The Callahans of Texas, Book One
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Jenna took a deep breath and jumped up in the air a little, pushing on the tire iron with all her strength as she came back down. It didn’t budge. The guy at the service station had gotten carried away with the impact wrench the last time he rotated the tires.
She released the tire iron and straightened, huffing out a frustrated breath, silently threatening to wring his neck. She had specifically told him not to tighten the lug nuts so much that she couldn’t get them off herself. He knew she lived fifteen miles from town and probably figured he’d make good money driving out to fix a flat. “No way, mister,” she muttered. She decided to call her brother Chance. Reaching through the open pickup door to the passenger seat, she took her cell phone from the outside pocket on her purse and hit the speed dial for his construction company. As she expected, his secretary answered. “Hi, Pat. This is Jenna. Is Chance available?”
“Sorry, he’s way out north of town meeting with some potential clients. Do you want me to have him call you when he checks in?”
She could always call him directly, but she didn’t want to interrupt his business meeting over a flat tire. “Yes, please. On my cell. Thanks.”
Frowning, she considered her options as she hung up. It wouldn’t do any good to call the ranch. Her dad and her other brother, Will, had gone up near Lubbock to pick up a new stallion. The ranch hands were wandering across sixty thousand acres on horseback, looking for a wayward bull. Even if she were fortunate enough to reach one of their cell phones, it would be stuffed into a cubbyhole or console in a pickup. By the time they returned to the truck and got her message, Chance probably would have the tire changed. At least she’d stopped by one of the few trees next to the road, so there was a little shade. She tucked her phone into her pant’s pocket and rearranged some of the groceries, putting all the cold stuff into a couple of bags with a frozen package of meat in each one. Normally, she kept a small cooler in the pickup, but she had taken it out to clean a few days earlier and had forgotten to put it back.
Tapping her fingertips on the edge of the truck bed, she glanced at her watch: 3:00. Her mom wasn’t expecting her for another hour, so she didn’t need to call and make her worry. Mom had assured her that she was free to babysit all afternoon, so Zach was in good hands. He loved having Grandma spoil him.
She plucked the water bottle from the holder by the driver’s seat and took a long drink. The weatherman had predicted eighty degrees by mid-afternoon. She figured he had it pegged about right. And she had a carton of ice cream sitting in the backseat melting.
Shrugging, Jenna walked around the extended cab pickup and opened the glove box, rummaging through the odds and ends stashed inside until she found a couple of plastic spoons still sealed in clear bags, remnants of a stop at Dairy Queen. Taking one of the spoons and the carton of ice cream, she found a comfortable spot in the dry grass beneath the pale green lacy leaves of the mesquite tree and sat down in the shade. She pried the lid off the ice cream and took her first bite. Double chocolate fudge brownie on a hot day. “Mmm…thank you, Lord, for small blessings.”
In the pasture across the road, two Black Angus cows and their calves lay in the green grass beneath a stand of mesquites, swatting at flies with their tails, resting in the afternoon heat. Away from the trees, amid grass baked golden by the summer sun, stood a large valve and gauges on a natural gas pipeline. The gold and green rangeland stretched as far as she could see, ending with a brown mesa on the horizon. The field behind her was full of bright green plants a couple of feet high covered with green bolls of developing cotton. She’d eaten enough to spoil her supper when she spotted a pickup coming down the road. Debating whether or not to retrieve her pistol from the console between the front seats, she waited a few minutes to see if she recognized the truck. If she didn’t, she’d get the gun. A lot of strangers traveled the highway. On rare occasions there had been trouble. A woman stranded alone miles from the nearest house had to be careful.
A few minutes later, Jenna relaxed. It was Tom Langley’s pickup. He and his wife, Chris, lived on a farm near the Callahan Ranch. He’d had neck surgery a month earlier, so she was surprised that he was even driving. The challenge now would be to keep him from trying to change the tire. She went back to the ice cream, watching as the truck slowed and pulled off the road, stopping about ten feet behind her pickup. Jenna stared at the driver, dropping the spoon into the carton.
Nate! She hadn’t heard that he was coming home for a visit. Her heartbeat kicked to double time. She had lived elsewhere for several years and never made it to Callahan Crossing when he was home on leave. He still had the same affect on her that he’d had when she was fourteen. Unfortunately, if he’d ever had any romantic ideas, he certainly hadn’t given her any hint of it. And she’d never been the kind of girl to chase a guy.
He turned off the engine and opened the door. Was he all right? She’d heard that he’d been burned on the arm and been hit in the leg by shrapnel four months earlier in Iraq. His mother said neither wound had been bad enough for the army to send him back to the States. But he’d been awarded a Purple Heart, so it must have been more than a scratch. He’d earned a Silver Star that day too. There had been a write-up in the local paper about how he saved two badly injured soldiers even though he was also hurt.
Jenna held her breath as he climbed out of the pickup and slowly walked around the front of it. Wow…He wasn’t the six foot tall, rangy cowboy she used to know. This man was all muscle. Not the overdone Mr. Universe type, but either he’d been working with weights or carrying a lot of military gear around. Probably both. His snug, blue, short-sleeved Tshirt emphasized his physique. She had to force herself not to stare at his broad shoulders and thick, solid arms.
He moved fine, so he must not have suffered any permanent injury to his leg. A pink scar on the back of his forearm stood out against his dark tan, but it didn’t seem to bother him. And it wasn’t bad enough to freak anybody out. He crossed his arms and leaned against the truck fender with a smile, his bright blue eyes twinkling.
Jenna’s heart skipped a beat. How could his eyes have gotten even more beautiful?
He scanned the jack waiting near the right rear of the pickup, the tire iron still hanging on a lug nut, and the spare tire lying on the ground. He brushed a strand of light sandy brown hair off his forehead, and his gaze flickered to the ice cream before meeting hers. “Refueling?”
