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It happened too quickly for him to even think about it.
One minute, in a moment of exasperated desperationbecause he hadn't yet bought a gift for Caroline's birthdayCody found himself walking into the refurbished antique store that had, up until a few months ago, been called The Tattered Saddle.
The next minute, he was hurrying across the room and managedjust in timeto catch the young woman who was tumbling off a ladder.
Before he knew it, his arms were filled with the soft curves of the same young woman.
She smelled of lavender and vanilla, nudging forth a sliver of a memory he couldn't quite catch hold of.
That was the way Cody remembered it when he later looked back on the way his life had taken a dramatic turn toward the better that fateful morning.
When he'd initially walked by the store's show window, Cody had automatically looked in. The shop appeared to be in a state of semi-chaos, but it still looked a great deal more promising than when that crazy old coot Jasper Fowler ran it.
Cody vaguely recalled hearing that the man hadn't really been interested in making any sort of a go of the shop. The whole place had actually just been a front for a money-laundering enterprise. At any rate, the antique shop had been shut down and boarded up in January, relegated to collecting even more dust than it had displayed when its doors had been open to the public.
What had caught his eye was the notice Under new ownership in the window and the store's nameThe Tattered Saddlehad been crossed out. But at the moment, there was no new name to take its place. He had wondered if that was an oversight or a ploy to draw curious customers into the shop.
Well, if it was under new ownership, maybe that meant that there was new old merchandise to choose from. And that, in turn, might enable him to find something for his sister here. As he recalled, Caroline was into old things. Things that other people thought of as junk and wanted to discard, his sister saw potential and promise in.
At least it was worth a shot, Cody told himself. He had tried the doorknob and found that it gave under his hand. Turning it, he had walked in.
Glancing around, his eyes were instantly drawn to the tall, willowy figure on the other side of the room. She was wearing a long, denim-colored skirt and her shirt was more or less the same color. The young woman was precariously perched on the top step of a ladder that appeared to be none too steady.
What actually caught his attention was not that she looked like an accident waiting to happen as she stretched her taut frame out, trying to reach something that was on a higher shelf, but that with her long, straight brown hair hanging loose about her back and shoulders, for just an instant, she reminded him of Renee.
A feeling of deja vu seized him and for a moment, his breath caught in his throat.
Balancing herself on tiptoes, Catherine Clifton, the former Tattered Saddle's determined new owner, automatically turned around when she heard the little bell over the front door ring. She hadn't anticipated any customers coming in until the store's grand reopening. That wasn't for a couple more days at the very least. Most likely a couple of weeks. And only if she could come up with a new name for the place.
"We're not open for business yet," Catherine called out.
The next thing out of her mouth was an involuntary shriek because she'd lost her footing on the ladder and both she and the ladder were heading for a collision with the wooden floor.
The ladder landed with a clatter.
Catherine, fortunately, did not.
She was saved from what could have been a very bruising fate by the very person she'd just politely banished from the premises.
Landing in the cowboy's strong, capable arms knocked the air out of her and, along with it, anything else she might have said at that moment.
Which was just as well because she would have hated coming across like some blithering idiot. But right now, not a single coherent thought completed itself in her head. It was filled with just scattered words and a myriad of sensations. Hot sensations.
Everything had faded into the background and Catherine was instantly and acutely aware of the man whose arms she'd landed in. The broad-shouldered, green-eyed, sandy-haired cowboy held her as if she weighed no more than a small child. The muscles on his bare arms didn't even appear to be straining.
A tingling sensation danced through Catherine's entire body, which was stubbornly heating up despite all of her attempts to bank the sensationand her reaction to the mandown.
Her valiant efforts to the contrary, for just a moment, it felt as if time had stood still, freezing this moment as it simultaneously bathed her in a heretofore never experienced, all but debilitating, feeling of desire. For two cents proper, using the excuse that this rugged-looking cowboy had saved her, she would have kissed him. With feeling.
Catherine could absolutely visualize herself kissing him.
The fact that he was a complete stranger was neither here nor there as far as she was concerned. Desire, she discovered at that moment, didn't have to make sense. It could thrive very well without even so much as a lick of sense to it.
And for no particular reason at all, it occurred to her that this man looked like the real deal. A cowboy. A real vintage cowboy.
Was he? Or had she managed to bump her head without knowing it and was just hallucinating?
Their eyes met and held for a timeless instance. Only the pounding of Catherine's heart finally managed to sufficiently rouse her.
"Thank you," she finally whispered.
Doing his best to focus and gather his exceedingly scattered wits about him, Cody heard himself asking,
Catherine let out a long, shaky breath before answering. "For catching me."
"Oh." Of course that was what she meant. What did he think she meant? Cody nodded his head. "Yeah. Right."
The words emerged one at a time, each containing a sealed thought. Thoughts he couldn't begin to convey, or even understand.
Cody cleared his throat, then realized that he was still holding the woman in his arms. He should have already released her.
Feeling awkwardhe hadn't spontaneously reacted to a woman in this manner since his wife had diedhe set her down. "Sorry about that."
"Don't be," she told him. "I'm not." I'm not sorry at all. "If you hadn't caught me just then, I might have broken somethingeither some of the merchandise or, worse, one of my bones."
