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The last time Lila Harris was in Happy, Texas, she was actively earning her reputation as the resident wild child. Now, a little older and wiser, she’s back to run her mother’s cafe for the summer. Except something about this town has her itching to get a little reckless and rowdy, especially when she sees her old partner-in-crime, Brody Dawson. Their chemistry is just as hot as ever. But he’s still the town’s golden boy-and she’s still the wrong kind of girl.
Brody hasn’t had much time lately for anything other than ranching. Running the biggest spread in the county and taking care of his family more than keeps him busy. All that responsibility has him longing for the carefree days of high school-and Lila. She may have grown up, but he still sees that spark of mischief in her eyes. Now he’s dreaming about late-night skinny dipping and wondering how he can possibly resist the one woman he can never forget…
“Carolyn Brown makes the sun shine brighter and the tea taste sweeter. Southern comfort in a book.” — Sheila Roberts, USA Today bestselling author
Welcome to Happy, Texas! There really is a town by that name in the panhandle of Texas where the flat land reaches out for miles and miles until it meets the sky.
Starting a new series is always exciting, but The Toughest Cowboy in Texas was an emotional trip for me. Brody and Lila had just graduated from high school the last time they'd seen each other. That was twelve years ago and now she's back in Happy where everyone knows everyone, remembers all the silly things that happened in the past, and the gossip mill is never without fodder. Cross Canadian Ragweed has a song on the market titled "17" and it says that you're always seventeen in your hometown. That's the way Brody and Lila felt that summer, even if they were thirty-year-old adults. I can relate to both of them because when I go back home, everyone still remembers me as a seventeen-year-old kid, and I've been gone for more than fifty years.
Writing this book took a lot of hard work—sitting in front of the computer while Lila and Brody argued about how the story should go, getting the journey just right from their first meeting to the end of the book, waking up in the middle of the night to listen to the voices in my head. But I can't take all the credit for taking this from a raw idea to a finished product, so put your hands together and make a little noise for the whole Grand Central team.
Let's hear a few extra loud whistles and yelling for my fantabulous editor Leah Hultenschmidt. Keep the energy going for the Forever team members Melanie Gold in managing editorial, Elizabeth Turner in the art department, and Michelle Cashman for all her great publicity work. Add a few more yells for my agent, Erin Niumata, and Folio Management. And before you stop the noise, let's hear it for my husband, Mr. B, who has stuck with me through the sorrows and the joys of an author's world. And one more round for all my readers! Thank you for reading my books, writing reviews, and telling your friends about them. You are appreciated more than mere words can ever begin to tell.
As I finish this book, fall is pushing summer out of the picture here in southern Oklahoma. You'll be reading it in the summer, so pour a glass of sweet tea and grab one or a few homemade cookies to nibble on while you read. And when you reach the end, remember Kasey and Jace have already petitioned me to write their stories. There's more on the way—so don't take your boots off just yet.
Order up!" Molly yelled from the kitchen.
Lila picked up a basket filled to the brim with hot French fries just as the door to the Happy Café opened. The hot western sun silhouetted the cowboy in the doorway, but she'd recognize Brody Dawson anywhere—in the darkest night or the brightest day.
The energy in the café sparkled with electricity and her chest tightened. She gripped the red plastic basket to keep from dropping it and slowly inhaled, willing herself to take a step toward the table where a couple of old ranchers waited for their order.
"Well, well," Brody drawled. He closed the door behind him and slowly scanned her from the toes of her boots to her black ponytail. "The wild child has returned."
"But not for long, so don't go getting your hopes up," she smarted off right back at him.
In a few long strides he slid into a booth and laid his hat on the space beside him. He filled out the butt of his jeans even better than he had when they were in high school and his chest was an acre wide. Lord, why couldn't he have developed a beer gut and two chins?
She carried the order to the other end of the café and set it down between Paul McKay and Fred Williams, two ranchers she'd known her whole growing-up years.
