“WHOSE IDEA WAS this, anyway?” Zane grumbled to anyone who would listen, although he realized no one really was listening to him. Not unusual.
“Hush,” V told him, squeezing his arm gently. “You’re gonna have fun and you know it.”
Zane smirked, unable to help himself. He was actually looking forward to the fall festival that they’d been roped into attending, but he knew everyone would expect him to protest a little. It was what he did, especially now that Travis was so freaking happy all the damn time. His oldest brother used to be the one to bitch and moan at every turn, but now he was just … happy. It was kind of freaky.
Speaking of Travis...
“Where is Travis, anyway?” Zane asked, glancing over his shoulder at Braydon and Brendon, who were following close behind with Jessie in tow.
“He was helpin’ Mom and Dad with their crap,” Braydon informed him.
“They’ve got a booth this year,” Brendon said.
“What kind of booth?” Zane asked, spinning around to face his brothers.
“No idea. They wouldn’t tell me.”
Zane looked around at all the people milling about. Every year Coyote Ridge put on a fall festival, and it seemed that no matter what, the entire town generally made an appearance. Granted, Zane wasn’t usually amongst those in attendance because he frequently found a reason to get out of it. Not this year.
No, this year, Kaleb had insisted that they attend for Mason’s benefit. Since it was his nephew Mason’s first festival, Zane hadn’t been able to argue. Now that he was there, he was wondering where the others were.
“There’s Kylie and Gage.” Jessie pointed in the direction of her sister. The rest of them turned to follow where she was looking. Sure enough, Kylie and Gage were making their way over, and it looked like Gage had already made a stop at one of the concession stands.
“Turkey leg? Seriously?” Zane asked his brother-in-law. “And you didn’t think to get me one?”
“You’re a big boy. Get your own,” Gage said with a devilish grin. “Anyway, I got this one for my wife.”
“I bet you did,” V stated. “Kinda makes me question why you haven’t bothered to share it with her yet.”
“I’m holding out for funnel cake,” Kylie said. “He can have a turkey leg, but Travis is probably gonna have somethin’ to say about him not waiting for him.”
“What kind of booth are Mom and Dad settin’ up?” Zane asked, hoping someone could enlighten him. Why he wanted to know, he couldn’t say for sure, but he was incredibly curious.
“Pies,” Kylie said with a mischievous grin.
“Like, apple pies?” Jessie questioned, but even Zane could tell Jessie was in on the joke.
“Yes. Sort of.” Kylie nodded her head, her eyes wide.
“Who’s helpin’ them with this booth?” Zane asked, not sure whether he wanted to hear the answer to that question.
As though on cue, his cell phone rang. He snatched it from his pocket and looked at the screen. It was his dad.
“What’s up?” Zane greeted his father, his stomach churning because he suddenly knew exactly what the phone call was about.
“Your mother and I need you to come help us with the booth.”
“Why?” Zane asked, knowing he should’ve just kept his mouth shut. “I thought Travis was helpin’ out.”
“He’s done his part. Now it’s your turn.”
“My turn? Why not Kaleb? Or Sawyer? Or Ethan?” Zane looked at the twins. “Or the twins? Why’s it have to be me?”
“You won the coin toss. Now get over here, boy.”
Zane shoved his phone back in his pocket when his father disconnected as he peered around at his family. They were all looking at him knowingly.
“Son of a bitch,” he grumbled.
A chorus of laughter erupted, and then he was being ushered away from the concession stands by Braydon and Brendon. When he tried to dig his heels in the dirt, Gage lent a hand, and he had no choice but to keep moving forward.
“Y’all just remember that payback is a bitch.”
“We know. Why do you think you won the coin toss?” Gage asked, chuckling.
“Me? What the hell did I do?” Zane tried to think about the last stunt he’d pulled, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t come up with anything.
This was not going to be good. He could feel it now.
“IS HE ON his way?” Travis asked his father when the old man disconnected the call.
“Yup,” Curtis replied, a small smile curving the corners of his lips.
“’Bout time,” Sawyer added. “He’s gonna be pissed, y’all know that, right?”