The fact that if he hadn't come in just now, her attention wouldn't have been thrown off and she very well could have remained perched on the ladder was a point Catherine had no desire to bring up. Thinking of him as her hero was far more pleasant.
Rather than comment, the tall cowboy merely nodded his head in acknowledgment. At the same time, he began to back away.
"Didn't mean to trespass," he murmured by way of an apology. He reached behind him for the doorknob, ready to make his getaway.
"You're not trespassing," Catherine was quick to protest. She didn't have the heart to chase out someone who could actually buy something in the store. "It's just that I haven't exactly gotten the store ready for customers yet. But you can stay if you like."
If he didn't know better, he would have sworn that her tone was almost urging him to stay. And she had shifted her body so that she was now standing between him and the front door.
Cody glanced around the store, still mulling over her initial protest. "Looks okay to me," he told her. "Actually, it looks a mite better than it used to look when that old guy owned it."
Catherine was eager to bring out the shop's better features and play them up so that she could attract actual customers rather than just the pitying or dismissive glances that the store had been garnering before she'd bought it. After the former owner had kidnapped Rose Traub, the people in Thunder Canyon had deliberately shunned the store. And from what she'd heard, before then the clientele was almost as ancient as some of the antiques that were housed here. She wanted to change that as well. She wanted all age-groups to have a reason to drop by and browse.
Fowler wasn't in the picture anymore, having been sent to prison, and the shop was something that she wanted to take on as a project, something that belonged to her exclusively. After a lifetime of being the go-to person, the main caregiver in a family of eight and always putting everyone else's needs ahead her own, it occurred to Catherine that timeand lifewas slipping by her. She needed to make her own way before she woke up one morning to discover that she was no longer young, no longer able to grab her slice of the pie that life had to offer.
Since this sexy-looking cowboy seemed familiar with the way the store had been before she'd taken over, Catherine made a natural assumption and asked, "Did you come in here often when Mr. Fowler owned it?"
"No," he told her honestly. Antiques had never held any interest for him. And they still didn't, except that he knew his sister liked them. "But I walked by the store whenever I was in town and I'd look in."
Mild curiosity was responsible for that. He might not look it, but Cody had made a point of always taking in all of his surroundings. It kept him from being caught off guardthe way he had when Renee had become ill.
"Oh," Catherine murmured. All right, the place had held no real attraction for him, at least it hadn't before. But he'd walked in this morning. Something had obviously changed. "Well, what made you come in today?"
She glanced over her shoulder to see if there was anything unusual out on display that might have caught the cowboy's eye. But nothing stood out for her.
Cody wasn't sure what this gregarious woman was fishing for, but he could only tell her the truth. "I'm looking for a present for my sister. Her birthday's coming up and I need to get something into the mail soon if it's going to get there in time."
Okay, she wasn't making herself clear, Catherine thought. Desperate to hone in on a reliable "X-Factor," she tried again.
"Why here?" she pressed. "Why didn't you just go to the mall? There're lots of stores there." And heaven knew a far more eclectic collection of things for someone to choose from.
The expression that fleetingly passed over the cowboy's tanned face told her exactly what he thought of malls.
But when he finally spoke, he employed a measured, thoughtful cadence. "I haven't put much thought into it," he readily admitted. "I guess I came here because I wanted to give Caroline something that's genuine, that isn't mass-produced. Something that isn't in every store from New York City to Los Angeles," Cody explained.
He looked around the shop again, but not before discovering that it took a bit of effort to tear his eyes away from the shop's new owner. Close up, the talkative young woman didn't really look like Renee, but there was an essence, a spark, an unnamable something about her that did remind him of his late wife. So much so that even as he told himself that he really should be leaving, he found himself continuing to linger on the premises.
"The stuff in this store is " His voice trailed off for a moment as he searched for the right word. It took a little doing. For the most part, Cody Overton was a man given to doing, not talking.
Catherine cocked her head, waiting for him to finish his sentence. When he didn't, she supplied a word for him. "Old?"
"Real," he finally said, feeling the word more aptly described what he was looking for. "And yeah, old," he agreed after a beat. "But there's nothing wrong with old as long as it's not falling apart," he was quick to clarify.
Catherine smiled. She liked his philosophy. In a way, it embodied her own.
And then, just like that, an idea came to her.
Her eyes brightened as she looked up at the cowboy that fate had sent her way. This could be one of those happy accidents people were always talking about, she thought.
But first, she needed to backtrack a little. "I'm sorry, I completely forgot my manners. My name's Catherine Clifton," she told him, putting her hand out. "I'm the new owner," she added needlessly.
Cody looked down at her hand for a moment, as if he was rather uncertain whether to take it or not. He wasn't a man who went out of his way to meet people. Even an extremely attractive woman. He kept to himself for the most part.
But again, there was something about this woman that pulled at him. That nudged him. After a beat, he slipped his hand over hers.
"Cody Overton." He felt it only right to tell her his name since she had given him hers.
He watched in mute fascination as the smile began in her eyes, then feathered down to her lips. "Pleased to meet you, Cody Overton," she said. "You're my very first customer."
"Haven't bought anything yet," he felt obligated to point out.
The man was obviously a stickler for the truth, she couldn't help thinking. She liked that. Moreover, she could really use someone like that, someone who would tell her the truth no matter what.
She paused a moment, wondering how the man would react to what she was about to propose.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?