UPDATE: This book is available here now!
I’ve just gone through edits of a Lily’s House novella that will be coming out for a limited time in a fundraiser anthology, which I’ll post more about when I have the cover and links. Rylee’s Mix-up follows the story of Tara Levine’s (from Cowboys Can’t Lie) roommate, Rylee Williams. Eventually, when I get the story back from the anthology, I’ll be adding it to the current Cowboys Can’t Lie book and together they’ll be distributed as one book through all ebook stores. Right now Tara’s story is ONLY available (for free) to those who sign up for my readers group.
Now I don’t usually write about cowboys, just sometimes, I’ve loved writing about Rylee and Tara’s cowboys! Yummy comes to mind (and not because I’ve been hanging out with a six-year-old).
By the way, if you didn’t notice, Tara was the new foster girl at Lily’s House in Broken Lies, the one Saffron, the heroine in that story, tells to get over herself, lol. You can pre-order this book here.
A Lily’s House Novella
By Rachel Branton
Rylee Williams didn’t want to be a bridesmaid at her estranged sister’s wedding, the sister who’d grown up with the family she was supposed to have. So why does she find herself in a dress two sizes too big and no date for the wedding? Maybe it’s time to give up on her family once and for all. But a greased pig contest and handsome cowboy Beck Seeger might just change her mind—both about sticking it out and taking a chance at love.
Rylee Williams paused at the corral, studying the pigs. A few chased each other around energetically, huffing and snorting, while others piled in a corner by the food trough, sleeping in a clump. She squatted down next to the corral, and a couple of the curious creatures ambled over to investigate. But when she put her hand through the narrow bars, they snorted indignantly and ran away, one of them letting out a little squeal.
Laughter bubbled up in Rylee’s throat. Coming to the Coconino County Fair in Flagstaff had been a good idea. She’d have to thank Keaton Seeger for the invitation to stay at his family’s ranch while she was in town for the weekend, as well as for the recommendation to see the animals at the fair, especially the pigs. They were, as he’d promised, the most fascinating animals she’d seen today.
Too bad Keaton had a girlfriend, because thoughtful, good-looking men like him were few and far between these days. The last three guys who’d asked her out, she’d turned down flat. She’d known their type—handsome and handsy, she called them. Not her style.
Her roommate, Tara Levine, who was recently engaged to Crew Ashman, owner of the Silver A Ranch in Phoenix, had offered to set Rylee up with some of the hands who worked for her fiancé, but Rylee wasn’t interested. Besides, Keaton was the only guy working for Crew who had ever dared talk to her. And he was taken.
“Cute little critters, aren’t they?”
Rylee lifted her gaze to see a man jumping down from a small tractor hitched to a large wagon that hadn’t been there moments earlier. She straightened, and still had to look up, which was nice because she was on the tall side for a woman, and while she had on her new tennis shoes this morning, she loved wearing heels.
“They’re adorable actually,” she said. “Like awkward little babies. Only they aren’t really babies anymore, are they?”
His blue eyes filled with laughter. “Nope. They’re weanlings. But they still act a lot like babies.” His hair under the tan cowboy hat was brown and a few days’ beard growth made his face ruggedly handsome. He looked familiar, as if she’d seen him somewhere before, but she knew she hadn’t. She’d remember a man like him.
He was staring at her every bit as much as she stared at him, and she couldn’t help flushing, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
The stranger nodded, giving himself a little shake. “I’m Beck,” he said, offering his hand.
“Rylee.” She let his hand envelop hers. For some reason she was finding it hard to breathe. Probably just the Arizona heat that was already in full swing this placid Friday morning.
“Nice to meet you.” He dipped his head, lifting his hat a few inches like a character from an old movie. “Hope you’re enjoying the fair.” He turned to the gate, his muscles rippling as he opened it. Was he going inside?
“Yes. It’s interesting,” she said.
