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Ross Denton yanked his gloves off and glared at the tractor. Between beavers trying to turn good grazing pasture into a lake, and a new tractor that was out to win the lemon of the year award, his usually cheerful mood had taken a swift dive south. Striding to his truck, he headed toward town, determined to accomplish something productive with his day.
Once he hit the blacktop, the two short miles into Mule Hollow flew by, and within minutes he'd parked at the end of Main Street and was stalking toward Pete's Feed and Seed. If Pete could order in what Ross needed for his tractor, and get it overnighted, then maybe tomorrow would be a better day.
Instantly his attention was snagged down the sidewalk by a blonde in a black ruffled shirt, zebra-print pants and a pair of strappy sandals with heels as tall as fence posts! She was wrestling with a suitcase stuck in an ancient station wagonnot exactly a customary sight in a small Texas town such as Mule Hollow.
With his hand on the feed-store door, Ross paused and watched the woman fighting with the case. The ugly vehicle looked like the one his mother had driven when he was about ten. Faded green, with signature wood panels running along the sides, it had seen better days. But he wasn't looking at the car as much as the woman. She had her back to him, and as he watched she stuck one ridiculously high heel against the fender, clasped the handle of the suitcase and pulled.
"Whoa," Ross yelled, charging toward her when the bag popped free and she stumbled back. Too far away to save her from landing on the plank sidewalk, he cringed when she hit the rough wood with a thud. Ouch. That had to hurt.
The factthat the suitcase had landed on top of her, then rolled off, couldn't have felt good, either. She seemed to be crying when he got there. Hunched over, shoulders shaking, she sobbed into her hands.
He crouched beside her. "Ma'am, where does it hurt?" He placed his palm on her shoulder, not knowing how to console her, but knowing he had to try.
She took a shuddering breath and looked up at him with bright eyes the color of green olives and gold swirled together. He'd never seen hazel eyes with quite that in-tensityor so full of laughter!
She was laughing. The sound finally registered as she gazed at him, grinning widely. She had the cutest dimples.
"Too funny." She waved her hand in front of her face and bit her lips, but giggles came out anyway.
"You're not hurt?" he asked, embarrassed that he was grinning with her. She could be hurting despite her laughter. People reacted strangely to pain sometimes.
She nodded. "I'm fine." Her features relaxed a bit as she took a slow breath. Her dimples didn't completely disappear, leaving her with a mischievous look. He wondered if that was a true reflection of what lay beneath that lively persona.
"Sugar, what in the world happened?"
Ross looked up to find Haley Wells, Mule Hollow's only real-estate agent, standing in the doorway of her office. "She took a tumble and now she can't seem to stop chuckling," he said.
"That's Sugar. When she gets tickled, she can't stop laughing sometimes," Haley declared. A phone inside the office started ringing. "Busy day! Help her, Ross, I've got to get that call. Boy, am I glad you're here to help me, Sugar!"
"Sure thing," Ross replied. He'd already planned to help her up. He was more than aware that he liked what he saw when he looked at her. Though he wasn't fond of the zebra-striped pants and the skyscraper heels, he did like those dimples. The woman's face was open and inviting, with a girl-next-door appeal that hooked him. And there was something extraordinary in the way her eyes captured the light.
"Thanks, cowboy." She took his offered hand with a firm grasp and smiled as she rose to her feet.
"Ross Denton, glad to be of service." Still holding her hand, Ross felt a kick of pure attraction that sent his pulse humming.
"Sugar Rae Lenox. I used to be Haley's assistant in L.A." She tugged her hand free and waved toward the building. "I'm here to help run her office for a short while."
He noted the "short while" with disappointment. "Nice to meet you, Sugar Rae. You must get asked this all the time, but are you named after Sugar Ray Leonard?"
She nodded. "It's a long story, though, and I have to get moved in here, so I won't bore you with it right now. Thanks for picking me up off the ground." She turned back to the vehicle and grabbed hold of another suitcase. The way she'd packed the back end of her station wagon rivaled the dam-building techniques of his pesky beavers.
"Here, let me get that for you." He reached out for the handle.
"No need, I can get this one. I packed it."
"Looks like you used a bulldozer."
"How did you guess?"
He eyed the conglomeration of suitcases, boxes and housewares stuffed inside the car. "Just lucky. But really, I'll help you unload that. Here." He carefully tugged the suitcase out and then a few boxes, setting them on the sidewalk between them.
Sugar shrugged. "Suit yourself, cowboy. I'm certainly not going to turn down two strong arms. But I'm going to warn you one last time. If you know what's good for you, you'll turn and run far, far away. Unpacking my stuff is going to be a challenge you might regret getting involved with."
"Sugar," he drawled, grinning into her playful eyes. "I do believe I'm up for the challenge."
She arched an eyebrow. "Oh yeah, cowboy? We'll just have to see about that, won't we?"
She was teasing, but he wasn't. Looking at her, he knew he meant it.
Only minutes ago he'd thought this was going to be a dismal day.
Wrong. The day's potential had just skyrocketed, and gauging by the twinkle in her eyes, the days to come in Mule Hollow promised to be anything but dull.
The lyrics of "I Need a Hero" were playing inside Sugar's head as she and the ever-so-dashing Ross the cowboy grinned at each other.
Who was this gorgeous guy? Okay, back it up, sister! She was not here to flirt, date or otherwise entangle her personal life in this tiny town. She wasn't here because she actually wanted to be oh no, this city gal wanted to be back in L.A. starring in the fantastic romantic comedy in which she'd almost scored the leading role. The one that, like all the others, she'd just barely missed out on. She didn't have time for real-life romanceshe was here because her dreams were going down the tubes and she was desperate to make something happen. Age mattered in Hollywood, and if she wanted to be America's next sweetheart then she had to give her acting career a shot in the arm before she was considered over the hill! Mule Hollow was that shot. She was here to get a play going, a summer stock that would get some buzz happening. Then she'd be back to L.A., where she could finally snag some much-needed attention from those directors who kept passing her over.
