Kissing Kelli by Kathy Carmichael

Kissing Kelli
by Kathy Carmichael

Publisher: MacGowan Press
Romantic Comedy
February 2011
Format: eBook

 

 

 

 

 
@ 2011 by Kathy Carmichael

EXCERPT

“I have always had a hard time leisurely reading any of Kathy Carmichael’s books and this one was no exception. This delightful story is sure to please her many and varied fans!”

~ Kathy Boswell, Fresh Fiction

PROLOGUE

 

Even barn cats deserve love—and medical care. Veterinarian Kelli Palmer entered the barn at her family’s home with her medical bag in one hand and a large can of tuna in the other.

 

The stable manager, Fred, greeted her. He was nearing seventy, but no one would have suspected it by the way he moved. He was more physically fit than most men half his age. “Want me to saddle up Bronc for you? Lori is out on Felix right now.”

 

“No, thanks.” Kelli hadn’t seen her sister Lori in a couple of weeks and hoped they’d meet up before she left. Maybe they could even do lunch. “I’m not here to ride today, Fred.”

 

He looked at the bag in her hand. “None of the horses are sick.”

 

“It’s not that. The mama cat had kittens and they all need vaccines.”

 

His brow shot up, but he didn’t say a word.

 

He didn’t have to. She’d heard it all before. But she was a veterinarian for a reason. She loved animals. All animals. Even barn cats. “I know what you’re thinking, but they deserve to be looked after. They look after us and the horses by making sure we don’t have any rodents.”

 

He smiled. “The fact you care is one of the things we all love about you, Kelli. I’ll leave you to it.”

 

He turned and went back to work mucking out one of the stalls.

 

Kelli went to the center of the barn and breathed in the heady aroma of freshly laid hay. The barn was quiet except for the soft sound of horses in their stalls.

 

She had spent many hours in this barn throughout her childhood. Her love for the animals and the hushed solitude were, in part, what led her to become a veterinarian.

 

A whinny captured her attention. “Hello, Mable.”

 

Kelli stepped over to greet the grey and ran a hand down her soft muzzle. At one time Mable had been her horse, but now belonged to Kelli’s youngest sister.  “You’re such a sweet girl.”

 

She took a few minutes to distribute the sugar cubes she’d brought with her as well as a few hugs to the various horses in the barn. Once this fun task was completed, she stepped to the center of the aisle.

 

She opened the tuna, calling, “Kitty, kitty.”

 

Within minutes, eight cats and kittens magically appeared by her side.

 

It didn’t take long to administer both shots and tuna. The cats seemed more than satisfied by the trade-off.

 

As she rose to her feet, a gelding trotted into the barn and headed right for Kelli. He had to be Lori’s new horse, Felix. They hadn’t met yet. He was beautiful, with a healthy coat and clear eyes. The cats and kittens dispersed, running back into the rafters. As soon as the horse got within touching distance, he nuzzled against her.

 

“Hello, lover.” She’d run out of sugar cubes, so didn’t have anything to offer. She ran her fingers down his muzzle. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

 

She heard Lori’s angry footsteps before seeing her. She stalked into the barn with her hands fisted on her hips. “I might have known.”

 

“What?”

 

“Just like my men. They all come running to you.”

 

“This?” Felix butted his head gently against her. “I’m sure he just smells the tuna.”

 

“What is it about you and my men? I just don’t get it.”

 

It was an argument they’d been having since puberty. Lori was a beautiful woman, petite, graceful and elegant. Everything Kelli wasn’t. Kelli was the tomboy to all of her five sisters’ princess-like demeanor.

 

Sometimes she felt like one of the barn cats when she was around them. They looked every inch the pedigreed and pampered show cat to her scrawny and leggy alley cat. Why any man—or horse—would choose her over any of them didn’t make sense, especially not over Lori. “He’s just being friendly. Aren’t you, boy?”

 

Lori let out an exasperated sigh. “Just leave my men alone.” She grabbed Felix’s reins and led him to an empty stall. “Let’s get you brushed down. I know you love that.”

 

Kelli waited a minute, before reacting. But it bothered her that Lori would think Kelli would ever go after one of her boyfriends. How many times did they have to repeat the same arguments? What could she say now that would be any different from the times before?

 

At last she paced the few feet to the opening of the stall where Lori was brushing down Felix. “Lori, you know you’re my dear little sister, don’t you?”

 

She looked up, puffed at her bangs, and reluctantly answered, “Yeah, I know.”

 

“I wouldn’t ever do anything to deliberately hurt you.”

