The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 6

 

 

 

 

Rose was not a hoarder. Everything in her house was well dusted and arranged, which made her a serious collector. A small table flanked every one of the seven rocking chairs in her living room. Each one had a fancy lamp sitting on a snow-white crocheted doily and surrounded by a matching arrangement of ceramic or china ducks, pigs, chickens, fancy miniature shoes, or snowmen. And that was just at first glance. After she’d taken a seat on the sofa, Emily noticed even more collections on shelves, two corner cabinets, and there was even a group of ceramic cats on a pretty knitted blanket under the coffee table.

 

 

The coffee table sported a long white table runner and was covered with crystal plates of finger foods: cheese and summer sausage on long toothpicks with cute little green paper fans on the ends, cookies, and crackers spread with a cream cheese mixture and topped with an olive or a tiny pickle.

 

A pitcher of lemonade and one of sweet tea and eight glasses waited on top of one of those antique pushcarts with three shelves. A pretty crystal ice bucket took up the middle shelf with extra paper plates and napkins on the bottom one.

 

Seven ladies each claimed a rocking chair, set a colorful tote bag at their feet, and pulled out their craft for the day. Emily folded her hands in her lap and watched Clarice and Dotty’s crochet hooks working in a blur as the ball of white cotton thread bounced around in their bags.

 

Rose was knitting just as fast as Dotty and Clarice crocheted, but evidently it did not affect her ability to talk. “Clarice, have you explained this to Emily?”

 

“We have our bazaar the last Saturday in February every year. We make crafts all year, meeting here at Rose’s on Saturday afternoons when we can. It’s not set in stone and sometimes all of us can’t be here, but we try, and ‘I don’t want to’ is not an acceptable excuse. We use the money we make to put into our fund for the ladies’ auxiliary to give a scholarship to one senior girl from Ravenna. Sometimes we can give a five-hundred-dollar scholarship; sometimes we can only do half that much. But it all adds up.”

 

Rose chimed in when Clarice stopped. “The economy isn’t what it used to be. One year we gave a girl a thousand-dollar-scholarship, but folks don’t come out to a bazaar and bean supper like they used to. I’d love to see the day when we could offer one of our country girls at least a two-year ride.”

 

“Then make it a bigger affair,” Emily said.

 

“How?” Dotty asked. “Our mommas did the bazaar before us and probably our grandmas before them. If it could be crocheted, stitched, sewn, or knitted the months comin’ up to the bazaar or baked on the day before, we’ve done it. Folks just ain’t interested in little church bazaars like they used to be.”

 

“Offer something that people will get all excited about even during a bad economy. Ever thought about an auction in addition to all the things you make?”

 

Dotty looked up. “What would we auction off?”

 

Emily’s first thought was a million dollars’ worth of knickknacks from Rose’s house, but she asked, “How much trouble would it be to clean up the sale barn?”

 

“What are we going to auction? Tractors or cattle?” Clarice asked.

 

“Cowboys,” Emily said.

 

All seven rockers stopped moving and she had their undivided attention.

 

She took a deep breath and went on, “We did this in Happy one time to raise money for a local family when their house burned. Only we did it at the town park because it was in the hot summertime. Cowboys volunteered their time, and at that auction folks bid on the cowboys to work for them for an eight-hour day, and all the money went to the family. Raised enough for a down payment on a really nice double-wide trailer. The next week they were living in it and most of the cowboys had already worked off their debt.”

 

Clarice clapped her hands. “I love it.”

 

“We’ve only got two weeks,” Dotty said.

 

“We could move mountains in two weeks,” Clarice said. “Tell us more, Emily.”

 

“You could have barbecue sandwiches and chips, and all the ladies could bring desserts. Charge five dollars at the door and the price includes the supper. Then anyone who wants to bid on a cowboy has to buy a ten-dollar fan. You can make those out of card stock and ice cream sticks that you get at the craft store. Put a cowboy’s picture on one side of the fan and a number on the other. That makes even more money. I can print them off the computer. Most of the cowboys will have a usable picture from their ranch websites. Then put out your bazaar stuff for people to buy while they are waiting on the auction. You need a dozen or so cowboys, an auctioneer, and a bunch of tables so people can sit around and talk while they’re eating and waiting and, of course, buying all your beautiful handcrafted items. More folks would be there, so more would get sold, right?”

 

“And the cowboys? Do they work for eight hours?” Rose asked.

