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A saloon girl who was made to draw every gaze in the room.
And every time Nicki Wade caught a glimpse of her Halloween-party self in one of the mirrors of the Pine Junction Grand Hotel ballroom, she kept thinking, Who knew?
"Told you," said her cousin Candace as they waited for the band to start up again. "Can I cook, or can I cook?"
Nicki cut her gaze from the mirror, smiling at Can-dace. Dress up. It reminded her of all those days when her cousin would stay on the ranch during the summer, giving her single, divorced mom a break. like sisters, the same age with the same youthful energies, they'd spent rainy days in the attic, wearing old clothes, acting like princesses and belles, even though Nicki had been far from either.
"I can't complain about a makeover," she said.
Candace tugged on one of Nicki's curls. "I did have some good raw material to work with. You were made for more than jeans and boots, Nic."
Not for the first time, Nicki touched the silk of her costume. Shiny as a rainy-day fantasy. Decadent as one of the heroines in the novels that had always drawn her to the corner of the second-hand bookshop in town—the ones shelved under the label Lusty Historical, where the women wore corsets and garters as a matter of everyday necessity.
Candace linked arms with her. She was dressed as a sexy cowgirl, all in white, from the hat that covered her long red hair to the bikini top and chaps that revealed a body honed by her time jogging on the beach near the apartment she'd recently needed to vacate. As always, though, Pine Junction hadn't been too far for her. It was about an hour from the San Diego shoreline, but a world away in attitude, tucked into the trees of the eastern part of the county, which was dotted with ranches.
"So," Candace said, "now that I've gotten you out of the Square W+W ranch office, it's time to have some fun. Do you see anything here that you like?"
Slipping her arm out of Candace's, Nicki leaned back against a tall, linen-draped table littered with empty bottles and surveyed the room, but just as usual, the men didn't much catch her fancy.
There had always been only one guy who'd ever done that, and he'd left town a long time ago. He'd be a man now, not a boy, and not the seventeen-year-old who'd left after an infamous tear-down fight with his dad.
Candace laughed. "I know who you're looking for."
No use hiding it from her only cousin. Candace had grown up knowing all about Nicki, thanks to the letters they wrote when they weren't together and the secrets they'd shared when they were.
"You don't have to say it," Nicki said, fighting the heat on her skin. "Shane Carter's back, and I can't keep my eyes from the doorway."
"And he's been here for two days already. All you had to do was go next door, bring him some welcome-home cookies—"
"It's not that easy."
"Sure it is."
Nicki shook her head. Candace knew how Nicki had spun a million fantasies about Shane. He'd been a couple years older, one of those boys at school whom everyone kept their eye on. Whatever he tried—baseball, football—he was good at, although he never showed much interest in pursuing any of them. No, standoffish Shane was far better at getting into mischief on and off the ranch.
But that didn't mean there wasn't a heart beneath his bad-boy exterior. She'd seen it once, way back when she'd been about nine and had been playing around with Candace, using the fence that separated their properties as a balance beam.
Just as they'd seen Mr. Carter and Shane riding up in the distance, that rail had split beneath Nicki, and she'd tumbled to the ground.
She'd heard Mr. Carter yelling at her about ruining his property, just before Shane had jumped off his horse, making sure she was all right, then covering her as his father had approached.
Both she and Candace had seen it—a standoff between a wiry, protective eleven-year-old kid and his livid father, who was said to have a terrible temper. And she'd never forgotten how a red-faced Mr. Carter had ridden off after giving Shane a look that said punishment would be in store for him back at the house.
Without commenting on it, Shane made double sure that Nicki was okay, then rode off, too, the sunlight burnishing him as he took her heart with him.
That was really when he'd become the prince in every fairy tale for Nicki. Then, after she'd graduated to more adult books, she'd pictured him as every hero, even as he'd become Pine Junction's Romeo in reality, going from playing pranks in town to rankling just about every father in the area with his love-'em-and-leave-'em ways.
Funny thing was that Nicki had never stopped putting him on a romantic pedestal. She'd measured every man against him and they'd all come up short to the fantasy.
She stopped looking around the room at the other guys. "I don't know why Shane's home or how long he'll be there, so why bother him?"
