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“This is my last stop for the night.” Austin Harding had downed most of his alcohol quota at the American Extreme Bull Riders sponsors’ party that evening, then had one more for the road when he and his fellow bull riders stopped at a dive bar while walking back to the high-rise Reno casino where they were staying. He needed to get back to his hotel room sometime before dawn, ice his shoulder and hip and look at video of the bull he’d drawn for the prelims.
“You said that at the last place,” Gustavo Santos pointed out, his words trailing off as a waitress passed by wearing a modernized version of a saloon girl costume. A fluffy curled feather bobbed on the back of her head, and the black and red dress she wore was cut low at the top and short at the bottom, leaving little to the imagination.
Okay. Maybe one last drink hadn’t been a terrible idea.
“Over there.” T.J. Casey pointed to an empty table in the far corner. “And I’m with Austin. Last stop, Gus.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Gus turned his dark eyes toward the new guy, Josh McIntosh, who’d just qualified for the top tier of the tour, as they made their way through the crowd to the table. “How about you, mano?”
Josh shrugged as they sat down. “I’ll play it by ear.”
“You’ll regret those words when you wake up in some strange place in the morning,” Austin said. Gus was a great guy and a hell of a bull rider, but he wasn’t good about practicing moderation in any area of his life.
A coaster with the casino logo appeared in front of him a few seconds later, and he automatically glanced up at the waitress, who was standing so close that he couldn’t get a good look at her.
“What can I get you guys?”
A memory stirred at the sound of her voice, but Austin couldn’t pin it down. He craned his neck to get a better look, but the angle wasn’t good. Creamy skin, long reddish-brown hair. High cheekbones, full lips. All somehow familiar, even at the awkward angle. The woman stayed stubbornly close to him, her satin skirt brushing against his arm as she took Gage, Casey and Gustavo’s orders.
He moved his chair back so he could get a good look at the woman. “Kristen?”
She looked behind her, as if expecting to find a woman named Kristen standing there, then turned back so that he could see her face. She looked like Kristen Alexander, but her hair was longer and her expression was blank. No hint of recognition. “I’m sorry?”
Austin frowned more deeply as he studied her. Maybe he was wrong…but he didn’t think so.
“You aren’t from Montana?” You didn’t rip me to shreds in front of a crowd at Marietta High School?
The woman’s fingers tightened on her tray as she lifted her eyebrows in a cool expression. “Sorry. No. What would you like?”
He frowned at her, but her expression didn’t change. “Jameson. Neat.”
She turned without another word and headed back to the bar, stopping at tables on the way to check on her customers.
“What was that about?”
“Nothing.” Austin turned his attention back to Casey, but continued to watch the waitress over the bull rider’s shoulder. “She looks like someone I knew once.”
The idea of Kristen Alexander—the woman who’d told him she wouldn’t be seen with him because he was a loser—schlepping drinks in a bar bordered on being crazy. The last he’d heard from her twin, Whitney, Kristen was conquering the world of high finance, but Whit hadn’t mentioned the city where her sister was doing said conquering.
Could that city be Reno?
Even if it was, people who conquered financial worlds during the day didn’t normally moonlight in casino bars at night. Hell, Kristen hadn’t partied even a little during high school. Hadn’t done anything that wasn’t directly related to some sort of an achievement. The woman collected awards the way other people collected loose change. The idea of her willingly putting on the saloon girl getup, hanging her tits out there for everyone to see, was ridiculous. Austin kicked back in his chair and told himself he was nuts. That woman couldn’t be Kristen.
But she sure as hell looked like her.
The discussion segued into bulls as they waited for their drinks. The good, the bad, the ugly. The un-rideable. They were deep into a debate as to which bull was the most dangerous on the circuit when the waitress reappeared and started setting drinks on the table. A Budweiser near Cody’s elbow, the double shot of Jameson next to his. Austin glanced up.
“Are you sure you’re not from Montana?”
