Front Cover

Title Page

Copyright © 2016 by Carolyn Brown

Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Blake Morrow

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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Contents

Front Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

A Sneak Peek at What Happens in Texas

About the Author

Back Cover

Chapter 1

The rumbling noise of a motorcycle took Leah Brennan’s attention away from the produce in the Burnt Boot General Store. She pushed her cart up a few feet so she could see out the front window, expecting to see leather, chains, and shiny, black biker’s helmets on maybe half a dozen cycles after all that noise. It had sounded like part of the Hell’s Angels gang had come to town, so she was surprised when only one person removed his helmet and hung it on steer horns mounted on the front of the cycle. And she was even more surprised when a cowboy dismounted instead of a biker.

It was impolite to stare, but Leah couldn’t tear her eyes away from the newcomer, especially when Sawyer O’Donnell shot out from behind the checkout counter and rushed outside. Horses and four-wheelers on the streets of the little town weren’t unusual, but motorcycles were an altogether different matter, especially a big, tricked-out Harley with enough chrome on it to blind the angels. He met Sawyer in one of those fierce man hugs that involve a lot of slapping on the back and laughter.

She moved to a different vantage point so she could get a better look at the cowboy. His wavy, dark hair was wet with sweat and hung in ringlets to his shirt collar. He fetched a rubber band from the pocket of his tight jeans and whipped it back into a short, little ponytail. Green eyes sparkled beneath heavy brows, and a little soul patch of dark hair rested beneath lips that stretched out in a wide smile. A green-and-yellow plaid shirt hung open to reveal a damp, white T-shirt clinging to a perfect six-pack. He removed the overshirt and slung it over his shoulder, revealing a tat of longhorns on his right arm.

Her breath caught in her chest, and she forgot to exhale for several seconds. Her biggest fantasy, other than someday marrying Tanner Gallagher, was to ride on a cycle, holding on to a cowboy like the one talking to Sawyer O’Donnell. Neither one would ever happen, but it didn’t hurt to dream.

They wasted no time getting out of the hot July sun and into the cool store, and Sawyer motioned to her as soon as he shut the door. “Hey, Leah, come on up here and meet my cousin Rhett O’Donnell. He’s going to live on Fiddle Creek and help us out. We wanted him to join us last spring, but he had to fulfill another contract. But he’s here now and believe me, we can sure use him. Rhett, this is Leah Brennan.”

She pushed her cart to the checkout counter.

“Right pleased to meet you, ma’am.” Rhett smiled and held out a hand.

She put her hand in his and his deep-green eyes bored into hers. She felt as if he could see all the visions in her head and hear her unspoken thoughts. Two spots of high color filled her cheeks and hot little vibes danced around the room. She quickly pulled her hand away from his and latched tightly on to the cart handle.

She could almost hear the gossip flying about Rhett O’Donnell and his tricked-out motorcycle, but that cowboy was way, way too wild and exciting for Leah Brennan. She bit back a sigh as she said, “Welcome to Burnt Boot.”

“Leah is a teacher over at the school on River Bend Ranch,” Sawyer said.

“None of my teachers were ever so pretty,” Rhett drawled.

Sawyer chuckled. “No, they weren’t.”

“Thank you.” Leah smiled. “If you’ll charge these things to River Bend, Sawyer, I’d appreciate it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sawyer said.

It was easy to see that Sawyer and Rhett were cousins. They had the same angles in their faces, and they were the same height. Sawyer’s skin was the color of coffee with lots of pure cream and his eyes were brown, giving testimony that he had some Latino in his background. But while Rhett’s skin was as brown, it looked more like a deep tan from working out in the sun all summer.

Rhett’s green eyes were rimmed with dark eyelashes so thick that most women would commit homicide to have them. He’d better be able to run fast in those cowboy boots, because the women in Burnt Boot were probably already getting their jogging shoes out and cleaned up. A picture of her old, well-worn pink shoes with a white swoosh on the side came to mind. They were sitting beside the nightstand in her room. She’d worn them last Sunday when she went to the river to do some fishing.

Get ahold of yourself, Leah Brennan. Good God, girl! She scolded herself. You don’t get all woozy just lookin’ at a new cowboy in town.

She stole glances at that soul patch and the lip above it. What would it be like to kiss those lips? Or to wrap her arms around that broad chest with her breasts pressed against his back as she rode on the back of that cycle?

“That’s an interesting motorcycle. Did you ride from very far away?” Her voice sounded a bit hollow in her own ears, but his eyes were locked on hers again and it flat-out made her antsy.

“I personalized it.” He smiled. “I had a good long ride up across the state from down near Comfort, Texas. My sister and her husband are almost here too. They’re bringing my truck and all my belongings with them, including Dammit. That would be my dog, not a cussword. Do you ride?”

Leah shook her head. “No, never have ridden on one. Is that really your dog’s name?”

Rhett’s head bobbed up and down. “It really is his name. Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have the wind blowing past you at seventy or more miles per hour?”

Could he read her mind? Surely he couldn’t read minds. Holy Mother of God, what if he did and he knew what she was thinking when she looked at his lips?

