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Semper Fi Cowboy
ACCELERATION ALONG AN open, smooth road of the refinished highway didn’t ease the knot of tension cramping his gut. Captain Tanner Wilks—retired, he hated the mental reminder—kept the speedometer pegged just under the eighty-mile-an-hour mark. The honorable discharge freed him from his contract, his service, and left him with the label of retired. They might as well have stamped done on his forehead and turned him out to pasture. At thirty-five, he was hardly ready to be put out to pasture, yet here he was heading west to Round Top, the family ranch with multiple pastures to work.
He’d put a down payment on his Ford F-250 more than a decade before and paid it off while on assignment in Okinawa or maybe Iraq. Duty stations around the globe kept him on the move until three months ago, when Doc Clayton tracked him down while he’d been enjoying leave in Germany. The Colonel had another cardiac episode, he said: a polite way of saying the old man’s ticker had finally clocked in his heartlessness. While the Colonel refused to take it easy, he didn’t decline the doc’s insistence on reaching out to family.
Emily and Peter Wilks, Tanner’s younger siblings, were unable to leave their positions to return to Durango Point, Texas, and the Round Top. Sure, Peter focusing on his musical career and busking in the subways of New York definitely took priority over family. And Emily, promoted recently to assistant associate counsel of Dirty Dealing Corporate Greed Incorporated, couldn’t put in her eighty hours a week in Chicago if she followed the same twisting road Tanner found himself on.
Who am I kidding? He’d served his country, accepting assignment after assignment and getting the damn job done. Taking care of the Colonel was just another assignment, and familial duty at best. A part of him wrestled with his retirement, but in his soul, he’d known what his duty was. The Colonel hadn’t had five minutes to rub together for any of his kids when they were children, even less when they were teenagers. He hadn’t bothered to appear at any of their graduations, or see them off during their subsequent exoduses from Round Top. Tanner had been the first one out the door, so it was appropriate that he was the first to return.
Guilt stabbed him for the uncharitable thoughts. Grandpa would tear a strip off his hide if he could hear the disrespect. Grandpa served in two wars. The Colonel in three. Tanner had fought more than his share, but they were all Marines. He owed them both for blazing the trail he’d followed.
A Marine did what had to be done, and he didn’t complain.
The sun setting ahead of him painted the sky in vibrant, bold colors while softening the harshness of the empty land. Home was the Hill Country, and he could almost see it waiting for him over the next rise. Nearly twenty years since he’d set foot in Durango Point. He’d stop for the night in town: get a beer; see the nightlife. And then he’d get some rack time before he headed out to Round Top.
One more day wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Ten minutes later, he parked outside the Silver Dollar. The glorified honky-tonk dominated the corner of Main Street and Oak. Open daily, it’d offered live music on the weekends when he was growing up. According to their weather-beaten marquee, they’d added Wednesday nights to that list. The menu consisted of wings, burgers, fries, and nachos. The bar served only beer and wine. None of the locals complained—or they hadn’t started to, anyway.
Staring at the wood-and-brick structure, Tanner couldn’t get over the odd sense of déjà vu invading his limbs. Sure, he’d flown into San Antonio, taken a taxi to the storage facility where he’d kept his truck, then driven home. Intellectually, the facts remained the same, but sitting in his truck outside the bar, he could almost imagine it was twenty years earlier and he’d finished his homework with enough time to slide down to the dance hall. They didn’t card at the door.
Hell, they didn’t card at the bar. No one needed to. Everyone in Durango Point knew everyone else. Back then, if he’d tried to order a beer, old Sully behind the bar would have knocked him into the next week and then waited for him to do it again.
No, Tanner’d gone to the Silver Dollar to dance, listen to the musicians, and pick up girls. Mostly the last, though he’d done his fair share of the first two.
Shutting off his vehicle’s engine, he glanced at the bag on the floor of the truck. He’d traveled light. If he wanted to kick back and have a beer, he could grab a room at the Triple B—Belle’s Brake and Bed. The hotel boasted ten rooms, all clean, and always inexpensive for locals, especially if they needed to sleep one off.
I can drive out and see the Colonel in the morning.
