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"Come on, Serena, don't be so cruel. You gotta help me or I won't never get the girl."
Serena Higgens focused on the crown of Jarred Riddell's straw hat. Far better to glare at that than the sunny smile he was directing her way. Even after all this time, that flash of teeth still managed to send a hundred little pulses of awareness through her.
Not that he needed to know that. "I don't have to help you with anything. And don't say 'won't never,' Jarred. It's a double negative."
In an instant, his eyes turned warm and languid and gorgeous. "See, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I need your help speaking more clearly. Without it, I'm gonna be in a heap of trouble." He winked conspiratorially as he struck a pose right out of GQ Magazine, leaning one hand up against a row of books in the library. "Fact is, I really do need to get auctioned off something awful."
Serena pretended she wasn't affected by his stance, his smile, his wink or by his very being.
That pretending didn't go too far, though. She hadn't been immune to Jarred Riddell's charms when she was fifteen and their dads used to do the rodeo circuit together. She didn't think it was very fair that he could still make her pulse jump at twenty-five. A girl ought to have come up with some kind of resistance in ten years.
"Honestly, Jarred. The things you think about."
"I'm not the only one. This auction's a big deal."
"I suppose though I don't know why Electra even needs a community auction, anyway. It's demeaning, don't you think?"
"Not necessarily. Depends on whether the folks getting auctioned off have a problem with it."
"I think there's got to be a couple dozen better ways to add money to the Electra Community Fund."
"That may be, but I can't think of another idea that's half as fun." Focusing too-blue eyes right on her, he added, "You know as well as I do that the whole town is excited about next month's auction. As excited as all get-out."
"I wouldn't go that far." Though, she privately reflected, Jarred was pretty darn close. Every other conversation she heard seemed to be focused on who was going to be up for bidand who wanted to do the bidding.
"I would. Don't be such a spoilsport. No one else is complaining about the auction. Matter of fact, people are excited to bid on goods and services provided by Electra's own." Warming up, Jarred kept talking. "People want to bid on the fire chief checking their homes for safety issues. For the grocer to provide free fruits and vegetables for a month. For Mrs. Walker to make them a couple of pies for Thanksgiving."
"Those are legitimate things people want. You, on the other hand, are auctioning off your bachelorhood."
Jarred looked stunned. "Hell, no, I'm not. I'm just auctioning off my time, that's all. The lady who bids on me will have me at her beck and call for a whole week."
Picking up another book, she checked the spine for damage, then set it in the shelving rack. "It sounds like you're signing up to be a gigolo, and I don't want any part of that."
"I'm not going gigolo-ing, and that's a fact." He had the nerve to look somewhat embarrassed. "Sheesh, Serena. The things you think about."
To her shame, her cheeks heated. "I'm not thinking about about you gigolo-ing." Of course, now that he'd mentioned it, she could hardly think about anything else but the idea of too-handsome Jarred Riddell tucked neatly between a pair of white summer sheets.
Resolutely, she pulled herself back toward reality. She and Jarred had been pals for too long for her silly crush to get in the way.
"I don't need to advertise for sex, by the way."
"That's good to know," she said sarcastically. "'Cause I was getting nervous."
He looked her over, seeming to take in her long khaki skirt, black T-shirt and sensible leather sandals in one fell swoop.
She twitched a bit, wishing her hips were a little less generous. A little more lithe.
But instead of looking at her as though she was in need of a makeover, his gaze sparkled with humor. "Maybe you're just jealous 'cause no one's asked you for a service," he teased.
"I am not jealous. But, thanks for reminding me about that." She couldn't quite hold off the hurt in her voice. After all, she did know about the auction, and she had been feeling a little left out that no one had asked her to donate a single thing.
Of course, she probably shouldn't have taken the slight to heart. After all, what could she do, anyway? Offer to lend the populace books?
"That came out kind of harsh. I didn't mean anything in a bad way. Sorry."
She waved off his apology. Because, well, it wasn't really his fault that no one ever saw her as much more than the smart, superefficient woman who managed the library. She was simply Serena. Serena, whose daddy got gored by a bull.
