My time was up.
Literally. The clock over the bookshelf struck six and the class was over. Thank God.
Sure it had been fun, but it was the end of a long day and I was ready to call it quits. The students were in a good mood and the whispered tidbits of gossip had been friendly all evening, with no tinge of envy or meanness attached. It was the type of camaraderie a teacher dreams about with her students.
Not that it ever happened in my former kindergarten classes, but I’d given up teaching in an elementary setting a few months back when I’d chosen to followed my heart on an emotional journey home to work in the family bookstore. That decision had been the best one I’d made in over a decade.
Now my students ranged from eighteen to eighty-seven and gathered in the loft of the historic barn that my parents had converted into The Book Barn Princess when I was a little girl. And once a week my class gathered to create something new out of something old. Specifically, old and/or damaged books. This week we were repurposing books into wall clocks for a local charity auction.
“We need to wind things up, ladies and gentlemen.” I smiled as they groaned at my clock-based humor.
Scarlet, the owner of the Beaus and Beauties hair salon across the street, developed our program and was the creative genius behind every project. She was also the sassiest woman in town, which was saying a lot. Her flaming red hair, worn curly and wild today, bounced as she sauntered across the room and joined the conversation. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”
“Big time,” replied Betty, the local quilt shop owner, her blue hair bobbing up and down as if she wore a helmet two sizes too big.
“Maybe we could turn back the hands of time,” added Jessie, my oldest student.
Jessie’s wife eyed the other women in class who had the audacity to smile in his direction. It didn’t matter that they’d all known each other for years, Daisy had a habit of establishing ownership of her man — repeatedly. “That’s my husband,” she warned.
My dad decided to chime in. “You can’t beat the clock.”
I stood, debating if my dad was referring to Jessie’s fifty-plus-year marriage to Daisy, or if he was adding his own pun to the mix, when two incredibly good-looking men climbed up the stairway to the loft. One of them was a staple in our town, but the other was new to the circuit and had been turning heads for the past two days. He joined the conversation without missing a tick — or a tock.
“Darn, I was hoping to kill some time with y’all.” Rodeo star Dalton Hibbs smiled. His blond hair glistened under the fluorescent lights, and his deep blue eyes made every woman in the room drown in their cool depths. He had what it took to melt the coldest of hearts, and I had to admit, even though he wasn’t my type, he gave me warm fuzzies whenever he winked in my direction.
“Which will put you behind bars, serving time,” said our handsome sheriff, Mateo Espinosa, who’d walked into the room with Dalton and wore a light brown uniform shirt with dark brown pants. The outfit looked downright terrible on most officers — on Mateo it was dreamy and steamy earth tones that complemented his dark complexion. His presence served as a reminder of how complicated my love life was without adding another guy to the mix.
“Time’s up!” Joellen added with the blushing grin of a teenager as Dalton turned his pearly whites on her.
“I think I’m going to be ill,” grumbled Jessie, holding his chest.
A laugh traveled through the room as Scarlet snorted.
Daisy looked over the top of her glasses at my best friend, who seemed to be enjoying Jessie’s humor more than the rest of us. “That’s my husband,” she reminded Scarlet.
Scarlet blushed, while our newcomer, Dalton, appeared somewhat confused by Daisy’s jealous outburst.
Betty patted him on the shoulder as she stood up from the long wooden table where she’d been working. “Daisy has been reminding every woman in town that Jessie is her man for the past fifty years. We’re beginning to think those are the only words she knows in the entire English language.”
A grin spread across Dalton’s face. “Let me guess, Daisy’s used to reminding women that Jessie’s married because Jessie’s a bull rider?”
Jessie stood up tall, all five foot seven inches of lean cowboy in boots almost as old as him and showed off the worn buckle on the belt that cinched his jeans up around his ribs. “You’re looking at the nineteen forty-seven Champion Bull Rider. The best in North America.”
“That’s my husband,” Daisy added, her tone full of sarcasm.
This time, everyone laughed at Jessie’s wife, leaving the grumpy old codger at a loss for words, but his disparaging expression was still intact. I secretly believed Jessie was laughing at all of us despite the permanent frown creasing his face.
I addressed the class as a whole. “If you’re going to donate your clocks to the auction, please leave them here to dry. Dad added the new shelves on the side wall this week so we’d have more room. Just make sure they’re high enough to be out of the reach of the preschoolers who will be making book collages tomorrow morning.”
I set my project on the highest shelf I could reach without the ladder we had yet to install. I’d made my piece of book art out of a first edition of Nancy Drew’s TheSecret of the Old Clock. Some readers might get their panties in a bunch and gasp at the destruction of such an iconic book, and believe I did something sacrilegious to a classic novel worth more in the world of literature than it was as a clock at auction. I would wholeheartedly agree, if my dad’s pet armadillo, Princess, hadn’t torn off the back cover and eaten a hole in the middle of the last thirty-seven pages of the book before I transformed it. As it turned out, my work was an improvement.
Princess, a nine-banded armadillo, was a freak of nature. Her pale pink coloring made it impossible for her to be let loose in the wild. She did, however, have her own pet door and roamed freely in the backyard behind our barn. She was also the reason we’d started the book art classes to begin with. She had a taste for books — too bad it had nothing to do with reading.
“You’ve got some mighty fine pieces of art downstairs for the auction.” Dalton was talking to me, but his eyes roamed toward Scarlet, who turned as red as her name suggested.
“Thank you. We hope to make a little bit of money to add to all of the donations the rodeo stars are making to the cause.” I was very aware of the members of the class watching our exchange. They couldn’t help themselves. Dalton Hibbs was making small talk with a local girl and the town had dreams of him becoming one of our own. Except their eyes had gone to the wrong woman — they should have been watching Scarlet instead of me.
“Who made the incredible bull rider out of Zane Grey’s Light of the Western Stars?” he asked.
I smiled, knowing I could direct Dalton’s attention toward Scarlet, right where they both wanted it to be. “That would be Scarlet. She’s the real artist. I’m just mildly crafty.”
Dalton took advantage of the out I’d given him and gave Scarlet his full attention. “Is that so?”
All eyes pinged to my best friend, her skin now two shades closer to the color of her hair.
“I — I’ve always like sculpting,” Scarlet stammered. Dang, if she didn’t have it bad for the young rodeo star who was only in town for a couple weeks.
“You’re good with your hands.” Dalton’s voice held all the innuendo a man of his looks and status could get away with, and the crowd was eating it up.
Including me. I couldn’t help but envy all that charm directed at my friend. Not that I wanted Dalton flirting me up one side and down the other, but if those daring innuendos were thrown at me by someone else, it would be nice. I looked over at the sheriff, whose chocolate-brown eyes made me want to melt.
Dalton made his way across the room and stood in front of Scarlet. “I’d like to buy it.”
Scarlet’s disappointment was evident in the slight downward turn of her mouth as she shook her head, obviously saddened that she couldn’t just give the piece of art to the sexy man in front of her. But the piece, like so many others in the store, was earmarked for auction.
“It’s up for auction tomorrow,” Scarlet said.
The annual Cowboy Ranch Auction ran in conjunction with the Cowboy Ranch Invitational, a rodeo that brought all the big names in the sport to our small town. Both events benefited injured and aging rodeo stars who’d given everything they had, and more, to the sport. It’d only been recently that the cowboys started making big money to put their lives, and health on the line. And even now, for every cowboy who made it rich, there were thousands working two and three jobs to make ends meet. The Cowboy Ranch stepped in to help those cowboys who’d suffered career, and life-altering injuries with no source of financial backing to get them through.
Dalton’s charm, however, was a force to be reckoned with. His voice had a low register that made a woman’s body stir. “Surely if I bid high enough now, I can bypass all the competition.”
“There’s no competition. Scarlet’s single,” interjected Jessie.
“That’s right,” added Betty, her bobblehead going so fast I thought for sure her wig was going to fly across the room. “If you plan on making a move, you better do it now. Otherwise, you never know who’s going to be making a move in your direction.”
Dalton laughed at the woman well past her prime. Betty had owned the quilt shop in town long before Dalton’s momma was born. “I’d hate to turn down a woman with so much experience, but I’m afraid my heart has been roped,” Dalton replied. He turned his eyes back toward Scarlet. “What’s the opening bid?”
“Two hundred dollars,” I replied before Scarlet sold it for less than half its worth. She’d worked on that particular sculpture for several months and had barely finished in time for the auction.
Dalton tipped his head in my direction. His eyes, however, never left Scarlet’s face. He grabbed her hands and held them steadfast. “I’ll give you two thousand for it.”
“Unless you want Euros?” Dalton flashed his killer smile as he lifted her hands to his mouth and kissed the back of her knuckles. “Say yes.”