He’d signed his papers, finished his exit interviews, and spent weeks getting his affairs in order before flying home to another set of interviews and civilian life. Parched from the drive, he deserved one evening of rest before he tackled the issue of the Colonel. Decided, he locked up his truck and headed inside, a cowboy hat serving as his cover. His head felt too damn naked outdoors otherwise.
Inside the bar, he paused to draw in a deep breath of sawdust, beer, grilling meat, traces of perfume, and a hint of sweat. A handful of dancers stomped, twisted, and turned to the country music blaring from the old-world jukebox in the corner. The tinny strokes of a needle on a record playing offered a welcome no MP3 could ever replicate. About half the tables in the bar were filled with couples, families, and friends, while the bar itself only had one other occupant. A glance at his watch said it was just after six—it was still early. Nostalgia twined with whimsy, and after years in foreign countries, firefights, and following orders, he was home.
Just another evening in Texas. Grinning, he tugged off his hat before crossing the hardwood floor to the bar. If he’d thought the exterior was familiar, the interior seemed to have been frozen in time. The years washed away with every step until he set his hat on the bar top.
Sully glanced in his direction. Tall, broad-shouldered, and beer-bellied, the grizzly bear of a man boasted more gray hair than brown. His craggy face split into a grin as he reached into the refrigerator below. “You still drink American, right, boyo?”
“Well, Mexican.” He answered the older man’s joviality and tapped the bar. “Corona, two limes.” Why not live large? A wide, open grin was akin to a backslapping hug on Sully’s part. Time and distance shrank in the time it took Sully to pull the drink from the refrigerator case.
The bottle slid into place on the old weathered bar top, the wood stained and well oiled over the years. The stories it could tell. Limes slid into the bottle’s neck, the icy beer foamed at the top when the citrus hit it. A basket of hot peanuts joined the beer.
“How long has it been, Tanner?” Sully knew him. Hell, Sully knew everyone in Durango Point. Sully’s grandfather had opened the Silver Dollar after World War I. Sully’s father grew up, left to fight in World War II, and then later, Korea. Sully did his share in Vietnam and lost a son in Beirut. Like the Wilks, the Johnson family served their country, and most of the time, they returned to the Silver Dollar.
“Too long, sir.” He slid onto the cracked vinyl barstool and raised his bottle to him before taking a drink. “Good to be home.”
The man thumped the bar, then hit the bell behind him. “Welcome home to our boy—one round of drinks for everyone on the house!”
A roar rose from the still-thin crowd, laughter, and an echo of welcome. He didn’t know everyone anymore, but he didn’t have to. In Durango Point, no one was a stranger.
By the time he’d ordered a burger and some fries, he’d caught up on a lot of town gossip. Not that Sully spread rumors, but he did know just about everything that happened, including the Colonel’s refusal to follow Doc’s orders.
“We’re all doing what we can, Tanner. But you know the Colonel.” Sully had never risen above the rank of sergeant. Even before Tanner enlisted, he understood that Sully never questioned the Colonel, at least not to his face, and he sure as hell didn’t countermand him.
The men may have left the military, but the military didn’t leave them.
“I appreciate it, Sully. I’ll take care of things now.” He took a bite from the burger, all hot juice and cooked to perfection. Layers of cheese melted over the bacon, tomatoes and onions the icing on the welcome-home cake.
“You’re a good boy.” He left Tanner to tend to some new arrivals. In addition to the bartender, the Silver Dollar had added a waitress. Her T-shirt clung to her curves, and her jeans looked spray-painted on. Red cowboy boots finished the look, everything about the body calling for sin—but she was fresh-faced, with a blush still in her cheeks and a long blond ponytail that bobbed when she walked.
On Sully’s next pass, Tanner lifted a finger to get his attention. “Who’s the babe?”
“My granddaughter.” The bartender set a fresh beer in front of him and wiped away the empty.
The little girl had been in kindergarten when Tanner enlisted. “Maggie’s daughter?” Sully’s daughter was two years younger than Tanner, and she’d gotten pregnant in her sophomore year, and set every tongue in town wagging when she not only refused to get married but also refused to give up on her education. Her dad backed her, and she missed a week to give birth, then showed up right back at school.
With a knowing grin, Sully nodded. “The same. Her mom’s an assistant district attorney in San Antonio. Gave me three more grandbabies. Tina’s only working here while she’s on summer break. She’ll be a senior this year.”
“College?” Please tell me I’m not a lech.
Smirking, Sully wiped off the bar and said, “High school.”
Nope. Roasting in hell is where I’ll be. “Good to know.”
“Thought you might like it.” Sully wasn’t looking at Tanner anymore but glaring at one of the guys on the far side who’d caught Tina’s arm. The man in question seemed to feel the assault because he released her and held his hands up, palms forward. Sully nodded once, and Tina laughed before breezing on to her next table. “She’s too nice. Most folks know when they need to keep their hands to themselves.”
“Some need to have their heads cracked so they remember next time.”
“Exactly. You’re the former, right, son?”
“Yes, sir.” Absolutely. No jailbait for him. Hell, looking at her reminded him he wasn’t some pimply-faced hormonal teen. Sweet kid—emphasis on the kid.
Chuckling, Sully moved on, and Tanner focused on eating his meal. No need to speculate on age, or, as his lieutenant always said, If you have to ask, they aren’t old enough.
The second beer meant he’d already decided to stay in town. He didn’t drink often, but the second one tasted even better than the first. He might as well have a third. The crowd thickened and the volume on the music rose as the group on the floor slid, stomped, and danced to a two-step. Merriment reigned, shells crunched, sawdust kicked up, and the fans overhead went to work clearing the air. In the corner, a band set up their gear, and after the two-step ended, the musicians kicked it up a notch.
Whoever the group was they had talent, and as Tanner studied the newcomers, he focused on a woman who slid over to the bar and drained a glass of water while the musicians found their rhythm. A minute later, she glided back onto the dance floor.
For the next three songs, she traded partners. The woman could move. Tall, long-legged, and beautifully curved, she also had a gorgeous face, from her generous mouth—which pulled into an easy smile—to her sweet, dark eyes. Dark hair clung to her cheeks, and her sleeveless white top gave Tanner a good look at her toned arms.
He didn’t know her. She didn’t even ring a familiar bell, but she sure as hell looked fun. When she waved off a fourth man swooping in for a dance and headed to the bar, Tanner enjoyed the light, strutting cadence to her walk. Someone had taken her spot, so she sidled up to the bar next to him.
Fanning her face with one hand, she gave him a cool, quick grin, then waved at Sully. The bartender slid a glass of water over to her. “You ready for a glass of wine yet, darlin’?”
“In a bit.” She took a long drink of the water. The slender column of her throat convulsed with each swallow, and a fresh wave of lust crashed through Tanner. Damn, what he wouldn’t give to trade places with the glass.
“Put her wine on my tab, Sully,” Tanner called. The number of dance partners and lack of a ring gave him hope she was free. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“No, thank you,” the country goddess declined in a smooth, polite tone. “I’ll take care of my own drinks.”
Sully hid a smirk, but he had other customers.
“No need to be testy, ma’am.” He lifted his beer. “Just offering to buy you a drink.”
“Not being testy at all.” She turned sideways and gave him a once-over. “And you didn’t offer—you just decided to do it, sir.” The cool dismissal didn’t possess an ounce of malice or disrespect. “I simply like to pay my own way, and I never accept offers from strangers.”
“Hard to make an acquaintance if you don’t.” Though he couldn’t fault her. Even the women in his unit or those he’d met on assignment at various bases around the world maintained a sense of control over their environment, both in what they would tolerate from others and what they would accept. “My apologies for overstepping. I’m Tanner, by the way.”
Offering his hand, he waited as she took a beat before wiping her palm against her jeans and then accepting the handshake. “My friends call me Jules.”
“Jules.” Was it short for Julianna? Or Julie? Something else entirely? He liked the sound of it. Maybe it was the beer mellowing him out. Maybe it was being home. Or maybe it was simply watching her, but he wanted to spend some time with Miss Jules.
“Is it all right if I call you Jules?”
“I said my friends call me Jules; you can call me ma’am.” She chuckled, then drained her glass of water and started watching the band. They’d switched to a slow song. Shaking her head, she lifted the hair from the back of her neck. From her flushed cheeks to the gleam in her dark eyes, she was stunning.
“I’d be happy to call you ma’am.” The sentence worked, and Jules returned her attention to him and her eyebrows raised. “Tell me, ma’am, may I have the next dance?”