Dreaming of Her Best Friend’s Kiss

Prologue

“Everyone can see the two of them are perfect together,” Race Steiner said, taking a bite of the pizza.

“Everyone but themselves,” his wife, Penny, gently corrected, her brows lifted in that way she had that made him want to smile and kiss her at the same time.

“You’re right as usual.”

Pizza wasn’t their normal choice of meal with Penny being a former midwife and him a former cardiac surgeon.

Both of them knew what pizza did to the body.

However, he’d lost their bet, and that meant he owed her a pizza.

He tried to bite back a grin as he chewed on the cheesy deliciousness. He was working on getting himself into another bet. A friendly wager between a husband and wife about their children.

Only to help them, of course.

Typically, his wife won.

Which was just fine by him.

He liked pizza.

“The problem is you can’t just go up and tell her that she needs to fall in love with her best friend.”

“No. Definitely not.” His wife tilted her head. “You’ve learned something over the years.”

He grinned, enjoying her teasing. She knew him like no one else. “I have to give all the credit to you. At least in emotional matters of the heart anyway.”

“Of course. There’s nothing I can tell you about physical hearts that you don’t already know.”

“Emotional hearts are more complicated by far,” he said with sincerity.

His wife set her pizza down, picked up her napkin, and dabbed at the sides of her mouth with a thoughtful look on her face. “It’s just, everything you tell Blakely to do, she always wants to do the opposite. She’s completely selfless and was always obedient and tried with a good attitude to do what we wanted, but she has this unconscious rebellion that if she knows it’s what she’s expected to do, she wants to do something else.”

“Yeah. She’s not rebellious, but it’s like she hears ‘can’t’ and sees it as a challenge.”

“And hears ‘can’ and views it as boring.”

They nodded together, their words not effective in explaining, exactly, what it was about their daughter Blakely.

Neither one of them viewed her as anything but wonderful, but she definitely always rose to the challenge, and when there wasn’t a challenge, she created her own.

Penny picked up her pizza. “That’s probably why she’s become such a great trick rider. Most people, after they’d fallen off and broken two arms and a leg at various times, would have given up and found something slightly easier to do.”

“Not Blakely. She’s just as determined now as she ever was to make a living doing trick riding.” Race checked the time on his watch. “Have you heard from her?” Blakely was trying out for a spot on the top traveling western show in the country.

He wished his daughter the best, and he truly did hope that she got the job, even though it was a traveling show that would take her from city to city for the next year and a half.

He hated to lose her for that long.

And he wasn’t entirely sure that was the best thing for her.

But she hadn’t asked for his opinion, and typically, unless there was something pressing, he tried to keep his opinion to himself until it was asked for.

Most of the time, he was successful.

“I’m sorry. I did. While you were taking a shower, she called. She’s settled into her hotel room, and she’s on the schedule to perform tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. I told her we’d pray for her.” Penny paused with the pizza halfway to her mouth. “I didn’t tell her that we would pray that she got the position.” Her face was serious.

“It just doesn’t sit right. Doesn’t feel like that’s what she’s supposed to do. Did she say she’s prayed about this?”

“No. I think she knows it’s not really what the Lord wants for her life, but it’s what she wants. And she’s going after it with everything she has. Like she’s always done.”

Race nodded thoughtfully, his eyes on the pizza box. Part of his mind was rolling over in his head whether or not he should have another piece, and part of his mind was on his daughter, who never did things halfway but jumped in with her whole heart and soul.

It made for some really hard landings.

Lord, work this out according to your plan. Please keep her safe and close to you.

A bullet prayer. He prayed them all the time. Especially for his children. But also for the members of his church. Daily, minute by minute, people would roll through his mind, and he’d lift them up before the Lord. It was part of his job as pastor.

“Martin is out on the rodeo circuit anyway. Maybe we are the ones that are wrong, and their separate directions really are God’s plan for their lives.”

“Maybe.” He definitely wasn’t convinced of it.

“Well, unless God brings something to your mind, I’m fresh out of ideas. Although,” she said, pausing to take a sip of her water, “our plans worked out beautifully with Ethan, and with Denver, and you really had a great plan with Crew and Burgundy. That Santa thing worked out better than I ever thought it would.”

“Yeah. It was kind of hard for me to have the whole Santa thing in church, but it’s the idea of giving, and Burgundy and Crew definitely benefited, as well as a bunch of other people in the church.” He sighed. “Blakely and Martin took it over for a while, but it just didn’t work out as well.”

“They were already friends. They need a different kind of push,” she said thoughtfully. “You know you did a good job with West too.”

“Everyone could see that Poppy was perfect for him. He needed her.”

