The Friessens are back!

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Evie and Danny have been friends forever, and neither has considered the other in a romantic way. Then, one day, in drives Charlie Adams, the sexy, gorgeous daughter of the town banker. When she sets her sights on Danny, he just can’t resist her charms.

Little does he know, Evie is about as down and out as she can get, working a dead-end job, with less than twenty dollars in her bank account. Her future and options are bleak, and to make it worse, as she watches from the sidelines, she realizes she has loved Danny forever.

Will Danny realize that the love of his life may not be the woman he’s dating?

Chapter 1

Danny Friessen was most known for his brilliant red hair and vibrant blue eyes, which were gifts from his mother, Diana Friessen, and for his stubborn “go it alone” attitude, which he’d apparently inherited from his father—that and the same difficult and intense characteristics that gave him his focus and drive as well as his tendency to be unreasonable at times, as his mother had informed him. His father had only laughed and said, “That’s my boy,” especially considering Danny resembled him more and more every day.

His friends at school often looked to Danny to lead them, but he chose to be the silent observer instead of the life of the party. That had earned him the nickname Mr. Mysterious, and he rightly couldn’t remember whether it had been the popular girls, the jocks, or the student council who’d labeled him as such in the graduation yearbook three years earlier.

“So watcha doing?”

Danny hadn’t heard her pull up. Evie Wetzel was short, slim, with mud-brown eyes and dark hair that was always tied back in a ponytail. Her silent arrival was a surprise, considering her muffler was shot and her tailpipe was secured with wire from a coat hanger, but sure enough, there was her rusty brown pickup parked by his older Bronco.

“Hope you don’t mind me dropping by?” she said.

Danny just shook his head. “Of course not.”

Evie seemed to always wear the same faded blue jeans and sleeveless plaid shirt. They’d been friends since Mrs. Friedman’s kindergarten class, where he’d perpetually been a thorn in the uptight woman’s side. He still remembered standing beside his mother as she was informed of his unacceptable, rambunctious, out of control behavior after he’d refused to sit still and listen, then gone on to make farting noises behind the teacher’s back and raid the stash of M&M’s in her drawer.

“Just cleaning up all this tack and oiling these bridles for my dad,” Danny said. “Why don’t you get your ass in here and help me?”

Evie worked for her own dad, a former butcher, who owned the Tasty Pig, one of the best barbecue stops in the state, as far as Danny was concerned. He tossed her a pair of work gloves from the bin beside the tack room, which she caught one handed as she strode over. He worked oil into a cracked bridle that was part of the gear his dad used for the horses. Jed Friessen was a cowboy to the core, as his mom teased, with his love of horses. He was still taking groups out for day and overnight trips on horseback, teaching kids to connect with the animals.

“So what brings you by?” Danny said. “Would’ve thought you’d be working, or is it that late already?” He didn’t have a clue what time it was, since it was Saturday and he’d just come back from an hour’s ride after studying his prelaw courses all morning until his brain was fried. The ride always gave him a chance to decompress and figure out a lot.

“Closed up early today,” Evie said. “Dad’s been losing business, competing with that new chain restaurant that opened up right next door, so I thought I’d come by and bug you.” She worked in the oil like a pro, but then, Evie had grown up much like him but with two sisters instead, both older. She shared his love of horses, considering her dad had a small acreage with two of his own as well as some chickens and goats.

“That sucks,” Danny said. “People gotta know there’s no question on who’s better. They’ll figure it out.” He wondered, though, as he’d known for a while that her dad’s place wasn’t quite the hit it should’ve been.

She just shrugged. “Well, seems many disagree, wanting three pages of the same old mediocre variety compared to Dad’s barbecue. They don’t get that he knows meat better than anyone in the county. If it keeps up, Dad is talking about cutting back on my hours—but enough about my woes, since this should teach me to get up off my heinie and figure out something else. Do you think I’d have a chance as an airline stewardess, jet setting off to all kinds of exotic locations?” She stared up at him, and the expression on her face was priceless as she batted her lashes.

Danny took her in. At five one or two, tops, she was tiny. He could picture those in the trade, and he just couldn’t see her in one of those pantsuits or skirts. All he could imagine was her smart mouth as she jumped up to try to reach the overheads and tossed old guys bags of nuts. He had to shake his head before she nudged him, gave him a haughty smile, and winked, showing her bottom two teeth, crooked, the same slight crossover she’d had since they were kids.

