Ochessa is heartbroken when she finds her brother fatally wounded. His dying words are about a childhood puzzle box, missing legal documents, and a drifter named Nicodemus Breedlove. Ochessa vows to find Will’s murderer—and the man Will described.
No stranger to trouble, Nic’s only concerns are his Stetson, his mule Sadie, and a long awaited chance at retribution. After gaining Ochessa’s trust, and taking the job she offers, life gets more complicated.
Back on the ranch in Colorado, Ochessa works as hard as any man. Then Nick tempts her into playing even harder as a woman—both are consumed by their growing love for one another.
Weathering a stampede, a gully washer, and a pack of outlaws, they locate the killer. As Nic’s quest for justice, and Ochessa’s vendetta for Will play out, bullets fly…
Naked to the waist, and bent over the horse trough, his sculpted muscles standing out in sharp relief, Nic scooped handfuls of water over his head. A growl escaped him as he straightened to his full height, and slicked back the dripping mane of dark hair. Arms still raised, he met her gaze, as the excess water trickled happily across his bare chest.
Involuntarily she sucked in a deep breath. The distance between them felt charged with lightning, thunder pounding in her brain, leaving the rest of the world dead silent.
A look of surprise flickered across Nic’s face. His muscles flexed and bulged as he lowered his arms to his sides.
“Good evening, boss.” He emphasized the last word as if were a personal joke.
She swallowed hard, and fought to find her voice. “Time’s a wasting, Breedlove. Why are you still hanging around the ranch? Shouldn’t you be out earning your keep?”
“Well, we all have our own way of doing things, and my way is usually different from the norm.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
Retrieving his hat, he carefully dislodged a thistle from the battered brim then settled the coveted headgear upon his head. “What would surprise you, Ochessa?” He studied her with an expression that sizzled and danced through her like water on a hot griddle.
“Not seeing you every time I turn around would be a good start.”
“You’re not very good at lying.”
She nudged a dried up cow pie with the toe of her boot. “Maybe not. But I am good at recognizing a load of bull when it comes my way.”
He gave a deep chuckle, and reached for the shirt dangling from the water pump. “Sounds like you’ve been on both ends of the shovel.”
“No more than anyone else, I guess.”
He stood his ground, casually shucking into the article of clothing, his movements so sure, no wasted motion, no hesitation. Did he live his life the same? Taking what he wanted when and where he found it? She imagined him wanting her, taking her, and as his gaze slid down the front of her body, memories of their stolen passion again flared hot in the pit of her stomach.
His eyes brightened as if the same thoughts held him transfixed. Then his expression hardened, and the gleam in his eyes turned to flint. “I should have some information for you soon. I’ll be out of your way come morning.”
The fluttering in her belly turned to a panic. His leaving disturbed her more than running into him at every turn. Yet, it was what she wanted, wasn’t it? Confusion had her at a loss as to how to respond or how to proceed. It felt as if she’d captured a wild creature, and now before ever knowing what made him so intriguing, so unique, she had to set him free.
His mouth softened into a mocking smile. “I’ll be back in a day or two. I’m only going to Denver.”
Apparently her face was an open book, and now she felt the fool. “Don’t hurry on my account. I was only worried Lucky might miss you.”
(review request submitted by the author for an honest critique)
When you look back on the history of the Old West, you’ll see more men recognized than women. However, women did have a great impact on this time period much like they do today.
No matter the era, women are strong, fierce, warriors who can hold their own in a fight. In Cowboys, Cattle, and Cutthroats, Gini brought us Orchessa Starr. She had more skill with a firearm than a rolling pin. She ran a ranch and was well respected for her leadership. She was strongly independent, brave, and fiercely loyal to all those around her. She’s the type of character, a woman, I’d loved see portrayed more in books.
Nic, the drifter, was your typical male character you’ll see in many stories. He was adventurous, charming, flirtatious, and brave.
They might’ve had their differences, at first, but they came together to make one dynamic team.
Gun battles, outlaws, mystery, death, deception, romance, and love…. Cowboys, Cattle, and Cutthroats was a very well written Old West story.