“What makes you think that I ever even thought about riding?” she asked.

“The way you look at the cycle.”

“Well, it’s pretty unusual with those horns attached to the front.”

“Just lettin’ folks know that a cowboy rides that bike.” He chuckled.

Sawyer finished sacking her groceries and shoved a ticket across the counter for her to sign. “There’s a story about those horns, but he has to know you real well to tell you.”

She initialed the receipt and asked, “Would it be the same story as the one about the tat on his arm?”

One of Rhett’s eyelids slid shut in a slow, sexy wink. “It sure is, but it’s not a first-date story. It could be a third-date story.”

She was intrigued by the story, but she’d never see a third date with Rhett O’Donnell, because in order to get to that point, she’d have to have a first and second date. That would never happen no matter how many times he winked at her or how badly she wanted to ride the cycle or hear the story. Her grandmother hated motorcycles, and no one bucked up against Mavis Brennan.

Leah quickly changed the subject. “Dammit? Why would you give a dog such a name? Or is that a third-date story too?”

“No, it’s only a dog story.” Rhett smiled and the temperature in the store shot up several degrees. “I named him Lambert after Miranda Lambert, but I guess he didn’t like bein’ named after a girl, so he sat there like a knot on a log every time I called him. So I’d say, ‘Dammit, come here.’ And here he’d come runnin’ hell-bent for leather. So I gave up and called him Dammit.”

Leah reached to pick up two of the paper bags of groceries. “Smart dog. With a name like that, he sounds so mean that I bet all the other dogs leave him alone.”

“You are so right. Here, let me carry those out to your truck for you.” Rhett grabbed the two bags she had, and his fingertips brushed against her bare forearm. “They’re way too heavy for a cute little woman like you.”

Sawyer picked up the third bag. “What makes you think she drives a truck? Maybe she’s in a van or a car.”

“Leah is a truck kind of lady, and besides, there’s only one other vehicle in the lot besides your truck, Sawyer.” Rhett managed to open the door and stand to one side. “In the backseat or in the truck bed, ma’am?”

She had always imagined that Tanner’s touch would set her hormones to spinning like Rhett’s had just done. But she’d sure never thought a comment about what she drove would create a picture in her mind of making out in the backseat—or the bed—of her truck. Holy hell! Rhett had opened Pandora’s box and Leah had no idea how to handle it.

“Backseat is fine, and thank you,” she mumbled.

“Anytime. I understand there will be days I’ll be helping out in the store and at the bar, so maybe I’ll see you in one or either place this summer,” he said.

She nodded. “Burnt Boot is a small town. I’m sure our paths will cross.”

Rhett held the truck door open for her until she was settled into the driver’s seat, and then he slammed it shut. She started the engine but sat there for a few minutes watching them go back inside the store. She took one more long, envious look at that motorcycle before she pulled out onto the road and headed toward River Bend Ranch. The air conditioner shot semi-cold air right into her face. It would cool down more as she drove down the paved road to the dirt one that turned in to the River Bend Ranch properties, but it wouldn’t do a thing for the heat inside her body.

She slapped the steering wheel and inhaled deeply once she was out on the road. If she’d been a swearing woman, she would have turned loose every bad word in the dictionary. But Leah Brennan knew how to control her tongue and her thoughts. At least, she had until right at that moment.

“Dammit!” she said so loud that it bounced around in the truck and shot right back into her ears. “Damn cowboy has got me cussin’ and I don’t use that kind of language.”

* * *

“She’s one of the Brennans. I told you about the feud,” Sawyer said.

“Yep.” Rhett nodded. “But I expected old people with shotguns and chaws of tobacco in their mouths, not knock-your-socks-off drop-dead-gorgeous women.”

“Speakin’ of which.” Sawyer pointed.

“What?”

“More Brennans.” Sawyer nodded toward another truck pulling up in front of the store. “I can give you directions to the bunkhouse if you want to get on down there. Jill is waiting on y’all. She’s making one of her famous desserts.”

“Hell no!” Rhett grinned. “I’m not going anywhere. Store closes in fifteen minutes and you can lead the way to the bunkhouse.”

“And, besides, you do like to meet the pretty women, right?”

A burst of hot air followed two women into the general store. A tall, willowy blond with brown eyes stopped in her tracks not four feet from Rhett and slowly looked him up and down.

“You don’t look like a biker,” she said.

“Rhett, meet Kinsey and Honey Brennan,” Sawyer said, introducing them.

“Pleased to meet you both,” Rhett said. “Sisters?”

Honey, the dark-haired one with crystal-clear blue eyes shook her head. “Cousins.”

“Kin to Leah, then?” Rhett asked.

Kinsey took a step forward, and he got a whiff of expensive perfume. With those velvety eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips that didn’t ask but demanded a man to kiss her, she might have been considered downright sexy in some men’s eyes. Not Rhett’s. He’d seen her kind at rodeos—their eyes always scanning for a cowboy looking for a good time.

“So you’ve met Leah?” Kinsey asked in a low, husky voice.

