Valentine Cowboys, page 1
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Thank you to all the readers who shower me with love and, sometimes, even gifts. I appreciate each and every one, but in particular I’d like to mention Helen from Cute and Cuddly Quilts, whose stitches create beautiful fabric works of art that she is kind enough to share with me, the members of the Book Obsessed Chicks book club who show me so much love, and all of my cowboy-loving Tweethearts from far and wide who keep me motivated on a daily basis—too many to mention by name but you all know who you are.
Twelve years ago
“Here.” Dakota nodded his dark head and answered from the desk in the row directly next to Justus.
“Justus White?” With her glasses riding so low on her nose that Justus feared they’d fall off, the teacher continued to read off the attendance list.
“Here.” Justus held his breath and waited, knowing after hearing this list read in the same order every school day since last September, whose name came right after his.
“And finally, Melody Zane.” The teacher glanced up from the paper in her hand.
“Here.” Her long, straight brown hair flowing over her shoulders, Melody raised her perfect arm into the air, her voice as sweet and beautiful as her name as she answered.
Mrs. Stowe took off her glasses and put them down on her desk, along with the attendance list.
“All right then, everyone’s here. That’s wonderful since today, as you know, is Valentine’s Day. Did everyone bring in their valentines?” The room full of ten-year- olds nodded. “Good, so here is how it’s going to work. When I call your row, everyone seated in that row will get up in an orderly manner and put their valentines into the mailboxes on each student’s desk. Okay? We’ll start with the front row first.”
Of course she started with the front row first. Teachers always started in the front. Justus, having a last name that started with a W, was in the last row, as usual. He leaned back and prepared to wait forever for his turn, like he’d been doing since kindergarten.
Dakota reached across the distance between them and poked Justus in the left elbow. “I bet I get more than you.”
Justus scowled. “More what? Valentine’s cards? You can’t get more than me. The teacher said we have to give one to everybody in the class.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll get an extra one. A special one.” Dakota shot a meaningful glance at Melody, seated to Justus’s right. “Maybe from someone who keeps looking at me like she likes me.”
“Whatever.” As a sense of horror hit him, Justus tried to act like it didn’t matter, but it did. He liked Melody. She couldn’t like Dakota instead of him. Besides, Melody had been talking an extra lot to Justus lately. She’d even shared her cookies with him just yesterday during snack time.
Justus was barely aware of his own cardboard shoebox made into a mailbox filling up with small colored envelopes covered in scrawling letters that spelled out his name. Only one valentine would matter to him. Hers. Just like only one of the twenty-five he’d written out until his hand had cramped last night really mattered to him. Hers.
“Okay, now students in row number two.” From her seat at the big desk in the front of the room, Mrs. Stowe continued to direct the Valentine’s Day traffic of children winding their way, row by row, through the classroom.
Justus clutched the envelope meant for Melody in his hand. He’d done the bravest thing ever. He’d signed it “Love, Justus.” On all the other cards, he’d just put his name. He could only hope Melody realized that and what it meant.
Once again he cursed the fact that he and Melody both were in the last row. He wanted to deliver his envelope and his declaration of love to her already. Then after he did, by the time he got back to his desk, hers would be in his mailbox. Should he open his valentine from her then and there? Or wait until lunchtime? Nope, no way he could wait. Then he glanced sideways and realized he couldn’t open it here either. Not with nosey Dakota sitting just a few feet away.
An idea hit Justus. He’d slip the envelope into his pocket and tell the teacher he had to go to the bathroom. Then he could open it in private. But how would he know which one was hers unless he opened all of them and looked?
He frowned. This love stuff was complicated, but it would be worth it if Melody liked—no, not liked, loved him, too. He’d have to wait and see. Maybe Mrs. Stowe would tell them when they were allowed to open the cards.
After what seemed like a year, Mrs. Stowe finally said, “Okay, the students in the back row may deliver their valentines.”
Stifling his whoop of excitement, Justus jumped up, and then remembered he needed to deliver all of his valentines, not just Melody’s. He reached beneath the lid of his desk and grabbed the stack, but the first one he delivered was to her, shoving it into the mailbox’s top hole, which she had cut out with scissors and decorated with red glitter and crayon hearts. Justus tapped the top of the box just to make sure it stayed in there, nice and safe, so it didn’t get lost. Then, with a backward glance at the box on her desk that contained his declaration of love, he moved to the next row and started to distribute the rest.
In record time, Justus was done with the delivery and crawling into his desk chair. Somehow Dakota had beaten him back to his desk. He sat grinning from ear to ear.
Justus frowned. “What are you smiling about?”
“A secret.” Dakota’s grin widened.
Justus noticed Dakota held a valentine in his hand. It was out of the envelope and open. “Mrs. Stowe didn’t say we could open any yet.”
Dakota shrugged. “So. She can’t see way back here. Why? You gonna tattle on me?”
