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Andie Forester swiped a finger under her eyes and took in a deep breath. She hit the control on the steering wheel to turn down the radio, because it was the fault of Brooks & Dunn and that song of theirs that she was crying. "Cowgirls Don't Cry."
The song made her think of her dad pulling her to her feet after a horse had thrown her. She remembered her world when he was no longer in it. And the song reminded her how it felt to have a sister so perfect the world couldn't love her enough.
Andie even loved Alyson. How could she not? Alyson had come to Dawson and back into her life, soft smiles and sunshine after a twenty-five-year separation. Andie was home just in time to help her sister prepare for her wedding to Jason Bradshaw. A beautiful wedding, with the perfect flowers, the perfect dress.
At the moment Andie wanted to throw up because she was Andie Forester and she didn't think like that. She didn't think sunshine and lace. She thought leather boots and saddles. She thought hard and tough. She was a tomboy. She knew how to hang with the crowd, with cowboys and stock contractors, and guys from Dawson, Oklahoma.
But her dad had been wrong. Brooks & Dunn were wrong. Sometimes cowgirls did cry. Sometimes, on a dusty road in Oklahoma when there wasn't anyone around to see, cowgirls sobbed like little girls in pigtails.
Sometimes, when her best friend had hurt her in a way she had never thought he could, a cowgirl cried.
But she'd get it out of her system before she got to Dawson, and she'd be fine. Ryder Johnson wasn't going to get to her, not again.
That was another thing about Foresters. They learned from their mistakes. She shouldn't have made this mistake in the first place. That's what really got to her.
She downshifted as she drove through the tiny town of Dawson, all three businesses and twenty or so houses. The trailer hooked to her truck jerked a little and she glanced in the rearview mirror, smiling because even Dusty was glad to be home. The dusty gold of his nose was sticking out of the side window, his lips curled a little as he sniffed the familiar scents in the air.
Home was where people knew her. Yeah, they knew her secrets, they knew her most embarrassing moments, but people knowing her was good. The folks in Dawson had shaken their heads, sometimes laughed at her antics, but they'd always been there for her.
The end of September was a good time to return to Oklahoma. The weather would be cooling off and in a month or so, the leaves would change colors.
She would get back to normal. Home would do that for her.
Andie took in another deep breath, and this time she didn't feel the sting of tears. She was done crying. Her pep talk to herself had worked.
She slowed as she drove past the Mad Cow Café and pretended she wasn't looking for Ryder's truck. But she was. It was an old habit. She consoled herself with that thought. And with another one—his truck wasn't there. Hopefully he was still on the road. She didn't want to run into him, not yet.
They'd both been going in opposite directions as fast as they could, putting distance between them and their big mistake. He'd gone back to riding bulls or steer roping, whatever he was doing this year. She'd taken off for Wyoming and a rodeo event she hadn't wanted to miss. Even her trips home had been planned for the times she knew he'd be gone.
The last time Ryder had seen her, well, she'd done a lot of changing since then. She wasn't ready to talk to him about any of that.
At least Dawson hadn't changed. That was something Andie could count on. Her hometown would always be the safe place to land. Jenny Dawson, the town matriarch whose grandfather had started this little community, would always be in her front yard wearing a floral print housedress, digging in her flower gardens, a wide-brimmed hat shading her face from the Oklahoma sun. Omar Gregs would forever be in the corral outside his big barn, a shovel in hand, and that old dog of his sniffing at a rabbit trail.
And Granny Etta would always be at home, waiting.
She slowed as she drove past the Johnson ranch, past the drive that led to Ryder's house. Her best friend. Her heart clenched, the pain unfamiliar, sinking from her heart to her stomach. He'd never been the one to make her feel that way.
The truck jerked a little, evidence of a restless horse that had been in a trailer for too many hours. Andie downshifted as she approached the drive that led to the barn. It felt good to see the yellow Victorian she'd grown up in. It looked just the way it had the last time she was at home. Flowers bloomed profusely out of control. The lavender wicker furniture on the front porch was a sign that all was well in the world.
As she turned into the drive, Andie noticed a big sedan on the other side of the house, parked in the driveway that company used. Company, great.
Etta walked out the front door, waving big.
