The Cowboy’s Fairy Tale
The steering wheel jerked in Nell Eastler’s hand.
Her stepfather’s old 1970s model pickup ripped to the left. Nell’s heart jerked and swayed with it, while her stomach dipped and cramped, pulling in like lettuce wilting in the sun.
She yanked the wheel and pressed the brake, using all her strength to maneuver the heavy truck to the side of the interstate. Power steering might have made it easier. She wouldn’t know, since she’d never driven anything except this old truck.
Although the calendar said March, it was still winter in North Dakota. Thankfully it had been long enough since the last storm that crews had had time to clear off enough space along the edge of the highway so she could park out of the lanes of traffic.
A tractor trailer whooshed by in the far left lane as she came to a complete stop.
She’d grown up on a ranch and changed her share of tires, but never along the interstate. Thankfully, it wasn’t busy. But the arctic air was well-below freezing, and the wind that whipped across the prairie would make it feel even colder.
Nell didn’t have a cell phone. Her neighbors, Elaine and Rem, were expecting her to be at their ranch to watch their kids so they could go down to Texas and visit Rem’s father who was dying of cancer.
Nell didn’t want them to miss their flight, so she quit thinking about the cold and the wind and how she really didn’t want to struggle to change a tire so close to the flying traffic and yanked at the old door handle. The door opened with a groan, very similar to the one she wanted to let out.
Her natural optimism took over, though, and she pulled her beanie hat down farther over her short hair before hopping out. She’d have this tire changed in no time.
A gust of wind blew so hard she stumbled against the pickup as she closed the door. Fortuitous since a low-slung bloodred sports car whizzed by just inches from where she’d been standing.
Her mother, who was her hero and had been everything Nell wanted to be when she grew up, had always cautioned her against allowing her temper to dictate her actions, encouraging her to always think the best of everyone. So, she didn’t raise her fist and beat it in the air after the car, although she wanted to.
Its brake lights came on. Miles of flat North Dakota landscape stretched out in front and behind her. The interstate was deserted in both directions.
The sports car came to a complete stop before the white lights flashed on and it backed up.
Nell was tempted to jump back into the truck and lock the doors.
The car swerved, jerking off the road and coming to rest a mere inch or so from the front of her grill.
Another gust of wind blew snow shards across the road, but Nell didn’t feel the cold or the ice points hitting her face as a highly polished man’s dress shoe settled on the ground below the opened car door.
She didn’t even think about looking away as a man in what could only be an extremely expensive suit unfolded from the sleek car.
Nell tried to gather enough spit to swallow, but the wind had taken more than her breath away, and her mouth felt strangely dry.
Suit coat, conservative tie, white shirt. Dark shades. A chiseled jaw that underlaid an unsmiling mouth. Long legs.
He walked back toward her.
With a start, Nell realized she was still tilted against the side of the truck, staring.
She shook herself. True, she’d spent most of her life on the ranch, leaving it only for school and church, so seeing a man like this wasn’t an everyday occurrence for her. But it didn’t completely explain why she’d been frozen in place for the last three minutes.
Originally she’d assumed he was stopping to help her, but sometime since his car had stopped—maybe when the shiny dress shoe had hit the ground—she’d decided that he must need directions. Or something. She didn’t want to be judgmental, but he couldn’t change a tire wearing those clothes, even if a man like that knew how.
As though confirming her conclusion, he held his hand out.
Nell took it. The rough, chapped, red and brown skin of her hand against the soft, perfectly manicured plushness of his embarrassed her. It shouldn’t. She’d never been ashamed of her working-class roots before. But he pumped her hand and her eyes searched his reflective glasses for a glimpse behind them, while her heart shriveled in her chest and her body wanted to back away.
“You watch for cars. I’ll change that tire.”
She stared at him. It wasn’t what she expected him to say, and it took her a few seconds to process the information. Meanwhile, her hand continued to grip his, and he shifted, like her touch made him uncomfortable.
Dropping his hand in embarrassment, she yanked her arm back.
The smile that came so naturally to her spread across her face, even as the words that normally flowed in a ceaseless torrent from her mouth continued to elude her.
Maybe it was only a second or two, but it felt like a lot longer as the world narrowed and they stared at each other.
