Summer Texas Bride

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Summer Lynn Hadley had never been the type of woman to get all weak-kneed over babies . . . or men, for that matter. But she had to admit that her knees felt slightly wobbly as she took in the picture of Ryker Evans bouncing her three screaming nieces.

He wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat like most of the men at the reception, probably because he didn’t want to mess his perfect hair. And it was pretty perfect. Precisely cut on the sides and long and styled back on the top. Even with the bouncing, not one strand of rich chestnut brown was out of place. He’d grown a beard since the last time she’d seen him. Not a thick beard, but a close-trimmed one that framed his angular jaw and highlighted the curves of his lips. Those lips were tipped down at the corners as he glared at her.

“Don’t just stand there,” he said above the din of baby wails. “Do something.”

She glanced at her nieces. She was good at a lot of things, but babies weren’t one of them. “Like what?”

His deep brown eyes widened as if she were an idiot. “Make them stop.”

“Umm . . . okay.” She leaned down like she’d seen her sisters do. “Hey, Sweet Peas.” The crying stopped immediately. Maybe she was better with kids than she thought. She smiled brightly. “Yes, it’s your Auntie Summer.”

The crying resumed. Louder than before.

Ryker glanced between her and the babies as if he was trying to figure out what had just happened. Fortunately, about then, her granny and sisters converged. Granny Bon took Lucinda. Autumn took Luana. And Spring took Luella. All the babies stopped crying immediately. But instead of Granny Bon getting after Ryker for making them cry in the first place, she turned on Summer.

“What in the world were you doing, Summer Lynn?”

“What was I doing? I wasn’t doing anything. It was Ryker who scared the bejesus out of them.”

Granny’s eyebrows lowered. “Don’t you dare take the Lord’s name in vain, young lady. And that’s my point. You weren’t doing anything to help him settle the babies.” Granny looked at Ryker. “I apologize for my granddaughter. Sometimes I think she has applesauce for brains.”

Ryker smoothed down his tie, which now looked like it had been dunked in a horse trough. “I need to apologize for upsetting Dirk’s daughters. I’m afraid I’m not very good with children.”

“Three babies are hard for anyone to handle,” Granny Bon said as she gave Lucinda a kiss on the cheek. “Even sweethearts like these. And I’m wondering how you ended up with all three of my great-grandbabies in the first place.”

“That’s my fault, Granny Bon,” Dirk walked up with Gracie tucked under his arm. “I handed them off to Rye when I saw some yahoo of a cowboy trying to make a move on my woman.”

“He was not making a move on me,” Gracie said. “He was asking me about Summer.” She smiled at Summer. “I think you have a cowboy admirer.”

Summer glanced at the dance floor. “What cowboy?”

Autumn shook her head. “Don’t expect her to notice anyone when she has her phone. Who were you texting anyway? Everyone we know is here.”

Before she had to answer, Sheriff Waylon Kendall walked up. As much as Summer resented him for taking her baby sister away from her, she had to admit that he loved Spring. His smile was sappy and his eyes dazed as he looked at his new bride holding Luella.

“I believe they’re playing our song, honey.”

Spring looked back at him with the same sappy, dazed look. “And what song is that?”

“Every song for the rest of our lives.”

Her sister giggled happily as she handed off Luella to Gracie and allowed Waylon to lead her to the dance floor. Summer rolled her eyes, then caught Ryker watching her. He’d been watching her all night. Not in a sexual way. More like a scientist who had discovered an unrecognizable specimen and was trying to figure out what to do with it. She couldn’t blame him. She had gotten a little out of hand in the last month. But when she wanted something she didn’t let anything stand in her way. And she wanted something from Ryker.

“We should get the girls to bed, Dirk,” Gracie said. She leaned up and gave Ryker a kiss on the cheek. “I wish we had room to put you up tonight. I hate the thought of you having to stay at the motor lodge.”

“It’s no problem,” Ryker said. “Mrs. Crawley gave me the best room in the house.”

Dirk hooted with laughter. “Lucky number seven with the vibrating bed?”

Ryker smiled. His smile was shy and hesitant, like he was afraid to let it get too wide or bright. “That’s the one. Although the vibrating mechanism doesn’t seem to work. Neither does the coffeemaker.”

