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Authors: LuAnn McLane

He's No Prince Charming (23 page)

BOOK: He's No Prince Charming
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But he didn’t.

He actually tried a couple of times just that day to think of marina-related issues as an excuse to contact her, simply to hear the sound of her voice. Once he even picked up the phone and dialed her number. “God, how lame is that?” he voiced out loud, and then sat up straight and frowned. “What?” He cocked his head to the side, thinking he was hearing things when Dakota’s voice seemed to softly float to him on the evening breeze.

She was singing.

Trace closed his eyes and listened to the love song and pictured her on her front porch, strumming her guitar. The tightness in his leg ceased and he relaxed. A smile spread across his face.

And then the music stopped. He sat up and waited, straining his ears, but heard nothing but the buzz of insects and the howl of a coyote.

Okay, he was officially losing his mind. He settled back into the water, closed his eyes, and sighed once more.

“Care if I join you?”

Trace’s eyes opened wide and he shifted, slipped, and flopped around like a duck taking a bath.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” She arched one eyebrow and smiled.

Trace opened his mouth to say something but could only swallow hard when she started unbuttoning a western-cut plaid shirt tucked into frayed cutoffs. His heart hammered when she reached the last button, but instead of slipping out of the shirt, she stopped. Well, damn.

“You got any more longnecks in that cooler?”

“Yeah,” he finally croaked. The shorts barely covered her butt, and when she bent over and fished around in the ice, he about swallowed his tongue. She used the tail of her shirt to twist off the cap and then tilted the brown bottle up and took a long pull from the beer.

“That hit the spot,” she said, and licked her lips. She set the bottle down on the edge of the tub and slipped out of her shirt, revealing a shiny blue bikini bra. She took another drink of her beer, letting him look his fill before she shimmied out of her frayed cutoffs and kicked them to the side. “Here I come, cowboy.”

When Trace watched Dakota, wearing a tiny blue bikini, ease into the tub, he went from his duck impression to a fish opening and closing his mouth as if gasping for air. Deciding he needed to appear calm, cool, and collected, he closed his mouth and cleared his throat. He rested his arms on the edge of the tub and struck what he hoped was a nonchalant it’s-no-big-deal-that-you’re-here pose, but one elbow slipped on the slick surface and he slid sideways into the water. He came up sputtering. “I meant to do that.”

Dakota laughed softly. “Are we switching roles?”

Trace threaded his fingers through his wet hair, shoving it out of his eyes. “Just what’s going on here, Dakota?”

“I’ll cut to the chase. I love music. It is in my blood.”

“I know.”

“And you sent me away, thinking you would keep me from fulfilling my dreams if you asked me not to go.”

Trace remained silent, not sure if he was ready to put his heart out there yet again.

“But it’s songwriting that’s my passion, not performing.”

His heart beat harder, but he said, calmly, he hoped, “Okay.”

“Trace, I realize now that you let me go chasing my dreams instead of holding me back when you knew I would have stayed had you asked me to.”

Trace looked down at the water.

“Am I right?”

Trace hesitated, and then slowly lifted his head and looked at her across the shimmering surface. “Yes. And it was the single most difficult thing I have ever done. Bar none. And I’ve done some tough stuff in my day.”

“You love me that much?” she asked softly.

“Yes,” he answered quietly, firmly, and with conviction. “You know, when I was PBR World Champion, earning big purses and adored by fans, I thought that life was good. But you know what?”

“What?”

“It took me a while, but I figured it out. Fame is fleeting, Dakota. What we have here isn’t. The money was fun but meaningless. But what I have with you . . .” he began, but then pulled her into his arms and kissed her the way he had been dreaming about for two solid weeks. When he finally pulled back, he repeated, “What I have with you . . .”

“Will last forever,” she finished for him.

“Yes.” He gently brushed her wet hair from her face. “Dakota, you’ve healed me from the inside out. You make me relax, laugh, and sooth away my aches and pains.” He hesitated and then added, “And when I look in the mirror, my scar seems to fade—almost disappear.”

