What I won't be doing this year is...APOLOGIZING!!!
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“Yes. Yes. Yes! That’s it. That’s the move. Doesn’t that feel right? Move those hips. Make a circle.”
“No, it still feels off. Too tight. I told you I wouldn’t be any good at this.”
“Stop complaining and relax. Let the feeling take you. You have an amazing body, lots of core strength and perfect rhythm, that is if you allow yourself to dig deep. You’re a natural, but you just have to let go of all your inhibitions.”
Blue Dawson shook his head at the petite brunette who was staring up at him in complete instructor mode. Her eyes were wide, surrounded by long, thick eyelashes, and her plump, cherry-tinted-shiny bottom lip was tucked between her teeth while she gyrated her hips as an example.
God help him. He’d never have enough rhythm to move his hips like she could.
“Is it too late for you to find someone else?” he groaned. “It’s the smartest idea for both of us.”
With a dismissive sigh, Maggie March sashayed across the dance studio. Her firm bottom in the cute little shorts drew his attention. He practically salivated and his jeans felt tighter. There were some benefits to dancing with her. He’d been sweating buckets for the last hour trying to stay focused on all the moves and their names. To him, they were all the same—awkward.
She switched off the music and turned back to face him with a narrowed gaze as if she worked up a lecture. Maggie had always been a confident spitfire, but the closer to the competition they got the more stressed she became, and the more she kicked his ass in the studio. When did she forget that he was doing this as a favor to her?
For a good ten seconds they had a staring contest, neither saying the obvious. Things just weren’t working. She tapped the toe of one cowgirl boot in annoyance. “How many times have we been through this, Blue? It’s too late for me to find another dance partner. You’re locked in. You agreed we would perform in the Texas Amateur Country Dance competition and share the money. This is big. If we win, we’ll be the faces for the Master Dancing League which includes a paying contract. We’re lucky that the video we sent in earned us a place in the dance-off. Not every couple even makes it this far. But we have to practice. Competition will be stiff and you can’t win this by your good looks alone.” She reached for a towel from the stack and patted her forehead.
“That’s unfair, especially when you said my looks would be a shoe in,” he groaned, half teasing.
She lowered the towel and some of the severity left her expression. “Your complaining and disappearing acta are two-stepping on my last nerve. Not to mention, renting this studio is by the hour. This is serious, Blue.”
“And you think I don’t get that, drill sergeant?”
There it was…the frustration returned on her soft features.
While she unscrewed the lid to her water canister and took a long drink, he tracked his gaze down her damp white tank and got caught up for a second in the visible shadows of her nipples under the thin material. He moved his attention past her waist to the tight black shorts that landed high on her toned thighs. Her skin glistened with sweat and her cheeks were flushed, making her eyes look more lavender than usual. He deserved an award for maintaining control over his body.
He'd agreed to this lunatic dance idea for two reasons. He wanted to spend time with the woman he’d had a crush on for years and thought she might finally see him as something more than Coop’s kid brother. For the last three weeks their hands had been all over each other, skin-to-skin, their hips moving in tandem, but not exactly in the way he wanted. Although she was dressed in the least amount of clothing she could be without being naked, he still had a hankering to strip those tiny shorts off her amazing hips and do some waltzing with his tongue. He’d put a new spin on the meaning “blue balls”. Her outfits drove him wild. Hell, she could be wearing a potato sack and he’d have every intention to want to explore her.
The second reason, Jack March had asked Blue to watch over his family and the March Farm. He had no idea how long Jack would be away, but a promise was a promise and Blue intended to keep it. Even if that included dancing, which he hated. Passionately.
“Real funny.” She rolled her eyes.
“Just thought you needed reminded that this is a dance competition, not boot camp.” He strolled over to his water bottle, uncapped it and poured half of the contents over his head and bare torso. “Why does this mean so much to you? Is it the money? You never cared about those things before.”
She lowered her gaze then dragged it back up. “It just does.” She picked up a second towel and tossed it to him.
Swinging the towel over his shoulder, he recapped his bottle. “It’s getting harder and harder to sneak around.”
“Why are we sneaking? You’re a grown man. You’re not allowed to dance?”
“My brothers would never let me live this down.” He couldn’t be completely honest with her. They knew he never wanted to dance before and would see straight through him. He’d kept his feelings for Maggie a secret and if he told her now—how he’d felt for nearly ten years—she might play the friend card and reject him. Then he’d have to face her every day knowing she didn’t want him in the same way. Yep, better to remain silent and let her make a move rather than create an unwanted storm.
“It’s only dancing. Why do they care?” Her shoulders slumped. “Yeah, you’re probably right. They would tease you. But, you have to stand up to them. They’ve always treated you like a kid.” She looked at him down the bottle as she drank thirstily.
