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The roses were perfect, and so was her plan.
This year, Jenn Washington's annual two-week family reunion would be different. She could see it already, from the way her family was fawning over the recently delivered bouquet.
"Oh, how lovely!" Jenn's mother exclaimed. "And to be delivered way out here—it's such a romantic gesture."
"A dozen red roses," Granny added, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. "The color of love."
Precisely, thought Jenn. Thank you very much.
She'd gone to a great deal of trouble picking out the perfect bouquet online—red roses surrounded by a scattering of baby's breath and lodged in a lovely French vase. It had cost her a pretty penny, not only to purchase, but to have them sent by special courier to the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, at her grandparent's ranch where she'd grown up.
Now, seeing her family's surprised gazes, she knew it was worth every cent.
This plan was going to work.
"Sounds fishy to me," Jenn's great-aunt, Myra, said, pursing her lips. "There's a card attached. Let's read it."
"Don't you think you ought to let Jenn read it in private? It's her gift, after all," Granddad said in his usual, pleasantly gruff manner.
All eyes were on Jenn. Her heart was pounding. This was the moment she'd waited for, her coup de grace, so to speak. "Oh, no, that's all right. Go ahead and read it. I have no secrets."
She had more secrets than she cared to admit, but she wouldn't reveal a single one.
Auntie Myra plucked up the small card and opened it with flair, clearing her throat melodramatically before reading thewords.
Clever, even if Jenn had to say so herself. She wanted to laugh aloud, but she kept her expression as innocently neutral as she was able.
"That's it?" Granny said, turning to face Jenn, arms akimbo. "Sounds like you've got a bit of explaining to do, missy."
Jenn did her best to look both innocent and delighted.
Delighted wasn't so difficult. This was going to be fun. No one was going to tease her about a lack of a significant other this year. No one was going to hint at the lack of grandchildren at the reunion.
Not this year.
Exactly as she'd planned.
"They're just flowers," she said, making a dismissive motion with her hand. "I don't know why everyone is making such a big deal over it."
"What? You don't like flowers now?" teased Granny.
"Oh, I like flowers," Jenn answered with a laugh.
"So it's the man you don't like," guessed Jenn's mother.
Jenn laughed again and shook her head. "I didn't say that."
"Do you even know who these are from?" queried Auntie Myra, still gazing at Jenn with suspicion and disbelief. Not hard to understand, since Jenn, now twenty-six, had never brought a man home to meet the family.
"Of course I do," Jenn answered immediately.
Me, she thought with delight.
"And that would be?" Auntie Myra continued.
From the start, she'd known that her family would want to know the name, rank and serial number of any man who'd finally gotten close enough to Jenn to receive her attention.
"J-uh-Johnny," she stammered, and then let out a relieved breath when everyone smiled at her.
All at once, questions flew at her from every direction.
Where did she meet him?
How long had they been dating?
Why hadn't she mentioned him before?
As quick as they started, the barrage of questions were abruptly cut off by a loud pounding coming from behind them.
"What's all the noise in here?" came an unexpected voice from the kitchen doorway, where a sandy-haired man was lounging his bony shoulder against the doorway, his cowboy hat low over his eyes.
"Scotty!" Jenn was the first to see him, and launched herself into his arms, nearly knocking him off his feet. "I didn't think you were coming!"
"Young man," Granny said, from just over Jenn's shoulder, "didn't your mama teach you any manners? A gentleman removes his hat when he enters a house."
Scotty colored and swept off the dusty blue cavalry hat, his trademark among the bull riders from back in his teen years, tapping it mildly against his thigh. He cleared his throat loudly. "Sorry, Granny."
Granny made an indistinct snorting sound, then laughed, crowding Jenn to give her grandson a hug. It wasn't a moment more before everyone was crowding in for a big family bear hug.
Scotty was a welcome diversion from Jenn's flowers, a fact she noticed and was happy to accommodate. She'd rather not answer the questions her family plagued her with about her mysterious Johnny, so it was just as well.
And she was as thrilled as the rest of her family to see her baby brother. It had been a year, and he had sprouted like a beanpole.