"I'd forgotten that they called you the wild child, Lila." Paul grinned.
"People change," she said. "Anything else?"
Fred squirted streams of ketchup across the fries. "Nah, we're good for now. Might need some more tea before we go. You should wait on poor old Brody. He looks like he's spittin' dust."
"Yeah. I'm dying over here," Brody called from across the small dining room. "How about a glass of half sweet tea and half Molly's fresh lemonade?"
"Anything else, Your Highness?" Lila asked as she turned to face him and made her way to his table.
His sexy grin and that twinkle in his baby-blue eyes made every hormone in her body beg for attention. But then she reminded herself that she didn't have to impress Brody Dawson. She was not that girl anymore. Oh, but to kiss those lips one more time just to see if they still made her knees go weak. No! No! No! Yet her fingertips went straight to her lips to see if the memory made them as warm as they felt.
"Whatcha got?" His drawl broke through the haze surrounding her.
She quickly dropped her hand. "What?"
"You asked if I wanted anything else." He wiggled his eyebrows. "So whatcha offering?"
She reached across his booth to pick up a one-page menu stuck between the saltshaker and napkin holder. Her arm brushed against his chest and more sparks danced around the café. Hoping that he couldn't hear the breathlessness in her voice, she straightened to her full height and started reading. "We have chicken fried steak, grilled pork chops, breakfast served all day, burgers of all kinds, and today's lunch special is meat loaf and mashed potatoes. I think there's a little more left if you're interested. I really thought you might have learned to read down there at Texas A and M."
He laid a rough, calloused hand on her arm. Pure electricity shot through her body.
"Are you still as wild as ever?" he whispered seductively.
"Oh, honey, you can't even imagine what all you've missed out on in the past twelve years." The chemistry between them hadn't changed a bit—at least not for her. She pulled her arm back and looked down at the menu. "Want me to go on or have you heard something that appeals to you?"
He raked his fingers through his thick, dark hair. It needed a cut, but then maybe he wore it a little longer these days. "Just something to drink for now," he said.
She turned away from him and headed back to the drink station. With shaking hands, she poured the tea and lemonade, stirred, and carried it to his booth. When she set it down in front of him, he motioned toward the other side of the table.
"Sit with me."
"You're a few years late with that invitation," she told him.
"Ah, come on, Lila," he said.
Throw a plaid shirt over that dirty white T-shirt and he'd still be the boy who had broken her heart all those years ago. But she'd cried her tears and burned the bridges between her and Brody, so bygones be damned.
He nodded toward the other side of the booth. "You're really going to hold a grudge and not sit with me for five minutes?"
"I really am," she said.
"Hey, Lila, we could use some more tea over here," Paul called out.
The years hadn't changed Paul and Fred much. Fred was the shorter of the two and Lila had never seen him in anything but bibbed overalls and faded T-shirts. A rim of gray kinky hair circled his round head. He could put on a thousand-dollar tailor-made suit and in five minutes he'd look like he'd slept in it. With a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, Paul was his opposite. Always in freshly ironed jeans and shirts, he was tall, lanky, and every inch a cowboy, right down to his well-worn but polished boots.
She carried a full pitcher to their booth and refilled both glasses.
Paul whispered out the side of his mouth, "Brody lost his grandpa and his daddy the same summer you and your mama left town. So he didn't go to college after all. Don't be too rough on him. He carries a lot of responsibility on those shoulders of his."
Fred laid a hand on her arm. "Don't listen to Paul. That boy needs someone to give him hell. I was enjoyin' y'all's fight, so put on the gloves and get back at it."
"I swear on a stack of Bibles, I don't know why I'm even your friend." Paul sent a dirty look across the table.
"Ain't nobody else in Happy who knows you like I do. Hell, I bet I know you better'n your wife does." Fred's wrinkles deepened when he smiled.
Paul turned his attention toward Lila. "I hear that you're a teacher now."
"That's right." She headed toward the counter.