“He’ll get over it,” Beau chimed in.
Travis glanced at Ethan, who was standing beside Beau, the two of them looking more content than Travis had ever seen them.
“You lucked out this year,” Travis told Ethan.
“Me? What the hell did I do? I’ve been good all year long,” Ethan said, his serious tone belying the grin he couldn’t seem to hide.
“Right. And what’s the new definition of good? I’m gonna need to make sure I’m up on this new terminology,” Sawyer said smartly.
“Careful,” Ethan warned Sawyer. “As I look around here, I think I can count at least two dozen women who’d love to see you in Zane’s place.”
Sawyer turned and looked around as though trying to eye those women Ethan was referring to before looking back at him. It wasn’t hard. There were literally about two dozen who had Sawyer in their sights. The guy was a fucking chick magnet.
“Probably. Not gonna happen, though,” Sawyer said confidently.
“It might,” Curtis added. “You never know.”
Travis laughed, trying to hide his grin when he noticed Brendon, Braydon, and Gage pushing Zane toward them, Kylie, Jessie, and V walking a few steps behind them, grinning wildly.
“What is goin’ on?” Zane asked when he approached, his eyes widening when he looked at the table that had been set up and the stand behind it. “Oh, hell no. No way, man.”
“Watch your mouth, boy,” Curtis growled. “There’re ladies present.”
“Yes, sir,” Zane mouthed. “But seriously. Y’all cannot do this to me.”
“We can. And we did. You’re up,” Travis said, gesturing toward the booth.
“I thought y’all said this was somethin’ to do with pies.”
“It is,” Travis confirmed, stepping back out of the way, allowing Zane to see the boxes that were stacked behind him.
“What are those?” Zane asked, confused.
“Pies. Just like we promised,” V confirmed.
“So why do I have to do that?” Zane pointed to the dunking booth that they’d set up behind the table.
“It’s our new marketing strategy,” Sawyer answered Zane. “We figured we’d sell more pies if we let each person who buys one get a chance to dunk you.”
Zane’s forehead wrinkled and he glowered at all of them. Travis had to admit, the idea had been rather brilliant. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to take the credit for coming up with it.
“Whose idea was this?” Zane questioned, looking at each of the faces staring back at him.
Travis laughed as their mother stepped forward, taking full credit for coming up with the idea. And she had, too. Granted, she hadn’t nominated Zane to be in the booth, but they’d all figured he needed some payback for something.
“Why me?” Zane asked, pouting.
V moved up beside him, wrapping her arm around him as she smiled.
“Actually…” Lorrie paused, causing all eyes to turn to her. “Every one of my boys is gonna get a chance in that booth today.”
“Hold on a minute,” Travis addressed his mother. “That wasn’t the deal.”
“And how do you know that?” Lorrie countered. “If I remember correctly, you boys didn’t help us make those pies.”
Travis looked at Kylie. She was smiling sweetly, apparently enjoying this new turn of events.
“We all got together and had a discussion,” Kylie informed him. “While we were making pies.”
He wasn’t sure how he was going to be able to get out of this one.
ETHAN WATCHED THE others, trying to figure out just how he had managed to get pulled into this.
“Hey, wait a minute. I did help make those pies,” he said, ignoring Beau, who was laughing over his shoulder.
“You’re right, you did,” Lorrie replied. “Which is why we’ve nominated Beau to go in your place.”
Ethan laughed, looking back at Beau. He laughed harder when the smile on Beau’s handsome face immediately fell and he sputtered something unintelligible.
“I like that idea,” Ethan said.
The look Beau gave him offered his own brand of retribution, and Ethan laughed but managed not to say anything. He could take anything Beau had to dish out. And he’d gladly take it, at that.
“So, I’m first, huh?” Zane asked, his expression reflecting just how unhappy he was with that idea.
“Yep. You’re up,” Gage told him.
“And how did you get out of having to do this?” Brendon asked Gage.
“Lucky, I guess,” Gage replied.
Ethan wondered just how he could go about changing that. In all fairness, if Beau had to get dunked, Gage should have to, as well.
