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All my life I've heard that a person never truly forgets their first love. They may move on and love again, maybe even stronger than they did that first time around, but they never forget that person who truly made their heart do flip-flops for the very first time.
This is the story of Hud Baker and Rose O'Malley, who didn't quite put out the embers that blazed when they were in middle school. Fate, Destiny, or God—maybe all three combined—have thrown them together again halfway across the state of Texas from where they grew up.
Having these characters in my head the whole time I was writing this story was quite an experience. At times I cried with them. At others, I giggled until tears rolled down my cheeks, and sometimes they even got into my dreams to tell me how to write the next chapter. I truly hope y'all enjoy reading their story as much as I did writing it.
As always, I have so many people to thank for helping me take this from an idea to the finished product you see on the shelves today. Let's have a big round of applause for my agent, Erin Niumata, who's been with me for more than twenty years, and for my agency, Folio Literary Management. Let's hear it for Grand Central/Forever for continuing to believe in me, and for my editor, Leah Hultenschmidt, for all her hard work in helping me to grow as a writer. And to my team at Grand Central for all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into copyedits, proofing, publicizing, and making the gorgeous covers for my books.
Now I'd like a standing ovation for my husband, Mr. B, who is always willing to do whatever it takes so I can write one more chapter. And who can be ready in thirty minutes to go on a road trip so I can see the areas that I'm writing about. It takes a special person to live with an author, and he does an amazing job of it. One more thank-you—to all my readers. For your notes, your encouragement, your reviews, your book club selections—I bow to you!
Until next time,
Hud Baker felt like a rodeo bull in a lingerie shop. Give him a feed store that smelled like hay or a western-wear place with the heady aroma of leather and he was right at home, but a gift shop that specialized in scented candles and potpourri—definitely not a place for a Texas cowboy.
Several signs on the shelves warned that if he broke something, he would be buying it. He was afraid to turn around for fear he'd knock over more than one candle or cute little crystal angel. No one was there to wait on him, and there were no other customers. The bell on the checkout counter beside the cash register had a sign right beside it that said RING FOR ASSISTANCE.
He took a step forward to ring the bell, stuck his foot in a plastic bowl that had been catching a drip from the ceiling, and stumbled around like a peg-legged pirate. Those little signs about breaking it and buying it flashed through his mind as icy cold water splashed up over the top of his cowboy boot.
"Holy crap! I thought the ceiling had fallen down." A petite woman came out of the back room with a big box in her hands.
She startled Hud so badly that he spun around and started to fall forward. He reached out to grab something to stop his momentum, but he drew his hands back just seconds before he latched on to a glass shelf. If he'd brought down a whole rack of those expensive candles and crystal things with the dried grass in them, he'd have to sell his half of the ranch to pay the bill. Finally, he got control, but his foot was still stuck in the oversize bowl, which now had far less water in it, since so much was in his boot.
"Well, hello, Hudson Baker." She flashed that brilliant smile that he remembered from junior high school. "I wondered if you'd ever get around to coming to see me. I was beginning to think maybe I'd have to call you."
"Hello to you, Cactus Rose." He'd thought he'd never see her again, and now she was right there before him—a gorgeous woman in place of a cute teenager—and he started off with that line? He wanted to pop himself on the forehead with his wet boot.
"Just Rose these days. I dropped the Cactus years ago." She leaned against the counter. "You sure took your own good time about droppin' by the shop. I've been here two weeks."
He didn't tell her that he'd driven by the Rose Garden B&B nearly every day, but he had to build up his courage to come inside. She'd been his first love, his first kiss, and he'd never forgotten her—and now she was back, but he had no idea how long she planned to stay.
He pulled his foot out of the water and set it down on the tile floor. "I was giving you time to get settled before I dropped by. I answer to Hud now, not Hudson."
"Guess we've both done some changin'." Her grin got even bigger.
"I hope so." He wiggled a dark eyebrow. "After all, we aren't in junior high school anymore."
"Thank God," she said.
"And just what does that mean?" he asked.
"For starters, I have learned kiss a little better," she laughed.
"I thought that first one was pretty dang good," he said.
