Love Drunk Cowboy
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 1

The Lanier gut was never wrong.

Austin Lanier didn’t need a deck of Tarot cards or a psychic to tell her something was fixing to twist her world into knots. She looked behind her… nothing but willow trees with new mint-colored leaves dancing in the spring breeze. She looked ahead… nothing but the muddy waters of the Red River.

The antsy feeling causing all the hair on her body to tingle might be the fact that she was about to sift her grandmother’s ashes into the dirty brown water. At least, the old Red flowed gently as if it had no place to go and all year to get there, like an elderly retired man sitting on the porch in his oversized rocking chair watching the cars go by on a lazy summer day. Later, when the spring rains came, it would change to a rebellious teenager, rolling and spinning out of control, rushing to its destination at a breakneck speed.

But that day it was as peaceful as Austin Lanier was agitated by the inner turmoil that crept up on her unwanted and unexplained. She stood on the sandy bank and Pearlita Richland handed her the wooden box. About the size of a shoe box, only heavier, Austin held it close to her heart in a hug but it didn’t hug back and it didn’t laugh like Granny Lanier. Was this all there was to life? Joys and sorrows reduced to a box full of gray ashes.

“Even though I don’t agree with this, it’s what she wanted so it’s the way we’ll do it. So good-bye, my dearest old friend. You hold a place for me on your park bench up there until I finish what I’m doing down here,” Pearlita said.

She was eighty-three, the same age as Austin’s grandmother and they’d been friends from the time they started school back in the Depression years. Pearlita was a tall, lanky woman who still stood proud with her head held high and her back ramrod straight. She had gray hair cut in a no-nonsense style that required nothing more than washing and towel drying. That day she wore her one pair of black slacks and a black sweater reserved for weddings and funerals. She’d left her black shoes at home and worn her old brown cowboy boots since she was going to the river.

Austin opened the box and was amazed at the ashes inside. That fine dust couldn’t be her grandmother. She’d been a force that never succumbed to age, even in the end.

“She told me that old age wasn’t for wimps,” she said as she held the box out over the water and slowly poured it into the muddy waters of the Red River. Tears streamed down her face and dripped onto her favorite black power suit: tailored slacks, a fitted jacket over a black silk camisole, and black spike heels. The moment the ashes were out of the box she wanted to wade out into the muddy water and gather them all up to hug one more time. She didn’t care if she ruined a pair of expensive high heels in the sand or if the suit would have to go to the cleaners when she got back to Tulsa.

“Living isn’t for wimps no matter what age you are,” Pearlita said. “Now we are supposed to watch the ashes disappear and then go to the Peach Orchard for lunch. When we get done you’ll need to start sorting through things at her house. Want me to help?”

“Thanks, but I can do it. I’ll call if I need help.” Austin watched the river carry her grandmother away.

It wasn’t right. There should have been flowers and a casket and weeping and it should have been done six months ago when she died. She deserved a twenty-one gun salute even though she wasn’t military and then they could fold up that superman cape Austin always thought she wore and Austin could frame it in a special box with the big S right on top.

She should’ve invited Rye O’Donnell, her grandmother’s elderly neighbor, to come to the river with her and Pearlita. Even though Verline had told them exactly what she wanted, Rye should’ve been there. He loved Granny too.

Austin had been talking to him once a week the past six months since her grandmother died. He’d been her neighbor for several years plus her best friend and he’d looked after things after Granny died. There wasn’t much to be done since Verline had taken care of everything beforehand, but Rye had kept an eye on the house until Austin could get find a couple of weeks to come to Terral to sell the watermelon farm. Maybe that was why her stomach was tied up in knots. She had to meet the elderly gentleman sometime and he’d be disappointed that he wasn’t asked to come to the river.

“My cell phone number is on the front of her refrigerator. She could spout off my regular old phone number from the first time we got party lines, but this newfangled cell phone stuff was almost too big of a trick to teach us old dogs. You take all the time you need here, Austin. I’ll be in the truck.”

