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Country music crackled from aging PA speakers that hung from the announcer's stand next to the rodeo arena, and dozens of conversations buzzed around Willow Michaels. It was hard to discern one sound from another, and harder still to know if the queasy nervousness in her stomach was due to her bulls about to compete, or the way sounds faded in and out.
A hand touched her arm. She smiled at her aunt Janie, who had insisted on attending with her, because it was a short drive from home, and well, because Aunt Janie went nearly everywhere that Willow went.
"Didn't you hear me?" Janie asked.
"Of course I did."
"No, you didn't. I've asked you the same thing three times."
"I'm sorry, I'm just distracted." Willow slid her finger up the back of her ear. The hearing aid was at its maximum. And Janie was waiting for an answer that Willow didn't have.
"I said, I have a friend I want you to meet." Janie searched Willow's face, her growing concern evident in her eyes.
"Don't, Janie, please don't give me that look. It's the batteries, nothing more."
"Make an appointment with your doctor."
"Who's the friend?" Willow went back to the previous conversation. At that moment, even if it meant meeting a man, Willow wanted to avoid discussing the fact that she hadn't heard her aunt. Discussing it would only make her deteriorating hearing more real.
"My old neighbor, Clint Cameron, is here."
"Clint?" Not a stranger, but a forgotten crush. Willow remembered now, and she didn't want to remember.
She was too old for high-school crushes, and she had experienced too much heartache to go back to being that girl who dreamed of forever.
Her marriage to Brad Michaels had been a hard lesson inreality. Willow was still forgiving him and still letting go of her own forever-dreams that had ended five years ago, with divorce.
She was still forgetting, and still healing.
She was still finding faith, a faith that had been a whisper of something intangible for most of her life. Now it was real and sustaining. Somewhere along the road she had realized that she wasn't flawed, and she didn't have to be perfect.
Janie touched her arm again. "Are you with me?"
"I'm with you."
"It won't hurt, Willow."
Janie laughed, "It won't hurt, I promise."
"Of course it won't. I'm just amazed that I unloaded the bulls, fed them, and you found a friend."
"The Lord works "
"In mysterious ways." Willow wanted to sigh. Instead she smiled for her aunt. "Okay, let me make sure my bulls have water, and I'll come find you."
"Good." Janie smiled a little too big. "He's parked on the other side of the pens."
Willow waited until Janie walked away and then started toward the pens that held her bulls. If she had any sense at all, she would hide and avoid meeting Clint Cameron for a second time. The first meeting had been a pretty big disaster.
The bulls milled around their pen, big animals with flies swarming their thick hides. They stomped in an effort to rid themselves of the flying pests, big hooves sloshing in the mud left behind after last night's rain.
Willow leaned against the metal gate, needing that moment to pull it together, to let go of fear. The water trough was fulltaking her last option for avoiding Janie and her friend.
She had accomplished a lot in the last few years. She'd made it in a man's world, raising some of the best bucking bulls in the country and supplying stock for some of the biggest bull-riding events in the world.
She had survived Brad's rejection. His rejection had hurt worse than the ones that came before him. She'd really thought that he meant their marriage vows.
He hadn't. He hadn't meant it when he repeated "in sickness and in health," or "till death do us part." He hadn't meant it when he said she was the only woman for him.
Willow watched her bulls for a few more minutes, and then she turned to go in search of her aunt and Clint Cameron.
She remembered the first time she'd met him, a cowboy in faded jeans, torn at the knees. She remembered a smile that had put her teenage dreams of forever into overdrive. She'd spent the next year wrapped in daydreams of a guy that she'd been afraid to talk to.
In search of Janie, she made her way through the crowd, greeting a few people who called out or waved. Bulls were being run through the gates of the nearest pens to the chutes where the riders would climb on for the ride of their lives. A few men were getting bull ropes ready for their rides.
She finally spotted her aunt. Janie stood at the edge of the crowd. Next to her was a man Willow didn't recognize. He looked nothing like the blurred memory of a gangly teen with faded jeans and a stained T-shirt. This man wore a bent-up cowboy hat with the faded imprint of a hoof. The strong angles of his jaw proved he was no longer a kid.
