Tempting in Texas
Cait Jameson figured it was stating the obvious, but getting stabbed hurt—even when it was just a little stab wound.
Sitting on the examination table in the ER, she scowled over both the pain and the now-missing sleeve of what had been her favorite shirt. Even if the overly eager EMT, Ty Copperfield, hadn’t literally ripped the sleeve from its seams, the shirt that Cait had nicknamed Old Betsy would have been a loss anyway. She didn’t know how to get out regular stains from her clothes much less her own blood.
Plus, there was that whole ick factor of actually touching a bloody garment.
She might have been a cop in her hometown of Lone Star Ridge, Texas, for six years now, but that didn’t make her immune to stuff like puke and blood. Just looking down at her wound made her feel lightheaded and queasy. If she puked, she would be a goner, and that couldn’t happen.
Not in front of her three brothers.
She’d never hear the end of the teasing, and the babying, and it would be a decade or more before they stopped looking at her as if she couldn’t take care of herself. Then teasing her about not being able to take care of herself.
Cait could thank the idiot Ty for calling all three of her brothers and probably half the town to let them know about the altercation that’d taken place at the old Crockett ranch. Everyone would also know that altercation was just a polite word for the fight between Wilma Crockett and Harvey, her husband of seventy-plus years. A fight that usually resulted in the pair shouting along with throwing and thrusting things at each other. Because they were elderly and their eyesight was as bad as their aim, they usually missed.
Not tonight, though.
Tonight, the sharp end of the meat thermometer had gouged Cait’s arm.
In a twist of fate that often befell kid sisters and other unlucky people, all three of her brothers had arrived around the same time she had. At least she hadn’t arrived in an ambulance with the siren blaring as Ty had insisted. Cait had nixed his insistence, the sirens and instead driven herself.
Of course, now she would have to clean up blood from the seat of her SUV, but she’d saved a little of her dignity by walking into the ER on her own two feet.
“You couldn’t dodge a meat thermometer from a ninety-year-old woman?” her oldest brother, Shaw, grumbled.
Okay, that cost her some dignity points, but the truth was the truth. “Wilma Crockett’s a lot more spry than she looks,” Cait pointed out. “And besides, it was an accident. She wasn’t exactly aiming for me.”
Harvey had been his beloved’s intended target, but the man had not only ducked behind Cait, he’d also pushed her forward, practically right into the Weber Instant-Read Thermometer that Wilma was in the process of thrusting at him like a mini makeshift sword.
Cait handed the now bagged weapon to Leyton, her brother who was standing in the middle of the staring trio. Leyton, as in Sheriff Leyton Jameson, her boss. That meant he had more potential than the others for thinking she couldn’t take care of herself. But, hey, it was just a little stab wound for Pete’s sake.
One that hurt like the devil.
She tried not to wince when the nurse, Mandy Culpepper, dabbed at the wound to clean it. Mandy must have been using extra-strength acid, though, because it stung worse than the cut itself so Cait ended up wincing anyway. That caused all three brothers to huff and roll their eyes.
“She’ll probably need a tetanus shot,” her third brother, Austin, piped in, speaking to the nurse.
Cait aimed narrowed eyes at him. Austin was usually the brother who gave her the least amount of grief, maybe because they were so close in age. Only a year apart. Maybe, too, because he was a widower and had gone through the stage where his family had coddled and babied him more than he wanted. But the shot reminder definitely fell into the “high amount of grief” zone. Along with being icked out at the sight of blood, Cait had this “needle phobia” thing.
Austin might have added more, perhaps suggesting an entire battery of booster shots and blood work, but his phone rang, giving Cait a reprieve.
“It’s Mom,” Austin said after he glanced at the screen.
Crap. There went her reprieve. Obviously, someone had called their mother, Lenore, and told her that her daughter was in the ER. She loved her mom, and the woman had done an amazing job raising four kids practically alone, but the coddling would be taken to a whole different and much higher level if her mom showed up tonight.
“I’ll babysit for you for a month if you tell her I’m fine and that she shouldn’t come,” Cait bargained with Austin.
It was a solid offer since Austin had three-year-old twin girls, Avery and Gracie. Yeah, Cait loved them, too, all the way down to their often grubby little toes, but they could be a handful.
“You’ll babysit for a year,” Austin countered while his finger hovered over the answer button.
