Craving the Cowboy(2)

By: Liz Isaacson

“We’re fixin’ to see you dripping wet,” Kurt called back, rotating his right shoulder as if stretching it out.

Dwayne scoffed, but a thread of nervousness pulled through him. He had seen Kurt throw a rope, and the man never missed. He wasn’t foreman at Grape Seed Ranch for no reason. His skills with a rope were the least of his qualifications, and Dwayne watched as he huddled up with the other men.

An order was clearly established, because Kurt stepped to the back of the line while the smallest cowboy—Austin—handed his money to Amelia. Dwayne couldn’t see the denomination from this distance, but Amelia held up the bill and proclaimed, “Ten baseballs for the handsome cowboy!”

She was married, but she looked and sounded absolutely gleeful at the amount.

Dwayne’s chest tightened. He couldn’t be dunked by one of his men. He’d never live it down, and every ranch function would become a constant ribbing of how he’d looked in soaking wet jeans and ruined cowboy boots.

He wasn’t going in. Not today. Not at the hand of a cowboy.

An hour passed while his cowboys tried to unseat him, as the crowd surrounding them grew and swelled. Laughter and catcalls and cheers filled the air, and still Dwayne stayed dry. The platform wobbled with the last of Kurt’s balls, which barely missed its mark.

“Awww,” the crowd moaned in tandem.

Dwayne grinned at his men. “Maybe next year, boys.” He inched toward the ladder, his back starting to ache, and his blasted right arm trembling no matter how hard he leaned into his palm on the wooden platform.

He’d signed up for a few hours, but he always got a break every so often.

“One more?” Amelia called, barely glancing over her shoulder.

Dwayne said, “Sure,” as he searched for the next person who thought they could dunk him when a herd of cowboys couldn’t.

The crowd stepped back and a woman met his eye. A tall, tan, raven-haired woman, who wore a black cowgirl hat with a red beaded hatband. With her long, jean-clad legs, the dark red cowgirl boots, and the canary-colored tank top, Dwayne had never seen such a heavenly vision.

His heart started pumping harder, and not because he was worried she could unseat him.

Who was she?

Dwayne had never seen her before, and he reasoned that he’d been out of the marriage market for a while. It was entirely possible that more females than he knew had moved to Grape Seed Falls in the past four years since he’d stopped dating.

He gripped the platform with all his fingers, watching her as her lips lifted into a smile. “You don’t think I can sink you, do you?”

Dwayne lifted his left shoulder a couple of inches. Might as well be honest. “Not really.”

She tossed the baseball from one hand to the other. Left to right. Right to left.

His elbow shook the tiniest bit, and he locked it. He didn’t want this woman to ever know about his time in the military, which had led to his traumatic brain injury, which had left him with this trembling in his right hand and arm.

At the same time, he wanted a lot more time to spend with her, and if he did that, he’d probably have to tell her about himself—including his time in the military, the explosion that had changed his life, and why his right hand shook at random times.

Like it was now.

“How many balls did you buy?” he asked.

“Just this one.” She gripped it in her right hand.

Just this one.

She was a confident little thing, and Dwayne’s admiration for her grew. Still, she couldn’t weigh more than one-twenty, soaking wet. And even that was generous.

“All right,” he drawled. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” He wanted her to throw already. Then he could get down for a few minutes. Get some of that sweet tea he loved so much. Get cooled off. Take some painkiller.

She planted her feet and cocked her arm. She threw, and Dwayne only had one second before he realized her aim was dead-on. One more second before the ball hit the button.

And then nothing before the platform disappeared beneath him. Cool water enveloped him, covering him from head to toe. His leather boots hit the bottom of the tank, and he came up sputtering, water dripping from the brim of his hat and soaking his jeans, polo, and boots.