For a girl who wasn’t born yesterday, Kate Canaday had the sneaking suspicion she’d been had by the two people in her life she cared most about. If they weren’t all sitting in Grey’s Saloon on a noisy Saturday night with a hundred people she knew, or at least recognized, as witnesses, she might have lost her temper.
Instead, she slid a disbelieving look between her sister, Eve, and her step-sister, Olivia, as the country music band cranked up behind them.
“So, let me get this straight,” she said after taking a calming sip from her grapefruit vodka spritzer. “You two didn’t just randomly join me here for a night out? Just because you’ve missed me and love me and thought a get-together would be fun? You came here for a…a dating intervention?”
Eve, the fairer of her two sisters, blinked and flicked a sideways plea for help to Olivia, who quickly said, “Intervention? Well, that’s completely inaccurate.”
“Totally. Inaccurate,” Eve agreed, tucking a blond strand of misplaced hair behind her ear, looking lost.
Except that they’d spent the last five minutes breaking down Kate’s questionable dating history and her habit of falling quickly—then dumping—every man she dated after a few short weeks. But mostly, their concern was about her current problem-in-residence, Cree Malone, the lead singer of the band playing on Grey’s small stage right now.
Kate leaned toward them to be heard over the sound of the music, her long, auburn hair falling against her cheek. “What exactly would you call it, then? This little get-together?”
“Sisterly concern?” Olivia ventured with a sheepish look.
“Over my dating habits in general? Or about Cree?”
“His name isn’t Cree, Kate. It’s Charlie,” Olivia corrected, “and he was in glee club with my best friend, Zena, in eleventh grade.”
Kate narrowed a look at her. “I know his name. Of course, I know his name. He’s in a band. It’s his persona.” The hairs on the back of her neck rose. “Wait. Did Dad and Jaycee put you up to this?”
“No!” they answered in unison, then exchanged guilty looks.
“They…might know we’re doing this,” Eve admitted in a small voice.
“This, meaning the intervention,” Kate clarified.
“Stop calling it that.” Olivia pulled her dark hair into a one-handed ponytail around her shoulder. “We just care about you and we’re worried. Listen, it’s no secret that you’ve had at least a dozen boyfriends this year—”
“That’s a gross exaggeration,” Kate said, tapping her nails on the table. “The figure’s closer to ten.”
“—and we haven’t met a single one.”
Kate sent them an incredulous look. “Why would you want to meet them? None of them was serious.”
“Exactly!” Olivia slapped her beer bottle down on the table and the crown erupted in a little plume of foam. As she scrambled to mop up the mess with napkins, she said, “None of them was even your type.”
“How do you know my type?”
“Were they?” Eve asked, her voice tinged with disbelief. She hooked a thumb in Cree’s direction. “Is he?”
“My type?” Kate shook her head. “Yes.” No. Wasn’t that the point? The men she dated were like…like seat-fillers at awards ceremonies. One person vacates and another takes his place. Simple as that.
Behind them, her latest seat-filler, the very good-looking lead singer, ‘Cree’, better known to mere mortals in nearby Livingston circles as Charlie Malone, had been belting out a drinking song about dirt roads, pick-up trucks and hot girls in cutoff shorts. No one would argue his talent. He’d probably be in Nashville within the year. With that rockabilly dark hair, those blue eyes and his penchant for ink, he looked like every other musician these days. He’d even inscribed her name on a small, blank spot on his forearm—a poor decision from which she’d tried to dissuade him. But her name was already lost there in his sleeve of tattoos and she supposed he could always turn the thing into a spiral or a cat or something that would blend in.
Before the next song, after he played an expert riff on his guitar, he pointed to Kate with a possessive nod, then punctuated that look with an onstage guzzle of beer. Several girls at the front tables who looked barely old enough to be in this bar, squealed for his attention.
Kate wondered where their parents were.
“This song’s for my sexy, red-haired lady, Katie-Kat Canaday, sitting right over there,” he purred a little drunkenly into the microphone. He followed this horrifying mangling of her name with an embarrassing cat yowl.
With all eyes suddenly on her, Kate slid down in her chair. Beside her, Eve and Olivia shared a private, confirming eye roll.
“What?” Kate said from behind the hand shielding her eyes. “It’s not like I’m going to marry him. He’s performing.”
Olivia gestured with a meaningful tip of her head toward a nearby table, where the Bellmers—parents of one of her current kindergarten students—were staring at her with undisguised horror after Cree’s shout out to her, their red wine glasses frozen halfway to their mouths.
Drat. She would hear about this one on Monday. And here it was, barely September and only two weeks into the school year. She pasted on her most professional smile and finger-waved at the Bellmers, who turned away whispering to one another.
“Look, I’m not one to judge, Kate,” Olivia said, leaning across the table. “That’s not what this is about. But your life is not exactly…you know, uncomplicated. You’re a kindergarten teacher, in a very small town. And a guy like that? He will ruffle some feathers.”
She knew that. Of course she did. Most of the men she’d dated were lower profile than Cree, and she had no rational answer as to why she’d agreed to go out with him.
“Technically speaking,” she said in her own defense, and not a little bitterly, “I’m a laid-off kindergarten teacher. Long-term sub doesn’t quite qualify.” She’d been caught in a ‘last-in, first-out’ situation when budget cuts had forced layoffs. The school had kept her employed, temporarily, thanks to the beloved kindergarten teacher, Bette Moynihan, whose mother had the good grace to break her leg this month and suddenly needed Bette’s help.
“You know they’ll hire you back full time next year, as soon as the budget thingy gets resolved,” Eve said. “They love you there.”
