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The last, slow strains of an old Tammy Wynette song spilled from a small portable radio set up on the steps of the park's gazebo to replace the more elaborate sound system that had been used earlier that evening, and Emma Davis covered her mouth to hide another yawn.
Lord, she was exhausted. She'd spent all yesterday cooking and baking for today's Fourth of July shindig, then most of the morning helping to decorate the town square.
The Gabriel's Crossing holiday celebrations were legendary, and she was more than happy to lend a hand wherever she could. But now, at eleven o'clock at night, she was just plain exhausted. She wanted nothing more than to go home, fall into bed, and sleep for a week...or at least until noon the next day.
Unfortunately, it didn't look like she would get to do any of those things for quite some time yet.
She cast a glance over her shoulder, to where her father and three of his cronies sat at a worn card table, playing what had to be their two-dozenth hand of poker. Unlike Emma--and everyone else, who had pretty much collected their things and headed home hours ago--her father didn't seem anywhere near ready to leave.
With a soft groan, she lowered her head to where her arms rested atop the rough planks of the picnic table and closed her eyes. If she couldn't get to her own bed, then she would sleep right here. At this point, she wasn't particular.
"Need a ride home?"
The low, gravelly voice penetrated her tired brain and she lifted her head to stare up at her neighbor and one of her closest friends since childhood.
Closest friend and secret crush...or at least he had been in high school.
Oh, who was she kidding? Just lookingat Mitch Ramsey, with his black-as-sin hair and gray, penetrating eyes, was enough to send the blood pumping through her veins.
A moment ago she'd been so tired she could barely put a single thought together, now she felt wide awake and ready to do the two-step...as long as Mitch was two-stepping right along with her.
When she didn't answer right away, Mitch tapped his beat-up Stetson against the side of his muscular thigh and offered her a kind smile. "Your father seems to be pretty involved in his card game, but you look about ready to drop. Why don't you let me take you home, and he can come along whenever he's ready."
My hero, she thought, and could have sworn her heart skipped a beat.
It had always been that way with Mitch...he smiled and her belly flip-flopped. He drawled her name, and she felt it all the way down to her toes.
This wasn't the first time he'd come to her rescue, either. Mitch was a gentleman right down to his born-and-bred Texas roots.
"That would be great, thank you." She pushed herself up from the bench seat of the picnic table and brushed her hands on the legs of her jeans. "Let me just go tell Pop I'm leaving."
Mitch gave a small nod, staying where he was while she wandered over to the group of poker buddies.
"Hey, Pop," she said, curling her hands over her father's shoulders and leaning in to kiss his bearded cheek.
Wyatt Davis gave a chuckle, laid out his cards, and said, "Read 'em and weep, boys." His full house clearly beat his friends' hands, and he wasted no time dragging his winnings toward him across the table.
Once he had all the chips in front of him, he turned his head and tipped his face up to Emma. "Hey, there, baby girl. How are you doing?"
"I'm tired and ready to go home." Before his mustachioed mouth could turn down in a frown, she added, "Mitch has offered to take me so you can stick around and play cards as long as you like."
Wyatt glanced past her to where Mitch was standing, fitting his hat on his dark head. "That's awfully nice of him. You sure you don't mind?"
She smiled and gave his shoulders a squeeze. "Of course not. You have fun. No more drinking, though, or we'll have to find someone to drive you home, too."
Her father grinned and pointed to the brown bottle to his right. "Don't worry about me, pumpkin, I'll be nursing this one the rest of the night."
"All right." She leaned over and kissed the top of his head. "See you in the morning. Win big. Bye, guys," she said, waving to her father's friends as she made her way back to Mitch.
"Ready to go?"
She nodded, grabbing her purse from the picnic table and following Mitch to his dark blue truck, shining near-black in the moonlight. He held the door open while she climbed in, then slammed it behind her and walked around to the driver's side. After he'd gotten in behind the wheel and started the engine, he adjusted the air-conditioning to cool the inside of the cab and turned on the radio so that a familiar country tune played in the background.
"Thanks again for this," Emma murmured softly when she realized he didn't intend to carry on a conversation. "I had visions of spending the night curled up on that picnic table. If I'd known Pop planned to stick around playing cards all night, I'd have suggested we take separate cars."
"No problem. I was headed in your direction, anyway." He graced her with a quick grin that creased the corners of his mouth.
"Yeah. If I'd thought of that, I probably would have asked you for a ride hours ago."
Mitch's ranch, the Circle R, bordered her father's property. There were plenty of acres in between, but for all intents and purposes, they were next-door neighbors.
"So, what were you doing hanging around the celebration this late? I'd have expected you to hightail it out of there at the first opportunity."
Mitch was a hometown favorite and more than willing to help out any time Gabriel's Crossing needed him, but ever since his divorce from Suzanne four years earlier, he'd become quiet and withdrawn. He spent most of his time alone on his ranch, going into town only when he needed supplies, or for an event like tonight's--the town's annual Independence Day celebration. But even then, he usually only made a brief appearance before disappearing again, back to the Circle R.
"Chase took Mom home after the fireworks, but since he was in charge of the sound system he needed someone to stick around and dismantle everything." He hitched a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the equipment piled into the truck bed. "I'll have to drop that stuff off in the morning."
