Love Drunk Cowboy
Author:Carolyn Brown

chapter 4

For the second morning Austin awoke to the sound of pots and pans rattling in the kitchen. The aroma of coffee and bacon blended and floated down the hall, past the bathroom, under the door, and to her nose. She opened one eye enough to see the clock and shut it quickly against the bright sunlight flowing in the window beside her bed.

“Déjà vu,” she mumbled and sat straight up in bed, her eyes popping wide open. Was this like that movie she’d seen when she was thirteen? Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. In the movie Bill Murray’s character had to relive Groundhog Day every single day until he finally did what he was supposed to do.

Did Terral have some kind of weird power that would keep her on the watermelon farm reliving yesterday every single day? Dear God, was she going to have to dye Easter eggs and put up with that egotistical lawyer every single day?

“If that’s the case then today I’m going to shoot him in the hind end with the rock salt and I’m going to throw all the eggs at Rye. Wait a minute… that means I get to kiss Rye every day, too. I’m not sure my hormones can take that every day until I get things done the right way,” she kept muttering as she peeked out the door to hear Rye whistling in the kitchen. She belted a pink silk robe over her pajamas and padded up the hallway hoping the whole time that the stove wasn’t filled with pots of boiling eggs.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. I thought the smell of coffee might wake you. I made banana nut pancakes this morning. Have a seat. I just poured up the last of the batter. We’ll be ready to eat in five minutes.” He set a cup of coffee before her, kissed her on the forehead, and went back to the stove with his lips tingling and his thoughts going in all kinds of indecent directions and a sudden tightening in his jeans that almost made him groan.

Get a grip, cowboy. You’re moving way too fast here.

“Thank you and good morning. Do you make breakfast here every morning?” The red-hot kiss on the forehead sent her into a whirlwind of a tailspin for a moment but she regained control by concentrating on the breakfast. She was grateful for pancakes and not sausage gravy and biscuits and even happier to see an empty stove.

“No, ma’am. Granny and I only had breakfast together on Saturday. Every other day she was busy raising watermelons and I was busy taking care of a cattle ranch. Except on Easter weekend. We had breakfast both days then because this morning we have to get down to the community center by eleven o’clock and get the eggs hid. We take care of that while all the kids and their parents are in church. Then at one o’clock they all line up. Everett rings a cowbell and the fun begins.”

That little robe that barely came to her knees was plumb sexy. Pink was definitely her color. Not black.

“Are you going to put on a pink Easter bunny outfit?” she asked. Now wouldn’t that be fun to unzip that fuzzy bunny outfit and run her hands down over all those muscles that bulged his shirtsleeves. And then when she got even further…

That’s enough, Austin Lanier!

He wore jeans, but instead of a knit shirt he had on a bright yellow plaid western cut shirt. His hair still needed a cut and there was a definite mark across his forehead where his hat had kept the sun from tanning the inch of skin right below his hairline. And he still wasn’t an old man. Why in the hell had she gotten that idea fixed in her mind so firmly anyway?

Rye set the platter of pancakes on the table. “Dig in, and the answer to that question would not be no, but hell no.”

She piled pancakes high on her plate and looked around for the butter container. Rye handed her a small white pitcher with flowers on the side. She recognized it immediately as the one her grandmother always put milk in when she served coffee to guests.

“I melt the butter, the real stuff, not margarine, in the microwave and then add warm syrup to it. That way you get both together.”

She rolled her eyes with the first bite. “Granny didn’t teach you to make these, did she?”

“No, Momma did. This is our traditional Easter breakfast.”

“She’s only… what did you say… seven miles south? Why are you not there for Easter breakfast?”

“Because we hide eggs this morning?”

And I wouldn’t miss the fun of hiding eggs with you for anything. Besides, I know how to make banana nut pancakes and I love the way you roll your eyes when something tastes good.

“You got a mouse in your pocket? We, as in you and I, are not hiding eggs. I’m working all day in the garage. I spent yesterday afternoon out there and didn’t even make a healthy dent. I’ve got seven huge black plastic leaf bags full of nothing but old medical statements, receipts for electric bills dating back to the fifties, and gas receipts for the vehicles when the price was thirty cents a gallon.”