Whether they did or not was a moot point. Their budget thingy was about to become her budget thingy. Bette was due back in November and she was counting the days and her pennies.
Still, she supposed she was simply pushing the envelope with Cree, but, truthfully, her life felt like it was starting to fly out of control like a spin painting, with bits of her casting about, looking for a handhold.
Reluctantly, she admitted that Olivia and Eve might have a small point, at least where Cree was concerned. She wasn’t sure why she was defending him anyway. His boyfriend ‘sell-by’ date had expired two nights ago when—and she shivered at the memory—he’d drunkenly licked her cheek like a standard poodle in lieu of a kiss when he’d said goodnight. Which was the last in a short, but consistent list of line-crossings that had effectively ended them.
They were over. Cree just didn’t know that yet.
Maybe ten boyfriends in one year was a bit indulgent. All right—excessive. But in her own defense, most of them had lasted less than three weeks and it wasn’t as if she’d gone looking for love, or pined over each one she’d left. She wasn’t interested in love. Or commitment. Or anything that could break her heart again. She just wanted to have fun. Was that so wrong?
“C’mon, Kate. You know you’re better than him,” Olivia said gently. “You deserve more than a wanna-be rock-star like ‘Cree’ Malone, that you picked up at the grocery store.”
Kate flicked a finger around the rim of her glass with irritation. “First, I didn’t pick him up. For the record, it was the other way around. And second,” she said, pointing at the ceiling, “if you two have got Yente from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ stashed somewhere around here to ‘match me a match’ or ‘catch me a catch,’ you can forget it. I don’t do blind dates. I pick my own disasters, thank you very much.”
Eve clucked and leaned in to Olivia with a dramatic sigh. “Darn. And we went to all that expense.”
Kate fake smiled at them. “Maybe you two should just be happy for me that I’m not spending my evenings alone, turning into some spinster schoolteacher. I am perfectly capable of setting boundaries, knowing what’s good for me and what, for heaven’s sake, I deserve.” She gulped a sip of vodka. “Besides, I can stop any time I want.”
“Hunh. I dare you,” Eve challenged flatly.
Kate gave a little snort. “What?”
“I dare you to stop dating. Take a break. Reconnoiter. Go cold turkey.”
Cold turkey? Phhhhftt! Of course, she could. It wasn’t like she had a problem. She could be alone. Entertain herself on a Friday night. Or…or a Saturday.
She could. She was almost sure she could.
Even as that thought formed, an adorable maybe twenty-one-year old drunk guy in a mechanic’s shirt and a bottle of beer in his hand, sidled up to Eve. “Hey, darlin’,” he yelled over the music, attempting to peer down the opening of her shirt. “D’you believe in love at first sight, or… should I walk by again?”
Eve sent Kate a slow burn and mouthed, “Watch and learn.” She turned back to him, dragged a look up and down him, then said, “No. And no.”
After a three-second beat, he said, “Well…a’right, then.” The mechanic chugged his beer and wandered off toward the front of the bar.
Turning back to Kate, Eve lifted her hands as if to say, See? It’s just that easy.
Olivia bit her lip to keep from laughing.
Kate twisted her mouth to keep from doing the same. “Are you implying that if I wanted to, I couldn’t—” she began, but she lost track of her thought as, across the bar, past the smoky haze, she caught sight of a cowboy whose back was to her. He seemed to be deep in conversation with someone in the shadows. Maybe her reaction was simply to his shirt, a familiar, fitted denim, hugging the contours of his strong back and arms. Or the way he stood, one knee cocked, like he used to just before a ride.
Maybe it was the vodka she was drinking.
But the Pavlovian tightening down low inside her, the slam of her heart against the cage of her ribs hit her as hard as always when she caught glimpses of men who looked like him. Men from the back. Men from the side. Men in shadows.
Like seeing a ghost.
Like all the times she’d thought she’d caught sight of her Grandma Chrissy after she’d passed, tottering down some street beside a stranger, or waving her frail arm outside a car window, or hearing her whisper in the middle of the night. And, for that split second, wishful thinking had her imagining the old woman could actually reappear.
But he wasn’t a ghost and he wasn’t dead—as far as she knew, though she’d made a point not to follow him or his career, not to be curious. No, he wasn’t dead. Just dead to her. And that couldn’t be him, anyway, she decided, studying the man across the bar. Because he was in Missoula or Denver or Albuquerque…riding on the back of some bull or making sweet forever with what’s-her-name and their—
“—you couldn’t…what? Kate?” Olivia was asking, but her gaze was searching out the corner that so fascinated Kate.
Dragging her eyes deliberately away from his doppelganger, Kate took another gulp of her drink. Maybe it was the sight of him that made her decide. Or maybe she was just tired of men of Cree’s questionable ilk. Whatever the reason, she blurted, “Okay. Fine.”
“Fine?” Eve jerked a confused look back at her. Olivia looked skeptical.
“You’re on,” she elaborated. “The dare. Just to prove you wrong.”
A small victorious smile—or possibly relief—passed between her two sisters and Kate felt herself shrink a little.
Job done. Crisis averted. All was right with the world again.
“No dating for one month,” Eve said, flattening her palm on the table.
Kate shrugged. “Done.”
“Two?” Olivia suggested.
“Don’t push your luck. If I win, it’s hands off me and my dating life. If I lose…?”
“We have Yente on standby,” Eve assured her.
“What about Cree?” Olivia glanced pointedly at the singer high-fiving the pretty girls near the stage.
Kate stared down at her empty drink. “Yeah, well… that is a shame. But some sacrifices just have to be made. I suppose I’ll just have to break his heart.”
And when she looked back, the ghost she’d glimpsed in the corner was gone.
End of Excerpt