“I’m kidding,” she said. “Geez, you should see your face. You know, you could at least pretend that I’d rock at it.”

“You want me to lie?” he said and took a poke in the ribs from her.

“Hey, seriously, be nice!” she replied.

He had to laugh. “You know you can be anything you want. Maybe it’s time for you to figure out what you want to do, go back to school…”

She was already shaking her head. “I’m not the brainiac you are. You know that. I barely passed high school. You know how I struggled with every class, including gym, which I failed miserably. I was the one who never got picked for anything, as I couldn’t run, catch, or fetch. With my grades, a scholarship was never in the cards, and you know my parents didn’t have savings put away for postsecondary. I suppose I could get a student loan, but then, I don’t have a clue for what, so, all in all, seems kind of a waste of time and money, don’t you think? And don’t suggest prelaw like you,” she added.

Danny took in her big eyes, the humor that was always poking him, and the fact that she’d never let a moment slip without pointing out how smart he was. The fact was that school and learning came easy for him, always had, but he remembered how painful school had been for Evie. Everything he aced, she struggled to get, but every smart-mouthed comment she dished out had been a source of amusement for him.

“Yeah, but you have the skill of managing idiots,” Danny said. “That alone should get you…” He stopped and took in the way she was staring at him. “Come on, Evie. Seriously, even in school you were always quick with a comeback and a dash of sarcasm. You’d be great in anything dealing with people.”

She sighed as she hung up the oiled bridle and reached in the bin to grab another. “Well, you ever thought that maybe I’m not comfortable in front of people? I’m just not willing to ignore and excuse idiotic behavior like everyone else does.”

Just then, he heard a car, and he glanced back to take in his dad’s pickup, shiny, black, and fairly new. He watched as his mom and dad got out. He could hear them talking, laughing.

“Hey, Evie,” his mom called out and waved.

“Hi, Mrs. Friessen.”

He knew his mom had always liked Evie, having often pulled her aside for tea when she and Danny were kids. His dad had teased it was the closest his mom would get to having a daughter—not that there was anything between Danny and Evie. There never would be. She was his friend, and that was all he saw her as, and she him.

“Evie, I see Danny roped you into helping clean the tack,” His dad said as he stepped into the barn. His dark hair was short, and he pressed his cowboy hat to his head. His jeans were new and clean, and his gray T-shirt pulled at his wide chest. His dad’s barn now had eight stalls and was heated, with an enclosed riding ring and viewing room parents could sit in to watch after they dropped off their kids.

“Ah, you know I don’t mind,” Evie replied. Danny took in the way his dad was watching him and then her.

“You two heading out for a ride today?” His dad asked. Danny knew his dad would’ve loved to saddle up and take off into the hills, but his mom had roped him into errands with her, and then there was the chore of looking after his brothers, Mark and Christopher, both off doing he didn’t have a clue what.

“Just got back from one when Evie drove in,” Danny said just as he heard music and another car. The music grew louder as a red flashy Mustang GT convertible pulled in beside Evie’s truck, dust spewing. The horses started kicking up in their stalls from the jarring thump of the bass, and the ones out in the corral were racing around.

“Who the hell…?” His dad started just as the car turned off, and so did the music.

Out stepped Charlene Adams, Charlie for short. She was tall and leggy, with long, sleek black hair, dressed in a pink crop shirt that showed off her belly button ring. She could have graced the cover of any magazine, and she had a smile that dazzled.

He heard Evie utter a crude remark.

“Hey, Danny,” Charlie said, stepping into the barn in sandals with a slight heel, her toes painted red. She lifted her dark shades, shoving them on top of her head. “Oh, hey there, Evie. Didn’t know you were here. Was wondering whose pickup that was. Thought it might be one of the hired hands.”

“Nope, just mine,” Evie said. “It may not look like much, but it runs. Hey, you may want to be careful of that pile of manure. You wouldn’t want to wreck that pedicure.”

Charlie stopped and stared at the pile of horse dung Danny hadn’t yet cleaned up since brushing down his speckled gray gelding and putting him in his stall with a fleck of hay. His dad rubbed the back of his neck, and he was expecting him to say something.

“Hi, Charlie,” Danny finally said. “What are you doing out here?” He could feel his dad staring at him, and he glanced over, taking in his expression and almost hearing him say, Seriously?