 

“I saw a movie once where they were auctioning off really rich men in Louisiana.”

 

“You could make the cowboy go on a date with the lady who buys him, or work eight hours if it’s a rancher who wins. We could make a few posters in the office at the ranch and put them up in all the surrounding areas to draw in the single women,” Emily suggested.

 

Clarice’s smile got bigger. “I like it.”

 

Madge raised her hand and waved it around like a little girl in first grade who knew the answer to the question the teacher had asked. “Oh, oh! I’ve got a cousin in Dallas who went to one of those date auctions a few years ago. This famous painter was there and she gave a painting to be auctioned, but then they auctioned the men at the party off and they had to spend the evening with whoever bought them. They could have dinner with them right there and leave with them or whatever. She said it was really a lot of fun, and it brought a lot of money.”

 

Dotty was nodding furiously and getting into the idea now. “Only instead of a date auction, it could be a cowboy auction and we could tell… well, shit, Clarice, we’re going to have to tell Emily since she’s going to be a part of this. Hell, maybe she could even fill in for Prissy when we get in a jam.”

 

“Tell me what?” Emily asked.

 

Clarice nodded at Dotty, and the four ladies exchanged a long look. The air was pregnant with tension while they decided what they were going to do, and then finally Dotty smiled.

 

“It’s like this,” Dotty said. “We tried to fix Greg up with Prissy when he first came to live on the ranch, but it didn’t work. So we hired her to help us out and we’ve been lookin’ for the right wife for him for more than a year. We’ve got her under one of them gag order things so she can’t tell him.”

 

Rose took up the conversation. “He’s real busy and he don’t have a lot of time to socialize, so we’re helping him out. Prissy told us to tell him about these dating sites, and he laughed at Dotty when she mentioned it, so we just took things in our own hands. I’ve got the Western Match dating site. It’s my job to be Greg an hour a day and meet all the women who think his profile is wonderful. Prissy helped me set it up, and we made a little book with all that OMG and WTF in it. I about died when I found out what some of them stand for, but God ain’t zapped me dead for writing it yet. I figure it’s not such a big sin if you just use the letters, and in my mind, I always say what the fizzle instead of that naughty word.”

 

Emily gulped half a glass of tea before she came up for air. Greg would just die if he knew what they were up to.

 

“And I’m in charge of Christian Mingle,” Clarice said. “Rose put on her profile that Greg is a rancher who is available to single women ages twenty-five to thirty-four. I put on mine that he’s a good Christian man lookin’ for a good woman who loves the land.”

 

Emily felt her eyes popping dangerously open. Could eyeballs be put back in her head if they fell out in her lap?

 

“It’s secret and nobody can know. We call each other every day and report on the women who look good to us,” Rose said. “If you tell, Clarice will fire you on the spot.”

 

 

“She won’t tell. She’s one of us now,” Clarice said.

 

“Well, we could make her raise her right hand and put the other one on the Bible and swear to God,” Dotty said.

 

“It isn’t necessary. What is said at bazaar meetings stays at bazaar meetings, and anyone who tells, God just strikes them dead on the spot,” Madge said. “I’m in charge of Farmers Only. The women who throw up their profiles when I’m Greg are supposed to know about farmin’, but some of them are just flat-out lyin’. It ain’t very many who I’d bring out here to meet him.”

 

Emily was still speechless when she looked at Dotty.

 

“I got Plenty of Fish. Hell, I don’t care if they are ranchers or Christian. We can bring them to Jesus and make them ranchin’ women. I just want to have a bunch of them so I can choose which one might work as a wife.”

 

Rose nodded toward the tea and lemonade. “Emily, would you be bartender and bring us something to drink? Now, whoever buys the cowboy gets him for the evening, right? So we’d need to have the auction at, say, six o’clock? And are we going to tell about it on our dating sites so Greg can have lots and lots of women bidding on him?”

 

Emily filled seven glasses and handed one to each of the ladies. Then she picked up the lemonade in one hand and the sweet tea in the other. Her hands were shaking so bad that she gripped the pitchers until her knuckles turned white.

 

Clarice pointed at the lemonade when Emily crossed the floor toward her. “Let’s each invite our top four ladies and open the doors at four for the bazaar. Serve barbecue at five and then have the auction at six. How much do you think Greg will go for?”

 

“Or Mason? I can talk him into it for sure. Hey, if we find Greg a wife, then we should get Prissy or Emily to help us make a profile for Mason. We could be the marriage angels of Fannin County,” Rose said.

