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Cowboy Crush

By:Liz Talley


CAL LINCOLN WAS damned tired of the four walls in the fancy travel trailer he’d lived out of all over the country for the past few years. What had always been his haven away from the grit, the chicks and the testosterone of rodeo felt more like itchy wool pajamas now. Which is why he’d carried his sad ass down to the Barbwire Grill for a stack of Freda Gonzales’s fluffy buttermilk hotcakes. He liked his cakes swimming in syrup and melted butter with a cup of coffee that could peel paint off the walls. The fact Willie Amos and his brother Jeb were raising hell at the cash register over a charge for extra bacon didn’t bother him at all. In fact, it was the most excitement he’d had in weeks.

Until she walked in.

The door opened, spilling in light, and there she stood, brown hair falling in waves around bared shoulders. Two-inch straps held up a halter top thing that hugged a pair of magnificent breasts...or a really good padded bra. But it was her lips that got him. They were coated in glossy lipstick that was a soft pink. Made a man think of dirty, dirty things.

“Uh, hello,” she said. Because everyone in the joint had stopped chewing, cussing and staring at their phones in order to feast their eyes on the cool drink of water framed in the doorway. Cal swore he could have heard a mouse fart.

“I’m looking for, uh, a Mr.—” she pulled a piece of paper out of a purse he happened to know cost the price of a lawn mower and squinted at the page “—Lowery. Anyone know Charlie Lowery?”

Freda glanced cautiously over to Cal. Then she lifted one shoulder. “Sure, I know him, but there ain’t one good reason anyone would want to find him.”

Cal took a sip of coffee, nodding at the truth. He no longer owed any loyalty to Charlie. If the man was in trouble, nothing Cal could do. That ship had sailed long ago.

The pretty lady allowed the swinging glass door with the words Barbwire Grill scrawled in—you guessed it—barbed wire to close behind her. The door bumped what looked to be a spectacular ass, pushing her forward. And that’s when Cal got a look at pretty legs nicely highlighted by a pair of shoes that had a wedge. She looked sexy as hell, though he guessed she’d been going for sophisticated casual with the shorts and top. She gave a confident smile. “I’m assuming by your tone Mr. Lowery’s a ne’er-do-well type?”

Freda glanced again at Cal. He didn’t move a muscle.

“I reckon that’s a good way to describe him,” Freda said.

Cal noted the Amos brothers’ eyes took on a particular gleam.

“Why you wantin’ ol’ Charlie for anyhow? Most people avoid him like they do cow shit. He ain’t exactly friendly,” Willie said, revealing his badly worn-down canines.

For the first time she looked wary. “I have an appointment with him.”

Her accent was definitely not Southern. And sure as hell wasn’t Texan. She sounded like some of those fillies who liked to frequent the rodeo arenas when they were vacationing in Vegas. Flashy jeans, too-white teeth and an upper-crust clipped tone. Of course, no matter the brand name on their jeans, they liked riding a cowboy just as well as the small-town Tammy Jos and Jolenes.

“An appointment?” Freda prodded, handing Willie his change with a no-nonsense glare. “For what?”

“Well, that’s really not the point,” the woman said, looking around the diner, which had thinned out once the sun had risen above the scraggly tree line. Coyote Creek wasn’t known for lushness. Her gaze glanced off him, but he saw the telltale flicker acknowledging his presence.

He knew he was a good-looking son of a gun. He’d known it ever since he’d caught his mama’s friends sneaking a peek when he came in from baseball practice. It was like being born rich. He used what he had to get ahead. He’d never had much but a good smile and tight ass. A kid, raised in a used single-wide trailer his daddy bought right before he ditched him and his mama, had to use what the Good Lord gave him to get by. So the dimples, the body made for sin and the aw-shucks charm were bread and butter for him.

But this woman didn’t flutter over him. She had too much poise for that.

And despite her obvious frustration with Charlie not being where he was supposed to be, she gave off a cool air, like she couldn’t be bothered with anyone in the dumpy two-horse town.

“What’s the point, then?” Cal asked, finally piping up. Least he could do since Charlie was a no-good drunk who stuck to things like spit sliding off a greased pig.

