also writing as
Long Distance Hero
Toy's side of the story the first time she meets cowboy Zane...
BORN IN TEXAS #12: Long Distance Hero
Toya Mason had been fascinated with cowboys her entire life. To this day, the coolest gift she’d ever been given was her first pair of cowgirl boots. Funny how she could still remember the day like it was yesterday, instead of wa-a-a-ay back on her fourth birthday. She’d literally worn those pink leather boots until they’d fallen off her feet. By then, her mom had married a rich guy. They’d moved with him to New York. Toy had been wearing nothing but designer labels ever since.
No more cowgirl boots.
Maybe that was why she was so excited about meeting Nash Wilder’s twin brother this morning. Though a big city gal through-and-through, she’d never entirely outgrown her love for the wild west. It was something she’d learned to keep to herself, though, when visiting home. Her mother and stepfather were social justice warriors — so up to their ears in politics that they couldn’t comprehend why a Black girl would even think of swooning and sighing her way through a John Wayne movie.
Or a Clint Eastwood movie. Or Gary Cooper. Or Kirk Douglas. Yeah, baby! She was so looking forward to adding a real, live, current-day cowboy to that legendary lineup.
As she braked her rented Mercedes coupe on the front circle drive of her best friend’s brother’s home, she squinted critically at her reflection in the rear-view mirror. Anxious, dark eyes peered back at her. She had no idea if she was even dressed right for the occasion. Probably not. And if the red velvet sheath she was wearing was all wrong, it was a classic city girl error. She should’ve thought to ask Kenzie what to wear to her family’s Christmas celebration, but the topic had never come up in the dozen or so conversations they’d had over the phone.
Oh, well. She reached up to smooth a slender hand over her bazillion ultra-tiny black braids. I’m already here in a long red dress and gold stilettos. Not to mention long, blood-red nails. Real ones, not acrylic. She wasn’t into fake stuff.
Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself that she was a New Yorker, spending her first day in Texas. Ever. Surely her bestie and her family would cut her a little slack for that error.
Not once in her twenty-nine years had there been a reason to visit the Lonestar State before now. Her family’s vacations had mostly been to exotic places like Paris, Venice, and Rome. She’d attended college in New York, where she’d earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration. The company she’d worked for the last ten years was headquartered in New York City.
Not anymore, though. She’d quit the day Kenzie had gotten fired for refusing their jerk boss’s advances. The fact that he was behind bars now didn’t make Toya any less angry every time she thought about it. Nor did it make her feel any less strange about being on the hunt for a new job for the first time in a decade.
Ugh! There were so many things she needed to figure out about her life — where she should go next and what she should do when she got there. But not today.
It’s Christmas. Pushing open the driver’s door, she hoped cowboys liked dark-skinned girls in long red dresses. One cowboy, in particular.
The front door of the Malone’s white farmhouse popped open, and a petite woman with blonde braids stepped outside onto the porch. Her name was Nelle. The only reason Toya recognized her was because of how much Kenzie had spoken about her sister-in-law. They hadn’t always enjoyed the best of relationships, which was why Kenzie was so determined to make it the most wonderful Christmas ever.
Probably how I got invited. If for no other reason than to break up the tension between the two women. Toy didn’t mind. With as many years as she’d spent dealing with customers, she was good at playing peacemaker.
“You must be Toy.” Nelle smiled curiously at her as she carefully picked her way across the frosty gravel driveway on the balls of her feet. The heels on her shoes were meant for the rocks.
“I am, and you must be Nelle.” Toy smiled back, knowing Nelle’s use of her nickname was proof that Kenzie had told her sister-in-law all about her. Her heart sank as she eyed the woman’s unbuttoned plaid shirt, revealing a blooming belly beneath her t-shirt. I am most definitely overdressed.
“Guilty,” Nelle confessed cheerfully as Toy climbed the porch steps. Instead of shaking Toy’s hand, Nelle leaned in to give her a quick hug. “I feel like I already know you with how much my sister-in-law has talked about you.”
“Same.” Toy gave a cautious chuckle. “Congratulations on the baby, by the way.”
“Thank you.” Nelle cocked her head assessingly. “Did she say anything good about me?”
Toy gave a surprised cackle. No beating around the bush, eh? It tickled her to no end that the woman had gone straight for her jugular. She didn’t mind, though. She’d always preferred plain speaking. “Of course! She thinks you married the most amazing guy on the planet.”
“She’s right.” Nelle smirked. She was married to Kenzie’s only brother, who also happened to be the town sheriff. “Nice save, by the way. As Kenzie’s best friend, there’s no way you haven’t caught at least a small whiff of our family drama.”