He wasn’t seeing anything that great. Sure, maybe she didn’t get out much, but she knew her cheerful, upbeat personality was the only remarkable thing about her. Her jeans were worn, her boots old castoffs of her stepfather’s, way too big, but good boots were expensive and these had less holes than the ones she’d worn for the last six years. Plus her toes didn’t curl up at the ends in these.
Her coat was army surplus, and her gloves three sizes too big. Her beanie hat was the only thing that might complement her looks. It was a deep sea-green—not that she’d ever seen the sea—and brought out the emerald in her eyes. Her mother had knitted it out of a quality yarn before she died. It was Nell’s most prized possession.
It hardly made up for the rest of her outfit. Plus, a homemade hat probably wasn’t something that was going to impress the rich tick standing in front of her.
Her smile widened as she laughed at herself and the silly staring that she’d been doing. This guy was obviously not from around here, and she didn’t have to worry about ever seeing him again, so she didn’t let herself be embarrassed that he’d confounded her senses so much that she’d apparently become mute, for the first time in her life.
She cleared her throat and found her words. “I hate to see you get that fancy suit all dirty, mister. I’ll change the tire, and you watch for cars.” Graciously, she left out the small part about not believing for one second that he would be able to change the tire on his own. Santa Claus would show up at her house first. She’d never believed in Santa Claus.
“Tell me if someone’s about to hit me.” The man brushed by her, somehow managing to get the jack out of the bed without touching his suit to the truck.
Nell’s mouth fell open as he jacked the truck up, got the tools out, and actually started using them. His dress shoes should have slipped and slid on the ice. His bare hands should have been frozen in the cold North Dakota wind. He should be getting dirty.
But it was almost like she was witnessing a small bit of magic as he changed her tire without slipping, stopping to warm his hands, or getting one speck of dirt on his fancy pants.
Maybe she was ashamed for judging the man so harshly, or maybe he just fascinated her, but she kept one eye out for cars—there weren’t many—and one eye on him and didn’t chatter like she normally might.
When the flat tire came off, she took it, rolling it to the back of the truck. Those old tires and wheels were extremely heavy. Still, she knew she’d be able to brace it on the back of the tailgate and manhandle it on. She’d done harder things on the ranch.
But Ryder—he hadn’t given a last name, and she’d been too bedazzled to even give her first—had gotten up and followed her. She opened the tailgate, and he had the tire lifted up and on before she could move to help.
“Thanks,” she said.
He grunted. She would have thought that he considered her a pain, only stopping because he couldn’t bear to drive by, but there was something in the tilt of his head and the angle of his brow which hinted that whatever weird feeling was causing her to act oddly was affecting him, too.
He didn’t talk as he finished putting the spare on. She didn’t either. Two cars passed during that time, both in the far left lane.
Finally, he gave the last nut a yank and straightened, holding out the wrench.
“I have something for you. Wait here,” he said as she took the wrench, still warm from his hand.
Her brows puckered as he walked with long, confident strides back to his car, opening the door and reaching across the seat. He pulled out a box and a piece of paper.
His sunglasses still shaded his eyes, so she couldn’t see his expression. But his lips were flat, and he almost held the items and walked like he couldn’t believe he was going to give them to her. But she had to be mistaken. His confidence was still there in the set of his shoulders and chin, and she wasn’t sure what gave her that impression.
“Here,” he said, handing the box over, his fingers pressing the paper down on top so the wind didn’t blow it away.
Again she got the impression that he didn’t really want to hand it over, yet his hand was doing just that.
“Um. You changed my tire. I think it’s me that’s supposed to offer you payment.” She didn’t, though. She didn’t even have a quarter to her name.
“No.” For the first time, his voice lacked that ring of authority that had struck her from the first. “I want you to have it.” There almost seemed to be wonder in his voice.
The same subarctic wind that had been gusting since she stepped out blew again, seeming to cut right through her coat. She held her hands out and took the box. “Thank you.”
“I’ll see you in a few weeks.” He turned, striding back to his car.
A few weeks? Huh?
Another blast of wind brought swirling snow and almost whiteout conditions. By the time it dissipated, the man, along with his car, was gone.
Nell pushed the box against her chest and opened her truck door, jumping in, glad she’d left the motor running. The truck had a heater that worked, anyway.
She rubbed her hands together, trying to bring back feeling.
