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Summer Project: Lose Virginity.
Tess Blakely rocked gently on her porch swing, a yellow legal pad balanced on her knee, a glass of iced tea on the wicker table beside her. She gazed at what she'd written and sighed. The beginning of a quest was the hardest part.
It was pitiful that a twenty-six-year-old, reasonably attractive woman found herself saddled with the handicap of virginity, but there it was, on paper. And her status had to change before she left for New York at the end of the summer, or she'd risk her credibility with the high school girls she'd been hired to counsel. Besides, she wanted to experience sex. She longed to experience sex.
She took a sip of iced tea and continued.
Goal One: Find knowledgeable candidate willing to deflower me.
Goal Two: Swear candidate to absolute secrecy. Goal Three: Get it on.
Tess sighed again. Writing out her goals and objectives had been her cherished method for getting what she wanted, beginning at the age of eight when she'd yearned for her very own pony. But although she wanted to lose her innocence much more than she'd wanted that pony, her current project seemed about as likely of success as a personal rocket trip to the moon.
The little town of Copperville, Arizona, wasn't exactly crawling with "knowledgeable candidates," but even the few that she'd consider had been scared off long ago by her four very large, very overprotective older brothers. And not a one of those beefy brothers had moved away or relaxed his vigilance. They all expected their little sis to save herself for her wedding night. They were stuck in the Dark Ages, as far as she was concerned, but she loved them too much to openly defy them.
That was the reason for goal number two-for absolute secrecy. Now there was a definite sticking point. Even if she found a man her brothers hadn't intimidated, how could she ever expect him to keep a secret in Copper-ville? This was a town where you could wake up with a sore throat in the morning and have three kinds of chicken soup at your doorstep by noon.
Which meant she might never arrive at the third step- Getting It On. And she was ready for number three. Extremely ready. She'd driven all the way to Phoenix to buy research books, knowing that she couldn't be caught thumbing through One Hundred Ways to Drive Him Wild in the Copperville Book Barn, if the local bookstore even carried such a thing, which she sincerely doubted.
So much for her list. The goals were unreachable. She tossed the legal pad on top of the stack of books lying next to her on the swing. A list might have worked for the pony, but it was probably dumb to think it could cure a resistant case of chastity.
And to be honest, a list might have helped get her that pony all those years ago, but her best friend, Jeremiah "Mac" MacDougal, had been the real key. Her family lived in town and had no room for a horse, but Mac had talked his folks into keeping Chewbacca on their ranch. Tess's older brothers had always thought they had first claim to Mac, being boys, but Tess knew better. Ever since Mac, who'd been only five at the time, had saved her from a rattlesnake, she'd known he was the best friend she'd ever have.
Mac. Mac could help her find the right guy! She mentally slapped her forehead and wondered why she hadn't thought of him before. Unlike her brothers, Mac understood why she needed to take the job in New York and prove herself an independent, capable woman. Her brothers might have laughed at her when she asked for a light saber for Christmas, but Mac had saved his allowance and bought her one.
Surely Mac would also understand that she couldn't go to New York a virgin. Coming from a small town was enough of a handicap. If the girls she'd be counseling figured out that she was sexually inexperienced, she'd be a real joke. Mac would see that right away. And he'd help her find the right man to solve her problem.
The sun had barely crested the mountains as Mac saddled two horses. He'd left his bed this morning with a sense of anticipation. He hadn't had an early-morning ride with Tess in months. When she'd called to suggest it, he'd been happy at the prospect, although lately he'd been feeling a little jealous of her.
As kids they'd spent hours talking about the places they'd go when they were older. This September she was actually going to do it, while he was stuck on the ranch. His folks expected him to stay around and gradually take over what they'd worked so hard to build. As the only child, he couldn't foist off that obligation on anybody else.
Tess had it easier, although she was forever complaining about how hard it was for a woman to "go on a quest," as she put it. But she was doing it, and he wasn't. Her mom and dad hated having her leave town, especially for some faraway place like New York City, but they still had four sons, their wives and seven grandchildren. With such a slew of Blakelys around, Tess didn't have to feel guilty about grabbing her chance at independence. Mac envied her that freedom.