She laughed and stood, walking over to meet him. “I couldn’t get the tire off, and the ice cream was melting. Didn’t see any sense in wasting it.” Setting the carton in the truck bed, she swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. “Welcome home.” Something flashed in his eyes, then he lowered his arms and straightened, taking a step closer. “Don’t I get a hug?” Was his voice a little thicker?
Jenna hesitated for a second, then chided herself. This was Nate, her friend. And he was home safe and sound. Quick tears stung her eyes. Thank you, Lord. “You bet.”
She slid her arms around his waist and hugged him, resting her face against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her too. What did it matter if he held her a little tighter and a little longer than was customary? She wasn’t going to complain. Still, if she had any sense, she would end it quickly and not risk him thinking she might be open to anything other than friendship. She was a complete failure when it came to romantic relationships. Getting involved with anyone was unthinkable.
When he finally released her and she stepped back, tears stung her eyes. “I’m glad you made it okay.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “Me too.” He walked to her truck, but instead of checking the tire, he looked over the tailgate at the ice cream. “You gonna share?”
Jenna laughed, feeling back on solid ground. “Help yourself. If I eat any more I’ll make myself sick.”
He picked up the carton, grinning when he read the flavor. “I should have known it would be chocolate.”
“Is there any other kind?” When he reached for the spoon, she touched his arm to stop him. “There’s a clean one in the glove box.”
“Do you have anything contagious?”
“Not that I know of.”
He scooped up a bite of the quickly softening ice cream and ate it. “Considering the germs I’ve been exposed to the last few years, I doubt yours will give me a problem.” A tiny smile hovered at the corner of his mouth. “I like your hair that way. Though I’m surprised the purple doesn’t clash with the red.” She laughed and smoothed her hair as the breeze ruffled it. It was a losing battle. “It does clash with some of my clothes. They’re hair extensions, so nothing permanent. I’ll have my stylist take them out next week. Are you here for a short visit or a long one?”
He swallowed, his gaze skimming the countryside. “Neither. I’m home to stay.”
“I thought you were going to make the army a career.”
“I was seriously considering it. But after Dad had surgery, I decided I needed to be here to help him. So I didn’t reenlist.”
“I’m sure your folks are thrilled to have you home.” He ate another couple of bites, then stuck the spoon in the carton and held it out to her. Regret shadowed his eyes. “Mom cried and Dad got all choked up when I told them. Every time I’d talked to them before, they’d brushed his neck and back problems aside, saying it was nothing to worry about. I think they were trying to prove it by flying out to see me when I got back from Iraq instead of me coming home then. I could tell he was in rough shape. But they both insisted that the neck surgery would fix him up. Maybe they really thought it would.
“But I wasn’t convinced, so I called his doctor after he had the operation. Dad had given the doctor permission to talk to me, but I don’t think he really thought I’d call him. He said Dad would be fine as long as he didn’t work so hard, but that his neck and back are a mess. Several compressed discs and arthritis from the top to the bottom of his spinal column, some stenosis causing pressure on the nerves. The doctor said he shouldn’t run the farm by himself and especially not do any heavy lifting. Dad admitted last night that they’d been debating selling the farm because they couldn’t afford to hire anybody.”
“Then it won’t support them and you, will it?” Frowning, Jenna walked a few feet away and dumped the ice cream in the grass. The ants were in for a treat. She straightened and looked back at him in time to see a fleeting grimace. “In good years it wouldn’t be too bad, but this isn’t a good year for cotton. I’ll have to make sure I don’t eat too much.” He smiled, but his expression was strained. “And live at home.”
Putting the lid back on the carton, she pulled an empty plastic grocery bag from behind the backseat and wrapped it up. “That isn’t going to be easy. You’ve been on your own a long time. So have they.”
“It will be a patience builder all the way around. I’ll look for something else part-time.” He bent over, gripping the tire iron, and pushed down. The muscles in his arms flexed until the lug nut broke free, and Jenna silently thanked the Lord for sending her a strong Good Samaritan.
Placing the tire iron on the next one, he paused and glanced over at her. “Know of anybody who’s looking for a slightly rusty cowboy or farmhand?”
“I do.” She tried to tamp down her excitement. They could help him, and she’d get to see him a lot more often than if he were holed up at the Langley farm all the time. Not that she wanted to delve into why the thought of having him around made her so happy.
“Who?” He broke another lug nut free.
“We are. Virgil White has been semi-retired for the last year. He officially quit the end of August on his eightieth birthday. He and Nadine bought a place outside of San Antonio so they can be closer to the grandkids. They finished moving out last week.
“We’ll need somebody to work three to four days a week, sometimes more, depending on what’s going on. The house comes with it, if you want to live on the ranch. You’d only have to pay for the electricity and phone.”
“You sure Dub doesn’t have somebody else in mind?”
“We’ve talked to a couple of people, but we weren’t all that impressed.”
Nate was quiet as he quickly loosened the rest of the lug nuts. He moved around to the back and slid the jack into place, easily working the handle to raise that side of the pickup off the ground. Spinning off the lug nuts one by one, he set them in a little pile on the ground nearby. He lifted the heavy tire from the hub and laid it in the pickup bed with an ease that Jenna envied.
“That could be a real answer to prayer. But the days would have to be a bit flexible, depending on what I need to do at the farm.” He rolled the spare around to the side of the pickup and lifted it onto the hub. “I’ll give your dad a call tonight.”
“You’re hired if you want the job.”
Excerpted from JENNA’S COWBOY: The Callahans of Texas, Book 1 © Copyright 2017 by Sharon Gillenwater. Reprinted with permission by Revell. All rights reserved.
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