Ballroom dancer Jenna Stevens is done with all things romance. It's so much more satisfying to focus on her career. That is, until she meets Sandro Salazara handsome, brooding small-town chef and sometimes rancher. Jenna is drawn to him immediately, but there's no way Sandro could fit into her fast-paced, urban life.
Still, as she gets to know this reformed bad boy, she begins to wonder if maybe their two worlds can merge. One thing's for certainJenna will have to take the lead if she has any hope of Sandro seeing what's possible for the two of them together.
About the Author
Claire McEwen is an award-winning author whose strong heroes and heroines take emotional journeys to find their happily-ever-afters. She loves writing stories set in quirky small towns and romantic western settings. Claire lives by the ocean in Northern California with her family and a scruffy, mischievous terrier. When not dreaming up new stories, she enjoys gardening, hiking and wandering on the beach. A life-long bookworm, she always has her kindle close by!
Read an Excerpt
When Jenna's best friend described the scenery in the Eastern Sierra, she'd called it soothing and peaceful. But as Jenna stood on a dirt road next to a barren pasture, staring at the pancaked tire on her beloved Mini Cooper, those were not the words that came to mind. She muttered a few of the four-letter variety instead and looked around, wondering what to do next.
Sagebrush, punctuated by beige grass, rolled along for miles eastward. To the west, beyond the highway she'd left behind a few bumpy miles ago, the Sierra Nevada sheered upward in an empty, vast wilderness of gray granite. The mountains rolled on, peak after peak, as far as she could see. Jenna and Samantha agreed on most things, but today Jenna would have to take issue with her best friend's feelings about this place. There was nothing soothing here. Intimidating was a far better word.
Sighing, Jenna walked around to the passenger side and opened the door, taking her cell phone out of her purse. No reception, of course. Not when she needed it most.
This was crazy. She should have called off the trip when her blender exploded this morning. Jenna wasn't completely superstitious, but the smoothie spattered all over her kitchen walls had felt like a sign. As if the universe was telling her to crawl back in bed, pull up the covers and stay safely home in San Francisco.
While she'd wiped up the smoothie bits, Jenna had fought the temptation to call Samantha and cancel their plans. She'd been up late last night, hosting a Latin dance party at the ballroom where she worked, and her warm bed had looked incredibly inviting. But her friend was planning her wedding and wanted help. Plus, Jenna felt guilty that she'd never even seen the ranch that Samantha lived on with her fiancé. So she'd dismissed her premonition and forced herself to load up her car and get on the road. And that was when everything started going wrong.
First was the phone call from Jeff. During that disastrous conversation, Jenna learned that there was nothing like an ex-boyfriend confessing to numerous infidelities to make a girl wish she'd stayed hidden beneath her covers all day. Jenna had pulled over, thrown up, cried, then driven to the nearest convenience store for the most massive soda she could find.
Sugar, bubbles and caffeine had worked their magic and she'd managed to continue her calamitous journey. And now here she was, with a flat tire, stuck beyond nowhere. The smoothie volcano had been a sign. And she'd been a fool not to pay attention.
Jenna opened the glove compartment and rummaged around for the owner's manual. Next time she would listen to her instincts when her kitchen appliances started erupting. This was crazyshe had no idea how to change a tire. Opening the booklet, she started reading. She hated diagrams and instructions of all kinds, but maybe if she stared at them long enough, a miracle would occur and she'd figure them out.
For an instant she was back in school, trying to focus on the textbooks while her teachers looked on in disappointment. Panic fluttered. One step at a time, she told herself. That was the way to get through anything complicated, whether it was a dance routine at the ballroom or a flat tire on a wrong-turn dirt road.
The manual said there should be a jack in the back of the car, so Jenna set the little book on the roof, opened the hatchback and pulled out her bags to uncover the compartment where the tool was allegedly hidden. As she moved her duffel bag, her iPod slid out and dropped to the ground. She picked it up and automatically put the earbuds in. Music was a huge part of her life. It soothed her, helped her thinkand she needed all the help she could get right now.
The iPod was set to the song that she and Brent, her dance partner, were using for their upcoming competition. Jenna touched the arrow to play it. At least she could get more familiar with the rhythms while she tried her hand at auto repair.
Jenna walked over to the offending wheel, clutching the object she hoped was the jack. She set it gingerly on the ground and began reading the manual again. The words still weren't sinking in. Instead the upbeat tune vibrated through her body, and her mind drifted from the dry instructions on the page to the cha-cha routine she and Brent were choreographing.
Maybe if she just focused on dancing for a moment, it would clear her head and she'd be able to figure out how to remove this pathetic tire.