Where the past and the present meet adventure and romance:
Gini Rifkin’s characters are courageous and passionate, and when they meet sparks fly and danger often threatens. Her settings include the American West, Medieval England, Victorian England, and contemporary fantasy. When not reading or writing, she has the privilege of caring for a menagerie of abandoned animals including ducks, geese, goats, rabbits, donkeys, and cats. Her writing keeps her hungry to learn new things, and she considers family and friends her most treasured of gifts.
Gabe Miller’s marriage ended so fast it had hardly begun. Which is why he couldn’t quite believe his luck—or his “ex”—when she returned a few months later with the news that legally they were still husband and wife. And that the child she was carrying was his son.
Gabe feared Marissa would bolt again, making a custody battle his only option—unless he could turn back the clock and woo her the way he should have during their whirlwind romance. But even with his boy’s future at stake, mending fences with a woman—especially the one he loved—wasn’t something the strong, silent type found easy to do….
One day soon, he’d get rid of this wedding ring.
Gabe Miller tossed the gold circle into the air and snatched it back again, trying not to think of the woman who’d slipped it onto his left hand, third finger. Trying not to think of what she’d had inscribed inside.
Ha. What a crock. Forever hadn’t lasted but three short weeks.
Scowling, he shoved the band into the velvet-lined jeweler’s box and slid it back beneath the stack of flannel shirts in the dresser drawer. Call him a dumb cowboy, but it’d taken his own wife’s desertion to finally get the message rammed into his thick skull:
Never trust a woman.
He turned. Warren stood in the bedroom doorway, his whiskered face scrunched into a frown.
“Shake a leg. The boys’ll be raring to eat any minute now.”
“Right.” He hustled along the hall in his elderly ranch hand’s wake. Their two pairs of boots sounded loud on the bare wooden stairs. He glared at the older man’s back, then felt immediate guilt. Warren hadn’t caused his ugly mood.
He followed him into the kitchen.
“We gotta get us a cook, boss. It’s been months since Joe and Mary went back east.” Warren flipped a switch, powering up the coffeemaker Gabe had gotten ready the night before. “Lord knows, a rancher’s got enough to keep him moving, sunup to sundown. And you’re kept busier than most, considerin’ the size of your spread, and managing it yourself ‘n all.”
“We’re doing just fine, Warren.” He kept his tone neutral, knowing how much the older man hated that he couldn’t pull his weight with the younger hands any more.
“Yeah, ‘long as you don’t try gettin’ too fancy.”
“Okay, so the pancakes didn’t work out too well.”
That earned him a chuckle.
Gabe grabbed the egg carton and a pack of pork links from the refrigerator. Sure, this’d been the last thing he’d needed–undertaking kitchen duties once his ranch cook and her husband had moved on. And Gabe did have more to handle than most of the local ranchers. Something Marissa hadn’t understood.
He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to swallow a growl. Tried to stop thinking of Marissa.
Lost cause, that idea. He brooded on it, anyway. Why in heck did he wake up this morning–alone in his big bed–with the feeling today would turn out worse than the usual? He couldn’t manage to push the feeling of gloom from his mind, the way he’d shoved the wedding ring back under his flannel shirts. The ring he should have tossed out, just the way she’d tossed him aside and walked out, months ago.
That, right there, was the problem.
She’d taken off three months ago today.
Jared and Hank and the rest of the cowhands trooped into the kitchen. Their usual whooping and hollering drowned out the sizzle of eggs and sausages.
“Hey, boys, hold it down a bit,” Warren grumbled. “Don’t know where you get your energy this early in the morning.”
Gabe grimaced, knowing his own bad mood had caused the complaints. He was used to rowdy cowboys before the sun was even up–he’d breakfasted with ranch hands all his life. But he remembered those days–those way too few days–when he’d skipped the chow-downs out at the bunkhouse and spent every last early-morning moment he could bedded down with his wife.
Hank, best known as the ranch’s clown, looked over Gabe’s shoulder. “No pancakes today, boss?”
The rest of the men guffawed.
“All right, so I’m not much of a cook.” Marissa was. He shook the thought away. “Better knock it off, or y’all will be taking turns at the stove yourselves.”
Silence fell heavier than a bale dropped from the hayloft. His back still turned to his men, he reached for the egg carton again and grinned. Shut them up, all right.
In the calm, he heard the noise of a car’s engine outside. Awfully early for visitors.
