Today, I’m happy to bring you a peek at HEART LIKE A COWBOY with an excerpt from Dolores Fossen’s latest novel for Canary Street Press. Her novels have always been emotional and full of fabulous scenery and even more interesting characters, and this first installment in a new series promises more of the same.
That whole deal about bad news coming in threes? Well, it was a crock. Lieutenant Colonel Egan Don- nelly now had proof of it.
First, there’d been the unexpected visitor, AKA the messenger, who’d started the whole bad-news ball rolling. That’d teach him to open his frickin’ door before he’d even finished his frickin’ coffee.
Then, there was the so-called celebration that would stir up the worst of his past and serve it up to him on a silver platter. Or rather on a disposable paper plate, anyway.
Then, a letter from his ex, which he figured was never a good sign. Who the heck actually wanted to hear from their cheating ex? Not him, that was for sure.
Those were the three things—count them: one, two, three—that was supposed to have been the final tally of bad crap even if for only a day, but apparently the creator of that old saying had no credibility what- soever. Then again, Egan had known firsthand that bad news didn’t have limited quantities.
Or expiration dates.
Now he was faced with ironclad confirmation that
those other three things were piddly-ass drops in the proverbial bucket compared to bad-news number four.
And now, everything in his world was crashing and burning.
Thirty Minutes Earlier
In the dream, Lieutenant Colonel Egan Donnelly saved his best friend’s life. In the dream, the explosion didn’t happen. It didn’t blast through the scorched, airless night. Didn’t tear apart the transport vehicle.
Didn’t leave blood on the bleached sand.
In the dream, Egan was the hero that so many people proclaimed he was. He made just the right decisions to save everyone, including Jack. Especially Jack.
Egan didn’t fight tooth and nail to come out of this dream—unlike the ones that were basically a blow-by-blow account of what had actually happened that god-awful night nearly three years ago. Those dreams were pits of the darkest level of hell where everything spun and bashed, stomping him down deeper and deeper into the real nightmare. Those dreams he fought.
Because Egan had learned the hard way if he let those dreams play out, then it was a damn hard struggle to come back from them. Heck, he was still trying to come back from them.
Despite wanting to linger in this particular dream
where he got to play hero, it didn’t happen, thanks to his phone dinging with a text. He frowned, noticing that it was barely six in the morning. Texts at this hour usually were not good. Considering that all three of his siblings were on active duty, not good could be really bad.
He saw his father’s name on the screen, and the worry instantly tightened Egan’s gut. His dad had just turned sixty so while he wasn’t in the “one foot in the grave” stage, he wasn’t the proverbial spring chicken, either. Added to that, his dad still ran the day-to-day operation of Saddlebrook, the family’s ranch in Emerald Creek, Texas. The ranch that’d been in the Donnelly family for over a hundred years and had grown and grown and grown with each succeeding generation. All that growth required hours of upkeep and work.
Found this when I was going through some old photo albums, his dad had texted.
What the heck? That gut tightness eased up, some, when Egan saw it was a slightly off-center image taken in front of the main barn on the ranch. His dad had obviously used his phone to take a picture of the old photo. Emphasis on old.
It was a shot that his grandmother, Effie, had snapped thirty years ago on Egan’s eighth birthday. His brother, Cal, would have been six. His sister, Remi, a two-year-old toddler, and his other brother, Blue, was just four. Stairsteps, people called them, since they’d all been born just two years apart.
In the photo, his dad, looking lean, fit and young,
was in the center, flanked by Egan and Remi on the right, and Cal and Blue on the left. Remi and Blue were both grinning big toothy grins. Cal and Egan weren’t. Probably because they’d been old enough to understand that life as they’d known it was over.
Their lives hadn’t exactly gone to hell in a handbasket, but this particular shot had been taken only a couple of weeks after their mother had died from cancer. A long agonizing death that had left their dad the widower of four young kids. Still, his dad was eking out a smile in the picture, and he’d managed to gather all four of them in his outstretched arms.
