Authors: Merry Farmer,Culpepper Cowboys
you sure you’re feeling up to this?” Rachel fussed over Sly as they made their way to the field where the tug-o-war would take place. She still couldn’t get over the fact that Bev had ordered Hans to hurt Sly, or that that long-haired behemoth had actually fractured a few bones in Sly’s hand with one squeeze. She could have murdered the both of them.
And that was as surprising as anything else. She, Rachel Korpanty—no, wait, Rachel O’Donnell—had finally found something she could worry about more than her company.
“It’s fine,” Sly assured her. He tried to prove it by taking her hand with his splinted one, but one wince of pain and he settled for resting Rachel’s hand in the crook of his elbow, old-fashioned style, as they walked. “My doctor says the fractures are minor and it should heal in a few weeks.”
“Would that be Dr. Elvie?” Rachel asked with a grin. Wow, she was joking and everything. Her world really had been turned upside down.
Sly laughed. “No, that would be Dr. Amy Burke.”
“Amy?” Rachel arched a brow, pretending to be jealous.
Sly saw right through her. “She’s nice, but she doesn’t hold a candle to my beautiful wife.”
Rachel actually lost her breath at the compliment. More than a week of marriage, and she still didn’t know how to take a compliment or feel comfortable with being adored, or loved, or even liked.
It was such a weird feeling that she shook her head and circled back to the easier topic, the competition at hand. “At least Arch agreed to join the team in your place.”
“He had to. Doc, Elvie, and I would have disowned him if he didn’t.” Sly winked.
Rachel let herself laugh as they walked around the edge of the rodeo arena to the field where the tug-o-war had been set up. That was the other thing she found so hard to get used to. Doc, Elvie, and Arch had welcomed her into the O’Donnell family with open arms. It was weird. It was nice. It made her heart hurt to think of everything she’d missed out on for so many years.
Rachel and Sly both glanced to the side to find a tall, broad-shouldered young man in a white chef’s jacket waved to them from a row of vendors between the arena and the tug-o-war field.
“Bob!” Sly waved back and changed direction to head over to his booth.
As soon as they were near, Rachel breathed in the most delicious scent of cooking meat that had ever hit her nose. “Mmm, what’s cooking that smells so great?”
Bob grinned and shifted to the side to reveal a huge grill laden with burgers behind him. “Just giving the good people of Culpepper of little taste of what’s to come. Literally.”
Rachel liked the guy instantly. Or maybe it was his burgers that drew her in.
“If you think they smell good,” Sly said, “wait until you taste those puppies.”
“I’ve already had a few people ask me when the Burger Barn is going to open,” Bob said.
“Burger Barn?” Rachel blinked.
“It’s part of my initiative to draw more businesses to town,” Sly explained. “Bob here plans to open Bob’s Burger Barn soon.”
“Not soon enough, if you ask me.” Allen Jennings stepped over from the Culpepper Culinary Creations booth not that far away and drew in a deep breath of barbecue. “I could eat three of those things right now.”
“Hey!” Felicity, Allen’s wife, pretended to scold him from behind the bakery booth. “Aren’t you supposed to save your appetite for dessert?”
Allen laughed. “You know me, I’ll always have room for cookies.” He winked at her as though there was a double meaning in his words.
There it was again. Rachel felt the happy sensation that she belonged with this community, that she was a part of something besides her company for a change. She liked it, and she totally understood why Sly was so devoted to the town of Culpepper.
“Good luck with your tug-o-war competition.” Bob stepped back to his grill to flip some of the burgers. “I bet you’ll get all sorts of attention, what with all the TV crews that are setting up over there.”
Rachel’s happy mood flattened. “TV crews?” she asked Sly as they walked on.
Sly shrugged, a slight frown creasing his brow. “Just one. From the local station out of Cheyenne. Culpepper is too small to have its own station…yet.”
“Oh, all right.” But Rachel had a weird, itchy feeling that something else was going on.
They kept walking, turning the corner into the tug-o-war field. Rachel stopped dead.
“What on earth?”
The field was set up just as she imagined it would be, with the thick, long rope stretched across it. A strip of red cloth was tied in the center, just like the rope they’d practiced with, but two things had her jaw dropping to the ground. First, the no-man’s-land that one team or another would have to pull that red strip of cloth through wasn’t just a patch of grass marked off. Someone had dug a shallow ditch about six feet across and churned up the dirt. A man Rachel had never seen in Culpepper before was standing to the side with a hose, filling the ditch with water and turning the dirt to mud.
