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Liz Isaacson - [Coral Canyon Cowboys 02] - Otis

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Liz Isaacson - [Coral Canyon Cowboys 02] - Otis

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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Sneak Peek! MORRIS Chapter One:

Sneak Peek! MORRIS Chapter Two:

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Otis Young pulled up to the address his truck had navigated him to, already admiring the house. It looked as good in real life as it had on a computer screen, and he knew in that moment that he’d be purchasing this home.

“Look, baby,” he said to his daughter who rode in the back seat. “It has a tire swing in the tree.”

“Can I swing on it, Daddy?”

“Sure,” he said without thinking too hard about it. He’d done all of his heavy thinking in the recording studio that day. The executives from the label would be here next week, and Otis wished he’d made this move already.

“We have to wait for Dave,” he said, putting his truck in park. “Plus, there’s still a lot of snow in the yard, and you’re not wearin’ your boots.” Moving in the winter would be terrible, and;  Otis once again blamed Mother Nature and the whole state of Wyoming for why he still lived in the rental close to the center of Coral Canyon.

This house sat on the northern boundary of the town, in a cute neighborhood—the last one before the highway became faster and only apple orchards separated Dog Valley from Coral Canyon. If he bought this home, he’d only be fifteen minutes from his brother’s ranch, fifteen minutes from his ex-wife’s house, and fifteen minutes from Joey’s school.

It was perfect, and he almost didn’t care what the inside looked like. He’d seen the inside of Tex’s farmhouse—the house where he and all the Young boys had grown up, Otis included—when he’d first bought it. He and his son had ripped everything out and remodeled and renovated.

Otis could do the same thing to this house should it need it. The location was what he needed, because Lauren, his ex-wife, wasn’t well and wasn’t getting any better. He didn’t have the greatest relationship with her—they weren’t Mav and Portia—but they’d sat down over the holiday break and decided that Joey should come live with Otis full-time.

He wasn’t touring with his country music band right now. He was living in town anyway, still tweaking and perfecting the music he and his brothers would start recording next week, when the producers from their record label showed up.

He’d been driving Joey to school since last fall, picking her up, and taking care of her anyway. At this point, she barely slept at her momma’s anymore, and Otis didn’t like dropping her off there. He had a much bigger support network, and his parents or his brothers had no problem stepping in and helping with his seven-year-old.

“What do you want to do for your birthday, Roo?” he asked her as they waited for Dave to show up. “Let me guess: A cake shaped like a book. No, a rainbow.” He grinned at her in the rearview mirror, her fair face lit from within.

His precious daughter would be eight in a couple of weeks, and Otis hadn’t heard Lauren say one thing about it. He wasn’t going to bother her with it. He’d get all the presents, the cake, the balloons, everything, and make sure Joey had an amazing birthday.

“Can we still go roller skating?”

He’d forgotten about that, but he said, “Yeah, of course.”

“Can I invite Mya and Timmy and Eleki?”

“Yes,” Otis said, starting to feel like he’d jumped into the lake up the canyon a bit, and the water was freezing and dragging him under by his sopping wet clothes.

“That’s what I want to do,” she said. “All the cousins can come, of course. And the uncles.”

He grinned as he looked out the window. “Of course,” he murmured. He’d already gotten over a dozen texts that morning, all from Joey’s uncles. They each wanted to know the moment he bought a house, which one it was, and when he could move in. They weren’t being nosy. Otis liked to call it supportive, and when he got tired of answering their texts and questions, he withdrew from them a little.

Everyone did it; he just happened to be the quietest about it. It helped that he didn’t have all the eyes on him the way Tex did. As he thought of his oldest brother, he remembered Tex’s wife had also texted him, and Otis hadn’t responded.

He picked up his phone and quickly sent a message back to Abby, telling her he was currently waiting at the first house, and yes, it looked nice. She worked at the library in town, and she didn’t always have access to her phone, especially if she was in a meeting.

He sighed and rested his head against the cold window, his thoughts going somewhere they shouldn’t.

Beck’s Books.

The quaint bookshop on Main Street, stuck between the post office and one of Otis’s favorite barbecue joints, Bam Bam’s. So of course he had to go by there often. Joey liked to read, and Otis wanted his daughter to be happy. Not only that, but he had things to mail all the time, and his hankering for brisket could keep him up at night until he satisfied his cravings.

The real craving was another taste of Georgia’s lips. She’d called him into her office once, late last summer, and she’d demanded he pretend to be her boyfriend and kiss her. Then she’d kissed him, and wow, Otis had not minded that one bit.

It was pretend, he told himself for probably the eight hundredth time in the past six months. It obviously hadn’t meant anything to Georgia, who’d never called him again for help with her ex, and who’d started for-real dating someone else very soon after that.

Movement in his rearview mirror caught his eye, and Otis said, “Here we go, Roo. He’s here.” He unbuckled and got out of his truck, opening the back door to help his daughter down.

Dave apologized for being a few minutes late, they shook hands, and Dave led Otis up the cleared driveway to the house. The sun shone today, glinting off the snow in the yard. “The driveway is heated,” he said. “As is the front sidewalk. It’s nice for small storms, and it helps with the bigger ones too.”

Otis looked at the decorative stone in the driveway and leading up to the front door. It wasn’t regular cement, and it felt too uppity to him. Was he the type of man who owned a house with a heated driveway?

Dave went on about the double-wide oak doors, the reclaimed barn wood shutters, and how the pillars were original to a historic home that had unfortunately burned beyond saving about five years ago.

Otis didn’t care about any of that, so he said nothing. He wanted somewhere that felt safe to him. Somewhere Joey could have her friends over, she could keep practicing the piano, she could have a little book nook with a bean bag so she could curl up and read while he worked on his song-writing. Or whatever.

Dave unlocked the house with a code, and he opened the door. He didn’t lead the way in. He smiled at Otis and said, “You two go on in. Look around. Gather your questions. We’ll talk in a few minutes.”

Otis hadn’t been expecting that. When he’d searched for rentals last summer, the landlords always hovered only twelve inches away, anxious to assure him that everything worked properly and what didn’t would be fixed or wasn’t their fault.

He peered into the house, took Joey’s hand in his, and went up the single step into the foyer. Yes, this house had a legit foyer. It wasn’t one of those huge sprawling mansions on the southeast side of Coral Canyon, but this house dripped with wealth.

Not in square feet. Not even in land, as the lot was only a half-acre. That was enough for Joey to set up a tent in the backyard during the summer and to roller skate around the front driveway—well, she could do that year-round, what with that heating system beneath it.

The house boasted four bedrooms and four baths, and Otis knew instantly that it had been designed by someone with an eye to use every space as wisely as possible. An office led left off the foyer, and he could see his collection of guitars there. His piano. All his sheet music. To the right from the foyer waited a small mudroom, with shelves and lockers for boots, hats, gloves, and backpacks. No one did that off a front entrance, but Otis loved it. He didn’t want messy, muddy boots just left on the tile to rot, and he hated picking up all of Joey’s things from where she happened to drop them after school.

From where he stood, he could see into a family room large enough to hold a couch and love seat, television, and a rocking chair. The kitchen sat behind that, with a long, long island where he could probably feed all of his nieces and nephews. A dining room table stood right in front of him, and he could see out the back door, which slid open into the back yard.

A sense Otis could only describe as home washed over him, making him warm from head to toe in less than a breath. It felt like God had taken a blanket straight from the dryer and wrapped it around his shoulders, whispering, You’re home, Otis. You’re home, and I’m right here with you.

He turned around and opened the front door again. “I’ll take it,” he said to a very surprised Dave.

“Really?” the real estate agent asked.

“If I pay cash, will they skip the appraisal?” he asked, meeting the man’s shocked blue eyes. “And if they do, and I pay cash, when can I move in?”

Otis circled the block again, wondering why so many dang people needed to use the post office in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday. He just wanted to dip into the bookstore and get Joey a gift.

For real.

He wasn’t even going to see Georgia Beck. He hadn’t the last five or six times he’d casually stopped by for some light reading for his daughter, and he couldn’t expect this time to be different.

Georgia knew and was real friendly with Abby, but Otis hadn’t seen her out at the ranch at all. Abby hardly talked about her friends with him or any of the other brothers, but Otis’s heart pounded hard as he saw a car backing out of a spot only a few yards in front of him.

He flipped on his blinker and waited for the woman to back out and vacate her space. Then he quickly pulled into it, thrilled with how close to Beck’s Books he’d gotten. He wasn’t right in front of it, but a quick glance to the right showed a new window display since the last time he’d been here. He wondered if Georgia or her assistant did those as he picked up his phone, then his wallet, and then pressed the button to turn off his truck.

He still didn’t get out, something strange keeping him in his seat. A woman came out of the shop, a brown paper bag in her hand with the embossed double B on it Otis has seen lots of times, usually on his own bag of books he’d bought.

Most people on the street right now seemed to be frequenting the post office, and after another couple of breaths, Otis felt like his legs would support him enough to walk. And walk he did, right up onto the curb, down the street a bit, and through the door of the bookshop.

The bell dinged, a high-pitched sound that echoed through the shop. No one came to greet him, as they had in the past. The shop waited in silence, and Otis froze, his footsteps suddenly too loud.

“Be right there,” someone called, and his heart jackhammered through his ribs as it tried to flee his body.

That was Georgia’s voice.

He suddenly couldn’t get his to work, and Otis reminded himself that he’d been out with women before. This wasn’t even a date, and he scoffed at himself as he stepped over to the bestsellers shelf as if he cared about any of the titles there.

He had, in fact, forgotten why he’d come in here at all. His mind fuzzed, and then he remembered Joey. Of course. Joey. He wanted to get her the new limited-edition collection of the Animal Hunters books she loved so much.

Rounding the bookshelf, the kids’ section came into view. In that moment, a terrific crash filled the air at the shop, startling Otis enough to kick his pulse into high gear. “Hello?” he called, now striding with purpose toward the back of the shop where he knew a hallway waited.

It came into view, but no one responded to him. “Georgia?” he called this time, and again, got no answer.

He hurried down the hall and looked in her office. She wasn’t there. Another foot or two down, another doorway on his right showed him a huge storage room, with bookshelves around the outside of it, and standing down the middle.

The scent of paper and cardboard hung heavily in the air, and Joey would love that. She’d stand here and say, “Can you smell it, Daddy? It smells like adventure.” She wasn’t one who loved to go hiking, skiing, or fishing. She preferred her outdoor experiences to come from the books she read, and Otis had long ago given up trying to get her to go play outside. Instead, he hung a hammock in the yard and let her read outside.

“Georgia,” he called, knowing he’d heard her voice.

A moan sounded somewhere, and Otis spun back toward the hall, the sound clearly coming from behind him. “O—tiiis.”

