By Robyn Anders
Copyright ©2000/2006 by Robert Preece, All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher. All characters, locations, and situations are fictional or used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual people or things is coincidental.
This is Chapter One only. To buy the entire eNovel (available in HTML, Adobe Acrobat PDF, Microsoft Reader LIT, Palm Reader PRC, and Aportis (Palm) PDB), for only $1, please click the Buy Now button.
"I've saved you a seat," a pleasant baritone said.
Mickey Murphy whirled around, then caught sight of a broad expanse of very male chest. Dark hair curled from the vee in his worn denim shirt. Slowly she raised her eyes to his face. Warm brown eyes stared at her from a deeply bronzed face. Brown curls poked out under a worn and battered cowboy hat.
"Oh, my," Mickey began.
Mickey's friend Sandy stuck out her hand. "I'm Sandy and this is Michaela." Sandy had grown up in Texas and her 'howdy' attitude that contrasted sharply with Mickey's more reserved style.
"Kevin Sullivan," the man said. "Like I said, I got a table for us." He grabbed Sandy's hand, shook it heartily, then took Mickey's arm and guided her across the floor toward a table held by a worn leather jacket.
Sandy tagged along like a terrier after a bull.
Who was this man, Mickey wondered, and, of all the women there, why had he singled her out? The tables at Rowdies were at a premium and it was great to be able to sit. Still, she'd grown up in New York. Everything had its price.
On the other hand, she wasn't a nun. Kevin Sullivan's price might be worth paying.
The club spun by in a blur as she tried to keep up with his long strides. A six-man band twanged out a country tune that clashed with the glittering disco balls hanging from the ceiling.
"Ah, do you come here often?" Mickey asked. What an idiotic question. Why couldn't she just fall into the floor?
Things like this didn't happen to her. Of course, if Sandy would guarantee that drop-dead-handsome men would sweep her off her feet every time she set foot in one of these Texas honky-tonk places, maybe she'd go out more often.
While she and Sandy had worked that terrible software-company party, Sandy had somehow managed to persuade Mickey to give Texas bars another chance. At least Rowdies was supposed to be where real cowboys hung out rather than where Dallas lawyers played dress-up.
Kevin Sullivan looked like he might live up to the billing.
"Never been here before," Kevin answered as if oblivious to the fact that Mickey had used the oldest pickup line in the world. "It's a good long ride up from Tyler. But the manager at my ranch mentioned it."
"Oh. You work on a ranch?" Mickey tried to filter the excitement out of her voice. A cowboy could lead her to a worthwhile job in the country. If she could meet someone who could help her get her foot in the door, she'd be that much closer to her favorite dream.
She hoped she didn't come off sounding like a cowboy groupie. Of course, any girl could dream about being swept away by someone who looked like Kevin.
"Well, shoot," he answered. "I don't know if you'd call what I do working. Seems more like playing to me. Still, they pay me for it, so I guess it's all right."
He gave an almost negligent wave with his hand and a waitress bustled over. "I'll have a longneck. What about you ladies?"
Mickey ordered a beer while Sandy chose a margarita.
"I suppose you're wondering why I dragged y'all over here, aren't you?"
Mickey nodded. She had no idea.
"Let me guess," Sandy said coming to her rescue. "It's a long shot, but since you've been staring at Mickey--oops, I mean Michaela--like she was a long-lost something-better-than-a-sister, I'm thinking you want to ask her to dance. Am I right?"
"Hey," Mickey broke in. "Don't I get any say in this?" Since arriving in Texas the month before, she'd taken lessons in the Texas Two-Step and in something called the Progressive Three-Step. Most of what she'd learned consisted of dodging clumsy male feet and ducking away from half-hearted male pawing. Since she'd bought her boots, her partners were in as much danger of being tromped on as she was.
Kevin turned a brief smile on Sandy before shifting his intense gaze back to Mickey. The sun had beaten hard lines into his face, giving him a look of control and power. When he smiled, she could tell that he wasn't that much older than her own twenty-nine. Early thirties, she guessed. His warm and expressive smile spoke of the great outdoors. The force of his full attention was more than a little overwhelming.