Because she’d figured this was coming, Cait was ready for it. “Four months and that’s my final offer. If you don’t agree, I’ll tell Mom that you want her to make the food for the wedding reception.”
Austin might have been a tough thirty-three-year-old cowboy and well-seasoned by fatherhood, but he went a little pale. Shaw and Leyton had similar reactions because the upcoming weddings and reception were for all three of them. In a twist that would create a next generation of double first cousins and pay a weird homage to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, her three brothers were marrying triplet sisters. Since everyone in town knew both the brides and grooms, there would be lots of people attending.
And lots of food.
Their mom had a kind soul but the absolute worst culinary skills in the tristate area. Lenore could ruin the reception, and her brothers knew it. That’s why Shaw and Leyton tossed “don’t screw this up” scowls at Austin.
Austin nodded, hit the answer button and greeted their mom with, “Cait’s fine. It’s just a scratch.” He stepped aside to finish the conversation that would hopefully reassure their mother that there was no reason to come to check on her thirty-two-year-old little girl.
Leyton tipped his head to the bagged thermometer he was holding. “I’ll go out to the Crockett place and arrest them both. Even if it’s a stupid way to do bodily harm, I can’t let them get away with assaulting a police officer,” Leyton added when Cait opened her mouth to disagree with him.
She argued anyway. “I’m sure they’re sorry about what happened. Wilma even offered to drive me to the hospital.” An offer Cait had declined with lightning speed because Wilma hadn’t been able to pass a driver’s test in two decades and therefore didn’t have a valid license. “And Harvey called the ambulance.”
Of course, Harvey hadn’t done Cait any favors by doing that, but with surprising speed, he’d made the 911 call before she could stop him. He apparently dialed as fast as he ducked and dodged his wife’s attempts to maim him.
“It won’t do any good to put people that old in jail,” Cait pointed out.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Leyton insisted. “If they’re finally punished for the crap they’ve been getting away with for years, then maybe they’ll finally stop.”
Cait knew this wouldn’t stop them, and neither had the counseling they’d been forced to get over the years. In fact, she suspected the couple enjoyed fighting. And in all the decades they’d been doing it, this was the first time anyone had actually gotten hurt. Leave it to her to break some kind of long-standing record like that.
“I’m arresting them,” Leyton grumbled as his parting shot before he took the evidence bag and walked out of the ER.
Shaw only shrugged when Cait turned to him to plead her case. Then she nixed the pleading notion because Mandy doused her arm with cleaning acid again. Cait used up every molecule of her available breath on huffing and muttering some profanity before Mandy finally numbed the area with some kind of gunk and then did a couple of quick stitches.
“Austin’s right,” Mandy told Cait as she slid back the privacy curtain, the only thing that divided this particular examining area from the rest of the ER. “You need a tetanus shot. There’s no telling where that thermometer was before you got stabbed with it. I’ll be right back with what I need to fix you right up.”
The nurse was way too cheery about the fixing up, and it occurred to Cait that Mandy was going to have a firsthand account of this incident to blabber about. Lone Star Ridge wasn’t exactly a hotbed of important news so people had to take their gossip where they could find it.
By tomorrow, the thermometer wound would be seriously embellished, and that in turn could lead to many “get well soon” calls along with some dropped-off meals to help Cait through her infirmity. That last part was the only silver lining in this. She was hoping for a batch or two of snickerdoodles. Everyone knew they were her favorite, and there were plenty of good bakers in town.
“I talked Mom into staying home,” Austin said, stepping back toward them. “Four months of babysitting,” he reminded Cait. In true Austin fashion, though, he only gloated about that for a couple of seconds. “You want me to wait around and drive you to your place?”
“No. I can do it.” Her house was less than a mile away. “You should get back to your girls. They’ve got pre-K in the morning, and McCall might need help getting them into bed.”
Though that last part was a stretch. Austin’s fiancée, McCall Dalton, was a counselor and had a way of getting the twins to cooperate. Still, Cait didn’t want Austin hanging around with her when he could be home with his kids and fiancée.
Austin finally nodded, not a convincing one, though, and he looked at Shaw. “You’ll wait here with her and make sure she doesn’t fight Mandy on the shot she needs?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Cait protested. “I’m not six years old.”
She wouldn’t fight. Not physically anyway. But she was so going to snatch one of those cherry suckers from the reception desk to help soothe the childhood trauma memories of the times when she had fought like a wildcat during immunizations.
