“The usual, Maddie?” the bartender asked.
Madeleine Cash tossed her hair away from her face where it was endangering her false eyelashes, and blotted her damp forehead with the back of her hand. The cold from the snow swirling and drifting outside did nothing to cut the warmth of the busy saloon.
“Not yet, Jason. Sparkling water with a slice of lime, please.” If there was ever an occasion for her to enjoy a chocolate martini, it was New Year’s Eve, at Grey’s Saloon, surrounded by friends and family. But she was the first of them to arrive, which was a bummer, and she wasn’t yet in a celebratory mood.
In fact, she was in a bit of a funk.
Maddie wasn’t accustomed to worrying. The mere fact of this funk… was worrying in itself.
Plus, she always got a little… glowy… when she indulged in alcohol. Funky plus glowy could only equal trouble.
“Give her a chocolate martini,” a voice at her elbow said. “My treat.”
“Forget it, Tod.” She leaned sideways, nudging her coworker with her shoulder to soften her words. “I’m being a good girl tonight.”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Ick. I’m telling Elinor. She’ll take away your allowance.”
With his expensive haircuts and perfect clothes, Tod Styles was handsome enough. But even she knew better than to dabble with her boss’s son, especially now.
Elinor was implementing cost cutting measures and, as she’d kindly but clearly pointed out, Maddie’s dramatic tearing up of Rosie Linn’s contract had put a significant dent in the last quarter sales figures. It wasn’t her place to make magnanimous gestures, no matter how well-intentioned.
Plus, Tod’s lips reminded her of watermelon gummy worms.
“Half the men here are counting on it.” Jason Grey pushed a paper coaster in front of her and set her drink on it.
“And look at how responsible I’m being.” She lifted the glass at Jason and Tod in turn, then took a delicate sip. “A mature, professional woman, here to ring in the new year with friends. In a mature, professional way. No flirting with the help.”
“You could no more give up vodka and flirting than you could give up chocolate,” Jason said.
“Why would I want to give up any of that? I embrace life. Chocolate and men are part of that.”
“And vodka,” Tod said.
“Nope.” At least, not until her friends arrived.
“I’m not saying you should give up anything,” Jason said. “I’m saying you couldn’t if you tried.”
“I could so!”
Okay, she had a tab at Grey’s. Who didn’t? And of course Copper Mountain Chocolates had her credit card on file. Sage’s chocolate was the best in the state. The world. The universe.
As for men, well. She was alive, wasn’t she?
Jason moved away to fill another order and Tod turned to flirt with the girl on his other side.
Annoyed, Maddie took another sip, her lips leaving a pretty smudge of Candy Coral Kiss on the glass. Fizzy bubbles sparkled their zero-calorie dance on her tongue. This wasn’t so bad. Who were they to imply she had no self-control?
She knew how to enjoy life. That was a good thing.
Moderation, however, wasn’t her strong suit.
A sweet-smelling arm draped lightly over her shoulder, turning into a tight side-hug.
“Cynthia!” Maddie shifted to make room. “You’re here! I’m so glad. We’re going to have so much fun tonight.”
Since the day they’d met, Maddie had adored her stepsister, she of the braces and the stutter and the low self-esteem just waiting for the encouragement of an older sister or two. Cynthia was preparing for a spring wedding with her fiancé, Chad, and happiness shone from every last bit of her.
Cynthia deserved it and Maddie was one hundred percent thrilled for her.
“You look so nice,” Cynthia said.
“Thanks.” Maddie glanced down at her simple black dress. Too simple, at least for her. But her boss had also suggested a more professional appearance.
That had stung. Elinor was so lovely and polished, her gentle critique of Maddie’s flair came as a shock.
For someone whose last name was Styles, she was disappointingly narrow-minded in her appreciation of what that entailed.
“Are you meeting someone?” Cynthia asked.
“Nope. It’s just me.”
“And me.” Tod leered hopefully at Maddie.
“Not at gunpoint, Toddler.”
Maddie leaned over the bar. Where was Jason? “You’re all sex-goddess gorgeous, yourself. Watch out, Tod’s going to fall into your cleavage and then Chad’s going to go all cave-man on him.”
“I can take Chad,” Tod said.
Cynthia caught Jason’s eye, pointed to Maddie’s drink and held up two fingers. “No worries, Chad’s not coming tonight. He and the guys are away at his stag.”
“Right, I forgot.”
