He felt like a bug under a microscope while the mayor pontificated about Austin’s undaunted dedication and heroic efforts.
“Not only did Austin Carson save our town from unimaginable destruction but also three prominent ranches, all stained with the blood, sweat, and tears of Haven’s founding fathers.”
The crowd erupted in a cacophony of claps and cheers.
Austin had no clue what to do except smile and nod like a fucking bobblehead.
This dog and pony show can’t end soon enough.
Finally, Alice handed the mayor a huge wooden plaque with a shimmering gold crest. Austin didn’t read the engraving, simply smiled wider and shook the mayor’s hand as he accepted the heavy slab of wood.
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” the crowd chanted, sending Austin’s anxiety spiking off the charts.
Oh, fuck no!
“Say a few words, son,” Mayor Berger encouraged, handing him the microphone.
Suddenly drowning in an ocean of panic, Austin scanned the crowd, desperately searching for a familiar face. One etched in faith and love he could use as a buoy.
Then he saw her…
Paige was staring up at him, wearing the same blinding, megawatt smile that always melted his heart. Austin didn’t give two shits that she was standing between her grandpa and his annoying as fuck ranch hand, Johnny. They simply faded into the ether, along with everyone else on Main Street, as Austin’s panic receded and his confidence climbed. Without taking his eyes off Paige, he drew in a deep breath and lifted the mic to his mouth.
“Thank you, Mayor Berger. And thank all of you for this award.” He held up the plaque. “I don’t feel I deserve this honor, but I’m truly humbled by it all the same.”
“You saved our town from that filthy chemical plant,” yelled Bubba Dresher, who was standing alongside his dad and brothers.
“It was a team effort. Trust me.” Austin paused as a flash of fear skipped across Paige’s face. When she darted a sidelong glance at her grandpa, Austin heard her warning, loud and clear.
“If it weren’t for the help of a damn good lawyer, we might not have uncovered the lies and deceit until it was too late. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. Haven can stay just the way we like it.”
Paige’s smile stretched even wider as the crowd cheered again.
Austin waited for the uproar to settle, then spoke again. “Thank y’all again. And thank you to the Lion’s Club. Now let’s go enjoy some ice cream.”
As another rowdy ruckus ensued, Austin handed the mic to Mayor Berger, then nearly sprinted off the stage. His dad and brothers, along with Bubba, were waiting for him as he hustled down the metal stairs.
“Let me take a look at that plaque.” His dad beamed with pride as Austin handed it over while scanning the crowd for Paige. “Damn, this sucker’s heavier than a newborn calf. Let’s see what it says. In recognition of saving our community, we, the people of Haven, Texas, proudly present this plaque to Austin Michael Carson for his dedication, perseverance, and integrity.”
“Clearly, they don’t know the real you at all, bro,” Dallas laughed, clapping Austin on the back.
“Shut up,” his dad barked. “You should be proud of your brother.”
“Aw, hell, Pa. I was just rattling his cage. I’m proud of him and he knows that.”
“I do.” Austin smirked as his dad handed the award back to him. “I’m gonna put this heavy thing in my truck. I’ll catch up with y’all in a few minutes.”
“Sounds good. We’ll hold a place in line for you,” his dad assured.
Austin turned but didn’t get far. Everyone and their mother rushed up to thank him. He suddenly had a new respect for his youngest brother, Beau. He’d dealt with the same attention when he’d returned home to Haven with his shiny trophy, massive belt buckle, and distinguished title of National Bull Riding Champion.
It took Austin almost an hour to finally reach his truck. And in all that time, he never once caught a glimpse of Paige. He had to find her. Even if Raymond and Johnny were still pillaring and protecting her, Austin needed to at least clap eyes on his girl. It was an emotional imperative.
Dragging in a deep breath, he craned his neck and started searching as he weaved his way back through the crowd. Halfway down Main Street he finally spotted her long, red hair flowing in the breeze. Though he only captured it for a second, there was no mistaking it was his Paige.
Fighting the urge to shove everyone out of his way, Austin found her again and visually tracked Paige as bodies surged and ebbed around him. Suddenly, a gap opened, and Austin clenched his jaw when he saw Johnny walking beside Paige—innocently licking a chocolate ice cream cone.
Not only was the horny prick staring at her tongue with carnal glee, but he also had his arm possessively wrapped around her waist, tugging Paige against his side every time someone came within a foot of them.
But when he saw Raymond, walking a few paces behind them, staring at the couple with a big, proud grin, Austin’s rage roared.
Dream on, old man. Your horny little ranch hand might think he’s gonna get into Paige’s panties, but she’ll never let him. I own her heart!
Tamping down the urge to commit murder, Austin kept pace with the trio and counted to ten…three times. It didn’t work.
Dragging in an irritated breath, he caught a fragment of Paige’s spicy vanilla scent on the wind. Like a match to gasoline, memories of his conversations with her roared through his brain.
Johnny doesn’t mean a thing to me…he doesn’t matter.But you do.
If that was the truth, why was she walking beside him? Why was she letting him touch her too…intimately?
An instant later, her words careened through him.