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"Hi, Doll, how's it going?"
Holly Johnson's heart instantly skipped a beat and then quickened, the way it always did when she heard his voice or first saw him coming her way.
It had been like that since the very first time she had set eyes on the tall, broad-shouldered and raven-haired Ramon Rodriguez, with his soul-melting brown eyes, all the way back in the first grade.
The beginning of the second day of the first week of first grade, to be exact. That was the day she'd started first grade. Looking to change his luck, her father had moved his familyher mother, older brother Will and herfrom a dirt farm in Oklahoma to Forever, Texas.
Back then she'd been a skinny little tomboy and the only reason Ray had noticed her at all was because she was not only determined to play all the games that boys played, she was actually good at them. She could outrun the fastest boy in class, climb trees faster than he could and wasn't afraid of bugs or snakes, no matter which one was dangled in front of her face.
And she didn't care about getting dirty.
All those talents and qualities had been previously acquired in Holly's quest to gain her older brother's favor. She never quite succeeded, because during their childhood Will had never thought of her as anything other than a pest he was glad to ditch. During those years, Will was only interested in girls, and he'd thought of her as just holding him back from his chosen goal.
Ray and Will, although several years apart in age, shared the same interest; but while Will had thought of her as a pest, Ray came to think of her as a pal, a confidante. In short, he saw her asand treated her likeanother guy.
Holly was so crazy about him she took what she could get. So over the years she got close to Ray as only a friend could, and while she would rather have had him think of her as a girlfriend, she consoled herself with the fact that in Ray's life girlfriends came and went very quickly, but she remained the one constant in his life outside of his family.
It was a consolation prize she could put up with until Ray finally came to his senses and realized just what had been waiting for him all along.
It was a decision Holly had come to at the ripe old age of eleven.
That was thirteen years ago.
She was still waiting.
There were times, Holly had to admit, when she felt as if Ray didn't see her at all, that to him she was just part of the scenery, part of the background of what made up the town. These days, because money was short and she had to provide not just for herself but for her mother and for Molly, the four-year-old Will had left in her care when he abruptly took off for places West, she worked as a waitress at Miss Joan's diner.
The highlight of her day was seeing Ray.
He stopped by the diner whenever he came to townwhich was frequently, because he was in charge of picking up supplies for Rancho Grande, the ranch that he, his father, his brothers and his sister all owned equally. And every time Ray walked into the diner, she'd see him before he ever said a word.
It was tantamount to an inner radar that she'd developed. It always went off and alerted her whenever Ray was anywhere within the immediate vicinity. She'd always turn to look his way, and her heart would inevitably do its little dance before he called out his customary greeting to her.
Ray had taken to calling her Doll, because it rhymed with her name and she was a foot shorter than he was. She loved it, though she was careful not to show it.
"I'll take the usual, Doll."
The "usual" was comprised of coffee, heavily laced with creamer, and a jelly donutraspberry. In the rare instance that the latter was unavailable, Ray was willing to settle for an apple-filled donut, but raspberry was his favorite, and ever since Miss Joan had placed her in charge of doing the inventory and placing the weekly orders, she made sure that there were always plenty of raspberry-jelly donuts on hand. It wouldn't do to run out.
She would have made them herself if she'd had to, but, luckily, the supplier she used for their weekly orders never seemed to run out.
Technically, Holly thought as she concentrated on regulating her breathing and appearing calm, Ray wasn't actually coming her way. He was coming to sit down at the counter, get his morning coffee and donut and shoot the breeze for a few minutes. With any pretty face that might have shown up at the counter that morning.
Or, if he was particularly excited about something, or had something exceptional to share, then he'd deliberately seek out her company the way he always did if he needed advice, sympathy or a sounding board. Over the years, she had become his go-to person whenever something of a more serious nature came up.
This morning, Ray had some news to share with her. Big news, from his point of view.
"You'll never guess what," he said to her as she filled his coffee cup and placed the sweetened creamer next to it. Unlike his brothers whenever they stopped by, Ray hated black coffee. For him to be able to drink it, his coffee had to be a pale shade of chocolate.
Holly raised her eyes to meet his soft brown ones as she set down the half-filled coffeepot, waiting for him to continue talking.
He, apparently, was waiting for something, too. "You're not guessing," he prompted.
"You really want me to guess?" she asked, surprised. But she could see that he was serious. "Okay. But to do a decent job at guessing, I'm going to need a hint." With Ray, there was never any telling what he thought was share worthy at any particular given time.
He nodded, obviously enjoying stretching this out.
"Okay, if you want a hint, how's this?" he said just before he declared, "The Last of the Mohicans."
Holly stared at the face that popped up in her dreams at least three nights a week, usually more. What he'd just said didn't make any sense to her, but she took a stab at it. It really didn't matter all that much to her what Ray said to her as long as he went on talking. She loved the sound of his voice, loved everything about him, even his devil-may-care attitude, despite the fact that it was responsible for his going from female to female.
"You're reading James Fenimore Cooper?" she asked uncertainly. Why did he think the book title would mean anything to her?
"No, me," he told her, hitting his chest with his fisted right hand. When she continued to stare at him, a puzzled expression on her face, he elaborated a little further for her. "I'm the last of the Mohicans."
Holly knew that he had a little bit of Native American blood in him on his father's side, but he'd told her that he had traced it back to an Apache tribe, not some fictional tribe the long-dead author had written about.
"It's too early for brainteasers, boy."