Warren pushed up the blind over the kitchen sink and squinted through the window. “Seems like you got company, boss.” The old cowboy’s voice had gone rusty.
Gabe stepped to his side. “Must be Doc, right? Nobody else’d–”
What he saw through the window shut him up, too. The light over the back porch stabbing through pre-dawn darkness. The white Mustang purring in the drive. And the woman sitting behind the wheel.
He must not have woken up yet after all, must have dreamed Warren’s call and his trip to the kitchen. Because, Lord only knew, he was dreaming now. Blinking didn’t help. The picture didn’t go away. He closed his eyes for a long moment and opened them again. Nope, she was still there.
Looking right at the lighted kitchen window.
He stumbled back a pace.
“Easy, now.” Warren might’ve been talking to a skittish colt. He pulled the forgotten carton of eggs from Gabe’s hands. “Got it under control here, boss. I guess you got some business needs taking care of.”
“Yeah, right.” He looked through the window again, gritted his teeth and set his jaw.
Mitch Weston’s back in Cowboy Creek, and self-proclaimed matchmaker Jed Garland has his single granddaughter Andi on his mind. Mitch is a lawman, good with the little ones and easy on the eyes. He and Andi were high school sweethearts, for heaven’s sake! Why can’t they see they’re perfect for each other?
Because Andi already lost one husband to a dangerous job, and now she’s all about playing it safe, for her sake and her children’s. Being a cop is everything to Mitch. After discovering Jed’s plan, Mitch and Andi come up with their own: they’ll pretend to get engaged and then break up due to irreconcilable differences. Jed’s got his work cut out for him—because this match needs a Christmas miracle!
As Mitch strode through the doorway, Andi crossed her arms, rested her hips against the table, and gave in to the pleasure of seeing him. In tight black T-shirt, jeans and black biker boots, he looked taller and tougher and sexier than ever before. That T-shirt and his black hair made his eyes startling blue.
“Jed and Paz told me I would find you here.”
She frowned. “Is everything okay? Do they need me to take Missy off their hands?”
“No, they’re feeding her Paz’s Christmas cookies, and they said that’s keeping her out of trouble. They also said your kids won’t ever want to go home.”
Just what Jed was hoping for, she knew.
“What can I do for you?” she asked. When he grinned, she crossed her arms more tightly. “I’m very busy.”
“That’s why I’m here. Jed figured he’d keep me out of trouble by giving me a job.”
She stood straighter. “I don’t need a helper, thank you.”
“Too late. I’m on board. What do you want me to do?”
She turned away and rummaged through a carton of ornaments. “Nothing. I’ve got everything under control.” The words made her think again of her reaction to his kiss. Of her loss of control.
“Andi, walking away yesterday didn’t make me go away. Pretending to be busy here doesn’t mean I’ll disappear. Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?”
“At the moment, you are.”
“Well, that’s a start.”
She shot a look over her shoulder and found him smiling down at her. He was so close, she could have taken a step back and found herself in his arms.
I’m Barbara, and I write small-town romance that usually includes quirky characters and a touch of humor.
Have fun looking around the site and my blog, “The Daille-y News.”And consider signing up for my newsletter, where you’ll get insider info on my writing life, sneak previews, and access to subscriber-only book giveaways.
It’s Christmas in Copper Ridge, and love is waiting to be unwrapped…
Falling for a bad boy once is forgivable. Twice would just be foolish. When Sabrina Leighton first offered her teenage innocence to gorgeous, tattooed Liam Donnelly, he humiliated her, then left town. The hurt still lingers. But so does that crazy spark. And if they have to work together to set up her family winery’s new tasting room by Christmas, why not work him out of her system with a sizzling affair?
Thirteen years ago, Liam’s boss at the winery offered him a bribe—leave his teenage daughter alone and get a full ride at college. Convinced he wasn’t good enough for Sabrina, Liam took it. Now he’s back, as wealthy as sin and with a heart as cold as the Oregon snow. Or so he keeps telling himself. Because the girl he vowed to stay away from has become the only woman he needs, and this Christmas could be just the beginning of a lifetime together…
Though being a favorite in their household growing up would never have meant much, Liam was confident that as much as both of his parents disdained their younger son, Alex, they hated Liam more.
