Rocking in her chair on the front porch, Virginia Connagher watched the sun set as she’d done every night for nearly forty years, ever since she and Tyrell had first bought this ranch. It’d been a rough mess of two hundred acres and a tiny, barely livable shack, with falling down fences and more weeds and cactus than pasture. A lifetime of sweat, tears and blood had turned this land into her dream—one of the finest stables in all of Texas. Her show horses were well sought after and one had won a gold in the Olympics just last year. And it didn’t mean a damned thing.
Not without him.
Pink darkened to violet and stars dotted the velvet canvas. A whippoorwill called from one of the black gum trees he’d planted alongside the driveway when they’d first moved out here. She loved the birds’ calls…and yet hated them too. He’d always loved those damned noisy birds.
“This always was your favorite time of day.”
She turned her head, shocked to see him sitting beside her in the matched mate to her chair. Dusty, stained cowboy hat tipped back on his head, sun-lined face, eyes so blue and brilliant it hurt to look into them, and big Texas mustache. He wore faded denim from head to toe and worn boots that had seen better days, the same thing he’d worn just about every single day of his life. She could even smell his Stetson cologne, the only thing he’d ever worn, along with the ever-present scent of leather that hung about him. “What are you doing here?”
“Just visiting.” His slow, easy drawl made her throat tighten, her eyes filling up with tears. “Thought it was past time.”
“You died twelve years ago.”
He tipped his hat back farther and gave her a solemn nod. “I sure did, Princess.”
He hadn’t called her that in…she couldn’t even remember how long. Early in their courtship he’d called her a snooty princess and the name had stuck. She’d called him a rodeo bum. Then they’d married and had a wonderful life together. Until it all ended. “You never came to see me before.”
“You wouldn’t let me. You’re a hard woman, Virginia. Besides, you didn’t need me then.”
She stared at him, gripping the arms of her chair so hard her fingers ached. He’d always done this. Infuriated her to the point she wanted to lay into him with her fists, her hairbrush, a crop, anything she had at hand. “I didn’t need you,” she repeated slowly, carefully enunciating each word. “When you left me alone to raise our children. When I had to organize your funeral. When I’ve been alone all these years. Yet now you decide to mosey back into my life? What on earth for?”
He reached up and pulled a hand-rolled cigarette out of his hatband. He didn’t light it, only held it in his mouth. Somehow over the years, she’d learned to understand him just as clearly even though he was talking around the cigarette butt in his mouth. He’d never smoked inside the house. Only here, on the porch, or out on the range once or twice a day. Yet lung cancer had still mowed him down in his prime. “You’ve been alone too long.”
She let out a harsh laugh that jarred her ears. “Don’t tell me you’ve come back from the grave to tell me I need to move on and find a new man.”
“You’re too much woman to be alone. It ain’t right.”
“No, I’ll tell you what ain’t right. You leaving us. Me having to bury you in your wedding suit.” The memory of how fake and stiff he’d looked in his coffin made her bury her face in her hands. “It wasn’t right, Ty. I should have buried you in jeans like the boys wanted. But I just wasn’t myself and Miss Belle said you didn’t care one way or the other. I hated seeing you in that suit. It should have had only good memories.”
He gently pried her fingers away from her face and lifted her right hand to his mouth. The cigarette was gone, probably tucked back in his hat for safekeeping. Funny, she’d forgotten how much his mustache tickled. She’d cursed that thing, complained how the whiskers had poked her nose when he kissed her, but now… I’d give anything to feel those damned whiskers against my cheek again.
“Miss Belle’s always right, don’t you know that yet? I didn’t care one way or the other. All I want you to remember about me is this.”
His palm on hers, big and strong and rough. He’d worked as a ranch hand all his life, when he wasn’t rodeoing. He’d busted just about every bone in his body, including his skull, and tore up his hands doing hard work under the unforgiving Texan sun. She gripped his calloused hand tighter, desperate to keep him with her. “How could I ever find another man who moved me like you still do?”