“Where are you?” he called. “Georgia? Where are you?” He dodged back over to her office, but she wasn’t there. His panic picked up speed, like a runaway train, and that was when he noticed the spilled books and toppled cart beside her desk.

Yes, this place was a mess, but Georgia would never leave books on the floor. He ran toward her desk, her legs coming into view. “Georgia!” He knelt beside her, the sight of her passed out, her eyes closed and her head bent at an odd angle against the wall haunting and terrible.

“Georgia,” he said, pressing his palm to her stomach. “Wake up, honey. It’s Otis Young, and I’m right here.”

Her eyelids fluttered, and Otis’s hope took flight. “That’s right. Wake up.”

Georgia opened her eyes, but they didn’t focus on him right away. She blinked, her eyebrows drawing down into a V. Then those gorgeous blue-green eyes that had been teasing and taunting him for weeks locked onto his.

“Otis?” she asked.



Georgia Beck had no idea how she’d gotten on the floor. Her head sent a throb of pain through her skull to the spot right between her eyes, and she groaned.

“You fainted,” Otis Young said, and she had no idea how the man kept getting himself into her office. Her lips tingled, betraying her, at his presence. Sure, she’d seen him around town. At church. Once from a few aisles over at the grocery store. Driving around with his brothers.

“I fainted?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Best that I can reckon, at least. I heard this terrible crash, and I called but no one answered.”

Georgia sat up—or she tried. Her body didn’t feel like it currently had any operating muscles, and Otis thankfully put his hand on her back and helped her sit all the way up. “There you go,” he said. “You okay?”

The care and compassion in his voice rang loudly in her ears. James had never spoken to her like that. His stern tone and set-in-his-ways routines were just two of the reasons Georgia had broken up with him before Christmas.

She did miss him.

No, she told herself as she reached up to touch the back of her head. You miss being with someone. Not him.

Yes, she went to lunch with her friends. She worked hard here at the bookshop, and she currently had her assistant living with her. Harper had fallen on some hard times with her own significant other, and she’d lost her condo in the break-up. Georgia could admit she really liked going home when she didn’t have to walk into a silent house, darkness, and her scowling cat staring at her from atop the refrigerator.

“Georgia?” Otis asked, and her brain sharpened. She looked at him, and the world stopped. It didn’t matter that she’d fainted for some unknown reason. Or that her back ached in a whole new way that didn’t come from hauling cases of books from the storage room to the showroom. Or that her stomach grumbled at her for something to eat.

Only Otis existed, with those black-as-coal eyes, that jaw that almost took on an angle, and the scent of his strength and power. He smelled like wood smoke and safety, and Georgia wanted to curl into his warmth.

She remembered kissing this man in vivid detail, right down to what he tasted like. How could she not? Their fake kiss was still the very best one of her life, and she shivered as her eyes broke the connection with his only to land on that mouth.

“Hey,” he said tenderly, gathering her into those arms so easily, like he did it every single day of his life. She wished, and oh, she wished mightily. “It’s okay. You’re shaking.”

She did tremble for another moment, and then she stilled. “I don’t know what happened,” she murmured. “I was standing here, going through the books on the cart. I’m redoing one of the display shelves out front.”

“Mm hm.” Otis didn’t release her, and Georgia had no idea how her arm had gotten up and around his, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. All she knew was that she liked touching him.

“I thought—I’m hungry. I should get lunch. And then…I don’t know. My stomach sort of swooped a little. I yelled to someone, I think? Someone came in the shop?” She pulled away from him slightly, her eyes now searching his.

“You called to me,” he whispered, his throat working hard as he swallowed, almost like he had a ball of sand he was trying to get down. “Then I heard the crash a few seconds later.”

She nodded, because that sounded right. “I got sweaty in like, an instant. I thought—I should sit down. Then I remembered I had a customer, and…well, that’s all I remember.”

“You fainted,” he said again. “I came running, but I couldn’t find you for a few seconds.”

“How long do you think I was out?”

“A minute?” he guessed. “I looked in here, but you were behind the desk. So I ducked over to the storage room, but you weren’t there either. Then you….” He cleared his throat and looked away.

Georgia needed to stand up. Her hip couldn’t keep getting twisted this way. She groaned, and Otis put both arms around her and, with the help of him and the desk, Georgia got to her feet. She kept both palms pressed into it, and Otis did not remove his hand from her back.


“Yeah,” she said, the kink in her hip working itself out. “Thanks.” She sighed, her head still a little light.

“You haven’t had lunch?”

“No,” she said, looking at him again. “What time is it?”

“Honey, it’s almost time for me to go pick up my daughter from school. It’s after two-thirty.” Only concern existed in his eyes, and a love-hate battle started within Georgia. She loved that he was concerned for her, but at the same time, she hated people fussing over her.

“You okay?” he asked, stepping back and dropping his hand.

“Yes,” she said with a nod.

“Is lunch here?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I was just going to go down the street and get whatever sounded good.”

“What sounds good?” He pulled out his phone as if he could make all of her favorite dishes appear with a few texts. Knowing him, he probably could.

You don’t know him, she told herself. One kiss did not make them friends. Or dating. Or anything. In truth, she knew very little about Otis Young, other than he was Otis Young, a talented singer-song writer who’d grown up here in Coral Canyon, the same way she had.

He was three or four years younger than her, and she pressed her eyes closed in an attempt to get her brain to stop regurgitating the information she knew about this man.

“Yeah,” Otis said. “I’ll call the school. Thanks, Luke.” The sound of his voice brought Georgia back to the present.

She opened her eyes and looked at him. “I think I need to go home.” If he suggested he take her to the hospital, she’d claw his eyes out. She wasn’t going to go there. Never, ever again was she going to go to the hospital.

“Yes, you do,” he said with the flicker of a smile. “But first, you’re going to sit right down here on the floor.” He eased her back to the ground without waiting for her consent. “I’m going to go get some food for you, and you’re going to call me if anything goes awry. Anything at all.”

He crouched in front of her, his eyes set on Very Serious. “Where’s your phone?”

“Uh, the desk?” Georgia reached up and brushed her errant curls off her forehead.

“Got it,” he said after twisting and reaching up to her desk. “I’m going to put my number in it, and you’re going to hold it with my contact info on the screen. You’re going to call me if you feel faint or sick or anything at all.” He tapped and swiped as he did it, and a moment later, Georgia held a great prize in her hand.

Her phone with his number in it.

He put his fingers under her chin and lifted her face up toward his. “Tell me I’m okay to go.”

“You’re okay to go,” she said, her brain fog clearing even further. “Really, Otis, I’m okay.”

“I’m going to get you some food,” he said. “There’s a bottle of water right here. You sip on that.”

She started to get up as she said, “I can get—” but Otis put his heavy hand on her shoulder.

“Georgia,” he said, those eyes not playing games with her now. The fire in them did lick through her, bringing excitement and danger. Oh, how she needed some of both of those things. “If you get up, I’m taking you to the hospital, not going to get something to eat. You choose.”

She glared at him. “I’m not going to the hospital.”

“Then will you please sit right there and wait for me to get back? I’ll be incredibly fast, and I’m already on the screen. All you have to do is tap.” He nodded to the phone, and sure enough, it was on, with his name sitting there, his number underneath it. All she had to do was touch the green phone icon, and she’d call him.

“Okay,” she said.

“Thank you.” He leaned down and pressed a kiss to her forehead, sending a shockwave of sparks and heat down to her toes. “I’ll be right back.” He straightened, nodded once, and strode out of her office.

Georgia watched him go, marveling at how quickly her afternoon had changed from a mundane one where she redid the display shelves for the fiftieth time that year—and it wasn’t even the second week of January—and contemplated closing the shop early, to sitting in her office waiting for Otis Young to bring back a late lunch.

She sighed and leaned her head back against the wall. A twinge of pain scampered down her neck, and Georgia reached up with her free hand and began to probe her skull. She’d fainted and fallen. She had to have a goose-egg somewhere.

After searching every centimeter of her scalp, she still hadn’t found anything. No blood. No bumps. “A miracle,” she whispered. It was also a miracle that she hadn’t been in the shop alone when she’d fainted. If she had, who knew how long she’d have laid there, cold and alone and injured?

She didn’t want to think about that.

Her phone rang, startling her, and she glanced at it. Abby’s name sat there, and tears jumped to Georgia’s eyes. She swiped on the call and said, “Hey, Abs.”

“Where are you?” she demanded. “Are you okay? I can be there in ten minutes.” She sounded like she was running, and Georgia suspected she was on her way to her office to get her car keys.

“I’m in my office, Abs,” she said. “I’m okay.” She closed her eyes, the warm touch of air from the furnace brushing her skin. “How did you know I was hurt?”

“Otis called me,” she said, her voice slowing with each word. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Otis went to get food,” she said. “I just need to eat. I haven’t….”

“You didn’t eat again,” Abby stated, not asking. “Georgia.”

“I know,” Georgia said, annoyed with herself and not needing a lecture. “Listen, Abby.” She lifted her head and opened her eyes as she looked toward the open office doorway. “Do you believe in…I don’t know. Fate? Kismet?”

“What do you mean?” Abby was no longer rushing, which meant she wouldn’t come to the shop. She would most definitely be at Georgia’s house tonight, probably with a lot of food. She’d even section it off into individual lunch-sized portions, each in their own container, so Georgia had no excuse not to eat on time.

“I mean…I have to tell you something.”


“So Otis was in the shop today, right?”

“Yeah, Tex said he stopped to get a book for Joey’s birthday.”

Georgia nodded, though Abby couldn’t see her. “Remember that mystery cowboy I kissed last fall? The one who helped me get CJ out of my life for good?”

“Yes,” Abby said, and then she sucked in a horribly loud breath. “Georgia, tell me that wasn’t Otis Young.”

Georgia shrugged one shoulder, her voice weak and mouse-like as she said, “It was Otis Young.”

“By the Dewey Decimal System,” Abby said, her voice shocked and full of air. “Georgia. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because,” Georgia said. “Then you’d start swearing in Librarian language instead of helping me figure out what to do.”

Abby remained silent for a moment, and Georgia didn’t like that. A silent Abby meant a thinking Abby, and Georgia didn’t need her thinking too hard about this. “Why do you need to figure out what to do?”

“Because,” Georgia whispered. “I liked kissing him, okay? I liked it. I like him. But then I start dating this other guy—who was a total idiot and so not right for me—and then months later. Months, Abs, I pass out and who’s there? Who’s the only person in my shop?”

“I’m back,” Otis said, and Georgia looked up at him, her eyes wide and every organ in her body storming at her to hang up and hang up now.

“Otis,” she said at the same time she lowered the phone, answering him and her own question.

“Georgia!” Abby cried. “Don’t you dare hang up on—” Her voice cut off as Georgia ended the call.

Otis looked at it and then her as he came closer. “Everything all right?” He got down on the floor and parked himself right next to her, his shoulder touching hers and everything.