Watching Zane as he moved toward the booth, Ethan listened to the chatter around them. They’d drawn a crowd, there was no doubt about that. Then again, he wasn’t sure there was a person in Coyote Ridge who wouldn’t want to take a chance at sending one of his brothers into a pool of water. Honestly, the idea of selling pies—all of the money from those sales would go to the church—and giving the purchaser the opportunity to dunk one of them had been rather brilliant. He kind of wished he’d been part of that discussion. But at least he wasn’t going to have to be in the booth.
Zane made his way up the steps after discarding his boots and his hat, handing them to V while she giggled uncontrollably.
“You better watch yourself, woman,” Zane told V, smiling. He glanced around to ensure their mother wasn’t in hearing distance before he continued, “Paybacks are a bitch. And honey, you’re first on my shit list.”
V laughed. “Bring it on, cowboy,” she taunted.
“Oh, sweetness, I plan to.”
Zane took his seat, his feet dangling above the water as he stared down at the tub beneath him. All eyes were on him, including Ethan’s.
Lorrie placed the sign on the table, reflecting the price of her homemade apple pies and the fact that all money was going to the church. Curtis then stepped up beside her and announced just how it worked. Within seconds, a line had formed, at least thirty people deep. First person in that line was… Of course. Beau.
Ethan watched the man he loved as he handed over a few dollars, not taking a pie, though. Apparently he was willing to pay for the opportunity to dunk Zane, leaving the pie for someone else to buy. Ethan never took his eyes off Beau, although he wanted to watch his brother go down. He just couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from the hottest cowboy he’d ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on. And to think, Beau was his.
Beau wound back, verbally taunting Zane for a moment before he launched the ball at the target, hitting it right in the center. The next sound was Zane’s big-ass body hitting the water followed by hoots and hollers from the crowd gathered around. Ethan found himself clapping and hollering right along with them. He was tempted to go right up to Beau and kiss him, but he settled for standing next to him, their arms touching, while he listened to the deep, resonating tone of Beau’s voice. That was about as good as Ethan got with public displays, but the point was, he was with Beau, and honestly, that was all that really mattered.
WATCHING ZANE TAKE a quick dunk in the booth, and now Braydon making his way in, was sending Mason into a fit of giggles. Kaleb tightened his grip around the little boy as he laughed at his brothers, enjoying the hell out of their misery. Granted, he knew he would be going up there soon, but that was a small price to pay, especially if it put a smile on Mason’s face like the one plastered there now.
“Are you havin’ fun, buddy?” Zoey asked Mason, coming to stand beside them.
“He’s lovin’ it,” Kaleb told her.
“Just wait till it’s your turn. He’s gonna love seein’ his daddy in there.”
“We’re waitin’ to see Uncle Trav, aren’t we, Mason?”
Travis, who was standing just a couple of feet away, shot Kaleb a menacing glare. Too bad the crinkles at the corners of his eyes gave away his amusement.
The line was moving at the table now, everyone purchasing a pie, but really, Kaleb believed they were more interested in their chance to dunk one of them in that booth. Heaven knew there were plenty of reasons for the town’s residents to want to see it. They were a rough-and-tumble bunch, had been all their lives, and this was probably the first time their neighbors had been given a chance to get them back.
Three people made their attempt to take Braydon down, but each of them missed. That was when Kaleb noticed Sawyer had snuck into the line, sweet-talking a couple of girls so he could get in front of them. Sawyer handed over a wad of cash to Lorrie before taking one of the balls and making his way to the pitching line.
“Man, this is so not cool,” Braydon hollered from behind the Plexiglas.
“It’s payback,” Sawyer said evenly.
“Right. And just remember, you’re next.”
Sawyer, who had played baseball in high school, reared back and threw the ball, hitting the target in one shot, sending Braydon into the water with a loud yell and making Mason giggle and squeal in Kaleb’s arms.
It only took a minute for Braydon to drag himself out of the water, completely drenched, and for Sawyer to get into position. Kaleb glanced over at the table to see who the lucky person was going to be, and that was when he noticed Kennedy Endsley whispering something to the person at the front of the line, smiling brightly when the guy allowed her in front of him.