His Kevlar vest, worn to protect his torso from the hornsor hoovesof an angry bull, was open, exposing a pale-blue paisley shirt. Tan leather chaps covered his jean-clad legs, brushing the tops of his boots. As Willow approached, he bent to catch something her aunt was saying.
Janie waved, motioning her forward. Willow waved back, reminding herself that she was stronger now than she'd ever been. But feeling strong when faced with a childhood dream wasn't as easy as she'd thought it would be. Especially when the dream was now a flesh-and-blood man with a wide smile and his arm wrapped protectively around her aunt.
Willow reached down deep and found strength, reminding herself that her new dream wasn't about happy-ever-after with a man. Her goals were now being achieved with a truck-load of bulls and success in the sport of bull riding.
But she wondered if he remembered her. Did he remember how she had said hello some sixteen years earlier, and then disappeared into Janie's house to watch from the window? He had spotted her there, waving when no one was watching. Even now the memory brought a flush of heat to her cheeks.
Willow took the last ten steps, joining her aunt and Clint Cameron. He took off his hat, revealing sandy blond hair that looked like it had been cut with electric clippers. Probably in front of a hotel mirror.
He should have used the clippers on his face. His five o'clock shadow was a day old, covering his suntanned cheeks and highlighting a mouth that turned in a slow, easy grin. Gray eyes, laugh lines crinkling at the corners, connected with hers.
On his off days he probably modeled for a cologne company with a typical western namesomething like Prairie Wind or Naughty Pine. She smiled, trying hard not to look at the names of his sponsors, for fear she'd actually see Naughty Pine emblazoned on his sleeve or collar.
He wasn't a gangly teen anymore. And her heart still did that funny dance when he smiled at her. As a girl, not quite fourteen, she hadn't known what to do with that reaction. Now she carefully stomped it down, because she didn't need complications.
"Willow, this is my old neighbor, Clint Cameron."
He held out a hand and Willow let him take hers in a handshake that meant his fingers clasping around hers, holding tight for just a moment before releasing.
"Nice to meet you, Clint." Maybe he wouldn't remember her, the awkward kid who had stumbled through a greeting and then hurried back to the house.
He did, though. She could see it in his eyes. He smiled, revealing a tiny dimple in his left cheek that could have been a scar.
"Nice to meet you again, Willow."
"Clint's moving home. He's going to remodel his old farm house." Janie's eyes went liquid for a moment, and Willow knew what this meant to her aunt, to have someone back who had meant so much to her. "And he's made the points to ride in bigger events."
"Congratulations." Willow smiled, and then took a step back. "I'm sure we'll be seeing you around."
Janie caught her arm, stopping the perfectly planned escape. "I told Clint we might have some work for him to do. You know, I'm not getting any younger. It wouldn't hurt to have an extra pair of hands around the place."
"We can talk about that, Janie." Willow smiled at Clint Cameron. His gray eyes twinkled, and he saluted her with a tip of his hat as he put it back on his head, pushing it into place.
"If you don't have a lot for me to do, that's fine." He shrugged, like he really meant it. "I'm going to be working on our old farm down the road from you, getting it fit to live in."
"We'll work something out."
Clint Cameron smiled again, and Willow felt a twinge of regret, because she no longer believed in happy-ever-after with a cowboy.
Those dreams had faded a long time ago, victims of rejection and reality.
As Willow Michaels walked away, Clint drew in a deep breath and did his best not to whistle in surprise. He'd heard all about the tall stock contractor with the long, honey-blond hair and eyes the color of a clear spring sky.
Meeting her changed everything, though. He hadn't been prepared for a woman as cool and detached as a barn cat, the kind that didn't care if you paid attention to it or not.
He hadn't been prepared for the girl he'd met years ago, now a woman. What a woman.
"Don't let her scare you off, Clint. She's had a tough time of it, but she's coming around."