So there, she told herself firmly. She wasn't here to gawk at gorgeous cowboys with striking green eyes and sexy voices. But still The thing was she did need a hero for the show she was going to produce, and if this walking, talking, long tall Texan wanted the job, he had it. On the spot.
"I'm back," Haley said, bursting through the open doorway and interrupting Sugar's runaway thoughts. "Grab a bag, everyone, and let's get the apartment unlocked before the phone rings again," she added in a rush. "Lately there are more and more people calling and wanting to look at property out here. You just wouldn't believe how Molly's articles have attracted people to this area."
"That's great to hear," Sugar said. Molly was a journalist who lived in Mule Hollow and wrote a syndicated column about life therethe town that had advertised for women to come and marry all their lonesome cowboys. The column was unbelievably popular, and Sugar was counting on that popularity to help her make her dreams come true. This was going to work. It had to. And looking at the handsome cowboy beside her helped keep her thinking positive.
Haley grabbed one of the cases "Ross the hoss" had set on the sidewalk while Sugar had been drooling over him, and headed toward the side of the building.
Sugar grabbed the box at her feet as Ross slipped the strap of her travel bag over his arm, then picked up her two larger suitcases. His cowboy hat dipped as he motioned for her to go ahead of him. Nerves jangling, she led the way around the corner to where Haley was already climbing the stairs up the side of the building.
"I came in earlier and turned on the air for you," Haley said as she pushed open the door at the top of the stairs.
Sugar followed her. The blast of coolness was a welcome feeling from the end-of-June heat. Inside, she stopped short. "Oh. How cute!"
"No lie." Ross peeked in over her shoulder, effectively distracting Sugar with his closeness. The man smelled good.
"I bet it never looked this nice before," he stated, his breath whispering across her cheek.
Sugar inhaled slowly, turning her head toward him. Their faces were not even three inches apart. "It's lovely," she said, clearly not talking about the apartment. His beautiful green eyes darkened with interest. Instantly, her mouth went dry.
"I couldn't agree more," he said, lowering his voice to a raspy rumble. "Do you mind?"
"Mind?" she asked. "Mind what?"
"Moving over so I can come in?"
Almost choking with embarrassment, she fled across the room, giving him all the space he needed.
What had she been thinking?
The air conditioner was blasting full speed, but there was no air in the room. Zero, nada, zip-o! In fact, the room seemed to shrink like plastic wrap in a microwave as Sugar felt the scorching heat of embarrassment fire up her cheeks. Really, Sugar, where did your head go?
"I hope you like it," Haley said. Her back had been turned and she'd missed Sugar's schoolgirl reaction to Ross. Now she set the case she was carrying down beside the bedroom door and faced Sugar. "Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all. I was just admiring the place." She shot Ross a glare when he smiled knowingly.
Unaware of the tension slicing through the room, Haley rushed on. "I really enjoyed painting it and finding the furniture. I did it with you in mind, because I knew that once it was done, I was going to call you and offer you the job."
Distracted though she was, Sugar was touched. "I love it." She ran her finger over the soft white fabric of the couch.
"Of course, when you add your things, it will come to life. I just tried to find appealing furniture in neutral colors you could work with."
"I couldn't like anything more. Thank you." Sugar hugged Haley, feeling self-conscious knowing that Ross was watching.
"I'll go get some more of your stuff. You two ladies take your time." He tipped his hat and stepped around them, his arm brushing hers as he did.
Sugar knew she was going to love the apartment. But despite her best intentions, it wasn't the place she was thinking aboutoh no. It was this cowboy!
Focus, Sugar Rae! Focuseasier said than done, Sugar thought. Ross made her feel like she did just before she walked into an audition: a clash of nerves and adrenaline. It was a very unsettling reaction. Totally unexpected and unwanted.
Trying to pull herself back together, Sugar trailed Haley around the apartment, checking out the bedroom and the small bath. They followed Ross back to the car. To her surprise, other people were waiting to meet her and help unload the car. She was glad for the welcome and for the distraction.
There were the gals from the hair salon across the street, Lacy and Sheri. Sugar knew they were two of the women who'd helped put the tiny town on the map. Ashby and Rose from the dress store were there, too. Sugar felt like she'd already met them since Molly had written about each one in her column. The four ladies from the candy store also took a minute from work to say hi and give her a housewarming gift.
"Wow," she said, gazing at the basketful of mouthwatering chocolates. "To think it wasn't too long ago this town had almost no women. Now look at it." Main Street had filled with women, and they all came together to make a newcomer feel welcome. Sugar was touched by their kindnessand she couldn't wait to dig into her basket! She felt a little guilty that she wasn't completely happy about being there.
Haley sighed. "There was a time when I thought there was no hope for this place. Boy, was I wrong," she said, smiling. "I know you're here to help me out and to boost your acting career, but I think the town will grow on you, too."
Sugar gave her a playful but serious look of warning. "Maybe, but Haley, I am leaving."
They all started filing up the stairs, each carrying something from the car. Sheri gave Sugar a wide, sassy grin as her fancy red boots clicked on the steps. "Have you met the posse yet?"
Lacy called up from behind her, "That's what Sheri calls Norma Sue, Esther Mae and Adela. The ladies who came up with this great plan to save their town. You'll love them."
Sugar glanced over her shoulder at Lacy. She was talking about the matchmakers! The ladies were the stars of Molly's column.