Excerpt: Cowboy Pride

Excerpt: Cowboy Pride

Book 5: Tanner Brothers Series

Chapter One

“I’m going to take art lessons,” Tuck said.

Jed McCall turned from the stove to stare at his nephew, as amazed as if Tuck had just announced he was going to run away and join the circus. As far as Jed was concerned, a circus would have made more sense.  “Art lessons?”

Tuck nodded. “Felicity thinks it would be a good idea.” He lifted his version of the don’t-mess-with-me McCall chin and met Jed’s gaze, unblinking. He didn’t have to look up as far this year, Jed noticed. The boy was ten now and getting kind of lanky — not quite to the awkward stage yet, but close. Like a pup trying to grow into its feet. Jed remembered the feeling.

“Felicity thinks that, does she?” He banged the frying pan on top of the stove and slapped in a knife’s worth of congealed bacon grease. It sizzled and spattered. He cracked an egg and wished for an instant it was Felicity Jones’s meddling head. 

His boss Taggart Jones’s new wife, Felicity, had been Tuck’s teacher last year. Obviously, even though Felicity had passed the boy on, she was still keeping her hand in — and her suggestions. In fact Jed liked Felicity — when she wasn’t meddling in his life. A pretty blonde with dimples to die for, Felicity had a smile that would curl a man’s toes and a heart as big as the Montana sky.

She’d come to Elmer only the year before, but it hadn’t taken her long to make an impact on the community. Especially on Taggart.

Jed had been as surprised as anyone when they’d got married last November. Still, he thought Taggart had made a good choice this time. After his disastrous first marriage, Taggart hadn’t wanted a woman in his life anymore than Jed did, though for very different reasons — and he probably wouldn’t have one, either, Jed thought, if it hadn’t been for his meddling daughter, Becky.

What was it with women? he wondered now, grimacing. He cracked another egg next to the first and slopped some of the melting grease over both.

“Well, good for Felicity,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “An’ she’s probably right, too,” he added honestly. “You do have talent. But where hell does she think you’re going to get art lessons around here?”

Elmer, Montana, seven miles away, was the closest town. And while Elmer was useful for getting your horse trailer welded or buying milk and bread, it wasn’t exactly the hub of the western cultural world. Among its 218 or so inhabitants, art teachers were not exactly thick on the ground.

Now if Felicity had suggested acting lessons . . . 

Thanks to the sudden influx of rich California yuppies, you couldn’t throw a rope these days without lassoing a movie star, Jed thought wryly. But art teachers? They didn’t make enough money to live around here.

Neither did he, come to that. If his foreman’s job hadn’t come with housing, Jed could never have afforded to stay on in the valley. As it was, he made enough to get by, but not enough to pay an art teacher! He shook his head at Felicity’s well-meant but lame-brained notion and scooped more grease over the eggs, frying the tops without turning them over.

“It won’t cost anything,” Tuck said as if reading his mind.

“You got an art teacher up your sleeve, do you?”

“Felicity does.” He paused. “Brenna.”

Grease spattered against Jed’s hand. He didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel anything — except the shaft of cold white panic shooting straight through him, from his ears to his brain to his groin and straight on down to his toes.

“Brenna Jamison,” Tuck clarified, as if there could be another. “You know her, don’t you? Old Mr. Jamison’s daughter. The artist from New York. Felicity asked her.”

Tuck looked at him eagerly, but Jed didn’t reply, just stood, riveted, the grease spattering on his hand.

“She said Brenna was an artist, not a teacher really,” Tuck went on when Jed still didn’t speak, “but that talent like mine should be encouraged — and, well, what did we have to lose?” Finally Tuck edged around so he could see his uncle. “You’re burning those eggs!” 

Jed moved at last. Jerked, really. Yanked his burned hand back, shaking it, scattering drops of hot grease everywhere, swearing under his breath.

Tuck jumped back. Jed scraped the eggs out of the pan and slapped them onto a plate. His hand was shaking. He flattened it on the countertop. Swallowed. Dragged a desperate breath up from his lungs.

