Brothers could be a royal pain in the ass. No one knew that better than Aubrey Rogers. She had thought that of hers numerous times and that was just this week. But as she stood at the town’s old wishing well, the rough, native limestone under her palms, she knew she owed Ty more than she could repay. He deserved so much, starting with being happy, but something told her marrying Lauren in two days wouldn’t accomplish that.
Wishing, Texas wasn’t known for much. Cattle and horse ranching, a factory that manufactured components for medical devices, a lake that fishermen thought was the closest to heaven a man could get on earth, and a small park with a wishing well that more than a few people swore granted wishes.
Common sense told Aubrey making a wish couldn’t change the future, but she’d been dreaming about Grandma Mabel. Then yesterday, she’d been digging in her closet for an errant running shoe and came across the book she’d made after her grandmother told her the wishing well’s legend.
Aubrey closed her eyes and felt Grandma Mabel’s arms around her as they sat on the porch swing gliding back and forth. Her smooth Texas drawl echoed in her ears.
Long ago there were two sisters Anne and Alice, who grew up as close as sisters could be. People used to joke that they were attached at the hip. Then one day Sam Watson started courting Anne. The more time the couple spent together, the less people saw Alice. She was always a shy, quiet thing and without her outgoing sister, she stayed home. Eventually, Anne and Sam married, moved here to Texas and built a fine life for themselves.
Anne considered her life in Texas with her husband and three children perfect except for one thing. She missed Alice, who lived back east with their parents. Anne kept asking her sister to move to Texas or visit, but Alice refused. Unlike Anne, Alice wasn’t an adventurer. Plus her aging parents counted on her to care for them.
Then the Civil War broke out, changing everyone’s life. Anne’s husband Sam enlisted, leaving her to run the farm and care for their children. Overwhelmed, Anne begged Alice to come to Texas to help. This time Alice agreed.
Together the sisters managed to feed the children and hold onto the land through that terrible war. When it ended and the men that survived started coming home, Sam wasn’t among them. As more time passed without word about Sam, Anne became despondent and eventually took to her bed.
Alice wanted to help her sister, but didn’t know what to do. Finally, one day she stood by the family well, her heart breaking for her sister. As she leaned over the well, her tears fell into the water as she tossed in a coin and wished for Sam’s safe return to the family who loved and needed him. A few days later, Anne’s husband returned with a stranger. On his way home, Sam had fallen ill. When Jasper Higgins found him half dead by the side of the road, he carried Sam to the nearest town and cared for him until he recovered. But Anne wasn’t the only one to receive a blessing because eventually Alice and Jasper married.
Over the years people have made wishes for themselves. Not a one of those have come true. Only those wishes made for someone else, with the purest of heart, out of the deep and abiding love like Anne and Alice shared have come true.
Aubrey tossed the coin into the well and heard it ping off the stone walls on its decent, finally landing with a plop in the water. “I wish for Ty to have the kind of marriage he deserves. One that will truly make him happy.”
“To Jack. A damn good man gone way too soon.” Losing a friend was never easy, and Ty Barnett had lost enough people in his life to know, but this one? Tragic didn’t come close, Ty thought as he raised his beer.
His three college buddies, in town for their annual retreat, seated at a table at The Horseshoe Grill followed suit. How many hours had they and Jack spent in this small east Texas watering hole watching sports, playing pool, and tossing back beers?
“That man was good enough to be an Aggie,” AJ Quinn, Ty’s best friend said. “Damn, I’ll miss him.”
While Jack Mitchell hadn’t gone to Texas A&M as the rest of them had, they’d accepted him into their fold. Ty smiled, remembering when Jack showed up at The Bar 7 to borrow a wheelbarrow after buying the Jacobson place across Hope Lake. When Jack discovered Ty and his buddies, lounging in foldable camping chairs, on the dock fishing, a cooler of Shiner beside them, he pulled his gear from his Chevy truck bed, joined them and had every year since. Until this one.
“Fishing won’t be the same without him,” Cooper added.
“It’s hard to believe he and Chloe are gone, but in a plane crash?” Zane shook his head.
Ty nodded and took a long drink of beer. The cool liquid hit his stomach hard and the cold spread outward. A simple spring break vacation with his family, and now a sweet, six-year-old was an orphan.
“Is there anything else you need, Ty?” The Horseshoe Grill’s waitress Tiffani, a woman he’d known since middle school, asked as she leaned forward showing off her recently enhanced cleavage.
“We’re good,” he said, staring at the pool table as he sorted out his shot.
“Let me know if you change your mind about anything,” Tiffani said before she sashayed away.
Cooper, Ty’s eight ball partner, elbowed him in the ribs and nodded toward the departing waitress. “Are you going to take her up on the invitation?”