“It was very small,” Toy assured with a smile.
“Oh, you are smooth.” Nelle burst out laughing as she waved Toy inside. “If the business world ever fails to treat you right, you could always run for office. Either that or become a diplomat.”
“No, thank you,” Toy groaned, shuddering. “We have more than enough politicians in my family. That’s why I said your family drama was small. If you don’t believe me, we can swap war stories sometime. Just not today, please. It would ruin my Christmas.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.” Nelle’s voice was sympathetic as she led Toy to a cozy country dining room. A long oak table spanned the room. Upholstered chairs were pulled up to the ends and one side. On the other side stretched a rustic wooden bench.
“This is so beautiful!” Toy couldn’t have been more charmed by the pine centerpiece gracing the table or the crocheted white runner it was resting on.
“Really?” Nelle looked taken aback. “I figured this would be a pretty big step down from what you’re accustomed to.” She gave Toy’s long red dress a sideways glance.
“Oh, come on!” Toy gazed around the empty room, wondering where Kenzie and her husband, Nash, were. “Your home looks like something out of a country magazine. It’s…wow!” her gaze latched on to a set of black and white framed photos resting behind the glass doors of an antique China cabinet. “Or an HGTV show. Take your pick, cowgirl!” She loved the space. It was warm and inviting, everything a home should be.
Everything the mansion I was raised in…isn’t. But Toy pushed that thought out of her mind, refusing to allow anything but happy stuff to fill her head space today.
She glanced around the room again. “Where’s Kenzie?”
Nelle’s mouth twisted wryly. “Probably making a half dozen last-minute more casseroles and desserts than the half-dozen she already made last night.”
At Toy’s questioning look, she explained, “I’m a horrible cook. Be glad she’s running late. It’s a sure sign you won’t have to spend the rest of the holiday with food poisoning.”
“Oka-a-a-ay.” Toy shook her head, chuckling. It was hard to tell if Nelle was joking. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Not today. Everybody gets to be a guest on their first visit to my home. So, just have a seat and keep looking beautiful.” Nelle poured a glass of ice water for her at a side cabinet and popped two lemons and two limes in the top of it. Handing it to her, she added with a snicker. “Enjoy it while you can. Next visit, you’ll be washing and drying dishes like everyone else.” Her gaze dropped to Toy’s red-lacquered fingernails, making Toy wonder if her manicure was the real reason Nelle didn’t want her help with anything today.
It was gel nail polish, as hard as granite, but she didn’t bother setting her hostess straight. She kind of liked the idea of doing nothing for a few minutes. The last three months of her life had been a whirlwind. Though she hadn’t told anyone yet, not even Kenzie, she’d turned in her notice to her New York landlord weeks ago. Then she’d thrown most of her belongings into storage. When Kenzie had invited her to come visit for Christmas, she’d simply packed her suitcases, left her hotel without looking back, and hopped on the next flight out of the city.
She was ready for a change and was secretly hoping to find that change here in Texas. Maybe. Whatever you want for my life next, Lord. Lifting her glass of ice water, she took a bracing sip, trying to swallow the last of the jitters clogging the back of her throat. Stepping out on a limb of faith, as it turned out, was the most uncomfortable thing she’d done in her entire adult life.
Kenzie blew into the room a few minutes later with a happy screech. “Toy! Omigosh!” She ran across the dining room, nearly tipping over a chair in her haste to reach her. “I can’t believe I actually talked my favorite city girl into visiting such a small town. Still pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.” She threw her arms around Toy and gave her shoulders a quick squeeze. Then she held her at arm’s length. “I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see a woman in an actual dress. It’s all jeans and plaid shirts around her.” She wrinkled her nose as she glanced down at her own jeans and boots.
Toy made a wry face at her former project leader. “Just say it already. I know I’m overdressed.” She was practically drooling over her friend’s high-heeled boots. Must have a pair! She made a mental note not to leave town without them.
Kenzie made a sound of disgust. “Huh-uh. No way. More like the rest of us are underdressed. Seriously, Toy! You look amazing.”
“Right.” Toy rolled her eyes.
“I’m right, and you know it.” Kenzie stooped closer, shoving back a handful of her red-gold hair to keep it from swinging against Toy’s face. She spoke in a hiss that only the two of them could hear. “Zane is going to be completely wowed out by your dress. Mark my words!” She suddenly snapped her fingers. "And before I forget, Nash is backing our Corvette in front of your rental car to leave room for his brother to park."
Toy’s heartbeat sped at the thought of finally meeting Zane, though she merely asked in a low voice, “Are things any better between him and Nash?” Kenzie had warned her that the brothers had been embroiled in a pretty painful disagreement lately. Apparently, Zane been pretty hurt about her and Nash eloping and not telling him they were married until several days later.
