Here’s this week’s excerpt of BIG HORN, leading up to its 6/1 release. Did you miss the first few excerpts? Get them here:
Chapter Two: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/04/17917/
For anyone that pre-orders the BIG HORN Kindle ebook, you’ll get BUCKLE BUNNY, a Wyoming suspense novella. Free. Included with your ebook. You can do that here: https://amzn.to/3KSKe5q.
Before I release you to the exciting BIG HORN excerpt, though, I want you to know that my Amazon Top 25 bestselling Patrick Flint novel, SWITCHBACK, will be both free in Prime Reading (and Kindle Unlimited) from now through May. If you haven’t tried it, now’s the time. Do it here: https://amzn.to/3xzADMO. Hurry reading it and the other books in the series, because #7, SITTING DUCK, comes out 7/28!
With no further ado, here’s Chapter Three of BIG HORN:
“Thank you all for being here. As big an honor as it was to be recognized in Cheyenne, there’s no place like home, and there are no people I’d rather celebrate with than you guys.” Hank Sibley lifted a beer stein.
Not that Aaron checked guys out, but he always evaluated their physical potential, as if they were adversaries on the field. It was a habit he’d never broken after he left football. To him, Hank looked like a cornerback. Lean muscle and zero percent body fat, but not tall enough to be a wide receiver.
A swarthy guy nearly two heads shorter than Aaron lifted his glass toward Hank. “Any time you’re buying, Sib.”
Laughs erupted around the tables. Thirty, maybe forty people? The party was in the back room of a restaurant in Sheridan—Frackelton’s, which was much better than he’d expected to find in Wyoming, based on the appetizers and drinks so far.
Hank grinned. “I’m just charging it to Double S, Gene. Thanks for picking up half the tab for everybody.”
The laughs were even louder for that line. Gene was Hank’s business partner in a bucking stock contracting business run on Hank’s family ranch. Aaron had met Gene earlier in the evening. The woman sitting between Jennifer and Hank was iconically familiar to Aaron. Around Nashville, where he’d grown up on a farm, and Knoxville, where he’d gone to college and vet school, country music stars were gods. Maggie Killian had been scorching the air waves about the time he was graduating from vet school. She’d flamed out later, though. Drugs, if he remembered correctly. But she looked good now. Healthy. Straight.
“You probably all guessed I partnered up with Gene way back when because he made me look taller.” This line got Hank the loudest laugh of all. “Last night, they told me I’m the tallest bull rider ever inducted into the hall of fame for Frontier Days. Which ain’t saying much.” Someone from across the room whistled and whooped. His face turned serious. “You folks know how much I miss my parents.” Warm sounds of agreement and nods followed his words. “That’s why I’m so happy to have family here tonight, especially since my sister Laura had to head back to New Mexico straight from Cheyenne. That’s my cousin Jenny and her husband Aaron over there.” He nodded at them. Aaron nodded back. “And, of course, my parents’ longtime best friends, Patrick and Susanne Flint, who might as well officially adopt me. Patrick, thanks for patching me up, over and over, when the bulls got the best of me.” A tanned and gray-haired man half stood, his hand on a woman’s shoulder. She was fit and attractive, but Aaron assumed she was roughly the same age as her husband. “And of course, to my Maggie, the best thing to come out of Frontier Days for me, hands down.” She blew him a kiss.” So, here’s to you all, drink up, eat up, and party ‘til the sun’s up. Cheers.”
“Cheers,” Aaron said, with the rest of the crowd.
Hank put the mug to his lips as he sat down beside Maggie. The two of them shared a searing gaze, then locked lips. It went on for so long that Aaron looked away.
Aaron took a sip of his Bomber Mountain Amber. He enjoyed trying out the local beers on tap—this one was from Blacktooth Brewery a few streets over—but tonight he was taking it easy, since Jennifer was on her third glass of pinot noir. One of them needed to stay sober for the drive back to the lodge, and she didn’t have much weight to balance out the volume of wine she was consuming.