“History is relegated to the trash heap. What a waste.”

“I haven’t thrown it out yet. You want to haul it over to your place and preserve history?”

“No, thank you!”

“Speaking of trash heap. What do I do with all of it?”

“We can make a burn pile or you can call for a roll-off Dumpster to be parked in the backyard. When it’s full they’ll come haul it off and bring you a new one if you need it.”

“Is there one in the phone book?”

“Not the Terral book. You would probably have pretty good luck finding one on the Internet maybe out of Wichita Falls or Nocona.”

“I haven’t had time to open my laptop, but Granny didn’t have…”

He raised an eyebrow. “Yes, she did. Her computer is in the wine cellar. About all she ever used it for was the wine business, but she’s got a wireless connection and she was pretty damned good with the computer.”

“Wine cellar?”

“Yes, the wine cellar. Surely you knew that she made wine. It’s known all over the south and from coast to coast. You’ve never bought a bottle of Lanier Wine?”

“First time I knew anything about wine was yesterday when the lawyer mentioned it. I thought it was something she invested in.”

“Well, she did invest time and money in it but she loved making it too. I’ll show you where it is if you hide eggs with me and then join me at my folks’ for Easter dinner.”

“I can find it on my own, thank you very much.”

“Oh, really! Well, good luck with that. You’ve been here how often since you were how old and you didn’t even know about it. There’s nearly two thousand acres here. Where do you intend to start looking?”

She finished off her breakfast, poured a second cup of coffee, and thought about where her grandmother would put a wine cellar on the nearly two thousand acres of flat land. And where were the grape arbors? She’d never seen anything but fields and fields of watermelons, not a single bunch of grapes. Surely she didn’t buy the grapes to make the wine. That didn’t sound like Verline Lanier at all. She used to say most of her food came right off Lanier property. Her vegetable garden was big enough to feed half the county and she had fenced off a hundred acres down on the southeast corner of the land to raise steers and hogs for her meat. The chicken pen was out beyond the shed where her new truck was parked. Guineas roamed the yard and pastures because they ate ticks and Rascal and his tomcat buddies kept the rat population at bay.

None of that conjured up a vision of a place where she grew grapes or had a wine making business. Maybe there was no business on the property. Maybe she just had an interest in someone else’s winery and Rye was jerking her around.

He refilled his coffee cup. “Figured out where it is yet?”

“No, but I will.”

Even disagreeing with her hadn’t made him want to scoot right back across the road and forget all about his new neighbor. Matter of fact, she was kind of cute with her blue eyes all wide and her brow wrinkled. “Might as well go on and get dressed. Wear something casual. We never get all dressed up for Easter. It’s just the five kids, Momma and Daddy, and my grandparents who live on the same ranch with them. You’ll make a nice even number of ten this year. Course afterwards there’s people dropping in all evening but it’s still casual.”

“I said I’m not going to hide eggs or go with you. Good grief, Rye, I only met you two days ago. Why would I go home to meet your parents?”

“Because Granny did every Easter and it’ll make it easier if some of her kin is there. We all loved her and now she’s gone. And because it’s Easter Sunday and that’s a family holiday and you shouldn’t spend it alone.”

And because the last thing I promised Granny Lanier was that when you arrived I’d take care of you. She said you’d have some difficult decisions to make about the farm and that I was to help you through the tough times. And because ever since I laid eyes on you at the river I can’t get you out of my mind. Add the fact that the kiss yesterday knocked the common sense out of me and I want to spend today with you.

“Oh, all right,” she said. “Now where is the wine business?”

“I’ll show you when we get home tonight.”

She popped her hands on her hips and locked eyes with him. “I keep my word, Rye.”

He touched the end of her nose with his fingertip and grinned. “I would expect you to since you are a Lanier.”