"Top 'o the mornin' to ye, MacDougal."
He buckled the cinch on Peppermint Patty and turned to smile at Tess. She used to greet him that way for months after she'd starred in Copperville High's version of Briga-doon, and hearing it again brought back memories.
They'd rehearsed her lines in the tree house in her folks' backyard. At one point he'd almost kissed her, but only because the script called for it, of course. Then they'd both decided the kiss wasn't necessary for her to learn the part. He'd been relieved, of course, because kissing Tess would seem weird. But at the time he'd kind of wanted to try it, anyway.
"Aye, and it's a fine mornin', lass," he said. She looked great, as always, but there was something different about her this morning. He studied her, trying to figure it out. "Did you cut your hair?"
"Not since the last time you saw me." She used her fingers to comb it away from her face. "Why, does it look bad?"
"No. It looks fine." In twenty-three years of watching Tess create new looks with her thick brown hair, he'd lived through braids, kinky perms, supershort cuts, even red streaks. Once he'd given her a haircut himself after she got bubble gum stuck in it. Neither set of parents had been impressed with his barbering skills. He liked the way she wore it now, chin-length and simple, allowing her natural wave to show.
"Is there a spot on my shirt or something?" She glanced down at the old Copperville Miners T-shirt she wore.
"Nope." He nudged his hat to the back of his head with his thumb. "But I swear something's different about you."
He stepped closer and took her chin in his hand. "Are you wearing some of that fancy department-store makeup?"
"To go riding? Now that would be stupid, wouldn't it?"
He gazed at her smooth skin and noticed that her freckles were in full view and her mouth was its normal pink color. Her eyelashes were soft and fluttery, not spiky the way they had been in high school when she'd caked on the mascara. Nope, no makeup.
But as he looked into her gray eyes, he figured out what was bothering him. They were best friends and didn't keep things from each other, or at least they hadn't until now. This morning, for whatever reason, Tess had a secret. It changed her whole expression, making her seem mysterious, almost sexy. Not that he ever thought of Tess as sexy. No way.
Despite himself, he was intrigued. Even a little excited. He didn't associate Tess with mystery, and it was a novel concept. He decided to wait and let the secret simmer in those big gray eyes of hers. It was fun to watch.
He tweaked her nose and stepped back. "I guess I'm seeing things. You're the same old Tess. Ready to mount up?" To his amazement, she blushed. Tess never blushed around him. They knew each other too well.
"Um, sure," she mumbled, heading straight for Peppermint Patty without looking at him, her cheeks still very pink. "We're burning daylight."
While he stood there trying to figure out what he'd said to make her blush, she climbed quickly into the saddle and started out. As he mounted he continued to watch her, and he could swear she shivered. With the temperature hovering around eighty-five on this June morning, he didn't think she was cold. This might be the most interesting morning ride he'd ever had with Tess.
Maybe asking for Mac's help wouldn't be so simple, after all, Tess thought as she headed for the trail leading to the river. Here she was blushing over some offhand remark he'd made about mounting up. Or maybe she'd spent too much time reading those books, and every conversation had sexual overtones now. She certainly couldn't go to New York keyed up like this. It would be good to get this whole business over with.
Ducking an occasional overhanging mesquite branch, she rode at a trot ahead of him on the dusty trail. He knew something was up. She never could keep anything from him, so she might as well lay out her plan as soon as they got to their favorite spot by the river. As kids they'd used the sandy bank for fierce battles between their Star Wars action figures, and when they were older, they'd come out here to drink colas and talk about whatever was going on in their lives. Tess had never shared the hideaway with anyone else, and neither had Mac, as far as she knew.
The riverbank was where they'd gone after Chewbacca died. They'd talked about heaven, and had decided horses had to be there or they weren't interested in going. They'd headed out here after Mac broke his arm and couldn't try out for Little League, and the day Tess had won a teddy bear at the school carnival. Before either of them knew anything about sex, they'd spent time by the river talking about whether men and women made babies the same way horses and dogs and goats did.
Later on, Mac had put a stop to their discussions on that topic. Now Tess wanted to reopen the discussion, but she wasn't sure if she had the courage.
