Callahan Cowboys Book 2
July 1, 2011
Harlequin American Romance (1362)
No woman’s going to hog-tie Creed Callahan into getting hitched. Even if it means losing his claim on Rancho Diablo, the New Mexico spread that one of six brothers will inherit—whoever marries and has the most children. Come hell or high water, Creed plans to be the last single man standing. Until sweet temptation comes knocking….
Preacher Aberdeen Donovan is just fine tending her flock and getting ready to adopt her three nieces. Her job description does not include saving some incorrigible cowboy from himself. But there’s something about a little competition that makes the devil-may-care bachelor change his mind about needing a wife. And marriage would help Aberdeen provide a home for the little girls. Not to mention, for the little secret that’s on the way….
—Molly Callahan, with fondness for her busy toddler
Creed Callahan knew when he left Rancho Diablo in May that he was running scared. Running was a first for him. All the rush-to-the-altar drama—a plot of Aunt Fiona’s to get him and his five brothers married—had him spooked. Marriage was a serious business, not undertaken by lightweights or the casual commitment phobe. Aunt Fiona had just scored a direct hit with his brother Pete marrying Jackie Samuels and having triplets right off the baby-daddy bat. Creed was potently aware his days as a happy, freewheeling bachelor might come to an end if he didn’t get the hell out of Diablo.
So he’d fled like a shy girl at her first dance. Creed didn’t like the label of chicken. It would be far easier to tell Aunt Fiona to mind her own business, and not to fix the gimlet aunty eye his way. Aunt Fiona’s eye, Creed posited to himself over a sixth beer the bartender in Lance, Wyoming had courteously poured him (a generous man who could see Creed’s soul was in torment), well, Aunt Fiona’s eye was something to be feared. Anyone in Diablo, New Mexico, would attest to the powers of Aunt Fiona.
Especially when she had a goal. No one escaped if Fiona put her mind to something. His small, spare aunt had raised him and his five brothers upon the deaths of their parents without so much as a break in her stride. She and her long-time butler had flown in from Ireland one day, clucked over and coddled the five confused boys (young Sam had not yet been part of the family yet, an occurrence which still perplexed the brothers), and generally gave them an upbringing which was loving, firm, and heaped with enthusiastic coaching.
Creed barely remembered their parents. He was the lucky one in the family, in his opinion, because he had a twin, Rafe. It helped to have a mirror image at his back over the years. Creed was prone to mischief, and Rafe was a gifted thinker. Once when the boys had wondered where babies came from—upon Sam’s surprising arrival after Fiona had come to be their guardian—Creed had uprooted all of Fiona’s precious garden looking for “baby” seeds. Rafe had told Aunt Fiona that he’d seen bunnies in her garden, which was true, but bunnies weren’t the reason Aunt Fiona’s kitchen crop had to be re-started.
Creed certainly knew where babies came from now. Watching Pete and Jackie go from casual romance once a week to parents of triplets had underscored the amazing fertility of the Callahan men. They were like stallions, he bragged to himself—gifted with the goods.
With Fiona hinting about his unmarried state, Creed had escaped. He did not want his own virility tested. He didn’t want a wife or children. With triplets, Pete was firmly in the running for possession of Rancho Diablo, for that was the deal Fiona had struck: Whichever of the six brothers who married and produced the most heirs inherited all five thousand acres of Rancho Diablo.
But he and his brothers had worked an agreement out unbeknownst to Fiona: Only one of them would be the sacrifice (which turned out to be the lucky, or unlucky, depending upon how one viewed it, brother Pete), and he would divide the ranch up between all six brothers. It was a fair-and-square way to keep any animosity from arising between them for a high-value prize: hearth and home. Competition wasn’t a good thing among brothers, they’d agreed, though they competed against each other all the time, naturally. But this was different.
This competition wasn’t rodeo, or lassoing, or tree climbing. This was Aunt Fiona kickstarting a competition between them. They vowed that this time, Fiona’s planning wouldn’t entrap them.
“And I’m safe,” Creed muttered, staring owlishly at his beer.
“Did you say something?” a beautiful chocolate-haired bartender said to him, and Creed realized that the old saying was true: Women started looking better with every beer. Creed blinked. The male bartender who’d been listening to his woe with a sympathetic ear and generous pours of beer had morphed into a sexy as hell female, which meant Creed wasn’t as safe as he thought he was. He was, in fact, six sheets to the wind and blowing south. “Six beers is not that big a deal,” he told the woman who was looking at him with some approbation. “Where’s Johnny?”