A thousand memories flooded Austin’s mind all at once, none of them more than a brief flash. Granny Lanier in her jeans and boots making biscuits before daylight or thumping the end of a watermelon to see if it was ripe or demanding that Austin make her bed every single morning when she came to visit for two weeks in the summer. When the memories played out and there was nothing but the cooing sound of mourning doves in the distance, Austin looked out at the Red River and couldn’t see the faintest bit of ashes left. She brushed the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her black suit and headed toward the pickup truck where Pearlita waited.

That sinking feeling in her gut said there was more trouble hiding nearby and in the distance she heard the engine of a truck.


Dust boiled up behind Rye O’Donnell’s truck like a billow of red fog. He pushed down harder on the gas pedal, fishtailed the truck when he made a hard right, then another quick turn to the left, sliding into the driveway and throwing gravel everywhere. He bailed out of the truck, slammed the door, bypassed the porch steps with one leap, and shed his dirty work clothes on the way to the shower.

Every time Granny Lanier got a new picture of Austin she’d hauled it out for him to see. He’d talked to her once a week the past six months on Thursday night. After he’d assured her that the house and land was fine, the conversation had usually centered on Verline Lanier. He’d missed the old girl horribly and looked forward to talking to her granddaughter but seeing her on that riverbank had been… well, hell, it had knocked his socks off.

He took a fast shower, lathered up his face, grabbed his razor, and nicked the dent in his chin. Grabbing a small piece of toilet paper and plastering it down on the blood bubble, he kept shaving, but he couldn’t erase that shit-eating grin looking back at him in the mirror.

He finished shaving and peeled the paper from his chin, slapped on his best shaving lotion, and even used a comb rather than his fingers on his black hair. It only took a few minutes to jerk on a pair of starched jeans, a fresh shirt, and his Sunday cowboy boots.

From the time he’d parked the truck until he was back in it ten minutes had elapsed, but she’d already be at the Peach Orchard. He and his one hired hand, Kent, had been working on a tractor all morning. The only thing that held it together the previous summer was baling wire, cheap used parts, and cussin’ that would fry the hair out of a frog’s nostrils. There didn’t seem to be any more cheap parts and the baling wire had all rusted. The only thing left was cussin’ and even that wasn’t working that day. He’d been hot, sweaty, and hungry when he went to the river and had no intentions of cleaning up in the middle of the day until he saw Austin. Seeing her in person made his heart do crazy things in his chest. Things he’d never felt before.

He hit the speed bumps in front of the school too fast and thumped his chin on the steering wheel. The nick started bleeding again and he’d forgotten to put a clean handkerchief in his pocket. He slowed down to a crawl and pulled down the visor to look in the mirror. Luckily, there was a paper napkin from the last Dairy Queen trip in the console, so he dabbed at it while he drove to the highway and turned south toward the Peach Orchard.

Kent leaned on the rear fender of the old ranch work truck in front of the café and raised an eyebrow when Rye brought his truck to a stop. He had a cigarette smoked down to the stub and put it out on the heel of his boot when Rye parked beside him.

“How did it go? I was about to give up on you. Guess you liked what you saw if you got all cleaned up just to meet her. What are you grinning at? I washed my face and hands with one of them wet wipe things Malee uses on the boys. Do I still have dirt on my nose or something?” Kent asked.

“Your face is clean and everything at the river went just like Granny Lanier wanted it. Pearlita brought the ashes and Austin scattered them in the river.”

“She see you?”

“Who? Granny or Austin?”

“Either one,” Kent answered.

“Austin didn’t. Granny probably did and is laughing.”

“What’d she look like?” Kent asked.

“You’ve seen her pictures.” Rye couldn’t think of a damn thing to erase the silly grin from his face.

“That’s not what I asked. A picture is just a likeness. Real people have dimension. Why are you smiling like that? What’s the matter with me?”

Rye poked him on the shoulder. “Nothing is the matter with you. Dimension? I didn’t know you knew ten-dollar words.”

“You are avoidin’ a simple question and you got all spruced up which means you liked what you saw.”

“Let’s go eat some fish. I’m starving,” Rye said.