“And man wasn’t made to be alone,” Penny said, a sentence both of them believed in strongly. The Bible was clear about that.

Race felt strongly that if God had taken the time to write them a handbook and give it to them, they should read it, study it, and use it to guide their lives.

Since God was quite capable of writing a book that was applicable down through the ages, being that He was God and He created the universe, Race always felt it was silly for anyone to pick and choose what he would and would not believe out of it.

It was an awful lot like the created telling the Creator he knew better than the Creator did.

Race figured after he created his first universe and a few planets, and maybe a person or two, then he would be qualified to start telling God what was best for him. Until that happened, he’d follow The Book.

He made a decision, picking up another piece of pizza from the box. They only splurged once in a while, and having another piece wasn’t going to hurt anything. He watched as cheese strung out, thinning, as he lifted the slice and set it on his plate.

“Dante is coming to Mistletoe. He was gonna spend a month here anyway.”

“But…” Penny looked at him, her brows drawn down in confusion. Blakely wasn’t the girl that Dante was coming for. Dante didn’t know that. And neither did the girl.

“No. I’m not thinking a match between Blakely and Dante. Goodness, that would never work. Even I can see that. But…”

It only took a second or two for his wife’s eyes to widen and understanding to dawn across her face. “A decoy?”

“Exactly.”

His wife nodded, smiling. “You’re brilliant.” She lifted her pizza and held it in front of her mouth. “Probably smart enough to be a brain surgeon.”

He laughed. “I think I’ll stick with hearts.”

“You’re definitely getting better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Blakely Barclay sat behind the wheel of her pickup, driving in the right lane just barely over the minimum speed limit for the interstate, her hands on the wheel, her mind a million miles away.

Her heart felt sick, her chest ached, and she’d spent the last two hundred miles biting back tears.

Her horses, Candy and Kisses, were in the back of the trailer.

Whimsically, she imagined they were feeling just as dejected as she was.

It wasn’t their fault she was driving home in defeat. They had performed perfectly.

She was the one who hadn’t.

She could almost forgive herself, if she had messed up something difficult. Like jumping through hoops of fire or riding backward standing up, one foot on each horse’s back.

But it hadn’t been that.

She hadn’t checked her foot knot in her trick riding saddle, and one of the easiest tricks in the book—the one where she hung by one foot upside down as her horse galloped around the ring—had turned into a near catastrophe as the knot came loose, her foot slipped out, and she landed facedown in the dirt.

She hadn’t even bothered to change her clothes.

She still had sawdust in her hair.

She didn’t give a flip.

She’d trained for years to make a living doing something she loved, and she hadn’t even gotten into the final ten.

After she’d fallen, she might as well have packed her horses up and started home then, but she’d finished her routine—everything required in the tryout. And she’d performed it all beautifully. If without heart.

Because she knew performing beautifully wasn’t going to be enough after she’d landed in the dirt.

Turning her turn signal on, she pulled over into the exit lane, figuring to stop at the rest stop to check her horses and grab a coffee.

Maybe that would pick her up.

Her eyelids weren’t falling closed, but she was having trouble concentrating. She just wanted to curl up in a ball somewhere and cry for really long time.

She definitely didn’t want to go home and face her parents and her friends and everyone in the town of Mistletoe who’d known what she was doing and where she was going and had the faith that she would be successful.

She was coming back a failure, and she hated that.

Her phone rang as she pulled into a long parking slot between two big rigs, and she answered it, slouching in her seat, knowing this was probably the one person in the world who could understand how she was truly feeling.

“Hey, Martin.”

“Wow. That bad?”

Her lips quivered, half trying to cry, half trying to smile, that he would know just from her tone that she had screwed up.

“Yeah. My knot was loose, and I fell off Kisses while I was hanging from one foot. I did everything else, but…there’s no way.” She couldn’t keep her tone upbeat. She was barely beating the tears back.

“Bummer. Did you check your knot?”

“No.” She hated even admitting it.

“Why not, Whiplash?” he asked, using the nickname he’d given her years ago when she’d fallen off a horse that had stopped and she hadn’t. He probably knew it would make her smile.

“Why didn’t I? Because I’m stupid.”

“Sorry, Whip. Got to agree with you on that one.”

“Thanks, Staples,” she said, almost able to hear his lips turning up at his own nickname, which he’d gotten honestly—by stapling his finger into a fence post, not realizing what he’d done until he’d gotten two staples in, hence the plural. It had been a beast getting the staples out. It still made her cringe, but it had been ten years and they could laugh about it now. “You’re a great friend.”

She closed her eyes, the smile fading from her mouth, and propped an elbow on her steering wheel, putting her head down on her hand. “I’m fine, by the way. Thanks for asking.”

