Read an Excerpt
May 7, 2011
Cassie McMann loved a good party, and she couldn't have asked for a better one than the wedding reception for Leo Casale and Amanda Allen Crawford at Dewey's Saloon and Steakhouse. The crowd filled up the whole restaurant and bar, with a DJ playing country-western music on the small stage near the dance floor. Rascal Flatts sang "Life is a Highway" and Cassie tapped her foot in time to the beat, itching to get out on the floor with a guypreferably a cowboyso she could practice her two-step.
The lights were turned down, but not so low that she couldn't see her friends and associates. As the project manager for Casale Remodeling, she knew almost everyone in town and quite a few in nearby Graham. Her boss was Leo's sister, Toni, and Toni was married to Cassie's former boss, Wyatt McCall. Even for a small town, people were really woven into a tight-knit circle in Brody's Crossing.
There should have been plenty of single guys around, but she didn't see any at the moment. Many of the people her age were already married.
The two weddings Cassie had been to latelyTo-ni's and now Amanda'shad both been beautiful and moving, but she wasn't ready for that type of commitment just yet. She'd gotten a late start on the "girls just want to have fun" scene and had a lot of living to do before she tied the knot.
"Something to drink?" a waiter asked.
She looked at the tray of tall, thin flutes. "Do you have a light beer?"
"I'll be glad to get you one, but we have champagne to toast the bride and groom."
"I usually just drink light beer." The lightest she could find. "But I guess I should have some champagne for the toast."
"Absolutely," the young man said with a flirtatious grin that Cassie found charming. She was a lightweight when it came to drinking, which was why she'd been sipping low-alcohol beer for the past forty minutes. She exchanged her empty bottle for a glass of the bubbly.
She'd never gone through the phase of slipping away to drink at a friend's house or in a college dorm. She'd always been terrified that the two people who had raised her since age seven, Aunt Helen and Uncle Jim, would have been disappointed in her.
They'd given her a home when her parents had died in a van accident on a church missionary trip. The vehicle had gone off a narrow highway in the mountains of Mexico and Cassie had been left alone with her mother's much older sister, who'd never had children of her own.
Aunt Helen wasn't the warmest, most fuzzy person in the world, but she'd gladly taken in a devastated little girl who needed safety and security. She and her husband had done their best, raising Cassie in the church and among the other older couples in their California neighborhood.
Not exactly the kind of background that produced a happy-go-lucky, confident party girl, Cassie thought. She'd worked hard in high school and in college to make her aunt and uncle proud. Now, with an MBA from UC Berkeley, she'd given up her corporate job as an assistant to a brilliant billionaire to live and work in Brody's Crossing, Texas.
To someone who had always loved the West, this place felt like home. She loved the wide-open spaces, beautiful sunsets, grazing cattle, Quarter Horses, and, yes, the cowboys who rode them, and couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
"Why aren't you out there dancing?" Toni asked, sliding up beside Cassie. Toni was not only her boss and mayor of the town, but a friend and a great businesswoman who had taught Cassie a lot about the construction industry. She'd picked up tips about decorating, too, and looked forward to learning more from Toni, and her partners Leo Casale and Christie Crawford.
Both Cassie and Toni wore plum-colored bridesmaid dresses, which, thanks to Amanda's sensibilities, were simple and elegant. The wide neckline made the dress almost off-the-shoulder and Cassie had bought a strapless braher firstto wear with it. The tea-length skirt was full and she'd felt more like a prom queen than a maid of honor when she'd first put it on.
Cassie wiggled her toes inside the low-heeled, matching plum, peep-toe pumps. "Oh, I'm dancing tonight, as soon as I find a good partner."
"Just make sure none of these cowboys stomp on your foot like your horse did last month."
Rooster, the chestnut gelding she'd bought at the end of the year, had gotten spooked while she was saddling him. He'd come down on her booted toes, thankfully not breaking anything but bruising her foot and making it swell so much she'd worn sandals to work for a week. Rooster was her first horse and she was still learning, not only how to ride, but how to keep herself from getting trampled by the big animal.
Cassie laughed. "More likely that I'll trip over them. I'm still not the best dancer in the room."
Starting last year she'd taken weeks of dance lessons to learn the two-step, the Cotton-Eyed Joe, and line dances, but she hadn't had a lot of practice. She was looking to meet cute, single cowboys who just wanted to have a good time.
