Authors: Janet Wellington
Tags: #romance novel
“At the mall. At the really pretty pink place...where the lacy-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-blond, 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.
“Yes, Sugar Plum, I like your princess hat. Now, tell me about the lacy-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?”
“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 “lacy-lady” would be there.
“Man, oh, man, you have got to see the latest filly that is about to enter my stable.”
Jared cringed at the sound of Hank's cocky drawl, his gut telling him he was referring to Lacey. He remained in the shadows at the foot of the back porch stairs, guitar case in one hand, shamelessly eavesdropping as Hank bragged to one of his buddies.
“She that good?” A loud beer belch followed the man's question, inducing an even louder belch from Hank in return.
“She's not much of a dresser but she's sure got a set of jugs on her that can make a man forget what she's wearin'.” Hank chuckled nastily.
Jared's jaws clenched in response, his free hand in a tight fist. A cold knot formed in his stomach as he ordered himself to be silent.
“You sure she'll show?”
“Oh, yeah. She said she'd be here tonight. Said she had somethin' to ask me. Besides, she's one of those virtuous types, all trusting and innocent. Should be a piece-a-cake to get her to come home with good ol' Hank.”
The two men snickered and Jared clenched his mouth tighter, his back molars grinding.
You don't deserve to be in the same room with her, let alone touch her.
“You wanna put some money where your mouth is?” the man asked, emphasizing his point with another belch.
“Sure. Fifty bucks says she's fixin' me breakfast tomorrow morning.”
Jared listened to the sound of heavy footsteps as the two men walked toward the door. Just before they reached the doorway they gave their beer bottles a toss. The sound of shattering glass sent them into hysterics as Hank shouted “two points” before they stepped inside.
Well, at least I know where all the broken glass comes from.
Jared tried to calm his ragged breath. Unexpected, intense anger threatened to cause him to lose control.
He closed his eyes.
It's none of my business.
When he felt his blood pressure finally return to near normal, Jared opened his eyes, took a deep breath and walked into the club. Maybe she wouldn't be there. Maybe she wouldn't come.
“Is that what you're wearing?” Kandy gave Lacey a disapproving look as she stood steadfast in the doorway of her apartment. Hands on her hips, she pursed her lips and shook her head.
“What's wrong?” Lacey asked.
“Well, first of all, you wore that skirt last Saturday. And secondly, you will absolutely roast if you try to get through the night with long sleeves.”
The same thought had crossed Lacey's mind as she had parked, then raced from her air-conditioned car to Kandy's air-conditioned apartment, their plan to carpool that night. The evening air was still sweltering with an early August heat wave and it didn't look like things were going to cool down anytime soon.
“Come with me right now and we'll find something cooler you can borrow for tonight,” Kandy said, waving Lacey in and closing her front door behind her. “Come.”
Lacey obediently followed Kandy to her bedroom and then into an enormous walk-in closet. No wonder she never saw Kandy in the same thing twice in a month. The contents of the huge closet were meticulously organized and color coordinated, with one whole wall of shelves that betrayed Kandy's passion for shoes.
“I can't believe this. How many shoes do you have?”
“Oh, maybe a hundred or so. Call me Imelda Marcos and you wear rags tonight,” she threatened.
Lacey laughed. The rainbow array of colors was staggering and she walked toward a section of pastels, her fingers lightly touching the fabric of several garments. “It looks like Nordstrom’s in here.”
“Hush. Everyone should develop a hobby, right? Mine just happens to be shopping.”
“No wonder you always look great. I've always admired how you put separates together, how you accessorize—you really have a wonderful fashion sense. I guess I could use some lessons.”
Kandy glowed from the compliment. “Anytime, boss, anytime. Now, let's see what we have for the shy, workaholic salon manager in search of a cowboy bachelor…”
Lacey watched in awe as Kandy grabbed dresses, held them up to Lacey’s chin, quickly rejecting them or setting them aside to consider.
“This is my final recommendation.”
Lacey held the dress in front of her and turned to look at herself in the oversized, full-length mirror. Kandy had picked out a dusty peach gauze halter dress with a deep-vee neck and full skirt. The material was whisper soft and felt cool and light to her fingers.
“We'll add this scarf as a belt, throw a quick French braid in your hair and we're off,” Kandy announced.
“I love this dress. And the tags are still on it. Why haven't you ever worn it?”