“What happened?” Tuck demanded, watching his uncle worriedly.

“Nothin’ happened.” It was hard to even form the words. They were apparently unconvincing in any case.

Tuck was looking at him still, his expression concerned. “You okay? You sure?”

Jed gave him a hard look. Of course he was fine. It was the surprise, that was all. He took another deep breath, then another. And another.

Brenna. The name pounded in his head. 

“So,” Tuck said after a moment, apparently convinced now, his concern gone, his voice vibrating with cheerful little-boy eagerness again. “Brenna Jamison’s gonna teach me! What do you think of that?”

“No,” Jed said.

There was a moment of disbelieving silence. Then Tuck said, “No? What do you mean, no?”

“Just no.” Jed studied his fingers, then flexed them slowly. Calmly? Ha.

“But —”

Jed’s head snapped around and he fixed his nephew with a glower. “I said no. You don’t need art lessons!”

Tuck pressed his lips together in a tight line, looking exactly like Jed’s kid sister, Marcy — Tuck’s mother — had looked whenever someone had tried to stand in her way. “That don’t make sense. You just said Felicity was right. And Brenna will teach me for nothin’. She told me so.”

It was like a punch in the gut. “You asked her?”

“Felicity did, this afternoon when Brenna came to school to see my stuff. She liked it. She said so,” Tuck said firmly when Jed looked doubtful. “We’re starting with drawing, ’cause I’ve done some already. I showed her when she dropped me off.”

Jed’s fingers sought the spatula, strangled it. “Dropped you off where?” A pause. “Here?

“How was I gonna get home otherwise? I missed the bus. I figured you’d be out on the range. And here’s where my drawings are.” It was perfectly logical to Tuck.

“I was working in the barn,” Jed said tightly more to himself than to the boy. God, he could have walked out and run right into her!

If Tuck noticed the non-sequitur, he didn’t comment. “She didn’t mind bringin’ me. She wanted to see my drawings.”

Jed licked suddenly parched lips. “You brought her in the house?”

Tuck blinked at his tone. “She isn’t Madger the Badger, you know,” he said, guessing wrongly what Jed’s objection was. “She doesn’t care how we live. Besides we cleaned up good for Madger just th’other day. It doesn’t look too bad yet.”

Madger the Badger was Madge Bowen of some department of bureaucratic folderol. She’d been nosing around since last spring, sicced on them by some do-gooding yuppies who thought a hard-riding, tough-minded, simple-living cowboy was a questionable influence on a growing boy. Up until a minute ago she was the last person Jed ever wanted in his house nosing around. He hadn’t considered Brenna a possibility.

“She liked my drawings.” Tuck jerked his head toward the wall where they hung. “She said I had a lot of potential and she’d be pleased to teach me. So what do you think of that!”

Jed thought he was being sucked into quicksand. He glanced toward the spot above the table where he’d hung half a dozen of Tuck’s pencil sketches of last spring’s branding. They were framed in rough wood that he had knocked together not exactly professionally, and they were the best thing in the room.

Brenna had been in this rough, bare room? She had seen not only the sketches, but the worn rug and sparse furnishings in the two room cabin he and Tuck called home? Jed felt a hot curl of shame begin to burn inside him. Would she think he couldn’t provide better than this? That he had nothing more to show for a dozen years than two rooms that didn’t even belong to him?

“She didn’t notice the house,” Tuck was saying earnestly. “She isn’t like Madger, pokin’ her nose in everywhere. She just looked at my drawings. I wanted her to know she wouldn’t be wastin’ her time teachin’ me. She’s pretty famous, you know.”

Jed knew. The whole damn valley knew. Hell, most of the western art world knew all about talented artist Brenna Jamison. The pen and watercolor paintings she made of her Montana ranch heritage were famous far beyond the Shields Valley. In fact they’d propelled her clear out of the state in which she’d been born. She’d gone away to art school eleven years before, and she hadn’t been back — except for the occasional visit — until her old man had had a stroke in July.

Jed had heard she was here to stay.

He profoundly hoped not.