Devoted to Her Cowboy
As a thank you to loyal “first to know” newsletter subscribers we are serializing C. J. Carmichael’s romantic novella, Devoted To Her Cowboy.
Table of Contents
When I had my hysterectomy over ten years ago, I shared a hospital room with a young woman who’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had to have her ovaries surgically removed. She spent the night crying and though I didn’t know her prognosis, I do know she was facing a future without children, at the very least. This book is for her, and for all the other women who are fighting.
Meaning of Flowers
According to the Farmer’s Almanac (and other various sources) there are hidden meanings behind the usage or gifting of certain herbs and flowers. In Devoted to Her Cowboy, each chapter features one of the following:
Tansy’s symbolic meaning is hostile thoughts
Carnation is a symbol for “Alas for my poor heart”
Lavender stands for devotion and virtue
Hollyhock can be a sign of ambition
Sunflowers denote adoration, loyalty and longevity
Sweet pea is for pleasures
Dahlia has many different meanings including betrayal
Aloe is known for healing
Red Rose is for love, but also seduction
Red Poppy can mean consolation
Willow is for sadness
Myrtle is the emblem of marriage and true love
The Sunflower is also the flower symbol of hope for Ovarian Cancer
Chapter One: Tansy (hostile thoughts)
Everything about the silhouette of the cowboy standing outside the front window of Twigs & Sprigs was familiar to Shelby Turner. The low set of his hat shading his eyes. The outline of his lanky body. Even his posture, self-assured but not cocky.
She fumbled the sprig of tansy she’d been about to add to a flower arrangement. She could imagine him collecting his thoughts—and emotions—as he prepared to enter the shop. Was he trying to squash his guilt for not coming sooner? If she were him, that’s what she’d be doing.
“Louise, your grandson is here. Shelby picked up the tansy and poked the stem into the floral foam at the bottom of a large glass vase.
Something in the back room clattered to the floor. “Darn it,” Louise muttered.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine. I just knocked over that box of ribbon we had delivered this morning.”
Shelby turned her attention back to the cowboy. “Blake’s here,” she repeated unnecessarily, just before the door chimes gave their welcoming tinkle.
Dark gray eyes, eyes she hadn’t seen in six years, regarded her. “Hello Shelby.” His voice went down like a shot of whiskey. Smooth and rich and laced with fire.
He’d been nineteen the last time she’d seen him face-to-face. Though still slender, he seemed much broader across the shoulders, stronger, more rugged. Blake Timber had the squarest jaw of any man she’d ever known. And a sexy divot right in the center of his chin. She lowered her gaze to the Western-style shirt sculpted to his chest and tucked into his trademark True Grit blue jeans. And there it was. The gold buckle he’d won, against all odds, at this year’s National Rodeo Finals in Vegas.
An amazing accomplishment. If he’d put his ambition ahead of his grandmother’s wellbeing, at least he had something to show for it.
“You did it, Blake. Congratulations.”
He blushed and nodded his thanks. “I wore this to show Grams. Is she here?”
Shelby was surprised her boss hadn’t come rushing out to greet her only grandson. They’d been expecting him, but not until tomorrow. Blake was this year’s guest of honor for their town’s Sheep River Days, which would begin with a Friday dance, followed on Saturday with a parade, a two-day rodeo, and a Sunday night barbecue.
“She was a minute ago. Let me go back and check.”
He stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Hold up . . . It’s been a long time, Shel.”
“That’s true.” She was very aware it was a man touching her now . . . Not a high school boy. She lifted her chin as he studied her hair, her clothes, before coming back to her eyes. No doubt he was cataloguing the changes. They’d been high school seniors when they’d last seen each other. Since then she’d learned to control the frizz in her honey-blonde curls, replaced her wire-framed glasses with contact lenses, and figured out what colors looked good with her light blue eyes and sun-kissed complexion.
“Damn, but you look good, Shel . . . You’re all grown up,” he grinned.
She wished she didn’t care what Blake thought of her, but she couldn’t deny the swell of pleasure at his words. He’d grown up too—from a cute, outgoing boy to a good-looking, self-assured man. But the changes in him came as no surprise. She’d followed every step of Blake’s rodeo career, purportedly for the benefit of Louise, but Shelby had been equally fascinated watching the YouTube videos of his rides, and reading the numerous articles and interviews with him.
After his big win in Las Vegas in November, he’d scored a national sponsor—True Grit jeans. And now his sexy butt was featured in magazine adverts for American Cowboy and Western Horseman.
Unfortunately, his success with the rodeo circuit meant that he hardly ever made it home to Sheep River. She checked the urge to chide him for neglecting his grandmother. Louise wasn’t the type to lay guilt-trips, so she shouldn’t either.
“I was surprised to hear you were working with Gram. You were so brainy. Always figured you’d go to college.”
“I did. Studied floral design at Mount Royal.” The college had been in Calgary, close enough to travel home for the weekend whenever she felt homesick.
“Well.” He eyed the arrangement she’d been working on. “Obviously you aced it.”
She shrugged off the compliment. What was a pretty floral arrangement compared to winning the saddle bronc event at the NRF?
“Shortly after I graduated, your grandmother offered me this job. I was thrilled to get it.”
“Whenever we Skype, she can never say enough nice things about you.”
Now it was Shelby’s turn to blush. Louise had made a few comments over the years implying Shelby would make a perfect match for her grandson. The older woman didn’t seem to realize Blake ran in different circles now. He could have his pick of beautiful women, a different one every night of the week, if he wanted.
And according to some of the gossip rags, he did.
“Your grandmother is very good to me.”
“I heard your folks moved to a bigger ranch around Missoula a few years ago?”
“My grandpa passed away, so they’re managing the ranch and looking after my grandmother.”
“Grams told me . . . I’m sorry about your grandpa.” He said shoving his hands in his pockets.
She recalled him as a teenager doing the same thing when he was uncomfortable or upset. “Thank you,” she said around a lump in her throat, meeting his solemn eyes with her own misty ones. She missed her grandfather. He’d taught her a lot about flowers and nature.
He cleared his throat. “So your parents left you alone on the Rocky Knoll?”
“It’ll always be home to me. Dad sold most of the cattle and working horses. Leased out all but the home quarter to our neighbors, the McCrumbs. But I’ve kept a few horses, including Nancy Drew. And my dog Bordeaux. And, of course, the barn cats.”
He smiled. “Good old Nancy Drew. The two of you made quite the pair.”
His expression grew serious then. Almost wistful. “We had some fun trail rides together didn’t we?”
The times she’d spent exploring the ranch and foothills with Blake were among the happiest of Shelby’s life. But she was surprised he even remembered. “Pretty tame compared to the bucking broncs you ride these days.”
“Those are work.” He leaned an arm on the counter that separated them. Met her gaze squarely. “I’d rather go trail-riding with a beautiful girl like you any day of the week.”
She felt like she was a teenager again, heart fluttering because the guy she liked had actually spoken to her. She fussed with the flower arrangement in front of her. She was too mature and confident to be turned inside out by a sexy cowboy from her past. Wasn’t she?
Besides, he ought to be thinking about his grandmother, first.
She made her voice firm. “Are you flirting with me, Blake Timber?”
“I’m serious, Shel. You got any other horses out at the Rocky Knoll? Maybe we could do some riding together while I’m in town.”
“And how long will that be?” Sheep River Days would be over in three days. August was a busy month in the rodeo world. Shelby had no doubt he’d be moving on to a new town and rodeo by next weekend.
He cocked an eyebrow. “As long as it takes for you to say yes.”
Her heart wanted to say it right then. But what was behind his offer? An interest in rekindling a childhood friendship—or something more?
“That’s very flattering, Blake, but I should see what’s keeping your grandmother. After all, she’s who you’re really here to see.”
He straightened. Looked amused. “I do want to see Grams. But why are you stalling? Got a jealous boyfriend or something?”
“No boyfriend, jealous or otherwise. Just like to look before I leap.”
“That doesn’t sound like the girl who used to ride Nancy Drew with such confidence.”
“We’re not kids anymore, Blake.” She took a step back, putting both a physical and an emotional distance between them. “Hang on a minute while I get Louise.”
* * *
Shelby found Louise in the far corner of the stock room, sitting on a stool with her hands clasped in her lap. At sixty-six years of age, Louise was a hardworking, talented businesswoman, who ate well and exercised regularly.
Louise’s healthy lifestyle made her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, three months ago, all the more difficult to accept. But she’d handled her surgery and first two cycles of chemo with surprising resiliency, losing all her hair, but none of her gumption.
“Are you feeling okay?” Shelby asked. “Blake’s here.”
“Yes—yes.” She waved away Shelby’s concern. “I’m steeling myself.”
Louise put her hands to the beautiful silk head wrap she was wearing. “He hasn’t seen me since I lost all my hair.”
“You look as lovely as ever,” Shelby assured her, surprised at Louise’s lack of confidence in her appearance. Louise was one of the least vain women she knew.
“That isn’t the problem.” Louise took a deep breath. “Blake doesn’t know I have cancer.”
“Whoa! Are you serious?”
“So many doors opened for him after his big win in Vegas. I didn’t want to slow him down.”
“Oh my God, Louise.” Shelby’s anger toward Blake melted away. He hadn’t known. How was he going to react when he found out his grandmother had been keeping such a big secret?
Now she understood why Louise was hanging back.
But putting off the moment of truth wouldn’t help anything.
Shelby gave Louise’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Go. Tell him. He loves you. He’ll understand.”
“I hope so.” Louise’s eyes, without benefit of eyelashes or eyebrows to frame them, gave her an atypical appearance of vulnerability.
A moment later she squared her shoulders. The old Louise was back. “I’m acting like a silly old woman, aren’t I?” She raised her voice. “I’m coming, Blake—”
At that same moment, Blake burst into the room. “What the heck is going on here? Where’s my—”
He stopped short when he saw Louise.
At first he simply looked puzzled as he took in her altered appearance. Louise had lost about twenty-five pounds along with her hair.
She used the few seconds of silence to her advantage, going to her grandson, reaching up to cup his cheeks, and giving him a kiss. “Welcome home, my boy. I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks Grams.” He gave her a hug, then pulled back and studied her again.
Shelby could tell the exact moment he figured it out. As the lines on his forehead disappeared, his eyes widened and his mouth hardened.
“What’s wrong, Gram?”
Louise took a deep breath.
Blake’s gaze shifted to Shelby. “She has cancer, doesn’t she?”
After a moment, Shelby nodded. “Ovarian cancer.”
In the stunned silence that followed, Louise was the first to speak. “The good news is we caught it early. I’ve already had my first two rounds of chemo and have tolerated it quite well.”
“When?” Blake’s voice sounded dry and raspy, as if he’d gone a day in the desert without water. “When did you find out you had cancer?”
Shelby wished she could quietly exit and leave them to talk. Unfortunately Blake was standing between her and the door. So instead, she picked up the box Louise had knocked over earlier and began checking the spools of ribbon against the packing slip.
Try as she might, however, she couldn’t block out their conversation.
“I first noticed discomfort in my pelvic area during a yoga class. I mentioned it at my annual check-up in April. By the beginning of May I had my diagnosis.”
“So when we Skyped on Mother’s Day—you already knew?”
“It wasn’t the sort of news you want to tell someone on Skype.”
“Then why not ask me to come home?”
“Blake if you want to make it to Nationals again this year—”
“Screw Nationals! I should have been here for you.”
“I wasn’t alone. I had my good friends.” She shot a grateful smile at Shelby. “And my doctor found me an excellent surgeon.”
Blake’s face paled. “You had surgery?”
“Yes. They think they got all of the cancer. Like I told you, we caught it early.”
“What if it hadn’t gone well?” Blake took off his hat and gripped the brim until his knuckles went white.
“I’m serious Gram. What if something had gone wrong during your surgery? What if I’d gotten a call while I was in Wyoming, or Colorado, or some other place a thousand miles from here, that my Grandma was gone? How do you think I would have felt? Not to have seen you . . . ” As his voice trailed off, he turned his back on them.
Louise gave Shelby an anguished look, then placed her hands on her grandson’s back. “That didn’t happen, though. I pulled through. I’m strong. You don’t need to worry.”
Before Blake could respond, the door chimes sounded and a woman’s voice rang out through the shop, reaching all the way to the back room.
“Yoo-hoo! Blake? You in here, cowboy?”
Shelby recognized the voice right away. She and Blake had gone to school with Kelli-Jo Calhoun, nee Abbott. Back then Blake and Kelli-Jo had been hot-and-heavy. But right after graduation Blake had gotten his pro card and left town, following his rodeo dreams.
After that, Kelli-Jo had lost no time hooking up with Harvey Calhoun, a rich oil man from Calgary in his mid-thirties. Harvey had just bought himself two thousand acres of the prettiest land in the county—not far from the Rocky Knoll.
The two of them had a son, and then set about building an expansive ranch where Harvey could entertain and impress his various business contacts.
For years Kelli-Jo had dedicated herself into making The Lazy C Ranch a picture-perfect show place. She’d finished all the renovations and decorating last year—which had prompted her to volunteer to organize the town’s Sheep River Days.
It was she who had invited Blake Timber to be the guest of honor.
“Blake? Louise?” Kelli-Jo’s voice sounded closer. A moment later she was at the open door to the stock room. “Whatever are you all doing back here?”
Louise gave her grandson’s back a final pat. “Just catching up on news. But we’ll talk more later. I’m sure you have lots of business stuff to go over for the parade and the rodeo.”
Blake’s mouth was set stubbornly, but he gave his grandmother a quick nod and a, you-bet-we’ll-talk-more- later look, before extending a hand to Kelli-Jo. “Nice to see you again.”
Kelli-Jo looked as if she’d spent the last four hours in a beauty salon. Everything was perfect. Her sleekly styled strawberry blonde hair, fancy manicure, and sultry eye make-up. She was wearing the best cowgirl duds and accessories money could buy. From her turquoise-colored suede boots, to her clunky turquoise and silver necklace, jangly bracelets and earrings, every detail of her outfit struck the perfect note.
The only thing missing was her mega-carat wedding band. That’s odd, Shelby wondered. Its huge size made it impossible to miss.
Kelli-Jo ignored Blake’s hand and wrapped her arms around him instead. “Feels like just yesterday we were all in school together.” She flashed a cooler version of her smile at Louise, and then an almost frosty one at Shelby.
Linking her arm around Blake’s she asked, “Mind if I steal this guy away for an hour or two? I promise to bring him back when I’m done with him.”
“You make it sound like you’re planning to eat him for lunch, Kelli-Jo.” Louise did not look impressed.
Kelli-Jo giggled and snuggled closer to Blake. “Oh, Louise. You’re such a tease. But lunch is a good idea. How about it cowboy? Can I buy you a burger at the Crazyweed?”
Chapter Two: Carnation (“Alas for my poor heart”)
Nowhere on earth had Blake found a burger as tasty as the ones served at the Crazyweed Diner in his hometown of Sheep River.
Maybe it was the grass-fed, one-hundred percent Angus, Alberta-raised beef, or Lester’s homemade barbeque sauce, or the sour bread buns baked by his wife, Maggie. Probably it was a mix of all three.
The end result was a pure explosion of taste, leading to a belly-full of satisfaction.
Which made it that much more of a shame when Blake found he had no appetite.
Kelli-Jo had been chattering at him since they’d left his grandmother’s shop. They’d been seated in one of the booths in the back. Kelli-Jo had taken the side against the back wall, which meant all he had to look at was her.
Maybe she’d planned it that way. But it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t in the mood to check out the scenery, when all he could think about was Grams, bravely wearing that scarf to cover her bald head. She was so much thinner. At least her smile was the same. And her spirit.
“Blake have you heard a word I said?”
“Um . . . ” Sometimes when he fell off a bronc, his head felt a little scrambled after. That was how he felt now, as he tried to take in the news about his grandmother. Ovarian cancer. He didn’t know much about it. He’d have to do some research tonight and rectify that. More importantly, he needed to talk to Grams. She seemed to trust her medical team, but since his win at Nationals last November and the endorsement contract that followed, he finally had some big money saved. He could take her to the best hospital in the U.S., someplace like the Mayo Clinic.
“. . . and then for the parade, we thought you’d like to ride Peter Pan. He’s the best horse we have—a five-year-old Quarter Horse gelding. Want to see a picture?”
Kelli-Jo handed him her phone.
He glanced at the photo of the horse, taken during early summer when the pastures were still a bright, fresh green. He recognized the peak of Mt. Burke in the distance. “That’s a beautiful animal.”
“And he handles like a dream. You could take him out for a test-run this afternoon if you like.”
“You and your husband have a lot of horses on your spread?”
Kelli-Jo looked a tiny bit annoyed. Was it the question about the horses or the mention of her husband that bothered her?
“Right now we have twenty.”
“You do much riding?”
“When I have time, I love to get out. For instance, this afternoon . . . ”
He lost the last bit of what she was saying, as his mind circled back to the time he and Shelby had gone riding in the foothills around Mt. Burke. He’d worked a few summers for Shelby’s father. Mr. Turner had taught him a lot about best ranching practices, how to build a bond with your horse, and, well, life.
“. . . In fact I was wondering if you’d like to stay in one of our guest cabins for the weekend?”
“Your grandmother’s house is very small. Our cabins come with king-sized beds, wood-burning fireplaces and well-stocked minibars. Lots of privacy. Did I mention Harvey is in Houston on business this week?” As she leaned toward him, her low-buttoned shirt gaped open revealing cleavage and a glimpse of a lacy red bra.
He sucked in a breath. Kelli-Jo was as gorgeous as ever. But he sure as hell hoped she wasn’t implying she would join him in the king-sized bed. Not only was she married. She was a mother, too.
No doubt she was playing games with him—she’d always been a big flirt. According to his grandmother people who lived their lives playing games always ended up as losers.
“Thanks Kelli-Jo, but you know what they say. Be it ever so humble . . . ”
“But your grandmother’s house hasn’t been your home for years. You should really check out the cabins first before you turn down my offer.”
“I’ll be fine with Grams.”
She drummed her fingers on the tabletop, clearly not happy with how their conversation was progressing.
Her fingernails were long and tapered, each one a miniature work of art with a combo of turquoise and silver polish. One of them had even been embedded with what looked like a tiny diamond.
“My grandmother would be insulted if I didn’t stay with her.” Never mind the fact that it was his preference, too. But he didn’t want to insult Kelli-Jo by saying as much. He owed her big time. Not only had she parlayed her husband’s business contacts to help him get his True Grit Sponsorship, but if she hadn’t invited him to be the guest of honor at the Sheep River Days, who knew when Grams—or any of his friends—would have filled him in on the news of Gram’s illness.
Blake’s jaw tightened. He understood—sort of—his grandmother’s instinct to protect him and keep her cancer a secret. But why the hell hadn’t Shelby given him a call?
“Oh, yes, I do understand.” Kelli-Jo’s voice was a throaty purr. “I just thought it would be practical if you stayed with me, since I’ll be accompanying you to most of the events.”
This was news to him. “Just tell me where I need to be. I don’t need an escort.”
Kelli-Jo shook her head. “This is my first year as the event organizer and I’d really appreciate the moral support Blake. It’s one of the reasons I put your name forward to the committee—because I knew you’d have my back. You do, don’t you?”
When she put it that way, how could he say no? “I appreciate everything you’ve done to help my career K-J. And of course I’ve got your back. It’s just that I’d like to spend as much time with my grandmother as possible. Do you know she has cancer?”
Kelli-Jo used her fork to push the fries to the side of her plate. Like him, she’d taken only a few bites of the burger. “Yes. I’m sorry about that. Try not to worry. Your grandmother is a strong woman. She’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” K-J’s attempt to be comforting struck him as a little too pat. But he was probably just being sensitive, having been hit with the news only an hour ago.
Though she’d offered to pay for lunch, he laid two twenties on the table. “I’ve got to go, K-J. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Hang on cowboy. Do you even know where you’re supposed to go, or what time to be there? You’ve been tuning in and out of this conversation like a broken-down radio.”
He wished he could answer, but she was right. He hadn’t heard much of anything she’d said. “Can you text me the details?”
I will. But Blake, this event means a lot to me. Please, please help me make it a big success.”
“Hell, K-J. This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said with a quick smile.
“Maybe not. But it’s mine.” She removed a stack of papers from her purse. “This is a minute-by-minute itinerary for the weekend.”
He glanced at the sheaf of papers as he got up. There were an awful lot of them. Had he really agreed to do all this? He thought ruefully of the contract he’d only skimmed before signing. “I’ll be early for the parade K-J, promise.”
“You better be.” She gave him another of her vixen smiles. “This weekend you belong to me, cowboy.”
* * *
Blake found his grandmother alone in the shop, fussing over an arrangement that already looked perfect. Her skin looked so pale, he wanted to wrap her in warm blankets, take her home, and keep her safe.
But he knew better than to say so.
“Business meeting is over,” he said, trying to keep his fear for her out of his voice. “I was hoping we could go home and talk. Where’s Shelby?”
“She had some administrative matters to do for the store. Record keeping, ordering, and some Twitter Book stuff. She decided to work from home where there aren’t any interruptions.”
“Twitter Book?” Blake couldn’t help but smile.
His grandmother waved her hand. “I can’t keep up with all this new social media stuff. Thank goodness for Shelby. She actually enjoys it, or so she says.”
“But isn’t it too much for you, to be alone at the shop?”
“Shelby’s already prepared all the flowers for the dance tomorrow night and Joe has taken care of today’s deliveries. We’re not likely to get any more orders at this hour. Maybe one or two walk-bys.”
Blake went behind the counter and put his hands on his grandma’s shoulders. All his life she’d been a plump, energetic woman, who seemed unstoppable. Now she felt so small and frail.
“You’re a straight shooter Grams. Tell me the truth. Have I been a disappointment to you? Is that why you didn’t tell me you were sick?”
“Oh, honey. No.”
Grams turned and cupped his cheeks in that way he’d found so annoying as a kid, but now rather liked.
“I am so proud of you. If I needed help, I would have asked. And maybe I should have been more honest with you. But I didn’t want you to over-react.”
“Can you tell me exactly what your doctors say? Is the cancer for-sure curable?”
“There aren’t too many guarantees when it comes to cancer, honey. But I’m not at death’s door yet, by any means.” She gave him a big hug.
“I love you Grams.”
“And I love you, too. How about we close shop early and go home to celebrate? I bet you’d love a home-cooked meal.”
“Tonight I’d like to cook for you, if you’ll let me.”
“You cook? What—beans and toast?”
“I’ve learned a few things besides rodeo since I left home.” He grinned at her skeptical look. “Barbecuing a good steak is one of them.”
* * *
Shelby’s heart did a hop-skip-and-jump at the tell-tale crunch of truck tires on the graveled drive of the Rocky Knoll. She forced herself to calmly finish pouring the pellets for the barnyard cats into the bowl. Then she put away the tub of feed, and latched the cabinet.
By the time she stepped out of the barn, with Hermione in her arms, Blake was out of his truck. Somehow she’d known it would be him.
Bordeaux, the ranch’s old but still energetic Border Collie, was quick to check out the visitor. After one sniff, Bordeaux’s entire body started to wriggle. Sure as rain in April, the dog recognized his old buddy.
Blake paused to scratch the dog’s neck. Then he glanced up at her. “Hey, Shel.”
He was wearing the same clothes as earlier—only the belt buckle was missing. But he didn’t need the extra hardware to look like a rodeo star. The sun had just set, but there was a residual glow to the day that seemed to bathe him in gold.
She’d seen countless videos and photos of the man. But none of them did him justice. She buried her nose in her cat’s fur. “Remember Blake, Hermione?”
Slowly Blake advanced, until he was close enough to reach out and pet the big tabby.
“Is this really Hermione? She’s so big now.”
The two of them had spent hours with the litter that had been born the first year Blake worked for her father. Normally Shelby’s parents neutered and spayed all their cats. But they’d adopted a new cat that year, and she’d already been pregnant.
There’d been three kittens in the litter. She and Blake had named them after their favorite Harry Potter characters.
“Where’s Professor Lupin? And Snape?”
“You remember their names?”
“Of course I do.”
In his eyes, at that moment, she saw the boy she’d once known. But then his expression hardened, and he was once more the unobtainable, professional rodeo star. Someone who’d traveled all over North America and competed with the very best that the Professional Rodeo Association had to offer.
“Shouldn’t you be resting up for the parade tomorrow?”
“I wanted to talk to you, but I had to wait until Grams went to bed.”
“What do we need to talk about?” She made the words sound like a challenge.
And Blake shot his own right back to her. “Whatever happened to Western hospitality? Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
He was right. Her mother had taught her better.
But this man who stood before her now had changed too much from the boy she’d known six years ago. He was like a strong, sexy, dangerous stranger.
She decided to compromise and led the way to the chairs on the back porch, where the hollyhock grew in great profusion up a trellis wall and along the porch railing. As soon as they sat in the chairs that were one arm’s length apart, Hermione hightailed her way off Shelby’s lap and onto Blake’s.
Traitor, Shelby thought.
“Why didn’t you tell me Grams has cancer?”
“When would I have done that? I haven’t seen you in six years.”
“I come home every Christmas. You’re never around.”
She shrugged. “Our family always spends Christmas in Missoula.”
“So maybe it’s your fault, not mine, that we haven’t seen each other in six years.”
“It’s not just that. I don’t even have your current phone number.”
“I had to change it when I started working so much in the States. But you could have found me on Facebook.”
“I’m not on Facebook.”
“Well, the shop has a Facebook page. I’m in charge of that, as well as our website, Instagram and Twitter accounts. I don’t have any energy left to spend on social media after I’m finished doing it for Twigs & Sprigs.” She’d rather be out riding Nancy Drew, walking with her dog, or cuddling the cats, anyway.
“Come on Shel. Are you really saying you couldn’t have gotten hold of me if you’d wanted to?”
He had her there. She could have asked Louise for his number. “It was Louise’s decision not to tell you. I had to respect that.”
“But as my friend, you must have figured I’d want to know. That I deserved to know.”
Not until that moment did she appreciate how much his silence over the years had wounded her. “How is it, exactly, that you figure us for friends, Blake?”
He seemed surprised by her question. “We used to hang out, right? I thought we had fun together.”
“For three summers you worked for my dad. Sometimes my mother fed you, so we had meals together. Other times my dad gave you breaks and we’d play with the cats or go for a trail ride. But we hardly spoke to each other at school. Or hung-out together on weekends.”
“Only because we had different groups of friends.”
Right. He and Kelli-Jo had been part of the cool crowd. A world she’d never even tried to fit into. Her friends had been the brainy kids, the ones who took band and belonged to the drama club.
“The times I spent on your ranch were some of the best of my life. I’m serious. Hell, your dad taught me to ride a horse. He’s the one who told me I had talent and encouraged me to sign up for my very first bucking bronc clinic.”
Shelby didn’t need to be reminded of the bond between her father and Blake. At the time she’d actually been jealous of the time her father had spent with his young hired hand. “Dad’s probably your number one fan, next to Louise.”
Shelby knew her dad would have been thrilled with an occasional postcard or email from Blake. But that hadn’t happened. Even though she didn’t voice any criticism out loud, Blake seemed to know what she was thinking.
“Okay, so I haven’t been great at keeping in touch. But the rodeo world is crazy. There’s so much going on all the time.”
“Lots of buckle bunnies I imagine.”
His face flushed, and he couldn’t quite meet her knowing gaze. “I was referring to the travel, the planning, and the rodeos. To have a shot at Nationals, you don’t have the luxury of taking time off. You finish up in one town and then it’s off to the next.”
“And that’s probably why your grandmother didn’t tell you she was sick. She knew you’d be compromising your entire year if you took time off to come home.”
The anger seemed to slide off him then. He sighed.
“Yeah. That’s what she said. It makes me sad, though, that I wasn’t here for her.”
He stared at the wooden porch floor. “I just hope she’ll be okay. I’m finally making big money, thanks to my wins and the sponsorship. If my luck keeps up, in a few years I’ll have enough to buy us some land. Build my grandma a house.”
When they were younger, Blake had talked often about his dream to acquire his own ranch. “You’ll do it, Blake. I know you will.”
“Yeah, but will it happen fast enough? My grandma’s had a tough life. First she raised my mom on her own. Then, after the accident, she had to raise me. All her life she’s lived in a tiny two-bedroom bungalow and economized to make ends meet. I want her to be around to move in when I build my dream home on my land. I’m going to put in all the extras. Granite countertops, new appliances, a big fireplace. She’s never had any of that.”
“Maybe not. But she’s happy. She loves her business, has lots of friends. Isn’t that what counts?”
Blake didn’t answer.
He was silent for a long while, stroking the cat, his gazed fixed on Mt. Burke in the distance. Even though it was August, a band of snow crowned the peak.
“You ever climbed up that thing?” he asked.
“No kidding.” One corner of his mouth turned up in a show of admiration.
“It’s not that difficult. Just takes a long time.”
Hermione had all but melted into Blake’s lap, shamelessly soaking in all the attention.
Shelby didn’t understand how her cat could be so comfortable with him. Just looking at Blake—that masculine face, so familiar and yet so changed—sparked an incredible restlessness in Shelby’s soul.
“I’ve been trying to put a finger on why you look so different. It’s your hair, right? It used to be really curly.”
“When I was in college my roommate staged a beauty intervention. She insisted I ask my optometrist for contact lenses. Then she made me buy a flat iron and showed me how to use it.” Shelby ran a hand down the smooth waves she had to work so hard to tame.
“I liked your hair curly, too,” Blake insisted. “But you were smart to lose the glasses. Eyes like yours deserve to be noticed.”
He was studying her too closely. She could feel her skin heating up, her entire body, too. If just one compliment had her reacting like this, she could only imagine how she’d feel if he touched her. Kissed her.
She cleared her throat, and glanced at her watch.
He didn’t take the hint. “Aren’t you going to offer me a beer or a lemonade?”
She longed to do that. To do anything that would keep him here another thirty minutes. An hour. The entire night.
But what good would that do? If he’d been out of her league when they were teenagers, he was a hundred times more so now.
So she kept her voice light. “It’s getting late and the parade starts early.”
He expelled a quick breath. Part amusement. Part annoyance. “Overstayed my welcome, have I?” Gently he placed Hermione on the ground.
“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, adjusting his hat so it sat more forward on his head.
“I’ll be in the crowd, cheering you on,” she promised, doing her best to sound polite and nothing more.
Blake noticed, too. His eyes narrowed. Darkened.
“I don’t care what you say Shel. You and I were friends once upon a time. And damn good ones, too.”
Chapter Three: Lavender (devotion and virtue)
The parade was scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m., but Shelby and Louise were seated on their lawn chairs with their lattes in front of Twigs & Sprigs by 8:30 sharp. The parade would travel all eight blocks of Main Street, then veer right onto Saddle Road and finish at the exhibition grounds where the day’s rodeo events would take place.
“I’m so glad it isn’t raining,” Louise said.
“It’s a perfect day,” Shelby agreed. The forecast at the beginning of the week had looked iffy. But the low front had skipped by north of Calgary and it promised to be a beautiful day. Not a single cloud marred the sky.
The good weather as well as the chance to see their homegrown rodeo star had drawn a large crowd from the town and surrounding area. They’d lined up all along Main Street, with the kids—those who weren’t running in zigzag patterns, shrieking and laughing with excitement—sitting on the curb in front of the adults.
Normally, Shelby loved the parade, but this year her stomach fluttered with nerves.
Having Blake in town was turning out to be more complicated than she’d expected. She’d fully anticipated him to all but ignore her. Instead he’d visited her last night, acting like they’d been best buds or something.
Of course she’d had a mad crush on him back in high school. But he couldn’t have known that. She’d been so careful not to let him see how she felt, since what guy would ever pick a nerdy girl like her over the glamorous Kelli-Jo?
Louise seemed on edge, too, jumping up from her chair every minute or so to get something she’d forgotten.
First, it was to buy coffees to-go from the Morning Mug.
Then it was to get the camera she’d left charging in the backroom all night long.
Finally, she settled in while Shelby sold stemmed carnations from two galvanized steel buckets. It was a lovely tradition in Sheep River for people to give out flowers to their favorite person, or animal, in the parade.
Just before the official parade began, town council members, dressed as clowns, began walking the parade route, tossing handfuls of candies into the crowd. The treats were meant for the kids, but when a flurry of butterscotches came sailing toward Shelby, she called out her thanks, and managed to snag a few for her and Louise, before a couple of young boys swooped in for the rest.
After the clowns came two bugle players, and then the guest of honor, none other than Blake Timber, riding a regal black gelding that Shelby figured must have come from Calhoun Ranch.
A gleam flashed in Louise’s eyes. “My, he looks handsome, doesn’t he?”
Any grandmother would be expected to say as much.
But in Louise’s case, no maternal bias was required.
Blake was magnificent, clad in form-fitting dark jeans and a white shirt with dark detailing that emphasized the muscles of his chest and arms.
And the way he sat on that horse. For someone like Shelby who’d grown up around animals, it was wonderful to see when a rider and his horse were truly connected like Blake and this gelding.
Blake was smiling and waving at the crowd. But as he drew closer, Shelby noticed lines of tension around his eyes, hinting at fatigue and worry. As soon as he spotted them, however, his smile broadened. He tipped his hat to his grandmother, and gave Shelby a wink.
The smile that bloomed on the older woman’s face in response was lovelier than any flower.
“Oh, I wish my Jennifer was here to see this.”
Louise didn’t often mention her daughter, who’d been killed in a car crash along with her husband Timothy, when Blake was just eight years old.
Shelby gave Louise a one-armed hug. “Jennifer would be grateful to you for doing so well by her son.”
“He was a good kid. There were some tough times, though, especially in the beginning when we were both grieving.”
“What about Jennifer’s father? Was he in the picture back then?” This was someone else Louise didn’t talk about often. Shelby didn’t even know if Louise was widowed, or divorced.
“Jennifer’s father was never in the picture. Period.”
“Oh.” Shelby didn’t know what to say. She’d had no idea Louise had been a single mother to Blake’s mom. Which meant she’d raised a daughter and a grandson both, entirely on her own. It couldn’t have been easy. Yet she’d never heard Louise complain about her lot. Not once.
Louise touched Shelby’s arm, bringing her focus back to the parade, and the riders following behind Blake.
“I didn’t know the event chair participated in the parade,” Louise said.
“Normally they don’t.” Yet here was Kelli-Jo gliding by on a breathtaking white Arabian, outfitted with purple and gold-studded tack that matched Kelli-Jo’s belt, necklace and cowboy boots. Her reddish-blonde hair hung in waves on either side of her shoulders, and judging from her beaming smile she was having the time of her life.
Riding beside Kelli-Jo was her six-year-old son, Sam. He was decked out like a genuine, miniature cowboy and looked tickled pink to be a part of the official proceedings.
Shelby glanced at Louise to see if she gave little Sam an extra-long look. She didn’t seem to.
Kelli-Jo’s wedding to Harvey Calhoun and her pregnancy had both happened within months of Blake leaving town. Shelby had done the math. She wondered if Louise had, too. Yet Louise didn’t seem to have considered the possibility Sam Calhoun could be Blake’s son.
It certainly wasn’t a question Shelby would feel right asking.
But she couldn’t stop wondering.
“Kelli-Jo sure looks pleased with herself.” Louise’s mouth puckered as if she’d tasted something sour.
“She always did love being the center of attention. I guess she doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to Blake today. I wonder what her husband thinks about all this.”
“Harvey’s on a business trip,” Louise said. “At least, that’s what Blake told me this morning while we were having breakfast.”
Louise nodded. “Kelli-Jo actually invited Blake to stay on the ranch with her. Can you believe it? Her poor husband. Not that he needs to worry about Blake. My grandson would never get involved with a married woman.”
Shelby gave a vague murmur of ascent. Obviously, Louise either hadn’t heard, or didn’t believe, the rumors going around about Blake. That he was quite the ladies’ man. That he’d gotten into more than one bar fight with an angry boyfriend—and sometimes a husband—over just that fact.
* * *
When the opening ceremony for the rodeo was finally over, Blake breathed a sigh of relief. He figured he had an hour and a half before he’d need to prepare for his bronc riding event, and he wanted to spend that time visiting with his grandmother.
He’d stayed up late last night searching online for information on ovarian cancer. He’d gone to reputable sites and what he’d learned had filled him with fear.
The Ovarian Cancer Canada site described it as the deadliest of women’s cancer.
Other sites referred to it as the silent killer, because it was often discovered too late to be curable.
It drove him crazy that his grandmother hadn’t thought she should “bother” him with her news. Time was of the essence. You didn’t mess around with cancer.
Earlier, he’d seen her take a seat in the bleachers with two of her friends from the Horticultural Society. But before he could seek her out, Kelli-Jo caught up to him.
“There you are!” She put her hand on his arm, tightening her fingers just enough to make it awkward for him to move away.
When she’d mentioned she’d be keeping him busy every minute of the weekend, he’d thought she was exaggerating. But apparently not.
“I figured if we were done here, I’d spend some time with Grams—”
“Eventually, sure. But the mutton-busting event is up next and Sam’s registered. Would you be a doll and help him in the chute?”
That was usually a father’s job, but since Harvey was away, Blake felt he had to oblige. He followed Kelli-Jo to the chutes, where Sam was clutching the edges of his cowboy hat. A ranch hand was trying to convince him to exchange it for a helmet.
Kelli-Jo’s son was the spitting image of her. Reddish hair, green eyes, fine-featured. Blake had met him earlier, when they’d been prepping for the parade. Sam was a good rider for one so young. And he had to have lots of grit to agree to participate in the mutton-busting event. Most kids lasted only a few seconds on the backs of the wooly creatures before tumbling to the cushy dirt and sawdust on the arena floor.
“Hey there, Sam. Ready for your event?”
“Yeah. But will you tell Mr. Hank I don’t need that helmet. Real cowboys don’t wear helmets, do they Blake?”
“A lot of them do, Sam. And if I was smart, I would be one of them.”
“You better put that helmet on,” Kelli-Jo insisted. “Or you’ll be sitting this one out. You know the rules.”
Sam jabbed the toe of his boot into the ground, sending up a puff of dirt. But after this small show of temper, he reluctantly handed over his cowboy hat and accepted the helmet.
“Now, have you thought about your strategy?” Blake asked him.
“In your case it’s don’t fall off the sheep.” Blake winked. “Think you can handle that?”
Sam jutted out his chin. “Yes, sir.”
“That’s the spirit.” Blake tested the straps on the helmet, then nodded at Hank to bring out the sheep.
Blake crouched to Sam’s eye-level. “You done this before?”
Sam shook his head.
“Okay. Two things. One is to hang tight onto the wool. It won’t hurt the sheep, I promise.”
“I can do that.”
“Course you can. Here’s the other thing. Try to get your boots up in the pocket. It’s sort of like a pouch where the sheep’s leg attaches to her body. You can stick your feet in it and that’ll help you keep your balance.”
Sam nodded solemnly. “Feet in the pocket. Got it.”
“Okay, cowboy, I think you’re set.” They waited for two kids to go first, and then it was Sam’s turn. Blake helped him settle on the sheep, while Hank did his best to hold the animal still.
When both men let go, the sheep was off, dashing toward the other two ewes who, job finished, had gathered at the far end of the arena and were looking on with mild boredom.
“Hang-on, Sam!” Kelli-Jo called out, along with the rest of the crowd.
Sam did his mother proud, staying on the ewe even when his body began sliding off to one side. Only when the six-second timer sounded did he release his hold and plunge to the ground.
Everyone cheered, and Sam sprang to his feet, beaming with pride.
“Wish Dad could have seen me!”
“Don’t worry,” Kelli-Jo held up her phone. “I got it all on video.”
She handed him the phone so he could check it out, then moved closer to Blake, once more taking hold of his arm.
“Thanks. You were great with Sam.”
“It was my pleasure, K-J.” And it had been, her son was a plucky kid. “Now I really have to go talk to my Grams for a bit.”
“But I was hoping you could meet Derek Burrows. His hardware store is one of our main sponsors.”
“I will. Later.” Blake slipped free of her grasp, not giving her a chance to put up any more roadblocks. He bought a frosty lemonade from the concession stand, then went to find his grandma.
She had a cowboy hat over her scarf today and was sitting with a couple of her friends, women he’d known since he was a kid.
He’d been expecting—actually hoping—Shelby to be with her, too, but she wasn’t.
He scanned the crowd and finally spotted her.
She sure was something with her honey blonde hair and that fresh, natural smile of hers. For a moment it seemed she was looking his way, but he couldn’t tell for sure because she was wearing sunglasses. Then she tossed back her hair and laughed, and he realized she was chatting with the cowboy seated next to her.
He squinted, trying to identify the guy.
“Blake! We’re over here!” his grandmother called, waving her arm.
Tamping down his annoyance, Blake returned the wave and resumed walking. But he couldn’t forget what he’d seen. Last night, Shelby had claimed she didn’t have a boyfriend. So who was that dude glued to her side?
“Hey there Alice. Brenda.” He smiled at Grams’ friends, asking about their husbands, children and grandchildren. Just as the calf roping was about to begin, he settled on the bench seat his grandmother had saved for him and handed her the lemonade.
She gave him a quick hug. “You looked great in the parade.”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t care less about that . . .” He turned to her, and despite her twinkling smile he could see the fatigue etched on her face. “Grams, I know you have confidence in your Calgary doctors, but we need to get a second opinion. I contacted the Mayo Clinic yesterday. We can get in two weeks from now.”
Her smile slipped away. “I appreciate the thought. But it isn’t necessary.” She sipped the lemonade. “Oh, this is really good,” she said, clearly trying to change the subject. “Weren’t the kids cute in the mutton-busting event? I remember when you were that age. You were so determined to last out the six seconds.”
“If you’re worried about the money for the Mayo Clinic, don’t. I can afford it.”
“It isn’t the money. Though I’d hate to waste it. Truly, I’m already getting the best care possible.”
He’d expected her to be stubborn, but so was he, and he wasn’t backing down on this. It was too important. “I did some reading last night. This is a pretty serious form of cancer.”
“I am aware of that. But—”
“Please, Grams. If you won’t do it for yourself do it for me.” He really thought she would cave when he added the bit about doing it for him. But she surprised him.
“I told you I’m fine, and I am. I don’t have the energy to travel to another country and go through all that testing again with a bunch of strange doctors. I like the oncologist I have here. I trust her.”
“I’m sure she’s a terrific doctor. But why not be safe and get a second opinion?”
Grams shook her head. “I refuse to discuss this any further.”
She didn’t let him get another word out this time. “I love you, Blake. But if you don’t let me enjoy this rodeo in peace, I’m going to have to ask you to sit somewhere else.”
Chapter Four: Hollyhock (ambition)
Reluctantly, Blake dropped the subject and tried to focus on enjoying the rodeo with his grandmother. But he couldn’t.
Why was she being so pig-headed? She said it wasn’t about the money, but it probably was. How could he convince her she was worth every penny it would cost?
Maybe he should just go ahead and book the appointment and the travel arrangements anyway. Surely she wouldn’t say no if he actually had it all set up.
Once the novice bareback event was announced, he excused himself. “My event is coming up. It was nice to see you again Alice and Brenda. Grams, we’ll catch up later at the dance?”
“I’ll be heading home after your event, Blake. What with the parade and the rodeo, it’s been a long day.”
He felt guilty for not realizing she needed to rest. “Maybe you should go home now if you’re feeling tired.”
“And miss my grandson’s event?” She waved a hand dismissively. “That’s not going to happen.”
He grinned. “I’ll try to give you a good show, Grams.”
But he didn’t.
It happened sometimes that a cowboy drew a bucking bronc that was a bit of a dud. Since marks were earned fifty percent on a cowboy’s ride, and fifty percent on the challenge given to him by the horse, a cowboy didn’t have much chance of a decent score if the horse didn’t perform.
Blake didn’t even have that excuse.
His mount, a lively chestnut mare named Whip-It-Up, did her bit.
He just didn’t do his.
His focus was off. His thoughts kept circling from his grandmother’s health, to that cowboy who’d been chatting up Shelby.
The horn sounded too fast—caught him off guard.
While he’d managed to hang on for the requisite eight seconds, he didn’t get his spurs up enough, and his form was off, too.
He was lucky to earn the seventy-two percent the judges gave him. From the polite smattering of applause, the crowd thought he was lucky, too. Kelli-Jo frowned at him from the sidelines.
She sure wasn’t getting her money’s worth from him today.
And at that moment he didn’t care. Some things were more important than the rodeo. Until today he’d never thought he would feel this way. But he did.
As he exited the ring, K-J’s voice rang out over the crowd. “Blake!” He didn’t stop to answer. All he wanted was to slip out to his truck, so he could grab a shower and have a few moments to himself before the dance.
But then he noticed Shelby walking a bit ahead of him, a key fob dangling from one finger. Her lean, lanky frame looked sexy in a pair of snug, faded jeans. A cream-colored lacy top only enhanced her sweet appeal.
“Coming to the dance, tonight?” he asked.
She paused, glancing over her shoulder. “Of course. Twigs & Sprigs is supplying the flowers.”
He caught up to her, his eyes taking in the glossy shine of her lips, and a delicate, silver chain at her neck with a lucky horse-shoe. Low key and lovely. She’d been that way in high school too, steering clear of the trend to overdo make-up, piercings, and wild hair colors like lots of the other girls.
“I’m sure Kelli-Jo has my dance card filled with various sponsors and town officials. But if your boyfriend can spare you, will you save me a two-step?”
“That cowboy cozied up next to you in the stands.”
She laughed. “You mean Cody? I never caught his last name. I just met him today. Did you notice Kayla sitting on my other side? That’s who I was sitting with.”
He hadn’t noticed Kayla. But he recognized the name. “The flute player from high school?”
“None other. She teaches music at the high school now.” Shelby hesitated, then added, “You seemed distracted during your ride today.”
“My head wasn’t in it. I’m pretty upset with Grams. I’d like her to get a second opinion at one of the top hospitals in the States, but she refuses to go.”
Shelby stopped by the white Ford pick-up he’d seen parked at her place yesterday. She looked at him and sighed.
“What’s the sigh for? Why is it so crazy that I want my grandmother to get a second opinion?”
“You aren’t crazy to want that. But it’s her health. Her decision.”
“It’s not like I can’t afford it. That’s the thing.”
“No, Blake. That’s not the thing. Look, I have to go feed my critters before the dance. I’ll see you later.” She climbed into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and then rolled down the window.
“By the way, you were good with Sam today. It was nice of you to help him.”
Then she drove off and he just stood there, watching. She’d only travelled a few hundred yards when she had to pause and wait for one of the wild big-horn sheep for which the town had been named, to cross the road.
He smiled at the once-familiar sight of the sheep with the thick, curled horns. But before long, his smile faded and he was left with a heavy sadness in his chest, and a churning in his gut.
For months he’d been looking forward to this visit home.
Now that he was here, everything felt wrong. His Grams was sick—possibly dying—and Shelby was treating him like a stranger. Nothing had turned out the way he’d hoped. And he had no idea how to fix any of it.
* * *
Shelby’s heart ached for Blake as she sped away from the fair grounds. His grandmother was the only family he had. She didn’t blame him for being worried. But she also hoped he wouldn’t pressure Louise into making that trip and doing extra tests.
Louise’s oncologist might not be world-renowned, but she did have a good reputation. More importantly, Louise trusted her. And traveling tended to stress Louise out in the best of situations, which these were not.
Before heading home to the Rocky Knoll, Shelby drove back to Twigs & Sprigs. Joe had been bogged down by the extra deliveries he had to make today, so she’d volunteered to transport the flower arrangements she’d made for tonight’s dance.
At the shop she loaded everything into her truck box then headed to the converted barn that was the local community hall.
It had been many years since the barn had housed cattle in the stalls and Timothy-hay in the loft. These days the hall was used for local meetings and dances, weddings, and other celebrations.
Two big tubs of sunflowers—delivered earlier by Joe—greeted her at the entrance. Inside, the decorating committee had already strung up lights, and set out white cloths on all the tables. All she had to do was add her Mason jar arrangements of fragrant sweet peas.
When she was finished, she hurried home to make short work of her chores, then have a quick shower. She’d purchased a dress and tan-colored boots the last time she’d gone shopping in Whitefish, on her way to visit her folks. A bit splashier than her usual style, but she’d known the minute she tried the outfit on, it was perfect for her.
During the drive back to town, she told herself to keep any pesky expectations to a minimum. She’d felt badly for leaving Blake standing in the parking lot at the fair grounds earlier. It was clear he’d wanted to talk. But it wasn’t her place to get in the middle of an emotional showdown between Blake and Louise. She cared about them both. Besides she’d been in a rush to get everything done and still have enough time to ready herself for tonight’s festivities.
Country dances, in her experience, usually followed the same pattern. The cowboys would be out for a good time. They’d make her laugh and twirl her around the dance floor. Some would try to steal a kiss, but the good times would end when the band stopped playing. Rodeo cowboys lived for the moment, while she was a long-term investment kind of gal. Only one thing would be different about this dance tonight.
Blake would be there.
Blake, who made her heart feel like it was floating up in her throat whenever she saw him. Blake, with his killer smile, kind heart, and rodeo-hewn body.
He’d asked her to save him a dance, as if it was important to him.
Everybody was going to want a piece of Blake tonight. The other rodeo participants, all the town sponsors, and big-wigs—but especially Kelli-Jo.
Chances were, Blake would forget all about dancing with her.
So. With that clear in her head, Shelby parked her truck, and then followed the sound of music and laughter inside.
* * *
Blake spotted Shelby the moment she stepped into the dance hall. She stood framed in the open double doors, fairy lights twinkling above her head.
Her short, vibrant blue dress clung to her slim curves. Calf-hugging brown boots added inches to her already long legs. Stunning. When they’d been teenagers he’d thought of her as someone who was warm and caring. A friend he could talk to, who would really listen.
Back then he hadn’t appreciated how beautiful she was on the outside, too. Perhaps he’d been blinded by Kelli-Jo’s curvier, flashier sex appeal.
More fool him.
He was going to claim his dance now, before any of the other cowboys noticed her.
“Blake, you remember Derek Burrows?”
Kelli-Jo snagged his arm. Damn he was tired of her doing that. But he’d promised he would chat up the sponsors. It was what he was being paid to do. So he paused, shook the man’s hand, smiled, and then politely answered his questions. The hardware store owner asked the same ones that everyone did.
What was it like to compete at the Nationals in Vegas?
Of all the bucking broncs Blake had ridden, which horse had scared him the most? Had he ever met Trevor Brazile? What was he really like? Did he hang out at the bar like a regular guy would?
Blake had been answering these same questions, and variations thereof, all day long. Usually he didn’t mind. He knew he was lucky to be making his career as a professional rodeo cowboy. And it was only right to share that experience with others when called upon to do so.
Being a rodeo cowboy set you apart. It wasn’t a life-style many could handle. But Blake thrived at it.
Or at least he had up until a few days ago.
Now, he had only two thoughts running in his head, worrying about his grandma and getting Shelby alone.
More than anything, he wanted to dance with her. Only he was stuck here making cocktail chatter while that cowboy she’d been chatting with in the grandstands moved in to stake his claim.
A minute later Shelby and that cowboy—Cody White, Blake had made a point of finding out—were two-stepping on the dance floor.
Meanwhile Blake was obliged to make small talk with the hardware guy, then the mayor, and then a couple of old buddies from school. At first, he was glad to see his friends, but after five minutes of covering the basics, it became clear they really didn’t have much to talk about.
Just when he thought he might be able to politely slip away, Kelli-Jo joined the circle and tilted her head at him.
Her meaning was clear. After all she’d done for him, he could hardly embarrass her by walking away. “May I have this dance, K-J?”
“Of course. Just like old times, huh?”
Her red skirt flared against his legs as he twirled her onto the dance floor, and her silver jewelry jangled.
He touched one of the chains. “Doesn’t that stuff weigh a ton?”
“It’s lighter than it looks.”
Kelli-Jo was light on her feet, too. She was a good dancer, and as the band started playing Keith Urban’s Days Go By, Blake remembered what a thrill it had been in high school to be dating the most popular girl, the envy of every other guy his age.
Even after all these years, he still didn’t know why Kelli-Jo had picked him. The first time he’d asked her to dance had been on a dare and he’d fully expected to get turned down.
Instead, she’d confessed that if he hadn’t asked her to dance, she’d been planning to ask him.
Wow. That had been a game changer.
Just knowing that a girl like K-J liked him had given him extra confidence in himself.
With hindsight though, Blake realized that the friends he’d had back then hadn’t brought out his better side. There was a fine line between being confident and being cocky. And he’d definitely crossed it.
“This is fun!” K-J gave him a brilliant smile as he led her into a spin, her red skirt swirling in a froth around her.
A moment later he caught a glimpse of Shelby. Honey hair. Long legs. Sexy dress.
The cowboy holding her in his arms laughed at something she’d said, then pulled her in closer.
Blake’s jaw clenched. He adjusted his steps to keep pace with them and was relieved when about a minute later, the song ended.
“Thanks for the dance, K-J. Catch you later?”
The band was shifting into a slower song, and he wanted to get to Shelby while she and the other guy were standing still. But Kelli-Jo wouldn’t let go.
“How about one more?”
“Later, okay? I promised this one to Shelby.” Fortunately Derek Burrows stepped in then, claiming Kelli-Jo’s hand, and Blake was finally able to make his escape.
The song was recognizable now. Kenny Chesney’s Angel Loved the Devil. Shelby and her cowboy were just coming together, when he reached out to tap the cowboy’s shoulder.
“Excuse me, but the lady promised this one to me.”
Chapter Five: Sunflowers (adoration, loyalty and longevity)
“Did she now?” Shelby’s dance partner raised an eyebrow skeptically at Blake, then asked her, “This true darlin’?”
“It is. But thanks for the dance, Cody.” She gave him a parting smile, then slid from his arms into Blake’s.
Shelby’s breath left her lungs in a rush as Blake placed one hand on her shoulder, the other on her waist. Warmth unfurled in her abdomen and spiraled downward. No other man had ever sparked this reaction in her.
Blake held her firmly as if he wanted to make sure she didn’t escape.
In response, every nerve in her body was suddenly alive.
Glancing up at his face, she noticed his eyes were almost fully closed, as if he were lost in a trance.
“You like this song?” she murmured, her voice cracking as she spoke.
He inhaled, his gaze meeting hers once more. “I like any song when you’re dancing with me.”
She swallowed thickly.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“I’m just not used to you using your lines on me.”
“It’s only a line if you don’t mean it.”
He tried to pull her in closer, but she resisted. Not because she didn’t want him to. But because she wanted, too much, to feel his body pressed tightly against hers. If that happened, she suspected she might lose her mind and do something crazy like beg him to take her someplace where they could be alone.
She had to get her mind on other, safer, topics.
“So what’s it like seeing Kelli-Jo again? You looked good together for that last dance.”
“Did we? I was watching you so much, I didn’t notice.”
“Stop with the flattery, already. You’re just trying to avoid my question.”
He held her back a bit, so he could meet her gaze. “I didn’t mean to avoid your question. I just don’t feel like discussing Kelli-Jo right now.”
“What would you like to discuss?”
“We’ve talked enough about me. But you haven’t told me about yourself. What are your dreams, Shelby?”
“I enjoy working at Twigs & Sprigs. I love my home and the animals I have living there. I don’t have much to dream about.”
“You’re not interested in love? In marriage or children?”
“I’m only twenty-five. There’s time.” She kept her voice intentionally breezy. How could she possibly tell him the truth—that she’d never met anyone she wanted as much as him?
She’d dated several guys over the years, hoping sexual attraction and love would come with time, but they hadn’t. Oh, the kisses were pleasant enough, but they never left her wanting more.
Some of the guys had even questioned her sexual orientation. But her body’s response to Blake’s touch was Shelby’s answer to that question.
Maybe if she hadn’t met him when she was so young, she could have developed an interest in other men.
But she had met him. And for some reason—maybe pheromones, the pitch of his voice, that sexy divot in his chin—he’d become her ideal.
If that hadn’t changed in the six years since she’d seen him last, could she really hope it would change in the future?
“Well, I’d like to have kids,” Blake said.
Bittersweet longing flared inside Shelby as she pictured him with a baby, a toddler, a little boy, like Sam, today. Trying to sound neutral she said, “You’d be a great dad.”
“I hope so. I figure in five years I should have enough saved that I can quit the rodeo and settle down. I wouldn’t want to be on the road all the time if I had a family.”
“But wouldn’t you miss the rodeo?”
“Not if I had my own ranch. It’s the horses I love working with best.”
“You’ve traveled so many places. How would you decide where you wanted to settle?”
“I always figured here, in Alberta. I’d have a house big enough so Grams could move in, too.”
He hesitated, then added, his tone laced with worry, “But what if she isn’t around by the time I build my house, Shelby? What if she’s putting up a brave face and the cancer is a lot worse than she’s letting on?”
She wished she could tell him Louise would be fine, but how could she do that when she didn’t know if that would be the case? Besides it wasn’t her place to reassure him. She wasn’t his wife, or his girlfriend—hell, she wasn’t even his friend—not really—not anymore.
“I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a long time,” Blake said. “But nothing’s turned out the way I thought it would. I’m not just talking about Grams . . .”
“The past six years have gone by in a whirl for me. I was living my dream. Visiting new places, making new friends, competing against men I’d idolized for years. It never occurred to me that the people back home would be changing too. That I was losing years and chances I might never get again.”
Was he thinking about Kelli-Jo’s marriage to another man?
Had it occurred to him, as well, that Sam might be his son?
Suddenly, Shelby realized the band had stopped playing. The lead singer announced they were taking a fifteen-minute break. Just a Kiss by Lady Antebellum began playing on the sound system, and the crowd on the dance floor ebbed back to their tables, to the bar, or outside for a smoke.
“May I buy you a drink?” Blake asked.
Before she could answer, Kelli-Jo appeared
“I’ve been looking all over for you, honey.” She latched onto Blake’s arm, showing off her glitzy nails and diamond bracelet in the process. “Could I talk to you a minute?”
“Maybe later K-J.”
Blake was still looking at Shelby, so he hadn’t noticed there were tears in Kelli-Jo’s eyes.
“Should I wait for you b-by the bar?”
At the hitch in Kelli-Jo’s voice Blake finally turned and saw the other woman’s distress. He dropped his hands from Shelby’s waist.
“That’s okay. We can talk now. Another dance later, Shel?”
She managed a weak smile, but didn’t answer. She suspected Kelli-Jo would make sure there was no dance later. At least not for her and Blake.
* * *
“Can we take some drinks outside to talk?” Kelli-Jo dabbed her tears with the side of her pinkie finger. “It’s so hot and noisy in here.”
“Sure.” Blake ordered them a couple of colas, figuring alcohol was probably not a good idea right now. He used the break to orient himself. One minute he was having one of the hottest, most emotionally intense dances of his life. The next Kelli-Jo was on the verge of crying and wanting his help.
Much as he’d wanted to prolong his time with Shelby, he hadn’t had the heart to turn K-J away.
Once he had their beverages, Kelli-Jo took his hand and led him toward the back exit. Every few steps someone tried to stop them. Most wanted to chat about the rodeo. Others, volunteers and members of the Sheep River Days organizing committee, had questions for Kelli-Jo.
Eventually, however, they made it outside. Bushes of dahlias were growing against the wall, and Kelli-Jo snapped one off at the stem.
“I love these red flowers. Aren’t they pretty?”
“The dahlias? A little showy for my taste.”
“Is that what they’re called?”
He shrugged. “Growing up I spent a lot of after-school hours at Twigs & Sprigs. I picked up a few things.” He stopped walking. “So. What did you want to talk about?”
Kelli-Jo’s gaze locked with his. “Let’s find someplace quieter.”
Picnic tables dotted the grounds around the dance hall. They avoided the closest ones, where groups gathered to smoke or cool off. Kelli-Jo led him down a hollow, to a table nestled up beside a grand white pine tree.
Though it was almost midnight, the night air was still warm, carrying the scent of clover from a nearby hayfield. They’d walked far enough that the grating music of crickets was now louder than the country music being played by the band, just returned from their break.
Kelli-Jo sat on top of the picnic table, resting her boots on the bench. After a pause, Blake sat next to her, leaving a healthy space between them.
“K-J, what is it?”
Finally she lifted her head, and he spotted fresh tears glistening in her eyes. But she wasn’t looking at him, she was gazing skyward, where a flash of white had just blazed across the Milky Way.
“Did you see that?”
“Must be the tail end of the Perseids.” About a minute later, another meteorite blazed across the sky. It was a wondrous sight, but his heart felt heavy. He thought about his Grams, hopefully fast asleep in bed. And Shelby—would she be gone by the time he was free to go look for her?
“I’m sorry about my ride today,” he said. “I know you were counting on me giving the hometown crowd a good show.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that. Everyone has good days and bad days.” She kicked off her boots, letting them tumble to the grass.
He hadn’t expected her to be so understanding about his low score. “At least the parade was a hit with the crowd. And folks seem to be having a fun time tonight.”
He drank some of his cola, then shot her another glance. She was still watching the sky. But from the sunken set of her shoulders, and the occasional sigh, he could tell she was still upset.
“Have I done something to offend you?”
“Oh, Blake. Seeing you again has been wonderful. That’s the problem.”
Instinct warned him to proceed with caution. “I’ve enjoyed seeing you too, K-J.”
“I love that nickname. You’re the only one who calls me that.”
He made a mental note to stop doing it. “Old habits die hard, I guess.”
“We had so much fun when we were dating, didn’t we? I was truly crushed when you decided to follow the rodeo circuit after graduation. I’m afraid I foolishly rushed into marriage with Harvey, when I would have been smarter to swallow my pride and run after you.”
He reared back, not liking where this was headed. “I’m sure it all worked out for the best.”
“But it hasn’t. Not really. From the outside my life probably looks wonderful. Harvey can be sweet at times and he’s a good provider, I’ll give him that. But he’s away a lot. And it’s hard raising a son on my own.”
“My buddies who are married get the same complaint from their wives. Some of them don’t see their families for months at a time.” He was trying to point out that a relationship with him would have had a lot of the same drawbacks. But she didn’t seem to get it.
“And when Harvey is home, he’s very possessive. In fact, that’s what’s got me so upset tonight. I just got a text message from him. He said he heard I’d been spending a lot of time with you this weekend and so he’s coming home tomorrow.”
Blake groaned. This was going from bad to terrible. Last thing he needed to deal with was a jealous husband. “Didn’t you tell him we’re just old friends?”
“That’s the thing, Blake. Are we? Do you ever wonder if we were wrong to break up?”
Above the Earth, another icy comet fragment shot across the sky. Two more followed in rapid progression. It was safer to watch the show than to look at Kelli-Jo right now.
How in the world had he gotten into this mess?
“If I said anything to lead you on, I’m sorry. You’re a married woman—”
“Damn right she is,” said a gruff voice from behind them.
Blake jumped off the table, while Kelli-Jo scrambled to put her boots back on. A large man loomed about ten feet behind them, his husky form silhouetted in the bright lights from the dance hall.
Blake had no doubt he was looking at Kelli-Jo’s husband.
Chapter Six: Sweet Pea (pleasures)
Kelli-Jo hopped on one foot, trying to slip on her second boot. Blake wanted to help her, but didn’t think touching Harvey’s wife would be a smart idea right now.
“Harvey,” she huffed. “I thought you said you were coming home tomorrow.”
“That’s what I wanted you to think. So I could see for myself if the rumors I was hearing were true.” He took a step toward Blake. “And it seems they are.”
Blake held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Hey, man. Kelli-Jo and I were just talking. I respect the fact that she’s a married woman.”
“Is that right?” Harvey glanced from Blake to his wife. “Doesn’t look that way to me. Looks like the two of you snuck off for a little alone-time.”
Boots finally on, Kelli-Jo eased over to her husband’s side. “Don’t make a big deal out of this. The dance hall was noisy and hot so we stepped out for a break.”
“Your wife is telling the truth.” Blake offered his hand. “Don’t believe we’ve met, officially. I’m Blake Timber.”
“I know who the hell you are. Didn’t I hook you up with the Marketing Director of True Grit jeans?”
“You did, and I appreciate that.” Blake kept his hand extended and finally the older man accepted it, giving his fingers a crushing squeeze.
Up close, Harvey Calhoun looked like a boxer. He had a barrel chest, large head, and thick neck. It was clear that his son Sam had not taken after him in looks.
“Why don’t we go back inside and grab a drink?” Blake suggested, as a way to diffuse the tension.
“You go ahead,” Harvey said. “My wife and I are going home now.”
Kelli-Jo planted her hands on her hips. “Harvey, I’m the organizer. I can’t just leave without saying good-bye.”
Her husband glared at her long and hard. She returned the look without flinching.
The guy seemed tough as nails, but when Kelli-Jo didn’t cave to his demands, he finally relented with a sigh.
“Okay, honey. Do what you’ve got to do. But I’m coming with you.”
“Sure, Harvey.” She linked her arm with his, then glanced back at Blake.
There was something pleading about the look, some emotion hidden there that Blake didn’t want to see.
When she said, “Good luck tomorrow,” he nodded, but didn’t answer, standing his ground as the couple headed back into the dance hall.
Slowly, his muscles relaxed and he let out a long sigh of relief. When he’d accepted the invitation to be guest of honor at Sheep River Days he’d never guessed Kelli-Jo might have an ulterior motive. He’d have to be especially cautious here on in.
* * *
The next morning Blake awoke to the aroma of cinnamon apple pancakes and fresh coffee. He made quick work of his shower and got dressed.
“Grams, that has to be the best smell in the world.” He kissed her cheek, then took the spatula out of her hand. “I should be the one cooking you breakfast. Sorry I slept in.”
“Hardly. It’s only seven. And I’m more than capable of making my favorite grandson his favorite breakfast.” She reclaimed her spatula. “Pour yourself some coffee and top off my herbal tea while you’re at it.”
He did as she asked, then leaned against the counter to watch as she flipped the golden pancakes onto a platter. The kitchen was so small he could practically reach one end to the other if he stretched out both hands.
In his mind, he imagined a big country kitchen with a huge gas stove and a big butcher-block island. Man, his grandma would love it. If only he had the time to build it for her right now.
In the morning light her skin looked almost translucent. He noticed age spots he’d never seen before, new wrinkles imprinted on her cheeks, and a faint tremor in her hands.
His Grams was getting old.
It had been years since Blake felt the urge to cry.
But now a huge lump lodged in his throat as he realized cancer—or no cancer—his Grams wouldn’t be with him forever. His rodeo career couldn’t keep coming first, not anymore.
He knew better than to share this epiphany, so he just cleared his throat and waited for his emotions to settle before speaking again. “Good coffee.”
“I bought the expensive brand for you. But I should have let you sleep longer. Sounded like you got in late last night.”
“Thanks for not getting up and making me play a round of cribbage with you.”
She gave him a saucy grin. “It may have been a simple strategy. But it worked.”
“Sure did.” Knowing that no matter what time he got home on the weekends, his grandmother would be waiting up for him had kept Blake from the excesses of alcohol and drugs as a teenager. Not only would Grams be waiting, but rather than let him slink off to his bedroom, she’d made him play a game of cribbage with her first—a game that required a certain level of acuity that could not be faked.
Back then, he’d complained to his buddies about the cribbage.
But he hadn’t really minded, especially since his Grams never grilled him about where he’d been or what he’d been doing. Probably because of that fact, he’d often told her himself what he’d been up to.
And she’d listened without judging.
Though her lips had always seemed to tighten when he talked about Kelli-Jo. Funny how Grams had seemed to know back then they wouldn’t suit. He wished he’d known that too. He also wished he’d spent more time with Shelby.
Shelby. Just thinking her name triggered memories of her in his arms last night. When he’d gone back inside he’d looked for her everywhere, but she’d already left. He wanted to see her. Wanted to talk to her . . .
“We have enough pancakes now. Let’s sit down and eat before they get cold.”
Blake did as he was told, noting how little food was on his grandmother’s plate compared to his. Was her lack of appetite a bad sign?
It worried him, too, that she’d forked out the big bucks for his coffee, when she ought to be spending money on organic food and supplements for herself.
He tasted his pancakes, gave his grandma a thumbs up, and then proceeded to eat a tall stack of them. When he was finished he insisted on cleaning the kitchen, while she put up her feet.
As he was hanging the drying cloth he said, “I’ve got a few things I want to buy in Calgary this morning before the rodeo.”
“Sure you have time? The rodeo starts at twelve-thirty.”
“I’ll be fast.”
True to his word he was back by 11:00 a.m., carrying several bags of groceries overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen organic chicken breasts and wild-caught salmon filets, plus a loaf of rustic Sourdough.
He’d also bought his grandma a pretty aloe plant and a top end blender that cost him almost a thousand bucks.
“Oh, Blake!” Grams brought her hands to her cheeks as she watched him unpack his purchases. “This really isn’t necessary.”
“Wait until you taste what you can make with this baby.” He washed, rinsed and assembled the new blender and then proceeded to make his grandmother her first green smoothie.
To a cup of coconut water, he added a handful of baby kale, a scoop of frozen mango, and another of blueberries. Then he pulled out the special nutritional protein powder, he’d purchased at the health food store, and added a tablespoon of that.
“This stuff has fifty percent of your daily intake of vitamins and minerals, including protein, fiber, omega-3 antioxidants, probiotics and greens.” He hit the power button and the super-charged motor started spinning. In less than a minute he poured the velvety-smooth beverage into a tall glass and handed it to his dubious grandmother.
She wrinkled her nose.
He wasn’t above goading. “What a role reversal. Twenty years ago, you were the one trying to convince me to eat my greens.” He poured a small amount out for himself, and guzzled it all. “Pretty good stuff,” he assured her.
“All right. I’ll give it a go.” She took one tiny sip. Then a longer one.
“Okay,” she conceded. “I like it. But I could have made one almost as smooth with my old blender. I appreciate the thought, Blake. Really I do. But I’d be a lot happier if you washed and repackaged this so you can return it and get your money back.”
“Oh, Grams.” Physically she might be frail, but she was still tough as nails in the stubborn department. He wanted so much to help her. Why did she fight him, no matter what he did?
* * *
At noon Blake sat in his truck at the far end of the parking lot of the exhibition grounds, seat reclined and hat tipped forward to shade his eyes. He’d already let his grandmother out at the entrance where she had plans to meet Alice and Brenda.
Right this minute, he ought to be with Kelli-Jo and the others, preparing to participate in the opening ceremonies. But he’d really rather be at the Iron Horse Saloon slinging back whisky shots and playing some pool.
A knock on the driver side window startled him. He nudged the brim of his hat up a few inches, a slow smile spreading across his face. Shelby Turner. The best sight he’d seen today.
He raised his seat, settled his hat on properly, and then lowered the window.
“Not having suicidal thoughts, I hope,” Shelby said.
Her pink gingham shirt was molded to her slender shape. Faded jeans hugged her long legs all the way down to her well-worn riding boots.
“Close to it,” he admitted.
“Then it’s time for an intervention. Hang on.” She trotted to the other side of his truck and climbed into the passenger seat, brushing her hands over the leather seats and eyeing the loaded console. “Nice wheels. You’ve got all the extras, I see.”
“Seemed worth the splurge given I spend most of my life in here. Or so it seems.”
“Fair enough. But why are you in here now, when the rodeo is due to start in thirty minutes? Don’t they need you for the Grand Entry?”
Blake took off his hat and began working his fingers around the brim. There were so many reasons he didn’t want to leave his truck right now, he didn’t know where to start. Facing Kelly-Jo and Harvey after that embarrassing misunderstanding last night was one of them. Fear of underperforming in his event again was another.
And now there was one more. The fact that Shelby was sitting beside him—so close that all he could think about was kissing her.
“Are you nervous after your low score yesterday?”
He sighed. “Yeah. I really sucked.”
“Must be kind of stressful being back in your hometown. Everyone expects you to be the big hero. It’s a lot of pressure.”
“That it is.”
“But it can’t be anything compared to the stress of competing for the World Championship in Nevada.”
“I was the underdog in that situation. But I get your point.”
Shelby was silent for a few seconds. “Yet, you’re still not getting out of your truck.”
“Talk about cowardly, huh? My grandmother has to wake up every morning knowing she has cancer, and I can’t face just one more bucking quarter horse.”
“This isn’t really about the rodeo, is it?” Shelby shifted so she was facing him. Then she reached out to place a hand on his shoulder.
He couldn’t help but think how nice it felt there. Gentle and warm. He covered her hand with his palm.
“No. It’s not just the rodeo. It’s everything. People expect me to act like the hometown hero. Makes me feel like a fake.”
“Last night at the dance, I realized I don’t belong in Sheep River anymore. Everyone wants to shake my hand and ask how it felt to win at Nationals. But after five minutes, we don’t have anything more to talk about.”
“That may be true of most people. But it isn’t true of the ones who really matter to you.”
“That’s a short list, Shelby. My grandmother. You.” He couldn’t stop himself from touching her cheek. God, but her skin was so soft.
He thought she might pull away, but she didn’t.
“Feeding me another line, cowboy?”
“It’s not a line if I mean it. And I do. Of all the friends I had when I left here, you’re the only one that really mattered to me.”
“What about Kelli-Jo?” Shelby’s voice was so quiet he could hardly hear her.
“But—what if she wasn’t?”
Before he could answer, the air was pierced with the sound of someone shouting out his name.
“Blake Timber? Has anybody out here seen Blake Timber?”
Blake glanced out the rear window. One of the committee volunteers raced through the parking lot, calling out to everyone in view.
“We need him ASAP! Blake Timber—where the hell are you?”
“I guess I can’t put this off any longer.” He hesitated, then shifted forward and kissed Shelby’s lips. It was just a feather of a kiss, enough to drink in her sweet lavender scent, and test the softness of her mouth.
When he pulled back, her eyes were full of questions.
“I want to talk to you at the barbecue. Promise you’ll make some time for me?”
She smiled, but didn’t commit. “Good luck, Blake. I’ll be pulling for you. The whole crowd will. You’re more of a hometown boy than I think you realize.”
Chapter Seven: Dahlia (many meanings, including betrayal)
The national anthem blared as Shelby raced to the bleachers. She waited until the song was finished before threading through the crowd to reach her friend, Kayla. With the seats packed for the Sunday afternoon rodeo, Shelby was grateful Kayla had snagged them a prime spot, just a few rows up from the bucking chutes.
“Hey Kayla. Sorry I’m late.”
Kayla removed her purse from the seat she’d saved. “No problem. Did something happen? You look frazzled.”
Shelby could still feel the imprint of Blake’s lips on hers. Trying not to smile, she gave a casual shrug. “Ran into someone I know . . . So who’s our first cowboy?”
Kayla passed her the program and Shelby tried to focus on the printed words, but eventually gave up. All she wanted was to see Blake compete but before they could get to the bronc riding event—Blake’s event—there was the Grand Entry to get through, then the tie-down roping, steer wrestling, and barrel racing events. The thrilling rough stock events—riding bucking broncs and bulls—would take place after intermission.
“Must be ninety degrees out here today.” Kayla removed her hat and fanned her flushed face.
Kayla had been Shelby’s best friend since grade three—their loyalty to one another cemented when Shelby had shared one of her mother’s amazing pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins and Kayla had reciprocated with a piece of grape bubblegum with the gooey liquid center.
In the school band, Shelby had struggled with the clarinet, while Kayla mastered the flute with ease. Kayla had gone on to take piano and voice lessons after school, and had studied music at McGill University in Montreal after graduation.
Over the years their interests had diverged—Kayla focused on her passion for music, Shelby on her love of nature, animals and flowers—but their friendship had survived and grown stronger.
Now, besides teaching music at the local high school, Kayla also played in a popular local band called Barley & Bach that blended classical with folk and country.
“So who was it you saw earlier?” Kayla asked before taking a sip of her pink lemonade.
“Blake. He was still in his truck, in the parking lot, suffering from a case of cold feet.”
“That guy?” Kayla sniffed. “Yeah, right.”
When Blake had started working for Shelby’s father, Kayla had taken a dislike to him. Over the years, that hadn’t changed. She was always passing along unfavorable gossip about Blake, usually rumors she’d heard from her cousin Josh who was also doing well on the rodeo circuit. Like Blake, Josh competed in bronc riding and he’d beaten Blake by eight points yesterday, finishing as the top cowboy of the day.
“Why is it unthinkable that Blake would feel nervous?”
“He’s in the big leagues now. Our rodeo isn’t even PRCA sanctioned.”
“Yeah, but he still cares. This is his hometown. Why do you think—” Shelby stopped mid-argument when pyrotechnical rockets went off from the far end of the arena. Blake galloped into the haze on the gelding he’d ridden in the parade, carrying the Canadian flag. He was followed by the Rodeo Queen with the flag of Alberta, and two princesses sporting Sheep River Days flags.
Blake made two circuits of the arena, waving and smiling as the crowd cheered.
“Hmmm . . . He doesn’t look very nervous now,” Kayla noted.
Shelby didn’t miss the sarcasm.
Normally, Kayla wasn’t a judgmental person. But she was protective. Though Shelby had never admitted to having a crush on Blake, she suspected Kayla had guessed, and that by constantly pointing out his flaws, Kayla believed she was somehow protecting Shelby from him.
“Blake may be confident, but he is definitely not conceited. You should try having an actual conversation with him sometime.”
“Hard to do that when the guy is hardly ever in Sheep River. Did you hear about the big confrontation he had with Kelli-Jo’s husband last night?”
Alarm bells blared in Shelby’s head. Harvey Calhoun was a big, powerful man, with lots of money and political influence. Not a person to piss off.
“I heard Harvey was out of town this weekend.” She tried to sound calm, as if the news wasn’t of much interest to her, one way or the other.
“He was in Houston, but he flew home early because someone let him know his wife was spending a lot of time with the Sheep River Days’ guest of honor.”
“I wonder who that ‘someone’ was?”
“Calhoun has a lot of friends in this area who look out for his best interest. Anyway, when he showed up at the Dance Hall, he found Kelli-Jo and Blake sitting all cozy at one of the picnic tables far away from everyone else.
Emotions dark and unwelcome washed over Shelby—a combination of jealousy and betrayal—that she had no business to feel. She thought about the kiss Blake had given her, just thirty minutes ago. It had been tender and sweet, almost innocent—except for the heat in Blake’s eyes when he’d pulled away from her.
When he’d mentioned seeing her later at the barbecue, she’d felt as if he was alluding to something bigger. That just maybe he was going to tell her he had feelings for her, romantic ones, like those she had for him.
Conveniently she’d put aside the fact that he hadn’t answered her question about what he’d do if Kelli-Jo wasn’t married.
Did she really need him to speak the words to know the answer?
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the day after Harvey warned him away from Kelli-Jo, he’d kissed Shelby for the first time.
Shelby slunk down on her seat. She felt such a fool, but she couldn’t leave so she tried to lose herself in the excitement of the rodeo. She wasn’t a big fan of tie-down roping, but the steer wrestling was exciting and the barrel racing was one of her favorite events. But neither distracted her from her unsettling thoughts.
During the intermission, she spotted Blake chatting with his grandmother. They both waved at her, but instead of joining them, she followed Kayla to the concession stand to buy a corn dog and lemonade.
“You saved our seats. I’m buying the snacks,” Shelby insisted. By the time they’d returned to watch the bronc riding—boots crunching on scattered popcorn and the smell of stale beer in the air—she’d lost her appetite.
She didn’t know how to reconcile the Blake she knew, with the man Kayla saw. She couldn’t deny Blake had run with a fast crowd in high school, and that he’d been spending a lot of time with Kelli-Jo this weekend. As for the other rumors Kayla’s cousin relayed based on Blake’s so-called wild behavior on the rodeo circuit—well, she had no way to know how much of that was true, either.
In her heart she truly did believe Blake was a good guy. The kind of guy that didn’t go around breaking hearts if he could help it. He’d been raised by the kindest and strongest woman she knew. Louise wouldn’t stand for that kind of behavior. But he had a history with Kelli-Jo. And from what Shelby could tell, Kelli-Jo was hell-bent on rekindling her high-school glory days with Blake at every turn.
Despite her turbulent thoughts, Shelby couldn’t help but share in the excitement of the crowd. The anticipation was electric as the cowboys prepared for their goes, climbing the wooden rungs, positioning themselves above the beautiful, wild horses. These animals had been bred to buck, and the wranglers didn’t dare settle down on the saddles a second before the horn sounded.
Once it did, the cowboy would take his seat and the gate would open.
And after that, anything could happen. The first five riders in the saddle bronc event all turned in respectable scores. By the time it was Blake’s turn to compete, Shelby was a nervous wreck. Her heart felt jammed in her throat as she watched him in the chute, positioning himself above the saddled horse, testing his grip on the braided rein.
The horse he’d drawn was a big sorrel gelding named Cactus Club. The buzz in the crowd maintained this horse could give Blake the high score he needed—but Blake would have to perform a lot better than he had the previous day.
The object of the ride wasn’t as simple as staying on the horse for the required eight seconds.
First, Blake had to mark out his mount on the first jump from the chute, by touching both heels above the horse’s shoulders. A miss on this would mean no score for Blake.
He also had to keep a free hand raised up in the air, never touching the horse or himself, plus plant both boots firmly in the stirrups for the entire ride.
All of that was necessary just to get a score.
The horn sounded and Shelby was at the edge of her seat.
Blake had marked out Cactus Club, and he was looking good, secure in his saddle and moving smoothly with the rhythmic bucking of the horse.
The crowd gasped when the horse made an unexpected half-spin, combined with a particularly vicious kick.
But Blake hung in there, his form as controlled and smooth as the champion he was.
And then the horn sounded, and his time was over. With a graceful leap, Blake managed his dismount on his own, without any assistance from the pick-up men. Head bowed humbly, he removed his hat and waved it at the bleachers.
The cheering became a roar. This was the performance everyone had been hoping to see!
A few seconds later a score of 92 was delivered over the loudspeakers.
“Yes!” In her excitement, Shelby shot a grin at Kayla, but her friend was practically scowling.
“I’m sorry.” Blake’s score would only make it harder for Kayla’s cousin Josh to win the event.
Since he’d had the best score on Saturday, Josh was the last contestant up for the day. He, too, had drawn a proven bucking horse named Western Spark, so he had a good shot.
“You can do it, Josh!” Kayla shouted, as her cousin stood at the ready in the bucking chute.
While the handlers made last minute adjustments to the saddle, the announcer informed the crowd, “All Josh Marshall needs today is an 85 and he’ll beat our National rodeo champ and take home a Sheep River gold belt buckle and a check for five thousand dollars. We know Josh has what it takes. We saw him do it yesterday. But can he do it again today?”
The horn sounded, the chute opened, and Josh was off. Like Blake, he marked out the horse fine, and seemed to have control of his mount. But with a mere two seconds left on the clock, his horse did a crazy series of bucks that had Josh flying over the animal’s head, somersaulting in the air, and landing on his butt in a cloud of dirt.
A collective groan rose up from the bleachers.
Once Josh was standing, signaling he wasn’t injured, he was rewarded with thunderous applause.
“Look at that,” Shelby said to Kayla. “The crowd still loves him.”
But they both knew it wouldn’t compensate Josh for the indignity of being thrown off his horse—and missing his chance to beat Blake Timber. Next up was bull-riding, the final and most exciting event of the rodeo. “Want another lemonade?” Shelby needed a break from all the hullaballoo.
“No thanks.” Kayla had her eye on a cowboy preparing for his ride, almost directly below them. Dark blond, curly hair framed the sort of angelic face that seemed incongruous for a man who rode bucking bulls for kicks.
“Our next rider needs no introduction,” announced the MC. “Dillon Shephard from Pincher Creek, Alberta has been riding bulls locally since he was eighteen years old . . . ”
Shelby had noticed her friend and the cowboy from Pincher Creek on the dance floor together last night. Normally Kayla made it a policy to steer clear of rodeo cowboys. Seemed like Dillon Shephard might be an exception.
Leaving her friend to cheer on Dillon, Shelby headed to the restroom, then joined the lineup at the concession stand. A few seconds later, she heard the jangling of jewelry and caught a whiff of a cloying rose-scented perfume. She didn’t need to turn around to know Kelli-Jo was behind her.
“Hey there, Shelby. Having fun?” Kelli-Jo didn’t wait for a response. “Wasn’t Blake’s ride amazing? I was so relieved he didn’t choke like yesterday.”
“He did well,” Shelby agreed before stepping forward to order her drink. As soon as she’d paid, and had her beverage in hand, she moved on, not wanting to prolong the encounter with Kelli-Jo. She headed to the pens behind the bleachers, where the livestock was corralled. The choreography involved in moving the animals in and out of the arena and the bucking chutes always fascinated her.
She stood behind a pillar, hoping to have a quiet moment to collect her thoughts, but a minute later Kelli-Jo joined her.
“So what’s it been like for you,” Kelli-Jo asked, “Having Blake home again?”
“Oh, come on now,” Kelli-Jo cajoled. “I know you always liked him.”
“I think you’re confusing me with yourself. You’re the one who dated Blake. Not me.”
“But you wanted to date him, right? I mean, what girl didn’t? He was the cutest guy in town.”
“I suppose. But that was a long time ago.” Shelby couldn’t believe they were having this conversation. “We’re adults now. And you’re married. With a son.”
The mention of Harvey and Sam didn’t seem to faze Kelli-Jo.
“Yes. But I was very young when I married Harvey. It seemed the only way out of my . . . predicament.”
Shelby did a double take. She longed to know what Kelli-Jo meant by “predicament” but she wouldn’t stoop to ask.
Kelli-Jo placed her hand on Shelby’s arm—it seemed to be a habit with her. In a mock-friendly voice that made Shelby’s skin crawl, she added, “I see the way you look at Blake, Shelby. I just feel I should warn you. This situation is more complicated than I’m at liberty to explain. You should be careful. I wouldn’t want to see you hurt.”
Before Shelby could reply, the other woman pivoted and walked away, her stride confident and sensual, reminding Shelby of a tiger pacing away from the viewing cage at the Calgary zoo.
Chapter Eight: Aloe (healing)
Standing in the winners’ circle always felt great, but Blake couldn’t help wondering where Shelby was. He couldn’t see her anywhere in the bleachers and the seat next to Kayla was empty.
When it came time to accept his check and gold buckle for the bronc riding event, Blake spoke simply of the pleasure of being home, in Sheep River. He tipped his hat to his competitors, thanked his grandmother, and then relinquished the spotlight with relief.
Where the hell was Shelby? Winning wasn’t nearly as much fun without her.
Cursing himself for not exchanging cell phone numbers with her when he’d had the chance, Blake looked for an excuse to break free of his commitments and go looking for her.
But as soon as he was off the stage, Kelli-Jo pounced on him.
“Hey, cowboy. Congratulations.”
He sidestepped her attempt to kiss him. “Thanks K—Kelli-Jo.” He caught himself before using her nickname. He wanted to avoid any appearance of intimacy between the two of them, not only because of her husband, who’d been keeping close tabs on his wife today, but because he didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.
“Let’s go to the beer garden before the barbecue. A whole lot of people want to shake your hand and get pictures taken with you.”
Inwardly he groaned. “Do we have to?”
He was used to the grueling schedule of the rodeo, but not to being the center of attention. The attraction of it all—if there’d been any to begin with—was wearing real thin.
“Come on, Blake. You didn’t used to be such a party pooper.”
No. He’d gone along with just about anything Kelli-Jo wanted when they were teenagers.
Now he wished he’d used better judgment and spent more of his time at the Turners’ Ranch—and with Shelby.
“He just left for the Lazy C to supervise the set up for tonight. Didn’t want a thing to do with Sheep River Days during the six months I was organizing it. Now, suddenly, he’s acting like he’s in charge.”
“Pretty generous of both of you to host the wind-up barbecue.”
“We do a lot of entertaining. We enjoy it.”
“Five hundred people? All at once?” Grams had told him the Calhouns were known for throwing some big parties at the Lazy C. Usually fancy Western-themed events for Harvey’s business associates.
Kelli-Jo shrugged. “We’ve got it covered. The top caterer in Calgary is handling the menu. They do the best ribs and chicken cutlets. Plus tents have been set up in case of rain, as well as lots of porta-potties so people won’t go traipsing through my house.”
Since he couldn’t see Shelby anywhere, Blake decided he might as well fulfill his duties as guest of honor and mix and mingle at the beer garden. Maybe he’d get lucky and find Shelby there. He still felt a little uneasy about Kelli-Jo’s expectations and was careful not to touch her, and to move away quickly if she attempted her trick of leading him around by the arm.
At the beer garden, he was glad to be handed a nice, cold draft, which he downed in a flash. Then he ordered a second one as Kelli-Jo led him around the tables, speaking to what seemed like every single one of the officials, volunteers, sponsors, and members of the organizing committee. A representative from the True Grit company was there, and Blake made sure to let his sponsor know how much he appreciated their support.
Blake smiled and said the same thing over and over. His heart wasn’t in it, though. He wanted to find Shelby.
At one point he did run into Kayla. She was chatting with Dillon Shephard who’d placed third in bull riding. They’d found a quiet spot and were standing close, heads leaning in toward one another, looking like they just wanted to be left alone.
Blake interrupted them anyway. “Nice going, Shep.” He clapped the other cowboy on the shoulder. He’d met him before at a few events, but Dillon only participated in rodeo as a hobby, at competitions that were close to home.
“Thanks Blake.” The other cowboy looked pleased with himself. “You did pretty good today yourself.”
“Better than yesterday, anyway.” His gaze slid lazily toward Kayla, and he worked to keep his voice low and casual. “Say, where’d Shelby get to? I saw her in the stands earlier this afternoon.”
“I don’t know.” Kayla didn’t sound nearly as friendly as her boyfriend.
He tried upping the wattage of his smile. “Grams tells me you’re the new music teacher at the high school. And that you play in a band, as well.”
“That’s right.” She glanced back at Dillon, obviously anxious to resume their private conversation.
“See you guys later at the barbecue?”
“Sure thing,” Dillon said, but Kayla didn’t even bother to reply.
She never had liked him. He wished he knew why.
* * *
After her conversation with Kelli-Jo, Shelby threw her lemonade in the trash and left the exhibition grounds. She ignored one of her favorite customers when the woman called out her name. She needed to get out of there.
Once she was in her truck, she rolled down the window and headed for the open road. The Rocky Knoll was about fifteen miles south on Cowboy Trail, and she used that time to try and process what Kelli-Jo had told her.
Though she hadn’t flat out said it, it seemed as if she’d been implying she was already pregnant when she met Harvey. Which meant, just as Shelby had suspected, Sam might be Blake’s son.
Wondering was one thing.
Having it confirmed, was something very different.
Shelby could think of only one reason Kelli-Jo would choose now to divulge her secret. She must be considering leaving Harvey.
Maybe seeing him again this weekend had brought back feelings for her old boyfriend. Made Kelli-Jo realize what was missing in her relationship with Harvey. Did Blake know this—any of it?
Did he suspect he might be Sam’s biological father?
Or that Kelli-Jo wanted to leave her husband for him?
Louise had raised Blake to be respectful, honest, and kind, and he’d always behaved that way when he was working at her family’s ranch.
Shelby hoped Blake was still all those things, deep down, where it counted.
But he’d have to prove it to her before she’d truly believe.
It was two hours early for chores, but Shelby did them anyway, feeding the cats and her dog, checking the horses’ water and scooping oats into the feeder. It was so hot out her horses didn’t come running, but stayed at the far end of the pasture, in a shaded hollow with an almost-dry pond at the center.
A few times Shelby felt the phone in her back pocket vibrate. But she waited until after she’d showered and was sitting on the back porch before she checked to see who it was.
Where did u go?
The message was from Kayla. A few minutes later she sent a second text.
This about blake? What did he do now?
Shelby groaned then tapped her response.
I’m fine. Home 2 check horses.
An answer pinged back almost instantly.
U better still be coming to bbq. Dillon has a friend. Wants to meet u.
Shelby let her head fall back against the chair. She felt like crawling into a cave until Sheep River Days was over and life was back to normal. But she couldn’t avoid Blake forever. She needed to know he was the man she believed him to be.
She had to go to the barbecue. She had to give him this one, last chance.
I’m coming. No blind dates. I mean it!
* * *
The Lazy C Ranch looked spectacular when Blake drove up with his grandmother perched in the passenger seat of his Dodge Ram. The massive home was built of cedar, with several river rock chimneys, and a bank of windows overlooking a pretty blue pond and the mountains beyond. There were guest cottages tucked into the spruce trees that lined the southern edge of the property, while the barns and other outbuildings were located to the east.
“That’s a damn big house.”
“Nine thousand square feet, I’ve heard,” his Grams said calmly. “And that doesn’t count the guest cottages. For a couple with just one child it’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe they’re planning on having more.” But he doubted it. The way Kelli-Jo had been behaving, she was getting ready to leave her marriage, not grow her family. He needed a chance to talk to her alone. To make sure she understood that if she was planning changes for her future, he wouldn’t be a part of them.
More importantly though, he had to find Shelby. It worried him that she hadn’t stuck around for the bull-riding and awards presentation.
A man wearing a yellow safety-vest directed him to a parking spot in a nearby field dotted with wild poppies. Already, about eighty vehicles were lined up in neat rows.
After Blake turned off the ignition, he stared out at the Lazy C, then turned to his grandmother. Looking at the woman who had raised him since he was eight years old, he realized how much he’d taken for granted.
The idea that he might lose his Grams, that she could actually succumb to the cancer, made his stomach sick with fear.
There was so much he hadn’t told her. That had to stop.
“One day I want to buy a ranch here in Alberta and build a big, log house with all the extras. And I want you to live with me, Grams. I want to be there to look after you, the way you’ve done for me for all these years.”
“It’s good to have dreams. And I’ve always hoped you would settle down in Sheep River one day. But I don’t need a fancy home. I’m happy where I am. When I am ready to retire, the plan is for Shelby to take over the business. We’ve talked about it. She’s already agreed.”
Blake’s mouth went dry. Was Grams using “retirement” as a euphemism for “dying?”
“Did you come up with this succession plan because of the cancer?”
“That’s part of it. But any sensible woman in her late sixties needs to think of these things.” She gave him a brave smile.
“I wish I had the money to buy a place right now. I want to build in all the things you’ve never had. A big country kitchen, a river rock fireplace, a nice sunny porch where you can sit and knit if you want, and look out at the view.”
“Don’t be in such a big hurry. A fancy home would be lovely. But it’s the people in your life that really matter.”
His thoughts went instantly to Shelby.
“Now, this is an awfully nice truck, but I think it’s time we got out of it and joined the party.”
He let out a long, shaky breath. “Right as usual, Grams.”
As Blake helped his grandmother out of the high seat, a golf cart careened around the line of parked vehicles driven by a man in a safety vest.
“It’s a bit of a hike to the party, ma’am. May I give the two of you a lift?”
“How lovely! Thank you.”
For his grandmother’s sake, Blake subjected himself to the indignity of taking a seat and being transported to the party.
Several large tents had been set up on the expansive grounds around the main house. The mouth-watering aromas of hickory-infused ribs and chicken wafted from two industrial-sized barbecues.
Almost as many servers as there were guests, circulated the grounds. The uniformed wait staff, dressed in black pants and crisp white shirts, carried trays laden with an array of appetizers and drinks. Blake and his grandmother had barely stepped foot onto the patio when one of them approached offering a choice of beer, sparkling lemonade, or ginger punch.
“If it’s non-alcoholic, I’ll try the ginger punch,” said his grandmother.
Blake put his hand on her back, guiding her to a grouping of wooden deck chairs in the shade of a weeping birch.
Moments after Grams was seated, he heard his name being shouted.
He turned to see Sam Calhoun running toward him. Ten seconds later the six-year-old skidded to a stop.
“Hey, Blake! Can I see your gold buckle?”
Sam looked like a perfect, miniature cowboy in roper style boots, Wrangler jeans, a button-down Western shirt, and a white Resistol hat.
“Hang on a minute son. Let me introduce you to my grandmother, Ms. Timber, first. Grams, this is Kelli-Jo and Harvey’s son, Sam.”
“I know. I’ve seen him and his mother in my shop. You can call me Louise, honey. That’s fine with me.”
Sam gave her a shy smile then turned back to Blake. “I saw your ride. You were so awesome!”
Blake ruffled the kid’s blond hair, then removed his belt so Sam could get a good look at the buckle.
“Wow. This is so cool. I want to be a cowboy, too, when I get bigger. Mutton busting is for kids.”
“You like horses, Sam?”
“That’s the important thing. You have to spend a lot of time in the saddle to be a good cowboy. But you also have to learn to take proper care of your horse. That’s where it all starts.”
“Want to see my horse? She’s a mare. I wanted to call her Spiderman but Mom named her Paintbrush. Isn’t that a dumb name for a horse?”
Blake grinned, then glanced at his grandmother, expecting to find her equally charmed by the small boy’s engaging candor. But instead, his grandmother eyed Sam with a worried frown. Before he could ask her if something was wrong, he caught a glimpse of Shelby out of the corner of his eye, and his head automatically whipped around in her direction.
Damn, but she looked hot. Her long, honey-colored hair hung in big, soft curls that landed just below her shoulders. She had on a simple white dress with turquoise and dark orange stitching that matched the colors of her boots.
Physically she didn’t much resemble the curly haired girl with glasses he remembered from high school. But she still had the same big heart and gentle spirit that had drawn him to her all those years ago.
He could feel his smile growing wider and wider, as he waited for her to notice him, too.
But she went to his grandmother, first, giving Louise a hug and asking how she was doing.
“I was wondering if you would decide to come tonight, Louise. I’m glad to see you did.”
“I won’t stay long. But I really wanted to make an appearance.”
Only then did Shelby finally turn her gaze to Blake. “Congratulations on your win.” Her mouth quirked into a slight smile. “That was an amazing ride this afternoon.”
Her unenthusiastic tone deflated him.
“Look at the gold buckle.” Sam held up the prize buckle to Shelby then handed it back to Blake. “Do you think I can win one of those when I’m bigger?”
“Keep riding and looking after your horse and you’ll have a good chance.” As Blake patted Sam on the back he became aware that now both his grandmother and Shelby were glancing from him to Sam with anxious eyes.
Something was going on here, but he had no idea what it was.
And then Kayla joined them, along with two cowboys, one of whom was Dillon. The other was a bulldogger from Montana, Ty Harding. Blake knew of the guy, but had never really spoken to him. He felt an instant dislike, however, when the guy honed right in on Shelby.
“Kayla was telling me all about you. I’m glad we finally got a chance to meet.”
Blake tried to read Shelby’s expression. At first she seemed annoyed. But then she almost looked relieved.
“Nice to meet you as well, Ty.”
“We were going to stroll around the property, then grab a cocktail,” Kayla said. “Want to join us?”
Her invitation was clearly for Shelby, alone, and Blake was pissed off when Shelby said, “Sure.”
He tried to send her a message with his eyes. He really needed to talk to her.
But she just said goodbye to Louise, and Sam, and then, finally to him.
“If I don’t see you again, hope your year keeps going well, and you end up in Las Vegas again this December.”
What? She was definitely brushing him off. But why?
He strove to keep his cool. “The barbecue has only just started. It’s a little early for goodbyes darlin’.”
She and the others were already walking away. He had no idea if she’d even heard him.
Chapter Nine: Red Rose (love, seduction)
“Sam! There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” Kelli-Jo sounded breathless as she joined Blake and his grandmother on the patio.
She’d changed into a silky black dress and a pair of white boots. She looked like a magazine model, as usual, except something was off.
It took Blake a moment to realize her hair was a bit messy, and she had faint black smudges under her eyes, as if she’d been crying and her make-up had smeared.
“You have, Mommy?”
Kelli-Jo pointed to a white-haired, stout woman about fifty yards away. “Yes. Your Grandma Calhoun is at that table waiting to help you with dinner. When you’re finished eating she’s going to take you up to bed.”
A stormy look darkened his fair face. “But you said I could stay up for the party.”
“I said you could come for a while. This is an adult party, Sam.”
“But some of my school friends are here with their moms and dads.”
“And you’re here, too. But I’m not having you stay up past your bedtime. Now say goodbye to Blake and his grandmother, and do as I asked.”
Sam heaved a sigh that seemed much too heavy for a six-year-old. Then he politely said his farewells to Louise and Blake. After one final, longing glance at the gold buckle, he set off toward his paternal grandmother.
“That boy can be such a handful,” Kelli-Jo said. She turned to Louise, “I don’t know how you managed Blake all on your own.”
“Oh my grandson gave me a few gray hairs,” Louise said. “But raising a child isn’t all about rules. There’s a lot of joy in it too. Treasure these years, because they go by so fast.”
Kelli-Jo frowned, and glanced after her son who was trudging obediently toward his grandmother. Blake thought she might call him back, give him an hour or two of reprieve, but she didn’t.
“Sam gets so cranky when he doesn’t get enough sleep,” she said. Then she seemed to put her son out of her mind and turned back to Blake. When she touched his arm, he automatically tensed.
“Something has come up,” she said. “We need to talk. Louise, you don’t mind if I borrow your grandson for a bit do you?”
“I was just about to get some dinner for Grams,” Blake said.
“It’s okay, son,” his grandmother said. “I see some of my friends at the buffet line. I’ll be fine.”
Alice and Brenda had spotted Grams too, and were already walking in their direction.
Blake decided he might as well get his business with Kelli-Jo over with, once and for all. “Okay, Grams.” He forced a note of levity. “But you and your friends better save some ribs for me.”
“We can talk in the horse barn,” Kelli-Jo said. “The house is full of serving staff. Harvey and his Dad are in there, too.”
She slid her hand down his arm, tried to clasp his hand in order to lead him along, but he shook her off. He was damn tired of her pawing at him.
“What’s this about?” he said, slipping his hands in his pockets. “More sponsors you want me to thank?” He knew damn well it wasn’t, he’d thanked everyone already, so her answer didn’t surprise him.
“This isn’t about Sheep River Days, Blake. It’s personal.”
Bracing himself, he kept an outward smile as they walked through the crowd, heading behind the house. He couldn’t help searching for Shelby and was frustrated when he didn’t see her.
The horse barn on the Lazy C was one of the largest, most beautifully appointed barns he’d ever seen. Shelby led him inside, past a wash stall that was the size of his grandmother’s living and dining rooms combined, to the tack room which was double that size, again.
With its cedar-planked walls, rustic oak cabinets, and butter-yellow leather sofa and armchairs, the tack room looked nicer than most homes. Kelli-Jo sat down, crossed her legs and leaned back, clearly expecting Blake to join her. He remained standing.
He ran his hand over the detailing of a beautiful antique saddle. “This must have cost a pretty penny.”
“I have no idea. I don’t know how much any of this costs. Harvey doesn’t trust me with any of our finances.”
Blake eyed her speculatively. Was she complaining?
“He gives me an allowance, and extra if I need it. He also made me sign a pre-nup before we got married. It limits how much I can get from him, but I’ll still walk away with a million dollars, as well as support payments for Sam until he comes of age.”
Blake backed up against the wall. “Not sure why you’re telling me this.”
“Isn’t it obvious? Blake, I was much too young when I agreed to marry Harvey. Especially since I was still in love with you.”
He wished she hadn’t said that. “You and I . . . that was a long time ago.”
“But in some ways nothing’s changed. I still—”
“Be quiet, Kelli-Jo.” He didn’t want her to say she still loved him, if that’s what she was planning to say. Even if she wasn’t, this conversation had already gone way too far.
“I mean it. I don’t want to hear another word about why you got married, or what your arrangements are with Harvey. That’s none of my business.”
“Half an hour before you got here, Harvey and I had a big fight. It’s over, Blake. I told him I was leaving.”
Only then did he notice that her wedding bands—which had made a brief re-appearance today at the rodeo—were missing again.
“Damn it!” He made a fist, resisting the urge to pound the wall. “This better not have anything to do with me. I did not come here, intending to break up your marriage.”
“Of course you didn’t. And I didn’t expect this to happen either. We can’t be blamed for the way we feel.”
“But that’s just it, Kelli-Jo. I don’t have feelings for you. I’m not sure—” He paused. Better not tell her that he wasn’t sure he ever did. He didn’t want to hurt her more than he had to.
She gave him a disbelieving look. “You’ve always been crazy about me.”
He scrubbed his face with his hands, frustrated to the point of losing his temper. He took a deep breath. “Not true. Yeah, I kind of lost my head over you when we were teenagers. You were gorgeous back then. And yes, you still are today. But, I love Shelby—and I always have.”
Kelli-Jo flinched. Slowly she stood and took a hesitant step toward him. “You don’t mean that.”
As soon as he’d spoken the words, Blake stood taller. Felt stronger. Shelby was the woman he wanted to be with. Yet all his efforts to spend time with her this weekend had been stymied, not just by his obligations as guest of honor to the organizing committee and to his sponsors, but also by Kelli-Jo’s twisted machinations.
“I do. And stop looking so damn hurt. You don’t really want me, anyway K-J. You’re just bored with the toy you took out of the sandbox and want something new. It’s time you stopped acting like a spoiled kid and grew up. Harvey deserves better. And your son Sam sure as hell does too.”
He left then, and this time Kelli-Jo didn’t try to stop him.
* * *
Blake scoured the party looking for Shelby, but no luck. He briefly considered joining the queue for some barbecue, but his conversation with Kelli-Jo had killed his appetite.
Eventually he approached Kayla and Dillon, locked in each other’s arms and swaying to the slow waltz being played by the country band that had been hired for the event.
“Sorry, guys. Can you tell me where Shelby is?”
“It’s time you got the hint,” Kayla said. “She doesn’t want to be found. At least not by you.”
“She was tired,” Dillon added more helpfully. “So Ty offered to drive her home.”
“Okay. Thanks.” It was only eight-thirty. How could Shelby be tired? Unless she and Ty wanted to be alone.
He had no idea if Shelby was attracted to the bulldogger, or if they had indeed gone back to her place.
One thing was crystal clear, though. He might love Shelby, but she didn’t love him back.
Time and again this weekend she’d pulled back from him. There’d been that moment in his truck when he’d kissed her, though. He’d been so sure that she felt the magic, too.
But if she did feel the same way, wouldn’t she have stayed to the end of the night? Instead of leaving early with Ty?
Blake trudged off the dance floor. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake Kelli-Jo had. Assume someone loved him, just because he wanted them to.
The volunteer coordinator of Sheep River Days clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Blake. We’re just about to do some wrap up speeches. You want to take the mic for a few minutes?”
“Thanks, Joe, but my term as guest of honor is officially over. It’s time I took my grandmother home.”
“Okay. Sure. Thanks for all you’ve done. You’ve gone above and beyond, that’s for sure.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He gave a rueful smile, as he moved on.
Blake made an entire circuit of the party before he finally found his grandmother on the dance floor, cutting loose to Feel Like A Woman.
She was up there with Alice and Brenda, and she had some moves his grandmother. She really did.
He waited on the sidelines until the song ended. When she spotted him waving she came over, laughing, and out of breath.
“You must think I’m losing my marbles.”
“Nah. I think you’re the coolest grandmother ever. Want to stay and dance some more?”
“Actually, I’d love to put my feet up. How about we go home and play some cribbage?”
* * *
It was nine o’clock by the time Blake and his grandmother were settled and ready to play cribbage. He’d inhaled four left-over pancakes topped with sliced bananas and smothered with maple syrup, while he waited for the water to boil for his grandma’s willow bark tea. Being in Grams’ kitchen always made him hungry. Besides he hadn’t eaten at the barbecue. He snorted. What a fiasco.
When the tea was ready, he brought it out to Grams who was resting her feet on a cushioned footstool. He studied her face as he set the cup down on the small table beside her. Same kind eyes and smile as always—only now they sagged with fatigue. “We could always play tomorrow if you’re too tired.”
“Don’t you want payback for all those times I made you play when you were out late partying with your friends?”
He chuckled. “That was a smart strategy you had, Grams. I’m sure it must have been just as difficult for you to stay up late to play those games as it was for me.”
“You’re right about that. But I needed you to know that you had someone at home who cared about you.”
“And you succeeded.” Blake swallowed hard. His Grams was something else. She could have nagged and complained, set lots of rules and limits. Instead, she’d opted to stay up late and play board games with him. To be there. To listen and to love.
“It’s my turn to be here for you. I wish you’d let me take you to the Mayo Clinic. Or buy you a house. Or take you on a trip to Europe. You’ve got to let me do something for you.”
“Cut the cards, honey.” She waited while he did so, and when she cut a smaller card, she took the deck, shuffled, and dealt out the hands.
As they played the first round Blake wondered if she was just going to ignore what he’d said.
He didn’t challenge her, though. He just gave himself to the game, the way he had so many times before. There was something soothing about the tactile shuffling of the cards, the moving of the pegs, the calling of scores, back and forth.
They were in the home stretch, when his grandmother suddenly covered his hand with hers.
“This is how you help me.”
He studied her eyes, trying to understand what she was getting at.
“You. Me. The crib board. I’m a simple woman, and a simple life makes me happy.”
He thought about her reminder earlier. It’s not the things in your life. It’s the people. “You’re many things Grams. Simple isn’t one of them. But I think I get what you’re telling me.”
She nodded. “My doctor says I have a good chance to beat this cancer. And I trust her. But if it doesn’t work out that way, I’ll be okay with that. I’ve had a good life.”
“Even with Mom’s accident—you still think that?”
“Every life has tragedies and blessings. Your mother’s death was a tragedy for both of us. Being able to raise you—that was my blessing.”
He swallowed around the lump in his throat. “So, no regrets?”
His grandmother turned over the cribbage board, then pointed out three initials carved onto the bottom: W. S. N.
In all the years they’d played cribbage with this board, he’d never noticed them before. “Someone’s initials?”
“The man who made this board for me. He was a special friend.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Oh, he was out of the picture long before you were born.”
“Is that all you’re going to tell me?”
“Yes.” She tilted her head to one side, frowned, then said, “Actually, no. Sometimes we keep secrets long past their expiration dates, just out of habit.”
“And this man—he was your secret?”
“Yes.” She paused to look him straight in the eyes. “And he was also your grandfather. Your mother’s father.”
“Wow.” Blake sat back in his chair. He hadn’t expected anything this major.
“Maybe I should have told you sooner. But I was ashamed. I met Walt Nesbitt at my first job working in a restaurant in Black Diamond. He was a trucker and drove by regularly. He was also married.”
Blake couldn’t hide his surprise.
“Yes, I’m human, too. And I’ve made mistakes. Big ones. Walt didn’t try to seduce me. He wasn’t that sort of man. But we loved talking to each other, and a few times our conversations lasted after my shift was over. We’d go walking by the river. Then he’d drive me home. Eventually we did more than talk but when I found out I was pregnant, I broke it off.”
“Did he know about the baby?”
“I guess I should have told him. But I didn’t. He had two children with his wife. I didn’t want to force him to choose.”
“Where is he now Grams? Is he still alive?”
“I have no idea.” She sighed. “It was so long ago honey, we haven’t been in touch for over forty years.” She got up to rinse out her tea cup. “One of the reasons I decided to tell you the truth tonight is so you can see how easy it is to lose your chance for love. I speak from experience when I tell you once a door is closed, it’s not so easy to open it again.”
Chapter Ten: Poppy (consolation)
Monday morning Shelby scrambled to unlock the door to Twigs & Sprigs, already twenty minutes late. She wasn’t the only tardy one, though. Half the ‘Closed’ signs on Main Street still hadn’t been flipped over. Sheep River Days doldrums would keep business slow for at least a few days, probably the entire week.
She turned on the lights and flicked on the overhead fan. Today would be the perfect time to upload photos of the arrangements they’d made for Sheep River Days to the website. Catch up on her invoicing. Record last week’s payments.
Instead, she stood at the front window and gazed out at the street. The warm August sunshine threw long morning shadows over the sleepy town. Only The Morning Mug showed any spark of activity—neon light glowing yellow, a mother with her baby in a stroller shouldering her way in the main door.
Shelby held her arms close to her chest and sighed. Coffee. Maybe that would help.
First she checked on the inventory. How ironic that their flowers were as perky and colorful as ever, when she felt so droopy and wilted.
In the back room she put on a small pot of coffee, since she would be the only one in the shop today.
When it was ready, she took a sip, then wrinkled her nose.
Too strong. She must have messed up and overloaded the grounds. Not surprising considering she’d had maybe three hours of sleep last night. She poured some of the coffee down the sink and added a teaspoon of sugar and milk. That should help.
Shelby caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the sink, and was amazed at how normal she appeared. How odd that she could look exactly the same on the outside when she felt like an entirely different person inside.
She’d gone six years without Blake Timber in her life, and had managed to feel quite happy and satisfied. Now, after seeing him the past few days, her world had somehow fallen apart.
It didn’t make sense. But there it was. She’d just have to power through this day, and the next, keep on going until her life regained its usual shine.
Suspecting she wouldn’t get even one customer before noon, Shelby settled behind the computer in the back room with a stack of invoices that needed to be processed. She had only managed a few entries, when the front door bell jingled.
Setting the statements aside, she stepped out to the front counter, then froze at the sight of Blake at the door, turning over the “Open” sign.
“What are you doing?”
“Figured you might need a coffee break.”
He handed over a tall cup from The Morning Mug. “Double latte. Skinny, extra foam. Hope that works for you.”
She inhaled the delicious aroma wafting out of the small opening on the lid. Heavenly.
“I shouldn’t be closing shop. I only opened thirty minutes ago.”
“I know. I was waiting for you. Figured you might not open on the nose this morning, so I didn’t order our coffees until I saw your truck.”
She stared at him, afraid to ask why he was making such a big effort to see her.
“Is yours a latte, too?” she asked, just to fill the silence.
“Darlin’ real cowboys drink their coffee black. End of story.”
He smiled, and her heart felt like it was melting and breaking all at the same time.
“I thought you’d have left town by now.”
“That was the plan. But the plan’s changed.”
“Is this about your grandmother? Is she okay?” Shelby made a mental note to call Louise later. “I was worried she was taking on too much, attending the parade and both days of the rodeo, as well as the wind-up barbecue.”
“Grams is fine,” he reassured her. “In fact, you should have seen her dancing last night. She looked ten years younger.”
“Sorry I missed that.” She glanced away, thinking about the way her night had ended and wishing it could have been different.
“Kayla said Ty Harding drove you home . . . ”
He actually sounded annoyed. She had half a mind to stretch the truth, but she was too exhausted to make the effort. “He offered. But I had my truck and I hadn’t been drinking. So— ”
She’d driven herself home. Spent half the night ruminating over everything that had happened that weekend. And the rest of the time crying. In between all that fun activity she had managed a few hours of sleep. But all of this, of course, she wouldn’t admit to Blake.
“Kayla had me convinced you and Ty were, well, you know.”
Shelby shrugged. “Why would you care either way?”
“If there’s one message I’ve been trying to get across this weekend, it’s that I do care.”
Something was different about him today, but she couldn’t identify what it was, exactly. He still had that same gorgeous face with the square jaw, dimpled chin. And he was wearing the same hat and boots, dressed in his signature True Grit jeans, and a fresh Western-styled shirt.
The change, she realized, was in his eyes. She studied him intently, trying to find words for what she saw. The best she could come up with was that he looked like a man who’d been let in on a secret.
“I know you care about your grandmother.”
“I do. And I’ve finally figured out that what she needs isn’t a second medical opinion, or a nice new house. It’s time with her family—which happens to be me.”
This was good. “Louise would be so happy if you visited more often.”
“Well, I won’t be visiting. I’ve decided to move back to Sheep River.”
Was he serious? “But the rodeo circuit . . .”
“I’m going to cut back on that. In a few years I’ll be done completely.”
“But—why?” He loved the rodeo. And he was just starting to find the success he deserved. At only twenty-five, his best years were ahead of him. “Did you get injured?” He hadn’t let on that he’d been hurt, but cowboys were good at dealing with pain.
“Never been fitter. But the thing is Shel, I don’t love rodeo per se. I love horses. And while it is a rush to win an event, I don’t care for the spotlight. This weekend has sure taught me that much.”
“But—if you quit, what will you do?”
“I’ve found myself a job, right here in Sheep River, as foreman for your neighbor.”
“You mean Brent McCrumb?”
“Yup. I spoke to Brent and his wife Aida on Friday at the dance hall, then again last night at the barbecue. He’s looking to retire soon. His wife wants them to spend winters down in Phoenix with her sister. We’re going to work out a deal where I can buy the ranch over time—the way Grams tells me you’re planning to do with Twigs & Sprigs.”
“Now that you mention it, Dad did say he wasn’t sure Brent would want to rent our land again next year.” Shelby put a hand on the counter. She had the oddest feeling, as if the floor beneath her feet was no longer level.
She took a sip of the latte, hoping the caffeine would kick in soon. Then she narrowed her eyes at Blake. “What does Kelli-Jo think about you moving back to Sheep River?”
He winced. “I don’t know and I don’t care. I’ve had enough of that woman this weekend.”
Shelby’s heart lifted, the hope that had never quite died, was rising up again. “The two of you seemed thick as thieves.”
“That’s not true.” He shook his head as if to emphasize his statement. “I had obligations. And I wanted to keep my sponsors happy too. But none of that matters to me anymore.”
Shelby took a second to process that. She realized she needed more. Complete honesty. “What about the special effort you took with Sam? Not just at the rodeo, but last night at the barbecue?”
“Not sure I know what you mean. I just helped him with the Mutton Busting ‘cause his father wasn’t there and I felt sorry for him. I grew up without a dad in my life. So I know how it sucks when everyone else’s dad is helping their kid and you don’t have one.”
His kindness was one of the things she liked best about Blake. But his answer sidestepped the real issue. “Something Kelli-Jo said to me yesterday made me suspect Sam’s father might not be Harvey at all.”
Blake fell back a step. “Are you serious? What did she say?”
“I can’t remember exactly. She said something about being in a predicament when she agreed to marry Harvey. And then she said the situation between the three of you was complicated. It just made me wonder . . . if you could be Sam’s father.”
Blake’s mouth dropped open. For a long time he just stared at her. Then he shook his head. “No. It’s not possible.”
“Are you certain? Kelli-Jo married Harvey pretty quickly after you left town. And Sam was born about nine months after our high school graduation.”
“I’m not arguing about the timing. I’m just saying it couldn’t have been me.”
“I don’t see how you can be so positive.”
“That’s easy. Kelli-Jo and I never had sex.”
Shelby’s jaw dropped. But—you were hot and heavy in high school. I used to see you two making out in Kelli-Jo’s car after school let out.
“But that was all we did. It never went any further.” Blake took his hat off his head and set it on the counter. Then he gave her a sheepish smile.
“I was an insecure kid. I couldn’t believe a pretty, popular girl like Kelli-Jo would want simple old me. I enjoyed having all the guys admiring me, and wishing they could be the one she wanted. But I was over my head with that girl. And whenever she tried pushing the envelope, I always backed off.”
Shelby realized then that she was guilty of stereotyping Blake. Of assuming he would sleep with a woman, just because she was beautiful and she wanted him.
But this—what he was saying—fit so much better with the man she knew.
“I wish somebody had kicked me in the ass back then, Shel. If I’d been more confident and not as worried about impressing other people, I would have been able to spend my time with the girl I really liked. The one I actually longed to kiss—but never dared to.”
Shelby searched his eyes, amazed that her feet were still on the ground when she felt as if she should be floating on air.
But then she reminded herself that he’d said these sorts of things to her before.
“You’re doing it again, cowboy. And it isn’t fair.”
“I’ve never fed you a line in my life. I’m not that clever.” He stepped around the counter, and took her hands.
“I’m not the wild cowboy the press has made me out to be. I’m not a monk, either. But I’m honest with the women I’ve been involved with. And in the past six months I’ve been with no one. Because I started thinking about you again. Wondering if I might get a second chance this weekend.”
When his thumb brushed gently under her eye, she realized she’d started crying.
In her heart, she’d always felt she knew the true Blake Timber.
And in her heart, she’d always felt he belonged to her.
He kissed her then, a real kiss, one that made her entire body come alive, as if it had been waiting forever for this moment, and this guy.
Desperately, she clung to him, amazed at all the heat and desire that one kiss could bring.
“Smart move, closing the shop,” she managed to say to him.
“Hell, yes, darlin’.”
* * *
Twigs & Sprigs did not re-open that Monday. The coffee pot was forgotten, and the bottom of the carafe was burned beyond repair.
Shelby and Blake didn’t finish the beverages he’d bought for them at The Morning Mug.
What did happen was that they drove to the Rocky Knoll and made love in Shelby’s four-poster bed.
Then they put together a picnic lunch, saddled up Nancy Drew and a pretty Bay named Climbing Myrtle—because she had a penchant for sneaking out of paddocks—and went for a trail ride in the foothills.
At a hollow by an unnamed creek, where the grass was soft and green, and Mt. Burke rose up in splendor to the west, they stopped and spread out a picnic blanket.
Golden butterflies and dazzling blue dragonflies danced around them.
Shelby wanted nothing but to feel his touch again, to smell his body, to taste his kisses. They made love in the sunshine, and afterward, lingered in one another’s arms.
“I love you Shelby Turner,” Blake whispered while tracing a path down the center of her back, making her quiver. “I almost bought that story Kayla told me about you and Ty Holding. I was going to leave town without telling you how I felt. Thankfully, Grams convinced me to be more persistent.”
“I love you, too. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”
“Not even on the best Christmas morning of your life?” he teased.
“Not even.” She closed her eyes, enjoying the sun on her back, his skin against hers. Life couldn’t get more perfect that this.
She dozed for a bit, not too long, because the angle of the sun’s rays hadn’t changed much when she awakened.
Blake was watching her. He smiled. “You’re a quiet sleeper.”
“Was I asleep for long?”
“Not sure. I napped, too.”
She ran her hand from his shoulder down his arm, tracing the hard cords of his muscles. His entire body was like this. Cowboy tough. She couldn’t get enough of looking at him. Touching him.
As she skimmed her hand over his butt, he stopped her. “Hang on darlin’. That’s going to lead you someplace I don’t think either of us is ready to go again. At least not yet.”
She nuzzled the space between his neck and his shoulder. “Why not . . . ?”
“Cause there’s something I need to ask you first.”
Her heart started racing. She pulled herself up, so she could see his face.
“Will you marry me, Shelby?”
Despite what she’d learned in science class Shelby knew there were moments the Earth stopped rotating. This was one of them.
Her first instinct was to blurt out “Yes!” But this was important and she needed to be one hundred percent sure of him. She stared into his eyes and saw his earnest yearning. “I love you Blake, but isn’t this moving a little fast?”
“Way I figure it, I’m already six years behind with a lot to make up for. What do you say Shel? Do you feel the same way?”
“You’re sure this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to your grandma being sick?”
“Grams’ cancer has made me appreciate life is short and you need to grab your happiness when you can. But I think I’ve known forever you were the woman for me.”
Intense joy took root deep in Shelby’s heart. These were the words she’d needed to hear. “I’ve loved you forever, too. Even when I didn’t know it. Blake I’d be honored to be your wife.”
Epilogue: Myrtle (marriage and true love)
A Year Later
As a girl Shelby had dreamed of getting married on her family’s ranch. She was going to ride down the aisle on Nancy Drew, and her dogs and cats were going to be sitting in the pews.
This was not how it worked out.
In Shelby’s real-life wedding all the people she loved were present in the garden behind her family home. The scent of lavender was in the air as she took her father’s arm. With her other hand she carried a bouquet of myrtle, lily-of-the-valley, sweet William and hyacinth, lovingly assembled by Louise that very morning.
As she began walking on the lush carpet of green grass toward the handsome cowboy who was waiting for her, she could hear her mother’s gentle sniffing. Both of her parents were so pleased about the match, which truly was the icing on the cake. She locked her gaze with the man she’d loved since she was a teenager, praying she wouldn’t stumble. And she didn’t.
She could feel the love and support of their family members and close friends around her. Kelli-Jo Calhoun—now pregnant with Harvey’s second child—had not been invited.
Kayla was present, of course, as Shelby’s maid of honor. She’d warmed up considerably to Blake over the past year, and her boyfriend Dillon was Blake’s best man.
The ceremony was lovely. Short. Simple. Sweet. Shelby and Blake said their own vows and there wasn’t a dry eye among their guests. In fact, other than lots of tears, there were no other water works. The weather held beautifully for the barbecue buffet and there was no need to use the outdoor tent that had been set up in the event of rain.
Later, as she and Blake had their first waltz together. She nuzzled his neck, and whispered, “Do you think he’ll come?”
“He said he would. But if he doesn’t, the day will still have been perfect.”
She smiled at her new husband. What he said was true. But the day would be more perfect if Blake’s plan came together.
* * *
“Are you happy, Grams?” Blake asked Louise as he led her to the dance floor.
In the past year her hair had started growing back. She now wore it in a saucy, short style that reflected her zest for life.
Best of all, as of her last check up she was still in remission. He hoped it would stay that way. He’d stopped trying to get her to see other doctors and try alternative therapies. He had to accept Grams knew what was best for her own health. She was a strong woman, and he loved her for that.
“Blake, this is probably the happiest day of my life. I always thought you and Shelby would be perfect together.”
He grinned. “So I did good marrying her?”
“Oh, my, yes.”
“Glad to hear it. Just keep thinking what an upstanding grandson I am . . . and don’t get too mad at what’s about to happen next.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“I tracked him down, Grams. Invited him to the wedding. And it looks like he’s just shown up.”
She stopped in her tracks. He could feel her muscles tense. Slowly, she turned around and saw who Blake was talking about.
A tall, distinguished man had just stepped up to the dance floor. He looked to be around seventy-years-old, in good health, with sharp eyes, a kind smile—and a dimple in his chin.
“What have you done?” his grandmother murmured.
Before Blake could explain, the man was in front of them, taking her hands.
“Louise? Do you mind that I’m here?”
She shook her head, eyes tearing. “How did Blake find you?”
“It wasn’t hard. After my wife died I had my daughter create a Facebook profile for me. Just in case you ever tried to get in touch. I’ve been waiting five years. And then Blake Timber made me a friend request. And I knew you’d told him.”
“All these years . . . you knew about Blake?”
“And about Jennifer. And the accident. I’m so sorry, Louise, about that.” He gave a tender smile. “We have so much to catch up on. But I’d like to officially meet my grandson first.”
Walt Nesbitt offered his hand to Blake then, and Blake happily shook it.
“What a fine young man you turned out to be. I followed every step of your rodeo career. Now I understand you’ve taken up ranching?”
“I sure have. It’s so good to meet you. I’d like to introduce you to my wife as well.” He gestured for Shelby to join them. Since the dance with her father had ended, she’d been watching the entire exchange, with her hands clasped to her heart.
After that, there were more introductions, more explanations, and a lot more dancing.
Around midnight, Blake was on the sidelines watching Grams and her beau moving together in a slow waltz, when Shelby came up beside him and rested her head against his shoulder.
“What do you say, cowboy? Have you got one more dance in you?”
“As if I could ever say no to you.” He slipped his arms around her—how right she felt there—and led her to the dance floor. For a moment he closed his eyes and breathed in her scent.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I never did believe that saying—that good could from bad—but after this year, I’ve changed my mind.”
“Grams getting cancer seemed like the most terrible thing that could happen a year ago. But now here she is, dancing with her first and only love. I wonder if that would have happened if she hadn’t gotten sick.”
Shelby followed his gaze, and smiled at the obviously smitten older couple. “They’re sweet together. I’m so happy for Louise.”
“Me, too. But I’m even happier for us.”
She tilted her head. “Are you truly? You don’t miss the rodeo at all?”
“Not a bit.” He tightened his hold on his wife. “I feel so damn lucky right now.”
“You’re not just feeding me a line are you, cowboy?” She grinned, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
“It’s not a line if I mean it. And this cowboy means every word.” He captured her lips in a tender kiss, showing her just how devoted he was.
They continued to dance long after the sun went down, and the stars brightened the sky. Today had been perfect. And he’d never felt more alive as he did with his wife in his arms. His wife. Now that made him more excited than any rodeo ever could. And he just knew that his marriage to Shelby was going to be the ride of his life.