My next release is a full-length novel in the Grape Seed Falls Romance series. It’s called CRAVING THE COWBOY, and it features a man named Dwayne Carver – does Carver ring a bell? His parents got a short introduction in the novelette, CHOOSING THE COWBOY, which came out last summer. But this year, there will be 6 more full-length novels, starting in February and running through June.
Not only is Dwayne the son of Maggie and Chase Carver from Choosing the Cowboy, but he’s Squire Ackerman’s cousin – remember him from Second Chance Ranch? Dwayne is the owner of his family’s ranch in beautiful Texas Hill Country!
And you can read Chapter One of CRAVING THE COWBOY right here! Preorder here for only 99cents.
Dwayne Carver sat in the cab of his truck, taking an extra moment to prepare to get out for two reasons. One, it was mighty hot in Texas Hill Country this afternoon. Two, he’d have to smile and laugh and converse with people for the next few hours. For a man who spent most of his time with horses, dogs, and his parents, what he was about to do definitely required a second or two to gather his internal strength.
He exhaled and reached for the door handle. The heat hit him square in the chest, making his breath stick in his lungs. He’d been coming to the Peach Jamboree and the rodeo in Crawford for as long as he could remember. Born and raised in Grape Seed Falls, just a short fifteen minute drive from the county seat, Dwayne wouldn’t be Texan without attending at least one rodeo every summer.
As it was only June, Dwayne was getting his quota filled early. If only Mother Nature had gotten the memo that it was still early in the summer. He couldn’t even imagine what August would be like this year.
He pushed the weather from his mind as his boots drank up the dust during the long walk toward the festivities already in full swing. He usually stuffed himself full of biscuits and peach preserves, fried chicken and waffles, and more sweet tea than a person should be allowed to drink.
But not today.
Oh, no. Today, he was sitting in the dunk tank, determined to hold down his record of staying dry for the third summer in a row. A bit of pride swelled his chest, and he worked to squash it. His dad always said pride didn’t wear well on a man, and Dwayne couldn’t rid himself of the life lessons his parents had instilled in him.
“There you are.” Amelia Hardy approached, a round woman just a few years older than Dwayne.
“I’m not late, am I?” He didn’t wear a watch, but glanced up at the sky like the sun would confirm that he’d arrived on time.
“Our last participant went under so many times, he left early.” Amelia smoothed back her hair, the curly wisps of it making her seem a bit crazed.
“Well, I’m ready.” Dwayne glanced over her head to find the area in front of the dunk tank empty. No wonder Amelia was frazzled. Each throw cost a dollar and the church used the money they earned from the Jamboree to fund their music programs.
“You’re going in like that?” She scanned him from the tips of his cowboy boots to the silver cowboy hat on his head.
He grinned at her and pressed his right arm to his side as the tremors started to shake his fingers. “I’m not goin’ in.” He stepped past her, hoping his neurological disorder would quiet down. He prayed for it.
Just four a few hours, he thought. No tremors for a few hours, okay, Lord?
Dwayne climbed the ladder on the side of the dunk tank and balanced his boots on the narrow rail before sitting on the platform above the water. For a moment, he thought maybe he should pray someone would hit the button dead-on so he could cool off.
He swiped off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Ready,” he called to Amelia.
She picked up a megaphone and started calling for people to come “dunk the man who hasn’t gotten wet in three years!”
Only a few minutes passed before people started gathering around, their curious eyes all lasered on him. Dwayne worked to keep himself still. It wouldn’t do to show the crowd that he was nervous.
A boy no older than twelve paid for five baseballs, and Dwayne relaxed. He didn’t have anything to worry about with a kid. The boy threw the first ball and it didn’t even reach the dunk tank.
“C’mon!” Dwayne called good-naturedly. “You can get it here!”
Out of the five balls, only two made it anywhere near the tank, and that was only to bounce off the front of it.
A pack of cowboys came into view, and Dwayne’s chest seized. His cowboys hadn’t come. They hadn’t. Kurt had promised he’d—
The man leading them turned, and his trademark white cowboy hat testified that Kurt had fibbed. Because not only had he come, he’d brought all sixteen cowboys from the ranch with him. And they were all holding cash.
Dwayne called, “Nice try, boys. I’ve seen y’all throw ropes, and I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“We’re fixin’ to see you dripping wet,” Kurt called back, rotating his shoulder as if stretching it out.
Dwayne scoffed, but a thread of nervousness pulled through him. He had seen Kurt throw a rope, and the man never missed. He wasn’t foreman at Grape Seed Ranch for no reason. His skills with a rope were the least of his qualifications, and Dwayne watched as he huddled up with the other men.
An order was clearly established, because Kurt stepped to the back of the line while the smallest cowboy—Austin—handed his money to Amelia. Dwayne couldn’t see the denomination from this distance, but Amelia held up the bill and proclaimed, “Ten baseballs for the handsome cowboy!”
She was married, but she looked and sounded absolutely gleeful at the amount.
Dwayne’s chest tightened. He couldn’t be dunked by one of his men. He’d never live it down, and every ranch function would become a constant ribbing of how he’d looked in soaking wet jeans and ruined cowboy boots.
He wasn’t going in. Not today. Not at the hand of a cowboy.
An hour passed while his cowboys tried to unseat him, as the crowd surrounding them grew and swelled. Laughter and catcalls and cheers filled the air, and still Dwayne stayed dry. The platform wobbled with the last of Kurt’s balls, which barely missed its mark.
“Awww,” the crowd moaned in tandem.