“Yes,” she whispered.

He nodded to the phone, which still showed who she’d been talking to for the past four minutes and thirteen seconds. “Talkin’ to Abby, I see.” He handed her a warm plastic container that smelled like heaven in mashed potato form.

She didn’t have to say yes. The evidence stared them both in the face.

“I called her,” Otis said. “To make sure you didn’t have any food allergies.” He popped the top on his barbecue container, the spicy scent of Bam Bam’s signature sauce joining the party on the floor in her office.

“Ah.” Georgia nodded. “Makes sense.”

“You didn’t tell her about us…you know. Kissing last year. Did you?” He looked at her, something scared in his expression.

“No,” she said, her stomach heavy though she hadn’t eaten since last night. He nodded and went back to his food, but she had to tell him. Abby could be relentless, and now that she knew the mystery cowboy was Otis…. Georgia didn’t want him walking into a war zone out at that ranch where he recorded music with his brother, Abby’s husband.

“I didn’t tell her about that until just now.”

Otis made a slight squeaking noise and yanked his attention back to her. “Why would you do that now?”

“Because,” Georgia said, emotions streaming through her like kite tails caught in a strong wind. She stirred her pulled pork into her potatoes and lifted a bite. She wouldn’t take it until the words inside her mouth made room for the food. She offered Otis a tiny smile that fled as soon as it touched her lips.

He searched her face, alarm and resignation mingling there. Georgia drew from his strength and reminded herself that just because she’d fainted didn’t mean she was weak. “I told her now, because once we start dating, she’ll find out anyway.”

Otis blinked at her rapidly. “We’re gonna start dating?” She wasn’t sure if he was intrigued or horrified.

Georgia shrugged that same single shoulder she had while on the phone with Abby. “Maybe,” she said. “If you play your cards right.” With all the words—flirty words too, which made Georgia smile internally—out of her mouth, she could finally take a bite of her lunch.

Otis remained quiet for several long seconds while they both ate. Then he said, “I’m pretty good at cards. The best out of anyone in the band.” He looked at her, and she looked at him, and this time, there was no doubt in her mind that his eyes fired desire and attraction at her.

“Great,” she said. “Let’s see what happens then.”



Otis didn’t like the welcome wagon sitting on his brother’s front porch. He frowned at Abby and Bryce, wondering how long they’d been conspiring to ambush him. “At least a couple of days,” he muttered to himself.

Georgia had passed out two afternoons ago, and Otis hadn’t been out to Tex’s since. He’d stayed with her that afternoon, followed her home, made sure she got inside all right, and then awkwardly backed his way out of her front door. She had two dogs and two cats who came to greet him. Well, one of the cats had stayed on top of the fridge, glaring at him like he was the reason the world was so cold in Wyoming in January. He would not want to meet that cat down a dark alley. No sirree.

Just like he didn’t want to get out of his truck and talk to Abby or Bryce.

He’d spent yesterday talking to his realtor as they went back and forth on the house, when he could get the cash to purchase it, and how to expedite the process. He had gone by the bookshop just before he had to pick up Joey from school, but Georgia hadn’t been there.

He’d dropped off a check for a hefty down payment to get paperwork started that morning, and he expected to be able to move the first week of February. Not quite thirty days, but he and Joey would still be in the rental for her birthday. He’d told her last night, and since the only thing that would upset Joey was the extinction of rainbows and unicorns, she’d chirped, “It’s fine, Daddy. We’re goin’ roller skating anyway.”

He’d then had to call the roller rink to find out how to do a birthday party there, and that had eaten away a couple of hours this morning too. Otis struggled to breathe under the weight of full-time fatherhood. He had no idea how to pull off a little girl’s birthday party, but he’d die before he disappointed Joey.

“Daddy,” she drawled at him from the passenger seat. “Why are we just sittin’ here? Aunt Abby is waving at us to come in.”

He blinked and looked left. Sure enough, Abby looked like she was bringing in a freight plane, and Otis reached to unbuckle his belt. “Go on,” he said to Joey. “I’m going to head out to the studio.”

Tex had built a recording studio in his backyard. He’d bought the family ranch where they’d all grown up, and the studio looked like a big, white barn about a hundred yards behind the house. He’d put in a sidewalk, and it had been shoveled and snow-free all winter.

As Joey slid from the truck, Otis plucked his phone from the cup holder and sent Abby a text. I’m not answering any questions about Georgia.

He wasn’t either. He hadn’t asked her out. She hadn’t called or texted him, so technically, he didn’t even have her number. She had his. That was all.

The ball sat in her court, and Otis honestly didn’t know if she’d pick it up and start bouncing it or not. A sigh leaked from his mouth. He hated this part of the dating game. He always felt like the last cowboy chosen, and he only got picked because the teams were uneven, and no one could play if he didn’t have a date.

His last girlfriend had ghosted him when they were supposed to have lunch together. Ghosted him, like he wasn’t even worth talking to. His chest squeezed tight, tighter, and Otis took a deep breath to try to get it to expand properly.

The feelings of unworthiness, of being so inferior to literally everyone else in his life, of thinking something was inherently wrong with him, flooded over him. He tried to swim against the tide, but anyone who’s ever been caught in the waves would know how futile his efforts were.

He simply let them wash over him, and they confirmed why Georgia hadn’t called or texted yet. She wasn’t really interested. He was a convenience. Just someone who was in the right place at the right time for a kiss. It hadn’t meant anything to her, and Otis’s lips betrayed him by tingling.

He reached up and wiped his mouth as Abby responded. You think avoiding me will help?

Holding Abby Ingalls back was like trying to rope the sun and pocket it without getting burned. He looked back to the house, and she stood there, frowning first at her phone and then him. He rolled his eyes, his head, his shoulders, and got out of the truck.

He held up one hand. “I’m not seeing her. We’re not dating. It was one stupid kiss from six months ago.”

Abby cocked one hip and shoved her hands in her coat pockets. She said nothing as he continued down the sidewalk toward her. Their eyes never left one another. “She’s my best friend,” Abby finally said.

“You say that with such warning in your voice,” Otis said. It was his turn to frown. “I’m not going to hurt her.” He started to go by her, because it was too dang cold to have this conversation outside. At least Bryce had taken Joey into the house, so he didn’t have to do this in front of either of them.

“Otis.” She put one hand against his chest, preventing him from moving past her. “You don’t know who you are.”

“I know exactly who I am,” he shot back. His emotions spiraled, and dang it all, his eyes stung. He would not cry. Not in front of his sister-in-law. He knew her well enough, but she didn’t get to know everything.

He wanted to say more, but he didn’t trust his voice. Thankfully, Abby never held her opinions back, and she said, “Georgia falls really hard and really fast, Otis. You have to be careful with her.”

Otis rolled his eyes again. “Let’s recap, okay?” Praise the heavens, his voice came out normal. “She pulled me into her office and kissed me. I didn’t do it. Then, she never called me about it. We literally never spoke again until two days ago.”

Abby took her glaring up a notch, but Otis pressed on. “Then, she passes out in her office, and I was just there again. Tryin’ to help. I gave her my number so I could go get food and she could call if she needed anything. Has she used it?”

His sister-in-law’s tough demeanor started to crumble.

“Nope,” he said. “I don’t actually have her number, Abby. I stopped by the shop to talk to her yesterday, but she wasn’t there. I’m not sure what else you think I should do.” He went around her and up the steps, pure humiliation pouring through him. So fragile and tipsy were his emotions that he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “Don’t worry, okay? She won’t fall for me, Abby. No one does.”

He wanted to suck the words back in the moment they left his mouth. They were true, but he didn’t need Abby’s pity. He didn’t want her fretting over him, and he certainly didn’t want her talking to Tex about him.

The front door opened as he gained the porch, and Tex stood there. His taller, wiser, more talented older brother. Living in Tex’s shadow had annoyed Otis for the first two decades of his life. The past fifteen years hadn’t been so bad, though, and so Otis wouldn’t blurt out something else embarrassing, he strode right into his brother’s arms and clapped him on the back.

“Howdy, brother,” he said.

“I was just comin’ to see what was taking you so long.” Tex grinned at him as he stepped back. “Abs? What are you doing out here?” Tex went around Otis and down the steps. “Why aren’t you at work?”

Otis knew why, and he glared at Abby at the bottom of the steps. She glared on back, then broke their connection as she looked at her husband. He didn’t wait around to hear what she said to Tex. He went inside and closed the door, because he could distinctly hear his mother’s voice yelling in his mind that they couldn’t afford to heat the outdoors.

That memory caused a smile to touch his mouth, the first one in the past couple of days. Joey sat at the dining room table with Corrine, Luke’s daughter, a coloring book spread open in front of the pair of them. Luke’s four-year-old would be five in March, and she’d start kindergarten this fall. Luke parented Corrine full-time now too, as his ex-wife had gone to Calgary to visit her parents, then called to say she wasn’t coming back for a while.

“Seen Trace?” Otis asked, and Bryce looked up from his phone. He sat on the couch in the living room, and it took a moment for his eyes to deglaze.

“He’s not here yet,” Bryce said.

Otis eased himself onto the couch opposite of Bryce. “Who are you talking to?”

Bryce sat up as if he was in trouble. His dark brown eyes glinted with mischief. Otis loved talking to his nephew about the girls in high school, or music, or anything really. He knew how to connect to this almost-adult, male. His daughter?

Otis glanced over to her, knowing she needed something more than he could give her. She needed a mother. He swallowed, remembering he needed to call Lauren before they went into the recording studio. Then, all devices and phones got switched off, and all the kids knew they had to call three times to get something to ring, and they should only do so in an emergency. Like, fire or broken bone emergency.

Abby was here, and Bryce wouldn’t be sitting in on the sessions until the last song, probably three or four months from now. As this was their sixth studio album, Otis knew the drill by now. He knew he’d be fighting with Luke every step of the way, and he knew Trace would change the freaking melodies on at least four songs. He probably already had and hadn’t said anything yet.

He knew Tex would butcher the lyrics for the first week, and then something would switch in his head, and he’d have everything memorized.

Otis also told himself everything was different this time, so not to expect anything. They’d never recorded outside of the studio in Nashville. They’d never had their kids with them. They’d never been constrained to someone else’s schedule, or when the bell rang, or needing to feed someone dinner.

Tex was married now, with a senior in high school. He had more on his mind than normal. Yeah, Otis thought. So he’ll butcher the lyrics for two or three weeks until they settle.

“There’s this girl in my government class,” Bryce said, and Otis focused on his nephew. He grinned from ear to ear, and Otis basked in the happiness of it. He couldn’t stop himself from smiling too, that was how brightly Bryce shone. “Her name is Mindy, and I think I’m going to ask her to Sweethearts.”

“Already?” Otis asked. “Isn’t that near Valentine’s Day?”