As much as his brothers loved him—or, whatever you wanted to call their brand of affection—Liam knew he wasn’t the one they’d carry out if there was a house fire. That was fine too.
It wasn’t self-pity. It was just a fact.
But while he wasn’t anyone’s particular favorite, he knew he was at least one person’s least favorite.
Sabrina Leighton hated him with every ounce of her beautiful, petite body. Not that he blamed her. But, considering they were having a business meeting today, he did hope that she could keep some of the hatred bottled up.
Liam got out of his truck and put his cowboy hat on, surveying his surroundings. The Grassroots winery spread was beautiful, with a large, picturesque home overlooking the grounds. The winery and the road leading up to it were carved into a mountainside. Trees and forest surrounded the facility on three sides, creating a secluded feeling. Like the winery was part of another world. In front of the first renovated barn was a sprawling lawn and a path that led down to the river. There was a seating area there and Liam knew that during the warmer months it was a nice place to hang out. Right now, it was too damned cold, and the damp air that blew up from the rushing water sent a chill straight through him.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and kept on walking. There were three rustic barns on the property that they used for weddings and dinners, and one that had been fully remodeled into a dining and tasting room.
He had seen the new additions online. He hadn’t actually been to Grassroots in the past thirteen years. That was part of the deal. The deal that had been struck back when Jamison Leighton was still owner of the place.
Back when Liam had been nothing more than a good-for-nothing, low-class troublemaker with a couple of misdemeanors to his credit.
Liam might still be all of those things at heart, but he was also a successful businessman. And Jamison Leighton no longer owned Grassroots Winery.
Some things, however, hadn’t changed. The presence of Sabrina Leighton being one of them.
It had been thirteen years. But he couldn’t pretend that he thought everything was all right and forgiven. Not considering the way she had reacted when she had seen him at Ace’s bar the past few months. Small towns.
Like everybody was at the same party and could only avoid each other for so long.
If it wasn’t at the bar, they would most certainly end up at a four-way stop at the same time, or in the same aisle at the grocery store.
But today’s meeting would not be accidental. Today’s meeting was planned. He wondered if something would get thrown at him. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
He walked across the gravel lot and into the dining room. It was empty, since the facility had yet to open for the day.
rustic barn with a wooden chandelier hanging in the center. There was a bar with stools positioned at the front, and tables set up around the room. Back when he had worked here there had been one basic tasting room, and nowhere for anyone to sit. Most of the wine had been sent out to retail stores for sale, rather than making the winery itself some kind of destination.
He wondered when all of that had changed. He imagined it had something to do with Lindy, the new owner and ex-wife of Jamison Leighton’s son, Damien. As far as Liam knew, and he knew enough—considering he didn’t get involved with business ventures without figuring out what he was getting into—Damien had drafted the world’s dumbest prenuptial agreement. At least, it was dumb for a man who clearly had problems keeping it in his pants.
Though why Sabrina was still working at the winery when her sister-in-law had current ownership, and her brother had been deposed, and her parents were—from what he had read in public records—apoplectic about the loss of their family legacy, he didn’t know. But he assumed he would find out. About the same time he found out whether or not something was going to get thrown at his head.
The door from the back opened, and he gritted his teeth. Because, no matter how prepared he felt philosophically to see Sabrina, he knew that there would be impact. There always was. A damned funny thing, that one woman could live in the back of his mind the way that she had for so long. That no matter how many years, or how many women he put between them, she still burned bright and hot in his memory.
That no matter how he had prepared himself to run into her—because he knew how small towns worked—the impact was like a brick to the side of his head every single time.
And no matter that this meeting was carefully orchestrated and planned, he knew it was going to be the same.
And it was.
She appeared a moment after the door opened, looking severe. Overly so. Her blond hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, and she was wearing a black sheath dress that went down past her knee, but conformed to curves that were more generous than they’d been thirteen years ago.
In a good way.
“Hello, Liam,” she said, her tone impersonal. Had she not used his first name, it might have been easy to pretend that she didn’t know who he was.
“Sabrina.” The word came out neutrally enough, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that he could taste it. Like honey on his lips. Sweet. Enticing.
Something he hadn’t tasted in far too long.