“He’s there. You just have to open your eyes.”
“I don’t want no one else.”
He brushed his mouth against her knuckles again, deliberately tickling her skin with a wicked, knowing glint in his eyes. “You will, if you let yourself think about it. I know you too well, Virginia Connagher. If you set your mind against a thing, you’ll never surrender the fight, come hell or high water. I hate seeing my woman so down on love when I know exactly how warm and loving you can be. How passionate.”
“You said I’m a hard woman, and you’re right. I don’t think I could ever let anyone in again. I never wanted anyone like I wanted you.”
He nodded solemnly. “That’s why I’ve come to help you see the way. I love you too much to watch you hurt alone any longer.”
Hurt alone. Those words stung, sinking deep beneath her skin to pierce her heart. She wanted to avert her face and keep the desperation and hunger hidden away, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He might fade away and she’d never see him again, not until she met St. Peter at the pearly gates. “There’s no other way, Ty, and you know—”
“I know,” he broke in, his deep voice rumbling like distant thunder. “You’ve been hurting alone. I don’t like it. Not at all. Virginia Connagher shouldn’t ever hurt alone.” He squeezed her hand hard enough that the fine bones began to grind together. It made her blood thicken with the sweet memory of their shared secrets. How he’d been able to feed that hungry side of her that feasted on pain. “Not my Princess.”
“I don’t want to forget you.” It came out plaintive, making her wince, because she hated nothing more than being weak.
He laughed, a dark chuckle, his breath hot and moist in her ear. “You’ll never forget me, Princess. But that don’t mean you can’t take another man in my absence.”
Something shook her whole body. Lightning arced through her mind, making her twitch uncontrollably.
Darkness swallowed her. She lost the sensation of his hand on hers. She couldn’t see him any longer, though the scent of leather was so strong she could almost swear she’d buried her face against his chest. “I won’t let you down, darlin’, even in this. I’ll always love you. Now it’s time to give another man the chance to love you too.”
Voices crashed and rattled inside her. Lights streamed by, like she was flying. So fast.
“Female, fifty-six years old, broken arm, severe concussion.” Hands probed her stomach, sending her gasping up in an arching cry. “Probable internal injuries.”
She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, but her brain didn’t want to work. Nothing hurt, not really. That was probably a very bad sign. The scent of leather still lingered. She closed her eyes, trying to hold on to him, but already his image had faded in her mind. The brightness of his eyes had dimmed, the edges fuzzed and softened by time. She started crying and she didn’t care who saw. “Ty.”
“Mama!” Her daughter, Vicki, suddenly appeared, her face white, her eyes huge and dark with fear. “What happened?”
“We lost her pulse for a minute or so, but she’s back with us now.” One of the nurses grabbed Vicki’s arm, holding her back from following into the next room. Lights blazed everywhere, too bright, too painful.
“Mama!” Vicki cried out. “Victor’s on his way! I’ll call Conn too. Don’t worry about a thing!”
Virginia tried to turn and see her daughter, to find out what had happened, but someone put something over her mouth and she slid into nothingness where not even a sweet dream of Ty could find her.
One week later
Virginia paused at the bottom of the porch steps and looked up at the front door. It might as well be ten miles away. “Whose idiotic idea was it to put in so many steps?”
“That would be yours,” her oldest son, Victor, said with a smile. “You wanted to have a good view. Remember?”
“Of course I remember,” she snapped. “I’ve got a busted-up arm and some stitches, but I didn’t lose my ever-loving mind. Just my spleen.”
“Well you did have a concussion.” He wasn’t intimidated by her temper, because he had the same biting disposition. “I’m just checking to make sure.”
She sighed and leaned on him harder. “I’m sorry, son. I don’t mean to bark at you like a mean old junkyard dog.”
He wrapped his arm gingerly around her waist, mindful of her stitches. “I know, Mama. If you’d take the pain medication…”
“I hate feeling like my head’s stuffed with cotton.” She managed the first two steps and then had to pause a minute. Her head swam and her knees trembled. “Damn my fool pride. All right, son…”
She didn’t have to finish the sentence because he was already sweeping her up against his chest. Luckily he didn’t say I told you so.