It was only then, stepping back to allow her family more access to her brother, that she noticed Scotty was not alone. Lingering in the background behind her brother, his hip leaned negligently against the kitchen counter, his black Diamond Jim Stetson curled in his hand, was another man, a stranger to Jenn.
He was tall, six two maybe, with broad shoulders and strong arms, but with the long, wiry frame of a man who spent most of his time in the saddle. His deep, curly black hair was a little long, as if he'd missed his last haircut, and was ruffled from the removal from his hat. He was purposefully hanging back, but his posture was relaxed and his face friendly and open. Jenn guessed the cowboy could be called handsome, in a rugged sort of way.
If one were attracted to that sort of man, which Jenn definitely wasn't.
He'd obviously come in with her brother, though he looked to be several years older than Scotty—close to Jenn's own age, she guessed.
He didn't look uncomfortable at being overlooked. His dark eyes, a color which floated somewhere between blue and black, were brimming with amusement and understanding. His friend was home with family, who clearly adored him. The stranger appeared to be content to wait his turn.
When the man realized Jenn was staring at him, he smiled and winked at her. Flushing, she turned her gaze away and elbowed Auntie Myra, gesturing toward the unannounced guest, knowing her aunt would jump at the chance to welcome someone new to their gathering, especially a handsome young man.
"Why, Scotty," Auntie Myra exclaimed, "you haven't introduced your guest."
Scotty laughed from his belly and gestured the stranger forward, slapping him on the back affectionately. "Sorry. I was so caught up in seeing you all I almost forgot about him."
"Well, thanks," the stranger replied, punching Scotty's arm hard enough to send the boy off balance and sprawling into other family members.
"I can introduce myself," the man said, his voice deep, yet surprisingly soft-spoken, given his size. He had the slightest bit of a drawl, though not Texan nor Southern. Jenn couldn't place it.
She was pondering this when his next words blasted over her with the force of a hurricane.
"Glad to meet ya'll. My name's Johnny. Johnny Barnes."
Even loquacious Auntie Myra was left speechless in the wake of Johnny's declaration.
Jenn's breath left her body as if she'd been punched in the gut. And it didn't return. She wasn't even sure her heart was beating.
Scotty brings a wrangler from the depths of Wyoming and his name is Johnny?
It figured. It just figured. Now she was going to have to talk her way out of this one, too, because she knew perfectly well her dear family was never going to leave it alone.
So, what if there were a million Johnnys in the world? They were still going to ask if he was the one, Jenn just knew it. And the expressions on her family's faces only served to confirm her fears. Especially Auntie Myra, who looked as if she was preparing to pounce on the poor cowboy.
Scotty looked around, obviously confused by his family's odd behavior. Everyone else's gaze was on Jenn. No one was welcoming Scotty's new friend to the household, as her younger brother had clearly expected.
"Johnny wrangles with me. I thought it would be okay to bring him along," Scotty said, hesitantly.
Granddad was the first to recover, always the most sensible of the lot of them. "Of course he's welcome. Johnny, glad to meet you." Granddad thrust out his hand for a hearty handshake.
Auntie Myra stepped forward and hugged the man. Johnny returned the unexpected embrace awkwardly, and Jenn smiled despite herself. Obviously, Johnny was not prepared for Scotty's affectionate family, as he accepted hug after hug from the women and friendly, enthusiastic handshakes from the men.
Only Jenn remained where she was, caught in a trap of her own making. She couldn't approach the man and greet him. Stranger or friend, her family would be watching her with hawkeyes.
It took a moment, but her brain slowly started functioning again.
What did she have to worry about? This was Scotty's friend, fresh from sprawling Wyoming ranch land. Surely her family would realize he couldn't possibly be her Johnny.
There would only be a moment of confusion before things were set to right and she could go back to enjoying the reunion.
"So," asked Auntie Myra in a casual tone that belied her open, wide-eyed curiosity, "Are you the Johnny we've heard about?"