Sabrina didn’t seem to feel the moment at all. Her expression remained cool. Her lips set in a flat line, her blue eyes looking through him.
“Lindy told me that you wanted to talk about a potential joint venture. And since that falls under my jurisdiction as manager of the tasting room, she thought we might want to work together.”
She finally smiled.
The smile was so brittle it looked like it might crack her face.
“Yes, I am familiar with the details. Particularly since this venture was my idea.” He let a small silence hang there for a beat before continuing. “I’m looking at an empty building at the end of Main Street in Copper Ridge. I think it would be a great opportunity for both The Laughing Irish and for Grassroots. A tasting room that’s more easily accessible to the tourists who come to Copper Ridge.”
“How would it differ from Lane Donnelly’s store? She sells specialty foods.”
“Well, we would focus on Grassroots Wine and Laughing Irish cheese. Also, I would happily purchase products from Lane’s to give the menu a local focus. It would be nothing big. Just a small lunch place with wine. Very limited selection. Very specialty. But in a town like Copper Ridge, that works well. People want wander the historic main street and shop in boutiques. A place that offers the change to sit and have a short break is perfect.”
“Great,” she said, her smile remaining completely immobile.
He took that moment to examine her even more closely. She was more beautiful now than she had been at seventeen. Her slightly round, soft face had refined in the ensuing years, her cheekbones now more prominent, the angle of her chin sharper.
Her eyebrows looked different too. When she’d been a teenager they had been thinner, rounder. Now they were stronger, more angular.
“Great,” he returned. “I guess we can go down and have a look at everything sometime this week. Gage West is the owner of the property, and he hasn’t listed it yet. Handily, my sister-in-law is good friends with his wife. Both of my sisters-in-law, actually. So I’ve got the inside track on that.”
Her expression turned bland. “How impressive.”
She sounded absolutely unimpressed. “It wasn’t intended to be impressive. Just useful.”
Her lips twitched, like she was holding back a smile. But not a particularly nice smile. “Well, aim for what you can achieve I suppose.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t be impressive if I had the mind to be,” he said, unwilling to let that dig go.
Her lips twitched again, bit this time he sensed a lot more irritation than he had before. “That won’t be necessary.” She cleared her throat. “Lindy and I had discussed a shopfront in Gold Valley, since it’s slightly closer to the winery, and at the moment retail space is cheaper there. Why are you thinking Copper Ridge? Aside from the fact that it’s closer to your ranch.”
. It’s definitely on its way, but it’s not there yet.”
“But it’s on its way like you said. Property values are only going to go up.”
“Property values in Copper Ridge already have. And oceanside real estate isn’t going to get cheaper. At the price Gage is willing to sell for we’ll come in with equity.”
She looked irritated, but clearly didn’t have another argument ready. She sighed slowly. “Did you have a day of the week in mind to go view the property? Because I really am very busy.”
“Yes,” she responded, that smile spreading over her face again. “This is a very demanding job, plus, I do have a life.”
She stopped short of saying exactly what that life entailed.
“Too busy to work on this project, which is part of your actual job?” he asked.
She looked calm, but he could sense a dark energy beneath the surface that spoke of a need to savage him. “I had my schedule sorted out for the next couple of weeks. This is coming together more quickly than expected.”
“I’ll work something out with Gage and give Lindy a call, how about that?”
“You don’t have to call Lindy. I’ll give you my phone number. You can call or text me directly.”
She reached over to the counter and chose a card from the rustic surface, extending her hand toward him. He took the card, their fingertips brushing each other as they made the handoff.
And he felt it. Straight down to his groin, where he had always felt things for her, even though it was impossible. Even though he was all wrong for her. And even though now they were doing a business deal together, and she looked like she would cheerfully chew through his flesh if given half the chance.
She might be smiling. But he didn’t trust that smile. He was still waiting. Waiting for her to shout recriminations at him now that they were alone. Every other time he had encountered her over the past four months it had been in public. Twice in Ace’s bar, and once walking down the street, where she had made a very quick sharp left to avoid walking past him.
It had not been subtle, and it had certainly not spoken of somebody who was over the past.
So, his assumption had been that if the two of them were ever alone she was going to let them have it. But she didn’t. Instead, she gave him that card, and then began to look…bored.
