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As usual, the annual rodeo was a madhouse. Draw-ing people from all over the country, the four-day festivities swelled the normally sleepy Texas town to ten times its size. Traffic from Main Street to the fair-grounds was a weeklong nightmare, requiring a network of horses and buggies and taxicabs to ferry families from the overflow parking lot, down by Ned's Lonestar Grill, to the fairgrounds across town. Since this evening's rodeo was nearly over, the mad rush out of town was just beginning.
As he perched atop the wooden driver's seat of his old-fashioned rig, Hunt leaned forward, elbows to knees, reins dangling, and concentrated on Old Blue's broad behind in an attempt to shut out the embarrassing fracas in the back seat. The rhythmic swish of the old sorrel's tail, the clip clop of the iron shoes against concrete, the lanes of traffic easing through the town's handful of intersections - though distracting - did little to drown out the bickering.
"... or what it is you are driving at, Brandon. All evening I've been getting the impression that you are avoid -"
"Carolina, I'm not avoid -"
"- ing the real issue."
"- ing the real issue. I'm simply trying to find the words -"
The light ahead turned yellow. Then red.
"Whoa, now, Blue." Hunt gave the reins a gentle tug and settled in to watch the traffic ooze through the intersection. He rotated his head and shoulders to ease the tension of sitting in the same position for hours on end. That, and listening to Miss "Buck's Up" Brubaker and her idiotic boyfriend, Brandon McGraw, verbally duke it out.
"- as if I'm some kind of Dresden doll."
"Believe me when I say I don't think of you as a Dresden -"
"Then just tell me what is making you so ..."
Freaking miserable? Hunt wondered in disgust. The woman was giving him a splitting headache. He could only imagine what the poor slob behind him must be suffering.
"... would tell you if you'd simply listen to -"
"It's as if I'm going to ... to ... bite you for heaven's sake!"
Hunt cocked his head. Across town, the post-rodeo fireworks show had started. Drums pounded. Tubas squeaked. Trumpets and flutes struck the usual number of discordant notes, but it mattered not on this particular day of the year. The national anthem swelled from the center of the arena, and the fair-to-bursting crowd's boisterous cheers could certainly be heard all the way to the satellite that twinkled down from its orbit in space.
As, no doubt, could the argument in the back seat.
"A ... time-out? Just what do you mean, by -" Carolina Brubaker's voice grew sarcastic "-"time-out"? We are not in grade school, Brandon."
"I know. I mean that I think things are moving a little bit too fast, and I ... I ... I ... need some time to ... to ... to think, that's all."
"Think? That's what this is all about? I can certainly give you time to think, if that's all you need."
"I ... I ... you ... you ... I ... I ..."
Jaws jumping, Hunt gave his gum a vicious once-over and fought the urge to turn around and straighten out their petty differences. But he didn't. He was working for Uncle Mike tonight. And lecturing the patrons was hardly good for business. Especially considering that the spidery gold lettering on the side of the carriage boasted:
"Crenshaw's Romantic Moonlight Carriage Rides.
Call and reserve us for your prom, engagement, wedding and special occasion needs today."
"I don't understand, Brandon. Please, just spit it out -"
"Okay." Brandon drew a deep breath. "I think I'm in love with your sister."
Hunt's brow rocketed up under the brim of his Stetson.
"All of this -" her voice was fraught with frustration " - this 'time-out' psychobabble is really -"
"Georgia. Your younger sister, Georgia. I think I'm in love with Georgia."
" - getting on my nerves. Clearly, we've been spending too much time double-dating with my sister Ginny and her husband. God love her, but because she's a psy-chologist, she does tend to blather about all that psychological cr -"
" - and I'm thinking about asking her to go out with me."
" - ap, and I think we -"
Hunt snorted and flicked his hat back on his head with his thumb.
The light changed and the argument escalated.
" - simply need to relax, that's all. For heaven's sake, Brandon."
"And I plan on telling Georgia my feelings as soon -"
Carolina's voice grew wary. Slow. "Georgia?" She paused and Hunt could feel the little hairs at his nape stand at attention.
The grand finale of the fireworks show suddenly burst forth in a profusion of color against the velvety blackness of the night sky. Hunt watched the beauty unfurl overhead as, behind him, Pandora's box unfurled.
In Hunt's humble opinion, this Brandon character was probably doing the first smart thing he'd done since meeting this woman; cutting his losses and bailing out now. Yep. Carolina Brubaker was just another spoiled rich girl.
And he oughta know.
During the day, Hunt worked as a ranch hand for Big Daddy Brubaker, billionaire oil tycoon and owner of the immense Circle BO ranch, just outside of Hidden Valley. And in his years working there, he'd seen his share of bratty debutantes. In fact, Hunt had run into Carolina on more than one occasion this summer, since she and her sisters had come to visit their uncle and aunt. She'd never given him the time of day, though he'd saddled her mount for her on more than one occasion. She'd flounce into the stable with her friends, chattering a mile a minute, not sparing him so much as a glance or a how-do-you-do. And tonight, she hadn't seemed to recognize him at all as he'd helped her into the carriage.
Though he didn't know her well, he'd formed his opinions. Made his judgments. And, guessing from the tears and histrionics going on behind him, she was a regular hellcat. For crying in the night, people were beginning to stare. Although, as much as he hated to admit it, she did have a bit of a case. Having your boyfriend dump you for your sister had to smart.
"My sister?" Carolina shrieked. "You have fallen in love with my ... sister?" She jumped to her feet, rocking the carriage, and smashed Brandon over the head with her red-white-and-blue souvenir rodeo pompom.
Yep. Hunt cringed. Folks were hanging out of their car windows. Stopping on the sidewalk. Gaping at the fools in his carriage. This had to be bad for business. He turned around. "Uh, excuse me there, but -" He donned his customer-relations smile and was about to - as diplomatically as possible - ask them to shut up, but Carolina was on a roll. A roll fueled by hurt and embarrassment and righteous indignation.
"You can't fall in love with my sister! Why, that's just ... just creepy!"
Excerpted from Carolina's Gone A'Courting by Carolyn Zane Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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