“I need to get back to the ranch. Need a ride? I noticed your truck wasn’t outside.” He reached for his shirt off the bench and dragged the faded cotton over his head.
“Yeah, that’d be great.” She dropped down onto the bench and swapped out her boots for flip flops, then stood and swung the straps of her large bag over her shoulder. “I’m ready.”
“Your truck broken down again?” he asked once they walked out of the studio and across the parking lot.
“For the second time in a month. Last time it was the alternator. Now…I have no clue.”
He wondered if she needed the prize money from the competition to buy a new vehicle? He didn’t know her financial situation, yet a couple of years ago her mother, Penelope, had retired from her teaching job when she was diagnosed with cancer. His ma had told him Penelope was in remission.
Jogging ahead of Maggie, he opened the passenger door to his Dodge for her.
She dropped her bag on the floorboard then climbed in. “Thank you, Blue. I swear when God handed out manners he spent a little more time on you than any other man in Dove Grey.”
She was less sergeant and more the sweet Maggie now.
His heartbeat sped up, only to be zapped with her next sentence.
“I’ve always been grateful for your friendship.” She clicked the belt in place and turned her attention to her cell phone.
Always stuck in the friend zone.
Closing the door, he circled around, kicking up rocks and dirt with the toes of his dusty boots. By the time he climbed into the driver’s seat, he had his smile back into place. He started the engine, rolled the windows down, then backed out of the parking space. Once they pulled onto the street, he headed toward her farm.
Maggie tucked one leg up underneath her bottom then shifted to lean against the door, facing him. He glanced over at her, noticing her inquisitive smile. “What?”
“Are you dating anyone?”
“Nope.” Maybe they were finally making some progress in the right direction.
“My friend Brit is single. She and the deputy called it quits.”
“Too bad for Brit.” He picked up his hat and pressed it down on his head. Damn, he had a good idea where this was heading.
“You’re single too.”
“Last I checked.”
“How about you let me fix you two up on a date? I can text her.” She tapped at her phone.
And there it was…the guillotine beheading all his hopes and dreams. Any idea he had that Mags had even a modicum of feelings for him took a nosedive. All those flirty smiles, catching her subtle stares, and kisses on the cheeks were just his over-active imagination. He’d never been an expert when it came to a woman’s intentions, but he’d thought…
Blue needed to get it through his thick head. She’d always see him as Coop’s little brother. Although only a couple of years younger than her, Blue guessed she preferred her men older.
“Don’t bother,” he said.
“Come on. I see a wedding in the future.” She wagged her brows.
“How about we be realistic, Mags. Blind dates never work out.” He pressed on the brake and came to a stop at the red light. A couple sitting on a bench near the town center waved and he returned the gesture.
“I wouldn’t call it a blind date. You two already know each other.”
“That only makes it weirder. You fixing me up with someone I know. I’m capable of asking a woman out on a date when I see fit.”
“I’m only trying to help.” She sighed and turned to look out the window.
“I tell you what, I’ll think about it and let you know.” He had no plans of doing any such thing, but at least his answer seemed to appease her because she let the subject go.
“Has Carter set a date yet?”
This was another subject he didn’t want to discuss. Blue couldn’t figure out if his brother and Gi were faking an engagement or if they’d finally stopped denying the feelings they have for one another. Either way, Blue kept his nose out of the circus and had no intention of putting his two cents in where Carter’s relationship, or lack of, was concerned. “Nope.”
“Gi is amazing. I love her show. She had a sex therapist on recently and she talked about why women can’t reach orgasm—” Her phone beeped.
Saved by the ding.
He had no problem talking about sex and orgasms with her, but he preferred in a different context. Like naked and in bed.
She checked the screen and one corner of her lips dipped. He wondered who, or what, put a damper on her mood, so he asked, “Is there a problem?”.
“No.” She dropped her phone into the bag and an exhale of breath escaped her. They crossed the old stone bridge and turned onto the country road that didn’t see much traffic. “Anyway, thanks for the ride.”
The truck’s tires bounced over the potholes and he slowed. “No problem. It’d have been a long walk from the studio to the farm.”
They drifted into a spell of silence and Blue stared straight ahead, occasionally glimpsing a wild animal scurrying into the ditch or scavengers feeding on carcasses. They passed fields of knee-high timothy hay, fescue grass, and further up, seasonal crops of barley and wheat. Then the landscape transitioned into dairy farms where the scent of fertilizer lay pungent in the air and the grinding of machinery announced their presence.
Around a bend they came to the arched sign that read “March Farm. Est. 1970.”