"So why are you here if you're a teacher?" Brody asked from the other end of the diner.
"To get my horns trimmed. I was getting too wild," she said sarcastically.
"Well, darlin', I can't help you with that." He grinned.
"Why?" She took one pitcher of tea and one of lemonade to his booth to refill his glass and pulled over a chair to sit down at the end of the table.
He leaned toward her and whispered, "I liked you as the wild child too much to shave an inch off your horns. God, we had some good times, didn't we?"
"And now we're thirty, not crazy kids anymore," she said.
"Too bad. Being a grown-up isn't nearly all it's cracked up to be."
"No, it's not but we do have to grow up. How's your granny?"
"Alive, kicking and giving out advice like candy at Halloween. Things in Happy don't change much," he answered. "How long are you going to be here?"
"Probably through the summer. Maybe less. Mama decided to put the café up for sale instead of leasing it. So if someone comes along and buys it, then I'm out of here."
He picked up his hat and stood up. "There's not many businesses left in Happy. I sure hope it doesn't close for good."
When she rose to her feet, they were so close that one step would have put her in the position to tiptoe and kiss him smack on the lips. Brody was right when he said not much changed in Happy, Texas. The minute she crossed the county line, she had the urge to do something wild and now she wanted to give in and wrap her arms around Brody.
She'd had a crush on him from the time they were in kindergarten. Truth be told, she'd liked him from before that—one of her first memories was standing on the church pew and staring at Brody sitting right behind her and her parents. He'd been a pretty little boy, had grown into a handsome young man, and now was one damn fine sexy cowboy.
"Hey." He grinned. "Remember when you decided that riding a bull wasn't all that tough? Took four of us—me and Jace and a couple of other guys to lasso that big old bruiser out on the ranch. I can still see you settling down onto his back as you held on to one of his horns with your right hand and waved your left one in the air. You stayed on for the full eight seconds and when the ride was over, you whipped off a straw hat with a glittery headband and bowed while we all hooted and hollered for you."
"Of course I remember that night and lots more, but what comes to mind the most often is the night before Mama and I left Happy the next day," she said with a long sigh, remembering the feelings she'd had that day.
He took a deep breath and settled his hat on his head. "You married?"
"Are all the men crazy wherever you've been livin'?" he asked.
"I didn't give them an IQ test before I robbed banks with them."
"Once a smartass," he chuckled.
"Smart—whatever," she shot back. "Are you married?"
"Never have been and don't intend to be anytime soon." His phone buzzed and he took it from his pocket. "Looks like Jace needs help out on the ranch." He tipped his hat toward her and stopped beside Paul and Fred's table. "Gracie know you're having that big load of taters right here at supper time, Paul?"
Paul shook his head. "No, she does not and don't you dare tell her, neither."
Brody chuckled. "Cross my heart. I've got to get back to the ranch anyhow."
Lila couldn't help admiring his long legs as he strode across the café.
"See, Lila, everyone in Happy doesn't know everything." Brody ducked to get through the door without removing his hat.
"Don't bet Hope Springs on that," she called out.
She whipped a white rag from the hip pocket of her jeans and wiped down the table where he'd been, spending extra time on it so she could watch him cross the parking lot. His distinctive swagger hadn't changed a bit and even from that distance she could see every ripple in his abs through that sweat-stained T-shirt. Her heart raced so hard that she was winded when she tucked the cloth back into her pocket.
Well, crap! So much for time, distance, and a broken heart erasing all the old feelings for that cowboy.
Brody left a trail of gravel dust in his wake, but then that was the story of her past. Always trying to impress him—always hoping that someday he'd go against his family and the whole town of Happy to ask her to go out—just the two of them. They'd sit side by side. His arm would be around her and he'd look deep into her eyes without caring that she was the girl with the worst reputation in Happy, Texas.
