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Lone Star Love





A collection of short stories.







An NTRWA publication.





Copyright


Lone Star Love Copyright 2018

North Texas Romance Writers of America

All rights reserved.


Individual stories are the express intellectual property of the author.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the authors' imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




Attributions


Proofreading provided by Gena Ellington and Jen FitzGerald.


Beta-reading/final proofreading provided by Jenn Caraballo.


Cover art created by Talina Perkins, Bookin’ It Designs.





The Authors


Clover Autrey

Linda Bolton

Tammy Jo Burns

Amanda Byrd

Christine Crocker

Gena Ellington

Jen FitzGerald

Fenley Grant

Eva Jameson

Risa Leigh

Gina Lee Nelson

Carolyn Rae





The Stories


Alone Malone by Clover Autrey

The Anniversary by Linda Bolton

The Winning Bid by Tammy Jo Burns

The Promise by Amanda Byrd

Trust by Amanda Byrd

Hope by Amanda Byrd

Girl Trouble by Christine Crocker

The Love Curse by Christine Crocker

Lies About Coffee by Gena Ellington

Mystery Marine by Gena Ellington

A Bid For Love by Jen FitzGerald

Warrior by Fenley Grant

Conquering His Elephants by Eva Jameson

Breakfast at Sweetie’s by Risa Leigh

Man of Steel by Gina Lee Nelson

A Hot Time in Dew Drop by Carolyn Rae





Alone Malone





By Clover Autrey







Dedication


To all the ordinary women:

May you know how beautiful you really are.






Alone Malone


“Don't you ever take your nose out of a book long enough to watch TV? He was interviewed on Howdy Day Texas for heaven’s sake.” Annabelle looked up at her from the salon chair, one side of her head covered in large curlers.

Malone sighed. She’d run into the beauty shop to nab coffee since her little machine at the bookstore next door had given up the ghost. She hadn’t come to get waylaid by gossip.

Clementine swiveled Annabelle’s chair around so she had to look at Malone through the mirror. “There was Ty Harrington right there on live television, telling Miss Thelma Laredo—”

“Oh I really like her,” Miss Wynona butted in from the next chair over. “You know she started out as a weathergirl on WBMC. Was a blonde back then. Wasn’t until she went brunette that she got to do the serious news.”

“You call Howdy Day Texas serious news?” Gertrude McCalihutty piped in from the other side of Miss Wynona.

Annabelle’s face scrunched so tight her eyes disappeared behind her heavily mascaraed lashes. “As I was tellin ya’ll, there sits Miss Thelma asking Ty all these questions about what’s next after winning back-to-back awards in his soap opera and that made-for-TV drama he did.”

“He was awful in that one.” Wynona clutched her purse tighter in her thin hands. “Scared me near out of my bones.”

“He was supposed to, Miss Wynona.” Mabel rolled a strand of the elderly woman’s silver-blued hair into a curler. “He was playing the bad guy.”

Malone had seen Ty in that. He’d been really good at playing bad, except she saw through to the unadulterated joy in his eyes at acting such a tortured villain. She had grinned through the entire movie.

“That’s no way for a properly bred young man to behave,” Wynona said. “His momma must be horrified.”

“You know his momma went to every screening, pleased as a sow passing gas.” Gertrude glared over the top of her reading glasses. “What I can’t get over is the way he let poor Drake take the blame for that insurance fraud so he could have Raven all to hisself. And we know that baby isn’t his.”

“They do know that’s Ty’s soap character?” Loulou, Malone’s best friend and caffeine supplier, muttered dryly as she sauntered over from putting Harley Jackson beneath the sole-working hair dryer.

“Can we please get back to me?” Annabelle drawled.

“Listen to Miss High-and-Mighty,” Wynona snapped.

Gertrude reached across the stations and used her magazine to slap Wynona’s arm. “Shush, this is going to be entertaining.”

Annabelle ignored them. “Well, Thelma Laredo asks Ty what new project is he excited to do and you know what he says?”

Malone watched her over the rim of her cup, trying not to seem interested.

“He says bold-as-brass, ‘This last project got me to thinking. Something’s been missing in my life, something important.”

Everyone in the beauty parlor seemed to hold a collective breath.

Noting she had an attentive audience, Annabelle drew it out. “I was leaning forward on my settee watching it all.” Annabelle clasped her hands together. “Ty looked straight into the camera, and I swear he was looking right at me. He says loud and clear, ‘I'm going back home to the girl I never should have left behind.’”

Everyone in the shop seemed to swoon. Malone vaguely wondered if Clementine had any smelling salts.

Mabel fanned herself. “That is the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”

Annabelle tapped her hands together lightly, careful of the still-drying nail polish. “I know.”

Annabelle getting the total beauty works when she should be at the Iced Tea festival down the street posing for pictures as last year’s Iced Tea Queen made sense now. Why shouldn't Annabelle believe Ty was coming back for her? Student body president and head cheerleader, homecoming king and queen, voted most likely to get hitched…only they didn't. Ty ran off to California and became a regular on the soap opera right after high school, never returning, not even once.

He even bought his momma a house and moved her to California.

“Why are we assuming he meant coming back to Dew Drop?” Malone asked.

Everyone turned and gaped at Malone, very unhappy gapings, giving off more heat than the humming hairdryer.

“I mean,” Malone hedged at the unpopular question. “He was in New York, finishing off that drama. He could have meant going back home to California.”

Annabelle uncrossed her legs beneath the salon cape. “Oh right, you tutored him. So you know all there is about him.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course he meant Dew Drop. This is where Ty Harrington’s roots are. What would you know about the romantic nature of first and forever loves, Alone Malone, who’d rather live life through a book than have any real interaction with real people? You’ve never even been on a date.”

She’d been on dates. Malone bristled at the stupid label she’d been saddled with through high school. And she didn’t intend to be alone forever, she just hadn’t found… Whatever. She was about to give Annabelle a what-for when Trudy Marie, Annabelle’s best friend, stormed into the beauty shop. “He's here, he's here, I can't believe it, he just showed up in the middle of the Iced Tea Festival.”