While easy on the eyes, with long, blonde hair a man would love to run his hands through, tall, curvy in all the right places, and good-natured enough, with her marital track record—oh for three—Ty doubted the good sense of any man who took Tiffani up on her offer.
“Anyone else notice she didn’t care if the rest of us needed anything?” AJ asked.
“Mind if I throw my hook into the water?” Zane asked his gaze locked on the waitress as she flitted around the restaurant. “She looks like she knows how to have a good time.”
“Come on. Give someone else a chance. Like maybe me.” Of all of them, AJ craved the connection and belonging that came with a serious relationship. After a six year stint in the military and traveling around the world, he was more than ready to put down roots, but most of the women he met were leery of getting involved with an FBI agent. Poor schmuck.
“You’ve got more women on the line that you know what to do with.”
After sending the three ball into the side pocket, Zane turned to AJ. “Weren’t you thinking about going exclusive with Megan? Though why any sane man would do that is beyond me.”
Ty shook his head and smiled, feeling like the ring master of a three ring circus. Despite that, he wouldn’t trade one of his friends for fifty yard line tickets to an A&M /Alabama game in Kyle Field. Good friends like these could get a man through just about any rough patch.
“We broke up,” AJ said referring to Megan.
Before anyone could comment, “Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown band rang out.
“Next round’s on you, Zane,” Ty said even before his cousin reached for his phone.
They’d instituted the cell phones on vibrate rule and the violations penalty two years ago when Zane’s girlfriend of the month drove them nuts with constant calls and texts. The man always had a woman desperate to claim, keep, or regain his attention. Hell, usually more than one. Zane was a master juggler, but that didn’t mean the rest of them wanted to be part of the act.
“Damn. I always forget to put it on vibrate.”
“You’d think with the money you’ve spent buying rounds you’d learn,” Coop said, shaking his head.
“He’s always been a little slow on the uptake. He’s not as smart as the rest of the family.”
“Very funny, Ty.” Zane pulled out his phone and glanced at the screen before turning off the ringer. “Why don’t some women take the hint?”
“What’s this one done?” Ty asked more out of habit than out of real curiosity.
“I bet she asked to leave stuff at his place,” AJ said.
“Five bucks says she wanted him to meet her friends.” Cooper reached into his pocket, dug out a bill and tossed the money onto the pool table. “What’s your guess Ty?”
“Ya’ll would wager on what day of the week it was.” But even as Ty said that, he dug out his wallet, located a five and added it to the pot. “I say she hinted at being exclusive.”
“Cooper wins, though he wasn’t exactly right.” Zane picked up the cash and handed it to the victor. “She wanted me to go to her parents’ anniversary party.”
“Didn’t she know asking to introduce you to friends or family was the kiss of death?”
“Obviously not,” Cooper responded in his droll that-was-a-ridiculous-question tone.
“I don’t get it. When I start dating a woman I tell her all I’m looking for is a good time. I don’t want anything serious.” Zane called out his shot, but instead of sinking the seven ball in the corner pocket it bounced off the cushion. “Every one of them says she’s okay with keeping things casual, but the next thing I know she’s fitting me with a GPS collar while I’m asleep.”
“That’s better than the friendship speeches I keep getting,” AJ said. “That’s what I got from Megan when I brought up us going exclusive.”
“The dreaded friend zone. That’s brutal.” Cooper sank the two ball in the side pocket.
“Tell me about it. I’m starting to get a complex.” AJ leaned on his pool cue. “There’s nothing worse than the friend speech.”
“Yes, there is.” Getting dumped after the wedding rehearsal for one. The minute the words left his mouth, Ty wished he could snatch them back.
“Sorry, man, I didn’t mean to open that wound.” AJ turned to him, wearing the same pitiful look he had when Ty announced his wedding was off.
“If you ask me, you dodged a bullet with Lauren,” Zane said. “You’re better off without her. I never liked her.”
The rest of his friends nodded like damn bobble heads and Ty stared at them, dumbfounded. Since meeting as freshman in Squadron Twenty-One in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M none of them had kept their opinions to themselves on anything. He’d always appreciated that about them. They called a spade a spade. So why hadn’t they said anything about Lauren?
“She’s got pretty girl syndrome. She thinks the world owes her, and people will forgive anything if she flashes an aren’t-I-pretty smile.”
AJ was right about the entitlement, but wrong about the reason. That attitude came from Lauren’s father who indulged her every whim. At least up to a point.
“But the worst thing was she got pissed when you spent time with us. She thought we were a bad influence.”
“She might’ve had a point there,” Ty said, seizing the opportunity to change the subject. “Remember when your truck got stuck four-wheeling and I came to help? I got in trouble with the police because you were trespassing.”
“That wasn’t my fault. I thought we were still Angela’s property.” Zane shoved his hands in his pockets. “How long are you going to hold that over my head?”
“I don’t think there’s an expiration date on that kind of stupidity,” Coop said, a big grin on his face.
