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“Where’s the ring?” Mattie Guthrie demanded when Charlotte Morgan walked into the Marietta Fairgrounds offices.
No preamble. No greeting.
Just the breathless, starry-eyed demand of a teenage girl who was more interested in getting the jump on the gossip than doing her summer receptionist job. Clearly, Mattie expected a look at the ring before she would grant Charlotte admittance to the meeting she’d scheduled with Mattie’s brother, Jesse, the fairgrounds manager.
Charlotte stopped a safe distance from the reception desk. Reflexively, her thumb found the base of her bare ring finger. She shoved her naked left hand into the safety of her linen jacket pocket.
The air conditioning that had felt so refreshing when she’d closed the door on the muggy July morning suddenly felt icy and inhospitable. It hummed conspiratorially, as if supporting the stink eye Mattie was now shooting her.
“Come on, Charlie, let me see.” The girl’s pitch went up an octave as she reached across the desk, palm up, wiggling her fingers in a give-it-up gesture. “We’re like family and I haven’t even seen the ring yet.”
Charlotte fisted her hand in her pocket.
True, she and Tom had gone ring shopping in Bozeman last weekend. It hadn’t taken long for word to get around Marietta: After all these years, Charlotte Morgan and Tom Tucker were finally getting engaged. The only problem was, they hadn’t bought a ring, and when Tom had kissed her goodbye before heading off to his next competition on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, Charlotte certainly hadn’t felt as if she’d been proposed to. Not properly, anyway.
Now, it seemed as if the entire town of Marietta was wagering: Were they or weren’t they engaged?
The fact that she didn’t have a ring on her finger should’ve said it all. However, a tiny tidbit not many people knew was it wasn’t Tom’s fault that they’d walked out of that jewelry store empty-handed. Charlotte had been the ambivalent one. Tom had gravitated toward a gorgeous two-carat bundle of bling so big and bright it could blind a person from fifty paces. She’d desperately wanted to love the marquise he wanted for her. But when she’d put it on and held up her hand to look at it, the bottom point of the setting had dug into the base of her finger. Then every time she’d moved, the ring had seemed to bite her. She’d even tried a larger size, but that had just made the ring slide off her finger when she’d put her hand down at her side.
So she’d pointed out a modest emerald cut, which she’d actually preferred to the marquise, but Tom hadn’t been very enthusiastic. For a split second, Charlotte had wondered if his lack of gusto held a deeper meaning. Because for a moment it had almost seemed like they were both just going through the motions. Then she’d looked around at all the gorgeous rings, sparkling in the cases as if to celebrate the occasion that she, Charlotte Morgan, was finally making the big commitment.
And she’d wanted to run.
It was all so overwhelming. They’d been together for six years, but they’d been apart more than they’d been together.
It was just commitment jitters. That was all.
She’d taken a deep breath and reconsidered Tom’s marquise. She’d worn it around the shop for a while, hoping she’d get used to the feel of it. However, ultimately, all she’d wanted to do was take it off. In the end, Tom, seeming a little quiet and deflated, agreed they should wait until next time.
Would there be a next time?
Charlotte blinked away the thought.
Of course there would be a next time. But did it have to be right now? Maybe they should wait until he was spending more time in Marietta than on the road. Obviously, living apart as much as they did wasn’t the way to start a marriage.
They’d talk about it in three weeks, when he was back in town to present the awards for the Marietta Fair Junior Rodeo competition.
Mattie cleared her throat, startling Charlotte out of her thoughts. The teenager looked like she was about ready to come around the desk. So Charlotte quickly took control of the situation.
“Good morning to you, too, Matt. Actually, I’m here for the walkthrough with your brother. Jane will be here any minute. Will you please let Jesse know I’m here? I’d hate to keep him waiting.”
