Authors: Carolyn Brown
Also by Carolyn Brown
Lucky in Love
One Lucky Cowboy
I Love This Bar
My Give a Damn’s Busted
Honky Tonk Christmas
Love Drunk Cowboy
Red’s Hot Cowboy
Darn Good Cowboy Christmas
One Hot Cowboy Wedding
Just a Cowboy and His Baby
Billion Dollar Cowboy
Cowboy Seeks Bride
The Cowboy’s Christmas Baby
The Cowboy’s Mail Order Bride
How to Marry a Cowboy
Cowboy Boots for Christmas
The Trouble with Texas Cowboys
One Texas Cowboy Too Many
What Happens in Texas
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Copyright © 2016 by Carolyn Brown
Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by John Kicksee
Cover images © Mary Chronis/VJ Dunraven Productions & PeriodImages.com, Michael A. Keller/Corbis
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This book is for my two tomcats, Boots Randolph Terminator Outlaw and Chester Fat Boy, my faithful muses, who protect the house from wicked varmints like mice and crickets so I can write without fear.
Swollen ankles. Puffy face. And now mood swings.
Even with all that, Betsy was so jealous of Angela that she could feel her soul turning neon green. It’s a wonder she didn’t glow with envy like an alien life force.
Angela wiped tears away with a soggy tissue. “It’s a boy, and I’m naming him Christian because he’s arriving during the Christmas season, and he’ll be too old to be baby Jesus next year, and I wanted him to grow up to be a preacher like my daddy and my brother, John, and now he’ll grow up to be a… Oh no…”
“What?” Betsy tensed. “Is it labor? Do I need to call Jody?”
Angela grabbed for more tissues. “No, it’s worse. Burnt Boot isn’t going to have Christmas. It’s an omen. Christian will grow up to be an outlaw and put shame on the Gallagher name.”
Betsy patted her on the arm and wished she had a shot of whiskey, but there wasn’t a drop of liquor in Jody and Angela’s house. Angela abstained from anything that had a drop of liquor in it—she didn’t even have a slice of butter rum cake at the family holiday parties.
“It’ll be okay,” Betsy said. “It’s a season of miracles. Something could happen so that we’ll have Christmas.”
Angela’s blond hair covered her tear-streaked face when she bent forward, head in hands, and wept. “That would take more than a miracle. It would take magic the way the Brennans and the Gallaghers have both set their heels and refuse to give anything to the church for new Christmas decorations.”
“What about the other folks in town?” Betsy asked. “Those who aren’t part of this feud?”
“If they help out with the program, then the feudin’ folks won’t do business with them, so they’re between a rock and a hard place.” Angela lifted her head and threw a handful of soggy tissues in the trash. “I want a Christmas program at the church, and I want my son to be baby Jesus, and I know you can make it happen, Betsy Gallagher.”
Betsy’s emerald-green eyes widened. “I’m not a magician.”
Angela inhaled deeply, straightened her back, and crossed her hands over an enormous baby bump. “I’m depending on you, Betsy. If anyone in the whole state of Texas can put my Christian in that manger for the Christmas program, you can do it.”
“Come on, Angela, you know that Granny would disown me if I lifted a finger to make Christmas happen. You’ll have to be content with the Christmas tree lighting on Main Street,” Betsy said.
Angela held up a finger and sniffled. “No! I won’t be satisfied with that. I want my Christian to be wrapped in swaddling blankets in a manger, and I want the wise men and the shepherds to come and see him.” The finger shifted to point straight at Betsy. “And you are going to talk those two old women into letting it happen.”
Betsy flinched. “Granny will go up in flames if she hears you call her old.”
“I’m sick of this feud. It’s time to bury the hatchet or sign a treaty in blood or spit in their hands and shake like a couple of kids—whatever it takes to end this shit,” Angela said.
“You said a bad word,” Betsy whispered.
Tears started in earnest again. “That should”—
—“how much Christmas means to me?” A final hiccup.
Betsy patted her shoulder and handed her the box of tissues from the coffee table. “I’ll do what I can—I promise.”
Angela blew her nose loudly and hauled herself off the sofa. “Time to go to the bathroom again. All I do is cry and pee. It’s a wonder Jody stays with me.”
Betsy quickly pushed up out of the recliner and said, “I should be going anyway. It’s getting late.”
“I hear Jody driving up in the yard. He’ll be excited that you are going to fix it so that we have a Christmas program.” Angela smiled brightly. “Why don’t you stick around and have a glass of tea with us?”
