“Gah!” Marnie yelled as she stumbled on the rough dirt road. She squinted against the sun that had broiled her for the last hour. She’d look like a lobster fresh from the pot if she didn’t get out of the sun soon.
She blew a breath of air through her mouth toward her forehead. It briefly lifted her blonde bangs which had totally plastered themselves to her head. Sweat poured from ever pore on her body. Each step she took stirred up little dust devils that threatened to choke her.
Rounding a sharp curve, she saw a white house at the end of the road. Finally-a way out of this grassy wilderness! A door slammed, and a man came out of a neatly painted white barn.
The man hadn’t seen her yet. She watched as he stripped off his tee shirt and wiped his face and upper back. Muscles rippled in his chest and arms, and as he swept off his hat the sun gleamed on his dark hair, turning it as shiny as a blackbird’s wing.
He looked around and saw her, and she raised her hand in greeting. “Hello,” she called.
He put his hat on and came to meet her. At five nine she towered over lots of women, but this guy made her seem petite. He had to be six four at least, and… Oh. My. Goodness. Look at the definition of the muscles in his chest and shoulders. Her nostrils flared; he smelled of sweat, hay, and motor oil, not an unpleasing combination. She liked his eyes too. They reminded her of the sky right before darkness fell, full of depth and mystery, hinting of the unknown and making a girl long to plumb those depths. She liked his face too. It wasn’t classically handsome, it was too rugged for that, but the angles and planes she saw there gave her a few-okay a lot of-butterflies in her stomach. “Can I help you?” he asked.
Nice voice. It sounded smooth and rich in her ears. “I was hoping to use your phone. My car broke down up on the main road, and my cell phone’s dead. I waited for awhile, but nobody drove by so I started walking.”
“Sure. Phone’s in the house.”
Marnie hesitated. In the movies the heroine always met some psycho who lured her into his house and terrorized her before he killed her.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as the man swept his hat off. “Clay Whitmore at your service, ma’am, and I promise you’ll be safe if you come in the house.”
“Oh, well…. Uh, my name is Marnie Wood.”
He held out a calloused, sun-bronzed hand. “Nice to meet you, Marnie.”
She followed him into his house and hoped those little tingles where he touched her hand would soon go away. For a moment the cool darkness blinded her before her eyes had a chance to adjust.
Whitmore tossed his hat onto an old table with peeling green paint.
“Have a seat, and I’ll get you something to drink. What’ll you have? I’ve got water or a soft drink.”
Marnie liked his living room. It had an old-fashioned feel to it, maybe because of the liberal use of floral upholstery, maybe because of the vinyl floor coverings which looked a decade or so out of date. A comfortable looking leather recliner was positioned across from the fireplace and turned toward a big flat screen TV, the most up-to-date item in the room.
All in all, it was a pleasant room. She especially liked the big picture window. From her seat she could see several horses grazing in a green pasture where a small colt frisked and bucked and drummed his heels on his mother’s side.
Clay came back into the living room with a heavy, frosted glass filled with crushed ice and water. “Here you go.”
Marnie’s throat almost closed with anticipation. She took a big swallow and sighed. “That is so good.”
“Nothing like good cold water on a scorcher like today.”
As Marnie nodded her head, her eyes fell on a photo of Clay and a pretty, brunette woman. He saw the direction of her gaze. “That’s my wife.”
“She’s very pretty.”
A shadow crossed his face, extinguishing the light in his sapphire blue eyes. “Yeah, she was.”
“Linda died two years ago. A car accident.”
Judging by the bleak expression on his face, he still had feelings for her. At that moment, Marnie got the impression he didn’t see her at all. His intense blue eyes looked as though they saw another time, another person. Her stomach fluttered. How would it feel to have someone love you so much? “I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said, aware of how inadequate the words really were, but powerless to say anything any better.
Clay blinked and sighed and returned to the present. “Me too. Today’s her birthday.” He reached for a phone on the table beside his chair and punched in a number. “Tom, this is Clay Whitmore. Do you have time to pick up a car?”
He explained about the car and made arrangements for its pickup.
“What about you?” Clay asked Marnie. “You don’t live in Beaver Creek, right?”
“Now, apart from my accent how would you know that?” Marnie teased. “Isn’t the population of Beaver Creek somewhere in the neighborhood of six hundred? Bet you know every one of them.”
Clay nodded. “Yep, I sure do, but you might be from Bradford. It’s only fifty miles from here, and I don’t know everyone there. Still, though, there is that accent.”
Marnie laughed. “I’m on vacation, so I guess I need to find a motel room to stay in until the car is fixed.”
“We have a couple of nice places in town,” Clay assured her. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
Marnie stared out the picture window. Green grass and rolling hills extended in every direction as far as she could see. “Can we get a taxi out here?”
Clay nodded. “We could, but if you’ll wait for me to take a shower I’ll be glad to run you into town. I was going to the grocery store anyway.”
Good. That would solve her problem nicely. “I would appreciate it very much,” she said.
Clay turned on the big TV for her, and she watched it while he changed. He finished quickly, and then they got into his truck-a big, dusty, black Dodge Ram with what she’d bet was a huge engine and four wheel drive-and started the drive back to town. As they passed the place where she had left her car, Clay stopped and put her bags in the back of his truck. She saw him study the out of state license plate. “So you’re from New York? You didn’t drive all this way by yourself did you?”
Marnie laughed. “Yes, I am, and yes, I did. I’ve been on the road seeing the country for two weeks now.”
“Wow, that’s impressive.”
“It’s been fun,” Marnie enthused. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I wish I had. I didn’t know what I was missing.”
“You said you’re on vacation?”
She brushed her hair out of her eyes as she surveyed the Wyoming landscape out the window, admiring the view of the Tetons in the background. Not much like the skyscrapers, traffic, and swarms of people in New York City. “I’m visiting my mother’s old college friend,” she explained. “She and Mom were roommates who always kept in touch. She, the roommate I mean, invited me to spend a few weeks with her.”
“Didn’t your mother want to come too?”
Marnie bit her lip to get control of her voice and paused for a moment before she could speak. “My mother died six months ago.”
“You’re making this trip for her not yourself, right?” A look of compassion passed across his handsome face. Marnie remembered his wife and guessed he knew something about loss and sorrow.
“You’re very perceptive,” she answered with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Yes, I’m doing it for my mom. She’d have loved to come herself, but after my father died she had a baby to support and bills to pay. To be honest she couldn’t afford a plane ticket. By the time I grew up and got out of school she was sick with MS and couldn’t travel.”
“That’s a shame,” he commiserated. “Would you rather I take you to the roommate’s house instead of a motel?”
Marnie’s eyes started to twinkle. “No, I wouldn’t. I don’t want to go there until I get my car back. That way if I don’t have a good time I can make a quick getaway.”
Clay laughed, a full-bodied, exuberant sound that made Marnie feel good all over. In fact, she laughed with him. “Oh, that did me good!” she exclaimed as she swiped at her eyes. “I haven’t had much to laugh about during the last few months.”
He looked intrigued, but she decided there was no reason to tell him about her broken engagement. She and Wayne had parted company when she found him in the arms of another woman, but that was none of Clay’s business.
“So you’re an only child?” Clay asked.
“Yes, that’s right. How about you?”
Clay smiled at her. “I have three brothers and two sisters. They all live around here.”
“Goodness. How about your parents?”
“They live not too far from my house. Dad had a stroke a few years ago, and he can’t do as much as he used to, but he and Mom are getting along fine. I give him a little farm business to make him feel useful.”
“I guessed you farm for a living,” Marnie said as she took her sunglasses off and wiped them. “Did your dad turn the family farm over to you when he had his stroke, or did you already have your own place?”
“It was the family farm. It was hard for him to do too. This land’s been in our family for four generations.”
“Wow, that’s impressive,” Marnie praised.
They entered the outskirts of Beaver Creek, and Clay turned into a Days Inn parking lot. “I know the people here. The place is clean, and the prices aren’t bad either.”
He hefted her bags from the back of the truck and carried them inside for her as easily as though they didn’t weigh a ton. “I hope you enjoy your stay in Beaver Creek, Marnie.”
“Thank you for the phone and the ride.”
He strode away, leaving Marnie feeling surprisingly bereft. Clay had been so nice to her, and she liked him. Hmm. She really, really liked his looks too. The guy reminded her of a cover model on a romance novel only better, but she hadn’t come here to ogle strange men. She sighed, picked up her bags, and went to find her room.
Clay looked in his rearview mirror and saw Marnie enter the Day’s Inn. Since his wife’s death he hadn’t paid much attention to women. Her passing had cut him up more than he’d ever have thought possible. Right after the accident he had expected to feel a little bit better every day until finally he could think of Linda without pain. It didn’t work out like he had expected.
Day after endless day had come and gone with no change in the way he felt. At times he had wondered if he might lose his mind from grief and loneliness, but thank God the pain had receded to a dull ache now. He no longer expected to have a happy life, but he could stand this, especially if he kept busy.
Today, though, something had woken up inside of him when Marnie Wood hailed him. She was so pretty! He liked tall girls, the petite ones looked too fragile, like maybe they’d break if he tried to hold them. Marnie suited him perfectly-just the right height with plenty of curves to prove she was a woman. He laughed softly. Anyway, I’ve always liked blue eyed blondes.
His face started to burn. She smelled good too. He had noticed it the minute he walked up to her. In fact, he’d swear that the entire truck smelled of her right now.
He glanced at his watch. He’d have to hurry, or he’d be late for dinner. His mother had invited him to come over, an invitation he was looking forward to because she was a great cook.
He reached the little brick house where his parents lived and parked the truck. His dad sat in a rocker on the front porch with a big glass of iced tea in his hand. “Hot, ain’t it?” he greeted Clay. “Your mother’s got dinner ready.”
They went inside where Mary Whitmore gave him a big hug. “Look what the cat dragged in,” she cried. “How are you, baby?”
Behind him, his father rolled his eyes. “Mary, he’s a grown man. Stop calling him baby.”
“Oh, hush, Frank. He’ll always be my baby.”
Clay enjoyed the meal until Mary dropped her bombshell over dessert. “I need a favor, Clay.”
“Sure, what do you need?”
“I promised you’d take a friend of mine to the Fourth of July celebration in town.”
Frank groaned, and Clay figured it out in a hurry. “How old is this friend? About my age, maybe?”
Mary looked cat that swallowed the canary pleased with herself.
“Look, I know you’re trying to help me, but…”
“I don’t ask for much, Clay.”
This quiet comment silenced Clay. His mother freely gave of herself to anyone in need, and she had helped him through two rough years. He owed her for that and so much more. “Okay, give me the details,” he sighed.
Mary beamed at him. “Thank you, son. I thought you could pick her up here in time to go to the rodeo. Then, you can have dinner downtown and go to the dance. Afterward you can watch the fireworks.”
Clay shot her a stern look. “If I do this you have to promise me you’ll never try to set me up again.”
“I’ll try not to.” And that was the best he could get out of her.
He went home and sat down on the front porch to savor the evening. The heat of the day had abated, and he enjoyed the feel of the world settling down for a nice rest. He heard an owl call in the distance, a lonely sound if you didn’t have anyone to share your porch.
Pauline, Linda’s cat, rubbed against his legs and demanded his attention. “You’re a good cat,” he crooned. Pauline responded by jumping into his lap.
“My mother got me a blind date,” he explained. Pauline purred and started to knead him. “Yeah, that’s right. Purr away. You don’t have to take a strange woman to the Fourth of July celebration.”
His thoughts drifted to Marnie Wood. She looked nothing at all like Linda. Linda had been shorter with small, delicate features and hair color that reminded him of sand in a clear, mountain stream. He had mentioned that to her right after they got married, and she threw a fit. ‘My hair does not look like dirt!’ she exclaimed.
He smiled when he remembered how he had convinced her that he had just given her a compliment. She knew she had married a country boy, so she should have known he meant it in a good way.
How Marnie Wood could stand living in a place like New York City was beyond him. He’d go crazy if someone cooped him up in a city.
He had liked her looks though. It had been so long since he had really noticed a woman. After Linda died he simply hadn’t been interested in women. He had friends who’d tried to tell him that he should move on with his life. ‘Get out and see people,’ they advised. ‘You’re a young man; you need to find someone.’
Even his mother got into the act, her latest interference this Fourth of July thing. He had no idea who she had in mind. Janice Zimmerman, her last pick for him, just plain didn’t like him and hadn’t since he pulled her hair in the first grade.
He sighed and scratched Pauline behind her ears. As soon as possible he and his mother needed to have a serious talk about her interference in his life. He could take care of himself thank you very much.
Marnie got her car back the next day and settled up with the motel. Then she called her mother’s friend and got directions to her home. Thoughts of her mother brought tears to her eyes. Oh, if only her mother could have come with her! She’d have enjoyed this trip so much.
She found the house with no trouble. Actually, she thought she and Clay might have passed by it yesterday on their way to town. It was made of red brick and wasn’t especially large, but it did have a nice front porch with oak rockers scattered everywhere. Red geraniums and hanging baskets filled with petunias decorated the porch which was painted white.
Her thoughts turned to Clay Whitmore. Now there’s an interesting man for you, big and brawny-just the way I like them. She’d like to see him before she went back to New York, but she doubted she’d have the time.
She parked her car in the driveway and made her way to the door. Before she had time to knock the door opened with a screech and a pretty, older woman with brown hair and brilliant blue eyes enveloped her in a hug. “I’d know you anywhere,” she declared. “You look just like your mother.”
Marnie hugged her back and brushed her hair away from her face. She had the feeling she had met this woman before, but she knew she hadn’t. “You look just like your college picture, Mary.”
“Thank you,” she replied with a giggle. “I only wish. Frank,” she called. “Come and help me with Marnie’s bags.”
Frank came to help, beaming at her much as Mary had done. He was tall, well over six feet, and had dark hair. How strange. This man too looked familiar.
Frank and Mary took her bags and put them in a very nice guest room. The room was painted a pretty, pastel, shade of pale green. A white spool bed covered in a quilt done in shades of red, green, and white was the focal point of the room, but it was the big window framed in snowy white curtains that drew Marnie’s attention. “Wyoming is beautiful,” she enthused. “Just look at the view of the mountains from this window!”
“Oh, we have some pretty scenery,” Mary said. “I hope you’re hungry. We’re having barbecued chicken.”
“Good. I cooked plenty.”
Before the meal ended Marnie found out that Mary had never used her degree in psychology. After she graduated from college, she returned to Wyoming and married her high school sweetheart who farmed for a living. They had four sons and two daughters of whom they were very proud. Since both of them were retired, they volunteered at a local soup kitchen several days a week.
“I have a nice surprise for you,” Mary told her as she passed Marnie a steaming dish of homemade peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. “Since Beaver Creek always celebrate the Fourth with a rodeo and a dance, I’ve arranged for my youngest son to escort you to the celebration.”
Marnie’s heart sank. She hated blind dates. “How nice.”
Marnie thought about it after she went to bed. She’d rather go with Mary and her husband, but since the plans had already been made she supposed she wouldn’t make a fuss. If this guy turned out to be as nice as his mother and father she’d probably have a good time anyway.
“How do I look?” Marnie cried. She twirled around to show off her jeans and stuck out a boot clad foot for Mary and Frank’s inspection.
Mary clapped her hands and exclaimed, “You look like a real cowgirl. I like your plaid shirt too. That blue color looks good on you.”
Frank’s eyes twinkled as he nodded his agreement and echoed Mary’s reply. “Yes, ma’am, a real cowgirl.”
“I hope so. I’ve never been to a rodeo before.”
They heard the crunch of gravel as a car pulled up outside. “Here he is,” Mary happily proclaimed.
She ran to the door to admit her son while Marnie drew a deep breath and resolved to have a good time whether she liked this guy or not.
To her surprise Clay Whitmore entered the living room with Mary. Surely Clay wasn’t Mary’s son! Marnie burst into laughter. Oh course he was. No wonder Mary and Frank had looked familiar. Clay resembled both of them.
“What’s so funny?” Frank asked.
“We already know each other,” Marnie answered, and she told them how Clay had befriended her when her car broke down.
“Well, how about that!” Mary cried, laughing along with Marnie.
Clay just looked relieved. “I had no idea what to expect,” he admitted. He favored Marnie with a warm smile. “I’ll enjoy introducing a rodeo to a city girl.”
Wow! That smile really brought his face to life. Without undue conceit, she wondered if he wasn’t pleased with her appearance too. He certainly appeared to like what he saw. He’d checked her out when he first came in even though he’d tried to be discrete about it.
He held out his hand to Marnie. “Ready?”
“Just let me get my hat.”
She found her hat which she’d bought at a local shop only yesterday, and the two of them got in his truck and left for the rodeo.
Marnie had never been to a rodeo before and hadn’t been sure she’d enjoy herself, but she did. The event was being held at a local fairground. Big bleachers on either side of a ring sort of reminded her of a football field, but there were no football players in sight-just cowboys, horses, and bulls. The smell of sawdust and cotton candy filled the air.
Marnie enjoyed watching the rodeo clowns do their job almost as much as she enjoyed watching the events. She had to admit, though, that the bareback bronc riding thrilled her. “How can the cowboys stay on the horses?” she cried. “Those horses are twisting themselves inside out.”
“Don’t know,” Clay replied. “I like my horses trained.” He paused.
“If you have time before your vacation’s over, maybe you’d like to come out to my place and go riding. None of my horses are wild.”
Marnie flushed with pleasure. “I’d love to. What’s a trip to Wyoming without a nice horseback ride?”
The rodeo wrapped up around six, just in time for everyone to grab some supper and make it to the dance. “Am I dressed okay?”
Marnie wondered. She looked down at her jeans and boots.
Clay reached for her hand. “Yes, ma’am. You’re perfect. There’ll be a lot of cowgirls in boots and jeans tonight.”
And he was right. Marnie had never seen so many hats, boots, and jeans in her life. Some of the girls wore dresses, but most didn’t.
Up on the stage the announcer called, “Let’s have our first line dance, folks. How about Cotton Eye Joe?”
The crowd cheered and Clay tugged on her hand. “Let’s dance.”
“I don’t know how to line dance!”
“No time like the present to learn.” Eyes twinkling, Clay dragged her onto the dance floor.
Marnie fumbled around a bit, but she caught on quickly. “Oh, that’s fun,” she exclaimed as the dance ended. She barely caught her breath before the announcer called the next number and Clay whisked her back onto the dance floor.
By the time the dance drew to a close, Marnie was so glad she’d come to Wyoming, a sentiment she voiced to Clay as they found a seat on the street to watch the fireworks. “I’m having such a good time, Clay. Thank you for putting up with me.”
Clay thought for a moment. “It was my mother’s idea, and I never thought I’d say it, but I’m glad she got me this date. I had a good time myself.” He grinned briefly. “I didn’t expect to. The last girl my mother found for me was a disaster.”
Marnie’s laugh rang out on the warm air and caused several people around her to smile. “I’m glad that you’re glad.”
A small boom announced the beginning of the fireworks.
Clay pointed toward the west. “They’ll be coming from that direction.”
Marnie wondered about that. Maybe the fireworks were right here, in the place between them. She had seen the seen the stars in his eyes when he looked at her tonight. Hot blood stained her cheeks. He’d probably seen the stars in her eyes too. If she was a betting girl, which she wasn’t, she’d bet that even though Clay might always remember his first wife, one day he’d have it in his heart to love another woman. Maybe even a woman who once lived in New York City.
“Ooo, look,” she cried as the night sky filled with golden sparkles.