"Care to take those boots for a spin, Miss O'Keefe?"Jen O'Keefe will agree to just one dance with coolheaded cowboy Drew Laramie. But only for old times' sake. She can't risk losing her heart to him again.Drew left Larch Valley, promising Jen he'd return. When he didn't, she moved on.... Now the childhood sweetheart Jen had stopped waiting for is back!
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January 11, 2010
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Excerpt from One Dance with the Cowboy by Donna Alward
There were times in life you either had to go big, or go broke.Jen's fingers paused on the pen, the cool tube turning warm and slippery in her hand as the room suddenly seemed hot and stifling. The loan papers sat before her and the numbers swirled in front of her eyes.Ms. O'Keefe? She looked up from the papers, her lightweight sweater cloying, the yellow silk scarf strangling her as her breath shallowed. It was such a lot of money, after all. The new bank manager's face frowned a little at her continued hesitation.She took a breath, looked down, and signed her name once, twice, three times.She clicked the pen closed, feeling at once a euphoric blend of fear and excitement. Risk-taking was not her specialty. But over the years she'd learned it was a necessary evil at times. She'd run the numbers until she could cite them by rote. Everything she'd done told her this was a good move. A necessary move.But seeing it in black and white, knowing that what she'd built so far could be swept away with one failure it was enough to take a girl's breath away.She would not hyperventilate. She would not.She rose, shook the manager's hand. Not the same man who'd given her the first loan for Snickerdoodles he'd been a friend of her father's and had retired last year. This man was in his late thirties, still exuding that air of big city rather than small town. It wasn't the same. It didn't give her the sense of security that she could really use right now.Snickerdoodles Bakery was about to be transformed into Snickerdoodles Caf and Catering, and if she'd miscalculated she'd lose it all.Congratulations, Ms. O'Keefe.Thanks. She smiled thinly, extricating her hand from his clasp. Watched as he slid her copy of the papers into a portfolio, handing it to her with a smile.Let us know if you need anything at all, he suggested, and she picked up her bag.Need anything? There were enough zeroes on the dotted line that she hoped she wouldn't need a single thing more ever.She was nearly to the glass doors when the nerves hit full force.She'd done it. She'd just remortgaged everything she had including her house to finance a complete refurbishment of her bakery.She had to be crazy.She scrambled to get outside, into some fresh air that might hold off the rising panic attack. If she could just get to one of the park benches lining Main Avenue she'd sit and put her head between her knees.She pushed frantically through the doors, the vision of a bench swimming deliciously before her eyes. Except that halfway there her shoulder encountered a solid wall that took every last bit of oxygen from her lungs. The contact sent her staggering, the portfolio sliding out of her hands and skidding down the concrete sidewalk before coming to rest against a half-height barrel newly filled with petunias, lobelia, and some sort of trailing plant.Warm, strong hands gripped her biceps, keeping her from falling on her rump in the middle of noon foot-traffic. She looked up, opened her mouth to speak, but instead fought to inhale now that the wind had been completely knocked out of her. Her mouth gaped and flapped as she fought for air to rush it back into her lungs. And if the jolt hadn't stolen her breath, the man attached to the hands definitely would have.Finally blessed oxygen rushed in and she gasped. Her head tipped back as she looked way up into a too-familiar face. She saw the shock and confusion firing in his hazel eyes for just a moment, wondered if the same emotions were mirrored in her own. It seemed as if years of memories raced between them, though only a few seconds passed. His eyes cleared, cooled. Setting her firmly on her feet, he let her go briefly to retrieve her folder of papers and brought them back to her, holding them out as she fought to calm the hammering of her heart.Hello, Jen.Somehow her hand slid out to take the folder from him, while the warm, slightly rough sound of his voice sank deep into her consciousness. His hands were gone from her arms now, and her skin felt cold in their absence, even though it was the first time he'd touched her in many, many years.Hello, Drew.The