Keeping one hand on the wheel and both eyes on the highway, Jodi Brand rummaged in her purse and pulled out her trusty can of Aquanet. She’d sworn off blue eye shadow and tossed her rodeo queen tiara without so much as a twinge of regret, but she needed a twelve-step program to kick her hairspray habit.
Aqua Net is to rodeo queens what duct tape is to handymen—a cure-all for everything from shellacking their hair into place to shining their boots. It repairs runs in pantyhose, fixes slipping zippers, kills bugs, and pastes your cowboy hat to your forehead so it’ll stick at a gallop.
Popping the lid, she glanced down at the label, then back at the road. She could risk a collision by squeezing her eyes shut while she sprayed, or court blindness by spritzing her ‘do with her eyes open. Simply letting her hair tousle in the breeze from the open window was out of the question, since she’d just passed the "Welcome to Wyoming" sign. The minute she crossed the border into her home state, her Queen persona took over like a perky little demon returning to possess her, telling her to make sure her hair was perfect and ordering her to smile, smile, smile.
What she really needed was Rodeo Queen Rehab—a quiet residential facility where counselors would help her emerge from under the shadow of her rakishly tilted cowboy hat.
But rehab was for sissies—sissies and Easterners. Westerners like Jodi believed in personal responsibility— and while she might not want to dress up like a Wild West Dolly Parton anymore, she was proud to be Wyoming born and bred.
So why wasn’t she glad to see that "Welcome" sign?
She loved Wyoming. She really did. But coming home meant facing the high expectations of a hometown that had sent her East like an emissary to an alien planet. They’d expect her to bring civilization back to Purvis, or at least some new fashion and makeup ideas. The fact that she’d gone back to being plain old Jodi Brand was bound to be a disappointment.
She turned off the highway and headed for the center of town, a three-block stretch of old-fashioned storefronts and cracked sidewalks presided over by a single traffic light. Pulling into a space in front of the Rexall, she squared her shoulders, gave her hair a quick spritz, and stepped out of the truck. Her cowboy boots gave her courage, making her walk feel like a bona fide swagger as she strode through the drugstore’s swinging door and stepped up to the counter.
"Jodi Brand." Darla Black widened her eyes and brought one hand to her ample chest in a theatrical gesture of horror. "My God, honey, what’s wrong? You look terrible."
When Darla wasn’t stationed behind the pharmacy counter, she starred in nearly every production at the Purvis Little Theater, and her combination of dramatic delivery and medical scuttlebutt made her the queen of the coffee klatches. It was like having Gypsy Rose Lee, Hello Dolly, and Auntie Mame all rolled into one convenient pharmacist.
"Why, I’m fine, Mrs. Black," Jodi said. "Just dandy." She cocked her head and widened her smile—or was she baring her teeth? She wasn’t sure. "But thank you so much for asking."
Darla reached over the counter and placed a soothing hand on Jodi’s arm. "You can tell me, honey. Is it one of those, you know, transmitted things?" She leaned over the counter and lowered her voice to a whisper. "It’s not cancer, is it?"
"Cancer?" Joss peered over the pharmacist’s shoulder, scrutinizing herself in the mirror behind the counter. Behind her, six or eight customers peered over the shelves to watch the show, like prairie dogs poking up from their holes to scan the plains for ferrets. Their expressions ranged from shock to dismay to pity.
Dang. She didn’t look that bad. In normal surroundings, she passed easily for pretty—but in her hometown, expectations ran high.
"So pale," Darla said. "And your hair—honey, you look just wrung out and hung to dry. What happened?"
"Nothing," Jodi said. "It’s just that I’m not a rodeo queen anymore." She straightened her shoulders. "I’m a certified equestrian therapist with a degree in special education."
"Well, it looks like all that hard work and studying has just worn you right out."
"I’m not worn out." Jodi swallowed her aggravation. This was even harder than she’d expected. "I’m just not wearing makeup. I used to have to pretty up all the time. Eye shadow. Blush. Sparkle powder." Tossing her head, she felt her hair flare out and fall neatly back into place.
God bless Aquanet.
"But now I’ve got more important things to do," she said. "I’m keeping my promise to make Purvis a better place. You remember my speech?"
"Who could forget?" a deep voice behind her said.
Jodi knew that voice. She stood motionless, enjoying the moment—the delicious anticipation of finally seeing Teague Treadwell again. She pictured the hard jaw softened by a five-o’clock shadow, the dark eyes glinting under a battered Stetson, the long, lanky line of him leaning casually against the counter like a dark-haired version of James Dean in a cowboy hat—cool and tough and drop-dead sexy. God, she’d missed cowboys—real cowboys—and Teague Treadwell was as real as they came.
She turned with a bright smile, then took a quick step back. The man behind her was Teague Treadwell—but he looked about as real as a model in a Western wear catalog. He stood like a cowboy, relaxed and lounging, resting one elbow on the high counter like he might rest it on the worn leather saddle of his trusty quarter horse, but his clothes were straight out of Lou Taubert’s dress-up section. Clean, creased Wranglers broke tidily over what appeared to be Tony Lama boots, and his white shirt was pinned at the collar with a string tie that sported an expensive chunk of polished turquoise mounted in silver. He held his hat in his hand, a gray felt Stetson with a brand-new sheen unmarred by sun or rain, and his clean-shaven jaw was more GQ than Western Horseman.
And then there was the jacket. On any other man, she’d have appreciated the way it classed up the outfit and spanned his broad shoulders, but the cut of it hid at least half of a butt she’d been looking forward to seeing in full.
"You took that scholarship and that modeling contract and hightailed it for the city so fast it made our heads spin. Frankly, we didn’t think you’d be back," he said.
"I promised," Jodi said, setting her jaw.
"I know." He stepped closer—a little too close. "But you don’t always keep your promises."
To be continued…