 

Lori nodded. “I know.”

 

“Good. So we’re good then?”

 

Just as she thought she had finally gotten their sisterly relationship back on an even keel, Felix pushed Lori aside to nuzzle Kelli again. She closed her eyes, knowing that Lori wouldn’t be happy.

 

But Lori laughed. “You just can’t win, can you?”

 

Kelli’s eyes shot open. “You’re not mad at me?”

 

“As long as you’re not secretly toting carrots or sugar cubes, how can I be?”

 

“My pockets are empty.”

 

Lori reached over and gave her a hug, which Kelli returned in full force. God, how she adored her sister.

 

“So what do you think of my new horse?”

 

“He’s fantastic.” Kelli smiled. She and Lori were getting along better and better. It wouldn’t be long before they became the closest of friends again, just like they had been in childhood.

 

~~~~~~

CHAPTER ONE

 

July Fourth

 

Bobby Gray Nelson ducked into the Nelson Ranch dining room, trying to avoid his brother. Monty Joe was in a mood and Bobby Gray knew why, or rather, was the direct cause of Monty Joe’s particular affliction.

 

Not that Bobby Gray deserved the negative attention. Although the Nelson Family interests were more than financially sound—in fact the two brothers were among the wealthiest bachelors in the country—Monty Joe was determined to run the show.

 

The two brothers and their sister, Charlie, were equal partners in their ranch and cattle business. As the oldest of their sibling unit, Monty Joe believed he should make all the decisions.

 

That had been fine when they were young.

 

But not anymore.

 

Bobby Gray had taken a stand.

 

After their parents passed away, Monty Joe had been risk adverse. He wanted to continue running the business in the same way it had been managed while their folks had been alive.

 

For the most part, Bobby Gray agreed. Although he didn’t plan to make huge changes, not moving with the times could be detrimental. Diversifying their interests would help ensure the future success of the Nelson Ranch.

 

“Where’s my dang blasted brother?” called Monty Joe.

 

Bobby Gray’s cell phone chose that moment to go off and he sidled into the butler’s pantry. “’Lo?” he whispered, hoping Monty Joe hadn’t heard the strains of God Bless Texas emanating from the phone. While Bobby Gray was willing to stand up for the decisions he’d made, he wasn’t quite ready yet to face his brother.

 

“Hey, Bobby Gray. It’s Lori Palmer.”

 

“Hey.” The flight attendant. It seemed a little odd that she would call him. They’d been on one date and there hadn’t been any zing. Although they’d enjoyed each other’s company, he hadn’t expected to hear from her again. “What’s up?”

 

“I wonder if I could convince you to catch the next flight to Dallas? It’s my family’s big July Fourth party and my date reneged on me. It would be too embarrassing to attend without a handsome fellow like you. It’ll be lots of fun, and if that doesn’t entice you, there will be awesome fireworks.”

 

Normally Bobby Gray would have declined immediately, but just then he heard his brother yelling a series of expletives that had even Bobby Gray’s ears blushing. All because he’d taken the opportunity, while his brother was out of town, to have Monty Joe’s favorite mare bred. What had Monty Joe all grieved was the expensive stud fee—and the fact Bobby Gray had taken a stand at all.

 

Bobby Gray stared down at his cowboy boots—all gnarled leather and stains. They were about as beat up as his self assurance.

 

Monty Joe would probably have never been the wiser, at least not until the mare showed, if he hadn’t returned from Houston two days early.

 

While Bobby Gray knew he needed to stand up to his brother, it wasn’t easy. He’d taken the easy way out by acting while Monty Joe was otherwise occupied. Given time, Bobby Gray would have found a good way to tell his brother.

 

But he knew, deep in his gut, that breeding the mare had been the correct step—with or without his brother’s approval. They’d long-since made their name on cattle, but breeding horses had the potential to create a steady and rising profit for the ranch.

 

“The fireworks sound like fun,” Bobby Gray whispered into the cell phone. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

 

“Not really. But you’ll be doing me a big favor because I hate the idea of showing up without an escort. I wouldn’t invite you if I didn’t think you’d have a good time, though.”

 

“So we’re going as friends.”

 

“Exactly. I need a male escort and I think you’d get along with my family. Nothing more.”

 

That was the way he felt, so it seemed even more okay to go along with her idea. He certainly didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. Lori was nice, but she reminded him a lot of his little sister. Before he could speak, he heard his brother bellowing.

 

“Li’l Brother—I find you and you won’t be walking again for a month,” hollered Monty Joe.

 

