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Excerpt: Carry Me Home

Excerpt: Carry Me Home

Book 1: Paradise, Idaho

Bad Guy or Good Guy

“Oh, holy hell.”

Cal turned his head at the exclamation. He’d been leaning backward against the bar beside Deke Hawley, one booted foot on the rail, casting an eye over the dance floor and wishing he’d see somebody new out there, somebody who wasn’t a college girl. Wishing he was attracted to nineteen-year-old girls with fake IDs like any red-blooded thirty-two-year-old man ought to be, and didn’t just want to put his jacket on them and tell them to go on home before they got themselves into trouble.

Another Friday night at the Cowboy Bar, in other words, and he’d been wondering why he’d come.

Because he hadn’t wanted to face another night talking to his dog, that was why. Junior was a great listener, but lately his eyes had been looking much too weary and patient. Same old story, same old song. He was even boring the dog.

The Cowboy Bar wasn’t much better, not until Deke busted out with his exclamation, and Cal was setting his beer down on the bar and straightening up, along with just about every other guy in the place.

“Heard Rochelle Farnsworth was fixin’ to get single,” Deke said. “Looks to me like she’s done it, and like she’s lonely, too. Might have to do something about that. I’ve had a thing for that woman since junior high. Damn, she’s looking good.”

“Rochelle Marks again, now,” Cal said absently. “Not a moment too soon.”

Deke shot a look across at him. “Why? You interested? Man, I can never catch a break. How am I supposed to compete with you?”

“No,” Cal said. “I’ve seen her a few times lately, that’s all.”

“Then I’m going for it. Who’s that with her?” Deke asked idly, still with an eye on Rochelle, who was gliding hip-first over to a table, working that slimmer figure of hers for all it was worth, her mane of blonde hair falling down her back.

And yeah, she looked good. But Cal’s attention was all for the woman with her. He’d always gone for the tall, long-legged ones, back when he’d been going for them at all. Before he’d found the girl he’d thought he’d keep, the one everyone had wanted. The girl he’d won, like he’d won every other prize. Then.

Dr. Zoe wasn’t blonde, and she wasn’t tall. And those legs weren’t long, but they looked better than ever. There was something about a girl in a pretty dress and cowboy boots that did something to his . . . heart.

She was walking like she meant business herself, pulling out a chair and shoving that mess of dark hair back from her face with the other hand, laughing at something Rochelle was saying, and despite the way their last meeting had ended, Cal’s own boots were carrying him right on over there. He was headed right smack-dab over to their table, beating out every other guy in the place, and throwing out a look along the way that told them to back off. He let Deke come along, though. Deke wasn’t after his girl.

“Well, ladies,” he said, dropping into a chair and setting down his beer, “what a pleasant surprise. Here I was thinking this night was looking pretty boring. How you doin’, Rochelle?”

“Oh, not too bad. Hey, Deke. This is Zoe, guys. Cal Jackson, Deke Hawley,” she said, nodding around the table. “I’m just showing her the local sights. She’s from California. Gotta keep her from getting into too much trouble, you know. Let her know that not every man wearing a hat is actually a real live cowboy.”

“Yeah,” Cal said, sliding his eyes on over to Zoe. She was sitting up straighter now, forgetting to look sexy and just looking prim and proper instead, and damn if that wasn’t even sexier. “I’ve met Dr. Zoe. And you’re right, she’s not too . . . well acquainted with Idaho, I’d say. Here’s a little tip to help you out tonight,” he told her. “Don’t believe him when he tells you he’s a cowboy. Not until you see him ride.”

Deke snorted, but he ignored that.

“Oh. Wow. Is that innuendo?” She opened those big brown eyes wide at him. She was made up tonight, and he liked it. “Nobody told me there would be innuendo.”

He laughed. Damn.

“So I shouldn’t believe you’re a cowboy, that what you’re saying?” she went on, those round eyes nothing but innocent. “Even though you’ve got the boots and the pickup truck and everything? Because I haven’t seen you . . .”

“Oh, I can ride,” he assured her. “I can ride real good. But I’m not a cowboy. I’m a farmer.”

Rochelle snorted. “You could say that.”

He kicked her under the table, and she jumped.

“You owe me a beer for that, bud,” she told him.

“For what?” Zoe asked.

“Never mind,” Cal said. “Rochelle’s just reminding Deke and me of our manners, that’s all. Here you two ladies are, looking just that fine, and nobody’s bought you a drink yet. What can I get you?” he asked Rochelle, finishing off his own beer with one final swallow.

“Oh, the good stuff,” she said. “Corona with a lime.”

“Want a glass?”

“Nah, haven’t got that fancy yet,” she said. “Bottle’s good.”

“How about you, princess?” Cal asked Zoe. “Let me guess. White wine. No. White wine spritzer.”

There were some sparks flying in those dark eyes now, and he had to smile a little, even as he wondered why he was taking chances with the only woman to capture his fancy for months. Because it was so much fun to tease her, that was why.

Sure enough, she rose right up to it like a trout rising to a fly. “You think I’m too good for beer? I’m a geologist.”

“Um . . .” He put a hand to the back of his head, gave it a scratch. “Is that like star signs or something? Astrology?”

She sighed. “I know you know. It’s rocks. I study rocks. Actually, I study water in rocks. I’m a hydrogeologist.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Professor. So . . . wine? Beer? Let me guess. Tequila straight up, bring the bottle, leave the worm.” He gave her a wink, and she laughed.

Oh, yeah. He’d made her laugh.

“Beer,” she said. “But I’ll buy it. First one’s on me,” she told Rochelle. “Do you want another?” she asked Deke.

“Well, sure,” he said. “And next round’s on me.”

