record time, and Dwayne almost leapt from the truck before he flipped it into park. His anxiety couldn’t be caged sometimes, and at least he could release some of it into the wide sky above Levi’s stables.
“They’re down here.” She nodded toward the pastures that bordered the entire east side of the property. “I’ve come to ride them before.”
“Every day, I bet.” He stepped to her side, wishing he could position himself on her right, which was ridiculous really. He wasn’t going to hold her hand. But, if he did, he’d want to hold her right with his left so his tremors could stay secret for a while longer.
Might as well tell her, he thought. She’d find out soon enough. All the cowboys on the ranch knew, and he loved that he didn’t have to hide it from anyone out there. He was more self-conscious when he went into town, held his hand in a fist in the grocery store, and sat with his right side against the wall when attending church.
Before he could say anything, Felicity made tiny clicking sounds with her tongue, and two horses in the pasture lifted their heads and came toward her eagerly. They had similar markings for a pair of paint horses, though one boasted a darker shade of brown than the other. The smaller one arrived first, lifting her nose over the fence and accepting Felicity’s touch.
He watched the woman and felt her love for her horses permeate the air. She seemed crisp around the edges, but possessed softness too. His own smile melted across his face as he gazed at her. With a start, he realized he was staring—and turning into a marshmallow just watching this woman interact with her horses.
“So what are their names?” he asked, reaching out to stroke the second horse as it arrived.
“That’s Linus,” she said. “He’s getting old. This here’s his younger sister, Lucy.”
“Linus and Lucy,” Dwayne repeated, happiness slipping through him. “Funny.”
“The car is named Charlie Brown.”
Dwayne tipped his head back and laughed. “So you’re a real Peanuts fan.”
“My father loved the Peanuts.” Her demeanor changed as if a switch had been flipped, and Dwayne sensed the sadness in her.
“Loved?” he asked, unable to censor himself. “Does he like something different now?”
She shook her head, her throat working as she swallowed. She leaned forward and put her forehead against Lucy’s. “He—he’s—” She exhaled, a blush rushing into her face.
“It’s fine,” Dwayne said. “I’ll go find Levi.” He edged away from her, half-hoping she’d call him back. She didn’t, and he gave her the space he sensed she needed.
He found Levi in the tack room of the front barn, and Dwayne admired the newer equipment, the airy space, the clean floors. His tack rooms out at Grape Seed Ranch definitely needed an upgrade.
“Morning, Levi,” he said, causing the other man to turn.
“Dwayne.” Confusion crossed the other man’s face. “What brings you out here?”
“Felicity Lightburne has her horses here. We’re moving them to my ranch. It’s part of our agreement.”
“Oh, right.” Levi glanced out the window, but it didn’t face the direction of the pastures. “She mentioned she’d be starting there soon.”
“Today.” He ran his fingers over the stitching on a saddle hanging on the wall. “Heard anything about the auction in Austin?”
Levi paused in his work and nodded, a knowing glint in his eye. “Yeah, Clarion Champions will be there. Rumor is they’ll have six horses up for auction.”
Dwayne’s first love was horses, but Grape Seed Ranch was a cattle operation. He couldn’t do everything required to keep eighteen thousand head of cattle cared for and alive and train horses. Thus, the addition of Felicity to the staff.
But Dwayne hoped he could learn from her—and the fact that she was beautiful had nothing to do with his desire to stick to her side and take notes of everything she did. No, it did not.
“Probably be expensive,” Dwayne said, his thoughts spinning from Felicity to horses and back again.
Levi chuckled and went back to organizing his toolbox full of horseshoeing equipment. “No doubt. You gonna go see what they bring?”
“Definitely.” Both men laughed, and peace settled in Dwayne’s soul. Levi was just like him: A first son who’d taken over the family business, and they shared an unspoken friendship because of their choices.
He nodded out the window. “Looks like she’s ready to go.”
Dwayne leaned forward so he could see out the window too. Felicity passed in front of him, leading both horses with a set of reins. “Yeah, and I’m her ride.” He sighed like it was a terrible thing to be.
“And her boss, right?” Levi jostled some tools, creating a metal-on-metal sound that grated against Dwayne’s nerves. He could never be a farrier. Too many loud noises that sounded like explosions. Too much hot iron that reminded him of the scent of a bomb.
“She’s my new trainer, yes.” He reached up and pushed his hat lower on his head as if Levi would see the heat rising through his neck.
“She any good?”
“My father seemed to think so.” Dwayne turned to leave the tack room so Felicity wouldn’t wonder where he’d gone. “You can’t steal her from us.”
“I can try!” Levi called after him. “Especially if she’s good!”
Dwayne chuckled, but his determination was set. Felicity was his horse trainer, and he wouldn’t let her go without a fight. As he emerged into the bright sunlight, a thought struck him like lightning.
He was prepared to do almost anything to keep her at Grape Seed Ranch, and he hadn’t even seen her work with a horse yet.
Inhaling deeply, he told himself to pull back on the reins. Just because she was pretty didn’t mean she was interested in him. She clearly had something plaguing her, the same way he did.
He found himself offering a prayer on her behalf as he hurried over to the horse trailer and got it unlocked for her so she could load Linus and Lucy. They took some coaxing, but eventually she had them tied in and ready to roll.
“So.” Dwayne took a moment to adjust the air conditioning once he’d climbed into the cab of the truck. “Breakfast?”
She whipped her head toward him so fast, a flash of pain stole across her face. She rubbed her neck and squinted at him. “Breakfast?”
“My mom’ll have somethin’ at the homestead we can eat.” He flipped the truck into gear, cursing himself for making the meal sound like an invitation to dine with him alone. Wondering why the mistrust had entered Felicity’s expression so quickly. Clenching his right fist to keep his tremors dormant just a little longer.