"His granny Hope turned the ranch over to him and Jace this past spring," Fred said. "Then Kasey and her three kids came to live on the ranch with them, and Hope moved out into the foreman's house. You remember Cooter Green, the foreman they had at Hope Springs?"
Lila nodded. "He had a couple of kids about my age. Melanie and Lisa, right?"
"Yep," Paul said. "They got married and moved out to Arizona. So Cooter retired and went out there to be with them."
"Last spring Hope turned the business over to the boys and then talked their sister into coming back to help out. So all three of the Dawson kids are living out there," Fred said. "Hey, we're out of fries. Would you get us another basketful and refill these tea glasses one more time?"
"Where's Adam? Didn't he and Kasey get married after high school?" Lila pinned an order on the spinner.
"He got killed in one of them secret missions overseas. I heard they couldn't tell Kasey nothing about it. Had the funeral here but the casket stayed closed," Fred answered.
Molly peeked out through the serving window and tucked a strand of short gray hair back behind her ear. With a round face, gray eyes set in a bed of wrinkles, penciled black eyebrows that made her look as if she were perpetually surprised, Molly hadn't changed much in the twelve years since Lila and her mother had left town. Not just in looks, either. Her attitude was the same too—she didn't take guff off anyone. The whole town would miss her sass when the café sold and she retired.
Molly crooked her finger at Lila. "You come on back here. I got something to say."
Lila glanced at the parking lot. No more customers were on their way inside, so she pushed through the door into the kitchen. What she got was a wooden spoon shaking her way, Molly's dark brows drawn down in a frown and her mouth set in a hard line.
"I heard what Fred and Paul was sayin'."
"And?" Lila asked.
Molly put four big handfuls of potatoes into the deep fryer. "Brody did step up and take on responsibility. He's turned into a pretty fine man when it comes to ranchin' and all, but that don't mean his attitude about bein' better than you has changed."
She'd heard it all many times before. She wondered if Brody had made it home yet and was hearing the exact same words. Without much effort, she could imagine Valerie Dawson threatening him with a wooden spoon as well.
"He's always thought he was a cut above you, girl. I'm not tellin' you nothing new. He broke your heart right before you left here and he'll do it again," Molly growled.
"That was a long time ago. So he didn't go to college like he planned? What's he done at the ranch?" She should be heeding Molly's warning, maybe even dropping down on her knees and thanking her, instead of defending the boy who had broken his date with her on the last night she was in town. For the first time ever, he was going to take her out to dinner and a movie. But he hadn't shown up and she'd cried until her eyes were swollen.
Another shake of the spoon and then Molly went back to fixing two meat loaf dinners. "I told your mama I'd watch out for you and that I'd see to it you didn't fall back into those wicked ways that got you that nickname. When you leave at the end of the summer, the only nickname you'll have is Lila. Why your mama named you Delilah after that wicked woman in the Bible is a mystery to me."
Lila threw an arm around Molly's shoulders and gave her a quick hug. Molly and Georgia had both worked for her mother from the time Daisy started the Happy Café. Then they leased it from her when Daisy and Lila moved to Pennsylvania to help Daisy's sister open a café there. Now, Georgia had retired and moved to Florida. Even with her sharp tongue, Molly had always been Lila's favorite and she was glad that she got to work with her again.
"It was my great-grandmother's middle name. Bessie Delilah was her full name. Do I look like a Bessie to you?" Lila giggled.
Molly shrugged her arm away but her expression had gone from sour to sweet. "Better that than Delilah. You might have been a preacher or a missionary with a name like Bessie. Now get these fries on out there to Fred and Paul before they get cold. Ain't nothin' worse than greasy, limp fries 'cept cold gravy."
"Miss Molly, I've changed from that wild child I used to be and I've been takin' care of myself for a long time." Basket in hand, Lila headed out of the kitchen.
"Yep, but that wasn't in Happy. Person comes back here, they turn into the same person who left."
Lila would never admit it, but Molly was right—the moment she hit the city limits sign in Happy the evening before, she'd had the urge to go out to Henry's barn, drink warm beer, and get into some kind of trouble.
