A Cowboy's Temptation(9)

By: Barbara Dunlop



 “If you’ll recall, I tried to talk you out of it.”

 “I recall,” Seth admitted.

 He and his younger brother had had many lively arguments about his plan to become mayor.

 “Are you saying I was right?” Travis pressed.

 “I’m saying we’ve hit a snag.” A very beautiful, very compelling, very sexy little snag.

 “What’s up with that expression?” Travis asked.

 “What expression?” Seth focused on schooling his features.

 “You looked kind of sappy there for a minute.”

 “I’m not sappy. I’m nervous. I have to give a speech now.”

 Travis scoffed out a laugh. “Liar. You’ve never been afraid of a podium before.”

 “It’s been a tough week.” With no interest in explaining further, Seth left Travis behind and strode into the crowded room.

 There, he immediately spotted Darby.

 There were a couple hundred people in the clubhouse, but his attention seemed to zero in on her like a heat-seeking missile. He hadn’t expected her to be here.

 Bad enough she was haunting his dreams. Did she also have to stalk his reality? The rodeo people were hardly her usual crowd. They were the ranchers, the hard-liners, the ones who were most angry at her stance on the railroad. She’d never get their support on a referendum or anything else.

 But there she was, standing boldly in the lion’s den. She wore a short, steel-gray skirt and a soft, gray, sparkly sweater, with black tights and black ankle boots that had a distinctly Western flair. Her wavy, auburn hair, which cascaded past her shoulders, was tucked behind her ears to show off a pair of dangling black earrings.

 “Looking sappy again,” joked Travis from behind him.

 Ignoring his brother, Seth kept walking, moving closer to her.

 As he made his way across the room, she was approached by Joe Harry. Joe was a big, ambling cowboy who’d barely made it through high school. He could work all day and party all night, but he wasn’t the sharpest nail in the toolbox, and social niceties had never been his strong suit.

 He was clearly agitated, towering above Darby, face contorted, gesticulating as he spoke. Her expression became pinched under the onslaught, and Seth quickened his pace.

 “…don’t know where the hell you get off,” Joe was saying, “messing around with the things in this Valley. My family has lived here for a hundred years.”

 “As has mine,” she returned. “My aunt—”

 “But not you, missy.” Joe waggled a finger in her face. “You’re as new and—”

 “Hello, Joe.” Seth clapped the man firmly on the shoulder and held out his hand to shake. “I hear you gave Reed Terrell a run for his money in steer wrestling this year.”

 The interruption seemed to rattle Joe. It took a moment, but then he put out his hand to shake Seth’s.

 “Came second in overall points,” he confirmed.

 “Way to go,” Seth said heartily. “That’s impressive.”

 He gave Darby a fleeting glance. “Sorry to interrupt here, but I need to have a word with Darby.”

 Joe frowned. “I was in the middle—”

 “Don’t you worry about it,” Seth said, leaning in and lowering his voice to an overtly conspiratorial level. “I’ve got this one covered.”

 “I’ve got some things to say to that woman.”

 “I understand your perspective.” Seth nodded, his expression showing Joe he was taking this seriously. “And I do agree with you. My office is working on it.”

 Joe gave Darby a disparaging look. “It ain’t right. She ain’t right.”

 “I’m working to make it right,” said Seth. “Why don’t you go on over to the bar.” Seth fished into his pocket for the free drink tickets that had come with his invitation for the dinner. He handed Joe a red one. “Have a beer on me.”

 “That’s kind of you, Mayor.”

 “Enjoy the evening.” Seth turned from Joe to find Darby walking away.

 “Hey.” He stepped fast to catch up with her, touching her arm.

 “What the hell was that all about?” She shook off his hand.

 Seth was taken aback by her tone. “Joe was obviously bothering you.”

 “So you thought you’d rescue me?”

 Seth’s brain scrambled to make sense of her words. He hadn’t expected outright gratitude, but he had done her a favor here.

 “You’d rather I hadn’t?” he asked.

 “One kiss does not make me yours to rescue. And I’d rather you gave me a little credit. I can handle a guy like Joe Harry.”

 “I didn’t rescue you because I kissed you.”

 “You don’t get to rescue me for any reason at all.”

 “What’s wrong?” he demanded.

 “The usual.”

 She’d lost him. “What usual?”

 “We’re adversaries.”

 “That doesn’t mean I’m not a gentleman.”

 “Forgive me if I doubt that declaration,” she barely muttered. “Given your past behavior.”

 He didn’t need to be a genius to guess what she meant. He moved in to keep his voice low. “You wanted that kiss as much as I did.”

 “I wasn’t talking about the kiss. Besides, I was faking that.”

 Seth drew in a frustrated breath, telling himself to regroup. If she was faking it, that was an award-worthy performance. But now was definitely not the time to dwell on the sincerity of her kisses.

 “I was trying to stop Joe from making a scene,” he told her instead.

 “I had it under control.”

 “You think?”

 “I think.”

 “And what would you have done if he’d gotten out of hand?”

 “Elbow him in the solar plexus. Break his nose with the heel of my hand. Knee him in the groin.”

 Seth couldn’t help but wince at the last threat.

 “Same things I’ll do to you if you get out of hand.”

 “Then I’ll be very careful not to get out of hand.”

 “Really?” She blinked at him. “When were you planning to start?”

 Seth wished Darby would stop making him smile at such inappropriate times. The woman was threatening to emasculate him, but he couldn’t help appreciating her quick retorts.

 “You’ve taken self-defense classes?” he asked, trying to keep his amusement under wraps.

 “I have.”

 “Where?” He wondered if they were offered locally. He hadn’t heard about them.

 “The United States Military.”

 “Excuse me?”

 “You heard me. I’m a soldier. I remain a captain in the army reserve.”

 “A captain?”

 That explained why she struck him as being so fit, so alert, so incredibly healthy. He couldn’t help but be impressed.

 “Yes,” she answered.

 “Were you overseas?”

 She nodded. “I was.”

 “Where?”

 “Don’t you have to give a speech?”

 “You’ve got me curious.” What else didn’t he know about her?

 “Well, you’re going to have to stay curious.”

 “I guess you could also shoot me?” he ventured with a grin.

 “And I know how to lob a grenade.” This time, it was Darby who was obviously fighting a grin.

 “You don’t have any of them on you, though. Grenades, I mean.”

 “Not tonight.”

 “Good to hear.” Seth fought a strange feeling of warmth growing inside him.

 He knew they were adversaries. He knew he shouldn’t be attracted to her, and he sure shouldn’t be flirting with her. Not that talking about grenades would normally be considered flirting. But some kind of energy sparked between them every time they had a conversation. And that spark made him want to keep the conversation going, to get her alone, to take her in his arms and kiss her all over again.

 He knew his reaction was reckless and unprofessional, but it was also impossible to fight.





                       Four

 Despite her own best intentions, Darby found herself engaging with Seth’s speech. On stage in front of the Rodeo Association, he was keeping the two-hundred-odd members of the audience entertained and laughing with his anecdotes of previous rodeos. She hated to admit it, but she could definitely see how he’d been elected. He had an almost electric presence in front of a crowd, while keeping his stories down to earth in a way that obviously spoke to the cowboys in the audience.

 The crowd was friendly to the railway, and when he closed with a plug for it, they erupted in enthusiastic applause.

 With dinner over, she said goodbye to the other occupants at her table. They’d been polite but cool throughout the evening. There was no need for her to guess they were on Seth’s side of the railway debate. Most people in Lyndon now knew who she was and what she was trying to accomplish.

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