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Dallas and the Cowboy (Triple C Cowboys Book 5) by Linda Goodnight (1)

Chapter 1

Her day couldn’t get any worse. In fact, her life couldn’t get any worse.

Inside the manager’s office of KVXN radio, Dallas Langley gripped the arms of the chair until her fingertips ached. For once, her perfectionist brain ignored the clutter and dirty coffee cups on her boss’s desk.

A headache threatened at the back of her eyes.

She forcibly relaxed her death grip on the chair. Calm down. Don’t stress. You can’t handle another migraine. The third one since—

She slammed her eyes shut, and along with them, a mental door. No use thinking about that. She couldn’t change it, no matter how many times she’d prayed to wake up from the horror.

And now this…

“You’re firing me?” Amazing how sensible she sounded. Smooth voice, unruffled demeanor while she bled on the inside. That was Dallas Langley in a nutshell.

“Don’t look at it that way.” Jay Wallis’s bushy gray eyebrows drew together in sympathetic consternation. He hated this. She knew he did. But he was doing it anyway.

“How else am I to look it, Jay? Fired is fired.”

He lifted a hand, conciliatory. “Consider this an extended leave of absence. You’ve had a difficult month. You need more time. A week wasn’t enough.”

The week had turned her into a jumpy, irritable, OCD basket case. What she needed was work. What she needed was to be too busy to think about that awful night.

“I’m fine. Really.”

Who was she kidding? She was a wreck. She hadn’t had a full eight hours sleep in three weeks. The only thing that kept her sane was those hours behind the microphone focused on her listeners’ problems instead of her own.

Dallas after Dark is top-rated,” she said. “Listeners love it. The warm, friendly talk, the gentle, common-sense advice, the tunes I spin just for them.” She leaned in, earnest, persuasive. And ready to jump over the desk and throttle the man. “I need this job, and I’m the best you’ve got. You said yourself, syndication is in my future.”

“Maybe when things die down…” He paused, winced.

Die down. Bad choice of words.

Dallas sat back in the chair, stomach churning, and wished for the millionth time she’d never taken that call. But Aaron had fooled her, and she’d answered. Now, every time she sat behind the mic staring at the blinking light on the call-in phone, her fingers trembled and her mouth went dry. Admittedly, her on-air conversation wasn’t as breezy as before, but she’d get back to her old self. As long as she was working.

“You were the best. No denial from me,” Jay said. “But the advertisers are spooked.”

“Of my show? Or of me?” Her heart banged like a battering ram. Another few minutes and it would burst right out and bleed all over his desk. “None of this was my fault, Jay. I had no way of knowing Aaron would—”

“I know. I know.” Jay said. “No one blames you.”

Sure they did. Why else would a successful radio host suddenly become a pariah?

Hadn’t the police questioned her for hours? Hadn’t local news media run story after story about her and Aaron, carefully implying she must have done something?

And didn’t she ask herself the same questions? Could she have done anything, said anything, to prevent the tragedy? Guilt was a funny emotion. It snuck up on her, pecked at her conscience like a drippy faucet and hinted that maybe, just maybe, she was to blame.

Jay, his fleshy face sad, handed an envelope across the desk. “Two weeks’ severance and a little extra until you can find something else. I’m sorry, Dallas.”

Her last, best hope crashed like waves in a hurricane. Severance. Not a leave of absence.

Jay was a good guy, a fair boss. He liked her, had let her have free rein with her show, her brainchild, her baby. And his radio station had flourished along with her popularity.

She wanted to say she understood, that she didn’t blame him. After all, he was losing a lucrative show, a good host, a ton of advertising money. But right now, she was all out of sympathy. Between Station KVXN and the local police, she’d been let down about as much as she could stand.

Hot with humiliation and wounded to the core, Dallas took the envelope and forced stiff legs to carry her out of his office and down the short hall, past the engineer, past the On-Air sign and the other offices, to the space she shared with the afternoon radio host.

The fact that Tessa Edwards was already in the office this early in the morning surprised Dallas. It shouldn’t have. After the month she’d had, nothing should ever surprise her again.

Tessa spun the rolling chair away from her laptop to face Dallas. She didn’t look her usual peppy self. “I’m sorry.”

Dallas froze in the doorway and blinked, dumbfounded. “You knew?”

“He asked me to take your slot.”

Already replaced? Seriously? Tessa was young and too pretty to be hidden behind a microphone, but underneath her long black weave was one smart chick with a lot of ambition. Yet, none of this was her fault.

Somehow Dallas managed a smile. It felt tiny and wimpy, but it was there. “You’ll be awesome.”

