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His truck shuddering as he hit a rut, Lonny Ellison pulled into the ranch yard at Spring Valley and slammed on the brakes. He jumped out of the cab, muttering furiously. In pure frustration, he kicked the side of his Ford Ranger with one scuffed boot. His sister, who was hanging clothes on the line, straightened and watched him approach. No word of greeting, not even a wave, just a little smile. As calm as could be, Letty studied him, which only irritated him more. He blamed her for this. She was the one who had her heart set on Lonny's dating that.. that woman. She was also the one who'd been busy trying to do some matchmaking-not that she'd had any success. She'd even promised a year ago that she wouldn't do it again. Ha! It wasn't like Lonny to let a woman rattle him, but Joy Fuller certainly had. This wasn't the first time, either. Oh, no. Far from it.
He had plenty of cause to dislike her. Two years ago, when she'd moved to Red Springs to take a teaching job, he'd gone out of his way to make her feel welcome in the community. They'd gone out a few times, and they'd argued-he couldn't even remember why-and he hadn't spoken to her until Letty came back on the scene last summer. He'd- briefly-rediscovered some interest in her, but it hadn't ended well. Now this! Friend of Letty's or not, he wasn't about to let Joy Fuller escape the consequences of what she'd done.
What bothered him most was the complete disrespect Joy had shown him and his vehicle. Why, his truck was in prime condition, his pride and- No, under the circumstances, he couldn't call it his pride and joy. But he treasured that Ford almost as much as he did his horse.
"What's gotten into you?" Letty asked, completely unruffled by his actions.
"Why did it have to be her? Again?"
"And who would that be?" his sister asked mildly.
"Your your teacher friend. She-" Lonny struggled to find the words. "It's outrageous!"
Letty's expressive eyes widened and she gave a deep sigh. "Okay, what did Joy do this time?"
"Here!" He motioned toward the front of his pickup so his sister could see for herself.
"Oh, oh. This sounds like déjà vu." Letty scanned the bumper. "Looks like it, too."
He pointed, his finger shaking as he directed her attention to the most recent dent.
"Where?" Letty asked, bending over to examine it more carefully, squinting hard.
"There." If she assumed that being obtuse was amusing him, she was wrong. He stabbed his finger at it again. All right, he'd admit the truck had its share of nicks and dents. The pickup could use a new front fender, and a paint job wouldn't be a bad idea, but in no way did that minimize what Joy had done.
"Oh, give it up, Lonny. This thing is ready for the scrap heap."
"You're joking, aren't you? There's at least another decade left in the engine." He should've known better than to discuss this with his sister. As he'd learned to his sorrow, women always stuck together.
"You don't mean this tiny little dent, do you?" she asked, poking it with her finger.
"Tiny little dent!" he repeated, shocked that she didn't see this for what it was.
"Come on," Letty said, "and just tell me what Joy supposedly did." She shook her head. "I don't understand why you're so upset."
To say he was upset was an understatement. He was fit to be tied, and it was Joy Fuller's fault. Lonny liked to think of himself as an easygoing guy. Very rarely did a woman, any woman, rile him the way Joy had. Not only that, she seemed to enjoy it.
"Joy Fuller ran a stop sign," he explained. "Just like she did last year. Different stop sign, though," he muttered in disgust. "Not that it makes things any better."
"Joy crashed into you?"
"Almost. By the grace of God, I was able to avoid a collision, but in the process I hit the pole."
"Then this really is déjà vu," Letty said delightedly.
That was not the response he was looking for.
Lonny jerked the Stetson off his head and smacked it hard against his thigh. Wincing, he went on with his story. "Then Joy gets out of her car, tells me she's sorry and asks if there's any damage."
"Gee, I hope you slugged her for that," Letty murmured, rolling her eyes.
Lonny decided to ignore the sarcasm. "I showed her the dent," he said, not even trying to keep the indignation out of his voice. "She said there were even more dents on my truck than last year, so how could she tell which one she'd caused?" His voice rose as his agitation grew.
"What did you say next?" Letty asked.
Lonny stared down at the ground. "We argued." That was Joy's fault, too. Just like last year. She seemed to expect him to tell her that all was forgiven. Well, he wasn't forgiving her anything, least of all the damage she'd caused.
When he hadn't fallen under her spell once again-as she'd obviously expected-their argument had quickly heated up. Within minutes her true nature was revealed. "She said my truck was a piece of crap." Even now the statement outraged him. Lonny looked at his Ford, muttering, "That's no way for a lady to talk. Not only did Joy insult my vehicle, she insulted me."