Jenna tapped her toe in time with the verse. When the chorus came around again, she launched into the spiral turns that Brent had suggested. It was fast-paced, but Brent was right. The turns fit beautifully.
Jenna did a few basic steps through the next verse and tried the turns again. Still perfect. She closed her eyes and pictured what came next. Oh, yes, a shimmy, then a body roll down and then she heard a cough and whirled around in horror, yanking the earbuds out.
A man on horseback was watching her from a small rise several yards away. Wariness flooded Jenna as her urban instincts set in. She inched a little closer to the jack and casually picked up the handle. Weapon in hand, she felt embarrassment follow. Why had she decided to dance here, of all places?
The man walked his horse closer and she waited, shoving her iPod into the back pocket of her jeans. Then she saw a huge smile emerge from under the wide brim of the man's cowboy hat. He was laughing. Relief seeped in when she saw that he wasn't a man at all but a teenage boy with a wide, goofy grin. She set the jack handle down.
"Morning." The boy stopped laughing and rode his horse a few steps closer. The big chestnut almost dwarfed his slight frame. "You're a good dancer."
Jenna looked up at him, shading her eyes against the sun to better see his face. He had olive skin and black hair under his straw hat. His eyes were wide and dark, framed in thick lashes. His grin was friendly, not sarcastic or self-conscious like some of the more surly teens who showed up at her youth dance classes.
"Thank you," she said. "And that's a lovely horse." She stepped forward and held out her hand, the horse's silky nose brushing gently over her knuckles. Looking down its flank, she saw the big hindquarters. "A quarter horse?"
"You know horses?" The boy seemed genuinely surprised and Jenna smiled for the first time that day.
"They do have them in other places," she teased gently. "I grew up riding." The scent from the horse's strong, sun-warmed neck took her back in time to long adolescent afternoons at the stable in rural Marin County, north of San Francisco. She'd loved horses then. She'd even abandoned dance for a few years to ride as much as possible.
"Do you always dance outside?"
It was an innocent question but Jenna blushed. "My tire's flat. I was trying to figure out how to fix it, but I got a bit distracted."
"That happens to me all the time! It makes my dad crazy. My brothers, too. Well, everyone, really."
"You mean you get distracted? Or get distracted and start dancing?"
His laugh was genuinely merry. "Both." He swung a leg over the horse's back and dismounted gracefully. "You look like you could use a rescue."
She did need rescuing, but usually the damsel in distress had a handsome prince coming to her aid, not a kid. Just her luck. "I could absolutely use a rescue. I must've turned the wrong way off the highway. Is this your land? I'm sorry if I'm trespassing."
"Don't worry about it." He waved his arm around in a vague gesture that encompassed the gigantic landscape around them. "It's my family's ranch."
"Really?" Jenna asked. "Does that make you a cowboy?"
The boy grinned and pointed to his hat. "Well, I've got the gear. But we mainly have sheep. Shepherd doesn't sound quite so good, though." He walked his horse a little ways off the road to where a patch of weathered brown grass grew between the sagebrush. He left it to nibble and came back toward her, his eyes on the Mini. "That's an awesome car."
"It's great for San Franciscothat's where I live," she told him. "It fits into the tiniest parking spaces."
"Not so great for out here, though." His smile was infectious and softened his words.
"Obviously not! I don't know what I was thinking. Well, I do, actually. I was lost." Distracted first, then lost. Distracted by a phone call from her traitorous, cheating boyfriend. Ax-boyfriend, she reminded herself with a twisting feeling in her heart.
"Where were you headed?"
"My friend's ranch. I think I turned off too soon. Or maybe in the wrong direction."
"Well, I can help you get going again. But you need to be careful out here. No more off-roading."
"Point taken." Jenna smiled. She liked his teasinghe seemed like a sweet kid.
The "kid" didn't even look at her manual. He just grabbed the jack and started cranking up the car.
Jenna felt silly. He changed the tire as if it were the easiest chore in the world, and she hadn't even been able to figure out if the jack was a jack.
In no time, he had the flattened tire off and was pulling her spare out of the trunk. "Can I ask you something?" He suddenly looked shy, more of an awkward teenager than he'd seemed before.
"Of course," Jenna answered.
"Are you a dancer? A real dancer?"
Jenna looked at the boy in surprise. "Well, I'm not sure what you mean. I dance, I teach, I com-petedoes that make me a real dancer?"
He grinned. "Yes!" he answered emphatically as he set the spare tire in place and picked up a bolt.
"Well, this might make you change your mind about thatI'm a ballroom dancer," she said.