The woman settled her gaze back on him. “I’m sorry. Perhaps, I wasn’t clear. I’m trying to find the gentleman who was supposed to meet me at the town hall. I’ve been waiting since seven thirty this morning. I thought one of you might be willing to help me. Always heard Texans are friendly.”

A challenge.

Cal dropped his feet from where they’d been propped on the opposite booth. His old boots made a decisive slap. He ignored the twinge of pain in his ribs. “You heard right. We’re friendly. But when strangers amble in asking about one of ours, we sorta get suspicious-like.”

He wanted to laugh at himself for the affected good-ol’-boy verbiage, but he couldn’t help himself. Not only did she make him want to find out how good those slick lips tasted, but her horrified expression over the not-so-fancy diner and its salt of the earth patrons got his dander up. So they were hicks? Big deal. She didn’t have to look like she’d stumbled on a den of cockroaches.

Okay, so maybe that was his presumption. She hadn’t sniffed disdainfully or reached for hand sanitizer...yet.

She narrowed her eyes at him but then offered a nice smile. “I forgot my manners. Sorry. My name is Maggie Stanton. I’m here about the Triple J ranch. Technically, I’m the new owner.”

Freda dropped a plate of sausage on the floor.

Willie elbowed Jeb, then doubled over, honking like a goose.

Punch, Freda’s husband, turned from the setting of eggs he’d been scrambling on the grill and said, “Do what now?”

Cal wanted to join in the incredulous laughter, but the look on Maggie’s face prevented him. She had no clue what she’d said.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, looking confused. “Why is he laughing?”

Her gaze landed on Jeb, who looked as if he might collapse to the floor in a fit, so Cal stood and popped him a good one on the back.

“Ow,” he squealed, straightening and rubbing his shoulder.

Cal pushed on by Big Willie and Jeb and walked to Maggie, who clutched her leather bag so tightly her knuckles turned white. First hint of being unnerved.

“I’m Cal,” he said, sticking out the hand he could use fairly well. The dull throb in his opposite shoulder reminded him he still needed to pop the halved pain pill he carried in his front pocket.

She eyed his hand before setting her own in his. “Nice to meet you.”

Of course he knew it wasn’t really nice to meet him because she stood in a diner full of strangers who were laughing at her...or rather the idea she was the new owner of the dilapidated house and barn sitting on close to four hundred acres of hardscrabble.

“Why don’t you let me buy you a cup of coffee?” he asked, shelving the hick routine. She didn’t need that on top of the others’ reactions.

Her brow furrowed. “But I really need to—”

“Just sit a spell. Punch makes the best coffee this side of the Brazos.”

Punch lifted his flipper in salute and turned back to his grill. Freda watched with hawk eyes as Cal took Maggie’s elbow and escorted her over to the booth he’d vacated seconds ago. Willie and Jeb recovered enough to waddle toward the exit. The two truck drivers both turned back to their steak-and-egg platters. Show over.

Maggie sat down, placing her bag on the bench beside her and her sunglasses on the table. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

He motioned for Freda. “You want coffee?”

“I don’t drink coffee. Maybe some herbal tea?” she asked.

The face he made was answer enough.

“I’ll have a diet soda,” she said when Freda butted her rounded hips up to the table.

“Sure, we got that,” Freda said, eyeing Cal. She tapped on her order pad for a few seconds. “And you watch out for this one here. He’s got sweet words that’ll have you outta your drawers before you can blink.”

Maggie looked at Cal like he was a cottonmouth curled up on a rock.

Cal gave Freda his patented smile. “Don’t be scaring the little lady just because Punch won’t let you come play with me, querida.”

“If I did play with you, cowboy, you’d have no good reason for looking for any other fun. I have a big playground right here,” she said, smacking her large backside and laughing.

“Wait a sec, I’m here on business, not—” Maggie started.

“Relax, she’s just flirting with me. Did you see Willie and Jeb? Ain’t much to mess with around Coyote Creek.”

Maggie gave a lift of a delicious shoulder. “Okay, so can you give me some information about the Triple J, Mr....”

“Lincoln. Cal Lincoln.”

“As you can tell, I’m not from here.”

“No way,” he joked with a smile.

He saw her relax a little. “I’m from the Northeast actually. Uh, Philadelphia. This is my first time in Texas.”