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Life Is A Beach/A Real-Thing Fling
By Pamela Browning
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSlade Braddock was just a big old lonesome cowboy, and he was bound and determined not to be that way for much longer.
Big? Well, that was one thing he couldn't change, he reckoned. He was six foot three, so tall that he kept bumping into things in his cousin Mack's houseboat, where he had squatter's rights for as long as it took to find himself a wife.
Old? He was thirty-five, which was part of the problem. All the young women in Okeechobee City, Florida, were married. The older ones tended to mother him. So even though in some circles cowboys were said to be babe magnets, Slade had not found this to be true. He had heeded his cousin Mack's suggestion to seek out a Miami Beach dating service.
Lonesome? The dating service should take care of that.
Slade sauntered across Toy Boat's salon, which was a high-class word, he figured, for a living room. He twirled his Stetson off the wall sconce where he'd tossed it after getting royally drunk with a couple of rowdies from South Beach last night, and he stopped for a moment to squint critically into the floor-to-ceiling wall mirror.
Yeah, he looked all right. He wasn't suave. He wasn't dapper. He was a little worn and tattered around the edges. But he'd do. The woman he was looking for wouldn't mind that a scar bisected his left eyelid, and she'd let him love her the way a woman was meant to be loved. He wanted a shy, sweet, old-fashioned girl to take back to Okeechobee City with him, to help him run the ranch. A small woman who would make him feel manly. And he'd find one before he left Miami Beach. He was determined.
He was so determined, in fact, that as he was striding purposefully toward the deck, he forgot about the low doorway and whacked his head.
* * *
A cowboy dressed out in full regalia was not exactly what anyone expected to see ambling down a street in Miami's trendy South Beach on an ordinary morning.
But that was exactly what Karma O'Connor saw. This guy looked as if he'd galloped in fresh off the range after herding a bunch of cattle or chasing rustlers or something.
"Your aunt Sophie, she wanted you to inherit the business," said Uncle Nate as he admired the new brass plate beside the door.
Rent-a-Yenta, it said. Karma O'Connor, Matchmaker.
Very reluctantly, Karma peeled her eyes away from the cowboy and bent down to bestow a quick kiss on the little man's cheek.
"Thank you, Uncle Nate," she said warmly. "You could have closed up Aunt Sophie's office. You two could have let me go on being unemployed instead of scooping me up practically out of a welfare line and-"
"Never," said her great-uncle. "A girl like you should have a chance. Sophie thought about leaving the business to your cousin Paulette, but, well, she respected you, a single girl trying to make it on her own."
"Paulette is single. She's trying to make it on her own, too."
"Ah, Paulette. She's a go-getter, that one."
Privately Karma thought that her cousin Paulette was an overbearing little snip. She adopted an expression of mock dismay. "Hey, Uncle Nate-you're hurting my feelings. Aren't I a go-getter, too?"
He blinked up at her, a wizened little gnome with eyes that crinkled charmingly around the edges. "You are, bubbeleh, you are. Sophie said you reminded her of herself when she was young," and with that pronouncement, he launched into an emotional reminiscence about his late wife, who had died six months before.
Karma listened, and she agreed with Nate that her great-aunt had been a kind, charming, and, in fact, brilliant woman. While Nate rattled on as was his wont, she distracted herself from his monologue by searching for the cowboy's Stetson above the sleek blond heads of a bunch of roller-skating beach bunnies.
The hat was there, all right. It shaded the cowboy's face so that she gleaned only a quick impression of craggy cheekbones, a strong straight blade of a nose, and a tan that put those beach bunnies to shame. Wide shoulders, too. And, farther down, slim hips slung with a pair of well-worn jeans. Almost as if he knew she was watching him, the cowboy headed in her direction.
"How cool is he?" she murmured to herself in awe.
"It's hot today like always in Miami," Nate said as he eased himself down on the bench beside the door to the corridor that led to her office.
Karma kept forgetting that she had to speak loudly so that her uncle could hear. He wore a hearing aid but often forgot to turn it on.
"No, I wasn't talking about the weather. I was admiring that cowboy heading our way."
Nate scoffed at this. "You should be thinking about business, not some meshugeneh cowboy. Like I told you before, Sophie managed to make fifty good matches a year and you haven't made any yet."
"I wish I could have trained with her for a while," Karma said wistfully. Unfortunately Aunt Sophie had been too sick during her final illness to work, and the business had gone downhill fast.
"An apprenticeship with my Sophie might have helped. Then again, maybe not. No offense, Karma dear, but a two-time college graduate like you doesn't necessarily know the human factor."
"My degrees are in psychology," Karma reminded him gently as the cowboy continued toward them.
"Psychology, shmycology. You got to know people. Not that you don't," he added hastily. "Sophie thought you had potential. 'That girl has real potential,' she'd always say after we saw you at one of those family dinners at your parents' house."
This was nice to hear, but Karma couldn't remember a single one of those dinners in which she'd been able to get a word in edgewise, what with all the big talkers in the family. She'd always been the quiet one, the too-tall sister who passed the hors d'oeuvres while her three siblings noisily showed off their piano-playing and dancing talents.
And since when had any of her relatives thought she was anything but a loser compared to her talented and brilliant sisters, not to mention that colossal suck-up, Paulette? "I hope I can live up to your expectations," Karma murmured.
Truth to tell, her full attention was drawn to the cowboy. In a tropical climate where people customarily wore sandals or even went barefoot, this man was clomping along Ocean Drive in cowboy boots. A couple of children hung back on their mothers' hands and stared.
"Come along, Chuckie," urged one of the mothers, tugging.
"Aw, Mom, I want to see the cowboy."
So did Karma. She wanted to see him up close. And it looked, at this very moment, as if she might have that opportunity.
His boots were finely tooled leather, elaborately worked. She'd heard you could tell a lot about a cowboy by his boots. These were clearly expensive, maybe even handmade, and definitely too dusty. The boots didn't jingle, however. This cowboy wasn't wearing spurs. Which she supposed made sense, since she didn't see a horse around anywhere.
"I guess I better stop talking about Sophie, I'm getting hoarse."
"Horse?" Karma said, caught off guard.
"Yeah, my throat itches. Sit down for a minute, Karma, while I catch my breath."
Karma felt her own breath grow shallow as the cowboy's gaze fell upon her. Up it went, then down. Never mind that this took a few embarrassing seconds because of her height. Was she blushing? No, she wasn't that susceptible to nuanced glances. She was twenty-seven years old and the veteran of more than one ill-fated heavy relationship. She was dedicated to carving a career for herself out of the matchmaking business. So why did this man make her heart beat like-well, like thundering cattle hooves?
Because he was possibly the handsomest man she had ever seen. Because his cowboy boots had stopped right in front of the bench. Right in front of her.
The cowboy stuck a hand in one of his back jeans pockets and rummaged around. Going to roll a cigarette, Karma thought. That's what cowboys always did in the movies, and the movies were the only place she'd ever seen a cowboy. She watched spellbound, expecting him to extract a fistful of rolling papers and some tobacco. Instead he pulled out a red bikini bra. A very ample red bikini bra.
He stared at it and then, with a puzzled and pained look, he crumpled it up and stuffed it back in his pocket.
Excerpted from Life Is A Beach/A Real-Thing Fling by Pamela Browning Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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