hat have I let myself in for? Danielle Herte asked herself for the millionth time that day.
Her aquamarine eyes widened at the scene that seemingly transported her back in time to the opening of the American West. Almost a hundred girls wearing long skirts were engaged in a myriad of activities: some cooking over open fires, some quilting, some braiding one another's hair, the heartier among them tossing tomahawks at stumps set up for target practice. In the background, a string of covered wagons stretched across the horizon like so many billowing sheets hung out to dry.
Blinking hard, Danielle reminded herself that this was the present,
the past, a fact driven home by the repetitious pounding of a rap song blaring unceasingly from a boom box in the back of the van. Before embarking upon the four hour drive from Denver, Danielle hadn't realized that en masse, girls her daughter's age communicated at one volume onlyâfull blast. Assuming that it was a blessing she was unable to make out most of the lyrics, Danielle swallowed her last aspirin before her car limped into the tiny, windblown wayside known as Muddy Gap, Wyoming.
Unbelievably, this insignificant dot on the road managed to prove even more unappealing than its name. Wondering why anyone had even bothered to name the place at all, Danielle switched off the ignition and announced with a false note of cheer, “Everybody out. We're here!”
Instantly, ten boisterous, adolescent girls spilled out of the van eager to immerse themselves in this mock site of an 1850s wagon train. The first one out, a leggy brunette with a pageboy bob and pretty but uncertain eyes, held an old-fashioned bonnet in her hands.
“Put this on, Mom,” Lynn insisted. “Plee-eease...” Added as an afterthought, the obligatory courtesy typified Danielle's daughter. At thirteen, her sweet little girl was blossoming into a hormonally driven bundle of contradictionsâat one moment mature beyond her years, at others hotly embarrassed to be so much as caught in her mother's company. Even Danielle's impetuous decision to update her look with a store-bought rinse that promised to make her feel young and carefree again had been perceived by her daughter as a deliberate act to sabotage the precarious status she held among her peers.
What it actually had been was a symbolic act of casting off the old and donning a new life; one devoid of a domineering husband, who for well over a decade had wielded complete control over Danielle. Not only had Scott selected their home and all its furnishings, he'd also decorated his wife as he'd seen fitâconservatively so as to keep her as inconspicuous as possible.
When Danielle had picked the hair care product off the shelf, she'd naively expected the color to match the gentle hue sported by the lovely model on the box. Instead the foul-smelling concoction had turned her naturally auburn hair a screaming firecracker red that, in her own humble opinion, made Lucille Ball's crowning glory seem demure. With a brave smile she had assured her horrified daughter that the color was guaranteed to wash out in less than a month's time.
Taking the proffered bonnet, Danielle tucked in as much of her offending hair as possible and instructed the girls to stay together and follow her. Lifting the hem of her long skirt out of the dirt, Danielle picked her way through the throng, dodging a pigtailed girl rolling a wooden hoop with a stick, a braying mule kicking up a cloud of dust, a teetering unicyclist, and one incredibly brave soul demonstrating the proper technique for walking on stilts.
“Like herding geese through a minefield,” Danielle mumbled, searching the area for a registration booth.
“Over here, ma'am,” trilled a clear voice.
Overhead fluttered a brightly colored banner reading
Romance In The Winds
. Behind a table perched the owner of that voiceâa ponytailed blond imp whose sparkling blue eyes were shaded by the brim of a straw cowboy hat.
Sticking out her hand, she introduced herself. “Hi, my name's Mollie. Welcome to Romance In The Winds, the first annual Wyoming Prairie Scout Jamboree on the Oregon Trail through the scenic Wind River Mountains.”
Though Mollie had obviously parroted these same words countless times throughout the day, she somehow still managed to sound enthusiastic.
“You're the last group. We've been waiting for you,” she added. “I hope nothing went wrong on the way here.”
Danielle didn't bother explaining how her dilapidated old van had overheated some fifty-odd miles back, stretching an already long trip into an epic excursion. Smiling into that fresh-scrubbed, freckled face, Danielle simply paid their registration fee and sealed her fate for the next fourteen days.
After collecting their money and required waiver forms, Mollie passed out copies of a life history of an actual pioneer to each of the participants, informing them that starting tomorrow their “assignment” was to read ten pages a day and be prepared to give a summary each evening around the campfire. Pointing to one of the Conestoga wagons, she then directed them to “Load up.”
At that precise moment Danielle lost all control. Racing back to the van to gather up their things, the girls scattered in all directions. By the time Danielle managed to lug her own baggage over to their wagon, all that remained of Troop No. 83 was an enormous pile of luggage heaped upon the ground.
Apparently worried that their late arrival would cause them to be left out of the camp activities, the girls had abandoned her. After a moment of irritated reflection, Danielle decided it would simply be easier to load the wagon herself than to try to reassemble her troop amid this cacophonous melee. Rolling up her gingham sleeves, she set to work, all the while composing a scathing lecture to be delivered before their journey officially got under way. She had no desire to spend the next two weeks as a doormat for a group of overly indulged teenagers.
The wagon bed was too high off the ground for Danielle to simply hoist the bags inside. She had to pull herself up and into the wagon each time to deposit an armful of baggage. It didn't take long to discern that the girls had grossly overpacked. Unnecessary cosmetics, battery-operated curling irons, CD players, toiletries, forbidden candy bars, and teen magazines spilled from their bags. By the time she finished squeezing in the last sleeping bag, Danielle was exhausted.
Feeling a trickle of sweat roll down the valley between her breasts, she tore the hot bonnet from her head and ran her fingers through a riotous mass of curls.
On the other side of the rendezvous site, Cody Walker almost fell off his horse as he wrenched around in his saddle to double-check his eyesight. He thought he'd just seen some crazy punk rocker cramming a Louis Vuitton tote bag into the back of a wagon that, at the moment, looked more like a stuffed sausage than a viable means of transportation. A second glance confirmed his worst suspicions. He was not in need of an eye exam.
“Why me, Lord?” he implored the clear blue skies of Wyoming.
If it wasn't enough that his daughter Mollie had cajoled him into playing guide for more than seventy giggly girls, it seemed he was now to be saddled with yet another immature mother more into competing with her daughter than providing a suitable role model for her. That red hair was something else! The woman looked more like a rock ân' roll groupie who had taken a wrong turn on the way to recapturing her youth than a suitable sponsor for as wellrespected an organization as the Prairie Scouts.
Cody knew the type. He'd been hotly pursued by a good number of such attention seekersâand run away as fast as a jackrabbit facing the wrong end of a shotgun. In fact, at this very instant his highly honed bachelor instinct was shooting off warning signals advising him to stay just as far away from this particular den mother as possible. A woman with hair like that could spell nothing but trouble with a capital T.
Running a hand along the back of his bare neck, Cody hoped the transformation from his bearded, long-haired image was significant enough to keep his identity a secret for the duration of this expedition. He had promised Mollie that this was to be special time for them together, away from the publicity hounds they both despised. Equally important was the promise he had made to himself. Still bristling from his mother's stinging accusation that somewhere along the road to fame and riches he had misplaced all that was really important in life, he was determined to prove that opinionated, old woman wrong.
But deep down he knew that it was time to reevaluate his life, to get back to his roots. The truth of the matter was that Cody was flat-out tired: tired of being on the road for months at a time, of donning fresh smiles for the press, of acquiescing to his agent's overly dramatic sense of showmanship. He was tired of sequins and flashbulbs. Tired of being away from home.
Acting as wagon master for this crazy outing wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind as a relaxing vacation away from it all, but once Mollie had her heart set on something, the devil himself couldn't talk her out of it. She was just as stubborn as her mother had been. And every bit as pretty.
The thought of his wife Rachael brought with it the old, familiar ache that had become such an integral part of who he was. Cody tried to shake off the sense of guilt he felt whenever the passage of time blurred the lovely portrait of her that he carried in his mind. That the memories so dear to his heart were slowly fading was a cruel mockery of the ascetic way he had lived his life since her death. A good dose of “see me” redheaded terror was just what he needed to remind him of all that he had lost when his sweet, gentle angel had taken wing.
Acknowledging his responsibility to check all the wagons before the trip could begin, Cody decided he might as well confront this particular prairie prima donna as quickly as possible and be done with it. She probably wasn't even aware of the fact that only drivers were allowed to ride in the wagons for most of the trip.
Just as it had been in pioneer times, concern for how much the horses had to carry took priority over human comfort. A look in any history book, pages strewn with fatal citations of poor choices along the very route they were to take, would confirm the wisdom of that decision. Not to mention the problems he'd have on his hands if he let one red-haired greenhorn ride at the head of this grand parade like some silly homecoming queen. Every pampered little miss from here to the state line would be whining to ride for the duration of this expedition.
Cody had every intention of starting this wagon train off on the right foot. Heck, if he was lucky, maybe this red-hot mommy would be so angered by his insistence that the wagon be repacked properly that she would load up her girls in a huff and relieve him of the burden of overseeing them altogether. He brightened at the thought.
There was no harm in hoping anyway.
Between the kids' deafening rap music, her van breaking down on the desolate stretch of road from Denver to the middle of nowhere, and having to single-handedly pack a covered wagon, Danielle was completely spent. She was just positioning a pillow atop the hard wooden bench that served as the wagon's seat and settling in for a welldeserved break when a deep voice called out behind her.
“Don't get too comfortable, Red, unless you're planning on driving this rig yourself.”
Danielle whipped around to find herself staring into a striking pair of eyes that exactly mirrored the color of the infinite, blue Wyoming sky. Atop a magnificent black and white Appaloosa sat a long-legged, slim-hipped cowboy regarding her with unconcealed amusement. He looked well over six feet tall in the saddle. Besides an infectious grin, he wore a plaid Western-cut shirt with pearl snap buttons and a pair of faded jeans that sinfully molded to the lower half of his body. Cupped in his stirrups was a pair of boots so scuffed and well-worn they verged on being downright tacky. Though much of his hair was hidden beneath a white straw hat, Danielle could see that it was the color of dark molasses shot through with just a hint of silver at the temples. One glance alone told her that this was not a man merely playing the part of a cowboy for the sake of a Prairie Scout Jamboree. The lines etched upon that tanned face had been put there by wind and sun and experience. Indeed, it was no dime-store cowboy who was so intent on stealing her seat out from under her. He was one hundred percent pure cowboy.
“I'm a den mother,” she explained succinctly.
Well, actually a substitute den mother, she corrected herself, recalling Hildy Fustis's broken leg and heartfelt plea that Danielle step in for her at the last minute lest the trip have to be canceled altogether. With a suspicious little hitch in her voice, Hildy had promised she would have to do little more than ride along in relative comfort and chaperon the children.
When this elucidation failed to erase the smirk from the man's chiseled features, Danielle hastened to add, “When I signed on as a sponsor, I was told I could ride in the wagon.”
This only served to deepen the cowboy's grin so that a matching pair of dimples was revealed at both corners of his mouth.
“Then you're planning on driving this team?” he asked.
Danielle emphatically shook her head no. She could no more drive a team of horses than she could direct Santa's sleigh across the sky. The very thought was almost as unnerving as the sexual vibes exuded by this mysterious cowboy.