Sure enough, he ventured inside the corral, his hands held out as if to catch any pigs that might try to flee. He didn’t need to worry. They all scurried to the other side of the pen.
“Hey, you mind giving me a hand?” His eyes wandered back to her.
“Sure. I guess. Doing what?” She really hoped he wasn’t going to give her a cheesy line or make a pass. They’d only just met.
“I need someone to stand here and make sure none of them escape while I back the wagon in.”
“They’re going somewhere?”
His laughter was deep and friendly, sending odd little flutters through her stomach. “They have a performance soon.”
She arched a doubtful brow. “Performing pigs?”
His grin deepened. “Not exactly.”
What could it hurt? The pigs didn’t look like they weighed more than twenty pounds, so it wasn’t as if she would be in danger of getting trampled. Rylee took Beck’s place in front of the gate, waving her hand at a pig who approached. It darted away with an affronted snort that made her laugh.
Beck was already up on the tractor, backing the wagon inside the pen opening, which seemed to be a close fit. She doubted any of the pigs could escape through the sides. But under the wagon was apparently a juicy temptation because a few of the piglets were approaching her position cautiously, their eyes focused on the opening.
“Shoo,” she said, waving her arms as Beck stepped from the tractor into the wagon and then jumped into the pen next to her. He let down the tailgate, and as he did, the pigs rushed past Rylee, snorting and squealing in their hurry to scurry up the tailgate and into the wagon, where they began gulping something from a trough.
“That was unexpected,” Rylee muttered, thinking that in retrospect, they’d looked a bit large and dangerous as they stampeded past.
“I hadn’t given them breakfast yet. They know the drill.”
“All but him,” Rylee thumbed at one runt, still lying in the corner of the pen.
“Yeah, that one always needs a little priming.” He pulled something from the pocket of his shirt. “Want to do the honors?”
He tossed her something that looked suspiciously like a dog biscuit. “Just hold it out on your hand.”
Walking around a clump of straw, Rylee approached the pig. Squatting down, she called, “Here, Wilbur.”
“Wilbur?” Beck asked.
“From Charlotte’s Web.”
“Yes, of course. Except she happens to be a girl.”
“Always loved the Flintstones.”
Little Wilma gave a loud snort and jumped to her feet, her snout twitching. Then in a move almost too fast to follow, she snatched the biscuit from Rylee’s hand, inhaled it, and sniffed around as if looking for more.
“Sorry,” Rylee murmured.
With an aggrieved snort, Wilma dodged past her and darted up the tailgate into the wagon with the rest of the pigs. Beck deftly lifted the tailgate and pushed it shut. “Thanks,” he said.
“You feed your pigs dog biscuits?”
“A vegetarian dog biscuit, I’ll have you know.” He stepped toward her. “But, no, they normally eat grain. That was just a treat.”
He was looking at her with eyes she could drown in. Maybe she was already drowning because she couldn’t for the life of her remember what they were talking about. Oh, right, the pigs.
“So where are they going?” she asked, wetting her lips.
“Greased pig contest.”
“What?” Her thoughts abruptly refocused. Keaton had said something about making sure she didn’t miss a certain pig contest that his family sponsored. Maybe this was related. “But isn’t that a little barbaric?” she asked.
He gave her a look that clearly said, Oh, you’re one of those nut jobs. “And eating them isn’t? You do eat pork, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t chase it first.”
His smile showed he was more amused than offended at her comment. “Don’t worry. I assure you, it’s quite humane. When I was a kid, we had to drag the pig to the judge, or stuff it in a burlap bag. All we do now is attach a dollar bill to a collar around its neck. The kids just have to rip it off.”
That did sound more humane. “Still, they’re being chased and greased.”
He laughed, a genuine sound that made her want to join in. “Those pigs have grown up chasing kids or being chased by kids. It’s a game for them. And it isn’t the pigs that are greased.”