She flipped her phone over and dipped her head to check it. Again. She’d spent more time with her face in it than talking to any of the humans present. He frowned. Something was off kilter about her tonight. She looked great, flashing a little bit of side skin and shoulder in a slinky top. She always looked great. Her hair was twisted into a clip like she hadn’t brushed it in a month, which he loved. She wore brighter colors than most women he knew and mismatched clothes on purpose. The way she dressed was bold and sometimes jarring, like her personality.
“You okay?” he said from the side of his mouth.
Annoyance crossed her pretty face. It caught at his chest. When had that become the norm? He tried to picture how she’d looked at him in the old days. She still had the big blue eyes, the perfect lips, a nose so cute he used to kiss it good morning, the blonde hair that was like silk against his skin, and a killer bod made even leaner by hot yoga and a stress diet than when she’d been into handsprings and herkie jumps. But he couldn’t raise a mental image of the pheromone-charged gaze that had taken his breath away. It wasn’t just the difference in her response to him, though. All of her expressions were harder. He felt another tug in his chest. His Jenny had lost her smile.
“I’m fine, other than I’m stuck beside her.” She jerked her head toward Maggie. “Why do you ask?”
“Just checking on you. Did something happen between you two?”
Maggie leaned around Jennifer. “What are you two love birds whispering about?”
A fragile-looking waitress with red hair, flighty eyes, and a nametag that read MELINDA set plates down in front of Aaron and Jennifer. He’d ordered the Delmonico-cut ribeye. The scent wafting up from the plate made him salivate. They hadn’t had time for lunch when they’d connected in Denver earlier.
Jennifer drained her wine glass and ignored her purple pasta. What the hell makes it that color?
Before Aaron could answer, Maggie drawled, “Must be important. Maybe it’s about whatever Ms. Thing here has been reading on her phone all night.”
The annoyed look on Jennifer’s face deepened. She gave Aaron a see what I mean head tilt.
Aaron jumped in quickly. “Man, this food looks great.”
“They do a nice job, although I’ve never ordered anything vegetarian.” Maggie raised her eyebrows and nodded at Jennifer’s plate.
“I happen to like beets.” Jennifer swirled her empty glass. “And I need more wine.”
Maggie shook her head. “Vegetarian plates and fancy wine aren’t what you need in Wyoming.” She raised a hand, and the waitress scuttled over. “Two Koltiska 90s, please. Rocks.”
The waitress nodded and left without a peep.
“I like what I like,” Jennifer said.
Maggie snorted. “Apparently that doesn’t include the perfectly nice guest house at our ranch.”
Ouch. Clearly it hadn’t landed well with Maggie that Jennifer had insisted on staying elsewhere. A hand on Aaron’s shoulder tore his attention away from the women. He turned to see a not-unfamiliar face under brown hair graying at the temples, but he couldn’t place the guy. Thick but not fat, the man had a beard that was longer and darker than his hair, making him appear maybe ten years older than Aaron. He wasn’t tall, yet there was an air about him that said “wolverine.” Special teams. A small linebacker or fullback. If he’d been fast, a big running back.
“You’re Aaron Herrington, am I right?” the man said.
Aaron stood, pushing back his chair. “I am.”
“I’m Perry Flint. About twenty years ago, I was a scout for the University of Wyoming. I tried to convince you to play quarterback for us. You visited during a blizzard, and we never heard back from you again.”
Aaron groaned. He remembered. It hadn’t been a great time in his life. “I’m sorry. We don’t get much cold weather where I come from.”
The two men shook.
Perry smoothed his hand across the top of his short hair. “I was sorry to hear about your head injuries. The Lions lost out on a great tight end when you retired.”
“Thank you, although I’m not sure you can call it retiring. I had to quit before I finished my first full season in the pros. If I’d come to Wyoming, maybe I could have played quarterback and avoided the nine concussions. But it forced my ass back to vet school, where it belonged.”