Bryce looked at his phone. “Yeah.” He smiled at the device. “Do you think I could go this afternoon?” He looked over to the girls at the table. “Or do I need to be here?”

The front door opened, and Tex came inside, Abby right behind him, and Trace and his son, Harry, following them. Harry was eleven, going on twelve this winter, and he wore the same cowboy hat as his father. He didn’t speak much, the same way Trace didn’t. In all things outward, they were practically twins.

Harry did have a slightly more refined look to him, but in Otis’s opinion, that only made him more handsome. He’d break a lot of hearts, Harry would. His mother was a fashion model, now living overseas, so Trace had just purchased a piece of land out here on this eastern side of town to build a house for him and his son.

It wouldn’t be done for months yet—nine or ten, if Otis remembered right—as construction in the frozen tundra was slow or nonexistent.

“Better ask Abby,” Otis said, getting to his feet. “Is Luke out in the studio already?” Irritation sang through him even as Bryce nodded. Of course Luke was already out in the studio. He liked to pretend he was more serious about the music than the rest of them.

“Dad,” Bryce said, getting to his feet. “I want to go with Greg and Hawke to ask girls to Sweethearts.” He flicked a glance at Abby, who stood at Tex’s side. “Do you guys need me here, or can I go?”

“You can go,” Abby said as Tex asked, “Who are you asking?” His eyes narrowed and he held up one hand. “It better not be that Mindy girl. I didn’t like those texts she sent you last week.”

“Dad,” Bryce said with plenty of frustration in his tone. “They were innocent. She wasn’t sending nude—” He cut off and looked over to Joey and Corrine. “It was flirting.”

“It was not flirting.” Tex gave his son a dark look. Otis hadn’t seen the texts, but he wouldn’t be surprised at them. Bryce was almost as tall as Tex. Almost as wide. Definitely as talented—or more—and extremely good-looking. He hadn’t had any trouble moving to a new town and a new school for his senior year. He’d been out with probably a dozen girls in the past four or five months since school had started, and he was wildly popular.

Otis swallowed back the bitterness on his tongue. He couldn’t be jealous of his eighteen-year-old nephew.

And yet, he was.

His ego already bruised, he turned away from the conversation and walked into the kitchen, where Trace had gone. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of Joey’s head. “I’m headed out back, Roo. You listen to anyone older than you. Be nice. Be good. I’ll be in soon.”

“Okay, Daddy.” She smiled up at him, and Otis met Trace’s eye. He said something to Harry, the boy nodded, and the two of them headed for the back door.

Outside again, Otis shoved his hands in his pockets and went down the steps first. The quiet stillness out here and the way the snow made everything muted only served to amplify Trace’s voice when he said, “I heard you’re dating Georgia Beck. How’s that going?”



Georgia lowered the blinds on the windows at the front of the bookshop. Then the ones on the door. She twisted the lock there, a sigh pulling through her body. The store closed early on Fridays, because no one counted perusing books as date night. She dusted the shelves and turned off lights as she moved from front to back, finally ending up in her office.

Always her office. Sometimes she thought she should put a cot in here and just call it home. She had a bathroom; she could get food right next door. She wouldn’t have her pets here, and she’d have to find a place to shower, but otherwise, she could do it.

Tonight, she didn’t linger in the office the way she did some evenings. She didn’t have a date tonight, and her pulse skipped a beat. She was actually surprised Otis hadn’t asked her out yet. He’d said he was good at cards, but his silence the past two days proved otherwise.

She shouldered her purse and checked her back pocket for her phone. It rang when she touched it, and that startled her. It felt almost like the universe had known she needed someone to call her right then, just as a reminder that someone knew she was alive.

Maybe it’s Otis, she thought. Looking for a last-minute dinner date.

Her smile stretched across her face before she could get her device out of her pocket. Her hopes soared thousands of feet into the air in only a moment, and that only made the crash as fast and as hard when she saw Abby’s name on the screen and not Otis’s.

She swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat and swiped on the call. “Hey, Abby,” she said, her tone slightly pinched.

“Is it true that Otis Young does not have your number?”

“You can’t even start with hello?” Georgia griped at her. Sudden understanding bloomed inside her though. “No, he doesn’t have my number.” She’d never called him after he’d put his number in her phone. She hadn’t texted him.

He didn’t have her number.

She pulled in a shaky breath, hoping Abby didn’t hear that. Fruitless hope. Abby heard everything.

“Georgia,” she said, and she wasn’t disappointed or condescending. “If you want him to ask you out, you have to text him first. Or call him, so he has your number.” She spoke as if Georgia were one of her misbehaving Bookmobile children, which Georgia supposed she deserved.

“I…I just didn’t think of it.” She’d gotten a new shipment of books the day after she’d fainted, and she and Harley had spent all day cataloging them, pricing them, and putting them out if they had room. “I got a new kitten last night.”

“Georgia,” Abby said, and she was judging her this time. “You don’t have time to take care of a kitten.”

Georgia went over to the box where she kept the tiny black and white thing. “It’s fine,” she said as she picked it up. “Even Ruby likes him. Wouldn’t leave his side.”

“Ruby would help a serial killer hide the bodies,” Abby said dryly. Georgia burst out laughing, and Abby joined in with her giggles.

“Fine,” Georgia said, still laughing. “Then Onyx liked him.”

“Oh, now you’re just lying,” Abby said. “Onyx only likes two living creatures. You, and Obsidian.”

Georgia pictured the pair of gray-and-white cat brothers she owned: Onyx and Obsidian. They tolerated the constant stream of rescues Georgia brought home, as well as the two permanent dogs, Ruby and Isla.

“You’re wrong,” she said. “Onyx doesn’t like me.” He only liked Obsidian, and he wasn’t the one who came to curl into Georgia’s lap at night. He was either playing Houdini and hiding, or perched on the highest object he could find and glaring down at whoever dared to enter the house.

“Come over for dinner tonight,” Abby said. “Tex said they’ll be done recording about seven, and Wade and Cheryl are bringing a whole mess of pizza.”

Georgia wanted to say yes. Abby had gotten married about three weeks ago, and nothing had changed in their friendship. She didn’t go out to the east side of town, where Abby’s ranch sat, often. Abby usually came to town and they went out to eat, or she plopped down on Georgia’s couch and talked and talked and talked.

She hesitated, though. “I’d have to bring the kitten,” she hedged. “And I’m doing that princess reading party in the morning. I have to be here really early.”

“You need help setting up for that, right?” Abby asked. “I was planning to come, but….”

Georgia shouldered her way out of the building and waited for the door behind her to click closed. She tested the handle and found it locked. Satisfied, she turned to put the kitten—whom she’d named Buttons—in the backseat of her SUV. “But what?” she prompted.

“I think you should ask Otis,” Abby said, plenty of bite to her words. “You should come out here for dinner tonight and make sure he has your number. Do your flirting magic, and get him and his big muscles to come help you set up in the morning.”

Horror washed through Georgia. Instant fire licked up her throat. “I didn’t ask for your dating advice,” she said. “And I do not have any flirting magic.” Her two previous interactions with Otis had been her demanding he kiss her and pretend to be her boyfriend and then fainting in her own bookshop. How were either of those even remotely flirtatious? Or magical?

She shook her head as Abby started arguing with her. Behind the wheel, she started the car and got the heater blowing. “…just saying, you need to at least text him. He can’t make the next move if he doesn’t have your number.”

Georgia backed out of the stall. “Why do you want me to date him?”

“Uh, because he’s perfect for you?” Abby hissed. “You were the one who said you liked kissing him. That you liked him. I’m just doing what you wanted me to do—helping you figure out what to do.”

Georgia had asked for that help. Her irritation and defenses started to soften, just like butter in the microwave. She drove out of the parking lot, thinking while Abby remained silent. That alone meant something, and Georgia finally said, “I have to get home and feed everyone first.”

“It’s barely after five,” Abby said, her tone light but Georgia knew she scented victory. “We’ll probably eat around seven. If you come, you can bring a cake or something. I know you don’t like to show up empty-handed.”

“Yeah, okay,” Georgia said. She didn’t feel like arguing, and even more so, she didn’t want to eat alone again tonight. “I’m bringing the kitten.”

“Otis likes the raspberry white chocolate cake from Kneaders.” Abby sounded absolutely gleeful. “Talk later.” The call ended, and Georgia huffed into the dark silence inside her vehicle.

She scoffed, and then vowed, “I am not showing up with a raspberry white chocolate cake from Kneaders. Not for Otis.” She nodded like that was that, and then she pressed a little harder on the gas pedal so she could get home faster. She needed to feed all the animals, yes. She’d have to tell Harley her plans for that evening. Then, she needed to spend a bit of time getting ready and making sure she looked absolutely stunning tonight. Once Otis had her number, perhaps he’d call, and they could go out.

Yes, she definitely needed a few minutes to go through her closet and find the perfect pair of jeans to wear that evening. After all, she didn’t want Otis to forget about her, and she had the perfect pair of black skinny jeans that should get her stuck in his mind.

A few minutes after seven, Georgia pulled into the driveway next door to where Abby now lived. It was her brother’s driveway—and used to be Abby’s. But the farmhouse drive next door was full of trucks and Abby’s SUV, leaving no room for Georgia’s.

Nerves fired through her body, and she looked at the two boxes riding shotgun. One held a raspberry white chocolate cake from Kneaders—not for Otis. It happened to be one of Georgia’s favorite treats, and she figured if she lost the courage to take it in, she’d at least have breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the weekend ahead.

Buttons mewed in the box beside the cake, and Georgia reached over to soothe him. “It’s okay,” she said, not looking at the kitten. She kept her eyes fastened to the bright lights spilling from the windows of the farmhouse next door. No one moved about in the chilly darkness, which meant they’d all probably gone inside already. Wade and Cheryl†?who’d gotten married the same day as Tex and Abby—had gone next door. The cowboys in the band had come in from the studio.

The house would be full of noise. Laughter. Children. Life. Love. So pretty much the opposite of Georgia’s quiet country home and dull evenings. She wasn’t sure she fit here, to be honest.

Her phone lit up in the car, catching her attention. Abby had texted. Instead of reading what was sure to be a lecture about either being late or sitting out in her car, Georgia heaved a sigh and started gathering everything she needed to take inside.

The distinct feeling that she was crashing a party moved through her as she stacked Buttons in his box on top of the cake. Her phone sat in her pocket, and her keys did too. She was ready.

Tex had proposed to Abby with a banner that was fifty-two steps long. That was how far it was from her back door to his, and Georgia somehow found the courage to start the journey. She didn’t go to the back door, but down the front sidewalk to the main entrance instead. She also didn’t have to knock or ring the doorbell—she wasn’t sure how she would’ve anyway.

Abby pulled open the door and stood framed in all that light, love, and energy Georgia had imagined. It pulsed from the farmhouse, and it smelled and tasted and felt better than Georgia had even imagined.