Vicki rushed ahead, shifting an armload of flowers around so she could open the door. “Mama, how many times do we have to tell you to lock the door? It isn’t safe way out here in the country.”
“If she’d locked the door, then I would have had to break it down.”
At that voice, Virginia groaned and pressed her face against her son’s shoulder. “Who called Miss Belle?”
“Nobody had to call me, silly girl. Bring her into her bedroom. We’ve gotten everything ready.”
Virginia might have been matriarch of the Texas Connaghers, but Miss Belle ruled them all even from six hundred miles north. Trying not to grumble at people who obviously loved her, Virginia let them tuck her into bed instead of the couch. At least they propped her up with pillows so she could visit a while. Vicki hovered, Victor and Conn hugged and pounded each other on the back like they were trying to kill each other, while Miss Belle sat at Virginia’s dressing table like a queen. Or at least a movie star from the fifties, which she was. But Miss Belle was also her mother, which she usually seemed to deliberately forget.
She’d never liked to be called anything but Miss Belle.
She wore a gorgeous cream-colored dress covered with delicate pink roses, either a retro hourglass style or, more likely, something she really had worn forty or fifty years ago. When Virginia had been a child, Miss Belle’s hair had been a vibrant red, but it’d softened over the years to pinkish peaches and cream. Of course Miss Belle wore a wide-brimmed straw hat dotted with pink and cream roses to match her dress.
A proper lady would sooner go without underwear, which is probably why Miss Belle had despaired of ever turning her daughter into a proper lady.
Conn finally quit hugging on his brother long enough to give his mama a proper kiss. She didn’t see him nearly as often as she wanted now that he was a professor in Missouri, but at least he was close enough to keep an eye on Miss Belle, who was nearly eighty. “We would have been down sooner but Vicki assured us you were out of danger and that you’d rather see us at home instead of the hospital.”
“Definitely.” She patted his cheek, pleased at the soft light in his eyes. Conn had always been her poet son, and emotion and angst sometimes hit him hard. Finding the love of his life had taken the hard edges out of his eyes. He can be hard when he needs to be, but he’ll never be mean like Victor. Or me. “By us do you mean you brought Rae too?”
“I sure did, even though I had to threaten to tie her up so she didn’t try to jump out of the car as we got close to the Texas line.” Conn laughed and from the glint in his eye, she thought he might very well mean it. “She’s in the kitchen with Shiloh.”
“Thank God,” Virginia muttered. “I’d rather go back to the hospital than eat Miss Belle’s cooking.”
“Miss Belle’s cooking would put us all in the hospital,” Conn joked.
“I’ve taught Rae Lynn everything she knows about cooking.” Miss Belle sniffed and removed her hat, then her pretty lace gloves. “She just happens to execute better than I.”
Conn snickered and ran his finger across his neck in the universal death gesture. Victor laughed and even Miss Belle had to smile at their antics. It was hard to believe her sons were both well into their thirties. Seeing them laughing and so happy made tears pool in Virginia’s eyes.
Good God, I’m turning into a weepy sap. She busied herself adjusting the sling supporting her left arm, propping up the heavy cast with a pillow. She still didn’t remember much about the accident, but they’d told her a drunk driver had T-boned her car on the way to the grocery store. At least when she drank too much she had the common sense to stay the hell home. She’d been real lucky. Her arm had been pinned in the wreckage and she’d almost lost it.
At least it wasn’t my right arm. I can still write and I won’t have to depend on grueling physical therapy to bring my strength back.
Her mind flinched away from that nugget, refusing to dwell on the reason she needed strength in her right arm. She hadn’t had a reason to keep her shoulder and arm loose and strong for quite some time.
Thinking about that only brought her back to Ty and that incredible dream. It’d been so real. His scent of leather, the roughness of his palm, even the tickling of his mustache. Could she make up little details like that in a dream?