 

The next lady pointed at the tea. “Oh, my nephew, Carson, has been trying to outrun one lady over in Savoy for months. I bet she’d pay big bucks to own him for the whole evening. This is a great idea, Clarice, and if we find a wife for Greg, I’d sure be tossing Carson’s name in the hat for y’all four to work on next year,” another said. “We’ll all come about noon and help set up things, and we’ll stay and help clean up afterward. I bet we can offer a two-year scholarship this year, and more folks will turn out if it’s on Lightning Ridge rather than in the fellowship hall at the church.”

 

“Hmmph!” Madge went back to her knitting. “Folks think if they walk into a church religion is going to jump out from the corners and attack them.”

 

“Ain’t it the truth.” Rose nodded.

 

Clarice set her glass on a cute little paper coaster on the table beside her. “I love this idea. And y’all can help set up, but the hired hands can clean out the barn and tear it all down afterward. We’re too old to be hustlin’ folding tables and sweeping down cobwebs. And Max can be our auctioneer—that way we won’t have to be out any money paying one. He does that for our cattle sale in the fall. Doors open at four with our wares on display, and that includes the cowboys for sale. They can all be sitting in a chair in the middle of the sale ring. We won’t make them stay in stalls. At five the auction starts and whoever buys that cowboy has to buy his supper. She owns him for the night. What do y’all think of that?”

 

“Great idea, Clarice,” Emily said.

 

Lemonade lady followed Clarice’s lead and set her glass to the side and picked up her embroidery. “Hey, y’all want to have a dance too? I got a niece I can get to play for free. She and her band gear up on Saturday night just to practice when they don’t have a real job. They can practice for a crowd as well as in her barn. And Emily, let me introduce the rest of us to you. I’m sorry I didn’t think to do it before now. We’ve all heard so much about you that we felt like we knew you, but I forgot you didn’t know us. I’m Ivy. That lady working with the pink baby yarn is Edna, and the one beside her is June. We’re glad you are working for Clarice. If you stay around these parts we’ll have to entice you into the auxiliary. We need new blood and new ideas.”

 

Dotty talked as she worked. “Is there some way we could make the cowboy give us money for the dances?”

 

“How about we don’t have the auction until the end of the evening and the ladies with the fans have to pay a dollar a song to dance with them all evening?” Madge said.

 

“I like that. It’ll make even more money.” Clarice’s eyes twinkled. “The auction will close out the bazaar. The cowboys all sit in the sale ring when the band starts playing and they only dance with the ladies who pay their dollar. Only the women with a bidding fan can dance with them.”

 

“Kind of like one of them speed dating things on television, only it’ll be speed dancin’.” Madge nodded.

 

Emily returned the pitchers and sat back down. By the end of the afternoon, they’d have it all worked out and some lucky high school senior girl would wind up with a full scholarship from the ladies’ auxiliary that year.

 

“And what does the lucky girl get who wins the bid on her cowboy? It will be too late for a date with them at that time of night,” Emily asked.

 

“A date the next Friday night. She gets to plan it and he has to pay for it,” Edna said.

 

Emily figured it out in her head. If the bazaar was held on the last Saturday night in the month, then the cowboy dates would be on the last day of February. She’d told Taylor when she drove away from her ranch that she’d be home by the first day of March. If she had enough money to outbid at least sixteen dating site women plus all the other ladies in the area would be the billion-dollar question.

 

***

 

Clarice was rereading one of the letters she’d written to Marvin when she heard a familiar knock on her door. Two short raps followed by three speedy ones.

 

“Come in, Dotty,” she called out.

 

Dotty carried two cups of coffee on a tray into the room and set them down on the end table beside Clarice’s rocker. “Reading them again, are you?”

 

“Thank you. After all that nibbling at Rose’s place, I’m ready for coffee. And yes, I’m reading again. It’s a good thing that I didn’t buy a bus ticket to go see him. I was so young and naive, and he was so romantic. He could have sweet-talked me into believing anything.”

 

Dotty settled into the corner of the sofa with a cup of coffee in her hand. “You were both young. You would have grown up and grown old together, but that wasn’t what your destiny was. Mine and Rose’s and Madge’s was to come to Texas so we could grow old together after we lost our husbands. Yours was to marry Lester and have a wonderful son with him. Which reminds me, have you told Bart about all this?”