Her best friend grinned at her and hurried forward to help with the boxes. “Oh, he is so cute.” She pretended not to like Georgia’s soft spot for animals, but Abby was just as bad. She’d even fostered a dog or two over the years until Georgia could take them back or get them with a family.

Her eyes flicked down to the cake. “You brought a cake.” Abby looked at Georgia again, her smile twice as wide. “How wonderful. It’ll go great with the pizza and salad.”

“Abby,” Georgia said, not committed to taking a step inside yet. “Promise me you’ll let me do this my way.”

Abby’s smile slipped. She visibly swallowed. “Of course, Georgia.”

“He’s inside, right?”


“We don’t need you playing matchmaker,” Georgia said. “Promise me.”

“I promise.” And when Abby promised something, she kept it.

So Georgia nodded, smiled, and tucked her now-wavy hair behind her ear. “All right. Now, if this cake isn’t the most magical and most flirtatious thing ever, I’m blaming you.” She giggled with Abby and followed her inside, the vibrant life of the Young family swallowing her right up as she closed the door behind her.

She turned and met Otis’s gaze first. It was like someone had put a tractor beam on her and then him, and she felt pulled to him in a way she’d never experienced before. He sat at the table with his daughter and another little girl, and he got to his feet. He paused. He glanced into the kitchen as several people erupted into laughter.

Then he returned his gaze to her and started walking in her direction. He was gorgeous and confident, his head held high. It bore a creamy cowboy hat well, and he hadn’t shaved that morning. Probably not yesterday morning either, judging by the amount of dark scruff on his face. Mm, she liked that and wondered how that would feel against her fingers, her face.

He wore the classic cowboy boots, jeans, black belt, and a black and white checkered shirt, tucked in right above the silver belt buckle. He was a cowboy god. Pure perfection. Mouth-watering. Georgia had many adjectives for the man now standing in front of her.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” he said, his voice making music in her ears.

She looked away from him with difficulty, trying to find something to seize onto. She didn’t want to make a scene, and he’d come straight at her. The laughter and noise dialed down and then went silent. Georgia knew then that everyone here knew about the kiss from last fall, and that she’d fainted and flirted with Otis about dating him. She didn’t know what else they knew, or who he confided in.

Unsettled, her eyes landed on the cake box. She looked up again, right into those dark, dreamy, dangerous yes. “Yeah,” she said, digging deep to a well of strength she hadn’t used yet. “I heard you liked this cake, so since you haven’t called or anything, I thought I’d bring it to you and make sure you had my number.”



“Otis,” Daddy said behind him, and Otis wanted to swat away the distraction like an errant fly. Couldn’t Daddy see he was talking to Georgia? She’d offered him her number, and Otis wanted it more than anything in the world.

“We’re going to say a prayer, son.” Daddy touched Otis’s arm, and he flinched. He looked at his father, who cut a glance to Georgia.

“Right.” Otis turned around and fell back to her side. He took the cake from her so she didn’t have to hold it during the prayer and then swept his cowboy hat from his head. Across the room—blast Tex and Bryce for having a big, wide doorway that led into the kitchen—he met Tex’s eyes. They smiled and encouraged from clear over there, and Otis wanted to turn around and walk out. He’d take his cake with him, thank you very much.

“Lord,” Tex finally said, dropping his own chin as his eyes drifted closed. “We thank Thee for this bounty of friends, family, and loved ones who’ve come to the farm tonight. We’re grateful for good food and good conversation. We’re grateful for a good session in the studio today. Please bless our kids to be patient with us, and bless us to be the kind of parents they need.”

Otis tensed, because he’d been praying for that same blessing for weeks and months now. He loved Joey with his whole heart. He did. He was trying to be the father she needed. He simply wasn’t sure if he was accomplishing it or not.

Tex continued with the family prayer, but Otis had started one of his own about his daughter. He didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize her mental, emotional, or physical health, and she’d already been through a big change with the move a week or so ago. She hadn’t only been taken from Lauren, but her grandmother in Dog Valley too.

Otis still hadn’t spoken to either his ex-wife or her mother that day, and guilt tripped through him as “Amen,” chorused through the house. He immediately moved away from Georgia. Going straight to her as if they’d been connected by a chain had been a mistake. It had drawn too much attention and probably told her way too much about how he felt about her.

He couldn’t quantify those feelings. He had no name for them at present. He only knew he’d been thinking about her a lot since that kiss, and even more since Wednesday when she’d passed out. He took the cake into the kitchen, which thankfully bustled with activity again as pizza boxes got opened and Cheryl set a huge bowl of tossed salad on the table.

“Eat anywhere,” Tex yelled. “The basement is open too.”

Otis found a spot way down at the end of the counter, clear back by the steps that went down to the basement, for his cake. He set it down and flipped open the top flap on the box. The scent of sugar, chocolate, and raspberries hit him squarely in the face, and everything tight and tense relaxed.

He loved this cake.

He realized in that moment that he’d left Georgia to the wolves, and he turned to see where she’d gone. She stood next to Abby and Mama, the three of them chatting. She wore a smile, and she kept tucking her hair behind her ear. She’d curled it more than he’d seen before, or perhaps she had naturally curly hair and he didn’t know it.

He wanted to, and he quickly found a knife, cut two pieces of cake, and put them on a couple of paper plates. He stabbed a plastic fork into each one and strode toward the women. “Cake?” He offered a piece to Georgia, whose eyes widened. He gave her a smile. “Mama? Cake? Abby?”

“Thank you, dear,” Mama said as she took her cake. She returned his grin. “I love dessert before dinner.”

“Daddy, can I have cake too?” Joey asked.

Otis looked down at her and booped her nose. “Of course, Roo. Just a sec.” He still held one plate of cake. “Abby? Georgia?”

Abby took the cake and gave it to Georgia as she said, “I want one too, Otis. Thanks.”

He nodded and went back down the lengthy counter. He cut two more pieces of cake, one smaller than the other for his daughter, and went to deliver those too. He found most everyone else had loaded their plates with pizza, and he skated his gaze past Tex so he wouldn’t have to reveal anything to his brother.

He got his own piece of cake, and when he turned to find Georgia this time, she stood only a couple of paces from him. “Abby said we could eat in the basement,” she said. “She said it was this way.”

Otis swallowed and looked past her. The table was full, and a few people stood crowded around the peninsula island. “It looks full up here,” he agreed. He wasn’t aware of anyone going behind him and downstairs, and he almost wondered if they needed a chaperone. The last thing he wanted was everyone gossiping about him, and literally everyone in the family had gathered here tonight.

Mav and Dani and their kids. Morris, Luke, Trace, even Mama and Daddy. Wade and Cheryl, and he took up a lot of room in his wheelchair. Franny, Tex’s german shepherd, ran around looking for handouts, and Otis couldn’t find a place for him and Georgia among the chaos.

“She said she took my kitten down there,” Georgia said. “I need to feed him a little, so…I think I’m going to go that way.” She looked right and tipped forward to peer around the corner. “It’s just right there?”

“Yes,” Otis said, finally getting his voice to work. “I’ll come down with you. Do you want pizza and salad?”

She brought those pretty eyes back to his. “Yes, please.”

“I’ll be two shakes behind you.”

She only held the plate of cake in her hand, and she put her other one on his bicep. “Thanks, Otis.”

He watched her go, completely mesmerized by her in that peachy-pink blouse and those midnight-black jeans that looked painted onto her body. His mouth turned dry at her curves, and he yanked his attention back to getting food so he wouldn’t allow himself to think too hard about inappropriate things.

Loaded with two plates of pizza, salad, and garlic bread, as well as his plate of cake, he went down the steps too. His boots made thunking noises, but he couldn’t help that. Georgia sat on the loveseat, the coffee table pulled right up in front of her. The box with her little black kitten sat almost against her left foot, which bore an ankle boot with shiny buckles.

He looked at the couch, but it was too far away. So he stepped around the table to claim the other spot on the loveseat. He set down her food with, “Pizza and salad for you, my princess.”

She looked up at him and grinned. “Princess?”

Otis did his best to calm his nerves as he put down his food and then took a seat on the loveseat. It was too soft, and he sank into it too far. He heaved himself back out and onto the edge of it, the way Georgia sat. He met her eyes again. “I think you look absolutely amazing tonight,” he said. “Joey would say like a princess.” He gave a short laugh that sounded too nervous. “Sorry if you didn’t like it.”

“It’s….” She looked at her cake, which was half gone. “It’s okay.” She forked up another bite. “I’m having a princess reading party in the morning at the bookshop. Joey should come.”

“Are you sure you have space?” Otis asked. “And how did I miss that? She loves everything sparkly, purple, pink, princess, rainbow, and unicorn.” He chuckled again, and this time it sounded normal. “And reading. A princess party at the bookstore is like, made for her.”

Georgia took her bite of cake, and Otis really, really wanted to taste the frosting against those lips. He told himself he would not. He wouldn’t kiss her again until it was real. Very, very real. He wasn’t sure his heart could take it otherwise.

“I have space for her,” she said. “If you’ll come help me set up.” She wore a flirty sparkle in her eyes now, and he realized he’d played right into her hand.

Otis tipped his head back and laughed. “Well played, Miss Beck,” he said amidst the chuckles. “Well played.”

“Well, one of us needs to start playing,” she quipped. “You said you were the best at cards, but I don’t know.” Her voice moved up in pitch on the last few words. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest your dating game is all that good.”

“I don’t have your number,” he said.

“You know where I work—and where I live.”

Otis blinked at her. “I came by the shop yesterday. Harley said you were out getting lunch.” He cocked his head as if to say, So there. When she didn’t throw something back at him, he added, “I didn’t think stopping by your house seemed wise. A little stalkerish maybe, and well, I have to take care of Joey all the time now, so I can’t be goin’ to jail for hanging around a pretty woman’s house.”

She trilled out a laugh that made his blood turn hot, and he smiled at her. Then he dusted his hands together, though he hadn’t taken a single bite of anything yet. He tugged his phone out of his back pocket and looked at the dark screen. Then her. Then the phone.

“I guess I’m just waiting for the woman holding all the cards to throw me a bone.”

“Hey,” she said. “I brought you a cake.”

He held up his silent device. “And yet, I still don’t have a way to communicate with you unless you want to drive out here every night.” He grinned, feeling like a whole new version of himself. One who could flirt and have fun, grin and get the girl.

Georgia made a deliberate move to put down her fork. She reached into the kitten box to extract her phone—no way she could get even the slimmest of devices into any pocket on those jeans—and tapped, swiped, and tappity-tap-tapped.

A moment after she stopped, his phone zinged and buzzed, and while he knew it was her, he still looked. She’d said, Here’s my number, cowboy. I like the steak and eggs at The Branding Iron.