“You know, I never really did see it when I looked at you.” Dakota reached up and traced the scar with her fingertip. “I thought about you constantly while I was gone.”

“Good,” he said, and brought her fingertip to his mouth.

“And it ticked me off so much, on the way home I started writing a song called ‘He’s No Prince Charming.’ ”

“A song of revenge about me, huh?” Trace chuckled. “So you did find your inner kick-ass redneck.”

She gave him a little splash. “Yes, and I like it,” she teased, but then sobered. “Actually, what I’ve found is the confidence to live my life on my own terms. Do what’s right for me. When I won the Miss Teen beauty pageant, I allowed others to tell me the songs I should sing, what I should wear, how much I should weigh, for goodness’ sake! I hid my fears, my loneliness, and my sadness while doing what I was told to do instead of what I wanted to do. I pleased everyone else and never myself.” She cupped his cheeks in her hands. “But, Trace, you gave me my wings, let me go when you could have told me what to do too. You gave me the power to decide for myself.”

“I should have done it differently.”

She shook her head. “You knew me well enough to realize that any other way, I would have stayed. You allowed me to find myself. But you know what else? The day that we smashed the spider together, you made me realize that it’s okay to need someone too. I’ve wanted to stand on my own two feet for such a long time that I had to learn that it’s okay to reach out to others for help. I want you, Trace, but I need you too.”

“It feels good to be wanted, needed, loved.”

Dakota nodded and tapped his chest. “For who we are and not what we do.”

“I really do love you,” he said quietly, and then kissed her softly.

“And I love you, Trace. This is where I belong.”

“Me too,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her again, but pulled back when he heard footsteps and frantic yelling. “What in the world?”

“Gil, get your mangy-ass sorry self back here!” Sierra shouted. “Grady, call your dog!”

“Gil!” Grady yelled, but a moment later the Australian shepherd bounded around the corner to the back deck. Upon seeing Dakota, he ran over to the hot tub, skidded to a furry stop, put his paws up on the edge, and licked Dakota’s cheek.

“Gil!” Sierra rounded the bend in hot pursuit, followed closely by Grady.

“Sorry,” Grady said. “Gil saw you earlier and went nuts. His little stub of a tail wagged, and he was off like a rocket. I think he heard your voice too and just had to find you.”

“Hey, is that your kick-ass F-150 in your driveway?” Sierra asked, and jammed her thumb over her shoulder.

“Damn straight,” Dakota replied, and gave Sierra a high five.

“You traded your bimmer for a pickup truck?” Trace asked with a shake of his head.

“Sure did, and I love it,” she answered with a laugh. “I felt like I was queen of the road!”

“Nothin’ sexier than a hot little number behind the wheel of a truck,” Grady commented, and pulled Sierra to his side.

Trace leaned in closer to Dakota and said in her ear, “I agree.”

“If you’re lucky, maybe I’ll take you for a ride,” she whispered back, and then bent over and scratched behind Gil’s ears. “So you missed me, Gil?”

Gil answered with another tongue licking.

“Gil! Down!” Grady snapped his fingers and sighed. “Yeah, Dakota, thanks a lot. Everything went to hell in a handbasket after you left. Sierra has been on the war-path, Gil’s moped around lookin’ for ya, and Trace bit everybody’s head off that even came close to trying to talk to him. I tried to be the voice of reason, and you have to know that I wasn’t too good in that role. I gotta tell ya, it sucked.”

“Sorry, everybody.” Dakota looped an arm around Trace’s neck and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“You should be,” Trace said. “And you’ve got a lot of making up to do.”

Grady raised his hands in question. “So you’re back for good?”

“Yes.”

Grady raised his hands higher and looked up at the sky. “Thank you, God!”

Dakota laughed. “You say that now, but wait until I find myself in another pickle. You might just eat those words.”

Grady shook his head. “Never,” he said to Dakota, and hugged Sierra close. “We all missed you.”

“Thank you. It’s good to be here. Group hug?” Dakota asked with a smile, and got a groan from everyone.

