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India Pike folded back the tissue paper at the top of the box and pulled out the floor-length dress, its red-and-white vertical stripes and the swirling piping on the bodice harkening back to the 1940s.
"That's gorgeous." Elissa Mason grasped the sides of the long skirt and spread it wide. "Makes me feel like I've been transported back in time."
"Good, since that's what I'm going for." India waved her hand to indicate the racks of vintage-inspired clothing around them.
The front door of Yesterwear Boutique opened to reveal the final member of their trio, Skyler Harrington. "Sorry I'm late. We had a bit of an emergency at the inn this morning. Hot water heater decided it was time for a vacation." Skyler probably hadn't spent more than a couple of minutes outside, but the heat of the Texas sun had already caused her fair complexion to flush. That and her tendency to always be on the go, a bit like a redheaded tornado.
India glanced at the clock on the wall. "You're not late."
"Most people call this on time," Elissa said.
Skyler ignored their familiar teasing and placed her leather-bound notebook on the glass-top counter that housed the boutique's collection of faux vintage jewelry. "I jotted down some ideas for our next BlueBelles class."
"I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked," India said as she made her way to the round table in the corner. The carved daisies on the top of the table showed an attention to detailone of the reasons Ryan Teague's custom furniture was so in demand. She poured her friends cold glasses of lemonade.
"You two act like there's something wrong with being organized," Skyler said.
Elissa wrapped her arm around Skyler and guided her toward the table. "Not at all. We love you just how you are."
Skyler rolled her eyes and took her seat so they could get to work on planning the program for their next girls' enrichment class.
Even though the BlueBelles classes had been India's idea, they were a labor of love for all of them. The planning and execution that went into the classes never felt like work. The three of them had been fortunate to find success in their separate businesses, so they used that success whenever they could to give back to the community. The BlueBelles classes were their way of showing young girls that they could succeed just as the three of them had.
"What do you have?" India asked Skyler, willing to wait on her own ideas until her friends had shared theirs.
"Money management, organizational skills, maybe a tour of the inn to see how to run a hospitality business," Skyler said, reading from her list.
"Good ideas, but maybe we can pair one of those with something a little lighter and fun," India said. "What do you have, Elissa?"
"I have a friend in Dallas who is a therapist. Maybe something about self-esteem. Or since it's spring, we could focus on native plant gardening."
India consulted her own ideas but didn't speak.
"I know that look," Skyler said. "What are you thinking?"
"We always have more ideas than we can use. What if instead of our normal single class we have several in an all-day conference? We could offer a wider variety."
"Oh, I like that idea," Elissa said.
Skyler thought for a moment then nodded, too.
As they dived into the particulars, the front door opened again.
Verona Charles, Elissa's aunt, walked in with a wave. "Hey, girls. I'm so glad I caught you all here together."
"Oh, that can't be good," Elissa quipped, earning her a playful swat on the shoulder from Verona.
"Ignore her and have a seat," India said. She reached toward the fresh pitcher of lemonade in the middle of the table. "Would you like a drink?"
"That would be lovely. Can't believe how hot it is already." Verona smoothed her short, gently curling silver hair.
"It's Texas, and you've lived here all your life," Elissa said as India poured another glass of lemonade.
"I know. Guess I'm just getting too old for the heat."
Elissa snorted. "If you're getting old, I'm a green troll."
At five foot ten, trim and tanned with long, deep brown hair, Elissa was as far from a green troll as a girl could get.
"Lippy, I tell you," Verona said. "Lippy just like your mother."
Elissa smiled wide, causing Verona to roll her eyes and shift her attention away from her niece. Her actions and words fooled no one. She adored the ground her niece walked on. Elissa was like the child Verona never had, and she was nothing less than a second mother to Elissa.
"You have that look," Skyler said. "The one that says you have a grand plan in play."
"I don't have a plan yet, but that's something I thought you three could help me with." Verona took a sip of her lemonade. "I was just over at the tourism office, and Blake said they are looking for something new to draw in more tourists, something to keep the numbers up once the blue-bonnets fade away."
