A Cowboy's Temptation(4)By: Barbara Dunlop
“Give it your best shot.”
“Oh, I will.”
It was far from the first projectile Darby had thrown. She’d played a lot of softball while stationed on bases and overseas. More significant, in basic training, she’d been a great shot with a rifle.
He was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans, sneakers instead of his usual leather boots—probably a good idea—and a blue plaid shirt, with the sleeves rolled up over his tanned forearms.
“You might want to take off your hat,” she advised.
“I’ll take my chances.”
He settled the Stetson more firmly on his head, and their gazes locked.
Adios, Seth Jacobs.
She switched her attention to the target.
“Don’t get nervous,” he taunted, voice loud and staccato, as if he was trying to psych out a batter. “Don’t want to miss. Don’t want to choke.”
But Darby had spent enough time in a war zone that his shouts weren’t going to faze her.
She drew back her arm, pivoted at the elbow and drilled the ball in a straight line.
It hit straight on. The target pinged. The crowd gasped. And Seth’s eyes widened a split second before he plunged into the tank.
The crowd squealed and clapped.
“Well, I guess that’s it for our brave mayor,” came a woman’s voice through the tinny loudspeaker. “Round of applause please, ladies and gentlemen. Next up is Carla Sunfall, our very own Miss Wheatgrass.”
Darby watched Seth surface. He gave her a fleeting, dark look, before smiling gamely and waving his hat to the crowd. He climbed the ladder out of the tank while two men reaffixed the platform and helped Miss Wheatgrass up to her perch.
Darby turned and handed her spare softballs to the young man behind her.
“Good luck,” she told him.
He grinned, likely just as thrilled to have Miss Wheatgrass take the platform as he was to have two extra chances to throw.
Darby left the midway and headed for the baseball field. It had been temporarily turned into a sports track with white paint delineating various lanes and quadrants. There, the organizers were hosting everything from three-legged races to egg tosses. Again, she expected to find mothers with young children who might share her concerns on safety and noise pollution.
“Nice throw,” came Seth’s voice.
She glanced at him as he drew up beside her, matching her strides. They were out of the main action now, between the backs of the game stalls and a low chain-link fence, where the generators hummed and fans blew heat out of the stalls. The shouts of game players and the electronic buzzes and pings were dampened by the makeshift walls.
“You’re looking a little damp, Mr. Mayor.”
His shirt was plastered to his broad chest, the soaked fabric delineating the definition of his muscles. His hair was wet, curling darkly across his forehead, and the sheen on his face seemed to accentuate his rugged, handsome features.
Her mouth went dry, and the sun suddenly felt hotter on her head. Her body launched a traitorous rush of hormones, and she didn’t dare glance at the fit of his blue jeans.
“All for a good cause,” he responded easily, and she couldn’t help being disappointed by his equanimity.
He nodded to her clipboard. “How’s it going?”
“Really?” she drawled. “I hadn’t thought to check.”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
She gazed up and down his body. Oops. Bad idea. He was one sexy specimen of a man. She gave herself a mental shake. “Aren’t you going to change your clothes?”
“I’ve been wet before.” His smooth, deep tone added an edge to the comment.
She deliberately ignored it. “It can’t be very comfortable.”
“Good to hear. But I’m a little busy right now.”
“Did I say talk? I meant I wanted to listen to your side of the situation.”
Darby stopped, and Seth stopped, too. She turned to face him, eyes narrowing in suspicion. The old adage that if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was, applied in this case.
“Why?” she asked shortly.
“I’m interested in your concerns.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Then I’m interested in you.”
“No,” she repeated with finality. “You’re not.”
“Go ahead. Let’s hear your pitch.”
“I’m not going to waste my breath.” If he gave one whit about her concerns, he’d have listened to them long before now.
“How will you know it’s a waste unless you try?” he challenged.
“Let me tell you what I know,” she said. “You’re worried I might just pull it off. You know I have a lot of signatures, but you’re not sure exactly how close I am to six hundred. So ‘talking to me’ will accomplish one of two things. Either you’ll slow me down, making me one, two or ten signatures short or, and let me assure you this second one is a very long shot, you’ll talk me out of filing the petition.”
The expression on his face told her she wasn’t wrong.
“I said I wanted to listen,” he reminded her.
“Then I’m guessing you’re trying option number one. Your intent is to slow me down rather than talk me out of filing.”
“I’m not here to slow you down.”
“Mr. Mayor—” she canted one hip, resting a hand on her waist “—I believe politicians ought to at least be honest.”
She detected a hint of a grin.
“I really do want to listen,” he insisted.
“In order to understand me? Or in order to change my mind?”
His expression faltered once more, telling her that seven years of psychology hadn’t gone to waste.
“Both,” he admitted.
“I admire your honesty, sir.”
“You can call me Seth, you know. Everybody does.”
“Seth,” she repeated, and she saw a slight flare of awareness heat the depths of his eyes.
Uh-oh. Not good. This situation was complicated enough.
Then again… She pulled her thoughts together. Maybe it was something she could use. Maybe she could mess with his focus by pursing her lips or batting her eyelashes. Truly, she’d do anything for the mission.
She tucked her hair behind one ear, moistened her lower lip and subtly pulled her shoulders back, taking on a more provocative pose.
His eyes flared deep blue again, and she knew she was taking the right tack.
A petition, if she actually made the deadline, only got her to the point of a general vote. And winning a general vote meant convincing at least half the town to support her. Might it be easier to change the mind of the one man who could single-handedly stop the railway?
“Okay,” she told him. “I’ll listen to you.”
“Talk to me,” he corrected.
“That, too,” she agreed.
* * *
Seth couldn’t recall a sexier woman than Darby Carroll. Which was odd, since she was quite plainly dressed—blue jeans, a white top and a navy blazer. She wasn’t wearing a lot of makeup, and she didn’t appear to have paid much attention to her hair, simply pulling it back in a jaunty ponytail. A few wisps of auburn curled softly around her temple, but he’d be willing to bet it wasn’t on purpose. They’d likely worked their way loose in the breeze.
Her green eyes were clear and intelligent, flecked with gold. Her cheeks were pink, her lips dark and full, and her nose was straight in a perfectly balanced face. She wore a set of tiny blue stones in her ears, but otherwise no jewelry. Not unless he counted her rather large and serviceable watch with its worn leather strap. And he didn’t. She couldn’t have chosen it to make herself attractive.
They were sitting at a corner table in one of the refreshment tents. She’d surprised him by agreeing to split a syrup-drizzled funnel cake with their coffee, surprised him further by actually tearing off a piece and popping the hot, sticky confection into her mouth.
He couldn’t take his gaze off the tiny drop of syrup on her lower lip. Her tongue flicked out to remove it, causing a sharp reaction deep in his gut.
“Decadent,” she breathed with a smile, and the sensation hit him again. “Now, what’s this all about?”
For a split second, he couldn’t remember. Then he dragged himself back to business. This wasn’t a date. It was a business meeting. He had to stop thinking like a cowboy and start thinking like the mayor.
“I want to make sure I understand your concerns,” he responded, removing a chunk from his own side of the funnel cake. “Why, exactly, do you object so strongly to the railroad?”
She swallowed. “Are you trying to be funny?”
“It seems like you’re making a joke.”
“If I was making a joke, one of us would be laughing.”
“So I’ve been white noise for the past three weeks?”