“I’ll stay,” Shaw assured his brother just as Cait said, “You should both go home.”
“I’ll stay,” Shaw repeated, and that was enough assurance for Austin. He gave Cait a noogie on the top of her head, followed by a quick kiss on the same spot—gestures that were textbook “big brother” stuff—and he headed out.
Two brothers down. One to go.
“You really should go home, too,” Cait added to Shaw once Austin was out of earshot. “You should be with Sunny.”
Because gossips might be within hearing range, Cait refrained from adding anything about Sunny being pregnant, but she was. Pregnant, puking and extremely happy. Happy about the baby, not the puking, that is. There was no reason for Sunny not to have her soon-to-be husband with her, especially since he was in no way needed here at the hospital.
She saw the debate about leaving her go through Shaw’s smoky gray eyes that were a genetic copy of her own. Debate and then concern about Sunny. Cait was pretty sure she had just about convinced him to go so she could wince in peace, but the commotion at the ER doors stopped him.
Mandy, the nurse, made an un-nurselike shrieking sound, and her sensible-soled white shoes slapped against the aged linoleum as she hurried to those doors. So did Anita Parker, the retired high school history teacher, who was no doubt in the ER because she was coughing enough to bring up internal organs.
And speaking of internal organs, the man who came through the ER doors might have lost some of his for real.
Cait’s stomach lurched when she saw the blood. It was on his head, his face, his arm and pretty much the rest of him, including on the motorcycle helmet he had dangling from his hand—which was also bloody.
Forgetting all about her own injury and the fact that she might puke from the sight of the blood, Cait bolted off the examining table and ran toward him. Shaw was right on her heels. Thanks to Cait’s head start, she got there ahead of her brother, and she slid her arm around the injured man’s waist. Mandy did the same thing on the other side of him, and they began leading him toward the examining table that Cait had just left.
“Don’t put him there yet,” Mandy insisted.
Mandy let go of the man so she could rip off the paper lining on the table and replace it with a fresh one. She managed to do that in just a couple of seconds, and then the three of them helped the bloody guy onto the table.
“Hey, Cait,” he said.
The almost lazy greeting had Cait doing a double take, which involved looking again at the man’s blood-streaked face. Because she was having to bargain with her suddenly queasy stomach to set up a no-puking rule, it took her a moment to look past the blood, then past the scrapes and bruises so she could see his actual features. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, strong jaw and a mouth…that she had no trouble recognizing.
Because Cait had fantasized about that mouth since she’d first sprouted breasts.
“Hayes Dalton,” she said.
Or as she often thought of him—Heartthrob Hayes.
Cait could say without a doubt that Hayes was the absolute last person she had expected to come into the ER tonight. He didn’t even live in Lone Star Ridge. Hadn’t in, oh, sixteen years and eight months. Hayes had left less than a minute after he’d graduated from high school, moved to Hollywood and eventually become the star of a TV show about a motorcycle gang. Thanks to Outlaw Rebels, Cait got a weekly visual dose of Hayes.
She’d watched some episodes many, many times. But the watching had turned out to be useful. She had seen Hayes so much that he was the human equivalent of white noise, and she no longer felt that kick of heat when she looked at him. It was now more like a lukewarm nudge. And it would stay that way unless he said his signature demand that he often did to his many love interests on the show.
Climb on, bitch, and kiss me.
It wasn’t just the irreverent demand but the way he drawled that invitation for a biker bitch to climb on his Harley and, well, tongue kiss him. Hayes combined the demand with the slight hitch of a smile on his pretty mouth. A mouth surrounded by all the sexy dark stubble. Oh, and he paired that smile with the scorcher look in his eyes. It was the whole heartthrob package in a hot package of snug jeans, boots and a black tee.
Identical to the clothes he was wearing now.
“Hayes?” Shaw questioned, also moving in closer for a look. “Hell,” he added when he verified that was actually his soon-to-be brother-in-law. “What happened to you?”
“An accident of sorts,” he said while Mandy started in on that acid cleaning. Hayes did some wincing, too. “Say, don’t tell Sunny and my other sisters about this. I don’t want Sunny upset.”
Since he’d named that specific sister, it meant that Hayes knew Sunny was pregnant. No surprise there. Even though Hayes rarely saw his sisters, their Granny Em kept the family filled in on the news. Cait knew this because she was close friends with all of Hayes’s triplet sisters. That meant she also knew that Sunny was trying to keep her pregnancy hush-hush until after the wedding.
