Cowboy Valentine
hiding place in the deepest, darkest room of her heart. But she didn’t let herself feel any reflexive joy—she swallowed it down and dragged out all of the old arguments she always used on herself.
    “I’m nineteen. Now’s not the time for a serious boyfriend,” she said automatically.
    “Bullshit. I’ve never met a more mature woman in my entire life. And I’ve never met anyone who knew who she was better than you know yourself.” He shook his head and smiled. “I know you. Whenever you want something—whenever you let yourself want something—no one can tell you it’s the right time or the wrong time to want it. You just do it.”
    She couldn’t disagree with him. “But you’re all the way on the other side of the country.”
    “Don’t worry about that just now. What do you say? Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
    “What do you mean, ‘don’t worry’? Women love you,” she said feebly. “They fall all over themselves to flirt with you. What chance do I have as your girlfriend?”
    He snorted. “I don’t encourage them. But you know how many women I’ve messed with since you? None. I’m not interested. I only want one. You, you frowning, angry little antiflirt.” He kissed her nose.
    She felt the warmth radiating from his body and her arms ached to embrace him. But even in the face of his confidence, she knew she had no right to say yes to what he wanted. Their plans were so contrary that to agree to be his girlfriend would be irresponsible. And as much of a rogue as Caleb was, she felt protective of his heart, even when it meant she’d have to protect it from herself. So she stepped back and took a deep breath in an attempt to clear her head.
    “What kind of future can we have together?” she said. “You’re leaving the Hughes place to work on your family’s ranch. I’m trying to get as far away from Oleander as I can. There has to be some kind of trade-off for this relationship. I don’t want either of us to give up something important in order to be together. That’s not a good foundation for anything.”
    He smiled, and that distracting dimple appeared again in his cheek.
    Why couldn’t he take this seriously? As she bit back her annoyance, he said something that changed everything as surely as if he’d pulled the magic carpet out from under her feet to show her she could fly.
    “Dean’s coming back to the ranch after this bull-riding season’s over. With him there, Clark and Daniel don’t need me around. I was always shit at it anyway. Much better at fixing the equipment and the cars. Which is why I’m going back to school. In September.”
    She blinked. “What?”
    “Yup. You’re looking at a college boy. Got my letter last month. Mechanical engineering at the University of Rhode Island. A thirty-minute drive from Brown. An hour and a half by train. I checked.” He smiled. “Now it ain’t Ivy League, but it’s a good program. And when I’m finished, I can look for a job wherever I want.” He paused. “Which is to say, wherever you are.”
    She stared at him, dumbstruck.
    “I haven’t told the admissions committee yes or no because I wanted to see how you felt first.” He took her hands. “When my dad died, I realized something. My parents lived their lives side by side from the time they were eighteen years old, and they were crazy about each other that whole time. Time passes fast. I don’t want to waste another moment pretending you ain’t the one for me. If you don’t feel the same way, sweetheart, I’ll back off for good. Let you live your life in peace.” His hands were cold and his voice seemed to crack like a teenager’s. “But if there’s a chance that you feel the same way—and, goddamn it, I’m not gonna pretend it ain’t scary putting myself out there like this—let’s get something started. You and me. What do you think?”
    Since leaving her hometown, Cora had swum in an ocean of words—books, lectures, notes, essays, arguments,

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