“I don't know. It just didn't appeal to me once I got it home. And besides, the built-in bra is still too big. If you like it, you can have it.”
“Kandy, I couldn't—”
“Hurry up and get changed. Go on…a new dress always brings good luck. I'll pour us a couple glasses of iced tea while you dress.”
Lacey removed her black skirt and long-sleeved flowered blouse…and her bra, then pulled the dress over her head. Even though it fit like a glove she frowned at her reflection. The neckline was cut a little too low for her taste. She wasn't used to showing so much skin. Then she looked again, smoothing the skirt and knotting the brightly colored scarf at her waist. Satisfied, she did a little twirl in the middle of the closet, watching her reflection in the mirror. It was a great dress for dancing.
Maybe it was the dress, maybe it was just time, but suddenly she felt a return of the old confidence she'd felt when she'd discovered her talent for doing hair. She drew her shoulders back and lifted her chin.
Look out cowboys, here I come.
As she climbed out of Kandy's jeep, Lacey was glad she had taken Kandy's advice. She would have been miserable in anything but the lightweight dress she was wearing.
“Are you sure you don't mind me going in early to sit with Luke?”
Lacey looked at her watch. “It's only fifteen minutes before they start letting people in. I'll just hang out here on the back porch. You go have fun. I'll see you inside.”
She watched Kandy hurry to a side door where Luke was eagerly gesturing her to come in. They made such a cute couple, Lacey thought. Luke had come in for his free haircut during the week and Kandy had outdone herself. She had even talked him into getting a partial perm to give the top of his hair more body.
Lacey stood in a corner on the back deck, resting her elbows on the rail. She closed her eyes and breathed the musky air, a blend of jasmine and something else. Roses, perhaps, she thought, maybe from a nearby backyard. Maybe someday she’d have her own big back yard filled with roses and wisteria and jasmine. If things continued as they were headed, career-wise, she’d eventually be able to afford to buy a house of her own.
On the drive there, she’d rehearsed her invitation for Hank to take part in the bachelor auction, hoping for an affirmative answer so her task would end. Though she had danced with a few other men last Saturday night, Hank was certainly the most good-looking and he was the epitome of the cowboy she was sure the auction committee had in mind.
The sound of footsteps grabbed Lacey's attention, interrupting her thoughts, and she turned and immediately recognized her sweet dancing cowboy walking toward her.
“Well, Jared, we meet again.”
“Evenin'. Hot enough for ya?” He raised an eyebrow to emphasize his light sarcasm, and offered her a nice smile.
She grinned back. She'd enjoyed their banter the week before and a part of her had hoped she might run into him again. He seemed like one of those genuinely nice guys, and his Jamie was lucky to have him.
“Just hot enough, thanks.”
She watched as he cocked his head, listening to the music drifting out the back door. Then he set down the guitar case he’d been holding.
“To be honest, this is one of my favorite songs...and…well, being in the band, I don't get much chance to dance…would you care to?”
Lacey furrowed her brow.
Okay, be calm. Think of something to say.
As she considered her choices she glanced at the hand Jared offered, then blinked hard. Where there once was a wedding ring, now only a pale band of untanned skin existed.
Somehow, her feet took her forward and she extended her hand to take his. Within seconds they fell into the natural rhythm of the music, dancing a traditional slow dance.
Lacey breathed deeply. His scent added to the blend of night fragrances. He smelled clean. Again she noticed a hint of apricot soap and a light cologne.
Her gaze fell on the golden charm she'd noticed the week before. Still there.
Okay, so, who is Jamie?
As the words of the song declared that “true love waits,” she found that they had moved closer, her arm wrapping around his shoulder and that her fingers had somehow gotten lost in the hair at the back of Jared's head. Soft, silky hair. Still damp at the nape from a recent shower, she guessed.
Neither said a word as the music ended and they stepped apart. Then, in an instant, Jared placed a gentle kiss on her cheek. She held her breath, wishing his lips might linger there.
Jared stepped back, and gave her what seemed like an embarrassed smile. She could easily imagine him as a shy teenager.
Finally he broke the silence. “Thanks. Really. I've always loved that Buddy Holly song and I honestly can't remember ever having the chance to dance to it.”
Lacey gazed back at him, feeling confused and more than a little curious.
So, Mr. Dancing Cowboy, what happened to your wedding ring?