What an odd encounter.
Once she could feel her fingers again, she settled the box more securely on her lap and looked at the paper first. It was a brochure.
“You are invited,” it said, “to a formal, masked ball at Sweet Water Ranch on May 1st.”
That was in a little under two months. So the mystery of “a few weeks” was maybe solved.
But a ball? Wasn’t that kind of old-fashioned?
She didn’t really know what wealthy people did with their time. Maybe they really did have balls.
She skimmed over the rest of the paper, but she had lost interest at “formal.” The clothes she was wearing were as formal as she got. Unless one counted the long jean skirt she wore to Sunday services. She suspected the sponsors of the ball did not.
For a couple of seconds, she allowed her mind to contemplate how beautiful an affair like this could be. Fancy gowns, sparkling decorations, beautiful people—as beautiful as Ryder—confident and self-assured because of the money they’d grown up with, music to thrill her soul, and as much delicious and exotic food as she could eat.
She’d never been to anything even remotely close. Her stepfather hadn’t even allowed her to go to the school dances, although she’d been on the decorating committee both her junior and senior years. It wasn’t some overprotective parent-like impulse on his end. He just didn’t want to let her off work.
She bit back her irritation. The same irritation she’d been biting back for years.
Nell had always admired her mother’s ability to be happy despite her circumstances, and she had been working for years on cultivating the same attitude in herself. She admired her mother, sweet and calm under any circumstances. Not a door mat, necessarily. Wasn’t it easier to get upset than to bite one’s tongue and give in to someone else?
Of course it was harder. It was always harder to give up one’s own way and to suffer an injustice. But missing the dances that she’d decorated for had been a sore trial of her self-control.
Especially when her stepfather had driven her twin stepsisters, when they were old enough, into town to attend their school dances. She’d stayed home and done the ranch chores.
Nell took a deep breath and shoved the jealousy that twisted her heart aside. She’d had a great time those evenings with her mom and her little half brother. She didn’t need fairy tale dances, or Santa Claus, to make her smile.
The paper had started to crumple between her fingers before her eye caught a few lines of small print at the bottom. She held it closer and read, “Maids and servers will be needed. Apply at Sweet Springs Ranch office. Pay will be $500 for the day. Housing available to qualified applicants.”
Now that her mother had died, nothing but her half brother, and the promise she’d made her mother to take care of him, kept her at home. That, and it was kind of hard to leave home with no money and no vehicle, since everything she’d ever made had gone toward the upkeep of the ranch. As much as she might want to, as much as she might think her stepfather owed her, she couldn’t steal. Not this pickup, and not enough money to get her somewhere and keep her until she got a job.
But this gig at Sweet Water might be her ticket away. If she could figure out how to take Vinton with her.
She’d been so caught up in the brochure, she’d kind of forgotten about the box.
It was about the size of the brochure and four inches deep. Just plain brown on the outside. She opened the lid and gasped.
That man—Ryder—had given her a pair of shoes.
How odd. What a strange thing for a stranger to simply hand her.
But they were beautiful.
Heels. Sparkling silver, they caught the light and reflected the colors around. Currently they threw out the glittering green of her hat. Her mouth gaped open, while her finger reached out slowly and traced the elegant curve of the heel. Strappy bands would attach the shoe to her foot.
Disappointment laced through her, though, as she looked closer. As beautiful as those shoes were, there was no way she could wear them. There were no printed sizes on them, no markings at all, but they were at least three sizes too big.
Still, she picked them up out of the box and held them up to catch the dancing rays of sunlight. She’d never owned anything half this pretty. Ever.
Although the Blue Girl rosebush she had coaxed to bloom last summer on the south side of their little house might be a close runner-up.
No, she thought, as she twisted the shoes one way then the other. Even the lavender-blue blossoms of her favorite tea rose, which shouldn’t survive in the brutal North Dakota climate, couldn’t match the shoes for breathtaking beauty.
She’d never seen anything like them. Not that she’d seen many fancy, expensive shoes in her time.
Carefully she closed the box. If Brittney or Bethany, her twin half sisters, were able to go to the ball, maybe they could wear the shoes. Although Bethany was the same size as her, both of them had bigger feet than she did.
Setting the box aside, she stuffed the brochure into her coat pocket and pulled out on the interstate.