“Did you need anything else?” she asked, still looking determinedly cheerful.
“Not really. Though I have some spreadsheet information that you might want to look over. Ideas that I have for the layout, the menu. It is getting a little ahead of ourselves, in case we end up not liking the venue.”
“You’ve been to look at the venue already, haven’t you?” It was vaguely accusatory.
“I have been to the venue, yes. But again, I believe in preparedness. I was hardly going to get very deep into this if I didn’t think it was viable. Personally, I’m interested in making sure that we have diverse interests. The economy doesn’t typically favor farms, Sabrina. And that is essentially what my brothers and I have. I expect an uphill fight to make the ranch successful.”
She tilted her head to the side. “And yet, our winery is well-established and very healthy.”
“But Lindy wants to expand, I’m not incorrect about that. She was very interested in this proposition, and not only that, she’s started hosting weddings and farm-to-table dinners, right?”
“You know you’re right,” she said. “Like you said, you do your research.”
Her friendliness was beginning to slip. And he waited. For something else. For something to get thrown at him. It didn’t happen.
“That I do. Take these,” he said, handing her the folder that he was holding on to. He made sure their fingers didn’t touch this time. “And we’ll talk next week.”
Then he turned and walked away from her, and resisted the strong impulse to turn back and get one more glance at her. It wasn’t the first time he had resisted that.
Everyone in town knows that Christmas in Twilight has a way of bringing lovers together . . . but will its magic bring this pair from “I won’t” to “I do”?
Wearing a too-tight “Santa Baby” costume held in by a double pair of Spanx, Paige MacGregor runs headlong into a gorgeous, grey-eyed hunk of a long, tall cowboy. And not just any cowboy, but country-western star Cash Colton, visiting Twilight to perform in a charity concert. Most women would melt at his feet, but Paige knows all too much about self-assured men with cocky attitudes, so she tells him to get lost.
Cash is in town, nursing his own broken heart, but Paige has knocked him off his feet. He’s convinced she’s perfect—someone to inspire his music and share his now-empty bed. True, he’s not marriage material, but he’s determined to convince her that they’re perfect together—at least for a while. But what he doesn’t count on is falling in love with the one woman who isn’t about to give him the time of day!
“Always remember. . .” Lorena Colton cupped her ten-year-old son’s face in her palms, and stared deeply into his eyes.
She lay propped up in the hospital bed against three hard plastic pillows, and wore a thin white gown with tiny blue squares printed on it. The room smelled of Lysol, wilting flowers, and something darker, uglier. Her skin was spaghetti-squash yellow, and her lips the color of sidewalk chalk. A tube, attached to a bag of liquid, twisted into a vein in her arm like a clear plastic snake.
“Always remember . . .”
Cash hauled in a breath, fisted his hands at his sides, and shifted his gaze to the smiling, paper Santa Claus taped to the wall above his mother’s head, and waited for her words of wisdom.
“Never fall in love.”
Granny stood at the end of the bed, a deep frown pulling her mouth down, arms folded tight over her chest. Grandpa hovered near the closed door, Stetson cocked back on his head, looking just as stony, but less certain of it.
“Love is a trap,” Lorena rasped, her lungs rattling thick and wet. “Don’t fall for it. You’re special, Cash . . .”
She paused, coughed violently into a tissue. Wheezed. Started again. “You’ve got talent. So much talent.”
A hot shiver ran through Cash, landed hard in his belly. Burst. Bloomed.
“You can be somebody.” Her voice was low, her lips cracked and dry, eyes glistening with fever. “Don’t ever let a pretty face and hot body suck you into giving up your dreams.”
“Lorena!” Granny snapped. “That’s a horrible thing to tell a child!”
Summoning the last bit of strength in her, Lorena glared at Granny. “Cash is destined for great things, but not if he lets an ordinary life trip him up. He needs to know that.”
“He needs love. Everyone needs love,” Grandpa said, stuffing his long broad hands into the pockets of his faded jeans and hunching his shoulders forward.
“Then let him love Euterpe.”
“Who the hell is Euterpe?” Grandpa looked confused.
But Cash knew. His mother had been telling him about the Muses since he was a toddler.