Andie's grandmother had hair that matched the furniture on the porch, kind of. It was the closest the stylist in Grove could get to lavender. And it clashed something horrible with Etta's tanned skin. A Native American woman with Irish ancestors didn't have the complexion to carry off lavender hair.
But tall and thin, she did have the ability to carry off some wild tie-dyed clothes. The clothing was her own design, her own line, and it sold nationwide.
Andie drove the truck down the drive and parked at the barn. Etta was fast-walking across the lawn, the wind swirling the yellow-and-pink tie-dyed skirt around her long legs.
Andie hopped out of the truck and ran to greet her grandmother. Andie was twenty-eight years old—almost twenty-nine—and a hug had never felt so good. When Etta wrapped strong arms around her and held her tight, it was everything.
It was a bandage on a heart that wasn't broken, more like bruised and confused. She hadn't expected it to take this long to heal.
"Sweetheart, it's been too long. And why that serious face and no smile? Didn't you call and tell me things were good?"
"Things are good, Gran."
"Well, now why am I not buying that?"
"I'm not sure." Andie smiled as big as she could and her granny gave her a critical stare before shaking her head.
"Okay, get Dusty Boy out of that trailer and let's go inside. I bet you're hungry."
"I am hungry." Starving. She'd been starving for the past few weeks. She was just sick of truck-stop and hotel-restaurant food. Even when she'd stopped in with friends, it hadn't been the same. Nobody cooked like Etta.
Andie moved the latch on the trailer and stepped inside, easing down the empty half of the trailer to unhook Dusty. He shook his head, glad to be free and then backed out, snorting, his hooves clanging loud on the floor of the trailer.
"Come on, boy, time for you to have a run in the pasture."
"Where'd you stay last week?" Etta was standing outside, shading her face with her hand, blocking the glare of the setting sun.
Andie held tight to the lead rope, giving Dusty a minute to calm down. His head was up and his ears alert as he snorted and pawed the ground, eager to be back in the pasture with the other horses.
"I was at Joy and Bob's."
"You were in Kansas? Why didn't you just come on home?"
Because she didn't want to face Ryder and she'd heard he might be home. She'd planned her timing lately so that she was home when he wasn't. But how did she explain that to Etta?
She shrugged, "I was looking at a mare they have for sale."
Not a lie.
The roar of a truck coming down the road caught their attention. Dusty dipped his head to pull at a bite of clover, but he looked up, golden ears perked, twisting like radar as he tuned into the noises around him. He snorted and grabbed another mouthful of grass. Andie pulled on the lead rope and his head came up.
The truck slowed at their driveway. Etta beamed. "Well, there's that Ryder Johnson. He's been down here three times in the past week. He says he's checking on me, but I think he misses his running buddy."
"I'm sure. If he missed me that much…" He would have called. Two months, he could have called. He hadn't.
Etta shot her a look, eyes narrowing. "What's going on with you two kids?"
"Well, first of all, we're not kids. Second, he needs to grow up."
"Oh, so that's the way the wind blows."
"This might be Oklahoma, but the wind isn't blowing, Etta." Andie turned toward the barn, Dusty at her side. He rubbed his big head on her arm and she pushed him back. "Bad manners, Dusty."
"Where are you going?" Etta hurried to catch up.
"To put my horse up."
"Well, I guess I'll make tea."
Tea was Etta's cure for everything.
"Don't invite him for tea, Etta. I'll take care of this, but he doesn't need to hang out here."
"Nonsense." And Etta stormed off, like a wise grandmother who had dealt with her share of lovesick kids. Andie shook her head and unhooked the gate. She wasn't lovesick.
She was mad at herself. And mad at Ryder.
"Off you go, Dusty. Eat some green grass and I'll be back later."
She watched, smiling as her horse made a dash around the field, bucked a few times and then found a place to roll on his back. And then she couldn't put it off any longer. She turned, and there he was, walking toward her, his hat low over his eyes. She didn't need to see those eyes. Brown, long dark lashes. He had a dimple in his chin and a mouth that flashed white teeth when he smiled. He had rough hands that could hold a woman tight and a voice that sounded raspy and smooth, all at the same time.
