Dating the Cowboy

by

Ann B. Harrison

They’ll let the town think they’re together… for now

Crease Hansen is home from college and looking to start up his own dating service in Marietta with his best friend Alice. Everyone assumes they’re a couple because of the easy-going banter they share and the way they mercilessly tease each other. Rather than tell everyone the truth, they go along with it because it looks good for business: The matchmakers who matched themselves.

Alice Winter is only looking to hone her data mining skills, as a stepping stone to a career in the tech industry, so why not join her friend in a start-up? After a magazine gets wind of their supposed matchmaking skills and wants to interview them, they realize they can’t turn down the free advertising. But are they getting in too deep?

When Alice finally gets the interview she’s been dreaming of, the chance to fulfill her professional goals in Seattle is within her grasp. So why does she feel as though her world is crashing down around her?

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“I’m so excited.” Alice Winter gripped her best friend’s arm as they stood on the pavement, staring at their shop front. Their sign writer was busy putting the final touches on the window advertising. The bright red love heart logo she’d designed faded from blood red to the softest cotton candy pink and rained across the big glass picture window before it dribbled down onto the pavement like melted ice cream. Nobody was going to be confused about what they stood for. They screamed romance, bright and cheerful.

Hopefully, nobody would think she was being flippant regarding their love lives when they looked at her design.

But she hadn’t intended it to be subtle. They wanted to make their mark and this was the way to do it. They were going into this venture with guns blazing, ready to take over Marietta’s dating game.

“Do you think it’s too much?” Maybe she should’ve cut back on the hearts and added flowers or a handsome couple. Or maybe she should stop second-guessing herself. Crease didn’t seem to suffer from that as much as she did. He was Mr. Confident. Alice blamed it on her nerdy nature.

“No. You’ve done an awesome job. I almost reconsidered the color, but I’m really glad we didn’t change anything.” Crease Hansen tapped his lip with his finger, a sure sign of deep thinking. He glanced up and down the street, reading the signs hanging over the shop fronts, then back at their window, tilting his head to one side.

He was comparing their artwork to that which already existed on the main street. Not that it’d been an issue when they’d decided on the design for their window—they finalized that before they came to town. Alice had spent many a night scribbling on her art block to find the perfect fit for them. When they’d arrived last night and dragged their suitcases upstairs to the apartment that came with the business, the last thing that concerned either of them was how the window would look when the signwriter arrived the following day. But maybe they should’ve at least thought about the color for longer. She wasn’t sure Marietta was ready for her kind of love even if she loved it.

“Thank goodness. I was worried for a moment that you were going to tell me I’d overdone it. What is it you say—men in pink don’t stink… they’re comfortable with their feminine side?” Alice screwed up her nose and poked him in the ribs. “I can’t count the number of shirts in your wardrobe that color.”

He feigned pain and slung his arm across her shoulders, pulling her close. “That’s the one. Hard to try and hide with that in your face.” He grinned at her. “You know this is going to be fun. The good folk of Marietta won’t know what to think when we open the doors.”

“So long as they sign up for our dating service and I get a chance to dance with their data, I’ll be happy.” Alice leaned her cheek against Crease’s chest and soaked up his calm vibe, doing her utmost to keep the anxiety that’d been hovering at bay. She’d never been to Marietta before, but it was what Crease wanted to do and she’d fallen in easily with his plans. He was hard to turn down once he got excited and drew her in with promises of endless spreadsheets and numbers. He really knew how to get her interested.

Now, as well as starting a new business, Alice had to find her feet in this town where Crease knew everyone. Of course, he’d help her and introduce her to people, but it wasn’t that easy. She had to start a new life, find new friends, new contacts. She had to find her way around unfamiliar streets, find a new hairdresser who shared her philosophy on color, a doctor who wasn’t afraid to dish out common sense advice, and a favorite grocery store that sold her flavored herbal teas. All the little things she’d taken for granted before moving.

