A Husband of Her Own Brenda Novak Rebecca Wells desperately wants to overcome her reputation. She's finally trying to put an end to her twenty-four-year rivalry with the perfect Josh Hill, a rivalry that began when she was a kid and the Hills moved in across the street. Great-looking, popular, a successful horse rancher, Josh is Dundee's golden boy–and the son her father always wanted.But even when her father insists they call a truce, it's hard for Rebecca to drop her resentment of Josh. She refuses to acknowledge that she feels more for him than she's ever let on. The man she loves to hate is also the man she'd hate to love! “Josh, good to see you,” Rebecca said, forcing a smile He gave her that crooked grin of his, the one that showed his dimples, and immediately called her on the lie. “Are you sure?” Hell, no. “I’m trying to be positive,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her because she suddenly didn’t know where to put them. Katie and Mona—and everyone else—were watching avidly. He settled his black felt cowboy hat farther back on his head. “So this truce thing is for real.” “I guess,” she said with a shrug. “Because I gotta tell ya, that fiasco at your sister’s wedding was…” He shook his head and let his breath go all at once. “I can’t believe you’d even bring that up,” Rebecca responded, bridling. “You made me take out the punch fountain.” He cocked his head. “You’re the one who tripped me in the first place.” “I didn’t even touch you!” “Wait a second,” Katie broke in. “That wedding was the most exciting thing this town has seen in the past three years. If you two call a truce, life’s going to be pretty boring around here. Who will Rebecca have to fight with?” Dear Reader, Welcome back to Dundee, Idaho, where in A Baby of Her Own (September 2002) Delaney and Conner finally worked out their differences. Now that the scandal involving “good girl” Delaney has died down, it’s time to mix things up again. And Delaney’s best friend, Rebecca, is the perfect woman to do that. She’s high-strung and unpredictable; in fact, you could say Rebecca’s middle name is “Trouble.” It’s going to take a strong hero to tame her. But I think she’s met her match in Josh. I hope so, at least. I fell in love with him myself! I always enjoy hearing from readers. Please feel free to contact me at P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 95611. Or simply log on to my Web site at www.novak.com to leave me an e-mail, check out future book signings, learn about my upcoming releases and win some fabulous prizes. Brenda Novak Brenda Novak A Husband of Her Own DEDICATION To my first son, Trey, who, at eight years old, already exhibits the dignity of a confident man. He is my anchor in the storm of life, holding fast, always at peace— an echo of my father. If you forget everything else I’ve ever taught you, Trey, remember this: my love is everlasting. ACKNOWLEDGMENT Thanks to Michael Star, www.AstrologyZine.com/attract-women-Scorpio.shtml for his astrology information and horoscopes. CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER ONE “YOU WANT TOWHAT?” Rebecca Wells pulled away from where she’d been leaning on her kitchen counter and clutched the telephone tightly, hoping she’d heard wrong the first time. She was supposed to be at work by nine, in twenty minutes, but this call took precedence over everything else. “I think we should wait until the end of January,” her fiancé, Buddy, responded. He sounded tentative, as though he feared she might not accept this news well. Probably because she’d lost her temper last time. He’d postponed the wedding twice already. “The end of January is almost four months away, Buddy,” she said, and was immediately proud of how calmly she’d spoken. Too bad Delaney had gotten married and wasn’t living with her anymore. Rebecca felt certain her best friend would have applauded her efforts. “That’s not so long, babe. What’re another few months? It won’t change anything in the long run, right?” Change anything! It would change everything. Rebecca had been counting the days until she could leave her small hometown behind. She wanted to move to Nebraska with Buddy so Mrs. Whipple couldn’t pass her on the street, shake her head and mumble, “Poor Mayor Wells. Who would’ve thought he’d get stuck with such a daughter?” So Mrs. Reese couldn’t frown disapprovingly as she sat in the beauty shop across from where Rebecca was working, recounting the occasion when Rebecca had purposely dyed her hair blue. So Delaney’s Aunt Millie couldn’t constantly remind her of the day she ran away with Johnny Red, the leader of a biker gang that had once passed through town. On second thought, being reminded of Johnny probably wouldn’t have bothered Rebecca. He’d been dangerous and reckless and incredibly sexy. Except he’d sent her packing in only three days—that was the humiliating part. Everyone in town had assumed even a man like Johnny Red couldn’t tame Rebecca Wells. They didn’t realize that next to Johnny, she looked like a saint. Stretching her neck to relieve some of the tension, she took a deep breath. She needed to loosen up or she was going to blow this conversation. The last time she’d let Buddy feel the full force of her disappointment, he hadn’t called for almost a week. “Now I’m going to have to explain to the whole town that I’m not getting married for my birthday, and I’m going to have to say it’s because your great-aunt can’t make it until after Christmas?” she said. A sense of accomplishment swept through Rebecca despite her dismay. She’d just managed another reasonable statement. She was doing amazingly well, considering her track record, but the strain was taking its toll. Just last week, she’d promised Delaney that she’d given up smoking for good. But a cigarette seemed almost imperative to her success here. If only she hadn’t destroyed every pack in the house in the fervor of her good intentions. “Are you saying that my great-aunt isn’t enough of a reason to hold off?” he asked. “She’s very important to me, Rebecca.” Rebecca had a few things to say about the relative importance of a great-aunt, but she bit them back. Opening the kitchen drawer that housed the Ziploc Baggies, aluminum foil and plastic wrap, she retrieved her nicotine patches and smoothed one on her arm. “They’ll think you’re getting cold feet,” she pointed out. “I’m not getting cold feet. We met only nine months ago. And we’ve seen each other in person…what? A handful of times? I think most people understand that a long-distance relationship sometimes develops a little more slowly.” Except their relationship hadn’t developed slowly. From almost the first moment they’d met on the Internet last January, they’d been talking about getting married. They’d grown close very quickly. Unfortunately, Rebecca was afraid their relationship might be fading just as fast. And she couldn’t figure out why. She knew she was a little temperamental, but it wasn’t as though Buddy was likely to do any better. Only five feet six, he was at least fifty pounds overweight. He had blond hair and kind blue eyes—Rebecca loved both his hair and his eyes—but his face showed traces of years-old acne, and he had a big nose. He certainly wasn’t someone who would normally have turned her head. Especially because she was five feet ten, one hundred thirty pounds, and nearly five years older. It was the differences in their basic natures that she thought of as the truly positive factor in their relationship. Nothing riled Buddy. On a scale of one to ten, the intensity of his emotions fell somewhere below a one. He immediately and completely withdrew from any and all confrontation. Rebecca, on the other hand, had never backed away from a fight in her life. Until today. “Stay calm,” was quickly becoming her silent mantra. “I don’t understand why you keep doing this,” she said, still admirably rational. “Are you having second thoughts about us?” “No…not really.” Not really? She considered asking Buddy if she could call him back after she made a cigarette run. Only she was already too engrossed in the conversation to walk away from it now. “I just…I don’t see any need to rush into anything,” he was saying. “We wouldn’t be rushing,” she responded. “We’d simply be going ahead with our plans. Why can’t we show your aunt the video when she comes to town? I mean, weddings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. It’ll be more fun to get to know her in a relaxed atmosphere.” “It’s not just my aunt.” “You said you weren’t having second thoughts about us. At least, I think that’s what you said. You said ‘not really.’ I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of that. I guess it means you could be having second thoughts, or you could be having some second thoughts or—” “You’re putting words in my mouth,” he said. “I’m thinking about the advantages, that’s all. We’d have more money if we waited, and I’ll have saved up a few more days’ vacation time.” “What about me?” Rebecca slapped a nicotine patch on her other arm. “I’ve already given my notice at Hair And Now, and Erma has a new girl I’m supposed to train starting in a few weeks. There won’t be enough business for her if I keep my current clients. Besides, the lease is up on my house and—” “Has anyone else come forward to rent it? Maybe you could talk your landlord into letting you stay another few months.” Wasn’t he listening? She didn’t want to stay any longer. She didn’t want to see the doubt in her father’s eyes when she told him the wedding had been postponed a third time. And she sure as heck didn’t want to share such news with her three perfect sisters, all of whom had husbands and families of their own. They’d paved the road before her with such high expectations she’d never measure up. And everyone down at the Honky Tonk, the redneck bar that served as the center of Dundee’s weekend entertainment, was already placing bets on whether there’d really be a wedding. She couldn’t have the whole town laughing at her. Not again. “The invitations are at the printers,” she said. She could feel the reassuring adhesive of both nicotine patches clinging to her skin but somehow it wasn’t the same as a smoke. “You could probably catch them if you called right away,” he replied. “Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should just forget about the wedding and elope.” “Elope?” His voice had definitely gone a bit high, but Rebecca barreled on. “Yeah. Let’s fly to Vegas and do it. Forget the cake and the flowers and the food. Forget the guests!” “My mother would kill me.” “Why? My parents are the ones who’ve already spent a lot of money.” Her parents had been so excited that she was finally getting married, they’d promised to give her the same kind of wedding they’d provided for her sisters, even though she was thirty-one. The vein in her father’s forehead had momentarily appeared when she mentioned the cost of her dress, but her mother had quickly quelled whatever he was about to say with one of her magical warning glances. He’d nodded vacantly and walked away, and they hadn’t discussed the expense of the wedding since. “See?” Buddy said. “We can’t elope. Your parents would be furious.” “Some things, like the food and hall and the photographer, we can still cancel. The rest I’ll pay for myself, a little at a time.” “And the memory of having your father give you away and all that?” “I don’t think my folks care whether or not I have a wedding. They just want me to be happy.” “That might be true. But I’m an only child and my father died when I was eight. It’s perfectly understandable that my mother would want me to do things the traditional way.” Rebecca was beginning to feel a little desperate. He had an answer for everything, but they weren’t answers she could understand. Two people who were madly in love wanted to be together as soon as possible. They didn’t put off their wedding for a great-aunt. It was the one time in life a couple was allowed to be selfish. Or maybe she was getting carried away by the emotion of the moment. Maybe she wasn’t thinking like other people. It had happened before. “Okay,” she said, shifting to damage control. “What if I move out there and we live together until the wedding? That should make everyone happy.” “Um…I don’t think so. My family wouldn’t like it.” “Your family wouldn’t like it? What about you, Buddy?” He immediately picked up on the edge in her voice. “There’s no need to get upset, Beck. Would you please calm down?” Calm down? How could she respond any more calmly and still have a pulse? “What do you want me to say?” she asked. “I can’t help that I’m not happy about this.” As a matter of fact, the bubble of her anger was rising inexorably toward the surface, and she feared she’d no longer be able to hold it back. Worse, she could barely remember why it was important to do so. If Buddy didn’t love her, all the soft-spoken words in the world wouldn’t change a thing. And he couldn’t love her if he was putting everyone else’s feelings before hers. “Just try to understand,” he said. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I want to know what’s really going on.” “There’s nothing going on. I want my aunt to come to the wedding. Reading anything more into this would be blowing it out of proportion.” “What about my family? They’ve been making hundreds of scrolls with that silly romantic poem we chose.” “Which we’ll use…eventually.” “Eventually.” Rebecca felt as if her hold on the rope that was supposed to rescue her from Dundee had just grown a little more tenuous. “I’ve got to go,” Buddy said. “Wait! I want to talk about this. I admit I’m upset, but I think I have good reason to be.” Silence. “Buddy? Answer me, dammit. Not every conversation we have has to be pleasant. That isn’t even realistic.” Nothing. “What if one of my aunts can’t make it in January? Do we put if off again? We can’t possibly accommodate everyone.” “Let’s talk about it later, okay?” “Why?” “Because maybe by then you’ll have cooled off.” “And maybe not. Can’t you work with me here? I’m disappointed and frustrated and—” “And I’d talk to you now if I thought it would help, but arguing won’t solve anything,” he said. “Come on, Beck. I’m just asking for a few more months. What’s the rush?” He didn’t get it, and Rebecca knew she couldn’t explain it to him without dredging up her past. Which she definitely didn’t want to do. She was moving to Nebraska to start over. “I thought we were in love,” she said. “We are in love. And we’re going to be just as in love in January, right?” How could she answer that without conceding it would be okay to wait? “I guess.” “At least, I’m still going to be in love with you,” he added, and Rebecca felt herself soften. She didn’t want to wait any longer to be married, but if it would make Buddy happy, how could she refuse? “Okay,” she said at last. “Great.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “I knew you’d understand. You’re the best, babe, you know that? Listen, I’ve got someone at the door, so I’ll have to call you later.” Rebecca slouched into a chair at the kitchen table and started peeling off the nicotine patches she’d plastered on herself. “Fine.” The phone clicked and a dial tone filled her ear. Hanging up, she sat in a stupor for several seconds, waiting for her emotions to reach some kind of equilibrium. She’d behaved admirably. She’d succeeded in remaining calm and should be proud of herself for that. But it was hard to celebrate when Buddy was still postponing their wedding. She’d have to tell her family and friends. She’d have to make new arrangements at work and with her landlord. She’d have to withstand all the snide remarks she was bound to receive at the Honky Tonk. Propping her chin on her palm, she gazed dejectedly out the window at the front drive. Everything will be okay, she told herself. This wouldn’t be the first time the whole town had snickered behind her back. Folks still told and retold the crazy things she’d done over the years, even though some stories went all the way back to her childhood. But she always managed to smile through the telling. And she’d keep on smiling. The trick, of course, was never to let anyone know how much it hurt. CHAPTER TWO “MARTHA CALLED EARLIER, said you wanted me to come over for dinner so you could talk to me about something,” Rebecca said. Dropping her car keys on the counter, she plopped onto a stool in the middle of her parents’ large white kitchen. Her mother, wearing a cherry-print apron over her June Cleaver dress, was busy chopping onions at the center island. A puzzled expression knotted her brows as she glanced up. “Who’s Martha?” She grimaced as understanding dawned. “Oh, you mean Greta.” “There’s a little Martha Stewart in all of us. Some of my sisters just have more than their share.” “There’s nothing wrong with being a good homemaker,” her mother replied. “I would’ve agreed with you—” Rebecca toyed with the fresh fruit that graced the bowl at her elbow “—but Greta lost me when she tried to make roses out of the ends of her toilet paper. Presentation isn’t everything. Some things are meant to be functional. Next thing we know, she’ll be trying to camouflage the commode.” She took a bite out of an apple and was mildly surprised when her mother didn’t insist she wait until after dinner. “So what did you want to say to me?” Her mother scooped the onions she’d been chopping onto a plate. “I just wanted to tell you that I found some pretty candles I think will work well for the wedding. They’re vanilla-scented.” The way her mother’s eyes settled on her, then shifted quickly to her task again, suggested she had more to say. But mention of the wedding was enough to make Rebecca uncomfortable. She’d called the printer in Boise this morning and managed to talk them into holding her order, but she hadn’t mentioned the latest wrinkle in her love life to anyone closer to home. When her sister called earlier to set up dinner, she’d thought tonight might be a good time to talk to her parents. But her mother was preparing a lot of onions. Probably she wasn’t the only one coming to dinner. “Can I help?” she asked. “Sure. Grab a bowl and start cutting up vegetables for a salad. Everything’s in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.” “I may be less like Martha Stewart than your other daughters, but even I know where to find the veggies,” Rebecca grumbled, crossing to the fridge and pulling out the romaine lettuce. “Who’s coming tonight?” “Greta and the kids.” “She told me she had a headache.” “She called just before you came. She’s feeling better.” “And Randy?” “He has to work.” With a population barely reaching 1,500, Dundee had only two full-time firemen. Randy, husband of the sister closest to Rebecca in age, was one of them. “I’ll miss him,” Rebecca said, making little effort to mask her sarcasm. Her mother arched a reprimanding eyebrow at her. “That’s not a very nice tone to use regarding Randy. He’s your brother-in-law.” He’d also been sidekick to Josh Hill all through high school. But then, her parents didn’t understand her feelings toward Josh, either. They’d worshipped him ever since his family moved in across the street twenty-four years ago. Especially her father. From the beginning, if Josh got into a brawl at school or skipped class to catch frogs in the nearby creek, her father would say, “He’s all boy, isn’t he?” And there was no mistaking the pride in his voice. In high school, if Josh was caught with his hand up Lula Jane’s blouse or sticking his tongue down Betty Carlisle’s throat behind the bleachers, her father wouldn’t go on about the evils of promiscuity. He and Josh’s father would dismiss it with a wink and a nudge, then slap Josh on the butt and tell him he played one helluva football game. Maybe the double standard wouldn’t have bothered Rebecca so much if her father hadn’t wanted a son so desperately. But she knew, as the youngest, she’d been Doyle Wells’s last hope for a boy, and he wasn’t happy she’d failed him. The suspicion that he’d rather have the boy across the street than his youngest daughter had soon made Josh the bane of Rebecca’s existence. She’d immediately set out to conquer and defeat—or at least to prove that anything he could do, she could do better. If Josh climbed a tree, she climbed higher. Once she fell and broke her arm and he had to run for help, but that didn’t put an end to the rivalry that raged between them. Her humiliation only escalated it. If Josh hopped a fence, or waded through the creek on his way to school, ruining his clothes, she proved she wasn’t afraid to do the same. Though her father generally reacted with something far less than pride, she did have a few moments of glory. On Josh’s ninth birthday, when he received his first two-wheeled bicycle, she challenged him to a race around the block and somehow managed to beat him. Her father was absolutely beaming when she crossed the finish line; his father was not. So much for glory days, Rebecca thought as she immersed the lettuce in cold water and started ripping it into pieces. Sheer determination couldn’t make up for Josh’s advantage in size and strength forever, so Rebecca had been forced to find other areas in which to assert herself. If Josh ran for student body president, she ran against him—and lost. If Josh took debate, she challenged him on the other side of the argument—and thanks to her sharp tongue, usually won. If Josh made honor roll, she tried for Principal’s List—and most semesters fell laughably short. Fortunately life with Josh as part of the community eventually achieved a sort of precarious equilibrium. Once they graduated from high school, he went off to college in Utah and she went to massage school in Iowa before changing her mind and going to beauty school, instead. When they both returned to Dundee, they pretty much left each other alone. Until that hot August night a year ago last summer. What happened then, Rebecca couldn’t explain. She didn’t even want to think about it. She could only concede that Josh had come a long way since the age of eight. He was now six-four and two hundred pounds of lean hard muscle—which she knew because she’d had the pleasure of exploring nearly every inch of him. “Are you going to answer me?” her mother prodded. Rebecca’s throat had gone dry at the memory of Josh’s bare chest. “What was the question?” she asked, shoving his image from her mind. “I want to know why you don’t like your brother-in-law.” She shrugged. “I don’t have to like him. I’m not the one who married him.” Shaking water off the leaves, she tossed them into the bowl she’d removed from one of the glass-fronted cupboards. Like everything else—the sink, the counters, the appliances and the tile floor—the cupboards were so white the reflection of the setting sun, streaming unchecked through large square windows running along the entire back of the house, nearly blinded her. The windows and the shiny new kitchen were the results of a recent renovation. The old kitchen had been avocado-green and brown—a color scheme Rebecca hoped would never gain popularity again. Her mother scraped the onions into a frying pan and added a pat of butter. “But he’s a great guy. What’s not to like?” “Nothing. Forget it,” Rebecca said. “Now that you’ve brought up it up, I’d finally like to know.” “The memories we have of each other from high school aren’t the most pleasant, that’s all.” “What memories?” Most of them had far more to do with Josh Hill than Randy, but Randy had been constantly at Josh’s elbow, which meant he was included. “We had a few run-ins,” she said vaguely. “Because he was a friend of Josh Hill’s?” Unfortunately the conversation was drifting toward Josh and she wasn’t sure she could stop it. “Maybe.” “So we’re not really talking about Randy. We’re talking about Joshua.” “No, I’m not talking about Josh. I never talk about Josh,” Rebecca responded. Her mother found a spatula in the drawer and began stirring the sizzling onions. “Well, perhaps it’s time you did,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of this feud between you two. We love Josh and his older brother. His parents are good friends of ours.” Rebecca sighed. “I know. But it’s too late to improve relations between Josh and me, so don’t get it in your head to try. The bad blood between us is old, old news.” “That might be the case, but I want you to bury whatever grudge you’re holding against him.” “Are you kidding?” Rebecca paused in her knife attack on the radishes. The sudden absence of her rapid thump, thump, thump made the silence seem loud. “What’s the point? We run into each other a lot, but it’s only in passing. We could go on like this indefinitely. There’s no reason to change anything.” “Now there is. You’ll soon be seeing each other more than in passing.” “That sounds pretty specific. When?” And Rebecca had thought Buddy’s news was the worst she could receive. “Your sisters are planning an anniversary celebration for your father and me. It’s in two weeks.” The scent of her mother’s grilled onions became almost overpowering. “Somehow I knew you didn’t invite me over to talk about candles.” “I did find some good candles,” her mother said. Rebecca retrieved two stalks of celery from the fridge, washed them and started chopping them on the cutting board. She realized she could probably avoid the subject of Josh by using the candles to segue into Buddy’s postponement of the wedding. But the words stuck in her throat when she envisioned what her experience at the anniversary party would be like if she mentioned her latest setback too soon. “Heard you and Buddy are waiting a few weeks longer…You think that boy really knows what he wants?