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"Come on, Ash, just climb up here and we'll be on our way." Dan Dawson patted the handlebars and grinned at her with that mesmerizing smile of his, and expected that to be enough.
Ashby Templeton stared across the now dusty bicycle at the too-handsome-for-hisown-good cowboy, and wondered what terrible, horrible deed she'd done to deserve this kind of punishment.
The cowboy fully expected that just because he asked with a smile, she would comply!
Arms crossed, she held her ground. Despite the power of that smile, she was not going to climb up there to teeter precariously as he pedaled the bike. It had nothing to do with being difficult. It had to do with ability. She just couldn't do it.
Far too used to getting his own way with those midnight-blue eyes, Dan batted them once more while patting the bars again. "We're losing, Ash. Why did you sign up for this race if you weren't going to cooperate?"
She wasn't ready to answer that, either. This left her with a blank stare as her only defense against the cocky slant of his smile. Dangerous stuff for anyone to witness. Still, she held her ground.
"It's supposed to be a fun race, done as a team," he continued. "That means one of us has to ride and one of us has to pedal. C'mon, hop on now and we can still make a decent showing. Haven't you ever seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?"
Feeling the sting of humiliation, Ashby stalked away from him down the country road, wishing with all her might that she'd had a normal upbringing. This! This fiasco was her blue-blooded mother's fault.
Ashby could not tell Dan Dawson that in her world, knowing how to host a dinner party was considered "essential" information.Riding a bike was something the gardening crew did to get to work. She had to say something, though. She spun toward him, met his gaze and knew she would rather limp barefoot and bleeding across that finish line than admit the truth.
A slight exaggeration, but still, she could not tell him. He arched a brow, waiting for her reply. More humiliation tangled inside her.
"If we're going to finish at all, then we'd better stop talking and get moving," she huffed. "I told you in town that I was going to walk. Walking together is a team effort, too." She started walking again.
Fifteen feet farther on, hearing no sound behind her, Ashby could only assume he was standing in the middle of the road watching her, waiting for her to give in.
"This is just ridiculous," he muttered at last, and rode up beside her within seconds.
"What is the big deal? The other gals hopped up on those handlebars like good sports. That's why when Applegate shot the starting gun, they tore out of there like good competitors do, and left us in their dust. That's why everyone was laughing when you headed out at a fast trot behind them."
"I did not trot." She felt guilty about all that, but really, there was no need to get ugly. It wasn't her fault that this truly was all she could do. How could she tell him that she couldn't ride a bike? How could she admit that the very thought of climbing onto a bike flustered her so that she got this confounded vertigo? She glanced at him in her peripheral vision and picked up the pace. Trot, my foot!
He looped around ahead of her on the blacktop and came back toward her like a circling vulture.
"So why did you sign up?" He intercepted her gaze as he went by. "This was supposed to be a boy meets girl, girl meets the man of her dreams shindig.At least, that's what I thought."
"Man of her dreamsboy, they got that one wrong," Ashby grumbled under her breath.
"What's that?" He swooped around her, holding his legs out, his boot tips pointing straight up to the sky. The cowboy was in a bike race wearing jeans, boots and a Stetson! And if she weren't so put out by all of this, she'd say it was a little bit cute. Some of the other cowboys had forgone their standard uniform in favor of shorts. Their legs were as white as the silk wedding dress hanging in the window of her dress shop. Even so, they were probably far more comfortable than Dan, though he hadn't even broken a sweat. Not so for her It just wasn't fair any way you looked at it.
She pulled a wayward strand of hair off her damp cheek and focused on what was really bothering her.
"C'mon, Ash, spit it out. Why did you sign up?"
"I didn't sign up," she snapped, regretting it even as the words erupted from her lips.
"Ha! I was right." He jerked the handlebars and again swooped back in her direction.
"When the ladies announced they were adding this couples' bike race to the spring festival, I told all the boys there was no way you'd be signing up for it. Of course, nobody disagreed with me."
"What?" It was Ashby's turn to twirl around to stare at him as he made the loop behind her. The world spun drunkenly, but she took a deep breath and let it settle down, while he continued as if he hadn't noticed that her voice dripped with indignation. "Yup. Imagine our surprise when you walked out there and got in the lineup."
A knot formed in the pit of her stomach at Dan's disheartening revelation. The cowboys hadn't thought she would participate. They'd all automatically assumed she wouldn't.
How could they presume such a thing? She'd moved to Mule Hollow almost a year ago specifically to find a husband. True, it wasn't as if she was shouting it to the treetops. But this was a town that had advertised for wives for all the bachelors, so of course she'd expected that the cowboys knew any single girl moving in had hopes of marrying.
She swallowed, fighting to keep her expression neutral. She didn't want Dan Dawson to have the satisfaction of knowing how deeply that remark hurt. There was absolutely no one who could want a baby more than she did. Want a warm, nurturing, lovable family. A family that would go on picnics together, that wouldn't be afraid to get down in the grass and roll around if the notion struck. A family who would learn to ride bikes together every last one of them. Of course, before she could ride bikes with her children, she was going to have to learn herself.