Rylee didn’t quite understand what that meant, but she didn’t want to appear to be a total idiot by probing further.
“How about you give it a try?” he asked.
“Me?” Was he serious? And why did it seem as if he were suddenly too close and too far away at the same time? “I don’t think so.”
“Chicken?” His eyes didn’t leave her face.
“Maybe a little.” A lot, actually. Of him at least. Her insides were doing a funny jig, something she hadn’t felt in a long time but recognized. She was attracted to him in a big way. If she were smart, she’d walk away.
So, of course, she didn’t.
“Want to come along and help with the collars?” He glanced over his shoulder at the wagon, filled with snorting pigs. “It’s for charity,” he added, as if she needed encouragement to spend more time with this handsome cowboy who made her heart pound and her thoughts suddenly desert her.
“Okay. But only because it’s for charity.”
He laughed again. “Ah, and I thought it was because you couldn’t resist me.”
That was so close to the truth that she decided a change of subject was in order. “So, you come here every year?”
“Oh yeah. This is big for our ranch. We sponsor a 4-H club, and they show their animals. We also sponsor booths and contests, which help us make important connections in the community.”
“Contests like the greased pig thing?” She wondered if he worked for Keaton’s family or another ranch nearby. Either could be possible with the amount of people here. She’d have to ask.
“That’s right.” He climbed into the wagon before she could phrase her question. “I’ll just move this so you can get out.”
After wading through the pigs to get to the tractor, he moved it a few feet and then jumped back down and offered his hand to help her into the tractor seat. She took it, startling a little at the way her heart seemed to settle at his touch. As if she was right where she belonged. He released her far too quickly, and for a few scattered seconds, she stared at her hand.
“What about you?” he asked as he slid next to her on the seat. “You been here before?”
“This is my first time.” She thought about saying more, how she’d come to Flagstaff to attend the wedding of a sister she’d never known, a sister who hadn’t been abandoned to strangers like she had. But no, that was far too personal.
The hot sun beat down on them as they drove through the fairgrounds. People waved friendly greetings at Beck over the growl of the tractor. Young children stared, and a few ran along beside them. Delicious aromas wafted on the light breeze and made Rylee remember she was hungry.
“You’re pretty popular,” Rylee commented.
“They’re just jealous and hoping I’ll introduce you.”
This close, she could see the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “Yeah, right.”
He chuckled. “I only tell the truth.”
All too soon they arrived at a larger corral where half a dozen kids and a beautiful young woman waited for them. The woman carried a basket full of paper strips that looked a lot like the carnival wristbands Rylee had seen on many of the youths at the fair today.
“Finally,” said a girl of about eight, who had long brown pigtails reaching halfway down her chest. “We still got to put on all their collars, and people are already here.” She gestured to the clumps of fair-goers who were gravitating toward the corral.
“Plenty of time.” Beck jumped to the ground from the tractor and turned to help Rylee down. “Besides, I brought help.”
“Oooh,” the little girl mocked, while a couple of boys barely out of their teens whistled.
“Don’t mind her,” the beautiful woman said, pushing past the children with an outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Nora, Beckham’s sister and the 4-H leader of these ragamuffins. The loud mouth belongs to me.” There was a family resemblance, especially in the dark hair and braids that Nora also sported, but she didn’t look old enough to be the little girl’s mother.
“Nice to meet you,” Rylee said as they shook hands.
“Who wants the first one?” Beck asked. He and two of the kids, including Nora’s child, had already climbed into the wagon and now held wriggling pigs in their arms.
The remaining children on the ground dived for the paper collars and began snugly fastening them to the pigs held by those in the wagon. Then the pigs were set free in the corral, where they happily began wandering around.
“Here’s one for you,” Beck said, holding out a pig to Rylee that looked like Wilma.
Rylee grabbed a collar from the basket and tore off the backing.
“Make it really snug.”
Rylee stopped to examine the dollar bill stapled to the collar. “Wait, this isn’t even real.”