Annabelle flew out of her chair, squealing shriller than John-Henry’s latest batch of piglets. Trudy Marie joined in and they both began bouncing up and down.

“He can’t see me like this,” Annabelle screeched. Everyone else scurried to the front windows, noses pressed against the glass. Caught up in the excitement, Malone peered over Miss Wynona’s head, trying to get her own glimpse of Ty Harrington.

There he was, taller than most everybody, with that dark wavy hair, and up-to-no-good smile that could charm the rattle off a snake. He was marching between the vendor tables that lined Town Square for the festival, collecting people as he strode along.

Cameras flashed from reporters who had somehow converged on the scene, and also from everyone else in Dew Drop, who owned a cell phone. People were patting him on the back and shaking his hand like the homegrown celebrity he was. Cups of tea were pushed into his hands, which he sipped and sampled with nods of approval before returning each cup to the blushing owners. He sure knew how to charm a crowd, Malone had to give him that.

As he walked, Ty eagerly chatted and flashed his Hollywood white smile. He held a bouquet of white daisies.

Behind Malone, Annabelle was in a tizzy. “Hurry, hurry. He can’t see me like this. Get these curlers out.”

Clementine was furiously stripping rollers from Annabelle’s hair. Mabel was trying to comb some sense into the partially wet style, while Loulou had a blow dryer aimed at Annabelle’s fingernails.

“He's heading straight for us,” Miss Wynona informed.

“I’m not ready!” Annabelle screamed.

“Nope, he stopped,” Gertrude said. “He's looking around at all the shops. Wait a minute, he's heading towards the five-and-dime. Nope, he's coming this way. He’s coming up the steps to our sidewalk.”

Malone rocked a step back. Seeing him from afar was one thing, but she had no desire to see Ty’s reunion with Annabelle play out in front of her. Except she couldn’t take her eyes off him. Seeing him through the window was like watching him on TV, with a layer of unreality about it.

He still had that boyishness about him, and his easy manner was evident. She’d always envied that comfortable way he had with people. Even with her, he’d been kind when she had been horrifically nervous to tutor him, but Ty had made her feel at ease by cracking a few jokes and teasing her when she finally let that first grin slip.

He took the first step up onto the sidewalk in front of all the shops and all the women lining the window spooled out of the door, rushing to get outside and be part of the spectacle. Malone got dragged along in the spillage and ended up on the sidewalk outside of the beauty parlor.

The entire town seemed to be out on the street. Ty Harrington was the center of it all, standing handsome and broad-shouldered. Little butterflies fluttered around in Malone’s belly the same way they had every time she got near Ty when they set out to study. She would have thought she’d have outgrown the school girl crush a long time ago. He was, after all, way out of her league back then, even more so now.

His eyes skirted around the crowd. He must be looking for Annabelle who was getting ready like a mad woman to get beautiful for him even though she was already easily the most stunning woman in Dew Drop, Texas.

For a fraction of a second, Ty’s gaze landed on Malone. She quickly looked away and stepped sideways to hide behind Gertrude. When she thought he wasn't looking anymore, she peeked over the older woman’s shoulder and found that Ty had taken another step up to the sidewalk, and he was still staring in her direction.

The shop door swung open. Annabelle ran out of the beauty parlor, face flushed, glossy hair tamed into gentle curls, her makeup soft and demure.

“Hi,” Annabelle said. Long lashes lowered in faux shyness.

“Hi Annabelle,” Ty said. “It's nice to see you.”

The entire assemblage quieted, watching the reunion of the high school sweethearts. Malone inched backwards. She really didn't need to see this, but then again she kind of did, even though it hurt a little bit. Guys like Ty Harrington never went for the ordinary girls. Cameras flashed as photographers zoned in on Annabelle clasping her hands in front of herself, tilting her head at just the right angle, the epitome of southern gentility

“We all saw you on Howdy Day,” Annabelle said.

Ty scratched the back of his neck and shrugged. “Yeah, I kind of got caught up in the moment there.”

Malone smiled.

“So what you meant was just for the television?” Annabelle blinked, urging him on.

Ty glanced around at the crowd. “I meant what I said.” His gaze wandered again. “You look really nice, Annabelle. We’ll have to get together, grab a coffee or something.”

“Grab a coffee?” Annabelle spluttered.

Ty took the final step up to the sidewalk and strode forward. Miss Wynona and Gertrude McCalihutty parted like he was Moses and they were the Red Sea, leaving a bare space right in front of Malone.

Her heart slammed into her ribcage. She looked to either side of her.

Ty pressed the daisies towards her. “Hi Malone.”

“Hi,” she squeaked, a bit shocky as she tried to construct scenarios of what was going on.

Ty smiled a bit shyly. Okay, that was way out of character for him. Ty didn’t have a shy molecule in his body.

“Malone, I would like very much to—”

Whatever he said got lost in the pulse roaring in Malone’s ears. The still functioning part of her brain grabbed onto her default mechanisms. Fight or flight, baby. She darted back into the beauty parlor.

Footfalls clattered behind her on the linoleum floor. “Malone, wait, I want to talk to you.”

She shoved out of the back exit and ran down the alley. She looked over her shoulder to see Ty Harrington bang out of the door right behind her. Which made her all the more determined to get away. Oh no, sirree, he was not going to come back and embarrass her like this. What in the world was he thinking?

Malone took a corner and ran down the next back alley behind downtown businesses. Crap oh crap oh crap, there was nowhere to go. She ran past the Dairy Queen, past the diner, past the lawyer’s office. She had to get away from all those people gawking at her. This was not a game, this was not a publicity stunt, she did not need to be embarrassed like this. She skirted through the barriers that had been placed to block off the field behind the post office for festival parking.

She raced between cars across the weedy grasses and took a peek sideways. Ty was still on her tail.

“Malone, slow up. Come on.” He still had the flowers. Petals floated behind him, little puffs of white.

