DEAD STUFFED THINGS just didn’t scream Christmas wedding invitation for Callen Laramie. Even when the dead stuffed thing—an armadillo named Billy—was draped with gold tinsel, a bridal veil and was holding a bouquet of what appeared to be tiny poinsettias in his little armadillo hands.
Then again, when the bride-to-be, Rosy Muldoon, was a taxidermist, Callen supposed a photo like that hit the more normal range of possibilities for invitation choices.
Well, normal-ish, anyway.
No one had ever accused Rosy of being conventional, and even though he hadn’t seen her in close to fourteen years, Billy’s bridal picture was proof that her nonnormalcy hadn’t changed during that time.
Dragging in a long breath that Callen figured he might need, he opened the invitation. What was printed inside wasn’t completely unexpected, not really, but he was glad he’d taken that breath. Like most invitations, it meant he’d have to do something, and doing something like this often meant trudging through the past.
Y’all are invited to the wedding of Buck McCall and Rosy Muldoon. Christmas Eve at Noon in the Lightning Bug Inn on Main Street, Coldwater, Texas. Reception to follow.
So, Buck had finally popped the question, and Rosy had accepted. Again, no surprise. Not on the surface, anyway, since Buck had started “courting” Rosy several years after both of them had lost their spouses about a decade and a half ago.
But Callen still got a bad feeling about this.
The bad feeling went up a notch when he saw that the printed RSVP at the bottom had been lined through and the words handwritten there. “Please come. Buck needs to see you. Rosy.”
Yes, this would require him to do something.
She’d underlined the please and the needs, and it was just as effective as a heavyweight’s punch to Callen’s gut. One that knocked him into a time machine and took him back eighteen years. To that time when he’d first laid eyes on Buck and then on Rosy shortly thereafter.
Callen had just turned fourteen, and the raw anger and bad memories had been eating holes in him. Sometimes, they still did. Buck had helped with that. Heck, maybe Rosy had, too, but the four mostly good years he’d spent with Buck couldn’t erase the fourteen shitty ones that came before them.
He dropped the invitation back on his desk and steeled himself up when he heard the woodpecker taps of the high heels coming toward his office. Several taps later, his assistant, Havana Mayfield, stuck her head in the open doorway.
Today, her hair was pumpkin orange with streaks of golden brown, the color of a roasted turkey. Probably to coordinate with Thanksgiving since it’d been just the day before.
Callen wasn’t sure what coordination goal Havana had been going for with the lime-green pants and top or the lipstick-red stilettos, but as he had done with Rosy and just about everyone else from his past, he’d long since given up trying to figure out his assistant’s life choices. Havana was an efficient workaholic, like him, which meant he overlooked her wardrobe, her biting sarcasm and the occasional judgmental observations about him—even if they weren’t any of her business.
“Your two o’clock is here,” Havana said, setting some contracts and more mail in his in-box. Then she promptly took the stack from his out-box. “George Niedermeyer,” she added, and bobbled her eyebrows. “He brought his mother with him. She wants to tell you about her granddaughter, the lawyer.”
Callen silently groaned. George was in his sixties and was looking for a good deal on some Angus. Which Callen could and would give him. George’s mother, Myrtle, was nearing ninety, and despite her advanced age, she was someone Callen would classify as a woman with too much time on her hands. Myrtle would try to do some matchmaking with her lawyer granddaughter, gossip about things that Callen didn’t want to hear and prolong what should be a half-hour meeting into an hour or more.
“Myrtle said you’re better looking than a litter of fat spotted pups,” Havana added, clearly enjoying this. “That’s what you get for being a hotshot cattle broker with a pretty face.” She poked her tongue against her cheek. “Women just can’t resist you and want to spend time with you. The older ones want to fix you up with their offspring.”
“You’ve had no trouble resisting,” he pointed out—though he’d never made a play for her. And wouldn’t. Havana and anyone else who worked for him was genderless as far as Callen was concerned.