Tessa’s shoulders relaxed. “I don’t know how you do it. Grace under pressure. But thanks for understanding.”

Grace under pressure? Not even close. Her heart was bleeding all over the place. But she’d learned years ago about keeping the worst pain to herself. Once upon a time, she’d jump on horse, take a wild ride, and let the wind erase her tears. But she didn’t have a horse anymore.

She didn’t have a job either.

“I need to clear out my desk, then I’ll be out of your way.”

The thought was a hot spear through her chest…and through her dreams. This job had been the beginning. Syndication companies were already sniffing around. Or had been.

“You had a call while you were…in with Jay.”

A call.

The awful dread hit the pit of her stomach. Acid boiled, threatening to eat her up. She took a deep breath, pressed a hand to her middle.

Stop. Just stop. Nothing’s going to happen.

“Who was it?”

“Some guy named Wyatt something. Very serious. Deep, sexy voice. Sounded pretty hot. Is he your new man?”

Dallas never wanted another “new man.” Ever. She stunk at choosing the right guy. Just like her mother had. Three stupid times.

“Never heard of him.”

“He left a number, but said he’d call back in a while.” Tessa ripped a sticky note from her desk and handed it over.

Dallas stared at the unfamiliar number. A reporter, maybe?

She folded the note and slid it into the pocket of her cardigan. No more reporters. They twisted everything she said, even when they were sympathetic.

After retrieving a cardboard box from storage, she sorted through the jetsam and flotsam in her desk. Three years was plenty of time to collect junk. All neatly organized, of course. She tossed most of it, keeping the personal items. When she came to the promo stuff, she balked. Pens, magnets, bumper stickers, all bearing the Dallas after Dark name next to the KVXN’s red fox logo.

But Dallas after Dark was no more.

The lump in her chest rose to her throat and threatened to make her eyes water.

She left the promo items right where they were. They weren’t hers. Not anymore.

The landline jingled. Dallas ignored it.

Tessa answered, then put her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “It’s him.”

Dallas frowned. “Him who?”

“Wyatt Caldwell, the guy who called before.” She held out the receiver.

Dallas took the phone, prepared to hang up at the first indication she was being interviewed.

“This is Dallas.”

“Dallas Langley? I’m Wyatt Caldwell.”

A radio personality always noticed a voice. Tessa was right. This man had a voice to remember. Quiet, commanding, confident. Not that she’d be swayed by that.

Her jaw tightened. “Are you a reporter?”

A short pause. “No, ma’am.”

She waited, not willing to give him anything. Reporters had lied to her before. But they hadn’t called her ma’am.

“I’m—not sure how to say this, but“—she heard him suck air—“I think you’re my sister.”

Sheriff Lawson Hawk pulled the Ford Explorer to the speaker box of the Burger Barn drive-through. Calypso was quiet today, the way every small-town lawman preferred, a good thing after the Christmas fiasco with Marley Johnson. Lawson was a law-and-order man. Citizens paid him to keep the peace and protect them, even if one of their own was involved.

“The usual, Sheriff?” the disembodied voice asked.

Lawson couldn’t help smiling. One of the blessings—and cursings—of a small town was that everyone knew him and his habits.

“Old fashioned,” he said.

“Mustard and the works?”

“And fries, with a Coke.”

“Cherry fried pie today, Sheriff? Aunt Mint made fresh ones about an hour ago.”

“Sure. Toss one in.” The voice he didn’t recognize even knew his pie preference.

“You got it. I’ll have your total at the window.”

Lawson pulled the department Explorer to the next window as a small red SUV flashed past on the parallel street.

He glanced at his dashboard radar. Sixty. In a thirty-five. Somebody was in a hurry. His little town of Calypso, Oklahoma, didn’t need some speedster blasting through the streets, endangering motorists and pedestrians alike.

He hit the lights and siren and wheeled out of the Burger Barn drive-through, his juicy burger and crispy fries left behind. He’d settle up with Aunt Mint later. They’d played this scene before.

The snazzy red Chevy Equinox was escaping. From him.

It sailed through the green light, which turned yellow and then red before Lawson got there. He slammed on his brakes, skidded to a crawl.

Countess Belinda von Dunenburg exited the corner Hair Port Salon and gave him a questioning look.

Lawson checked left, then right, and stomped the accelerator. The big SUV bit pavement and left a trail of rubber.

Crazy fool driver was going to hurt someone. This was a small town, quiet and boring most of the time. Passers-through seemed to think they were under no obligation to obey school zone flashers or reduced speed limits.