That’s when their mom’s mom, Grammy Effie, had come to Saddlebrook for what was supposed to have been a couple of months, until his dad got his footing. Effie was still living on the ranch thirty years later and had obviously put down roots as deep as his father’s.
Egan was wondering what had prompted his dad to go digging through old family albums when his phone dinged again. It was another text from his dad, another photo. It was an image that Egan also knew well, and he mentally referred to it as the start of phase two of his life.
The first phase had been with a loving mother that sadly he now couldn’t even remember. That had ended with her death. Phase two had begun when his dad had gotten remarried four years later to a young fresh-faced Captain Audrey Granger, who’d then been stationed at the very base in San Antonio
where Egan was now. It was an hour’s commute to the ranch that Audrey had diligently made.
For a while, anyway.
In this shot, his dad and new bride dressed in blue were in the center, and both were flashing giddy smiles. Ditto for Remi and Blue. Again, no smiles for Cal and Egan since they’d been ten and twelve respectively and were no doubt holding back on the glee to see how life with their stepmom would all play out.
It hadn’t played out especially well.
But then, it also hadn’t hit anywhere near the “hell in a handbasket” mark, either.
If there’d been a family photo taken just two years later, though, Audrey probably wouldn’t have been in it. By then, she’d been in Germany. Or maybe England. Instead of an hour commute, she’d come “home” to the ranch a couple of times a year. Then, as her career had blossomed, the visits had gotten further and further apart. These days, Brigadier General Audrey Donnelly only came home on Christmas. If that.
Egan sent his dad a thumbs-up emoji to let him know he’d seen the pictures, and he was considering an actual reply to ask if all was well, but his alarm went off. He got up, mentally going through his schedule for the day. As the commander of the Fighter Training Squadron at Randolph AFB, Texas, there’d be the usual paperwork, going over some stats for the pilots in training, and then in the afternoon, he’d get to do one of the things he loved most.
Of course, it would be under the guise of a training mission in the T-38C Talon jet, not the F-16 that Egan used to pilot, but it would still give him that hit of adrenaline. Still give him the reminder of why he’d first joined the Navy and then had transferred to the Air Force so he could continue to stay in the cockpit.
Egan showered, put on his flight suit, read through his emails on his phone and was about halfway through his first cup of coffee when his doorbell rang. He had the same reaction to it as he had the earlier text. A punch of dread that something was wrong. It wasn’t even seven o’clock yet and hardly the time for visitors. Especially since he lived in base housing and therefore wasn’t on the traditional beaten path for friends or family to just drop by.
Frowning, he went to the door. And Egan frowned some more when he looked through the peephole at the visitor on his porch. A woman with pulled back dark blond hair and vivid green eyes. At first glance, he thought it was his ex-wife, Colleen, someone he definitely didn’t want to see, but this was a slightly younger, taller version of the woman who’d left him for another man.
Alana Davidson, Colleen’s sister.
“Yes, I know it’s early,” Alana sighed and said loud enough for him to hear while she looked directly at the peephole. “Sorry about that.”
Wondering what the heck this was all about, he opened the door and got an immediate blast of heat. Texas in June started out hot as hell and got even hotter. Today was apparently no exception. He also
got another immediate blast of concern because there was nothing about Alana’s expression that indicated this was a social visit.
Then again, Alana and he never had social visits.
Just too much old baggage, old wounds and old everything else between them. Ironic, since she’d been married to his best friend. Now, she was his dead best friend’s widow and bore that strong resemblance to his cheating ex-wife who’d left him just days before Jack’s death.
Egan was no doubt an unwelcome sight for her, too. He was the man who’d not only failed to keep her husband alive, but he was also the reason Jack had been in that transport vehicle in the first place.
So, yeah, old baggage galore.
“Sorry,” Alana repeated, looking up at him. Not looking at him for long, though. Like their avoidance of social visits, they didn’t do a lot of eye contact, either. “But I have an appointment at the base hospital in an hour, and I wanted to catch you before you went into work.”