“There’s lots of us Brennans over on River Bend.” Honey smiled. “Would you like to come to Sunday dinner and meet all of us?”

Her dark hair floated down to her shoulders in big waves that begged a man to run his fingers through it. Eyes the color of a Texas summer sun floated behind black lashes and perfectly arched eyebrows. She wore a cute little sundress that hugged her curves, but both women made Rhett feel like they were studying a prize bull at an auction. In another place, like a rodeo, where they’d fit right in with the buckle bunnies, he might have been interested, but not in Burnt Boot.

“Well?” Honey asked.

“Not this week,” Rhett said. “But thanks for the invitation.”

Sawyer pointed at the clock above the register. “Ten minutes and we’ll have to close, ladies. Y’all might want to get what you need so we can ring it up.”

Kinsey ignored him and looked at Rhett. “Are you here for a visit? We heard that you were coming to help Gladys and Sawyer, but no one could tell us how long you’re staying.”

Rhett propped a hip on the checkout counter. “I’m here for good or until Sawyer kicks me off Fiddle Creek.”

Sawyer fixed his stare on the clock.

Honey’s eyes kept running up and down Rhett’s body from boots to ponytail. “It’s hot enough to make a woman want to go skinny-dippin’ in the Red River. You want to join me to cool off?”

Kinsey laid two candy bars and a couple cans of soda pop on the counter. “Don’t give us the old stink eye, Sawyer. I know it’s closing time and we won’t be but a minute. We came in for an afternoon treat. Charge these to River Bend.” Kinsey winked at Rhett. “FYI, darlin’, River Bend is the Brennan ranch. I’ll see you tonight, cowboy. You could be nice and save me a dance.”

“I’ll be the one behind the bar drawin’ beer and makin’ margaritas. Don’t reckon I’ll have time for dancin’,” he said.

“I’ll be the one wantin’ a pitcher of those margaritas,” Honey said. “If you asked real nice, I might let you take me home on that cycle out there, Rhett O’Donnell.”

“How do you know that’s my cycle?” he asked.

A throaty chuckle caused Rhett to shift his attention from Honey to Kinsey. Kinsey had a hand on a hip, a pose that should have made him drool and follow her around like a little hound dog puppy. “Everybody in town knew you were arriving today. But we didn’t know you’d be so delicious. I’ve never ridden on a cycle with horns on the handlebar. It’s a nice cowboy touch.”

“I’ll be driving my truck tonight, and I’ll be going home all by myself when the bar closes,” Rhett drawled.

“Oh, Kinsey, he’s going to play hard to get. I do like a good chase,” Honey said.

Kinsey slung a hip against her cousin. “I’ll bet you a hundred dollars I can outrun you and get a ride on that cycle first.”

“I’m standing right here, and I’ll bet you both a hundred dollars that neither of you are going to ride on my cycle,” Rhett said.

Honey reached up and touched the soul patch. “I do like a little facial hair, and that is so sexy. The Sadie Hawkins Festival is only two weeks away. If you’re going to outrun me, darlin’, you’d best start walkin’ outside in your bare feet.”

“Why would I do that?” Rhett asked.

“Because you’ll want to toughen up those feet so that you can run faster through the grass and stickers when we are chasin’ you…unless of course, you want to just sit down and let me catch you in the first two minutes of the race.”

“And do the ladies run barefoot too?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” Kinsey said. “And we’re already getting our feet ready for the race.”

Kinsey picked up the brown paper bag with the soda pop and candy bars and motioned for Honey to follow her. They almost made it to the door when it opened wide and a redheaded woman with emerald-green eyes was right in front of them. Kinsey’s nose curled and Honey rolled her eyes at the sight of the lady coming into the store.

Betsy moved from her place under the air-conditioning vent to stand so close to Kinsey that their shoulders almost touched. Kinsey moved away from her and held her nose.

“Are you another Brennan?” Rhett asked.

“Bite your tongue, cowboy. I’m a Gallagher. Don’t you know you’re in cowboy country? We ride horses and four-wheelers, not motorcycles. That’s not cowboy, even if you do glue horns on the front of it,” the woman answered.

Kinsey rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed.

“What scorpion crawled up your prissy ass this morning, Kinsey Brennan?” Betsy asked.

“You smell like shit and don’t look much better, Betsy Gallagher,” Kinsey growled.

“Shit smells better than that perfume you took a bath in this morning.”

“Ladies, remember where you are,” Sawyer warned them. “You want to fight and argue, take it out in the middle of the road. Better hurry up and grab what you came in for, Betsy, because closing time is in five minutes,” Sawyer said.

“What the hell is that out there?” Betsy pointed. “Is it a motorcycle or a bionic steer?”

Her jeans and boots testified that she’d been working in the hay fields all day. Sweat rimmed the misshapen straw hat shoved down on her red hair, and her knit shirt and tight jeans hugged her curvy body.

“Four minutes now,” Sawyer said.

“Don’t get your undershorts in a wad, Sawyer. I’m not here to buy anything. I stopped by to see what all the fuss is about. I see Honey and Kinsey did the same thing.”

“What fuss?” Sawyer asked.