“Nope. Had too many rip in half. We exchange them for real ones after the contest. Whoever gets the most wins fifty bucks.”
“I thought this was for charity.” Rylee took Wilma and set her gently in the corral. The pig didn’t feel slimy and wasn’t nearly as stinky as she’d expected but was a lot heavier. These 4-H kids must be stronger than they looked.
“People pay ten bucks to enter and we pay them from that. We run it several times, a dozen or so people at a time, and only give the fifty bucks to the overall winner. We always raise at least a couple hundred dollars for Nora’s program.”
“Sounds a bit easy. I mean, to rip off the money.”
He laughed. “That’s where you’re wrong. Most of the pigs manage to keep their dollar bill. But I really think you should give it a try. Remember, it’s for charity.”
She put another collar on the pig he was holding, then staggered under its weight as she let it down into the corral. “Been eating a little too much, have we?” she murmured. When she looked back at Beck, he was watching her. “I thought this thing was for little kids.”
“That’s tomorrow. Today it’s sixteen on up.” His smile was a challenge.
How hard could it be? She reached into her pocket and took out the phone she carried in a thin leather wallet with a credit card slot and a pocket for bills. She pulled out a ten-dollar note and held it up to him. “Okay, I’m in.”
“That’s Sadie’s domain.” He gestured to his niece, who immediately dropped the pig she was holding into a boy’s arms, snatched the bill, and climbed out of the wagon.
She pulled a ticket from her pocket. “Here you go.”
Nora frowned. “Are you sure about this?” She cast a rather dark look at her brother. “We don’t want to chase her away.”
“She’s good with pigs.” Beck swung down from the wagon and a boy took his place catching the few remaining collarless animals. “You might need this.” He handed her another dog biscuit.
Rylee rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that cheating?”
“All’s fair in love and war and greased pig contests.” He flashed her another grin, which made her forget what she was about to do. Anyway, the worst that could happen was she’d run around and never get close to an animal.
It’s for charity, she reminded herself as she stuck the biscuit in her pocket.
Sadie was already taking tickets from people. She stopped after letting a dozen people in the corral, then motioned to Rylee. “I saved you a spot in this one.” She gave a knowing smirk that made Rylee feel a bit nervous.
Nora stepped closer, pushing past her brother. “You’d better give me your phone, if you’ve got one, just in case.” Nora held out her hand and only with a slight hesitation did Rylee pull it out of her back pocket and give it to her. The only thing of real value there was her credit card, and she figured it was safe enough with Nora.
“And you might need this.” Nora began removing the elastic from one of her braids.
“But your hair . . .” Rylee trailed off as Nora pulled her other braid around the back of her neck and fastened the elastic on that one around both of the braid ends before pushing them over her shoulder to hang down her back. “Oh, thanks.”
Rylee gathered her long blond hair up in a high ponytail. It was better to keep it clean since she was going to see Marlee and her mother tonight at the rehearsal dinner. Birth mother, she reminded herself. It hurt less thinking of her that way. Lily Perez from Lily’s House was the woman Rylee considered her real mother, the woman who had taken her in when she was sixteen, ending the flood of foster homes she’d been shuffled off to over the years. Before that, Rylee had stayed only periodically with her birth mother, usually when her mother’s guilt sent her to rehab, but it was never for more than a month or two at a time.
Not Marlee, though. Her older sister had stayed with their mother from the beginning, and Rylee couldn’t help the resulting load of resentment for both her sister and mother. Why had she even come to attend the wedding? She’d asked herself the question a thousand times.
Because of her roommate. Tara had given her some spiel about meeting her family halfway. Tara saw the invitation as a path to mending the gulf between them, and Rylee had caved. But now she was having second thoughts. No, third or fourth thoughts. She had Lily and Tara and the others from Lily’s House. They were all the family she needed.