This schoolteacher, this city slicker, had no appreciation of country life. That was what you got when the town hired someone like Joy Fuller. You could take the woman out of the city but there was plenty of city left in her.
"Why don't you let Joy's insurance take care of it?" Letty said in that soothing way of hers. "It was really nice of you to let it go last year."
Lonny scowled. Joy had a lot to atone for as far as he was concerned, and he wasn't inclined to be as generous this time. "And get this. She tried to buy me off-again!" Even now, the suggestion offended him.
Letty raised her eyebrows and Lonny muttered, "She said she'd give me fifty bucks."
"So she didn't increase her offer? Wasn't that the amount she wanted to give you before?"
His sister's mouth quivered, and if he didn't know better, Lonny would've thought she was laughing. "You refused?" she murmured.
"Oh, yeah," he told her. "I'm gonna get an estimate from the body shop. Fifty bucks," he spat. "Fifty bucks!"
"Hmm." Letty grinned. "Seems to me Joy's managed to get your attention. Hasn't she?"
Lonny decided to ignore that comment, which he considered unworthy of his sister. All right, he had some history with Joy Fuller, most of it unpleasant. But the past was the past and had nothing to do with the here and now. "I wrote down her license plate number." He pulled a small piece of paper from his shirt pocket and brandished it under her nose. "This time I am going to report her to the police."
"You most certainly will not!" Letty snatched the paper out of his hand. "Joy is one of my best friends and I won't let you treat her so rudely."
His sister hadn't encountered the same side of the teacher he had. "You haven't seen that evil look about her-I suspect she normally keeps that PT Cruiser in the garage and travels by broomstick."
His sister didn't appreciate his attempt at humor. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Joy plays the organ at church on Sundays, as you very well know. Don't try to pretend you don't."
"That's all a front," he said darkly.
"You have unfinished business with Joy, which is why you're blowing this incident out of all proportion."
Lonny thought it best to ignore that comment, too. He'd finished with Joy a long time ago-and she with him-which suited him just fine. "I'd say she's one scary woman. Mean as a rattlesnake." He gave an exaggerated shiver. "Probably shrinks heads as a hobby."
Letty had the grace to smile. "Would you stop it? Joy's probably the sweetest person I've ever met."
"Sweet?" Lonny hadn't seen any evidence of a gentle disposition, not in the past year, and not now. He shuddered to think he'd once wanted to marry Joy. Man, had he dodged that bullet.
Hands on her hips, Letty shook her head sadly. "Come in and have some iced tea."
"Nah. You go on without me." Shaking his head, he strolled toward the barn. Joy Fuller was his sister's friend. One of her best friends. That meant he had to seriously question Letty's taste-and good sense. Years ago, when he was young and foolish, Lonny had ridden broncos and bulls and been known as The Wyoming Kid. He darn near got himself killed a time or two. But he'd rather sit on one of those beasts again than tangle with the likes of Joy Fuller.
Joy Fuller glanced out the window of her combination third-and-fourth-grade classroom and did a quick double take. It couldn't be! But it was-Lonny Ellison. She should've known he wouldn't just let things be. The real problem was that they'd started off on the wrong foot two years ago. She'd been new to the community, still learning about life in Red Springs, Wyoming, when she'd met Lonny through a mutual acquaintance.
At first they'd gotten along well. He'd been a rodeo cowboy and had an ego even bigger than that ridiculously big belt buckle he'd shown her. Apparently, she hadn't paid him the homage he felt was his due. After a month or two of laughing, with decreasing sincerity, at his comments about city slickers, the joke had worn thin. She'd made it clear that she wasn't willing to be another of his buckle bunnies and soon after, they'd agreed not to see each other anymore. Not that their relationship was serious, of course; they'd gone out for dinner and dancing a few times-that was about it. So she hadn't thought their disagreement was a big deal, but apparently it had been to Lonny. It seemed no woman had ever spoken her mind to the great and mighty Wyoming Kid before.
Lonny had said he appreciated her honesty, and that was the last she'd heard from him. Joy had been surprised by his reaction. However, if that was how he felt, it was fine with her. He hadn't asked her out again and she hadn't contacted him, either. She saw him around town now and then, but aside from a polite nod or a cool "hello," they'd ignored each other. It was a rather disappointing end to what had begun as a promising relationship. But that was nearly two years ago and she was long past feeling any regrets. Their minor collision soon after Letty's return had seemed fitting somehow, the perfect finishing touch to their so-called relationship.