She was sexy as hell and as frustrating as the itch… the seven-year kind with no cure. He wasn’t sure he could get drunk enough to take his mind off her, especially when every time he managed to come in contact skin to skin he thought he was going to spontaneously combust.

“Then show me now,” she said.

He shook his head. “When you see what she’s done you will want to spend hours there, not minutes. We’ve got to hide these eggs and you’ve got to get ready.”

“At least tell me where she’s hiding a grape arbor?”

He ran a sink of dishwater and began the clean-up. “Grape arbor?”

“Wine!” She raised her voice.

Yep, she was cute as a baby kitten when she was angry.

“She didn’t make that kind of wine. Lanier Wine has a watermelon on it. She made wonderful watermelon wine. Ever heard that song, ‘Watermelon Crawl’?”

Austin was stunned. “There’s really such a thing?”

“Oh, yes, and darlin’, hers is high dollar and coveted by the connoisseurs all over the world. She had quite a little business going here. I suppose you’ll have to apply for all the right licenses to run it in your name now, or maybe she’s already taken care of that?”

Austin lowered her voice. “She did. I signed the papers taking ownership and all the legal stuff yesterday.”

“Well, I expect she’s got her recipes hid in the vault.”

“What vault? Dammit, but you are frustrating!”

One side of his mouth turned up. He was glad that he’d frustrated her because she’d had the same effect on him since he laid eyes on her. “That, too, is something for later. Maybe we’ll even share a bottle sometime. Fifty-five minutes until hiding time. How long does it take you to get ready?”

“Casual?” She sighed.

He nodded.

“Fifteen minutes.”

He tossed a kitchen towel toward her. “Then you’ve got time to dry the breakfast dishes and put them away.”

She caught it midair. “And here I thought you’d make someone a perfect wife. Breakfast. Easter eggs and you wash dishes. But then you blew the whole picture by making me dry the dishes.”

“Is that a proposal?”

“Hell, no!”

“Good, because I won’t marry anyone who doesn’t get down on one knee and who doesn’t have a little velvet box with a ring inside,” Rye teased.

Austin set her jaw and kept the blush creeping up her neck from materializing on her cheeks. The man was handsome, funny, and his kisses would knock a holy woman off the wagon. Mercy, if he ever showed up at a sex addict anonymous meeting he’d break up the whole party. Even a seasoned old gal, who’d been celibate for ten years, four months, seventeen days, and six hours would start peeling her shirt up over her head.

The image that produced made her laugh out loud. Her laughter filled the room like a sweet country song in an old honky tonk beer joint. One minute there wasn’t anything but smoke and conversation and then someone put a quarter in the jukebox and Blake Shelton was singing “Austin.”

“What are you thinking about? You’ve got a funny expression,” Austin asked.

“Austin.”

“Yes?”

“No, I was thinking about Blake Shelton’s song, ‘Austin.’ Are you a country music fan?”

She nodded. “I lived in a divided home. Daddy liked country music. So did Granny. Momma liked Coltrane when she listened to music. She’s not much for music. I still listen to the old country stuff more than the new because that’s what was around. Daddy got a big kick out of that song when it came out since my name is Austin.”

“Your laughter reminded me of country music.”

She frowned. “How?”

“It’s a good thing so stop scowling. When you laughed I got a flash of dancing to that song in a honky tonk.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever had anyone compare my laughter to that. Momma says I laugh like a truck driver instead of a lady.” She hung the drying cloth on the side of the dish drainer. “You can load all those eggs while I’m dressing.”

“Yes, ma’am!” He saluted sharply and clicked his boot heels together. “What were you laughing about anyway?”

“No wonder Granny liked you. You’re crazy! And I’m not tellin’ you what I was laughing about.”

“Oh?” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“No, I am not. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She hurried away before he coerced her into telling him what had been so funny. She took a quick shower, washed her hair and quickly dried it with a blow dryer, ran the straightening iron over it a few times, and dressed in her khaki capris and a bright orange knit shirt.

“Eggs are loaded. Is the Easter bunny ready?” he yelled from the living room.

