Six years ago
Ben O’Shea sauntered into the auditorium. Southern Texas University’s Beckett School of Business was the last place on earth he wanted to be.
But Walter Matheson had been insistent that Ben continue his studies. Ben had asked, “Finishing my B.A. in three years wasn’t good enough for you?”
“Galdarn sight not. If’n I’d been educated, I’d have a spread of my own, don’t you think? Get your MBA and you’ll be set to make your own way in the world, be your own master.”
Ben didn’t argue, but he knew the world wasn’t quite like that. An MBA wouldn’t make him anything more than he already was: a ranch hand and a hard worker, and horses liked him. His lips twisted. Well, some of the ladies liked him, too.
But Walter wasn’t having any of Ben’s guff. Either he attended at least three classes a semester, or he was out. No more ranch. No more free lunch.
So here Ben stood, in an auditorium, hovering at the stairway leading to the seats funneling down to the lecture hall, feeling as out of place in his work jeans and boots as a chicken in a pack of coyotes.
He took a seat near the entrance, at the back, well away from the other students, most of whom had jumped on seats as close to the front as they could get. Just like the horses when he led them to water. He bit back a grin. But would they drink?
Sprawling back in the seat, he wondered if he dared sleep through this lecture.
And then he saw a woman who had him turning back for a second look. Her slender, petite frame, the bounce of her long hair, and the way she ventured down the steps as if she were on a fashion runway, made him sit up and take notice. Everything about her called to him, like the dinner bell come suppertime.
He lumbered out of his seat, followed her, and took the chair beside her, in a row about midway down the auditorium.
Everything about her seemed pure. From her golden hair to her small white hands, from her eyes the color of a Texas sky after a thunderstorm has blown through, to the tiny pink toes winking out at him from her strappy sandals, every part of her was clean.
He glanced down at his hands, callused and rough from his work at the ranch. No matter how hard he tried to clean them, dirt penetrated his fingers and nails. Nothing about him was clean or pure.
He glanced over at the desktop in front of her. She had a composition notebook, neatly labeled with the name of the course, the course number and her name, Barbara Palmer.
He glanced up and gazed at her through his lashes. As he watched, a pale rose blush blossomed on her cheeks, letting him know she was as aware of his stare as he was aware of her.
Finally she turned to meet his gaze.
He gave her his best smile. The one that children and ladies, old and young, seemed to admire. He leaned toward her and whispered, “So this is what it feels like when it’s the first day of the rest of your life.”
Barb giggled softly, but turned to face the lectern. The professor was about to start, so Ben didn’t have much time. “Can I buy you coffee, dinner or an engagement ring?”
Barb snorted a laugh. In most women that would be unattractive—but not her. Her snorty laugh sent a tendril of warmth through him.
She turned toward him again, and, with twinkling eyes, whispered, “Go peddle your heart-breaking smile elsewhere, cowboy.” She nodded toward the podium. “I’m here to learn something.”
She thought his smile was heart-breaking? He could work with that. He leaned in close and whispered, “Oh, Barb, I’m here to learn something, too.”