“The bed’s temperamental,” Dirk said. “It only works when it wants to. And don’t worry about coffee. I’ll stop by in the morning and take you to breakfast at the diner. You haven’t lived until you tasted Ms. Marble’s cinnamon-swirl muffins.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I probably should head back to Dallas bright and early.” He glanced at his watch. “In fact, I think I’ll call it a night.”

Summer wasn’t about to let him get away that easily. “You don’t have to leave yet,” she said. “It’s not even ten thirty. And you haven’t danced one dance. In fact, why don’t we remedy that right now?” She tried to hook her arm through his, but he jumped back like he was dodging a rattlesnake strike.

“Sorry, but I don’t dance.”

She scrambled for another way to keep him there. “Cake! Did you get a piece of cake? Ms. Marble is Bliss’s resident baker.” She pointed to Ms. Marble, who was talking to her friend Joanna Daily. “She’s the little old woman in the wide-brimmed hat, and she made Spring’s wedding cake. Four tiers of pure heaven, I tell you. You just can’t leave without getting a piece.”

“Thank you, but I’m not into sweets.” He shook Dirk’s hand. “It was a beautiful wedding. Tell your sister congratulations and thank her and Waylon for the invitation.”

“Why don’t you tell her yourself?” Summer said. “I mean it would be rude to leave without—”

“That’s enough, Summer Lynn.” Granny Bon cut her off, then hugged Ryker. “We’re all glad you could come, Ryker. You have a safe trip home.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“I’ll walk you out, Rye,” Dirk said. They headed for the open door of the barn, and there was nothing Summer could do about it. Not unless she wanted a lecture from Granny Bon. Of course, she got that anyway.

“What has gotten into you? First, you leave that poor man to deal with three crying babies and then you call him rude right to his face.”

“Well, he was rude. He should’ve told Waylon and Spring congratulations before he left.”

“Dirk says that Ryker has always been a little socially awkward,” Gracie said. “But he certainly made up for it with the wedding gift he gave Waylon and Spring.”

“What did he give them?”

“Shares of Headhunters stock.”

Summer was so mad she wanted to pitch a fit right there. Ryker gave her sister stock and he wouldn’t even give her the time of day? That just wasn’t right. And she wasn’t about to let it slide.

“If you’ll excuse me,” she said. “I think I’ll go find my cowboy admirer and see if he wants to dance.”

But she didn’t head for the dance floor. Instead, she headed straight for the bar where she flirted a bottle of tequila from the bartender. She hid it in the folds of her dress and slipped out the open door of the barn.

The spring night was a little chilly, but Summer had always been hot natured so the cool breeze was a relief. She spotted Dirk walking back to the barn. And not wanting to be interrogated by her little brother, she ducked around the side and waited for him to go back to the reception before she headed to the garage where she’d parked her red Mustang.

She was just backing up when Autumn appeared in the red glow of the taillights. Summer slammed on the brakes, then rolled down the side window to yell at her sister. “Holy crap, Audie! I could’ve hit you.”

Autumn walked up to the window. “Where are you going?”

“For a drive. The barn is way too hot and I need to cool off.”

Spring would’ve called her an out-and-out liar. But Autumn was the more diplomatic of the sisters. The one who didn’t have to say a word to make you feel guilty. All she had to do was look at you with those trusting blue eyes to get you to confess to anything.

“Fine,” Summer said. “I’m going after Ryker.”

Autumn released a sigh. “Can’t you ever just give in, Summer? Do you always have to beat a dead horse?”

“I’m not beating a dead horse. I’m brow-beating a computer nerd. Two totally different things.”

Autumn shook her head. “Even if you could talk Ryker into helping us, it’s too late. We don’t even have enough money to pay this month’s bills. And with Spring married and living in Bliss, we’ve lost even more sales. You and I aren’t exactly salespeople. Which is why we need to listen to Dirk. We need to sell the inventory we have left, pay our bills, close the store, and cut our losses.”

It made sense. But Summer had never been sensible. Especially when it came to accepting defeat. “Quitting is what losers do. Success rarely happens the first time you try something. Success takes hard work and dedication. I’m a perfect example. Remember the first time I tried out for cheerleading? I scored the lowest of any girl trying out. But did that stop me from trying out the next year? Or the year after? Or the one after that? And finally, my senior year, I made the team.”

“I think it was because Ms. Polk was tired of you harassing her about it.”

