Authors: Lori L. Robinett
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
by Lori L. Robinett
A Diamond J Romance
Lori L. Robinet
Published by Three Creeks Press
Copyright © 2016 Lori L. Robinett
Cover Design by JayCee DeLorenzo, Sweet & Spicy Designs
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is dedicated to my parents,
Dean and Alma Hazen,
for putting up with my obsessions: horses and books.
There are so many people who helped make this book possible. The biggest thanks goes to my critique group: Carolyn Paul Branch, Colleen Donnelly, Ericca Thornhill and Jennifer Bondurant, without whom this story never would have gotten finished. I also greatly appreciate the input of those kind souls who agreed to be beta readers for me: Holly Atkinson (Evil Eye Editing), Patricia Spencer (live long and prosper), and Lynn Simmons. Also, a hat tip to Jon Angell, who helped me through the technical aspects of cattle rustling and sale barns.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my book.
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And you're back? Great! Let's see what's happening at the Diamond J . . .
Silver bells jangled as the cowboy pushed through the front door of the scrapbook store. Gina and Midge stopped in mid-sentence. The cowboy was tall, easily six foot, with a broad chest straining against a red plaid flannel shirt rolled up to expose muscular forearms covered with a dusting of dark hair.
Midge was the first to recover. “Welcome to Memories & More!” Her hazel eyes rounded as she took in the visitor.
Gina glanced at her friend. Midge was taller by a couple of inches, thinner by several pounds, and a natural blonde. Gina tugged at her cotton t-shirt. She always felt pudgy and drab next to Midge. “Can we help you find anything?” Gina ran her fingers through her thick hair to smooth the unruly waves. She should’ve pulled it back today.
“Not yet. Just looking right now.” Stubble shadowed his face, accentuating his strong, square jaw. Scruffy boots identified him as a working man. His faded jeans, ragged at the hem, molded to his thighs.
Gina’s jaw dropped, until Midge reached over and tapped her under the chin. The two pretended to work as they watched him stroll around the store. Two other customers, both regulars, stopped shopping to watch him. Men weren’t unheard of in the store, but they were usually holding bags for their wives. The tall cowboy frowned as he examined the big color wheel posted on the wall.
Dottie, one of Gina’s best customers, approached the center island and dropped an assortment of papers on the counter. She tipped her head toward the cowboy. She mouthed, “Who’s the hottie?”
Midge shrugged and whispered, “Don’t know, but he’s fun to look at, isn’t he?”
The cowboy strolled closer. Dottie cleared her throat and said in a louder voice, “Did you hear about Frank and Ellie Donovan?”
Ellie was one of the Friday night scrappers. Gina asked, “What about them?”
“Rustlers. Stole every last cow they had.” Dottie made a clucking noise. “He was getting ready to send a bunch to the sale barn to make his farm payment. Woke up yesterday morning and they were gone.”
“That’s awful.” Midge let out a huff of air as she rang up the papers. “That’s the third one in as many weeks. Bernie & Jo Johnson were hit last week.”
Gina shook her head. “I sure hope they had insurance.” That kind of thing just didn’t happen in Wilder. It was safe. Low crime. Folks left their homes unlocked, dropped their car keys on their seats, walked after dark without fear. But the cattle rustlers were striking a deep blow, hitting the farmers where it hurt.
Midge slid Dottie’s change across the counter, which the other woman scooped up. As Dottie walked toward the door, she snuck a peek at the cowboy then glanced over her shoulder and winked.
The telephone jangled on the counter and the two women jumped. Midge snatched the receiver up. "Memories and More, where we help you preserve yours." She listened a second, then scrunched her nose and handed the phone to Gina, holding it like a stinky sock.
Gina sighed as she took the handset. As soon as she heard her ex-husband's voice, she knew the reason for the call and shook her head. “Don’t do this, Steve.” She fought to keep her tone civil, but her palms hurt where she pressed her fingernails into them. Acutely aware of the gorgeous man standing near the paper racks, she turned away and wandered toward the back of the store. Her eyes closed as she listened to her ex-husband’s litany of excuses.