"Oh, really?" One of her eyebrows shot up. "I figured you and Tag would have had lots of practice, as popular as you were."
"Tag might have, but not me. Kissin' you that day was my first one," he admitted. "Sooooo, how long are you in Bowie for?"
"At least until Aunt Molly comes home from her long vacation," she answered.
"Did you ever get married?"
"Well, you never were one to beat around the bush, huh?" She stepped away from the counter, tiptoed, and hugged him. "It's really good to see you again, and no, I'm not married, engaged, or even dating." She took a step back and stared right up into his eyes. "I'll be here another couple of weeks at the least. If I had your phone number I might call you sometime."
"Well now, darlin', I'd love to see you," he drawled.
"If you'll give me your phone, I'll make it easy for you," she said.
He fished it out of his pocket and handed it over to her. She programmed her number into it and gave it back. Then she picked up his hand and wrote the land line number for the inn on his palm. "Now we have no excuse not to call each other, unless you're married, engaged, or dating. I don't trespass on another woman's property."
"No, ma'am. None of the above." He shook his head and wondered if she felt the same sparks he did. "Why didn't you talk like this a couple of weeks ago when I saw you at the Christmas party?"
She turned around and started across the floor without answering. Which in some ways gave him all the answer he needed. "We should get this mess cleaned up," she said.
"Where's a mop? I made this mess. I'll clean it up."
"That's sweet of you." Rose led him into the storeroom. "The mop is in the closet along with more of those cheap plastic bowls."
He found the mop and carried it back out to the shop. "I came to buy my sister a present for her birthday," he told her.
She laid a hand over her heart. "My poor little heart is broken. I thought you came in just to see me."
"You lied to me, Rose O'Malley." He leaned on the mop. "You said you'd changed. I don't see that at all."
She cocked her head to one side, just like she had the first time he'd sat down beside her in the school cafeteria. "What exactly do you mean?"
"That you're still sassy as ever," he answered.
"I'll take that as a compliment," she said. "Now, do you see something you'd like for Emily's birthday?"
She remembered his sister's name—that had to be a good thing, right?
"I haven't had time to look around. I was too busy sticking my foot in a big bowl of water," he joked.
"How about scented candles?" Rose asked.
"She'd probably like that," Hud said.
"Over on the far wall." She motioned, and started that way.
"By the way, where's Tag these days? Did he move to this area with you?"
His twin brother had an aura of dangerous excitement that drew women to him like drunks to a honky-tonk. Hud had lived his whole life in the shadow of Taggart Baker, and that's the main reason why Tag never knew about the teenage crush Hud had had on Rose O'Malley all those years ago.
"He's married now," Hud told her, "and his wife, Nikki, is a nurse at the hospital here in Bowie."
"That surprises me." She took what looked like crystal cupids from one of the boxes. "Not that his wife is a nurse, but that he settled down. That boy was so wild in junior high school I figured that a jealous boyfriend or even husband would've shot him by the time he graduated."
"Nikki tamed him down a lot." His foot was still wet, and with the freezing temperature outside, his toes would probably be frostbitten when he got home, but flirting with Rose was well worth whatever price he had to pay.
Hud had learned a lot from his twin brother—like how to sweet-talk a woman off the dance floor and into bed—but this was Rose, the little red-haired girl he'd fallen hard for when he was only fourteen years old. The woman he'd never forgotten, and who would probably be leaving in only two more weeks. He remembered the day he'd first seen her in the hallway at the junior high school. The last bell had rung, and in five minutes they needed to be in homeroom.
"Are you new here?" he'd asked. "I haven't seen you around."
She nodded. "I'm Cactus Rose O'Malley."
"Eighth grade?" he guessed.
He'd motioned with his hand. "Follow me. We go to homeroom first thing in the morning. I'll show you where it is."
A whiff of her perfume as she walked past him brought him from the past to the present, and he had to fight the urge to follow her as she made her way behind the counter and perched on a stool. "So what have you been doing since you left Texas?"
"We moved to Louisiana, way down deep in the bayou country," she said.
