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There's a whole herd of 'em." Stacie Summers stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared. Since arriving in Sweet River, Montana, two weeks ago she'd seen an occasional cowboy. But never so many. And never clustered together. "What's the occasion?"
Anna Anderssen, Stacie's friend and Sweet River native, came to a halt beside her. "What day is it?"
"Wednesday," Stacie answered.
"June second," Lauren Van Meveren replied. The doctoral student had seemed lost in thought since the three roommates had left Sharon's Food Mart. But now, standing beside Stacie in the bright sunlight, she couldn't have been more focused.
Though Lauren would normally be the first to say that staring was rude, she watched the cowboys pile out of the Coffee Pot Café with undisguised interest.
"Wednesday, June second," Anna repeated. Her blue eyes narrowed in thought as she pulled a key fob from her pocket and unlocked the Jeep parked at the curb.
Stacie shifted the heavy sack of groceries to her other arm, opened the back and dropped the bag inside.
"Bingo," Anna announced with a decisive nod.
"They were playing bingo?" It seemed odd to Stacie that a group of men would gather on a Wednesday morning to play a game. But she'd quickly discovered that Sweet River was its own world.
"No, silly." Anna giggled. "The Cattleman's Association meets the first Wednesday of the month."
While that made more sense than bingo, Stacie wondered what issues such an organization would address. Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she'd grown up, was hardly a cattleman's paradise. And in the ten years she'd resided in Denver, not a single cowboy had crossed her path.
When Lauren had proposed moving to Anna'shometown to research male-female compatibility for her dissertation, Stacie had tagged along. The search for her perfect jobher bliss, as she liked to call itwasn't going well, and a change of scenery seemed a good idea.
For some reason, she'd thought Sweet River would be like Aspen, one of her favorite towns. She'd expected cute, trendy shops and a plethora of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who enjoyed the great outdoors.
Boy, had she been wrong.
"I've never seen so many guys in boots and hats."
They were big men with broad shoulders, weathered skin and hair that had never seen a stylist's touch. Confident men who worked hard and lived life on their own terms. Men who would expect a wife to give up her dreams for a life on a ranch.
Though the air outside was warm, Stacie shivered.
Lauren's eyes took on a distant, almost dreamy look. "Do you know the first cowboys came from Mexico? They were known as vaqueros, the Spanish word for cowboys."
Stacie shot a pleading look in Anna's direction. They needed to stop Lauren before she got rolling. If not, they'd be forced to endure a lecture on the history of the modern cowboy all the way home.
"Get in, Lauren." Anna gestured to the Jeep. "We don't want the Rocky Road to melt."
Though Anna had injected a nice bit of urgency in her voice, Lauren's gaze remained riveted on the men, dressed in jeans and T-shirts and boots, talking and laughing in deep, manly voices.
One guy captured Stacie's attention. With his jeans, cowboy hat and sun-bronzed skin, he looked like all the others. Yet her gaze had been immediately drawn to him. It must have been because he was talking to Anna's brother, Seth. There could be no other explanation. A testosterone-rich male had never made it onto her radar before. She liked her men more artsy, preferring the starving-poet look over a bulky linebacker any day.
"You know, Stace" Lauren tapped a finger against her lips "something tells me there just may be a cowboy in your future."
Lauren's research involved identifying compatible couples, and Stacie was Lauren's first guinea pigor as she liked to refer to it, research subject.
A knot formed in the pit of Stacie's stomach at the thought of being paired with a ropin', ridin' manly man. She sent a quick prayer heavenward. Dear God, please. Anyone but a cowboy.
A few weeks later, Stacie dropped into the high-backed wicker chair on Anna's porch, braced for battle. When Lauren had arrived home after an afternoon run, Stacie had told her they needed to talk. She'd stewed in silence about the prospect of Lauren's proposed match for her long enough.
While she knew it was important for Lauren's research that she at least meet this guy, it seemed wrong to waste his time. And hers.
Stacie was still formulating the "I'm not interested in a cowboy" speech for Lauren when a cool breeze from the Crazy Mountains ruffled the picture in her hand. She lifted her face, reveling in the feel of mountain air against her cheek. Even after four weeks in Big Sky country, Stacie still found herself awed by the beauty that surrounded her.
She glanced out over the large front yard. Everywhere she looked the land was lush and green. And the flowers June had barely started and the bluebells, beargrass and Indian paintbrush were already in riotous bloom.
The screen door clattered shut, and Lauren crossed the porch, claiming the chair opposite Stacie. "What's up?"
Stacie pulled her gaze from the breathtaking scenery to focus on Lauren.
"Your computer hiccupped. It's the only explanation." Stacie lifted the picture. "Does he look like my type?"
"If you're talking about Josh Collins, he's a nice guy." Anna stepped onto the wraparound porch of the large two-story house and let the door fall shut behind her. "I've known him since grade school. He and my brother, Seth, are best friends."
Stacie stared in dismay at the teetering tray of drinks Anna was attempting to balance. Lauren, who was closest, jumped up and took the tray with the pitcher of lemonade and three crystal glasses from the perky blonde. "You're going to fall and break your neck wearing those shoes."
"Ask me if I care." Anna's gaze dropped to the lime-green, pointy-toed stilettos. "These are so me."
"They are cute," Lauren conceded. Her head cocked to one side. "I wonder if they'd fit me. You and I wear the same size"
"Hel-lo." Stacie lifted a hand and waved it wildly. "Remember me? The one facing a date with Mr. Wrong? Any minute?"
"Calm down." Lauren poured a glass of lemonade, handed it to Stacie and sat down with a gracefulness Stacie envied. "I don't make mistakes. If you recall, I gave you a summary of the results. Unless you lied on your survey or he lied on his, you and Josh Collins are very much compatible."