“We thought about saying something.”
“Why the hell didn’t you, AJ? I count on you—” Ty stopped. To keep me from making stupid ass mistakes such as marrying the wrong woman.
It could’ve saved a hunk of his pride. One of them not liking his fiancé? No big deal. All three? Major red flag.
“We figured the fringe benefits made putting up with her worth it,” Zane said.
In another attempt to steer the attention away from his disastrous engagement, Ty turned to Cooper. “Zane can’t get rid of his latest fling. Megan broke up with AJ.” And they all knew his situation. “What’s up with your love life, Coop?”
“Are the fish biting?” his friend asked.
Ty laughed at Coop’s lame change of subject. “Your love life’s that bad, huh?”
“I haven’t had enough to drink to touch that question,” Cooper said before he finished off his beer.
What had happened to the four of them lately?
Ty spotted Tiffani near the bar. What was wrong with having a little fun with her? Going out didn’t mean he intended to walk the aisle with her. Maybe Zane had the right idea. Love ‘em and leave ‘em and Tiffani was as good a place to start. “I’ll be back. I want to see when Tiffani gets off.”
“About time you tested the waters again,” Zane said, a stupid grin on his face, and the rest of his buddies did the bobble head routine again.
“You need a wing man?” AJ asked.
“No thanks.” Zane would waltz off with her and any other available woman within ten feet. AJ would end up making her his new BFF and offering to help her out of whatever crisis she was in the middle of, and Coop, well, who knew what the hell he’d do.
Ty headed for Tiffani, but had only gone a few feet when a pink blur charged toward him, her lopsided golden ponytails bobbing up and down. Ella, Jack and Chloe’s daughter and his goddaughter.
He remembered almost word for word what Jack said when he’d asked Ty to be Ella’s financial guardian should anything happen to him and Chloe. Sure, Cassie loves Ella, and it’s not like we have other options for a guardian since mom has all she can handle with dad. The thing is, we need someone to keep Cassie grounded. She’s a creative type who makes decisions based on emotions and she handles money about as well as teenager. You’re a great guy with his head on straight, and you’ve got your priorities right. I need you to make sure Ella’s provided for. That she has a roof over her head and enough money for college. Promise me, if anything happens to me and Chloe, you’ll make sure Cassie does right by her.
How could Ty say no after that? Of course he never thought anything would happen to both Jack and Chloe.
Guilt came on the heels of the memory. While he’d met with Cassie a few times since the funeral and kept a close eye on finances, he hadn’t spent time with Ella. That needed to change.
As he scooped up the little girl, he forced himself to smile. His heart tightened at the thought of how alone she was. He’d lost his father, but unlike Ella, he’d had his mom to count on. Ella had one grandmother overwhelmed with a husband in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and a world traveler artist-type aunt.
“Where’s your aunt?”
His gaze followed where Ella pointed toward the cash register at the end of the bar.
If someone asked him to describe his ideal woman he’d say one with long flowing hair he could run his hands through. She’d be tall enough he wouldn’t get a crook in his neck from bending down to hear her, yet not so tall she looked him straight in the eye. She’d have some meat on her bones so he wouldn’t worry a stiff Texas breeze would carry her off.
Basically he’d describe a woman nothing like Cassandra Reynolds, and yet there was something about her. Her short blonde hair—dang near as short as his—lessened the sharp angles in her features and accentuated her large, expressive green eyes. Despite the fact she looked as if she’d gotten dressed in the dark with the odd color combinations, layers and large flowing skirts, the style had an appeal and fit her personality. The woman was a bundle of energy and femininity that would drive a man to distraction if she didn’t drive him crazy first.
“Does your Aunt Cassie know you left to come see me?” When he glanced into Ella’s clear eyes, she shook her head, her ponytails swinging from side to side, nearly slapping him in the face. He had the feeling something was wrong. More than just sadness over losing her parents. Usually the munchkin talked a mile a minute.
“Crunchie misses you,” he said. Crunchie, short for Captain Crunch, his paint pony and Ella were fast friends from when her father brought her to The Bar 7 to go horseback riding. His gut tightened as the child’s eyes widened, but she remained silent.
No doubt about it. Something wasn’t right. Usually if he mentioned Crunchie, Ella started pestering him about coming over to ride. His guilt kicked up a notch. He should’ve been asking how she was doing. Spending time with her instead of assuming Cassie would let him know if there were problems. Especially since he knew firsthand what trauma could do to a child.
“I’m glad to see you, but you can’t go anywhere without telling your aunt. Now let’s join her before she starts to worry.”