“You know that wasn’t any old dream,” Miss Belle said in a low voice as she sat on the edge of the bed. “He’s been worried about you a long time.”
Virginia concentrated on the cast, absently scratching her fingers beneath the edge. Miss Belle swore she still talked to Colonel Healy, her husband who’d been dead nigh on thirty years. She’d always thought her mother was crazy—everybody did. But now I’m talking to my dead husband too.
“He said you’re always right.”
Miss Belle laughed and it sounded genuine, not girly and deliberately silly like she usually did to fool people into thinking she had a few screws loose. She wanted people to think she was just a crazy old lady. Forty years ago, she’d pretended to be an airhead actress without a thought in her pretty little head. Whether she was playing poker or dabbling in politics or playing amateur sleuth, she managed to fool most people so well that they never knew what hit them while she skipped off into the sunset.
But that laugh… That was real, the rare and special Miss Belle she only shared with her beloved family.
“Tyrell always was too smart for his own good. Stubborn as a mule, slow and silent and careful until he was sure, he never backed down from a fight, which is exactly what you needed the most. He was definitely the man God must have created just for you.”
Virginia had to swallow to keep the tears locked away. Before he’d died, she could have counted the number of times she’d cried as an adult on one hand. Twelve years might have passed, but his loss haunted her like a phantom limb. “I figured you were going to side with him.”
“I am.” Miss Belle patted her leg gently.
“But you just said…”
“Do you really think there was never any other man for me other than your father?”
Luckily her children had disappeared into the kitchen to help the girls with dinner. “Mother! I so do not want to hear about how many men you might have loved and left over the years. I certainly don’t want to know that you cheated on Daddy too.”
Miss Belle smacked her thigh, whether for slipping on her name or for the affair comment, she wasn’t sure. “Who said anything about cheating? We had a one-of-a-kind love, the kind that lasts down through the years of children and grief, victory and defeat, war and sickness and eventually death. It was wonderful. But he wasn’t the only man I loved. I don’t believe we were put on this earth to love only once and then die. Else couples would always die together, wouldn’t they? What kind of God would join two hearts and then leave one cold and alone the rest of her days without a single hug or kiss or affectionate word ever again?”
The kind of God who took Tyrell and left me alone all these years. Though Virginia didn’t say it aloud.
“Besides, I’ve got the perfect solution.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but Miss Belle was already shouting.
“Girls! I need your help!”
The three young women came running, probably terrified that Virginia had suffered a seizure or something by the volume of Miss Belle’s voice.
Dark haired and fiery like all the Connaghers, Vicki was a lot like her mama. Maybe too much. It’d taken her years to find the right man and in fact, she’d settled on two. She needed the explosive fireworks with Elias—the same as her parents—but Vicki also needed the softer, gentler side of her submissive, Jesse. There was something about that young man that made all the ice and iron in Vicki’s heart melt.
Rae and Shiloh would soon be her daughters-in-law. Each head over heels in love with her Connagher boy, both submissive, but yet so entirely different. Rae was shy and too timid for Virginia’s patience. It was all she could do not to bark at the girl to buck up and put some starch in her spine. But that wide-eyed-doe look appealed to Conn’s protective side. There had to be more spunk to the girl than was on the surface, because she’d managed to evade Conn for over five years, definitely giving him a run for his money before surrendering the fight. And of course, Rae not only survived living with Miss Belle, but she also seemed to actually enjoy the woman’s company. No small feat, because God knew Virginia would probably be ready to murder her mother before she finally went back to Missouri.
Shiloh was completely opposite Rae: bright and cheerful and bold. Yet when the oldest Connagher son touched her—even a simple arm around her shoulders or an innocent touch of his palm in the small of her back—she went on complete and wholly dedicated alert. If Victor told her to jump off a cliff, she’d do it or die trying, even while cursing at him all the way down.
We done well with our boys. Virginia closed her eyes a moment and tried to bring up Tyrell’s image in her mind as fresh and vibrant as that vision, but he was still hazy and softened by the passing of years. You’d be proud of them, Ty. You’d like these girls too.