The restaurant was packed full of people. He and Kent walked past the U-shaped cashier’s bar and through a door into the dining room on the north side. The noise of several conversations and the smell of frying fish filled the place. They settled into chairs at the table beside the last booth on the west side.

“You look like you put in a morning. What can I get you?” the waitress asked. Her face looked like the bottom of a dried up creek bed after a drought, but her green eyes were bright and sparkling.

Rye removed his cowboy hat and hung it on the back of his chair. He’d seen Austin when he first walked in the place and was glad that there was a table close by her booth. Damn she was even more beautiful up close. He should’ve introduced himself right away but he couldn’t force words out of his mouth.

“It’s been more than just a morning,” Kent said.

“What’s done got you two all in a tizz?” Pearlita asked.

Rye looked at Pearlita but his eyes were on Austin. “Well, I’ll be danged. I didn’t recognize you without your hat and boots.”

Pearlita stuck out a foot. “Look more familiar now?”

“Yes, ma’am, you surely do. And you are Austin?” Rye stood up and extended his hand. “I’m Rye O’Donnell.”

Austin was struck mute. That couldn’t be Rye. The Rye she expected was at least seventy years old. She’d talked to him every week on Thursday for the past six months. Well, almost every Thursday. A couple of times he wasn’t home on Thursday night and at least twice she had to be out of town on business, but they’d talked and he was supposed to be old. Granny had said he was her good friend and a little younger than she was. Hell’s bells, that didn’t mean early thirties and it didn’t mean sexy cowboy handsome.

She put her hand in his and pure old sexual heat created sparks that danced around the café. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”

“Yes, it is.” Rye held her hand a few seconds longer, brushing her palm with his thumb and squeezing just a little bit, unconsciously wanting to take her home with him and never let her out of his sight. “I guess you took care of the burial this morning?”

“We did,” Pearlita said. “I’ll never understand why she wanted it done on Friday before Easter but we did it the way she wanted.”

“She’d be pleased.” Rye sat back down at his table, not three feet from Austin. He knew he was staring but he couldn’t stop and he couldn’t think of a thing to say. On Thursday nights they’d talked for ten or fifteen minutes and he’d never had a problem with words. But sitting so close he could reach and push that errant strand of dark hair back, his mouth was so dry that he felt like he’d eaten a sawdust sandwich laced with alum. His palms were clammy and he was damn sure glad he was sitting down or his knees would have failed him and he’d have fallen flat on his face right there in the café.

“I hope so. Six months is a long time to wait,” Austin said. The gut that did not lie twisted up like a piece of sheet metal in a class five tornado. Her hands trembled and the place where his thumb had grazed her palm was hotter ’n hell’s blazes.

His mossy green eyes rimmed with the heaviest lashes she’d ever seen on a man were undressing her right there in the café in front of Pearlita, the customers, and even God, Himself. Pure animal sexuality exuded from him in those creased jeans, cowboy boots, and a green and yellow plaid shirt. Austin still couldn’t believe he was Rye and kept stealing long sideways glances his way. Damn! She should have known a man with a voice like that couldn’t be seventy!

“What’ll you cowboys be havin’ today?” the waitress asked.

“Fish, full order, and sweet tea,” Kent said.

“Double it,” Rye said. He didn’t want to think about food, eat food, or do anything but stare at Austin. Stare, be damned! He wanted to do a lot more than devour her with his eyes. The palm of her hand was as soft as gentle rain on his calloused thumb. He wanted to slide into the booth beside her, sink his face into that thick black hair, and see if it was as soft as her fingertips.

The waitress nodded and disappeared through the door into the kitchen and promptly returned with four glasses of sweet tea, putting two on Austin’s table and the other two on Rye’s.

He drank long and deep and turned toward the booth where Austin and Pearlita were. That’s when she noticed the barbed wire tattoo circling his left bicep right below his shirtsleeve. She blushed when she realized she was staring at the tat. She shut her eyes and suddenly there he was in her imagination without a shirt, his belt buckle undone showing a fine line of dark hair extending downward, and a big smile on his sexy face. She opened them with a snap to find him grinning at her. A slow heated blush crept into her cheeks.