“It’s not actually a crime to let the guy buy,” Cal told her. “Just like you can let him give you a tow. At least, I’d think so.”

He saw the light dawning in Rochelle’s eyes. “Ah,” she said. “Hot mystery man to the rescue.”

This time, he was pretty sure it was Zoe giving her the kick, because Rochelle was jumping again, and he was smiling again.

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Zoe said, all business now, standing up and grabbing her little purse from the table. “Because I did appreciate my tow. And actually, that’s why I’m buying my own beer,” she said with what was clearly a flash of inspiration. “All right, you wouldn’t let me pay you for your trouble. But surely I could buy you a beer. What do you want?”

“You’re going to buy Cal a drink,” Rochelle said slowly. “This happen to you a lot, Cal? You like a take-charge lady? That where I’ve gone wrong all these years? Here I thought men liked to do the chasing.”

“Nope,” Cal said, standing up himself. “She’s not.” He decided not to answer the rest of it. No way to come out ahead on that one. “I’m buying my own beer. And I’m going to keep her company, too. My mama always told me, you never let the lady walk up to the bar alone.”

Zoe just looked at him, those dimples trying their best to come out, then turned on her cute little boot heel and sashayed off, and he followed right after her.

“Your mother told you that?” she said when she was leaning against the bar, worn dark and smooth by generations of elbows, waiting for Conrad, the overworked bartender, to make his way down to them. “She gave you etiquette advice for drinking in bars with women?”

“Nah,” he said, the slow grin spreading, because damn, but she made him smile. “I made it up.”

“Hmm. Well, that’s reassuring.”

He laughed. “Hey. We work with what we’ve got.”

Conrad made it over to them at last. “Hey, Cal,” he said. “Another cold one?”

“Yeah,” he said. “And the lady’ll have . . .” He raised an eyebrow at Zoe.

“Three Coronas with lime,” she said. “Please.”

“Glasses?” Conrad cast an experienced eye over the pretty yellow lace, the silver-studded jacket.

“Bottles,” Zoe said firmly, and Cal smiled again.

Conrad brought them over, threaded between the fingers of one beefy hand, set them on the bar, and started popping tops and shoving in the lime wedges. Cal had pulled his wallet from his jeans, but he was too late. She was holding her credit card out, and she hadn’t been kidding, because she was buying his beer.

“Please,” she told Cal. “It makes me feel better about the tow.”

“Lady’s paying,” Cal said in resignation at Conrad’s raised eyebrow.

The bartender turned to the register, was back in a moment, his heavy face apologetic. “Sorry,” he said. “Not taking the card. Got another one you’d like to try?”

Cal shot a look at her, saw the dusky red creeping up her throat, into her cheeks. Before she could answer, he had the wallet out again, was pulling out a twenty and a five, dropping them on the bar.

“Keep the change,” he told Conrad.

“Thanks,” Zoe said after a minute. “It was . . . the repair bill, I guess. I thought there was still enough on it. And we only get paid once a month.” Her mouth snapped shut. “But thanks.”

“No problem. And see, here I am again, getting my way. Kinda makes you think it was meant to be, doesn’t it?”

She laughed at that, and that was better, and they headed back to the table, where Deke had his elbows on the varnished wood, smiling into Rochelle’s animated face and looking like he was set to stay awhile.

“Honest,” Cal said, sitting down with her again. “I’m an all-right guy, even though I stop to help women on lonely highways and buy them drinks and all.”

She looked a little startled at that. So she had been worried about him. Another reason he didn’t live in California anymore. He’d hate to be that suspicious. “Ask Rochelle,” he said, “if you’re worried about it.”

“Ask Rochelle what?” Rochelle asked, because if you said a woman’s name, no matter how loud the music was or what else she was doing, she’d hear it.

“Am I a bad guy?” Cal demanded. “A deviant?”

“Not that I know of,” Rochelle said cordially.

He groaned, laid his head against the table and banged it a couple of times, sat up again, and told Rochelle, “You have known me since the seventh grade.”

“The sixth,” she corrected him. “He doesn’t remember,” she told Deke tragically. “I’m doomed to go to my grave hopelessly devoted to Cal Jackson, with my love unreturned.”

“Never mind,” Deke said. “Give it to me. I’ll return it.”

“And?” Cal demanded, ignoring Deke.

“And what?” Rochelle asked.

He sighed. “Tell Zoe. Bad guy? Or good guy?”

“All right.” She set down her beer. “Other than a lack of taste, as witnessed by his never once asking me out, yes. Good guy. Told the guys to knock it off when they snapped my bra strap. That was their big game. God, that was obnoxious.”

“Did you?” Zoe asked. “That’s good.”

“He said,” Rochelle pronounced, “‘You guys are assholes. Leave her alone.’ And they did, of course.”

“You have such power over all you survey?” Zoe asked.

“Oh, honey, he was king of the school,” Rochelle said.

“Aw, I’m blushing and everything,” Cal said. “So we sitting around here drinking? Or is anybody planning on dancing tonight? Deke and I hustled on over here to claim the two prettiest girls in the bar. Going to put us out of our misery, take us for a spin?”

“Well, I am,” Rochelle said. “If somebody asks me.”

Deke got right up, put a hand out. “I’m asking.”

She smiled. “See ya, guys.”

“What do you say?” Cal asked Zoe, watching Rochelle sway out there, put her hand in Deke’s, and start right in enjoying herself. “Seeing as I’ve got my Good Guy badge and all, think you could risk dancing with me?”

“I don’t know how,” she admitted. “Whatever it is they’re doing.”

“Ah,” he said with satisfaction. “Nobody’s ever taught a pretty thing like you how to dance country? This is your lucky night, then.” Teach her? Hell, yeah, he’d teach her. “Because here we are. We’ve got the band, and you’ve got the man.”

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