Midge ducked around the paper racks and waved her hands to catch Gina’s attention, then mouthed, “Are you okay?”
Gina nodded at her friend, took a deep breath and hissed into the phone, “I have listened to your excuses over and over. Don’t walk away.”
Her lips pressed together as she listened to the disconnected voice. “I’m not walking away. Sometimes I can’t take Toby. This job—” He sounded stressed.
She cut him off. “Steve, please don't. I’ll—”
She sucked in a breath. What would she do? That was easy. “Nothing.”
“This job’ll be finished up this next week. I’ll see you soon, sweetheart.”
After she punched the red off button, she scowled at the phone and marched back to the center counter. “That man absolutely infuriates me!" She set the handset down on the counter a bit harder than she intended, and winced at the sharp pop of plastic against glass.
Gina ran both hands through her thick hair, then shrugged as she glanced over her shoulder at the only customer left in the store, the cowboy. “I’m fine. It’s Toby that I’m worried about. He’s been looking forward to seeing his daddy all week.”
“And Steve’s not coming.” Midge rolled her eyes. “Again.”
“You got it. Says he’s got a job to do. Second weekend in a row.” She let out a sigh and stared out the big front window without seeing anything.
Midge stepped forward, stopping beside Gina. Her right eyebrow arched up. “Is it legit?”
Gina shrugged. “Probably not. He always gets mixed up in things he shouldn’t.” She turned away from the window to look at her friend. Gina continued, “Trouble finds him.”
“Like when he was stealing from the distribution company.” Midge’s forehead creased. “You know, honey, that was a long time ago.”
“He let his buddies talk him into stealing beer off his truck.” Gina huffed at the memory. “When he got fired for that, I was stuck at home with our baby . . . Not smart. Not smart at all. I couldn’t depend on him then. Guess I still can’t.” He made her so angry. She was over him, but Toby wasn’t. It wasn’t fair. She walked back to the center island, with Midge trailing behind.
“You’re shaking.” Midge turned on her heel and walked toward the back of the store again. She called back over her shoulder, “Let me get you a water.”
Gina nodded and gripped the edge of the work counter until her fingertips were white, the blood forced from the tips. Why, after all these years, did Steve still have the power to get her so worked up?
They had only been together a year, but that year had been enough. She didn’t know if she’d ever trust a man again. She took a deep breath, straightened her back and squared her shoulders.
As she slipped behind the counter, her eyes wandered to a framed layout perched on an easel on the wooden album display case in the front window. All she could see was the back of the picture frame, but the image was clear in her mind. Toby wore his overalls, scuffed cowboy boots and a little John Deere hat, nestled among a heap of orange pumpkins.
He'd been three when the photo was snapped a couple of years ago at the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival. After Steve had cancelled his weekend visit, Toby’d been heartbroken. She took Toby on a quick jaunt to central Missouri and they spent the day wandering the festival, snacking on all the good food. On the trip home, he insisted she fasten the seat belt over the big pumpkin he picked out. When she looked at her little boy in the rear view mirror, his right hand rested on the pumpkin.
And now he was a big boy going to school, his daddy could break his heart just as easily as he did back then.
“Here ya go,” Midge said as she held out a plastic water bottle. Gina twisted the cap off, put the opening to her lips and tipped the bottle. The water stung her teeth, went down cold and wet. It hit her like a jolt, but did nothing to cool her anger.
She slammed the bottle down on the counter, a bit of water sloshing out onto the glass. She yanked a paper towel from the roll under the counter and wiped up the spill with an quick swipe. “That man makes me so angry sometimes.”
She gasped in surprise, turned at the low words, and took a good look at the owner of the voice. She’d all but forgotten the man in the store. He was even taller than she'd first thought, over six feet with broad shoulders. He regarded her with a crooked smile, his electric blue eyes twinkling under the brim of his worn cowboy hat. His teeth were white and straight, except for one front tooth that slightly overlapped the other. Thick dark hair curled around the edges of his Stetson. He tipped it back, leaned forward and rested his elbows on the counter. He slowly rubbed the rough stubble on his strong, square chin as he gazed intently at her.