Color rose in the woman’s cheeks as her expression went stony in the exact same way Kristen Alexander’s used to—except for the time he’d tipped her over. Then she’d been anything but stone-like. “I’m from a small town in Nevada.”
“Yeah?” Austin smiled a little. “Which one?”
He gave a short nod. “Go to high school there?”
“I did.” She looked as if she wanted to be anywhere except where she was. Why?
“I forget…what’s Tonopah’s mascot?”
The waitress stilled. “Excuse me?”
“The high school mascot. What is it?”
She swallowed. Her mouth opened, closed again, then she blurted, “It’s a rattlesnake.” Her gaze drilled into his, as if daring him to question her further.
He was done.
Cody lifted his glass. “Now that’s a mascot. Mine was a—”
“Chipmunk?” Austin asked.
The Kristen-look-alike took advantage of the moment to slip away. All for the best, really. Austin didn’t need a mystery or anything else to screw with his focus. So what if their waitress was the spitting image of the girl who’d ripped him to shreds in front of a crowd? It had been years ago. He gave her one final farewell look over his shoulder as she walked away, then sat up straighter as he spotted the scar just above her right elbow.
Son of a bitch.
He knew that scar—had studied it during math class when he’d sat behind Kristen Alexander and spent more time focused on her than on what the instructor was blathering on about. He’d even asked her about it, thinking that maybe she’d talk to him.
His eyes narrowed as Kristen—it had to be her—edged her way past a group of women wearing dresses that were too tight and heels that were too high. In other words, damned hot women. Likely Josh would have one of them in a convenient bathroom stall soon.
“Are you up to it?” Gus asked, obviously referring to the women, not Kristen, who was now at the bar.
Austin settled back in his chair, lifted his drink. “I am…but I won’t.”
Gus coughed into his fist, but Austin ignored him as he sipped the Jameson. What was Kristen Alexander, the woman who’d told him that he was going nowhere in life, doing working in a mid-level casino?
He pulled out his phone, but before he could look up the Tonopah mascot, Casey said, “You know what? She lied to you.” He held out his phone to show Austin a cartoon prospector.
“No shit.” He sipped again. “I think she just wanted to get rid of me.”
Casey gave a small snort. “Makes sense. I’d like to get rid of you, too, at times.”
“Ah…you know you love me.”
Casey tipped back his beer while Austin once again zeroed in on Kristen, who was checking tables on the opposite side of the room.
He wasn’t the vengeful type…not usually. But this situation was different, and he felt as if it needed to be addressed. Now. While he had the opportunity.
Guess what, Kris? The roosters have come home to roost.
Somehow Kristen managed not to hyperventilate on the long walk back to the bar. She’d just about died when Austin Harding and his friends came into the casino bar and sat in her section. What were the chances of someone from back home ending up in the Silver Bow Casino? And of all people, Austin Harding? Really?
But she survived. Barely. When she chanced a look at the table of bull riders, they were deep in conversation. As far as she could tell, squinting across the dimly lit room while trying to appear as if she wasn’t staring, not one of them had a phone out to look up the real mascot of Tonopah, Nevada. Maybe she’d guessed correctly? Surely some school in Nevada had a rattlesnake as a mascot—why not Tonopah?
She kept an eye on Austin’s table from a distance. She had to go back eventually. Check on them.
Although…maybe no one would notice if she didn’t?
It’d been crazy to pretend she didn’t know Austin, crazier still to have gotten away with it. It would be beyond crazy to push things—and maybe she didn’t have to. Her manager was busy with the private party. Jess and Christa, the bartenders, were slammed. She could stay ‘busy’ elsewhere.
Which was exactly what she did, feeling shifty the entire time. To her utter relief, the guys stood after only one round and started dropping money on the table. Bullet dodged. Or so she thought until Eva, the head waitress, cruised up to where she was waiting for an order at the end of the bar.