She handed over money, but rather than take one ball from the table, she took three.
“You worried you can’t get it in one shot?” Sawyer asked her from the booth.
“It’s just a precaution,” Kennedy said smoothly.
Kaleb’s brothers joined him, all of them standing together, including Zane and Braydon, who had towels around their necks.
“Come on, Kennedy!” V shouted. “Take him down!”
The group laughed as Sawyer narrowed his eyes on Kennedy, promise of revenge in his eyes. Funny how he tried to look ominous, but even Kaleb could see the heat in his gaze when he looked at the pretty vet.
“You ready?” she taunted Sawyer.
“As I’ll ever be, darlin’.”
Kennedy threw the first ball and missed. She immediately geared up to throw the second. She missed with that one, as well. She was smiling and giggling as she got ready with the third. Just when she pulled her arm back to throw the ball, she stopped, running forward and nailing the target with her hand, sending Sawyer into the water.
Kaleb laughed at Mason’s little-boy giggle while the rest of the crowd hooted and hollered about Sawyer going down.
“It’s your turn,” Zoey said softly, pulling Kaleb’s attention down to her.
“Let me guess, you’re gonna buy a pie.”
“Oh, no, I’ve got others to do that for me.”
Kaleb glanced over at the line of people to see none other than Zoey’s father at the front, sitting in his wheelchair with a wide grin on his face.
Just fucking lovely.
CURTIS HANDED ONE of the balls to Zoey’s father as Kaleb made his way into the booth. For the last couple of minutes, Curtis had been chatting with Carl while they waited for Kaleb to take his turn. Although Carl happened to be quite fond of Kaleb, Curtis couldn’t blame the guy for wanting to take a shot at sending him into the water. Hell, he couldn’t blame any of these people, which was why, when Lorrie had informed him of her plan, he’d gotten right to work on securing a dunking booth for the occasion.
Not only were they bringing in a lot of money selling off all the pies that Lorrie and the girls had worked so hard on these last few days, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. And that was the highlight of the day. Even though Zane had grumbled about going first, Curtis had seen a glimmer of excitement in his youngest boy’s eyes.
Yeah, his boys were definitely good sports.
No matter how much trouble they liked to cause, they were still good kids.
Once Kaleb was in place, Carl made an attempt to take him down. He missed, but he laughed when he did, moving back out of the way so the next person could take their chance. Curtis glanced over at his grandson, noticing Mason was alight with excitement as he watched his daddy in the booth. His little-boy giggle had everyone laughing.
Finally, Kaleb went down after three more tries, and then it was Travis’s turn. Of course, Curtis’s oldest boy moaned and groaned the most, but he still made his way inside. When he was getting settled, Gage came over and tried to sweet-talk his way into the line, but Curtis intervened.
“I’ve got this one,” Curtis told Gage.
Travis’s warning went in one ear and out the other, sort of the way all the warnings that he’d dished out to them over the years had.
“Yes, son?” Curtis asked innocently.
“What are you doin’?” Travis asked, his deep, gruff voice reflecting his irritation.
“I’m donatin’ to a good cause. What does it look like I’m doin’?” Curtis asked, taking his spot on the line.
“Well, I hope you don’t miss,” Travis goaded.
“Boy, I’ve been waitin’ for this my whole life.”
“Of course you have. Doesn’t mean you’re gonna…”
Travis’s sentence trailed off when Curtis reared back, sending the ball heading right for the target. A second later, Travis was in the water and the crowd was cheering.
“Beau, your turn, boy,” Curtis said, observing Beau and Ethan as they stood together on the sidelines watching the action. As he thought back to all the shit that had happened earlier in the year, Curtis couldn’t help but smile at his son. It was about damn time Ethan had come out of his shell, living life rather than just existing. Funny how it’d taken Beau to get him there.
Whatever works, Curtis thought to himself.
Backing away from the pitching line, Curtis made his way over to his wife. She was currently standing near the table with Jessie and Zoey, trying to take money and make change as the line in front of them continued to grow.
“Looks like the boys may have to take another turn in that booth,” Lorrie told him.