Half the town followed, clapping and applauding. “You run, girl,” she heard. “Go get her.”

Malone reached the chain-link fence and dug her toes in the links, climbing as fast as she could. Her flowy skirt snagged on one of the top cross links, but she let it tear.

“You owe me a new skirt, Ty Harrington,” she called. His laughter followed her as well as the chuckles of several others and she heard more than a few guys weighing in on the nice shape of her legs.

Her thighs were burning. But she knew where to go now, where no one would look, where no one would follow if she could just outpace them for a bit. The herd was already thinning. Most stopped at the fence. Malone crossed the next street and ran up the block where the business district gave way to residences. It was the shortcut she used to take home from school, going from backyard to backyard, climbing fences and opening gates between homes. None of the residents had minded any of the school children using their backyards for their routes because Dew Drop was that kind of town.

And there was that one special place that had been abandoned for as long as she’d been alive. The old Miller Homestead was one of the oldest buildings in town, long forgotten and overgrown and beautiful and romantic, a place for a young girl to daydream.

She hurried across the weed-choked yard, winded and running out of steam. Her side ached. It was too hot for this. She ran around the back of the house and up the wreck of wooden steps, grasping onto the old rail to pull herself up and into the old screen porch. She ducked down behind the lower wooden wall below the ripped and dirty screens and pulled her knees up to your chest as she heaved in long breaths. Let them try and find her here. She’d wait them out until the town moved on to whatever next silliness Ty Harrington led them to. She’d wait until the glory hound grew tired of trying to make a fool out of her and went back to have coffee with Annabelle.

“Hey.” Ty poked his head around the door.

Malone about jumped out of her skin.

“Why’d you take off like that?”

Malone pressed a palm against her heart as though pressure would calm it. “What are you doing chasing me around like that?”

He slid down beside her, back against the rotting wood. “Why did you bolt?”

Frowning, Malone twisted to peek out of the screen.

“Relax, slugger. No one’s out there.”

“Really?” She slunk back against the wall. “You didn’t wait for your paparazzi to catch up?”

“No. And I didn’t invite them here. They just showed up.”

“Sure.” Malone took a deep breath. “Ty, what are you doing here?”

“Didn’t you see my interview?”

“Hate to break it to you, but my world doesn’t revolve around you.”

She felt his humor, even without seeing the upward curl of his mouth in her peripheral vision.

“That complicates things. I guess I should have called first. I just thought…” He shook his head. “I didn’t think, just acted.”

“Sounds like you.”

He huffed out a small laugh. “I deserve that. Malone, would you please look at me?”

Damn him for using that tone. Wanting this, whatever this was, over with, she turned her head toward him, and immediately realized what a mistake that was. His eyes were serious and hopeful, as green as she’d remembered. The boy she’d once known was still there beneath the stronger, firmer lines and angles of the man.

He held out the bouquet, a little wilted from his run. “These are for you. You used to like daisies.”

Heart aching, she accepted them. “Ty, what are you doing?”

“I really wished you’d seen that interview.”

“I got the rundown of it.”

“Oh.” He nodded. “Good then.” He picked at a weed growing between the warped floorboards. “Then you know I came back for the girl I should never have left. For you, Malone. I was crazy about you, am crazy about you, I was just too afraid of what everyone would think and what was expected of me back in high school to do what I really wanted. Didn’t you know?”

“You were dating Annabelle.”

“No, I wasn’t. We went to homecoming because it was expected. I spent way more time with you, here, talking. I shared things with you I never shared with anybody.”

“I was your tutor.”

“I liked you, Malone. How did you not know this?”

“For starters, you never said anything.”

He plucked the weed out of the floor. “Yeah, not my smartest play. And then I left. I went out to follow my dream, and I love it, but lately… I want to settle down. I want to share my life with someone, and whenever I think about what that, who that… Whenever I’ve ever thought about it, you’re there, front and center.”

“You don't even know me to know if you like me.”

He tossed the weed and turned to look her straight on. “I know that your nose crinkles when you’re amused. I know you analyze every little thing before making a decision. I know you love action-packed movies and hate comedies. I know rainstorms remind you of playing miniature golf with your dad and that day it started pouring and everybody else left but you two. I know you're deathly afraid of lizards, yet think nothing about picking up a snake, and I know you doodle creatures when you’re bored.

“I don’t doodle.”

His brows shot up. He reached into his back pocket to retrieve his wallet and pulled out a folded slip of paper. “Are you saying you didn’t doodle this?” He unfolded it to reveal a little penciled sketch of an alien cat. Her handiwork was unmistakable.

Unexpected warmth swept through her entire body and down to her toes. She took the paper from his hands, her fingers grazing along his and the warmth burned sharper. “You kept this?”

“This isn't a game to me, Malone. It's not anything like that.” He leaned forward and kissed her. It wasn't a hard or possessive kiss. It was soft and sweet and maybe a little bit hesitant. It was the kind of kiss she always wanted from him and she pressed into it, kissing him back, letting all suspicions and reasoning go.

He pulled back just a fraction. “Does this mean you’re willing to take a chance with me?”

She rested her forehead on his chin. “Is this real, Ty?”

“It’s real, Malone.”

She looked up into his face, finding nothing but sincerity. He’d kept her alien cat in his wallet all this time. She nodded, afraid her voice was going to crack, which it did, but she said it anyway. “Let’s take that chance.”


The End





About Clover


“Clover Autrey’s books are perfect for the time-constrained reader. They are a quick read jam-packed with action, adventure and emotion.” …from a reader in Utah.


Clover writes the kind of stories she loves to read, high fantasy and time travels with Scottish Highlanders or magical mermen and shapeshifters, with powerful elements of romance, where the hero and heroine must each make sacrifices to gain something even stronger. She is the author of the HIGHLAND SORCERY series and the ANOINTED series.


Inspired by her love of Louis L'Amour historical romantic heroes, Clover (yeah, that's her real name), packed up and moved to Texas where she found a real live Texan of her own. She's been there ever since where she and Pat (who else would a Clover marry but a Patrick?) listen to the coyotes howl at the trains each evening.