Down the short main street and past the pastel colored businesses, locals pulled to the side of the street to let him pass. At the first convenience store, the little Chevy speedster skidded to a pause, whipped in, and stopped at the side of the building.

Vehicle still rocking, the driver’s door slammed open.

A woman in a straight skirt with long, shapely legs Lawson tried to ignore jumped out and made a beeline for the door marked, Women. She got half way there, bent double, and lost her lunch.

Oh. She was sick. Not that being sick was an excuse for driving like a maniac, but still, he could be a little sympathetic. As long as she wasn’t intoxicated. Lawson showed no mercy for anyone driving under the influence.

He pulled into the parking space next to the shiny red Equinox, put his vehicle in park, and considered. Should he offer assistance before or after he gave her a ticket?

She heaved again.

Definitely before.

Grabbing rubber gloves and wet wipes, he exited the vehicle and approached the woman. By now, she leaned against the gas station wall, holding her head. It was a pretty head. Sleek blonde hair to her shoulders with a classy cut and highlights that looked expensive. Except for the damp ends that could only mean one thing, given her recent bout of vomiting.

“Ma’am? Do you need assistance?” He stepped up on the walkway.

She swayed. Reached for the wall. Missed and started down. Lawson grabbed for her. The wet wipes thudded to the concrete.

She slumped, crumpling right into his arms.

Lawson took her weight, which wasn’t much but enough to make him brace. His arms closed around her. She was soft and smelled…expensive, which was a relief, considering.

“Do you need an ambulance?” Though, in his current position with her taking up both arms, he couldn’t reach his radio.

“I’m fine.” The words were barely a whisper. Clearly, she was not fine…health-wise. The rest of her, however, was fine, indeed.

She tried to stand, moaned, reached for her head, and started down again.

Lawson did the only thing left to do. He gathered her up like a baby and carried her to her car. In her rush, she’d left the door open. It was cold today, stinking cold, but the car’s interior still felt warm.

Once she was settled in the seat, she slumped forward, head against the steering wheel, and moaned again. She was in no position to drive, so he considered the options. Take her to emergency care himself or call an ambulance.

Removing the radio from his belt, he pushed for dispatch and asked for an ambulance.

“Sorry, Sheriff,” Sandra said. “The ambulance is on a run. Heart attack out in the canyons. It might be a while.”

Lawson signed off, scooped the sick woman up again, and carried her to his vehicle. After depositing her in the backseat, he grabbed her purse and keys, locked her car, and headed toward the Calypso Medical Center.

Dallas was aware of voices, movement. And movement made her nauseous. She moaned or thought she did. Where was she?

Someone forced an eyelid up. Shined a light into her pupils. She jerked her face to one side and squeezed her eyes shut. The motion shot excruciating pain through the back of her head.

Something tight pinched at her index fingertip. Someone lifted her arm, applied a cuff. She heard a hissing noise.

Was she in a hospital?

Conversation around her continued, but she couldn’t make out the words. Her head hurt too much. Welcoming the darkness, she let the thoughts fade.

“Miss Langley? Dallas?” A man’s voice poked at her peace. Hands patted her arm. She felt a stick, jerked. “Dallas, try to hold still. We’re starting an IV.” Definitely a hospital. “Can you tell us what happened?”

Must be a doctor.

Though her mouth tasted like sticky sewer, she managed to part her lips and murmur, “Migraine. Basilar.”

Several voices reacted at once, and she could feel activity all around the hard bed.

“We’ll give you something for that. What meds do you usually take?”

She struggled past the dizziness and nausea but was saved from speaking when a man’s familiar voice answered for her. “I brought her handbag. She has a prescription bottle in there along with ID.”

She thought about protesting this clear invasion of her person but didn’t have the energy.

“The bottle is empty,” the same man said.

Dallas frowned, or thought she did. Where had she heard that voice before?

“When did you last take your medication?” The doctor again. Or maybe a nurse.

She managed a whisper. “Yesterday.” At least, she thought it had been yesterday. Everything was fuzzy and painful right now.

A hand patted her. The doctor person, a comforter with soft, warm hands. The other man’s hands had been warm, too, but strong and tough.

“Just relax, Dallas. The nurse will put some medication through your IV and have you feeling better soon.”

The nurse must have been quick, because that was the last thing Dallas remembered.

She awoke in a thankfully dark room, window drapes closed. Only a faint crack between the curtains that were parallel to her bed allowed in light. Her head still hurt but not as badly. She’d regained her eyesight, and the nausea had lessened.

What time was it?

Lifting a hand, she saw the IV. Her arm seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. She’d been this route before. ER, an exam room to sleep off the pain, and sometimes a hospital bed. Apparently, she was still in an exam room.