“So you are here for a couple of weeks?” He knew the answer to the question because they’d talked the night before but he couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say.

“That’s right.” She blinked and stared at the menu on the far wall.

He did the same. A grown man didn’t look at a woman from behind a willow tree on the banks of the Red River and know in an instant that she was his soul mate. That wasn’t just bullshit, it was insanity.

He tried. He really, really tried to keep from looking at her. But it was impossible. When he looked up she was talking to Pearlita so he stared until she shifted her gaze and caught him. Then he blinked and asked Kent if he thought they could find a tractor part up in Ryan at the feed store.

His dark green eyes and the way he looked at her set her nerves on edge. God Almighty, what was wrong with her? She’d never reacted to a man like that in her life and he was a cowboy with a tat on his arm. Her mother would stroke out if she called home and said she was panting after a cattle rancher in Terral, Oklahoma, with a tattoo of barbed wire around his arm.

When she jerked herself back into the conversation with Pearlita, the woman was saying, “Me and Verline met in here once a month for dinner and we usually sat right here in this booth and talked about everything that had happened in Henrietta and Terral since we’d last seen each other. We talked about my niece, Pearl, and you, and what you were both doing these days. I’ve missed her terrible these past six months.”

Rye leaned across the space from the table to the booth and said, “Are you really going to sell the watermelon farm? There’ll be lots of folks interested in Verline’s property. It’s prime watermelon ground but I’d like to be first in line to buy it if you decide to sell.”

“I haven’t made a solid decision about the farm,” she said.

Dammit! We’ve talked on the phone for six months. Why didn’t you mention wanting to buy my land during those conversations? And why in the hell didn’t you tell me you weren’t an old bowlegged geezer who walked with a cane?

Not a single woman had ever affected Rye like Austin Lanier. He’d ridden bulls and broke broncs and had the scar on his left hip to prove it. But he’d never had a reaction where he couldn’t stop smiling, and his mind raced around at breakneck speed trying to figure out a way to ask her out on a date. The breeze from the air-conditioner blew a strand of hair across her face and he had to hold the tea glass with both hands to keep from reaching across the space and pushing it back just so he could touch her again. His hand tingled just from thinking about how that silky strand would feel as he rubbed it between his fingers and how he would touch her earlobe with his fingertip and then run his knuckles down her jaw and…

Whoa, cowboy! Slow that horse down, he thought, shaking his head quickly to bring himself to his senses and then shifting his gaze to Raymond Jones, who headed right toward them.

Raymond removed his hat, lowered his head reverently, and stopped at Austin’s booth. “Miz Lanier, I was sorry to hear about your granny. We miss her around these parts. We’ll really miss her come Sunday. She was the one who made sure the Easter egg hunt took place every year. She sure got a kick out of it.”

Austin looked up at an older man in bibbed overalls and a chambray work shirt. His big ears hung too low on his head and he had wispy gray hair that barely covered his round pink head. When he smiled his teeth looked like a picket fence that a tornado had wrecked.

“Thank you. I miss her too.”

“Raymond, you old codger, I thought you died years ago,” Pearlita laughed.

“Naw, but it’s my turn. Me and Verline had us a bet going. She won because she said she’d go before me. We was almost the same age but she always told people that I was only six days younger than God and would outlive everyone in the whole town of Terral. I wisht she woulda had a fun’ral so I could go and pay my respects. Still don’t seem right for her to just be gone.”

“Me too, Raymond,” Pearlita said. “But I’m thinkin’ when I die I might just do the same thing Verline did. It was simple and there wasn’t a bunch of foo-rah around the whole thing.”

“Not me. If there ain’t nobody left to sling snot over my dead body then I’m leaving it in my will to pay a bunch of women to come and moan and groan. I reckon if there’s enough noise made about me passin’ down here on earth maybe Saint Peter will hear it and think I done some good while I was here. Might give me a fightin’ chance at gettin’ through them pearly gates,” Raymond said. Austin stole a glance at Rye while Raymond and Pearlita were discussing their funerals. He was staring at her again but quickly looked away when she caught him. Could it be that he was as surprised at her as she was him? What had Granny Lanier told him about her? What had he expected?