“Yeah, bad luck signing at Tennessee at the same time as Peyton Manning.”
Aaron sighed. “I wish I hated the guy, but he’s just so dang nice.”
Perry sang, “Nationwide is on your side.”
Aaron laughed, recognizing the jingle from an insurance commercial. “And he got all the endorsements.”
“Do you live around here?”
“No. Houston. Hank’s my wife’s first cousin. We came up for his party.”
“How long are you going to be around? I coach at the high school in Big Horn. Maybe I can lure you out to talk to my players.”
Aaron felt a twinge of regret. He ducked his chin as he gave his head one shake. “Rats. We’re leaving tomorrow. I would have loved to. I coach youth club football in Houston.”
“Next time. Are you staying with Sibley?”
“No. We’re in Big Horn.”
“Really? An Airbnb place?”
“The Big Horn Lodge.”
Perry stretched his face into a surprised expression. “I didn’t even know it was up and running.”
Aaron considered the septic situation and the drunken proprietor. “By the skin of its teeth.”
“It’s a sad story. The owner, George, is a friend of my dad’s. George used to run a successful electrical contracting company. Specialized in off-the-grid applications, like solar, wind, and generators. He sold out a few years ago to a big outfit, after he landed a statewide government contract for solar. He and his new wife Shelly bought the lodge and were going to fix it up. She wanted to be an innkeeper, and he was going to run snow machine tours.”
“Shelly died in an avalanche while they were back country snowmobiling. They say he dug for two days trying to get her out before someone found him.”
Aaron had a new appreciation for the state of the lodge and George’s liver. “Holy smokes.”
On the other side of Aaron, a sharp female voice cut in. It was the fragile waitress, Melinda, holding a tray of drinks aloft. “Don’t waste your time feeling sorry for George. The man killed my sister Sarah when he was driving drunk. He probably killed his wife, too.”
Perry’s eyes widened.
Aaron lowered his head a bit. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Her eyes snapped. “He might as well have killed the rest of my family while he was at it. My dad lost his shit, and my parents split up. I’m barely holding it together. I swear, I’d kill George for what he did to us, if I could get away with it.”
She bit her thumbnail, dropped her hand, and stepped over to Maggie. She slammed two drinks down. Then she speed-walked away, ignoring Jennifer’s request for more wine.
“What’s her problem?” Jennifer’s voice was loose and boozy at the edges. “Doesn’t she know she works for tips?”
Aaron winced. Something’s definitely up. It wasn’t like Jennifer to be snippy about people in the service industry. She’d waited tables herself during college and law school. He leaned into her. “Her sister died in a car wreck. With George in the other car. We have to cut her some slack.”
Aaron let it go.
Perry made a face, showing his teeth. “I had no idea the waitress was Sarah Stiles’ sister, or I would have been more discreet. That family has had a tough year. Sarah’s death. An ugly, public divorce. Gerrianne, her mother, seems to have taken it especially hard. But I will say I read in the paper that Sarah ran a red light. Two sides to every story, I guess.”
“True.” Actually, Aaron couldn’t have agreed more. It was like with his recruiting trip to the University of Wyoming. Sure, the weather had been severe, but what had really turned him off was the player who’d been assigned to show him around Laramie. The guy left a bar with a girl so drunk that Aaron didn’t see how anything the guy later bragged about could have been consensual. What a pig. He wished his eighteen-year-old self had done something to stop it then, but he hadn’t. He’d been far too wrapped up in his own problems, and he couldn’t go back in time. If he could, he would have busted the guy’s nose, and then some.
“I was actually there, right after the wreck,” Perry said.
“George didn’t look or smell drunk to me. But Sarah—it was clear the ambulance wasn’t going to do her any good. She was in an old Volkswagen bug. It t-boned George’s truck. No airbags. Her skull was completely caved in across her forehead.”