“Thought I could interest you in a movie tonight, maybe dinner first,” she said and smiled, showing perfectly straight white teeth. It was one of those smiles that seemed to start at her toes and move all the way through her. Some people could pull off that magic with just a smile, and Charlie was one of them.

A horse nickered, and another kicked at the stall, still unsettled. He noticed the way Charlie stiffened.

“They’re likely spooked from the way you blew in here, music cranked and all. Loud noise and craziness doesn’t mix with horses,” Evie said, and Danny picked up her dripping sarcasm.

“Sorry about that!” Charlie shrugged and smiled again, then looked around, setting her eyes on his dad, who was still leaning against the wall, taking them in. “Oh, you must be Danny’s father. Wow, now I see where he gets his looks from!” Charlie actually held out her hand to his dad, and he wasn’t sure what Evie muttered under her breath, but he was sure it wasn’t anything a lady should say.

His dad took her hand. “Charlie,” he said, glancing at Danny. “Charlie’s kind of an unusual name for a girl.”

She slid her hands in her back pockets, which only accentuated her perfectly rounded breasts. “Mom’s sense of humor. Dad wanted a son but got me instead, so Charlene turned into Charlie, and it stuck.” She was giving that megawatt smile to his dad, and he took in Evie rolling her eyes behind her. He wanted to shake his head for her to stop before his dad slapped his arm.

“Well, I’m sure your mother has some things lined up for me to do, so I’ll let you kids finish up here. Oh, Danny, can you also make sure to clean up the saddles, too? I’ve got a group coming in Wednesday.” Then his dad wandered out and stopped in front of the cherry red Mustang, taking it in before shaking his head as he kept going.

“So how ’bout it?” Charlie asked. She stood at least six inches over Evie. “Can I interest you in taking a break and going with little ol’ me to a movie and maybe a bite to eat tonight? Oh, and before I forget, I wanted to tell you I was telling my dad about you being in prelaw, and he said he’s got a friend he’d love to introduce you to. He sold his big Chicago firm and settled out here to open an office in Arlington. He’s a pretty big name, litigating some of the biggest cases back east, and he’s now trying to keep a low profile, but he’s coming for dinner tomorrow night, so how about joining us and meeting him? It would be great to have that contact and resource.” Charlie was so vibrant, a looker. She’d been on the arm of one jock or another all through high school and college. He was still surprised she’d stuck close to home, opting to go to the same community college he did. What that was about, he didn’t have a clue.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve got some more studying to do…”

“Ah, come on,” Charlie said. “All work and no play, you know the saying. Come on, Evie. You can join us, too. Tell Mr. Mysterious to loosen up and come have some fun.” She tossed Evie a glance over her shoulder, then slid her hand over his bicep. “You’ll have fun, and hey, I promise no chick flick. You get to pick whatever macho blood and guts movie you want.”

Her hands were soft, and there was something about her persistence and the way she touched him that had him considering her proposal. Maybe she knew she was getting somewhere, as she slid her arms around his waist and hugged him.

“Please, Danny, pretty please?”

Yup, she was all soft and warm, and damn, she smelled good.

“Okay, fine,” he said. As Charlie looped both her arms around his neck, he took in shock, he thought, in Evie’s eyes. She squeezed the leather of one of the bridles. Just then, Charlie planted a kiss on his lips that went from zero to a hundred. Wow! When he broke the kiss and looked over, Evie was at her truck, door open, lifting her hand to wave.

“Hey, aren’t you coming?” he called out. Charlie was still plastered against him, her hand now resting on his chest.

“Nope, not this girl,” Evie said. “You, though, have fun. Later!” Then she was in her truck and backing out.

“Well, three’s a crowd anyway,” Charlie said, and he took in her expression at the rattle and roar of Evie’s truck, which was sounding more and more as if it was on its last legs.

Chapter 2

Danny had finished cleaning all the saddles, and Charlie had talked nonstop the entire time about her classes, her dad, her family, and how Chicago was the one place she was destined to live. Where was she now? Waiting for him downstairs, at her insistence, likely perched against her overpriced Mustang, as he showered in the loft above the barn. That was where he lived now, an open-concept suite with a bed, kitchen, living room, and reasonable bath. It gave him privacy and a place of his own, even if it was on his parents’ ranch outside North Lakewood.