“So how long are you stayin’ in Terral, Miz Austin?” Raymond asked.

She looked up at him. “A couple of weeks. That should give me enough time to clean things out and put the place up for sale or get an auction ready, shouldn’t it?”

“Verline had her affairs in order. She was that kind of woman, so I reckon you could probably do the whole thing over the phone with her fancy-pants lawyer out of Wichita Falls.” He bent down and whispered, “I know he’s fancy-pants because we use the same man.”

“So do I.” Pearlita nodded. “And he’ll be coming around in the morning at ten to discuss what she’s done with her affairs. He acts all prissy but he’s a damn good lawyer and I’m sure Verline did everything possible to make it easy on you.”

Austin raised an eyebrow.

Pearlita reached across the booth and patted Austin on the hand. “Verline gave me my orders when she first found out about the tumor. They were to pick up her ashes, go with you to scatter them on Easter weekend even if it was a year away, take you to lunch right here at the Peach Orchard, and tell you the lawyer was coming the next day. Now the responsibility falls on you when I die. You have to do the same for Pearl since Verline died before me.”

“You are going to live forever,” Austin told her.

“I’m plannin’ on it. But if I’m wrong, you are supposed to take care of things for me. I’ll call you when I get to feelin’ poorly.”

Raymond waved at a rancher at another table, patted Austin on the shoulder, and was already talking to the newcomer as he walked away from their booth.

The waitress brought their orders of fish and set a plate of homemade tartar sauce, sliced onions, pickles, and bread in the middle of the table for them to share.

“Want me to put you back some pie?” she asked.

“Save us two pieces of lemon. You do like lemon, don’t you?” Pearlita asked.

“If it’s like Granny’s I like it. I don’t like that canned crap,” Austin answered.

Rye chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Austin asked.

How was it that she’d looked forward to talking to him on Thursday night and now that he was close enough that she could smell his aftershave lotion she couldn’t think of anything to start an intelligent conversation?

His eyes sparkled even more. “What you said. That sounded just like Granny Lanier. She didn’t like that canned crap either, only she called it the real thing, not crap.”

“It’s real, made from scratch this morning,” the waitress said.

“Then save us two pieces,” Pearlita said.

“And save us two pieces,” Rye said.

“I don’t like lemon,” Kent told him. “Save me a couple of slices of German chocolate.”

Austin looked past Rye at his friend but was fully aware of the cowboy still staring at her from his peripheral vision. Kent was shorter than Rye, less muscular, more sinewy, and had a thick mop of sandy hair that curled up on his shirt collar. The bottom part of a Celtic cross tattoo showed on his upper arm beneath his T-shirt sleeve. His face was slim and his nose almost feminine. His eyes were soft green and his smile genuine. Not one thing about him set her in an emotional tailwind like looking into Rye’s green eyes.

A vision flashed through her mind of Rye lying beside her, both of them wrapped up in satin sheets in a fancy hotel, her hand gripping that muscular bicep, and she could almost feel that intriguing tattoo burning against her palm as she dug her fingers into his hard strength. She gasped. Where in the hell were such thoughts coming from? Austin wasn’t a hussy. She was a professional woman with a responsible career. She was being groomed to take over the operations department when the boss retired, and she’d worked her tail end off for five years for a chance at that position. And a department head didn’t undress a man with her eyes, no matter how sexy he was.

It would have helped if Granny had told her exactly what Rye looked like in even one of the many conversations they’d had or if she’d shown her a picture of him. She’d never once mentioned that he was handsome and muscled up like a body builder. Or that he had amazing deep green bedroom eyes and hair that cried out to have Austin’s fingers tangled up in it. That brought on another vision of him all sweaty and hot, tangled up in sheets with the top half naked and a fist full of that thick dark hair in her hands as he nibbled on her earlobe and whispered sweet hot words in a breathless Texas drawl.

Sweet Jesus, what is the matter with me? Sure he’s ruggedly handsome as hell but that doesn’t give me the right to think such thoughts. He started it by looking at me like he did. If he’d kept his eyes to himself I wouldn’t be having naughty notions.