Glancing over his shoulder, Curtis laughed as Beau got into position, Ethan already in place to take him down.
“I’m sure they’ll be up for it,” Curtis told them.
“We could call Jared and Jaxson,” Lorrie suggested.
“Oh, they’re already on their way. Did you think I’d let them miss out on the fun?” Curtis replied. “This is a family event, after all.”
“So does that mean you’re gonna take your turn up there?” Lorrie asked sweetly, placing her soft hand on his arm.
“Do you want me to go up there?” he asked her. “’Cause you know I will.”
“I think it’s only fair,” came the rough voice from behind him. Curtis glanced over his shoulder to see Travis. He was rubbing the towel over his sodden clothes.
“Fair, huh?” Curtis joked.
“Yes, sir,” Travis said, just as Braydon, Zane, and Sawyer came over to join them.
“I’m first,” Zane shouted.
Arguing ensued between the boys as they all fought over who would get to take him down. Curtis didn’t mind one bit. If they wanted to send him into a pool of water as payback, more power to them. He could be a good sport if they were.
“Fine. I’ll go after Brendon,” Curtis told them.
They all turned to see Brendon climbing in while Beau grabbed a towel and dried himself off.
“But then y’all have to go again.”
“Fine,” they all agreed easily.
Sawyer chuckled, his gaze traveling past Curtis, so he turned to see what his son was looking at, and that was when he noticed Cheyenne Montgomery making her way to the front of the line. Of course, she was being mauled by her obvious fans until Ethan—the only one who wasn’t wet at this point—made his way over and helped her through. Once she was at the front of the line, she handed over some money and took one of the balls.
“Seriously?” Brendon shouted from inside the booth.
“Yes, sir,” Cheyenne hollered back.
“Hold up!” Brendon called back, reaching for the hem of his shirt and lifting it over his head, tossing it out of the booth before turning his attention back to the beautiful young woman standing there watching him. “Okay. Do your worst, honey.”
A chorus of applause erupted from the other ladies in the line, obviously showing their appreciation for Brendon, who was now shirtless.
Lord, have mercy, Curtis thought to himself. That boy was in over his head.
BEAU COULDN’T HELP but laugh when Brendon removed his shirt in an apparent attempt to torment Cheyenne. He had to give her credit, though, she was doing a good job of pretending she wasn’t affected by the guy. Pretty good, just not good enough. Her eyes were still traveling over Brendon’s shirtless form as he sat there staring back at her.
“There’s gonna be a riot,” Jessie said, laughing.
“That should be a new rule,” someone from the crowd yelled. A female someone. “They have to do it again. With their shirts off.”
Beau glanced over at Ethan, finding him staring back at him. “What?”
“Nothin’,” Ethan said softly.
“That look says a helluva lot more than nothin’,” Beau retorted.
“I was just thinkin’ maybe she’s right. I wouldn’t mind seein’ you up there without your shirt on.”
Ethan’s words were spoken so low Beau hardly heard them. But he had heard them, and his body heated instantly. “Is that right?”
“Yep,” Ethan said quietly, turning his attention back to Brendon up in the booth.
Beau smiled to himself.
Yeah, he loved this man with everything that he was. And he loved how Ethan continued to open up more and more as time passed.
“You ready?” Cheyenne provoked Brendon, who was still staring at her. She was taking her own sweet time as she stood there, tossing the ball into the air and catching it with her other hand.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Brendon replied.
If Beau wasn’t mistaken, there was a world of innuendo in those few words. Brendon was ready for a lot more than just to have that woman dunk him in a pool of water. Maybe one day they’d figure out how to make that work. And if not, maybe they’d quit torturing one another.
Cheyenne made her first shot.
Brendon’s grin grew wider, more wicked as he watched her.
“That kinda sucked,” Brendon told her.
Travis stepped up behind Cheyenne, handing her another ball. Beau noticed that Ethan’s oldest brother was holding at least five more in his hand. Well, if she didn’t make it with one of those, she could always pull the same stunt Kennedy had.
The excitement grew as the crowd spurred on the country music superstar. With each pitch, she missed, but no one seemed to care. No one except for Brendon, who hadn’t taken his eyes off Cheyenne since she’d walked up.