"So what's your summer project this year?" Mac called up to her. "I know you always have one."
A perfect opening, but she didn't want to blurt it out while they were riding. "I'm still thinking about it." She drew confidence from the familiar rhythm of the little mare, the friendly squeak of saddle leather and the comfort of breathing in the dry, sweet air of early morning.
"Really? Hell, you usually have something planned by April. I'll never forget that summer you got hooked on Australia-you playing that god-awful didgeridoo while you made me cook shrimp on the barbie."
"How did I know it would spook the horses?"
Mac laughed. "The sound of that thing would spook a corpse. Do you ever play it anymore, or are you taking pity on your neighbors?"
"Watch yourself, or I'll be forced to remind you of the time you mooned my brothers."
"That was totally not my fault. You could have told me the bridge club was coming out to admire your mom's roses."
Tess started to giggle. "So help me, I tried."
"Sure you did."
"The boys stopped me! I felt terrible that it happened."
"Uh-huh. That's why you busted a gut laughing and why you bring it up on a regular basis."
"Only in self-defense." She barely had to guide Peppermint Patty down the trail after all the times the horse had taken her to the river. The horses flushed a covey of quail as they trotted past.
She could smell the river ahead of them, and obviously so could Peppermint Patty. The mare picked up the pace. As always, Tess looked forward to her first glimpse of the miniature beach surrounded almost entirely by tall reeds. The perfect hideout.
As the mare reached the embankment and started down toward the sand, her hooves skidded a little on the loose dirt, but she maintained her balance, having years of experience on this particular slope. In front of them the river gurgled along, about fifty feet wide at this point. Other than a few ducks diving for breakfast and a mockingbird trilling away on a cottonwood branch across the river, the area was deserted.
There was no danger that anyone would overhear their discussion, and she trusted Mac to listen seriously without laughing as she laid out her problem and asked for his help. She couldn't have a better person in whom to place her confidence. Yet no matter how many times she told herself those things, her stomach clenched with nervousness.
Mac let his gelding, Charlie Brown, pick his way down the embankment as Tess dismounted and led Peppermint Patty over to the river for a drink. This morning was exactly like so many other mornings he and Tess had ridden down here, and yet he couldn't shake off the feeling that this morning was like no other they'd ever spent together.
He watered his horse, then took him over to the sycamore growing beside the river. He looped the reins around the same branch Tess had used to tie Peppermint Patty and went to sit beside Tess on a shady part of the riverbank.
He picked up a pebble and chucked it into the water. "Did you hear from that teacher at your new school?"
"Yep." Tess plucked a stem of dry grass and began shredding it between her fingers. "I got an e-mail from her and she'll be glad to let me stay with her until I can find an apartment."
Mac glanced at Tess. He'd wondered when she'd suggested the ride if she had something specific on her mind. Maybe this move had her spooked. She'd been renting a little house ever since she got the counselor's job at Cop-perville High, but living on her own in a small Arizona mining town with her parents three miles away was a lot different than living alone in New York City, two thousand miles from everyone she knew.
"Would this teacher rent you a room in her apartment?" he asked.
Tess shook her head. "She doesn't have the space. I'll be on the couch until I can find an apartment of my own. Besides, I want my own place. After growing up in a houseful of brothers, I've discovered I love the privacy of living alone."
"You just think you're living alone. Your family drops in on you all the time."
"I know." She sighed. "I love them, but I'm looking forward to being less convenient for a change."
Mac could understand that. It was one of the reasons he'd decided to get a private pilot's license. He looked for excuses to fly the Cessna because it was one of the few times he could be alone. "You might get lonesome," he said.
"I probably will." Tess began shredding another blade of wild grass. "But after living in a fishbowl for twenty-six years, lonesome doesn't sound so bad."
"Yeah." Mac tossed another pebble in the water. "I hear you." He breathed in the familiar mixture of scents-the dankness of the river, the sweetness of the grass, the light, flowery cologne Tess had worn for years, and the wash-line smell of sun on denim. Dammit all, he was going to miss her. He'd avoided facing that unpleasant fact ever since he found out that she'd gotten the job, but now it hit him all of a sudden, and he didn't like it.