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All-American Cowboy by Dylann Crush (1)

Chapter One

No three-hundred-pound piece of prime pork was going to get the best of her. Charlie Walker adjusted the tilt of her cowboy hat against the glare of the Texas sun and leaned down, putting herself eye to eye with the enormous pig. “Someone’s not feeling very photogenic today, huh?”

Baby Back grunted in response and made a break for the right. Charlie dove after her, trying to grab the pig’s blinged-out collar. She missed by a country mile and went down, sending a cloud of dust flying as her hip hit the gravel with a crunch.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Charlie scrambled to her feet with a scowl. If that’s the way the hellacious hog wanted to handle things, then so be it. But she was going to play this smart. Her mama always said the best way to get someone to cooperate was to kill them with kindness. Forcing something close to a smile, Charlie took the giant marshmallow she’d been saving as a special treat out of her back pocket. Baby Back obviously wasn’t going to earn the reward with good behavior. Might as well use it as a bribe. “Sooey! Here piggy, piggy.”

Baby Back’s ears perked.

“You want an ooey, gooey marshmallow?” Charlie tore off a tiny bit and tossed it in Baby Back’s direction.

The pig snuffled it out of the dirt, squealing in appreciation.

“Come on, piggy. Want some more?” Charlie lobbed another chunk, waiting until Baby Back was snout-deep in her search before taking a tentative step forward. If she could just grab the collar… She leaned in, her fingers almost grasping the hot-pink band of leather.

Before she could so much as blink, Baby Back rushed her, snagging the marshmallow out of her hand, knocking her flat on her rear, and dashing toward the damaged stretch of fence. With a thud and a crack, the rail split. Baby Back bolted through the break in the fence and disappeared.

Again.

Add another exclamation point to the day from hell.

“Almost had her that time,” Darby, Charlie’s best friend since birth, called from her safe perch. “I swear, if you’d just lunged a little bit farther…” She raised a bottle of Coke in Charlie’s direction and took a swig.

Charlie took her time getting to her feet. “Almost doesn’t count—”

“Except in horseshoes and hand grenades, right?” Darby served up a wink alongside the smart-ass comment.

“Yeah. That’s what Sully used to say anyway.” Sully, her boss, her mentor, and the last living Holiday in Holiday, Texas. Well, the last living Holiday until he’d passed away, leaving Charlie struggling to keep everything together.

Darby’s amusement faded, her eyes crinkling with concern. “How you holdin’ up, sweetie?”

“Okay, I guess. I just wish I knew what was going to happen to the Rambling Rose.”

Sully’s lawyer had surprised everyone by keeping his mouth shut for a change. The only tidbit of gossip anyone had been able to extract from Buddy Hill, Esquire, was that he’d been trying to contact Sully’s grandson—some hoity-toity real estate tycoon from New York City—about the will. The Rambling Rose was the oldest honky-tonk in Texas and had been in the Holiday family for more than 125 years. Charlie couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

Hopefully she wouldn’t have to.

“I know Buddy’s trying to figure that out,” Darby said. “Hard to believe this will be the first time in history we don’t have a Holiday on the Rose’s float for the Founder’s Day parade.”

A deep ache pulsed in Charlie’s chest. She rubbed the spot over her heart with her palm. Sully had always loved being the grand master of the annual parade. But she couldn’t think about that now—she had bigger issues. Like the fact that her maintenance man had walked out on her this morning, her bartender forgot to put in an order for the favorite local brew, and she hadn’t crossed off a single item on her to-do list for the biggest concert of the year.

Or—she huffed out a sigh—the fact that a tour bus full of senior citizens had pulled up not ten minutes ago, wanting some of the Rambling Rose’s famous ribs and a picture with the most celebrated pig in Conroe County.

One problem at a time.

“Damn pig. I’d better get the truck and chase her down. Last time she got out, she plowed through Mrs. Martinez’s garden and ate all of her green peppers.” Charlie secured the gate behind her—not that it would do much good unless she found someone to fix the fence. “I’m still getting blamed for her salsa coming in second place at the county fair.”

“Remind me why y’all insist on having a pet pig as a mascot?” Darby climbed off the rail and fell into step with Charlie.

“Tradition. You know Sully. The Rambling Rose has had a pig on staff ever since it opened. They sure as heck aren’t going to lose one on my watch.” Not even if her watch might be coming to an abrupt end. She ducked through the back door of the honky-tonk and grabbed her keys off a hook. “You coming?”