Interestingly enough, Elvie was standing not that far away from the man, watching him with a curious expression on her face. Or rather, watching his backside, encased in tight worn jeans.
But Rachel didn’t have time to wonder what had her sister-in-law so captivated by the handsome stranger, because the second stunning thing she saw was at least five TV crews setting up cameras around the perimeter of the field.
“One local TV station?” she asked, her voice rising in tone and volume. She squinted and looked closer. “Sly, that crew there is from a station in Los Angeles!”
So was one of the other crews. Not only that, Rachel recognized one of the reporters as a super well-known TV personality. What was supposed to be a quick, private competition was about to potentially make national headlines.
Hard on the heels of that thought, a far worse one clicked into place. Rachel tugged her hand out of Sly’s arms and rounded on him. “You did this on purpose.”
“What?” He was too busy gaping at the cameras to look at her directly.
“This is all a publicity stunt,” Rachel roared on. “I should have seen this coming.”
“Publicity stunt? No!”
“I made you cancel that stupid lawsuit, so you had to find another way to get Culpepper attention, didn’t you?”
Sly’s expression hardened into something careful and cautious. He held up his hands, the one splinted and bandaged. “I’ll confess, I did ask the local station to cover the tug-o-war along with the rodeo because I thought it would be good publicity for Culpepper.”
“So you admit this is your doing?” Rachel was incredulous.
“Not this.” Sly gestured with his injured hand to the L.A. crews.
“It’s such an intrusion, Sly. And all for publicity?”
“I would never intrude on you that way,” he said. And although she had a feeling he meant it, the calculated look that came to his eyes as he studied the cameras was a dead giveaway that he wasn’t about to chase them all off or say no to the opportunity they presented.
“It’s too much,” she pressed on. “What if I lose? I’ll be humiliated on national television. Korpanty Enterprises won’t just end up in Bev’s hands, it’ll be a laughing stock. I’ll be the butt of jokes everywhere.” She crossed her arms and glared at Sly.
To his credit, Sly faced her calmly. “Sweetheart, I swear to you I didn’t know about this.”
“It’s so unlike you,” she went on, not sure if her words were an accusation or an excuse. “I know you love your town and you want to see it prosper, but this is embarrassing. This is low. It’s a potential disaster. It’s something…something…”
The pieces clicked in her mind, and at that moment, she caught Bev sashaying toward the field in a white, designer mini-dress and platform sneakers, a smug smile on her face, Hans right behind her.
Rachel sighed. “It’s something Bev would do.”
“Hi!” Bev waved to the cameras, blowing a kiss and leaning forward enough to show off her cleavage. “Hey, Tony.” She winked at one of the L.A. reporters in particular. “Didn’t I tell you this would be fun?”
Instantly, Rachel’s insides scrunched and imploded with guilt. She turned to Sly. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I should have known better than to think you did this.” Tears stung at her eyes. “I’m such a bad wife.”
“No you aren’t.” Sly was quick to pull her into his arms for a hug. “You’re just not used to having people deal fairly with you.”
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t have doubted you.” She hid her face against his shoulder.
Sly rubbed her back. “I can take it. It’s early days yet. I still have to prove myself to you.”
“But you shouldn’t have to—”
“Well, you look like you’re ready to give up.” Bev snorted as she interrupted what was on the way to being a sweet moment between Rachel and Sly.
Anger redoubled and refocused, Rachel pulled away from Sly enough to turn to her sister, scowling. “I should have known that you were behind this. How dare you make me doubt my husband?”
Bev shrugged, Prada handbag swinging in the crook of her elbow. “I dunno.” She was chewing gum and snapped it between her teeth. “I don’t like competition?”
“Competition for what?” Sly growled.
Bev batted her eyelashes at him and thrust out her chest. “I think we both know the answer to that.”
To Rachel’s surprise, Sly laughed as though Bev had told him a ridiculous joke. “I can’t keep a straight face with you acting like that.”
Rachel was about to launch into a tirade against her sister, but before she could, Bev wilted. Not fake pouting to get attention, genuine deflating.
“But I think you’re hot,” Bev sputtered. “And I always get what I want.”
“Not this time,” Sly said, still chuckling. Chuckling like he didn’t take her seriously. He touched Rachel’s arm and started to walk away.
“Wait!” Bev called after them. For the first time in Rachel’s life, she heard a note of desperation in Bev’s voice.
