A Bride for a Blue-Ribbon Cowboy Judy Duarte HER CHALLENGE? TRANSFORMING FROM TOMBOY TO KNOCKOUT.HER PRIZE? THE COWBOY OF HER DREAMS.Outroping and outriding every man in Blossom was something Cindy Tucker could do with her eyes closed. But cooking, flirting and wearing high heels? Those were skills of a different kind–the kind she'd surely need to lasso a r husband. And the one person she trusted to teach her was Blake Gray Feather. He was the only man who'd ever made her lose her breath, who haunted her dreams, who hadn't yet figured out his childhood friend had grown up.But now, with their late-night sweet talk and soft kisses, she was seeing a different look in Blake's eyes…and that gave Cindy a newfound confidence in her womanly abilities. Because he fully intended to put Blake's "lessons" to use to win the heart of the only cowboy she'd ever loved… Blake was way out of her league. But boy howdy, that man was a looker, Cindy thought as he sauntered toward the porch. He’d inherited the absolute best his German and Comanche bloodlines had to offer. And eight years on his own, riding the rodeo circuit, had made him more handsome than ever. He carried himself with that lean, cowboy swagger, looking like a buckle bunny’s dream come true. And Cindy’s, too, if her pillow could talk. Blake looked at Cindy with a heart-stopping grin. “Hey, aren’t you going to give me a welcome-home hug?” She fought the urge to give him a great big hug—like she’d always done when she was younger. Because now she wanted him to see her as a woman. A Bride for a Blue-Ribbon Cowboy by Judy Duarte Flirting with Fireworks by Teresa Carpenter The Sheriff Wins a Wife by Jill Limber Her Gypsy Prince by Crystal Green Dear Reader, It’s two days before Christmas, and while the streets of New York City are teeming with all the sights and sounds of the holiday, here at Silhouette Romance we’re putting the finishing touches on our July schedule. In case you’re not familiar with publishing, we need that much lead time to produce the romances you enjoy. And, of course, I can’t help boasting already about the great lineup we’ve planned for you. Popular author Susan Meier heads the month with Baby Before Business (SR #1774), in which an all-work Scrooge gets his priorities in order when he discovers love with his PR executive-turned-nanny. The romance kicks off the author’s new baby-themed trilogy, BRYANT BABY BONANZA. Carol Grace continues FAIRY-TALE BRIDES with Cinderellie! (SR #1775), in which a millionaire goes in search of the beautiful caterer who’s left her slipper behind in his mansion. A Bride for a Blue-Ribbon Cowboy (SR #1776) introduces Silhouette Special Edition author Judy Duarte to the line. Part of the new BLOSSOM COUNTY FAIR miniseries, this romance involves a tomboy’s transformation to win the cowboy of her dreams. Finally, Holly Jacobs continues her PERRY SQUARE miniseries with Once Upon a Prince (SR #1777), featuring the town’s beloved redheaded rebel and a royal determined to woo and win her! Happy reading! Ann Leslie Tuttle Associate Senior Editor A Bride for a Blue-Ribbon Cowboy Judy Duarte Blossom County Fair www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Books by Judy Duarte Silhouette Romance A Bride for a Blue-Ribbon Cowboy #1776 Silhouette Special Edition Cowboy Courage #1458 Family Practice #1511 Almost Perfect #1540 Big Sky Baby #1563 The Virgin’s Makeover #1593 Bluegrass Baby #1598 The Rich Man’s Son #1634 * (#litres_trial_promo)Hailey’s Hero #1659 * (#litres_trial_promo)Their Secret Son #1667 Their Unexpected Family #1676 * (#litres_trial_promo)Worth Fighting For #1684 * (#litres_trial_promo)The Matchmakers’ Daddy #1689 Silhouette Books Double Destiny “Second Chance” JUDY DUARTE An avid reader who enjoys a happy ending, Judy Duarte always wanted to write books of her own. One day she decided to make that dream come true. Five years later, she sold her first book to Silhouette Special Edition. Her unpublished stories have won numerous awards, and in 2001, she became a double Golden Heart finalist. Judy credits her success to Romance Writers of America and two wonderful critique partners, Sheri WhiteFeather and Crystal Green, both of whom write for Silhouette. When she’s not at the keyboard she enjoys traveling, spending romantic evenings with her personal hero and playing board games with her kids. Judy lives in Southern California and loves to hear from readers. You may write to her at: P. O. Box 498, San Luis Rey, CA 92068-0498. You can also vist her Web site at www.judyduarte.com (http://www.judyduarte.com). To Chad Duarte, who has been a good sport about his mother’s writing career—most of the time. In spite of what you might occasionally think, Mom doesn’t love her computer more than she loves you. Contents Chapter One (#u410015c0-c85c-58bb-adc3-9d482613bd22) Chapter Two (#u00c7915f-0ea9-5bb7-bbda-0a6c43c26b51) Chapter Three (#u03817f4a-ee81-5de2-a5c0-e62b2ab39a87) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One When Blake Gray Feather agreed to compete in the upcoming rodeo, the Blossom County Fair Board had practically danced in the town square. After all, Blake’s fame and his local-boy status would bring in the crowd—and the revenue—they desperately needed. And since the rodeo was the kick-off to the fair, they hoped the community enthusiasm and attendance would carry over. But Cindy Tucker had her own reasons to be excited. The good-looking cowboy with the rebel grin would be staying at the Tumbling T with her and Grandpa for a couple of weeks. And that’s all she needed to put her plan into motion—a plan that had been stewing since the first of the year. Or maybe even beyond that, if truth be told. Several times throughout the morning, she’d wandered into the living room, peered out the big bay window and searched the long graveled driveway that led to the ranch house. But Blake had yet to show up. She really ought to be helping Grandpa fix the south fence, but she’d been so eager to see Blake that she’d puttered around the house all morning, doing the odd jobs she’d been neglecting. But at least she’d finally fixed that leaky valve in the toilet tank and replaced the lightbulb in the hall closet. And now she was removing the cracked P-trap under the kitchen sink. As she adjusted the wrench, Shep, the cattle dog barked, then got up from where he’d plopped onto the kitchen floor and trotted into the living room. Had Shep heard Blake’s truck? Cindy set down the tool and climbed out from under the sink. Yep. That was definitely an approaching vehicle. She brushed her hands against her denim-clad hips and hurried to the front door, where she spotted a black truck pulling a fancy