“No.” Justus screwed up his mouth in a pout. Not that he wouldn’t love to because he had a very bad suspicion the valentine that had Dakota so happy was from Melody. Now he itched even more to find his from her. But he wasn’t the kind of kid who broke the rules, unlike Dakota, obviously.
Practically bouncing in his chair, Justus eyed Mrs. Stowe at her desk. She sat perfectly calmly, thanking each student as they delivered her their cards. Finally everyone had taken his or her seats again and Mrs. Stowe stood. “All right, class. Open your valentines.”
Justus tore into his mailbox, sacrificing the red paper he’d wrapped it in when Mrs. Stowe had forced them all to decorate their shoeboxes. His was actually made from a boot box since that’s what his mom had at their house. That meant it had even more room for him to paw through looking for the envelope that was most likely to contain Melody’s valentine to him.
He shot a look at the torn envelope on Dakota’s desk—the one he suspected was from her—and saw it was white with red writing on it. That was a clue. Justus flung any colored envelopes aside and focused on the white ones with red writing. One stood out from the rest. It had a little red heart drawn next to his name. With his own heart pounding, Justus tore into the valentine.
She’d made it by hand by cutting a heart out of red construction paper and gluing gold glitter onto the outside.
With a glance at Dakota to make sure he was busy with his own mailbox, Justus opened the card. Her letters spelled out his name, and under that she’d written, meet me in the woods behind the monkey bars during recess for a kiss.
Wow. Shaking at just the thought of meeting Melody alone, Justus forced himself to remain calm and glanced at Dakota. He sat, still looking smug, but this time Justus wasn’t jealous. Dakota may have gotten a valentine from Melody, but Justus was sure it didn’t contain that extra special message from her like his did.
* * * *
Dakota ran directly for the monkey bars the moment Mrs. Stowe said they could go to recess. He didn’t stop at his locker for his jacket like Justus and the rest of the class did, which is why he got outside long before all the other kids. That was his plan. He wanted to be there, waiting for Melody when she arrived. And he certainly didn’t want Justus tagging along with him. Not today. Not to meet her. Ever since he’d hidden the Valentine she’d given him beneath his desk and read what she’d written, he’d been planning how to get here to the woods to meet her without anyone else seeing.
As he started to shiver in the cold Colorado air, he decided freezing would be worth it just to spend time with her alone. Even if he did catch pneumonia from being outside without a coat, like his mother always warned, he wouldn’t care. One kiss from Melody would cure him. And getting a kiss from Melody, when he knew Justus liked her too, would be even better. Dakota liked to win.
Dakota had been so busy imagining her arrival, and pretending he wasn’t shaking from the cold, he’d missed that she’d walked up and was standing not far from him now. He smiled even as his teeth chattered. “Hi.”
Melody’s brows crinkled above her chocolate-colored eyes. “Where’s your coat?”
He shrugged. “I don’t need a coat. I hardly ever wear one.”
Was she impressed at how tough he was? Dakota hoped so. He was about to take a step forward, say something clever and then lean in for a kiss, when Justus came crashing across the trampled snow. His wool hat was pulled so low over his forehead that it totally covered all of his light-colored hair.
Justus frowned and stared right at Dakota. “What are you doing here? And where’s your coat?”
Justus was bundled up in not only a ski hat and jacket, but in a scarf and gloves, too. Had Justus’s mommy come to school and dressed him for recess? That’s the only reason to wear all that stuff when your mother couldn’t see you.
Dakota shook his head. “I don’t need it. And what are you doing here?”
Justus hooked a gloved thumb in Melody’s direction. “She invited me.”
“She couldn’t have.” Dakota frowned. “She invited me.”
Melody, looking really cute in her pink leopard coat, took a step forward, putting herself in between him and Justus. “I invited both of you.”
Dakota stared at her. “Why?”
“I’m not sure which one of you I like better.”
“So you invited us both here? What are you going to do? Kiss us both?” Justus looked as shocked as Dakota felt.
“Yes. I’m going to kiss you both and see which one I like better.”
“All right.” Dakota guessed he could live with that. Since he’d kissed Susan O’Shea last year, at least he had some experience over Justus in this area. “Me first.”
Justus let out a snort. “No. Why do you get to go first?”
“Because I called it.” Dakota took a step closer to Melody, which also put him closer to Justus.
“Calling it doesn’t count.” Justus moved forward until they were nearly chest-to-chest.
“Sure it does. Besides, I know how to kiss a girl. You don’t.” Dakota poked Justus in the chest to reinforce his point, not that Justus would be able to feel anything through all the thick padding of his coat.
“I do too. And don’t poke me.” With two hands, Justus shoved Dakota hard, sending him stumbling back.
Dakota tripped backward over a tree root that must have been sticking up out of the snow. He landed on his ass hard, but his pride hurt way worse than his cold, wet butt. Anger seethed through him. He scrambled to his feet and lurched at Justus. The force knocked Justus to the ground with Dakota on top of him, fists flailing.