moment she said it she felt the blush creeping up her neck, hoped that her scarf camouflaged her flushed skin. She'd been the only one ever to call him Drew. Everyone else had called him by his full name Andrew. Not Andy, or any other shortened version. Drew had been saved just for her. They both knew it. And Jen saying it now had suddenly transported them to a place deep in the past. Somewhere she hadn't ever wanted to go again. Self-conscious, she raised one trembling hand to smooth the tendrils of hair that were escaping what had been her attempt at a sophisticated twist. When she realized what she was doing, she dropped her hand abruptly. She didn't need to preen for Andrew Laramie.Are you okay? She looked up into his mossy-gold eyes again, tucked the portfolio under an arm and resisted the urge to straighten her white sweater and matching skirt. What are you doing here? Why are you back? How long are you staying? All those questions raced through her mind, but she would not ask any of them not after the way he'd treated her the last time he'd been home. The rebuff still stung. The answers shouldn't matter anyway. It was a public street. He had as much a right to be in Larch Valley as anyone. He owned half of the Lazy L Ranch, and everyone knew it. Just as they knew the place had been abandoned for the better part of a year.I'm fine, thank you. She brushed a hand down her skirt, simply to be doing something other than gawping at his too-handsome face.You're pale. Are you feeling all right? He peered closer, his eyes clouded with concern.The question erased the panicky thoughts about her bakery and a flash of annoyance flickered through her. What right did he have to worry about her now? None!I'm not one of your horses you can doctor, Andrew. This time she made sure she used his full first name. She adopted the most aloof expression she could and stepped back, adjusting the strap of her bag on her shoulder. What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be getting ready for the Derby or something? I'd think the racing season'd be keeping you mighty busy.She knew she sounded obnoxious and wished she could take back the words. It was petty and not her style. After all this time she shouldn't let him rattle her.It was no secret in Larch Valley that Andrew Laramie had gone on to a sparkling career in veterinary medicine, working in the racing industry south of the border. His dad, for all their falling out, had been proud of him. He'd said so every time she'd gone to visit him. It was a low blow to throw it back at Andrew now, but she couldn't seem to help it now that she was face to face with him. Just seeing him, in the middle of town on a busy Monday afternoon, put her on the defensive.Maybe when he'd been home for the funeral they might have talked, put things to rest. But he'd spurned any sort of conversation, deliberately ignoring her when she'd reached out to him, put her hand on his arm in sympathy. She had only wanted to help, but he'd barely acknowledged her presence, brushing by her after the final prayer with only a sidelong glance. It had confirmed the fact that she needed to stop making herself available for him to hurt her. Once had been more than enough. She tended to learn her lessons.I'm not working in Virginia any more.That wasn't current news, and she struggled to hide her surprise. Greener pastures?His gaze landed on her, the censure in it heavy, and she lifted her chin in response.The Jen I remember never copped an attitude.The Jen you remember was a long time ago. She said it quickly, doubting he knew how much she'd truly loved him back then.His eyes softened, and he seemed almost resigned as he agreed. Yes, she was. I'm sorry for that.It was as if he knew exactly what she was thinkinghe'd always had an uncanny knack for it, and the last thing she wanted from him was understanding. Not now. What was he sorry for? His remark? Or a whole lot more? The fact that she wanted to know was frightening enough, and sent up a warning siren. No. She had to get out of here. Whatever had brought him to Larch Valley, she was sure something more important would take him right back out again. He was probably out to sell the ranch. Goodness knows he didn't need it or want it. He never had. She'd seen how his determination to stay away had hurt his father; it had hurt her, knowing he had turned his back on all of them. Now he could pocket all his lovely money and keep on with his oh-so-important career.I should get back. I have work to do, she said, aiming for polite civility. She should just go her own way and get on with things, as she'd been doing for several years now.Me too, he replied, but his gaze still held hers trapped within it. He lifted his hand and she froze as one long finger tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Goosebumps erupted down her arms, shivering against the cool early spring air.Then he stood back, tucking his hands into his jeans pockets. I'll see you around, Jen.He went past her, continuing west on Main Avenue, while she was left standing in the middle of the concrete sidewalk. She highly doubted she'd see him again when all was said and done.She straightened her sweater and squared her shoulders. Today was one of those freak encounters, nothing more. Tomorrow she'd still be here, and he'd be gone.As she pointed her white pumps toward her bakery, a block away, she reminded herself that leaving was what Andrew did best.This time wouldn't be any different.Andrew. Gosh, it's good to see you!Andrew smiled, and it felt good. But it was impossible not to smile at the red-haired pregnant woman coming down the steps toward him. He gave her a hug, and then set her back.Damn, you look good, Luce.You too. And you remind me of home. Well, the old home anyway.He laughed at her impish expression. He'd met Lucy many years ago when he'd done some work at Trembling Oak and she'd barely been out of high school. When he'd been back late last fall he'd realized she was the one his good friend Brody had e-mailed about, and that she was a real, bona-fide princess. He'd nearly fallen off his chair.But it was good to see she hadn't changed. And it was great to know Brody was so happy.It's good to be back, he said, looking up at the farmhouse, and he discovered he meant it.Come on in. Mrs. Polcyk's made a streusel cake and there's a pot of coffee on. Brody'll be back soon, and you can tell us about your plans.He followed her into the house.The first thing that greeted him was the scent, and he was reminded not of his own house, at Lazy L, but the afternoons he'd spent at the O'Keefes'. Molly O'Keefe had been a hell of a baker; where Jen inherited it from, he supposed. He'd always felt more at home there than he had at his own place, with just his dad and his brother Noah for company.Well, Andrew Laramie. If this isn't a touch of the prodigal coming home.He struggled not to blush as Betty Polcyk rounded the cupboard and enfolded him in a hug.Hi, Betty.It's about time you got yourself back here.Yes'm. He'd learned long ago that no one argued with Mrs. Polcyk.Sit down. I'll get you some cake and coffee. Brody's on his way in too.Slices of cinnamony cake were procured, along with coffee for Andrew and a large glass of milk for the pregnant Lucy. He'd taken his first meltworthy bite when the door slammed and Brody came in.Andrew rose to meet his old friend and the two shook hands. Brody hadn't changed. Slightly older than Andrew, but still with the ready smile Andrew remembered, still big as a barn door, and still the kind of man who could be counted on. Andrew hoped he could count on him now.Good to see you, Brody.You too. Good to have you back. He went to the sink, washed his hands, and took a chair at the table as Andrew resumed his seat. I was nearly thinking about making an offer on Lazy L if you hadn't shown your face around here again. But I figured you and Noah'd have to work it out first.I've bought him out.The words hurt a little. Noah hadn't put up an argument, and Andrew knew the cash from the sale would be a nice addition to Noah's wages as a soldier. It was the fact that it had had to be done that had bothered Andrew. He hadn't been ready for the old man to go. But there was no changing it now. The important thing was that Lazy L was his.Hadn't heard that part.Half a ranch isn't doing him much good when he's overseas. I'm here to ask for some help.Brody sipped his coffee while Lucy put down her fork. What sort of help?I'm using the land to start up a rescue ranch.Brody's cup went back to the table and Andrew met his gaze squarely. He knew it wasn't what Brody had expected to hear. But Andrew knew it was what he wanted to do. Needed to do.There's no money in that, Andrew. How're you going to live?This part, at least, was the part he'd figured out. What I've put by will keep things afloat. I'm taking the front third of the barn and converting it into a small clinic. There's no mortgage on the place, and I'll make enough to support myself. I've got a good reputation as a vet. I'm counting on word getting around that I'm back in business.And the horses you take in no vet bills will be a help? Yes. Lucy folded her hands. Still a lot of work. A lot of money for upkeep. And a big change for you.