“Hell, no,” Grady said. “Group splash!” He and Sierra kicked off their shoes and plopped into the hot tub, clothes and all. “Woo hoo!” Grady yelled, and the splashing began.

Dakota laughed until her sides hurt, and then hugged Trace. Yeah, it was good to finally be home.

Turn the page for a preview
of more down-home romance by LuAnn McLane,
REDNECK CINDERELLA
Available now from Signet Eclipse
“I’ll get it, Daddy,” I shout from where I’m washing the supper dishes.
“Okay, Jolie,” he calls back from his workshop just off the kitchen. He’s busy whittling Christmas ornaments for a craft show and I don’t want to interrupt him. This year’s drought hurt our tobacco crop, so what started out as a therapeutic hobby now brings in much-needed income. Another sharp rap at the front door has me grabbing a towel and hurrying through the living room to see who might be coming our way on such a cold night.

“Hold your horses,” I grumble. Our farm is miles from town, so it’s not as if we often have visitors just dropping in for social calls. After wiping my wet hands, I toss the dish towel over my shoulder and open the door.
Oh wow
rings in my head but doesn’t reach my mouth. Now, I’m not usually one to be rendered speechless, but when I see who is on our doorstep, I get tongue-tied and flustered.

“Jolie Russell?” our visitor asks.

“Ughaaaa.” Forgetting about my tongue-tied situation, I then try to respond but manage only this weird noise, which I then disguise as a sneeze. “Chu.” Sometimes you just have to think on your feet.

“God bless you.”

This time I’m smart enough to merely nod while rubbing my finger beneath my nose as if I really did sneeze.

“You are Jolie and your daddy is Wyatt Russell, correct?”

“Last time I checked.”

He gives me a half grin. “Good. The name and address on your mailbox were faded and I wanted to be sure I hadn’t taken a wrong turn in the dark. Cody Dean.” He extends his hand and I give him a firm handshake just like my daddy taught me.

“H-hey there,” I manage to sputter. Of course, like everybody else in Cottonwood, Kentucky, I’m already well aware of who he is. Cody, the elder son of Carl Dean, is back from his fancy Ivy League education to take over his daddy’s company. The Dean family is like royalty here in Cottonwood, with Cody being the prince. I also know that Dean Development has been buying up farmland for subdivisions all over Cottonwood, and I suddenly get light-headed at the prospect of why Cody is paying us a visit, because I’m pretty sure it isn’t to ask me on a date.

“Sorry to have stopped by unannounced, but may I come in?”

“Oh . . . why sure—where the hell are my manners?” I blurt out, and then wish my tongue had remained tied. “I mean, um, please, come on in,” I amend softly, since I tend to shout when I get jittery, even when it’s not necessary. With a smile that goes wobbly on me, I step aside for him to enter. As he passes me I get a whiff of expensive-smelling aftershave that makes me want to pant after him like a lovesick puppy. “Pop a squat,” I offer, and gesture toward the sofa. “Um, I mean, have a seat.” God, I suck at this.

“Thank you.” Cody’s tone is refined, but the hint of amusement in his blue eyes has my chin coming up a notch. Admittedly, I’m a bit lacking in social graces, having lost my mama at the tender age of ten. I’m more at home fishing and four-wheeling with guys than dressing up for dinner dates, not that shaking Cody’s hand didn’t give me a hot little tingle that traveled all the way to my toes. I might be a little rough around the edges, but I still have all my girl parts, and Cody Dean is making all of those particular areas stand up and take notice. But I remind myself that Cody Dean is here for a reason, but it sure isn’t to romance me.

When his gaze sweeps the room, pride stiffens my backbone. Unlike him, we might not have much, but although everything is old and outdated, it’s clean and as neat as a pin. I’m starting to get a little out of sorts as I watch him look around our humble home with what seems like open curiosity.

“What brings you here?” My blunt question carries slightly more bite than intended.

Cody’s dark eyebrows shoot up at my tone. “A business proposition,” he answers smoothly. “Is your father home, Jolie?”