Jenn cringed inwardly, though she reminded herself again and again there was no real danger in him answering that question. The man wouldn't have the slightest notion of what Auntie Myra was really asking, and would, naturally, answer to the negative.
End of subject.
Johnny definitely looked stunned as he stared from face to face. But after a moment he quirked his lips, shrugged, and announced, "Guess I've been found out. Yes, ma'am. That would be me."
Jenn felt her legs buckle underneath her and moved quickly to the sofa and sat before she fell down. She had no idea why the unknown cowboy had answered the way he had, but now she—and he, for that matter—had, as the old saying went, a lot of 'splaining to do.
She was suddenly furious at the gall of the cowboy. Never mind that this whole set up was her doing in the first place.
How could he say he was the Johnny? There was no Johnny! What kind of a game was he playing?
Everyone rushed at him at once, deluging him with questions.
When had he met Jenn?
How long had they been together?
And how long had it been since they'd seen each other last, what with him wrangling and all?
Johnny sent a panicked glance at Scotty, but his friend just grinned and shrugged. Obviously the boy would be no help in sorting this out.
Who was Jenn? What were these nutty people talking about?
Suddenly he spied the young woman seated on the sofa, the pretty woman who'd been the first to notice him when he and Scotty first arrived. She was also, he'd noted, the only one of her spirited family who'd held back in the initial greeting, not offering him a welcome, much less a hug. She must be the sister Scotty had mentioned.
She now looked a little woozy. Her eyes looked glazed over and she was gripping the arm of the sofa like a lifeline. He guessed her to be around his age—twenty-five or twenty-six at most. She had gorgeous, short golden curls, a pretty, perky little nose, intelligent blue eyes, and a face as red as a Macintosh apple.
Obviously, she was the woman they were all talking about. What he didn't know was what they were talking about.
He'd thought Scotty's family had recognized him from a magazine cover or a television news story, but apparently that was not the case. He didn't know whether to be relieved or alarmed.
He had to figure out what was going on, and fast. He thrust his fingers through his hair and tapped his Stetson against his thigh. If these people didn't know who he really was—and they clearly didn't—he didn't want to tip off his own hand.
He hesitated in revealing his true identity—just yet. Not to this happy, real family who apparently didn't keep up with national news all that well.
But he still didn't know who they thought he was. He had to figure out some way to gain the information he needed without giving himself away.
And then he realized the answer to his problem, that other way, was staring straight back at him, half glaring, half beckoning, as if she expected him to say something that would clear up everything. To say that he was in no way connected with her, apparently.
And he supposed he would… in time. At the moment, he just wanted to hear what was invariably going to be a highly amusing story, especially if it came from the mouth of the lovely woman on the sofa.
He grinned widely as he looked away from Jenn and tipped his head toward her aunt, his fingers tugging at the imaginary brim of his hat. Cowboy style, he thought, his smile growing even bigger. "I'm mighty pleased to meet you all," he said, giving a show at his most charming drawl. "But I wonder if I might have a moment alone with—uh,—Jenn?"
He couldn't remember everyone's names in the enthusiastic jumble of introductions, but Jenn's name was sealed firmly in his mind.
"Why, of course," answered a fine-looking middle-age woman who could only be Scotty and Jenn's mother. She had the same golden curls—albeit with a bit of white—and the same vibrant blue eyes as her daughter. "You two probably haven't seen each other in ages."
Which was the understatement of the century, Johnny thought, his lips twitching with amusement.
"We'll all retire to the kitchen to get sandwiches prepared for everyone," Jenn's grandmother suggested, "and give you two a little privacy."
Jenn was on her feet in an instant. "I don't think—" She stopped, looking around with wide eyes. A deer caught in the headlights, Johnny thought. She looked as if she were about to be run over by a blaring semi truck.
Johnny still had absolutely no idea what was going on, but it had to be one good story. He probably would have laughed out loud if the poor young woman by the sofa didn't look so pitifully miserable.
He hadn't felt like laughing—really laughing—in a very long time, and he savored the feeling. He'd let his work get the best of him, stealing away his teenage years, not to mention the first half of his twenties.