“Are you allergic to cowboys or something?” Before Kristen could speak, Eva gave her an accusing look. “I don’t think they would have left so early if you’d gone back to check on them. You know…done your job?”
Kristen’s cheeks warmed, because she rarely if ever slacked, but tonight she had. For a very good reason.
“I…” She met Eva’s cold gaze and the words petered out.
“Do better,” Eva said flatly.
“I will.” The tips were shared communally and if someone slacked, everyone suffered. She didn’t want that—but she also didn’t want Austin telling people back home in Marietta that she was working in a casino instead of sitting in her cubicle crunching numbers…like her family thought she was.
Point made, Eva turned away and started rattling off a list of drinks to Christa, who lined up glasses.
After her shift ended, Kristen kicked off the bootie shoes that were part of her western saloon girl costume and peeled off the fishnet stockings. After checking her feet for blood—there was none—she shoved the killer hosiery into her bag, slid her feet into her blessedly roomy flats, picked up the bootie shoes and headed out of the staff room, still feeling keyed up from her near miss with Austin. But it was over. She was safe.
“See you,” she said to Deke, the security guy, as she passed by his office on the way down the narrow hall leading to the exit. He gave a small grunt, keeping his focus on the cameras that covered the parking lot and the surrounding areas. Taciturn habits aside, Deke seemed like a good guy—just very quiet and focused on his job. She understood quiet and focused—it was the strategy she’d used for years to insulate herself from situations she didn’t know how to handle. Keep your mouth shut; look like you know what you’re doing. Take no chances and let Whitney run the show.
Her strategy had worked fine in high school, where she’d had her twin to run interference and a few close friends. Not so fine in college, where people assumed that someone who did as well as she did academically, yet rarely spoke, had to be stuck up.
No…not stuck up. Just anxious and very adept at hiding it. Like it or not, she had the ice princess thing down pat.
Her mouth twisted as she shoved the thought out of her head. She wasn’t going there. Not again. The thing was, she wasn’t any wimpier than Whit when push came to shove. She was simply more tuned in to what other people thought. Less likely to make a scene. And harder on herself.
In a lot of ways, serving drinks at the Silver Bow was good for her. She was forced to interact with a multitude of people and every day she worked on faking a higher level of comfort than she felt. It was working. She was less flustered every day, but that didn’t keep her from longing for her old world. The one where she could disappear into her cubicle and immerse herself in a project. Take the kind of risks she was comfortable with. Academic ones.
Kristen pushed the heavy metal door open and stepped out into the parking lot, thankful that it was so well lit. Her roommate’s tiny Ford Escort was parked only a few spaces away from the entrance, and she started toward it when the door behind her opened and an unexpected voice stopped her in her tracks.
“It’s not a rattlesnake, you know.”
Kristen whirled around as Austin stepped out of the building a few feet behind her, letting the door swing shut behind him. “The Tonopah mascot,” he clarified. “Not a rattlesnake.”
Kristen pressed a hand to her chest, trying to keep her heart from beating its way out. “You startled me.”
One corner of Austin’s mouth lifted, not in a particularly friendly way, and then he pulled his phone out of his pocket, brought up a screen and held it out. The picture was difficult to make out from a few yards away, but it appeared to be a cartoon man wielding a pickax and shovel.
“What is that?” Kristen asked, her voice little more than a husky whisper.
“That is a mucker.”
A mucker. “Tonopah’s mascot?”
“Uh-huh.” Austin dropped the phone back into his pocket, then folded his arms over his chest, making his shoulder muscles ripple under his cotton cowboy shirt. “What gives, Kris?”
“I’m sorry.” The apology tumbled out as she tried to make her brain work. She was in a spot, but maybe she could talk her way out of it. All she had to do was tell the truth, ask for cooperation…from the guy she’d cut down in front of his friends years ago. She’d been justified, but she hadn’t been kind, and she still cringed at the memory of what had gone down between them.