“Yes and no. He accepted Nash’s invitation to be here today, so that’s something. Progress, I hope.” Kenzie’s expression grew pensive. “Not sure he approves of me, though.”
“What?” Toy hadn’t meant to speak so loudly. Nelle’s husband, Cade, had popped into the room to sit a pair of pies on a side table. His dark auburn eyebrows rose at her exclamation.
Toy hastily lowered her voice. “What in the world is his problem?” Kenzie was the sweetest, kindest, most caring person on the planet! If he couldn't see that, he was as blind as a bat!
Kenzie’s green eyes started to twinkle. “It’s only suspicion. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think city girls have what it takes to handle cowboys.”
You have got to be kidding me! Toy’s lips parted on an indignant O. She’d never heard anything so foolish. “Don’t worry, girlfriend. I’ve got this.”
Kenzie gave a breathless chuckle. “Just take him down a peg or two. Don’t lop off his head, please.”
Toy snorted, her mind racing a thousand miles per minute to formulate a game plan. “There will be no bloodshed. I promise.” So much for her earlier excitement about meeting Zane, the cowboy. Clearly, all those hours she’d spent daydreaming about him were a waste. What a pity! She’d been really looking forward to meeting him ever since Nash had teasingly air-dropped his brother’s cell phone number to her.
Kenzie chuckled again. “Not that anyone would notice a few drops of blood on that gorgeous dress of yours. Just saying.”
“Nope.” Toy shook her head vigorously. “It’s Christmas, so my fangs are fully retracted. Doesn’t mean I won’t have a little fun at his expense, though.” You’re not going to know what even hit you, country boy! All it took was a small dose of Toy Mason to send most idiots, bullies, and meanies running.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to fully flesh out her get-even-with-Zane-Wilder plan before he was ushered into the room by his twin. However, she was pretty good at thinking on her feet.
She had just taken her seat at the far end of the table, facing the doorway so she wouldn’t miss his cocky entrance. It put her in the perfect position to lay an ambush.
Two things were immediately apparent. Nash had been arguing with his brother again. They were both wearing glares that they quickly squashed the moment they realized other eyes were upon them. Also, Zane was darker than his brother. Darker hair, darker skin, darker eyes, darker all around. And harder. And a smidgeon taller. Definitely not the easy-going guy his fraternal twin was. He didn’t look like he smiled that much, either.
Toy sent a smile his way from beneath her lashes and waited until his gaze landed on her. His response was immediate. In a split second, his gaze went from hard and angry to admiring. The male kind of admiring. And curious. And interested.
Gotcha, sucker! Feeling like he was primed for the kill, she stood and glided his way. “You must be Zane Wilder.” She held out a hand, enjoying the way his dark eyes widened at the sight of her longer-than-average nails. She’d had her manicurist chisel them to a stylish point — not quite spikes or claws, but close enough.
“I am. And you are?” She didn’t miss the flickering glance he gave her shoes.
They’re Jimmy Choos, country boy. Bet you don’t even know what they are. “I’m Toya Mason. Office manager and admin extraordinaire to the most wonderful VP in the universe. That is, before she was fired, and I quit.”
Zane’s scowl returned in full force. He shot an accusing look at his brother that told her he didn’t know that his sister-in-law had been fired from her job.
Interesting. Toy continued talking while he was mentally off balance. “Everyone just calls me Toy, though.” She mischievously grazed her fingernails across the underside of his palm, just to see what he would do.
His gaze snapped back to her, narrowing in speculation. And so much interest that she had to suppress a shiver.
She’d gotten his attention, alright. A thrill of excitement worked its way down her spine as he boldly stepped closer to her to splay one large hand against the small of her back. Clearly, he’d been paying attention to the details since he proceeded to lead her to the same corner of the table that she’d previously vacated.
He dipped his head closer to hers as he pulled out her chair. “How’d you know my name?”
She went for the sucker punch and confided in a sultry voice as she sat down, “Someone slipped me your phone number while he was visiting Oklahoma City. As to who, I’ll leave that up to you to figure out.”
Zane shot his brother another questioning look, but Nash only grinned.
“In his defense, I’d sort of made it clear this single gal was in the market for a cowboy,” she continued in a teasing voice. “Actually, I announced it to the whole table over dinner.”
He gave an ungallant snort, definitely not the sound of a guy who was worried about impressing a woman. “Clearly, you don’t know many cowboys. There’s nothing romantic about us. We’re a dusty, sweaty, callused rope-swinging, tractor-riding bunch.”