“All right,” Cheyenne said firmly. “I’ll stop playin’ around now.”
“Playin’ around, huh? Is that what you call that?” Brendon shouted.
“It is,” Cheyenne said, changing her stance and focusing on the target.
This time, when she pulled back, she threw it underhanded and nailed the target instantly.
“By the way, did I mention I played softball?” she asked when Brendon sputtered as he got to his feet in the pool of water.
Based on the look he shot Cheyenne, he hadn’t known that.
As did everyone else.
NOW THAT ALL of his brothers had taken their turn in the booth—with the exception of Ethan, who had somehow managed to weasel his way out of it—Travis was ready to watch his father go down. They’d turned the tables on them when Lorrie mentioned they would all be taking turns, and since paying her back wasn’t an option—she was their mother, after all—Travis would settle for the next best thing.
Taking their father down.
Not that Travis really minded the change in events that had occurred. Granted, he wasn’t going to let everyone else know that. As it was, he continued to get sideways glances from his brothers all the damn time. He still couldn’t believe he’d really made that much of a change since he’d given in to his love for Kylie and Gage, but maybe he had.
“Your turn, ol’ man,” Travis told his father. “If you’re lucky, I’ll get you out on the first shot.”
“Let’s just hope you’ve got it in you,” Curtis replied.
Suddenly, a chant started from the ladies in the crowd. “Shirt off! Shirt off! Shirt off!”
Travis laughed, thinking about his father up there without his shirt. The guy was in his sixties, but he was still in his prime.
“Ladies,” Curtis addressed the group before stepping into the booth. “I’d gladly take my shirt off for you, but I’d really hate to make my boys look bad.”
Everyone laughed. Everyone. Including Lorrie and the girls. The old man was something else, there was no doubt about that.
When Curtis got in place, Travis went over to the table, handed his mother some more money, and took one ball. That was all he was going to need.
“You’re goin’ down, Pops,” Travis told his father.
Curtis glanced down at the water beneath him and then back up to meet Travis’s gaze.
“That’s kinda the idea.”
He noticed Kylie, Jessie, Zoey, V, and Cheyenne were all looking at him. Their gazes were darting back and forth between where he stood and the target in front of him. That was when he felt someone move up beside him.
Sawyer had joined him, smiling at him as he tossed a ball in the air.
On his other side, Kaleb stepped up.
Beside him was Ethan.
Braydon and Brendon stepped up on Sawyer’s other side.
They were all tossing a ball in the air, catching it and then repeating the motion as they stared up at Curtis, who was now grinning from ear to ear.
“Ready when you are, boys,” Curtis said, his gaze locking with Travis’s briefly.
Joining his brothers, he tossed the ball into the air once and then pulled his arm back as they all did the same, still watching his father intently.
Curtis went down into the water, everyone laughing, some people doubled over because Curtis certainly hadn’t been expecting that.
He stood up, water dripping from his face and hair, eyes wide as he looked around to see just what had happened since none of them had thrown the ball.
Travis watched as his mother walked over in front of the booth, smiling at Curtis.
“Y’all seemed to forget that I was supposed to get a turn,” Lorrie told him.
And when Curtis looked down at his wife, Travis saw the love the man had for her shining in his eyes. It was the same love Travis had seen reflected in his father’s eyes for as long as he could remember.
As Travis glanced around at his brothers, their significant others, his nephew, and now his cousins who had just walked up, he felt the love overall. Even as they stood there dripping wet after being plunged into water for a good cause, despite their grumbling, the joy of being together was still there.
And he knew, without a doubt, that the reason for it all lay in the love that those two people had for one another. His parents.
Love like that came along once in a lifetime.
He could see the same love between Kaleb and Zoey, Zane and V, Ethan and Beau. He could also sense it was there somewhere for Braydon, Sawyer, and Brendon. He looked forward to watching theirs unfold sometime in the near future.
But now, as Travis glanced over at Kylie and Gage, he smiled. He didn’t have to wait any longer for his once in a lifetime. He’d already found it. He’d just happened to find it times two.