Chad was celebrating with a bunch of pals from Marietta, all of whom shared a love for restoring old houses. And all of whom were ridiculously fine-looking men. Watching them work gave new meaning to the term house porn. Especially when they took their shirts off.
Too bad they were all married, more or less.
“Four days at some rundown camp. Super rustic, which is like catnip to them.” Cynthia shuddered. “One of Chad’s friends just inherited it and wanted them to check it out with him. Mick Meyer. I met him. He’s hot.”
“Cowboy hot? Or hot-hot? Not that there’s anything wrong with cowboys,” Maddie added quickly. Chad was a cowboy. As was his brother Eric. As were ninety percent of the men in Marietta. Eighty percent of whom she’d dated already.
A nice clean-cut, Armani-wearing, hedge-fund manager, that was what she wanted. Ha.
“Bush pilot hot,” Cynthia said. “They’re ice-fishing. Can you imagine?”
“In this weather? Better them than me.” A thought occurred to her. “That means it’s just us girls. On New Year’s Eve. Best night ever!”
“Sorry, sis. Apparently, you have to take out a second mortgage to get a sitter on December 31.”
“Not even Samara?”
Melinda and Leda each had preschoolers but Samara’s daughter, Jade, was at least six now. Surely Sam had found someone to stay with her.
But Cynthia shook her head.
“Spawn.” Maddie huffed. “They ruin everything.”
It sucked being single when everyone around her was oozing domestic bliss and popping out adorable little spit factories every time she turned around.
Jason pushed two sweating glasses of sparkling water with lime toward them.
“Actually, we’ll have a couple of white wine spritzers,” Maddie called. But the bartender was already gone.
“It’s okay,” said Cynthia. “This is perfect.”
“No way. We deserve a little something, being abandoned as we are.”
Cynthia bit her lip and glanced away. Then met Maddie’s eyes and took a deliberate sip of her fizzy water.
Maddie looked at the drink, then up at Cynthia’s face. Maddie’s jaw dropped.
“Cynthia! Are you—” She clapped a hand over her mouth.
She didn’t want to jinx anything. She also needed to keep her heart from leaping straight out of her chest to flop onto the bar top.
A Cynthia-Chad baby would be the most adorable, sweetest, heaven-sent treasure in the entire world.
“Don’t say it.” Cynthia glared at her and then glanced meaningfully at the people surrounding them. “It’s too early to talk about it. So, no.”
“But maybe?” she whispered.
Cynthia bit her lip. Then she smiled. “Maybe.”
Maddie shrieked and hollered. “Happy New Year! I’m going to be—”
“Kicked out,” Jason said. “Cynthia, keep her in line, will you?”
“No problem.” Cynthia dragged her off her seat by the arm and led her to a quieter corner. “You’re impossible.”
“Need some help?” Tod said, reappearing at her elbow with a glass of wine in each hand.
Maddie grabbed one. “Family stuff, Tod. Private family stuff.”
Cynthia thanked Tod but declined the glass.
“Does DeeDee know?” Maddie whispered.
Deirdre, Maddie’s twin sister, was a model in New York City and had been steadily and determinedly drifting away from the family, another thing on Maddie’s list of things not to worry about tonight.
“No. Nor do Dad and Joanie. And don’t you tell them. I’ll make an announcement when the time is right.” Cynthia twinkled. “Got that, Aunt Maddie?”
She liked the sound of that. A big, rollicking family full of laughter and love, all of them getting together at the farm, Mom and Norm putting all the leaves in the table to accommodate everyone at mealtime.
Assuming Norm would still be around to see it.
Don’t think about that tonight. Don’t think about anything tonight.
Darn, that list was tough to ignore.
Maddie gulped down her drink, tossed her hair over her shoulder and pulled Cynthia out of the corner. “Why isn’t anyone dancing? We’ll be the first. Someone’s got to get this party started.”
Jason turned up the music and Maddie gave herself over to the pure joy of sound and movement and the crush of people. So not everyone was here tonight. She had plenty of friends. She had a family she loved, and would soon see an addition. She had a good job, at the moment. And if that disappeared, she’d find another.
She tipped her head back and whirled in a circle, her hips moving in time to the beat of Keith Urban’s “The Fighter”. She had so much to be grateful for. Marietta was the best place in the world and she had such a great life.
“I’d be your fighter, Cynthia,” she yelled.
“I’m Tod,” Tod said into her ear. “You can fight for me.”
