Fun and Games
Alex couldn’t help but smile when he glanced over at Grayson, who was slumped down in the front passenger seat with a hat covering his face. When he asked him friend to join him for a day out, leave it Grayson to forget he was a dad with two kids. So his friend had the time of his life last night to supplement the fact that he’d be having some wholesome fun the next day with him and the kids. He’d almost felt sorry for him when they arrived at the house and tried to get out of it but the kids gave him that doe eyed look. He caved every time.
He was looking forward to having fun at the carnival after the week he’d had at the hospital. He hadn’t intended for his first interactions with the staff to be so intense, but so be it. There were things were in need of repair, stat. He’d begun a massive overhaul of procedures after that first day. The staff was surrounded by the best tools of the medicine trade and there weren’t utilizing most of them. The surgeons were the best of the best but unfortunately they knew it. They were pretty peeved that he’d insisted on being present for all scheduled operations and rounds for the next month. He needed to make sure their hubris wasn’t getting in the way of the well-being of the patients.
He also didn’t garner points with his peers either. Other department heads still attempted to make dates for lunch or go golfing but he’d declined. It made him think of what that spitfire who’d accused him of spending his days doing that exact thing. For some reason, what she’d said had gotten under his skin. He found himself looking for her as he drove around town but no luck. Which got him to wondering why he was looking for her at all? Sure she was pretty, sexy and smelled really great. There were plenty of women around him that fit that description but still there was something about her that he couldn’t get out of his mind.
Grayson shifted in his seat.
“Are you OK? Because I don’t have a defibrillator in my car.” Alex mused.
“When you said wanted to hang out, I thought you meant drinks at a bar or something. There’s a cool bar in town.”
He glanced in the rear view mirror at his kids but mindful to keep his eyes on the road. Both Noah and Chloe donned headphones, eyes locked on their tablet screens and were off in their own world.
“Does the bar have a romper room for the kids?” He raised an eyebrow. “I think the bar is why you look like road kill right now.”
“I can’t believe you still haven’t found a babysitter.”
“It’s not an easy thing. I don’t want just anyone spending time with my kids.” He scratched at his five o’clock shadow.
“So I hear everyone in the cardiac wing is scared to death of you.”
“Luckily we do have defibrillators there.”
“You do know this job is supposed to be a sweet position for you? I thought we’d be golfing and hanging out at the country club three times a week.”
“Don’t you have patients?”
“I have a full schedule for the rest of the year but I always pencil in some me time.”
“You need me time three times a week?”
“I know.” Grayson sighed. “I should schedule more time for myself.”
Alex pulled into the fairgrounds. It was bustling with activity and there were plenty of things for the kids to do. There were carnivals rides and live entertainment. He was trying to decide what to do first when Chloe saw the horses.
“Dad. Can we ride the horses?” Chloe tugged on his hand. “Please.”
“Sure.” He turned to Noah. “What do you say Noah? You up for a horseback ride?”
“OK. But I want to check out the skateboard competition when we’re done.”
He wrangled them over to the line. There were tons of people waiting to ride the horses but Chloe was so excited, so they’d have to bite the bullet. He looked up and saw the sign. Horses donated by Austin Holbrook of the Southern Comfort Ranch. There were a group of guys tending to the horses. One of them looked familiar. He looked a bit like Logan Holbrook, who co-managed the Tomcats with Seth. Could this person be related to the Holbrooks in Texas?
“Grayson. Can you watch the kids for a minute?”
“Sure.” Grayson yawned. “We’ll probably be in the same place when you return.”
He walked past the front of the line and proceeded to the fence. “Excuse me.”
“By any chance are you related to Logan Holbrook in Texas?”
“He’s my brother.” The man sighed. “Listen, I apologize if he stole your girlfriend or wife. He probably didn’t know she was already taken.”
Yeah, that was Logan’s brother.
“No, it’s nothing like that.” Alex laughed. “I’m Alex Popovich. Logan and I met on the Twelve Horseshoes Ranch. I’m a friend of the Blake family. Actually, we’re family now. My brother Derek married Seth’s wife Morgan’s cousin Charisma.”
“Good to meet you. I’m Austin.” Austin removed his gloves and extended his hand for a shake. “Derek and I played poker a few times at the ranch. I’m sorry I had to miss the wedding. He talks about you and the kids all the time. You’re the heart doctor, right?”