“I’m leaving now,” Bobby Gray said into the cell phone.

 

“Great,” said Lori. “I’ll have an airline pass waiting for you.”

 

Bobby Gray disconnected the call, grabbed his Stetson off the kitchen table and dashed out the back door just before Monty Joe reached the kitchen.

 

Getting out of town for a few days seemed like a great idea. It would give Monty Joe time to cool down.

 

 

KELLI PALMER WAS A WOMAN on a mission. She added an extra dollop of Miracle Whip to the deviled egg mixture she was working on. She wore jeans and a T-shirt and knew she looked out of place in the state-of-the-art high-tech kitchen at the Palmoral estate.

 

But she was home, exactly where she needed to be. Her boss had wanted her to fly out of town for a fund-raiser, but her mom would never have forgiven her for missing the annual July Fourth family get-together and celebration. But she had no need to miss it. It was perfect for finding a slew of potential donors for the North Texas Equestrian Rescue where she worked as a volunteer.

 

Kelli added three tablespoons of sweet pickle relish to her deviled egg mixture and wiped her chin with the dish rag on the counter, making a mess in the process. She got a clean paper towel and tried to clean up the dollops of relish, but succeeded only in making everything around her sticky.

 

She might actually need sticky fingers because she’d always depended on her dad to make up for what she couldn’t squeeze out of the guests. The horses needed the money so badly, but her father had told her she had to stand on her own two feet now, and besides, he’d already donated more than his quota.

 

Kelli sighed. It was true, but that hadn’t deterred her dad from helping out in the past. It was for a really important cause. One look at the horses she tended would convince the coldest of hearts.

 

She’d done pretty well hitting up Uncle Fernando and Aunt Julia. But she needed more. Much more.

 

Thinking about those poor horses nearly broke her heart. How many hard-working animals had been abandoned or destroyed? Horses deserved better in their old age.

 

She’d thrown herself, heart and soul, into looking after animals. Why not? She’d long since given up dreams of romance. The few men she’d dated had quickly cured her of any illusions.

 

While she wasn’t unattractive, she figured she was too much of a tomboy to attract the sort of manly man she was most interested in.

 

And speaking of manly men—at that moment a good-looking cowboy stormed into her kitchen, evidently in some sort of argument on his cell phone, judging by the loud grunts and noises he made on this end.

 

She could hear a lot of the other end of the conversation, too, which said a lot about the decibel level of the shouting there. The words louse and stud fees stood out as among the few that should have been repeated in mixed company.

 

She took a cautious peek through her bangs, but didn’t recognize him. That was strange. After she’d dated a guy who’d turned to pestering her family when she broke up with him, it was unusual to find any unattended stranger at the Palmoral estate. But if it were going to happen, Independence Day would be the day. It was an especially important holiday to her family, even though they had such strong ties to the tiny European monarchy Valrovia.

 

The event was huge, with all the Palmers, of course, and all of Kelli’s American aunts and uncles, along with their families. If that weren’t enough, everyone was encouraged to drag in any friends they could lasso for the barbecue and a massive fireworks show that any city would be proud to host.

 

Kelli’s mother, Elizabeth of Valrovia, was a royal princess. Kelli’s father, Clark Palmer, had been a smitten billionaire playboy. Both were hounded by the media, so the family had been forced to be more careful about who was allowed past the estate’s gate. Still, the guest list hit two hundred for Independence Day.

 

But security was tight enough that the cowboy had to have been especially invited by a family member. She wondered who.

 

She could tell he was the Real Deal. The cut of his jeans, the wear and tear on his boots and his bowlegged walk all said he was a working cowboy.

 

Although his clothing was clean, a pleasant cattle and horse aroma wafted her way. His fingers were weathered and callused. This was a man who worked with his hands and toiled long and hard in the fields. His dark hair sported streaks of blond from extended hours outside in the sun.

 

His lively green eyes were checking her out as thoroughly as she was looking him over.

 

Kelli quickly lowered her gaze to the deviled eggs she was working on and hoped he couldn’t see the faint blush climbing her neck.

 

She grabbed a fork, preparing to stuff the egg whites. A masculine hand grazed the top of her palm.

 

She gasped.

 