“Johnny?” She raised elfin brows at him and ran a hand through springy chin-length curls. “My name is Aberdeen.”
He wasn’t that drunk. In fact, he wasn’t drunk at all. He knew the difference between moobs and boobs, and while Johnny had been the soul of generosity, he’d had moobs and girth appropriate for bouncing troublemakers out of his bar. This delightful lady eyeing him had boobs, pert and enticing, and his chauvinistic brain was registering very little else except that she looked like something a man who’d had six beers (ok, maybe twelve, but they were small ones so he’d halved his count), might want to drag into the sack. She had bow shaped lips and dark blue eyes but most of all, she smelled like something other than beer and salami and pretzels. Spring flowers, he thought with a sigh. Yes, the smells of spring, after a long cold winter in Diablo. “You’re beautiful,” he heard someone tell her, and glanced around for the dope that would say something so unmanly.
“Thank you,” she said to Creed.
“Oh, I didn’t—” He stopped. He was the dope. I sound like Pete. I need to leave now. The beer had loosened his tongue and thrown his cool to the wind. “I’d best be going, Amber Jean.” He slid off the barstool, thinking how sad it was that he’d never see Johnny/Amber Jean again, and how wonderfully fresh and romantic Springtime smelled in Wyoming.
* * *
“Oh, now, that’s a shame,” Johnny Donovan said, looking down at the sleeping cowboy on his bar floor. “Clearly this is a man who doesn’t know much about brew.”
Aberdeen gave her brother a disparaging glance. “You gave him too much brew.”
“I swear I did not. The man wanted to talk more than drink, truthfully.” Johnny gave her his most innocent gaze. “He went on and on and on, Aberdeen, and so I could tell he wasn’t really looking for the hops but for a sympathetic ear. On his fifth beer, I began giving him near beer, as God is my witness, Aberdeen. You know I disapprove of sloppiness. And it’s against the law to let someone drink and drive.” He squinted outside, searching the darkness. It was three o’clock in the morning. “Mind you, I have no idea what he’s driving, but he won’t be driving a vehicle from my bar in a sloppy condition.”
Her brother ran a conscientious establishment. “I’m sorry,” Aberdeen said, knowing Johnny treated his patrons like family. Even strangers were given Johnny’s big smile, and if anyone so much as mentioned they needed help, Johnny would give them the shirt off his back and the socks off his feet. Aberdeen looked at the cowboy sprawled on the floor, his face turned to the ceiling as he snored with luxuriant abandon. He was sinfully gorgeous, a pile, at the moment, of amazing masculinity. Lean and tall, with long dark hair, a chiseled face, a hint of a once-broken nose. She restrained the urge to brush an errant swath of midnight hair away from his closed eyes. “What do we do with him?”
Johnny shrugged. “Leave him on the floor to sleep. The man is tired, Aberdeen. Would you have us kick a heartbroken soul out when he just needs a bit of time to gather his wits?”
“Heartbroken?” Aberdeen frowned. The cowboy was too good-looking by half. Men like him were worth caution; she knew this from her congregation. Ladies loved the cowboys; they loved the hard work and the character and the drive. They loved the romance, the idea of the real working cowboy. And heaven only knew, a lot of those men loved the ladies in return. This one, with his soft voice, good manners, and flashing blue eyes—Aberdeen had no doubt that this cowboy had left his fair share of broken hearts trampled in the dirt. “If you sit him outside, he’ll gather his wits fast enough.”
“Ah, now, Aberdeen. I can’t treat paying customers that way, darling. You know that. He’s causing no harm, is he?” Johnny gave her his best wide smile and apologetic expression, which should have looked silly on her bear of a brother but which melted her heart every time.
“You’re too soft, Johnny.”
“And you’re too hard, my girl. I often ask myself if all cowboy preachers are as tough on cowboys as you are. This is your one of your flock, Aberdeen. He’s only drunk on confusion and sadness.” Johnny stared at Creed’s long-forgotten beer mug. “I feel sorry for him, I do.”
Aberdeen sighed. “It’s your bar. You do as you like. I’m going to my room.”
Johnny went on sweeping up. “I’ll keep an eye on him. You go on to bed. You have preaching to do in the morning.”
“And I haven’t finished writing my sermon. Goodnight, Johnny.” She cast a last glance at the slumbering, too-sexy man on the dark hardwood floor, and headed upstairs. She was glad to leave Johnny with the stranger. No man should look that good sleeping on the floor.
