also writing as
Mr. Right But She
Doesn't Know It
What happened between Dev and Julia at the kissing booth...
COWBOY CONFESSIONS #3
Julia Benson’s heartbeat raced dizzily as she and Ellie walked up to the registration table at the kissing booth.
Ellie’s son, Jackson, was chattering a mile per minute about everything his curious young eyes were seeing at the hoedown — from the clowns handing out balloons to the endless rows of food trucks they’d passed along the way.
This is it. Holy moly! After days of imagining everything she might say to Devlin Cassidy and everything he might say to her in return, she suddenly no longer felt the least bit ready to face her high school sweetheart — the guy whose marriage proposal she’d turned down the last time she’d been in town.
She’d spent the past eight years barrel racing in every major rodeo across the west. She’d faced fierce competition and dealt with countless injuries — a few minor ones, plus a broken foot. She was seriously one of the toughest women she knew. And yet…
I don’t know if I can do this, after all.
She watched as fellow Team Mom Ellie handed Dev’s sister-in-law, who was managing the cash box, a one-hundred-dollar bill. It was enough for two kisses.
Jade’s smile was eager as she accepted the money. “Who are the lucky guys?” For once, she wasn’t wearing a business suit. However, her jeans and fringed shirt were clearly high-end, definitely not purchased from any shop in Chipper or the surrounding cattle towns.
Julia scowled, knowing it had probably never entered the wealthy attorney’s mind to ask if Ellie wanted change for such a large bill. Poor Ellie was a single mom on a teacher’s salary. Of course, she wanted change!
“Coach Cormac Cassidy. Who else?” Ellie sounded nonchalant and didn’t immediately set Jade straight, as expected, about needing change. “I’m certainly not going to kiss my own brother.” She gave a playful shudder, clearly intending to be amusing. Her brother, the new superintendent of their local school district, was one of the single guys manning the kissing booth today.
She shot a sly look at Julia. “The other kiss I’m sponsoring is for Julia Benson to plant one on Devlin Cassidy. My treat.” She abruptly turned to face Julia, who had just finished squatting down in front of Jackson in the hopes of talking him into visiting a few of the carnival rides with her. Not only would it make things easier for Ellie to go collect her kiss from Cormac, it would additionally provide Julia with a very good excuse for avoiding the kissing booth altogether.
Julia gaped for a second, unsure if she’d heard Ellie correctly. Receiving a challenging grin in return, Julia straightened in alarm. “I, ah, haven’t yet made up my mind if—”
“Oh, yes you have,” Ellie interrupted with a heartless toss of her wavy brown hair over her shoulder. “This was your idea, rodeo gal. If I’m doing it, you’re doing it. That was our deal, remember?”
“Hey, baby.” Ignoring Julia’s ensuing bleats of alarm, Ellie stooped to address her son. “I need you to sit beside Jade for a minute or two while I finish making my charity donation toward the new playground at your school.”
“Cool!” The kid’s eyes grew as round as saucers. “Will there be a sliding board?”
“Most definitely.” She kissed the top of his head and nudged him toward the empty chair beside Jade. Then she slowly pivoted in the opposite direction.
And Devlin’s direction.
“Well?” Jade’s unsympathetic voice cut through the emotions clogging Julia’s throat. “Here’s your chance to be benevolent, my dear.” She held out a hand, palm up, fluttering fingernails that were painted a flaming orange hue. “I’ve got a lot more single guys besides Devlin over there waiting to be kissed, and a children’s playground that’s not going to build itself. So pay up.”
“We’re not all raking in an attorney’s salary.” Julia scowled at Jade’s hand until she lowered it.
“Fair enough,” Jade sighed, returning her attention to her young charge. “I think we both know I wasn’t trying to be offensive.”
Julia continued scowling as she watched the most elegant woman in town slide a coloring sheet and a box of Crayons onto the table in front of Jackson. “Oh, please!” she hissed. “Who in the universe just happens to have coloring supplies on tap at a kissing booth?”
Jade blinked at her vehemence. “Someone who’s prepared. I saw the way the wind was blowing between Ellie and Cormac a lot sooner than some people did.”
“You mean me.” Julia couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice.
“A week ago, I might’ve said yes. I have since revised my opinion about a few people and a few things in this town.”
“Whatever.” Julia snorted out a mirthless laugh, knowing that Jade was being purposefully vague for Jackson’s sake. “In case you’re wondering, your precious client is out of earshot. That means we no longer have to pretend to be friends.”
“There was a time we didn’t have to pretend.” Jade fiddled with the latch on her cash box. “While we’re laying our cards on the table, I don’t mind saying that I miss those times.”
