“YOU’VE GOT A curse on you, Lawson Granger,” the woman said the moment that Lawson stepped from his pickup. “A curse the size of elephant balls.” That probably wasn’t something most men heard in their entire lifetimes, but most men didn’t live in Wrangler’s Creek, Texas, where the occurrence was slightly higher. Lawson had lost count, but he figured this was his third or fourth curse in the past year. It was the first for the elephant balls’ part though. “Good morning, Vita,” Lawson greeted her, tipping his Stetson. His upbringing forced him to be polite to his elders even if this particular elder fell into the batshit crazy category. Vita Banchini. The town’s resident fortune teller–weirdo who lived just up the road from the Granger Ranch, which Lawson helped run. Other towns had likely skipped the pleasure of having such a colorful character who sold love potions, chanted and foretold curses. Heck, most towns probably didn’t have anyone who used the word foretold, but it was a staple in Vita’s vocabulary. “Did you put the curse on me, or was it somebody else’s doing?” he asked. He didn’t wait around for the answer though. Lawson hoisted his brand-spanking-new saddle from the truck seat and started for the barn. “Not me.
I don’t do curses unless someone’s wronged me or mine.” Vita followed him, of course, and she was wearing enough beads and bangles that she sounded like she was hauling Jacob Marley’s chains. “And by somebody else, are you talking about the woman whose heart you broke into a million little bitty pieces?” There was no good answer to that since anything he said would give Vita unnecessary details about his ex, Darby Rester. So, Lawson just went with confirming it. “Yep, that’s who I’m talking about.” “Hmmp,” Vita snarled. For something that wasn’t even a real word, it had some stank attached to it. But then, the only person in town who’d thought it was a good idea for him to break up with Darby had been Lawson. “Well, it wasn’t Darby,” Vita said. “It’s the fates who did this one.
I know I get the signs wrong sometimes—” “The last time you said I was going to need stitches on my right butt cheek. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.” “You’re sure?” He gave her a flat look. “I’m sure.” She plowed her fingers through her tangled mess of sugar-white hair and scratched her head. “Well, I must have misread the signs. But I didn’t misread these. They were foretold to me in a dream.” Vita had jumped pretty quickly into “foretold” territory, so in her mind this must have been a serious matter. A lot of things in her mind were probably off-kilter.
Lawson kept walking, nodding a morning greeting to a couple of the ranch hands who worked for him and his cousin Garrett. It was a good fifty yards from the main house where Lawson had parked to the tack room in the barn where he was heading, but he doubted the little walk in the muggy ninetyfive-degree heat would stop Vita from following him. It didn’t. “The curse involves horns,” Vita continued, keeping up with him. Lawson couldn’t even muster up a sound of surprise. They were on a large Texas cattle ranch where horns were plentiful. If that was the gist of the foretold stuff, then he’d been living under a curse since he’d started working here when he turned eighteen. But if so, it was good juju, too, because being a cowboy was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do. “Lawson?” someone called out. Jake Walter, one of their top hands.
He was on a corral fence and was about to get in with a new cutting horse they were training. “Garrett’s looking for you. He said it’s important.” “It might have something to do with the curse,” Vita concluded. Not in a million years. More likely it was about quarterly taxes or expenses. “Did Garrett tell you what it was about?” Lawson asked Jake. The ranch hand shrugged. “Nope, but he said you should see him before you go to the guesthouse.” Lawson frowned.
He had a master key to all the buildings on the ranch, including the guesthouse. But since he didn’t normally have a reason to go in there, it was a strange comment. It went along with the strange woman who was still trailing along beside him. “Anything else on this curse?” he asked Vita. Best to finish this conversation so she could leave. “Concussion and babies,” she readily answered. Lawson stopped, turned to her and frowned. “Are babies going to get concussions?” He reminded himself there was only a remote possibility of that, but it did trouble him because his cousin Sophie had twins who were toddling all over the place. Vita huffed as if that was the dumbest question in the history of dumb questions. Lawson huffed as if her huff was the dumbest sound in the history of dumb sounds.
“They’re separate things,” she said. “Just like the horns. The final part of the curse is water.” He started walking again. Since the ranch was near the creek and it’d been raining on and off for two days, water was a given. Still, it gave him a split second of concern. He was having a house built close to that very creek, and it was possible the land could flood. Of course, if that happened, it’d have nothing to do with a curse, but Vita would likely take credit for the fates foretelling it. “Horns, concussions, babies and water,” Lawson repeated. “Sounds as if the fates had a little too much time on their hands when it came to me.