“There’s no reason for my sisters to come running here to the hospital,” Hayes added.
“I can relate,” Cait muttered, giving Shaw a glance. “But trust me, they’ll find out if they haven’t already. In between hacking up a lung, Anita Parker is sitting over there and texting as fast as her bony fingers can poke at letters.”
She tipped her head to the woman who was likely sending out some kind of global information beam to announce that Heartthrob Hayes was back in town and that he was banged up to heck and back.
“I won’t call Sunny or your sisters, yet,” Shaw assured him. “But Cait’s right. They’ll find out. What do you mean you were in an accident of sorts?” Shaw tacked onto that without pausing.
Cait had been about to ask him that very question, along with others that she might need to include in a police report. She’d planned on waiting on that, though, until they had at least found out if he was all right.
“I was on my motorcycle and someone ran me off the road,” Hayes said in that same lazy drawl that he’d used to greet her.
Of course, Hayes had a habit of drawling that made the words seem like testosterone-drenched foreplay. She wasn’t alone on thinking this, either, and she’d read plenty of the social media posts from other women to prove it.
“Someone ran you off the road?” Cait repeated. No drawl for her. Her cop’s voice kicked in.
He attempted a shrug and ended up wincing instead. “More or less. Less,” he amended when his bloody forehead bunched up in thought. “I was on that curvy stretch of road just about a mile outside of town, and a car going way too fast came up behind me. It was going to hit me so I tried to get off the road, but I ended up in the ditch.”
Cait’s mouth dropped open. “And the driver just left you there, wounded and bleeding?”
“I’m not sure he or she actually saw me,” Hayes answered.
Cait and Shaw both muttered some profanity. “How’d you get to the hospital?” Shaw asked.
“I dragged my motorcycle out of the ditch and rode it here.”
That earned him stares from Shaw, Cait and Mandy. But Shaw stopped his staring long enough to give her a “big brother” glance to remind her that she’d done something similar by driving herself to the hospital. The difference was her injuries were minor compared to Hayes’s.
“The front end of my motorcycle’s messed up,” Hayes added, shaking his head. “I’ll need to have it fixed.”
“Your body needs repairs, too,” Mandy pointed out.
Mandy was in nurse mode, but Cait also saw something else. The fawning. A flushed face, some lip nibbling, eyelash fluttering and the potential for drooling. It was something that happened a lot whenever Hayes was around. Not just in Lone Star Ridge, either. Cait had seen tabloid photos of fawning fans.
“Uh, how long are you going to be back in town?” Mandy asked, eyelashes still fluttering, and since Cait didn’t think the woman was fending off gnats or gummed-up mascara, the fawning had moved to flirting. That question sounded like the start of hey, maybe we can go for a drink or something? Emphasis on the or something.
Cait narrowed her own unfluttering eyes to let the nurse know she wasn’t acting very professional.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be here,” Hayes answered almost idly. He was flexing his hand and had therefore missed the visual cues of Mandy’s attempted come-on.
Mandy cleared her throat. “Uh, I’ll get you set up with X-rays,” she said, and abracadabra, she became the nurse again. “And I’ll call the doctor—”
The loud wail stopped the reformed Mandy from continuing and had all four of them turning toward the ER doors. A tall blonde in a very short blue dress came rushing in. Cait was reasonably sure she’d never seen her before. She certainly wasn’t from around Lone Star Ridge, but judging from the tabloid pictures Cait had seen of Hayes, the woman was very much his type. Boobs galore, mile-long legs and the kind of face that you could only get from many hours of cosmetic surgery followed by more hours of pampering.
Cait hated her on sight.
And she hated that she hated her. Crap. She clearly had to work on more white noising when it came to Hayes.
“Is he dead?” the blonde howled. “Oh, God. I saw his wrecked motorcycle outside. Is he dead?”
Hayes groaned, shook his head. “Shit.”
The woman’s gaze zoomed right in on Hayes, and she sprinted toward them. “Oh, thank the sweet baby Moses in a basket. You’re alive.”
“I take it you know her?” Cait asked him.
“Of course, Hayes knows me,” the blonde answered before Hayes could speak. She hurried to him and threw her arms around him. “I’m Shayla Weston, the love of his life.”