Ashby breathed through her nose and tried to regain her control. But it was hard, when all she could think about was that she was almost thirty years old. Thirty. That meant her biological clock was ticking on an accelerated timetable, and things were not looking good for the family she wanted so much.
How was a girl supposed to marry and have babies when the cowboys of Mule Hollow wouldn't ask her out?
Except for him, Dan Dawson a notorious flirt who asked everyone out. Her "friends" were definitely playing mud ball here. What could have possessed them to partner her up with him? It just didn't make sense. They knew how much she wanted to settle down.
Sweat ran down her face and she pushed more hair off her sticky skin. Her mood deteriorated further as she watched Dan glide by again.
He made it look so easy.
Riding a bike, that is. As he got a little way ahead of her he let go and effortlessly pedaled down the yellow stripe, no hands.
Ashby walked faster. She would have jogged a little, exceptwell, there was that dizziness and the blister growing on her heel. And, well, she'd never been much of an athlete. Her mother hadn't encouraged it when Ashby was growing up. She'd spent most of her days in frilly pastel dresses, sitting primly at one endless function after another. Ashby had learned to despise her blue blood long before she even knew what it was. She had actually forgotten until today that there had been a time when she'd really wanted to learn to ride a bicycle.
Dan circled back, and a picture of her as a child holding her nanny's hand in Golden Gate Park watching other kids riding by flashed through her memory. She in her frills and patent leather Mary Janes.
"You know, Ashby, I could help you."
She blinked hard and focused on the red ribbon off in the distance, signaling the route back toward town and the finish line of this five-mile nightmare.
"I'm almost afraid to ask what you mean," she said. How long had they been out here? She checked her watchjust over an hour! It felt like days.
"I mean, I could help you find a husband."
She almost tripped. "Excuse me?" Could this day get any worse?
"Hey, I'm good at reading people. I can usually tell what someone needs."
She gave him the evil eye, clamping her mouth firmly shut. Why couldn't a rabbit hole open up right then and there?
He shrugged. "I know what your problem is."
That brought her up short. "My problem?" she said through gritted teeth.
He grinned, then winked.
Dan Dawson and winking was a lethal combination. He already looked better than any man alive had a right to. Add a wink Ashby might be immune to Dan's shallow charm, but she wasn't dead.
She sucked in a couple of deep breaths as he pedaled slowly beside her.
"Ash, you know what I'm talking about. I have been trying to help you out for a year now. But how am I going to do that if you keep refusing to go out with me? You should give me points for persistence."
"Hardly. Besides, how is going out with you supposed to help me? I'm looking for a man who wants to get married." Going out with you would be a complete waste of time I don't have, she almost said, but it sounded too harsh. Instead, she took a more diplomatic approach. "We both know that isn't you."
"But it would be fun."
"And that is my point," she huffed, dragging to a halt. "Why would I want to go out with you just to have fun?"
He stopped riding. "See, that right there. That is exactly what I'm talking about."
She did not get this man. "You need to loosen up, Ash. Live a little! You are never going to get a date if you don't. Even a lonesome cowboy isn't desperate enough to marry a gal so knotted up she can't have a good time."
"I " Ashby swallowed hard, forcing herself to hold his gaze. "I can have a good time."
He patted the handlebars, challenge in his eyes. "Show me."
"No." She refused to be goaded into trying something she would regret. Anyway, when she fell flat on her face, it would only add lack of balance to her apparently well-documented list of shortcomings.
No way. She resumed walking. Stalking, actually. Stalking wasn't good. It made her far more aware of how much her feet were killing her. She was having to fight the urge to limp, and was afraid to think about the size of the blister that was building.
To her surprise, Dan hopped off the bike and started walking beside her, pushing it between them. "You are a puzzle, Ashby Templeton. Yes, indeedy, a real jigsaw."
Ashby lifted her chin and didn't take the bait.
"Does it get lonesome up there?"
She cut her eyes toward him. "Up where?"
"On that high horse you ride."
"I don't ri" She glared at him.
"No use denying it." He reached across the bike and pulled a piece of wet hair off her cheek.
To Ashby's horror, her pulse went ballistic. She stepped away from him and the bad choices he represented. Their rejections because she wasn't "good enough" still stung, but she had a major weakness for bad choices. Brad. Carlton. Steven She'd been such a fool. Wasted so many years. But no more. "Look," she said, glaring at Dan. "I have no problem with you hopping on that bike and riding off into the sunset. I'd welcome it, actually." Yes, she would.
"Nope, wouldn't be right. If you're going to insist on walking, then I walk, too."
Ashby dug deep for clarity. Focused on her friends. Friends who had better run the other way when they saw her coming. She might have been brought up to be a lady: calm, cool and collectedbut even a lady had her breaking point.