Excerpt from BRIDE FOR A BLUE RIBBON COWBOY, July 2005

CHAPTER ONE

When Blake Gray Feather agreed to compete in the upcoming rodeo, the Blossom County Fair Board had practically danced in the town square.

After all, Blake's fame and his local-boy status would bring in the crowd--and the revenue--they desperately needed. And since the rodeo was the kick-off to the fair, they hoped the community enthusiasm and attendance would carry over.

But Cindy Tucker had her own reasons to be excited. The good-looking cowboy with the rebel grin would be staying at the Tumbling T with her and Grandpa for a couple of weeks. And that's all she needed to put her plan into motion--a plan that had been stewing since the first of the year. Or maybe even beyond that, if truth be told.

Several times throughout the morning, she'd wandered into the living room, peered out the big bay window and searched the long graveled driveway that led to the ranch house.

But Blake had yet to show up.

She really ought to be helping Grandpa fix the south fence, but she'd been so eager to see Blake that she'd puttered around the house all morning, doing the odd jobs she'd been neglecting. But at least she'd finally fixed that leaky valve in the toilet tank and replaced the light-bulb in the hall closet. And now she was removing the cracked P-trap under the kitchen sink.

As she adjusted the wrench, Shep, the ten-year-old cattle dog barked, then got up from where he'd plopped onto the kitchen floor and trotted into the living room.

Had the dog heard Blake's truck?

Cindy set down the tool and climbed out from under the sink.

Yep. That was definitely an approaching vehicle. She brushed her hands against her denim-clad hips and hurried to the front door, where she spotted a black truck pulling a fancy horse trailer and kicking up dust as it headed toward the house.

Recognizing the driver, she blew out the breath she'd been holding. Gosh, it was good to have Blake home in Blossom. And for more than a quick visit.

Ever since he'd come to live on the ranch as a teenager, he'd become part of the family.

Of course, as a ten-year-old who'd had her grandpa to herself for five whole years, Cindy hadn't been too happy when fourteen-year-old Blake had first arrived. He'd been a surly adolescent in need of her grandfather's guidance and a real thorn in her backside. But over the next few months, he'd evolved into a friend. And by the time he was ready to move on, he'd become the occasional romantic lead in the dreams of a goofy preteen.

But that was just between Cindy and her pillow.

Blake, who'd always been a ladies man, was way out of a tomboy's league--at least, in a romantic sense.

But Cindy had a big favor she intended to ask of him, a favor she'd cooked up right after finding out he was coming home to stay for a while. And she wasn't beyond begging, either. Unless, of course, he teased her about it. Then she'd be fighting mad.

She swung open the front door, letting Shep dash outside with his tail a-waggin' like crazy and barking to beat the band. But Cindy stood just inside the house, watching as Blake got out of a black, dual-axle Chevy pickup wearing a white shirt, black Wranglers and an expensive pair of boots.

Boy howdy, that man was a looker. The kind that made a girl or a woman take a second gawk.

And a third.

He'd inherited the absolute best his German and Comanche bloodlines had to offer. And eight years on his own, riding the rodeo circuit, had hardened the boy right out of him and announced him all grown-up and more handsome than ever.

As he shut the driver's door, he adjusted his black Stetson, allowing the afternoon sunlight to glisten off coal-black strands of hair.

Shep howled, and when Blake glanced at the doorway and spotted Cindy, he slid her a heart-stopping grin. "Hey, Sprout. What's up?"

"Not much." She stood rooted in the doorway, fighting the urge to race outside and give him a great big hug--like she'd always done when she was younger. But now that she had reached the ripe old age of twenty-two and gotten a new attitude about a few things, she wanted him to see her as a woman, and not the awkward little red-haired girl of his youth.

He carried himself with that lean, cowboy swagger and sauntered toward the porch, looking like a buckle bunny's dream come true. And hers, too, if her pillow could talk.