“This wild biker right here.” Betsy’s eyes did a sweeping scan of Rhett. “I do like the ponytail and the soul patch, and the tat is real nice.” She traced it with her forefinger.

“Oh really?” Rhett grinned.

She was kind of cute, but she was another feuding woman. Too damn bad Leah had to be thrown in the basket with the likes of these hussies. Of all of them, she would have been his choice to get to know better.

Betsy gave him the once-over. “That’s right. I happen to like trouble, so I came to see for myself. I think you might be a handful of fun.”

“Three.” Sawyer pointed toward the clock.

Betsy moved toward the door, brushing past Rhett. “I heard that you’ll be working at the bar. See you there tonight. And leave that cycle at home. I like a truck bed to play around in under the moon and stars.”

Kinsey smiled at Rhett. “You’ll have to overlook Betsy. She’s a Gallagher, and they are a coarse lot. They can’t help it. All those people over at Wild Horse come from moonshiners and probably outlaws.”

“And the Brennans”—Rhett raised an eyebrow—“what do they come from?”

“Preachers and God-fearin’ folks,” Honey said.

“That’s interesting. Halos and horns both right here in a tiny little town like Burnt Boot,” Rhett said.

“You got it.” Kinsey nodded. “We’d best get on out to River Bend. Granny will be throwing a fit if we’re late to supper. Don’t suppose you’d want to join us for a good, hot meal tonight, would you, Rhett?”

“Not tonight. My sister and her husband will be along in a few minutes with the rest of my things.”

Honey headed toward the door. “Will we meet them tonight at the bar?”

Rhett shook his head. “No, they’re going to drop my truck and keep going.”

“Too bad. I always like to meet the family,” Honey said.

Sawyer followed them to the door and locked it behind them. “Well, now you’ve been formally welcomed to Burnt Boot. If I was you, I’d steer away from both of those families. They mean trouble and I mean serious shit, not little, piddlin’ crap.”

“I thought the two families lived in neighboring towns, not on neighboring ranches.”

“River Bend and Wild Horse are ranches, but they’re both bigger than the whole area that Burnt Boot takes up. Their feud might die down, but it’s never ending. Everyone’s been so busy with hay crops and getting summer ranchin’ done that it’s been fairly quiet in town. At least until now,” Sawyer said.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Rhett asked.

“New tomcat in town. They are already checking you out. So on first impression, are you going to change your name to Gallagher or to Brennan by Christmastime?” Sawyer teased.

Rhett put up both palms. “I’m an O’Donnell. Born one and plan to die one. None of those hussies appealed to me. Betsy didn’t like my cycle. Honey and Kinsey were far too savage for my blood. The only one that caught my eye was Leah. Now that one, with those light green eyes and sweet disposition, that one I could go for.”

Three lovely women, very different in size and looks, pretty equal in their come-on power, and he didn’t feel the desire for a quick romp in the sheets with any of them. Hell, he didn’t even want to flirt with any of them, only Leah Brennan. That was not like an O’Donnell, especially Rhett, who had a definite way with the women.

Sawyer turned out the lights and headed toward the door. “Leah is the quiet one, and you know what they say about them.”

“Oh, yeah, that underneath there is a tiger waiting if some old cowboy is man enough to unleash it,” Rhett said, following him. “I’m starving. Take me home and feed me some of Jill’s good food before we have to go to the bar.”

“Jill can’t cook.”

“Well, shit. What are we having?”

“I made lasagna and she’s heating it up. But believe me, you won’t be disappointed in her abilities. Her baking is to die for. She can make cookies, cakes, and pies that taste better than Granny O’Donnell’s, but don’t tell Granny I said that.” Sawyer turned off the lights and unlocked the door. “Follow me. I’ll go slow so the dust don’t blow back too bad.”

“If she’s that good at baking, why don’t you tell her it’s good as Granny’s?” Rhett asked while Sawyer locked up.

“Keeps her trying.” He laughed.

Rhett’s sister, Katie, driving his truck, and his brother-in-law, Danny, pulling an empty cattle trailer, drove into the lot as Rhett climbed onto his cycle. “We’re all following Sawyer down to the bunkhouse. Just pull in behind us. I understand Jill has supper ready.”

Katie nodded and fell in behind the cycle. When they got to the bunkhouse, she parked beside Sawyer and bailed out of the truck before either of her relatives could open the door for her. She stretched and rolled her neck from side to side. “That was one long ride in a truck all by myself. I’ll be glad to get in with Danny. I wish I’d have had Dammit in the truck with me to have someone to talk to.”

Sawyer threw an arm around his cousin. “Welcome to Fiddle Creek, Katie. Supper is ready, so you can take time to eat with us and work out a few of the kinks before you get on up the road to Oklahoma City.”

The hot summer wind blew her long, blond hair into her face. She tucked it behind her ears and said, “That sounds good. I’m hungry and Danny has called every thirty seconds for the last forty miles wanting to know if there was a McDonald’s in Burnt Boot. I told him I’d rather eat at Olive Garden and almost had him convinced there was one here until he drove into town and saw all there is, is a school, a beer joint, and a general store.”

