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Dread bubbled inside of Guy Roberts. The filling-station attendant had said the Wild West show was setting up in the fairgrounds a half mile from Cottonwood Landing, Nebraska. This had to be the place. Although no signs advertised Cowboy Jack's Western Extravaganza, a dozen hands fenced off a rodeo arena while others raked dirt, hammered tent stakes into the ground and assembled bleachers.
He grimaced and eased his brand-new car, a 1924 Durant Star Speedster, into the grassy pasture. Peering through the windshield, he scanned the area for untethered horses. Satisfied he wouldn't meet one of the wild beasts face to face, he killed the engine, opened his car door and slid from behind the wheel.
The putrid scent of sun-warmed horse flesh mixed with their waste assaulted his nostrils, assuring him they were out of sight but in close proximity. His racing heart weakened his legs and sheened a cold sweat across his forehead. His stomach lurched, threatening to spill his breakfast on to the grassy ground. Guy placed his right arm on the ledge of the car roof and rested his clammy forehead against the rough tweed of his suit jacket. He swallowed hard, hoping to take control of his stomach and the fear squeezing his insides. "Do you need help?"
Guy's body jerked. He'd seen no one in the immediate area when he pulled into the pasture.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. Are you ill?"
He'd been concentrating so hard on controlling his overpowering fright he hadn't heard the woman approach. The gentle lilt of her voice held more than an apology. Her sweet tones of motherly concern were a balm, easing his quivering fears and reminding him of his mother, the model example of a woman who put home and family first.
"I'm fi " Looking up and turning, surprise widened his eyes and silenced him. The woman who stood before him was quite the opposite of the matronly image conjured up by his imagination. A petite girl, at least three years younger than his twenty-three years, stood behind him with a smile brighter than the gleaming chrome on his new car.
The flower accent on her straw cloche hat matched the pink background of her in-vogue pink-and-gray-print broadcloth dress. The wide, loose fold at the drop waistline created the illusion of a middy blouse over a form-fitting skirt.
How out of place she looked in the middle of the pasture decked out in the latest fashion! He'd assumed the women associated with the Western Extravaganza show dressed in buckskin-fringed riding skirts and vests. But this young lady looked like she should be window shopping on Fourth Street in downtown Sioux City, Iowa, not crossing a grassy range in nowhere Nebraska. This lovely young miss was a very pleasant surprise.
When she drew her brows together and narrowed her eyes, Guy's manners snapped into action. He tipped his homburg and bowed slightly. "I beg your pardon, miss. I didn't mean to stare. Could you tell me if this is where I can find Jack Barnes?" Hat still in hand he swept his arm wide.
A soft breeze rustled the strings of the bow accent on her dress and lifted the ends of her bobbed auburn hair that peeked out from under her hat. "It's Jonathan Barnes." Her rose-tinted lips curved into a smile. She held out a delicate hand. "I'm his daughter, Laura."
"Guy Roberts. Please excuse my bad manners. I'm a little out of sorts today." Not to mention out of place standing in the center of a pasture instead of sitting in a deep leather chair in his family's manufacturing office. His fear, which had dissipated with the appearance of Laura, reared up. Once again, his insides swirled.
He returned his hat to his head, sliding it back to expose his forehead to the cool breeze, hoping to dry his fear-induced cold sweat. Then he reached for Laura's hand.
The softness of her skin trailed across his hand, surprising him for the second time. Her fingers tightened around his as she shook with a firmer grip than most men he knew.
"Are you all right?" Laura furrowed her brow and crinkled her nose, moving the smattering of freckles across the bridge closer together. Guy's insides swirled again at Laura's touch.
She tugged her hand free of his sooner than he expected. His instincts urged him to recapture it, bring it to his lips and plant a kiss on her palm. In an effort to control his feelings he drew a deep steadying breath, forgetting the horse-scented air. The acidic scent burned his nostrils and permeated his tongue. He coughed, covering his mouth, and turned from Laura in an attempt to compose himself.
Lord, I am trying to obey Your commandment and honor my mother even though I don't understand her wish to have a trick rider sponsor our product. Please help ease my fears.
Pleasant warmth seeped through his jacket where Laura rested her palm against his back. Calm washed through him.
"Let's get you out of the hot sun. The office tent is this way." Laura placed a hand on his forearm and began to guide him across the grass to a grove of cot-tonwood trees. "You can sit down there and drink a glass of cool water."
Guy stopped walking and took shallow breaths through his mouth to filter the stench in the air. It didn't help his lightheadedness. "My briefcase is in the car."
"Oh. You wait here. I'll get it."