He turned off the shower and stepped out, then pulled a towel from the rack and dried off. Tying it around his waist, he stepped out barefoot, seeing his unmade bed and clothes tossed in a heap in the corner. He yanked a clean pair of jeans, socks, and underwear from his dresser and tossed them on the bed. He could hear talking from the open door at the bottom of the stairs that led into the barn—Charlie, he thought. Who she was talking to now, he didn’t have a clue.

He quickly pulled on a white dress shirt and tucked it in before pulling on a belt and his boots. Then he grabbed his wallet and keys after running his fingers through his short red hair. He jogged down the stairs into the barn and took in the stalls, how neat and tidy everything was, and the box of tools he’d left out.

Charlie was leaning against her Mustang, the phone pressed to her ear, talking away to someone, and then there was his dad, walking his way, taking in the tall, slim, gorgeous, and stacked Charlie. He wasn’t sure what his dad was thinking, from the amused expression on his face. Danny quickly tucked the tools back into the tack room and secured the door just as he heard the scrape of his dad’s boots on the concrete of the barn floor.

His dad glanced back to Charlie as he approached. “You heading out for the night?”

“Yeah, we’re hitting a movie and stopping for something to eat, likely a beer and a burger in town after.” That was what he’d planned, anyway, not that he’d shared that last part with Charlie yet.

His dad nodded. “Well, don’t be drinking and driving. I know your mom was wondering what was happening with the girl with the Mustang. She’s a looker, and your mom says she’s the one who’s stopped by here a few times. You dating?” His dad tilted his head in her direction, and the question alone seemed odd coming from him. It had his mom written all over it. He took in Charlie again, who was still talking on her cell phone and didn’t seem to care whether anyone was listening.

“We’re friends, is all,” Danny said.

Yeah, right. She’d been chasing him as long as he could remember in between the other guys she’d dated, but their attraction had never gone past…what? He shrugged. Nothing serious. He enjoyed whatever this was.

His dad ran his hand over Danny’s hair and ruffled it a bit. “You’d best get clear, you think? Your mom was saying she thought she’s the daughter of that First West banker in town, Perry Adams?”

Danny took Charlie in as she spotted him and said goodbye to whoever she was talking to. She pocketed her phone and started into the barn, that smile pasted to her lips.

“She is,” Danny said. Charlie’s dad had been running the second largest bank in the area for decades, he thought—but then, Charlie never let a moment pass without fitting that fact into a conversation, as if her father’s identity defined who she was.

“You ready?” she asked.

“You finished all the saddles, Danny?” His dad called out over his shoulder as he headed to the back of the barn, past the stalls, to where the gate led out to the paddock.

“Done and put away,” he said. That had been without Evie’s help, too. It wasn’t lost on him how she’d slipped away. He’d call her the next day and find out what it was that’d had her dropping by. He suspected something, as he thought about it now. He had a feeling there was more.

His dad lifted the gate and latched it behind him, walking out to where the horses were in the corral.

“That was Darlene,” Charlie said, in his space, so close he could feel her heat. “She said there’s a party tonight at Matt’s in town, and I was thinking maybe after the movie we could head over. There’s a pool there, and…”

He noted that she had somehow steered him, and they were walking to her shiny red Mustang, her hand linked to his arm.

“Not into a party tonight,” he said. “Just the movie, and let’s grab a bite after. I’ve got a busy day tomorrow, a pile of studying to do, and…”

She stepped in front of him, giving him pouty lips as she slid her hands up his chest and around him, pressing all her softness against him. Damn, she smelled good. “Please, Danny, it’ll be so much fun.”

He wondered how many guys that worked on. Probably all of them. The kind of parties her friends frequented may have been fun for her, but watching everyone getting shitfaced wasn’t his idea of fun. “Nope, not tonight,” he said. “Why don’t I follow you to your place, or you can leave your car here and I’ll drive?”

The disappointment was there in her expression even though he could see she was trying to hide it as she looked around him to his older blue and white Bronco. It was dusty, with some rust here and there, but it ran, and he liked it, and it was his, bought with his hard-earned cash, not handed to him like her overpriced sports car, gifted by her father.

“But my car is—”

“A little too red and flashy for my taste,” Danny replied. He took in her frown, and for a minute he thought she was going to try to convince him, but she surprised him by turning and starting to his Bronco, tossing him a glance over her slender shoulder.

“Well, are you coming?” she said, waiting expectantly.