He smiled down at Janie. She'd been about the closest thing he'd ever had to a mother. His own mother had died when he was barely eleven and his sister was seven. He'd been left to raise Jenna by himself, and to deal with their drunken father.
Janie had been there to keep the pieces together.
She'd done the most important thing of all: she'd taught him to have faith. She'd also taught him to believe in himself. If it hadn't been for her he wouldn't have gone to college. He might have ended up just like his dad.
Janie had a new project. She was fixing her niece, Willow. Will for short, or so he'd heard. He couldn't imagine calling her Will.
"I should go. I'm one of the first riders up." He shifted away from Janie, but she caught hold of his arm.
"Think about what I asked you, Clint."
"Have you even told Willow that you want to move to Florida?"
Janie shook her head. "No, not yet. This business means so much to her. I've been putting off my decision because I was afraid Willow would give it up on my account. I don't want her to think she has to sell her bulls. If she had someone else she could comfortably rely on, the transition would be easier."
"I don't think she'd appreciate you trying to arrange her life this way. And I'm not going to push myself off on her, Janie. She's proven herself in this business, and I think she'll handle making this decision on her own."
He softened the words with a smile, because he didn't want to hurt Janie, the woman who had fixed a broken teenager, helping him to believe in himself. She wanted to do the same thing for her niece.
But Clint didn't plan on pushing his way into a life that had more Do Not Enter signs than a mine field.
Relationships weren't his strong suit. A long time ago he'd realized that he had a habit of choosing girls, and then women, who needed to be fixed in some way. Not that he thought Willow Michaels needed to be fixed. He just wasn't taking chances.
Not only that, but she was way out of his league. Another aspect in relationships that clearly didn't work.
He scanned the crowd and spotted Willow in a line for the hamburger stand that was a fundraiser for the National Future Farmers of America Organization. The aroma of grilled burgers drifted, and had lured a long line of people. Willow stood next to another stock contractor, her expression animated as they carried on a conversation.
He couldn't help but smile.
"You know, Janie, I have a feeling that Willow is a stronger person than you think."
"Of course she is, but she can't drive these bulls all over the country without some help."
"Seems to me that she can."
Janie smiled, her soft brown eyes twinkling. "Clint Cameron, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to put me in my place."
"I'm only saying that I don't know your niece, but I have a feeling she can handle things." He fastened his Kevlar vest as he spoke. "If you want to move, Janie, you just need to tell her."
Janie laughed, "You should have come home more often. I've missed having someone around who wasn't afraid of me."
"I had a job."
"Working down there on those oil rigs in the Gulf. What kind of job is that for a country boy who wants to ride bulls and raise cows?"
"It paid the bills. It put money in the bank." Money meant for repairs on a farm that had gone downhill.
"Well, I know it was good honest work. I'm only saying that I missed you."
Clint leaned and kissed her powdery soft cheek. "I missed you, too."
"You go ride that bull. But be careful. We need you in one piece."
Clint laughed as he walked away. He laughed because Miss Janie had always had a knack for drama. It was a strange trait for a sensible woman.
As he threaded his way through the men standing near the chutes where the first few bulls were penned up and ready for their rides, he caught sight of Willow. She stood near a small group of people, her gaze concentrating on their faces as she read their lips. She nodded at something one of the men said and then she shifted her attention, focusing on Clint. Like she'd felt him staring. And for that moment, he couldn't look away.
He nearly ran into one of the event judges. The guy grabbed his arm and shot him a look.
"Sorry about that," Clint mumbled as he lifted his bull rope and continued moving through the crowd.
"You're up, Cameron." One of the men motioned him forward.
The MC in the announcer's stand gave the name of the next bull and followed that with Clint's name and a little information on his career. Of course they just had to mention that he was thirty-one, a late bloomer for bull riding.
He'd been at the sport for as long as he could remember. He just hadn't had the time to invest into making it a career. That didn't interest the crowd. They wanted to think about the old guy, the newcomer. Even in bull riding the fans wanted a Cinderella story.