“One more minute,” she yelled back, but she mumbled, “If he’s really got a pink bunny outfit up there he expects me to wear I swear I’ll find that damned wine making business all on my own.”

She had brought high-heeled shoes and her running shoes from Tulsa. Granny’s feet were a size bigger than hers, so she couldn’t even tap her closet for a pair of sandals. Somehow rubber flip-flops wouldn’t work for a family reunion and her black heels were still a mess from the memorial at the river. So she pulled out the brown leather three-inch multi-strapped sandals and sat down on the edge of the bed.

She couldn’t hide eggs in those things. There’d be quarter inch sized worm holes all over the community building yard if she did. And falling into Rye’s arms yesterday had proved high heels and dirt did not mix. She picked up her running shoes and shoved her feet into them and carried her heels out along with her purse.

He looked up from the table where he was waiting. “Wow! The Easter bunny is beautiful all dolled up!”

She held up the spike heels. “Not in these shoes but I’m changing after we hide the eggs.”

He glanced down at them and imagined her in nothing but those shoes. He shook his head like he was ridding it of a pesky mosquito.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He thought fast and said, “Gemma will try to steal those from you.”

“Thanks for the compliment about being dolled up but I’d fight Saint Peter for these shoes so she’d better be a fast draw or a real fast runner. Are we ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He stood up and opened the door for her, wishing she’d worn the shoes in her hand so she’d tumble into his arms again.

His black truck was parked behind her Corvette and she could see dozens and dozens of colored eggs in the bed when she reached the passenger door. He opened it for her and shut it behind her when she was settled into the seat.

“What happens if a bird flies over the eggs on the way?” she asked when he was behind the wheel.

“Granny and I throw away whatever eggs get splattered with bird crap. We always check them and then argue about being wasteful. She says we ought to wipe it off and hide them anyway because the kids would peel them. But my vote goes to putting them in the trash can.”

“Yuk!”

“She didn’t waste anything. My grandma is like that too. Guess the Depression made pack rats out of everyone.”

She was even cute with her nose all snarled up thinking about bird crap on Easter eggs.

“So the Depression is what I’ve got to blame for that house full of junk,” Austin said.

“Cháchara!” he said.

“That’s what Felix called it. I haven’t seen them in two days. This is Easter weekend, but they work on regular weekends?”

“Until noon on Saturday. Then they get their laundry done and on the line to dry. Granny bought a secondhand washer and dryer for the trailer but they don’t use the dryer. Felix says it’s a waste of sunshine. Sunday they borrow Granny’s old work truck and go to church, come home, and rest up for the week. They work from daylight to dark and you won’t find any better or harder workers than that crew.”

“You don’t have to sell me on them. Granny’s told me for years that she had the best crew in the state. I gave them the keys to the truck and told them to use it when they wanted.”

“Good idea. I’ve been telling Granny to do that for years.”

“Why didn’t she?”

He shrugged. “She liked to be in control. Just because she was getting older didn’t mean she wasn’t still the boss. They’ll be in and out a lot starting Monday. Felix will give you a daily report every evening if you don’t go to the fields to help. They’ve been plowing. Tomorrow they’ll start planting the watermelon seeds. That’ll take about two weeks. That way the first crop will be ready for harvest, then the next one will be ready in a day or two and right on up the road for three miles.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“Learned it all from Granny,” he said.

He drove slowly all the way into town, the trip taking ten minutes when it should have taken three or less. He parked behind the white building across from the school and hurried around the truck to open the door for her.

“What’s the plan?” she asked.

“The plastic ones are in the building. Folks put them there before church and leave it unlocked. We’ll grab a sack each and start hiding. Save the real ones until the end so we don’t step on them while we’re working with the plastic.”

The community building was a long white frame structure with two back doors. The one Rye opened and held for her led into a room with a kitchen on the west end and enough tables and chairs to seat close to a hundred people.

The bar closest to the kitchen was laden down with sacks of plastic eggs filled with candy. She followed Rye’s example, picked one up, and headed out the door. “What now?”

“Hide eggs.”