But it was the promise of the chocolate shop that pulled her over the finish line. Alice could see it from where she stood. As soon as she could, she’d be over there for a tasting to see if it lived up to the hype Crease had built around it.

“I do hope we’re doing the right thing.”

He rested his chin on her wild curls and breathed. Easy to do when he was six feet two and she was five foot nothing. It always made her feel safe under his protection. Not that she needed protecting, but a girl liked to know it was there if she wanted it.

“We did the business costs and ran the figures, Alice. We know this is going to work. The business model alone is enough to make people sit up and take notice. There’s nothing out there remotely like it. Nothing.” He squeezed her shoulders reassuringly. “Look how excited you got when your computer started spitting it all out.”

She had. Dancing around the room like a loon. It’d been so exciting to know that the data program she’d made actually worked. Her first real test at something substantial and she passed with flying colors. They’d used friends as guinea pigs to tweak the master plan and it was brilliant, even if she said so. Crease had been over the moon about it. It was hard not to get caught up in his excitement, but still, the jitters would remain until she’d used real people, real data to run through their program. She took a deep breath and counted silently until her heart slowed, letting herself believe what he said was true. And data never lied.

“True. Once they start signing up and I get to play, I’ll calm down. I’m still not convinced a town this size is going to give us the database we need.” One more day until they threw open the doors and people signed up for the deal of a lifetime. One more day until Crease could weave his magic and change the lives of everyone looking for love with his calm words and cool logic. Just like he’d changed hers.

“You’ll see. Marietta may look like a sleepy little town on the surface, but you mark my words, they need our help just as much as anyone in a big city. Plus, the outlying towns aren’t that far away and we’ll get business there too. I’m sure you’re going to love living here. It’s so different from what we’ve had for the last five years, and I’ve really been looking forward to some calm and quiet. The people are different, too. Just you wait and see.”

And were they going to get a shock when they found out just how clever he was and what business they’d brought to town. He was so switched on with what men and women wanted it scared her sometimes. Made her feel like she was an open book he could read anytime he felt like it. Not that he invaded her privacy, but there were times he came out with things that threw her. It certainly wasn’t what she expected from the quiet country boy who’d followed her with his eyes when he arrived on campus. Nor was it something their friends expected.

They’d teased him for his hangdog look and his dismal dating attempts in the early days. He’d taken it all in his stride and proven that anyone could change. Once he started getting dates, people started to take notice and stopped the teasing. And when they asked for advice, he turned their lives around. It made the five years they’d spent on campus more exciting. And gave Alice her best friend and now business partner.

“Crease Hansen. Is that you?” A spritely older woman crossed over the road and headed straight toward them.

He whispered in Alice’s ear, “Here she comes, eleven o’clock.” Carol Bingley was the town gossip and Crease had warned Alice well in advance.

He stepped forward to meet her, his warm smile beaming. “Mrs. Bingley. How wonderful to see you again. My, you sure are looking as young as ever.”

She batted her hand at him and peered at Alice around his body. “And you are?”

Crease put a hand on Mrs. Bingley’s arm. “Ma’am, I’d like you to meet my best friend and business partner, Alice Winter. Alice, this is Mrs. Carol Bingley, legend of Marietta. If you need to know anything about anyone, this here is the lady to talk to.”

“Best friend? Business partner? Exactly what does that mean, Crease? Your brothers never said anything about you going into business with a lady. I was sure when you finished all that learning you’d come home and go ranching like them.”

Alice held her tongue. She was going to let Crease sort this out. Forewarned was forearmed.

“Best friends are the perfect people to do business with. Alice and I met in college and we both majored in business. What do you think of the artwork on the windows? Pretty, isn’t it?” He smiled and the poor women couldn’t help but look across the street.

“If you’re opening a flower shop, I’d agree. But I suspect that isn’t what you have in mind, is it, young man?”