"There's a couple of promising dance partners here," Toni said. "You know our cousin on our mother's side, Hamund, right? He's a pretty good dancer. And Colby Yates's brother Charlie is back from Las Vegas, where he was on that show kind of like American Idol for cowboys. I'll bet he can dance."
"Oh, right. The Next Cowboy Star." Charlie Yates. She'd watched him every week and voted for him. He was a real charmer. Too bad the horse they'd given him to ride for that last event was as stubborn as a mule. "No offense to Ham, but where is Charlie Yates? I'd love to meet him." She could see Ham anytime he was working at the Casale Grocery or hanging around town, but Charlie was in another league.
"He's holding court over there by the groom's table, telling stories about his time in the spotlight, I'm sure."
"Hmm." Cassie knew she'd be heading that way soon.
Toni grinned. "Well, I can see where your attention is."
"Oh, no, I didn't mean"
"Hey, you see me Monday through Friday. It's not every day you get to meet a star."
"Too bad he didn't win."
"Oh, I'll bet Charlie is going to be just fine. He's a born competitor, and anyone that handsome should end up in the movies."
Cassie nodded. Toni had that right.
"Have fun," Toni said, then leaned closer and added, "but be careful. Don't let any of these good ol' boys take advantage of you."
"Oh, I won't. I'll be careful."
Toni left and Cassie gathered her courage, placed the empty flute on a tray against the wall and headed across the room. Charlie Yates might not know it yet, but they were going to dance.
"And who's that coming my way?" Charlie asked the group of friends he was standing with near the groom's table.
"Cassie McMannshe's new to town," Colby answered.
"And she's real sweet and works for Toni, so don't get any ideas," Troy Crawford added.
"Why would you be thinkin' I had ideas?" Charlie grinned as possibilities started exploding in his head like the popcorn kernels in those Jiffy Pop aluminum pans his mom liked.
"Because you're looking at her like she's a tasty bite of candy," Troy said. "Just be warned that she's not exactly what you might expect from someone who looks that good. She's kind of shy and inexperienced."
"She's a virgin?" Not at her age. No way.
"Damn, Charlie, how would I know? I've been married for five years and I live in New Hampshire!" Troy sounded exasperated.
"I live right here and I have no idea," Ham said.
"What they're saying is that she's a nice girl," Colby clarified. "Not a buckle bunny and not a Hollywood groupie." He gave Charlie one of his "big brother" looks. "Just because you've always been told you could charm the varnish off the furniture doesn't mean you have to try it with every woman you see."
"I'm hurt," Charlie stated, clutching his chest.
Colby rolled his eyes. All their lives, Colby had been the serious, dedicated big brother. He'd gone the route of hard work while Charlie had lived up to his family's prediction that he'd be the most entertaining Yates in three generations.
"She's got an MBA from UC Berkeley," Ham added.
"Okay, got it." She might be a smart, educated lady, but she had a petite body he'd like to tuck under his arm and fluffy curls he'd like to run his fingers through. The guys could be right, though. He'd have to see what she said when she got here, which would be just about now.
"Hi," cute little brainy Cassie said, her voice sounding as soft as those curls on top of her head looked.
"Hi, Cassie." Nearly all the guys returned the greeting at once.
Charlie nudged his brother.
"Er, Cassie McMann, this is my brother Charlie. Charlie Yates, formerly of the Lazy Y, lately of Las Vegas and Hollywood."
"I'm so sorry you got voted off The Next Cowboy Star," Cassie said, sympathy in her eyes. Her voice held a breathless quality Charlie usually identified as potential lust at first sight, but he could be wrong. He didn't date a lot of brainy businesswomen.
Maybe she was simply expressing genuine regret. "Why, thank you, Cassie. I'm sorry I didn't win, but hey, this way I got to come back for Leo's weddin'."
"I'm really glad," Cassie said, smiling slightly, "I mean for Leo and Amanda. Glad they had such a beautiful ceremony. And I'm glad you got to attend."
"I'm getting happier by the minute," Charlie said, grinning wide enough to show off the teeth bleaching and cosmetic dental work that had fixed the chip in his front tooth. Who knew that being a cowboy required so many procedures? He'd been buffed and polished like a used car, then they'd insisted he needed a few "highlights" in his hair. All so he'd look natural and appealing, according to his agent. The only way he could get real highlights was working cattle without a hat, which would be dumb in the Texas heat.