Four things instead of just the butt stitches.” She wagged her bony finger at him. “Don’t sass the fates, young man. And I only said concussion as in one, not multiple. But I am sorry to be the bearer of such bad news. If you need any soothing potions or such, just let me know.” Lawson made a grunt of agreement, knowing there was nothing that could make him turn to Vita for that, but he did manage a polite goodbye and thank you before she scurried away toward her bicycle. It was her standard mode of transportation, and she’d “parked” it in the side yard. He dropped off the saddle in the tack room so he could head to the house to find Garrett. Then he could go over the schedule and take care of some paperwork.
Not his favorite part of the day, but later he’d be able to work in a ride to see how the new herd was doing. And check on the progress of his house. The sooner the construction was done, the sooner he could get out of his place in town and move closer to the ranch. There was plenty enough to do if he wanted to beat the next wave of rain that would hit in a couple of hours. But knowing it still didn’t cause Lawson to keep walking when he reached the guesthouse. It wasn’t as if he’d gone out of his way to get there. It was in the backyard between the main house and the barn. Everything seemed normal—making him wonder why Garrett had issued the warning. Or rather it seemed normal until Lawson had a closer look. There was something brown on the welcome mat.
At first Lawson thought it was an animal turd, but no. It was a horn. “What the hell?” He nudged it with the toe of his boot. Yeah, definitely a horn. Not from a cow though. His guess was maybe a goat, and there weren’t any of them on the ranch. It was impossible for him not to think of the curse. Impossible, too, for Lawson to see this as anything more than a coincidence. Heck, Vita could have put it there before he even arrived. After all, she’d been waiting for him when he’d first pulled up.
And she was fond of leaving weird gifts and offerings. Just in case Vita had left something inside, too, Lawson reached for the doorknob to have a look around the place. But reaching was as far as he got. “Wait!” Garrett called out to him. His cousin was on the back porch of the sprawling main house, and Garrett barreled down the steps. “Don’t go in there.” Lawson had worked on the ranch for seventeen years, and as best as he could recall, it was the first time any of his cousins had told him something was off-limits. It was one of the reasons this place had always felt like home. Ditto for Garrett seeming more like a brother to him than his own brothers did. But that wasn’t exactly a brotherly look Garrett was giving him now.
“Uh, someone’s staying there,” Garrett added. His cousin seemed to have a lot of urgency for something that wasn’t that out of the ordinary. Plenty of people stayed in that guesthouse. Garrett’s sister, Sophie, had a lot of college friends who came and went. So did her mother, Belle. However, Lawson was pretty sure that wasn’t just an ordinary FYI that Garrett was giving him. His cousin stopped directly in front of him and was a little out of breath from his sprint across the yard. He opened his mouth, no doubt to start explaining, but his attention landed on the horn. “Shit. How’d that get there?” Garrett asked, but it seemed rhetorical since he just kept talking.
“I tossed one just a half hour ago.” He glanced around as if looking for the horn-dropper before his attention came back to Lawson. Garrett’s eyebrow lifted. “Hey, I didn’t put it there. I think it was Vita’s doing. She said my curse has something to do with horns.” Garrett kept looking around. “You’re cursed again?” “Appears so. It’s becoming a quarterly thing now.” “Did Darby have Vita do this?” Garrett asked.
Lawson sighed. “No. This is all Vita and her fate friends. The horn could be her attempt to make sure at least some part of it comes true this time.” “No. I don’t think it was Vita.” Garrett paused, scrubbed his hand over his face. “I think we’ve got a trespasser who’s leaving gifts for our guest.” For just a handful of words, they sure packed a punch. Everything inside Lawson went still.
It would have been hard for a normal person to connect guest, horn and trespasser, but for him, there was only one logical conclusion. “Eve,” Lawson managed to say. There was a frog in his throat. Heck, an entire pond of frogs and their lily pads, from the sound of it. Garrett nodded, confirming what Lawson had just pieced together. His cousin didn’t jump right into an explanation, though, of why Eve Cooper was here. Garrett seemed to know that Lawson would need a minute. Heck, he needed a week. Lawson was long over the pain of having Eve crush his heart when she’d walked out on him when they’d been seventeen. He was long over the fact that she’d forgotten her down-home roots when she’d become an overnight teen TV star.