“Nope,” she said. “Inappropriate fraternization.”
She had a job she enjoyed. She’d fight for that, if she had to.
Elinor wouldn’t really fire her.
“If you can say words like that, you need this.” Tod pressed a chocolate-drizzled martini glass into her hand.
She sniffed it. Cocoa and vanilla. Divine. Maybe she did need it. Where was Cynthia, anyway? The bathroom, probably. Or maybe she left when Maddie started dancing.
She took the glass. Downed it.
“Don’t get any ideas,” she said, shoving the empty glass at him. “I don’t need a man to have fun, especially not you.”
There was nothing wrong with being single.
“Hear me roar!” she yelled.
Laughter surrounded her, enveloped her, embraced her. Cynthia might have ditched Maddie, but that didn’t mean she was alone.
In fact, as the clock wound down to midnight, she found herself talking and dancing with so many generous and appreciative men who kept things interesting, and made sure to keep her drinks refreshed, that she couldn’t remember why she’d ever imagined herself to be lonely.
“Ten… nine… eight…”
She wasn’t lonely.
“Seven… six… five…”
She threw her arms around the nearest available man. She was celebrating New Year’s Eve and the fresh start of a new and better year.
A new and better life.
A new and better her.
“Good morning, happy New Year, wakey-wakey, time to get up, brunch awaits!” said Joanie Cash-Henley. “And this little sweetheart is about out of patience.”
The edge of the mattress dipped as Maddie’s relentlessly cheerful mother leaned over to pull the blankets away from Maddie’s face and plunked four pounds of hair and attitude onto the sheet beside her.
A snuffling, cold, wet nose pressed against her cheek, followed by the scrabble of tiny claws as the lonely little Yorkshire terrier mix she’d adopted in November burrowed beneath the covers.
“We adore dog-sitting, as you know, but she’s a handful and I think she wore Norman out last night.”
Home, home on the ranch. Where the guilt and the martyrdom play.
“Five more minutes. I beg you.”
“It’s the first day of the rest of your life, darling,” Joanie said. “Turkey bacon and grilled tomatoes is just the ticket.”
Her gut lurched. “Trust me, it’s not.”
The aroma of coffee wafted through the muddy swamp of alcohol, trans fats, and regret in which simmered what was left of her brain.
And hit her stomach.
“Mom.” She groaned into her pillow. “Let me die in peace.”
Question—why, why, why hadn’t she gone back to her own place for the night? Home sweet apartment. Where you’re free to stay in bed all day, if you wanted.
Which she did.
Bigger question—why, why, why had she gone to Grey’s Saloon for New Year’s Eve? She should have gone to the Masked Ball and been classy. Then she remembered that she’d had neither ticket nor date. Okay, well, she could have been responsible and curled up with Mom and Norm and Clem to watch the ball drop. A little Scrabble, a little ginger ale, a few toasts to the upcoming demise of what she’d thought might actually be a career.
Who was she kidding? The hangover had been inevitable.
Maddie heard a ruffling, snapping sound. Sunlight flooded the room, stabbing her skull, despite the pillow. She pulled her knees up and curled into herself. This was DeeDee’s fault. If she’d come home for the holidays, like a good daughter, their mother’s ferocious care and attention would have had its laser-like intensity split between two targets.
“It’s nearly noon,” Joanie said. “Your dad needs to eat.”
“Then feed him. He doesn’t need me.”
“Of course he does. We cherish having you here, dear. We want to enjoy every minute. I’ve made that streusel-topped coffee cake you love.”
Manipulation, laced with brown sugar and cinnamon. Joanie was in top form.
She heard Joanie’s footsteps move toward the door, finally. “I’ll bring you some coffee. That’ll help.”
“I doubt it.” Maddie yanked the covers back over her head in a vain attempt to block out the tractor-beam of winter-white Montana sunshine, as relentless as her mother.
Clementine licked Maddie’s chin. Then nibbled.
Darn it. There was no denying the return of consciousness. Maddie flung the covers back, dragged her purse off the night table, and fumbled around inside for the package of dark chocolate covered salted caramels she kept there. In case of emergency.
Three left. Thank the sweet baby Jesus.
Maddie squinted at Clementine, willing her to speak. Clementine blinked brightly back at her.
Cynthia was pregnant!
In love, getting married, pregnant.
Maddie’s eyes burned. She was so, so happy for Cynthia. One hundred percent happy.