He chuckled, shook his head, and tucked his phone away.

“What?” she asked. “You’re not going to respond?”

He picked up a piece of pizza and took a big bite of the all-meat concoction. He shook his head as he chewed, just enjoying this blitzing, tingling feeling moving through him. Georgia had to like him, right? To come out here with the cake, in those jeans, her hair all curled?

“It’s best to have a reservation at The Iron on the weekends,” she said, plenty of haughtiness in her tone.

He swallowed and wiped his mouth. “Honey,” he said. “I’m not going to take you exactly where you want on the first date.”

She blinked at him, clearly surprised. “Why not?”

He grinned and shook his head again. “The game’s not fun if you know how it ends.” He took another bite of pizza and gave her what he hoped was an insanely flirtatious look.

It seemed to work, because her face flushed, and she used the meowing kitten as a distraction for several seconds. Before she could say something else, Otis asked, “Are you free for dinner tomorrow night?”

“Yes,” she practically whispered. “After seven. The shop is open until six on Saturdays.” Their eyes met, and Otis could see himself leaning in for a kiss. Easily. She’d give it to him too, and a sense of satisfaction he hadn’t felt since leaving Florida last year filled him.

He needed someone to like him for him, and in that moment, it felt like Georgia Beck did.

“I’ll pick you up at your place at seven, then,” he said.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“It’s a surprise.” He gave her another look, this time out of the corner of his eye, and she giggled.

“Fine, Mister Young,” she said, flirting back with him. “We’ll play your way—but.” She nudged his knee with hers. “Don’t be upset if I’m not dressed right.”

“Georgia,” he said in all seriousness. “You’re always dressed right.” Then he stuffed his mouth with more pizza, so he wouldn’t say anything else too embarrassing.

A moment later, more footsteps came thundering down the steps, along with children’s voices. Harry, Boston, and Joey entered the living room, and his daughter skipped over to him. “Daddy, can we play the hedgehog game?” She perched on his knee and put her arms around his neck.

He held her around the waist and grinned at her. “Sure thing, Kangaroo. Did you finish eating? This is dinner.”

“I’m done,” she said, which meant she hadn’t eaten more than two bites. She got off his lap and went to play video games with her cousins.

Otis watched them for a moment, and then leaned his head toward Georgia’s. “She lives with me now,” he said quietly. “Her momma’s been sick.”

“I’m sorry,” she said just as quietly. “Flu?”

“We don’t actually know yet,” Otis said, shaking his head. “It’s not the flu. It’s been going on for months now.” His concern must’ve come through in his voice, because Georgia put her hand on his knee.

He looked at it as her touch burned through his jeans and into his skin. He looked at her again, and she gave him a small smile, then pulled her hand back.

He quickly reached out and took it as it retreated, then lifted her hand to his lips. “I’m navigating a lot of new ground right now. Just bought a house yesterday.”

Her blue-green eyes shone and shimmered like the Caribbean water under pure sunshine. “Wow, Otis. That’s great.”

“Yeah.” He released her hand and picked up his pizza again. “So, what’s the story with the kitten?” He nodded to it and then watched her for her reaction. She barely flinched. “You and animals? Tell me all about that.”



Georgia woke to a cat alarm the next morning. She hadn’t bothered to set a real alarm since she’d adopted Onyx and Obsidian. If she was five seconds late getting their breakfast, she had a mouthful of fur between her teeth, and then plenty of “playful” scratches on her neck.

“All right,” she said crossly, pushing one of the gray cats off her chest. “I can’t breathe.” She glared at Obsidian, who gave her a feline look right on back. “You’re overweight,” she told the cat. “You can wait a few minutes.”

She sat up and grabbed her phone to check the time as she remembered she had an event at Beck’s Books that morning. Only six-ten. She had plenty of time, so she padded into the kitchen and got the animals their breakfast. While they noshed, she stepped into the shower, her thoughts revolving around Otis Young.

She couldn’t believe the turn the past few days had taken. A week ago, she had not been on this path at all. Sure, Otis had existed in the back of her mind, usually when she ate a TV dinner in front of her latest binge-worthy streaming series. But actually entertaining the thought of calling him, texting him, or somehow inserting herself into his life?

Nope. Nowhere was that on the horizon. As she swept mascara onto her eyelashes, she murmured, “Maybe God gave you guys a little shove.”

Maybe He had. Georgia still didn’t know for certain why she’d passed out. She knew she hadn’t eaten, and she knew that was a reason someone could have low blood sugar, and then lose blood pressure, and then consciousness.

She took longer than normal to get ready, but she reasoned she’d have done that anyway. After all, she had a big event at her bookshop today, and she always put forth her best foot when it came to patrons and the public.

She had to if she wanted to stay in business, and she did. The first few years for Beck’s Books had been somewhat of a struggle. Then she’d started thinking more like a library, and they had a lot of events for children. Adults too, and Georgia had started planning ways to get more people through the door—and not always to buy a book.

She sold local artists’ wares too, and people came for those. She sold a variety of paper goods and shipping supplies—and being right next to the post office on Main Street had brought her a lot of business in that avenue.

Her events added to her bottom line, and she gave herself a smile as she finally fluffed her hair for the last time.

“Ready?” Harley said behind her, and Georgia met her eye in the mirror.

She kept her smile on her face as she turned. “Don’t you look so cute?” Harley was twelve years younger than Georgia, and she still had the glow of someone who hadn’t hit twenty-five yet.

She struck a pose, and with her stylish polka-dot skirt and ruffled and puffed-sleeve black blouse, she reminded Georgia of her younger sister.

Tears instantly came to her eyes, despite the happiness flowing through her and the grin still stuck to her face. She stepped into Harley and hugged her. “Thank you for all you do for Beck’s Books.” She couldn’t really hide the emotion in her voice, but Harley simply embraced her back.

“I love working there,” she said. “Besides, you’re helping me out by letting me live here. Of course I’m going to do whatever I can to help you.” She stepped away and brushed her hands down Georgia’s arms. “You look fabulous too.” Her eyes drifted down Georgia’s sky-blue slacks and back to her geometric patterned blouse, also in a variety of shades of blue. “Anything to do with that cowboy you stayed out past curfew to see last night?”

Georgia tipped her head back and tossed a laugh toward the ceiling. “I was home by ten,” she said, still giggling.

“And that’s about an hour past your bedtime.” Harley cocked her right eyebrow, clearly wanting more details.

Georgia didn’t kiss and tell, and besides, there hadn’t been any kissing. At least not on the lips. The inside of her wrist suddenly burned, as if it now had a touch-memory of Otis’s mouth there.

She rubbed it absently. “He’s going to meet us at the shop soon. Let’s get loaded up.”

Harley nodded and led the way out of Georgia’s bedroom. They already had all the supplies and samples packed neatly into boxes, and they each went back and forth, outside and inside, a few times to get everything in vehicles.

They each had to drive, so Georgia set off for the shop alone. She drove through Brewster’s, wondering what kind of coffee Otis liked. Since it was Saturday morning, the line stretched around the building, which meant she had time to text him and ask.

Where are you? he sent back.


Sweet. I love the Honey Mama there. Joey would love you forever if you got her the Small Squirrel. I never let her get it, and I usually go after I drop her at school.

He sent a smiley face emoji with the text, and Georgia found herself grinning like a fool at the fact that he had the names of the coffees and hot chocolates at Brewsters memorized.

You got it, she sent back to him. Then she gazed out the windshield at the blue sky in front of her, inching forward when she could.

Armed with coffee, she finally arrived at the shop and pulled into her spot behind the building. Harley had beaten her, and the back door stood propped open. Georgia got out and took the drinks into her office, only the sound of the furnace pumping to greet her.

“Harley?” she called just as round of laughter came from the front of the shop. Georgia went that way, recognizing the lower timbre of Otis’s voice. Her heart pumped out a ton of extra beats, causing her to press her palm against her chest, as if gearing up to recite the Pledge.

She couldn’t see him yet, but the man formed in her mind’s eye easily. Tall, dark, handsome, charming, talented, devoted to his family.

He was playing with a very good hand, and she wondered what had happened between him and his ex-wife, or why he hadn’t remarried in the years since their split.

She went around the main bookcase that separated the check-out desk from the rest of the store and found him standing with Harley and his daughter, one hand tucked casually into a sexy pair of blue jeans that looked like they had paint splattered on them.

He wore a dark brown leather jacket today, with a hint of a bright blue shirt peeking through along his throat and down the zipper, which sat open.

Georgia could not breathe. Literally could not. He’d filled the shop with something wonderful and woodsy—his very presence—and with that cream-colored cowboy hat perched so perfectly on his head, and that belt buckle glinting at her from his waist, her knees actually went weak.

“Morning,” he said easily, now coming toward her. “Harley said you have boxes in your car too.” He gave her a smile full of white teeth and happiness to see her. At least she hoped that was why his smile felt so warm and his eyes danced so merrily.

He paused in front of her and swept his lips along her cheek. “Out back?”

“Yes,” she said, finally thawing from his touch. How he moved and talked and interacted with her so effortlessly—and in front of his daughter too—baffled her. She must not affect him as strongly as he did her. That was all.

It was a sobering thought, and she swallowed against the emotion rising through her throat.

Otis had started to walk toward the office and the back door, and Georgia threw a look to Harley before following him.

She caught him quickly and said, “Thanks for coming early.”

“You brought coffee,” he said, making the turn into her office. “I can smell it in here.” He flashed her a smile before picking up her to-go cup and handing it to her. Then he grabbed his and raised it in a silent toast to her.

She did the same, not knowing what else to do, and they both sipped. Otis smacked his lips together and made a big show of going, “Ahh, yes. That is good,” which made Georgia laugh.

He joined his voice to hers, and she sure did like the sound of their two tones together. She turned shy, ducked her head, and tucked her hair behind her ear.

His hand came up and retraced the path hers had just taken. “Do I make you nervous?” he asked.

Georgia’s chest sunk, and her mind screamed, Yes, of course you do.

Her pride would not allow her to say such a thing. “No,” she said instead. “Why?”

“You tuck your hair a lot,” he said, doing it for her again. Sparks ran down her neck and across her shoulder. “I thought it might be a sign of nerves.”

“Maybe it is,” she said, vowing not to reveal anything else. “What do you do when you’re nervous?” Surely the man got nervous. He performed in front of thousands of people.

Fans, she told herself. Fans were people who already loved something or someone. Maybe he didn’t get nervous.

He chuckled and ducked his head, concealing his face with that sexy cowboy hat. “I’m a pacer,” he said, raising his eyes back to hers without lifting his head all the way.

Talk about cowboy adorable.

“I mutter the lyrics I’m sure I’m going to forget. My fingers won’t hold still, so I’m usually playing some imaginary piano or guitar.” His grin widened as his head came up.