Rachel peeked at Sly as they headed toward the spot where Team Culpepper was gathering at one end of the rope. He returned her covert look with one that said not to glance back, not to pay the slightest bit of attention to Bev. It was like a lightbulb going off in Rachel’s head. Bev always got what she wanted because the one and only thing Bev wanted was attention. And, sucker that she was, Rachel had always given it to her, good or bad.
“I can’t believe I fell for it all these years,” she murmured.
“Not anymore,” Sly whispered in return. He reached out with his good hand. Thankful that she was walking on the right side, Rachel took it. She had the shaky feeling that she’d just been set free from a lifelong cage.
“Wait!” Bev’s shout was louder this time, and more sinister.
That alone caused Rachel to pause and turn around. Bev continued to stand where she was, her vicious smile back in place. Hans was behind her, but he wasn’t the only one. Men were beginning to head toward them from the corner of the rodeo arena. Big men. Hot men. Men who wore little more than tighty-tight shorts and tank tops. Korpanty brand tank tops. They looked good in those Korpanty tops. Of course they would. It wasn’t the first time they’d worn them.
Because they were the underwear models.
No wonder they’d all called out from the current photo shoot. They were all here, in Culpepper.
Bev planted her hands on her hips and grinned in victory. “What do you think of my team?” she asked. “The Korpanty Underwear Boys.”
ly instantly smelled a rat
. A rat wearing too much designer perfume. Before he could stop to think, he blurted out, “They can’t compete for you. We said only Culpepper citizens could compete.”
“Oh, but these are Culpepper citizens,” Bev informed them all—especially the TV cameras which were now all circling in—with a wicked grin. “Every one of these men is married to a woman from Culpepper.”
The swiftly-growing crowd around them gasped. The men—whether they were on Team Culpepper or not—growled. Those were the guys. Bev’s team was entirely made up of the very underwear models that had destroyed the prospects of just about every man in Culpepper.
To add insult to injury, at a signal from Bev, the underwear models all unbuttoned their super small shorts and stepped out of them. A few of the women in the crowd giggled or made appreciative sounds as the models kicked their shorts aside and posed in their underwear. Sly hoped it was their wives doing the ogling.
“You just can’t beat the sight of a field of men in Korpanty briefs,” Bev cooed.
“That’s the new fall line,” Rachel whispered, gripping Sly’s arm anxiously. “It only just went up on the website last week.”
Those few little words caused an inspiration bomb to go off in Sly’s head. Time slowed down for a second as he assessed the situation. Ten underwear models wearing Korpanty Enterprises latest designs. Half a dozen TV cameras filming the tug-o-war. His Culpepper friends in their own tight t-shirts and jeans, looking ready to compete. Were any of those TV cameras broadcasting live?
“Elvie!” He waved urgently for his sister.
Elvie wasn’t that far away and came running. Chastity and Grace happened to be standing near her, so Sly waved them over too.
“Aren’t my guys sizzling hot?” Bev continued to vamp for the cameras, distracted. Good. That could only help them.
“What’s going on?” Elvie asked when she reached him.
“I’d like to know that myself,” Rachel said. The anxious frown she wore pierced straight to Sly’s heart, but if his hunch was right, he was about to wipe that frown off of her face forever.
“Do you three have your cell phones with you?” he asked Elvie, Chastity, and Grace.
“Yeah,” all three answered, taking them out.
“Good. Go to whatever live-streaming site you can find—you know, those apps that let you broadcast something live—and start recording everything. Put the link to Korpanty Enterprise’s fall collection on whatever you’re streaming.”
Rachel’s mouth dropped open, and she gasped. “But this could turn out to be a total humiliation.” She bit her lip.
Sly shook his head. “It could also go viral.” He turned back to Elvie. “Put the link to the Culpepper Chamber of Commerce on your video stream as well.”
“Got it,” Elvie said. One look was all it took to see she knew exactly what Sly was aiming for. She held up her phone, pointing the camera at Sly and Rachel. “Hey everybody, we’re here in Culpepper, Wyoming where the cowboys of Culpepper are about to have a tug-o-war with underwear models from Korpanty Enterprises.” She panned the field, then went right on talking. “This is a grudge match, because a couple years ago these underwear models swooped in and married most of the women in Culpepper. The town now has a whole mess of single, lonely cowboys.” She panned over to Team Culpepper.