The boy's eyes widened. "You mean like on TV, on that celebrity dance show?"
Jenna couldn't help it. His words were so unexpected she started to laugh. "I'm sorry . It's just not what I expected! You watch dancing? Ballroom dancing?"
"Yeah! I watch all the shows. I try to learn stuff off of the internet, too."
The excitement in his voice was palpable and Jenna was amazed. She would never have pegged this boy, who looked so at home in this rugged country, to be a fan of television dance programs. "Do you study dance?" she asked.
He shook his head regretfully. "We have line dancing, Western dancing, that kind of stuff. But no dance school around here." He glanced around as if worried someone might hear him. "Even if there was, I probably wouldn't be allowed to take classes."
"My family doesn't exactly approve of boys" he made quotation marks in the air in front of him "waltzing around in tights."
"Oh, it's like that, huh?" Jenna asked softly, studying the teen's profile. His focus was back on the tire but his mouth was a grim, frustrated line. "If it's any consolation, my family's still trying to get me to go to law school." She truly felt for him.
"Really?" His expression brightened at that. "Are you gonna go?"
"No," she answered. "I'm a dancer, even if they don't see it."
"That's how I feel!" He had the spare on now and was staring at her, eyes wide. Jenna realized she was probably the first person he'd ever met who understood that. She wished there were something she could do for him. If he lived in San Francisco, she'd give him her card and encourage him to come to the ballroom for lessons. But out here? Somewhere beyond the tiny town of Benson? There wasn't much she could do.
She moved her bags to the backseat and the boy loaded the flat tire into her trunk.
"I can't thank you enough," she told him. The flat tire had been just one more bad event in a terrible day, but right now she was almost glad it had happened. She liked this kid.
He blushed and looked away. "It's no big deal," he said.
"I never got your name."
"Paul, I'm Jenna. I wish there was more I could do to help you get started dancing, but I'm only here for the weekend. But when you're looking at videos, make sure they show real technique, not just where to put your feet. The instructor should show you exactly how to place your arms and legs, your torso, your head. They should talk about the shape of your handseven what part of your foot hits the floor first. Go slow and pay attention to all that."
Paul nodded, his face serious. He was obviously taking in every word. "I'll do that. Thanks, Jenna."
He stuck out his hand and she shook it awkwardly. "Do you know where you're going from here?" he asked. "Want me to set you in the right direction?"
"That would be great. It's Jack Baron's place? It's off of " Jenna tried to picture the name of the street, scrawled on a piece of paper in her car.
"I know it," Paul said. "He's a friend of my brother's. Head back to the highway and go south about a mile and a half before making a right turn. The road will take you back behind the town, then out toward the mountains. There's a driveway off to the right that heads uphill. Take the left fork on that driveway and you're there."
"I'm lucky you came along." More than luckyprofoundly relieved. "Good luck, Paul. And thank you again for the rescue."
"Glad to help." He tipped his hat in her direction and went to get his horse. Jenna watched him go. Kids were her soft spot. Especially teenagers. Maybe when she finally got her own dance studio, she'd create some kind of program for kids like Paul, living out in the country with no support for their dreams. They could train with her for the summer and stay with host families. Kind of like foreign exchange students but an exchange from rural to urban.
She looked around at the landscape that in some places looked more like a moonscape. The sun was getting high and a dry heat was building, baking the sagebrush and filling the air with its spicy scent. If this was Paul's home, then a chilly summer in San Francisco really would be like a stay in a foreign country. And as for her, a city girl, this rocky pasture felt even stranger than that. An alien world, Jenna decided as she got into the driver's seat and started the engine. And she was ready to get back to nice familiar planet Earth.
She turned the car around and started back on the rutted dirt road she'd somehow thought would lead her to Samantha's ranch. Knowing now what it could do to her tires, she crept along, heart pounding. Watching Paul had given her some idea of what to do if she had another blowout, but she was already riding on her spare.
Gratefully, Jenna saw the highway getting closer. Motion in her rearview mirror had her glancing back. Paul was riding behind her, a little ways off the track to avoid the dust her wheels kicked up. She smiled. What a good guymaking sure she got back to the main road safely. This was why she loved working with young people. No matter how murky or dismal the future might seem, they always gave her hope.
Meeting an aspiring dancer out here was such an odd coincidence. Jenna remembered the way Paul's face had lit up when he talked about dance. Maybe she'd ended up in the middle of nowhere for a reasonto encourage him in his dream. If that was the case, then she'd been wrong about the meaning of that exploding smoothie. Maybe today was somehow meant to be.