"Well, Michaela," he told her, "it's like this. I'm afraid you don't get any say on whether I ask you to dance. You just to say yes or no. Of course, a yes would make things a lot simpler."
With his outrageously good looks, Mickey wondered whether anyone ever said no to him--and not just about dancing. Why had he sought her out? He had been standing at the door as if waiting for her, but she felt certain that she'd remember a face, or a body, that looked like his. Besides, he hadn't claimed to know her.
"I'm not a very good--" Mickey began.
"I'll be out on the floor. Have a good time," Sandy interrupted, swinging off in the arms of a man Mickey hadn't even noticed.
"Let me worry about the dancing," Kevin murmured as he gently lifted her to her feet.
The band was just finishing a number by the time Kevin had paid the waitress and led Mickey to the dance floor.
Mickey couldn't help but notice the covetous looks several women shot at Kevin. Incredibly, he seemed oblivious to them; she'd never known a man who wouldn't eat up that kind of attention. Of course, she'd never really known a cowboy. New York still had a fair number of farmers, but its ranches were few and far between.
Maybe cowboys really were different from other men.
She shook her head. It didn't matter. She was looking for a job, not for a one-night stand.
Mickey couldn't decide whether she'd be safer with a fast tune or a slow ballad. If the band played something slow, she might be able to fake a few steps. On the other hand, there were things more dangerous than dancing badly. Draping herself all over Kevin's sexy body and possibly drooling on his starched denim shirt might one of them.
"Relax," he breathed into her ear.
Easy for him to say. He already knew how to dance. Still, while his warm breath in her ear wasn't exactly relaxing, it did take her mind off of the dance floor.
One of his hands seized hers, while he rested his other gently on her waist.
Even that light touch seemed intimate, sending a shiver of desire through her. She ignored her irrational urge to pull him against her as many of the dancers were doing and told herself to ignore the heat radiating from his hand, or maybe from her own body.
The band started playing, fast, and Kevin whirled her out on the floor.
She knew she'd collapse, trip over her feet, or turn into a pumpkin in the middle of the floor. Then she realized she was dancing. Kevin made it easy. His leads seemed to travel from his body to her feet without her mind having to do anything. Just as well, since her mind found itself fully occupied with controlling her sensual response to this male.
Powerful biceps bulged in his right arm where her hand clasped it. She couldn't sense any aftershave, but his clean male scent smelled sexier than anything bought in a store. His eyes, golden as much as brown, gleamed a smile that matched that on his lips.
Of course, she must be grinning back like the cat that ate the canary.
"You dance like a dream," he murmured.
Before she could respond, he spun her around and kept her spinning until she wondered if he'd catch her before she lost her balance and collapsed to the floor.
Just when she decided it was a lost cause, he pulled her out of her spiral and back to his arms, much closer than before. A woman could get used to a strong cowboy who seemed able to read the way her body responded to his every move. If he were like this on the dance floor, what would he be like in bed?
Mickey shook her head, as much to clear away her sensual overload as to control the dance floor's spin. What could she be thinking? She hadn't exchanged more than fifty words with this stranger. He might even have a wife back on the ranch.
The loud music didn't give her a chance to ask any questions. A blessing in disguise, she realized, since the only question she felt like asking was "my place or yours."
What in the world was wrong with her? She was Mickey the Mouse from Albany, New York. She was the girl who had gone on exactly two dates during her entire senior year of high school.
Kevin knew how to hold a woman, how to move a woman. A good feeling, sure. In fact, terrific. Assuming that you wanted a man. Since Mickey wanted a job, all this was a distraction.
The song ended and he smiled again.
He had to feel the way her hand was trembling, but she gathered up her nerve and took a step back from him.
"You weren't thinking of running off already, were you?" he asked. He actually looked like he wanted another dance. Definitely a Dallas first. Usually, one dance was enough to scare away both her partner and any other prospects.
"I'd better check--"
"On your friend Sandy? She's over there with a fellow who's at least a foot taller than me." He pointed toward the other end of the dance floor. "I hope you don't intend for me to rescue her."