“The hospital?” he automatically questioned.
She waved it off, clearly picking up on his concern that something might be medically wrong with her. “I’m consulting with a colleague on a chief master sergeant who’s being medically retired and moving to Emerald Creek. I’ll be working with the chief to come up with some lifestyle changes.”
Alana made that seem like her norm, and maybe it was. She was a dietitian, and because as Jack’s widow
she still had a military ID card so she wouldn’t have had any trouble getting onto the base. Added to that, Emerald Creek was a haven for retirees and veterans since it was so close to three large military installations. There were almost as many combat boots as cowboy boots in Emerald Creek.
“How’d you know where I live?” he asked.
“I got your address from your grandmother.” She glanced over her shoulder at the street of houses. “I occasionally have consults here, but it’s the first time I’ve been to this part of the base.”
Yeah, his particular house wasn’t near the hospital, commissary or base exchange store where Alana would be more apt to go. Added to that, Jack had never been stationed here, which meant Alana had never lived here, either.
“Full disclosure,” she said the moment he shut the door. “You aren’t going to like any of what I have to say.”
Now it was Egan who sighed and braced himself for Alana to finally do something he’d expected her to do for three years. Scream and yell at him for allowing Jack to die. But there was no raised voice or obvious surge of anger. Instead, she took out a piece of paper from her sizeable handbag and thrust it at him.
“It’s a mock-up of a flyer that Jack’s mom intends to have printed up and sent to everyone in her known universe,” Alana explained.
At first glance, he saw that the edges of the flyer had little pictures of barbecue grills, fireworks, the
American flag and military insignia. Egan intended to just scan it to get the gist of what it was about, but the scanning came to a stumbling slow crawl as he tried to take in what he was reading.
“Join us for a Life Celebration for Major Jack Connor Davidson, July Fourth, at the Emerald Creek City Park. It’ll be an afternoon of food, festivities and remembrance as a celebratory memorial painting for Jack will be unveiled by our own Top Gun hometown hero, Lieutenant Colonel Egan Donnelly.”
Well, hell. Both sentences were full-on gut punches and thick gobs of emotional baggage. Memorial. Life celebration. Remembrances. The icing on that gob was the last part.
Top Gun hometown hero.
Egan was, indeed, a former Top Gun. He’d won the competition a dozen years ago when he’d been a navy lieutenant flying F-16s. The hometown part was accurate, too, since he’d been born and raised in Emerald Creek, but that hero was the biggest of big-assed lies.
“I can’t go,” Egan heard himself say once he’d managed to clear the lump in his throat.
She nodded as if that were the exact answer she’d expected. “I’m guessing you’ll be on duty?”
He’d make damn sure he was, but wasn’t it ironic that the memorial celebration would fall on the one weekend of the month he usually went home to help his dad on the family ranch? Maybe Jack’s mom knew that, or maybe the woman just believed that such an event would be a good fit for the Fourth of July.
Barbecue, hot dogs, beer and such didn’t go well with the crapload of memories something like that would stir. He didn’t need a memorial or a life celebration to remember Jack. Egan remembered him daily, hourly even, and after three years, the grief and guilt hadn’t lost any steam.
“I’ll let Tilly know you can’t be there,” Alana said, referring to Jack’s mother. “She’s mentioned contacting your stepmom to see if she could be there for the unveiling.”
“Good luck with that,” he muttered, and Alana’s sound of agreement confirmed that she understood it was a long shot.
What would likely end up happening was that his brother Cal would get roped into doing the “honors.” He’d known Jack, and Cal’s need to do the right thing would have him stepping in.
“The last time I ran into Tilly, she didn’t want to discuss anything involving Jack’s death,” Egan recalled.
Alana nodded. “That’s still true. Nothing about how he died, et cetera. She only wants to chat about the things he did when he was alive.”
“So, why do a memorial painting?” Egan wanted to know.