The Anniversary





By Linda Bolton





The Anniversary


“Sean, it’s always a pleasure doing business with you. Same time next year?”

“Karl, ya have the best cows in the area, no matter what others say about ya.” Sean laughed at his joke as Karl pocketed the check for the ten head of cows just purchased. “We’ll pick them up tomorrow. The trailer’s getting serviced on the other side of town.”

“Where are you all staying tonight? You aren’t driving all the way back to Windswept today, are you?”

“No, we’ll find a hotel along the highway. It’s our anniversary. Twelve years, baby!” Sean was all grins, bragging about his landmark day.

“Congrats! You don’t hear that much anymore. You know, Dew Drop is having their Sweet Tea Festival. It’s only about an hour from here. Pretty nice little bed and breakfast, if you’re into that kind of thing.”

“Did I hear bed and breakfast?” Maggie rounded the corner, catching the tail-end of the conversation. “I’d like to go to a bed and breakfast. Where?”

Thanks, Karl. I guess that’s where we’re going. See ya tomorrow.” Karl looked down, hiding a grin, knowing Sean wasn’t pleased at his suggestion. “Come on, woman, let’s find this Dew Drop and get ya a bed and breakfast.” He swatted her on the ass. He may not be looking forward to a frilly place to sleep, but Maggie was. That’s what mattered.

“Ouch!” Maggie squealed as the thwat on her rear pushed her toward the truck.

The roomy cab of the GMC dually, zoomed down Interstate 20. Sean reached for Maggie’s hand, glancing at her profile, still in awe that she’d stayed with him all these years. Twelve years. Who’d have guessed that Maggie would have been interested in this ol’ country bumpkin, twenty years younger. And, twelve years later, still wanted to be with him. She was an amazing woman.

He really didn’t like frou-frou bed and breakfast places. He was content with Motel 6. It was just someplace to sleep. But Maggie loved the mint on the pillow, fresh baked snickerdoodle cookies waiting downstairs, and the homeiness of sitting in some stranger’s living room. It was their anniversary and it was the least he could do. Dew Drop was having some festival. That might make it worth it. They didn’t get out much with all the responsibilities of the ranch. He’d try not to complain much. It was only one night.

“Oh, Sean! There’s a billboard. Dew Drop Sweet Tea Festival. Bed and Breakfast at Washington Circle and Jefferson St.”

“I see it. We’ll exit here. See if they have room.” Sean smiled at Maggie. She was like a small child, bouncing in her seat and searching the area for clues to their location.

Following small road signs and a slew of traffic, Sean pulled up in front of a charming Victorian home.

“Oh, Sean, look how cute. I love the wrap-around porch. I hope they still have a room available.” Maggie rushed ahead.

Sean stopped to look around. The house was old but had been kept up. The garden bloomed with brightly colored flowers—red and yellow firewheels, white rock daisies, purple fall asters, and yellow primrose. His masculinity dropped a notch, knowing the names of the flora. Thanks, Mom. The trees in the front yard were old, tall and strong, giving off enough shade to cool the porch area. For a frou-frou place to sleep, it was livable.

He loved Maggie. She fit with him perfectly from the beginning. No other gal he met, in high school, during junior rodeo or after he rode the pros, wanted to settle down in Windswept, near his parents, and raise cows. They’d all longed for city life with excitement, bars and lots of shopping. Maggie had lived in big cities and she loved the quiet life. She never complained that they had to drive four hours for livestock, three hours for tractor repairs or two hours just to go to his favorite steak restaurant.


***


Maggie stepped into a time capsule. It was the 70’s, alive and well in Dew Drop. The foyer was small but led into the front living room where bright red and pink flowers flowing on a yellow background covered the walls. Heavy red velvet drapes covered the windows, keeping the cool air from escaping. The over-stuffed yellow sofa had three re-upholstered cushions in fabric similar to the other cushions, but just a tad different. It made Maggie think of her grandmother’s home in Wichita Falls.

“Hello, dear, can I help you?” Ms. Bea, offered Maggie a hand, then lead her to the kitchen. “Coffee?”

“Oh, yes please. Do you have a room for tonight or are you full?” Maggie sat at the chrome plated table with red vinyl and chrome chairs. They looked like they came straight from the diner of Grease. Maggie could just see Sandy, Rizzo and the girls smacking their gum and talking about boys. She smiled to herself, remembering how many times she’d seen that movie with her daughter through the years.

“Of course. Does this tall, handsome man belong to you?” Ms. Bea handed Maggie her coffee after she looked over her shoulder as Sean walked into the kitchen. “You can take room four at the top of the stairs. Things are busy around here with the festival. You should go out to the square, there’s all kinds of activities. There’s fireworks tonight too. Key is in the lock.” Ms. Bea turned suddenly and shooed a rather large orange cat out of the kitchen.

Maggie beamed at Sean. She loved cozy places and this place was cozy. “Let’s go take a look at our room.” She grabbed Sean’s hand and dragged him past the couple heading out the front door and around the fluffy orange cat that had just been in the kitchen. Maggie took a second look at the Garfield look-alike. She swore she could smell lasagna.

“Oh, Sean, it’s cozy.” Maggie turned to Sean to see his less-than-impressed face. Floral bedspreads and ruffled pillows weren’t his favorite. “At least we have a comfy bed.” She tried to entice him into liking a bit of frou-frou as she threw herself onto the bed, burying her face into the pillows and enjoying the thought of not having to make the bed in the morning.

“Let’s go see what’s happenin’ in town. I’m hungry,” was the best result she could hope for.

Despite their obvious differences in taste of decor, Maggie knew they were made for each other. They complemented each other. Where he was total country, she was a bit city to balance; where he was plain Jane, simple, she had a flare that he tolerated and sometimes liked. They lived in the country with the cows, but Maggie worked in town and enjoyed an occasional happy hour with co-workers or a trendy new outfit. Their home that Sean built was simple and understated with country charm, but Maggie added reds in the kitchen and purple accents in the bathroom to dress it up. Sean even seemed to like it once in a while. He did seem to enjoy the lingerie she’d been bringing home and that was a step in the right direction.