She didn't believe Kevin would be afraid of taking on the man, taller or not. He only seemed interested in her. The sensation was as intoxicating as it was unusual.
The next song started, saving her from an answer.
But only for a moment.
Kevin drew her in until her breasts brushed against his hard chest and swept her into a waltz. The softer music made conversation possible.
"Where'd you learn to dance like this?" she asked.
It wasn't a brilliant opening, but Mickey was prepared to accept anything that didn't end up with her tongue halfway down her chin.
"My mother figured that a man had to know a few social graces. Unfortunately, dancing was the only one that got through. How about you?"
"Um. Dancing or graces? Nobody ever accused me of dancing before."
"You're light as a feather." He spun her around and then pulled her back into his body.
The soft texture of his worn jeans and the hard muscles of his thighs brushed against her stockings, sending a tingling up her spine. She felt light, as if he could lift her and throw her into the air.
"I'm pretty solid. I wouldn't be much of a feather." Brilliant. Let's start out by talking yourself down.
"I like a girl with a little muscle. That way I don't worry about her breaking." After another twirl, he asked, "What do you do?"
"I'll give you some credit. You're doing a little better than 'do ya come here often.'"
Kevin gave her a grin. "You beat me to that line or I'd probably have tried it myself. I'm serious, though. Right off, you guessed me as a ranch hand. I guess guys are easy. You really aren't going to make me guess, are you?"
She hadn't even thought of it, but she couldn't resist the opening. "Give it a try."
He furled his brow in concentration. "Your hands are soft. That means you don't do manual work. Otherwise you'd have hands like mine." He opened his palm and let her run her fingers along the hard callus ridges there. "You either don't spend much time outside or keep the sunblock industry in business. I don't smell anything like that." He sniffed. "You do smell awful good, though. Hum. Let's see. Other clues? Your nails are short. Most women seem to like them long. So you do something with your hands. You haven't yelled at me yet, so you can't be a teacher.
"I guess that excludes pretty much everything. Oh, I've got it. Black hair and blue eyes. You're an Irish leprechaun. Right?"
She giggled, then bit her cheek to make herself stop. "I thought you were playing for real."
"No leprechaun? I give up."
"I work for a catering agency. You know, bartending, serving food, that kind of stuff. Before I came to Texas I was a bookkeeper but I wanted to get out of New York."
"The state, not the city. I come from Albany."
"Been there. It's pretty enough. Cold in the winter, though."
"It's a long way from a ranch. I figured that Texas would be closer."
She wondered if he could hear the little shiver in her voice as she spoke. This complete stranger was holding her in his arms in a clasp so intimate that they were practically making love with their clothes on and she was lapping it up. Her body curved against his as if the two were designed to fit together. His soft voice, breathing in her ear, made everything he said, every question, every tiny movement as intimate as a lover's kiss.
"You want to work on a ranch?" He sounded surprised, as if wondering why anyone would pursue his own career. Surely he wasn't one of those sexist jerks who thought that only men knew how to work.
Before she could probe for his meaning, the music picked up again. Mickey decided that shouting in his ear wouldn't be the most romantic, or career benefiting, way to spend the next little while, and she would want to savor this night for a long time. Drifting in his arms, trusting him to steer them between the fast-moving dancers, and enjoying the pure sensuality of a male animal's body pressed against her own made more sense than thinking and asking questions. She didn't find it too hard to reassure herself that she would do better career networking if she didn't have to shout at the top of her lungs.
It seemed like only a few minutes, but all of a sudden, the band stopped. Instead of starting the next number, they began packing their instruments.
Sandy appeared. "I've got an early job tomorrow and it's two o'clock," she told Mickey. "Do you need a ride home?" That had been their agreement, but Sandy sounded awfully unwilling.
"If you don't mind sharing the ride with a truckload of hay, I'd be happy to offer you a lift," Kevin interjected.
"Well, I don't--"
"Can you lose her?" Sandy's tall dance partner was making goo-goo eyes over Sandy. Obviously the two wanted to spend some private time together.