It was Julia’s turn to blink in surprise. “Me, too.” Admitting it out loud brought on a sting of tears. Jade’s admission had caught her off guard. To her mortification, one fat salt drop rolled down her cheek and splashed onto the table in front of her. It narrowly missed Jackson’s coloring page. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice.
She hastily wiped it off the table with the cuff of her sleeve.
“Oh, my lands, Julia!” Jade twisted around in her chair to dig through a designer leather handbag. She resurfaced with a tissue and held it out to her. “Is everything o—”
“Not even close! Please don’t ask why.” Julia snatched up the tissue and used it to dab her eyes.
“Fine. I won’t, but I’m a good listener if you change your mind.”
“I bet,” Julia muttered. “You get lots of practice in your line of business, don’t you?”
“I do.” Looking sympathetic, Jade angled her head at the line of kissing stalls behind her. “In case you’re wondering, Dev is manning the second-to-last stall on the left.”
Julia’s insides quaked at the thought of making her way over there. No, she hadn’t been wondering. She knew exactly where Devlin Cassidy was seated. She could feel his gaze on her right now, which was why she didn’t dare look up.
“Just need a second to work up to it here.” Julia drew a shuddery breath and closed her eyes, chanting inside her head. I can do this. I’m a rodeo champion. I can do this.
The tap of Jade’s finger on top of her hand made her eyelids fly open. “If you want to walk away, I won’t tell anybody. Even if Ellie finds out, I feel safe in saying she won’t ask for her donation back.”
“I’m not a quitter,” Julia snapped. “I have a mountain of buckles and trophies to prove it.”
“That’s the spirit!” Jade cheered softly.
“Quit being so nice about everything,” Julia pleaded. “It’s not helping.”
Jade’s eyes flashed. “Be careful what you ask for, hon. Most people can’t handle me with my gloves off.”
“Try me,” Julia snarled, desperately needing something to fortify her for what was coming.
“Just remember that you asked, and don’t try to kill the messenger,” Jade warned.
Julia nodded vigorously.
“Alright, then.” Jade stood and lowered her voice so that Julia was the only one who could hear her. “Rosie McKeever is acting pretty confident these days about hooking and reeling in a Cassidy brother.”
“How confident?” Julia’s heart felt like someone had their fist around it, squeezing.
“Confident enough to publicly brag about how she deliberately planted one on Devlin at the diner the other day in plain view of a certain rodeo queen.”
Julia’s breath eased out of her as she replayed the crushing moment in her head. She’d been so certain that Dev had purposefully staged the kiss to prove just how much he’d moved on from her. “Are they officially dating?”
“No idea. Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Jade's eyebrows arched in a challenge.
“Maybe because it’s none of my business,” Julia muttered. Not anymore, anyway.
“So, you’re going to just sit back and let Rosie sweep the winnings, without so much as giving her a run for her money?” Jade’s voice was infused with disdain.
“No.” Julia’s boots shuffled into motion. “I already told you I’m not a quitter.”
“Then prove it!” Jade’s voice was icy.
Wanting to slap her, Julia stalked toward the line of women waiting to kiss Devlin. Finding out that Rosie McKeever had staged the diner incident was like having a whole bottle of salt poured on her oldest, deepest wound.
You have got to be kidding me! She found none other than the object of her anger waiting in line directly ahead of her.
To kiss Devlin.
The man who’d once popped a very important question.
One Julia had sorely regretted saying no to ever since.
Rosie spun around to face Julia as she took her place at the end of the line — three women back from kissing the object of their mutual attention. “Oh, hey, Julia! I didn’t know you were back in town!” She possessed light brown hair that always looked a bit windblown, deceptively innocent features, and one of those syrupy voices that sounded sweet, even though she was anything but.
“Well, now you do, Rosie.” Julia infused her voice with boredom as she glanced at her watch. “How long have you been waiting in line?”
Rosie shrugged, making her teal blouse slip off one shoulder. “Who cares? Dev is worth the wait.”
Oh, dear heavens! Julia rolled her eyes. “I care, because I have a bazillion other appointments today.” Leaning around Rosie, she tapped the shoulder of the woman standing in the front of the line. “Excuse me! Any chance we can swap places? I’m in a rush to be somewhere else.”
Rosie’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t just cut in line!”
The young woman at the front gave a nervous titter. “Actually, that would be fine with me.”
“Me, too,” the woman behind her chimed in. “I’ve actually never done this before and—”
“Thanks!” Ignoring Rosie’s irate gasp, Julia stepped around all three women and stalked toward the second-to-last horse stall mounted to the back of a semi-truck bed. Instead of horses, however, the stalls contained men today — Chipper’s finest bachelors, according to all the flyers advertising the kissing booth in the days leading up to the hoedown.
The woman Devlin had just finished kissing was exiting his stall with her cheeks flushed a rosy shade of pink.
“Wow!” Julia clapped her hands as she approached the man who’d been haunting her dreams the entire time she’d been on the rodeo circuit. “You looked all warmed up for action there, cowboy.” She tried to tell herself that she didn't care he'd kissed heaven only knew how many other women this morning, but she did. A lot. She kind of hated herself for how much she still cared.
“It’s a good thing I’ve got my game face on, huh? Seeing as you’re in such a terrible rush to be somewhere else.” His sardonic blue gaze raked over her.
A rush of heat enveloped her that she attempted to hide with sarcasm. “Aw, and they say eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves.” Holy smokes, but he looked good in his navy button-up shirt and stone-washed jeans! And she was well aware that he’d earned the enormous silver belt buckle he was wearing — on the back of a bucking bronco, no less. That was before his family had appointed him and his twin, Emerson, to run their family store, of course. Life as a businessman might’ve reduced his tan a few shades. However, it hadn’t removed the glint of pure devilry in his eyes.
“What’s good about finding out you’re preparing to kiss and run?” he taunted, lowering his voice before adding, “Again.”
You did not just go there! Catching her breath sharply as she came to a halt in front of him inside the stall, she longed to reach up and give his longish blonde hair a good yank. “At least, I’m honest. Like it or not, you’ve always known where you stood with me.” She glanced pointedly over her shoulder in Rosie’s direction. “You never had to wait and hear it from the town gossips.”
“Doesn’t matter who you hear it from. The message is the same when a girl walks away and leaves you standing in her dust,” he mocked.
“From what I heard, you found plenty of things to occupy your time while I was away,” she shot back. Her gaze narrowed accusingly on his. “And plenty of people.”
“Well, pardon me if I misread the situation!” He raised and lowered his hands, looking exasperated. “I wasn’t the one who took off and stayed gone for the past eight years.”
“Number one, it was your idea for us to take a break.” She jutted her chin at him. “Number two, I’ve been out there doing all the things I said I was going to do. You knew where I was.” And where I wasn’t. “Airplanes travel in both directions, Dev. You could’ve come to visit me at any point, but you didn't.”
"Wasn't aware you wanted me around.” He dangled his thumbs from his belt loops as he glowered down at her. “How about we just kiss already, end the war between us early this time, and save thousands of lives?”
“Is that what you really want?” The air in her lungs constricted at the realization that he was telling her goodbye — that things were finally about to be over between them. For good. “The clean break we never gave each other eight years ago?” She struggled to keep her voice from shaking as she finally gave voice to the question that had been eating away at her for eight long years.
A tense silence settled between them, during which she was tempted to whirl around and take off running.
“Tell you what, Julia Benson.” He finally arched a single blonde eyebrow at her. She’d forgotten how maddening it was when he did that. “How about you kiss me first? Then I’ll tell you if I’m ready for that clean break you seem to want so badly.”
Of all his assumptions about her, his last one was the most wrong. It killed her to realize just how low of an opinion he held of her these days.
The thought of what her kiss might reveal to him, however, didn’t ease her stress level one bit. There were things she’d long since kept locked inside her heart — things she’d hardly been willing to admit, even to herself.
“What do you want from me?” She searched his features for any sign of the affection he’d once held for her.
It was gone. In its place was a hard, set look of an older, wiser cowboy than the one she’d left behind. She wasn’t nearly as familiar with this version of him.
“Answers.” His voice was brutally cold, though his arms were as gentle as she remembered when he wrapped them around her and drew her closer.
Then he dipped his head over hers and latched his mouth to hers. His kiss felt both familiar and new, reaffirming yet terrifying, the ending of old things and the beginning of new ones.
She lost track of time as his kiss dragged on and on into something she was powerless to stop. When he finally lifted his head, she was amazed to discover her arms were entwined around his neck like old times.
His expression was darker than before their kiss had begun, infused with emotions she couldn’t begin to define. “Look me in the eye,” he instructed in a low, rough voice, “and tell me again that you want a clean break, because that’s the only way you’re going to get it.”
She couldn’t do it. After all this time, she still couldn’t do it, and it made no more sense to her now than it had eight years earlier. Shaking her head, she slipped uncertainly from his embrace.
“That’s the problem,” she whispered. “I can’t.” She had no idea where they went from here. Where they were even supposed to go from here. All she knew was that this time she was staying in town until she figured it out.