Brody sang along with the radio the whole way back to Hope Springs. Seeing Lila again brought back so many memories. Nothing had been the same after she'd left town. Happy, Texas, didn't have a movie theater or a bowling alley or even a Dairy Queen, so they'd had to drive all the way to Tulia or Amarillo to have fun. Or they would stay in town and Lila would come up with some kind of crazy stunt that sent their adrenaline into high gear.
Like surfing in the back of my old pickup truck. It's a wonder we weren't all killed but the adrenaline rush was crazy wild. He chuckled as he remembered the two of them planting their feet on skateboards in the bed of the truck and then giving Jace the thumbs-up to take off. No big ocean waves could have been as exhilarating as riding on skateboards while Jace drove eighty miles an hour down a dirt road.
Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here" came on the radio and he turned up the volume. He rolled down the window, letting the hot air blow past him as he pushed the gas pedal to the floor.
Seventy miles an hour, the dust kicking up behind the truck just like the song said. At seventy-five, he checked the rearview and imagined that Lila was back there wearing a pair of cutoff denim shorts, cowboy boots, and a tank top that hugged her body like a glove. Her jet-black ponytail was flying out behind her, and that tall, well-toned curvy body kept balance on the imaginary skateboard every bit as well as it had back then.
At eighty, he tapped the brakes enough to make a sliding right-hand turn from the highway to the lane back to the ranch house. The house was a blur when he blew past it and the speedometer said he was going ninety miles an hour when he braked and came to a long greasy stop in front of the barn doors. Gravel pinged against the sheet metal and dust settled on everything inside his truck's crew cab. He sucked in a lungful of it but it did nothing to slow down his racing heart, thumping hard enough to bust a rib. Gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his forearms ached, he checked the rearview mirror. The vision of Lila was gone, leaving only a cloud of dust in its wake.
You're not eighteen, Brody Dawson. The voice in his head even had the same tone and inflection as his mother's did. You're a responsible rancher, not a kid who drives like a maniac with the music blaring loud enough they can hear it in Amarillo.
Blame it on Lila. She brought out the wild side in me back before I had to handle all the ranchin' business, he argued, and felt a sudden rush of shame because he hadn't stood up for her in those days. Then he had time and opportunities; now he barely had time for a glass of tea with all the sticky situations of Hope Springs falling on his shoulders.
His phone pinged with another text: Sundance is in a mud bog out on the north forty. Need help. Bring rope. Where the hell are you?
Just as he was about to get moving, his grandmother stepped out of the barn and made her way to his truck, shielding her green eyes against the hot afternoon sun. Gray haired and barely tall enough to reach Brody's shoulder, she might look like a sweet little grandmother to strangers, but looks were definitely deceiving when it came to Hope Dalley. She had a backbone of steel and nobody messed with her.
"Did someone die? I heard you driving like a bat set loose from the bowels of hell. I bet you wore a year's worth of rubber off them tires the way you skidded to a stop."
"Everything is fine, but Sundance is in a mud lolly, so I've got to get some rope and go help Jace," Brody said.
"Damned old bull. He got bad blood from his father when it comes to breakin' out of pens, but he's a damn fine breeder so we have to deal with his ornery ways," Hope said. "I'll go with you and help."
"We can get it done, Granny. What are you doin' out here in this hot sun anyway?"
"Bossin' the boys about how to stack the hay. I can't just sit around in an air-conditioned house and do nothin'. I'd die of boredom," she said.
"Long as you're supervisin' and not stackin', that's fine, but I'd rather see you in the house with Kasey and the kids," he said.
"I'm not ready to be put out to pasture yet, boy. Kasey don't need my help. She has the toughest job on the ranch, taking care of those three kids as well as all the household stuff and the book work. That's a hell of a lot more exhausting and tougher than stacking hay. And she's doin' a fine job of it. Now go take care of that blasted bull." She waved him away.