“You are just plain mean,” Sawyer said.

“Yes, she is. My mouth was watering for Italian food and she treats me like this. I think it might be time for the broom and the pen,” Danny said. He wasn’t any taller than Katie and had a round baby face and clear blue eyes.

Jill opened the door to welcome them inside the bunkhouse where she and Sawyer lived. “Broom and pen?”

“He’s being a smart-ass,” Katie said.

“I’m only returning your words back to you,” Danny told her.

“And?”

Rhett hugged Jill. “She told him at the beginning of their relationship that if she caught him cheatin’, she’d get out the broom and pen. She’ll beat him all the way to the courthouse with the broom and then hand him a pen to sign the divorce papers.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Jill said. “But what’s driving for hours got to do with cheating?”

Danny hung his hat on the rack inside the door and sniffed the air. “The way she had my mouth watering for Italian food and then I find out that Burnt Boot doesn’t even have a burger joint is worse than cheating. But I swear I do smell oregano and chocolate.”

Jill nodded. “Sawyer made a huge lasagna last night, and I made desserts this afternoon—tiramisu, brownies, and chocolate pie.”

Danny smiled at Katie. “You’ve been saved from the broom and pen, woman.”

Jill tucked her arm in Rhett’s and led him to the kitchen. “So I hear you’ve already met some of the Brennan women and Betsy Gallagher.”

“I did, but it was only five minutes ago,” Rhett said.

“Honey called Mavis and told her that you were at the store. Mavis called Aunt Gladys, and she called me. Gossip travels fast in a small town. You going to hop the fence to the River Bend or the one to the Wild Horse?” Jill asked.

“Jump the fence?” Rhett asked.

“Fiddle Creek separates the two ranches. Wild Horse is on one side of us and River Bend is on the other. All you’ve got to do is climb over a barbed wire fence and you can be on either side of the feud,” Jill explained.

“I’m not going anywhere, but I might get Leah to jump the fence to Fiddle Creek.” He smiled.

“Aha, so it’s Leah, the quiet one, that’s took your fancy. Too bad, darlin’. She’s had her eye on Tanner Gallagher for years.”

“Mavis Brennan would string her up and see her die before she’d let her marry a Gallagher,” Sawyer said.

“The heart will have what the heart wants,” Jill said. “Now come on into the kitchen and let’s eat. I know y’all want to make Oklahoma City by night, so we can visit while we have supper.”

* * *

The Burnt Boot Bar and Grill was not exactly what Rhett expected. The parking lot was gravel, or at least it had been at one time. Now it was thinly distributed gravel on top of dirt with only one streetlamp to illuminate the whole place. The building was weathered wood that didn’t look as if it had ever seen a drop of paint applied. Hell, it might have even been petrified, as old as that sign swinging above the entrance. The roof was rusty sheet metal, and the only window in the place was the one in the door.

“Not what you thought it would be?” Sawyer asked when Rhett got out of his truck.

“Looks more like a barn than a bar,” he said.

“The inside is better—air-conditioning, jukebox, and even paint on the walls.” Jill laughed.

“I like the air-conditioned part best of all.” Rhett followed them inside.

The bar itself was only eight stools long and had a small area for grilling burgers and making fries behind it. There were no pool tables, which surprised Rhett. But not as much as the shelves holding loaves of bread, hot dog and hamburger buns, and a small assortment of prepackaged pastries, or the refrigerated section beside that, with milk, beer, wine, and soda pop behind sliding glass doors. The other end of the long, rectangular room sported a jukebox, a few mismatched tables with chairs around them, and a small area for dancing.

“After the store closes in the evening, folks can get milk and bread or beer in here,” Sawyer answered the unasked question.

“And I thought Comfort was a small town. I’m not sure this qualifies as a town.” Rhett chuckled.

Sawyer clamped a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll get used to it. Besides, you know what Grandpa says: To be a town, the place has to have a church and a place to buy beer or get a shot of whiskey. So by the O’Donnell qualifications, Burnt Boot passes the test.”

At nine o’clock, he’d filled a few pitchers of beer for folks who’d drifted in and out, and Sawyer had shown him the process of making burger baskets. Sparks danced around Jill and Sawyer every time they brushed against each other. It damn sure didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that their honeymoon wasn’t over.

Two lonesome old cowboys sat in a back corner drinking beer and telling tall tales. The jukebox had gone quiet and Rhett had wiped down the bar so often that it was shiny clean. If every night was like that, he’d have to bring some rope to make a bridle or something to keep himself from dying of complete boredom.

“Why don’t y’all go on home? I can handle it for the next couple of hours,” Rhett said.

“If you’re sure, we won’t argue.” Jill removed her apron and hung it on a nail.

Sawyer didn’t waste a bit of time hanging his apron right beside hers. “We damn sure won’t. Can’t remember the last time we got to go home before midnight. Sweep up and put the chairs on the tables. We don’t do mopping unless there’s major spills. Here’s the keys. Be sure to turn off the grill and the lights.”

“Will do.” Rhett rolled the sleeves of his white T-shirt and wiped down the bar one more time.