“Guilty as charged. It’s good to meet you too.” Alex pointed at the kids in the line. “That’s my Noah and Chloe, standing by the water fountain with my friend Grayson Bennett. He’s an old friend and a fellow doctor.”
“They are adorable.” Austin smiled. “Derek showed me their photo. He’s a pretty proud uncle. And I hear he’s a dad now.”
“He and Charisma had a beautiful baby girl, Alexis.”
“I heard. Baby girls are a rare commodity in the Blake family. She’s going to get spoiled.”
“It’s already a lost cause.” Alex laughed.
“The Blakes don’t do anything half assed.” Austin laughed too and motioned for a ranch hand to come over. “Toby, go down there and get the kids who’s with the man who’s hanging onto the water fountain for dear life. Put them on the next set of horses.”
“That’s not necessary.” He didn’t want to cut the line. It was pretty long.
“Sure it is. You know my brother and you don’t want to punch my lights out.” Austin grinned. “What brings you to Harper’s Grove?”
“I moved here for work. I’m the head of cardiology at Serenity Springs Medical.”
“Wow.” Austin whistled. “The hospital to the superstars.”
“I’m hoping to make a few changes. Maybe get them to extend their expertise and technology to the rest of the community, regardless of their celebrity status.” Alex waved as Chloe as Noah were being helped onto the horses. Grayson, who still looked hung over, gave him a thumb’s up then sat down on a bale of hay.
“Good luck with that. Most of the people around here live in an elitist haze. It would be good for them to think of someone else for a change.”
“Do you live in town?”
“No. I’m on the outskirts. I raise and race thoroughbreds. I also board horses, give lessons and host the occasional trail ride.”
“You came all the way to California to run a horse ranch?”
“My old man and I do better apart. Like several states apart.”
“Ah. So that’s why you’re not working in the Tomcats organization.”
“That’s Logan’s thing. But I go back and visit as much as I can. Someone has to keep an eye out on my precocious little brother.”
“Logan is quite a character.”
“So you know the hell I live in.” Austin rolled his eyes. “When anyone approaches me and asks if he’s my brother, I apologize immediately. I got tired of guys taking a swipe at me because my brother can’t keep his zipper shut.”
“Derek was the same way. His escapades were splashed all over the media. I was relieved when he and Charisma got together.”
“Well Logan’s just ramping up with his public exploits now that he has a more visible role in the Tomcats organization. I feel your older brother pain.”
“I have another younger brother, Theo. There are no words for him. What are we going to do with them?”
“Love them and try to keep them in line.” Austin scratched at his beard.
Alex looked around. “This is awesome, you donating horses to ride for the festival. Chloe’s eyes lit up when she saw them from the parking lot.”
“It generates business and I donate all of today’s proceeds to charity.”
“She loves horses.”
“Why don’t you come by the ranch sometime? I can give both your kids lessons on the house.”
“Austin, you won’t make any money if you keep giving away your services.”
“My daddy would tan my hide if I charged you a dime. The Blakes and their extended family are our family too. It’s just good manners.” Austin touched the brim of his Stetson.
“Well, how about I take care of the food when we visit?”
“It’s a deal.”
Austin was called away by one of his workers, so Alex went over to check on Grayson.
“I’m getting there. Who’s your new friend?”
“Austin is a friend of the Blake family. I know his brother Logan.”
“I could kiss Derek for becoming part of that family.” Grayson grinned. “I’ve gotten many perks by association from their friends in California.”
“What do you mean?”
“Marco sends me the best wine.”
Marco Di Giovanni was the owner of the Paloma Vineyard in Napa Valley and a friend of the Blakes too. Alex had met him at a wine tasting event in Portland after Derek raved about the Paloma wines he stocked at the Slap Shot.
“You are insane. How about I get some refreshments? Maybe a lemonade will bring you back to life.”
“Cool. I’ll watch the kids.”
Confident the kids were OK, Alex made his way toward the food trucks. They’d really gone all out with the old-time carnival vibe. There was a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and a host of games. But it was the dunk tank that held his attention. More importantly, the woman perched up on the collapsible ledge. It was the spit fire he had the fender bender with in the school parking lot. She looked pretty sitting up there in a bathing suit top, pair of jeans shorts and her hair done up in a loose top knot. It must have been a slow day because she was bone dry. The idea of seeing her all wet brought a smile to his face. Suddenly, he was in the mood to play a game.
“Well. Well.” Alex approached the table. “I see you found a soapbox upon which to sit and lecture. It suits you.”