He flipped on the turn signal and passed the rows of tall, thick pine trees that lined the winding gravel lane and into a clearing where steepled barns and pastures dotted the flat land. The hundred-acre property had lost some of its shine since Maggie’s mother took ill, and the industry-disruption over the last few years. Now that Jack wasn’t around, and the foreman and hands had left, the farm had taken a hit.
The place still was a thing of beauty though and Blue could see it making a comeback with the right TLC.
On each side of the lane were fenced pastures where horses, goats and cows grazed. To the left were Maggie’s boarding stables and kennels that he guessed were what kept the farm financially afloat.
To the right was the farmhouse that sat on a knoll overlooking the property. A wraparound porch lined with rockers, windows adorned with flower boxes, and a dog sprawled out on the step made the place welcoming. He parked and shut off the engine once Maggie climbed out, and he followed.
Cattle lowed. Pigs snorted. And horses whinnied in the late morning sun. Wind chimes greeted them with a gentle ding from a corner hook. The dog lifted his head, ears perked, then lazily pushed himself up from the ground to meet Maggie halfway. She rewarded him with a scratch behind the ears which must have been enough for him because he then returned to his spot.
Blue searched the property and spotted the old beat-up truck parked near the tool shed.
“You want to come in and say “hi” to Mom?” Maggie asked. “She’s always tickled pink when one of you Dawsons drop by for a visit.”
“I figured since I’m here I might as well take a look at the truck.” He swiped off his hat and deposited it on the mirror of his own truck.
Maggie’s expression soured some. “Don’t go to any trouble, Blue. I think she’s laid to rest.”
“That ol’ Ford? Laid to rest? Nah. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” He didn’t wait around for more argument. He took off across the overgrown grass, popped the hood and peeked underneath. He couldn’t be called a mechanic, but he’d always liked tinkering with engines and old cars. He’d just bought himself a ’67 Mustang Shelby that he planned on restoring. All the unforeseen dance lessons had sidetracked him.
“Think you can get her back on the road?”
He fished himself out from under the hood and offered Maggie a hopeful smile. “Can’t tell yet, but right off the bat, you’re in need of an oil change.”
“Well then I sure hope the store carries high performance, extra lubricant with added energy because I certainly could use the oomph.” Her teasing smile made his heart race. He always did like her ease at jokes, even if they weren’t always funny. “I’m going to run in and change. How about some lemonade for your trouble?”
“Sure.” He watched her make her way toward the house and he felt a stirring below his belt. His body hadn’t gotten the memo. They were only friends.
He turned his attention to the dirty engine and stared into the abyss of a mechanical nightmare. It pained Blue to agree that the old classic had used up all her nine lives. Not even a miracle could work its magic, but just to be sure, he put in a phone call to the mechanic shop up town.
Hurrying up to change and brush her hair, Maggie raced back downstairs and took up residence in front of the large window that overlooked the farm, and the cowboy who was bent over inspecting under the truck hood. She played with a tendril of hair as she stared. He had removed his shirt at some point and used it to wipe his brow. His torso glistened with sweat, making every masculine dip and curve look appealing. A trail of dark hair started at his navel and disappeared under the waist of his loose, faded jeans that sat low on his hips.
Goosebumps scattered her skin. A telltale flush crawled through her.
What was happening to her? Where was all this sexual tension coming from?
Her frustration made her want to scream. In all the years she’d known Blue not once had she thought of him as anything more than Coop’s little brother, and of course a good friend. She was friends with all the Dawson brothers. However, something had changed in Blue that she couldn’t ignore. Was it his confidence? His intelligence? His kindness? When had he grown into a man? Developed muscles? Not just muscles, but a strong, powerful physique that made her conjure images that didn’t belong in her head.
The problem wasn’t that he had…aged very nicely. The trouble came with the yearning that invaded every nook and cranny of her body when they were dancing. The feelings were more than appreciation or respect, but a scorching attraction that made her a stuttering uptight mess. Not only was Blue a couple of years younger than her, which wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, but she’d always liked older men. And, he was Coop’s brother, the cowboy she’d had a crazy crush on for years. Sure, the infatuation had fizzled after a couple of dates, some heated flirtation, a kiss or two, and Melanie Jane, but Maggie had learned her lesson and swore off Dawson men. They were all too close because they’d grown up together. They were bound by friendships…but the frenzied heart rate and sweaty palms couldn’t be labeled as a typical reaction to a “friend”.
Why didn’t he just agree to go out with Brit? Then Maggie would get this infatuation, or whatever it was, out of her system and she could go back to focusing on winning the dance competition. She didn’t have time to worry about dating.
After her father was arrested four weeks ago, her responsibilities had tripled.
Her dog kennel and equine boarding business had flourished over the last five years, but the debt the farm was in put her business in jeopardy.