Well, maybe he wasn’t completely over it, but it wasn’t hurt he was feeling now. It was indifference. Maybe mixed with a smidge of being pissed off. “That explains the horn,” Lawson mumbled, and he, too, looked around for the culprit. Eve had been the star of Demon High, where she’d played Ulyana Morningglory, a teenager who secretly fought demons in between pom-pom practice and dating her hunky half-demon boyfriend. The boyfriend, Stavros, had horns—ones that looked like curled turds. To Lawson’s way of thinking, anyway. Others clearly hadn’t felt the same because Eve-Ulyana, Stavros and the horns had become a cult classic. The most rabid of fans had dubbed themselves the hornies. Or so he’d heard.
Since the show had been off the air for more than a decade, Lawson would have thought the hornlovers would have found something else to glom on to but apparently not. Lawson had plenty of questions—for starters, why was Eve here after all this time? She no longer had family in Wrangler’s Creek and hadn’t been especially close friends with Sophie, Garrett or their brother, Roman. She no longer fell into the friend category with Lawson, either. “I’m not sure how long she’s staying,” Garrett volunteered. “I haven’t even seen her myself because she got here late last night. My mother’s the one who gave her permission to stay.” Ah, Lawson had forgotten to factor in Garrett’s mom, Belle, in this particular equation. Vita held the record for being the town’s craziest resident, but Belle could often give the woman a run for her money. Even though Belle no longer lived at the ranch, she seemed to like creating uncomfortable living arrangements. Two years ago, she had invited a group of widows to live in one of the houses on the grounds, and some of them were still there.
Now she was rubbing salt in Lawson’s old wound by putting Eve right underneath his nose. “The person who left that horn trespassed because of Eve,” Lawson commented. Not really a question, but Garrett answered it anyway. “Yes. If you see him around, put the fear of God in him.” Lawson would kick his ass. That should do it. He’d found that worked better than divine fear on some people. “Anyway, I thought you’d want to give Eve a wide berth,” Garrett added. “According to my mom, Eve’s, uh, going through a tough time right now, and she came back for some peace and quiet.
” Lawson mumbled a “Yeah right.” He didn’t want to speculate what would be a tough time for a rich celebrity who still had hordes of fans. Just the other day he’d seen a tabloid cover at the gas station with a headline about her on-again, off-again romance with her former costar, the turd-wearing Stavros. “If she wants a wide berth, she’s got it,” Lawson assured his cousin. He tipped his head to the main house. “Want to get started on the schedule?” “Sure.” But the moment Garrett said that, his phone rang, and he glanced at the screen. “It’s the seller for those new cutting horses. I need to get the file so I can go over the numbers with him.” He headed to the house while he took the call.
Lawson was about to follow him when he heard a strange sound. A moan, as if someone was in pain, and it was coming from inside the guesthouse. “Eve?” he said, tapping on the door. No answer. He got a bad thought though. Maybe the horn-delivering trespasser had broken in and was holding her hostage. Eve might have had demon-fighting skills on the TV set, but he doubted that translated to real life. When he heard another of those sounds, Lawson tested the doorknob. Locked. So, he used his key and threw open the door, ready to start that ass-whipping, but he didn’t see an ass to whip.
That’s because it was dark in the cottage. All the blinds and curtains were drawn, and there wasn’t a single light on in the entire place. The next sound was considerably louder than the first and was more of a gasp than a moan. Lawson went in, groping for the light switch, but before he could reach it, his feet flew out from underneath him. His butt hit first, then his elbows and hands before his head smacked into the wall. Hell, he saw stars. The pain radiated from his tailbone all the way to his eyeballs, and even though it’d knocked the breath out of him, he still managed to curse. “For shit’s sake. What happened?” “I’m so sorry,” she said. Eve.
He didn’t need to see her to recognize that voice. A real blast from the past to go with the pain that was blasting through him. It had reached his fingers now. And his balls. That was the worst, but he forced himself to a sitting position. Not easily because the floor was wet, and his hand kept slipping when he tried to get a grip. Eve made another of those sounds. It seemed as if she was also in pain. “Did you slip, too?” he asked. His vision was blurred, his ears were ringing, but he thought she said no.
However, she was moving toward him. Or rather shuffling toward him. “My water,” she said. There it was again. One of Vita’s foretold words for the curse. Maybe he had the concussion to go along with it. If so, Vita would be batting three out of four for this latest whammy. “My water,” Eve repeated. “Yeah, I got that.” And he picked through the darkness to see her.
The main room was one big living–eating area, and Eve was by the kitchen counter. She was wearing a baggy white nightgown that made her look huge. She’d obviously put on a lot of weight. Or… Not. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, Lawson could see that she was hunched over, her hand splayed on her belly. Her pregnant belly. “Please help me,” she said, her voice cracking. “My water broke, and the baby’s coming now.”