Oh, holy crap. I tamp down the don’t-mess-with-me attitude that tends to land me in hot water, putting a smile back on my face. “Why yes, he is. I’ll get him. Um, make yourself at home.”

“Thanks.” He inclines his neatly cropped head and sits down on the sofa. I hope he thinks it’s an expensive antique instead of an ancient hand-me-down, but then beat myself up for caring. Cottonwood is a fairly small town, but it has a large social gap between old Southern money and dirt-poor farmers. Carl Dean has been known to be hard-nosed in his business dealings, but it’s been rumored that Cody is trying to soften the family reputation for ruthlessness.

My knees are a little shaky as I walk toward the doorway, but I suddenly remember my manners. “Would you like something to drink? Sweet tea?” I’m about to add crumpets just for fun, but I’m not sure what a crumpet is and I’m quite sure we don’t have any. About the best I could do is Oreos, and that’s if Daddy hasn’t eaten them all. Well, okay, I might have had one or two, starting with the icing first. The finer points of Southern hospitality must be in me somewhere, but because we so rarely have visitors, except for those who come for outdoor activities like four-wheeling, fishing, and such, I have few opportunities to practice those finer points. Still, I’m trying. “Anything?”

“No, thank you,” he says, but then adds, “On second thought, a bottle of water would be nice.”

Well, la-di-da. “Um, all I have is plain old water from the cistern.” My daddy thinks that buying bottled water is the dumbest damned thing ever imposed upon the American public, and I’m pretty much with him on that one. When Cody hesitates I add, “We’re fresh out of Perrier, but the tank is clean.”

His mouth twitches as if he isn’t sure if he should smile or not, but then he waves a hand at me. “That’s okay. I’m fine. Don’t go to any trouble.”

“Oh, it’s no bother.” Of course I’m going to bring him a glass of water just to be ornery. I’m bad that way, “I’ll go find Daddy.”

I walk slowly out of the room, wishing I were wearing something better than worn jeans and a George Strait T-shirt, but when I get to the kitchen I scurry into the workshop. “Daddy!” I say in what is a whisper for me but what is a normal tone for most folks. “Guess who’s sittin’ on our very own sofa?” Daddy blows sawdust off an angel, but when he opens his mouth to make a guess I blurt, “Cody Dean!”
Dean
comes out so high-pitched that our old mutt, Rufus, lifts his head and whines.

“Ya don’t say.” Daddy frowns and looks down at the angel with a critical eye.

“He wants to talk to you!” I tell him.

When Daddy doesn’t move, I reach over and tug him by his flannel shirt. “Hurry,” I urge, and all but drag him from the room. Although I love the farmhouse, I hate raising tobacco, the very crop that’s responsible for the death of my mama. “Just a second.” I pause to draw a glass of water from the faucet and make a mental bet with myself as to whether Cody will drink it.

When we enter the living room, Cody politely stands up and shakes my daddy’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Russell. May I have a few minutes of your time?”

Daddy nods, but I see the stubborn set of his jaw and my hope plummets. He eases down into the overstuffed chair while I march over and hand Cody the glass of water.

“Thank you,” he says, and while looking at me drains half the contents before setting it on the scarred coffee table. He gives me an I’m-on-to-you smile, and I can’t help but grin back at him. His smile deepens, causing a little dimple in his left cheek, and I have to grab the back of Daddy’s chair for support. I hang out with guys all the time, and while I’ve been sweet on one or two of them, none have ever turned me inside out with a mere smile.

“So, what brings you here?” Daddy asks, even though we suspect the reason. Rufus, who must sense the excitement in the air, sits back on his haunches and we all three look expectantly at Cody.

After clearing his throat, Cody leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. “There’s no reason to beat around the bush, Mr. Russell. I’d like to make you an offer for your land.”

“I’m not interested,” Daddy tells him.

What?
“Daddy, hear him out,” I say.

Cody shoots me a grateful glance. “I’m prepared to offer three million.”

When my knees give way I grab on to the back of the chair so hard that my fingernails dig into the nubby fabric.

“Sorry, Cody,” Daddy says.

Oh no!
A Little whimper escapes me.