“If only I were twenty years younger.”
Maggie almost jumped out of her skin. She hadn’t realized she was no longer alone. “You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that, Mom. My heart is thumping out of my chest.”
“Mine would be too if I was staring at that hunky cowboy,” Penelope wagged her thin brows. After surviving breast cancer and the rough treatment regimen required to push back the disease, she’d come a long way. Her hair, although still short and spiked, had grown back in vibrant silver. The glow in her eyes had returned too, although they still had a telltale darkness underneath them. And obviously she still had a streak of her ornery self. Thankfully, she’d started back working on the farm, but she grew tired quicker than before so Maggie made sure she kept her busy in the kennel instead of tending livestock.
“I’m not staring.”
She never could get anything past her mom. “Okay, I was staring, but I’m just wondering if he’s getting very far with the engine.”
“It’s a waste of time. I’ve told you, to make money you have to spend money. We have to have a running truck.”
Not this argument again. “Mom—”
“Yeah, I know. I still have medical bills. The farm is in the red. Our hands have left us. Blah, blah, blah.” She waved a slender, wrinkled hand nonchalantly in the air.
“Hands usually leave when they can’t be paid.”
“We have good hands.”
Maggie followed Penelope down the short hallway and into the bedroom turned office. “I wouldn’t consider the Dean Brothers “good” hands, but they are willing to accept what salary we can afford. And it’s true, we still have medical bills.”
Penelope sat down in the squeaky chair behind the desk. A sadness filled her expression. “I’m sorry, Mags. It seems I’ve made a mess of things.”
“You mean you chose to get breast cancer and needed treatment to save your life? How dare you.” Maggie laughed but it soon fizzled.
“If I had known that Jack—”
“You didn’t and that’s not your fault.”
“Business is good though, right?” Penelope reached into the drawer and took out the financial ledger.
Taking a seat on the corner of the desk, Maggie skimmed the journal pages. She didn’t need to look at the numbers closer to know that business wasn’t good. With the pandemic and then her mother’s cancer, the farm had suffered, but she didn’t want her mother to worry. “Dad made a mistake by leaving me in charge. I don’t know how to run a farm.” Especially one that would go bankrupt in the next six months if she didn’t find a silver lining.
“Honey, your father has all the trust in the world in you. Jack had always been a risk taker. He had a dream for this place and took a leap. You have to learn not to overthink things.” Penelope picked up her daughter’s hand and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze. “This place—this farm, business—shouldn’t be a boulder on your shoulders. It should be a home. You’re in charge and if you think we should sell—”
“No. We can’t. If I can get Dad out of jail and back home, he’ll get us through this.”
A knock on the front door made Maggie jump. A second later she heard, “Mags?”
“Oh…I forgot his lemonade.” She slid off the desk.
“Back here,” Penelope called out and Maggie sighed. “What?” She had an innocent expression.
“Mom, don’t say anything about Dad,” she whispered.
“He’s good enough to ogle but not good enough to know the truth?”
Before Maggie could explain, she heard Blue’s boots thudding outside the open door. She lifted her chin just as he filled the threshold. Naturally, she took a slow visual crawl down his body. His shirt was back on, but she’d seen him half naked so much over the last few weeks that the image of his strapping torso had been tattooed on the back of her eyelids.
He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, sweeping his pale blue eyes from Penelope to Maggie. She tried to remain casual, not allowing her lack of control to show. She’d grown up in the Dawson circle and none of them had made her this nervous…not even Coop.
“Blue Dawson. It’s nice to see you, young man.” Penelope got up and made her way across the small space of the office, pushing past Maggie, and brought Blue in for a tight hug.
Maggie rolled her eyes. Blue did have a certain undeniable charm. Not only did he rank high on the handsome scale, he had a head full of hair and eyes that were surrounded by a thick fringe of lashes that women paid a fortune to have. His pillowy lips were the backdrop for even white teeth and bracketed by insanely deep dimples. Black and silver peppered whiskers covered his powerful jaw and faded into a dusting on his wide neck. He held his worn Stetson against his midriff with his large, tanned hand that had surprisingly clean, short nails. His stunning eyes landed on her for a heartbeat, leaving a mysterious tingle in their tranquil wake.
“It’s good to see you, Mrs. March. Looking as lovely as ever,” Blue said in his intoxicating Texan drawl.
Penelope’s cheeks blossomed in faint color. “I’ve told you before. You can call me Penelope. I’m no longer your teacher.”
Maggie couldn’t help but smile at the radiance in her mother. This time last year Maggie hadn’t been sure if her mother would be alive, let alone happy. If it took a sexy cowboy with a bra-dropping grin to create those fuzzy feelings then so be it.