Leslie brought her a soda and an oatmeal raisin cookie during a lull. Turton had volunteered to make the presentation, but Ainsley feared his monotone would put the audience to sleep. She wasn’t a nervous speaker. She’d given many presentations in her career, so it bothered her she had the heart pounding, stomach-churning attack of nerves today. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this jittery.
Yes, you can. That second night with Bennett in the club. And the first night with Bennett in the club. And every night since.
Not exactly the best timing for those reminders to pop up.
Steve Talbot, the bank president from Settler’s First, wandered over, holding his fishbowl full of entry slips. “Shall we get this started?”
“You bet.” Ainsley grabbed her cardboard box and followed Steve up to the stage.
“You the closer?”
He shrugged. “We’ve got seniority.”
Mayor Gilbert quieted everyone down. “Before we get to the main event with Chase McKay, we’ll hear from today’s sponsors. Ainsley Hamilton, president of National West Bank, will say a few words about Sundance’s newest bank.”
“Thanks, Mayor Gilbert. I’m Ainsley Hamilton, a recent transplant to Wyoming, and I’d like to thank everyone for the excitement and support in welcoming National West Bank and its employees to the Sundance community. We’re honored to sponsor Chase McKay’s appearance and to support his foundation. Since National West Bank is the new kid on the block, we wanted to show our pride in being part of this great community, alongside with Settler’s First, in providing Sundance residents with banking choices. If you’re interested in more information, visit our booth, or better yet, come on in to the bank and see what National West can offer you.” She exhaled, glad she’d kept her speech short and concise. “Now onto the money drawing portion, which I know is why you’re all hanging onto my every word.” That comment brought laughter. “I’ll need a volunteer to pick a name out of the box.”
Immediately five kids rushed to stage. Four boys and one girl. Tempting to pick the dark-haired girl since she’d elbowed three bigger boys to wind up in front. But Ainsley chose the smallest boy with the biggest hat, who trailed behind the others. She pointed at him. “Come on up here, young cowboy.”
The kid didn’t go around and take the stairs. He took a running jump and threw himself onto the stage.
This amused everyone at the tables off to the left.
Ainsley bent down. “What’s your name?”
“Miles McKay.” The kid practically shouted the last part, which incited more laughter.
Didn’t it just figure she’d pick a McKay? “So, Miles, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A bull rider like my daddy and like Chase.”
“I’ve always admired a man who knows what he wants and goes after it. Have your dad and Chase given you any advice?”
He nodded. “Stay on eight seconds.”
What a charmer. “Okay, Miles, stick your hand in and pick out a winner.”
Miles stirred the pieces of paper before he found the one he liked. When he looked up from beneath the brim of his little black hat, with those vivid blue eyes and serious expression, Ainsley immediately thought of another dark-haired, blue-eyed cowboy charmer. She almost said, “Thanks, Ben,” but caught herself and said, “Thanks, Miles. The winner of the five hundred dollars is…Alison Toomey!”
After she exited the stage, Steve grabbed the microphone. “Thanks to National West Bank and Ainsley Hamilton.” He addressed the people at the front tables. “Watch out for that one, McKay family. Don’t be fooled by her charm, she’s only out for your banking business.”
Ainsley plastered a smile on her face.
“Let’s get down to it.” Steve did his spiel.
When he finished, Mayor Gilbert took over. “Now it’s time to bring out the man we’re proud to call our own, the man who represents the great state of Wyoming and our western way of life, the man who honors his family and his ranching heritage, the man who is bold enough to take a stand for what he believes in. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome home to Sundance, Chase McKay.”
Thunderous applause echoed in the room.
Ainsley watched Chase saunter onto the stage. He was shorter than she’d expected, but more powerfully built than Ben. He had a quick smile and quick wit. His smooth confidence in front of a crowd didn’t come off as rehearsed, but polished, as if a PR department had groomed him. As Chase spoke, she recognized similarities he shared with Ben. Hand gestures. Thoughtful pauses. Not to mention those rugged good looks.
She was so lost in thought about Ben and his family dynamic that she nearly missed being called to the stage. Leslie pushed her with a, “Go!”
“Now the sponsors of this event, National West Bank and Settler’s First Bank, are contributing five thousand dollars each to the Chase McKay Foundation.”