The town square was bustling with vendors and folks buying everything from the famous sweet tea to funnel cakes with powdered sugar dusting into the air. Maggie thought she saw a boy with chocolate syrup on his. That sounded like a snack she needed.

“Grab a seat for us, hun. I’ll get us some grub.” Sean trudged off in one direction while Maggie went the other in search of a table for them.

It wasn’t long before Sean returned, arms full of food and drink. Sweet tea, a turkey leg, two corndogs, tornado fries and a funnel cake with loads of chocolate syrup. The man could read her mind.

“Happy anniversary, Maggie. I love ya.” Sean toasted their Styrofoam cups, as he passed her a hunk of turkey meat.

“Happy anniversary, Sean. I love you, too.” Maggie was wistful, remembering how they met. Twelve years ago. How time had flown by.

Maggie had been in the midst of a messy divorce when she met Sean. She thought he’d be a good match for her daughter, both being twenty-five, but her daughter refused to date him. He was too country for her taste. Sean hadn’t dated much, being so busy with riding rodeo since his early teens, he was disappointed Claire didn’t want to go out with him. Maggie consoled him and, over the months, they became close. Maggie had never thought she’d be comfortable dating a man twenty years younger than her, but Sean had an old soul and never seemed that young.

Now, twelve years later, she would have never thought they would have lasted. Friends and family had had a hard time with their age difference, but they struggled to show everyone this relationship was right. He may not be overly romantic, but he was a good man. He rarely bought her flowers or made a big deal about their anniversary, but he held her hand and kissed her every day. He loved her, never seeming to regret their age difference, treating her with respect, never talking down to her or being abusive, and their sex life was amazing. She worked hard to stay in shape. Being twenty years older, she never wanted it to show. She knew she couldn’t turn back the clock, but she worked hard to keep up with him as much as she could. She worked just as hard on the ranch as he did and worked in town as well. She loved her life.

They watched the children play and townsfolk enjoy their festival. As the sun went down, they headed back to the bed and breakfast. The couple sat in the rocking chairs on the porch and watched the fireworks in the distance. Ms. Bea made her way out to the porch to watch the show as well.

“You two like some iced tea? Same recipe Dew Drop is famous for.” She had brought a tray with a pitcher and glasses out with her.

“Sure.” They both accepted the glasses. Fireworks burst in foreground, scaring the big orange cat into the corner of the porch under a small table.

“I just love this festival. Everyone enjoys themselves so much. Are you two having fun?” Ms. Bea sat on the bench next to them, sipping on her own glass of tea.

“It’s a nice festival.” Maggie squeezed Sean’s hand and smiled up at him.

“What brought you two to our little town? A chance to escape the city?”

“We were in Weatherford buying cattle. We’ll pick them up tomorrow. Oh, and we’re celebrating our twelfth anniversary together.” Sean squeezed Maggie’s hand again as she leaned her head to his shoulder.

“Oh, well, congratulations. I’m glad I gave you the room at the top of the stairs. It’s the only one with a queen-size bed.” Ms. Bea winked at Maggie and grinned. Maggie giggled and thought, this old lady has it going on.

“Speaking of, I think it’s time to head upstairs.” Sean stood and grinned to Maggie.

“Good night. See you in the morning.” Ms. Bea continued to relax on the porch, watching the crowd of folks head in various directions after the firework display.

As the bedroom door closed, Sean wrapped his arms around Maggie drawing her close. She looked up at him through her lashes as his lips crushed hers. Even after twelve years, he could still make her toes curl. He was the only one. Maggie’s ex-husband never put much effort into their physical relationship, or any other part of their relationship for that matter. From their very first kiss, she knew Sean was special. Her toes curled from day one.

“Too bad you don’t have your chaps in the truck.” Maggie grinned and raised an eyebrow to Sean as she patted him on his firm butt as he headed to the bed. Those chaps really accentuated his curves. She felt her heat rising just thinking about it.

“I don’t need no chaps. Come here, woman.” Sean reached for her, pulling her on top of him, kissing her soundly.


***


Sean had a fitful sleep, not being in his own bed. He liked his king-size pillow top. It allowed him to spread his limbs without pushing Maggie onto the floor. Last night, as he stretched, he felt something solid and realized Maggie was close to him. He woke up four times worrying he’d push her off. Maggie slept like the dead, so she had no clue and woke up refreshed and ready for her day.

“Morning, honey. What time are we heading back to Weatherford? I just need some coffee and I’m ready to go.” Maggie stretched and headed to the bathroom to take a quick shower and to brush her teeth.

Sean grunted and grabbed his clothes. It was going to be a long day, especially if Maggie was going to be chipper. He squeezed into the tiny bathroom to brush his teeth while she dried off on the plush floral bathmat. They bumped butts, elbows and Sean stepped on Maggie’s foot.

“Ouch. Isn’t this place so adorable?” Maggie glowed as her wet hair stood straight up. Her hand instinctively pushed the short strands in place.

“If ya like to be cramped.” Sean needed coffee and some space to erase some of his grumpiness.

“Oh, you’re just used to our place. This is so cozy.” Maggie pushed him out of the bathroom so she could finish getting ready.

“I’m going downstairs.” Sean headed toward the kitchen and the aroma of coffee and bacon. Mmm, bacon. He loved bacon. Maybe he would be less grumpy after breakfast.

Maggie headed toward the smell of food about fifteen minutes after Sean, where she found him with mounds of bacon in front of him, four fried eggs and a stack of hot cakes.

Sean. How much have you already eaten?” Maggie admonished him for falling off their healthy eating plan and stocking up on fats and carbs.

“I just started. I promise. Ms. Bea just put this down. Come help me. It’s real good.” He waved a strip of bacon at her, hoping to lure her in. “It’s a vacation day. Come on, live a little.”