The curtain parted, and a male nurse in dark blue scrubs entered. Dallas closed her eyes against the inevitable light but shifted slightly to let the nurse know she was awake.

“Miss Langley.” The man spoke quietly. “I need to take your vitals.”

Dallas managed to move her lips. “Okay.”

He applied a blood pressure cuff. “Is the pain any better?”

“Yes.”

“On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst, can you rate your current pain?”

“Six.” If she didn’t move too much.

The man completed his check and started out of the cubicle. “I’ll let Doctor Marsh know. Sheriff Lawson, too. He asked to be kept apprised.”

“Sheriff?” Was she in trouble?

But the nurse was already gone.

Inside the deliciously-scented confines of the Burger Barn, Lawson took a huge bite of his old-fashioned burger, attempting once again to have his lunch. Which was now long past, so the homemade burger was probably dinner.

Double meat on a well-grilled bun and loaded with veggies set his taste buds dancing. He took another bite and then another, suddenly aware of how hungry he was. Had he skipped breakfast again? Probably. That was about the time the call came in about the rabid skunk in Hannah Richards’s barn.

Aunt Mint, an Amazonian-sized woman who owned the popular Burger Barn hang-out, stopped by his table. “Marley and Wyatt were in earlier. Glad things worked out with them.”

“Me, too.” Wyatt, like all the Caldwells, was a close friend. Arresting his fiancé had been among the harder things Lawson had ever had to do. “Relieved she was innocent.”

He looked fondly at this burger. Aunt Mint, who wasn’t anyone’s aunt that he knew of, patted his back and chuckled. “I’ll leave you to your food. You look hungry.”

“Could use that cherry pie I missed out on earlier.” A Burger Barn specialty, fried pies, made fresh every day.

“You got it.”

As she walked away, his cell phone vibrated against his hip. He answered. “Sheriff Hawk.”

“Hey, big brother, how’s it going?” The voice on the other end was exceptionally cheerful.

Lawson’s burger lost its taste. He barely knew his half brother, but one thing he did know. Bryce Addington never called unless he wanted something. The last time had cost Lawson several thousand dollars. Yeah, he was stupid like that sometimes. But not this time.

“What’s up, Bryce?” He tried to keep his tone civil. After all, Bryce was his mother’s son, even if they’d been raised in different states by different dads.

“Couldn’t be better. I got this deal going in Nashville, and it sounds like the big boys are ready to listen.”

“Glad to hear it. Good luck.” Bryce had dreams of fame and fortune. Sure, he was a halfway decent guitar picker and could carry a tune, but so were thousands of other hopefuls with a better work ethic. “Are you in Nashville now?”

“Well, see that’s the problem…”

Lawson raised his eyes to the ceiling. Here it comes.

“I can’t take Madison with me, so I thought, hey, I got a brother. He barely knows his only flesh-and-blood niece, so I was wondering if she could stay with you.”

“With me? You can’t be serious.”

“As brain surgery. Come on, bro, she won’t be any trouble. Great kid. A real sweetheart. Old enough to be a help around your place. If I don’t go now I’ll miss my shot.”

“What about her mother?”

“Sherry’s long gone. Don’t know where she is. Abandoned us.” He tried to sound pitiful. “It’s just me and my sweet baby girl doing our best to make ends meet.”

Lawson wasn’t buying this latest con job. “Can’t. Sorry.”

“Hey! At least hear me out.” Bryce’s tone changed to anger. “What kind of man are you if you don’t help your only brother?”

Hackles rose on the back of Lawson’s neck. “The kind who thinks you need to get your act together, and I don’t mean your singing act. Grow up, take responsibility for your life—and for your daughter.”

“You’re a real jerk, you know that?” Bryce’s tone changed to a sneer. “And you call yourself a Christian.”

Lawson hung up on him and sat there staring at the cell phone, fuming. Mad because Bryce never failed to put him in a spot. Furious because he felt guilty for saying no.

The cell phone buzzed. He jumped and squinted at the number. Not Bryce. With a longing look at his burger, he let out a frustrated hiss, and answered.

“Sheriff Hawk.”

“Nurse Brent Fielding here, Sheriff. The woman you brought to the ER is awake.”

Lawson made the inner switch from aggravated brother to concerned lawman. “She better?”

“Some. Doc wants to keep her overnight and make sure her meds are working.”

“Good. What room?”

“Don’t know yet. Check at the front desk.”

“Will do.” He hung up, finished his burger, took his pie with him, and headed toward the hospital.

Dallas Langley still had a ticket coming.