Fun and excitement were over. It was time to man up and not expect to relive the glory days when Lila had lived in Happy and everything had been fun and exciting.
When it rained, the pond on their north forty would hold water for a few days and then slowly evaporate, leaving a muddy mess. Sundance, their prize breeding bull, loved water, but this time he'd waded out into nothing but mud.
He was bawling like a baby and thrashing around when Brody parked the truck. "How long has he been there?" he asked his brother, Jace, who was covered head to toe in mud.
"Too damn long. He's so stressed that we'll have to keep him in the barn for a week. We got cows to breed and he won't be worth a damn until he's settled down."
"Since you're already a mess, how about I lasso him and pull, and you keep pushing," Brody suggested.
Brody grabbed a rope from the back of his truck and landed it around the bull's neck on the first swing. "Got him. Now push!"
Jace put his shoulder into the bull's hindquarter.
Brody felt every muscle in his body knot as he tightened the rope. "Son of a bitch weighs a ton."
Jace pushed but the bull barely moved. "Two tons from the feel of it. He's moving a little bit. Pull harder!"
Brody wrapped the rope around his gloved hand another time and hauled back, leaning so far that Sundance wasn't even in the picture. All he could see was sky and big fluffy clouds that reminded him of lying in the grass with Lila beside him on a Sunday afternoon many years ago. She said that one big white cloud was the shape of a bull's horns and he'd said it looked more like two snow cones stuck together.
One minute he was smiling at the memory and the next he was flat on his back with no wind in his lungs and that crazy bull was pulling him along like a rag doll. He quickly untangled the rope from his hand and let go, sucked in enough air to get some relief, and threw a hand over his eyes to shade them from the blistering hot sun.
Sundance kept moving until he was under the shade of a big oak tree and then he threw back his head and bawled. Jace flopped down on the ground beside Brody and groaned. "If he wasn't such a damn good bull, I'd shoot that sumbitch right between the eyes and turn him into steaks and hamburgers."
"Meat would be too tough and rangy to eat—the old bastard," Brody said. "He can stay in the barn a few days to get settled down and by then we'll get a fence built so he doesn't wander back here again."
"My poor body feels like it's eighty years old after all that pushin'," Jace gasped.
Brody groaned as he sat up. "I'll take care of gettin' him back to the barn. You can go on to the house and get cleaned up."
- "This has got to be one of the best feel good reads I've had the pleasure of reading yet this year! It tugged on your heart strings and had you cheering for true love."—Once Upon an Alpha
- "Top Pick! A beautiful second-chance love story that has humor, HOT cowboys and an amazing HEA."—Harlequin Junkie
- "Terrific...an emotional star-crossed lovers tale with tangible depths and an attitude that's relatable to real life."—RT Book Reviews
- "Top Pick! TOUGHEST COWBOY IN TEXAS lovingly brings us Brown's best."—Night Owl Reviews
- "The TOUGHEST COWBOY IN TEXAS is a delightful, fast-paced novel full of dynamic and lively characters and, more importantly, white-hot romance!"—Romance Reviews Today
- "Toughest Cowboy in Texas is a sweet and lighthearted read. It's entertaining and makes your heart thump a little whenever Brody and Lila gets together. ...You just don't want to put it down once you get started. I definitely recommend Ms Brown's cowboys because they are sexy as hell with a little tug of the heart, a great addition to an ever expanding bookshelf."—Bitten by Love Reviews
- "Brown uses an equal amount of laughter and tears that always makes one of her books a one night read for me. Once started, I'm often unable to stop reading until I've flipped that last page knowing that the new friends I met in the story will have their HEA."—Lisa Loves Books blog
- "Full of Brown's sweet and steady secondary characters, swoon-worthy heroes, and heroines who are easy to identify with, the new Happy, Texas series is bound to be the best Carolyn Brown series yet."—The Romance Dish
- On Sale
- May 30, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages