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Excerpt/COWBOY FOR SALE

 


Chapter One

 

All I need is one cowboy for one night.

Lacey Murdock closed her eyes and focused on this one thought as she waited in her car in the parking lot of the Rockin' Ranch, one of San Diego’s most popular country music clubs. Early, as usual, she planned to use the extra time to calm herself and fight the beginnings of a nasty little panic attack.

Her present state? Her heart thundered and felt like it was ready to jump out of her chest. Her mouth was parched. Cotton mouth, she thought.

She unfastened her seat belt. Suddenly it felt much too confining, the shoulder belt threatening to literally choke the courage out of her.

I can do this.

Forcing herself to breathe several even breaths, she powered down the window, immediately feeling relief as the balmy evening air cooled her clammy skin.

Tilting the rear view mirror toward her she stared, taking a critical look at herself.

At least her hair had behaved today—her thick, wavy dark hair fell to the middle of her back and shone with newly foiled deep auburn highlights she’d had done a few days ago by the latest stylist she’d hired. A generous spritz of spray gel so far was keeping her hair’s tendency to frizz to a minimum, even with the humidity of the warm night.

In the mirror she stared at her carefully made-up face—the pale lavender eye shadow made her hazel eyes look green in the dim light. She reached up and blended the color with the tip of her little finger and checked for eyeliner smudges. Her makeup application was much heavier than she was used to wearing and the colors a shade brighter. Her salon’s esthetician had insisted on doing her face before she’d left that evening, convincing her it was just the look she’d need in the dim light of a club.

Ironic. I spend every day helping men and women enhance their looks, try new things, and I just can't quite transfer the idea to me.

Shaking her head, she readjusted the mirror then pulled the keys from the ignition and slipped them in the pocket of her skirt. Then she draped the skinny strap of her new, tiny “going out” purse over her shoulder. Her stomach tightened with nervousness.

I just need to relax, replace the oxygen, breathe deeply five times.

Lacey stayed in the car just long enough to take five measured breaths. The technique almost always helped to calm her nerves and she used it many times during her busy day—whenever there was a difficult salon client, whenever the cash drawer wouldn't balance, whenever she had to counsel one of the other stylists.

Why am I so nervous?

Old habits die hard, she decided. She’d spent too many years feeling insecure, doubting her abilities and decisions. And that feeling was all too familiar tonight. Shoot, anyone looking at her life would definitely see quite a few false starts. Like most of the women she knew who hadn’t gotten married and started families, she’d followed a traditional route of going to college and working a variety of jobs. Somehow, though, it hadn’t felt quite right. Nothing made her feel fulfilled.

The day she’d decided to turn her back on what she thought she was supposed to be doing and followed her bliss instead, she finally started feeling successful. Her confidence had blossomed.

Now at the age of thirty-five she was finally making a decent living as the working manager of a mall-based upscale hair salon in a quiet suburb of San Diego. And she'd managed to survive a pretty rough year—mostly by working hard, keeping herself distracted, and surrounding herself with happy people. People who really cared about her. Finally she felt like she was “in a good place.”

Tonight, though, her new calm was being challenged and the breathing exercise didn't seem to help much.

Now, standing outside the car, she listened. The music and conversation drifting out the open windows of the Rockin’ Ranch was loud—and a tad too cheerful for her current precarious mood. She’d much rather be home reading a book or watching a DVD...anything but what she was doing right now. How long had it been since she’d…what?…put herself out there?

Not that that was exactly what she was doing tonight. Not really. But she just might have to at least pretend to be doing that, she admitted. She grimaced and shook her head, not at all ready for the flirting, being charming, acting interested. Way too soon…

Still, she was good at creating a persona. She’d done it most of her life, actually. Tonight she’d simply have to do that too…if she had to. Could she?

Laughter drew her attention to a couple standing near the front door, the man’s arm wrapped around his date’s waist pulling her tight against him. Not a good prospect…if not taken, definitely involved.

Her gaze shifted to the building that housed the Rockin’ Ranch. It mimicked a barn, but had a wide porch that wrapped around the front and extended around the side and bordered the back parking lot. Over-sized rustic chairs and benches lined the porch, ready and waiting for couples looking for a break from the heat of the dance floor. A few bent-willow loveseats were already filled with early arrivals, many of the women sitting on the laps of their dates.

As Lacey crossed the parking lot, she saw that most of the men waiting outside or sitting on chairs sported a standard western look: cowboy hat, boots, and jeans. Tight jeans that accentuated long legs and trim waists. It had been quite a while since she'd even wanted to look—to even notice—and tonight she found herself actually examining the men.

Definite prospects.

Bringing her fingertips to her face, she hoped the dark concealed the blush she felt creeping up her neck and landing at her cheeks.

Kandy, where are you?

She scanned the parking lot for a pink Jeep. No sign of it. One of her best stylists, who had also become a good friend, Kandy had volunteered to meet her there tonight. It had made the whole task seem immediately more doable.

Where are you?

Kandy was habitually late to work and even though Lacey was accustomed to it—and even adjusted the appointment book to accommodate it—at this very minute she didn't relish the idea of going into the Rockin’ Ranch to cowboy hunt alone. Sure, she could go back and wait in her car, but just sitting there would probably make her more nervous, and what if she lost her nerve completely?

Forward. She silently commanded her feet to move and as she approached the bar’s wraparound porch with her head held high and her lips in a well-practiced smile, she silently recited her new mantra: I can do this, I can do this.

She took another deep breath. Along with oxygen came a lovely fragrance of night blooming jasmine. A tall hedge of the potent flowers bordered the back of the parking lot. Maybe Kandy had parked back there. It was certainly worth a look and gave her a valid excuse not to head toward the bar’s entrance, her feigned confidence beginning to waver already.

Climbing up a set of steps and onto the wraparound porch, Lacey casually glanced at some of the men, calculating if they might be approachable later. A few seemed like definite “no’s” but there were definitely a few men who had possibilities. Maybe this wouldn’t take as long as she imagined.

Lacey kept walking, following the porch around to the rear of the building where it widened into a large wooden deck adjacent to the club's back door. A van was being unloaded nearby and she scooted to a far corner of the deck to get out of the way. Two men hurriedly carried a large amplifier up the steps and into the doorway, obviously on their way to the stage inside.

On the side of the van Lacey could make out the words “Southern Comfort.” The band was local, she knew, and popular. Kandy claimed they were the best country band around and she was a bit of a groupie, with a fresh crush on the lead singer. She’d suggested coming to the Rockin’ Ranch, and now she understood why.

The place was lousy with cowboys, for sure.

Instantly feeling more comfortable in the dim light and now totally alone on the deck, she listened to the recorded music that drifted outside. Brad Paisley, maybe? Swaying to the music she attempted a simple two-step she remembered from when she had taken a country dance class a few years ago—her last attempt at boosting her social skills. It had been fun because a few other stylists had taken the class as well, and it had been good exercise. But she hadn’t really enjoyed the bar scene enough to continue.

She lost the beat and stopped. Listening more closely, she caught it again, counting quietly out loud. “One-two, one...two. One-two, one...two.”

Closing her eyes she lifted her arms, visualizing an imaginary partner there. Her biggest fear was that she would end up stumbling awkwardly through her first dance. She assumed she’d need to…interact…with any prospective cowboys, and that most likely meant dancing. It had been a long time since she'd been out on a dance floor, let alone dancing something as specific as a two-step, rudimentary as it was. Eyes still closed, she continued to move rhythmically, dancing blindly into the middle of the deck, counting softly to keep herself in step.


***


Jared Dillon ran long, calloused fingers through his hair in a feeble attempt to tame its wildness. Long days outside in the weather rendered an almost permanent windblown look. Subtle blond highlights blended with the gray that had become more prominent in his brown hair since he'd reached forty.

He sighed and shook his head. He was already impatient for the evening to be over, even though he was grateful for the extra money the summer gig would provide. Even for short periods of time, he had trouble leaving his mountain and ranch behind. And Jamie.

Truth was, he didn't particularly like being on stage, though playing bass in a country band was about as easy a job as he could imagine. No, he was much happier without four walls surrounding him, and besides, deep in his bones he knew he'd go absolutely insane if he didn't spend at least part of every day outside. Even though times were tough sometimes, he knew he'd made the right choice in buying the ranch east of San Diego.

Being his own boss, setting his own hours, taking time to do the job right—each was important to him. Even though he had the pressure of being totally responsible for every little detail, he wouldn't have it any other way. He'd grown to prefer the solitude, the freedom. No one to interfere, no one trying to change things. And he was successful enough, he kept assuring his family and friends. He had grown his alpaca herd to fifty and between breeding and selling the raw fiber, he made a decent living and was content.

And there was something about the creatures themselves that he had grown to love. And, thankfully, Jamie did too.

Only for the summer, he reminded himself, already feeling a little claustrophobic just anticipating being stuck in the corner of the crowded stage playing a borrowed bass guitar with one of San Diego’s most popular country bands.

Jared locked up his truck and as he walked across the parking lot his gaze stopped on a woman two-stepping on the deck to the music that drifted out the back door. It was evident he was about to interrupt a practice session and although he knew he should make some noise in warning, he couldn't bring himself to disrupt the vision of her innocent solo dance.

Instead, he noiselessly positioned himself at the top of the stairs of the deck, crossed his arms, and watched. Her eyes tightly closed, he took advantage and openly stared. She wore short red cowboy boots that looked brand new, making him wonder if it was her first time at the club. He watched her full black skirt do a dance of its own above her knees, swirling around shapely legs. His gaze moved upward to her sleeveless, ruffled white cotton blouse that hinted at the curve of full breasts but without the deep plunging neckline most of the women wore to the Rockin’ Ranch.

Then she abruptly turned, took a few steps toward him and stepped right into Jared's arms.

“Oh!” she said, her eyes opening wide, surprised.

Jared instinctively tightened his hold on her as both his arms wrapped around her, then felt a sudden overload to his senses. In the briefest of moments, he was shocked to find his body responding to her, instantly aroused. In another timeless moment he breathed in her perfume, some part of him wanting to remember the scent of her. Silky hair draped over one of his arms and he felt a hint of soft, warm flesh against the other. He realized his lips were automatically parting, ready to kiss her. What the hell?

Just as quickly, Jared snapped back to reality and pulled his body a several inches apart from hers, lessening the intimacy, though he immediately missed her warmth.

“I'd say you look like you just might be ready for a real dance partner,” he said. Adjusting his grasp, he placed the woman’s right hand in his left, and lifted her other hand to rest on his shoulder, smoothly guiding her into a proper dance embrace.

“Most guys start out with the quick one-two part first.” He looked down toward the deck, seeing how tiny her feet looked in front of his own, now wishing he’d at least polished his dusty, black boots. “Ready? Watch our feet. One-two, one...two. One-two, one...two. That's it.”

He looked up and watched as she forced a weak smile. He knew she was embarrassed, but even so, she didn't miss a beat.

“By George, I think she's got it,” he said in an exaggerated British accent, hoping to make her laugh. No such luck.

She returned her gaze to their feet, matching the movements, seemingly too mortified to look up for more than a few nanoseconds at a time.


***


Lacey stared at the blue-jeaned legs and the plain black boots. The boots looked comfortable and worn. But in a good way, she decided. Then she allowed her gaze to drift upward to the red western-style shirt of her unexpected dance partner.

At her eye level, a fine gold chain lay nestled in the dark chest hair at the open collar of his shirt. She could just make out a charm hanging from the chain. It was one word: Jamie.

Lucky girl.

Lacey inhaled nervously, forcing her gaze to stay level with her dancing cowboy's neck. Part of her desperately wanted to run screaming to her car, to forget her entire plan. Surprisingly, another part of her felt grateful for the forced first dance. It lessened at least some of the pressure she felt, relieved that her first dance wasn’t on the crowded dance floor and instead was out on the deck with this stranger.

Breathing deeply, in addition to the jasmine she identified the man’s scent as a mixture of apricot soap and a light cologne she recognized but couldn't quite place. A couple more breaths and she actually found herself relaxing enough to fall into a comfortable rhythm. When the music ended she glanced up into intense blue-gray eyes.

A voice called from the doorway. “Jared, we have to start in ten minutes and Luke's mike isn't working. You wanna get your butt in here and bail us out?”

He released his hold on her and stepped back. “Duty calls.”

She quickly turned to leave, thankful for the interruption that called him into the club. Though, she had to admit, there certainly was a part of her that would have liked to have danced a tiny bit little longer.

“You dance just fine,” he said, his voice fading a little at the last word as though he maybe had more to say.

“Thanks.” She turned to face him and managed a smile, then grasped the railing and hastily made her way down the steps and into the parking lot. Okay, Kandy, this is where you're supposed to show up and save me from embarrassing moments like this.

In comparison, the anonymity of the crowded club now seemed much more appealing as she made her way around the corner to the front entrance, leaving her dance partner behind to save the band from looming technical disaster.

Logic said maybe Kandy was already inside so she headed to the entrance where a small line had formed now that the band had arrived. Lacey waited behind a group of women wearing skin-tight jeans and skimpy tank tops showing a lot of skin, their breasts barely covered. The entire group was being carded as they went inside and she wondered if this generation had perfected fake I.D.’s. They sure looked young enough to need them.

“There's a ten-dollar cover charge tonight, ma'am, for the band,” a voice said as she reached the head of the line.

Lacey involuntarily winced at the “ma’am” but then decided it probably wasn’t intended to make her feel old. Looking up, she stared at the man who’d spoken, then took in a quick breath. She had an extensive male clientele at Shear Delight, but none compared to the head-turner who was holding out his hand, waiting for her money. His eyes were an almost too bright turquoise blue—contacts, maybe? Long, layered blonde hair was expertly blown dry. His black hat was tipped back, revealing a clean shaven face except for a soft, droopy mustache. A handsome cowboy with a baby face, dimples and all.

She smiled. This guy certainly looked like the quintessential cowboy. Glancing for a wedding ring, she saw none, then reached into her bag for a ten, feeling a rush of warmth in her cheeks along with a few unexpected butterflies in her stomach.

“First time here?” he asked

Lacey nodded.

“Thought so. I think I would have remembered a pretty little thing like you. What's your name, pretty lady?”

Was his smile friendly or just a tiny bit more than that? She quickly dismissed her thoughts, deciding she was just overreacting. Truth was, the only men she was used to being around these days were in her work environment. And there, well, she was always in control. The way she liked it.

Relax. Forcing herself to keep smiling, she realized how out of practice she was in handling a simple social situation. How sad was that?

“What's your name, pretty lady?” he repeated, his gaze never leaving her face.

“Lacey.”

“Pretty girl, pretty name. Well, I'm Hank, Lacey. Welcome to the Rockin’ Ranch. We’ve got a great band tonight and you better watch out for all those wolves on the dance floor, if you know what I mean. I'll keep an eye on you—and you just let me know if I can be of service tonight.”

Lacey marked his words as cordial, resisting her first impression that he was giving her extra attention. After all, she was a first timer and it was perfectly appropriate for him to be friendly to her…or any other woman coming into the club, right? He probably was the same with every female who came through the door.

He took her money, then held her hand in his—giving it a flirty swipe with his thumb before he stamped a red star on her wrist to prove she’d paid the cover charge.

“Catch ya later, Lacey.” Hank offered a sweet, dimpled grin, released her hand, then turned his attention to the group waiting behind her.

Definite possibilities, she thought, ignoring the flutter in her stomach from his touch. He was handsome and confident. Two traits that would be ideal. She’d look for him later when he wasn’t working the entrance, when he might be more apt to listen to her request.

Lacey squared her shoulders and took a few steps into the noisy room and looked around to see if Kandy and the others had somehow arrived and she hadn’t noticed. Maybe Kandy had tagged along in a friend’s car.

After scanning the room, there was still no sign of her.

Taking in yet another calming breath Lacey reminded herself she certainly should be able to walk into a bar alone without falling apart. Her insecurities were getting ridiculous. Really.

And she hated that she felt so out of place, but, the truth was, every part of her didn't want to be there. Now she wished she’d backed out of the assignment altogether.

Now what? Well, either get a drink or find the bathroom, she decided. She chose the latter, gazing around the room, looking for a restroom sign.

Finally spotting the bathrooms, she paused a moment to prevent from stepping into the path of a waitress carrying a tray crowded with frosty glasses of amber-colored beer. Instantly Lacey recognized her as a regular client from the salon. Perm four times a year, highlights during the winter.

The woman caught her gaze. “Well, hi, Lacey! I've sure been meaning to call you. I need to make an appointment before my sister's wedding next month.”

Lacey smiled and immediately felt more at ease, slipping comfortably into her stylist persona. “Call me Monday, Gloria, I'm sure I can squeeze you in.”

“Are you here by yourself or are you meeting someone?” Gloria shouted as she served half the drinks on her tray to the table next to Lacey. “Do you want a drink? A beer?”

“Meeting friends,” she responded, then added, “sure—a dark beer, I guess. Negra Medelo?” Lacey had to pretty much scream her answer as the volume of the music increased while Gloria finished unloading her tray.

“Stay there, I'll be right back.” Gloria turned away and headed to the bar.

Lacey scanned the room again for Kandy, just in case. I can do this. I can do this.

Within just a couple minutes, Gloria returned with a bottle of beer. “This one's on me. See you later.”

Lacey smiled her thanks and watched as Gloria expertly worked her way through the crowded room toward the dance floor. A few couples were already two-stepping to the recorded music, waiting for the band to finish setting up. On the left-hand side of the stage she noticed her dancing cowboy working his magic, unwinding a microphone cord as he nodded reassurance to the rest of the band who stood nearby watching, arms folded against their matching red-shirted chests.

She let out a little sigh. Too bad, she thought, reluctantly checking him off her prospect list. As always, she’d noticed his hair, which was a nice texture—though a little conditioner would make it even better, she decided. The slightly callused hand that had held hers during their dance had definitely felt like he worked for a living. Arms muscular beneath his red shirt, skin tanned. Really pretty eyes and an easy smile. Surprised she’d noticed so much, she felt an involuntary blush heat her cheeks. No, her dancing cowboy was obviously attached, according to the name charm he wore at his neck. Too bad, she thought again, thinking too that he would have been so easy to ask…somehow she’d felt he would be as easy to talk to as he’d been to dance with.

After another sigh, she looked to the right of the stage again at a neon sign pointing out the women's bathroom near the back door. Hoping for a little liquid courage, she took a few healthy swallows of her beer, then made her way to the other side of the huge room straight toward a line of men who loitered just outside the Ladies' Room.

She straightened her posture and walked past them, keeping her gaze on the bathroom door.

“Oh, babe, loosen up a little—.”

“Hey, come back—wanna do a shot?”

Lacey glanced over her shoulder at them. They looked young, very young…and more than a little intoxicated already. Even so, their attention was a tiny ego boost, one that she really needed. More than she realized. It had been long enough since she'd been in a singles environment to seriously wonder if anyone would even find her attractive.

She didn’t want to care, but the truth was, she did.

Pasting a neutral smile on her face she walked past another small group of men, this additional test in self-confidence coming a little too soon. Once again she tamped down the desire to turn around and walk away from the entire evening.

But she knew she’d stay—she had a responsibility. A promise to keep. It wasn’t something she could walk away from, not really. And besides, there certainly were plenty of cowboys in the room. It shouldn’t take that long, right?

When Lacey reached the bathroom, inside she scrutinized herself in the mirror. So, I'm a babe who should loosen up a little. She gathered her wavy hair and twisted it into a loose bun on top of her head. Its weight quickly caused the bun to fall, sending her hair falling back down around her shoulders and down her back. Ironically, she didn't enjoy working with her own hair at all and kept it long, slightly layered and easy.

After she’d touched up her lipstick, she took her beer and walked out the bathroom door. But, she instead of walking back through the bar, she ducked out the back door to kill a little more time in the peace and quiet until Kandy arrived. It just felt too awkward wandering around and waiting for Kandy and her posse of girlfriends who’d also promised to meet up at the Rockin’ Ranch that night. And besides, from the deck Lacey would easily see her drive up, and then easily join her once Kandy and her friends got inside.

Out on the deck she took a couple more swallows of her beer, then put the bottle on the rail, feeling immediately more at ease. She’d just keep an eye out for Kandy’s pink jeep. It was a perfect plan.

The air was still and balmy, really a beautiful summer night. The recorded music drifted out from the club and she swayed to the beat. This time, the mysterious dancing stranger was nowhere in sight, most likely still helping the band. She had to admit she’d liked the snug feel of his arms around her. He'd been the perfect first dance partner and she hoped her next partner made her feel as comfortable as he had. As the music paused briefly while the band did a sound check, the sound of Kandy's distinctive and infectious laughter grabbed Lacey's attention. She must have arrived while she was in the bathroom. Relieved, Lacey smiled and hurried back into the club to find her friend.

Instantly she spotted Kandy standing at the end of the bar with a group of young women.

“Hey, everybody, there's Lacey! Sorry we're late. I know, I know. You can set a watch by me always being half an hour late.” Kandy laughed at her self-characterization and then introduced her friends, recognizing a few as Kandy’s clients.

Now, surrounded by young happy faces—Kandy’s included—Lacey already felt more at ease in the club's environment. And for that she was grateful.

Lacey accessed the group quickly. She guessed that they all had most likely been carded at the door by the baby-faced cowboy—Kandy, even at twenty-two, looked more like eighteen. All were in faded jeans and tight tops accentuating perky breasts, their makeup perfect and their hair in the latest styles. She felt like a fifth wheel—as though she were someone’s older sister keeping an eye on them all.

“So, Kandy, which one is the guy you like?” one of the young women asked.

“The gorgeous one.” As Kandy stared at the stage, her expression transformed into one of almost girlish worship. It was obvious she was infatuated and was thoroughly enjoying the experience. “Look for the best ass and the cutest face.”

Lacey joined the others in looking at the stage, admiring Kandy's honest appreciation of the object of her desire. She knew her type. Kandy liked men who were a little rough around the edges, but also big and cuddly as teddy bears. There were three men standing near the center microphone and one fit the description perfectly.

“That's Luke, in the black hat.” Kandy's voice almost oozed the words. She laughed and then added, “And the thing is, he's a nice guy too.”

Lacey found Kandy's hand and gave it a squeeze. “He's adorable. Have you given him a ‘Complimentary Hair Cut’ card yet?” Over the last year she had helped Kandy build quite a sizable salon clientele by encouraging her to utilize “the first one's free” technique.

“I plan to slip one into the pocket of those tight jeans tonight. I just can't wait to give him a really long, long, long luxurious shampoo.”

The group collapsed into girlish squeals and giggles at Kandy's remarks. Lacey smiled, feeling much more calm now that she was part of a group, albeit a rather young one.

“And don't you even think of trying to snag him for the bachelor auction, either. He's mine,” Kandy whispered to Lacey. “You'll have to find some other handsome cowboy bachelor hunk to ask.”

Lacey rolled her eyes. Yes, their mission tonight was indeed to convince two men—cowboy-types to be exact—to participate in the “Most Eligible Bachelor” charity auction at the mall. It could have been worse, she thought. At least they hadn't been assigned to firemen or construction workers. Lacey shuddered as she pictured herself walking into the local fire station or onto a construction site to recruit a couple of single men. In comparison, cowboys should be easier, right? And when Kandy volunteered to secure one, well, that lessened her task to finding one cowboy for one night.

Lacey groaned dramatically. “That's the absolute last time I send you to cover for me at a manager's meeting without specific instructions to sit on your hands and resist the temptation to volunteer for anything.”

“Oh, stop worrying,” Kandy said. “All I promised we'd do was find a couple more eligible men for their silly auction. Besides, it'll do you good to get out and circulating again.”

“You have ulterior motives, my friend.” Lacey gently punched Kandy's upper arm. “Don't you?”

Kandy flashed a smile. “You, girlfriend, have been celibate much too long. It’s time!”

In response, the group of women surrounding them whooped in unison, echoing their approval.

Lacey covered her eyes with one hand. “Do you think everyone heard you or would you like to use the microphone?”

Kandy grinned. “Okay, I'll be good. Let's sit at the bar. Is that okay with everyone? We're too late for the good tables. Next time I promise to be early so we can sit close to the dance floor.” She led the group skillfully through the crowd to some open stools at the bar.

“And, because I was late, the first round's on me.” Kandy good-naturedly pulled out her debit card, ready to treat her friends.

“Nothing for me right now, Kandy. I'll be right back.” Lacey suddenly remembered the beer she'd left on the deck, and turned to go back outside and retrieve it.

When she reached the back door and stepped onto the deck, the bottle was right where she'd left it but was just being picked up by her dancing cowboy.

“Ah, I was just about to try to find you…I saw you bring it out here...and—”

“Thanks. I was afraid it might fall off the rail into the parking lot,” she explained.

“So, do you come here often?” Jared groaned and laughed. “I can't believe I just said that. Believe me, I actually do know how to make conversation. Anyway…it's just that I haven't noticed you in here before.”

Lacey grinned and felt all the more comforted that she was not the only one who wasn't completely at ease tonight, based on his faltering speech and cute blush. She examined his face because she couldn't decide exactly what it was that made him seem different…and appealing, she had to admit. He wore no cowboy hat, for one thing, she decided, and his face looked a touch older than the majority of the people at the Rockin' Ranch. His brown, wavy hair, cut in long layers, fell over his collar and she couldn't help mentally designing a new style for him. In the light shining from a bulb over the back door she also noticed more than a few fine strands of silver mixed in with the dark gold highlights.

Then she noticed something new…a well-worn wedding ring on her dancing cowboy's left hand. So, it was official…definitely not a bachelor.

“Actually it is my first time here tonight. I'm with some friends.” She took a sip of her beer, and forced herself to take a deep breath before adding, “My name's Lacey—you're Jared, right?” That wasn’t so bad—at least this cowboy was safe to practice on, she decided. Why not?

Jared's brow furrowed, his expression seeming to question her use of his name.

“When they called you in to fix the microphone, didn't that man call you Jared?”

“A good dancer and observant. Lacey, you'll do fine tonight. I predict you'll be beating them off with a stick. In fact, just give me a wave and I'll throw you a drumstick from the stage.”

Lacey felt herself relax and begin to enjoy the banter. “So, are you a roadie or are you in the band?”

“Actually, I'm just filling in for part of the summer—substitute bass player. Glenn's wife just had a baby and he wanted to spend some time at home. So it worked out for both of us.”

“Ah...substitute bass player and microphone magician.” Lacey heard a drum roll from inside, then the crash of a cymbal. A cheer escaped from the crowd. By the sound of it the live music was about to start. “Well, I guess I better get back to my friends.”

“And I better get back to work. Have fun tonight, Lacey.” Jared nodded politely and swept his hand out for her to go through the doorway first.

Lacey rejoined Kandy and her boisterous group still gathered at the middle of the bar. All were giddily drinking shots of tequila, licking salt off their hands and biting limes. Lacey took a sip of her now lukewarm beer and looked around the crowded room. She knew the night was going to be a challenge, but she was determined it would at least be fruitful.

And she wasn't leaving without settling on a cowboy for the auction.

 

 

Chapter Two


Sitting at the bar, Lacey paid close attention as Kandy pointed out the single men she knew—some on the dance floor, some at the bar, and some from the group near the ladies room. She included Hank in the long—and descriptive—list. And even though Kandy said she'd heard he was a flirt and a playah, she declared he was probably worth the trouble.

“He really is a cutie—and a great dancer. You should just ask him to dance. I'm telling you, he won't turn you down,” Kandy said, now staring at the band, her gaze fixed on Luke like a thirsty person eyeing a glass of water. She bounced with the music, her upper body moving with the beat of the song.

“You're lucky I'm even here, let alone entertaining the thought of dancing with a stranger.” But hadn’t she done just that outside? She made a mental note to ask Kandy later about her bass-playing, dancing cowboy. Maybe he wasn’t as attached as the name charm on the necklace made it seem. A girl could dream.

“Oh, Lacey, quit worrying about it,” Kandy said, offering her a confident smile. “Just chill—it'll be fine.”

It was pretty obvious Kandy agreed with anyone who had the opinion that Lacey needed to relax a little more and let down her guard. Okay, so she would. At least she’d try. Maybe it really was time she stepped away from the past and at least considered the future. She was certainly wiser for having gone through hell, right? So, wiser and perhaps ready. Time would tell.

“Who’s doing a watermelon?” one of the young women yelled as she waved to the waitress.

When Gloria took their order Lacey agreed to join the group in a shot. When the tray arrived of shot glasses filled with bright pink liquid, the young women all tipped their heads back and slammed back the watermelons, then let out a woot. Lacey sipped half hers and was surprised it was so sweet. It definitely reminded her of the watermelon-flavored hard candy she'd loved when she was a kid, always trading the green sour apples for the pretty pink watermelon ones.

Gloria stood by in case refills might be ordered, Lacey assumed.

“What are these made of,” she asked her.

“Jack Daniels, pineapple juice, a little grenadine for color. Careful, though, a few too many and they’ll kick you in the ass,” Gloria warned.

Though she didn't really care for the strong taste of alcohol, as a rule, the sweet watermelon went down easy. She finished her shot and placed the empty shot glass on Gloria’s tray, but waved off a refill. The rest of the women yelled in unison, “one more!”

The alcohol definitely took the edge off her nervousness and Lacey felt her anxiety ease a little. Maybe everything would be all right tonight. It could happen, right?

After the group’s second round of shots, a popular line dance song enticed Kandy and her friends to the dance floor while Lacey stayed behind and watched from the security of her barstool. She watched as Kandy danced quickly to the front, placing herself directly in view of Luke as he sang. The floor quickly filled with solo dancers who slipped into the pattern of steps, while some couples ringed the outside in a quick two-step. Lacey studied the repetition of steps and smiled at Kandy's determination to hold Luke's attention.

Kandy was a good friend who, despite her young age, probably knew her better than anyone. Most importantly, she'd been there for her during the last year when she'd thought her whole world was falling apart. Though Kandy was immature in many ways, she had a level head and a solid foundation built from growing up in a loving, supportive family. Something Lacey envied.

Kandy had managed to help her face the fact that even when everything seemed devastatingly horrible, life just went on anyway, and that ultimately everyone needed to look for a way out of their own unhappiness.

The young stylist’s solution had sounded so simple. Over eggrolls and chop suey at lunch one day in the food court, Kandy had convinced her that she had to give up the whole idea of life being unfair. In fact, she'd told her, life was basically unfair and she’d reiterated how each person was responsible for creating their own happiness. That’s what her grandmother had preached to her since she could remember.

Even Lacey's fortune cookie had agreed, affirming that There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.

From that moment on, Lacey's journey of healing had begun.

Her life had been such a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Promoted to Salon Manager one month. Falling in love the next month. Then she'd been busy planning a wedding and picking out china and registering at the mall’s nicest department store.

Things had changed drastically in one dreadful day.

Lacey shuddered, trying her best to keep the dark memory under control. Dirk had appeared to be the perfect catch: undeniably handsome, charming, seemingly financially secure, and a single dad with custody of a four-year-old son. She had fallen head over heels with Dirk very quickly in their dating relationship. She had also fallen in love with his little boy. Hard. Little Jonathon had taken residence in her heart the moment she’d met him and they’d been best buds from day one.

It had surprised her to feel what everyone called her natural maternal instincts. She said it was Jonathon who deserved the credit. He was bright, ever cheerful, and full of fun. He made every day brighter and she quickly realized how much her world had improved when Dirk and Jonathon had become a part of it. Every day began with a smile, a hope to see the little boy and to plan their next adventure.

Everything had seemed so wonderful, Lacey remembered, and her world had seemed perfect. Perfect until she'd called Dirk's number in the middle of the day, intending to leave a romantic message on his home phone’s voicemail.

Her stomach had literally lurched when a female voice had answered the phone instead of Dirk’s voicemail message of “You know the drill, leave a message.” Closing her eyes, Lacey replayed the moment for the hundredth time. Not knowing what else to say, she had asked for Dirk and was told he wasn't home. The voice sounded very young…and familiar. Somehow she had found the courage to ask who she was.

The voice had replied, “Heather. Who's this?”

Lacey had said nothing more and quickly ended the call. Fighting the nausea that had threatened to overwhelm her, with shaking fingers, she had dialed Dirk's work number.

After he'd listened to her questions, and finally her accusations, he’d pleaded for a chance to explain and they'd met for dinner that evening. He’d confessed his affair with his secretary, and that she was pregnant and he would marry her. They planned to leave California and move to Texas to be closer to her family who would help with the financial burden. He’d also confessed he’d stopped paying his mortgage and intended to walk away from his house, which was upside down, worth half of what he’d paid for it.

Lacy had left the restaurant in tears, her perfect life in shambles, her heart too broken to ask the question she’d dreaded most: what about Jonathon?

In the end, she'd discovered Heather was just part of a long list of lies. Before Dirk and Heather left town, she’d had one tearful conversation with Jonathon. That had sent her to bed for the weekend, crying her eyes out and vowing to never get hurt that way again. Ever.

She had survived, but had been left with a hurt and a wariness that had kept her from dating over the last year. She'd found she just wasn't that interested in men, and took the time she felt she needed to heal. Though, even after a year, part of her knew the hole in her heart would never mend.

Sighing deeply, Lacey allowed the memories to fade as she focused on the dancers still out on the floor. For the first time, the hurt was only a dull ache. The pain had lessened a tiny bit more each day. She had followed everyone's advice and kept as busy as possible, concentrating on her work, making the salon successful. At least her career path was on track. She smiled, knowing that Kandy had been right about being responsible for her own happiness. She was okay now, and, if she was totally honest with herself, she finally felt ready for her first step in returning to the world of the living, regardless of how panicky she still felt.

Finally succumbing to Kandy's relentless pleading—even before the bachelor assignment—Lacey had agreed to at least start going out and having fun—try to be social again. All the younger women at the salon had encouraged her to be like the guys and avoid a serious relationship like the plague. They had persuaded her to play the field a little and concentrate on just having a good time, that she deserved it.

That decision had been followed by another. Lacey had decided to take a mature, logical approach to re-entering the world of singles…she'd made a list of what she wanted. First and foremost, no more single dads. Ever. She wouldn't take another chance on losing the love of another child. She knew it would be too much for her fragile heart.

And she would look for someone her age, or even a little younger, someone fun and adventuresome.

She also decided to focus on physical traits opposite of Dirk. She would look for tall and blonde—it had taken weeks to stop seeing Dirk in every dark-haired man she saw in the mall. And: financially secure, she'd added to the list, hating the fact that Dirk had hidden his precarious situation from her. No, she would only settle for an equal partner, someone with a stable income and a blossoming career. She ended the list with the requirement that her mystery man must respect and encourage her career, and enjoy her independence. Her profession was extremely important to her—actually the most secure part of her life—and her career was nothing she would give up for anything...or anyone.

Lacey returned her attention to the jam-packed dance floor and smiled a small, secret smile, reciting her mantra to herself: I can do this.

“How 'bout a dance, pretty lady?”

Lacey jumped a little at the sound of the voice so close to her ear, then turned to look into Hank's bright blue eyes and caught her breath. “Sure, but I'm not very good and—”

Hank smiled and said, “Well, I’ll teach ya—c'mon.” He took Lacey's hand and led her to the edge of the dance floor, behind the line dancers.

Lacey’s heartbeat thumped in her ears. Maybe finding a cowboy would be achieved in record time after all. That thought was followed by: be careful what you wish for.

Expertly, Hank scooped her into his arms and began to two-step.

Amazingly, she found herself naturally falling into the rhythm of the two-step. She felt secure in Hank's hold and had to admit how nice it felt to be held tightly, being expertly steered behind the other spinning couples that ringed the dance floor. She slid her left hand down a bit onto Hank’s forearm, mimicking the position of the other dancers, noticing his firm bicep that flexed as he turned her, from time to time, or guided her around a slower couple.

She was definitely getting the hang of it, though she was still glad she’d gotten through that first dance out on the deck.

When she looked up Hank flashed a dimpled smile at her. She couldn’t help but smile back. The man was even better looking at this close distance.

As Hank guided her in front of the stage, Lacey caught Jared’s gaze. He mouthed something—doing great, maybe?—and smiled, though to her it seemed the smile never reached his eyes.

“Either I'm a great teacher, Lacey, or you don't need lessons,” Hank said, then pulled her even closer as they circled the dance floor.

The song ended abruptly with a yee-ha shout from the line dancers and Lacey pulled away from Hank to join in the applause, more than pleased with herself for having made it through without a stumble or a toe stomp.

She felt Hank’s hand on her elbow and he led her toward the front door, saying, “How 'bout some air? It's pretty nice outside.”

At the entrance Hank took her hand, drawing her outside onto the long front porch. He pointed and they made their way to an empty loveseat made of delicate, bent willow branches. She sat down, fanning herself with her hand, definitely feeling a little overheated from the dancing, or else it was a reaction to being in Hank’s arms.

Hank removed his cowboy hat and fanned her with it, offering his dimpled smile that definitely reached his eyes. “So, where have you been all my life, Lacey?”

She returned his irresistible smile with a genuine one of her own. “Thank you for asking me—I’d heard you were a good dancer.”

“Entirely my pleasure,” he said, leaning in closer.

Lacey's looked down at her hands, clasping them, afraid her fingers might tremble. She wasn’t feeling all that comfortable sitting so close, but she didn’t really want Hank to know she was nervous. And why did she feel nervous anyway…goodness, it was only a dance. She was being silly, just out of practice Kandy would probably say. This was normal behavior and she needed to just relax and go with it.

Hank put his hat back on his head, then reached for her hands and took them both in his and leaned in even closer. In an instant, he found her lips, giving her a quick, light kiss.

Lacey pulled away from him, surprised, then slipped her hands out of his grasp.

“And that was for your bravery in getting out on the dance floor in the first place.” He watched her, maybe waiting for her reaction. Well, she wouldn’t react. It was a simple kiss. That’s all. Nothing to get excited about, right?

“I'll go get us something tall and wet and we can cool down a little out here, okay?” Hank stood up before she could reply and walked along the porch back to the entrance.

With her lips still tingling from Hank's kiss, Lacey touched her fingertips to her mouth. Though she was a little taken aback, she again decided it had just been a friendly kiss. Nothing more.

She watched Hank as he walked away, thinking Kandy would definitely label his as a “cute butt.” Leaning back, she took a deep, nervous breath.

It had been a long time since she'd been kissed. Too long. Dirk had never enjoyed kissing and she remembered how odd it had seemed at the time. When he'd proposed to her, they had embraced and kissed almost as lightly as Hank had just kissed her.

Lacey took another deep breath. Her stomach felt a little queasy and she couldn't seem to calm the butterflies. Closing her eyes, she took five measured breaths, instructing herself to relax and enjoy the moment. That was the point. It was time to rejoin the regular world, where people got together, got to know one another, and had a little fun.

Drinks in hand, she watched Hank amble down the porch toward her. She smiled and when he got closer, reached for one of the glasses.

“I thought you'd like a Tennessee Lemonade to help quench your thirst. My, you sure look pretty sittin' here waitin' for me.”

Lacey drew deeply from the straw and finished half the drink in one long series of swallows.

“Hey, watch it, little lady—that lemonade packs quite a kick.”

“What's in this?” Her brow furrowed at the conflicting reactions from the iced beverage that warmed her stomach at the same time it cooled her throat.

“Lemonade with a shot of Mr. Jack Daniels, just to keep it interestin',” he replied. His crooked grin told her he seemed amused at her reaction to the strong drink.

But, she reminded herself again, this was perfectly normal. Having a drink, sharing some conversation. What was she feeling all worried about? With that, she smiled and took another sip.

 

***

 

Onstage, Jared's jaw tightened and the mandibular joint muscle there began to twitch, which it always did when he was tense. He consciously separated his clenched teeth and forced a smile. Three more songs remained in the first set and he needed to pay some attention to chords and key changes.

When he’d watched Lacey dancing with Hank, the song had been one he could have played in his sleep. Good thing, because he’d barely been aware when the song had ended.

At least his had been what he’d guessed was her first dance tonight. At least he had that.

Of course he’d noticed how Hank held her tightly—who wouldn’t?—carefully guiding her around the perimeter of the dance floor, skillfully avoiding the line dancers. Pretty much swept her off her feet, one could say.

Jared closed his eyes for an instant. He had no right even thinking about her. He was there to play a gig, nothing more. He should be oblivious to anyone—and everyone—in the club. Then why am I acting like some young kid ready to fight for the girl?

What he didn't need—or want—was the angelic distraction of this woman, someone he knew nothing about. Besides, she was not the type of woman he needed in his and Jamie's life right now…even if he was looking. She was too young, for one thing, probably a good ten or fifteen years younger than him.

So, with practiced discipline, Jared expelled from his mind the lingering thoughts of how soft she’d felt in his arms. It wouldn't be so easy to forget the flowery scent of her perfume that subtly mixed with her own unique feminine scent. The pleasurable assault on his senses had imprinted her fragrance in his subconscious memory, he knew. He sighed and shook his head.

The first set finally came to an end with another line dance favorite. The band gave a hoot and Luke leaned into the mike declaring the need to “pause for the cause.” Guitars were quickly secured into their stands and the stage cleared as the recorded music was turned up for any diehard dancers.

Jared lagged behind the others, carefully placing the borrowed bass in a stand near the back wall, then flipped off his amplifier. Guardedly, he observed the path of each band member toward the bar.

Then he eyed the front door. He certainly needed some fresh air, and it wouldn't hurt his feelings any if he ran into Hank and Lacey.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

“So, tell me about yourself, pretty lady.”

Lacey held Hank's gaze, determined to continue the conversation. “Oh, not much to tell, really.” Though she suddenly found it difficult to take a deep breath, the alcohol in her drink helped give her at least the temporary feeling of assurance and fortitude. “I'm just ready to start having fun again, I guess. And the Rockin' Ranch came highly recommended.”

“Are you having fun yet?” Hank grinned, then moved a little closer, just enough to place his thigh against hers. “I think you and me could have a whole lot of fun together.” He clinked his glass against hers in a toast.

Sipping from the straw, Lacey said nothing for a moment. Why not? She should at least be friendly, especially if she intended to ask him if he’d participate in the bachelor auction. “Perhaps we could,” she replied, and as soon as the words left her lips she wished she’d said something else.

“That's my girl.” Hank reached his hand up to smooth an errant strand of hair off her cheek.

Lacey closed her eyes at the touch of Hank's fingers on her cheek, then felt his fingers quickly find their way behind her ear, moving to the nape of her neck. Deep in her womanly depths she felt a tiny flicker of life, finding she welcomed the hint of an internal quiver as he pulled her closer, waiting a little anxiously for the feel of his lips on hers, knowing a kiss was coming.

It was his mustache that she felt first—stiff, long hairs tickling her mouth. She waited. When his lips touched hers, they were dry, and the stale aroma of cigarettes was there. Almost with a feeling of being outside her body and observing the action, she responded shyly to his kiss, so foreign, so new. Breathless, she pulled away when she felt his tongue flick against her lips.

Hank kept his hand on her neck for a moment, then let his fingers drop to her shoulder and then to the middle of her upper arm.

Lacey caught her breath as she thought she felt Hank's thumb linger on the side of her breast as he lowered his hand down her bare arm to take her hand in his. Her head was swimming and beginning to throb a little. She pulled back from him, trying to find cooler, cleaner air to breathe, then lifted one hand to rub her left temple as the throbbing escalated into a sharp jab of pain.

“Sorry. I guess that drink was a little too strong for me,” she said.

“Well, here, let me take care of the rest of that one.” He poured the remains of her drink into his own empty glass. “And, unfortunately, dear lady, I have to return to the door. The late crowd is about to arrive. Catch you later, pretty lady.” Hank grinned and made his way back to his stool at the entrance.

 

***

 

Jared stood in the shadows, feeling like a peeping Tom. What am I doing? The intensity of the emotion he'd felt as he'd watched Hank kiss Lacey was unanticipated. His mouth had filled with the sour taste of anger and he had fought an almost overwhelming urge to rip Hank's head off. It made no sense. He knew nothing about the woman. Other than the fact that he was having crazy feelings about her, there was no real reason he should be upset that she had danced with some guy, kissed some guy. But the guy was a snake, he rationalized. And, no matter what, she deserved more.

At least Hank was gone now. He'd watched as he'd returned to his post at the door, already flirting with a fresh batch of college girls dressed in short shorts. You just stay there, buddy, and stay away from her.

Jared leaned against the rough wood wall, mystified, closing his eyes to try an erase the scene he’d witnessed. He'd never felt this protective about anyone but Jamie. His sweet, precious angel girl. His daughter meant everything to him, and he was not going to jeopardize their tranquility by getting involved with a woman, even one as lovely as this one. No, things were just fine the way they were.

When he opened his eyes again, the loveseat was empty and she was nowhere in sight. Good. Now, just walk away from this. Somehow, though, he knew it was going to be difficult. He felt frustrated at his lack of logic and his inappropriate action of spying on this beautiful stranger. And she was a stranger. He had no legitimate reason to even care about her.

Feeling a little flustered, Jared returned to the club. Inside, he got the attention of his favorite waitress and tipped an imaginary glass to his lips, his signal for a glass of ice water. They’d gotten to know each other a little more each time he’d played with the band.

Gloria gave him her usual thumbs up and was back from the bar in a couple of minutes with an extra large glass. “What's with you? You look like you just lost a hundred bucks on a bad bet.”

Jared rolled his eyes. “I'm fine, Gloria. Just a little cranky tonight, I guess.”

Gloria's expression revealed she didn't believe a word coming out of his mouth. “Well, if you need a listening ear, you know I'm here.” She handed him the glass and rested her tray on her hip, giving him a moment to reconsider.

The sound of a raucous high-pitched squeal made them both turn toward the bar. Luke was standing in the midst of a group of women, his arm around a young woman’s waist.

“Ah, Luke and his notorious jokes.” Gloria shook her head. “I hope he knows how serious that blonde is about him. Kandy is in love, the silly thing.”

As Jared stared at the group, his gaze instantly fixed on his mystery woman, who stood nearby, on the fringe of the group of younger women. When she joined the others in the shared laughter, her long hair swung with each bob of her head. What did she do to make her hair so…so… What? Silky? Soft? Shimmery?

When he looked back at Gloria, he could tell by her raised eyebrow that she’d observed his stare. Might as well come clean. And besides, Gloria was a straight shooter. Maybe she knew something. Maybe something that would help him resist the unreasonable pull he felt just being in the same room with the woman.

“What do you know about the woman in the black skirt behind Kandy?”

“Why?”

“Gloria, just tell me.” He turned away from her raised eyebrow, now accompanied by a grin.

“Well, she's single if that's what you mean,” she teased.

Jared groaned. “Forget it. It's not important.”

“Now wait, Jared, don't get your underwear in a bundle.”

He put up his free hand, palm facing out in surrender.

“C'mon, Jared, tell me. What's up?”

“Oh, I don't know. I met her—outside, before we started playing. I'm just curious.”

“Okay. First of all, she happens to be my stylist.” Gloria patted her hair with one hand and tipped her head back in an exaggerated model pose. “Her name’s Lacey, and she works with Kandy. Actually she's Kandy's boss. And she's really nice.”

“That's it?”

“Well, we talk about...everything...when she does my hair, but it’s like attorney/client privilege, ya know?”

“Right.”

Gloria stared back at him like she was trying to figure him out.

“Okay,” she continued, “I’ll tell you more only because I like you and trust you. I know she's getting over a bad time—her fiancé ran out on her because he got his secretary pregnant. He took his kid and left town. Pretty much broke her heart. By the way, even from the start we all thought the guy was a rat, but she couldn’t see it.”

And she's found another rat.

“She's a great gal, Jared. She's young, talented, has a successful career, and finally ready to have a little fun, I hope. I was glad to see her here tonight. She’s pretty much a workaholic, I think, but at least it looks like Kandy got her out for once.”

Figures. Another successful career woman. Exactly what I don't need. He'd certainly had more than enough of that type of woman. Never again.

“Thanks, Gloria.” Jared turned and stepped up on the stage. It was time to get back to work, and he was determined to just do his job, and keep his eyes off Hank and definitely off Lacey. At least Gloria had given him exactly what he needed so he could do just that.


***


Taking advantage of the extra noise of the water spraying as she rinsed the conditioner from her elderly client's hair, Lacey whispered to Kandy, “Did you ask him?”

Kandy had answered her cell phone a few minutes ago, taking a break out in the mall. Now she was back, folding and stacking clean towels on the shelf above the three pink shampoo bowls at the back of the salon.

Her eyes sparkled as she whispered dramatically, “He said yes, of course. As long as I have the winning bid.”

One cowboy down, one to go.

Lacey had left the Rockin’ Ranch without asking Hank if he would be the other cowboy in the bachelor auction, but telling him she’d be back on Saturday and had a question for him. There just hadn’t been a good time all night and when she’d switched to club soda and the alcohol had worn off, she’d lost her nerve. They’d danced a few more dances, but he’d had to man the entrance most of the evening. Then when one of Kandy’s friends had had too much to drink, Lacey had volunteered to drive her home. Now she would definitely have to either go back to the club and ask Hank, or hope a cowboy walked by in the mall…and the odds were definitely against that.

“What's Luke doing about missing a Saturday night at the club?” Lacey asked. Maybe Southern Comfort had a back-up singer just in case, like how Jared had stepped in to play bass. Though she’d mentally crossed her sweet dancing cowboy off her list of prospects, she couldn’t quite get him out of her mind, which had surprised her every time her thoughts had drifted to that first dance with him out on the deck.

“Some of the other guys in the band want to come watch so—after this Saturday—they switched with the Wednesday night band for the next two Saturdays. Cool, huh?”

“Anything else?”

“Details later,” Kandy whispered, “my three o'clock is here.”

Lacey smiled back at her and nodded. She turned off the water, then wrapped a fluffy mauve towel around Mrs. Allen's head, helping her sit up. She had a soft spot in her heart for her longtime shampoo-and-set customer, Mrs. Allen, who had followed her from beauty school to become one of her longtime, regular clients at the upscale mall salon.

“Lacey, your fingers are magic. I'd come in just for the shampoo and conditioner even if I didn't need my hair done.” Mrs. Allen sighed and rocked her towel-wrapped head back and forth, stretching her neck muscles.

“My pleasure, my dear.” She removed the shampoo cape and tossed it into the nearby hamper, then helped the septuagenarian to her feet. “Now come with me and let's make you gorgeous for that fiftieth wedding anniversary dinner tonight.”

Lacey loved her job, even more so now. She had such a good crew. Over time she had successfully weeded out all the egotistical and temperamental stylists from the staff, leaving a team of hard-working, pleasant co-workers. Becoming the manager had been the first step of her dream. Sure it meant longer hours, but she relished the feeling of accomplishment as the customer base increased enough to put her into a profit-sharing category for the salon chain. With continued success, she was sure she would be considered for regional management, which was her next goal.

If nothing else seemed right on track, her career certainly was.

After finishing Mrs. Allen, she sent her on her way with a complimentary travel-sized hairspray she could tuck into her purse in case she needed it on her dinner cruise that night. With all the chairs in the salon filled but her own, Lacey decided to hide out in the backroom and do a little reorganizing of supplies. No scheduled customers for the rest of the day meant she had the luxury of uninterrupted time to re-stock shelves and even help with the laundry. It was amazing how many towels they went through in a day.

After a few minutes of glorious quiet, the hum of the dryer masking any sounds coming from the salon, the door opened. Kandy poked her head inside the backroom, saying, “Lacey, you better come out and take care of this one.”

Lacey groaned as she watched Kandy disappear. Crossing her fingers, she hoped it wasn't yet another case of chlorine-green blond hair. She'd already had her share of time consuming color corrections—five this week alone—and the summer was only half over.

As she walked through the salon she saw an attractive middle-aged woman standing in the lobby, a young girl almost hidden behind her. Tiny hands reached around to the sides of the woman’s flowered skirt as she seemed to hug her legs for dear life.

As Lacey approached them both, she heard the unmistakable sound of the youngster's muffled sobs. She watched as the woman gently took the tiny hands, then crouched to the floor and drew the little one into her arms, comforting her with soft, soothing sounds.

“It's going to be fine, Jamaica. Trust your Auntie Jo. It's not so bad, really.”

“Hi, I'm Lacey.” Dropping to her knees to put herself at the child's level, she hoped to get a better look at her day's-end challenge.

“This is my niece, Jamaica. She's feeling a little shy and we had a bit of an adventure today. We decided our hair was too long to start kindergarten next month.” The woman made a scissors motion with her fingers, out of the view of the little girl.

Lacey nodded. “Let's have a look, okay?”

The little girl's honey-blonde hair lay in long curls that reached to the middle of her back. When she straightened her head, she lifted it just enough for Lacey to see that she had created a dramatic asymmetrical look—her right side was at least six inches shorter than the left, and her bangs looked as though they'd been cut with pinking shears.

“I used to cut my own hair all the time. It was kind of fun, wasn't it?” Lacey asked.

The little girl pulled away from her aunt, then wiped her cheeks and as she bravely met her gaze, her blue eyes shining with fresh tears. “But it looks awful.”

“Naw, it's just not done yet. But, you know what? I can finish it. I know how.” Lacey held her hand out to the girl, who cautiously put her tiny hand in hers. What a little angel. Already she could envision how she would cut the little girl's hair. A shorter style would make her look older, she thought, but with the natural curl that was there, she knew she would be able to maintain the cherubic appeal.

“Kandy, will you find my magic scissors, please, and we'll meet you over at my chair.”

The little girl's eyes widened and she looked at her aunt, waiting for permission.

“Go on, Jamaica, this nice lady will take care of you. I'll be right here.” Breathing a loud sigh, the woman rose to her feet and then sank into one of the plush chairs in the lobby, visibly relieved that someone else was in control of the disaster.

Lacey loved cutting children's hair. The feel was so different and the silky, immature hair had to be cut carefully, with the curl, if there was any. On the way to her station she grabbed a booster seat.

With Lacey’s help, the little girl climbed into the hydraulic chair and onto the booster seat, allowing the styling cape to be fastened around her neck.

“It's pretty in here. Pink's my favorite color,” Jamaica said as her head swiveled back and forth as she looked around the salon.

“I'm glad you like it. I like pink too.” Lacey had chosen a glittery hot pink cape in hopes of distracting the little girl and so far, it seemed to be working. “Now, where are those magic scissors?” She pretended to look around the salon and then nodded to Kandy, who ceremoniously brought a midnight blue velvet pouch and placed it on the nearby counter.

Lacey misted the little girl's hair with water and gently combed out the tangles. Then, with her expensive, tiny, gold European shears in hand, Lacey began to shorten and layer the hair, retaining a little length in the back and cutting the front and sides so the blonde curls framed her face. She kept the chair facing the mirror so the little girl could watch, and talked soothingly to her throughout the process. Every few minutes she glanced at the woman waiting in the lobby, who smiled and nodded her blessing.

Lacey asked innocuous questions, weaving through conversations about Hello Kitty, Barbies, Wind Dancers horses, and favorite animated movies. As she put one hand on the little girl’s shoulder from time to time, she could feel the little girl relax as she worked, and soon her blue eyes brightened and her smiles came more frequently. When she was finished, she handed the little girl a mirror to hold, spinning her in the chair to show her how to look at the back of her head.

Her hair had dried while Lacey worked and she fluffed the now-layered curls into place. The hair was soft as silk in her fingers, luminous with golden highlights that shimmered under the salon lights.

As a last touch, Lacey opened the cupboard at her station to retrieve a final surprise—she always kept a few toys and things for her youngest clients. “And here is your fairy princess halo.” She watched the little girl's expression in the mirror as she placed a circle of glittery metallic pink garland on her head, complete with iridescent streamers of star garland that fell to the spot where the blonde curls had once been.

“Oh, I look...beautiful.” The little girl whispered the words, awestruck at the final results.

“Yes, you do, Princess Jamaica. Let's go show your auntie,” she said, helping her down from the chair.

All smiles now, the little girl walked gingerly to the lobby, careful not to upset the sparkling wreath she wore.

The woman's face glowed with relief and delight as she watched her niece walk slowly toward her. “Lacey, you are a magician. Look at my little princess. Your daddy is going to love it, honey.”

Lacey shared the woman's relief. Another crisis solved. If only they were all this easy.


***


“Daddy, I'm a princess! She said so!”

The sun glared painfully in Jared's eyes as he looked up from brushing off his earth-covered boots. All he could make out was a bouncing shape running toward him from his sister's car.

“Look, Daddy, look!”

Jared watched as his daughter twirled and danced for his benefit, a private recital just for him of utterly innocent joy. He also watched as his sister Jo approached, giving him her best “don't you dare say a word” glare.

“Jamaica,” she pleaded, “stop spinning and show your daddy your new hairstyle.”

Jared rubbed his stubbled chin. Gone were his baby's long golden locks, replaced by bouncy curls and topped by something pink and glittery. After checking for clues from his sister's expression, he took the easy way out. “Well, let me see, Jamie. Tell me all about it.”

Visibly relieved at his neutral response, Jo sighed. “Thanks for letting me have her today, Jared. We had...fun.” She winked and waved a quick goodbye. “See ya.”

“Daddy, she was a magician, kind of. Well at least she made my hair so pretty and she gave me my fairy princess hat and everything.”

Jared's heart skipped a beat as he listened to the happy tumble of words come out of his daughter's little mouth. “Stand still for a minute and let me have a look. My, you look old enough for first grade, let alone kindergarten.”

Jamie beamed at her father's approval.

“Now come here and give me a hello hug, you rascal.”

“Oooh, Daddy. You need a shower.” Jamie held her nose, then giggled and they began a favorite game of tag.

“Okay, okay. You win.” Jared fell ceremoniously to the ground, flat on his back, and his daughter took the opportunity to triumphantly plop squarely on his stomach.

“You really like it, right?” Jamie asked in a small voice, still looking for reassurance.

“It's perfect. You look beautiful.”

“Thanks, Daddy. That's what the lacey-lady said too. She said it was because of the magic scissors and Auntie Jo said I was Princess Jamaica.”

Jared's attention froze on his daughter's words. “Where did you have your hair done, Jamie?”

“At the mall. At the really pretty pink place...where the lacey-lady is.”

“Ah, and I bet it was scary, huh?”

Jamie giggled. “Oh, Daddy. It was fun. Do you like my princess hat?”

Jared pushed himself up on his elbows to better look into his daughter's sparkling blue eyes. She looked less and less like her mother, he thought, and he was glad. Courtney had hoped Jamie's hair would stay white-blonde, more like the over-bleached style she had started wearing the year she'd taken a job as a flight attendant. Jamie had been barely walking then, and Jared had gladly kept his little girl with him as he worked on the ranch. He had fashioned a safe play area using bales of hay and had relished watching her discover the wonder of nature, growing healthy and strong in the fresh mountain air.

As he gazed at his beautiful, jubilant little girl, he found very few traces of her mother. With a certain regret, at one point he had finally realized that he was glad Courtney had left. After far too many fights in their short marriage, she had declared her career more important and she’d hated life on a ranch. He never felt she had bonded with Jamie anyway—uninterested in breast feeding and insisting on a nanny the moment she'd come home from the hospital.

“Daaaaa-dy.”

“Yes, Sugar Plum, I like your princess hat. Now, tell me about the lacey-lady.”

“She's the boss of the hair place. Auntie Jo said she was. And she fixed my hair. She's pretty, Daddy. Her hair is long and dark like yours...but kind of shiny.”

Sounds like the same Lacey to me. “Let's go celebrate, okay? Ice cream after dinner—”

“Hot fudge sundae?”

“Deal.”

“Can I wear my princess hat?”

“Yes, your highness, now get off me so I can fix our dinner so we can go get dessert.”

Jamie squealed as he tickled her just enough to move her off his stomach. “Go play for half an hour and I'll call you to dinner. And stay out of the alpaca pens.” Jared watched his daughter scamper toward the barn, pleased she had the kind of imagination that kept her forever discovering new adventures on the ranch. He hoped it would be enough to carry them both through the difficult growing-up years he feared were ahead.

Being a single parent seemed luxurious now, when his daughter was young and thought he walked on water, but he knew things would get complicated soon enough. She'd discover how other kids lived, then boys and dating and... Jared shuddered. Enjoy today, he commanded himself. He hoped he would have the strength to survive her teenage years.

Silently he thanked his sister. She'd always been there to support him, assuring him he was a good father, consoling him when he feared he was making mistakes. He would rely on her for more and more, he knew, as Jamie matured. He hoped she’d be up for it.

In the kitchen of the snug three-bedroom geodesic dome home, Jared nuked a couple of vegetarian burritos, grabbed a fresh bag of tortilla chips and the mild salsa that Jamie liked. Not the best supper in the world, he thought, but it would get them down off the mountain and to the ice cream shop a little sooner. Then back in time to greet the babysitter.

If they stayed on track, he'd get to the Rockin' Ranch on time by nine. Even though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn't help wondering if Jamie's “lacey-lady” would be there.


END OF EXCERPT


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