“You.” She seethed. “I hope you didn’t crash into any cars in this parking lot.”
“No. You’re the only bad driver I’ve encountered since I moved here.”
“Still can’t take responsibility for your actions, eh? Figures.” She gave him a once over. “No pretentious suit today?”
He’d worn jeans and a dress shirt today. It did feel strange to have on casual clothes but he thought he was covering well. Alex reached into his jeans back pocket, pulled out his wallet and handed the attendant a five dollar bill. “I want to play.”
The attendant set a tray of balls in front of him.
“You’d make better use out of that money feeding it to a Billy goat. I can see by those delicate hands of yours that you don’t play a lot of sports.”
“Before I settled into my life of leisure and excess, I was a pretty good at sports in school.” He tossed a ball from one hand to the other. “As a matter of fact I was on the baseball team.”
“Good for you.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
Alex threw the first ball but it was a little off-center and barely dinged the bulls-eye.
“Ha! Bench warmer or bat boy?” She folded her arms across her chest.
“I was on the varsity baseball team.” He massaged his shoulder. “I was just warming up.”
“Is that mascara waterproof?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing. Someone likes to do a lot of manscaping.”
“You could just say you like my eyes.” Alex smiled, wound up and threw the ball again. He almost nailed it that time. He had one more ball.
“Maybe you could hit the target if you didn’t throw like a crazy lunatic with no regard for anyone’s safety.” She shrugged.
He pitched the last ball a little faster this time but missed again. There was no way he should have missed. He was pretty damned good in high school. He turned to the attendant. “Is this thing rigged?”
“No sir. The lady’s had amazing luck today.” The attendant chuckled.
“It’s about to run out.” He gave the guy another five bucks. “I was just warming up.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“I like the view.”
“I don’t know what you do for a living but I hope you’re better at it than you are with tossing a ball around.”
Dunking her would be satisfying but he wanted something else. He’d been thinking about her since the day they met in the parking lot. She’d stormed off in such a tizzy that day after he’d offered to pay for the damages, he hadn’t gotten her name. “If I dunk you, then you have to tell me your name.”
“Fat chance.” But then her eyes lit up. “OK. If you hit that bulls-eye, I’ll tell you my name and give you a big ole kiss on the lips.”
Well that got his adrenaline pumping. He’d played sports a hundred years ago but he still had some of the magic. He could keep up with the kids, who were bolting around the house non-stop. He worked out and ran on his treadmill. He could bench press a decent weight without getting winded. He was still in pretty damn good shape.
Alex wound up again but this time hit the target, dead center. The ledge she was sitting on gave way and she plummeted into the water. It would have been spectacular to celebrate if he didn’t get the feeling there would be hell to pay when she got out. When she climbed out of the tank, he went over and handed her one of the towels that was on the table.
“So what?” She rubbed her face with the towel.
“I hit the bulls-eye. You have to tell me your name and I get a big kiss on the lips.”
“Not on your life.” She squinted at him. “Is this how you get dates? Harassing women?”
“I can assure you I don’t have to harass a woman to get her talk to me. The women in this town have been very nice, you are exception.” He folded his arms across his chest. “A deal’s a deal.”
“I made that statement when I was pretty sure you’d miss the target.”
“I always do what I set out to do. Tenacity is a family curse.”
“Don’t tell me. You always get your way?”
“Pretty much.” He drawled.
“You won’t give up until I tell you?”
Alex looked in the direction of the horses. The kids were still riding. “I have the time.”
“Peyton.” She continued to dry off. “And I’m not kissing you.”
“Nice to meet you Peyton. I’m Alex.” He grinned and extended his hand but she didn’t take it. “The offer is still on the table to pay for the car repairs.”
“I think we both know where you can stick your offer.” She threw the towel in a chair. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to change so I can go judge the hot dog eating contest.”
Alex watched as she stormed off in the direction of the main office. Peyton. The name suited her. She had to live in the area. Why else would she be at the school and at the festival? For the first time in a long while he felt like engaging with someone. He hoped he’d run into her again.
Alex & Peyton’s love story begins! I hope you enjoyed the pre-edited excerpt! The Blake world expands to Harper’s Grove, CA. Release date April 21st!
In case you missed it!
Banner photo credit: © Can Stock Photo / sam74100 / Subbotina
Copyright © 2017 Rhonda Laurel. All Rights Reserved.