Ouch! Maybe she’d mistaken his look of interest earlier. He sounded more like he was trying to scare her off than reel her in. Lifting her chin, she shot back, “Plus cocky, sarcastic, and irreverent.” She raised her eyebrows at him. “You do realize I’ve met your brother already?”
He tipped his Stetson back and laughed. She got the distinct impression he didn’t do that much. It momentarily softened his hard features, making him look a lot more like the hunky cowboy she’d been hoping to meet.
She cocked her head at him. “So, are you a pilot like your brother?” She hadn’t meant to ask anything conversational that sounded like she wanted to get to know him better. It had just sort of slipped out.
“Yep. We got licensed about the same time.” He looked surprised by the question. Then he abruptly asked one of his own. “Why’d you quit your job in New York?”
Anger spurted through her at the memory. “Because our boss is a jerk for firing Kenzie. No way was I going to let him get away with that.” Her mouth tightened. “Our friend Jinx quit the moment he found out, too.”
Zane’s tanned forehead wrinkled in genuine puzzlement. “Why do you think he let her go?”
“Because he’s in love with her himself,” she spat. Just saying it out loud put a bad taste in her mouth. “They dated a while back. He was a fool to let her go. She moved on, but he didn’t.”
“Interesting.” Zane shot another look at his brother. Unless she was mistaken, his gaze landed on Kenzie this time. His expression grew a few degrees chillier.
“You don’t like her much, do you?”
“What?” Zane’s head whipped back to her.
“Kenzie. I saw the way you were looking at her.”
He grimaced and didn’t immediately answer. “I barely know her.”
“Clearly! If you’d ever seen her in action, you’d change your tune very quickly.”
“Would I, now?” Amusement flickered across his features.
Don’t you dare laugh at me, country boy. I know what I’m talking about. “Her ex is a massively wealthy, massively powerful guy who made a massively powerful play to win her back in Oklahoma City. She chose your brother over him.” Toy was getting so worked up over the topic that she felt her face turning red. Hopefully, he wouldn’t notice. It was one of the perks of having darker skin.
“I see.” Zane glanced over at Kenzie again, looking more curious than cold this time.
“What’s your problem with her?” Toy wasn’t near ready to let him off the hook for his prejudices against city girls. “Is it because she’s from the city?”
“I don’t know her,” Zane repeated firmly.
“All city girls aren’t bad.” A wicked thought struck her. “I’d be happy to prove it to you, if you want.”
A chuckle rumbled out of him. “Are you asking me out, city girl?”
Oh, bring it on, country boy! Yeah, he definitely had a problem with city girls. She could read it in his gaze. “Will you say yes if I do, country boy?” She gave a long-suffering sigh before mocking, “Just for the record, I don’t handle rejection well.”
His hard mouth twitched. “Where would you want to go on our first date, city girl?”
She fluttered her lashes at him. “Anywhere you want, country boy.”
“Horseback riding it is,” he shot back. “Tomorrow morning at sunup, we’ll ride out to the canyons together, if that’s something a city girl can handle.” The way his expression grew shuttered again told her he fully expected her to turn down his offer.
Now you’re just playing games, country boy, but two can play. He was wrong about her and Kenzie, and she couldn’t wait to prove it. Then rub his cocky nose in it!
“Deal!” She lifted her chin a fraction, throwing down a challenge of her own that was sure to make him as miserable as he was hoping to make her. “Afterward, you can drive me to Lubbock for lunch at a restaurant of my choice. I hope you own a suit and know how to balance a linen napkin on your country boy knees.”
He snorted. “I own a suit. I’m sure I can figure out the rest.” His scoffing tone told her that he didn’t think dining at an upscale restaurant was that big of a deal.
I am going to make mincemeat out of you, cowboy. “Where do you want to get this party started?” The way his gaze dropped to her mouth with interest made her want to squirm in her seat. By some miracle, she resisted.
“How about the lobby of the Anderson Ranch B&B?”
That surprised her. And made her a little suspicious. “Perfect. That’s where I’m staying.” Had he known that?
His expression told her nothing. “Good.” His tone was mildly dismissive, though he followed it with a long, slow wink. "It's a date, darlin'."
Ha! Her gut told her he didn’t think she could handle the outing he was proposing. Prepare to be schooled, country boy. One thing New Yorkers were very skilled at was braving cold temperatures. She was also no stranger to horseback riding. Granted, most of her lessons had been inside a fenced-in ring at a boarding school stable, but how hard could it be to ride a horse in a straight line instead of in circles?
Zane clearly had no idea what it meant to take a city girl on a date. She couldn’t wait to show him.