 

Clarice shook her head. “Not yet. He calls on Sunday afternoon, which is tomorrow. I’ll tell him then, but only because I have to explain why Emily is here. Dotty, do you really think that everything happens for a reason?”

 

“Damn straight tootin’ I do. It might not work out between Emily and Greg, but it was their destiny to meet to see if it would. We can like it or not like it, but when it comes down to the final period on the letter, the choice is theirs,” Dotty answered.

 

“But Marvin and I didn’t have a choice,” Clarice said.

 

 

“Sure you did. You could have hunted him down in person when the letters kept coming back to you. He could have swallowed his pride and come looking for you. He had your address and knew exactly how to find you. Ravenna isn’t Dallas, darlin’.”

 

Clarice dropped the letter back into the boot box in her lap. “Kind of like two paths in the forest, right?”

 

Dotty nodded. “That’s right, only a big oak tree had fallen across one path and you didn’t want to climb over it and ruin your stockings. They were expensive in those days, remember?”

 

Clarice giggled like a little girl. “You always make it easy to understand.”

 

Dotty changed the subject. “Do you remember those stockings and the garters?”

 

“Of course I do, and the garter belts and those little fasteners that felt like we were sitting on rocks during Sunday morning church services,” Clarice said.

 

“I thought God had sent us a miracle when the first panty hose came out.”

 

“He did! And now down deep in my heart I think he’s sent us another one and her name is Emily.”

 

Dotty leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t say that out loud. If Greg hears you, he’ll run like a scalded hound.”

 

“It’s time. He’s thirty,” Clarice said.

 

“The banister is getting dusty,” Dotty said with a wink.

 

“Needs some kids to slide down it. We’re workin’ on it. Do you think Emily was jealous today?” Clarice’s eyes twinkled.

 

Dotty slapped a hand over her mouth to keep the laughter from exploding. When she had it under control she asked, “Oh, hell, yeah, she was jealous. You got your four candidates picked out?”

 

Clarice shook her head. “But I’m going to decide before the end of the week. And I’m going to pick out the wildest ones of the lot just so they’ll go after Greg and make her more jealous.”

 

“You tell Greg yet that he’s going to be auctioned off like a prize bull?”

 

“You can tell him. I’ve got to figure out how in the devil I’m going to tell this whole story to Bart,” Clarice said.

 

“The hell I will! I’d rather tell Bart about Marvin as that.”

 

***

 

The walls of the bedroom closed in around Emily. Dusk was settling early with clouds rolling down from the north. Greg had disappeared after supper. Dotty and Clarice had gone to their rooms, most likely to pretend to be Greg on their dating sites. The weather site on her laptop said that there was a cold front coming from Oklahoma and that it could dump up to two inches of snow on them. More than likely north Texas would get a layer of ice and sleet instead of pretty snow. If she’d made a different decision at the first of the week, she’d be sitting on the beach. True, it wouldn’t be hot and sunny, but it wouldn’t have a coat of ice on the sand.

 

She pulled back the curtain and looked out. Were the horses out there in the stable so far, that she couldn’t see them, as restless as she was?

 

Gramps always said that when something was troubling the soul, even when a person had no idea what was doing the troubling, that good old hard work would bring it to surface. She’d mucked out stables at midnight, stacked hay in the barns in the middle of the night, even scrubbed the kitchen floor lots and lots of times, trying to make sense of the antsy feeling.

 

There was no way she was going to scrub the floor at Lightning Ridge. It would offend Dotty if she found Emily on her knees working on an already clean floor. Or else Clarice would think she was crazy and send her packing. The thought of leaving Lightning Ridge put a painful catch in her chest.

 

She tried reading, but that didn’t work. She turned on the television and it bored her. She checked the clock. Only fifteen minutes had passed since she first came up to her room. Lord, it was going to be a long night if she didn’t find something to do.

 

Finally she put on her boots and work coat and slipped out into the hallway, down the stairs, out the back door, and to her truck. She remembered the way to the horse stables, and there was always leather that could be cleaned in the tack room.

 

The north wind rattled through the bare mesquite branches and seeped through her coat, chilling her from the inside out as she ran from truck to stables. A few horses snorted as she passed their stalls, but a quick check said their stables had been done that day and were in good shape. Down the center aisle she could see a sliver of light coming from under the door of the old tack room. Had she left it on when she returned the wheelbarrow and shovel? That was days and days ago.