* * *
A roar from downstairs, guffaws, and loud thumping woke Aberdeen from deep sleep. Jumping to her feet, she glanced at her bedside clock. Seven a.m.–past time for her to be getting ready for church. She grabbed her robe, and more roars sent her running down the stairs.
Her brother and the stranger sat playing cards on a barrel table in the empty bar. One of them was winning—that much was clear from the grins—and the other didn’t mind that he was losing. There were mugs of milk and steaming coffee on a table beside them. Both men were so engrossed in their card hands that neither of them looked up when she put her hands on her hips. She was of half a mind to march back upstairs and forget she ever saw her brother being led astray by the hunky stranger.
“Johnny,” Aberdeen said, “did you know it’s Sunday morning?”
“I do, darlin’,” Johnny said, “but I can’t leave him. He’s got a fever.” He gestured to his playing partner.
“A fever?” Aberdeen’s eyes widened. “If he’s sick, why isn’t he in bed?”
“He won’t go. I think he’s delirious.”
She came closer to inspect the cowboy. “What do you mean, he won’t go?”
“He thinks he’s home.” Johnny grinned at her. “It’s the craziest thing.”
“It’s a lie, Johnny. He’s setting us up.” She slapped her hand on the table in front of the cowboy. He looked up at her with wide, too-bright eyes. “Have you considered he’s on drugs? Maybe that’s why he passed out last night.”
“Nah,” Johnny said. “He’s just a little crazy.”
She pulled up a chair, eyeing the cowboy cautiously, who eyed her back just as carefully. “Johnny, we don’t need a little crazy right now.”
“I know you’re worried, Aberdeen.”
“Aberdeen,” the cowboy said, trying out her name. “Not Amber Jean. Aberdeen.”
She looked at Johnny. “Maybe he’s slow.”
Johnny shrugged. “Said he got a small concussion at his last stop. Got thrown from a bull and didn’t ride again that night. He says he just had to come home.”
She shook her head. “I’m pretty sure a fever with a concussion is a serious thing. We can’t try to nurse him, Johnny.”
“We can take him to the hospital, I suppose.” Johnny looked at the stranger. “Do you want to go to a hospital, friend?”
The cowboy shook his head. “I think I’ll go to bed now.”
Aberdeen wrinkled her nose as the cowboy went over to a long bench in the corner, laid himself out and promptly went to sleep. “You were giving a man with fever milk?”
Johnny looked at her, his dark eyes curious. “Is that a bad thing? He asked for it.”
She sighed. “We’ll know soon enough.” After a moment, she walked over and put her hand against his forehead. “He’s burning up!”
“Well,” Johnny said, “the bar’s closed today. He can sleep on that bench if he likes, I guess. If he’s not better tomorrow, I’ll take him to a doctor, though he doesn’t seem especially inclined to go.”
Aberdeen stared at the sleeping cowboy’s handsome face. Trouble with a capital T. “Did he tell you his name? Maybe he’s got family around here who could come get him.”
“No.” Johnny put the cards away and tossed out the milk. “He babbles a lot about horses. Talks a great deal about spirit horses and other nonsense. Native American lore. Throws in an occasional Irish tale. Told a pretty funny joke, too. The man has a sense of humor for being out of his mind.”
“Great.” Aberdeen had a funny feeling trouble had landed square in Johnny’s Bar and Grill. “I’m going to see who he is,” she said, reaching into his front pocket for his wallet.
A hand shot out, grabbing her wrist. Aberdeen gasped and tried to draw away but the cowboy held on, staring up at her with those navy eyes. She couldn’t look away.
“Stealing’s bad,” he said.
She slapped his hand and he released her. “I know that, you ape. What’s your name?”
He crossed his arms and gave her a roguish grin. “What’s your name?”
“I already told you my name is Aberdeen.” He’d said it not five minutes ago, so possibly he did have a concussion. With a fever, that could spell trouble. “Johnny, this man is going to need a run to the—”
The cowboy watched her with unblinking eyes. Aberdeen decided to play it safe. “Johnny, could you pull the truck around? Our guest wants to go for a ride to see our good friend, Dr. Mayberry.”
Johnny glanced at the man on the bench. “Does he now?”
“He does,” Aberdeen said firmly.
Johnny nodded and left to get his truck. Aberdeen looked at the ill man watching her like a hawk. “Cowboy, I’m going to look at your license, and if you grab me again like you did a second ago, you’ll wish you hadn’t. I may be a minister, but when you live above a bar, you learn to take care of yourself. So either you give me your wallet, or I take it. Those are your choices.”