“Gina?” Midge’s voice broke her reverie. For good measure, Midge poked Gina in the ribs. Color crept up Gina’s cheeks.
She shook her head and blinked. “I’m sorry. What was that?” She glanced down. He ducked his head and caught her eye. The right corner of his mouth twitched up in a grin, and she caught herself smiling back at him. Her eyes stayed locked with his as he stood straight. He was taller than her ex-husband, who’d been only a couple of inches taller than her. She pressed her lips together, irritated that she still compared every man she met to her ex.
His deep voice wasn’t loud, but had a quiet power to it. “I just said that I hadn’t been in here before, but hoped you ladies might be able to help me out.” He struck her as a gentleman, in spite of his attire, so much different than the brash tones of her ex’s voice.
Her first marriage had been the result of a hormone fueled sexual escapade that ended with her pregnant and him trapped. Their divorce was final before Toby mastered the art of crawling. And Gina had been alone ever since, if you didn't count the handful of disastrous dates she'd had over the years.
Gina stumbled forward as Midge’s hand pressed into the small of her back. Gina hadn’t even realized she’d taken a step back. The cowboy in front of her kept eye contact and winked at her. His eyes reminded her of a deep blue spring sky with lightning streaking across it.
Get it together!
She cleared her throat, then spread her hands, palms up, to indicate the store. “Can we help you find something?”
Midge broke in, “Perhaps a gift for your wife or girlfriend?”
The cowboy’s grin faded. “No, nothing like that. I’m from the Diamond J Ranch and the boss is wanting to do a big shindig for Memorial Day and wants to send out invitations or flyers or something.”
Gina nodded and turned toward the blank cards and envelopes section against the north wall. His boots echoed on the wooden floor as he followed her, and when she stopped, they stopped. For a moment, she stood, aware of him right behind her. She could almost feel his heat radiating toward her, reaching out for her.
She gave herself a shake. Ridiculous. That’s what this whole thing was. How could she even think about being attracted to a man, much less some minimum-wage making cowboy? If she ever did allow herself to fall for a man, he would have to be perfect. A solid, respectable man with a good job, who was kind and caring and thoughtful. Someone who could be her partner, a good role model for her son. Preferably good looking.
Granted, this guy met the height and weight requirements.
But he looked dark and dangerous, which she didn’t need in her life.
She took a deep breath, gathered her thoughts and pointed to the display. “Here are some blank cards, or you could do something on 8 ½ by 11 paper. Do you prefer cards or flyers?”
He shrugged. She let her eyes wander up and down him one more time. Waves of dark hair peeked out from under his black Stetson, probably permanently curled around his hat. Yes, he definitely had the physical attributes her dream man would have, even the blue eyes, but cowboy didn’t fit into her equation anywhere.
She pulled a plastic bag from a hook and held it up. “A card would be my suggestion.”
He took the package of blank cards from her, and his fingertips brushed hers. His hands were rough and calloused, a working man’s hands, yet his touch was gentle. The cowboy turned the package over and looked at it from every direction, doubt clouding his tanned features. His hat dipped slightly on his forehead as his dark eyebrows pinched together in a frown. He glanced at her and asked, “What do I do with them?”
She pointed toward the clear acrylic stamps hanging above the cards and envelopes. “You can stamp the invitations. You know, a who, what, when, where sort of thing. Then you can put a square of colored paper on the front, maybe some stickers or stamps that go with the theme of your party.”
Midge called out from the center counter island, “Gina is really good at making invitations. She does custom work!”
Gina spun toward her friend and opened her eyes wide in warning, but it was too late. The cowboy had heard the offer and his face brightened visibly.
“Really? You do that?”
Gina shook her head and waved her friend’s suggestion off. “No, I don’t. I just do them for my friends sometimes.”