"Did you go to public school there?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Mama had always homeschooled me until we came to Texas. Mama had to fight my daddy to let me attend public school. It had always been her dream to go, and she wanted me to have the experience, even if it was for only a year or two."
* * *
Rose's thoughts went back to the days when she and Hud were in the same classes at the Tulia Junior High School out in the panhandle of Texas. That first day of school she'd gone with Hud to homeroom, and that's when she'd met Tag. He and Hud weren't identical twins, and they looked like brothers, but their personalities were as different as day and night. Tag reminded her of a couple of the boys in Kentucky who flirted with any girl next to them. From that first day she could see that the other schoolgirls were ga-ga over Tag, but she was more drawn to Hud with his sweet smile and pretty green eyes.
"So you've been in Louisiana all these years?" Hud propped the mop at the end of the counter.
"No, we were only there for a little while. The next year we went to Florida." She hopped off the counter and rearranged a shelf of crystal cupids. Then she took a step back to look at her work. One minute, she'd been looking right at Hud's green eyes and thinking about how sweet he'd been in junior high school—always saving her a place on the bus, or a chair right beside his in the cafeteria at lunch, and walking with her every morning from her locker to homeroom. She wasn't paying a bit of attention where she stepped when she stepped backward and her foot slipped on a puddle of water. Everything moved in slow motion. He reached out to grab her. Her knees buckled and she went down butt first into the bowl that was still half full of water.
Rose giggled and then guffawed. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she tried to wiggle her way out of the green plastic bowl. The mop hit the floor with a bang, and Hud's arms were still outstretched. He took a couple of steps forward and extended his hands. "I tried to catch you. Are you hurt?"
She put her hands in his and let him pull her up. The bowl actually made a popping sound when she unstuck it from her butt. "No, I'm not hurt"—she continued to giggle even though water dripped from her rear end onto the floor—"it's not funny, but it kinda is. Thank you for the hand. I would have looked pretty funny wearing that bowl like a turtle shell on my rear end for the rest of the day. Might have a bruise or two, and my dignity is shattered, but other than that, I'm fine."
His big, calloused hands were still wrapped around hers even though she was standing on her own two feet. "I guess we both need to watch where we're steppin'."
"Yep." She grinned. "On the positive side, though, the bowl is empty now. I've got to go upstairs and change into dry clothes. Be back in a minute. Feel free to look around for a present for your sister while I'm gone."
When she was in her bedroom, she kicked her shoes off and then peeled out of her skinny jeans and underpants. She couldn't go back downstairs smelling like funky water, so she adjusted the water in her shower. Thank goodness her hair hadn't gotten wet, or she'd have taken longer than five minutes to get cleaned up. She dried off, slung on a new set of clothing, and was back downstairs in under ten minutes. Hud was looking up at the ceiling, which was now sending down a faster drip than it had been earlier in the day.
"Have you picked out something?" she asked.
"Not yet," he answered. "Is your bedroom right above this shop?"
"Yep." She followed his eyes to the thin stream of water.
"Did you run water while you were up there?"
"I took a quick shower to get that smell off me," she answered.
"You've got a busted pipe in the wall or in the floor," he said.
"Oh, sweet lord! I thought it was just a leak because of all the rain, and would go away when the sun came out. I'll have to call Aunt Molly and see who she uses for a plumber." Her eyes went from the ceiling to the bowl and back again.
"I'll look at it if you want me to," he offered.
"Not only do you have sexy eyes, you can do plumbing? You're every woman's dream!"
He chuckled. "I'll be right back. Let me just get some tools from my truck."
She watched from the window in the door as he made his way from the porch to his truck. The Baker swagger was still there—that's one thing that he and Tag had in common—and it still gave her heart a little extra beat like it did when she met Hud in the hallway on her first day of school. He left the truck door open while he put on a different pair of boots, and then closed it, picked up a toolbox, and carried it back to the B&B. She watched him every step of the way and opened the door for him when he got close.
He set the toolbox on the floor and removed his coat. Once he'd hung it and his cowboy hat on a rack right inside the door, he raised an eyebrow in a question. "Lead the way, and I'll follow."