Jill and Sawyer were gone less than five minutes when the door flew open and suddenly the bar was crowded to capacity. Someone plugged money into the jukebox, and in seconds it was going full blast, playing “Boys ’Round Here” by Blake Shelton. Folks wasted no time getting out onto the dance floor and making a long line to do a line dance. The noise level went from zero to one hundred so quick that it took a while for Rhett’s ears to adjust.

“Hey, Rhett, we need three pitchers of beer and about six red cups,” Kinsey yelled from the end of the bar.

He quickly filled the pitchers, set them on the bar, and stacked up six plastic cups. Kinsey handed him a bill and he made change.

“And when you finish that, I need two longneck bottles of Coors,” Betsy said from the other end of the bar.

It kept him hopping, keeping the beer orders filled, the money straight, and making a few pitchers of margaritas. Then there was a lull, and there she was, sitting on a bar stool, her light green eyes watching him. His heart threw in an extra beat and his chest tightened.

“Well, hello, did you just fall from heaven?” he asked.

“I’ll have a double shot of Jack on the rocks, so the answer is no. I don’t think angels drink whiskey, but it is a fine line,” she answered.

“So you are a Tennessee whiskey lady?” he asked.

“Tonight I am,” she said.

A tall, blond-haired cowboy with blue eyes propped a hip on the bar stool beside her and nodded. “Hello, Leah.”

She nodded. “Tanner.”

“I guess you’re the new O’Donnell in Burnt Boot. Brett, is it?” Tanner eyed Rhett like he was trash left on the curb.

“Not Brett. My name is Rhett, after the hero in Gone with the Wind. My mama loves that book,” Rhett corrected him.

“Well then, hero Rhett, we need two more pitchers of beer over at our table.”

“Be right with you. And you’d be?”

“Tanner Gallagher of Wild Horse. Betsy’s cousin. If you’ve got any notion of asking her out, don’t. Granny wouldn’t like that.”

“And if I didn’t have any thought of asking her out?” Rhett set Leah’s whiskey in front of her on a white paper coaster.

“Then you’re probably crazy or gay. Which one is it?” Tanner asked.

“I like women.” Rhett grinned. “As for the crazy, that’s debatable. Some folks would agree with you, but no one has been brave enough or big enough to have me committed yet.”

“Smart-ass, are you?” Tanner asked.

Rhett filled two pitchers with beer and set them on the counter. Tanner handed him a bill and Rhett made change.

“You didn’t answer me. Are you a smart-ass, or do you back up your words with actions?” Tanner pushed the issue.

“No, I didn’t answer you.”

Tanner picked up the pitchers. “Are you going to?”

“Not today.”

“You don’t like us Gallaghers?”

Rhett picked up a bar rag and wiped down the bar where the pitchers had been. “Don’t know you Gallaghers.”

Tanner raised his voice loud enough so that everyone in the area could hear him. “Well, we know your kind, and we’d be happy to see you ride that motorcycle on back to where you came from.”

“What is my kind?” Rhett asked.

“Tanner, stop being a jackass and go talk to your little buddies,” Leah said.

Tanner scowled. “So the Brennans are going to take in this stray coyote?”

“Whether we do or not is none of your business, but you don’t have to be rude,” Leah answered.

“I thought you were different from the rest of them,” Tanner said.

“I thought you were different from the rest of the Gallaghers,” she shot back.

“Guess you really can’t change a leopard’s spots,” he said as he walked away.

“Or a skunk’s stripes,” she mumbled.

Rhett filled the beer pitchers, collected the money, and then moved down the bar to Leah again. “That line about the skunk’s stripes was far better than mine. The way he looked at you when he sat down, I thought maybe y’all were a couple, but I guess you aren’t?” Rhett asked.

“Tanner? He’s a Gallagher,” Leah said.

“And Gallaghers and Brennans don’t play well together, right?”

Leah sipped her whiskey. “That would be an understatement.”

“Then we won’t talk about it. So, you are a schoolteacher. What do you do in the summertime?”

“Help out on the Brennan ranch, River Bend. Not that I actually do much ranchin’. Mostly, I take care of the book work for Granny and help with the garden some. I like to cook, so I do some cannin’ while the garden is producing and when the fruit ripens in the orchard.”

“When does school start back?”

“Pretty soon. We don’t have to adhere to the state-mandated rules, since we’re a private school, so we usually start classes in August.”

“Private school?”

“The Brennans have a school on River Bend. The Gallaghers have one on Wild Horse. Then there’s the public school right here in Burnt Boot,” she explained.

“Hey, Rhett, darlin’.” Honey popped up on a bar stool at the other end and yelled over the loud music, “We need two more pitchers of beer.”

Leah threw back the last of her whiskey and slid off the stool. “See you around. Maybe in church on Sunday?”

“You going to be there?”

She nodded.

“Then I’ll be there.”

Chapter 2

It was dusk on Saturday night when Rhett rushed back to the bunkhouse to clean up after he and the summer crew of high school boys had replaced fence all day. It involved getting the posts set, stringing barbed wire, then removing the old, rusty wire from the decaying wooden posts and pulling them out of the hard dirt. Lots of sweat, a fair amount of cussin’, and a ton of energy went into the job, so he was already tired when he stepped into the shower. The cool water felt good on his body and he had to admit, he did smell a lot nicer afterward.

“Thank goodness,” he murmured as he wrapped a towel around his body, “Jill and Sawyer are willing to share their bathroom with me. I sure wasn’t in the mood to run a tub of water tonight in my bathroom.”

He pulled his wet hair back into a ponytail and seriously considered getting it buzzed off the next week.

“What do you think, Dammit? Ponytail or buzz cut?” he asked his dog as he crossed the living room floor.

The old hound looked up from the sofa and yipped, his tail beating out a tune on the cushions and both cats crouching to spring on it.

“Ponytail it is, then. Are you sure?” Rhett stopped long enough to scratch his ears.

Another yip and both of Jill’s cats jumped at the same time. Dammit growled at them, and they retreated to the corner of the sofa. There were some things that a dog did not tolerate, and clawing his tail was one of them.

“So you think Leah likes my ponytail, do you? You think maybe she’s got a wild streak down under all that sweetness?” Rhett asked.

Dammit’s tail did double time.

“The tail has spoken. I’ll leave it alone. See you later tonight. Guard the place and don’t let any varmints in the door.” He scratched the dog’s ears again and headed outside into the blistering-hot summer heat.

He made it to the bar a few minutes before six, parked his truck beside Sawyer’s, and hated to step outside in the heat. The thermometer on the porch post had read 110 degrees when he left the bunkhouse. He inhaled deeply to get one more lungful of cool air and slung open the door. Music and smoke met him head-on when he entered the bar.

“I thought they outlawed smoking in public places,” he said.

“Not in Burnt Boot, but I hear it might happen before the end of this year.” Jill smiled. “It’ll be busy tonight, so you man the drinks. I’ll take care of money and Sawyer can cook.”

“I’ll help him when I’m not drawing beer or pouring whiskey.” Rhett quickly scanned the few people already in the bar but didn’t see Leah, or any Brennans for that matter.

“This is Saturday night. It’s a hell of a lot different than any weeknight,” Sawyer said. “And with this heat, there will be tempers flaring. Gladys said that she heard there’s gossip about something going down with the feud, so that’ll bring in more people.”

Rhett rolled up his sleeves and slung a bar rag over his shoulder. “At least it’s cool in here. I swear those boys and I were about to melt plumb away out there in the heat today. Now tell me why the feud has anything to do with the bar.”

Jill removed pitchers from the dishwasher and refilled it. “Because this is more than a place to get a beer and dance. It’s the local gossip place. Think of the church, the general store, and the bar as Switzerland. Those are the three places that the feud has to be left at the door.”

Sawyer took three heads of lettuce from the small refrigerator in the corner. He plopped them down hard on a cutting board and pulled their cores out, filled them with water at the bar sink, and then turned them over to drain.

“What’s that all about?” Rhett asked.

“I’ll put them in plastic bags and back into the fridge. That keeps the lettuce crispy. This place has a reputation for the best bacon cheeseburgers in the whole state,” Sawyer explained.

The sound of truck engines out in the parking lot and doors slamming preceded a dozen Brennan cowboys into the bar. One stopped at the bar and the rest went back to push two tables together to claim the far corner as Brennan territory.

“We need twenty cups and four pitchers of Coors,” the cowboy said.

“Little thirsty, are you?” Rhett smiled.

“Whole lot thirsty and got a lot of talkin’ to do. I’m Declan, and we’re all from River Bend.”

Rhett set two full pitchers on the bar and went back to fill two more. “Pleased to meet y’all. I’m Rhett from Fiddle Creek.”

“We’ve heard about you. Leah says the Gallaghers don’t like you too much,” Declan said.

“Wouldn’t know about that and could care less about it,” Rhett said.

“Just so we’re straight. The Brennans don’t like you either. And this is your only warning to stay away from the Brennan women.”

“Same answer. Don’t care much if you do or don’t like me,” Rhett said.

“Why are you being so rude? And why does he have to stay away from the Brennan women?” Jill asked.

“He’s not Burnt Boot material, much less River Bend material,” Declan said.

“What kind of material is that? He’s my cousin and no one ever told me I wasn’t Burnt Boot material,” Sawyer asked.

Hot air pushed Gallaghers into the bar before Declan could answer. He picked up two pitchers and headed to the back. When he returned for the rest of his order, he brought a couple of Brennans with him. Rhett wondered if it was for protection from the Gallaghers or to show him a force that said he should listen to their warnings about staying away from their womenfolk.

“Four pitchers of Coors.” Tanner hiked a hip on a bar stool and ignored the Brennans. “And a dozen bacon cheeseburger baskets. Double meat and cheese. And two pitchers of margaritas and one of piña coladas.”

“Yep.” Rhett repeated back the order.

Jill made change for the bills Tanner handed her. “Remember to keep it civil, Tanner. Watch your mouth and don’t start anything, or I’ll take out the shotgun that’s right here at my knees.”

Tanner laughed out loud. “I do like a woman with spunk. See y’all later. And holler right loud when the burgers are done.”

“What happened that they are all up in arms about you, Rhett?” Jill asked.

“Tanner Gallagher has a thing for Leah. It’s in his eyes every time he looks at her. I expect that would really set off the feud, so he’s not doing anything about the attraction. I’m damn sure not interested in being mixed up in their battles, so they don’t have to worry about me.”

“If you’re talking to Leah, you’re already mixed up in it.” Sawyer set six red plastic baskets with burgers and fries in each on the bar and yelled, “Tanner Gallagher.”

Leah slipped inside and Rhett’s heart threw in an extra beat. She looked beautiful in those tight jeans, boots, and an orange tank top tucked down behind a belt with a big rhinestone buckle. Tanner gave her the once-over as he crossed the floor and stacked baskets of burgers up his arm like a seasoned waiter. Rhett almost felt sorry for the guy. There sat the woman he loved, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it because of the family feud.

“I’ll be back for the rest,” Tanner said.

“Bring someone with you. The others are almost finished,” Sawyer said.

“What can I get you, Miz Leah?” Rhett’s eyes were drawn to hers. His hands itched to run the back of his knuckles down her cheekbones before he kissed those full lips.

“I’d like a burger basket. No onions and double fries. A plain Coke this time around, but afterwards I’ll want a double shot of Jack.” Leah smiled.

“You got it,” Rhett said as he filled a red plastic cup with ice and drew up a Coke. “Been busy today?”

She took a sip. “Yes, I have. I went to the school and took down all my old bulletin board stuff, put up new, arranged the seats, and got ready for the new school year.”

“What grade do you teach?”

“Fourth,” Leah said.

He shook his head. “Who’d have thought about a town this small having three schools?”

“Crazy, isn’t it? But our private school has more kids than the Burnt Boot public school,” Leah said.

“Tanner Gallagher, last three,” Sawyer yelled above the jukebox.

Tanner came to the bar to claim them, and this time, he looked at Leah in the mirror above the grill and said, “Hot today, ain’t it?”

“Sure is.” Leah nodded at him, but neither of them ever looked directly at each other.

Was the man crazy or just plain stupid? Leah had been right there in front of him his whole life and the only thing holding them apart was a crazy feud? If that had been Rhett, he would have told the feud to go straight to hell and he’d have gone after the woman he loved.

The next time the door opened, several couples made their way to the bar stools. A woman hopped up on the one right next to Leah and asked, “You from around here?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Burgers any good?”

“Best in Texas,” Leah answered.

“Then give us a dozen of your biggest, best baskets,” the woman told Jill. “We heard this was a good place to get some supper, dance awhile, and have a few beers.”

“Where y’all from?”

“Up around Terral, Oklahoma. We’re out ridin’ our motorcycles for the weekend. We rode down to the Fort Worth Stockyards this morning and we’re on our way home. Thought we’d stop by here and have some fun and then go on home when it gets a little cooler.”

“Have fun?” Leah asked.

“Hell, yeah, but not as much fun as we’ll have here. We love to dance,” the woman said. “Hey, bartender, we’ll have six pitchers of beer.”

“Who’s your designated driver?” Leah laughed.

“Honey, we don’t need one. Ain’t a one amongst us that can’t hold their liquor. You here to flirt with the bartender?” the woman asked Leah.

Leah blushed. “No, ma’am.”

“You crazy. I don’t see a weddin’ ring, and he’s one hot-lookin’ cowboy.”

Rhett pulled up pitchers of beer and strained his ears to hear the conversation. It had been years since he’d seen a woman blush. He liked it—a lot.

The woman cackled. “Darlin’, I’m over sixty, and once you hit that magical age, you can say anything you want and get into anyone’s business, and everyone chalks it up to bein’ old. You have a good time tonight. Tell that sexy cook to holler out ‘Williams’ when our burgers are done.”

* * *

Leah took her burger basket and Coke back to the Brennan table and sat down beside Honey, making sure her chair was in a position that allowed her to catch glimpses of both Tanner and Rhett.

Honey pilfered a French fry and popped it in her mouth. “You’d best stop flirting with Rhett. Granny says he’s trouble. He’s a sexy hunk, darlin’ Cousin, but I wouldn’t go against Granny for a night in a five-star hotel with Adam Levine.”

“Why does Granny think he’s trouble?” Leah asked.

“It’s the motorcycle and the ponytail,” Kinsey answered while Honey stole another fry.

“So? He’s a rancher,” Leah said.

“She’s made her decision, Leah. Neither Kinsey nor I would take her on in a real battle, and you’re not as tough as either one of us,” Honey said.

“He’s Sawyer’s cousin and she didn’t have a bit of problem with either of y’all tryin’ to run him to ground,” Leah argued.

“That had a purpose. If we took Sawyer out of the picture, then Jill might have hooked up with Quaid, and we would have inherited Fiddle Creek and all those wonderful water rights with her.”

“Then maybe I’ll go after Tanner Gallagher,” Leah whispered.