"Let me guess," India said. "You volunteered to help think of something."
"What can I say? Retirement is boring." Verona scooted forward in her chair a little bit. "I went by the bakery afterward to pick up some fresh bread, and Keri told me that Jake Monroe's little girl, Mia, is about to start her cancer treatments."
"Poor little girl," India murmured.
"That's when it hit me," Verona said. "We can accomplish two goals with one eventcome up with something that would bring in tourists but have it be a benefit for Mia."
"Oh, that is a good idea," Skyler said. "I'd be happy to help with something like that."
Verona patted Skyler's hand atop the table. "Thank you, dear." She made eye contact with Elissa then India. "Can I count on both of you to help out, too?"
"Can't say no to that," Elissa said.
India considered the workload of planning the BlueBelles classes as well as the community event, but then she had one of those lightbulb moments like Verona had at the Mehlerhaus Bakery. "We were just talking about expanding the next BlueBelles offering to several classes. We could have a day-long conference the same day as this community event and donate all the proceeds to Mia's medical expenses." Skyler and Elissa quickly nodded their agreement.
"That's a wonderful offer," Verona said, her voice growing more excited. "Okay, then, I guess we just need to figure out what type of event would bring a lot of people to town and be of interest to the locals, too."
Over the next several minutes, they tossed out any idea that popped into their headsan arts-and-crafts show, a play, a singing competition. While they all held merit, none really popped and said, "Hey, I'll make a ton of money!"
India rubbed her eyes then glanced out the window just as a truck pulling a horse trailer drove down Main Street. "What about a rodeo? What could be more Texas than that?"
Elissa leaned forward. "Perfect. And bonus, hot cowboys in town."
"Gone through all the single men in the county already?" Skyler asked.
"Hey, that makes me sound bad. What's wrong with going out for drinks or dancing, having a good time?"
"Nothing, dear," Verona said. "But maybe it's time to pick one of these young men to settle down with."
Elissa leaned back in her chair and pointed at her aunt. "Oh, no. You can just direct your matchmaking juju in another direction."
After the laughter died down, Skyler flipped to a new page on her notepad and started taking notes as they all offered up ideas and a to-do list.
"Now we need to divide these up," Skyler said after her legal pad was full of bulleted action items.
"I'll be the liaison with the tourism bureau," Verona said. "Since this was your brainchild, India, it makes sense for you to take point on contacting rodeo companies to see about scheduling."
"Me? I don't know the first thing about rodeo."
Elissa leaned forward. "Hot guys in tight jeans. That's all you need to know."
"Then you do it."
"Nope. I'll head up the planning for the BlueBelles conference and round up some sponsors for things like advertising."
India shifted her gaze to Skyler. "You grew up on a ranch."
"And haven't lived there in years on purpose. Besides, I'll work on the food vendors and the barbecue cook-off. The rodeo is all yours."
India sighed but didn't see any way to wiggle out of this one. When she heard her father's voice in her memory telling her she'd bitten off more than she could chew, she shook her head. She might not be a rodeo expert, but she was reasonably intelligent. She could do this, and no remembered taunts by her useless father were going to tell her otherwise.
"It'll be good for you," Elissa said. "You need to get out of this shop more. And if you find a little hot cowboy lovin', so much the better."
India eyed her friend. "Seriously, can you imagine me with some rough-around-the-edges cowboy?"
Elissa waggled her eyebrows. "Honey, I can imagine anyone with a smokin' hot cowboy."
Ten minutes after her friends left, India was still sitting at the table kicking herself for opening her mouth. This was going to be the worst rodeo ever.
Liam Parrish drove down the hill into the small town of Blue Falls. It'd been a few years since he'd driven through this part of the Hill Country, but it was still as pretty as he remembered. It was well past bluebonnet season, but this area of Texas still looked like a different world entirely from the urban environment of Fort Worth or the starkness of his West Texas hometown. Instead of vast expanses of flat, flat, flat, the Hill Country was home to more landscape varietyrugged limestone and granite hills, groupings of prickly pear cactus, caves and spring-fed rivers. One minute you might be passing a winery, the next a local watering hole that looked as if it'd been in business since Texas became a state.