She watched the bacon, looked at the hot cakes, and licked her lips. “Ok, hand me a plate. But back on plan for lunch.”

Sean grinned. He loved when he got his way. More often than not, he gave into Maggie and her whims. But today, the bacon was heavenly.

“So, where are you two from? Coffee?” Ms. Bea brought the pot with her and a mug for Maggie.

“Windswept. On the other side of Wichita Falls. Have a ranch there.” Sean shared between the bits of bacon he was savoring.

“Oh, isn’t that the town where they found that expensive art piece? Something about it being unfinished, I think.” Ms. Bea plopped down at the table with them, nibbling on a piece of bacon.

“Oh, yes. That was us. It was a sketch by Ethan Hawk, not the actor. We were his last project and he was unable to finish it. Who’d have thought it would be worth anything to anyone but us. It’s beautiful. Even half-finished it’s wonderful. He was so talented.” The last sentence squeaked out as a tear rolled down Maggie’s cheek as she remembered his smiling face. Sean patted her hand and gave her a napkin. She hated that she was so sentimental.

“That’s so fascinating. You’re regular celebrities. For Dew Drop. Hope you all have a safe trip back to Windswept. Come back anytime. You should bring your picture. I’d love to see it.” Ms. Bea got up, took her pot of coffee and checked to see if anyone on the porch needed a refill.

“Ready to head out?” Sean wiped his chin and hands, scooted from the table, and put his plate in the sink.

“Yeah, I think so.” Maggie drank the last of her coffee and handed her dish to Sean, who sat it on his.

As they headed back to Weatherford to pick up their cattle, Maggie thought about their meeting with Ethan. He was such a quirky little man, giggled a lot, but seemed very nice. She would have loved to have gotten to know him better. And the thought that their sketch, something they had wanted just for themselves, had become a world phenomenon, even unfinished.

“We’re here.” Sean announced, pulling into the parking lot and backing into his trailer.

“Oh, that was fast.” Maggie hadn’t realized she had been so deep in thought.

“Ya ok? Ya seem distracted. Everythin’ ok?” Sean’s brows knit together as he paused with one leg out the door.

“I’m fine. I was just thinking about Ethan.” Maggie smiled and patted him on the thigh. “Let’s go get our girls and get them home. I’m ready to sleep in my own bed.”

Sean walked around the truck and opened Maggie’s door to help her out. “Oh, I don’t know how much sleep you’ll get.”

Maggie giggled like a school girl as Sean swatted her on the ass.


The End





About Linda


Linda has been writing professionally since 2011. Her first two contemporary romance books, published by Master Koda Select Publishing, are currently out of print, but she’s working on updating them, as well as adding to the series. She’s also dipping her toes in paranormal romance and women’s fiction.

She spends her time between drinking coffee, a full-time job, no writing involved, working on her novels, and spending quality time with her family, including her two cats, Sammy and Sophia. They enjoy distracting her from her typing by laying on her keyboard for large amounts of attention. Any spare time left is for killing zombies with her granddaughter, Z, and their Nerf guns.





The Winning Bid





By Tammy Jo Burns







Dedication


This is for all the men and women

who have served our country,

and for those that awaited their return.





The Winning Bid


Brook Lyn Johnson stood on the stage listening to the auctioneer talk up the food in her picnic basket. I have to do this. It’s for the kids, she reminded herself. In fact, this picnic auction was the only part of the festival where the proceeds went to the school instead of the designated military charity. Besides, you’re the principal. You’ve faced down crying kindergarteners, hormonal teenagers, and hysterical teachers. You’ve got this. She looked out over the group of townspeople and tourists, swatted at a fly, and tried to ignore the sweat trickling down her back. Who thought having a festival in the middle of August in Texas was a good idea? she wondered.


“Who’ll start the bidding at twenty-five dollars?” the auctioneer asked.


“Clint, bid on her,” a woman prodded a man on the front row.


“Dang it, Sadie, I’m going to! She made my favorites! A hundred dollars!”


“I love you, Daddy!” Brook called to her father and blew him a kiss.


“Love you, too, Princess!” he called back, and the crowd chuckled.


Grateful that was over, she started to step off the stage when she heard, “One fifty!” from somewhere in the crowd. Her head whipped around so fast she was sure she’d have to be treated for whiplash.


“Two hundred!” her father yelled.


“Jed, don’t you want a night out with the guys? Brookie could feed your boys and you could spend a nice, quiet night at the bar,” Jason Everette goaded.


I swear as soon as I get off this stage I’m—


“That’s not a bad idea, Jason. Three!”


“Sweetie, would you be willin’ to clean my house and change my TV channels?” Old Man Ziegler asked.


“I suppose,” Brook replied, “but don’t you have a remote?”


“Lost it,” he replied with a toothless grin. “Three fifty!”


After that, it was an all-out bidding war—the widower versus the old bachelor. Brook wasn’t certain who she wanted to win. Surely dodging pinches from an eighty-year-old man was preferable to babysitting the five Davis boys that ranged in ages from six to twelve. The bidding had gone up in increments of ten and were now stalled at four hundred dollars with Jed winning. How had this happened? Brook wondered.


The auctioneer was slamming down the gavel when Mr. Ziegler yelled, “One thousand dollars!”


“Old man, you must be desperate!” Jason laughed like a hyena. Too bad he didn’t realize he was no longer in junior high. He evidently didn’t understand that was why no woman stayed around him for any length of time.


Resigned to her fate of running from Mr. Ziegler the rest of the night, Brook pasted a big smile on her face, squatted down to retrieve her basket, and heard, “Five thousand dollars!” Brook’s head snapped up, but she couldn’t tell who had placed the last bid. She was swamped by déjà vu. It was the strangest thing.


“Five thousand going once. Twice. Sold to the man in the back! Brook, where’d you like to meet him?” the auctioneer asked.


“The school playground,” she quickly answered. If something should happen, there were security cameras at strategic locations. They might be a small school, but they weren’t naïve.