Darby shook her head, sending her dark curls bouncing. “I’ll leave the pig wrangling to you. I gotta get home and get dinner going. Waylon will skin me alive if he finds out I spent all afternoon hanging out with his baby sister.”

“Now I know that’s a lie.” Charlie yanked open the door of the late-model dually pickup. “He’s got you on such a high pedestal I’m surprised you don’t get a nosebleed from the lack of oxygen.”

“He does love me, doesn’t he?” Darby slung her arm around Charlie’s neck and pulled her in for a hug. “We’ll try to stop by later, if your mama’s up for watching the kids.”

Darby and Waylon had been married for nine years, but it could still get weird, thinking about her BFF swapping spit with her brother. So Charlie tried not to think about it at all. As in, ever. “Has she ever not been up for watching them?”

“True. Be sure to save us some seats up front tonight, okay? That band is supposed to be real good.” With a squeeze and a quick kiss on the cheek, Darby stepped away. “And don’t worry about Sully’s grandson. He’ll probably fly down, take a look at the place, tell you what a great job you’re doing, and be on a plane back to New York City before you even have a chance to pour him a draft of Lone Star.”

Charlie snorted. “Oh yeah? With my luck, he’ll realize he’s always wanted to manage the oldest honky-tonk in Texas, and he’ll toss me out on my backside.”

“He might just like your backside.” Darby waggled her perfectly plucked eyebrows.

“My backside isn’t up for review. Besides, if he ever does have the nerve to show up around here, he’ll be the one getting tossed on his ass. Would it have killed him to pick up the phone and give Sully a call sometime? Maybe even come down for a visit?”

“Honey, I know you loved Sully like family. But not everyone loves as fierce as you. Give the guy a chance.”

A chance? In the eight years she’d worked for Sully, there’d been no word from either his son or his grandson. It had broken her heart to watch the cancer eat away at him, knowing she was just about the only family he had left.

But Darby was right about one thing—Charlie did love fierce. Fierce enough to know that the most important thing to Sully was keeping the Rambling Rose in the family. So even if it killed her, she’d do whatever she could to ensure his dying wish came true. She’d try to give his grandson a chance, assuming he had the decency to show up sometime in the near future.

“Hey, will you let Angelo know I’m hog hunting? Maybe he can stall lunch so I have a chance to bring back the prodigal pig to pose for pictures.”

“You bet. Good luck.”

With a final nod to Darby, Charlie climbed onto the bench seat and cranked over the engine. How many times had Baby Back broken out over the past month? Two? Three? She’d lost count of how many mascots they’d had over the years, but none of them had ever been as ornery as Baby Back. That pig had a devilish streak as long and wide as the Rio Grande.

She shifted the truck into drive and wondered if anyone would believe her if she said Baby Back got taken out by a combine. Sully was the only one beyond the tourists who gave a hot damn about the pig. She gripped the steering wheel tightly, fighting back a fresh surge of emotion.

For Sully.

Then she put the pedal to the metal and fishtailed out onto the main two-lane road that would take her through the center of Holiday in pursuit of the runaway porker.

* * *

Beckett Sullivan Holiday III scrolled through the slides of his presentation one final time. He’d been working his butt off for the past four months, and he was determined that this would be the project his father would finally trust him to handle on his own from concept to completion.

He’d done the legwork. He’d done the research. He’d done the whole damn thing short of signing the papers. There was no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to take the lead. No reason except his dad’s uncompromising need to maintain a viselike grip on all things under the Holiday Enterprises umbrella. Which, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how he looked at it, also included Beck.

The way Beck saw it, the project up in Morris Park should be a slam dunk. Holiday Enterprises would garner some positive press for a change, and he’d be able to come through on a long-overdue promise to an old friend. He was ready.

His phone beeped, and he silenced the alarm. Showtime.

Beck tucked his laptop under one arm and headed toward the conference room. No matter how much time he spent in the room his dad considered his pride and joy, the view managed to steal his breath every time he entered. Two walls of glass provided a 180-degree view. In this room, in a corner of the fifty-fifth floor, standing up against the windows always made him feel like he was floating above Midtown Manhattan.

“Ready, Son?” The elder Holiday stood at the head of the table.

Beck nodded and took the seat next to him as the rest of the management team filtered in. As head of one of the most successful real estate development firms in Manhattan, his father—or just Holiday as he preferred to be called, even by his son—usually had his pick of opportunities. It was up to his team to come up with the ideas, do the grunt work, and make recommendations at their weekly management meetings.

This time, Beck would get the go-ahead. He could feel it.