“I didn’t harass her. I just wanted to know what I did wrong and how I could improve. That’s all I want to know from Ryker. I want him to point out any flaws in my new business plan and what I can do to improve it. But he refuses to even talk to me. I’ve had to resort to texting him numerous times a day to try and get his attention.”

Autumn covered her eyes with her hand and groaned. “Good Lord. No wonder the poor man raced out of here like his tail was on fire.”

“Well, I’m not letting him get away that easily.”

Autumn lowered her hand. Her face held a resigned look. “Of course you’re not. And I guess I’ll have to cover for you. Granny Bon would throw a fit if she knew what you were doing. And Dirk wouldn’t be too happy either.”

“Of course you have to cover for me. That’s what sisters are for.”

“What should I tell them?”

“Tell them that after seeing my little sister happily wed I went off on a wild hare to the little white chapel to make a wish for my own Prince Charming.”

Autumn snorted. “As if they’d believe that. Everyone knows that you’re not a princess waiting for her prince. You’re the evil queen who is trying to figure out how to take over the world.”

Some women might take offense to that. Summer wasn’t one of them. She didn’t mind being a little evil. And she certainly didn’t mind being the queen in charge.

“Then just tell them that I went to the chapel to repent all my sins.” Before Autumn could delay her any longer, she backed up and took off down the dirt road. She usually drove fast. Speed gave her a feeling of power and control. But tonight she drove the speed limit. She didn’t want to beat Ryker back to town. Not that Bliss, Texas, qualified as a town. It was no more than a grease spot on the highway.

Still, as she drove onto Main Street, Summer had to admit that it was a cute grease spot. Trees lined the sidewalk and planters of bright-colored flowers hung from each lamppost. There were the usual businesses named after the town. Bliss Grocery Mart, Bliss Feed Store, Bliss Pharmacy, Bliss Motor Lodge. Then there were businesses with original names like The Watering Hole Bar, Lucy’s Place Diner, Home Sweet Home Décor and Antiques, and Emmett’s Gas Station. But the one business that made Bliss different from every other small town was the Tender Heart Museum.

Tender Heart was a series of novels written by Summer’s great-grandmother in the 1960s. Lucy Arrington based the stories on the mail-order brides who had come to Bliss in the 1800s to marry the cowboys who worked the famous Arrington Ranch.

Summer cared nothing about the town’s history. And she especially didn’t care about Lucy Arrington, the woman who had placed her only child, Granny Bon, in an orphanage because she didn’t have enough guts to stand up to her family and raise Granny on her own.

She might not care about Lucy Arrington or the history of Bliss, but what she did care about were the books Lucy had written. Not all the books, though, just the final book in the series, which had recently been found. Once the book was published, the royalties would be divided between Lucy Arrington’s living family members. Which included Summer and her family. The money would help her implement her plan to start an online business. But first she needed to get her ducks in a row.

She had made a mistake by jumping into the retail clothing business without putting much thought into it, and she wasn’t about to make the same mistake. She had spent hours researching other online clothing companies, and she knew there was tons of money to be made. All she needed was a little help from someone who had been successful starting an online company. She’d tried getting her brother to help, but he’d refused. He had fronted them the money to open Seasons, their clothing store in Houston, and he claimed the store had caused nothing but fights between his sisters. True, she and her sisters had fought about how to run the store. But they fought about everything. That was what sisters did.

The sign for Bliss Motor Lodge appeared, and she slowed and pulled into the parking lot. The rooms at the motel were set up in twos with a carport on either side. The carports held vending and ice machines while the occupants’ cars were parked in front of the rooms. A slick gray sports car was parked in front of room seven. The kind of car that spoke of power and success. The exact type of car she planned on buying when she made her first million.

Not wanting to alert Ryker, she parked a few rooms down. She was halfway around the front of her Mustang when she remembered the tequila. She went back and got the bottle. She hoped a little alcohol would loosen Ryker’s uptight demeanor. That’s if she could get him to let her inside long enough to pour him a glass.

Her plan was to hold up the bottle of tequila and say something like, “Since you left the party, I decided to bring the party to you.” But when Ryker opened the door, her brain got short circuited by a hard, defined chest and a six-pack stomach that Granny Bon could’ve scrubbed clothes on.

            “Holy crap,” she said. “You’ve got muscles.” (Summer Texas Bride by Katie Lane)