The girl sat back in her chair. That’s when Charlotte noticed the puppy sleeping in the girl’s lap. “FYI, I’m going by the name Mattalyn now. I’ll accept Mattie, but I’d prefer Mattalyn. No one is allowed to call me Matt anymore. And you didn’t answer my question, Charlie. Where’s your engagement ring? I swore to Gina that you’d gotten one. But Gina said when she saw you at Sweet Peas, you weren’t wearing a ring. But I told her if you were in Sweet Peas, you were probably there ordering your wedding flowers—”
“I was at Sweet Peas talking to Risa about donating flowers for the Miss Marietta Fair pageant.”
That’s what today’s meeting was about. Charlotte had been hired away from her job at the bank to work for the Marietta Chamber of Commerce. One of her biggest projects was putting a new spin on the pageant.
“Oh.” Mattie scratched the puppy behind the ears, and her gaze darted from Charlotte’s face to the hand hidden in her pocket.
“Good to know about the name change, Mattalyn. It suits you. It’s very grown-up. Is that a new puppy?”
Mattie nodded. “Yep. Jesse let me bring her to work. Isn’t she the sweetest thing?”
For a moment, Charlotte thought she’d successfully diverted the girl’s attention from rings to puppies, then Mattie said, “But you are engaged, right? Because I told Gina you were.”
Charlotte glanced in the direction of Jesse’s office, hoping he would miraculously appear and rescue her from his sister’s grilling. But the door was open and the light was off and it didn’t seem likely.
Maybe it was best just to tell her the truth.
“We didn’t find the ring we were looking for. So, we decided to wait.”
Charlotte shrugged it off like it was no big deal.
“Oh.” The girl frowned. “But you and Tom are getting married, right? And I’m going to be in the wedding, right?”
“Whoa, one step at a time,” Charlotte said. “Let us get engaged first, and then we’ll talk about the wedding party. I promise you’ll be among the first to know, and you will be in my wedding. Now, will you please let Jesse know I’m here, okay?”
“He knows you’re coming, but he isn’t here. I mean he’s here here.” She made a sweeping gesture with her hands and woke up the little dog, who yawned and stretched. “He’s just out somewhere on the grounds. He said he had to go take care of some things before you got here. You’re kind of early, but I can call his cell if you want.”
She set the puppy on the floor. “So, you just don’t seem very excited about getting engaged.”
“I am excited, Mattalyn.” Charlotte forced her best smile. “Now please call Jesse?”
As Mattie placed the call, Charlotte’s left thumb meandered to her bare finger again. The marquise had been beautiful…in theory. But what good was a beautiful ring if all she wanted to do was take it off? That pointy end had actually made an indentation in her skin. It had been the strangest, most uncomfortable thing.
She was getting married only once. Was it so wrong to want everything to be perfect…right down to the ring?
She swallowed around the fifty-carat lump in her throat, hating herself for feeling so ambivalent.
“He’s on his way,” Mattie said as she hung up the phone. The puppy made her way around the desk and was sniffing at Charlotte’s feet.
“She’s cute. How long have you had her?”
“She just showed up in the backyard the other day. Jesse said if I take care of her, I can keep her.”
Jesse had always had a soft spot for animals. In fact, sometimes it seemed as if he liked animals more than people. That was one of the things that had made him such a good bull rider. He seemed to be able to sense what the beasts would do before they did it. That was also what made it so sad when he’d had the accident that had ended his career.
“What’s her name?”
“Lulu.” Mattie propped her chin on her hand and regarded Charlotte with dreamy eyes. “Weddings are so romantic. Aren’t you just so happy? I can’t imagine anything more exciting than being in love and getting engaged and planning a wedding.”
“You’re going to experience a lot of exciting things before you meet the right guy and settle down, Mattie. Don’t be in too big of a hurry.”
“Well, I am fifteen,” she said. “So marriage isn’t that far away. And when I meet the right person, I’m not waiting as long as you and Tom. God, you guys have been together forever.”
“We’ve been dating six years. We both thought it was important that I finished college before even thinking about marriage. And we wanted Tom to get established in his career. I mean, he’s away a lot, and that’s not easy.”
It was true. She and Tom had started dating in high school, but since graduation, they had been apart more than they’d been together thanks to her being away at college and his constant travel. But they’d made it work.
