For one frozen moment she thought she might have gone too far, but then he smiled. Taking off his sunglasses, he looked directly into Lucy’s hostile eyes. ‘I wouldn’t say that, Cinderella,’ he said softly.
Lucy had the strangest impression that the noise and smells of the rodeo had faded around them while blue eyes locked with blue. Hers were the blue of a summer sky, while Guy’s were darker, a deep ocean blue where laughter lurked like sunlight glinting on the water and, as she stared up at him, held against her will by their gleaming depths, she was suddenly acutely aware of him.
Ever since he had arrived, she had dismissed Guy as a playboy, too handsome for his own good, too charming to be real, but now, all at once, she saw him as a man. A man with warm brown skin and a hint of golden stubble, with a strong jaw and a slightly crooked nose and laughter lines creasing those blue, blue eyes, and something turned over inside her at the realisation that he was not only a very real man but that he was very close.
‘In fact,’ Guy went on, and his voice held that disturbing undercurrent of amusement and something else that sent a tiny shiver down Lucy’s spine, ‘I’d say that I enjoy a challenge just as much as the next man, if not more.’
Swallowing, Lucy succeeded in wrenching her gaze away from his at last and she took a step back. ‘You’ll do it, then?’ she said a little unsteadily. She felt odd, as if the ground had been cut away beneath her feet somehow.
Guy grinned again and, in spite of herself, her pulse gave a little kick. ‘You know it would be much easier if you would just believe me.’
‘I’ll believe you when you take part in the next round. It’s calf roping next, so they’ll give you a proper horse.’
‘Calf-roping? You couldn’t pick something a bit harder?’ said Guy humorously. ‘That means I’ve not only got to stay on the horse but catch a calf with a lasso.’
‘It’ll be a challenge,’ Lucy agreed. ‘And according to you, you like one of those!’
‘Ah, well, if that’s what it takes to convince you, I suppose I’d better—’He broke off as an ‘ooooh’ came from the crowd standing around the ring. ‘Isn’t that Kevin?’
‘Kevin?’ Lucy turned sharply to see Kevin rolling free of the horses’ hooves in a little cloud of dust, but he was smiling broadly as he stood up and helped the men catch the horse that was still bucking furiously around the edge of the ring. People were clapping too, so presumably he had stayed on the horse’s back for longer than the others.
She had missed his moment of glory. Lucy was mortified, and furious with Guy for distracting her. When Kevin dodged his way across the ring towards her, she gave him a dazzling smile that pointedly excluded Guy.
‘You did brilliantly,’ she said, trusting that he had been too busy clinging on to the horse to notice that she’d been talking to Guy instead of watching him.
‘Wasn’t bad,’ said Kevin laconically.
‘Congratulations,’ said Guy, muscling in where he wasn’t wanted, as usual. Anyone with any sensitivity would have murmured an excuse and slipped away to leave her alone with Kevin, but not Guy! No, he was right there, shaking Kevin’s hand, being friendly and interested and asking him about the skills he needed to stay in the saddle so long, until Kevin was getting positively loquacious.
‘Isn’t it time you went and got ready for the calf-roping, Guy?’ Lucy interrupted as a megaphone crackled into life with an announcement about the next competition. ‘You don’t want to miss your chance to have a go, do you?’
‘You going in for that, Guy?’ asked Kevin and she couldn’t help noticing that he seemed more interested in that than in anything she had had to say.
‘So it seems,’ he said, smiling. ‘Lucy’s issued a challenge that I can’t refuse, although I’m not sure that I’ll be able to take part. I wouldn’t blame the organisers if they didn’t want amateurs messing up their competition.’
Lucy wasn’t going to let him weasel out of it that easily. ‘At least you can go and see.’
Kevin looked puzzled as Guy strolled off. ‘I didn’t know he could use a rope,’ he said.
‘He can’t,’ she said scornfully. ‘He’s just calling my bluff. You wait, he’ll be back in a minute with some excuse about why he can’t do it.’
But Guy didn’t come back. Lucy should have been perfectly happy now that she was alone with Kevin, but her attention kept being distracted by the laughter from where all the contestants were gathered. Whenever she glanced over, she could see Guy, clowning around, pretending to get on a horse the wrong way round, borrowing a hat, making everybody laugh.
What a show off the man was! Lucy turned her eyes determinedly back to Kevin’s ruggedly handsome profile, but it was hard to concentrate with Guy playing to the crowd like that.
The sooner this farce was over, the better, she decided, and was relieved when it seemed to be Guy’s turn. They had found him a horse. Someone would give him a boost into the saddle, he could hold on long enough to go round the ring, and she supposed she would have to give him credit for having tried when—
Fully expecting him to bungle mounting his horse, Lucy was taken aback when Guy swung easily into the saddle in one fluid movement. Astounded, she watched him manoeuvre his horse behind the barrier and wait while the calf was released from the chute and given a ten second start.
Alarmed by the unfamiliar surroundings, the calf blundered round and round the makeshift arena, looking for a way out until the barrier was raised, and Guy spurred his horse forward, keeping pace with the animal at an easy canter.
Lucy watched, blue eyes gathering wrath as he rode with effortless grace, detaching the lasso from the pommel and testing its weight in his hand as easily as if he had spent his whole life in the saddle.
I can ride. He had told her, but she hadn’t believed him. He had known that she wasn’t going to believe him, and so he had let her think that he was joking. And now there he was, twirling the rope experimentally before sending it snaking through the air to land neatly over the calf’s horns.
Around the ring there was a burst of applause and Guy was instantly in showman mode again, grinning and waving his hat to acknowledge the cheers.
‘Not bad for a Pom,’ said Kevin.
‘No,’ said Lucy tightly. Logically, she knew that Guy couldn’t possibly have set her up to make a fool of herself, but that was how it felt.
‘Come on,’ she said abruptly, having had enough of Guy Dangerfield for one afternoon. ‘Let’s go and find the others.’
‘Might as well dump our swags too,’ said Kevin. ‘There should still be some space down by the creek. That’s where we usually sleep.’
It was a long speech for him, but that wasn’t why Lucy stopped and looked at him blankly. ‘Sleep?’
‘There’s always a party after the rodeo,’ he said as if everybody knew that. ‘We have a few beers and there’s a dance. Nobody wants to drive home after that.’
‘But…I didn’t realise you’d be staying.’ Lucy regarded him with dismay. ‘I promised Hal I’d be back tonight,’ she tried to explain. ‘His niece and nephew are coming tomorrow and I said I’d help him make sure everything was ready.’
Kevin couldn’t see the problem. ‘Hal knows you’re with us. He won’t expect you back until tomorrow.’
She bit her lip uncertainly. ‘Did you bring a swag for me?’
‘Sure did,’ said Kevin and he smiled his slow smile, the one that usually had her heart doing handsprings.
For once, Lucy was too torn to respond. She had longed and longed to spend more time with Kevin, and now, at last, when he seemed to be showing a bit more interest, she wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it. It was so unfair.