"Does that mean I get to lead you on?" she said over her shoulder as she started up the stairs.
"Sure thing, darlin'." He grinned. "I'll let you lead me anywhere you want."
"Why, Hud Baker," she laughed. "You have changed, whether you want to admit it or not. You'd have never said that in junior high school."
"You'd have never offered such a thing when we were that young," he shot back.
"I was still a little bit afraid of my daddy then," she said, turning left at the top of the stairs.
"And you're not now?" he asked.
"Not so much as I was then." She showed him into one of the six bedrooms that Aunt Molly rented out at her B&B. Rose was glad that the place was closed to guests for the weeks Aunt Molly was traveling with her friends. All Rose had to do was oversee the gift shop.
She entered her room and quickly scanned it. Thank goodness there weren't any panties or bras scattered about. Between growing up in a commune where women were expected to keep a spotless home and strict army regulations about barracks, Rose automatically kept her space neat, and her bed was made with crisp hospital corners.
The tall, broad-shouldered cowboy seemed to fill the tiny bathroom. He opened the doors under the vanity and pulled up a board. Rose peered over his shoulder—close enough that she caught a whiff of his shaving lotion. It was something woodsy, with just a hint of musk. She inhaled deeply and hoped he didn't notice her practically smelling him.
Hud pointed to a rusted-out hole in the old pipe. "There's the problem. I can have it fixed in five minutes. I have to run back out to my truck and get what I need to splice in a piece."
Rose backed out of the bathroom and sat down on the edge of her bed. "Were you a plumber? How do you know this stuff?"
"Tag and I bought a small ranch over east of Sunset. The house on the place is pretty old, and we've had to do some repairs. A few weeks ago I had to fix a problem like this." He shrugged. "I watched a tutorial on YouTube. Be right back."
"Hmmm," Rose muttered. In the army everyone had a job. Rose served as a translator for several languages. Other folks did maintenance work, and still others mechanical or technical. Few people could step in and do someone else's job or would even be willing to watch a tutorial on how to fix something. That Hud—the rich, handsome kid from Tulia—could do plumbing just blew her away.
Something glittered in her peripheral vision and drew her attention to the dresser across the room. With a smile on her face, she stood up and went to a small jewelry box with a heart on the top. She'd left it open the last time she got something out of it, and now a little cowboy boot charm hanging on a necklace was dangling over the side. When Aunt Molly had given the necklace to Rose, she'd had to keep it hidden away. Teenage girls in the commune didn't wear jewelry. That was considered frivolous.
Rose held one up to her ear and remembered the first time she'd worn them—on a girls' night out with several of her newfound army friends.
Her great-aunt Molly had come into this very room the night before she and her parents left Texas on their way to Louisiana, and given her the necklace. She'd kissed Rose on the forehead and told her, "You come back to see me someday, darlin' girl, and I'll find a cowboy for you."
Could Hud be her cowboy? Rose shook her head at the crazy thought. She had only a few more weeks in Texas before going to Kentucky to spend some time with her folks on the commune. By then, it would be time to figure out whether she would reenlist or start hunting for a civilian job.
When Hud came back to the bedroom, he held up a piece of white pipe. "This should fix the problem just fine."
He went right back into the bathroom and dropped down on his knees, giving her a full view of the way his Wranglers hugged his butt and thighs. Suddenly, it was entirely too hot in the room.
He sat down on the floor. "This will fix it, but I noticed a water mark on the ceiling in the foyer, so if you want, I could come back in a day or two and we'll check the plumbing in the other bedrooms."
Thank you, sweet Jesus, Rose thought. Now he's got a reason to come back.
"Molly really needs to have all the pipes replaced if she's going to stay in business," he said.
Rose didn't want to talk about plumbing issues. She wanted to go back to the place where they were flirting. That was a helluva lot more fun.
The phone rang and she reached over to the landline beside her bed. "Good morning. Rose Garden Bed-and-Breakfast. Can I help you?"
"Yes, this is Linda O'Cleary. I have reservations there for Friday night. I'm just calling to tell you that we'll be a little late getting there. It's our fiftieth anniversary, and the kids are taking us to dinner before we drive over to Bowie for the night."