 

She peeked inside the window and there was Greg sitting at the old weathered table in the middle of the room. She rapped on the window and waited for him to look up. He motioned her inside, so she opened the door.

 

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

 

“Had trouble sleeping and thought I might find some good hard work to wear me plumb out. What are you doing here?” she asked.

 

“Making peace.”

 

She pointed. “Is that your grandpa’s saddle?”

 

He nodded.

 

“You should be whupped for letting it get like that.” She removed her coat and gloves and rolled up her sleeves, stuck her hand down in the bucket of water beside the saddle, and brought up an extra cleaning sponge. She squeezed out most of the water and then rubbed in the saddle soap until it was lathered up.

 

He fished a second sponge from the bucket and started working on the stirrup leathers. “I couldn’t make myself come back in this room until tonight. And I told the hired help not to touch his saddle when they took things from here to the new room.”

 

“I’m surprised it’s in as good a shape as it is.” She made sure she got soap into all the nooks and crevices of the saddle. “I would have expected it to be dried and cracked.”

 

“He’d treated it before he put it in the closet over there. He rode the day before he died,” Greg said.

 

She gave the saddle a once-over and then picked up a dry rag to wipe all the excess lather away, then stood back and looked at it again. “Where’s the oil sponge?”

 

He tilted his head toward cabinets on the left side of the tack room. She quickly found it and poured a generous amount of oil into one of the old sponges. He did the same and together they rubbed enough into the leather to make it just slightly damp. Their fingers got tangled up and the touch of his warm, wet fingers brushing against hers shot delicious shivers through her veins.

 

“And now the conditioner,” he said.

 

Did that bit of hoarseness in his voice mean that he was affected as much as she was? She looked across the table and their gaze met, but he quickly blinked and picked up a couple of clean rags.

 

She started the final step while he conditioned the stirrups and then he joined her, rubbing the conditioner all over the saddle. The air in the tack room reminded her of the way it felt right before a tornado struck out in west Texas. Everything would suddenly go so still that it was downright scary. The next sound would be an electrical crackle in the air like power lines falling. And then all hell would break loose.

 

The hair on the back of her neck prickled. The stillness was eerie and the quietness deafening as she waited for the storm to hit. The air fizzed around them. She wanted him to say something, anything to fill up the weird emptiness in the room, but he just stared at the saddle.

 

The fabric of his thermal knit shirt stretched across his chest and biceps. He’d pushed the sleeves up to his elbows to keep from getting them wet, and the dark hair on his arms was plastered against his skin. His fingers were long and his hands broad, like a working man’s should be.

 

 

Emily had never wanted to touch a man more than she did at that moment, but the timing wasn’t right. His thoughts were on his grandfather, not the woman in front of him.

 

Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “Thank you.”

 

“Gramps used to say that hard work would help a person figure through their problems,” she said.

 

“Grandpa said the best way to get to know a person was to work along beside them.” He smiled.

 

“Couple of wise old men, weren’t they?”

 

“Wonder what they would have thought of each other, what with them both loving the same woman at different times in their lives?” he mused aloud.

 

“Shows they both had good taste in women.” She smiled.

 

“Guess it does. Want to go for a moonlight ride?”

 

“Horses or four-wheeler?” she asked.

 

“Four-wheeler. Easier to get out and put back and we wouldn’t have to rub it down or saddle it up,” he said.

 

“You sure you’re ready to leave this room? Want some more time alone? I can go on back to the house.”

 

He picked up his cowboy hat, settled it on his head, and held the tack room door open for her. “I’m good now, and I really need some company.”

 

Her heart floated. Lord, it was good to be needed again, even if it was just for company. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized the big hole her grandfather’s passing had put in her heart simply because she was alone in the world.

 

***

 

The warmth of Emily’s body snuggled up against his back chased away the chill of the night air whipping around the speeding four-wheeler. At times the dark clouds shifted and stars popped out from behind them, but it didn’t take long for the clouds to cover them up again. The headlights on the four-wheeler showed a path that was little more than tire tracks and dead grass, but Greg knew exactly where he was going. He’d been there so often that he could have driven there blindfolded in the pitch-black dark with no lights at all.

 

When he braked in front of the old log cabin, Emily hopped off and clapped her hands together to warm them. Even with good lined leather gloves, they felt numb.

 

“What’s this?” she asked.

