“Hey, Andi, is this fella bothering you?”
Though I had not heard all of Andi and Oliver Jansen’s conversation, as soon as it was apparent that Andi needed help, I was more than happy to step in, for several reasons.
Andi’s face softened in relief, despite the shocking array of bruises that crisscrossed her cheeks and nose. “He was just leaving.” She whirled to face Oliver, her voice becoming cold. “Weren’t you Mr. Jansen?”
Oliver shot me a look of hatred, and I met his eyes in silent defiance. A moment passed, and Oliver looked me up and down. He bowed stiffly, then moved off into the crowd, mumbling under his breath. I was glad I couldn’t hear whatever he was saying.
My hand tightened into a fist. A punch would do him good.
Andi’s loud sigh brought me back to the present. “Good riddance.” She declared, her eyes widening. She skipped out of the way as a couple twirled past,.
I sidestepped with her.
“You arrived just in time,” Andi said cheerfully. “Oliver Jansen is insufferable. He’s worse than Johnny Wilson.” She frowned. “I was about to kick him, which would have caused a scene.”
I nodded my approval, swallowing a laugh at the picture. “Maybe I should have kept quiet. Oliver could use a good kick.”
Andi grinned back at me. “Yes, but not at Chad and Ellie’s expense. Thanks for stepping in.” She scooted a little further towards the edge of the dance floor. “How have you been?”
I shrugged. “Same as always, I reckon.”
“Been fishing lately?”
My spirits suddenly fell. These were all the usual questions Andi asked a friend. Was that still all she saw in me?
I forced myself to shrug again, pushing my feelings away. “I’ve been too busy helping Pa at the livery to fish. How ‘bout you? I never see you around anymore.”
I felt a pang at my last words. Our paths had hardly crossed since school ended, I missed seeing Andi.
“I work for Chad now and haven’t been to town much this spring. In my spare time, Riley is teaching me to trick ride. I can stand up on Shasta and lope and even jump. This afternoon Riley started teaching me the pickup stunt.” Andi replied, grinning. Her eyes had lit up whenever she said Riley’s name.
“Is that how you banged up your face?” I asked, stiffening. Close up, her face looked even worse.
Andi’s hand flew to her nose, as if she had forgotten about it. I sure hadn’t.
“I took a nosedive off Riley’s horse,” She paused and attempted to smile. “It’s nothing.”
“It sounds dangerous.” I snapped.
Andi’s grin faded, and I immediately regretted my words. What is happening to me? I gazed across the room where Andi’s brother and Riley Prescott were chatting.
A wave of jealousy enveloped me. Could Andi feel something for Riley? Or is that just my imagination?
I felt Andi staring at me, and I turned back, clearing my throat. My mind raced for something to take her mind off my remark. The dance song changed to a slower song. I hated dancing, and both me and Andi knew I was terrible at it, but it was too tempting to pass up the chance.
“Would you care to dance, Miss Carter?” I asked in an overly formal manner.
Andi laughed. “No thank you, Mr. Blake. I’m sore enough without you tromping all over my feet.”
I felt a flicker of disappointment. “Sad but true.”
I dodged a lady’s swaying skirt. “Let’s get off this dance floor before we get bowled over.”
Seizing my chance, I grasped Andi’s hand and led her towards an empty spot away from the gathering. When we got there, I couldn’t stop myself from holding her hand a little longer.
It took two seconds for Andi to become uncomfortable with my tight grip, she wiggled her fingers until they were free. She looked concerned. “What’s the matter, Cory?”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t.
Her face drained of color. “Has something happened? Tell me.”
I looked straight at her, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak. Had I really hidden my feelings that well? Did she not suspect anything at all?
Why haven’t I said this sooner? Could I still have a chance? I sighed, long and deep, and finally met Andi’s pretty blue gaze. “I’m sorry, Andi. I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard not to”—I swallowed hard, then breathed out—“not to care. But it’s no use. I...I do care.”
I dropped her gaze and stared at the tops of my shoes. It was out.
From the look on Andi’s face, she had never suspected this, or at least had not paid any attention to my attempts to show how much I cared for her….how much I loved her.
A sob gripped my throat, but I forced myself to stay silent.
“Oh, Cory.” Andi’s tearful voice broke through the dreadful quiet. “Even if I did care for you in that way, I could never leave the ranch. You love working with your father at the livery, and you’re good at it. You enjoy the hustle and bustle of town. I love the ranch, and I’m good at ranching. I like the wide-open spaces. I’d shrivel up living in town.”
“I know.” I choked out.
I’d heard the same thing from Justin, just in a different way. I looked back at Andi’s face. “Your brother told me pretty much the same thing. That’s what’s so hard. I reckon I’ve always known, but I held on to the hope that things might change. I… I could learn to be a cowboy.”
“You’d hate it,” Andi whispered.
“Yeah.” I managed a crooked grin. “I would.”
Andi shook her head, her eyes sparkling with tears. “I’m sorry, Cory. I really am.”
“So am I.” I closed my eyes and let out another deep breath. My stomach unclenched. I opened my eyes and grinned, truly grinned. “I’m glad it’s out in the open. Thank you for being honest and not sparing my feelings.”
On impulse, I reached out and gently tapped her swollen nose. “You watch yourself around that wrangler and those crazy stunts, you hear me? We’re still friends, you know. That won’t change. If you ever need anything, promise me you won’t shy away. You’ll ask me.” I looked her straight in the eyes, waiting for her response.
“I p-promise.” Tears streamed down Andi’s face, and she hastily swiped at them.
“Don’t cry, Andi.” I murmured, reaching for her hands. “God knows what best for you, and for me.”
I gave her hands a gentle squeeze, then released her. Pa needed my help, I’d already stayed too long. “I have to go. Pa’s tending a sick horse and needs my help. I only showed up to congratulate Chad.” I paused. “You tell him for me, will you?”
Andi nodded, tears still flowing.
“Thanks. See you around.” I said softly. I lifted my head and didn’t look back.
Instead, I looked ahead.