“Euterpe is one of the nine Greek Muses.” Lorena’s voice grew softer still, losing strength the longer she talked, flickering, fading. “Euterpe…is the goddess of music, song, and dance.”
“There’s no such thing as a Muse.” Granny moved to cover Cash’s ears with her palms. “Stop filling the boy’s head with nonsense or he’ll end up just like you.”
Cash squirmed away from Granny, perched on the edge of his mother’s bed.
“Told ya we shouldn’t have sent her to that fancy school,” Grandpa mumbled. “It gave her funny ideas.”
“You’re the one who bought her the guitar,” Granny accused.
“Falling heedlessly in love got me here.” His mother struggled to sit straight up, her eyes flashing fierce for the first time since his grandparents had brought him into the room. For a moment she was her old self again. “Not education. Not the Muses, and certainly not the guitar. Music is the only decent thing in my life. My only saving grace.”
What about me? Cash bit his thumbnail. Aren’t I decent?
“I passed it on to you, Cash.” Lorena collapsed back onto the pillows that crinkled when she landed. “The music. My talent. That’s why you can’t ever let love lead you astray. You can make it as a musician where I failed.” Her voice was thin, evaporating.
He could hardly hear her, and he leaned closer.
“You can be famous, Cash, and rich beyond your wildest dreams. Just don’t let love lead you astray. Not ever.”
“This is wrong.” Grandpa shook his head like a windmill trembling in a West Texas sandstorm. “Wrong in so many ways.”
“Hush.” Granny grabbed his elbow and pulled him aside, and said in an angry whisper, “She’s dying. Let her say what she needs to say. We can fix it later. We won’t fail him the way we failed her.”
“Pick it up.” Lorena looked at Cash and waved a wispy hand at her guitar propped in the corner. The guitar she had never let him touch.
Cash hesitated, wondering if he’d misunderstood, wondering if it was a trick. Mom could be fickle like that. Tell him to do something, and then get mad when he did.
“Go on,” she prodded.
Granny and Grandpa huddled near the door, looking as uncertain as he felt. Granny laid a restraining hand on Grandpa’s shoulder, shook her head.
Cash eased toward the guitar, and cautiously picked it up.
“It’s yours now,” his mother said. “My Christmas gift to you.”
His heart caught fire, flamed. She was giving him her Gibson? It felt wonderful and terrible at the same time. Why was she giving him her most beloved possession?
Cash frowned, chewed his bottom lip. He didn’t like this. Giving away her guitar made no sense.
No. No. A creepy feeling crawled over the back of his neck.
And yet, and yet. . . he wanted that guitar. Wanted it with every muscle, cell, and bone in his body. Wanted, yearned, craved.
His mother closed her eyes, her hands flopping to her sides as if they were too heavy for her to hold up, and her chest barely rose when she inhaled.
“Mommy?” Cash called her the name he hadn’t said since he was a toddler. These days, he mostly called her Lorena, because she asked him to. She didn’t want people thinking she was old enough to have a son his age.
“Play for me, Cashie,” she murmured without opening her eyes. “Play “Stone Free.’”
From the doorway, Grandpa snorted. Granny nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. “Wrong,” Grandpa muttered. “So wrong.”
Reverently, Cash cradled the Gibson, sat in the chair next to his mother’s bed, his fingers strumming the first notes of the Jimi Hendrix anthem to restlessness. His mother’s favorite song. The first tune she’d ever taught him to play on the cheap pawnshop guitar she’d given him for his sixth birthday.
He sang the lyrics about freedom and rebellion. Sang as if he would never have the chance to sing again. Sang with all the heart and soul he possessed.
Sang and sang and sang.
Several nurses crowded into the room, watching him with wide eyes and opened mouths. Impressed.
Cash paid them no mind. He was playing for his mother. Giving it his all. Everything. Left nothing on the table.
His fingers flew over the strings, his voice ringing out clear and certain with each guitar lick. He’d never played so masterfully.
He was the music and the music was he.
No separation. No thought. Nothing but experience.
Sound. Vibration. Rhythm.
Jimi Hendrix lived inside him, through him.
As Cash sang the last line, the last words “bye-bye baby,” Lorena—his mother, the woman he’d tried so hard to please but could never seem to make happy—smiled softly, took her last breath, and finally flew free.