“Whoa,” said Bobby Gray. His entire frame jolted at the contact with her hand. Every nerve ending in his body stood at attention. Amazingly, it was a lot like the feeling he got when he climbed on a bull and waited for the gate to be released—an adrenalin rush sending his stomach plummeting.

 

He had reached out to her intending to ask her to tell his dang-blasted brother that Bobby Gray was at the estate, not at home and not within quick driving distance, either.

 

He hadn’t expected this reaction to her—a feeling he didn’t know how to describe in words other than dizzying. There was something about her expressive wide eyes and smile, each setting off the most appealing nose he’d ever seen on a woman.

 

She wasn’t caked in makeup and layers of hair lacquer like most of the women he met—she was naturally pretty. She was also covered in Miracle Whip, but that didn’t dampen his immediate awareness of her femininity.  A basic yin yang, he = man and she = woman.

 

There was a lot more to her than a guy would first expect.

 

Either that or her deviled egg recipe contained pheromones.

 

“Are you there, Bro?” Monty Joe’s voice came loudly from the cell phone.

 

“Hang on,” Bobby Gray said into the phone as he realized he was still clutching the pretty girl’s hand. He turned to her, summoning up what he hoped was a whole truckload of charm. At least, the 150 watt smile he turned on her was his best weapon for convincing women to do what he wanted—most of the time.

 

Even fierce Mrs. “Stone“ Wall back in fourth grade had let him off the hook after he’d set the class guinea pig free. Surely one gorgeous blonde wasn’t proof against it. “Hey, I’m Bobby Gray.”

 

“Kelli Palmer,” she replied, concentrating on her eggs and missing out on his smile.

 

Drat. This was harder than he’d expected.

 

She’d said her name was Palmer. Palmer? “Another sister in the Palmer dynasty?”

 

She shook off his hand. “Second oldest.”

 

“I thought Barbara was second oldest.”

 

“No.”

 

“Your name’s Kelli?”

 

“Dr. Kelli Palmer.”

 

“MD?”

 

“Vet.”

 

Her attitude was so formal, he couldn’t resist teasing her a little. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Princess.”

 

Her shoulders stiffened and he liked the way she got all huffy. “I work too hard to be labeled as someone who lies around in a tiara and feathers.”

 

He fought back a grin because she might misinterpret it. “You’re pretty enough to be.”

 

She rolled her eyes, but she didn’t walk away—a very good sign.

 

“What are you making?”

 

“Deviled eggs.”

 

“One of my favorite foods.” He pointed to the jar on the counter. “Especially when made with Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise. You don’t add celery to it, do you?”

 

“Nope. Just a little celery seed.” She offered him a spoonful of the mixture for him to try.

 

“Perfect. You’re a woman after my own heart.” All the while they talked—or as Bobby Gray preferred to think of it, sweet-talked—Monty Joe’s hollering could be heard from the cell phone speaker. Now that Kelli was looking at Bobby Gray, it was time to turn on the smile again. Amy Llewellyn had once told him this particular smile of his had made her forget she didn’t like him.

 

Again, fourth grade.

 

It had been a few years since then, but he didn’t think he’d lost his touch. He grinned at Kelli, who had long-lashed brown eyes and a high-wattage smile of her own. Hmmm. “Don’t suppose you’d do me a favor?”

 

“Depends on the favor.” She frowned and then added, “Say, you aren’t the rodeo star, are you?”

 

She must have recognized the smile. He grinned, showing his teeth. Dealing with women could be very much like dangling candy in front of children. “You could say that.”

 

“I’ve always been a big fan of your brother.”

 

“Monty Joe?” A twinge of jealousy jabbed Bobby Gray’s innards. “Yeah, everyone thinks he’s great.”

 

“Well, he’s good.” She paused thoughtfully, then added, “but I always thought you were better at hanging onto your bronco.”

 

A combination of surprise and pride washed over Bobby Gray. He couldn’t believe how bashful he felt, but he finally managed to mutter, “Thanks.”

 

The noise spewing from the cell phone got through to him again, so he lowered the hand holding it and pushed the microphone against his jeans so his brother couldn’t overhear. “My brother’s a bit,” he paused to choose the right word, “miffed with me right now.”

 

“Why’s that?”

 

“I paid a goodly amount for a stud fee to breed his mare without his say so.”

 

“How much?”

 

He cleared his throat, then muttered, “Thirty thousand.”

 

“Dollars?”

 

He nodded.

 

“I can see why that might miff him.”

 

“It’s chicken feed to him. He’s just cheap.”

 

“And you’re not?”

 

He placed his palm over his heart. “You wound me.”

 

“I’ll be happy to do you a favor—if you’ll do one for me.”

 

“What’s your favor?”

 

“Isn’t that where we started? You tell me your favor and I’ll tell you mine.” She batted her come-hither lashes at him and he wondered whether he was being had rather than vice versa. Another hmmm.

 