Charlotte turned at the sound of the door opening. Her boss, Jane Weiss McCullough, who was head of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce, and Jesse stepped inside and closed the door behind them.
“Good morning,” Jane said. “I’m not late, am I?”
Mattie shook her head. “Jesse wasn’t even here, and Charlotte was early. We were talking about her and Tom going ring shopping over the weekend.”
Jane, who looked cool and crisp in a sleek summer dress, shot Charlotte a knowing glance. Jane was one of the few people who’d heard the whole story about the gouging marquise ring and Charlotte’s cold feet. In typical Jane fashion, her friend had listened but hadn’t judged.
As a relative newcomer, Jane was no stranger to Marietta gossip. As the new director of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce, she’d ruffled a few feathers before she’d found her place in the close-knit community. Then, when she married Sam McCullough, she’d been the subject of speculation similar to the type that Charlotte was going through now, and she’d handled it like a pro.
Now that Charlotte found herself a feature on the Marietta grapevine, she intended to borrow a page from Jane’s dignified book.
Jesse frowned. “Mattie, did you finish the paperwork I asked you to have ready for our meeting?”
“Not yet. Almost.”
“Did you pull the brochure I asked you to get out of the filing cabinet in my office?”
“I didn’t have a chance. I was going to do that after I finished the paperwork.”
Jesse opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, but then he closed it. He drummed his hand on his jean-clad leg before finally saying, “A little less talk and a lot more action, please. We need those papers for our meeting.”
“It’s almost done, Jesse. Gosh, don’t have a cow.” The girl harrumphed, but turned her attention to her computer screen and started typing.
Lulu, who’d been playing with a rubber ball, suddenly lost interest in it and scampered over to Jesse. The little dog grabbed a mouthful of pant leg and started growling and tugging.
“What are you doing?” Jesse asked, trying to pull his leg away. Just as suddenly as the dog started this new game, she lost interest and went over to the far corner and started sniffing.
“Hey, Matt, have you taken Lulu out since we got here?”
“No, I haven’t had time. And don’t call me that.” The frustration was clear in the girl’s voice. “She’ll have to wait until I finish this—”
They all watched as the puppy squatted and did her business in the corner.
“Ohhh. Uh-oh,” Mattie said.
Charlotte saw Jesse tense.
“Don’t get mad,” Mattie pleaded as she grabbed a wad of tissues from the box on the reception desk. “I’ll clean it up. Just go do your meeting.”
Jesse’s jaw worked as if he were counting to ten. Then he turned to Charlotte and Jane.
“Welcome to the three-ring circus. And you thought you were here to discuss the fair. Come in my office. We can wait there while Mattie finishes up what she was supposed to have already done before you got here.”
The girl made a quiet noise of protest, but kept her head down as she cleaned up after her puppy.
Charlotte had grown up next door to Jesse, Mattie and their brothers Jude, Jake, John and Jackson. She’d been away at college when their parents were killed in a tragic wreck on Highway 89 on the outskirts of town.
The Guthrie brothers had taken it upon themselves to raise their little sister, who hadn’t even been a teenager when they’d lost her folks.
Since Charlotte had been home from college, she’d noticed that the bulk of Mattie’s upbringing had fallen on Jesse’s shoulders, since he was the only one of the brothers who lived in town right now.
Hiring his teenage sister to work for him for the summer and letting her get a puppy—much less, bring it to work—seemed to make Jesse a good candidate for sainthood. Although, it dawned on Charlotte that this was the first time in her life she’d ever used the words Jesse and sainthood in the same sentence. He wasn’t a bad person. He was just a little edgy, and some people mistook his particular brand of quiet for aloof.
But she considered herself lucky to know what lay on the other side of that intensity. When they were kids, Charlotte, Jesse and a handful of other friends used to while away the summer riding bikes and playing games they’d made up.
A forgotten memory elbowed its way to the forefront of her mind: Jesse Guthrie had been her first kiss. Innocent as it was, they’d shared a peck during a game of Truth or Dare. How old had they been? He was a year older. They must’ve been about nine and ten?