“But those guys are all married,” Rachel whispered, edging out of the way of Elvie’s shot.
ones are,” Sly said. “But there are plenty of others who aren’t.”
“Isn’t that false advertising?” Rachel persisted.
Sly shrugged. “Does it matter if it gives both of us a boost?”
“Both of us?” Rachel bit her lip, confused.
Over to the side, Chastity now had her phone up and pointed at Team Korpanty. “Oh my gosh, look at how hot those guys are! That underwear is dynamite. I think you can buy it online right now for your man too.”
Sly turned back to Rachel and winked. Rachel’s jaw dropped again, but this time in awe.
“Oh my gosh, viral marketing,” she whispered.
She didn’t have time to say more, and Sly didn’t have a chance to explain his sudden plan more fully. Bev sauntered over to them, her smile as smug and clueless as ever.
“Let’s get this competition over and done with. I’ve got a special evening planned back in L.A. to celebrate our victory, and I don’t want to be late.”
“You’re so sure you’re going to win?” Rachel took a step toward her sister so that they stood nose to nose. It was more ferocity than Sly had ever seen from his wife, and he loved it.
“Honey, are you so stupid that you don’t remember that I always win?” Bev taunted her.
“I’m not the stupid one,” Rachel snapped right back. “I’m not the one who had to pay Dad’s interns to do her homework for her…in fifth grade.”
Bev gasped, her cheeks going puce. “Well at least I had a date for my senior prom.”
a date.” Rachel leaned in and growled. “Then you dragged him into the hall closet to play Seven Minutes in Heaven.”
“He didn’t complain,” Bev shot back. “It’s not like you were going to put out.”
Rachel’s back went straight and her eyes flared. “There’s more to being desirable than putting out.”
“You can say that again,” Sly backed her up.
“Yeah? Well you can’t even find ten guys to pull on a rope without hubby-wubby’s help,” Bev snorted.
“I’ve helped her because I love her,” Sly all but shouted before he could control himself. “And I’ll continue to help her in whatever way she needs me to for the rest of our lives. Can you say the same?”
Bev opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She gaped a few more times, then clenched her jaw and glared at Rachel. “That’s it. We’re going to settle this once and for all.”
“My pleasure,” Rachel growled in response.
“Hans?” Bev barked.
When he didn’t come right away, Bev turned to look for him. Hans stood several yards off, talking to a woman dressed up as a rodeo clown, her hair in pigtails. The way he looked at her left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’d been struck by Cupid’s arrow. Bev yelped in offense.
“Looks like you’re going to have to solve your own problems for a change,” Rachel told her, planting her hands on her hips.
Bev whipped back to her. “Then you are too.”
Rachel shrugged. “Fine. Bring it on.” Sly had never been prouder of her, especially when she went on to say, “There’s a tug-o-war about to happen. Your team versus my team. Shouldn’t the team captains compete as well?”
For a moment, Bev looked truly horrified. She glanced past Rachel to where both teams were lining up along the length of rope. Her expression hardened. “You’re on.”
* * *
directly had seemed like such a good idea…until Rachel found herself stomping toward the rope and Team Culpepper, Sly by her side.
“If you’re nervous, all you really need to do is hold onto the rope and let the guys do the tugging,” Sly tried to reassure her.
“I have a little muscle too,” she told him, taking her cell phone and her keys and everything else out of her pockets and handing them to him. Still, she would have felt better if she was a little more confident about that muscle. And if Sly would be standing right behind her tugging too. But with his wrist, there was no way.
The only thing that kept her from changing her mind and calling the whole thing off was Bev’s peevishly determined expression as she marched over to her own team in her five-inch heels. She would be able to dig those suckers deep into the ground to anchor her. Once again, her bratty little half-sister had an advantage. Well, she wasn’t going to take that lying down.
“Team captains stand in front,” she called across the wide, muddy ditch to Team Korpanty as she reached the rope.
Bev had been trying to find her way to the back of the line of underwear models—who were all flexing and posing for the cameras. She stopped and whipped around with a squeak. But as soon as she saw Rachel’s determined face, her own face hardened into a mask of spite. She stomped up to the front of the rope. A brief flash of panic filled her eyes as she stared into the muddy hole. Bev detested anything messy. Rachel wasn’t sure if it would be an advantage to her as Bev got grossed out or whether it would make her work even harder to avoid the mess.
“Holy crap, these Culpepper cowboys look amazing,” Chastity narrated loudly as she panned the line Team Culpepper had made with her phone. She stopped at Chris. “I have it on personal authority that this one’s the sexiest.”