Austin had always pictured Rye with gray hair and a bushy mustache. Granny had said that he was a younger man and damn fine looking but she was eighty-three and her version of younger didn’t mean thirty-something. Now Austin understood why she was so happy when she got off the phone with him each week and why she looked forward to their conversations. She’d thought that he sure had young ideas when she talked to him, but then Granny had been ageless too.

“You got a pretty big job ahead of you,” Rye said. “I’m right across the road so I’ll be glad to help.”

His deep Texas drawl was enough to cause her bikini underwear to start to inch down toward her ankles. She had the urge to reach inside the waistband of her slacks and give them a jerk to remind them that there was no way she was letting a cattle rancher get under her skin or in her pants.

The waitress set two plastic baskets of food in front of Rye and Kent and they settled into it without talking. Rye kept his eyes on the fish and fries but continued to steal microsecond glances at Austin, burning real life pictures of her into his brain. Later he’d get them out, shut his eyes, and play them over and over again.

Austin ate her fish and let her eyes wander to the barbed wire tat. It fascinated her and she had to hold her hands tightly in her lap to keep from leaning across the space and touching it to see if it was prickly.

What would it be like to have those big arms around her? Why a barbed wire tat? And why on his left arm? Did he have any more artwork scattered on his body? If so, where was it?

The waitress made a pass by their table. “Anything else I can get you?”

“Ketchup. This bottle is dry,” Pearlita said.

The waitress reached across Rye’s table, stole the full bottle, and set it between Pearlita and Austin.

“Thanks,” Pearlita said. “They don’t make anything like this up there in Tulsa, I’ll bet.”

“Aw, they’ve probably got anything a body would want up in the big city,” Rye drawled.

“Not this good,” Austin admitted. Sure they were sitting so close that she could see that little dot on his sexy chin where he’d cut himself shaving, but he kept talking across the distance like they were sitting together. Maybe that was the way they did things in Terral.

“I love fish but Momma hates the smell, so we never had it. When I get really hungry for it I usually just grab some at Long John Silver’s, but it’s sure not this good,” she said.

“Verline loved fish. I guess you know there wasn’t any love lost between her momma and granny,” Pearlita said. “Woman stole her only son away from the watermelon farm. I told Verline that Eddie never did intend to make a life in Terral, Oklahoma. The day he left for college up in Stillwater I was out at his car when Verline remembered something she had forgotten. She ran back into the house to get it and I asked him what he was going to study at school. He grinned at me and said that he was going to go into business because he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life wiping sweat and plowing watermelon fields. She always thought he’d change his mind but after he met Barbara up there at OSU, I knew he’d never come back to Terral.”

Kent finished his food and drank three glasses of tea before Rye finally pushed his basket back. “Well, it’s about time. I’d begun to think we were goin’ to laze around this café all afternoon.”

Rye stood up and settled his hat back on his head. Walking away from her wasn’t going to be easy, but she’d be across the road and he vowed that he would be spending more time over there.

Austin was near six feet tall with her high heels and she seldom looked up at any man, but when she watched him put that hat on she could’ve sworn there was seven feet of cowboy standing in front of her. “I’ll be around if you need anything,” he said.

“Thank you, Rye. I’ll call if I do. I have your number,” she said. She wanted to say more but her brain wouldn’t work when her eyes were glued on that tat.

“Nice to see you again, Miz Pearlita. Tell Pearl to come see me and the wife when she comes to visit,” Kent said.

“I’ll do it but I don’t expect she’ll be comin’ around for a while. She chased through for a night last week and I probably won’t see her again until Christmas.”

Austin wasn’t a bit surprised that Rye swaggered or that his jeans fit snuggly over a damn fine looking rear end. Not since the initial shock of seeing he wasn’t an old man had worn off, anyway.

“Like what you see?” Pearlita asked.

She spun around so fast that it made her light-headed. “Yes, I do. I wonder where on earth the owner found so many branding irons to hang on these walls.”

“He didn’t. The ranchers brought them in along with the brands on the wood pieces above them. I’ll have to tell Rye that you were interested in using one on his ass,” Pearlita teased.