Before Guy could protest, Laura seemed to glide across the short spans of pasture. Her posture and poise rivaled that of the finest ballerina. Traipsing across uneven ground in her T-strap heels never threw off her balance. She seemed so out of place here, not at all what he expected in a showman's daughter. Perhaps she had attended an Eastern boarding school.
He marveled at the way Laura swung his attaché case, filled with twelve bottles of Papa Fizzy's Cream Soda, like an empty berry basket. Where would a petite gal get this much strength? More important, why would she want it?
Striding past him, she pointed with her free hand. "This way."
It took Guy a few quick steps to catch up with Laura. Flanking her left side where she carried his case, he swung his arm simultaneously with hers before reaching for the leather handle. "I'll carry that."
"If you're not feeling well, it's really no bother." Laura kept walking and swinging.
Guy managed to slip his right hand around the handle of the case, looping his fingers over Laura's. Her silky skin tickled his palm.
She turned her head toward him and smiled. "Are you sure?"
At his nod, she released her grasp on the handle at the same time his foot dropped into a rut. Guy quickly stumble-stepped. The swinging momentum of the case jolted him sideways and the handle slipped from his hand. Glass rattled as the case bounced on the ground.
"Oh, no." Laura knelt beside the attaché. "I hope whatever is in there didn't break."
Guy hesitated a moment; he didn't relish getting grass stains on the knees of his Oxford bags. But there wasn't any other option. He needed to open the case and check for breakage. He knelt beside Laura.
The case had landed upside down. Guy carefully turned it over. No sticky liquid oozed through the opening, which had to be a good sign.
"What's in there?"
Laura craned her neck over his shoulder, her breath like fluttering butterfly wings on his cheek.
"Papa Fizzy's Cream Soda." Guy flipped the end latches and slowly opened the case. He lifted a heavy towel to reveal twelve clear bottles filled with amber liquid, lying on their side on top of another thick towel.
"Are any broken?" Laura lightly touched a bottle.
"None appear to be." Guy picked one up, held it toward the sun and turned it.
"They were well padded." Laura lifted a bottle and inspected it. "This one's okay. Do you want to sell your soda pop at the show's concessions? Is that why you're here to see my dad?" Laura carefully returned her bottle to the case, then removed another one.
"No, well, yes. I mean" Guy put the bottle back into the case and rubbed his hands across the rough tweed on his thighs.
He was an accountant. It's what he'd studied in college in preparation for working in the family business. "I'm here because we, I mean Papa Fizzy's, hopes your trick rider, Pete Barnes, wants to endorse our product. If he agrees, then yes, we'd want our cream soda sold in the concessions."
Guy turned to find Laura wide-eyed and flushed. He stuffed the padding back over the bottles and clicked the latches closed. "I believe we both need to get out of the hot August sun." Guy glanced around the pasture to ensure no horses were present.
He stood and extended his hand to assist Laura to her feet. She waved it off and with a quick jump, stood erect.
"Do you think your father would be interested in this type of business deal?"
Laura drew her mouth into a pucker and shrugged. "The tent's this way." She lifted a hand toward the grove of cottonwood trees.
They walked side by side at a pace much slower than before, the breeze bringing intermittent but faint wafts of horse stench. Guy relaxed, certain they were putting distance between them and the horses. "Is Pete a relative?"
Laura gave him a sideways glance. "He's my brother."
"I hear he's quite a talent."
"Yes." Laura's smile grew tight. "He's quite a talent, all right."
Guy stifled a smile at the obvious show of sibling rivalry. "I'm told he's the only trick rider brave enough to perform the back drag." Personally, Guy felt you'd have to be crazy, rather than brave, to perform tricks on a moving horse, but their company and his mother were depending on him to place this endorsement, so he'd have to keep his personal commentary to himself.
Laura's smile pulled tighter and she worried the decorative bow of her dress. "Bravery hasn't anything to do with it. Talent and practice allow any trick rider to perform the stunt correctly."
They rounded the grove and stepped into a clearing. Tents, horse trailers and various Model T trucks dotted the grass at the tree line. Women pinned clothes to ropes stretched between low-hanging tree limbs while children frolicked, darting under sheets and through the legs of stiff denim jeans drying on the line.
"The office is over there." Laura pointed to a large white tent set off a distance from the gypsytype camp. Most of the women greeted Laura while giving Guy a scrutinizing once-over.
As Guy and Laura continued toward the tent, the honeysuckle fragrance she wore wafted toward him with her every movementa delightful contrast to the Wild West show's aroma. Guy breathed deeply, filling his lungs with Laura's refreshing fragrance.
