Katie Mills, a young high-school senior, is about to have her entire world turned upside down by the most handsome Scot she’d ever laid eyes on. The following excerpt places Katie with her friends on the midway at the Clark County Fair just after dark.
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She rolled her eyes and turned, and felt a fresh knot form in her stomach. Across the midway stood the finest example of male beauty she’d ever seen. His general height and outline gave her the uncomfortable feeling he was the same man she’d seen minutes before staring at her from the shadows. At the moment, he was busying himself at one of the contest tables, throwing baseballs at stacked bottles. His aim, she noticed, was dead-on perfect.
He appeared to be in his early twenties, twenty-two or twenty-three. He was dressed in a pair of tight fitting blue jeans and a loose linen shirt. The long sleeves were cuffed tightly at his wrists, making them blouse softly. His rich brown-gold hair curled softly around his head and fell to below his shoulders. Those shoulders were broad, and, judging by the way his shirt was tucked trimly into his jeans, muscular. The toes of a pair of snakeskin boots peaked from the hems of his jeans. He accepted his prize, a stuffed Seattle Seahawk, from the attendant and turned to present it to a small boy who happened to walk by at that moment. His face was angular. Low, straight brows topped his eyes, and a straight nose hovered over a set of lips just full enough to look soft and sensual. The slightest hint of a cleft in his chin added more strength and masculinity to his overall appearance.
She swallowed hard and backed up behind Brianne and Nicole, wanting nothing more at the moment than to disappear. Brianne grabbed her arm before she could make good her escape. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I…uh…the popcorn made me thirsty. Anyone want a pop?” To her own ears, her voice sounded higher, weaker, bordering on panic. Luckily, her companions didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ll bet he’s married,” Brianne whispered. “No one that gorgeous could possibly be available.”
“No,” Nicole countered. “If he were, he’d have his wife with him.”
“I’ll bet I can get his attention,” Brianne said with a soft smile.
“No way,” Nicole argued. “Look at him. He’s more the sultry, seductive type.”
“Is anyone hungry?” she asked desperately. Again, her companions ignored her. The knot in her stomach pulsated suspiciously like a heartbeat.
The man turned and walked along the midway toward them. “Look,” Nicole said in a voice soft and low. “He’s coming this way.”
“L-look, I’ve gotta, uh…” she stammered, trying to pull herself free of Brianne’s grasp.
“Come on, Katie, you’re in on this too. Let’s see who ends up with him.”
“No, really, I don’t think I…”
“Hi, ladies. Great evening, huh?” the man asked lightly, interrupting her argument. She noticed a slight accent in his smooth tenor voice.
“Couldn’t be better,” Brianne said, smiling as she extended her hand. “I’m Brianne Anderson.”
He accepted her handshake briefly and gave Nicole a questioning look. “Nicole Pierce,” she purred. He shook her hand with equal brevity and turned his gaze to Katie. The knot in her stomach climbed up to her throat as if it too wanted to escape.
He sized her up slowly before catching and holding her gaze. “And who might you be?” he asked, his smile softening.
She felt instantly trapped in the depths of his warm-chocolate eyes. There was so much to see in those eyes–self-assuredness that comes from a sense of power, combined with a hint of something she couldn’t quite define. The intensity of his gaze made her feel powerless and took the starch out of her knees. It took a nudge from Brianne to snap her out of the spell he’d cast over her. “Katie Mills,” she said at last, reluctantly raising her hand to him.
He took her hand, but instead of shaking it as he had the others, he gently rubbed the pad of his thumb across her knuckles. “Katie? Is that short for something? Let me guess. Katrina?” She shook her head. “No? Caitlin?” Again she shook her head, a sudden sense of déjà vu overtaking her and making her dizzy. “Catalina then?”
“No,” she answered, her voice trembling. “It’s Catherine.”
“Catherine,” he repeated softly, his eyes pinned to hers intently. “It suits you.” Still holding her hand gently, he said, “You may call me Joshua.”
The other girls took notice of the unusual attention he was giving her, and broke the spell that had captured her so firmly. “Don’t mind her,” Brianne said with a laugh. “She’s a little shy. Have you been on any of the rides yet?”
“We’re going to the concert later. Want to come along?” Nicole offered.
He held her gaze for a moment longer. She thought she saw irritation flicker in his eyes. He turned away to smile at the other girls. “You know, I haven’t been on the rides yet. Which ones do you like best?”
“The Ferris wheel,” Nicole purred.
“Yeah,” Brianne agreed with a sultry smile.
“Well, come on, then. I have plenty of tickets.” He put his arms around each of the girls and glanced back to her. “Are you coming, Catherine?”
“I…that is, uh…you guys go on ahead. I’m not crazy about the rides anyway.”
“Aw, come on Katie,” Brianne called sharply.
“What are you afraid of?” Nicole asked, mischief gleaming in her eyes.
“Losing my stomach,” she muttered, looking at the two of them hanging on Joshua’s arms like soft taffy.
“It won’t be as much fun without you,” he coaxed.
She almost asked him if he didn’t think he already had his hands full. She desperately wanted to say no, but found herself trailing along anyway. Something about his voice, soft and warm, and yet able to carry so easily over the fair’s chaotic atmosphere, pulled at her like a tether. He can sing. She watched him walk with her companions and noticed the fluid way he conducted himself. He’s graceful, a dancer, for sure–and rich, no doubt about that. Rich, to her, meant trouble–rich people couldn’t be trusted. Better to leave him to her friends and escape before things got out of hand.
He allowed the girls to lead him along the midway, Katie following behind and watching in disgust while they laughed too loudly at his jests and openly competed for his attention. Desperate for a way to gracefully escape the group, she decided to blend in with the crowd as soon as they boarded one of the rides. With any luck, she would be in her car and on her way home before they noticed she’d gone.
When they reached the Ferris wheel, Joshua handed the attendant enough tickets for the four of them and led the girls to the first gondola. The ride operator quickly stepped in and closed the bar over the two girls’ laps. “Hey,” Brianne protested. “There’s room for one more.”
“Two to a car, please,” the operator said with practiced curtness.
“Sorry, ladies,” he called when the ride swept into motion and they swung over the ground. When the next car came available, he turned and held his hand to her.
Crap. Now what do I do? “N-no thank you. I really don’t…”
“Come on,” he insisted lightly. “I won’t bite.” She swallowed her reluctance and accepted his invitation. After all, what else could she do without looking foolish? He seated her in the gondola, sat beside her, and put one arm over her shoulders while the attendant secured the bar.
At first, she sat still and endured the ride while it surged and paused repeatedly to change riders. When the car stopped at the top, she looked across the fairgrounds and lost some of her nervousness to the wonder of the sight. From high above, the lights took on a more magical appearance than they did from the ground. She leaned over the bar, trying to take it all in at once. “First time on a Ferris wheel?” he asked, drawing her attention back to him.
“It’s been a long time. I forgot how high it is.”
“Does it frighten you, being up this high?”
“No, not really.” She turned back to look over the midway. “The view is beautiful.”
The tips of his fingers stroked her shoulder lightly, and she turned to him again, her pulse rate suddenly skyrocketing. “Why do you associate yourself with girls like Brianne and Nicole? They’re beneath you.”
She took a deep breath in an effort to calm her racing heart. “They’re not so bad, once you get to know them. When they’re not acting like half-crazed…”
She almost laughed. “Well, that’s one way to put it. Anyway, they let me hang out with them. I don’t have many friends.”
“I can’t believe that. Pretty girl like you? I’ll bet all the boys in school trip over themselves to get close to you.”
She felt a warm blush rise to her face, and quickly turned away. “They prefer girls like Bri and Nikki.”
“Their loss, I suppose,” he said, not unkindly. “Don’t get me wrong, Brianne and Nicole are two very attractive young ladies, but to be honest, I found their behavior somewhat…obvious. It’s a shame, really, that more men don’t see through their kind.” A soft smile of appreciation pulled at her lips, but fled the instant he touched her chin with the tip of his index finger and guided her face back to his. His eyes had darkened from warm chocolate to hot cocoa. “I am not interested in what they appeared almost desperate to offer.”
She felt trapped once more in the power of his gaze. The seriousness in his expression made the bottom drop out of her stomach. “Please don’t.”
“Forgive me,” he begged, lowering his hand. “I’ve overstepped my bounds.”
“No, it’s just…” She attempted a lighthearted laugh that sounded as forced as it was. “I barely know you.”
The ride pulled to a stop and the operator stepped forward to release the bar so they could disembark. The girls were waiting for them at the gate. Brianne stepped forward instantly and took his arm. “Come on. The Tilt-a-Whirl’s next.” Katie heard the desperation in her voice.
He smiled brightly and put an arm around each of the girls, leaving her feeling bewildered. After guiding them into motion, he lowered his arms and dipped one hand in his pocket. “That sounds like great fun, ladies. Tell you what though, why don’t you go on without me for a while.” He handed them a fist-full of ride tickets and took her hand. “Catherine isn’t feeling well and needs to sit down.” They stared in open-mouthed surprise when he pulled her into the crowd.
She allowed him to guide her along while she regained her bearings. They were halfway through the midway before she laughed, forgetting just for the moment the strange nervousness that had settled uncomfortably in her stomach. “Did you see the looks on their faces?”
His smile was warm and soft. “Took them by surprise, didn’t I?”
“I don’t think anyone’s done that to them before.”
After a few moments of silence, he observed, “They follow. No, don’t turn to look. They’re there.”
Maybe that’s for the best. “What should we do?”
A spark of amusement lit his eyes. “Come this way.” He put his arm around her back and guided her between a food booth and the fence surrounding one of the rides, across the next aisle of midway, and around to the rear of some game stalls. It all happened so fast it made her head spin, and she had to lean against the back of the stall for support. “Quiet now.” She heard Brianne and Nicole calling to each other in frustration for a moment, and then their voices were lost in the chaos of other noises around them. “That should do it,” he said at last. “Are you all right?”
She took a deep breath and looked up to see the concern in his eyes. “Fine.”
“When was the last time you ate?” She thought about the sausage she had for lunch and the two or three bites of popcorn, and realized her diet was not equal to the excitement of the evening. Before she could answer him, he said, “Come. I’ll get you something to eat.”