horse trailer and kicking up dust as it headed toward the house. Recognizing the driver, she blew out the breath she’d been holding. Gosh, it was good to have Blake home in Blossom. And for more than a quick visit. Ever since he’d come to live on the ranch as a teenager, he’d become part of the family. Of course, as a ten-year-old who’d had her grandpa to herself for five whole years, Cindy hadn’t been too happy when fourteen-year-old Blake had first arrived. He’d been a surly adolescent in need of her grandfather’s guidance and a real thorn in her backside. But over the next few months, he’d evolved into a friend. And by the time he was ready to move on, he’d become the occasional romantic lead in the midnight dreams of a goofy preteen. But that was just between Cindy and her pillow. Blake, who’d always been a ladies man, was way out of a tomboy’s league—at least, in a romantic sense. But Cindy had a big favor she intended to ask of him, a favor she’d cooked up right after finding out he was coming home to stay for a while. And she wasn’t beyond begging, either. Unless, of course, he teased her about it. Then she’d be fighting mad. She swung open the front door, letting Shep dash outside with his tail a-waggin’ like crazy and barking to beat the band. But Cindy stood just inside the house, watching as Blake got out of a black, dual-axle Chevy pickup wearing a white shirt, black Wranglers and an expensive pair of boots. Boy howdy, that man was a looker. The kind that made a girl or a woman take a second gawk. And a third. He’d inherited the absolute best his German and Comanche bloodlines had to offer. And eight years on his own, riding the rodeo circuit, had hardened the boy right out of him and announced him all grown-up and more handsome than ever. As he shut the driver’s door, he adjusted his black Stetson, allowing the afternoon sunlight to glisten off coal-black strands of hair. Shep howled, and when Blake glanced at the doorway and spotted Cindy, he slid her a heart-stopping grin. “Hey, Sprout. What’s up?” “Not much.” She stood rooted in the doorway, fighting the urge to race outside and give him a great big hug—like she’d always done when she was younger. But now that she had reached the ripe old age of twenty-two and gotten a new attitude about a few things, she wanted him to see her as a woman, and not the awkward little red-haired girl of his youth. He carried himself with that lean, cowboy swagger and sauntered toward the porch, looking like a buckle bunny’s dream come true. And hers, too, if her pillow could talk. Blake gave Shep a hearty rubdown, then looked up at Cindy. “Hey, aren’t you going to give me a welcome-home hug?” “Sure.” She pushed open the screen door, letting it slam behind her, and met him halfway. As she tiptoed and wrapped him in a warm embrace, she savored the feel of his arms around her, the musky masculine scent of cologne that smelled as brisk and fresh as a mountain stream. She couldn’t help wondering if Robby Bradshaw’s hug would feel as nice. She hoped and prayed it would, but doubt niggled at her. Still, she knew better than to let her imagination get away from her. Some crushes, like the ones teenyboppers had on Hollywood movie stars and rock musicians, were just dreams to carry a young girl until someone more suitable came along. Someone who wasn’t out of reach and who would be happy to remain in Blossom and raise a family. Someone like Robby. As Blake released her, those whiskey-brown eyes that had always mesmerized her—if she’d let them—glimmered with sincerity. “You’re looking good.” “Thanks.” But she knew the difference between looking good and being pretty. Which brought her to the subject she wanted to broach. All she had to do was figure out how to slide it into the conversation as if it belonged there. As Blake strode toward the fancy horse trailer that looked brand-new, he said, “You have no idea how badly I need a little peace and quiet. I’m really looking forward to my stay here as a much-needed vacation.” “Good.” She was glad he’d be around for a while. Well, thrilled was more like it. In the past, he’d only come for brief visits. So two weeks seemed like forever to her, and it ought to be plenty of time for what she had in mind. She watched as he unloaded a chestnut gelding, the kind of mount a skilled cowboy deserved. “That’s a fine-looking horse.” “Thanks. He’s one of the best cutting horses in all of Texas. His name is Cutter.” She nibbled on her bottom lip as she tried to rustle up the courage to spring her request on him. “Blake, I…uh…want to ask you a favor.” “Sure. What is it?” That was easy enough. It sounded as if he’d made a commitment to help, and she hadn’t even told him yet. “Last winter, when Robby Bradshaw was home for Christmas break, I ran into him at Twin Oaks Lake, where he was fishing. And he…uh…” Ah, shoot. Robby hadn’t exactly spit out the words, yet somehow, she’d figured out what was on his mind. And his obvious interest in her had set off a flurry of excitement. Blake’s movements stilled. He tensed and his brow furrowed. His eyes hardened. “What the hell did that guy do to you?” “Oh, no,” she said, realizing he might feel the need to defend her honor or something, although it was kind of nice to think that he might, if she needed him to. “It’s just that he sort of…well, he’s in Colorado and will be graduating from CSU soon, and we’re probably going to go out on a date. And stuff.” “A date and stuff?” Blake arched a brow in a big-brotherly way. She kicked at the ground with the scuffed toe of her boot. “Well, it’s not like I have a ton of experience with men or with romance. You ought to know that. So I could use a little coaching on how to act around him. And since you’re such an expert on…well, that sort of thing, I figured you’d make a perfect tutor.” Blake couldn’t help the grin that stole across his face. Little Cindy Lou, with her red hair wrapped into a knot on her head, her flannel shirt rolled to her forearms and a black smudge across her freckled nose, was growing up. And she wanted him to give her some pointers about men. She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot. “Don’t laugh.” “I’m not laughing. I’m just glad to see that you’re finally interested in the opposite sex. That’s all.” “You, of all people, ought to know how tough it is for me. I can hardly remember my mother, let alone my grandmother.” “I know that, honey.” She’d never had too many girlfriends, either. Blake had never been sure if that was because she was stubborn and difficult to get along with, or if she felt some damn obligation to stick close to her grandpa and the ranch. Before Blake had come to live with them, the