She stayed in the moment, though she smiled with him. “That’s before a concert, though,” she said. “What about if you’re just nervous for a princess party at a bookshop?”

He took a step closer to her, his coffee-less hand dropping to her waist. “Same thing,” he said. “Except this morning, I rehearsed all these flirty things I was going to say to you when I saw you.” He grinned again and stepped back. “I’ve already forgotten all of them now.” He took another drink of his coffee, this time without the show of deliciousness.

“So I make you nervous.” Georgia cocked her hip, hoping he got all the flirtatiousness she’d just flung at him.

“Oh, definitely,” he said evenly, no smile in sight now. He took another sip of his coffee. “I’m better when I’m doing something, so let’s go get your stuff. Then maybe I’ll be able to think of all the witty things I was going to say.” He gave her a sexy smile and nodded her toward her own office door.

Georgia turned and went in front of him, adding an extra swing to her hips as she did. She didn’t mind if the man she dated held more control than her, but she did want to know she affected him somehow. There had to be a spark—and there were plenty between her and Otis—and this tiny fear that she’d somehow mess up and lose him, which would be the worst possible outcome in her life.

She did feel like that, and as Otis growled behind her, his hand landing on her waist again, she knew she affected him…somehow.

He pressed in close behind her and whispered, “You look amazing today,” in her ear.

She shivered, even though she didn’t want him to know, and pressed her cheek to his for a flash of time. “Thank you,” she said, and then she got her feet moving toward the gaping door and the cold air coming inside. She certainly needed to cool down right now, and she tugged her keys from her pocket to pop the back of her SUV.

Otis joined her at the tailgate, and she looked at him instead of reaching for a box of supplies. “No hint about where we’re going tonight? I want to make sure I’m properly dressed.”

He swallowed and said, “You could wear what you have on right now.” His eyes dripped down the length of her body before rebounding back to hers. “And be fine.”

Georgia rolled her eyes to let him know she didn’t like that answer. She reached for a box and handed it to him. She kept her hand on top of the box, so he wouldn’t walk away quite yet.

“One thing about me, Otis,” she said. “I don’t want ‘fine.’ I want spectacular.” She raised her eyebrows as final punctuation to what she’d really said—I want to know where we’re going so I can dress well enough to make you growl again—and then reached for her own box.

She left him staring at her at the back of her SUV, satisfied she’d made her point.

One, she liked him.

Two, she had expectations for their dates, and he better bring his A-game.

Three, and maybe this hadn’t been communicated, because Georgia hadn’t quite thought this far ahead, if he played his cards right, they could be forever.

And oh, how Georgia wanted forever with the right man for her. Excitement shot through her as Otis’s cologne neared inside the shop, because if he was the right man for her, she’d finally get her happily-ever-after with a handsome cowboy, something she’d been dreaming about for several long years.



Otis needed to get off his bed and start getting ready for his date. Down the hall in the kitchen, Joey made toast and sang to herself, something that made him smile.

Nothing made him happier than his daughter. Until he closed his eyes and saw the gorgeous Georgia Beck strutting out of her office, that sexy sway to her hips.

He needed this woman in his life, and he’d known it since he’d kissed her last fall. He honestly wasn’t sure how he’d survived the months between that event and the past few days. It seemed impossible.

He grinned as his phone vibrated on his chest, and he picked it up again. Since leaving Georgia at the bookstore after the princess event near lunchtime, he’d been texting her all of the things he’d been too nervous to say to her in person.

She flirted on back with him, and it provided him with some of the confidence he’d been lacking lately. He felt strong around her, and even if she hadn’t admitted it, he did make her nervous. Still, she held her own against him, and he liked that as much as the soft feminine touch she had with kids, books, and…him.

She’d sent a picture of herself wearing a black maxi dress, with layer upon layer of fabric covering her from shoulder to floor. This? she’d asked.

He chuckled to himself, his fingers flying across the keyboard. They’d been playing a fun game about where he was taking her to dinner in just over an hour, and she’d started sending pictures of herself in different outfits, and he’d said he’d give her hints until she landed on the right one. She’d started in the same outfit she’d worn to the event that morning, and while he sure had liked it, it said professional more than first date with this guy I really like.

He really hoped that was the message she was trying to say with her clothes, as Georgia seemed to say a lot without using words. She had at least four different looks he’d identified, and she had a way of yelling with those perfectly plucked and sculpted eyebrows.

When she’d handed him that box…he’d known in that instant that he’d be telling her where they were going to dinner. That she didn’t want a surprise, and if she didn’t get her way, this might be the only date he got to take her on.

He re-read his message and sent it. It’s real nice, he’d said. Too much fabric though. That looks like something you wear to church, not to a nice dinner and a concert…with dancing.

His phone rang, and he swiped it on and tapped the speakerphone button. Georgia had called him three times that afternoon already. “Go for Otis,” he said.

“Oh, my word,” she said, her voice holding the amount of dryness of the Sahara. “Do not answer the phone like that when I call you.”

He burst out laughing, and it felt so, so good. “Would you prefer, ‘hey, sweetheart’?” he asked.

“It’s preferable to ‘Go for Otis,’ yes,” she said.


“Dinner, concert, and dancing?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He grinned up at the ceiling, also noting that she didn’t correct him on the ma’am this time. She had during the first phone call. “You need a shorter skirt.”

“Yes,” she said almost absently. “One does when they’re going to the Swing Ranch Show.”

Otis wasn’t surprised Georgia had solved the riddle of where he was taking her that evening. “I mean, the email didn’t say that,” he said. “But I did watch a video on their website, and no one was wearin’ a skirt that went all the way to the floor.”


Otis pushed himself up onto his elbows as the scent of something burning reached his nose. “You don’t sound excited about the Swing Ranch.” He got off the bed and started for the kitchen. “Roo?”

“It’s fine,” his daughter yelled.

“What’s wrong?” Georgia asked.

“Smells like something’s burning.” Otis entered the kitchen. “Give me a sec.” He scanned the old kitchen in the house he rented, and Joey stood at the sink, the faucet pouring water down into it.

“Roo,” he said as he approached.

“There was a paper towel too close to the burner,” she said, glancing up at him with fear in her eyes. He looked down at the singed, soaking wet paper towel. “I grabbed it and got it out.”

He put his arm around her and squeezed her tight. “You were makin’ toast, baby. Not eggs.”

“I’ve done it before,” she said defensively. “Grandma Echo lets me make scrambled eggs all the time, Daddy.” She almost spoke down to him, like he was the stupid one for being concerned his seven-year-old had just used the stove unsupervised.

“I’m not Grandma Echo,” he said sternly. “If you wanted to cook, you should’ve come to get me.” He stared at Joey, and her slight shoulders slumped.

“Yes, sir,” she mumbled.

He backed up and took a seat at the dining room table. “Go on, then.” He lifted his phone back to his ear. “Sorry, Georgia. Just tryin’ to make sure we don’t burn down this house.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I am excited about the Swing Ranch.”

“We don’t need to lie to each other,” he said, suddenly feeling like he’d made a mistake with this first date.

“Would you believe me if I said I was worried about your dancing ability?”

“I can dance just fine,” he said.

“I’m positive of that,” she said. “I meant, I’m worried I’ll look like a fool because you’re such a great dancer.”

Otis ducked his head as if that would keep his voice low enough that his daughter wouldn’t hear him. “Georgia, honey, you couldn’t look a fool even if you tried.”

She sighed and said, “Wow, Otis. That was a really great line. Is that one you practiced this morning?”

He laughed lightly. “I just came up with it a moment ago, actually.”

She giggled too, and said, “Okay, I’m hanging up. I think I have the perfect thing.”

“All right,” he drawled.

“You send me what you’re wearing too,” she said. “I haven’t gotten a single picture, and you said you’d send me one.”

“I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

“Hurry up, Otis,” she said.

“Why?” he asked, glancing over to the clock on the stove. Joey stood on a stool, stirring her eggs very carefully. He smiled at her back. “I don’t have to leave here for another forty minutes.”

“I’ll be ready in twenty,” she said, plenty of coyness in her tone. “If you want to come early, we could…well, I can’t wait to see you.”

Otis grinned like a fool. “See you soon, sweetheart.”

Half an hour later, Otis knocked on Mav’s door and opened it at the same time. “Howdy-ho,” he called into the house. “We’re here.” The easiest and best place to bring Joey for babysitting was Mav’s, especially on the weekend.

He had his daughter every weekend, and his wife had a boy the same age as Joey. The three of them—Boston, Beth, and Joey—got along really well, and it was hardly any work for Mav and Dani to have her with them.

Tonight, Joey wore a backpack as she came into the house with him, as she was going to spend the night here at Mav’s. Otis wasn’t planning to be out all night, but by the time the dinner-dancing-show finished and he could get back to his daughter, she’d be asleep. He’d meet up with Mav and Dani at church in the morning and collect Joey then.

After that, he planned to take her up to Lauren’s for the day, and he’d probably text Georgia with a new game they could flirt back and forth over.

Mav came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. “Hey,” he said, his gaze moving from Otis to Joey. “They’re downstairs, Roo.”

“Thanks, Uncle Mav.” Joey opened the door that led into the basement and skipped her way toward her cousins.

That left Otis with Mav, and his brother perched on the back of the couch. He said nothing, and that only increased Otis’s apprehension.

“How’s Dani?” Otis rocked back onto his heels and dug his hands into his jacket pockets.

“Good,” Mav said. “Tired. Getting real big.” He grinned like he’d just given the performance of his life. “But good.” His wife was due with their first baby together in just a couple of months. A boy for the pair of them, and Otis was real happy for Mav.

He nodded and smiled. “That’s great. Thanks for taking Joey tonight.”

“Anytime.” Mav got back to his feet. “She’s so easy. Did you get the tickets?”

“Yes.” Otis followed him into the kitchen. Dani sat on a barstool at the counter, and she looked over from the notebook where she wrote. “Otis.” She got to her feet to hug him, and Otis did smile as he wrapped her in his arms. In a lot of ways, Mav and Dani had shown him—and several other of the Young men—what he’d been missing in his life.

With so many new changes swirling around him, Otis found comfort and safety with Dani and Mav. They were rock solid and kind, and Otis needed both in his life right now.

“You’re lookin’ good,” he said as they parted.

Dani put one hand on her belly and gave him a dry look. “Don’t tell lies, Otis,” she said.

“I’m not,” he said, glancing over to Mav. “I think it’s a beautiful thing, carrying a baby.” He gave her a warm smile, and Otis remembered the feeling of becoming a father. He’d wanted his baby so badly, and while Joey hadn’t fixed all that was broken between him and Lauren, he loved her endlessly and always had.

“I’ll be happy when I can see my toes again,” Dani said, sliding back onto the barstool.

Otis exchanged another look with Mav. “Okay, well, I better get goin’. Thanks again. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Have fun,” Mav said. He lifted the dish towel in a wave.

