“Ew!” Rayna Landers’s spike-heeled boot skidded in a huge pile of manure. Double doors, a hundred feet away, beckoned. At last, the final barn, lined with bored-looking Longhorns, on the endless, roller-coaster-rideless evening at the State Fair of Texas.
Captivated cowboys, cowgirls, and mini versions of both surveyed the cattle. The only place she wanted to see beef was in the form of filet mignon topped with mushroom sauce at
Morton’s Steakhouse. A huge russet-colored bull glared at her through a rail barrier that surely couldn’t contain the monster.
Unmoving. Unblinking. Maybe he’d read her mind. He pawed at the sawdust under an enormous hoof with clear intentions of pulverizing her. Despite the warmth of the late September evening, a chill seeped into her bones. She turned away from the massive beast and lunged for the safety of the nearby exit.
She looked back, certain the creature would surge through the fence and run her under. Something solid stopped her flight. She yelped and muscled arms caught her.
“Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t see you coming.” He stood well over six feet with eyes so green they almost glowed. Even with her at five feet nine and wearing heels, he still had a few inches
on her. The requisite black hat, sitting at the perfect angle, couldn’t quite restrain his raven curls. The cleft in his chin deepened with each heart-stopping smile.
While his looks gave her heart an erratic rhythm, his hands on her forearms felt safe, steady.
Step away from the cowboy.
Her feet took the mental hint, and she tried to wipe the muck off her heel in a patch of grass. She gulped for fresh air, but the smell of the stockyards persisted.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine. It was stuffy in there.” Downtown Dallas had never before reeked like this. At least, not in her experience.
“It does get warm in there. At least our fair is always in the fall, so we don’t cook.”
A beautiful Palomino stood next to a trailer, its pale golden coat gleaming and platinum tail swishing. Rayna stepped closer, drawn by the mare’s beauty. Years ago, her city dwelling
father had taken her to several dude ranches, but she hadn’t gotten this close since. The Palomino was her favorite color, and her fingers itched to touch the creamy hide.
“You can pet her if you want, ma’am.”
“She’s yours?” Gorgeous man, gorgeous horse.
“Name’s Clay Warren. This is Buttercream. Raised her myself, but I let my mama name her.” He stroked the horse as he regaled Rayna with a list of the mare’s awards and ribbons.
Though enchanting, the horse didn’t hold her attention, but the man certainly did. Buttercream whinnied as if she knew their focus had shifted away from her.
Clay winked. “Guess she doesn’t like competition from beautiful ladies.”
Her gaze flew back to the horse and warmth crept over her. The cowboy’s boldness jangled her nerves, yet she liked it. She tucked a long strand of hair behind her ear.
“Oops.” The cowboy looked past her and winced. “Hope your husband didn’t hear that. Sorry, I didn’t see a wedding ring.”
She turned. Her brother stalked toward them, a disgusted scowl marring his features. She frowned. Surely he and Gabby were getting along okay. They were perfect for each other.
“Rayna,where did you go?”
“She’s coming.” Adam’s stare riveted on Clay.
Why did he have such an annoying tendency to be overprotective of her? “Okay Adam, you drag me here as a guise to date my best friend, and then you abandon her. Not a good plan.”
Adam’s jaw clenched. “I don’t think this stranger needs to know that.”
“Clay Warren.” A confused frown flawed his forehead. “I was just acquainting the lady with my horse.”
Wondering who Adam was, no doubt, all dark hair and eyes like their dad, while Rayna’s auburn hair and amber eyes must have come from the absentee mom.
“This is my brother”—Rayna searched the crowd behind them for Gabby—“who is supposed to be impressing my best friend with his plans for a future ranch. Adam, you’d better
go find her.”
“I think I’ll stay right here.” Adam crossed his arms over his chest.
“Rayna wanted to pet my horse. Go ahead.” Clay took her hand and smoothed it down the mare’s velvety muzzle.
His calloused grip swept warmth up her arm.
“We need to go find Gabby.” Adam’s tone was glacial.
Apparently he noticed when Clay’s hand lingered over hers a little too long. Rayna sighed. She didn’t want Gabby mad at Adam, and he obviously wouldn’t budge without her.
“Your horse is exquisite.” Not wanting to let the cowboy go, her eyes locked with his again. “Thank you for letting me visit with her.”
“Anytime, ma’am. Nice meeting you.” He tipped his hat and offered his business card. “Do you have a last name, pretty lady?”
“Landers.” Her insides pooled like melted butter. She’d never experienced such blatant flirtation—especially in the face of her brother’s resentment.
Clay held the card longer than necessary. His fingers grazed hers.
Adam touched her elbow.
Clay let go, and she quickly stuffed his card into her pocket. “It was nice to meet you.” She managed to get the words out as Adam steered her away.
Gabby exited the barn.
Rayna hurried to meet her, careful where she stepped. Nothing about this part of the fair impressed her. Not hopscotching over pile after pile of animal waste. Not swatting at swarms of flies. Not the stench of farm animals, the stomach-turning greasy food, or the blare of country music. But there was the cowboy. He probably liked roller coasters.
“There you are.” Gabby frowned at Adam. “I turned around, and you were gone.”
“Adam was worried about me.” Rayna shrugged. “I needed some air.”
“Your asthma.” Adam blew out a sigh and steered them toward the food booths. “I didn’t even think about that.”
“It was nothing like that. I haven’t had an attack in months.” Lord, please don’t let my matchmaking efforts fall apart now. During the course of the evening, she’d definitely become a
third wheel. If it worked out between Adam and Gabby, this dismal outing would all be worth it.
“I’m sorry, Gabby. I had to save Rayna from a cowboy.”
Rayna laughed. “I didn’t need saving. He was nice.”
“You don’t know how cowboys are, little sister. They only want one thing and expect all women to fall at their feet.”
“Oh come on, Adam.” Gabby stopped, propping her hands on both hips. “That’s rather a blanket statement.”
“He gave her his number.” Adam’s jaw clenched.
“Really?” Gabby grinned. “Rayna’s a big girl, and if she wants to call him she can. When it starts getting serious, she’ll dump him. So you don’t have anything to worry about.” She patted Adam’s arm.
“Hey,” Rayna said, frowning, “I resent being talked about as if I’m not here. Why does everyone think just because I happen to be female my sole purpose in life should be to land a husband and have babies?” She hugged herself.
“Gabby didn’t mean to step on any feminist toes.”
“And I’m not a feminist. I happen to enjoy my career. What’s wrong with dreaming of getting a promotion and buying a town house?”
“Nothing. Just sounds kind of. . .lonely.” Gabby looked past her. “How about some cotton candy?”
Rayna turned to see a man with his hand stuck through a plastic dome. In a big silver tub, he twirled blue fluff onto a stick. Her stomach churned. Eat the sweet treat with the sickening aroma of horse manure burned into her nostrils?
“We haven’t even eaten supper yet.” Adam checked his watch. “It’s almost six.”
“I’m not really hungry.” Rayna’s stomach growled a protest at her ruse. “Y’all go somewhere for dinner. I’ll take a cab home.”
“You are not taking a cab.” Gabby shook her head. “We’ll take you home, and then Adam and I will get a bite to eat. We can even come back here. If that’s okay with you, Adam.”
She flashed a shy grin.
Adam nodded like a bobble head. “Fine by me.”
Rayna grinned. The evening wasn’t a total loss. Not to mention meeting Clay.
They maneuvered slowly through the press of the vast multitude clad in western wear and faded denim. Black jeans and teal sweater marked her—outsider.
As they exited the gate, the giant cowboy statue waved. “Howdy folks,” Big Tex boomed.
They trekked the quarter of a mile to Adam’s black SUV. Rayna hurried to get in the back, forcing Gabby to sit up front.
He started the engine and backed out. A pickup let them into the flow of traffic, and Rayna waved her thanks.
“I’m really glad you came, Gabby.” Adam cleared his throat. “I had a great time up until the cocky hayseed flirted with my sister. Maybe you and I can come back tonight and next weekend, too?”
Rayna hurried to her condo. Adam’s engine rumbled nearby as Gabby walked her to the door. “Thanks for inviting me tonight.”
Gabby grinned. “Adam is great. I don’t know why I never saw that at the office.”
“I told you.” Rayna unlocked the red door.
“You never told me he dreamed of owning a ranch someday, just like where I grew up.”
“I wanted him to tell you.” Rayna shooed her away. “Now scoot. He’s waiting.”
“Call the cowboy.”
“What could we possibly have in common?”
“I probably should stay out of it, but I’m not good at that, so here goes. Just because both sets of grandparents, a couple of aunts and uncles, and your parents divorced, it doesn’t
mean you shouldn’t get married. Just because your mom left”—Gabby took a deep breath—“it doesn’t mean you’ll end up like her.”
Rayna swallowed hard. There it was, her biggest fear, spoken out loud. The thing she’d never even found the courage to voice herself. The thing she thought she’d kept hidden.
She gripped the cold doorknob tighter.
“You’re not your mother. You’re the most loyal person I know. I’m telling you this because I love you.” Gabby pecked Rayna’s cheek. “And I want you to be happy. You have the
heart to be a great wife and a great mom.”
But did she have the stick-to-itiveness? Even if she did, could she find a man who’d hang in there with her?
The two women hugged.
“Call the cowboy.”
“I don’t call men.”
Gabby rolled her eyes. “If it’s not him, somebody else. Go to the singles class at church. Stick around long enough to get serious. Live happily ever after. Doctor’s orders.” Gabby
wagged a finger and turned away.
“See you at work.” Rayna stepped inside and locked the door then leaned against it. Kicking off her boots stirred up a fresh whiff. She picked them up by two fingertips and
deposited them in the laundry room.
Sock footed, she checked her caller ID and fished the business card from her pocket. It gave the name of his dude ranch in Aubrey, number included. What would she do with
a cowboy? Definitely not her type.
She hurried to the kitchen then hesitated, hand suspended over the trash. Just drop it. But her fingers wouldn’t comply. She stuffed the card into her junk drawer.
Her stomach rumbled. Ebony granite countertops held red small appliances waiting to whip up gourmet fare. But her recent haute cuisine class and all the gadgets didn’t help her
work up any enthusiasm to cook for only one. Except for the cappuccino machine, she rarely used them unless she took supper to her dad. Preparing food for herself, no matter how elaborate, just wasn’t any fun.
She checked her watch. Maybe it wasn’t too late. She picked up the handset and dialed. It rang twice.
“Hey Daddy, have you eaten yet? I thought I might bring something over.”
“Sweetheart.” His voice filled with regret. “That sounds wonderful, but. . .I have plans.”
Plans? The lump in her throat swelled. She ran her fingers over the polished, smooth surface of the countertop. Plans with a woman? “Okay, maybe some other night.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
Rayna nodded. “No problem. I just thought if you were free—have a nice evening.”
She leaned back against the cabinet and wrapped her arms around herself.
Her dad never had plans. When he left his psychology practice, he always went home. Alone.
It must be a woman. Which was fine. But. . . “Lord, please don’t let him get hurt. He’s been hurt enough.”
Close to midnight, Clay finished his forty-minute commute to the ranch with the trailer rattling behind.
“I sure liked her, Lord, but I’m always a sucker for redheads, and there’s more to a woman than beauty. I could look her up, give her a call, find out what she’s all about.” He sighed. “I know You’ve got the perfect lady for me; just help me find her. I’m ready. Past ready.”
At the barn, he backed up the Silverado and unloaded Buttercream. The clop-clop of restless hooves sounded in the stalls. He jogged toward the house as neighs and nickers echoed through the crisp night air. Ah, the sounds of home.
He stepped inside, hung his corduroy jacket on a wooden peg behind the door, and stopped to turn off a light in the office. The scent of pine needles greeted him from a candle
burning on the cedar coffee table.
Mama sat at the desk, her graying auburn hair aflame in the glow of the lamp with a Holstein shade she’d gotten him last Christmas. Dad snored from the suede couch.
“Hey Mama, what are y’all doing here so late?”
“Earning my keep as a good little bookkeeper. Paying bills—working the numbers.”
He stood behind her and massaged her tense shoulders. “Feels like you’ve been at it too long.”
“Oooh, that’s good. Up along the side of my neck.”
He kneaded his thumbs along numerous knots. “How’s it looking?”
“The Horizon Finals purse sure helped. Oooh. Oooh, right there.” She tilted her head to the left. “That alone will take care of the vet, repairs, and get you well ahead on the loan payments. Probably pay off the new fence and horse trailer, too.”
“Where does that leave the hands? Guess I better win CBR World, too.”
“Now, don’t go putting too much pressure on yourself.” She turned to face him. “You’ve done great this season. Especially after last year’s injury. God will work it out. You’ll see. Business will pick up soon.”
When? He ran his fingers through his hair. “God might have opened up a path to help it along. My sponsor called me today. They want to do a media blitz with me hawking their clothing line.”
“Yee-haaa!” She jumped up to hug him.
“I really don’t wanna do it.” He winced. “It’s like a modeling gig.”
“But Clay, you going high profile might put the ranch on the map.”
“What? What’s going on?” Dad blinked then settled. Seconds later, he snored again, the big gasping kind.
“Why’s Dad so tired?” Clay frowned at the older version of himself.
“He broke the gray stallion today.”
Or the gray stallion broke Dad. The living legend that was his father lay deep in slumber. His six-foot-four frame folded and kinked on the too-short couch, feet dangling over the end. Four-time National Circuit Champ. Even if Clay trounced the record with five CBR World titles, he could never fill those size thirteens.
Mama saved her file and turned away from the computer.
“Tell me more about Cowboy Western Wear’s plans.”
“I haven’t agreed yet.” Dad never had to be a spokesmodel to make ends meet.
“It’s your decision, son.” She picked at a red fingernail. “But keep in mind, if you turn them down, they might bail on sponsoring you. A tidy little sum like the World purse would keep all your employees.”
“That’s the only reason I’m considering it. Go to bed. No sense driving home so late.” And there are plenty of empty rooms here.
She kissed his cheek. “It’s not far.”
“Take Dad with you before he gets a crick in his neck for church tomorrow.”
Nothing had gone right today with the new ad campaign. Rayna jammed her key into the condo lock and it clicked open. Why did Monday always have to be Monday? Tossing her keys on the countertop, she checked her caller ID then did a double take.
Warren Dude Ranch, 4:23 p.m. How did he get her number?
“Okay, if I call now, it’s not like I made the first move. I’d simply be returning his call.”
She dug his business card out of the drawer with a grin. "Great. He’s got me talking to myself.”
She tossed the card on the black coffee table and lit a cinnamon candle. Plopping on the crimson leather sofa, she picked up the novel she’d been reading. But the description of the hero made her think of Clay. She put the book down and channel surfed in vain for something decent on TV then clicked it off.
She paced the condo, straightening strategically placed throw pillows and setting three magazines in a just-so fan shape. The card beside them beckoned. She grabbed her cell phone. Her hands shook as she dialed the number.