Blake gave Shep a hearty rubdown, then looked up at Cindy. "Hey, aren't you going to give me a welcome-home hug?"

"Sure." She pushed open the screen door, letting it slam behind her, and met him halfway.

As she tiptoed and wrapped him in a warm embrace, she savored the feel of his arms around her, the musky masculine scent of cologne that smelled as brisk and fresh as a mountain stream.

She couldn't help wondering if Robby Bradshaw's hug would feel as nice. She hoped and prayed it would, yet doubt niggled at her.

Still, she knew better than to let her imagination get away from her. Some crushes, like the ones teenyboppers had on Hollywood movie stars and rock musicians, were just dreams to carry a young girl until someone more suitable came along. Someone who wasn't out of reach and who would be happy to remain in Blossom and raise a family.
Someone like Robby.

As Blake released her, those whiskey-brown eyes that had always mesmerized her--if she'd let them--glimmered with sincerity. "You're looking good."

"Thanks." But she knew the difference between looking good and being pretty.

Which brought her to the subject she wanted to broach. All she had to do was figure out how to slide it into the conversation as if it belonged there.

As Blake strode toward the fancy horse trailer that looked brand-new, he said, "You have no idea how badly I need a little peace and quiet. I'm really looking forward to my stay here as a much-needed vacation."

"Good." She was glad he'd be around for a while. Well, thrilled was more like it. In the past, he'd only come for brief visits. So two weeks seemed like forever to her, and it ought to be plenty of time for what she had in mind.

She watched as he unloaded a chestnut gelding, the kind of mount a skilled cowboy deserved. "That's a fine-looking horse."

"Thanks. He's one of the best cutting horses in all of Texas. His name is Cutter."

She nibbled on her bottom lip as she tried to rustle up the courage to spring her request on him.

"Blake, I...uh...want to ask you a favor."

"Sure. What is it?"

That was easy enough. It sounded as if he'd made a commitment to help, and she hadn't even told him yet.

"Last winter, when Robby Bradshaw was home for Christmas break, I ran into him at Twin Oaks Lake, where he was fishing. And he...uh..." Ah, shoot. Robby hadn't exactly spit out the words, yet somehow, she'd figured out what was on his mind. And his obvious interest in her had set off a flurry of excitement.

Blake's movements stilled. He tensed and his brow furrowed. His eyes hardened. "What the hell did that guy do to you?"

"Oh, no," she said, realizing he might feel the need to defend her honor or something, although it was kind of nice to think that he might, if she needed him to. "It's just that he sort of... well, he's in Colorado and will be graduating from CSU soon, and we're probably going to go out on a date. And stuff."

"A date and stuff?" Blake arched a brow in a big-brotherly way.

She kicked at the ground with the scuffed toe of her boot. "Well, it's not like I have a ton of experience with men or with romance. You ought to know that. So I could use a little coaching on how to act around him. And since you're such an expert on... well, that sort of thing, I figured you'd make a perfect tutor."

Blake couldn't help the grin that stole across his face. Little Cindy Lou, with her red hair wrapped into a knot on her head, her flannel shirt rolled to her forearms and a black smudge across her freckled nose was growing up. And she wanted him to give her some pointers about men.

She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot. "Don't laugh."

"I'm not laughing. I'm just glad to see that you're finally interested in the opposite sex. That's all."

"You, of all people, ought to know how tough it is for me. I can hardly remember my mother, let alone my grandmother."

"I know that, honey."

She'd never had too many girlfriends, either.

Blake had never been sure if that was because she was stubborn and difficult to get along with, or if she felt some damn obligation to stick close to her grandpa and the ranch. Before Blake had come to live with them at the ranch, the old rodeo cowboy and his granddaughter had been close. And more than once, Blake had suspected that Cindy had wanted to be the son Tuck had lost when her daddy died.

It hadn't taken Blake five minutes on the Tumblin' T to realize the red haired girl was a dedicated tomboy. But then again, maybe that was because she hadn't stood a chance of developing into a lady and knew it.

Benjamin "Tuck" Tucker was a darn good cowboy. And he'd done a fine job straightening out a troubled teenage boy who'd been shipped off by his own grandfather to live on the Tumbling T. But Tuck didn't know squat about raising little girls. So it wasn't any wonder Cindy was a bit backward when it came to womanly things, like cooking and sewing, primping and flirting.

"So what do you say?" she asked.

He countered with a question of his own. "What would you have done if I hadn't come back home?"

She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one booted foot. "I'd have fumbled and stumbled my way through it, one way or another."

He didn't doubt it. Cindy had a lot of gumption.

But Blake wasn't sure what he could do to help, other than encouraging her to buy some dresses. Maybe fix her hair differently. That would be a good start.

Cindy had never been what you'd call pretty. But that was because she didn't do anything to help her looks. She didn't use makeup, perfume or body lotions. And as far as he knew, she'd never worn anything other than denim and flannel.

The small-town tomboy was definitely going to have to change her style.

Of course, it wasn't as though Blake knew how to coach a woman through that sort of thing. But Cindy was a special friend who was like a kid sister to him. And catching Robby's eye obviously meant a lot to her.

He tossed her a sympathetic grin. "You're going to need a makeover, Sprout."

She brightened. "So, you'll help me?"

"Sure." He'd give it a try--if he could. And if she'd let him have a free hand.

She smiled at him, with glistening eyes that were the color of new-mowed hay. He hadn't noticed before, but they were actually pretty. And far more expressive than he'd remembered.

When she blinked, he realized her long, spiky black lashes curled naturally. Hey, that was a plus. She wouldn't need to use any of that black goop women brushed on them.

He looked at her hair. She always plaited her long curly red mop in a single braid that hung down her back or in that slick granny-type topknot she was wearing now. On some women, the style looked sexy when they let wispy strands hang free and loose.

He began to pull out the pins that held her hair in place. If she was going to wear it up, she needed to fix it differently.

Her eyes widened and her lips parted. "What are you doing?"

"Seeing what this looks like down."

She touched the side of her hair with a dirty hand. "Now it's a mess."

He had to agree, as he used his fingers to comb out the clumps of curls. But as the sun lit upon golden highlights, his hand slowed.

Wow. He hadn't realized how thick, how rich...how shiny her hair was.

He dropped his hands to his sides. God knows he couldn't coach her on how to style a new hairdo. "Our first stop will be at the Cut N Curl."

"Oh, no," she said, taking a step back. "Not there. Grandpa took me once or twice when I was a kid, and they tugged and pulled on my hair something awful. After that, I refused to go and have been trimming it myself for years."

No one needed to tell Blake how stubborn Cindy could be when she set her mind to something or dug in her heels.

So he played her game. "If you're all-fired up for a makeover, you're going to have to do something different with it. And God knows I can't coach you on how to come up with a new hairstyle."

She tugged at one of the wavy strands, pulling it taut. "You think someone there can actually get this bush to obey a comb and brush?"

"Sure." He offered her a smile. "We can talk about it more in the house. Just let me put Cutter into the corral so he can stretch out his legs."

"Mind if I help?" she asked.

"Not at all. It'll be nice to have your company. I've missed you, Sprout."

And he had.

She'd been a pest when he'd first come to live here. But a sweet pest who'd just sort of grown on him. And now, eight years after he'd moved away from the ranch, it was his job to help her attract the attention of Robby Bradshaw, a guy who'd better treat her right, or he'd have a fight on his hands if he didn't.

Blake wouldn't stand by and let anyone hurt the young woman he cared about.

As he led Cutter to the corral, he watched as Cindy strode ahead to unlatch the gate. He couldn't help noticing the natural sway to her gait, the nice curve of her hips.

Years ago, she'd been all knees and elbows.

But she'd sure grown into those jeans.

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