Otis nodded and left, half glad and half confused that neither Mav nor Dani had asked him anything about Georgia. Trace had wanted to know how they’d met, and Abby seemed to have endless inquiries about everything from what they talked about to what color of shirt Otis was planning to wear.

Several minutes later, he pulled up to Georgia’s cute little brick house on a quiet street. The front yard held a lot of snow, just like all of her neighbors. All of Wyoming.

Her driveway and sidewalk were clear, with a single car that wasn’t hers parked in front of the garage.

He went up the walk and the steps to the porch, which a bright light illuminated when it sensed his movement. He knocked; a dog started barking; he swallowed and stepped back.

He told himself not to pace, and he stilled his plucking fingers by putting them in his pockets once more. It seemed to take an eon for Georgia to open the door, and when she did, Otis froze.

She was the most stunning woman he’d ever met wearing a dark red dress that fell to her knees. Up top, the dress hugged her curves and upper arms, then flared at the waist. She wore a pair of black heels, and she looked to the side and picked up a glamorous, glitzy black clutch that bore gems sparkling.

She looked back at him, and he had so many compliments to pay her. Instead of using his voice, he lifted both of his hands to his face and mimed taking a picture. She grinned like the Cheshire Cat, and he knew he’d given her the perfect reaction.

“I need this picture on my phone,” he said edging a little closer to her. Something about this woman made him so handsy, and he told himself not to touch her. He’d told himself the same thing in her office earlier that day, and he’d failed then. He’d told himself not to touch her while they ate pizza in Tex’s basement. Another fail.

He knew he was going to fail again tonight.

“You got a lot of pictures already,” she said. She appraised him, her head moving up and down as she took in his jeans, boots, and leather jacket. “Hmm.” Her blue-green eyes shot desire and infernos at him. “I suppose this will do.”

He spread his arms and turned in a circle. “I sent you this exact picture.”

“It’s almost what you wore this morning,” she pointed out.

“No.” He faced her again. “Those jeans were these trendy things Blaze sent me. These are real cowboy country music star jeans.” He pushed down his belt on the left side. “See? Wyatt Walker edition.”

Georgia looked at the label and then back into his eyes. “Wyatt Walker is a rodeo guy,” she said. “Not a country music star.” She rolled her eyes and started to come out onto the porch. He should’ve backed up. He should’ve said his shirt tonight was red, white, and blue—with the crimson almost an exact match to that in her dress. He should’ve said they didn’t have to leave right then, because she’d told him to come early, and he had.

Instead, he held very still and let Georgia step into his personal space. She put her clutch against his chest as he took her into his arms. They swayed right there in the haloed darkness and the cold night.

“Mm,” she said again. One hand slipped inside his jacket, and a miniature earthquake moved through his muscles. “I think this will do nicely.”

“You like my shirt?” he asked.

“Yes, I do.” She looked up at him, and he could see she liked so much more than that.

“Is red your favorite color?” he asked.

“Actually, it’s blue,” she said. “You?”

“I’m gonna go with blue too.”

She played with his collar, and he swallowed with how close she was. “Which do you like better? Cats or dogs?”

“Dogs.” He smiled at her, knowing her answer would be cats. “Favorite food?”

“Oh, I already told you that.” Georgia laid her head against his chest, and Otis breathed in deeply and then out as he held her there. “Steak and eggs,” he murmured. “We’ll go there next time, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. She stepped back, and she looked a little sleepy when she gazed up at him. “I already know you eat dessert before dinner, so since you’re so early, do you want to come inside and have a treat?”

“Boy, do I ever,” he said, his mind blitzing around from option to option for what she might have in store for him in the sugar department.

She turned and went inside, and Otis wasted no time in following her.



Georgia hadn’t been out to the Swing Ranch Show in years. The moment the lights came into view, she knew it had been far too long as excitement bubbled through her bloodstream. “How did you get tickets to this?” she asked. “I know they book out way in advance.”

Otis sat in half shadows as he drove, and she still couldn’t get the sight of him licking his ice cream stick clean from her mind. She’d kissed him before, but it had been a while and not real. A girl could certainly dream about what it would be like to kiss Otis Young in an absolutely real relationship, and Georgia’s adrenaline spiked for at least the fourth time in the past hour.

“I know a couple of people in town,” he said evasively.

Georgia wasn’t sure if that answer annoyed her or not. She supposed he’d called in a favor to impress her, and that shouldn’t bother her. If she had clout and celebrity, wouldn’t she use it?

“If you had to drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?” she asked, continuing the game they’d started at her house.

“The rest of my whole life?” He shifted in his seat. “I better say water just to be safe.”

“Boring,” she shot at him. She smiled, glad when he did too.

“Like when you said your favorite thing to do was read?”

She liked that he gave some of her sassiness back to her. “Yes,” she said, tossing her curls over her shoulder. “Like that.”

Otis gave a light chuckle, made another turn, and they arrived. Parking attendants waved to them with lit sticks in their hands, guiding them to where to park.

“I’ll come around,” Otis said, and Georgia stayed right where she was so he could open her door. He tugged on the bottom of his jacket as he rounded the hood, and some of Georgia’s nerves vibrated too.

This was different than driving out to a private house in Coral Canyon. Everyone would see them here. Together. The word that she’d started dating Otis Young would be common knowledge by sundown tomorrow, and Georgia told herself it was okay. She didn’t have anything to hide.

Otis opened her door and offered his hand. She placed hers in it, twisted, and dropped to the ground. “Thank you,” she murmured. He closed the door and retook her hand, and they walked quickly toward the huge, red barn where the events would take place this evening.

Georgia tasted a touch of magic in the air. It twinkled in the tea lights in the trees and the smiles of the women checking people in. It lingered in the music playing through the speakers, and while it was really cold tonight, the magic made it seem warmer.

That magic streamed from Otis, and Georgia wanted to stay as close to him as she could.

They got seated at a table for two, which was rare for the Swing Ranch Show. Most people sat at community tables, and they’d all have to get up and go through the buffet line to get their food.

At this table, Otis and Georgia would be served. She picked at her fingernails for a moment, the question she’d been building toward on the front of her tongue now. “So,” she said, finally looking at Otis. “Why didn’t you and your ex-wife work out?”

Otis blinked and looked over to the salt and pepper shakers on the edge of the table. He reached for them and put them in the middle, right in front of the two of them. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Have you ever been married?”

“No,” she said.

He nodded and switched the salt with the pepper. “You know how there are some things that people just say go together?” His eyes met hers for a moment. “Salt and pepper. Peanut butter and jelly.”

“Glitter and unicorns.” Her voice caught on itself, and that brought Otis’s eyes back to hers.

“Yeah.” He smiled, but it wasn’t a blinding one, nor one filled with joy. This smile felt almost sad, full of understanding and kindness. She liked it as much as the toothy one Otis had given her before.

“Like that.” He took a big breath. “Lauren and I were like that. Everyone thought we were so good together. You hear that enough, and you start to think it’s true.” He pushed the pepper away from the saltshaker. “But sometimes, you can have one without the other and it’s okay. Sometimes it’s better.”

Georgia nodded, keeping up with him. “You didn’t love her?”

“No,” Otis said. “I didn’t. I thought I did. I thought because we were good friends and everyone said we belonged together, that well, I guess I thought that was love.”

A man arrived at their table and plunked down two thick glasses of water. “Should only be a few minutes now, folks,” he said. “No allergies here?” He looked from Georgia to Otis and back.

She shook her head as Otis said, “No, sir. No allergies.”

The waiter nodded and moved on to the next table. Georgia thought that might be the end of her serious conversation with Otis, but he asked, “Have you ever been in love, Georgia?”

“Once,” scraped out of her throat. She reached for her water and took a big gulp. “But there’s familial love. Brotherly love. Surely you understand that.”

“I do, yeah.” He nodded, pushing the salt back together with the pepper. “It’s different, though.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “I was young. I didn’t know what I felt or didn’t feel. My hindsight vision is a lot better than what I saw at the time.”

Georgia nodded.

“We were married for a couple of years,” he said. “We had Joey, even though we both knew things weren’t right between us.” He paused, and Georgia simply waited. “I don’t think either of us knew exactly what it was. We tried counseling. The band was doing really well, and I†?m sure that didn’t help, because I was gone a lot. Living in another city. Recording there. Then tours.” He sighed again. “Eventually, I realized I’d never really loved her. I think she knew the same thing, and we split up.”

“She lives around here?”

“Dog Valley,” Otis said. “She’s got some health issues she’s still figuring out, so Joey moved in with me just after Christmas.” He leaned forward and unwrapped his straw. He stuck it in his water and took a long draw, apparently done.

He looked at her again. “What about you? Who were you in love with?”

Georgia wanted to wave her hand and swat away his question. He’d answered hers, and her pulse raced as she opened her mouth.

“His name was Cameron Lund,” she said. “We dated my last year of college in Jackson.” Now that she’d started talking, everything was easy. “I was more into him than he was me, and well, he wasn’t interested in small-town Wyoming life, with a wife who runs a bookshop and takes in every stray animal she comes across.” She gave him a smile, because she was over Cameron. He couldn’t hurt her anymore.

Otis nodded, and someone stepped up to the microphone and said, “Welcome to the Swing Ranch Show!”

The crowd cheered, interrupting them. Georgia put her hands together too, smiling up to the man on stage. He went over the dinner menu and how the buffet line would go. As the back tables started to get to their feet, their waiter appeared with two plates of food ready to go.

He set them down, along with an extra bottle of barbecue sauce, and said, “I’ll be back to check on y’all in a few minutes.”

Georgia looked at Otis’s food. He had barbecue chicken, scalloped potatoes, baked beans, and two rolls perched on his plate. “This is great,” she said, dropping her gaze to her food.

She sucked in a breath. She didn’t have the same fare that he did. Nor did she have what the man had announced was on the menu for the buffet and everyone else.

She had steak and eggs.

“Otis,” she said.

He grinned at her, and she found him to be an absolute prince. Her cowboy magician prince, who could make a phone call and work magic at the Swing Ranch Show.

He picked up his fork and pointed it at her plate. “I just want to say that the small-town Wyoming life with a wife who runs a bookstore and rescues every stray she comes across sounds about…perfect.”

Then he scooped up a bite of baked beans and put them in his mouth.

Georgia fell in love with him—just a tiny little bit—in that moment. How he knew exactly what to say and do to erase all of the doubts she had she didn’t know. She had nothing else to attribute it to besides magic.

Or the Lord, she thought, and that fit better than leaving her future up to the whims of a magic wand. She wanted to rely on God to lead her and guide her, and as she cut into her perfectly cooked over-easy egg and the yolk ran over her steak, she knew God had been leading her carefully to this exact moment in time, where she sat across the table from this beautiful man who’d listened to her, taken what she’d said, and made it into the absolu