old rodeo cowboy and his granddaughter had been close. And more than once, Blake had suspected that Cindy had wanted to be the son Tuck had lost when her daddy died. It hadn’t taken Blake five minutes on the Tumbling T to realize the red-haired girl was a dedicated tomboy. But then again, maybe that was because she didn’t stand a chance of developing into a lady and knew it. Benjamin “Tuck” Tucker was a darn good cowboy. And he’d done a fine job straightening out Blake, a troubled teenage boy who’d been shipped off by his own grandfather to live on the Tumbling T. But Tuck didn’t know squat about raising little girls. So it wasn’t any wonder Cindy was a bit backward when it came to womanly things, like cooking and sewing, primping and flirting. “So what do you say?” she asked. He countered with a question of his own. “What would you have done if I hadn’t come back home?” She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one booted foot. “I’d have fumbled and stumbled my way through it, one way or another.” He didn’t doubt it. Cindy had a lot of gumption. But Blake wasn’t sure what he could do to help, other than encourage her to buy some dresses. Maybe fix her hair differently. That would be a good start. Cindy had never been what you’d call pretty. But that was because she didn’t do anything to help her looks. She didn’t use makeup, perfume or body lotions. And as far as he knew, she’d never worn anything other than denim and flannel. The small-town tomboy was definitely going to have to change her style. Of course, it wasn’t as though Blake knew how to coach a woman through that sort of thing. But Cindy was a special friend who was like a kid sister to him. And catching Robby’s eye obviously meant a lot to her. He tossed her a sympathetic grin. “You’re going to need a makeover, Sprout.” She brightened. “So, you’ll help me?” “Sure.” He’d give it a try—if he could. And if she’d let him have a free hand. She smiled at him, with glistening eyes that were the color of new-mowed hay. He hadn’t noticed before, but they were actually pretty. And far more expressive than he’d remembered. When she blinked, he realized her long, spiky black lashes curled naturally. Hey, that was a plus. She wouldn’t need to use any of that black goop women brushed on them. He looked at her hair. She always plaited her long curly red mop in a single braid that hung down her back or in that slick granny-type topknot she was wearing now. On some women, the style looked sexy when they let wispy strands hang free and loose. He began to pull out the pins that held her hair in place. If she was going to wear it up, she needed to fix it differently. Her eyes widened and her lips parted. “What are you doing?” “Seeing what this looks like down.” She touched the side of her hair with a dirty hand. “Now it’s a mess.” He had to agree, as he used his fingers to comb out the clumps of curls. But as the sun lit upon golden highlights, his hand slowed. Wow. He hadn’t realized how thick, how rich…how shiny her hair was. He dropped his hands to his sides. God knows he couldn’t coach her on how to style a new hairdo. “Our first stop will be at the Cut N Curl.” “Oh, no,” she said, taking a step back. “Not there. Grandpa took me once or twice when I was a kid, and they tugged and pulled on my hair something awful. After that, I refused to go and have been trimming it myself for years.” No one needed to tell Blake how stubborn Cindy could be when she set her mind to something or dug in her heels. So he played her game. “If you’re all fired up for a makeover, you’re going to have to do something different with it. And God knows I can’t coach you on how to come up with a new hairstyle.” She tugged at one of the wavy strands, pulling it taut. “You think someone there can actually get this bush to obey a comb and brush?” “Sure.” He offered her a smile. “We can talk about it more in the house. Just let me put Cutter into the corral so he can stretch out his legs.” “Mind if I help?” she asked. “Not at all. It’ll be nice to have your company. I’ve missed you, Sprout.” And he had. She’d been a pest when he’d first come to live here. But a sweet pest who’d actually grown on him. And now, eight years after he’d moved away from the ranch, it was his job to help her attract the attention of Robby Bradshaw, a guy who’d better treat her right, or he’d have a fight on his hands. Blake wouldn’t stand by and let anyone hurt the young woman he cared about. As he led Cutter to the corral, he watched as Cindy strode ahead to unlatch the gate. He couldn’t help noticing the natural sway to her gait, the nice curve of her hips. Years ago, she’d been all knees and elbows. But she’d sure grown into those jeans. Dinner at the Tumbling T Ranch was the usual, no-fuss, no-muss fare. Ever since the old cowboy’s wife had passed on and kitchen duty had fallen on Tuck, he fixed easy meals that required very little time at the stove. Tuck couldn’t cook a lick, but he was a whiz with a can opener, lunch meat and two slabs of bread. “Can I get you some more beans?” Tuck asked. “Nope. One helping is plenty for me.” As a teenager, Blake had gotten pretty sick of canned food, especially pork and beans, which had to be Tuck’s all-time favorite filler. “How about you, Cindy Lou?” The gray-haired man lifted the pan from the stove, as though willing to carry it to the kitchen table and serve her. “No, thanks, Grandpa. That bologna sandwich filled me up.” After spooning a hefty third helping into his bowl, Tuck returned to the scarred oak table and took his seat. “It sure is good to have you home, boy.” Blake grinned, his chest swelling just from sitting at the familiar kitchen table and knowing he was welcome anytime. “It’s nice being back.” As a teenager, he’d been sent to live on the Tumbling T because his grandfather, who’d been Tuck’s old army buddy, had hoped the tough-as-leather cowboy could give Blake some direction. And after butting heads with Blake more than a time or two, Tuck had done just that. “So what’s the latest town gossip?” Blake asked, knowing there was always something going on in nearby Blossom. “Just the ruckus that’s brewing between the fair board and the Committee for Moral Behavior.” “The Committee for Moral Behavior?” he asked. “What’s that?” “A group of fussbudgets who don’t think people should have any fun,” Tuck said, digging into his bowl of beans. When he looked up, spoon held high and overflowing, he added, “But no one is going to tell me when and where I can drink. Or what I can spend my money on.” “What have they got against the fair board?” Blake asked. Tuck had his mouth full, so Cindy explained. “Two years ago, at the county fair, a