“Because I know the depths of your cold, cold heart. Plus, you pay me too much to screw this up for sex with a hotshot cattle broker with a pretty face.”
Callen didn’t even waste a glare on that. The pretty face was questionable, but he was indeed a hotshot cattle broker. That wasn’t ego. He had the bank account, the inventory and the willing buyers to prove it.
Head ’em up, move ’em out.
Callen had built Laramie Cattle on that motto. That and plenty of ninety-hour workweeks. And since his business wasn’t broke, it didn’t require fixing. Even if it would mean having to listen to Myrtle for the next hour.
“What the heck is that?” Havana asked, tipping her head to his desk.
Callen followed her gaze to the invitation. “Billy the Armadillo. Years ago, he was roadkill.”
Every part of Havana’s face went aghast. “Ewww.”
He agreed, even though he would have gone for something more manly sounding, like maybe a grunt. “The bride’s a taxidermist,” he added. Along with being Buck’s housekeeper and cook.
Still in the aghast mode, Havana shifted the files to her left arm so she could pick up the invitation and open it. He pushed away another greasy smear of those old memories while she read it.
“Buck McCall,” Havana muttered when she’d finished.
She didn’t ask who he was. No need. Havana had sent Buck Christmas gifts during the six years that she’d worked for Callen. Considering those were the only personal gifts he’d ever asked her to buy and send to anyone, she knew who Buck was. Or rather she knew that he was important to Callen.
Of course, that “important” label needed to be judged on a curve because Callen hadn’t actually visited Buck or gone back to Coldwater since he’d hightailed it out of there on his eighteenth birthday. Now he was here in Dallas, nearly three hundred miles away, and sometimes it still didn’t feel nearly far enough. There were times when the moon would have been too close.
Havana just kept on staring at him, maybe waiting for him to bare his soul or something. He wouldn’t. No reason for it, either. Because she was smart and efficient, she had almost certainly done internet searches on Buck. There were plenty of articles about him being a foster father.
Correction: the hotshot of foster fathers.
It wouldn’t have taken much for Havana to piece together that Buck had fostered not only Callen but his three brothers, as well. Hell, for that matter Havana could have pieced together the rest, too. The shit that’d happened before Callen and his brothers had got to Buck’s. Too much shit for him to stay, though his brothers had had no trouble putting down those proverbial roots in Coldwater.
“Christmas Eve, huh?” Havana questioned. “You’ve already got plans to go to that ski lodge in Aspen with a couple of your clients. Heck, you scheduled a business meeting for Christmas morning, one that you insisted I attend. Say, is Bah Humbug your middle name?”
“The meeting will finish in plenty of time for you to get in some skiing and spend your Christmas bonus,” he grumbled. Then he rethought that. “Do you ski?”
She lifted her shoulder. “No, but there are worse things than sitting around a lodge during the holidays while the interest on my bonus accumulates in my investment account.”
Yes, there were worse things. And Callen had some firsthand experience with that.
“Are you actually thinking about going back to Coldwater for this wedding?” Havana pressed.
“No.” But he was sure thinking about the wedding itself and that note Rosy had added to the invitation.
That wasn’t a good word to have repeating in his head.
Havana shrugged and dropped the invitation back on his desk. “Want me to send them a wedding gift? Maybe they’ve registered on the Taxidermists-R-Us site.” Her tongue went in her cheek again.
Callen wasted another glare on her and shook his head. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll send them something.”
She staggered back, pressed her folder-filled hand to her chest. “I think the earth just tilted on its axis. Or maybe that was hell freezing over.” Havana paused, looked at him. “Is something wrong?” she came out and asked, her tone no longer drenched with sarcasm.
Callen dismissed it by motioning toward the door. “Tell the Niedermeyers that I need a few minutes. I have to do something first.”