…Musta figured out what he was getting himself into, huh?” (said with a hearty chuckle). Deciding that it would be much better to wait until after her parents’ anniversary, she plunged back into the subject of Josh Hill. “What does this party have to do with me and Josh? We can attend the same function without causing a scene.” Her mother looked less than optimistic. “Like you did at Delia’s wedding?” Rebecca threw the core of the lettuce in the trash compactor. “Is that what this is all about? You blame me for what happened at Delia’s wedding? I’ve told you, it wasn’t my fault.” “Then whose fault was it?” her mother wanted to know. “You can’t blame Josh, not when you were the one who tripped him.” “He only thought I was going to trip him. He overreacted.” She’d said so before, but no one seemed to care. “Regardless, he fell into the cake and took the whole food table down with him.” Her mother winced at the painful memory. “I told you, it was his mistake.” “Maybe. But you’re the one who darted away from him at the last second and ran smack into the punch fountain, dousing your poor sister. She was so sticky, she had to miss the end of her own reception to change and shower. By the time she and Brad left on their honeymoon, her eyes were swollen, her nose was red from crying, and her hair and dress were ruined.” “Okay, the punch part might’ve been my fault,” Rebecca conceded. “Josh grabbed at me when he fell and I was trying to get away so he couldn’t pull me down with him.” “Better you fall in an undignified heap than the bride gets sprayed with punch. It wasn’t a pleasant thing for Delia to—” The door banged open as her father strode in from the garage, briefcase in hand, and whatever her mother was about to say was immediately lost in the human power surge. Loud, authoritative and supremely confident, her father commanded respect simply by being. The fact that he’d been the mayor of Dundee since Rebecca was in high school, was well over six feet and resembled Billy Graham certainly didn’t hurt. “Did you tell her?” he demanded the moment he spotted Rebecca. Her mother gave him one of her famous warning looks and cleared her throat. “Actually, Doyle, we were just getting around to—” “Tell me what?” Rebecca interrupted, meeting her father’s direct gaze. He might not approve of her, but she wasn’t going to flinch in his presence like everyone else. And she sure as heck wasn’t going to use her mother as a go-between. “That you’re not invited to the anniversary celebration unless you can behave yourself,” he said point-blank. “I’ve had it with this thing between you and Josh Hill. I won’t have you embarrassing me again.” With that, he stalked from the kitchen, presumably to change out of his suit. Rebecca put down the knife she’d been rinsing and let her wet hands dangle in the sink. “Not everyone sees Josh Hill through the same rose-colored glasses you do, Dad,” she called after him. “That would only be you,” he hollered back. “Everyone else in this town knows Josh for what he is—an ambitious young man with a shrewd business mind. That boy’s going to make something of himself someday. You wait and see.” “And I’m not? Is that what you’re implying?” He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Though Rebecca loved her profession, she knew that in her parents’ opinion, a hairstylist—even an accomplished hairstylist—could never compare to a successful horse breeder like Josh. Josh Hill had somehow been able to win the love and approval she’d always craved, especially from her father. But what bothered her most was that he’d done it so effortlessly and so long ago. How could she compete with someone so well entrenched in her father’s affections? She hadn’t been able to compete with Josh at seven. She couldn’t compete with him now. She wasn’t even sure why she kept trying. After finishing the salad, she set it on the table and retrieved her keys. “Where are you going?” her mother asked, alarmed. “Aren’t you staying for dinner?” Rebecca pictured the moment her sister and the kids arrived; she pictured sitting across the table from her father. “No, Dad already took care of what you both wanted to say. Consider me warned,” she said and headed for the entry. “Rebecca?” She paused. “He doesn’t mean to sound so harsh, honey,” her mother said softly. “Oh, he meant it all right,” she said. Rebecca wasn’t sure about a lot of things—why Buddy kept putting off their wedding, why she’d gone home with Josh a year ago last summer (and how she’d even started dancing with him in the first place), why she didn’t really fit into her own family. But she knew her father had meant every word. REBECCA SAT on her back step as darkness fell, and lit up a cigarette. She’d managed to get through yesterday without smoking, despite Buddy’s call, but one visit to her parents’ house and—POOF—there went her resolve. What difference did it make, anyway? She couldn’t change her stripes. Even if she decided to become a nun, the good folks of Dundee would find something to criticize, her father chief among them. At least she’d come by her reputation honestly. She’d raised eyebrows in Dundee more times than she could count and had certainly given Josh a run for his money in their younger days. She still remembered filling his locker with pincher bugs, spray-painting “Josh Sucks” on the sidewalk in front of his house and telling everyone that his penis was a mere three inches long (without adding that she was going by information gleaned ten years earlier in a classic “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”). Contrary to popular belief, however, he was hardly blameless. He’d retaliated by jamming her locker so she couldn’t open it, which made her fail an English test because she couldn’t turn in the essay she’d written the night before. He and Randy stole a pair of panties from her gym locker and ran them up the flagpole. And Josh had offered to give her a more current measurement of his penis. She’d refused, of course. But plenty of other girls had come forward to vouch for something far more impressive than three inches. Taken with his football prowess, even her accusation of a small penis wasn’t enough to dent Josh’s overwhelming popularity. Rebecca was the only one, it seemed, who didn’t worship Josh Hill. And that hadn’t changed over the years. No matter what happened, her father remained one of his staunchest supporters. A staunch supporter of the enemy. She grimaced and took another drag on her cigarette. About Josh, her father always said, “He’s made his parents proud, hasn’t he?” About Rebecca her father always said, “God tries us all.” Oh well, nothing in Dundee was going to matter when she moved to Nebraska, she told herself. But that line of reasoning didn’t pack the same power it used to because she was no longer sure she’d be moving to Nebraska. Buddy had left several messages on her answering machine today, but she didn’t feel like returning them. She felt like sitting on the steps, smoking one cigarette after another, watching the moths hover about her porch light. Autumn was here. The leaves were turning, the days growing shorter. Rebecca had always loved the crisp mountain air, and she wondered if Nebraska was very different. She’d only visited there once, the past spring…. If she did move, she’d miss autumn in Idaho. And she’d miss Delaney. Picking up the cordless phone she’d carried outside with her, she dialed her best friend at the ranch where Delaney now lived with her husband, Conner Armstrong. “You’re smoking again,” Delaney said, almost as soon as she answered. Rebecca exhaled. “That’s the first thing you’ve got to say to me?” “You promised me you were going to quit for real this time.” Rebecca removed her cigarette and watched the smoke curl up into the sky. “Yeah, well, that was before I went over to my parents’ tonight. Be grateful I’m only smoking.” “Something happen at your folks?” After another long drag, Rebecca stubbed out her cigarette, then stretched her legs. “Nothing new. How’s the pregnancy?” “The doctor says everything looks fine.” “Good. Hard to believe you’re almost ready to pop. The past few months have gone fast.” In fact, considering that Rebecca and Buddy had been engaged before Delaney even met Conner, time had streaked by. Delaney was starting a family; Rebecca was trying to work up the nerve to tell everyone her wedding had just been postponed again. “I’m big enough that it’s getting a little uncomfortable,” Delaney complained. “I’ve lost my toes.” Rebecca thought she wouldn’t mind gaining twenty-five pounds and losing sight of her toes if it meant a baby. “Guess that goes with the territory, huh? Did you ever find the dressers you were looking for?” “Conner told me to buy new ones. But I’m having fun hunting for bargains. It keeps me occupied while he oversees the building of the resort. Maybe I’ll drive to Boise next week and visit a few garage sales, see what I can find. You’re off Monday. Want to go with me?” Rebecca’s call-waiting beeped before she could answer. “Hang on a sec,” she said and hit the flash button. “Hello?” “Rebecca?” It was her father. She sat up and shook another cigarette out of the package, knowing instinctively she’d need one. “Yeah?” “I just talked to Josh Hill.” She froze mid-motion. “Why do I get the feeling that comment is somehow related to me?” “Because it is. I asked him to call a truce between the two of you.” Rebecca stuck the unlit cigarette in her mouth and found her lighter. “You didn’t,” she said, speaking around it. “I did.” A brief, unhappy hesitation. “Are you smoking again? I thought you’d quit.” Dropping her lighter in her lap, she quickly pulled the cigarette from her mouth. “I have.” “I hope so. That’s such a nasty habit.” “Why did you call Josh, Dad? There’s no reason to ask for a truce.” “After what happened at Delia’s wedding?” “That was an accident. We haven’t done anything to each other on purpose for years.” Barring the night they’d gone to Josh’s place from the Honky Tonk, of course. They’d done a few things to each other then—and would probably have done a lot more if they hadn’t been interrupted. But that night didn’t count. Feverish groping didn’t fall in the same category as their earlier dealings. “I’m tired of being afraid to have you two in the same room,” her father replied. “Is that what you told him?” “That’s what I told him.” “And he said…” Rebecca toyed nervously with her lighter, flipping the lid open, closed, open, closed. Click, click…click, click. “He agreed to let the past go.” “He did?” “That’s what I just said, isn’t it? Now, what do you say?” Click, click…click, click. Words were cheap, Rebecca decided. Why not let her father feel as though his intervention had solved everything? “Okay.” “Okay, what?” “Okay, we’re calling a truce.” “Good.” Her father sounded inordinately pleased. “I told him I could convince you.” “You’ve done a bang-up job, Dad. Is that all?” “Not quite.” Rebecca hesitated, fearing she hadn’t heard the worst of it yet. “What do you mean by that?” “As a gesture of good faith, he’s stopping by the salon tomorrow for a haircut.” Rebecca coughed as though she’d just swallowed a bug. When she could speak, she said, “But he always gets his hair cut at the barbershop.” “Not tomorrow. Tomorrow he’s coming to you. He’ll be there at ten. Good night.” “Wait,” she cried. “I can’t cut his hair.” “Why not?” her father asked, his voice now gruff. “You agreed to the truce, remember?” Collecting her cigarettes and lighter, Rebecca stood and began to pace across the small porch. “Of course I remember, but…but tomorrow’s Saturday. I’m booked solid.” “Not at ten in the morning you’re not.” “How do you know?” “Because I was your first appointment, and I just gave him my slot.” Her heart sank. “You sure you want to do that, Dad?” “Positive.” “But this is crazy. How does my cutting Josh’s hair cement this…little truce of yours?” “Consider it a trial run for the anniversary party. If you two can get through tomorrow without killing each other, we’ll all breathe a little easier.” Rebecca propped the phone on one shoulder and shoved a hand through her new Ashley Judd hairstyle, frantically trying to think of some way out. But her father didn’t give her a chance to argue further. He surprised her by saying, “You’re doing the right thing, Beck. And stay away from those damn cigarettes.” Then he hung up. Shocked, she blinked into the dark yard for several seconds, not knowing what to think. “Was that Buddy?” Delaney asked as soon as she switched back over. “It was my father.” “Everything okay?” “No. Absolutely not.” “Why?” Delaney asked. “What’s wrong?” “I’m supposed to cut Josh Hill’s hair tomorrow.” Silence met this statement, followed by, “You’re kidding, right? Josh is going to put himself at your mercy when you’ve got a pair of scissors in your hands?” Rebecca bit her lip and sighed as she headed back inside the house. “I guess we’ll see, huh?” CHAPTER THREE REBECCA GLANCED NERVOUSLY through Hair And Now’s large front window as the clock ticked inexorably toward ten. The weather was cool and clear with a slight breeze—another perfect autumn day. Not many people were out and about yet, but Saturdays typically started slow at this end of town. Three blocks away at the bakery, there’d be a crowd wanting coffee, donuts and muffins. Starbucks might be taking over the planet, but the citizens of Dundee still patronized Don and Tami’s Bakery. Maybe Josh wouldn’t show, Rebecca thought hopefully, noting the dearth of traffic. If he stood her up, she could shrug when she next saw her father and say, “I was perfectly willing to make peace, Dad, but he never arrived.” And then she’d look innocent for a change. Perfect. She smiled as she began readying her station with rods and tissues for the permanent wave she’d be giving at eleven, imagining the look of disappointment on her father’s face if for once Josh failed him. This whole truce thing could end up working in her favor. She could feign disappointment in his stubborn refusal to put the past behind them and— The bell rang over the door, causing Rebecca’s daydream to dissipate. She knew without turning that Josh had arrived. The murmur that ran from Katie, the other stylist, to Mona, the manicurist, to Nancy Shepherd, who was having her nails done, would have told Rebecca even if her sixth sense did not. But her sixth sense was working just fine. Somehow she could always tell when Josh was around. He made her feel clumsy, nervous, unattractive. No wonder she didn’t like him. Anyway, despite her wishful thinking, she’d known all along that he’d appear. He’d never been one to back down from a challenge. Rebecca cleaned her combs and scissors before looking up. She needed a moment to gather her nerve. Josh was so much easier to hate when he wasn’t within ten feet of her. Ever since she’d made the mistake of going home with him that one night, something had changed. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it made their relationship—or absence of a relationship—very complex. She supposed kissing a man the way she’d kissed him, as though she longed to climb inside his skin and live there for the rest of her life, tended to confuse the issues. “Hi, Josh, what brings you in today?” Mona asked. At least fifteen years his senior, Mona had a handful of children at home as well as a husband, but the pitch of her voice suggested she could still appreciate a handsome man when she saw one. And Josh was definitely handsome. He had thick blond hair that fell carelessly across his forehead, skin that tanned so easily he was golden-brown before anyone else even thought of bringing out their summer clothes, and intelligent green eyes that sparkled with more than enough mischief to keep a woman guessing. Fortunately Rebecca had long ago perfected her immunity to his rugged virility. She couldn’t really explain her brief lapse that fateful August 16th, but she was still Rebecca Wells. Josh Hill was never going to get the best of her. “I have an appointment this morning,” he told Mona. “You’re Katie’s first client?” “He’s not my ten o’clock,” Katie said. “Unless there’s been some mix-up, I’m doing a perm for Mrs. Vanderwall. And Erma’s not coming in today. She’s off visiting her sister in Boise.” From the corner of her eye, Rebecca saw Josh shove his hands in the pockets of his Wranglers. “Actually, I’m here to see Rebecca.” “You’re joking, right?” Mona was chuckling as she spoke, as though he had to be joking. Everyone in town knew that putting her and Josh together was like putting a match to gasoline. Rebecca cleared her throat and faced them fully. If she waited any longer to acknowledge Josh’s presence, he might realize she wasn’t quite up to her usual self. “Josh, good to see you,” she said, forcing a smile. He gave her that crooked grin of his, the one that showed his dimples, and immediately called her on the lie. “Are you sure?” Hell, no. “I’m trying to be positive,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her because she suddenly didn’t know where to put them. He settled his black felt cowboy hat further back on his head. “So this truce thing is for real.” “I guess,” she said with a shrug. “Because I gotta tell ya, that fiasco at your sister’s wedding was…” He shook his head and let his breath go all at once. “I can’t believe you’d even bring that up,” Rebecca responded, bridling. “You made me take out the punch fountain.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’re the one who tripped me in the first place.” “I didn’t even touch you!” “Wait a second,” Katie said. “That wedding was the most exciting thing this town has seen in the past three years. If you two call a truce, life’s going to get pretty boring around here. Who will Rebecca have to fight with?” “She doesn’t need me,” Josh said. “She’s always been her own worst enemy.” Katie started to chuckle, but Rebecca gave her a look that said “shut up or pay later.” Katie covered her mouth with one hand in an effort to hide her amusement. But Rebecca wasn’t fooled. She would’ve said something to the effect that she wouldn’t be around to entertain everyone much longer. Except she felt a little unsure of that right now. And Mrs. Vanderwall entered the salon just then, offering the perfect distraction. “Your ten o’clock is here,” Rebecca said pointedly to Katie and narrowed her eyes at Mona long enough to remind her that she had a client, too. As Mona finally bent over Nancy Shepherd’s hands, Nancy said, “Don’t look at me, I didn’t say anything,” and Rebecca turned back to Josh. “I should’ve known you’d make this difficult.” His devil-may-care grin reappeared. “I thought that’s how you like things.” “I don’t like things difficult.” “Yes, you do. The harder the better.” Rebecca was fairly certain he didn’t mean what he’d said as a sexual innuendo, but his words still brought visions of August 16th. He’d been as aroused as she had—which was the only saving grace about the whole experience. She might have embarrassed herself by nearly sleeping with the enemy but, if memory served, the attraction had been very mutual. “I’m not the one who rained on your parade,” she said. “Excuse me?” “You moved in across the street from me.” “That’s what you hold against me?” he cried. “That I moved in across the street from you? How the hell was I supposed to help that? I was eight years old, for crying out loud.” She hadn’t really meant what she’d said, of course. He hadn’t ruined her life by moving in across the street. He’d ruined her life by being everything her father had ever wanted. But trying to explain that would sound equally ridiculous. She was thirty-one. Her father’s preference for Josh shouldn’t bother her anymore. “Never mind,” she said. “Are you planning on staying or what? Because you don’t have to, you know. I’ll just tell my father that you chickened out at the last minute. I’m sure he’ll understand.” “Chickened out?” he repeated. She smiled sweetly. “Isn’t that what you’d call it?” “I’d call it an issue of trust. The thought of you standing over me with a sharp instrument strikes fear into my heart.” “Oh, come on. You’d have to have a heart for that,” she said, and thought she heard Mona snicker. Josh rubbed his chin as though she’d just delivered a nice left hook. “You certainly haven’t changed much,” he said sulkily. “You have good reason to worry,” Mona muttered from where she was sitting at her station up front, filing Nancy’s nails. “I bet five bucks he won’t stay,” Nancy piped up. “I’ll put ten on that,” Katie said. “What’s the bet?” Mrs. Vanderwall had been too busy trying to straighten her girdle so she could sit down to pay much attention to what was going on around her. At eighty, her hearing wasn’t what it used to be. Katie started to explain, but she only got partway before Mrs. Vanderwall waved her to silence. “Never mind the rest. It doesn’t matter. No one’s a match for Rebecca. I’ll put twenty on her getting the best of him.” Rebecca wasn’t flattered by this show of support. She wasn’t that much of an ogre, was she? Sure, she’d lost her temper a few times in the past. Once she’d blackened Gilbert Tripp’s eye when he backed into Delaney’s car, but he’d deserved it. He’d tried to drive away before she and Delaney could get out of the Quick Mart, and when Rebecca finally chased him down, he’d blamed the accident on Delaney’s parking. Their argument had quickly escalated and the next thing Rebecca knew…well, she’d let one fly. But she didn’t doubt Josh would have done the same! “Forget it,” she told him. “I’m not out to get the best of you or anyone else. Just go down to the barbershop and buy yourself a haircut.” Her voice had gone flat. She cleared her throat and tried to put more inflection in it. “I’ll tell my father you stopped by and everything went fine, okay?” He stared at her for a long moment without speaking. She lifted her chin and threw back her shoulders, praying he wouldn’t realize that her friends’ banter had stung. She was tired of being the bad guy, tired of being a laughingstock. But as long as she remained in Dundee, there was no escaping her reputation. “Okay?” she repeated when he didn’t respond. He started to move. She thought he was going to swing around and head right back out, onto the street. But he didn’t. He strode across the salon, doffed his hat and planted himself decisively in her chair. “You’ve probably got a big day,” he said. “We’d better get busy.” Rebecca blinked at him. She could’ve sworn he’d decided to stay for her sake, to silence the others. But that couldn’t be. That would take intuition and an unusual degree of sensitivity, and this was Josh Hill. The Testosterone King. The boy who wrote, “For a good time call anyone but Rebecca Wells,” on the bathroom wall at the A&W, starting a whole section of graffiti about her, none of which was very flattering. His staying probably had more to do with proving to everyone else in Hair And Now that they’d been foolish to bet against him—why would anyone do that? He was the great Josh Hill. The others grumbled about being wrong but finally returned to minding their own business. Rebecca nodded in acknowledgement. “Fine. It shouldn’t take long.” Spine so rigid she was surprised it didn’t creak when she moved, she draped her cape over his broad shoulders, covering his polo shirt and most of his blue jeans. As she fastened the collar, her fingers brushed his neck and he swiveled to look up at her. She raised her hands to show him she held nothing sharp. “Just fastening the cape,” she said. “I didn’t think you were going to stab me,” he grumbled. “You jumped.” What else would make him react that way? She’d barely touched him. In any case, she wasn’t going to argue the point. She was too determined to get through this as quickly as possible. “What would you like me to do for you?” she asked. “Do for me?” he repeated as though the question somehow surprised him. “To your hair.” Stepping on the lever, she lowered the chair as far as possible. She was tall, but he was several inches taller. She needed to accommodate his height. “What would you like me to do to your hair?” “Just give it a trim.” “Okay. You don’t want me to shampoo it, though, right?” She reached for her spray bottle. “We’ll be done much faster if we just wet the hair down and go from there.” He leaned away from her. “Isn’t shampooing included in the price of a cut?” Rebecca hesitated, spray bottle in hand. “Um, yes, it is, but…I’ll give you a discount. A good discount.” “No, thanks,” he said. “I’ll have the full treatment.” “O-k-a-y. Sure.” She glanced from Katie to Mona to see if they’d done something to challenge him, thereby causing him to prolong the agony, but they seemed engaged with their own clients. Setting the spray bottle on top of the rolling cart that held most of her supplies, she took a deep breath. She’d shampooed hundreds of people without a second thought. But she didn’t want to shampoo Josh. “Then…uh…you need to come back here with me.” He stood and followed her past the short row of old-fashioned hairdryers, shelves of products and racks of hair magazines to the sinks at the very back of the salon. Waving him into a cushioned seat on her left, she levered the adjustable black vinyl chair so he could lie with his neck resting comfortably in the crook of the porcelain bowl. Mostly decorated in pink, with a wide stripe to the wallpaper and a black canvas awning over the door, the salon was about as feminine a place as Rebecca could imagine. It smelled of bleach and acrylic and perm solution—a virtual self-improvement paradise into which few men ever ventured. Until recently, anyway. With the growing popularity of spiked, bleached hair among young boys, Rebecca’s male clientele had grown sharply. But Josh looked out of place all the same. His body was too big for the chair, which had been designed twenty years earlier for women, and his well-scuffed boots and the slightly frayed hem of his jeans provided a notable contrast to the muumuus and cotton print dresses Rebecca generally saw sticking out from below her plastic cape. He smelled different, too. More…evocative. A blend of warm skin, leather and soap reminded her of that night a year ago last summer when she and Josh were dancing at the Honky Tonk. While they were swaying to the music, he’d put his hands possessively on the small of her back, drawing her closer, and then he’d kissed her neck just below the earlobe…. A shiver ran down Rebecca’s spine, and she quickly forced her mind back to the present. She didn’t want to think about that. That night was an exception, the only exception, to the way she normally felt about Josh. And it made her nervous again. “Remember when you taped up that Playboy centerfold inside my locker our senior year?” he asked, out of nowhere. His comment took Rebecca off guard. She didn’t know how to respond. If she said no, they’d both know she was lying. If she said yes, they’d be back on adversarial ground. “It was just a joke,” she said, mumbling slightly in hopes he wouldn’t pursue the conversation. “Someone reported me to the principal before I even knew it was there and I got suspended for three days.” She adjusted the water temperature. “Three days? That’s not so long.” “It was during finals,” he added dryly. She stretched her neck, hoping he wasn’t going to recount their other shared experiences. “Those were crazy days.” He made a face. “That’s all you have to say?” “What do you want? An apology? It was years ago.” “Thanks for the sincere remorse.” Remorse. Rebecca was too apprehensive for remorse. The prospect of touching her childhood nemesis was causing an odd reaction in her body. She was trying to convince herself it was revulsion, but sweaty palms and a racing heart weren’t the most indicative symptoms. Wetting his head, she poured shampoo into her palm and began to work it through his hair. She told herself to stick to the same routine she gave all her clients—a thorough ten-minute head massage, followed by a gentle raking of the scalp with her nails. She was a professional, after all, with a background in massage therapy, and he was paying for her services. But somehow she couldn’t maintain any emotional distance. Having Josh right there, so accessible and pliable beneath her hands, changed the whole experience. Feeling a stab of guilt for having such a strong reaction to him—in spite of her engagement—she cut the massage short and quickly rinsed his hair. Then she slapped on some conditioner, nearly spraying him in the face when she went into rinse mode again. “What’d I do now?” he asked as she sat him up so fast she nearly gave him whiplash. “Nothing,” she said, tossing a towel into his lap. “Why?” He swiped at the water that was running down from his temples and dripping onto the cloak. “That was some shampoo. I’ve never seen anyone snap into fast-forward like that.” She smiled to cover the craziness inside her. “Well, you know me.” He raised his brows. “Somehow you always manage to surprise me.” “YOU KNOW, IF WE TOOK a little more off the top, we’d make the most of the cowlick you’ve got right here,” Rebecca said. Josh shifted his gaze from the look of expectation on her face to his own reflection. One of Rebecca’s hands held up a section of his hair, the other clutched a pair of scissors. “Are you setting me up?” he asked. That cowlick had been a nightmare for him when he was a kid. His mother had waged her own personal war against it, usually armed with a jar of Dippity-do. Up until the time he was six or seven, she’d plastered his hair to his head, making him look more like a young executive than a first-grader. Fortunately it hadn’t taken him long to learn how to compensate for her efforts by visiting the bathroom before class and using the sink to rinse his hair. His bangs always stuck up once they dried, but he hadn’t minded that. What he’d minded was the perennial “wet look” and the way his mother had constantly licked her fingers and combed his hair down, even in public. Rebecca rolled her eyes. “It’s only hair. If I botch it too badly, you can always shave your head.” “That’s supposed to make me feel better?” “Come on, don’t be a wimp. Bald is in. And I’m not going to mess up. I have my reputation to consider.” “Your reputation is what frightens me.” She sent him a pointed look, and he couldn’t help smiling. After the shampooing incident she’d calmed down a bit and seemed to be hitting her rhythm. But when it came to Rebecca, nothing was ever the way he thought it would be, so he had no idea how long the peace might last. “Do what you think is best,” he told her, even though it went against his better judgment to give her so much freedom. Especially when he remembered the time she put gum in his hair while he and Randy were having a sleep-out in the yard. He chuckled as the clippings from his hair fell all around him. “What’s so funny?” she asked. “I was just thinking about that time you snuck over and—” “Never mind.” “Wait,” he said. “I was just going to see if you remembered putting gum—” “No.” Obviously she didn’t want to discuss the past, but that incident and several others, while horrific enough at the time, seemed pretty funny now. Couldn’t she see how immature and stupid they’d been? “Don’t want to take a walk down memory lane, huh?” “Not with you.” “Why not? You have to admit some of that stuff is funny.” “Hilarious,” she grumbled. “Only no one seems to remember what you did.” “What’d I do?” he asked. “You know what you did. Quit playing the innocent.” “At least I feel bad about my terrible behavior,” he replied. “I’ll bet.” She was right, of course. He didn’t feel any worse than she did. She’d pulled pranks on him; he’d pulled pranks on her. After so many years, there was no way to sort out blame—and the thought of even trying to do it bored him. He didn’t care anymore. So why didn’t they just forgive and forget? They were both adults, with separate lives to lead. Yet every time he passed Rebecca on the street or saw her somewhere like Jerry’s Diner, he got the feeling they had unfinished business between them. Probably because of that night over a year ago—even though nothing had ultimately happened. He’d gotten Rebecca to go home with him. He’d even managed to remove her clothes, along with most of his own. Then his brother had come home and at the slamming of the front door, she’d suddenly scrambled to her feet, dressed, grabbed her purse and hurried off. He’d been two seconds away from the best sex of his life, so crazy for her he almost begged her to stay. Except he’d known it wouldn’t do him any good. It was as if she’d suddenly come out of a trance and realized who she was with. After that, she didn’t want him anywhere near her. But his preoccupation with Rebecca was just an ego thing, he assured himself. Something to do with conquering her at last. She was the girl in school who thumbed her nose when he passed in the halls or booed when he threw a touchdown. He’d wanted to make her a believer. That was all. He’d only come today hoping to put all that behind them so they could finally achieve neutrality. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy with Rebecca. She held too much against him, even though he’d never set out to make a real enemy of her. For a few years when he was a kid, he’d thought it fun to torture girls by putting spiders in their hair or chasing them home from school with a craggy old stick he claimed to be one of his dead grandmother’s bones. But his grandmother hadn’t even died at that point. And Rebecca had never been intimidated by that kind of stuff, anyway. The one time he’d put a spider in her hair, all the other girls had screamed, but not her. She’d calmly scooped it up and set it gently on the ground. Later she’d dredged up a garter snake and slipped it down the back of his shirt when he wasn’t looking. He’d liked snakes, so that part was actually kind of cool. What wasn’t so cool was that a girl had beat him at his own game. Still, he’d always liked Rebecca’s toughness. She was different from the other girls. More stubborn. More prideful. He’d never seen determination on a person’s face like he’d so often seen on hers—usually when they were competing in some way. He knew how badly she hated to lose, but she’d never let him see her cry. If he beat her at something, she’d jut out her chin and tell him he’d had a stroke of luck. Or she’d challenge him again. Sometimes he let her win just because he was tired of being goaded to give her another chance. So, all in all, he supposed what had happened when they were young probably wasn’t so different from what happened to a lot of kids. In elementary school, boys occasionally pinched girls, pulled their hair, whatever. It was the “cooties” stage, and girls turned up their noses at boys, too. Rebecca just never forgave him as they grew older. There were times when he’d tried to seek her out, tried to win her over, but it made no difference at all. He remembered one time in particular, right before his first game as starting quarterback for the varsity football team. He was only a junior and had yet to prove to the town that his dad, who was head coach, hadn’t put him in because of the family connection. The senior who’d been planning to start that year was furious about losing his position. So were his folks. They’d stirred up all kinds of trouble around town, which threatened his father’s job, and Josh knew the only way to silence the critics was to play the best game he’d ever played in his life. He was feeling the pressure of it all when he spotted Rebecca standing near the bleachers. He caught her eye, thinking if he could only get her to smile at him, just once, everything would be okay. But she’d cast him that “who gave you the right to breathe” look and turned away. Fortunately, he’d thrown for over two hundred yards, including three touchdown passes, and they’d won the game. No thanks to Rebecca. The other girls in town came around, though. In the second grade, he’d pulled Beth Paris’s ponytails countless times, yet she’d ended up asking him to take her to the Homecoming Dance when they were seniors. And she’d wanted to do a lot more than dance. Certainly no hard feelings there. Forget about Rebecca, he told himself, growing cranky. It’d been twenty-four years since he’d met her, and he was just as confused by her now as he’d ever been. Men who thought women were complicated creatures didn’t know the half of it—unless they knew Rebecca Wells. “You don’t like it?” she said, sounding for the first time in all those twenty-four years as though she wasn’t quite sure of herself. “What are you talking about?” “The expression on your face. You look like you’re ready to choke someone.” He wondered what she’d say if he told her she was the one he was thinking about choking. She probably wouldn’t be surprised. If she wasn’t so engrossed in cutting his hair, she’d most likely be thinking about choking him, too. That was the way it was between them. “Looks good,” he said, even though he couldn’t tell a whole lot while it was still wet. It just seemed shorter. She set her scissors down on the vanity and retrieved her blow-dryer from a holster-like holder. “You’re lucky to have that cowlick,” she said. “It gives your hair some lift here, off the forehead, and adds a lot of body.” “Yeah, well, you might mention that to my mother the next time you see her standing in line at the drugstore to buy Dippity-do,” he said. “Maybe I won’t get a jar for Christmas this year.” “If I came within ten yards of your mother, she’d probably shoot me.” “Now that you mention it, she is a little bitter,” he admitted. “I guess I’m stuck with the Dippity-Do.” “If it depends on me, you are,” she said and switched on the blow-dryer. The resulting whir left Josh to his own thoughts again, but only for a few minutes. Soon Katie interrupted them by tapping Rebecca’s shoulder. “Your father’s here,” she hollered over the noise. CHAPTER FOUR “THERE YOU ARE, my boy,” Mayor Wells boomed, cutting across the salon. Rebecca turned off the blow-dryer. Josh brushed the hair off his drape and stood to shake hands. “Good to see you, sir. You’re looking fit, as always.” Dundee’s mayor tapped his rounding middle. “Ah, the weight catches up with you eventually. Be forewarned. But you don’t have to worry about that until you find someone to cook for you. When are you and that cute little Mary planning to tie the knot?” He and Mary Thornton had been dating since Mary’s divorce was final six months ago. Glen, her ex, had taken off for the big city almost a year before that, and Mary and their nine-year-old son, Ricky, had moved back in with her parents. Word had it that Glen was too busy chasing skirts to be a very conscientious father. Whether Glen was chasing skirts or not, Josh knew Ricky never heard from him. So Mary was understandably a little anxious to provide her son with a new and improved role model. Josh had no doubt he was the role model she had in mind, but he wasn’t entirely convinced he was going to let her lead him to the altar. He loved Ricky. Most of the time he liked him better than Mary. But he doubted the enjoyment he received from knowing her son was enough of a basis for marriage. He opened his mouth to say that he and Mary had no plans, but Doyle’s attention had already shifted to Rebecca. “So you came through, huh?” A certain strain around the mouth and eyes told Josh Rebecca wasn’t happy to see her father. “I told you I would,” she replied. Doyle considered Josh’s hair. “Well, it’s not blue. That’s a good sign.” Josh couldn’t help glancing in the mirror, even though he’d been watching the entire process. Rebecca had actually given him a good cut. Though she hadn’t quite finished, his hair was dry enough now that he could see what it was going to look like, and he was impressed. He’d been settling for the cut Ed down at the barbershop gave almost everyone who walked in, but she’d added a touch of style that was a welcome change. “It’s definitely not blue,” he said, refusing to allow her too much credit. “Did you stop by for a reason?” Rebecca asked her father. The mayor smiled. “Just wanted to see how things were going down here.” “Well, we haven’t killed each other yet, if that’s what you were worried about.” Doyle turned just enough to exclude Rebecca from the conversation. “I hear you and your brother have yourselves another million-dollar stallion out at the ranch. That’s five now, isn’t it? Good for you. You’re making quite a name for yourself in the Quarterhorse business.” “Things are going well, thanks,” Josh said. “How’s the resort coming along?” A chung indicated Rebecca had just shoved the blow-dryer back into its holder. In his peripheral vision, Josh saw her fold her arms, cock one leg and glower at her father. “I’m only an investor,” he said, “so I’m not involved in the day-to-day management. But it seems to be doing well under Conner’s hand.” “Who would’ve thought that Armstrong fella could turn his life around and manage to pull off a project of this size? It’s sure gonna do the community some good. Yes, sir.” He shook his head. “Gives a father hope, doesn’t it?” At this Rebecca rolled her eyes and although Josh caught the insult in what Doyle said, he pretended not to notice. Whatever was going on between father and daughter had nothing to do with him. He’d agreed to the truce. He’d done his part. After he paid for his haircut, he was off the hook until the anniversary party. “By the way, Rebecca’s gettin’ married and moving to Nebraska in a few weeks,” Doyle went on. “Did she tell you?” A coughing fit seized Rebecca. She quickly excused herself by mumbling something about needing a drink. “I’ve heard a rumor to that effect,” Josh said as they both watched her march to the back of the salon and duck into a small room. “I thought I’d never see the day,” Doyle confided. “She’s an attractive woman,” Josh said, oddly defensive, although he couldn’t say why. He used to feel a little smug when people made derogatory comments about Rebecca. And considering the fact that she’d be out of his life soon, out of town completely, he really didn’t have a stake in whether or not her father appreciated her physical attributes or anything else. “Oh, the problem isn’t her looks,” Doyle said. “Least not anymore.” Though she’d been far too thin and lanky in high school, Rebecca had filled out since then. Josh didn’t think she’d ever be curvy, exactly—her breasts were high and small, her hips a little too narrow to be ideal. But he happened to like the way she was built. He imagined her as he’d seen her last summer, lying on his bed with most of her clothes on the floor. Sure her breasts were small, but they were well-shaped and firm. And all the angles that had made her features appear exaggerated when she was young had evolved into…an arresting face, he decided, the perfect setting for her expressive eyes. Perhaps her top lip was a little too thin, but Josh couldn’t see how any man could hold that against her. Not when she kissed with such abandon. When her defenses were down, and she was looking up at him as she had that night, without the usual distrust and resentment, she was actually quite beautiful. “It’s that temper of hers,” Doyle was saying. “Why would anyone want to put up with her?” Josh could have added an “amen” to that. Poor sap probably didn’t know what he was getting into. But he wasn’t going to involve himself by stating an opinion. “What’s her fiancé like?” he asked, hoping to spin the conversation in a new direction so he wouldn’t have to comment on Rebecca’s suitability as a wife. Doyle shoved his hands into the pockets of his khaki slacks—his nod to casual dress for the weekend—and jingled his change. “He’s not from around here. She met him on the damn Internet, not that I’m complaining. At least she’s got herself a man. Lord knows no one around here was willing to take her on. But I worry.” He jingled his change some more as he seemed to mull over his concerns. “He’s too mild-mannered for her, if you ask me.” “But you like him?” “I’ve only met him once. I don’t really know him. And I’m afraid she doesn’t, either. He certainly isn’t the type I would’ve expected her to choose.” Doyle leaned a little closer and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “He’s not much of a man, if you get my drift. He’s soft. A bookworm. Doesn’t look like he’s done a hard day’s work in his life. Once a few months go by, I have no doubt she’ll be leading him around by the nose.” He straightened. “And on top of everything else, he’s younger than she is.” “He is? By how much?” “Too much.” Too much? What was that supposed to mean? Curiosity prompted Josh to ask, but he overrode the impulse. Now that he’d done the right thing in coming here, he just needed to bide his time until she got married and moved. Resolution at last. “But we’re happy she’s finally found someone and is settling down,” Doyle went on. “Maybe she’ll get turned around yet, like that Armstrong fella.” “You told me on the phone last night that she’d mellowed,” Josh pointed out. The other man grinned. “Had to tell you something to get you down here. We’ve got that anniversary party coming up. Her poor mother couldn’t survive another embarrassing ordeal like the last one.” Josh cleared his throat. What had happened at Delia’s wedding was more his fault than Rebecca’s. Rebecca hadn’t even touched him. “I think she has mellowed…a little,” he said, because honesty demanded it. “She’s mellow only when it suits her. Yesterday she stormed out of the house again. I should be used to it by now.” “What does her fiancé do for a living?” “Something with computers. Likes his job and doesn’t want to leave. Least that’s why they told me they’ll be living in Nebraska.” Rebecca was on her way back. Doyle bowed his head closer and lowered his voice, “Could be worse, I guess. Booker Robinson’s in town. She could’ve hooked up with him.” Booker had visited Dundee for the summer once while he was in his teens. He’d come to stay with his Grandmother Hatfield, or Hatty as everyone called her, because his parents couldn’t handle him. And he’d left quite an impression—on everyone. As a typical red-blooded American boy, Josh had figured he knew how to cause trouble. But his version of raising hell was good clean fun compared to Booker’s. “Did you say Booker’s back?” Rebecca asked. Doyle grimaced. “Now I’ve done it.” “When’d he get back?” “I don’t know the exact day he rolled into town. Louise over at Finley’s Grocery saw him when he came in last Tuesday.” “And he’s staying? For longer than a couple of weeks?” “He told Louise he’s here to take care of Hatty now that her health is failing.” Doyle nudged Josh. “More likely he’s hoping for an inheritance.” “He hasn’t called me,” Rebecca said, as though she wasn’t really listening. “I’m sure he will,” her father said. “If I know him, he’ll be looking for a partner in crime. But if you talk to him, you might want to tell him that I’m having Chief Tom keep an eye on him. He won’t get away with anything this time.” “Would you give him a break, Dad?” Rebecca said, her patience obviously slipping. “He’s been gone for…what? Twelve years? He was just a kid back then. I’m sure he’s changed by now.” Josh couldn’t help noticing that her father’s verbal jab had included Rebecca, what with the “partner in crime” reference, but she said nothing in her own defense. Had she become so used to belittling remarks that she didn’t even bother to respond? He didn’t want to think so. That threatened to pull him out of the “neutral zone,” and, when it came to Rebecca, he wasn’t about to abandon his central objective: to achieve peace, a sense of finality and very limited future involvement. The truce between them was already tenuous; he definitely shouldn’t overstep his bounds. She wouldn’t thank him for becoming her defender. “If I know Booker, he hasn’t changed enough,” Doyle replied. “But I’ll let you two finish up. Good to see you, Josh. You ever get a chance, stop by City Hall and I’ll take you to lunch. And don’t forget the anniversary party.” “Thank you,” Josh said. “I won’t.” He and Rebecca watched her father go without saying anything. Josh had nothing to say. He didn’t like Booker, didn’t want Rebecca to connect with him any more than her father did. He didn’t like the fact that she was marrying someone who sounded so ill-suited to her—and so young. More than anything, he didn’t like the condescending way her father had just treated her. But there wasn’t a damn thing he could say or do about any of it because what happened in Rebecca’s life was none of his business. Tossing a twenty on her vanity, he jammed his hat on his head. “You don’t want me to finish?” she asked in surprise. “It’s fine the way it is,” he said and walked out. TALL, WIRY AND SLIGHTLY BOWLEGGED, with a head of thick dark hair that fell low on his brow, often shading his eyes, Booker T. Robinson hadn’t changed much. He’d grown, of course, several inches from the look of him, and he’d filled out. But judging by the tattoos on his arms, the calluses and scars on his hands, and the long jagged scar on the right side of his face, the years hadn’t been kind to him. Even the clothes he wore, a plain black T-shirt with a front pocket and tattered blue jeans, added to his tough-guy image. He was a rebel, all right. But Rebecca liked him. Probably because he was one of the more honest people she’d met. At least he was generally honest with himself. He wasn’t a pillar of the community. He probably never would be. But he didn’t care what other people thought and he didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t. He cussed and smoked and sometimes drank to excess. He said what he wanted to say and he offered no apologies or excuses. Rebecca had never been happier to see anyone in her life. She sank into the white wicker chair on his grandmother’s porch, put her feet up on the railing and felt at home in her own skin for the first time in months. “I couldn’t believe it when my father said you were in town. Why haven’t you called me?” she said. He handed her the cold beer he’d offered her when she first came to the door and carried his own to the porch swing a few feet away. Popping the cap, he took a long drink and sat down before answering. “I wasn’t so sure you’d be excited to see me. Your father was always one of those law and order types.” “Yeah, well, he still is. If he gets the chance, he might try to run you out of town. But don’t take it personally. And don’t let anything he does reflect on me.” He chuckled. “I see you two are still close.” Rebecca remembered the way her father had treated her in the salon that morning compared to the way he’d treated Josh—stop by City Hall and I’ll take you to lunch—and felt her temper rise. But she didn’t want to talk about it. She’d been trying to forget Josh ever since shampooing his hair had felt like a sexual encounter. She took a sip of her beer. “You ever marry?” “No.” “Kids?” “No. You?” “None so far. I am getting married, though. I just don’t know when.” “That sounds promising. Who’s the lucky guy?” “Name’s Buddy. Lives in Nebraska.” He nodded. “What do you do for a living?” she asked. “Nothing right now.” This time the silence felt awkward, and Rebecca knew she’d treaded too close to something he wasn’t willing to discuss. So she backed off. “Haven’t you been going stark-raving mad out here with only your grandmother for company?” “Not yet. I only got in last weekend, and Granny’s kept me busy fixing up the place.” He gazed out over the meadowlike yard. “It’s prettier here than I remembered.” The Hatfield property was pretty. Set away from Dundee, back in the mountains, it consisted of several wooded acres. The house, a simple white A-frame as old and charming as the one on Little House on the Prairie, had a wraparound porch with a hint of fancy woodwork at the windows and doors. A detached garage sat off to one side, at the end of a long drive, and a stone path led through the backyard, past a root cellar and a neatly tended vegetable garden, to the back porch. “My dad said you’ve come to look after Hatty,” Rebecca said. “Does that mean you’re staying for a while?” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one, then offered one to her. She almost grabbed it. She wanted to. But Josh didn’t chew or smoke. In the bad habits department, as in all others, she didn’t compare favorably to him, and she hated that. “Figured it was the least I could do for all the years she’s spent trying to reclaim my soul from the devil,” Booker said. He set the cigarettes on the arm of the swing—within easy reach—when she refused them. “Fortunately, she’s a lot better off than she let me believe. I think it was all a ruse to get me out here. But now that I’m here—” he shrugged “—I think I’ll stick around. For a while, anyway.” “So did she ever manage to reform you? Are you a better man?” Rebecca shifted farther away so the smell of his smoking wouldn’t tempt her beyond her endurance. “I don’t think I’ve changed a whole hell of a lot. But then, I’m getting the impression that neither have you.” “Even you?” she cried. “What does a girl have to do?” He laughed outright. “What are you talking about?” “I’ve been trying to change. I’ve been trying for years, but no one’s even noticed, except maybe Delaney. If anything goes wrong, I still get the blame. When Josh Hill knocked over the food table at my sister’s wedding, did anyone say, ‘That Josh Hill, you just can’t invite him anywhere.’ N-o-o-o. You know what they said? They said they should’ve expected something like that with me around. All I want is to live my life without the extra baggage, you know? I mean, I’m thirty-one years old. How long is it going to take for people to forget my past sins? Will I ever live them down?” “Why would you want to?” he asked. He wasn’t getting it. Of course he wouldn’t. He was Booker Robinson, and to him a bad reputation was a mighty fine thing to have. He’d worked hard to establish his own. “Forget it,” she grumbled. “You don’t understand.” “Yes, I do.” “What?” She leaned forward. “What do you understand?” “That they’re getting the best of you.” “Who?” “The critics.” “They’re not critics. They’re my friends, my family.” He tipped his bottle at her. “That doesn’t mean they’re not critics, babe. Why don’t you tell them to go to hell?” “Oh, great solution,” she said. “Thanks.” He finished his cigarette, dropped it on the porch floor and ground it out. “You are what you are. You can’t apologize for that.” They fell silent while they drank their beer and watched the sun set. “What ever happened to Delaney?” he asked when it was almost dark, his body a mere shadow in the swing. “She still around?” “She’s pregnant.” “Married?” Rebecca folded her arms and leaned back. “Yeah. She married Clive’s grandson, Conner Armstrong.” “Who’s Clive?” “He’s the old guy who owned the Running Y Ranch. Conner owns it now. He’s in the process of building a big resort and golf course.” “No shit. Delaney’s rich, then?” he asked. “Not yet, but if everything goes the way it should, she will be. So will Josh and Mike Hill. From what Delaney has told me, they’ve invested quite a bundle in the project.” “Josh again, huh? This name seems to come up quite often with you.” “Not really. You just caught me on a bad day.” “From what I remember, he was a pretty decent football player. He ever go pro?” “No. He played for the University of Utah for a few years. But once he got his degree he returned home. His brother was already out of school and wanted to partner up, buy some land and start a breeding business.” “And that’s what they did?” “That’s what they did.” “What kind of degree did Josh get?” “I think they both majored in animal husbandry.” Booker hooked an arm over the swing and scowled. “What the hell is that?” “It’s the degree most everyone around here gets,” Rebecca said. “Not that I know a whole lot about it. I went to massage school, realized I couldn’t make a living doing massage, at least in these parts, then went to beauty school. I’ve never seen the inside of a university.” “That makes two of us.” “Did you know Josh very well?” she asked. “No.” Rebecca couldn’t see for sure, but she thought Booker was frowning. His voice, when he spoke, confirmed it. “I’ve never much liked him, though,” he said. Rebecca laughed. “Neither have I. So what are you doing later? Want to head over to the Honky Tonk?” CHAPTER FIVE “WHY WOULD I WANT to see Booker Robinson?” Delaney asked. Rebecca propped the telephone against her shoulder and turned sideways to contemplate her reflection in the mirror behind her bedroom door. She wanted to look good tonight; she needed to look good. After the past few days, it was time for an emotional comeback. “Because he’s an old friend.” “He’s not an old friend of mine.” Rebecca rotated to the back, checking her behind. Did her butt look big in these jeans? Maybe she should go for the tight black slacks, the ones that rode low on her hips and showed the tattoo she’d gotten to mark her thirtieth birthday. Though she had no romantic designs on Booker, he was just the type of man to appreciate a purple butterfly near her navel. “He’s been gone twelve years. He might have changed,” she said. “You saw him today. Has he?” She peeled off the jeans and wiggled into the black slacks. “No. Not a bit.” “So why are you hanging out with him?” Delaney asked with a chuckle. Because Buddy had just postponed the wedding again, her own parents didn’t want her to come to their anniversary party, and Josh…Well, Josh was partly to blame as well. She just couldn’t figure out why. “Beats the hell out of sitting home, doesn’t it?” “Not when you’re seven months pregnant.” “Come on, Laney. You haven’t been anywhere with me in ages. Bring Conner to the Honky Tonk and have a soda. You can still be in bed by midnight.” “I’ll think about it,” she said, but her words slurred at the end as if she was yawning. “How’d it go with Josh this morning?” “Fine.” “That’s a pretty mellow reaction. Are you on some type of sedative?” “You know I don’t do drugs.” “Then he must not have shown.” “He came, I cut his hair, my father stopped by to make me feel like crap, and that was it.” “And?” Rebecca sucked in her stomach and reconsidered her reflection. Better. “What more do you want to hear?” “I want to hear about this supposed truce. Is it real?” “Who knows? If you ask me, the only thing that’s changed is Josh’s haircut.” Covering the phone, Delaney spoke to someone in the background, probably her husband. When she came back on, she said, “Well, you won’t even remember Josh Hill in a few weeks. You and Buddy will be getting married and moving on to bigger and better things.” “Um, not exactly…Just a sec.” Rebecca held the phone away from her ear long enough to pull a tight-fitting sweater over her head. It was black, too, with three-quarter-length sleeves, and hit her midriff in just the right place to make the most of her low-riding pants. Not bad, she thought. “Actually I won’t be getting married in a few weeks,” she said, returning to the conversation. “What?” “Buddy wants his great-aunt to attend.” “Did you say great-aunt?” “I did. And she can’t come until January.” She turned her attention to her hair. She liked the blond highlights she’d put in it much better than her natural dishwater color or the fluorescent auburn it had been a few months ago. But she’d had Katie give her a pretty short cut, which didn’t leave her a lot of styling options. Grabbing a bottle of mousse from her dresser, she settled for putting some life into it. “But you were going to celebrate your birthday in Cancun while you were on your honeymoon.” “Guess I’ll be doing something else for my birthday.” “Are you okay with waiting?” Delaney asked. “I’m excited to think that now I might be here when you have your baby, but other than that, I’m not happy about it.” Rebecca wandered into the bathroom, leaned close to the mirror above the vanity and started applying mascara to her lashes. “But I can’t make him marry me on my birthday, you know?” “You could give him an ultimatum,” Delaney pointed out. “Believe me, I’ve thought about that.” “And?” “He might tell me to take a hike. Then I’d have to spend the rest of my life living right here in Dundee.” “That’s not necessarily true. You could meet someone else. Or strike out on your own in a big city somewhere. If Buddy’s not as committed as he should be, maybe it’d be better to find out now.” “No, thanks. I think I’d rather go out with Booker.” “Why? That’s only avoiding the issue.” “So I’m avoiding it. I need to get out of the house. I’ve been spending all my weekends sitting on the couch, talking to Buddy on the phone. Or at the computer, communicating through e-mail and instant messaging. I can’t face another four months of this.” There was a slight hesitation. “You’d never allow yourself to get involved with Booker, though, would you?” “No way. I’m still engaged. Besides, it wouldn’t be right to sleep with someone just because your father would hate it.” Rebecca dug through her cosmetics case and came up with some jewelry. Holding a pearl earring to one ear and a large silver hoop to the other, she tried to decide which one looked best. “Anyway, Booker and I are just friends. It was you he always liked, remember?” “He tried to corrupt me. That doesn’t necessarily mean he liked me.” The hoops. Much sexier. “Come on,” Rebecca said. “He wouldn’t corrupt just anybody.” She abandoned the bathroom in favor of digging through the shoes in her closet. “You think I should wear flats or something with a heel?” “How tall is Booker?” “About my height.” “Perfect. Wear the dominatrix boots with the six-inch heels. That’ll let him know who’s in control.” Rebecca came up with a pair of flats. “I don’t think he’d be intimidated by the dominatrix look. I think he’d probably like it. But I’d rather not feel like the Jolly Green Giant tonight.” “Your height’s never bothered you before.” “It doesn’t bother me now. I’m creating a different look.” “If you’re not getting married until January, what are you going to do about the house?” Delaney asked. “Isn’t your lease up soon?” “Yeah. I’ll have to call Mr. Williams and see if he’ll give me an extension.” “I don’t think he will, Beck. His son and daughter-in-law and their two little monsters have been living with him for the past couple of weeks. I think he’s promised them the house when you move.” “You’re kidding.” “I’m not. I heard him say something to Lisa down at the bank about how happy he was going to be to have his space back once Peter and Carla move out.” “That means I’ll have to find another place,” Rebecca said, sinking down on the bed. “I’m sure Aunt Millie would let you move in with her and Uncle Ralph for a few months,” Delaney said. Aunt Millie and Uncle Ralph had adopted and raised Delaney. They were good folk, the best, but Rebecca had no illusions that she could live peaceably in the same house with them. She already had to visit Aunt Millie once a week to do her hair, which nearly caused her to have a claustrophobia attack inside the first ten minutes—usually when Aunt Millie told her she was too thin for the hundredth time. “Are you trying to cheer me up, or what? You know Aunt Millie would snoop through my things and try to hold me to a curfew.” “I just want you to know you’ve always got somewhere to stay. You could even come out here to the ranch.” “Wouldn’t Conner love that.” Rebecca retrieved the perfume from her dresser, squirted some into the air, then stepped into the shower of spray. She didn’t want to smell like a perfume factory; tonight she was aiming for subtle. “He wouldn’t mind,” Delaney said. “No, thanks. I’m not pathetic enough to move in with my newly married friend.” “It’s just temporary—” “Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out.” Tomorrow. She’d figure something out tomorrow. Tonight she was going to forget all her troubles and go dancing for the first time in months. “Are you meeting me at the Honky Tonk or what?” “You’re really going?” “Of course.” “Then I can’t let you go alone.” “I’m not going alone. I’m going with Booker.” “Exactly. I’ll be there in an hour or so.” As soon as Rebecca hung up, the telephone rang. She eyed it with distrust. Ignoring a ringing phone went against her basic nature. She had sort of a “no run, no hide” policy; anything less smacked of cowardice. But she didn’t want to talk to Buddy or her father or one of her perfect sisters. Not right now. Tonight she was feeling good and going out. She managed to keep herself from picking up but hurried into the kitchen to adjust the volume on the answering machine. She breathed a sigh of relief that she’d used some restraint when she heard Buddy’s voice. “Beck? Where are you? Are you mad at me? What’s wrong? I haven’t heard from you. I thought we worked everything out, so what’s with the silent treatment? If you’re that upset about the wedding, maybe we could move it up a couple of weeks. I’ll talk to my aunt. Give me a call, okay?” Beep, click. “A couple of weeks? Jeez, that’s nice of you, Buddy,” she grumbled and went for her coat. When she had her purse as well, she called Booker. “I’m on my way.” “I’ll meet you there,” he said and hung up. “OH, MY GOD! Would you look at her?” Mary said, straining to see through the crowd. “She’s got a tattoo on her belly.” “You’re kidding. A tattoo? Of what?” Across the table from Josh, Candace made her date, Leonard Green, move so she could see the dance floor. “Seems to be a butterfly. She’s over there with Booker Robinson,” Mary answered. “You know he’s back in town, right? He drove past me on that motorcycle of his a few days ago.” “You already told me,” Candace replied. Mary watched for a few seconds in silence. “You think they’re sleeping together?” Josh had been trying to ignore the conversation—just like he’d been trying to ignore Rebecca—ever since he’d arrived at the Honky Tonk. But he couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. “No,” he said flatly. “She’s not.” “How do you know?” Mary asked, her tone eager. Candace pursed her lips in obvious skepticism. “They look like they’re sleeping together to me.” “I thought she was engaged,” Leonard said. Until that moment, Josh hadn’t realized Candace’s date was even listening. He’d been too busy craning his neck to see over the half wall that separated their table from those playing darts. “She’s engaged, all right,” Mary said. “But I wouldn’t put anything past Rebecca. She likes guys on motorcycles, remember? Besides, her fiancé isn’t from around here, so how would he know?” Josh felt his jaw clench as he put his beer on the table. “She isn’t sleeping with Booker. She didn’t even know he was in town until this morning, okay? Can we cut her a little slack?” Mary frowned at the impatience in his voice. “What’s wrong with you, Josh? I thought you didn’t like her.” “I have better things to do than spend the whole evening gossiping about Rebecca’s every move,” he said. A pouty expression claimed Mary’s face. “Boy, are you touchy tonight.” “I’m just tired of talking about Rebecca as though she’s the devil incarnate. She’s not all bad, you know.” Candace arched her brows. “She’s not?” “No. For one, she has more grit than anyone I’ve ever met.” Mary and Candace exchanged a look. “Whatever you say, Josh,” Mary told him. “I’m serious. Do you remember when we were in the seventh grade and Buck Miller was teasing Howie Wilcox?” “Candace and I weren’t in junior high then.” “I was,” Leonard said, turning back to the table as the game of darts he’d been watching broke up and the participants sauntered over to the bar. “Buck was always teasing Howie.” “He was always picking on someone,” Josh said. “And this day we’d had to run the mile for Phys Ed. Poor Howie was so overweight he could barely walk a mile, let alone run one, and Buck was all over him about it, saying the only person he knew with more rolls was the Michelin Tire Man, crap like that.” Leonard nodded. “I remember.” Josh focused on Mary and Candace. “Rebecca heard what Buck was saying to Howie and decided she’d had enough. She threw down her books, marched up to Buck and told him to keep his big fat mouth shut or she was going to shut it for him.” “She did?” Candace said. “Buck was one of the strongest kids in school.” “He went through puberty in the sixth grade, but she didn’t care,” Josh said. “She told him he’d better quit teasing Howie or she’d make him pay.” Mary pulled her chair closer to the table. “What’d he do?” “Started shoving her, telling her to mind her own business before he taught her how.” “And she…” “Shoved him right back. Pretty soon they started swinging at each other and all the kids gathered around.” Mary laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. Did she come out of it okay?” “No.” Josh took another drink of his beer. “She got her ass kicked. For Fat Howie.” “Why?” Candace wanted to know. “Were they friends?” “Not that I know of. Fat Howie didn’t have any friends.” “Why didn’t she try to get away when she could see that Buck had the best of her?” Leonard asked. “All she had to do was go crying for the principal.” “Rebecca wouldn’t give up. She just kept swinging.” Josh shook his head. “Damnedest thing I ever saw.” “How’d it end?” Mary asked. “The yard duty finally came and broke it up.” “Did Buck get suspended?” “They both did.” He sighed as he toyed with the condensation on his glass, watched a drop roll from the rim to the base. “I’ve always been ashamed of myself because of that day,” he admitted. Mary’s brows gathered above her wide blue eyes. “Why? What did you do?” “Nothing,” he said. “That’s just it. I stood by and let a girl defend Howie.” “No one else jumped in,” Leonard said. “We were only twelve, just out of grade school, and pretty surprised by the whole thing.” Josh had been more than surprised; he’d been shocked. And even though he remembered it in slow motion, it had actually happened very fast. Still, he should’ve done something. He’d felt worse when he realized that because of her reputation for being a difficult child, Rebecca was going to get into as much trouble as Buck. Shoving away from the table, Josh left Mary and her friends and strode over to the jukebox. If he’d thought he had any chance of getting Mary to leave, he would’ve headed home at that moment. But she loved hanging out at the Honky Tonk, socializing with all her old friends, and generally insisted they stay until well after midnight. Sometimes he wondered if she realized they weren’t in high school anymore. He stared down at the songs listed on the jukebox, forcing himself to focus on the titles in an effort to block out the mental picture of how Rebecca had looked after she’d fought Buck. Blouse torn and dirty, nose bleeding and hair mussed, she’d shaken her fist at Buck as the yard duty was dragging them both away, and shouted, “You leave him alone, you hear?” There was no one like Rebecca, he decided. No one. He glanced over at Mary, and suddenly saw her as rather plain. She liked tailored, conservative clothes, the same kind all her friends wore. Which had suited him just fine—until this moment. Now he wanted her to get a tattoo. Probably because he knew she’d never do it. But, if not that, something to prove she could step out of line and dare to be different, to be an individual, instead of a compilation of all the traits and beliefs that were patently approved by the masses. God, he was dating someone who was completely…homogenized. He jammed his hands in his pockets. No, that wasn’t kind or fair. He was only reacting to this day, this moment. Because of Doyle Wilson and his little truce, Rebecca Wells had been tossed back into his orbit, and he hadn’t yet adjusted. After not seeing her for months, other than brushing elbows occasionally on the street, he’d sat in her chair at the salon for half an hour this morning, her breasts at eye level, while she ran her fingers through his hair. And now, here she was at the Honky Tonk, looking like a wet dream. The tattoo was daring, and sexy because it was daring, and made him remember a year ago last summer and wish he could finally have the satisfaction of making love to Rebecca. But it was only a competitive thing, a desire to conquer at last. That was all. He wanted to win the one woman who’d gotten away. Mary was petite and attractive and nice and…and a good parent to Ricky—although, like tonight, her mother often took care of him. He was a lucky man to have Mary, Josh reminded himself. He knew at least a dozen other guys who’d gladly take his place. So why couldn’t he seem to stop staring at Rebecca? REBECCA HAD BEEN RIGHT to get out. She felt better than she had in months—freer, more light-hearted. The music pounded in her ears, tempting her to move to the rhythm. Her margarita was taking the edge off the tension that had been dragging her down. And it no longer seemed terribly important that she marry and leave town right away. Buddy seemed distant and not likely to come any closer, and Booker was the perfect companion for her mood. He danced, he talked, he laughed; he looked at life simply. Before Delaney and Conner had arrived, she’d told him about Buddy postponing their wedding and he’d given her the same answer he gave for everything. “Tell him to go to hell.” Well, tonight Rebecca was telling the whole world to go to hell, and she was having a great time doing it. “Let’s dance again,” she said, pulling him to his feet. He took a quick sip of his beer before leaving it on the table with Delaney and Conner and letting her lead him onto the dance floor. She could see Josh sitting with Mary and Mary’s friend Candace, along with some guy Delaney didn’t recognize, off to the left. But his presence didn’t bother her. At least, not the way it normally did. His hair looked damn good—she was pretty proud of that. But then, what else was new? Josh always looked good. “In case you’re interested, Josh Hill is sitting over there,” she told Booker. “Why would I be interested?” “It’s been a while since you’ve seen him.” He swung her around to take a look. “Hasn’t changed much.” “I guess that makes three of us, huh?” He chuckled. “Who’s the chick? His wife?” “Which one?” “The brunette.” “That’s Mary. Don’t you recognize her?” “Oh, yeah,” he said. “She used to be captain of the cheer squad for your high school, didn’t she?” “That’s her. She and Josh have been dating for several months.” “He’ll be sorry if he marries her.” “Why?” “I used to sit on the front row of the bleachers while the cheerleaders were practicing, so I could make a big deal about looking under Mary’s skirt when her stunt partner tossed her into the—” “If this is supposed to impress me, you can save your breath,” Rebecca interrupted. “I already know you’re a pervert.” “I wasn’t getting any kind of thrill out of it,” he said. “I just liked messing with her. Every few minutes, she’d march over to the fence and rattle off a lecture about school spirit and respect and how I’d never amount to anything.” “What would you do?” “Shrug and say, ‘You want me and you know it.”’ “Really?” “That drove her nuts.” “I’ll bet. So she’s probably thrilled to see you’re back in town, hmm?” “I don’t care if she is. She can go to—” “I know. She can go to hell. It’s a rather simplistic motto, but effective,” she said. He turned and bent her over his arm in a dramatic dip. “Now you’re catching on, babe. What they think can only bother you if you let it.” Rebecca certainly liked Booker’s philosophy. She just wasn’t sure he was the best person to emulate. Fortunately Delaney’s presence seemed to check her wilder tendencies. To Delaney, Booker was the big bad wolf. She wasn’t about to let Rebecca become his first little pig. Which was why she wouldn’t leave, even though she was exhausted and Conner was bored stiff. “So if Josh is dating Mary, why does he keep looking over here?” Booker asked. “What?” Rebecca replied. “I want to know why Josh keeps staring at you.” “I don’t know. I didn’t realize he was.” “Anything ever happen between you two?” “A lot’s happened between us.” “I mean, did you ever get together, hook up?” “No,” she lied, thinking a year ago last summer was such a small exception it wasn’t worth mentioning. “Well, he wants you, babe. He wants you bad.” Rebecca rolled her eyes and started laughing. “No, he doesn’t. He hates me. I used to put gum in his hair.” “I’m just telling you what I see. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.” Booker had to be wrong. He was confusing all the bad blood between her and Josh with something else. Or Josh wasn’t staring at her at all. More likely he was staring at Booker. Except for Rebecca, no one was particularly happy about his return. “How do you like Conner?” she asked, catching sight of Delaney’s husband quietly conferring with her over at the table. He was probably begging her to give up her vigil and go home and, in a way, Rebecca wished she would. Having Delaney there grounded her, and she appreciated that. It was the whole reason she’d taken the precaution of inviting her. But Rebecca had discovered that she didn’t want to be grounded at this particular moment. Not when she was telling the whole world to go to hell. “He’s okay, I guess,” Booker said. “Delaney’s still hot. Too bad she’s married.” “Sometimes I think so, too,” Rebecca admitted. “I’m happy for her, but I miss having someone to live with. And now that my lease is up, I’m going to have to move into a new house alone, if I can find one. There aren’t a lot of rentals in Dundee.” “Don’t move into a house alone,” he said. “Come out to Granny’s and live with us.” Rebecca pulled back to see his face. “What? I can’t do that.” “Why not? There’s plenty of room and Granny would love it because she’d have another pair of hands she could put to work.” “Doing what?” “Weeding the garden, washing her old Buick, making a meal or two.” “I wouldn’t mind helping,” Rebecca said. “I think it’d be fun to be around people again. It’s been me and my phone for the past five months.” “I’ll talk to Granny and give you a call.” “Great.” Rebecca smiled at finding a possible solution. The Hatfield place seemed like the perfect stopgap. Maybe her luck had changed. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/a-husband-of-her-own/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 356.27 руб.