"Candy, Shane can't be back in town for any good reason." His dad had died a few years ago and his older brother, Tommy, had deserted the Slanted C Ranch out of the blue. Shane hadn't even visited over the years.
"Don't you wonder," Candace said, "what he might be like now? Isn't that driving you crazy?"
Nicki's belly flipped from a mixture of anticipation and fear of disappointment.
"I've wondered," she finally said. "But that still doesn't mean I'm going over there with cookie plate in hand."
"But this is finally your chance."
Nicki just smiled. She'd had plenty of dreams about what she'd do with Shane if she had any kind of chance.
"See?" Candace said, nudging her. "All you need is a push forward. Come on, admit it—if you had an opportunity with Shane, you'd "
Nicki's smile grew even bigger as she took a drink of beer, and Candace laughed again.
"Told you," she said.
There wasn't much use in talking about Shane, so Nicki rested her icy bottle against her neck, wallowing in the glass's coolness. The ballroom's ceiling fans were trying like the dickens to chase away the Indian summer, but they were hardly doing a good job of it.
Looking at all the other sexy costumes around the room, she thought that if Shane were to amble in here, he wouldn't get past the door, where there was a shapely fairy lingering with a very un-Disneyish princess whose Fantasylands were having a hard time staying in their bodices.
She officially changed the subject. "And here I thought the Halloween season is supposed to be scary. Isn't it about ghouls and goblins rather than little French maid costumes?"
Candace sighed, obviously wanting to get back to the Shane conversation. "Halloween time is always a good time to show off what God gave a girl." She held her champagne as if she was at some kind of rooftop shindig in downtown San Diego instead of tiny Pine Junction. "It's a time when we can put the va in our voom and get away with it."
Near the dance floor, Nicki couldn't help but notice that a few hands from neighboring ranches were hanging out, eyeing Candace. And, if she didn't know better, she'd say that they were taking her in, too, as if they'd just now noticed that she existed beyond the confines of the Square W+W Ranch.
And why not? She'd just about been a self-imposed prisoner there, working away in the office, burying herself in the account books and hardly ever going out until Candace had settled into the house on the ranch a week ago.
"See?" Candace said, noticing the cowpokes, too. "You've already been staked out, and those guys just walked into the room."
Nicki's skin flushed. Thing was, now that she'd been thinking of Shane, she'd lost all interest. Maybe it was a sign of laziness that she buried herself in the safety of her fantasies. Maybe she just didn't have the energy, what with all the work waiting for her back in real life.
Still, she gave the guys a subtle yet thorough scan. She didn't know these particular cowpokes—maybe they were new hires at one of the ranches in the area—but then again, she hadn't socialized so much recently. Come to think of it, even before her parents had been killed in an auto accident out on the infamous Drop Curve on the highway a few years ago and left her with a failing ranch, she hadn't been all that sociable. Her family had always lived hand-to-mouth, and to combat that, she'd grown up focused, devoting herself to the support of their always-wavering American Paint horse breeding operation. At the end of the day, she'd recline on the porch and read rummage-sale books until someone called her in for dinner.
Maybe she'd never given life a chance outside of her comfort zone, but, realistically, Nicki was pretty sure that one makeover wasn't going to change everything in a single night. She wouldn't suddenly not be a bookworm who'd had about one significant relationship in her life. And that man, Arthur, had dropped her without all that much fanfare after she'd really gotten in deep with her work at the ranch.
Even now, as she thought of the W+W, she got a little unsociable again.
What was she doing? She didn't have time for silly games with men like these, anyway, not when tomorrow was a big day for the ranch.
The big day.
Candace said, "Would you just relax?"
"Can't. Tomorrow keeps eating away at me."
"You're going to do fine. We 'll do fine. That ranch is a second home to me, and I'm not about to see it go under." She drank her champagne. "It'll be bad enough seeing it go dude."
They'd heard through the grapevine that a corporate investment firm had been nosing around some property in these parts, asking about possibilities for a dude resort. Nicki had spent some sleepless nights working things out in her head. She'd already sold off most of the horse stock after her parents' deaths, and she'd been doing everything possible to keep from laying off any of the employees, who were just like family.