He shook his head, the grin getting bigger. Alice held her breath. Even his family didn’t know yet. Crease wanted to keep it to themselves until they were in town. Carol would be the first person who heard what they were doing. And from what Crease said, she would be sure to spread the word faster than a scrub fire on a windy summer’s day. They couldn’t buy that kind of advertising, so seeing her before everyone else was an added bonus.

“It’s a dating business, Mrs. Bingley.”

Her mouth dropped open, but before she could say a word, Crease said, “And because you’re such a wonderful person and you know how much I love you, I’m going to give you a free consultation, if you ever need it. Same goes for Mr. Bingley. I suspect you’d be a hard act to follow if that day, lord forbid, ever came around.”

Alice turned away as the woman tried to squeeze out a few words.

Crease wasn’t giving her a chance to say anything negative. “We’re having an opening party tomorrow night. You and Mr. Bingley are the first people I’ve invited. Drinks at seven with finger food followed by a small presentation of what we have to offer.”

Carol finally shut her mouth and stared up at Crease. She blinked a few times before answering. “I’m not sure what to say about that.”

He put on his best winning smile and held her hands in front of his chest as if he was pleading with her. “Please say you’ll be here. All my family will be coming and, hopefully, so will most of the town. It’s like this, Mrs. Bingley. I believe there’s someone out there for everyone, and it’s easier if you know what the likely chance of a long-lasting relationship is before you risk your heart by falling in love. Have you seen what the divorce rate is these days?” He frowned and shook his head.

He was so earnest when he began talking about his passion for long-lasting relationships. It always made Alice melt a little more each time. Whoever got Crease for a husband would be a very lucky girl indeed. It was a shame it wouldn’t be her. Despite their business venture and friendship, marriage wasn’t in her future plans. But if it was, Crease would be the perfect fit for her.

“Alice and I aim to take that uncertainty out of the equation because nobody likes to lose at love. It’s heartbreaking and really puts a damper on your self-confidence. Makes it harder to try again when you have a broken heart, and I understand that just as much as anyone.” He grinned and shook his head. “You should’ve seen my feeble attempts when I got to college. Enough to make you want to weep in frustration.” Crease laughed and gave Alice a wink before turning his attention back to the town gossip. “So bad, Alice turned me down repeatedly when I asked her on dates.”

“No.” Carol’s mouth dropped open and she frowned at Alice.

“Afraid it’s true, but I grew a thick skin and tried again, not that it did me much good then, either. That’s a whole other story. I got better at asking once I figured out what I was doing wrong. So, because of my experiences, we’ve come up with the perfect way to find your soul mate. It’s the least we can do for our friends in Marietta.” He gave her a winning smile, his gorgeous blue eyes lighting up.

Alice knew from experience that no one from a toddler to an elderly lady was immune to Crease’s charm when he turned it on. Except herself, and that depended on the day. Even she couldn’t deny him anything when he was in the mood to woo her over. And most of the time it was just the way he was, not smarmy or conniving but kind and genuine. He had that earthy boy-next-door look that everyone loved. A ready smile for everyone, despite their moods or greetings. Very little got Crease down.

I’d rather be glass-half-full kind of person. Makes me feel happier, and it doesn’t hurt to spread a little bit of joy. You never know what a smile could do to brighten up someone’s day. The amount of times Alice had heard him say that. At first she thought he was being too nice in the hopes that he’d win friends and fit in, but she found out he was simply the proverbial optimist.

“You can do that?” Carol frowned and gripped her handbag in front of her like a shield from cupid’s arrow.

“Sure can. Alice here is the best data person I’ve ever met. Show this girl a page of information and she’ll shred it to fine-tune everything that matters and then some. Now, for instance, what do you think are the best qualities a man should have? What was it about your husband that made you want to be with him?” He put a hand on her arm and moved her away from the edge of the pavement, and Alice let out the breath she was holding.

End of Excerpt