Luke stayed where he was, observing the newcomer as she got out of the car and opened the back door. “Get a load of that outfit,” he told the golden retriever who’d been stretched out asleep in a warm patch of sun, but was now up and wiggling at Luke’s feet, anxious to run out and greet the new visitor. “Hold your horses,” he told the dog. He wanted another minute to watch what she would do.
What in the world is she wearing?
That hot pink shirt was practically neon, and the sun glinted off all the sparkly rhinestones on the belt circling her waist. She reached into the back seat and pulled out a light pink cowboy hat. She put it on and regarded her reflection in the car window. Her shoulders slumped, and she took it off and started to put it back in the car. Her lips were moving, and she appeared to be holding a conversation with herself as she paused and pulled it out again then lifted her chin and pushed the hat firmly on her head.
She turned around, and Luke got his first good look at her as she peered around the ranch. Her brown hair was shoulder length and curly, the ends forming wings around the crown of the cowboy hat. The outfit screamed city slicker, but he caught himself admiring how well her jeans hugged her curvy figure. Her face seemed open and friendly and carried almost an expression of awe as she took in the barn and the farmhouse. Even with her small, upturned nose, she didn’t actually look all that snooty. In fact, with her obviously new cowboy hat tilted jauntily on her head, she looked kind of cute.
Yeah, cute. And a little bashful as she shifted from one foot to the other, looking nervously from the house to the barn. She rubbed her palms on the front of her jeans then snatched the cowboy hat off one more time.
“I can’t watch this anymore,” he told the dog and headed out the door.
Her back was to him as he came out of the barn. He grinned as he noticed the hat was back in place as she reached into the backseat and pulled out a white bakery box.
“Hey there,” he called. The dog raced ahead of him then sat obediently at the newcomer’s feet, his tail wagging furiously as he whined to be pet.
“Aren’t you the sweetest?” the woman said, bending to give the dog’s chin a scratch. Straightening, she turned to him, a smile already in place. “Your dog’s adora—” She stopped midsentence, her chin dropping as her smile fell.
Her hands fumbled the cake box, then she gripped it tighter as she tilted her head and stared at him, her mouth open like a gaping fish. “Duke?” she asked, an incredulous tone to her voice.
“Nope,” he said shaking his head. Maybe she was more aloof than he’d thought if she hadn’t even taken the time to learn his name. “Luke. Luke Montgomery. And you must be Kaylee.”
She shook her head as if to clear it, and he could see her visibly trying to collect herself. “Of course. Luke, yes. Absolutely. I knew that.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied him, and he wondered if he still had some leftover lunch on his face. “I’m sorry,” she said, tilting her head the other direction. “You just look exactly like…well…like someone else I know.”
With the way her face had paled, and the way she was eyeing him, he wondered if the person he reminded her of had maybe passed away. She sure looked like she’d seen a ghost.
“Well, it’s good to meet ya,” he said. “My sister speaks real highly of you.”
“You too.” She shifted to her other foot and gazed around the ranch as if searching for something to say. She held out the cake box towards him as if she just remembered she was holding it. “I brought you a cake.”
“Great. I love cake. As long as it isn’t carrot. Never understood why someone would think grating a vegetable into a dessert would be a good idea.”
Pink tinged her cheeks as she peered down at the box.
Oh, dang. He had a feeling there was a vegetable cake inside it. They were off to a great start. He was acting like a dork. Why would he say that about the cake? And he’d already embarrassed her. Although it was kind of cute the way her cheeks flushed.
There he went again. What was with him and this cute nonsense? And why was she making him feel like he was in junior high again and unable to talk to a girl?
He was saved from saying anything else by a mother goose who walked out from behind the barn, her three goslings waddling along behind her. They headed toward Kaylee, but only because they had to pass behind her car on their way to the lake.
Kaylee’s face lit with excitement. “Oh, how sweet,” she cooed, taking a step toward the mother goose.
Luke held a warning hand out. “I wouldn’t get too close to that…”
Too late. The mother goose already had her feathers ruffled as she sensed danger to her goslings. She opened her mouth wide and released a menacing hiss as she made a run at Kaylee.
Kaylee let out a terrified shriek and launched herself towards Luke, smashing the cake box between them as she flung herself into his arms.
His arms automatically wrapped around her waist, as if some primal instinct to protect her kicked in. Yeah, real tough, protect the city girl from the big bad goose. Although he was a grown man, and he still got the creeps when a dang goose hissed at him. Which must be why he kept one arm securely around Kaylee as he shooed the goose and her goslings towards the lake.
“You okay?” he asked, peering down at the woman. The cake had smashed through the corners of the box, and globs of white frosting smeared across the front of her shirt and into the ends of her hair.
“Oh my gosh,” she said, her eyes wide and her hands still clutching the crumpled cake box as she took a step away. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I did that.” Thick splotches of frosting covered the front of his shirt as well, and she reached up to wipe at the blob he could feel clinging to his chin. Then she jerked her hand back as if his skin was on fire. “I’ll buy you a new shirt.”
He shook his head with a mild annoyance at city folks and their need to throw money at every problem. But she seemed genuinely upset. “Don’t worry about it. This shirt has seen a lot worse than a little frosting.” He brushed at the front of his faded blue T-shirt, then scooped the frosting from under his chin and flung it on the ground. The golden retriever raced to the spot and lapped at the white confection.
He licked the remaining bits from his fingers. “Not bad.” Her shoulders hunched as she tried to scrape the frosting from her shirt. She looked miserable. He wanted to tell her not to worry, it was just a little frosting, but his words didn’t seem to be making much of an impression. He looked around, and this time it was his turn to be searching for what to say. She had a nice smile, but now she just looked sad and uncomfortable, and he found himself wanting to draw that smile out again.
Kaylee followed Luke into the house, thankful she had a minute out of his line of sight to collect herself.
She’d spent the last several hours of her drive rehearsing what she would say upon meeting Faye’s brother. How she would channel her inner Sassy and come off as calm, cool and collected. But of all the ways she’d imagined meeting her host, shrieking in terror and smashing a cake into his chest while trying to climb him like a tree had not been among them.
And that was just the start of the craziness. She was also mortified that she’d called him Duke. Although as she followed his broad shoulders into the farmhouse, she was still marveling at the striking resemblance Luke Montgomery had to her fictional hero, Duke Ramsey.
She’d almost fainted when he’d come out of the barn. He was the spitting image of Duke, as if her imagined hero had come to life. He had the same crystal blue eyes, the just too-long thick sandy brown hair, even down to the black cowboy hat and the charming grin he wore as he’d sauntered toward her in a pair of jeans and square-toed cowboy boots.
But he wasn’t Duke. Because Duke wasn’t real. He was the made-up man she’d created. A hodge-podge of all her favorite classic Western heroes and celebrity crushes: a dash of John Wayne, a little Robert Redford, some Sam Elliott, a bit of Kevin Costner and Cole Hauser, and a whole lot of Chris Hemsworth.
Luke was Faye’s brother—her brother. Not some eye-candy cowboy for Kaylee to be drooling over and fantasizing about.
Wait. Who said anything about fantasizing about Luke?
Get it together, girl.