Betsy needed something a hell of a lot stronger than sweet tea at that moment. She really, really needed a strong shot of good old Irish whiskey, preferably Jameson, or at least a beer. “No thanks. I really do have to go, but you hang in there, girl. It’s only another week until that baby boy will be here. Then, according to what I hear, you won’t get any sleep for a few months.”
Jody pushed through the door, letting a blast of cold November air into the small house. Angela gave him a kiss. “Hello, darlin’. I want to hear about the meeting with Granny Naomi right after I get out of the bathroom. Bundle up, Betsy.”
Jody held Betsy’s coat for her and whispered, “Whatever you did, thank you. She seems happy.”
Betsy raised a shoulder. “I’m supposed to work miracles in the middle of the worst feud war we’ve ever had. She wants me to talk Granny into having a Christmas program at the church. Might as well try to talk a donkey into changing into Cinderella.”
“If anyone can do it, you can.” Jody grinned.
Betsy took those words out the door and into the cold night air, wishing she was as mean and tough as everyone thought. Tanner, her favorite cousin, said she was ninety percent bluff and ten percent mean.
“But you don’t want to test that mean part.” He’d laughed when she’d given him the old stink eye.
Light shined out from the living room window, giving the brown grass a yellow glow, like the star that used to hang from the ceiling at the Christmas program. What Angela wanted was totally impossible, but Betsy would try to think of something. Maybe they could have a Gallagher program at the Christmas dinner, complete with a nativity scene.
She sat in her hot-pink pickup truck for several minutes. Through the window, she saw Jody hug Angela. Their body language said they were in love, and the way Jody’s hands went to Angela’s rounded tummy left no doubt that they couldn’t wait for their son to be born.
Betsy blinked the tears back, refusing to let them fall. She wouldn’t cry for what she couldn’t have. She finally started the engine but sat for several more minutes, staring at the house. It was one of a dozen small log cabin homes scattered about Wild Horse Ranch. They’d been built one by one as first homes for the newly wedded Gallagher couples. When the couple got on their feet and had enough money to buy their own land, they then moved to another section of the ever-growing ranch. She wanted a house like they had. She didn’t care if she never had a big spread of her own. She’d be content to work for her granny and live in a little log cabin the rest of her life if she could have a husband who loved her as much as Jody loved Angela.
* * *
Declan Brennan hated playing poker when none of the O’Donnells showed up. There was always tension, but it was worse when only the Gallaghers and Brennans were at the table. When the O’Donnells or even strangers sat in on the game, the tension of the hundred-year-old feud between the Gallaghers and Brennans wasn’t the very core of the whole evening.
“Where’s Sawyer, Finn, and Rhett O’Donnell? They are usually here.” Tanner Gallagher wore a double shot of confidence like a well-worn old work hat. Blue eyes scanned his cards and flashed nothing but disgust every time he looked at Declan or Quaid Brennan.
Declan combed his sandy-brown hair back with his fingers and tilted his chin up a notch as he glared at Tanner. “I expect they’re home with their wives—something you’ll never have, the way you hop from one woman to the other.”
“Me?” Tanner raised his voice, pushed back his black felt Resistol cowboy hat, and looked down his nose at Declan. “You are the one with a womanizer reputation. If you weren’t a Brennan, I’d ask you to give me lessons.”
Quaid Brennan, Declan’s cousin, straightened up in his chair, squaring his broad shoulders defensively and tucking his square-cut chin into his chest as he glared across the table at Tanner. “He could teach you a lot,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Bullshit! Tanner could talk the first woman to walk through the barroom doors into bed within an hour. It would take Declan a month to do the same job,” Eli Gallagher argued loudly. Eli, a younger Gallagher cousin, had been cut from the same bolt of tough denim as Tanner, with his blond hair and icy blue eyes, but he was a short man with the attitude that went with it. As usual, like a little banty rooster, he was ready to not only start a fight, but also finish it.
Declan added two fives to the ante. “Let’s drop the subject of women and play poker. That’s what we’re here for anyway.”
Quaid studied his cards seriously, green eyes narrowing into slits. He threw his hand down on the table. Cowboy boots and chair legs scraped against the rough, wooden floor as he scooted his chair back and crossed his legs. “I’m out. Don’t let Tanner rile you into something, Declan. He’s got a decent hand over there, and he’s trying to throw you off your game.”
“How do you know that?” Eli asked.
“I know his tells,” Quaid answered. “That’s why I threw in the towel.”
Eli pitched his cards on the table and leaned back in the chair until it was propped against the wall. “Don’t fool yourself, Quaid. Ain’t no Brennan alive who could stand up to a Gallagher for poker or women.”