“You’re sorry,” he said flatly, a note of incredulity in his voice.
“I am.” The words were inadequate, but what else could she say?
Austin’s eyes narrowed. “What are you sorry about, Kris? That you lied to me? Or that I caught you in the lie?”
Kristen cleared her throat. This is where the talking part came in, where she cajoled him into understanding her situation—but her brain was not cooperating and as the uncomfortable seconds ticked by, she felt herself withdrawing into self-protection mode, shutting down, clamming up. Her curse.
“Your family doesn’t know that you’re working here, do they?” He held her gaze, waiting for her response, his expression hard. She’d forgotten how blue his eyes were. Piercing blue. Pirate blue.
Going to cause her a world of trouble blue.
“No.” She finally found her voice to confess. “They don’t know.”
Once again, the corner of his amazing mouth tilted up. Damn but she’d fantasized about that mouth in high school—although she’d been too self-conscious to ever let anyone know. Not even her twin.
“I figured if they were aware, I would have heard about it from Whitney the last time we spoke—which wasn’t that long ago.” He gave a short, harsh laugh as he tipped his head back to take in the garish neon sign on the rear of the old brick building blinking on and off above Kristen’s head. “I guess I could say something about how the mighty have fallen.”
She opened her mouth, determined to force some words out, to start her plea for understanding, when the door squeaked open behind her. Deke stepped out into the parking lot, rolling his shoulders before coming to a stop.
“You okay?” he asked Kristen without looking away from Austin, who seemed less than impressed with the security man’s bulk.
“I am,” she murmured. Or she would be, once she managed to square things with Austin, explain herself. Ask him not to tell her family, that she hadn’t told them everything going on in her life. Hadn’t wanted to add to their stress. Hadn’t wanted to admit that in a way she was a loser.
Austin touched his hat at Deke in a respectful way. “I was just going.”
Kristen’s eyes went wide. He couldn’t go. They weren’t done. “I’ll give you a ride.” The words blurted out on a note of desperation.
“No thanks.” He gave her a curt nod and headed off across the parking lot toward the street, favoring one leg ever so slightly. If Deke hadn’t been there, she would have chased after him, but Deke was there, so Austin escaped around the end of the high fence bordering the parking lot, leaving Kristen feeling on the edge of nausea. She had to tell her family before he did.
“Saw you on the cameras,” Deke said, jarring her back to the here and now. “Thought the guy might be giving you grief, but I guess you know him. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Fine,” she said automatically.
Deke frowned down at her, his expression stern. “You better get yourself home.”
Deke waited until she was safely in her roommate’s car before heading back into the casino. Kristen waited until the door shut behind him before she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead onto the steering wheel, acid churning in her stomach. The past two months had taught her about the futility of dying a thousand deaths, worrying about what might happen. The problem in this case, was she was certain it would happen.
Right or wrong, Austin had an ax to grind and he would rat her out because he could. Most-Likely-to-Succeed Kristen would soon be known as Lied-to-Save-Her-Pride Kristen. And not a white lie. This was a huge lie of omission.
She should have told her family she’d been laid off immediately after it had happened, but her dad had broken his leg in a nasty fall only a few days prior and, on top of that, she hadn’t wanted to disappoint her parents…to confess to them that their little overachiever had crashed and burned professionally.
It was stupid, looking back, but she’d been blindsided by her termination and her first instinct had been to hole up, lick her wounds, then find a new job and confess to her family after she turned a difficult situation around. The only problem was the “new job” part…and time’s nasty habit of slipping by too quickly. But her family had been focused on her father’s recovery, so it had been easy to keep the truth quiet while she forged ahead with her half-baked scheme. Easy and stupid and out of character.
Now Austin knew the truth.
Her stomach churned.
She started the small car, settled her hands on the steering wheel, then sat staring at the brick casino wall as the engine idled. She had to tell her family, and she had to do it soon.
Before Austin beat her to the punch.
End of Excerpt