Wow. She’d forgotten about that. Probably because shortly thereafter, puberty had set in and things had gotten awkward. In subsequent summers, Charlotte had hung out with her girlfriends, and Jesse had become superfocused on training to be a professional bull rider.
Then they’d each been swept away by life. Jesse had dated Veronica Robb all through high school. Charlotte was still with Tom.
Funny how the years changed people.
Broken dreams and lost loved ones tended to do that to a person.
Jane and Charlotte followed Jesse into his small, cluttered office. Charlotte couldn’t help but notice that the slight limp caused by the accident that had ended his bull-riding career was slightly more pronounced today. Somehow, it made him seem earthy and manly.
And Charlotte had no idea why those particular adjectives suddenly popped into her mind. Well, other than the fact that they described Jesse Guthrie to a T. That was the thing about knowing someone as long as they’d known each other: They had license to notice the other’s gifts without it being a big deal. Right?
At six-foot-four with mile-wide shoulders and piercing blue eyes, Jesse possessed considerable gifts. Plain and simple, he was hot. Being her friend didn’t diminish his hotness. In fact, as a friend, she’d glimpsed other facets of him that added depth and dimension to the man that others who might be put off by his gruff exterior might never see.
She knew and understood the whole Jesse Guthrie package.
Well, not the whole package.
She had to bite her bottom lip to keep from smiling at the thought.
It was a wonder someone hadn’t snatched him up and taken him off the market. In fact, had he even had a serious girlfriend since Veronica? He’d dated Jodie MacCreadie off and on, but they were more off than on. Well, okay, there’d been Eve Canaday. They’d been more serious. Eve was blond, pretty and from a well-off family. Everyone thought that relationship had been heading somewhere. Charlotte would’ve been lying if she said she hadn’t been a tiny bit relieved when they broke up.
God, she was horrible. She really wanted only what was best for Jesse. Even though Eve had been perfect on paper, there had just been something about them together that hadn’t been right.
As if Charlotte had a vote.
Jesse flipped on the overhead light and gestured to the two chairs in front of his desk.
“Have a seat. I’ll grab that brochure I was talking about while we wait for Mattie to bring in the quote you requested for the added dressing rooms for the pageant.”
He turned his back on them and began searching in the top drawer of a tall filing cabinet. Charlotte turned to say something to Jane and caught her intently gazing at Jesse.
She wasn’t immune, either.
Jane must’ve sensed Charlotte watching her watch Jesse, because she glanced at her and lifted an eyebrow then gave a discreet nod toward Jesse’s backside. Even though Jane didn’t utter a single word, Charlotte knew her friend was appreciating the…er…view and was encouraging her to join in the fun.
Charlotte shook her head and made a censuring face at Jane, but that only egged Jane on.
Jane was a professional through and through, and she was about as in love as any newlywed could be. Yet she didn’t feel the need to take herself overly seriously. That’s why Charlotte liked her. Especially when there was no questioning that a red-blooded, heterosexual woman would have to be blind not to notice the incredible work of art that was Jesse Guthrie’s backside.
How had Charlotte never properly appreciated it before?
Probably because she’d never stopped long enough to take in the view and, of course, there was Tom. But Tom wasn’t here. And sure enough, broad, muscular shoulders hidden beneath a light blue plaid cotton shirt tapered down to a trim waist that enhanced Jesse’s very finest jean-clad…asset.
A strange thrill that was both electrifying and a little forbidden shot through Charlotte.
Then Jesse turned, clutching the brochure that had been his mission. “I wanted to show you this—What’s wrong?”
Charlotte wanted to crawl under the desk, because she was sure she and Jane were busted. But by the grace of God, Jane’s cell phone sounded a text, which she immediately picked up.
Jesse handed the brochure to Charlotte. “This might be a workable option for more dressing-room space if you really think you need it. How many girls are entering the pageant?”
Jane and Charlotte were producing this year’s Miss Marietta Fair pageant. It was the first year that the pageant was being run by the Marietta Chamber of Commerce rather than the Miss Marietta Fair board of directors, an independent group of mostly grandfatherly Marietta residents. In the past, the fair queen and her court had been voted on by the fair board of directors. Because of this, many local girls whose families weren’t as well connected as the others were shut out.
