also writing as
Mr. Right Again for Her
How Miss Texas talks her ugly duckly administrative assistant
into traveling to Chipper against her will....
COWBOY CONFESSIONS #4
“You like him.”
Girl, yes! I could easily fall for this guy. But Tess Cornwall wasn’t about to pass up a chance to tease her overly serious personal assistant. Pretending to be confused, she glanced up from the strap of her gold sandal that she’d bent to tighten a notch. “Who are you talking about?”
“Really, Tess?” Rolling her eyes, Thea Everson pushed her reading glasses higher on her nose. “We both know I’m talking about a certain cowboy from Chipper, Texas. I’m not sure why you make me spell everything out for you.” She returned her attention to the computer on her desk. She was wearing an ivory blouse that made her already pale complexion look washed out. It was tucked into a plain set of black trousers that matched her hair — an inky shade that Tess suspected was not her natural color. For the bazillionth time, she longed to give the plain Jane creature a make-over.
Instead, she opted to dole out a few compliments as she straightened and spun around. “Because you’re the best personal assistant on the planet.” She chuckled ruefully at how quickly she’d come to regard the woman sitting in front of her as irreplaceable. “Also, because you’re much better at spelling than I am.” They’d spent all morning in her home office, catching up on correspondence for the many charities she supported, setting up appointments, and — of all things — clearing her schedule for the next week. Tess was ridiculously excited about that last item. It had been a long time since she’d taken any time off from work. She was equally excited about the prospect of informing her assistant that she’d be taking that same amount of time off.
“Oh, wow! Instead of packing, my boss is punning,” Thea noted dryly. She mashed a button, and the printer whirred into motion. She spun around in her swivel chair to swipe two sheets of paper from the printer’s landing tray. “Here’s your boarding pass.” She leaned across the desk to wave the two papers in the air.
Tess smirked at the papers. “Did you even look at what you printed?”
“Of course, I did.” Thea impatiently pushed her long, dark bangs away from her eyes. They were in desperate need of a trim. Either that, or she was purposely hiding her expressive green eyes from the rest of the world. “Like I said, it’s your boarding pass. Your flight leaves in less than four hours, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I haven’t. And before you scold me too hard for returning to my office, you might want to take a closer look at what you printed.” Tess smiled as she waited, not entirely sure what kind of reaction she was going to get.
“Oka-a-a-ay.” Thea skimmed the documents and suddenly sat up straighter in her chair. “What?” Her head jerked up as she met Thea’s gaze. Her own gaze was shuttered as tight as the windows of a beach house during a hurricane. “Why’s my name on a second boarding pass?”
“Because you’re coming with me.”
“I…” Allowing the shutters to open a crack, Thea regarded the second boarding pass like it was a coiled snake. “I can’t.”
“You can if we scrub your schedule to match mine.” Tess dramatically twirled her way across the room, making her floral sundress swirl around her ankles as she came to a halt in front of Thea’s desk. “Which I stayed up until the middle of the night doing. Guess you hadn’t noticed that yet, either.”
“Actually, I did.” Thea dropped the boarding passes on her desk and reached for her computer screen. She canted it in Tess’s direction, so she could see the calendar that was pulled up. “I thought it was a glitch in the system. I’ve spent the last half hour trying to piece together all the appointments that I’m missing so I could get them back on the schedule.”
Tess’s gaze fell on the kaleidoscope of colored sticky notes fanned out in front of Thea. Guilt stabbed her at the extra work she’d inadvertently put her assistant through. “Listen.” She leaned her palms on the desk. “I didn’t mean to give you a heart attack. I was only trying to surprise you.”
“You succeeded.” The stressed look that flitted across Thea’s pale features indicated that it wasn’t the happy surprise Tess had intended it to be.
“Oh, my lands, Thea! Cheer up! It’s a rodeo we’re talking about, not a funeral. A real, lasso-swinging, cowboy-riding rodeo! It’s been years since I’ve been to one.” A decade of beauty pageants had fiercely dictated her schedule up to this point. Now that she’d made it to the top of her game, though, she was trying to loosen up a little. Being crowned Miss Texas meant she’d earned the right to live again.
“I’ve been to more than enough of them. Thank you, but no thank you.” Thea returned her gaze to her computer screen.
“Really? When?” Tess stared at her assistant, curious all over again about the past her assistant never talked about.
“Before I started working for you.” Thea’s voice was strained. It was clear she didn’t want to talk about it.
Tess bit her lower lip and tried a different tactic. “To be honest, I’d prefer not to be reminded of my life before I met you.” Though her tone was teasing, she was perfectly serious, and Thea had to know it.
A faint smile tugged at the corners of her unpainted lips, though she didn’t glance up from the computer. “Flattery isn’t going to change my mind. I don’t do rodeos.” A haunted expression wafted across her face, but it was gone so quickly that Tess wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it.
“You don’t have to attend the stinking rodeo. I still want you to come with me, though.”
Thea finally looked up, scowling across the desk at her boss. “Why?”
“Because you’re more than a personal assistant, Thea. In the few months we’ve been privileged to work together, you’ve become a trusted friend. Someone I actually enjoy spending time with. I can’t say that about many people. You know why.” Most people couldn't see past her Miss Texas status, making it difficult to determine who her true friends were.
Thea’s expression softened a few degrees. “Okay, maybe flattery will get you somewhere, but not all the way to the rodeo. Sorry.”
“Fine. You can hang out at the brand spanking new cabin I rented for us,” Tess wheedled. “We’ll be staying at the campgrounds right next door to their all-new horse racetrack.” She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial note. “Get this. It’s owned and operated by the girlfriend of Emerson Cassidy’s twin.” She tried but failed to hold back a blush at the mention of her favorite cowboy’s name. She could only hope her dark skin would hide it.
He was the real reason she was flying out of Dallas a week earlier than she’d originally planned. Though they hadn’t yet advanced beyond the point of being phone-calling and texting buddies, she was hoping to change that soon.
“Pretty sure they’re engaged now,” Thea muttered. She started typing on her keyboard again.
“Who?” Tess blinked at her assistant’s sudden contribution to the conversation.
“Devlin Cassidy proposed to Julia Benson, owner and operator of the all-new Twin Canyons Park and racetrack you’re so excited about. It was all over the news.” Thea continued typing.
“Wow!” Tess stared at her assistant. “As usual, you are the queen of valuable information. That’s why I can’t make this trip without you.”
“Yes, you can.”
“Omigosh, Thea! To borrow one of your favorite phrases, quit making me spell everything out for you. I want to land a date with Emerson Cassidy, and I need your help to make that happen!” Tess’s voice rose to a near shriek of excitement.
Thea abruptly rolled back her office chair and stood. Stalking around the desk, she faced her boss. “Maybe I heard wrong. You’re saying Miss Texas needs this?” With an irritated wave at her simple outfit, she added, “Me?”
“Yes! Even Miss Texas needs a wingman.” Please say yes! Please say yes!
Thea’s lips parted in amazement. “For one thing, it would be a wing-woman, in my case.”
Tess threw her hands in the air. “I’ll call you whatever you want. Just say yes and start packing already.”
“I’m more than content with that trusted friend stuff you just tossed at me out of nowhere.” Thea’s cautious smile was back as she ushered her boss toward the door. “And you really do need to pack.”
Tess allowed her assistant to nudge her toward the door. “So do you. I’m serious about taking you with me. I already bought your ticket. It’s non-refundable.”
Thea sharply exhaled. “You shouldn’t have done that. I can’t just up and leave Dallas like that.”
“Why not?” Tess couldn’t believe she was being so difficult. “It’s only for a week! An all-expense-paid trip to a town most people on the planet have never heard of,” she reminded with a joking glance over her shoulder. “How can you even think of passing up such an opportunity?”
“Because of my work at the orphanage,” Thea confided softly.
“You’re a volunteer. Surely they can spare you for a few days.” Sensing they were finally getting to the heart of her assistant’s resistance, Tess spun around so quickly that she had to lay a hand on the door frame to keep her balance.
“Sure, but kids get attached, especially ones without family.” Thea glanced away. “They’ll miss me.” Her eyes glinted with unshed tears. “I’ll miss them, too.”
“Oh, honey!” Up to this point, Tess hadn’t realized how much the orphanage meant to her assistant. “I get it. Wow! But I get it.” Once upon a time, she’d been an orphan herself. It felt like eons ago, because she’d been adopted at such a young age — when she was but three-years-old. The family who’d adopted her claimed she looked like a dark fairy princess. They claimed they’d immediately known she was special.
With too many emotions to claim clogging her chest, she held out her arms.
Thea stepped into them. “I know you understand. That’s why we work so well together.” Thea gave her a tight hug and stepped back. “To be honest, your unrelenting charity work at the orphanage is the biggest reason I wanted to come work for you.”
She’d submitted her application online a year ago. Tess had called her to set up the interview, and the rest was history. Thea had been a slam-dunk for the job. They’d been working together like peanut butter and jelly ever since. They made an incredible team.
Tess propped her hands on her hips, blowing her breath out slowly as she regarded her assistant. “Even hardworking volunteers like yourself deserve a break once in a while.”
Thea slowly shook her head. “So, ah…I haven’t been completely honest with you. I’m a little more than a volunteer there.”
Tess’s eyebrows flew heavenward. “Are you on staff?”
“Are you kidding?” Thea made a scoffing sound. “Working for you is like having two full-time jobs.”
For which Tess paid her extremely well. She wasn’t about to apologize for that. “Okay.” She spread her hands. “So, what am I missing here?”
Thea raised her chin. “I’m at the orphanage every evening, seven days per week, fifty-two weeks per year.”
The truth finally hit Tess. It felt like standing beneath an avalanche while a ton of rock fell on top of her. “You’re trying to adopt someone,” she gasped.
“Two someones,” Thea clarified. “My nieces. That’s how I think of them, anyway.” She shook her head. “It’s complicated. I really don’t have time to go into it before your flight.”
“Our flight,” Tess corrected, feeling as winded as if she’d just finished running a mile. “Seems to me you have more reason than ever to help me thank Emerson Cassidy. His extraordinary generosity toward the orphanage warrants a personal visit. There’s no way you can deny it.”
“I know, but—"
“I insist,” Tess interrupted. Since her assistant was clearly weakening on the subject, it was time to pull rank. “The orphanage is on our way to the airport. We’ll stop by long enough for you to let those precious kiddos know you’re being called away on business by a real meanie of a boss.” Thea probably thought she was being callus, but it was a risk she was willing to take. “You and I are going to have the time of our lives picking out souvenirs for those girls.”
Thea wrinkled her nose, looking incredulous. “Souvenirs,” she repeated carefully. “From Chipper, Texas?”
“Yep.” Triumph flooded Tess at the realization she was winning the argument. “If I were you, I’d drop a few big hints. Give the girls something to look forward to.”
“Chipper isn’t even on the map. I checked.” Thea’s shoulders slumped.
“It’s because they’re so newly incorporated, but they’re about to be. I guarantee it.” Tess was sure of it. That was the other reason she wanted to pay them a visit. From experience, she knew it was best to get in on the ground floor of greatness. Between Chipper’s new rodeo grounds and racetrack, their capacity for charity funding was still virtually untapped. “I intend for the orphanage to be front and center in their minds when it comes to future sponsorships, and you’re going to help make that happen.”
Her assistant stomped back to her desk and started turning off equipment. “Your beauty hides a ruthless streak a mile wide.”
“That’s why I need someone with a heart of gold likes yours to balance things out.” Tess spun around to go finish preparing for their trip. “Meet me at the car in fifteen minutes. We’ll head to your apartment next, so you can throw something into a suitcase.”
“You’re killing me,” Thea grumbled beneath her breath as she slammed a drawer and moved a few things around on her desk. “Totally killing me!”
Oh, I’m just getting started. As Tess rushed down the hallway to grab the trio of suitcases she’d already packed, her mind raced with all that she’d learned about her personal assistant.
If the woman was truly trying to adopt two kids, she’d have an easier time if she wasn’t, well, single. Maybe after Tess landed that date she fully intended to enjoy with Emerson Cassidy, there’d be some time left to do a little matchmaking on Thea’s behalf.
From what she understood, the youngest Cassidy brother, Fox, was also still single. In Emerson’s own words, he was a horrendously shameless prankster who didn’t take anybody or anything seriously — a guy who’d probably remain single forever.
Tess wasn’t so sure about that. According to her contact at the orphanage, Fox had personally delivered his brother’s latest shipment of donated goods there last month. Apparently, even a prankster could have a soft spot in his heart for children.
A soft spot that just might bump into Thea’s soft spot and burst into flames.
That was the plan, anyway.