Then she'd had to miss that blasted stop sign the other day-but at least it was a different one, not the sign she'd missed last year, the one at Oak and Spruce. Naturally he had to be the one who slammed into the post. Again. The shock and embarrassment still upset her. Worse, Joy hadn't recovered yet from their verbal exchange. Lonny was completely and totally unreasonable, and he'd made some extremely unpleasant accusations. All right, in an effort to be fair, she'd admit that Lonny Ellison was easy to look at-tall and rangy with wide, muscular shoulders. He had strikingly rich, dark eyes and a solid jaw, and he reminded her a little of a young Clint Eastwood. However, appearances weren't everything.
Letty, who was a romantic, had wanted to match Joy with her brother. Letty had only moved back to the area a year ago and at first she hadn't realized that they'd already dated for a brief time. Joy had done her best to explain why a relationship with Lonny just wouldn't work. He was too stubborn and she was well, a woman had her pride. They simply weren't compatible. And if she hadn't known that before, their first near-collision had proven it. This second one just confirmed it.
She peeked surreptitiously out the window again. Lonny was leaning against his rattletrap truck, ankles crossed to highlight his dusty boots. Chase Brown, Letty's husband, and Lonny owned adjoining ranches and shared a large herd of cattle. According to Letty, that was a recent enterprise; they'd joined forces last fall and were now raising hormone-free cattle. In any case, one would think a working rancher had better things to do than hang around outside a schoolyard. He was there to pester her; she was convinced of it. His lanky arms were crossed and his head bowed, with his Stetson riding low on his forehead, as if he didn't have a care in the world. His posture resembled that neon sign of a cowpoke in downtown Vegas, she thought.
She knew exactly why Lonny had come to the school. He was planning to cause her trouble. Joy rued the day she'd ever met the man. He was rude, unreasonable, juvenile, plus a dozen other adjectives she didn't even want to think about in front of a classroom full of young children.
Sucking in a deep breath, Joy returned her attention to her class, only to discover that all the kids were watching her expectantly. Seeing Lonny standing outside her window had thrown her so badly that she'd forgotten she was in the middle of a spelling test. Her students were waiting for the next word.
"Arrogant," she muttered.
A dozen hands shot into the air.
"Eric," Joy said, calling on the boy sitting at the front desk in the second row.
"Arrogant isn't one of our spelling words," he said, and several protests followed.
"This is an extra-credit word," she said. Squinting, she glared out the window again.
No sooner had the test papers been handed in than the bell rang, signaling the end of the school day. Her students dashed out the door a lot faster than they'd entered, and within minutes, the entire schoolyard was filled with youngsters. As luck would have it, she had playground duty that afternoon. This meant she was required to step out of the shelter of the school building and into the vicinity of Lonny Ellison.
Because Red Springs was a ranching community, most children lived well outside the town limits. Huge buses lumbered down country roads every morning and afternoon. These buses delivered the children to school and to their homes, some traveling as far as thirty miles.
Despite Lonny's dire predictions, Joy was surprised by how successfully she'd adjusted to life in this small Wyoming community. Born and raised in Seattle, she'd hungered for small-town life, eager to experience the joys of living in a close, familyoriented community. Red Springs was far removed from everything familiar, but she'd discovered that people were the same everywhere. Not exactly a complicated insight, but it was as profound as it was simple. Parents wanted the best for their children in Red Springs, the same way they did back home. Neighbors were friendly if you made the effort to get to know them. Wyoming didn't have the distinctive beauty associated with Puget Sound and the two mountain ranges; instead, it possessed a beauty all its own. Joy had done her research and was fascinated to learn that this was the land where dinosaurs had once roamed and where more than half the world's geysers were located, in Yellowstone National Park. Much of central Wyoming had been an ancient inland sea, and she'd gone on a few fossil-hunting expeditions with friends from school.
It was true that Joy didn't have access to all the amenities she did in a big city. But she'd found that she could live without the majority of convenient luxuries, such as movie theaters and the occasional concerts. Movies went to DVD so quickly these days, and if the small theater in town didn't show it, Joy could rent it a few months after its release, via the internet.
As for shopping, virtually everything she needed was available online. Ordering on the internet wasn't the same as spending the day at the mall, but that, too, had its compensations. If Joy couldn't step inside a shopping mall, then she didn't squander her money on impulse buys.