He stared at her, unmoving.
She reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, keeping her gaze on him, trying to ignore the expanse of wide chest above his jeans and other parts of him she definitely shouldn’t notice. Flipping the wallet open, she took out his driver’s license. “Creed Callahan. New Mexico.”
She put the license away, ignoring the fact that he had heaven-only-knew how many hundred dollar bills stuffed into the calfskin wallet, and slid it back into his pocket.
He grabbed her, pulling her to him for a fast kiss. His lips molded to hers, and Aberdeen felt a spark—more than a spark, real heat—and then he released her.
She stared at him. He shrugged. “I figured you’d get around to slapping me eventually. Might as well pay hell is what I always say.”
“Is that what you always say? With every woman you force to kiss you?” Aberdeen asked, rattled, and even more irritated that she hadn’t been kissed like that in years. “You said stealing was bad.”
“It is. I didn’t say I didn’t do it.” He grinned, highly pleased with himself, and if he hadn’t already rung his bell, she would have slapped him into the next county.
Then again, it was hard to stay mad when he was that cheerful about being bad. Aberdeen put her hands on her hips so he couldn’t grab her again. “All right, Mr. Callahan, do you remember why you’re in Wyoming?”
“Rodeo. I just ride rodeo, ma’am.”
Johnny came inside. “Truck’s out front.”
“Johnny,” Aberdeen said, “this is Creed Callahan. Mr. Callahan is very happy you’re going to take him for a ride. Aren’t you, Mr. Callahan?”
“Callahan?” Johnny repeated. “One of the six Callahans from New Mexico?”
“Have you heard of him?”
“Sure.” Johnny shrugged. “All of them ride rodeo, and not too shabbily. The older brother didn’t ride much, but he did a lot of rodeo doctoring after he got out of medical school. Some of them have been highly ranked. You don’t go to watch rodeo without knowing about the Callahans.” He looked at Creed with sympathy. “What are you doing here, friend?”
Creed sighed. “I think I’m getting away from something, but I can’t remember what.”
“A woman?” Johnny asked, and Aberdeen waited to hear the answer with sudden curiosity.
“A woman,” Creed mused. “That sounds very likely. Women are trouble, you know. They want to have—” He lowered his voice conspiratorially in an attempt to keep Aberdeen from hearing. “They want to have b-a-b-i-e-s.”
Aberdeen rolled her eyes. “Definitely out of his mind. Take him away, Johnny.”
Her brother laughed. “He may be right, you know.”
“I don’t care,” Aberdeen said, steeling her self-control. He might have stolen a kiss, but the conceited louse was never getting another one from her. “He’s crazy.”
“That’s what they say,” Creed said, perking up, obviously recognizing something that he’d heard about himself before.
Aberdeen washed her hands of Mr. Loco. “Goodbye, cowboy,” she said, “hope you get yourself together again some day. I’ll be praying for you.”
“And I’ll be praying for you,” Creed said courteously, before rolling off the bench onto the floor.
“That’s it, old man,” Johnny said, lifting Creed up and over his shoulder. “Off we go, then. Aberdeen, I may not make your service today, love.”
“It’s okay, Johnny.” Aberdeen watched Johnny carry Creed to his truck and place him inside as carefully as a baby. He’d said he was running, but no one ran from their family, did they? Not when he had five brothers who’d often traveled together, rodeo’d together, competed against each other? And Johnny said one of the brothers was a doctor.
People needed family when they were hurting. He’d be better off with family around instead of being in Wyoming among strangers.
Aberdeen went to her room to look up Callahans in New Mexico, thinking about her own desire for a family. A real family. Her sister, Diane, had tried to make a family. It hadn’t worked for her. Though she had three small, adorable daughters, Diane wasn’t cut out to be a mother. Aberdeen had tried to make a family by marrying Shawn “Re-ride” Parker out of high school. It hadn’t lasted long, and there had been no children. Only Johnny had so far escaped trying to build a family. He said he had enough on his hands with his two sisters. They had their own definition of family, Aberdeen supposed, which worked for them. If a woman was looking to be have a baby, though, Creed Callahan probably ranked as perfect donor material, if a woman liked crazy, which she’d already had. “I don’t do crazy anymore,” she reminded herself, dialing the listing she got from the operator for Callahan.
The sooner crazy left town, the better for all of them.