He stuck out his right hand and she instinctively reached out with her own. He enveloped her hand in his and shook. “Then, we should be friends. I’m Aidan. Aidan Brackston.”
“Nice to meet you,” she murmured as she stared at their hands. Her hand fit so well into his, and it felt right. Comfortable. Warm. Strains of Sinatra drifted through the speakers, and it took her a moment to remember the name of the song.
Never Let Me Go . . . How appropriate.
He prompted, “And you are?”
She blinked rapidly. “Right! Sorry! I’m Gina Montgomery.”
Midge called out again. “She owns this place.”
Aidan continued to hold Gina’s hand. She looked at him and he met her gaze, holding it. Finally, her eyes wandered to his left hand hanging at his side, still clutching the bag of blank cards. No wedding ring. No tan line.
"Just Gina," Midge continued. “All by herself.”
Gina yanked her hand back as if she’d been bitten. This time, the color raced up her cheeks. She glared at Midge, who casually went back to straightening the baskets of findings lining the counter, sorting all the little metal charms and chains and fasteners, then Gina became acutely aware of how close Aidan stood to her. She took a step backwards and cleared her throat.
Aidan’s eyes danced and the corner of his mouth twitched up. Her cheeks burned under his amused gaze. She nodded toward her friend. “Midge also does invitations. Her prices are reasonable and she does good work. Perhaps she can help you.” She felt so awkward, so stupid. Good looking men always made her feel like a gawky teenager, and she hated that.
“I’m sorry—” He started to protest.
Gina’d heard enough excuses for one day. Her jaw jutted forward as she marched toward the back room, disappearing through the swinging door. Once in the backroom, alone, she cursed herself for walking out. For not being strong enough to stand there and take whatever might have come next. What was she afraid of, anyway? She glanced through the tiny Plexiglas window and saw him standing at the center island, one elbow leaned casually on the counter, one foot propped up in front of the other, toe on the ground. Midge leaned back against the post, an easy smile on her face.
That’s what she was afraid of.
Having a nice, normal conversation with a nice, normal man. Why? Simple, because there was no such thing. All interactions with men were for one reason and one reason only, for the man to get the woman in bed. Midge gave her hope, though, because Midge was married to a wonderful guy that treated her right. They were partners in life. They had the kind of relationship she hoped to have someday.
But, she reminded herself, Midge and Doug didn’t have the pressure of a child. Her own marriage had been doomed from the start. It started with her fat and cranky, with hormonal fluctuations that would have caused the best marriage to form a few stress fractures. Their marriage erupted in an explosion of hate and anger and blame when she confronted him about losing his trucking job. Steve walked out and left her to raise Toby on her own.
Not that Toby was a burden. He wasn’t. But having him meant she had to put his needs above hers. She didn’t have time to date. She couldn’t risk dating someone who wasn’t perfect. Toby’d had enough disappointment in his life. If she brought a guy around and Toby started to like him, and then things didn’t work out . . . well, that just wasn’t something she could risk.
She couldn’t run off with every good looking cowboy that caught her eye.
Not even one with deep blue eyes that sent a charge down her spine every time he looked at her.
Gina pressed against the Plexiglas window of the store room again, just as the door swung toward her. The door smacked her face with a sharp POP and she fell backwards, landing on her backside with a thump.
Light silhouetted the dark figure in the doorway, radiating around him like a halo. He bent toward her, hand extended, and the halo turned into a cowboy hat.
Ah, there was that good looking cowboy she was just thinking about . . .
She reached up and took his offered hand, and he pulled her up so she stood mere inches from him. She'd been right about his height. She looked straight ahead at his broad chest. His muscles filled out his red plaid flannel shirt. Dark hairs curled over the shirt where his top two buttons were undone. Her eyes wandered up the curve of his neck, over the strong line of his shadowed jaw, and settled on his lips. They were parted slightly, welcoming, inviting. She looked at those amazing blue eyes . . . which were not focused on her eyes, but staring openly at her chest.
There was a sharp pop as she slapped his face.