“Why in the world would you say that?” For the second time that day Austin wished she could grab the words, douse them in ketchup, and put them back in her mouth.

“Because evidently you’d like to brand his ass. That is where you were looking.”

Austin blushed.

Pearlita laughed. “Eat your fish. You’ve got a big job cleaning out Verline’s house and you will need the energy. She never threw away a damn thing. And now you’ve got to do it knowing that cowboy with a sexy ass lives across the street.”

“Whew!” Austin wiped at her brow. “I got to tell you, Pearlita, that was a shock. Granny never told me what Rye looked like. I figured him for a seventy-year-old cowboy with bowlegs, a gray moustache and hair, and walking with a cane. Came close to giving me a heart attack when he introduced himself. I didn’t drool, did I?”

Pearlita had to swallow fast to keep from spewing tea across the table. “Girl, you are just like Verline. I’ve missed her. We’ll have to do this more often.”

Austin laughed with her. “I don’t know if my poor heart could take it if every time we eat here I get a shock like that.”

Pearlita poured ketchup over the top of her fries. “Rye lives in one of them big double wide trailers right across the street from Verline’s place. The old house on the property finally got too worn out to put a patch on, so he tore it down, used what lumber wasn’t termite infested to build a hay shed, and bought him a trailer. Put it right where the old house used to stand. I guess it had something to do with insurance but he said it was so he could run across to Verline’s when he smelled the cinnamon rolls cookin’. She loved that boy like a son. Sometimes I think he became Eddie in her eyes. He moved up here the same year Eddie died and they had a grandma-grandson thing going from day one. She should’ve told you all that instead of letting you believe he was an old man.”

Austin dipped a piece of fish into the best homemade tartar sauce she’d ever eaten and bit into it. “Yes, she should’ve. I bet she’s laughing her butt off right now. Tell me more about this thing with Granny and Mother. I know Mother hates this place but I had no idea that Granny wasn’t too fond of her.”

Pearlita swallowed a bite and said, “Your mother was a city girl. By the time she finished college her parents were ready to retire. Your mother and Eddie married right after they graduated from college, so her parents bought them a house in Tulsa and gave them both high-powered jobs. They taught her and Eddie about the car dealership for a couple of years and then gave them the business and retired.”

“That explains a lot,” Austin said.

Pearlita nodded. “Well, darlin’, I’ve got a one-thirty appointment at the hairdressers to see if she can get the yellow out of my hair without making it blue, so I’m going to scoot on out of here. You give me a call if that house overwhelms you and I’ll bring a couple of scoop shovels and a box of heavy duty garbage bags.”

Pearlita motioned for the waitress and handed her a fifty dollar bill. “You settle up our bill and put the rest in your pocket.”

“Thank you!” The waitress gasped at the huge tip.

Pearlita stood up and patted Austin on the shoulder. “Verline gave me that very bill when she got sick and said for me to keep it for this day. Remember what I said, Austin. I’m less than half an hour away and Rosa, my hired help, can run the motel if you need me.”

“I will and if Pearl comes around in the next couple of weeks, tell her to drop in on me,” Austin said.

She finished every bite of her lunch after Pearlita disappeared but her thoughts kept wandering back to Rye and hoping that he stayed on his side of the road while she was there. Or she would need one of those big old adult bibs like they use in nursing homes to catch the drooling.

When she finished she drove through town and out past the cemetery where Granny should have been laid to rest beside her husband but instead she was nothing but bits of ashes floating down the Red River.

When she turned right into the driveway she saw the hired hands gathered around the porch, hats in hands, waiting for their new boss. She took a deep breath and crawled out of her little bright red Corvette. She had no idea if there were watermelons in the ground or if they were sprouting, and she didn’t know anything about farming them. But Rye had told her the crew had arrived from Mexico and was hard at work getting the ground ready to plant.

“Miz Austin, we are sorry to lose Miz Lanier. We didn’t even know she had passed on until we got here last week. We could go back to Mexico but we will stay and keep things going until you make up your mind what to do with this place,” Felix said. “This is Angelo, Estefan, Hugo, Jacinto, and Lobo. They are all my kinfolks and we all have work visas through the summer.” He pointed to each man as he introduced them. Angelo was short and thick bodied with a round face. Estefan was tall and thin with a slim nose and a thin mouth. Jacinto had a shaved head and a tattoo of a rosary on his bicep. Lobo had kinky curly hair and soft brown eyes. Hugo had a dimple in his chin, not unlike the one on Rye’s face.

Damn it! I’m not going to think about the neighbor, she thought.

“And I’m Rye,” a deep Texas drawl said from the shadows of the porch.

“Rye’s been working with us since we got here,” Felix said.

“I’ve met Rye and I’m glad to meet you all, and since I’m not familiar with what it takes to run this farm, I’ll leave it all in your hands, Felix. Is there anything else I’m supposed to know?”

“We get paid on Friday. Miz Lanier writes us a check and we sign the back. Then she takes them to the bank and sends all but twenty dollars to our families in Mexico. She brings us back each twenty dollars for things we need in the week. Today is Friday and the bank in Ryan closes at four,” Felix said.

“Then I’ll find the checkbook first thing and get your checks written. Give me thirty minutes and come back. Is that all right?”

Felix nodded. “That will be very fine.”

They walked away speaking in rapid Spanish. Lobo, a tall thin man with skin the color of coffee with lots of cream, a hook on his pointed nose, and firm skinny lips laughed and said, “Rye está hechizado por la morena que todos quieren.”

Rye took a step out of the shadows and yelled, “I can hear you, Lobo.”

Lobo looked back over his shoulder and grinned.

“What did he say about you?” Austin asked. Not one thing about the cowboy had changed. His eyes were just as green in the bright sunlight as they’d been in the dimly lit café and his hair was even blacker. That tattoo beckoned to her to touch it and she had trouble keeping her eyes off the big silver belt buckle.

Rye wasn’t about to tell her that Lobo had said that he was bewitched by Austin. His palms were already sweaty just standing there in her presence. He was more than just bewitched by her. There was an itch so far down in the middle of his heart that there was no way he could scratch it. And the physical reaction quivering behind his Wrangler zipper said he’d best get his mind on ranchin’ instead of Austin Lanier.

“I asked you what he said,” Austin said.

“I’m sorry. I was translating it from Mexican slang into English,” Rye said quickly. He’d deal with Lobo later when he was flirting around with some local chica. The only one of the crew who wasn’t married, he was tall, thin, and would be playing in Mexican movies if a talent scout ever visited his village.

“Hey, Rye, no quiero bronca contigo,” Lobo yelled.

“And what was that?” Austin asked.

“He made a remark about me and then said that he didn’t want to get into a fight with me,” Rye said with a grin. Damn! His face was going to hurt by nightfall if he didn’t wipe that constant smile from it.

Austin had sent thoughts racing around in his brain that he had no business entertaining. Someone who worked in a high-powered office in Tulsa wouldn’t be staying in Terral, Oklahoma, with a population of four hundred if you counted half the dogs and part of the stray cats running around town. Without them the total was probably closer to 350.

Austin opened the front door and said, “Okay. Guess I should’ve taken Spanish in college rather than French. Did you need something or were you just checking up on the hired help?”

“Felix asked me to be here when you arrived. They’ve been spooked about meeting you for fear you’ll decide not to put in a crop this year. It’s their means of living for the whole year. They work hard, send their money home, and then live on it until the next spring. They’re afraid you are going to tell them to go home and their families will go hungry his winter,” Rye said.

“Well, thank you. Looks like I’ve got to hit the ground running if I’m going to get their checks written and taken to the bank.”

Send them home to starve kept running through her mind. She could never do that. If they knew a year ahead of time there wouldn’t be work for them at Verline Lanier’s then they could make arrangements elsewhere. But how could she run a watermelon farm and work in Tulsa at the same time?

“I’ve got to go to Ryan to the feed store and tag agency. I’ll drive you up there,” he said quickly.

Austin nodded before she thought about it because she was worrying with the idea of those men and their families going hungry all winter.

“Okay, I’ll go get my truck and come right back.”