“Girls,” Miss Belle declared, “I’m charging you with a most solemn duty. You must find a man for your mama.”
Virginia jerked so hard she couldn’t stifle a moan at the grating pain in her busted arm. “What? Are you insane?”
Ignoring her, Miss Belle continued. “It’s high time Virginia starts dating again. I’m sure between the three of you brilliant young ladies you know a handsome, courageous man dumb enough to come wrestle with her.”
A speculative gleam shone in Vicki’s eyes.
“No,” Virginia said firmly. “Dating is something young people do. I’ve had my time.”
“Now who’s the fool?” Miss Belle snapped. “You’ve got half your life ahead of you still. It’s high time you start living it.”
Virginia could only stare at her mother, both moved and amused by her concern. Most people had feared her father, Colonel Healy, and yes, he’d been a tough old Marine who didn’t take shit off anyone. But it only took one look from Miss Belle and that man would have taken San Juan Hill singlehandedly or died trying. Miss Belle wore big hats and frivolous pink dresses, but when push came to shove, she was the one who ran the family with a gay laugh and her wickedly keen mind. She used to joke that God had known exactly what He was doing when He’d put her in a small female body, because if He’d made her a big strapping man, she’d have been one mean bully.
“I bet Mal will know someone,” Vicki said.
Virginia groaned. “Don’t get the Mistress of Dallas involved or I’ll never have any peace. You know very well what kind of man that woman would try to set me up with.”
Vicki laughed, a knowing chuckle that spoke volumes. “A good-looking boy willing to do anything you say for a chance to kiss your toes? What’s the harm in that? Although I suspect she’s involved with someone herself right now. I don’t know if she’s still got her finger on the pulse of Dallas’s submissive male scene or not.”
Rae stared at Virginia a moment with those big, startled eyes. “Oh. Oh.”
“Where do you think Victor and Conn got their hard side, Rae Lynn?” Miss Belle said.
“But that doesn’t mean I want some boy running around my house saying, ‘Yes, Mistress, how may I serve, Mistress?’” Virginia didn’t try to keep the disgust from her voice. “Good lord. I’ve got boys older than Mal. I sure don’t want her to set me up with anyone of that age.”
“Cougar,” Vicki said teasingly.
Virginia growled in response. “Grizzly bear is more like it, mean and nasty after getting woke up too early from hibernation.”
“And hungry,” her daughter replied, still teasing, but with a growing understanding in her eyes that made Virginia look away.
Hungry. They have no idea. She didn’t want them to know exactly how lonely she’d been. How many nights she’d paced and practiced with the whip or crop just to exhaust herself, or drank herself into a stupor just to find a few hours of peace.
“What do you want in a man?” Shiloh asked.
I want Tyrell. Virginia made herself shut the mental door on what she couldn’t have any longer, the fuzzy memories she’d clung to all these years. “If I were to date again, and that’s a big IF, he’d have to be older, more my age. A man my age would already be mature and confident. He’d know exactly what he wanted with the rest of his life and he’d do anything to get it. The same as me. He wouldn’t need coddling or teaching or patience, which I don’t have patience for! A man used to hard work, who’s probably already seen and done more than you children ever dreamed about. Someone who can stand up to me and tell me when I’m being a fool—” she said that with a smile for Miss Belle, “—and won’t get his ego bruised when I tell him the same.”
“Now that will be the challenge.” Laughing, Miss Belle stood and started herding everyone toward the door. “Even Tyrell got his ego bruised on occasion.”
“All men do.”
“Let’s finish up dinner so our patient can get some rest. I’ll see what we can do about your man, Virginia. You’ve placed a tall order.”
Virginia settled down deeper into the pillows, her eyes already heavy. She’d done hardly anything but sleep at the hospital, but there wasn’t anything like coming home to her own bed. Tall, she sighed, slipping into sleep. He should definitely be tall.
Available January 6, 2015 from Samhain Publishing