A warm hand landed on her shoulder. “Having second thoughts?” Beck asked, his voice warm and more than a little teasing. The challenge in his eyes was clear.
If only he knew. “Not on your life, mister.”
His answering grin was all she needed to fuel her. Maybe he was different. Maybe soon it wouldn’t only be Tara who was getting meaningful kisses from a cowboy. The kind that hinted of a future. She took a deep breath and joined the other contestants already in the corral. They were mostly teens, but there was a mother with her daughter and a man with his son, so she wasn’t the only adult.
“Good luck,” Nora said as she approached with a bottle of oil, which she proceeded to pour over the outstretched hands of the first contestant.
So that’s what Beck meant by not oiling the pigs, Rylee thought. She held out her hands like the others and let Nora drip oil over them.
Afterward, Nora helped her daughter shut the gate, while Beck hopped back up on the wagon. Someone handed him a bullhorn. “Okay, folks, listen up,” he boomed, his amplified voice quieting the crowd. “We welcome you out to the Coconino County Fair and our greased pig contest sponsored by B&K Ranch. Here’s how it goes. You have five minutes to grab as many bills as you can off these pigs. Then we’ll reset and start the next group. Looks like we’ll be running two groups today. Whoever has grabbed the most bills after both contests wins today’s grand prize of fifty bucks. There is no second or third place, so there is only one chance!” The crowd cheered.
“Oh, and pigs?” he added, lowering his voice. “Make sure you go easy on these people. No fair making them look too bad.”
The crowd thought that was hilarious, but Rylee started to feel a little uneasy. What was she doing? Surely there were easier ways to meet guys.
“Okay,” Beck shouted. “Ready, set, and go!”
The contestants took off running. Rylee went one step and then stared down at her new baby blue tennis shoes doubtfully. There were two spots of oil on them already and dust rose up in a little puff around her shoe. Dust came off, right?
“Get a move on!” Sadie yelled at her. “You’re gonna lose.”
Rylee started running. But every time she approached a pig, it darted away easily, its snort sounding like laughter. She tried to grab onto one, but her greased hands slipped off. This was harder than it looked.
Then the crowd went wild as one teen managed to snag a bill. He punched the air with his fist in jubilation. Seconds later the same boy grabbed another bill. The contestants were becoming creative now in their desperation to win. They tried sneaking up on pigs, walking backward, and even squatting down and calling to them. The mother-daughter team worked together to trap one pig between them, ripping the bill from the collar as it darted past.
Many of the pigs had retreated to a corner and Rylee headed over in that direction. Why wasn’t anyone else going for this group? Someone yelled at her to stop, but the animals were just sitting there waiting for her. With so many clumped together, she was bound to get at least a couple of the fake dollars as she waded into them.
She knew the minute her foot hit the straw near the pigs that all wasn’t well in this corner of the corral. As she took a few skating steps, she spied a boy with mud all over his pants and suspected he’d been the one to warn her.
Too late. She fell, gliding over the ground like a baseball player sliding into home base. She sailed into the knot of pigs, who moved aside and stared at her mockingly. She could swear they were laughing at her. Like the crowd that was hooting loud enough to make a person go deaf.
The pigs didn’t seem to mind the noise, but they were slowly edging away from her. Rylee wasn’t about to let that happen. Still on her backside, she whipped out the biscuit Beck had given her. The nearest pig gave a greedy snort and stepped toward her.
“Wilma?” Rylee asked.
As if the porker was going to answer.
Rylee ripped the bill from the pig’s collar, then held the biscuit in the direction of another pig. It snorted and the next thing she knew, several animals were playing pig tackle. She closed her fist over the biscuit and fought a scream.
Just her luck, she’d finally met a man who might be worth dating and she was going to die of bacon smothering before he ever asked her out.
Want more? Pre-order here. (Sorry, this anthology is an Amazon exclusive, but when my story comes out alone later this year it will be available everywhere.)