Tanner’s lips curled upward in more of a grimace than a smile. “Just me and you, Brennan. Want to make this more interesting? Instead of putting money into the pot, I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that your reputation with women is as fake as your poker reputation. I bet you the reason you can’t keep a woman is that you can’t satisfy them and they leave you.”
“And what do I have to do to take that money away from you?” Declan asked.
“The next woman who walks through the door, no matter how old, young, rich, or poor she is—you have to make her fall in love with you in one month. That means taking her to bed, dating her for more than one night, the whole nine yards,” Tanner said.
“Don’t do it,” Quaid whispered. “He’s baiting you.”
Eli whistled through his teeth. “Whoa! Wait a minute. That bet doesn’t have a thing to do with poker, but I like it.”
Two blue-eyed cowboys from feuding families locked gazes, every muscle in their bodies tensed. Smoke from four cigars spiraled up toward a ceiling fan that tried to push it back toward the poker table. Other than the squeaking noise as the blades turned slowly, there wasn’t another sound in the bar for a full thirty seconds.
“I’ll take that bet, but only if you win this hand. If I win, then it’s a reverse deal, and you have to do all those things you just said,” Declan said.
Quaid laid a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “Declan, don’t do this. I’m begging you. It will only add fuel to the feud.”
“Why a month? Why not a week, or two weeks? What does thirty days have to do with it?” Declan asked.
Tanner’s clenched jaw pulsated. “To give you time to take a course in sweet talking. I’m being fair because I don’t think you can do it, and I want the whole world to know when it’s over that you’re not nearly as good with the women as your reputation says.”
“In other words,” Declan said gruffly, “you want to hold the title for being the biggest player in all of Burnt Boot?”
“Don’t listen to him.” Quaid’s tone was tense. “We shouldn’t be playing poker with them, especially without some other folks at the table. They’re Gallaghers, and you can’t trust them.”
Declan stretched his hand over the table and, for the first time in his life, shook with a Gallagher. “Loser has thirty days to make the next woman who walks through the door fall in love with him.”
Declan wouldn’t have taken the bet if he hadn’t trusted in the hand he was holding. A part of him felt sorry for Tanner because he’d just made a fool of himself, but then, he was a Gallagher, and it would be a feather in Declan’s hat to best him. Declan would have the money, and the Gallaghers would lose face. Two beautiful birds shot with one bullet.
“Do we have any other rules?” Declan asked before he showed his hand.
“I’ll make the rules, since my cousin here has to concentrate on his cards with that much riding on this game,” Eli said.
“Wait a minute!” Quaid yelled loudly enough that Rosalie came out from behind the counter.
“You cowboys are free to play poker here, but you’d best remember my rules. This is neutral territory, and by damn, I can—and will—drag that shotgun out from under the counter to enforce them. So keep it civil. Understand?” Rosalie shook her finger at the lot of them.
She hadn’t owned the bar very long, but she didn’t take crap off anyone. The wrinkles around her eyes testified that she was somewhere in her fifties. The strawberry-blond hair worn in a ponytail sticking out the back of her Dallas Cowboys ball cap didn’t have a single gray strand shining in it. Neither Brennans nor Gallaghers wanted to face off with those cold, gray eyes when she was angry.
“Yes, ma’am,” Quaid said respectfully.
“Then play cards or gather up your poker chips and get on out of here.” Rosalie turned back toward the poker table. “Where’s your O’Donnell buddies? I thought this crappy feud might be on its way out when Leah Brennan married Rhett O’Donnell a few weeks ago.”
“Never!” Eli said. “As long as a Gallagher is alive, we’ll keep the feud alive to show these Brennans who’s boss.”
“That’s crazy. Why do you play poker with them?” Rosalie headed toward the jukebox. “It’s all insane anyway. Y’all go to the same church, and nowadays, your kids go to the same school. You’re all ranchers, and both families have a granny who runs things. Sounds to me like you are more alike than different.”
“It’s so sweet to beat them.” Quaid laughed. “They whine like little girls when they lose to us Brennans.”
“Y’all need to end the feud. A hundred years is long enough for folks to carry a grudge.” Rosie plugged the money into the jukebox and chose a few country tunes.
Eli chuckled. “Like that’s gonna happen in my lifetime.”
Declan glanced over at Eli. “Lay out the rules if there are any. If not, let’s finish this game and wait for some old gal to come through the door so Tanner can get on with the business of falling in love with her.”
Eli nodded. “Rule number one: you have a month to make her fall in love with you and get her into bed. It can’t be a one-night stand. I’ll even give you a few extra days, since Thanksgiving is next week and you’ll be busy on the ranch.”
Declan held up a palm. “Whoa, hoss! You’re already talking like I’ve lost this game. The rules are supposed to be for both of us.”