As expected, that caused Havana to raise an eyebrow again, and before she left, Callen didn’t bother to tell her that her concern wasn’t warranted. He could clear this up with a phone call and get back to work.
But who should he call?
Buck was out because if there was actually something wrong, then his former foster father would be at the center of it. That Please come. Buck needs to see you. clued him into that.
He scrolled through his contacts, one by one. He no longer had close friends in Coldwater, but every now and then he ran into someone in his business circles who passed along some of that gossip he didn’t want to hear. So the most obvious contacts were his brothers.
Kace, the oldest, was the town’s sheriff. Callen dismissed talking to him because the last time they’d spoken—four or five years ago—Kace had tried to lecture Callen about cutting himself off from the family. Damn right, he’d cut himself off, and since he would continue to do that and hated lectures from big brothers, he went to the next one.
Judd. Another big brother who was only a year older than Callen. Judd had been a cop in Austin. Or maybe San Antonio. He was a deputy now in Coldwater, but not once had he ever bitched about Callen leaving the “fold.” He kept Judd as a possibility for the call he needed to make and continued down the very short list to consider the rest of his choices.
Nico. The youngest brother, who Callen almost immediately discounted. He was on the rodeo circuit—a bull rider, of all things—and was gone a lot. He might not have a clue if something was wrong.
Callen got to Rosy’s name next. The only reason she was in his contacts was because Buck had wanted him to have her number in case there was an emergency. A please on a wedding invitation probably didn’t qualify as one, but since he hated eating up time by waffling, Callen pressed her number. After a couple of rings, he got her voice mail.
“Knock knock,” Rosy’s perky voice greeted him, and she giggled like a loon. “Who’s there? Well, obviously not me, and since Billy can’t answer the phone, ha ha, you gotta leave me a message. Talk sweet to me, and I’ll talk sweet back.” More giggling as if it were a fine joke.
Callen didn’t leave a message because a) he wanted an answer now and b) he didn’t want anyone interrupting his day by calling him back.
He scrolled back through the contacts and pressed Judd’s number. Last he’d heard, Judd had moved into the cabin right next to Buck’s house, so he would know what was going on.
“Yes, it came from a chicken’s butt,” Judd growled the moment he answered. “Now, get over it and pick it up.”
In the background Callen thought he heard someone make an ewww sound eerily similar to the one Havana had made earlier. Since a chicken’s butt didn’t have anything to do with a phone call or wedding invitation, it made Callen think his brother wasn’t talking to him.
“What the heck do you want?” Judd growled that, too, and this time Callen did believe he was on the receiving end of the question.
The bad grouchy attitude didn’t bother Callen because he thought it might speed along the conversation. Maybe. Judd didn’t like long personal chats, which explained why they rarely talked.
“Can somebody else gather the eggs?” a girl asked. Callen suspected it might be the same one who’d ewww’ed. Her voice was high-pitched and whiny. “These have poop on them.”
“This is a working ranch,” Judd barked. “There’s poop everywhere. If you’ve got a gripe with your chores, talk to Buck or Rosy.”
“They’re not here,” the whiner whined.
“There’s Shelby,” Judd countered. “Tell her all about it and quit bellyaching to me.”
Just like that, Callen got another ass-first knock back into the time machine. Shelby McCall. Buck’s daughter. And the cause of nearly every lustful thought and unplanned hard-on that Callen had had from age fifteen all the way through to age eighteen.
Plenty of ones afterward, too.
Forbidden fruit could do that to a teenager, and as Buck’s daughter, Shelby had been as forbidden as it got. Callen remembered that Buck had had plenty of rules, but at the top of the list was one he gave to the boys he fostered. Touch Shelby, and I’ll castrate you. It had been simple and extremely effective.
“Buck got a new batch of foster kids,” Judd went on, and again, Callen thought that part of the conversation was meant for him. “I just finished a double shift, and I’m trying to get inside my house so I can sleep, but I keep getting bothered. What do you want?” he tacked onto that mini rant.