“I’m not sure, but it’s possible the painting will be another life celebration deal that she’ll want hung in some prominent part of town like city hall or the library. In other words, maybe the painting will have nothing to do with Jack even being in the military.
Tilly was proud of him,” she quickly added. “But she’s never fully wrapped her mind around losing him.”
That made sense. The one time he’d tried to talk to her about Jack’s death, she’d shut him down. As if not talking about his death would somehow breathe some life back into him.
“There’s one more thing,” Alana went on, and this time she took a pale yellow envelope from her purse and handed it to him. “It’s a letter from Colleen.”
Egan had already reached for it but yanked back his hand as if the envelope were a coiled rattler ready to sink its fangs into his flesh. The mention of his ex-wife tended to do that. Memories of Colleen didn’t fall into the “hell on steroids” category like Jack’s. More like the “don’t let the door hit your cheating ass” category. Colleen had obviously liked that direction just fine since she hadn’t spoken a word to him since the divorce.
He glanced at the envelope, scowled. “A letter? Is it some kind of twelve-step deal about making amends or something?” he asked.
Alana shook her head. “No, I think it’s a living will of sorts.”
That erased his scowl. “Is Colleen dying?”
“Not that I know of, but she apparently decided she wanted to make her last wishes known. She sent letters for me, our aunt and your dad. I have his if you want to give it to him.”
Egan reached out again to stop her from retrieving it, and Alana used the opportunity to put the letter for him in his hand. “I don’t want this,” he insisted.
“Totally understand. I read mine,” she admitted. “Along with spelling out her end-of-life wishes—cremation, no funeral, no headstone—she wants us to have some sister time, like a vacation or something.”
Egan had no idea how much contact Alana and Colleen had with each other these days, but it was possible when Colleen had walked out on him, she’d also walked out on Alana. He thought he detected some animosity in Alana’s tone and expression.
He went straight to the trash can in the adjoining kitchen and tossed the envelope on top of the oozing heap of the sticky chicken rice bowl that had been at least a week past its prime when he’d dumped it the night before.
“I’m not interested in wife time with her,” he muttered, knowing he sounded bitter and hating that he still was.
Unlike what he was still going through with Jack, though, his grief and anger with Colleen had trickled down to almost nothing. Almost. He now just considered her a mistake and was glad she was out of his life. Some days, he could even hope that she was happy with the Mr. Wonderful artist that she’d left him for.
When he turned back to Alana, he saw she had watched the letter trashing, and she was now combing those jeweled green eyes over his face as if trying to suss out what was going on in his head. Egan decided to diffuse that with a question that fell into
the polite small talk that would have happened had this been a normal visit.
“Uh, how are you doing?” he asked. On the surface, that didn’t seem to be a safe area of conversation since it could lead to that screaming rant over his huge part in her husband’s death. But Egan realized he would welcome the rant.
Because he deserved it.
Alana took a deep breath. “Well, despite nearly everyone in town deciding I should live out the rest of my life as a widow, I’ve started dating again.”
That got his attention. Not because he hadn’t known about the town’s feelings. And not because he believed she shouldn’t have a second chance at romance. But Egan had thought she didn’t want such a chance, that she was still as buried in the past as he was. Apparently not.
“I’m only doing virtual dating for now,” she went on, not sounding especially thrilled with that. “Last week, I had a virtual date with a guy who has six goats and eleven chickens in his one-bedroom apartment in Houston.”
Egan didn’t especially want to smile, but he did, anyway. “Sounds like a prize catch. You’d never have to buy eggs again. Or fertilizer.”
She shrugged. “He was a prize compared to the one I had the week before. Within the first minute of conversation, he wanted to know the circumference of my nipples.” Alana stopped, her eyes widening as if she hadn’t expected to share that.
Egan smiled again, but this one was forced. He
hadn’t wanted Alana to think he was shocked or offended, though he was indeed shocked. He’d never considered nipple size one way or another.
He’d especially never considered anything about Alana’s nipples.
And he hated that was now in his head. That kind of stuff could mess with things that already had a shaky status quo.