“It was.” Perry clapped Aaron on the arm. “Well, enough of that. Too depressing. Great running into you.”
“You, too, man. Thanks for saying hello. Take care.” Aaron slid back into his seat and looked sadly at his cold steak. He tucked into it anyway. Damn. It was as good as any he’d had in the lone star state. Still chewing, he glanced over and was surprised to see that the cocktail glass in front of Jennifer was empty.
“See?” Maggie was saying. “Isn’t it just what you needed?”
Jennifer pursed her lips and nodded. Gone was the woman complaining about the waitress. She looked suddenly endearing. Again, he felt a tug in his chest.
Maggie drained her glass. “Makes you want to eat red meat, I’ll bet.”
And then his wife did the oddest thing. She laughed. His eyes met Maggie’s, and he was sure he looked shocked. Maggie cracked a wide smile.
“She doesn’t drink much back in Texas,” he said, smiling, too.
“Well, she’s not in Texas, is she?”
“I want another one.” Jennifer stood, knocking her chair over backwards. Aaron caught it before it hit the floor. “I’m going to the bar.” She was off so fast she made Jerry Rice look like a chump.
Maggie shook her head and raised her voice. “Trust me. That’s not a good idea.” Jennifer held up a hand and didn’t break stride. To Aaron, Maggie said, “Men in Wyoming don’t let the grass grow.”
Aaron would have put his feisty wife up against a crowd of men, but if anyone tried anything, he still wanted to be there to rip them limb from limb for it. He nodded, finished his bite, and sawed off another huge one before he chased after her, one hand over his full mouth. He entered the bar and hung back a few feet from Jennifer, not wanting to crowd her unless she needed him. But ready. Very ready.
A pomaded man who looked ten years younger than her whistled between gapped teeth. “Damn, but you’re one fine little filly.”
Jennifer ignored him.
“Son, don’t talk to a lady like that,” a grizzled cowboy said from her other side.
The younger man’s voice was taunting. “Who are you, old man—her daddy?”
The bartender handed Jennifer a glass of amber liquid. She tossed it back like a shot. Aaron shook his head. Who is this woman, and what has she done with my wine sipping wife?
Beside Jennifer, the older guy put his beer in a buddy’s hand. Then he stepped around her, reared back, and cold cocked the younger man in the side of the face.
Maggie wasn’t kidding.
Aaron grabbed a wide-eyed Jennifer and pulled her across the floor and away from the flying fists. “Stay out of the way. Please.”
Then he was back in the fray in a blink. He might be big, but he was quick. The older guy had his fists in front of his chin, ready. The younger one came up swinging.
Aaron stepped in front of him and caught his wrist, squinted, and in a low gravelly voice said, “Hey, buddy, disrespect my wife again, and I’ll be the one who pops you next.”
The guy’s eyes bugged. “S-s-sorry, man.”
Aaron shoved him away, and the guy landed on his butt again, skidding into the legs of a woman who spilled her drink on his head. “Sorry,” Aaron said to the woman.
“He deserved it,” she said. “No problem.”
To the older man, Aaron said, “Thanks.”
He nodded. “Younger generation needs to learn some manners.”
Aaron returned to Jennifer. She stood on her tiptoes and looped her hands around his neck, pulling him down to her. “Hey, cowboy, thanks for defending my honor. Do you want to take this fine little filly home to bed with you?” Her voice was full-on slurred.
Aaron tried to focus on the fact that she’d made the offer, and not on how long it had been since the last time, or how drunk she was now. This could be the reset he was hoping for. The start of something good between them.
He’d take it.
He swept her off her feet and into his arms. “Yee ha,” he said into her ear.
She giggled and put her head on his shoulder as he marched through the fracas, out of the bar, and into the dark Wyoming night.
To lock in your pre-order Kindle ebook and bonus novella, order BIG HORN + BUCKLE BUNNY, here: https://amzn.to/3KSKe5q.
Now, here’s Chapter Four! https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/19/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-four/