He pointed at his cell phone. “Tell my brother where we are and that I don’t have a car.”

 

“Done. Hand me the phone,” she said quickly.

 

Too quickly.

 

Her crinkled up nose reminded him of his mother’s and how, when she was living, she’d crinkle her nose when she was putting one past him.

 

Bobby Gray narrowed his eyes at Kelli and held the phone suspended away from her. “What’s your favor?”

 

“I’m looking for donors for my charity—North Texas Equestrian Rescue. I’ll put you down.”

 

He started to hand her the cell phone, but that enticing nose crinkled again. He could swear he saw a gleam of avarice in her eyes, too. “How much?”

 

“What?” she asked innocently, and he knew without a doubt that he’d most certainly been had by this slip of a girl whose waist was tinier than the circle made when he joined his hands together.

 

“Exactly how much are you putting me down for?”

 

“Ahh.” She gnawed her lower lip and it made him itch to get in on the action.

 

“Yes?”

 

“You paid a huge stud fee and didn’t so much as flinch.”

 

He had difficulty concentrating on her words when her nose wriggled enchantingly. What was wrong with him? He needed a straight head to deal with her. Where was a bucket of cold water when he needed it? He turned on the faucet at the kitchen sink and dabbed his fingers on one hand into the running water. “How much?”

 

She named an amount as large as the stud fee.

 

“Wha—whaht?” he managed to choke out when he could stop sputtering. Maybe he should have dunked his entire head in the sink.

 

“The horses really need it. You’re the answer to lots of prayers. You’re so successful and a great visionary. We could really use a guy like you during your spare t—”

 

He placed two fingers over her lips to stop her from further sucking up. He sighed. This was going to be the most expensive phone call he’d ever experienced, but he couldn’t turn down the owner of those deep brown eyes shining at him like he was some knight.

 

Besides, he had to stop her before she asked for more than merely cash. She didn’t know that, although he was worth millions, he was only a cowboy and pretty worthless otherwise.

 

It also occurred to him that she was an answer to an unspoken prayer. He needed a second favor. One that would get him out of trouble with his brother and make sure the Nelson Ranch would remain financially stable for his lifetime and the lifetimes of generations to come.

 

Many people thought as far ahead as their next meal or rent payment. But none of the Nelsons were like that. Each felt responsible for seeing to it that the Nelson Ranch prospered, if not through eternity, at least for as long as possible. They owed it to their parents and their legacy.

 

Bobby Gray was no exception. Looking out for his future grandkids and great-grandkids was as important to him as looking after his own personal interests.

 

What doesn’t grow often dies, so the Nelsons wanted to expand their holdings. They needed millions for the grand scale they planned. While Monty Joe wanted to expand only what they were already doing, which Bobby Gray agreed they needed, he also had great plans for diversifying—and it wouldn’t take millions for that.

 

Kelli Palmer could definitely help.

 

Running the toe of one boot over the top of the other, he said, “Fine. I sure enjoy being an answer to your prayers—”

 

She threw her arms around him, somehow smearing him with deviled-egg goop in the process. Somehow he didn’t mind in the least.

 

The posh date he needed for the big upcoming dinner with the Nelson Ranch banker would soon be in the bag. Monty Joe would quickly forget both the stud fee and the charitable donation if Bobby Gray managed to snag the daughter of a royal princess as his dinner date that night. The banker, Ed Juarez, was bonkers over anything to do with royalty. Bobby Gray mentally chalked one up for himself.

 

And Kelli felt just about perfect in his arms.

 

Bobby Gray drew in a deep lung-full of her pure womanly scent and wanted to keep on inhaling, but Monty Joe started shouting again.

 

At the same instant, Bobby Gray’s date for today, Lori, came in the kitchen. She took one look at Kelli in his arms. She emitted an ear-splitting scream, did an about face and hightailed it outta there.

 

Kelli, the most intriguing armful he’d ever held, pushed away from him and shouted, “It’s not what you think, Lori.”

 

She chased after her sister, yelling, “I didn’t steal your boyfriend!”

 

Bull puppies! Just when things had gotten interesting.

 

And he still needed to make arrangements for their dinner date with his banker.

 

Bobby Gray pocketed his phone and dashed after both women.

 

————————————————

Visit Kathy Carmichael’s website.

Buy Kathy’s KISSING KELLI ebook on Kindle.  (NOTE:  for a limited time, copies are discounted to 99 cents.)

 

 

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