She wanted to believe her friend. After all, her first match with Sweet River attorney Alexander Darst had been pleasant. Unfortunately there'd been no spark.
Stacie lifted the picture of the rugged rancher and studied it again. Even if he hadn't been on a horse, even if she hadn't seen him talking with Seth after the Cattleman's Association meeting, his hat and boots confirmed her theory about a computer malfunction.
A match between a city girl and a rancher made no sense. Everyone knew city and country were like oil and water. They just didn't mix.
Sadly, for all her jokes about the process, she was disappointed. She'd hoped to find a summer companion, a Renaissance man who shared her love of cooking and the arts.
"He's a cowboy, Lauren." Stacie's voice rose despite her efforts to control it. "A cowboy."
"You got something against cowboys?"
The deep sexy voice coming from the front steps sent a jolt through Stacie. She dropped the picture to the table, turned in her seat and met an unblinking blue-eyed gaze.
It was him.
She had to admit he looked even better up close. He wore a chambray shirt that made his eyes look strikingly blue and a pair of jeans that hugged his long legs. There was no hat, just lots of thick, dark hair brushing his collar.
He continued to lazily appraise her. The glint in his eye told her he knew she'd put herself in a hole and was desperately searching for a way to shovel out.
Trouble was, she couldn't count on Lauren, who appeared to be fighting a laugh. Annawell, Anna just stared expectantly at her, offering no assistance at all.
"Of course I like cowboys," Stacie said, feeling an urgent need to fill the silence that seemed to go on for hours but lasted only a few seconds. "Cowboys make the world go round."
His smile widened to a grin, and Lauren laughed aloud. Stacie shot her a censuring look. Granted, her response might not have been the best, but it could have been worse. She'd been caught off guard. Startled. Distracted. By his eyes and his timing.
Why, oh, why, hadn't she kept her mouth shut?
"Well, I can't say I recall ever hearing that saying before," he said smoothly, "but it's definitely true."
Okay, so he was also gracious, a quality sadly lacking in most men she'd dated, and one she greatly admired. It was too bad he was not only a cowboy, but also so big. He had to be at least six-foot-two, with broad shoulders and a muscular build. Rugged. Manly. A dreamboat to many, but not her type at all.
Still, when those laughing blue eyes once again settled on her, she shivered. There was keen intelligence in their liquid depths, and he exuded a self-confidence that she found appealing. This cowboy was nobody's fool.
Stacie opened her mouth to ask if he wanted a beerhe didn't look like a lemonade guybut Anna spoke first.
"It's good to see you." Anna crossed the porch, her heels clacking loudly. When she reached Josh, she wrapped her arms around him. "Thank you for filling out the survey."
Josh smiled and gave her hair a tug. "Anything for you, Anna Banana."
Stacie exchanged a glance with Lauren.
"Anna Banana?" Lauren's lips twitched. "You never told us you had a nickname."
"Seth gave it to me when I was small," Anna explained before shifting her attention back to Josh. She wagged a finger at him. "You were supposed to forget that name."
"I have a good memory."
Stacie could see the twinkle in his eyes.
"I have a good memory, as well," Anna teased. "I remember Seth telling me that you and he preferred the traditional dating route. Yet, you both filled out Lauren's survey. Why?"
There was a warm, comfortable feel to the interaction between the two. Stacie found herself wondering if Josh and Anna had ever dated. A stab of something she couldn't quite identify rose up at the thought. It was almost as if she were jealous? But that would be crazy. She wasn't interested in Josh Collins, cowboy extraordinaire.
"Seth probably did it because he knew you'd kill him if he didn't," Josh explained. "I completed the survey because Seth asked and I owed him a favor." He shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "I never expected to get matched."
He's no more excited about this date than I am, Stacie thought, pushing back her chair and rising, finding the thought more comforting than disturbing.
"I'll try to make the evening as painless as possible." Stacie covered the short distance separating them and held out her hand. "I'm Stacie Summers, your date."
"I figured as much." He pulled a hand from his pocket and his fingers covered hers in a warm, firm grip. "Josh Collins."
To Stacie's surprise, a tingle traveled up her arm. She slipped her hand from his, puzzled by the reaction. The cute attorney's hand had brushed against hers several times during their date, and she hadn't felt a single sizzle.
"Would you care to join us?" Anna asked. "We have fresh-squeezed lemonade. And I could bring out the sugar cookies Stacie made this morning."
His easy smile didn't waver, but something told Stacie he'd rather break a bronc than drink lemonade and eat cookies with three women.
Though several minutes earlier she'd been determined to do whatever it took to cut this date short, she found herself coming to his rescue. "Sorry, Anna. Josh agreed to a date with one woman, not three."
Lauren rose and stepped forward. "Well, before my roommate steals you away, let me introduce myself. I'm Lauren Van Meveren, the author of the survey you took. I also want to extend my thanks to you for participating."
"Pleased to meet you, Lauren." Josh shook her hand. "Those were some mighty interesting questions."
Stacie exchanged a glance with Anna. Obviously Josh didn't realize he was in danger of opening the floodgates. If there was one thing Lauren was passionate about, it was her research.
"I'm working on my doctoral dissertation." Lauren's face lit up, the way it always did when anyone expressed interest in her research. "The survey is a tool to gather data that will either support or disprove my research hypothesis."
"Seth mentioned you were working on your Ph.D.," Josh said. "But when I asked what your research question was, he couldn't tell me."
Stacie stifled a groan. The floodgates were now officially open.
Lauren straightened. "You're familiar with the dissertation process?"
"Somewhat," he admitted. "My mother is working on her Ph.D. in nursing. I remember what she went through to get her topic approved."
"Then you do understand." Lauren gestured to the wicker chair next to hers. "Have a seat. I'll tell you about my hypothesis.