As Cassie stood at the bar waiting to pick up dinner, the sounds of families sharing a meal and friends enjoying each other’s company mixed with country music from the ceiling speakers attacked her frayed nerves. The Horseshoe Grill was a down home family place, but then most establishments in Wishing were. Simple, worn wooden tables and serviceable chairs. Saddles, rope, and neon beer signs for décor. A far cry from the delis and restaurants she’d frequented in New York where people rushed in, grabbed a quick bite and blew out. Here dinner was a social event, a chance to catch up with practically everyone in town.
Normal every day life in small town Texas. Cassie squeezed her eyes shut as loneliness pinched her heart. At times, she could pretend Chloe and Jack were gone for a romantic weekend and she was staying with Ella until they returned.
Then there were nights like tonight when memories bombarded her, sending her into a tailspin. The last time she’d been here Chloe had been excited about her business venture with Ty offering packages including a stay at the bed and breakfast along with the “cowboy experience” at his ranch. Cassie had shared how thrilled she was that her urban architecture series was selling. While they talked, Jack and Ella, a true blue daddy’s girl, played pool.
The bartender arrived with her food, pulling Cassie away from her memories. She smiled as she handed him the signed credit card receipt, picked up her order and turned to tell Ella they were ready to go. Only her niece wasn’t there. Razor sharp fear raced through her.
Oh, Lord. I’ve only been responsible for her for a month, and now I’ve lost her.
Don’t panic. That never helps.
Since she’d picked Ella up in Orlando after the crash, except for school, the child hadn’t strayed farther than two feet from her side. She had to be here. Cassie’s heart beating the way it did after a good Pilates class, she scanned the crowded restaurant. Then she spotted Ella near the pool tables in Ty’s arms.
After her relief subsided and she started breathing again, her heart did that little flutter thing again as she stared at the cowboy dressed in a blue plaid shirt, Wranglers, and boots. What was up with that? Maybe she’d developed some kind of heart condition. One triggered by a certain good-looking cowboy?
Right. People came down with those heart problems every day.
Of course she appreciated a good-looking man. With dark hair and eyes, Ty possessed a rugged, chiseled face and a tall, muscular body without being the fake I-work-out-every-chance-I-get type, and the artist in her dreamed of painting him. The cowboy definitely qualified as first-rate eye candy. Too bad the handsome face and great body came with an all work and no play, stubborn, know-it-all personality.
When she reached the pair, Cassie said, “Ella, sweetie, I was worried when I turned around and you were gone.”
“I told her while I was glad to see her she can’t go anywhere without letting you know.”
“Ty’s right. I need to know where you are at all times.” Because that was her primary job now. To make sure nothing happened to Ella. To see she reached adulthood. No pressure there for someone who’d been too scared to get a goldfish.
“I also said Crunchie misses her.”
“I know all about Captain Crunch. I hear he likes hugs and is one of the smartest horses on your ranch. Isn’t that right, Ella?”
She smiled at her niece and resisted the urge to beg Ella to say something. Anything. Even the simple word yes, but instead her niece nodded, her gaze almost vacant. Gone was the sparkle, the innocence that once shone there. Then Ella shoved her thumb in her mouth, and Cassie bit her lip to quell her disappointment.
Her gaze locked with Ty’s, concern evident in his warm, brown eyes. And something else. Understanding.
“How about you bring Ella over tomorrow afternoon to visit Crunchie?”
Cassie pulled her gaze away from Ty’s and turned to her niece. Eyes so similar to Chloe’s her heart ached, but now Ella’s eyes flickered with excitement and interest. Something Cassie hadn’t seen much of the last month.
Ella loved horseback riding. Maybe it would be a way to reach her niece. Something to build on. If nothing else, the outing might help them forget for a while and let them have fun. Something else that used to be easier to do. Right now she’d take that and call it a win. “Would you like to see Crunchie?”
“Good. How about you and Aubrey go riding while your aunt and I talk?”
Cassie stiffened. Hold the horses, cowboy. That wasn’t what she had in mind. “I don’t know. Ella hasn’t been comfortable with many people lately.”
“She and Aubrey have known each other for years. She’s babysat for Ella, but it’s up to her. What do you say Ella? Do you mind going riding with Aubrey? If it’s not, that’s fine, too.” Ty glanced down at the child and received another small nod. He turned to Cassie. “We need to hammer out your responsibilities with the business and decide when to start booking guests.”
Their budget discussion had left her dazed, confused, and discouraged. She wasn’t sure she was strong enough for round talking about her duties with the inn and having guests. The walls closed in on Cassie, squeezing out her ability to breathe, making her head ache from lack of oxygen. She knew she should tell him the truth, but now wasn’t the right time. Like there would be a good time?
“I know we need to talk about that, but what’s important now is Ella. She and I always talked about going horseback riding, but we haven’t gotten around to it. We could both use some fun, and horseback riding—”
“It’s not going to work this time, Cassie,” Ty said, cutting off her. “I’ve let you put this off too long as it is. You need to reopen the inn. You need the money.