However, all this seemed to be having an effect on Cassie. She swallowed and drew in a deep breath, which stretched the wide neckline of her bridesmaid dress across her breasts. "Do you like to dance, Charlie Yates?"
"Why, I sure do," he said with a smile, holding out his arm. "Would you like to dance, darlin'?"
"I'd love to," she said, flushing a little as she grinned back at him.
Yep, the night was definitely looking up. He guided his dance partner onto the floor just as Lady Antebel-lum's "Need You Now" started up. Good. He'd have to hold Cassie tight as they glided around. Just his kind of music. Just his kind of womanif he ignored her "inexperienced" and "brainy" qualities.
Charlie Yates was not the kind of guy she dated. He was too tall, too smooth, too charming.just too much of everything. And yet, Cassie couldn't seem to say a word or keep her feet from following his as he led her in the dance. The wedding reception blossomed into a spectacular night of sensations, sounds and smells that weren't part of her regular life. Everything was new, from drinking champagne to wearing a beautiful dress to dancing with a man she'd only seen on television.
Thank heavens for the dance lessons she'd taken, and for the self-preservation instincts that kept her from babbling on about how attractive and talented Charlie was. The music thumped through her veins even as she tried to take a breath. She'd never danced with a partner who held her so close or commanded the lead quite the way Charlie Yates did. His lean, muscular body seemed tight and powerful. She'd never felt so.controlled before.
Alarm bells should be going off in her brain, but she felt a strange exhilaration instead. She couldn't be safer at a wedding reception, although her senses and her body were on alert. Instead of shouting danger, however, they were urging her to give in to this foreign yet entirely wonderful desire to enjoy every second with him. She'd never have this chance again, after all.
She relaxed a little, molding herself to Charlie's body. Her bridesmaid's dress swirled around her calves and her low-heeled pumps glided across the wooden floor as if they'd been made for the Texas Two-Step.
"You're a good dancer, darlin'," Charlie said, leaning down. His warm breath tickled her ear.
A shiver went through her body. "Um, thanks." She was really out of her league.
The band started another number and Charlie didn't say a word, just changed his tempo to match the song. They whirled around the floor until Cassie could barely make out the faces of her friends as they spun by. Their bodies became a little damp from the exertion, and the smell of hot, clean cowboywith just a touch of expensive men's colognefilled her senses.
And then the music stopped with a crescendo and a high-pitched shriek of the fiddle. Charlie twirled her around with a laugh.
Startled, she looked up into his sparkling green eyes and couldn't resist a matching chuckle. "Why are we laughing?" she asked as the music stopped.
"Who knows? Time for the toasts." Charlie guided her to the edge of the dance floor and took two flutes from a waiter. He handed her one. She wasn't going to finish this glass since her head was already swirling from their two dances.
He kept her hand tucked firmly around his arm, as if he didn't plan to let her go. Which was fine with her.
"Are you friends with Leo?" Cassie asked as Charlie glanced toward the raised table where Amanda and Leo sat with their families.
"We went to school together, but then I went off to rodeo and he left to make his fortune at the blackjack tables. I'm sorry to say we haven't kept in touch." Charlie looked down at her and smiled. "How about you, darlin' ? Have you been friends with Amanda a long time?"
"I met her several months ago, when she came to town looking for her brothers."
"How long have you lived here?"
"It will be three years in December."
"Well, I sure am glad."
And I'm glad you're here, too. "Thank you."
Leo's cousin Ham got up and gave an amusing toast, followed by Leo's father, who praised Amanda, and finally her brothers Cal and Troy Crawford, who welcomed Leo to the family. Cal also gave a moving speech about how happy they all were that Amanda had found her two brothers after years of living far away from their family. By the time the toasts were finished, Cassie had a tear in her eye.
"That was beautiful," she whispered.
Charlie looked at her as if he didn't know what to say. He was probably uncomfortable with women getting mushy at weddings, but Cassie couldn't help it. Amanda was her friend and she deserved this happiness.
Amanda and Leo glided to the middle of the dance floor as the DJ played Kenny Chesney's "You Had Me From Hello." They held each other close and looked so in love it almost made Cassie teary again.
"Let's dance," Charlie said, taking her hand and urging her close.