“I got Buck and Rosy’s wedding invitation,” Callen threw out there.
“Yeah. Buck popped the question a couple of weeks ago, and they’re throwing together this big wedding deal for Christmas Eve. They’re inviting all the kids Buck has ever fostered. All of them,” Judd emphasized. “So, no, you’re not special and didn’t get singled out because you’re a stinkin’ rich prodigal son or some such shit. All of them,” he repeated.
Judd sounded as pleased about that as Callen would have been had he still been living there. He had no idea why someone would want to take that kind of step back into the past. It didn’t matter that Buck had been good to them. The only one who had been. It was that being there brought back all the stuff that’d happened before they’d made it to Buck.
“Is Buck okay?” Callen asked.
“Of course he is,” Judd snapped. Then he paused. “Why wouldn’t he be? Just gather the blasted eggs!” he added onto that after another whiny ewww. “Why wouldn’t Buck be okay?”
Callen didn’t want to explain the punch-in-the-gut feeling he’d got with Rosy’s Please come. Buck needs to see you, and it turned out that he didn’t have to explain it.
“Here’s Shelby, thank God,” Judd grumbled before Callen had to come up with anything. “She’ll answer any questions you have about the wedding. It’s Callen,” he said to Shelby. “Just leave my phone on the porch when you’re done.”
“No!” Callen couldn’t say it fast enough. “That’s all right. I was just—”
“Callen,” Shelby greeted him.
Apparently, his unplanned hard-ons weren’t a thing of the past after all. Even though Shelby was definitely a woman now, she could still purr his name.
He got a flash image of her face. Okay, of her body, too. All willowy and soft with that tumble of blond hair and clear green eyes. And her mouth. Oh man. That mouth had always had his number.
“I didn’t expect you to be at Judd’s,” he said, not actually fishing for information. But he was. He was also trying to fight back what appeared to be jealousy. It was something he didn’t feel very often.
“Oh, I’m not. I was over here at Dad’s, taking care of a few things while he’s at an appointment. He got some new foster kids in, and when I heard the discussion about eggs, I came outside. That’s when Judd handed me his phone and said I had to talk to you. You got the wedding invitation?” she asked.
“I did.” He left it at that, hoping she’d fill in the blanks of the questions he wasn’t sure how to ask.
“We couldn’t change Rosy’s mind about using that picture of Billy in the veil. Trust me, we tried.”
Callen found himself smiling. A bad combination when mixed with arousal. Still, he could push it aside, and he did that by glancing around his office. He had every nonsexual thing he wanted here, and if he wanted sex, there were far less complicated ways than going after Shelby. Buck probably still owned at least one good castrating knife.
“I called Rosy, but she didn’t answer,” Callen explained.
“She’s in town but should be back soon. She doesn’t answer her phone if she’s driving.”
Callen couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing on a personal level for him. If Rosy had answered, then he wouldn’t be talking to Shelby right now. He wouldn’t feel the need for a cold shower or an explanation.
“Rosy should be back any minute now. You want me to have her call you?” Shelby asked.
“No. I just wanted to tell them best wishes for the wedding. I’ll send a gift and a card.” And he’d write a personal note to Buck.
“You’re not coming?” Shelby said.
Best to do this fast and efficient. “No. I have plans. Business plans. A trip. I’ll be out of the state.” And he cursed himself for having to justify himself to a woman who could lead to castration.
That was it. Two letters of the alphabet. One word. But it was practically drowning in emotion. Exactly what specific emotion, Callen didn’t know, but that gut-punch feeling went at him again hard and fast.
“Shelby?” someone called out. It sounded like the whiny girl. “Never mind. Here comes Miss Rosy.”
“I guess it’s an important business trip?” Shelby continued, her voice a whisper now.
“Yes, longtime clients. I do this trip with them every year—”
“Callen, you need to come,” Shelby interrupted. “Soon,” she added. “It’s bad news.”