Ainsley and Steve stepped forward with the big, fake checks. Flashing light bulbs nearly blinded her, the applause was deafening. Where had all the camera crews come from?
Chase seemed genuinely stunned by the donation. When it quieted down, Chase took the microphone and looked at the tables on the left. “Ava, darlin’, did you get all that?”
She said something, which he didn’t hear. “Why don’t you come on up here and say hello?”
More raucous applause.
A stunning brunette bounded onto the stage and stood beside Chase. She was a good six inches taller in spike heels. Chase swept her into his arms and laid a passionate kiss on her that made the crowd go nuts. He finally set her down, but wouldn’t let go of her hand. “Have y’all met my beautiful wife? Ava Cooper Dumond McKay. Ava is workin’ on two documentaries about bull ridin’, and she’s hopin’ to have at least one of them done next spring. Thank you all for comin’ out this afternoon.” Chase and Ava left the stage and a swarm of photographers followed them.
The crowd vanished quickly. She, Leslie and Rita tore down the display and loaded it in Rita’s Suburban. She returned inside to double-check she hadn’t forgotten anything. She noticed the poster tacked to the backdrop, but she couldn’t quite reach the pushpin.
A warm, familiar body moved in behind her and murmured, “I’ve got it.”
Ainsley didn’t budge for several seconds. She just closed her eyes and absorbed the feeling of having him so close.
Then he stepped away.
She straightened her sweater and skirt before she faced him. “Thanks.”
“You did great up there. Everybody was real impressed. But I bet you’re used to doin’ presentation stuff like that?”
“I’ve done it a time or three hundred.”
His gaze moved from her gray pumps, up her calves and over the black wool skirt that clung to her thighs and hips, then lingered on her breasts molded by the gray angora sweater. The palpable heat in his blue eyes made her thighs clench. “Goddamn you look good enough to eat.” He grinned. “Twice.”
Ainsley grinned back. “That can be arranged. Do you have plans tonight?”
Ben shoved his hands in his pockets. “Ah, my folks are havin’ a family thing at their place since Chase is in town, as well as our brother Gavin.”
“Of course your family wants to gather and celebrate Chase’s success. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.”
“If you think dodging screamin’ kids and nosy relatives is fun,” he muttered.
“Nothin’. It’s just all the McKays are comin’, which means all of their kids. God love ’em, but I’m ready to schedule a vasectomy after about an hour. And guaranteed this shindig will last much longer than an hour.”
“Large families are almost another culture to people like me, who have one sibling and half a dozen cousins, total.”
“I don’t suppose you’d wanna come with me?” he blurted.
That shocked her. “Really? Me?”
“Why not?” That too-blue gaze pinned her in place. “Do you have plans?”
“Well, no, but won’t your family think it’s odd that you’re showing up with me?”
He shrugged. “Steve Talbot will be there. It’s only fair the rep from the other bank gets an invite too.”
So this wasn’t personal. She wouldn’t be showing up on Ben McKay’s arm as his date. Another shard of disappointment sliced her. “Although I appreciate the invite…” She fiddled with the sleeve of her sweater. “I’m sure—”
“Look at me.”
Her gaze zoomed to his at his command.
“That was a lie, okay? I don’t want you to come because your bank contributed to Chase’s fund. I want you to come for me. I mean, I’d like it if you came with me. Not as my girlfriend or anything, because Christ, no one in my family would leave either of us alone, and I wouldn’t put anyone through that.” He offered her a shy smile. “So would you consider goin’ as my…friend?”
Why did Ben’s honesty surprise her? Even when it hurt her a little? And was he trying to kill her with that sweet little boy smile?
“I’d like that. Do I need to change?”
“Why? You look fantastic.”
“Flattery won’t get you anywhere, friend.” A thought occurred to her. “You aren’t using me to fend off questions from your family about why you’re not in a relationship?”
He hung his head. “Busted.”
“I’m kiddin’. Sounds like you’ve had the same ‘when are you gonna find a nice girl and settle down?’ questions from your family that I’ve had from mine.”
“No, mine are more along the lines of ‘don’t let the bitterness from your divorce keep you from finding a good man’ and then my mother asks how many cats I’ve got.”