Jane had come up with the idea of turning the pageant into an event that was open to all girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two. She’d convinced the mayor to make it a scholarship pageant that would give young women a chance to learn poise and public speaking.
The mere idea had caused quite an uproar among some of the town’s old codgers—namely those with granddaughters who were eligible to be appointed to this year’s court. Even so, at January’s city council meeting, Jane’s plan to bring the fair queen and her court into the new millennium garnered enough votes to prevail. That’s when she’d hired Charlotte away from First Bank of Marietta to be her assistant and guide the pageant in its new direction.
Charlotte glanced up from the brochure for the portable dressing tents. Jane was still tap-tapping away on her phone. The text seemed important.
“We don’t have a final number because we’re still accepting entry forms until next Monday,” Charlotte said. “So far we’ve received seventeen entries. But we’re expecting several more based on the amount of interest. We’d like to plan on twenty-five girls or so. Would we have to buy these or do they rent them?”
“You’d have to buy them.”
“But they’re not air conditioned, and with the summer humidity and all that makeup and hairspray, that could be a problem.”
Jesse shrugged. “I want to help you, Charlie, but I only have so much space to offer. I can’t manufacture it.”
“How much do these things cost?” Charlotte asked.
Before Jesse could answer, Jane got to her feet. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go.” She held up her phone. “I have a situation that I tried to solve via the magic of text, but unfortunately it requires my presence. I’m going to leave this meeting in your capable hands, Charlotte. But will you walk out with me? Excuse us for a moment, Jesse?”
“Sure, I’ll see how Mattie is doing with the papers we’ll need for the walkthrough.”
Charlotte went outside with Jane. The two of them stopped next to her small, dark blue SUV.
“Is everything okay?” Charlotte asked.
Jane waved off her question. “Everything’s fine. It’s an issue with the Chamber directory. The printer needs me to sign off on proofs before they’ll start the job. If I don’t sign within the hour, they’re going to put a big job ahead of us.”
“Oh, good. I was afraid maybe it was about Sam.”
Jane’s hand fluttered to her neck. “Oh, no. He’s doing fine. Healthier than ever, thank God.”
The day after Jane and Sam McCullough had announced their engagement in late May, Sam had suffered a mild heart attack. Charlotte was relieved to hear that he continued to do well. It just went to show what the power of love could do for a person. It also proved that life and love were precious and not to be taken for granted.
Charlotte rubbed her bare ring finger again.
She decided when she got home this evening, she’d call Tom so they could talk through some of the ambivalence she’d been feeling. Why had she been keeping all the weird emotions inside when, for all she knew, he might be harboring the same doubts and fears? Marriage was for sharing—for better or worse. Now was as good a time as any to start living those tenants.
“Be firm with him and get what we want,” Jane said.
“What?” Charlotte asked.
“Talk to Jesse about the extra lighting and the dressing rooms. The city could shoulder the cost of the dressing rooms and use them for future events. Remind him that we’re not in this to make money, but we have to break even. Get him to work with you. And don’t be distracted by that fine ass.”
Charlotte felt her face flame. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. It wouldn’t hurt you in the least to do a little sightseeing while you and Tom are trying to figure things out. You know I love my husband, but I’d certainly endorse Jesse Guthrie’s ass as one of Marietta’s natural wonders.”
“Oh, really? Will that be an official Chamber of Commerce campaign?”
“There’s a thought. See, I knew you were looking. You may be engaged—”
“Almost engaged is all the more reason that you should be considering your options.”
Options? Please. Jesse was hot, but she’d never considered him an option.
But, God, he was pretty hot, wasn’t he?
She didn’t even have that marquise ring on her finger, but she could feel it digging in. And now she had to go back in there alone, with her eyes opened and her head spinning with thoughts that shouldn’t be there, and face Jesse with his fine ass and those piercing blue eyes.
End of Excerpt