“Hi, babe.” Chris winked and flexed for the camera.
Rachel shook her head. She had no idea how getting people on the internet worked up over married men would help Culpepper, but then again, Chastity might not realize what the point of the filming was. Or she might just be distracted by her husband. Those two had a reputation. Rachel turned and looked for Sly in the growing crowd watching. Then again, it might not be bad to have a reputation when it came to loving your husband. And that’s what Sly had said just now. That he loved her.
Sly loved her. The truth of things hit her hard, leaving her momentarily stunned. Somebody loved her. Not just somebody, HIM.
“Teams to your rope!” They’d arranged to have Roy the electrician referee the tug-o-war. He now stood at one end of the mud pit, Linda Culpepper by his side. She looked as enthusiastic about the competition as anyone.
Linda liked her too, Rachel realized when the woman gave her a confident thumbs-up. Not just Linda, but all the guys who picked up the rope behind her. Every one of the Culpepper boys, the O’Donnell family, and all of their friends. As Rachel stared down Bev on the other side of the rope, a strength infused her that had been a long time in coming. She had friends. She had family.
“On your marks, get set, GO!”
As soon as Roy gave the word, the men on both sides of the rope put their full strength into tugging. The crowd erupted into applause. Rachel focused hard, wanting to contribute, not just stand there holding onto the rope and pretending to compete, like she could see Bev was doing. The tension that snapped the rope taut was incredible, and Rachel could feel the strength of both sides as they all put their backs into it. For a minute, the red strip of cloth hung suspended in the air, not moving more than a few inches to one side or the other. The teams were evenly matched.
At least, the men were evenly matched.
The crowd continued to shout and carry on, some people jumping up and down. All of the TV cameras had their lights flashing, and Elvie, Chastity, and Grace were talking up a storm as they broadcast their own shows live across social media. Rachel was too focused to make eye contact with Sly, but she could feel him cheering her on, feel him pouring his devotion into her. She’d spent so long thinking that she had to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, that she had to do it alone, but Sly had taught her that that simply wasn’t true. He was with her. He always would be. He’d said so, and at the end of the day, she believed him.
That was what pushed her to put everything she had into pulling on that rope. She grunted and bared her teeth and tugged for all she was worth. And slowly, the red strip of cloth inched toward the Team Culpepper side. Bev’s eyes widened as one of the heels on her shoe snapped. Rachel pulled harder. The guys may have been evenly matched, but the two of them certainly weren’t. There was no question who was the stronger of the two of them. A grin spread across Rachel’s face. She had this.
In an instant, she met Bev’s eyes across the muddy pit between them. For the first time in her life, Rachel saw the fear of impending defeat in Bev’s eyes. A fraction of a second later, Bev gave up. The rope shifted toward Team Culpepper’s side. Seconds later, Bev tumbled boobs first into the mud pit, just as the red flag whizzed across the Culpepper side. Team Culpepper had won.
The crowd burst into cheers and whoops of victory, chanting, “CUL-pep-per! CUL-pep-per! CUL-pep-per!” The TV cameras rushed in for close-ups of the winning team. All of the Culpepper guys waved and thumped each other on the back. The underwear models—all of whom had avoided spilling into the mud with Bev—pouted in defeat, but as soon as the cameras were pointed at them again, they went back to preening and flexing. Rachel was secretly glad. This might just have been the best underwear shoot she could have imagined. Sly, her husband, was a brilliant man.
She turned to scan the crowd converging on them, looking for him. Just as she spotted him, she felt something clamp around her ankle.
“How dare you!” Bev yelled, coming up from the mud pit like a primordial monster emerging from the ooze.
Except that she wasn’t emerging. She grabbed Rachel’s other ankle and yanked.
Rachel lost her balance and went splashing into the mud by Bev’s side. Cool, mushy ooze soaked all around her, leaving her disoriented for a second. But only a second.
“I was supposed to win,” Bev shouted, flailing to find Rachel’s arm or leg or any part of her in the mud. “I’m always supposed to win.”
That was it. Something old and ugly snapped in Rachel. “You are not supposed to
win,” she shouted back. She writhed around until she caught hold of Bev’s arms, wrestling with her. “You are such a spoiled brat! You couldn’t be content with toys and cars and clothes. You had to steal my company too. You had to steal my dad!” She scooped up a handful of mud and threw it right in Bev’s face.