"You guys go ahead," Mickey answered. "I'll call a cab." Somehow, the evening had evaporated leaving her body tense with sexual energy and her job search exactly nowhere.
"Terrific. You're a babe," Sandy told her. She grabbed at the big man. "Come on, hon, let's get out of here."
So much for Sandy's chaperone service.
"You're not going to call a cab while I'm here." Kevin frowned as he said the words.
"Look, don't get macho on me. You're the best dancer I've ever met and I'd love to get together some time. But I'm not the kind of girl who goes out driving and parking with some guy I just met." There were still plenty of other women, she noticed, who looked ready to take Kevin home at a moment's notice. The thought was not at all comforting.
"Hey, I could give you my mother's phone number in Florida," he said, sounding half serious. "She'd vouch--"
"Never mind." She wasn't jealous, exactly. Still, how could it hurt to let him give her a lift? "If you don't mind driving me home, I guess that would be all right." This would be a perfect opportunity to do ask Kevin about any jobs at the ranch where he worked. She wasn't throwing herself at him. That, she reminded herself, was exactly the wrong thing to do.
Somehow, with her hand gently cradled in his arm, Mickey felt completely safe. Not comfortable, exactly: the blood roaring through her head saw to that, but safe nevertheless.
When she and Sandy had arrived, they had driven around the lot three times before finally finding a spot a good quarter mile from the entryway. Kevin's truck sat at the very front, parked next to the handicapped space.
"You weren't kidding about the hay." The robin's egg blue truck had to be out of the fifties, but it had been lovingly preserved, even though dirt now caked it.
"You didn't believe me? I know hauling hay from Dallas to the country sounds silly, but we've got a sick horse and it won't eat anything but this special-formula alfalfa with molasses. Dallas is the only place to get it."
"I wasn't sure what to think," she confessed. "Lots of guys dress up like cowboys but they really aren't. It's good to meet the genuine article."
He reached into his pocket and tugged out a set of keys. She followed the motion, watching his strong brown hands. They looked good, almost too good. Despite the unseasonably warm night, she shivered. How would those hands feel running over her body? On the dance floor, he had showed her that he could mix strength with surprising control. Would his caress be like that?
"You said something about cowboys before," he said, interrupting her thoughts before she absolutely threw herself all over him. "Most girls run from a real cowboy like he had some kind of disease. Some sort of instinctive prejudice against living more than fifty miles from the nearest beauty shop. What makes you different?"
"It's a long story."
"You know, it's a strange thing but my appointment book looks empty tonight. Maybe I could buy you a cup of coffee and you could tell me the long story. After all, I feel a little guilty. I kept you out on the dance floor so long that you never got a chance to drink your beer."
"Coffee sounds nice." She certainly hoped she knew what she was doing.
* * * *
Kevin Sullivan had no idea what he was doing.
Overhearing Mickey's decision to go to the country bar that afternoon had given him the seeds for a plan. His partner, George, had brought up their old pickup from the ranch the two men co-owned, and was spending the weekend at his place in Dallas. That gave Kevin the materials he needed to put his plan into operation. He would whirl Mickey around, talk pretty to her, get her to open her eyes, then drop the bomb of his true identity. She needed someone to blast her out of her smug prejudice.
Or so it had seemed at the time.
The instant he had swung Mickey out onto the dance floor, though, he must have lost his sanity. He had only meant to dance a few numbers and maybe pique her interest. He hadn't intended to lose sight of his plan, a plan that now sounded as silly to him as it had to George. He most definitely hadn't counted on his irrational reaction to the touch of her hand, the light brush of her thighs against his legs, her breasts against his chest.
Kevin liked women as much as the next guy, and he'd rarely had to go looking for dates, but his response to Mickey's voice and touch was way off the scale.
Instead of ending the evening abruptly with the truth, he had beamed at her like an idiot and pretended he had all the time in the world. He had let his hormones take control of his action and now he actually found himself liking her.
"I noticed a Pancake House on the way here. That be okay?" he asked.