 

“Grandpa’s old hunting cabin. I haven’t been up here since he died either. Thought I might as well do up the evening right and get it over with,” he said.

 

“Are you going inside?” she asked.

 

“If you’ll go with me. I haven’t been inside since… well, you know. The hired hands come up here during deer season and stay a few days at a time whenever they want to, but…” He let the sentence dangle.

 

“Looks like the perfect place to set up a moonshine still back here in all these trees. No one could spot the smoke or smell it,” she said.

 

He raised an eyebrow. “Moonshine?”

 

“Gramps kept one going on his place until he got sick. His dad made it during Prohibition and they used the money he made to buy the ranch out in west Texas. That’s why it’s called Shine Canyon Ranch. Gramps and I stilled off one batch every fall. Stump liquor, he called it,” she said.

 

He stepped up on the porch and opened the door. “And did you like that moonshine, Emily?”

 

“Not particularly. It burned like pure fire going down, but I sampled it with him and we always used it for a New Year’s toast.”

 

He picked up a box of matches and lit an oil lamp. The cabin was a sixteen-foot square with bunk beds on one side, a broken-down sofa facing a fireplace in the center, and a table with a few pots and pans and mismatched dishes on the other side of the room. Behind the sofa was one of those old red tables with chrome legs and four matching chairs.

 

He removed his hat and hung it on a nail beside the door. “Want to set up a still?”

 

“Oh, no! Not me! I could make a batch, but Clarice would throw me off the property if I led her fair-haired boy into temptation.” She sat down on the sofa and pulled her coat tighter around her body. She wondered just what those sixteen women would look like and what he’d do when he figured out that they thought they’d been chatting with him for all those months.

 

“I’m not fair-haired, but she might get mad at us if Dotty got into the ’shine. It’s cold in here. Let’s build a fire.”

 

“But then we’d have to stay until it went out. Did you come up here to hunt?”

 

Greg sat down on the other end of the sofa and patted the place beside him. “Every single year. We stayed for three days and went home the evening before Thanksgiving. Grandpa said that gave the women folks time to cook and fuss around in the kitchen without us underfoot and it gave us some time to eat beans out of the can and chocolate cupcakes whenever we wanted.”

 

She sat but kept a foot of space between them. One touch would kindle a fire that could only be put out one way, and as much as she wanted to be tangled up with him under the quilt on one of those bunk beds, her heart said the timing was still wrong.

 

“You hunted with your grandfather. I made ’shine with mine. Two different men altogether, but I think they might have liked each other.”

 

He stole glances at her while they sat in comfortable silence. He’d never brought another woman to the cabin, but if he had, he couldn’t imagine a single one of them waiting patiently for him to bury his ghosts and say good-bye to his grandfather.

 

“Good memories,” he said finally.

 

“That’s all we got when they are gone.”

 

“You ready?” he asked.

 

She turned toward him. “When you are. I’m not in a hurry if you need some more time. And all this brought back memories of my grandfather. We didn’t have a cabin, but we did have a campsite.”

 

He stood up and held out his hand. “Emily Cooper, you are one in a million.”

 

She put her hand in his and let him pull her up. “That could be a compliment if I’m the best gold piece in a million. But it could be something altogether different if I’m one in a million when they measure cow patties.”

 

He chuckled. “You do have a way with words.”

 

He pulled her close to his chest and tipped her chin up with his knuckles. His lips were cold, but the kiss was pure red-hot fire that heated her from the core of her heart all the way to the tips of her fingers that were splayed out on his chest. She could hear his heart thumping in unison with hers. She wasn’t sure how he managed it, but suddenly his gloves were gone and his bare hands cupped her cheeks, fingers making lazy circles on her temples as he deepened the next kiss. She opened her mouth to grant him entrance and pressed closer to him. She jerked her gloves off and dropped them on the floor so she could feel the skin on his neck. Who knew that fingertips could be an erotic zone?

 

“God, Emily,” he said.

 

“I know,” she said.

 

He made the first move to step back and said, “We’d better get going. One more of those and we’ll never leave this place.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“There wouldn’t be anything left but ashes in the morning.” He grinned.

 

“I bet the ashes would be hot for a long, long time.” She smiled back.

 

He retrieved her gloves and kissed her fingertips before he put them back on her hands, then he picked his up from the sofa and jammed his hands back into them. “Ready?”

 

“No, but I expect we’d better leave anyway.”