“Sir, after you pay, you can meet Miss Johnson at the school playground. If you need directions just ask someone. Oh, and you best behave or the principal might put you in detention.” The auctioneer and townspeople roared at his joke while the tourists looked at each other in confusion, but chuckled anyway, not wanting to be left out. “Well, the rest of you bidders have a lot to live up to after that. Our next person up for bid is our local librarian…”


Brook tuned out the words as she left the stage and approached her four-door truck. She hit the remote start to cool it off.


“Brook!”


She turned and saw her dad jogging towards her. “Hey, Dad. Thanks for trying. I’ll make it up to you.”


“Oh, I’m not worried about that, but your mom’s worried about you. Want me to come with you?”


“I’ll be fine.”


“Sure?”


“Positive.”


“Got your phone?”


“Right here.” She patted her right hip pocket.


“You’re sure?”


“Positive. Now go and enjoy the rest of the auction. I’ll call you when I get home.”


“All right. Love you, Princess.” He dropped a kiss on her brow.


“Love you, too, Dad.” She walked the rest of the way to her chocolate brown truck. She unlocked it, opened the door, and climbed in. Brook plopped the basket onto the passenger seat, fastened her seatbelt, and drove the few blocks to the school, wondering who the anonymous bidder was. Why would he want to bid on me? She wasn’t ugly or anything like that, but she was a principal in a small town. When she wasn’t at school, she was at school activities, and when she wasn’t at school activities, she was home curled up with her cat and her e-reader, watching old movies. Who was interested in that?


***


Colt Brannigan stood beneath the shade of an old live oak and studied the woman sitting in one of the swings playing in the sand with her toes. Her tennis shoes and socks had been kicked off and tossed haphazardly in the grass. That was the Brook he knew and loved. Her dark brown curls were pulled back into a high ponytail. She wore a sleeveless button down cotton shirt with matching shorts, ever the professional. He took a moment, watched her, and let the memories swamp him.


This was the playground where he and Canyon, her brother, had become friends. Some kids had made fun of Canyon’s name and together the boys had taught them a lesson and become best friends. He and Brook were both named after where they were conceived, Grand Canyon, which was obvious to most people, and Brook Lyn, as in Brooklyn, New York. It still made Colt laugh a little.


She’d wanted to be part of their duo, but there just wasn’t any place in it for a girl five years their junior. Brook had always been there though, at every sporting event and anything else the boys had been involved in. Then there had been the time she had caught Colt doing something a little more than just necking with one of the cheerleaders. She had been crushed, disappointed, and angry. That was when he realized she had a crush on him. He had been a senior looking forward to joining the Marines, seeing far off lands, and having a little fun until he left, and Brook had only been an eighth grader. She ran home and didn’t speak to him for days, which was unusual for the chatterbox.


At the end of that week, he’d gone to meet Canyon at the park to practice hitting baseballs and had heard a scream come from the dugout. He raced over, not sure who he was going to find, but was pissed when he saw Jason Everette, a freshman, trying to do more with Brook than she wanted. He had been a good six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than the little jerk. Colt had threatened him with the police and his life, and gave him a black eye for good measure. Then he had held Brook as she cried and claimed to hate boys. Shortly after that, he and Canyon had graduated and enlisted with the Marines. They enjoyed their life until the accident some dozen years later. It had been over a year since that IED changed his world forever, and there wasn’t a day he didn’t think about his best friend and the promise he’d made him.


“Are you just going to stand there all day hiding behind a tree, or are you going to come and eat what you paid for?”


Colt looked around to see where that authoritative tone had come from. He heard it again and saw Brook looking towards him, squinting against the sun.


“Yes, I’m talking to you and don’t try anything funny. We have security cameras around here.”


“Well, it’s now or never,” Colt murmured to himself as he shoved off from the tree. “Wish me luck, Canyon. Semper fi, oorah!” He had a gangly gait as he walked across the expanse of grass. “There’s been some changes since I graduated. I like the dragon slide. Are we still burning the competition?”


“On the years we have good players.”


He could tell she still didn’t recognize him. He was thinner than last time she saw him almost three years ago. There were a lot more scars. Don’t forget the prosthetic. As if to remind him, he had a sudden phantom itch where his right foot should have been. That was the worst part, having an itch you could never scratch. No, the worst part’s the nightmares, at least I can’t remember the explosion. That’s a blessing, he thought morosely. As he drew closer, he saw her squinting. He smiled as he remembered she was forever breaking her sunglasses.


“How’d you break ‘em this time?”


“Pardon?” she asked, tilting her head in that cute way she had.


“Your sunglasses. How’d you break ‘em? One summer you ran over them with your car. Another pair fell off your face and into the path of the lawnmower. Then there were the ones that ended up at the bottom of the lake when we skipped school on Senior Skip Day to go fishing and took you with us. We stopped and got you a pair of identical ones on the way home so your parents wouldn’t know you weren’t at school, but they knew. They always knew,” he chuckled.


“Colt?”


“It’s me, Baby Cakes,” he said with a lopsided smile that pulled grotesquely at the scars on his face. Baby Cakes was his nickname for her. It had started out with affection when she was young, and as she grew older it had morphed into a source of irritation.


“It’s really you?”


“In the flesh. Well, most of me, anyway,” he said wryly, indicating the lower half of his right leg.


He watched her stand up and walk towards him. She still had legs that wouldn’t quit and even more womanly curves than the last time he’d seen her. Her grayish blue eyes sparkled in the sun. He couldn’t even remember when he stopped thinking of her as Canyon’s little sister. Yes, you do, it was—


“Or should I say Gunnery Sergeant Brannigan?”


“I’m retired.”


“What in hell do you think you’re doing here?” she asked, her voice vibrating with anger.


He looked at her in shock thinking surely he’d misheard, but no, that look on her face and the sparks in her eyes told him very clearly that she was angry.