Those were things she had just learned about him, eight weeks ago. Before that he'd had a voice that teased and hands that held hers tight when they climbed fences or arm wrestled. He had been the person she told her secrets to and shared her fears with.
More than anything she was mad that he couldn't be that person right now. Instead, he was the person she needed to talk about.
He was tall, a cowboy who wore faded jeans, ripped at the knees, and button-down shirts, plaid with pearl buttons. He was her best friend. They'd been friends for twenty-five years, since his family moved to Dawson from Tulsa. His dad had done something right with the stock market. His mom had inherited a chunk of cash.
It hadn't been a perfect life though, and a little over five years ago his parents had died in a car accident.
She'd been there for him.
He'd buried his face into her shoulder and she remembered her fingers on soft, brown hair.
She remembered waking up weeks ago, knowing her life would never be the same. One night, one mistake, and her world had come unraveled.
And then God had hemmed it up again. She'd been running from God longer than she'd been running from Ryder. God had caught her first.
Ryder watched the changing expressions on Andie's face and he wondered what kind of storm he was about to face. Would it be the summer kind that passes over with little damage, or the other kind, the kind that happens when hot air meets cold?
He had a feeling that it was the hot-meets-cold kind. She had gone from something that looked like sad, to pretty close to furious, and now she was smiling. But the coldness in her eyes was still there. She had latched the gate and she was strong again.
She stood next to the barn, looking a lot like she had the last time he'd seen her. She was a country girl, born and raised in Dawson. Her idea of dressing up was changing into a new pair of jeans and boots that weren't scuffed. She was tall, slim, with short blond hair and brilliant blue eyes.
And she had every right to be angry.
He slowed a little, because maybe this wasn't a hornet's nest he wanted to walk into. It was going to get worse when she found out who was in the house waiting for her. She leaned back against the barn, the wind lifting her hair, blowing it around her face.
"Did you forget how to use a phone?" Yep, she was mad. Her voice was a little softer, a little huskier than normal.
"Nope. I just thought I'd give you a few weeks to get over being mad at me," he said.
"I wouldn't have been mad if you had left a note, called, maybe met up with me somewhere."
"I know." He cracked his knuckles and she glared. He took that to mean she wanted more than an easy answer. "I'm not good at relationships."
Understatement. And it was an explanation she didn't need from him. His parents had spent his childhood fighting, drinking and socializing. The ranch here in Dawson had saved him. At least he'd had horses to keep him busy and out from under their feet.
Away from his parents had usually been the best, safest bet for a kid.
He'd had Andie to run with and Etta's house as a safe haven. Right at that moment Andie looked anything but safe. Standing there with her arms wrapped around herself, hugging her middle tight, she looked angry, sad, and about a dozen other female emotions he didn't want to put a name on.
"Relationship? This isn't a relationship, Ryder. This is us. We were friends."
"Oh, come on, we're still friends." He slipped an arm around her shoulder and she slid out of the embrace. "We'll go out tomorrow, maybe drive into Tulsa. It'll be like old times."
"Nope." She walked quickly toward the house. He kept up.
So, the rumors were true. "This is about church, isn't it?"
She stopped abruptly and turned. "No, it isn't about church. You think that going to church would make me mad at you? Don't be an idiot."
"Well isn't that what people do when they feel guilty?" He winked. "They get right with God?"
"Shut up, Ryder."
She took off again, arms swinging, boots stomping on the dry grass.
"We've been friends forever."
"Right." She stopped and when she glanced up, before she could shake the look, he thought she looked hurt.
Posted July 30, 2010
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The theme of "best friends falling in love" is not the easiest to carry off. The writer must be able to show why the hero and heroine are friends, why they have stayed only friends, and then turn that friendship on its ear by having them fall in love. But Brenda Minton didn't stop there in The Cowboy's Sweetheart. Her characters find themselves wondering about the ramifications of friendship turned into something far more complicated than romance. While inspirational novels have dealt with "secret babies," few feature unwed couples discovering they must face an unexpected pregnancy. Brenda's talent for dealing with contemporary issues shines through her characters' honest emotions, their struggles, and by not providing easy answers. The reader feels for both Andie and Ryder, two very likable characters, cheering them on to an ultimately satisfying ending.
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