Beck sat through the six presentations ahead of his. He listened, took notes, and tried to swallow the lump of apprehension that had taken up residence in his throat. He’d been through the drill hundreds of times over the years. But he’d never pitched a project like this before.

He wiped a clammy palm over his suit pants. No need to be nervous. He’d worked with these people his entire career. Besides, how could his dad refuse the chance to spread some goodwill when the neighborhood—and their company—so obviously needed it?

Holiday shot down the executive golf course one of his minions had spent the past nine months putting together, then turned an appraising eye on his son. Beck swallowed and stood.

“Most of you know about the upscale condos we’re building in the Bronx. What you probably don’t know is that by building on those Morris Park lots, we’re displacing the kids who have been using that property as a safe place to play.” Beck scanned the faces of his coworkers. No one offered a smile of encouragement. No one gave him a sly thumbs-up. No one knew what to make of this departure from the money makes more money mentality. But they’d catch on.

He continued, pulling at their heartstrings. “There’s another lot two blocks over with a condemned apartment building sitting on it. The city is willing to sell it well below market value. I’m going to show you why it makes sense for Holiday Enterprises to use that space to build its first community park.”

By the time he wrapped up with a detailed analysis of the tangible and intangible benefits of the park, the smile on his dad’s face pretty much guaranteed approval.

But then Holiday steepled his fingers under his chin and shook his head.

“So you want me to buy a crumbling building and knock it down so a handful of kids have a safe place to hang out and sell drugs.”

Beck almost didn’t know what to say to that. “No, sir. I want us to buy a property for pennies on the dollar and create goodwill by donating it back to the community as a place where the residents can gather.” Beck pointed to the screen where the last slide still appeared. “Imagine the ribbon cutting. The press would go nuts. This kind of project is unprecedented.”

“It’s unprecedented because it’s not a good idea. I appreciate all the work you put into this, Beck. But I’ve decided to have you manage the details on the boutique hotel in the Village instead.”

Beck’s heart went into a free fall. “The Village?” He cleared his throat, trying to prevent his voice from cracking. “But the P&L shows we won’t break even on that project for at least ten years.” Not to mention the last thing downtown needed was another trendy hotel. The park would actually mean something to those kids.

“What can I say?” Holiday shrugged. “I like the Village.”

“But you’re wrong. We need the good publicity, and the Bronx needs—” Shit. He’d violated Rule Number One: never criticize the boss. Especially in front of the entire management team.

“Sorry, Son. It’s a pass. Try again next time.” The smile spread over his father’s lips but didn’t reach his eyes. Beck felt like he was looking into the face of a great white shark. Predatory. Cunning. Lethal.

He’d already shot himself in the foot. Might as well bury himself while he was at it. But before he could finish the job and tell his dad exactly what he thought of his new plan, the intercom buzzed.

“What is it, Joyce?” Holiday asked.

“Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt. You have an urgent call on line two.”

“We’re in a meeting.” His tone was clipped, flat, unemotional.

Joyce’s voice faltered. “I know, sir. But it’s, well, it’s your father.”

Holiday’s chest puffed up, and he leaned over the speakerphone. “You tell that son of a bitch that I don’t care what kind of emergency he has down there. He needs something from me, he can go through my lawyer.”

An awkward silence fell over everyone present. Eyes sought out interesting patterns in the marble floor, fingers toyed with expensive fountain pens, and legs shifted under the table.

“Um, sir. He’s not actually on the phone. It seems he’s passed. His attorney would like to speak to you.”

His dad hissed out a breath, and an unreadable flicker of emotion flashed across his face so fast that Beck thought maybe he’d just imagined it. He’d never seen his dad react that way to anything and wasn’t sure how to respond. Holiday had made it clear on numerous occasions that the family he’d left behind in Texas was not up for discussion.

“Sir?” the voice came through the speaker.

“Dad?” Beck murmured. “You okay?” He put his hand on his father’s shoulder.

With a quick shake of the head, Holiday swatted Beck’s hand away and regained his bearings. “Meeting’s over. Can I have a few minutes?” The team stood and filed out of the conference room. “Beck, stay.”

Once the room cleared, his dad shifted the speaker to the end of the table. “Go ahead and patch him through.”

The phone line clicked. Beck cleared his throat while he studied his old man. How would he feel if his father died? A fleeting twinge passed through his gut. They saw each other every day. They worked together, wined and dined connections as a team, and both appreciated a day spent on the golf course.

But they’d never been close. Emotional distance ran deep in his family, at least based on how Holiday seemed to be handling the news of his own father’s death.