“Where?” She looked around at the flat yard surrounding the building. The grass was about six inches tall but even that wouldn’t provide much cover for brightly colored eggs.

“Anywhere. Over there at the stage is always good. Beside the fence posts. You are a cute little bunny. Hop around and find places. Oh, and remember the little tots hunt over to the east side, the three- to five-year-olds on the west, and the bigger kids in the front.”

By the time she finished the third bag she was already out of hiding places and had begun to put two at a time in clumps of grass. When they started on the real eggs she started putting a real egg in among two plastic ones.

“There’s enough eggs here for the whole state of Texas,” she said.

“The kids will have full baskets,” he laughed.

“How many of these things are there all total?” she asked when they’d lined the last six real eggs up around a tree on the east side of the building.

“We usually have about six or seven hundred,” Rye said and stepped on two plastic eggs. “Well, shit!”

“No, it was eggs. I heard them crunch under your boots. And that’s chocolate on your boots, not shit.”

He wiped the chocolate off on the grass and bent over to pick up the shattered plastic. “If it had been real eggs, it wouldn’t have made this much mess. What are you grinning about?”

“Nothing. Seems to me like you ought to dye an extra dozen for all the ones you ruin. And your boots look like you’ve been wading in the cow lot instead of hiding Easter eggs.”

She took a step and felt two real eggs squish under her feet.

He brought a trash bag over and picked them up. “You were saying?”

“This place is a like a field of enemy land mines. We’ll have to watch every step to get out of it.” She started picking her way around eggs and back to the edge of the lawn.

He followed behind her enjoying the view of her cute little rounded butt and those legs that went all the way from earth to heaven. His mind went into overdrive and pictured those long shapely legs thrown around his body, with his hands cupping that delectable derriere and he had to press his lips hard together to keep another shit-eating grin off his face.

“It’s twelve thirty. Want to stick around and see the kids find them?” he asked when they were finally out of danger of smashing any more eggs.

“What time is dinner served at your folks’ house?”

“Easter is a late breakfast, dinner on the table at two, and eating the rest of the day. We’ll have plenty of time. Granny and I always watched the kids.”

“Then I’d love to see the kids,” she said.

“We’ll put the tailgate down and sit on it. That way we can see them. Look, the first ones are already here.”

A pickup nosed into a slot in front of the community building. Austin wondered if the low pipe fence had started out as a hitching rail. Terral had been an up-and-coming town in its day with hardware stores, a furniture store slash funeral home, a dentist, a doctor, two drugstores, the Ash hotel, at least one lumber company, a cotton gin, and a feed store. Nowadays the only thing that kept a person from missing the whole town was the two big speed bumps to slow down traffic in front of the school.

She looked across the street at four little girls all dressed up in their pink and white lace Easter dresses and cute white sandals. Pretty soon a whole bouquet of girls gathered up together giggling and pointing at the eggs in plain sight. Boys measured their ties against each other’s to see which was the longest and from their gestures they discussed who was going to fill up their baskets first. Rye watched her with amusement, then she turned to him and he smiled. “Granny and I never hide the prize egg in the same age category two years in a row. It was the three and under age group this year. You like kids?”

“Don’t know. Never been around them very much. I’m an only child. Dad was an only child and Mother has two sisters, both as career minded as she is and neither ever married. How about you?”

“Love ’em. I’m the oldest of five and the mutton bustin’ at the rodeos is my favorite part. You ever seen that?”

She shook her head. “What is it?”

“The little cowboys riding sheep like the big boys ride the bulls. They wrap a rope around one hand, put the other in the air, and try to stay on for six seconds. It’s a real hoot.”

“I think I like those prissy little girls better,” she said.

“Spikes instead of spurs. That’s what Gemma says all time. She says when she has kids she’s having a dozen girls to dress up all pretty. I always remind her that she only wears heels part of the time and that she can put on boots and ride a bull as good as I can.”

A lady dressed in a bright red pantsuit and a fellow in cowboy boots, jeans, and a white shirt set about roping off the three areas with brightly colored crepe paper streamers. When they finished the lady rang a bell on the porch to get everyone’s attention.