When he reached Main Street in Blue Falls, he started looking for his destination. He spotted a restaurant called the Primrose Cafe, an antique store, the Frothy Stein bar, a bakery and an old-time hardware store. His eyes caught the name of Yesterwear Boutique, the clothing store where he was supposed to meet India Pike.
All the parking spaces along Main seemed to be full, a good sign that the town wasn't dying and thus unable to support a rodeo. He found a spot to park his truck on a side street then walked back to the shop. The moment he stepped inside the cool interior, his nose twitched at the smell of some flowery scent. And then he took in his surroundings, which looked like a sea of feminine froufrou. Dresses, hats, shoes, jewelry. Was that a petticoat on the headless mannequin in the corner?
It was official. He'd never felt more out of place in his life.
He shifted from one foot to the other and tipped back his hat just in time to see a woman come through the doorway that led to another room full of clothes. A beautiful woman with wavy black hair that rested lightly on her shoulders. When she saw him, her eyes widened enough that he thought they were a grayish-blue. She recovered quickly and stepped fully into the entry area that held the cash register, a display counter full of jewelry and little beaded purses, and a few items of clothing.
"Yes, ma'am. Sorry I'm a bit late. There was an accident about an hour north of here."
"No problem." After what seemed like a moment of hesitation, she took a couple of steps toward him and extended her hand. "India Pike. I appreciate you driving all the way to Blue Falls."
The moment his hand wrapped around hers to shake, he realized how tiny her hand was, completely disappearing in his. The handshake was brief, but it was long enough for him to label her as delicate.
"It was a nice day to get out of the city and go for a drive." He laughed. "You'd think as much time as I spend on the road that the driving would get old, but there's something about the open road that's relaxing."
Well, wasn't he chatty all of a sudden?
He mentally shook himself and gestured over his shoulder. "I saw the cafe down the street looked busy. Must mean they have good food. Have you eaten?"
"Yes, actually. But if you'd like to go have lunch, we can meet sometime this afternoon."
Was it his imagination or did she seem less than excited about this meeting? Was she preoccupied? In a bad mood? Or maybe she just didn't have a clue what she was doing. He was used to meeting with fellow cowboys or middle-aged businessmen, not a dark-haired beauty wearing a dark blue dress and blue-and-white shoes.
"Nah, I can wait." Time to stop stealing glances at her legs and get down to business. "Best thing to do first is look at your facilities to see if they're suitable for a good-size rodeo, and what adjustments may need to be made."
She nodded. "Let me just lock up."
He stepped out onto the sidewalk, able to breathe deeper once he was out of the shop and farther from the woman who ran it. While he waited for her to flip over her sign saying she'd be back in thirty minutes and lock the door, he ran his hand over his face.
When was the last time he'd gotten an immediate jolt when he first laid eyes on a woman? Oh, yeah, Charlotte.
That certainly cooled his interest. He glanced at India Pike in her stylish getup that had a hint of some other era and realized she was a fancy woman, concerned with appearances just like Charlotte had been. A woman didn't dress and apply her makeup with such care if she wasn't concerned with what other people thought about her.
Damn it, he'd been staring and somehow managed to miss the obvious fact that India had turned toward him.
"Yeah. My truck is just around the corner."
"I'm parked out back. I'll get my car, and you can follow me."
"Okay." But when they reached the end of the alley that ran behind the line of shops, it was blocked by a delivery truck. "You can ride with me. I'm parked right here." He pointed toward his pickup, two spaces down from where they stood.
India looked back at the delivery truck again before agreeing.
When they reached his vehicle, he opened the door for her. She hesitated again before placing her hand in his so he could help her up. Her fingers felt so small and soft in his, and he caught a whiff of the same flowery scent he had in the store. He didn't know why, but it made him think of pale pink rose petals, the kind that were silky when you ran your fingers across them.
"Thank you," she said when she was seated.