Rose's heart raced, and her hands shook. Aunt Molly had told her that the place was closed for the month. She didn't mind guests, but holy crap on a cracker, she couldn't boil water without setting the house on fire, so what was she going to do about breakfast?
"I'm sorry, but—"
"The reservation might be under Ralph O'Cleary, if you're looking for it," Linda said. "He made the first call. We're so excited to get to stay in room four. That's where we stayed on our honeymoon."
Rose couldn't turn them away after she heard that. "I'll have that room all ready for you." She threw herself back on the bed and groaned.
"You okay in there?" Hud asked.
"I'm fine, but I've got a problem," she moaned.
"Well, darlin', if I can help…" He let the sentence hang.
"Can you cook?" she asked.
"I make a good grilled steak, a pretty fine omelet, and a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich," he answered as he finished up the plumbing job.
"Want to come over here about eight o'clock on Saturday morning and help me—" She then jumped out of the bed and did a stomp dance. "Dammit, Chester! You scared the hell out of me."
Hud flipped around to see what was going on. "Are you all right? And who's Chester?"
Rose pointed to a huge gray and white cat that ignored all the noise and settled down on the pillows to take a nap. "That is Aunt Molly's cat, and he just cold nosed my cheek."
Hud chuckled as he gathered up his tools. "What was that about helping you?"
"I can't cook and—" She went on to explain that Aunt Molly had evidently forgotten to cancel a reservation. "So you make a fine omelet?"
"I do, and I'll be glad to help you out. Last time I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast, they served little omelets, muffins, and a bowl of fresh fruit. You could buy the muffins and heat them in the oven, cut up some fruit, and I'll make the omelets and toast. Think that would work?"
"Perfectly well," she sighed. "You've saved me twice in one day. Can I buy you lunch to repay you?"
"No, but you can let me buy you lunch." He grinned.
"That doesn't hardly seem fair, but I am hungry," she said. "Where are we going?"
"Your choice," he said as he pulled on his work boots. "We've got Italian, Mexican, burgers, Chinese, and pizza."
"Italian sounds great," she said.
"My truck is parked behind your car, so we might as well go in it." He picked up his toolbox in one hand and his good boots in the other. "No need in taking two vehicles. The restaurant is only a few blocks from here."
She didn't care if it was ten miles from Bowie and located out in the middle of a cow pasture, or if they rode there in a truck, a car, or a horse and buggy. She was just excited that they'd have some time together, and she'd have someone to talk to. She'd had very few customers in the gift shop each day, but Aunt Molly said January was always a slow month. Christmas was over, and it was a little too early for Valentine's. Rose had forgotten how much she loved being around people until the past two weeks, when about all she'd had to talk to was Chester.
You might not like him once you get to know him. He's not a kid anymore. That pesky voice in her head—the one that she never did like—reminded her.
He had helped her up out of the bucket of water. He had done what he could to fix the water leak. He had invited her to eat with him.
What's not to like? she thought.
Hud slung his toolbox over into the back of the truck, and then opened the door for Rose. Dammit! She could have at least fallen on the wet grass and fallen right into his arms, but oh, no, she could only be a klutz when there was a bucket of nasty water behind her.
Just as he'd said, it was only a short distance to the restaurant. She felt like a queen when he opened the truck door for her again. He held out his hand to help her out of her seat. She put hers in it, slid out of the truck, and wondered if everyone in the parking lot could feel the hot vibes that she did. When he held the door of the restaurant for her, she was met with the aroma of garlic, tomatoes, and all those flavors she'd come to love when she was stationed in Rome for a year.
- "This author sure can write a sexy cowboy who is also kind, thoughtful and loving. ... a fun, very entertaining story."—Harlequin Junkie
- "Carolyn Brown is one of my go-to authors when I want a feel-good story that will make me smile."—Fresh Fiction
- "Carolyn Brown always manages to write feel-good stories."—Harlequin Junkie
- "There's no one who creates a rancher with a heart of gold like Carolyn Brown."—RT Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Jan 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages