“Justin, what are you and your lady friend doing sneaking up on us?” Tanner asked, his voice gravelly now, accusing.
He knows Justin, Mia thought. He’s got to be the cowboy they planned to fix me up with, doesn’t he?
“Just seeing how you two are getting along.” Justin said, tilting his shaggy blond head and shrugging as though he were filled with innocence.
“Ah, I see. This was a set up then, was it?” Tanner arched a brow and glanced from Justin to Skye to Mia.
Mia’s heart fell and the heat spread over her ears and traveled down her neck. Didn’t Skye say Tanner/Hunter/Trapper wanted to meet her, too? Maybe Skye said he was willing to meet her. Mia supposed there could be a big difference between the two.
She was confused again. Was this the right guy? And, if so, had he wanted to meet her? Mia gazed once more at her new boots, dismayed to notice a thin layer of rodeo dust already coated the deep-pink leather.
“He treating you okay?” Justin asked Mia.
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” Heated blood jetted back to Mia’s face to fully concentrate on her cheeks. My face must be the color of my boots. Maybe it will pass for heat flush. I hope so. But even with her cheeks flaming, Mia still breathed relief. Justin wouldn’t ask if Tanner was treating me okay, and he wouldn’t check on how we were getting along unless Tanner really is the guy I was supposed to meet, right?
Tanner ran a thumb lazily over the back of Mia’s hand. Tingling goose bumps pebbled up her arm. It felt good, felt right, her hand in his. A slight breeze swirled by, and Mia caught a whiff of Tanner’s spicy-citrus aftershave. The scent combined with the dust and horse sweat in a powerful way.
A powerfully-good way
“You let me know if he doesn’t treat you right, and I’ll take care of him for you,” Justin said, a teasing tone to his voice, but a stern look in his eyes as he scanned Tanner’s face. Justin’s gaze traveled lower to settle on Tanner and Mia’s clasped hands. His eyes brightened. “You two lovebirds want to go to Sticks’ barbeque with us after the rodeo?”
Mia breathed easier. Yes! Justin would not be inviting Tanner and me to a party unless Tanner was definitely the one he and Skye intended me to meet.
“Come on, Mia,” Skye said, leaning forward in earnestness, her hair, the same shiny brown-black as Mia’s, cascading from under her cowboy hat and falling over one shoulder. “Say yes. You know Sticks throws the best barbeques in Bellham.”
Always go on a first date in a public place. Be sure to take a chaperone.
Yes, Papa Pete.
Tanner aimed those golden-brown eyes at Mia. “I’m game, if you are.” He gave her hand a slight squeeze.
“Sure,” she said, the hand and arm tingles returning in full force. “Sounds fun.”
Skye beamed a smile at Mia and Tanner, and then turned to plant a noisy kiss full on Justin’s mouth.
Mia glanced away, wishing those two would refrain from such blatant public displays of affection. It was embarrassing. Probably one of the reasons they did it. Skye and Justin knew how easy it was to embarrass her, and seemed to enjoy doing so.
Mia looked down at her hand enveloped in Tanner’s. Going on a double date to the barbeque did sound fun. It wouldn’t be dangerous like going off alone into the boonies on a first date – Skye, Justin, and other friends would be at Sticks’ party, too.
Good, safe fun.
“Why don’t we walk you ladies to your seats?” Justin said.
“Yep, it’s about time to get ready for our rides,” Tanner said. “The performance starts soon. Want to make sure you get good spots.”
Justin and Skye led the way to the grandstand, their arms slung around each other, their footfalls sending up puffs of dust, like smoke-signal shorthand. The puffs lifted and dissipated at intervals as regular as a beating heart.
Tanner and Mia followed, still holding hands. Again she caught the citrus-spice, horse-sweat fragrance of him. She closed her eyes and drew it in. Mmmmm.
Tanner angled his head so his lips were close to Mia’s ear. “I’ll look forward to spending time with you after my ride.” Quietly he said it, so only she could hear.
Her heart sprouted feathers and fluttered inside her chest.
As they strolled past the bucking chutes and roping chutes, past other cowboys and cowgirls, Mia once more inspected the plump earlobes protruding from beneath Tanner’s hat. The big ears and good-guy white hat made her smile. If Papa Pete were still around, this cowboy would definitely meet with his approval.
Danita Cahill is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer. She’s written and published over 2,100 newspaper articles and columns for 11 different Northwest newspapers, and dozens of magazine stories and photo layouts for six different magazines. She has five stories and a photo in two of HCI’s anthologies and has self-published five books – two non-fiction and three fiction titles. Danita lives in the Pacific NW on a small Oregon farm with her family and animals, including a herd of 10 alpacas. Besides running children to and fro and caring for her gardens, critters and family, Danita stays busy working on magazine assignments and her next book projects.
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