“Beckett Holiday here. To whom am I speaking?”

“Hi there, Mr. Holiday. This is Buddy Hill calling from Holiday, Texas. Your father, well, he passed. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Based on his father’s reaction, they could have been discussing the weather. No flicker of pain, no momentary hint of grief, no sign of emotion crossed his face.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Hill?”

“He asked me to, well…upon his death, he wanted me to contact you. We need to know what kind of arrangements y’all would like to make. And then there’s the matter of the will.”

Holiday reached for a pile of papers and tapped them into a uniform stack. “I trust you to make any necessary arrangements.”

“Certainly, sir.”

“And you can send a copy of the will to my attorney. I’ll have Joyce get the contact information for you. Now if that’s all—”

“Wait.” Mr. Hill must have sensed the conversation was coming to an abrupt end. “About the will. One of the stipulations is that it must be read in person.”

“Figures that old bastard would find a way to pull me back there one way or another. Couldn’t do it while he was alive, so—”

“It’s not for you, sir. Your son, Beckett Sullivan Holiday the Third, is the only beneficiary named in the will. We’ll need to know how to reach him.”

Beck shifted in his seat as his dad’s blank gaze settled on him. He’d never met his grandfather. Never even had a conversation with the old man. What could he possibly have left him in Texas?

“Sir?” Mr. Hill’s voice floated through the phone.

“Beck’s right here, Mr. Hill. Just give us a moment.” His dad pressed the mute button, then pushed back from the table and stood. “Good timing, Son. Since you won’t be wasting your efforts on that park anymore, you’ll have time to scoot on down south and find out what kind of lame inheritance the old geezer left for you before you get started on that new hotel.”

Beck grappled for a response. He didn’t have time to take off for Texas. Not with everything else going on. But the lawyer with the Southern twang had piqued his curiosity. Why would his grandfather, a virtual stranger, name him in his will? There was only one way to find out.

He unmuted the phone. “Hi, Mr. Hill. What can I do for you?”

“Beckett Sullivan Holiday the Third?”

“Yes, sir. But please call me Beck. How long do you need me down there?” he asked.

“Well, ideally a few days. At least on this initial trip.”

“What do you mean ‘initial trip’?” Visiting his dad’s hometown might be fun for a day or two. Maybe he’d get a chance to learn about the mysterious family Holiday had left behind. But more than one trip? He didn’t like the sound of that.

“I can explain everything when I see you in person. How soon can you be here?”

Beck swiped through the calendar on his phone. His schedule was jam-packed for the next week and a half. But it would be best if he got down there and took care of things as quickly as possible. He wanted to ask about his grandfather—how did he die, did he suffer at all, was he alone at the end—but a quick glance at his dad’s frigid profile made him bite down before he uttered a word.

“Are you there, Beck?” Mr. Hill asked.

“Yes. The earliest I can make it would be next week. I can fly down on Friday morning and spend the weekend.”

“Per your grandfather’s instructions, we’ll have to have the service before that.”

Beck glanced up as the door clicked shut behind his dad. “That’s fine. I understand.”

“I’ll have my secretary contact you with the details.”

Beck gave the man his cell number and ended the call. He stood, taking a deep breath while he replayed the past few minutes in his head. What would he find in Texas? He stepped to the window to study the controlled chaos of the city streets far below. His father rarely mentioned the small town where he was born and raised. Beck knew his grandmother had died before he was born and that his grandfather once owned some tiny little hole-in-the-wall bar. But he’d never heard from the man, and his dad had always been a stone-cold wall of silence on the subject.

His gut twinged with a pang of regret. He should have pushed harder. Now he’d never have the chance to learn more about his roots. Maybe there would be someone in Holiday he could ask about his family. There had to be records, photos, something left over from his dad’s younger days.

He glanced at the larger-than-life picture of his dad that decorated the conference room wall and felt that flicker of regret fade. Holiday had come a long way from that tiny Texas town. If he’d wanted Beck to know about his childhood, he would have shared. His dad was right. The old man probably left him a hound dog or a pickup truck. Beck would get in and out of there as fast as possible. It would be a pain to rearrange his schedule to make the trip, but he’d be back before the Manhattan society page even knew he’d been gone.

He blew out a breath, then turned his attention back to his laptop to pore over the details of his rejected proposal. He was many things but not a quitter. There must have been an angle he hadn’t explored.

With the sun beginning its descent over the Manhattan skyline, he settled in for another long night of work, his mind already back on business and his thoughts thousands of miles away from whatever waited for him in the Lone Star State.

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