gypsy fortune-teller told some of the townspeople they would strike it rich. Then, when a slick-talking shyster came to town, selling stock in a real-estate venture, a lot of folks blindly jumped in and lost more than their shirts in the phony land deal. So blaming the carnies as a bad element, the fair board decided not to allow the carnival people to set up their rides and games along the midway last year. Needless to say, attendance was way down.” “And the fair was a complete bust,” Tuck added. Blake imagined it would be. People from all the neighboring dry counties had flocked to the fair in the past, and not just because Blossom County was wet and the beer garden had been a big draw. The kids had a ton of fun at the carnival and along the midway. And they’d dragged their parents to the fair time and again. “The county coffers are still suffering,” Cindy added. “Aw heck,” Tuck said with a frown. “The fuss has gotten so big and out of hand that a body can’t step foot into Blossom without listening to the squabble. Everyone has been taking sides, and I swear a brawl is going to break out one of these days.” Blake thought people ought to be held accountable for their own foolish business ventures. “What kind of nut would listen to the advice of a fortune-teller they met at a carnival?” “Some folks don’t have the sense of a turkey gobbler,” Tuck said, as he scooted his chair away from the table, rubbed his belly and stood. “Well, I’m going to walk off my dinner, while I have a chat with Mary Ellen.” Blake and Cindy watched the old man head for the service porch, take his hat from the peg by the door and go outside, Shep trotting along after him. Cindy tore at the edge of the paper towel she’d used as a napkin and studied the closed back door. “It always makes me feel kind of sad when he does that. He sure must have loved my grandma something fierce.” Blake nodded. The old man probably did miss his wife. But as a teenager, Blake had followed Tuck enough times to believe his real reason for the after-dinner walk was because the canned beans he consumed at all three meals played havoc with his digestive system. But other than a crooked grin, Blake kept his thoughts to himself. “Hey.” Cindy elbowed him. “Let’s put the dishes in the sink and let them soak while we have a bowl of rocky road ice cream.” “Sure.” Blake never could turn down dessert, especially anything chocolate. A few minutes later, they carried their bowls and spoons out to the back porch, where they took a seat and enjoyed the night sounds of crickets chirping and bullfrogs croaking down by the creek. Cutter nickered in the corral. “It’s pretty tonight,” Cindy said as she studied the new moon that rested in a star-studded sky. “It sure is. I’ve missed the Tumbling T. It’s great to be home.” That was nice to know. Cindy liked the fact that Blake still considered the ranch his home, because the truth was, even if she couldn’t have him in a romantic sense, she appreciated his friendship. And right now, she looked forward to his expertise and getting his sage advice. Shoot, who else could coach her about romance? After all, he’d had more experience than men twice his age. At least, that’s what she’d always suspected. He’d had his pick of any of the girls at Sam Houston High. And from what she’d overheard, there’d been quite a few young ladies who’d been blessed with his kisses, if not a whole lot more. Cindy had always felt a stab of envy when she thought about the girls he’d dated back then. But that was because she hadn’t had to do anything more than look in the mirror or check inside her bra to see that she couldn’t compete—at least not that way—with any of them. And even though she filled her bra a little better these days, she still couldn’t compete with the cutesy women, many of whom still wore their blouses too small and their pants too tight. But all that was going to change, thanks to a new attitude and a tutor. Blake took a big spoonful of rocky road, obviously enjoying the taste. Then he slid her a probing look. “What’s so special about Robby Bradshaw?” Not a whole lot, she supposed. He was kind of sweet. And smart as all get-out. Of course, he was also the first guy who’d ever shown her any attention. Well, he was the first one whose attention actually interested her. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” she said. “Try me.” She thought for a moment, choosing her words. The fact was, until she and Robby actually got a chance to sit and talk, there wasn’t a whole lot she knew about him, other than he was nice and had always treated her with respect—and not just because she could outride or outrope him. “Robby is a business major, with a minor in accounting.” “And that’s his only appeal? Are you after him for the money he might make?” “No,” she snapped. “I never said I wanted to marry him. I just want to date him. And as far as I’m concerned, the fact that he’s making something out of himself is a good thing.” “Yeah. I guess so. But I don’t want you to settle for the first guy who comes along.” She blew out a sigh. “I’m not settling.” Of course, she wasn’t at all sure she was telling the truth. But she was ready to change the focus of their conversation. “So what about you? Surely there has to be a special lady in your life.” He shrugged. “I don’t know about that. Plenty of women chase after me—one in particular—but I’m not ready to get hitched. Not now. And maybe not ever.” That didn’t surprise her. He’d always had his pick of women. Why should he settle for just one? She wondered about the gals who chased after him now. They had to be gorgeous, no doubt, with breasts that bulged out of tiny lace bras, bare midriffs, short skirts and swivel-hipped walks. Women who’d breeze right past Cindy without even seeing her, she suspected. The girls he’d dated in high school had never given Cindy a howdy-do back then and still didn’t give her much more than that whenever she ran into them in town. But maybe, if Blake helped her with a makeover, they’d be friendlier and see her as an equal. But women weren’t her main concern. “I wish men found me more appealing,” she admitted. Of course, Blake was the one man she’d most like to have fall for her. But only a fool would bother drooling over the impossible, while the possible sat ready for the taking. Blake reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Listen to me, Sprout. You’ve got a heart as big as Texas, and you’re loyal, too. A man would be lucky to have you in his life.” Deep in her Lone Star heart, she knew that. But getting a man to take that first look? Now that was the problem. He ran his knuckles along her cheek, causing her heart to thump and jump and