“Dating at thirty-five isn’t as much a ‘fish in the sea’ situation as it is more of a, uh, well, swamp,” Alana explained. “Think scaly critters, slithery, that sort of thing, with the potential and hope that some actual fish lingering about will eventually come out of hiding.”
That didn’t sound appealing at all, but then he hadn’t had to hit any of the dating sites. He could thank the eternal string of matchmakers for that. Unlike the widowed Alana, apparently everyone thought a divorced guy in his thirties shouldn’t be solo. Especially a guy who’d had his “heart broken” when his wife had walked out on him right before his best friend had been killed.
“How about you?” she asked, clearly aiming for a change of subject and her own shot at small talk. “Have you jumped into dating waters?”
He shook his head. “Too busy.”
She broke their unwritten rule by locking her gaze with his for a second or two. “Yeah. Busy,” she repeated. And it sounded as if that were code for a whole bunch of things. For instance, wounded. Damaged. Guarded. Guilty.
All of the above applied to him.
It was hard for Egan to think about his happiness when he’d robbed Jack of his. Busy, though, was a much safer term for it.
“Well, I gotta go,” Alana said when the silence turned awkward, as it always did between them. “I’ll let Tilly know you won’t be at the life celebration so she can find someone else to do the unveiling.”
Egan frowned when a thought occurred to him. “She won’t ask you to do it, will she?” Because he couldn’t imagine that it’d be any easier for Alana than it would be for him.
“No.” Another sigh went with that. “Tilly still has me firmly in the ‘grieving widow’ category, which apparently will preclude me from lifting a veil on a painting and doing other things such as dating or appearing too happy when I’m in public.”
He wanted to ask, Aren’t you still a grieving widow? But that would go well beyond small talk. It could lead to an actual conversation that would drag feelings and emotions to the surface. No way did he want to deal with that.
Obviously, Alana wasn’t on board for such a chat, either, because she headed for the door, giving him a forced smile and a quick glance before she left and went to her car. Egan watched her, doling out his own forced smile and what had to be a stupid-looking wave.
Since he didn’t want to stand around and think about this visit, Colleen’s trashed letter—or Alana’s nipples—he grabbed his flight cap and keys so he could go to his truck. He barely made it a step, though, before his phone dinged with another text.
Great. Another photo trip down memory lane.
But it wasn’t.
It was his father’s name on the screen, but there was no picture. Only six words that sent Egan’s heart to his knees.
Get to Emerald Creek Hospital now.
Excerpted from Heart Like a Cowboy by Delores Fossen. Copyright © 2023 by Delores Fossen. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
About HEART LIKE A COWBOY (Cowboy Brothers in Arms #1)
On Sale: November 28, 2023; 384 Pages, Canary Street Press
He’s Emerald Creek’s hottest cowboy—and the one man she shouldn’t want
On the surface, Egan Donnelly is hometown hero material—top gun, commanding an elite fighter training squadron and ranching royalty. Inside, he feels like a fraud, convinced he’s responsible for his best friend’s death. At least he won’t let himself succumb to the heat between him and Jack’s widow, Alana. Yet. Now that she’s making regular trips to his ranch to care for his dad, that vow is getting harder to keep.
Alana Davidson isn’t just grieving her husband’s loss, she’s feeling betrayed over his secret infidelity. Wanting Egan makes things even more complicated. As a nutritionist, she can help Egan’s dad recover from his health scare, but it’s not so easy to get her own heart back on track. Because despite shared guilt and family pressure, she’s falling fast, and Egan is right there with her…
Find HEART LIKE A COWBOY
About Delores Fossen
USA Today bestselling author, Delores Fossen, has sold over 70 novels with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She’s received the Booksellers’ Best Award, the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award and was a finalist for the prestigious Rita ®. In addition, she’s had nearly a hundred short stories and articles published in national magazines. You can contact the author through her webpage at www.deloresfossen.com.
Connect with Delores Fossen
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