"Sure. I'm not real big on those high-priced coffee places. In my job I spend so much time making fancy coffee drinks that I long for the stuff right out of the pot."
Well, they had something in common, at least. He couldn't understand this fascination with five-dollar cups of coffee too small to warm you inside.
Kevin drove the oversized pickup onto Dallas's Central Expressway and headed north.
"This is a beautiful truck. My father used to have one a lot like it."
"You really like it? I found it the summer after I got out of high school. The contractor who owned it was just letting it rust out in the rain. A friend and I fixed it up."
He hadn't lied. Not in words. But he had to keep reminding himself of that. Nothing Mickey believed about him was really true. It didn't make him feel any too good. Now, though, he had waited too long to spring his trap. He'd have to write this whole adventure off in the really-stupid-plans category.
"I remember how my father used to spend hours just puttering around on his truck," Mickey said. "He said it reminded him of the farm."
"I'll bet. Always something to do."
"That isn't how my father remembered it. He always said that the farm would give you what you put into it. Like an old truck would."
"Maybe he had a point." Kevin didn't think so, but he wasn't going to win this argument.
He pulled into the Pancake House driveway and parked.
"So is that why you're attracted to cowboys?" he asked her as a waitress seated them in a corner of the nearly empty restaurant.
"What? You mean my father?"
"Dear old dad."
"Not hardly. Dad left farming when he married my mother. He always talked about going back, but with four girls and no boys, he needed to keep the paychecks coming. After we grew up, he kind of lost his energy."
Her deep blue eyes stared across the truck's bench seat into his. He could fall into them, he realized, fall and lose himself. Except that she wasn't looking at him at all. She was looking at some ranch hand who only lived in her dreams.
"I guess you didn't take after him that way," he said. Mickey had more energy than any other three women he'd known. He'd never found a woman who could keep up with him, dance after dance, but Mickey had.
"I don't think about my father that way."
"Well, if you're going to tell me a long story, we'd better head in and get some coffee before they call the police on us."
Resting his arm across her shoulders felt like the most natural thing as they walked to the restaurant. He was making things worse, he reminded himself. Sooner or later, he'd have to tell her the truth. The more attached he became to her, the more her reaction would hurt.
"Only one thing," he said as he held the door for her.
"Your friend Sandy couldn't seem to make up your mind. Are you Mickey, or are you Michaela?"
Mickey laughed, tossing back her long black hair.
He loved her laugh. She seemed so fresh, happy with herself and the world.
"Everyone calls me Mickey. Sandy thinks Michaela is more exotic and that I should use my real name when I meet strangers."
"I hope we won't be strangers. I'd like it if I could call you Mickey."
The waiter showed them to a back booth, poured coffee into mugs that might have been stylish in the fifties, and left a full pot on the table.
Without thinking, he reached his hand across the table and took hers. "Long story time?"
She gave a start, then squeezed his hand back. "All right. You want to know why cowboys?" She looked at him, then smiled.
"I'll bet this is going to be a disappointment to you. I mean, I do think there's something special about a cowboy. A man who works on a ranch must have to have a pretty good idea about who he is. You'd have to, living where you depend on your intelligence and strength. Not like most city jobs where you get paid for sitting at a desk and staying out of trouble. But that's not why I was looking for a cowboy. My motives were a lot more shallow and a lot more selfish."
"We'll get back to that selfishness in a minute. Let's start with this romantic idea about cowboys. Lots of guys on the ranch are just plain rotten."
She sighed. "I may be a little naive, but not that much. There are losers everywhere. Fire, hammer, and tongs can work miracles with the right steel. With tin, you'd only have tin foil."
"So you're looking for steel."
She shook her head. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. I loved dancing with you and you're easy to talk to. But I'm not looking for a man at all. I'm looking for the steel in myself. I moved to Texas to get closer to the country and now I'm trying to save enough to get out of the city altogether."
"So how does a cowboy fit in?"