do all kinds of crazy things. “I mean that, honey.” “Thanks.” A lump formed in her throat, and she had to blink back the tears. Darn him for being so sweet. “So tell me more about Robby.” Huh? How had Robby sidled into the conversation? “What about him?” “For starters, what does he look like?” She shrugged. He was about the same height as Blake—just under six feet. But he wasn’t nearly as solid. And he was pretty fair-complexioned. Of course, that was to be expected. Robby probably had to study day and night. When would he get a chance to go outdoors in the sunshine or work out? “I guess he’s kind of cute,” she said. “You guess?” She blew out a sigh. “He’s got blond hair and brown eyes. A nice smile.” “Is he good to you?” “Well darn it, Blake. How the heck am I supposed to know that? He’s so shy we’ve barely even talked.” “I’m not trying to give you a hard time.” She knew he wasn’t. But it just didn’t feel right talking about Robby in front of Blake. Not when simply sitting next to the good-looking cowboy made her want to compare the two. And poor Robby couldn’t hold a candle to Blake. Nope. It wasn’t right. If anyone understood how unfair comparisons felt, it was Cindy. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “We’ll go into town tomorrow and stop at the Cut N Curl and the Mercantile. And before the sun sets, you’ll be a new woman.” Blake made it sound so easy, and she hoped he was right. Cindy wasn’t sure when it began to matter what men thought of her, but she suspected it had started long before she’d spotted Robby fishing at the lake. Either way, she was ready for some changes in her life. And tomorrow wasn’t going to be a day too soon. Chapter Two “You know, I’ve missed those guys.” Cindy glanced at the handsome cowboy at her side, then followed his gaze to the front of the courthouse, where Dutch and Buster sat. The two crusty old men spent the daylight hours parked on that green-wood-and-wrought-iron bench and watched the world go by. “You never used to like this town,” she said. “Or too many of the residents.” “It’s funny what a few years’ perspective will give a man. Dutch and Buster are a hoot. Haven’t you ever taken time to talk to them?” Dutch, the tall, lanky one of the two, chose that very moment to spit a stream of tobacco into the rusted coffee can that sat on the sidewalk and served as a joint spittoon. His aim wasn’t very good, and Cindy could have sworn he hit Buster’s boot. “I’ve never really chatted with them, although Grandpa does. They seem kind of crotchety, if you ask me.” “Only if they don’t like you.” Blake chuckled. “Those two don’t miss much. And they’ve got an interesting philosophy of life, especially when it comes to the people who live in Blossom.” Cindy had her own opinion about some of the townspeople, too. And she wondered if that came from sitting on the outside looking in, much like the two old men did. “Come on,” Blake said. “I want to say hello to them.” As she and Blake approached, Dutch remained seated while Buster stood. The short, heavyset man wore a stained white shirt, green suspenders, a dusty red baseball cap and a smile. He reached out a gnarly hand to Blake. “Well, now. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.” Blake accepted Buster’s shake, then reached out to Dutch. “It’s good to see you guys. Looks like you’re just as ornery as ever.” “And we’re gonna get a whole lot ornerier,” Dutch said as he leaned forward in his seat to spit into the can. “That dad-burn bunch of moral misfits aim to run us off our bench.” Buster crossed his arms over a belly that put a real strain on his suspenders. “But they’ll have a fight on their hands. Nobody’s going to tell us where we can sit. Or where we can spit.” Dutch leaned back in the bench and stretched out his long legs. “A couple of revenuers tried to run my daddy off the farm once. And they got a load of buckshot in the side of that fancy black car they drove.” Buster took his seat beside his longtime friend. “This is a public bench. And just because we’ve got a little silver in our hair and gold in our teeth doesn’t mean we got metal in our brains. We’re not going to let those uppity moral morons tell us what to do.” “By the way,” Dutch said to Blake. “I wanna congratulate you. Heard you went eight seconds with ol’ Flame Thrower. Ain’t no one done that, yet.” Blake smiled. “It was a good day. And a good ride.” “Folks are talking about the Blossom County rodeo and how happy they are that you’re going to compete. Why, Buster and I might even leave our bench and come watch.” “I hope you do.” “How’s Tuck doing?” Buster asked Cindy. “We heard he was down at the clinic last week.” Cindy’s heart nearly jumped out of her chest. She didn’t know anything about her grandfather’s visit to the doctor. “He doesn’t appear to be sick.” “Well, it ain’t nothin’ a little romancin’ won’t cure,” Dutch said with a chuckle. “We heard there’s a pretty nurse who works there. We been meanin’ to go have us a look-see ourselves.” Grandpa was interested in a woman? She supposed that was better than him having medical problems and needing to see the doctor. But Cindy couldn’t imagine the old cowboy having a romantic streak. He was still pining over the loss of his wife. Dutch and Buster must be mistaken. “I hate to run,” Blake told the men, “but it’s burning daylight and we still have a few errands to run. I hope to see you both at the rodeo.” “We’ll be there,” Buster said. Blake nudged Cindy. “We’ve got work to do, unless you’ve changed your mind.” “I haven’t.” She picked up her pace to match his, as they cut across the lawn toward the shops that lined the north side of the town square. “You know, Dutch and Buster were right. Everyone in town is happy you’re back.” “Only because I’ve made a name for myself. You know as well as I do that wasn’t always the case.” Blake was right. When he first came to Blossom, people had looked down on him. He’d always said it was because he was half Indian. But Cindy and Grandpa had suspected his initial don’t-mess-with-me attitude had played a part. “I don’t have any ties to Blossom,” he said, “other than you and Tuck. And I’m only riding in the rodeo because Jason and Trace asked me to.” Mayor Jason Strong and Sheriff Trace McCabe had become friends of Blake’s back in high school, after they’d stepped in during a teenage brawl and saved Blake from getting the tar beaten out of him. Blake’s loyalty to the two men was admirable, and she respected him for it. His loyalty to her and Grandpa was admirable, too. But she really had to get her mind back on the business at hand. “Where are we going first?” she asked. “To the Mercantile.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, guiding her toward the upscale dress shop. Cindy purchased her clothing at Family Fashions, a discount store that made shopping a handy, one-stop experience for her and Grandpa. And the last winter, when she’d acquired what seemed like a sudden interest in women’s fashion, she’d made a point of walking by the Mercantile whenever she was in town. She liked to peer through the big picture window at the mannequins on display. But even though she was often tempted to step inside, she never had. She would feel a bit awkward entering a fancy place like that by herself. So having Blake as her guide was going to be an adventure, for more reasons than one. When they reached the entrance, he dropped his hand, leaving her feeling almost abandoned, as he opened the door to let her in. A burst of nervousness buzzed through her as they walked into the shop filled with racks of stylish outfits. And although she wanted to slip her hand in his, she resisted the urge. After all, she’d been the one who’d agreed to a makeover. And the one who’d decided to set her sights on Robby and ask for Blake’s help. So she’d have to be woman enough to face her nerves head-on. “May I help you?” a well-dressed saleslady asked. “I’d like to buy a couple of outfits for my friend,” Blake told her. Cindy nudged him with her elbow. “I only asked for your advice. You’re not paying for anything.” She patted the small purse she carried. “Besides, I have plenty of cash saved up for this.” “Well, you can put your money away. I’m paying for everything.” Blake looked at the saleslady. “We’d like something young and stylish. Can you give us some suggestions?” “Of course.” The salesclerk indicated a chair where Blake could wait. Then she eyed Cindy carefully. “Let’s get you in the fitting room, and I’ll see what I can do.” Twenty minutes later, Blake continued to sit on a red-velvet-covered settee that was so delicate he hoped it would hold him. His black Stetson rested on the cushion beside him as he thumbed through a fashion magazine. He knew the Mercantile was a women’s dress shop, but you’d think they’d set out reading material that might interest a man who had to tag along. Of course, he hadn’t been inside a place like this for years, not since his mother had dragged him to the mall back home and made him wait while she tried on every darn thing in several stores. He didn’t like shopping with a woman back then, and he sure as heck didn’t like it now. But this was a favor for Cindy. “Are you ready for a fashion show?” the brunette saleslady asked with what he suspected was an I-work-on-commission smile. “Sure.” He set down the magazine and stretched out his legs. They may as well get the show on the road. Then they could get out of here. “The first number is a sundress designed by Catarini, a new designer out of New York.” Oh, for Pete’s sake. The woman could can the commentary. All he cared about was whether it looked good on Cindy and whether she liked it. But as Cindy walked timidly from the fitting room, wearing a slinky green sundress that showed off a heck of a lot more of her than the jeans and shirt she’d worn in there, he nearly dropped his teeth. The petite redhead tugged at the material that slid tauntingly over her hips. “What do you think? Is it too small?” No. Yes. Heck, he didn’t know. She turned around and glanced over her shoulder to get a different view of her reflection. “I’m not comfortable with my legs showing.” He didn’t know why. She had great legs. Not very long, of course, since she only stood a whisper over five feet. But they were shaped perfectly. “The dress looks good,” he said, his voice coming out in a choked whisper. Real good. “Do you think Robby will pay more attention to me if I wear something like this?” she asked. Heck, yeah. Unless the bookworm was blind. All Blake knew was that it would sure make him sit up and take notice. She tugged at the hem, which rested just above the knee, apparently still stressing about the length. “Why aren’t you comfortable with your legs showing?” he asked. “Someone once told me that my knees were knobby, so I’ve kept them covered up ever since.” She glanced in the mirror, checking her hemline. Then she looked at him as though wanting confirmation. Something told him that he might have been the one who had teased her. “If it was me, I’m sorry. You have great legs and knees. I was either lying, or you outgrew that coltish stage.” Then he looked at the salesclerk. “We’ll take it.” The woman clapped her hands without making much of a sound. “I knew you’d like it. She has a lovely shape and can wear those formfitting outfits.” “I’m a little self-conscious dressed like this,” Cindy admitted. “You shouldn’t be, dear.” The woman grinned. “Now go in and try on those black cropped pants and the top that goes with it.” Before long, Cindy returned wearing a pair of pants that rode low on her hips and a jungle-print blouse that left a strip of her waistline bare. Blake knew that was the style. And he liked the look, especially on other women. But he wasn’t sure he wanted Cindy parading the streets of Blossom like that. He’d had no idea what she’d been hiding behind denim and flannel. Ten minutes later, Blake paid for the purchases, which included three different pants outfits, two dresses—one yellow, the other black—and a pair of black heels. The salesclerk also rang up the white silky blouse, blue skirt and strappy sandals Cindy was wearing. As the saleslady carefully packed each item in a piece of tissue, she smiled. No doubt about it. That had to be an I’m-counting-my-hefty-commission grin. But what the heck. Cindy deserved a shopping spree, and he was happy he could provide her one. “You don’t mind if I wear this out, do you?” Cindy glanced at the skirt she wore, again tugging at the hem even though it really wasn’t too short. “It’s kind of skimpy.” “And very fashionable,” the clerk added. “You look fabulous.” Blake had to agree. But he still wasn’t sure he wanted her walking around town like that. And he didn’t have the foggiest notion why. Just looking out for her, he supposed. That’s all. As they headed for the door, he studied the young woman who walked in front of him. The stretchy blue fabric caressed the curves she’d been hiding beneath baggy denim, and he doubted there was a man alive who wouldn’t take a second look. At least from the neck down. If she learned to fix her hair and put on some makeup, she’d actually be able to set her sights on someone a lot better than Robby Bradshaw—an assessment Blake easily made without even meeting the guy. As they stepped out into the late-afternoon sun, Cindy balked. “I feel half-dressed, no matter what that saleslady told me. Maybe I ought to run back inside and put on my jeans.” “Don’t bother. You may as well get used to the attention. Those new clothes look nice on you. That saleslady wasn’t just stringing you along.” Cindy beamed, then threw her arms around him and gave him a quick hug. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” As he returned her embrace, his hands slid along the sleek fabric of a blouse that rode a little too high up her back, and a jolt of heat shimmied through his blood. He dropped his arms and stepped back. Cindy may have been twenty-two, but to him she was just a kid. A babe in the woods. A woman-child poised on the verge of consenting adulthood. And he meant to look after her until she could handle being at that stage in her life. “Come on. Next stop is the Cut N Curl.” A bell over the door announced their arrival, as Blake and Cindy entered the only beauty shop in town, a busy place with a bright orange-and-yellow decor. The scent of hairspray and nail polish lingered in the warm and stuffy room. It looked different than it had the last time Cindy had been in here. A petite woman with big hair the color of an orange neon light sat behind the appointment desk. She looked up and flashed them a cheerful smile. “Hello, there. Welcome to the Cut N Curl. My name is Wanda Mae. How can I help you?” Cindy looked at Blake. He seemed to know what he was doing, or at least what he had in mind, so she let him do the talking. “Does someone have time for a cut and style?” he asked. “I’m sure we can fit it in.” Wanda Mae scanned her appointment book. Cindy took that time to survey the busy room. Each of the customers had a personal beauty expert working over her, except for the lady with her gray hair rolled in pink curlers, who waited alone under the hood of a big yellow dryer, and the gal with her hair covered in little foil squares, who thumbed through a gossip magazine. A matronly woman appeared to be dozing while her bare feet soaked in a bubbling tub of water. Getting a pedicure, Cindy supposed. One young girl, who looked as though her hair had been dyed with jet-black ink, sat before a mirror, watching closely as a tall blond beautician took a scissors to locks that were already short and scraggly. The place was amazing, and not at all what Cindy had remembered. She couldn’t believe the lengths women went to improve their looks. Had that been her problem in the past? Too little fuss and effort? Wanda Mae clicked her tongue and furrowed her brow, as she twisted a lock of neon-orange hair and studied the book. “We’re a little full, but I suppose I could do it myself.” Oh, no. Cindy could imagine herself walking out of here with her hair the same color as a highway worker’s safety vest. She tugged at Blake’s chambray shirtsleeve and cupped her mouth to indicate a secret. As he bent toward her, she whispered, “If she so much as starts toward me with a bottle of hair dye, I’m going to poke her in the nose and knock her on her fanny.” Blake peered over the reception desk and looked at the appointment book. “Maybe someone has time to give her a manicure or pedicure,” he suggested. “Then you can fit her in when one of the hairstylists has time.” “Now, that I can do,” Wanda Mae said with a smile. “We’ll give her the works.” “Sounds good to me.” Blake reached for the doorknob. “What time should I come back?” “Give us until five o’clock. We’ll have her as pretty as a picture.” As Cindy watched Blake saunter out of the beauty salon on his own, she had half a notion to follow him. What had she gotten herself into? “It’ll be just a few minutes,” Wanda Mae said with a flashy smile. “The manicurist will be ready for you as soon as she finishes polishing that lady’s toes. And while you’re waiting, you can enter our baby pool.” Cindy was almost afraid to ask. She’d heard of baby showers. “What’s a baby pool?” “Tammy Wright, one of the gals who lives in Blossom, is due to have a baby at the end of August. Rumor has it that the doctor says the little one is a boy, but don’t tell anyone I told you.” Cindy knew Tammy; they’d gone to school together. And even though they’d never socialized much other than at school, Tammy had been one of the few girls she’d considered a friend. Wanda Mae whipped out a poster board that listed names, dates and hours. “It only costs two dollars to get in the pool. All you have to do is pick a day and a block of time that hasn’t been chosen. Then write down whether you think it’s a boy or girl. The winner gets two hundred dollars.” Oh, why not? Cindy dug through her purse and handed Wanda Mae two one-dollar bills. Then she chose August twenty-eight. She’d heard most babies came in the middle of the night, so she took the hours between midnight and six in the morning. And since Wanda Mae had mentioned that the doctor said it was a boy, she figured it would be silly to guess Tammy’s baby would be a girl. After returning the chart to Wanda Mae, she took a seat near the front window. She didn’t have to wait long until she was called. From that moment on, Cindy was pampered and fussed over until she thought she could really get used to the special attention. She couldn’t help marveling at how soft her hands were. She could have sworn they were going to stay permanently chapped. Her skin smelled good, too. Like orange blossoms and cream. And her toes sported a pretty pink polish that matched her fingernails. She’d even agreed to have her eyebrows waxed. Ouch. As she sat in a swivel chair before a big gold mirror, she could hardly recognize the image of the woman who looked back at her. The beautician studied the awkward strands, tugging, poking. “It’s a beautiful color. You really ought to wear it down and show it off.” “I’ve always had a hard time running a comb through it,” Cindy explained. “And if I don’t bind it up somehow, by nighttime it looks like I barely survived a Texas twister.” “We’ll see what a little styling and conditioning does about that.” Moments later, the woman got to work, and Cindy sat back and watched. After a conditioning process and a practically tangle-free comb out, Cindy decided she would have to stock up on some conditioner to use at home. Then she watched the beautician go to work, combing, lifting, snipping. And before long, the woman took a rounded brush and a blow dryer, carefully styling as the hair dried. “Well,” the stylist said, after shutting off the hot air and handing Cindy a handheld mirror. “What do you think?” She didn’t know what to think, other than that the results were magical. She had no idea how long it would last, but it looked pretty darn good, even if she did say so herself. “I’d always considered my hair one of my biggest flaws. And I can’t believe what you’ve done to it.” “Thanks. I take pride in my job, especially when I have something to work with. You’re a pretty woman. Now all you need is a dab of lipstick. Why don’t you get it out of your purse.” “I…don’t wear makeup,” Cindy said. “Well, I suppose you don’t really need it. But we’ve got some new products on display that a lot of our clients have been raving about.” She hollered to the front of the shop. “Wanda Mae, will you bring me a tube of Pretty in Pink?” By the time the women had finished with her, Cindy held a sack full of beauty supplies and a detailed list of instructions for their use. And even though she still felt like a guppy in a mason jar, her self-esteem had sure gotten a shot in the arm. But that was nothing compared to the jolt she received when Blake strode into the Cut N Curl at five o’clock. As Blake’s eyes lit on Cindy, he froze in his tracks. Talk about beauty makeovers. She’d gone from Calamity Jane to a redheaded Cinderella in a few short hours. “What do you think?” she asked, nibbling on her bottom lip. Heck, he didn’t know what to think. Her hair hung loose to her shoulders in a sexy array of curls that seemed to dance whenever she moved her head. He wasn’t sure what they’d done to her eyebrows, but they sure made a guy focus on those expressive green eyes. And the pink lipstick she wore made her lips look…well, they looked just plain kissable. “Is it too much?” she asked. No. It was just right. But he couldn’t seem to open his mouth to tell her. “For Pete’s sake, Blake, you’re making me so darn nervous I could bust.” “You look fine. Nice.” He had to force the words out, as well as make himself breathe. He’d expected a makeover to help her look somewhat attractive. But he hadn’t expected her to bubble over with…whatever it was that was bursting from the seams of that little blue skirt and white silky blouse. “Don’t let him kid you,” Wanda Mae said. “I saw the way he nearly tripped over his jaw when he took one look at you. My gosh, girl, you’re as pretty as a fashion model.” “Do you think Robby will be surprised?” Cindy asked him. Flabbergasted would be more like it. Suddenly, a flood of responsibility washed over Blake. He couldn’t just let Cindy out on the streets looking like that. Not without some way of protecting her from a pack of males on the prowl. It would be like throwing a calf to the coyotes. “You’re not going out in public like that.” “What do you mean?” “At least, not without me. Not yet. You’re not ready for Robby, or any other guy, for that matter.” She slapped her hands on her hips, and the familiar sass erupted in her eyes. “I’ve taken a lot of guff over the years from some of the kids I’ve gone to school with, but I’m not about to let you tease me, too.” “Tease you?” God knows he’d done his share of ribbing her in the past about one thing or another, but he wasn’t teasing about her looks. Or the appeal she was bound to have on the unsuspecting single males in Blossom. And some of the married ones, too, he suspected. She slid him a pout that actually made her look all the more sexy. “I don’t need you to rub in the fact that I haven’t had any real dates.” “You’ve never had a date?” Wanda Mae laughed. “Well, that’s about to change. Maybe I’d better go into the back room and find a stick that you can use to chase off the men whenever you come into town.” The flashy orange-haired woman was right. Blake took Cindy by the hand. “Listen, honey. I told you I’d coach you. And that’s what I intend to do. You look great. And there isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t agree with me. But men are a strange breed, and I just want to make sure you can hold your own.” “Listen here, Blake Gray Feather. I have no problem holding my own with men. Never had, never will.” “I’m not talking about riding and roping, Cindy.” “Knock it off. I quit competing with boys in high school.” He rolled his eyes and blew out a ragged sigh. “Some guys aren’t honest. And they have ulterior motives.” “I might be inexperienced, but I read books and magazines. And I watch TV. So you don’t have to worry about me.” She talked a good story, but he had his doubts. Some men would take advantage of her innocence. And that was something Blake couldn’t allow to happen. “I’m only going to be in town for another couple weeks, then you’ll be on your own. And I want to leave knowing you won’t let some fast-talking, womanizing cowboy sweep you off your feet.” His gaze dropped down to her toes, which had been newly polished. Oh, for Pete’s sake. She even had beautiful feet. Blake blew out a ragged sigh. What in the world had he created? And worse, what had he gotten himself into? Chapter Three As they carried their packages to the pickup, Blake didn’t say much to Cindy. He figured she was still trying to get used to the change in her appearance. And so was he. He’d known she would benefit from a makeover. But he hadn’t been prepared for the actual difference a new outfit and hairstyle would make. How had he ever missed seeing her potential? “Thank you for the new clothes and all the beauty treatments,” she said. “I really should have paid for it myself.” “I wanted to do it. Besides, it was a way for me to repay you and your grandfather for putting up with me when I was a mouthy teen.” “You weren’t so bad,” she said. “Not even that first day when I teased you about the color of your hair?” The day Blake had arrived on the ranch, he’d tugged on one of her braids and called her Carrot Top. She’d merely glared at him until he looked away. Then she’d lowered her head and rushed him like a billy goat with its tail on fire. “When I picked myself up off the floor, you slapped your hands on your hips, glared down and said, ‘Carrot tops are green, city boy.’” She smiled. “You got the point. And you only called me Carrot Top once.” Yeah, but from that day on, he’d started calling her Sprout instead. “If I hadn’t been off balance, I would have stayed on my feet.” Cindy grinned, green eyes glimmering with the memory of his reaction to her sneak attack. “I’ll never forget that wide-eyed gape on your face when I stood over you.” “You had a lot more spunk as a kid than I gave you credit for.” “I still do.” She certainly did. There’d always been a lot more to Cindy Tucker than met the eye. And what met the eye now was a pleasant surprise. “I’m glad you came to live with us,” she admitted, “even though I resented the attention Grandpa gave to you.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/judy-duarte/a-bride-for-a-blue-ribbon-cowboy/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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