The two rolled. Dakota tried to punch him, but Justus was too fluffy from all the sissy snow gear he was wrapped in. Dakota couldn’t land a decent shot anywhere that would hurt. Meanwhile Justus, who fought like a girl, had a handful of Dakota’s hair clenched in his fist, yanking at it hard.
“Boys! Stop that!”
Mrs. Stowe and half the class were standing nearby when Dakota looked up. “Tell him to let go of my hair.”
Justus still held tight. “Only if you stop punching me.”
“Fine.” Dakota’s hands were starting to hurt from the cold anyway.
“Dakota. Where is your coat?” Mrs. Stowe brushed the snow off both of them once they finally stood.
What was it with everyone and his coat? Dakota shrugged. “In my locker.”
Mrs. Stowe shook her head. “Inside now. Both of you. The rest of you go back to recess.”
As he shoved his numb fingers into the front pockets of his jeans, Dakota glanced at Melody. She stood by, a wide smile on her face.
Walking next to him out of the woods, Justus glanced sideways. “She wanted us to fight.”
“Mrs. Stowe?” Dakota frowned.
“No, idiot. Melody. She enjoyed it. She was smiling. Melody invited us both here at the same time so we’d fight over her.”
“Sure. If she just wanted to kiss us both like she said, she could have invited us at different times and to different places. Instead, she made sure we were both here at the same place and at the same time.”
Though Dakota hated to admit Justus was right about anything, what he said did make sense. “Why would she want us to fight over her?”
Justus shrugged. “Because all girls are stupid.”
If Melody had planned this just so she could get two guys to fight over her, Dakota had a better word for her than stupid. It started with a B and rhymed with witch. Meanwhile, he was very aware that every student on the playground was staring and whispering about them. That made him even angrier than he’d been before.
Dakota glanced sideways at Justus. “I’m sorry I punched you.”
Justus turned his head to look at him as they both plodded toward the door of the building. “I’m sorry I pushed you and then pulled your hair.”
“Yeah, about that.” Dakota shook his head. “Dude, you need to learn how to fight better.”
“Hey! I know how to fight.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Dakota laughed. “You know, my brother is an amateur boxer.”
“Really? He’s a boxer? That’s cool.” Justus looked impressed.
Proud, Dakota stood a bit straighter. “Yup, and he taught me how to throw a punch. If you come over after school, I can show you what he showed me if you want.”
“Okay, I guess.”
Dakota, feeling the cold even more now that his clothes were wet and the excitement of the fight was subsiding, glanced at Justus again. “Friends?”
“Yeah. Friends. But let’s make a pact. We’ll never let a girl get between us again. Deal?” Justus reached out and pulled open the door. He held it as Dakota walked through.
Inside the blessed warmth of the school, Dakota nodded. “Deal.”
Justus took a sip of his beer as he watched Dakota bend low over the pool table and line up his shot. There was the crack of balls hitting one another and the felt bumpers as the striped ball he’d aimed at sunk into the corner pocket, followed by the cue ball.
“Crap.” Dakota turned away from the table, scowling. “You’re up.”
“Yes, I am. Watch and weep, sucker.” Justus grinned. Reaching for the cue ball in the ball return, he put it back on the table in line with the eight ball. He sunk the eight ball easily and straightened up to glance at Dakota. “That’s the game. This round is on you.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ll be right back.” Dakota reached for his wallet in his back pocket
Justus smiled and raised the long neck to his lips again. He loved nothing more than beating Dakota. The next beer, bought with his friend’s money instead of his own, would taste even better than this one did.
He glanced up when Dakota called his name from the bar. “Yeah?”
“They’re out of bottles. Draft okay?”
“Sure.” Beer was beer. In fact, Justus figured a person would be hard pressed to find a twenty-two-year-old who was picky about what he drank, especially when someone else was buying.
“Justus? I thought that was you. Hey there.” The soft feminine voice had Justus turning toward it.
His brows knit in a frown as the brunette stepped out of the shadows and into the light of the lamp suspended above the pool table. It took him a second but then it hit him—memories of grade school and her. “Melody?”
Smiling, she nodded. “I’m surprised you remember me.”
Ha! How could he forget? It was her he had thought about every day of fifth grade. His ten-year-old self had such a crush on her until her family had moved away. Even after that Valentine’s Day where he realized she was only playing him and Dakota, he was still devastated when she’d left at the end of the school year.
“What are you doing back here? Didn’t you move to Denver?” His gaze dropped briefly to her tits, which had definitely grown since fifth grade, before looked back up to her face.
“We did. My parents are still there. I’m here visiting my grandparents.”
Her hair was shorter, hitting her shoulder rather than touching her waist the way it had in school when he’d stared at her whenever he could without her noticing. It was amazing he’d passed that grade, given how much time and thought he’d given to Melody rather than his schoolwork.
Justus was paying so much attention to Melody, he didn’t notice Dakota until he thrust a beer mug into his line of sight and asked, “Who’s this?”
CAT JOHNSON SERIES:
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