Keeping his eyes on the uneven ground, Guy cast sideways glances at Laura. She was at the age when a girl's cuteness turned into a woman's beauty. Pretty, graceful, dignified and refined, she had all of the makings of a fine lady.
Still, she seemed so out of place here. The women around the camp wore cotton house dresses; a few even sported trousers. She must be here on summer vacation from a school in the city. As he cast another glance toward her, Laura's gaze met his. Her deep brown eyes searched his face.
He needed to break the awkward silence surrounding them. "So what makes this trick so dangerous?"
Splaying her fingers in front of her and slowly moving her hands outward, a genuine smile brightened Laura's face. Her brown eyes twinkled. "Hanging on only by boots in the stirrups, the rider falls over the back of the horse until both hands dangle beside the horse's tail. Then the rider pulls back up into a sitting position."
A shiver of fear quaked Guy's insides. "I guess it is a dangerous trick!" His voice megaphoned through the pasture, creating an echo and drawing the attention of the workers. Why would anyone want to ride one of those beasts, let alone hang over the backside?
Laura waved her right hand dismissively through the air. "That's not the dangerous part. The danger of the trick is the rider isn't in control of the horse once letting go of the reins, and if the horse's hooves come up high while running, the rider gets kicked in the head."
Dizziness washed over Guy. He swayed. His grip on the case loosened. He stopped walking. Who in their right mind would do that for a living? He set the case on the ground, removed his handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow. Why had his mother insisted on sending him here? She knew he feared horses. He needed to secure Pete Barnes's signature and return to the city where he belonged.
When Laura realized he'd stopped walking, she turned and retraced her steps. Concern etched her face and she opened her mouth to speak.
Guy held up a silencing hand. "Has that ever happened?" Fear crackled his voice. His heart thundered in his chest like fierce hooves galloping against the hard ground.
He swiped the soft cotton over his face, the rough stitching of the monogram scratched across his cheek. Did he really want to know?
"You mean the trick go bad?" Laura stepped closer, placing her hand on his shoulder.
Guy's eyes locked on Laura. He managed a nod.
"Not if the horse is well trained." Laura's kind smile returned. "Sorry, I might have added too much drama to my description, but I'm used to selling it to customers. It's our main attraction. The truth is" Laura leaned her head closer to Guy in a conspiratorial stance and lowered her voice "the horse is really the star of the trick, not the rider."
Laura's eyes sparkled. "Wait until you see my, I mean our, Starlight. She's the best and most beautiful horse you'll ever set eyes on. Should we go over to the fairground stable after your meeting with Dad? Once you see her, I think you'll want to include her in the endorsement advertisements."
He hadn't considered meeting the horse, only the rider. Guy gulped. "Well, maybe I should see how the meeting goes first. Mr. Barnes may not be interested." He wanted to spend more time with Laura but not looking at horses. Maybe a nice dinner and a walk through a park.
"I have a feeling he will be." Laura's smile turned sly. "We'll never know if we don't go ask him." Laura started toward the tent.
Guy returned his handkerchief to his pocket, lifted the case and caught up with Laura as she paused by the tent opening. "I need a moment." He set his case down, then brushed the dust from the knees of his trousers. He ran his hands across his double-breasted suit jacket to ensure it was buttoned properly. He raised his hat and ran his fingers through his hair before he returned it to the proper position on his head. "I'm ready." He picked up his case.
Laura lifted the flap and stepped through the opening.
Guy followed her through the canvas door, stopping for a second to let his eyes adjust to the shaded interior.
"Dad, a salesman is here to see you." Laura stepped aside to allow a better view of Guy.
The large man sitting behind the rough wooden table stood. A plaid cotton shirt pulled across his broad shoulders. Although tall, he was trim and wore his high-waist trousers well. His sandy hair, short and curly, hung in a style all its own. Mr. Barnes didn't fit the cowboy image Guy had fixed in his mind, either, although a straw cowboy hat did dangle precariously off the decorative end-tip on the straight-backed chair he'd risen from.
"Mr. Barnes, I'm Guy Roberts with Papa Fizzy's Cream Soda Company located in Sioux City, Iowa." Guy held his free hand out, meeting Mr. Barnes halfway around the table.
"Pleased to meet you. Call me Jack."
Guy's brow pulled in confusion.
"Dad, you should go by your Christian name, Jonathan." Laura's lips pulled into a reprimanding frown.
"Laura, when the good Lord calls my name, I'll answer to Jonathan. Until then, I'm going by Jack." His exasperation was evident. He gave his daughter a curt nod and turned his attention back to Guy.
Guy didn't miss seeing Laura cross her arms over her chest and give her dad a raised-eyebrow stare.