Well, ninety percent happy, ten percent envious.
For a moment, she stared at the chocolate, pondering the idea of restraint, which she thought showed great strength of character in and of itself.
But the pink salt crystals glinted at her so invitingly and, heck, if getting reprimanded on the last day of work before the holidays wasn’t reason to indulge, what was?
Eight months with Styles Realty, the longest she’d ever held a job in her life. She really, really didn’t want to lose it.
She took a nibble, imagining a smooth, dark trail coating her insides, soothing, protecting.
Who needed milk of magnesia? Chocolate was her cure. For everything.
Not today, apparently.
Maddie flopped backwards and pulled the edges of her pillow over her face. Her head hurt, her stomach churned, her legs ached, her heart burned.
It was like a bad country song.
After Cynthia left, Maddie’s memories of the New Year’s Eve party got blurry. There’d been wine, no doubt about that. Vanilla vodka, too. Dancing, definitely. Music, of course. A crowded dance floor. Men, as usual. She groaned. Self-control? She’d drunk too much, eaten too much, flirted too much.
She crammed the rest of the chocolate into her mouth.
Come on, endorphins!
She flopped onto her other side. She’d made a fool of herself last night, almost certainly.
Ten… nine… eight… seven…
Maddie hadn’t been alone at the stroke of midnight.
Go back to sleep. Don’t think about it and it’ll all go away.
But the memories became clearer now, the sugar rush lifting her brain fog.
A sloppy kiss, sweaty hands on the back of her neck, the stale odor of beer and lime and greasy chicken wings and… gummy worms?
She’d been having fun, enjoying the party, exactly as she was supposed to be doing. She was very deliberately not thinking about DeeDee, so far away, or envying Cynthia, or worrying about Norm’s heart or bemoaning the fact that she, a mid-twenties woman – okay, edging to late-twenties but who was counting? – didn’t have anyone special to kiss under the mistletoe and might not even have a job, soon.
No, Maddie had not been thinking about all those things, because she’d been busy getting tipsy. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. It was allowed.
And at the stroke of midnight, she’d found someone to kiss because that was allowed, too. It was almost a rule.
The door to her room opened with a crash. Clementine leaped to her feet, her yapping like a stiletto against Maddie’s brittle brain.
“Get up, Madeleine,” said Joanie. “No more wallowing. Oh, Lordy. You didn’t wash your face before you went to bed, did you?”
“All over the pillow. You should see your hair, too. What a picture. A long, hot shower is what you need.”
Maddie’s ever-loving mother hauled the blankets off the bed entirely, Clementine with them.
“It’s bad enough that the whole town saw you with your tongue down your boss’s son’s throat last night.”
Oh. God. Tod.
It was worse than she’d thought.
“But no,” Joanie continued, “you had to get up on the bar and announce to everyone and their chickens exactly how you intend to become the new, improved Maddie Cash.”
“And, oh, my goodness.” Joanie’s voice rose in that special mix of parental disapproval and incredulity that made Maddie want to stab herself in the eardrum. “Madeleine Elizabeth Cash, is that… chocolate?”
She grabbed the little cellophane package lying next to her purse on the night table and shook the last precious piece into her open palm.
“Actually,” said Maddie, “it’s a Himalayan salted caramel.”
“Less than twelve hours,” said Joanie, obviously uninterested in Maddie’s prevarications, “and you’ve already broken your first resolution?”
Maddie almost laughed. Resolutions? She didn’t make resolutions.
“That’s right,” said Joanie. “Not only did you make a spectacle of yourself last night – as I’ve been informed by Carol Bingley already this morning and who knows where she heard it from – but you vowed, in front of God and half of Marietta, to give up chocolate.”
Maddie groaned again as the memory snapped into focus, sharp as the icicles glistening outside her window.
“That’s right. Chocolate. And meddling. And men. Which made Tod howl, let me tell you.” Joanie folded her arms and shook her head. Then she seemed to wilt, and that tiny gesture made Maddie want to cry. She’d embarrassed her mother. Again.
She was a disappointment. A joke. To her family and herself.
“Oh, Mom,” she whispered. Clem whined.
Instantly, Joanie was at her side. Maddie curled into the familiar embrace, knowing she was way too old for it, but needing it nonetheless.
“My girl.” Joanie rocked her from side to side. “Whatever am I going to do with you?”
And right then and there, Maddie decided it was time to grow up.
End of Excerpt