She colored. "I'm being totally mercenary. It turns out that most ranch jobs don't get filled by answering newspaper ads. It's a game of 'who do you know.' I don't know anyone with a ranch. So I'm looking for contacts. That's why I went to the bar tonight. That's why I agreed to stop and get a cup of coffee with you." She looked guilty as she extracted her hand from his and reached for her purse. "Of course I'll pay for my coffee and the beer you bought me."
"Hey, don't run away. Nothing wrong with using contacts to help you in business."
"I'm afraid I've been leading you on all night, like I was some sort of cowboy groupie. It's not like that."
He hadn't thought that Mickey was throwing herself at him. If he had, he'd have told her exactly where he stood long before now. Although dancing close, the press of her body against his, had excited him more than he really wanted to remember, it hadn't been because Mickey had been making any erotic moves. Her natural exuberance exhilarated him despite her innocent approach to life.
He still didn't have a clue why she hated software programmers, the people he worked with in his real life.
"All right. You aren't a cowboy groupie," he said. "If you do get a job in the country, what then?"
"What's anyone looking for? I don't know. In the long term, I'd like to have some land of my own, own a ranch even, maybe. In the short term, I'm looking for a job that will pay the rent and get me away from the city."
All he had to do was tell her he'd look around and see what he could see. He could walk away now. She'd never know that his total ranch involvement was a silent partnership. "That doesn't sound unreasonable to me," he told her.
At least he supposed it was a smile. It felt as if she just let the sun come out. "I hope not," Mickey said. "I'm trying to be honest and let you know where I stand. That doesn't mean I can't use a friend--even if you don't know about any jobs. I like being around people like you. You know, people who don't feel like they have to put on a big act. To me, that's what makes you cowboys interesting."
She paused, toying with the cream pitcher, then looked directly at him as she continued. "Lots of fellows in the city will go out for a hunting trip and sleep in a fancy sleeping bag. When they come back, they brag about how they roughed it. Real cowboys don't think about it that way. They sleep outside when they have to, because they have to. It isn't a big deal either way. Sleeping outside or riding a horse doesn't make them men because they already are men. That's what I like about you, Kevin. You aren't trying to be anything but what you are."
"Shoot. Now you're embarrassing me." Not just embarrassing him. Making him feel like a heel.
"I don't think so. I think you're pretty happy with who you are."
"Actually, most of the time that's true." It had been until he'd run into Mickey, anyway.
He looked at his watch. Three in the morning, already. He had to finish a proposal for a multi-million dollar system integration deal that weekend. Right now business was about as far from his mind as it had been in years. Unfortunately, tomorrow, it would be right there in his face.
"Oh. It really is late, isn't it?" Mickey asked. "I'll bet you have a long drive tomorrow. How far away do you work?"
"The ranch is about a hundred miles southeast of here." He'd managed not to lie, again. Barely. What a hero.
"I'd love to see it."
"It's pretty much like most ranches in east Texas," he said. "You know, cattle, worn-out buildings and fencing. They're not as big as west Texas spreads because we get more rain."
Mickey scooted out of the booth. "I suppose I deserve that. I'm not coming on to you. I'd just like the chance to meet some ranchers. I'd hoped that you could help me with that." She turned and started for the exit.
Kevin tossed a ten on the table and headed after her. "I don't have a problem with what you're saying," he said as he caught her arm.
She spun easily into his grip, her body brushing against his from thigh to chest. Her face turned up slightly, looking at him.
He couldn't resist that temptation. He bent, then pressed his lips to hers.
For an instant, he thought he'd misjudged the situation. Mickey tensed and he prepared to back off.
Before he could move, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him back, hard.
A round of applause brought him back to his senses. Everyone in the pancake house seemed to be giving the two of them a standing ovation. This was definitely not according to plan.
Reluctantly he backed off.
"You can't scare me away that easily, cowboy," Mickey whispered in his ear. "I still want to see your ranch, and I'd like to see more of you too."
I hope you've enjoyed reading Chapter One of Robyn Anders's COUNTERFEIT COWBOY. You can buy the entire eNovel for only $1 by clicking the Buy Now button. Remember, BooksForABuck.com is your source for affordable electronic fiction.