Dwayne grinned at his men. “Maybe next year, boys.” He inched toward the ladder, his back starting to ache, and his blasted right arm tremoring no matter how hard he leaned into his palm on the wooden platform.
He’d signed up for a few hours, but he always got a break every so often.
“One more?” Amelia called, barely glancing over her shoulder.
Dwayne said, “Sure,” as he searched for the next person who thought they could dunk him when a herd of cowboys couldn’t.
The crowd stepped back and a woman met his eye. A tall, tan, raven-haired woman, who wore a black cowgirl hat with a red beaded hatband. With her long, jean-clad legs, the dark red cowgirl boots, and the canary-colored tank top, Dwayne had never seen such a heavenly vision.
His heart started pumping harder, and not because he was worried she could unseat him.
Who was she?
Dwayne had never seen her before, and he reasoned that he’d been out of the marriage market for a while. It was entirely possible that more females than he knew had moved to Grape Seed Falls in the past four years since he’d stopped dating.
He gripped the platform with all his fingers, watching her as her lips lifted into a smile. “You don’t think I can sink you, do you?”
Dwayne lifted his left shoulder a couple of inches. Might as well be honest. “Not really.”
She tossed the baseball from one hand to the other. Left to right. Right to left.
His elbow shook the tiniest bit, and he locked it. He didn’t want this woman to ever know about his time in the military, which had led to his traumatic brain injury, which had left him with this trembling in his right hand and arm.
At the same time, he wanted a lot more time to spend with her, and if he did that, he’d probably have to tell her about himself—including his time in the military, the explosion that had changed his life, and why his right hand shook at random times.
Like it was now.
“How many balls did you buy?” he asked.
“Just this one.” She gripped it in her right hand.
Just this one.
She was a confident little thing, and Dwayne’s admiration for her grew. Still, she couldn’t weigh more than one-twenty, soaking wet. And even that was generous.
“All right,” he drawled. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” He wanted her to throw already. Then he could get down for a few minutes. Get some of that sweet tea he loved so much. Get cooled off. Take some painkiller.
She planted her feet and cocked her arm. She threw, and Dwayne only had one second before he realized her aim was dead-on. One more second before the ball hit the button.
And then nothing before the platform disappeared beneath him. Cool water enveloped him, covering him from head to toe. His leather boots hit the bottom of the tank, and he came up sputtering, water dripping from the brim of his hat and soaking his jeans, polo, and boots.
Laughter and cheering met his ears, but Dwayne could only stare as disbelief and humiliation spread through him like poison. He met the woman’s eyes, and she ducked her dark cowgirl hat and disappeared into the mass of people.
On Monday morning, Felicity Lightburne woke with a buzz in her stomach that wasn’t exactly comfortable. She glanced around the still-unfamiliar bedroom, disliking the butter-yellow curtains as much now as she had when she’d moved in last week.
She sighed as she dragged her legs from under the bedspread and sat on the edge of the mattress. Felicity wasn’t bothered by the early hour. She was used to rising before the sun and being in the training ring with a horse by dawn.
She was used to sipping coffee in the dark, and smelling like dust and horse flesh, and showering in the afternoon just to get the layer of sweat and dirt off her skin.
But she didn’t want to go work at a ranch without her father. Didn’t want to work at a ranch that wasn’t her father’s.
“Couldn’t stay there,” she muttered to herself as she reached for the pair of jeans she’d worn yesterday. She could wear them again; all she’d done was wander around town and then attend the rodeo in Crawford. At least Grape Seed Falls and the other small Texas towns surrounding it possessed charm.
“Give me strength for this day,” she whispered as she moved into the kitchen. She set the coffee to brew, scraped her hair back into a ponytail, and ate a banana before leaving for the new ranch where she was starting her new job. Apparently, the owner needed to hire out the training of the horses as the ranch continued to grow and expand. He’d hired her over the phone, and he’d seemed nice enough. Impressed with her credentials. Relieved to have her.
But none of that relief entered her system as she set her car west and left the town proper of Grape Seed Falls behind. She kept her arm draped lazily across the steering wheel, as if this was just another day at work. Just another commute.
But it wasn’t.
Number one, she’d never commuted to work. She got up and walked out of the rambler where she’d grown up, crossed a few hundred yards, and entered the stables.
Number two, she’d never worked for anyone else. Her family’s cattle ranch sat just outside of Dallas, and she’d worked the land there and learned to train horses from the greatest trainer Texas had ever seen. Her dad.
His death punched her right in the face, making her eyes sting and her nose run. She hated the simultaneous hot-cold feeling, hated that all it took was a simple thought of his pale blue eyes and quick smile to make her breath catch and her chest feel hollow.
Felicity managed to master her emotions before she arrived at Grape Seed Ranch and turned down the drive. The homestead was handsome, with a beautiful yard surrounding the house. She parked by the biggest barn and got out of her car, wondering where to go next.
“Mornin’,” a man called, and Felicity turned, ready to pin her smile in place and make it through this day.
One day at a time, she coached herself. Her mom had told her that every day following Dad’s death. Felicity had tried to stay at the family ranch. She really had.
She turned, thinking this ranch already felt better. Freer. Like the air held oxygen instead of pure sadness.
“You must be Felicity.” The cowboy drew closer, and Felicity sucked in a breath when she recognized him.
He froze in the next nanosecond, obviously recognizing her too.
He was the cowboy she’d dunked with a single throw, after plenty of capable men hadn’t been able to get the job done. And by the dark look filling his face, he wasn’t happy to see her again.