Serena, who had gone to college on scholarship. Serena, the gal who took an inordinate amount of pride in list making and being prepared for any emergency.
She simply didn't have that good ol' boy personality, or the female equivalent, that Jarred did. No, her personality seemed to lean more toward the cool, distant, professional type.
But that was beside the point. "All I'm saying is that people should just want to give money to the community fund because it's the right thing to do. Not to get something out of it."
"That way of thinking is just another example of you living in some kind of fairy-tale dreamworld, Serena. People don't do things out of the goodness of their hearts. Not anymore they don't."
Had they ever?
Sticking to reason, Serena kept on talking as if Jarred hadn't uttered a word. She knew from experience that it was best to ignore most of the words coming out of his mouth instead of trying to figure out how his mind worked. "Second, even if you did get auctioned offwhich I don't doubt you willthat doesn't mean that Veronica What's-Her-Name is going to be the one paying for your time. Chances are, she probably won't even go to the auction."
"Sure she will. Everyone's going. And, it's Snow. Veronica Snow," he enunciated with exaggerated slowness. "And I don't need her to do a damn thing except bid on me. But first she needs to like me." His broad shoulders slumped. "Which, at the moment, she does not."
"Jarred, I'm not ever going to say yes to this crazy plan. Never."
He leaned closer, carrying with him the scent of his cologne. "Never's a long time, sweetheart."
Didn't she know that! "Don't 'sweetheart' me. Go ask someone else for help." Like someone who he'd flirted with already. Someone else. Anyone else.
Down went the brim of his hat. Up went his chin. Somehow he managed to look at her under the shadow of that hat and not look completely ridiculous. "Well, see, it's not quite that easy."
"Because no one else wants to take me seriously."
"They would if you ever were serious for more than an hour at a time."
"I'm serious when I'm at the ranch. I'm in charge of all the hands, you know."
"I know." Jarred's family had one of the biggest ranches in the county with at least a dozen horses and a hundred head of cattle. And oil rigs galore. "I know you work hard at home. But you also spent three years trying to be a rodeo star. And, well, we know how that ended up."
"We can't all be like Trent."
Immediately, she felt bad. Jarred's youngest brother, Trent, was a bona fide rodeo star, with endorsements and everything.
But, well, someone had to tell Jarred the truth.
She bit her lip. It might as well be her. "You also spend most of your time goofing around Electra. You sleep late and party too much. And this latest goal of yours is nothing if not laughable."
Serena noticed something flicker in his eyesat least, as much of those eyes that she could see. "Listen, I am serious about Veronica. And you know the same as I do that rodeoing is a hard life. And I don't 'goof around Electra,' as you put it. I spend the majority of my days making our ranch run right. I only make it look easy."
"And as a matter of fact, I am completely serious about being taken seriously. I need some polish. I need some help. And there's no one at home who can help me. Gwen's got her hands full helping out with Virginia. She doesn't have time to worry about social graces, if you get my drift. And Gwen, well, Gwen is more the type of woman to have around when you need a gunfighter."
Jarred did have a point. Gwen was nearing sixty and was a nice lady. But she probably had never given much thought to Jarred's mannersor lack of them.
Actually, the Riddells' housekeeper was definitely more the go-to gal when your toilet needed scrubbing, your horse had colic or your transmission was leaking fluid.
Just to tease him, Serena said, "What? Gwen never taught you to take off your hat when you enter a room?"
As if she'd just quoted the Gospel, off went that hat so fast, Serena found herself blinking at his blond hair. She had forgotten it was cut so short. It had been a long time since she'd seen his head uncovered.
And that was a good indication of just how little she knew him these days, a shadow of how they used to get along.
When they were younger and in 4-H together, they'd talked quite a bit. Her awkwardness had seemed to amuse him to no end.
And, well, he'd been a year older in school. He'd been handsome and popular and fun. Oh, she'd done all right back then. And they had stayed good friends. But every so often she'd find herself looking his way a bit too long. Imagining him kissing her under the bleachers. Thinking about Jarred asking her to dance to something soft and slow.