The man who’d helped her picked up the cowbell and held it over his head. “Okay, kiddos. On your mark. Get set. Everybody ready?”

Everyone yelled and held up their baskets.

He rang the bell loudly and yelled, “Go!”

It looked like a swarm of bees in a bed of clover as the children took off in a run, gathering eggs into their various colored baskets until they were overflowing.

“Granny got the biggest kick out of watching them. She called them greedy little varmints but she’d laugh and clap her hands. She especially liked the little ones,” Rye said.

A pang of jealousy shot through Austin. Rye had experienced so much more with her grandmother than she had and she had no one to blame but herself.

He touched her arm. “You look sad. This is supposed to be fun.”

His touch sizzled on her skin like cold rain on the top of a sheet metal roof on a hot afternoon. Damn and double damn! How could her world be turned inside out so much in just two days?

“It really is fun. I was thinking about Granny.”

He hopped down off the tailgate and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her so close that she could hear his steady heartbeat. “I didn’t mean to make you sad. She loved you, Austin. Talked about you all the time.”

She fit perfectly into his arms. Short women made him bend so far that it gave him a backache. The few tall ones he’d dated intimidated him. But Austin was just the right height and just the right amount of soft curves and sweet scents and he wished the moment could last forever. He would love to two-step all over a dance floor with her or just stand there and hold her until the sun set that evening. He took a step back before he kissed her right there on the Main Street of Terral and made an utter fool of himself in front of a whole crowd of curious folks.

“You ready to go on to Ringgold?” he asked hoarsely.

She nodded, not trusting herself to say a word. If there was a Holiday Inn in Ringgold she would almost be willing for a side trip on the way, and for a moment she let her imagination run wild with images of tangled sheets and bodies intertwined in ways that made her heartbeat speed up and her mouth go dry and other parts of her go decidedly moist. She shook her head to get herself back under control and sighed. Ringgold had lost half its houses to a fire a few years before, leaving it with about a hundred people. And that was raking up everyone and their cousins in a ten-mile radius. No Holiday Inn for her today.

“Are you sure your folks won’t mind you bringing in an extra?”

“Honey, everyone in the whole area will stop by sometime today. Friends as well as the neighbors. It’s old home week at the O’Donnell place.”

“You told me a casual family affair with only ten people,” she said.

“That’s for dinner. Afterwards is open door and free leftovers.”

It took ten minutes to drive two miles south of Ringgold on Highway 81. Rye slowed down and turned into an oak tree–lined gravel lane with a big white two-story house at the end of the driveway. It had a porch surrounding three sides topped off by a widow’s walk at the top with doorways opening out onto it.

“Welcome to the O’Donnell horse ranch.”

“Horse?”

“Dad is Irish and loves the ponies. He and Mother raise quarter horses, and my brothers help him.”

She kicked off her running shoes and slipped her feet into the spike-heeled sandals and was instantly sorry that she hadn’t come better prepared. The shoes didn’t go with the outfit she had chosen. And she’d forgotten to spray on perfume. Her hair was a fright from hiding eggs and the majority of her makeup had sweated off.

His touch on the small of her back made her even more nervous when she stepped into a cool foyer. The noise of several conversations going on in a room off to the right made her want to run back to Terral and hide. But she held her head high and fought back another shiver when he escorted her into the living room.

“Rye, is that you? It had better be. I’m starving and oh, my God.” A dark-haired woman stared rudely. “Momma, did you know Rye was bringing someone with him?”

“Is it Ace or Wil?”

“It’s Austin,” Rye hollered.

“Well, bring him on in and make him known to the family.”

Everything went so silent that the flutter of angel’s wings would have sounded like shotgun blasts when he ushered Austin all the way into the room.

“Everyone, this is Austin Lanier, Granny’s granddaughter.”

“Welcome to Easter, Austin. Come on in here and get acquainted.” Cash O’Donnell held out his hand and graced her with a broad smile.