“Yeah, I am,” he said. He walked over to her as she stepped around to the passenger side and again waited for him. He reached around her and opened the door, and she climbed up and in. He closed the door behind her, and as he stepped around the Bronco and slid behind the wheel, she began applying a light shade of lipstick.

He backed up and drove down toward the highway that would lead into town. “So, movie. You sure you’re going to be okay with me picking?”

“I did say you can pick. Just hoping whatever you choose has a storyline with not too much blood and guts and blowing everyone up,” she teased. “Any ideas yet?”

He could hear her rustle in the passenger seat. Now she was probing and likely trying to steer him in a certain direction, but he already had a movie in mind and would rather wait until they got there to tell her, or maybe he would buy the tickets without revealing it. He’d get her seated in the theater, waiting for the show, and just thinking of the wait making her squirm had a smile tugging at his lips. She wasn’t the patient type, and maybe that was why she intrigued him so much.

He shook his head. “We’ll see when we get there.”

She reached over and tapped his arm. “You’re such a tease, Friessen,” she said just as they hit the edge of town and turned down past the gas station. Danny could see the new restaurant up ahead on the right, with lights and glitter and what looked like several people going inside.

“Hey, isn’t that Evie’s pickup?” Charlie said, pointing to a truck at the side of the road across two parking spots in front of the restaurant, hood up, steam coming out.

“Yeah,” Danny said. He signaled and pulled over behind it.

“What are you doing?” Charlie asked and glanced to her watch.

“Stopping,” he said and jammed the Bronco in park, then turned off the ignition.

“But the movie… We’ll be late.”

Maybe it was the sharp glance he tossed her way that had her stopping. Seriously?

“Sorry, that was completely selfish,” she said.

He raised his brows, and she appeared sheepish and shrugged. Danny yanked the handle on his door and stepped out to Evie’s pickup, seeing the steam and what looked like a blown radiator hose as he peeked in. The engine looked to be held together with duct tape and twine. He rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt to the elbows.

“What are you doing?” Charlie appeared beside him, making a face at the steam and hiss, sweeping her hand in front of her face.

“Taking a look. It appears this just happened.” He reached in and then pulled his hand back, feeling the burn from the steam. “Shit…”

“Hey, I’m sure she’s already headed to the station for a tow. What can you do? Let the professionals handle it, Danny—you know, a mechanic?”

He tossed her another glance before resting his hand on the front of the truck and seeing the tear in the hose. He just needed to get that off, grab another, and fasten it on. “Mechanics cost money, and this looks like an easy fix,” he said, turning around and seeing the restaurant just ahead. It was her dad’s place. Maybe that was where she was.

“I guess Evie is struggling,” Charlie said. “I know her dad’s already missed the last two payments on his line of credit. His restaurant isn’t producing, and Dad said he thought they were down to just family for staff, since Mr. Wetzel doesn’t have the cash flow to cover people’s wages.”

Danny was leaning on the frame and took in Charlie. “Your dad shares personal banking business with you?” he said. He should probably tell his parents. He knew his dad had an account there, and he did as well. Maybe it was time to look at another bank.

This was the first time he’d ever seen Charlie speechless, as if she was fighting to think of something to explain her faux pas. He saw the moment she realized, as she winced. “Please don’t say anything to anyone. I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said, appearing sheepish. He’d never seen her out of her comfort zone before, caught doing or saying something she shouldn’t have.

“No, you’re right, you shouldn’t have, but it’s your dad who was in the wrong. He shouldn’t be sharing clients’ private information with you or anyone. Not sure how comfortable I am knowing your dad has loose lips.” He rested his hand on the rim of the truck, turning and seeing Evie coming out of her dad’s restaurant, a jug in one hand and what looked like duct tape in the other.

“So I guess the movie is out,” Charlie said, and he heard her sigh beside him.

He saw the moment Evie noticed them, the slight hesitation before she kept walking, and he gazed down to Charlie beside him. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “Evie’s my friend. I’m not bailing on her.”

Charlie shrugged before nudging him teasingly. “I get it, Friessen. It’s probably why I like you so much. You have a soft spot for helping those who need it. It’s just…can’t you be a knight in shining armor at a time that’s a lot more convenient?”

“Knight in shining armor, huh?” he said. He’d never been called that before, and he took in the grin spilling now from Charlie’s expression.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s just one of your many flaws.”

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