Going dude seemed like the only option, as long as the investors agreed to keep the staff on. And at least it would maintain the ranch, which went back generations in her family.
So she'd contacted the Lyon Group and invited one of their representatives to the Square W+W so he could see how perfect it would be for the company's purposes.
Candace was watching a mobile of flying ghoul-ies that dangled from the ceiling. "I shouldn't get on your case about nerves. What you're doing is important. There're other families who've been working on the ranch for years, too, and they could lose a home just as much as you could, if you don't turn everything around."
"Thanks for understanding," Nicki said.
"You know I'd do anything for you." Candace slowly put down her nearly empty champagne flute. "And I'd do anything for your mom and dad, too."
Candace's voice was thick, and Nicki rested a hand over hers.
She didn't say anything more, not until Candace put on a happier face, which Nicki knew was meant for her sake.
"To life," Candace said, raising what was left of her champagne. "To things getting better from this point on."
They toasted, as if it didn't matter that life had spi-raled downward for all of them recently. Candace herself had been going through hard times, laid off as a personal assistant at an electronics firm, where she'd been involved with a corporate internship program and riding her ambition toward a bright future until the newest employees had fallen under the ax. Now, with her pocketbook nearly empty from the same hard times that were affecting everyone, she was staying with Nicki for a few months so she could save up enough money to go back out on her own again.
Out of the corner of her eye, Nicki saw one of the ranch hands glancing her way again.
As if looking for something positive to latch on to after the heavy moment, Candace said, "Ah. The saloon girl costume. It does it for a guy every single time."
"How would you know?"
"Halloween isn't the only time a girl can dress up."
Candace just kept smiling, and Nicki got the feeling they weren't talking about the upcoming holiday itself anymore.
Seeming mighty innocent, Candace ran a finger around the rim of her champagne glass, then smirked.
Nicki recognized the gesture from times gone by, such as the day Candace had instigated a "stakeout" in the old barn, where they knew Johnny Graystone and Jane Willens met every day to smooch. They'd giggled all through the make-out session until Johnny had discovered them and chased them out.
"I'm just telling you," Candace said. "If you want, you could get a lot of mileage out of this costume. And don't tell me it hasn't crossed your mind, Miss Romance. There are guys out there who'd like a little taste of this in real life or at least as real as fantasies can get."
"Are you talking about.?"
"Taking the saloon girl out of the party and to the bedroom? You know I am."
Nicki wasn't as shocked by that as she thought she would be. Twenty-seven years and she'd been with one man in all that time. Arthur had been an old friend from out of town who'd come through on a road trip. The relationship had only lasted about a half year before they'd called it quits. It'd been a long-distance thing, with her in Pine Junction and him in Phoenix, but when he'd accidentally sent her an amorous email that had clearly been meant for someone else—the inclusion of the name "Karla" had been a pretty good tip-off about that—the relationship had been doomed.
Candace lowered her voice even more. "Come on, Nic, I know you've had a teeny bit of experience in things."
Posted June 24, 2013
Posted June 23, 2013
Posted June 23, 2013
Posted September 29, 2011
Square W+W rancher Nicki Wade has a makeover that turns her from a tomboy into a sexy saloon girl. She and her cousin Candace are at the Pine Junction Grand Hotel Halloween party.
The male she has loved unrequitedly for years, neighboring rancher Shane Carter has come home to his family's
Slanted C Ranch. Like Nicki, he hopes to save the spread that is in financial trouble.
Candace sees the pair eyeing one another at the gala. She urges Nicki, who she knows has wanted Shane since they were little girls, and Shane to have fun together. They begin a sexy role-playing fantasy that generates enough heat to keep both their ranches warm in winter. As they fall in love, each wonders whether the other would like to erase temporary from their relationship
Roped In is a fun Wrong Bed ranch romance. The fantasies create a heated relationship between the lead couple, but both fear reality. Cousin Candice adds depth to a strong contemporary as the audience wonders whether the fences will come down under a Wade-Carter collaboration as lust and love may not be enough to save the spreads.
Posted December 22, 2011
No text was provided for this review.