Holly glanced up to see that Miss Joan had joined them, having made her way to this side of the counter. The red-haired older woman who owned and ran the diner narrowed her hazel eyes as she fixed the youngest of the Rodriguez clan with a reproving look.
"Why don't you just come out and tell Holly what you're trying to say while she's still young enough to be able to hear you?" Miss Joan suggested.
But Ray apparently enjoyed being enigmatic and he gave hinting one final try. "Last Man Standing.."
"Ray," Miss Joan said in a warning tone, "you're going to be the last man sitting on his butt outside my diner if you don't stop playing games and just say what you're trying to say."
Ray sighed, shaking his head. He'd thought that Holly, whom he'd always regarded as being sharp, would have already figured out what he was trying to tell her.
"All right, all right," he said, surrendering. "You know, you take all the fun out of things, Miss Joan." He couldn't resist complaining.
In response, Miss Joan gave him a wicked little smile. "That's not what my Harry says," she informed him, referring to the husband she'd acquired not long ago after years of being Forever's so-called carefree bachelorette.
Meanwhile, Holly stood waiting to find out what it was that had her best friend so mysteriously excited.
"All right, why are you the last man standing?" she asked, prodding him along.
"Because everyone else in my family is dropping like flies," he told her vaguely, playing it out as long as he could. "Except for my dad," he threw in. "But he doesn't really count." Eyes all but sparkling, he looked from Miss Joan to Holly, then said, "We just had another casualty last night."
"Don't see why a casualty would have you grinning from ear to ear like that," Miss Joan observed, then ordered, "C'mon, spit it out, boy. What the devil are you talking about?"
The twinkle in the woman's hazel eyes, Holly noted, seemed to be at odds with the question she'd just asked and the way she'd asked it. Everyone understood that Miss Joan knew it all: was privy to every secret, knew what people were doing even before they did it at times and in general was viewed as a source of information for everything that was taking place in Forever.
"Don't tell me you don't know," Ray suddenly said, looking at the older woman. He was savoring every second of thisespecially if it turned out that he knew something before Miss Joan actually did.
"I'm not saying one way or the other, I'm just saying that since you're so all fired up about spilling these particular beans, you should spill them alreadybefore someone decides to string you up."
It wasn't a suggestion, it was a direct order, and if she actually did somehow know what he was about to tell Holly, he appreciated Miss Joan allowing him to be the one to make the announcement. After all, it did concern his family.
Forever was a town where very little happened. They had the customary sheriff and he had appointed three deputiesincluding his sister, Almabut they spent most of their time taking care of mundane things like getting cats out of trees and occasionally locking up one of several men in Forever who had trouble holding their liquor. Occasionally the men in question had imbibed too much in their singular attempts to drown out the sound of displeased wives.
Moreover, it was a town where everyone knew everyone else's business, so to be the first one to know something or the first one to make an announcement regarding that news was a big deal.
"Well?" Holly coaxed, waiting. "Are you going to tell me or am I going to have to shake it out of you?" It was a threat that dated back to their childhood when they were rather equally matched on the playing field because they were both incredibly skinny.
He grinned at her. "You and what army?" he teased. When she pretended to take a step forward, he held up his hands as if to stop her. Having played out the moment, he was finally ready to tell her what he'd come to say.
"You know the woman who came to our ranch to work on that box of diaries and journals my dad found in our attic?"
Holly nodded. She'd caught a glimpse or three of Samantha Monroe, the person Ray was referring to, when she'd stopped by the diner. The woman had the kind of face that looked beautiful without makeup and Holly truly envied her that. She wore very little makeup herself, but felt that if she went without any at all, she had no visible features.
"Yes," she answered Ray patiently. "I remember.
What about her?"
Ray grinned broadly. "Well, guess which brother just popped the question?" Ray's soft brown eyes all but danced as he waited for her to make the logical assumption.
For one horrifying split second, Holly's heart sank to the bottom of her toes as she thought Ray was referring to himself. She'd seen the way he'd initially looked at this Samantha person, and even someone paying marginal attention would have seen that he'd been clearly smitten with the attractive redhead.
And while she knew that Ray's attraction to a woman had the sticking power of adhesive tape that had been left out in the sun for a week, there was always the silent threat hanging over her headand her heartthat someday, some woman would come along who would knock his socks off, get her hooks into him and Ray would wind up following this woman to the ends of the earth, hopelessly in love and forever at her beck and call.
But then she realized that the smile curving his sensual mouth was more of a smirk than an actual smile. She wasn't exactly a leading authority on the behavior of men, but she was fairly certain that a man didn't smirk when he was talking about finding the love of his life and preparing to marry her.
So he wasn't referring to himself.
That left only
"Mike?" she asked, stunned as she stared at Ray. "Seriously?"
Miguel Rodriguez Jr., known to everyone but his father as Mike, was the eldest of the brothers. Unlike Ray, Mike smiled approximately as often as a blue moon appeared. If Ray dated way too much, Mike hardly dated at all. From everything she'd seen, the eldest of the Rodriguez siblings had devoted himself to working the ranch and being not just his father's right hand, but his left one, as well.
She'd just assumed that the man would never marry. He was already married to the ranch.
"Mike asked this woman to marry him?" she asked incredulously.
She'd known all the brothers for as long as she'd known Ray, but for the most part, she knew them through Ray's eyes and Ray's interpretation of their actions. According to Ray, while Mike wasn't a woman hater, he wasn't exactly a lover of women, either. And he had no time to cultivate a relationship.
Yet, as she recalled, whenever she did see this Sa-mantha they were talking about, she'd been in Mike's company.
Well, what do you know. Miracles do happen.