“I’m representing the Wounded Warrior Project,” he said. “Mom called and told me what this year’s festival was supporting, and well, I decided it might be a good time to come home. So I asked—”


“And that little stunt back there?” she asked, pointing towards the town square. “They,” she said, referring to the townspeople, “are going to have a hay day with this. Oh, isn’t it sweet how Colt came back to take care of Canyon’s little sister?” she said mockingly.


“That isn’t at all what I meant to happen,” he denied. “I was trying to save you from Jason Everette’s little joke.”


“By bidding five thousand dollars?! Do you realize the whole town is back there talking about me now? I’m the principal of this school. I have a reputation to maintain and having a strange man come in and do something like that makes me look like a—”


Unable to take anymore, Colt closed the gap between them, gripped her upper arms, and leaned down to kiss her, cutting off her words. At first she was stiff under his lips, and then he felt her relax and lean against him. He tasted the salt of her tears. He felt her fight free of his loose grip, and then he felt a stinging slap. When he saw the shock on her face, he knew she was just as surprised as he was at what she’d done. He watched her spin and dash towards her truck. He tried to run after her, but instead almost fell flat on his face.


“Damn prosthetic,” he muttered. “Well, that didn’t go at all like I’d planned,” he said to the slight breeze. He almost thought he heard Canyon asking him if he’d really expected her to react any differently.


***


Brook drove on the old backroads for what seemed like forever. Sometimes she was crying so hard the view in front of her was a total blur. When the shock of seeing Colt had worn off, she was crushed with a plethora of memories. The men in uniforms showing up at the door that Sunday after church. As soon as the door had opened, she and her parents knew what had happened. Her brother’s adventure had come to a sad, and tragic, end. Her family had found out that nothing happens quickly in the military, so when she found out that Colt had been flown to a hospital in Germany with life-threatening injuries, she’d dug out her passport and booked a flight.


She knew her parents would be all right. They had each other. The military had arranged for Colt’s parents to get to Germany, but she had slept in airport after airport awaiting standby. When she arrived at the hospital, she had been ecstatic to hear he was awake and talking, even if he was in extreme pain. His parents told her he’d need multiple surgeries, but the doctors were hopeful he’d make it. She’d asked the physician if it’d be all right if she saw him. He had encouraged her to, but had said he needed to see if that was all right with his patient. Of course it will be, it’s me after all. He’ll want to see me. Canyon’s gone, but Colt and I have each other. But they didn’t. Because when the physician returned it was with an odd look on his face and he had firmly, but gently, told her his patient did not ever want to see her. He tried to explain it was the nature of the injury, that given time he would change his mind, but she quit listening as her heart crumbled within her chest.


In a state of shock, she had stumbled down the hall with his parents trying to get her to stay. He’ll change his mind, he’s just been through so much, his sweet mother had said. But Brook kept walking. She had flown halfway around the world to be with him, had left her students and teachers behind, and he had pushed her away. She had let herself cry all the way home, and then she had firmly refused to let herself cry for him again—until today. When she finally stopped the truck, she found herself at an overlook of the Brazos River that she, Canyon, and Colt had frequented. She put the truck in park, killed the engine, then beat her palms against the steering wheel and screamed her frustration, hurt, and anger.


Digging in the console, she retrieved a pair of flip-flops buried inside. She always kept a pair in here because they felt good after a long day at work. Brook slipped on the flip-flops and slid out of the truck. She retrieved a blanket from the toolbox, lowered the tailgate, and climbed into the back. She spread out the blanket, curled on her side, and watched the river cut a winding path through the land.


***


Something startled her awake. She slowly opened her swollen eyes to see concerned emerald eyes rimmed with coal-black lashes looking back at her. They were so familiar. She had dreamed of them for years, and then she had hated—


“Your parents were worried about you, but I let them know you were okay,” he said in his familiar but strange voice.


“Tha…” She paused and cleared her voice, husky from crying. “Thanks. How’d you know how to find me?”


“I may have been gone for over a decade, but I remember our special spot. Remember how we used to sit up here and make up stories about going up and down the Brazos?”


“Yes.”


“Canyon and I always threatened to try to go from Possum Kingdom Lake to the tip of Texas in a canoe.”


“And I always threatened to tell our parents and y’all would relent.”


“Yep.”


Silence reigned for several minutes and they just lay there, on their sides, studying one another.


Finally, Colt spoke, “I didn’t mean to upset you, to make you cry.”


“I know. I didn’t mean to slap you.”


“I know. You shocked me.”


“I shocked myself.”


“You must hate me.”


“I thought I did for a time, but I didn’t. Not even when you pushed me away. I just vowed to go on with my life. You have gray in your hair,” she observed.


“I’m surprised it isn’t completely white after all I’ve been through.”


“You didn’t have to go through it alone, and don’t say you had your parents, because that’s not what I mean, and you know it.”


Silence.


“I flew halfway across the world to be with you. I left my job to be by your side. I left my parents grieving for my brother to be with you. And what did you do? You turned me away. Don’t you realize a woman only does that because she loves the man she’s going to?”


“Yes,” he said softly, tears clogging his throat.


“Then why? Why did you push me away?”


“I wasn’t a whole man. Dammit, I lost a leg, and I don’t even sound or look the same.”


“And you thought I’d care?”


I cared!” he yelled, sitting up. “I cared,” he repeated softly. “I couldn’t let you see me weak. I couldn’t let you watch me die.”


“That wasn’t your choice.”


“I did what I thought was right at the time. I was wrong.”


“What?” she asked, sitting up as well.


“I was wrong,” he said again. “I made Canyon a promise a long time ago.”


“Which was?”


“If I made it out of there alive, I’d tell you how I felt about you.”


“And how is that?”


“Let me show you.” He reached in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He retrieved a paper that had been folded into fourths. Only it wasn’t a paper it was a picture of her at her Junior Prom, her date torn out of the picture. “When I saw this, I realized the woman you were turning into. I was so jealous. I spent days questioning your brother. It was like that with every function you attended. With every letter you wrote and e-mail you sent about your current boyfriend, I kept thinking, that should be me.”


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