"Why didn't you take your mother home?" she pressed, knowing that would have been Mitch's choice over staying to the very end of the town-wide party.
Even from where she was sitting, on the opposite side of the bench seat, she could see the wry twist of his lips.
"Because my family thinks I'm becoming a hermit and need to get out more. And that if I stuck around long enough tonight, I might have met a nice girl and gotten married again."
His tone told her how enamored he was of that idea, but she couldn't help the tiny flicker of awareness that bloomed to life inside her.
She opened her mouth to speak, then had to clear her throat before she thought the words would come out as more than a squeak. "Did you? Meet a nice girl, I mean."
"No," he answered without reservation, and with the slightest hint of an edge to his voice. "But then, I wasn't looking for one."
The flicker in her belly sputtered and died. She shouldn't be surprised. It was no secret that Suzanne's infidelities and the divorce had hit him hard. He'd never been the most outgoing guy to begin with, but after the divorce he'd become noticeably more sullen. Nothing anyone said or did seemed to shake his sour mood.
And he had never looked at her as anything other than a neighbor and friend--no matter how much she might wish he would.
Not that she'd ever done anything about it. She could have flirted a little, or come right out and told him she had the hots for him. Instead, she'd kept her feelings to herself while pining after him from afar.
She was such a coward. Maybe if she hadn't been, he wouldn't have married Suzanne in the first place and wouldn't be so miserable now.
Swallowing uncomfortably, she rubbed her palms along the tops of her jean-clad legs and breathed a sigh of relief when she realized they were nearing her house. Getting home would mean an end to the awkward silence filling the cab.
Mitch pulled up in front of the pale yellow, ranch-style house and cut the engine.
"You want me to walk you to the door?"
Considering the walk would take all of about two seconds and ten steps, it was a gracious but unnecessary offer.
"Thanks, but I need to check the livestock one last time before I go to bed, anyway."
She released the latch on her seatbelt and opened the passenger side door. When she turned from closing it, she was surprised to find Mitch moving toward her in that long, lanky stride of his.
"What are you doing?" she asked, her mind drawing a complete blank as to why he'd bothered to get out of the truck at all.
"Helping you with the livestock."
"That's all right, I can handle it." It might not be her favorite pastime, but she'd grown up pitching hay, mucking stalls and grooming horses, and--along with several ranch hands--still helped her father on a daily basis. Checking water buckets and tossing out a little extra grain by herself would be child's play.
"I know you can," he told her, catching an arm around her shoulders. "But things will go faster and you'll be able to get to bed quicker if we both do the work."
She couldn't argue with his logic, so she said nothing as they made their way across the grass-sprigged dirt yard to the big gray barn.
One half of the large double doors was propped open. They walked inside, and Emma flipped a switch to her left to turn on the lights. The uncovered bulbs dangling high above their heads weren't very bright but illuminated enough of the building so that they could see what they were doing.
Mitch had spent so much time at the Double D as a child that he knew where everything was. The horses nickered at the interruption to their rest, and Mitch patted more than one equine nose as they passed.
While she shook a bit of fresh hay into each horse's feed trough and checked to make sure they had clean water, Mitch hauled a bale outside. She knew he would carry the hay out a ways into the field, then spread it on the ground for the cattle to find during the night.
They finished at nearly the same time. She was wiping her hands on the seat of her jeans when he strolled back in, the leftover baling twine clutched in one hand. He hung the strings on a nail sticking out of a nearby beam, then turned to face her, hands on hips.
"All done?" he wanted to know.
"Just about." Moving farther into the wide open space of the barn, she wrapped her fingers around the sides of the ladder that led to the loft and said, "I want to check on a new litter of kittens before we leave."
She scurried up the ladder in a matter of seconds, creeping quietly across the straw-strewn floor in search of the kittens. The light up here was even weaker than down below, but she could still make out the shapes of stray bales and--hopefully--tiny bundles of fur.
A second later, a board squeaked behind her and she turned her head to see Mitch standing at the top of the ladder. Her stomach did another one of those queer flipflops at the sight of him, then settled down to a dull simmer.
"You didn't have to come up," she whispered.
"I wanted to," he said just as softly, but didn't elaborate. Deciding Mitch pretty much did what he wanted, whenever he wanted, she went back to looking for the kittens. She found them tucked together in a tight ball, nestled into a pile of loose straw in the corner. They were adorable, and so small she thought she could probably hold the entire brood of them in the palms of both hands.
There were five in total--two tabbies, one calico, one white, and one black with white feet and a streak of white on its nose. She'd been playing with them on an almost daily basis since she'd discovered them. They were old enough that their eyes were open but young enough that they still wobbled when they tried to walk.
Not wanting to disturb their rest, she intended to simply back away and leave them be, but then the mama cat appeared, rubbing between Emma's legs before moving to her babies and lying down to let them feed. They immediately woke up and started nuzzling around their mother's belly, and Emma took the opportunity to stroke their soft little heads and backs.
Most barn cats were afraid of people because they didn't get handled as much as house cats, but from the time she was old enough to toddle around in her father's footsteps, Emma had loved the odd collection of felines running around the property. Her father used to tell her to be careful or she'd stroke them all bald, but so far that hadn't happened. Instead, they had a barn full of friendly cats that often came running when they heard the doors open and would pester for attention while you were trying to work.
"Cute," Mitch murmured just above her left ear, startling her.