But it had never happened.
Yep, back then, he'd showed his calf and she'd showed her collie at the fair. Before she knew it, they'd been buddies of a sort. Oh, nothing like best friends, but good ones. They'd hung out at ball games. They'd take a couple of turns around the dance floor whenever there was a dance. Then she'd gone off to college and the years had passed.
When she returned to Electra, they'd chat a bit whenever they could, but she was busy at her library, and Jarred was busy being Jarred.
Yet now, here he was, visiting her in the library and asking a favor.
Jarred looked pretty darn awkward without a hat on his head, and that was a fact. Almost naked, really. Maybe he should've kept it on?
Fidgeting with the brim again and again, he said, "So, Serena, you know my mama died years ago. Back when Cal, Trent and me were just boys."
"And, you know how my dad's second wife kind of took off and left just weeks after Virginia was born."
What she remembered was that he'd been hit hard by the woman's departure. "I remember that, too. But I'm not quite sure what it has to do with your present situation."
"I'm getting to that. Soon after, my dad went a little crazy and then oil came and then things got really twisted and turned. I had my hands full just trying to make sure Virginia was looked after. The only thing Gwen did was clean." Something dark entered his eyes. "The only 'good' woman my dad's taken out took one look at us and our loud ways and scooted off like lightning."
Serena had heard rumors about that giant house with boys running roughshod over anyone who dared to enter. "I can't imagine why."
He held up a hand. "We were pretty rambunctious, but our hearts were in the right place, and that's the truth."
"Almost." Looking apologetic, he added, "We were kind of difficult. Some might say things are still like that. Now, Ginny's getting a little wild, being home around cows and men all day. She's in dire need of feminine influence."
"And for that you need Veronica Snow?"
"I do, Seri. Truly."
"I don't know "
"Think about it? I'll pay you for your time."
Serena figured it was no stretch to say Jarred Riddell was definitely not an easy man for her to be around. He was a handfuland she had no desire to be anywhere near his hands. "I appreciate your story. But, I think it's time you left. I'm not going to tutor you, or educate you, or whatever you want to call it. Besides, you're rich enough to hire a professional charm-school teacher. You ought to do that."
He blinked. "You want me to contact some snooty gal and ask for help? Not a chance."
"I think you should think on that again. A professional girl might be your only hope. A professional gal would know exactly what a woman like Veronica expects as far as manners and charms."
The look that flashed in his eyes was a bit surprising. Gone was the good ol' boy. In his place was a man who was used to getting what he wanted. "I wish you'd reconsider. I need to get Veronica to notice me. She's exactly what my family needs. I know she's what Virginia needs. She's already starting to cuss like a cowhand. Ginny needs a role model with class."
Serena knew it shouldn't bother her that Jarred never even thought about her in that way. But it did. "I've given you my answer, and it's final." Picking up a stack of DVDs from the return slot, she started scanning them into the library's database. Though a child could scan, Serena did her best to look as if it took a lot of concentration. "Now, I've got things to do here. You need to move on your way."
"Well, thanks for nothing, Serena." Just as he pivoted on one heel, he jarred the portable mystery book rack. Twelve neatly stacked mysteries flew to the floor. "Crap!"
Every single person in their triple-wide trailer turned library looked up and glared. At her.
Of course. Things never were Jarred's fault. "Please leave. Now," she hissed under her breath. "You're disturbing everyone."
"I'm not giving up."
"You should." Pointing to the door, she said, "Off you go, now. I've got things to do."
"I'll be back," he said, rushing out the door, the metal bar giving a hearty slap-slap as it opened and shut with the motion.
Serena's assistant, Hannah, wandered over and waved a hand across her rouged cheeks. "Lord have mercy but that Jarred Riddell is something else. No man should be put together so well. It's almost sinful."
Serena wondered once again if she was the only one on earth who was immune to Jarred Riddell's charms. As that pesky image of him stark naked flew into her brain, she privately amended that thought.