 

Emily hugged up close to his back, her arms around him and her cheek against the rough texture of his work jacket. The roar of the four-wheeler engine was nothing compared to the noise of her heart thumping against her ribs. The first flakes of wet snow peppered against her face as Greg braked and brought the machine to a stop just inside the lean-to on the side of the sables.

 

 

“Looks like we are going to get in on that storm like they said. It always happens on the weekends when help is short. You going to be up for moving cattle or feeding tomorrow morning?” he asked.

 

Weather! How could he be talking about the damn weather when all she could think about was hot kisses, wild sex, and more hot kisses?

 

“Miz Clarice says that I’ll be driving her and the ladies to church,” she said.

 

“Not if this keeps up. When it snows or ices the preacher calls off church. He lives outside of town and he doesn’t drive in the bad weather. It only happens about once every two or three years at the most, but I’d be willing to bet that tomorrow is slick enough that there won’t be services,” Greg said.

 

“If we don’t go to church, then, yes, of course I’ll help. Time to go now or…” She let the sentence hang.

 

“Guess we’d better,” he said.

 

They walked side by side, hands brushing, but neither of them made the first move to grasp the other. He opened the truck door for her and hurried to his own truck, hopped inside, removed his Stetson, and brushed the snowflakes from the brim before putting it on the passenger seat beside him. He waved for her to go ahead of him, so she started the engine and turned on the windshield wipers. The snow had gotten serious and the wind had picked up. The swirling snow made a black-and-white kaleidoscope in the headlights, but Emily was so deep inside her own thoughts that she didn’t even appreciate the beauty.

 

She parked, hopped out of the truck, jogged up on the porch, stuffed her gloves and stocking hat into her pockets, and hung her coat on a rack inside the kitchen door. Greg had parked out front and she heard him stomping the snow from his boots on the porch before he came in through the front door.

 

Greg met her in the foyer. He’d hung up his coat and hat and left his boots by the hall tree. He traced her jawline with his forefinger, then tipped her chin up and brushed a sweet kiss across her lips.

 

Dotty yelled, “Hey, Greg, come on in here. Prissy stopped by.”

 

Emily’s phone rang and she smiled up at Greg. “Bad timing. Be there in a minute.” She fished it out and said, “Well, hello, Dusty, darlin’. No, it’s not too late to call. It’s only eight o’clock. I’ve missed you too. I’d love to go to the Valentine’s party with you…”

 

***

 

All the passion turned to instant jealousy in Greg’s heart and soul. Dammit, anyway! She’d said she wasn’t involved with anyone, so who in the hell was Dusty, darlin’?

 

“Do I hear you out there too, Emily? Come on in and have a cup of hot chocolate with us. Prissy came by this evening to help me with a computer problem,” Clarice said.

 

Emily whispered something and shoved the phone back in her pocket.

 

“Hi, y’all.” Prissy smiled. “We were just talking about the Valentine’s party. Want to go with me, Greg?”

 

“Oh, I have a date for the party,” he said.

 

“And who is that?” Clarice asked.

 

“Just someone that I really, really think a lot of,” Greg said.

 

Prissy smiled. “Well, rats! I thought we could go as friends so we wouldn’t be all alone. If you’ve got a date, I’m not going. Thanks for the sweet tea, Miz Clarice. If you have any more trouble with that pesky site on your computer, just call me.”

 

Greg’s phone rang and he dug it out of his hip pocket. “Okay, okay, I’m on my way.”

 

He hung up and said, “Max needs me to come to the bunkhouse and help him fix the hot water tank down there. See y’all later.”

 

“Glass of sweet tea?” Clarice looked at Emily.

 

“I’d love some, but I really should return my cousin’s call. She called to ask me to go with her to the Valentine’s party out at Happy and I left her hanging. I don’t want to make that long drive. Thank you, though. See you in the morning for church?”

 

“Madge already called. No church tomorrow, so I guess you are on your own,” Clarice said.

 

“I promised Greg I’d help him with feeding if we weren’t going to church,” she mumbled.

 

Blast her promises all the way to hell! She didn’t want to spend the morning with Greg in dozens of feeding lots full of cows in the cold weather when he had a date with another woman for the Valentine’s party. He’d kissed her and he’d told her that he wasn’t involved with anyone. How could he not be involved if they were going to something as big as a Valentine’s dance together?

 

Dammit! How in the hell can things get so complicated in such a short time? Shit! I sound like Dotty.