“I didn’t figure you were in the hospital. Although, after a flub like that, you’d probably drive home with a broken leg just because you were so mad at yourself.”

Yeah. He was so right. Martin knew her better than anyone. Right now, that felt good.

“I’m sorry, I know things aren’t really going any better for you. Are you ready for tomorrow?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. But this is it for me. If I don’t place well enough to make it to the semifinals, I’ve got to come home. I’m running out of money, and I have a ranch to run.”

“I’ll be home. I can do it.”

“Two people wouldn’t be enough. I’m not gonna dump it all on one.”

“You know I’ll hold things together as well as I can so you can stay out on the circuit.”

“I know. I’ve just been thinking it might be time for me to hang up my dream. I’ve been chasing the rodeo bareback title for years. And I get close…then nothing. Bad draws, bad timing, bad luck, or stupidity on my part. I’ve just been thinking lately that everything seems to be going wrong this year. Even worse than last. And maybe this just isn’t what I’m meant to do.”

“Martin. I can’t believe you’re talking like that. You’ve always said you were going to chase this dream until you caught it. You can’t quit.”

“Hey, you’re driving home. I might as well drive home too.”

“I’m driving home because there is no more chasing my dream. I didn’t make it. There isn’t another rodeo somewhere else for me tomorrow.”

“I know. I just…just am tired of fighting.”

“If you want it, you have to work for it. It’s not going to come easy.” He already knew that, but she couldn’t even imagine Martin not going after the title. He always spent his summers running the rodeo circuit and doing fairly well. He even had a fan following and was a favorite on local TV.

Of course, the bull riders were the big draw, with national recognition, but the bareback guys had their own fan club, albeit smaller.

“I know.” His words were half annoyed, half appreciative, knowing she spoke as someone who always had his best interest at heart.

But she understood his frustration. When a person felt like everything was against him, having someone tell him he just needed to work harder and be persistent didn’t really make him feel better.

She wouldn’t appreciate that right now. But they were in different situations, because there was no next tryout for her. This was the one she had needed to ace.

“How are Candy and Kisses taking it?” Martin asked.

Again, the guy just knew her. She supposed, being that they had been inseparable since she had moved to Mistletoe after Race and Penny had adopted her, it made sense. They had more than ten years of pretty much hanging out in each other’s pockets.

There wasn’t another person she loved or trusted more in the world than Martin.

“They’re taking it pretty hard too,” she said. “I just got off at the rest stop, was going to go back and check on them, make sure they’re doing okay. I’m sure they can’t wait to get home and mope around.”

Just like her. She didn’t even want to ride. It was pretty bad when she didn’t want to ride.

“Well, I might be there the day after tomorrow, if things don’t go well tomorrow.”

It hit Blakely then, that because she hadn’t made it, wasn’t going to be touring the country as a trick rider, she was free.

“I have to take the horses home, and I’ll check things around the ranch, make sure your hire guy’s doing everything he’s supposed to. Then I can come see you. You’re in Oklahoma tomorrow, right?”

“It’s a pretty long drive. You don’t have to do that.”

“I’d like to. I always love watching you. And maybe give you a little buzz just knowing there is someone in the stands not just rooting for you…” She thought about all of the fans he already had. Mostly women. Girls. “But someone who knows you and loves you and believes in you, because you are the best.”

Despite her own disappointments, she smiled at that. She could almost hear her dad saying the best way to get out of your funk was to put your focus on someone else and start helping them.

Her dad was always right. Sometimes, she didn’t like to admit it; sometimes, she liked to challenge what he said and test to make sure he was. She didn’t like to take things at face value.

“You know I’d love to have you. I’d really love it if you were here. But you’d have to drive all day today and then hop in your truck and drive most of the day tomorrow. It’s not worth it.”

“It is for me. What else am I going to do?”

“Get a real job?” he said, with only a little bit of sarcasm in his voice.

She didn’t rise to the bait. She gave horseback riding lessons and stabled horses on Martin’s farm, which made her enough to make rent and be happy. In return for using his facilities, she was basically his free hired hand. They didn’t keep track of who owed who what.

Taking a deep breath, she felt the weight on her chest lifting and realized she was already starting to bounce back. Talking to her best friend was the best therapy available.

Probably tonight when she put her head on the pillow and didn’t have anything else to think about, she might get down again. She probably would shed a few tears.

But not now. Now she was excited about supporting a friend. He would have been there for her if he hadn’t been on the circuit. She could do the same for him.

“If it makes you feel better, you can just assume I’m not coming, but I’ll be there. That’s what friends are for.”

“You’ve definitely been a good friend. Thanks.”

“You’ve been the same for me. It’s the least I can do. I’ll be in the stands, pulling for you all the way.”