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From her vantage point just outside the stable, Diana watched Spence dismount and begin leading the handsome sorrel around the ring to cool him down. He said something to Corey that made her laugh as she walked along beside him, and Diana smiled with pleasure that Corey's evening was turning out so well.
Instead of having to share him with Doug and Barb Hayward and Doug's father plus one of Spence's innumerable and inevitable girlfriends, as Corey and Diana had expected, Corey had him entirely to herself. The Haywards had at the last minute remembered a relative's birthday party and were attending that, and Spence was by himself.
Diana's evening hadn't turned out badly, either. She'd had Cole entirely to herself. Managing to see him as often as she could without having it seem contrived had been the second hardest thing she'd ever done-second only to keeping her feelings for him a complete secret from him and everyone else.
Nearly all of Barb's friends had wild crushes on him. He was tall, tanned, wide-shouldered, and narrow-hipped. In snug, soft jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, every inch of his muscled body exuded power and raw sex appeal. His complete lack of social standing, his lack of money, and his lowly job at the stable made him off-limits to them. Which made him infinitely more attractive.
He refused to talk about himself to them, which made him mysterious and all the more fascinating.
He was unattainable, which made him even more desirable.
He was immune to their looks, their money, and their ploys. And that made him a challenge.
Since Cole couldn't be coerced or tricked into talking about himself, they spent endless hours speculating about his family and his friends back home and inventing dire experiences that might have made him want to forget or bury his past.
They did everything to get his attention, from trying to flirt with him, to wearing their tightest pants and most revealing tops, to asking him to examine nonexistent ankle sprains and hurt wrists, to pretending to fall against him when they dismounted.
One by one, Diana had watched Cole's reactions to each girl's attempt to flirt with him, and she soon realized that the more blatant the attempt was, the stronger his retaliation. Milder transgressors were treated like children, subjected to his open amusement and spoken to in a condescendingly superior way that made the transgressor squirm. More daring transgressors received a much more unbearable punishment: they were subjected to weeks of cool and distant behavior. Unfortunately, both of his tactics made it necessary to find ways to get back into his good graces, which made him seem even more powerful and desirable.
At one point or another, during the last two years, practically every girl who rode at the Haywards' place had claimed that he'd done or said something to indicate he had some secret interest in her. In April of this year, nine of the girls had each bet ten dollars on who would be the first to kiss him. Diana had abstained, claiming he simply didn't appeal to her, but she volunteered to be the treasurer-and silently prayed she'd never have to hand the booty over to a winner. Earlier that spring, at a sleepover at the Haywards', Barb had claimed she'd won the bet the night before. For a half hour, she provided her girlfriends with dozens of titillating, imaginative, and highly improbable details about the nature of the kissing and the extent of the petting that followed.
Just when Diana thought she would surely throw up if she had to listen to another description of their body positions, Barb had flopped back on the bed and burst out laughing. "April Fools!" she called, and was immediately bombarded with handfuls of popcorn for her joke.
As miserable as Diana had been before Barb admitted to the joke, Diana hadn't betrayed by expression or word how she felt. Not then and not now.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw Cole pouring feed into the bucket in the last stall, and she knew he'd come back outside to join her in a minute. She knew a lot more about him than the other girls did, because she alone had spent substantial amounts of time with him.
She knew exactly how sunlight turned his hair to polished ebony; she'd seen the way his sudden white smile could soften the hard planes of his face and turn his eyes to liquid silver; she'd felt his hands at her waist when he came up behind her and jokingly picked her up to lift her out of his way. She'd heard the awful fury in his voice when he dragged outside one of Doug's friends who was smoking in the stable and verbally flayed him for creating a fire hazard for the horses.
She'd also seen him deliver a litter of kittens while he murmured gentle encouragement to the mother, and she'd seen him revive what had appeared to be a stillborn kitten by massaging it with his fingers.
She'd actually experienced some of the fantasies the other girls could only dream of, but there were two enormous differences between Diana and the others: she was smart enough not to try to make her fantasies into reality, and she was wise enough to understand and accept that this casual friendship she shared with him was all there was ever going to be.
She realized that she would never know how it felt to have his mouth cover hers in a kiss, or his arms close around her, or his hands press her tightly against him. She accepted all that with only a little regret. Because she was also smart enough to know that if he ever made up his mind to kiss her, she probably wouldn't be able to handle it or control him.
Cole wouldn't bother with a lot of smooth talk and rehearsed strategies; he'd expect her to be a match for him in every way. But she wasn't, and she knew it. Even if she weren't hopelessly naive compared to him, they were as different as two people could possibly be.
Cole was blunt, reckless, and earthy. Diana was reserved, cautious, and hopelessly proper.
He was motorcycles and blue jeans and battered duffel bags, with a need to blaze his own trails through life.
She was BMWs and prom gowns and matched luggage, with a need to stay on smooth, paved roads.
Copyright © 1996 by Judith McNaught