“Three and a half million,” Cody counters, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Who knew that Daddy could bargain like this? I arch an eyebrow in an expression that says,
See, we’re not as stupid as we look.

“Money isn’t the issue, son. This here land is where I lived with my dear wife, Rosie. I’ll never leave it.”

Oh . . . emotion suddenly clogs my throat. I can’t argue with his reasoning, but I also have to think that Mama somehow has a hand in this sudden windfall. Color me crazy, but I tend to feel her presence now and then.

Cody steeples his fingers and for a long moment remains silent, but then says, “You don’t have to leave your land. I’ll set aside your plot and you can keep several of the wooded acres as well. Now, you
would
have to rebuild. Mr. Russell, this isn’t going to be your average subdivision. I’m proposing a gated community with upscale homes. I might add that this would bring in much-needed tax dollars to Cottonwood.”

Daddy shakes his head. “Who could afford homes like that around these parts?”

“Kentucky horse money. I’ve done my homework. There are plenty of wealthy Kentuckians. These homes will sell quickly. Of course, we would build your house first.”

Daddy slowly runs a hand down his face and then looks back at me. “Jolie? What do you think?”

I kneel down beside the chair and put a hand on his arm. “Daddy, I know that Mama would want this for you. It seems like a good thing all around.” I squeeze his arm. “It’s okay to do this,” I assure him, and then hold my breath.

My daddy’s eyebrows draw together and he gazes down at me for a moment before looking over at Cody. “Son, do we have a few days to think this through?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Russell. I have other property in mind as well and time is of the essence.”

Daddy sighs. “Well then, would you give us a minute or two?”

“Yes, sir, of course,” Cody answers with a little less determination and a bit more understanding.

“All righty then.” After standing up, Daddy takes my hand gives my arm a tug. “We’ll be back in a bit.”

“Take your time,” Cody says.

“Thank you,” Daddy responds. I’m suddenly very proud of my father. He might not run in the same circles as Carl Dean, but my daddy is a hardworking man of honor and conviction, and they don’t come any better. I’m irritated that Cody is forcing us into a decision this quickly and I wonder if this is a business tactic to put the hat on us and seal the deal. But when I toss a questioning glance his way, his dark head is bent toward the floor and he seems to be deep in thought.

Reaching the doorway, I look over my shoulder. As if Cody feels my gaze upon him, he suddenly looks up. When our eyes meet I feel an unexpected jolt of heat. His own eyes widen a fraction and I wonder if he feels it too. But then I tell myself I’m crazier than a June bug in May and quickly turn my head.

My tummy is doing flip-flops as I follow Daddy and Rufus into the workshop. What had begun as an ordinary winter night suddenly feels surreal. Trying to clear my head, I inhale a sharp breath that smells of sawdust and paint and then turn my attention to my father.

“Jolie-girl, what should we do?” He sits down in his whittling chair and rests his elbows on his knees.

“Oh, Daddy, don’t get me wrong. I love this farm. But I hate the constant struggle and worry on your shoulders.” I hesitate and then add, “And you know how I feel about the tobacco.” Lung cancer from smoking took my mother’s life. She was so beautiful and vibrant. Watching her suffer haunts me to this day.

He closes his blue eyes and swallows hard while absently scratching Rufus behind the ears. “Daddy.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “You deserve this.”

After a long sigh my father looks up as if he’s asking my mama for guidance and then, as if getting his answer, nods slowly. “Let’s do this, baby girl.”

My smile trembles a bit when he stands up and pulls me into his arms.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he answers gruffly, and then kisses the top of my head. “Now let’s go tell Mr. Cody Dean the good news.”

Entering the living room, Daddy looks Cody Dean straight in the eye, extends his hand, and says, “Son, you have a deal.”

Cody smiles and grasps Daddy’s hand. “Congratulations, Mr. Russell.” He glances at me and inclines his head. “And you too, Jolie. I’ll have the paperwork drawn up tomorrow, but I trust your handshake is binding.”

And just like that, we’re millionaires.

BOOK: He's No Prince Charming
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