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Grey’s Saloon was crowded.
It was a Friday night after all. And since it was the one main place in Marietta to let loose and enjoy a night out with the girls, McKenna St. Claire sat back in her seat and soaked it in. Erin, her friend and now sister-in-law, sat next to her. Her other sister-in-law, Noelle, sat across the table from them with her sister, Holly, beside her.
“Does this bring back memories, sis?” Holly asked Noelle, who laughed at the question.
“Yes. The scene of the crime.”
McKenna’s brother, Wes, had literally bumped into Noelle at Grey’s a couple years before. He then got roped into a bachelor bake-off, something McKenna still couldn’t wrap her head around. Noelle had helped him through it and they’d found love along the way. McKenna had been traveling when the whole thing happened, but she would have given her right arm to see her stoic oldest brother in an apron having to bake in front of the entire town.
“I still find it fun to say my sister met her husband in a bar.”
“If I recall, you got me here that night by trying to sell it as a saloooon, not a bar. As if that classed up the place.”
Holly waved her hand. “Tomato, tomaaato….”
“It all worked out for you. You should have no complaints.”
“That’s true. I got a gorgeous husband and baby girl out of the deal.”
Noelle all but glowed on her side of the table. A ballet dancer turned teacher, she moved with such grace it was as if she floated through a room. McKenna didn’t find it hard to see why her brother had fallen for her. And there wasn’t an unkind bone in the woman’s body. She’d softened Wes in a way the rest of the St. Claire’s had never thought possible.
“I’m glad you could join us tonight,” Erin said to Noelle.
“Me, too! It’s weird being away from Joy for a night, but it’s good for her and Wes to bond.”
The look on her brother’s face when they’d left the St. Claire mansion told McKenna he was more nervous than excited to be left alone for an evening with a five-month-old without his wife’s help, but Mike and Franchesca were nearby so he would make it through. And Wes had taken to fatherhood much easier than McKenna would have guessed. Although, he was great with Mike’s daughter, Annalise, so it shouldn’t have been a shock. He’d give his niece anything, and now his daughter the moon if she asked for it. The man was beyond smitten.
Wes had offered to find a nanny to help Noelle, but she had politely declined. She wanted every moment possible with Joy and, quite frankly, the St. Claire household now brimmed with people more than willing to step in and help, so a nanny wasn’t necessary.
“I’m just bummed Franchesca couldn’t join us.” Noelle frowned. Her best friend had married Mike, McKenna’s second brother, but was home on bed rest, due to give birth to twin boys within the next few weeks and advised by her doctor to rest as much as possible.
“I’m guessing she wouldn’t have minded a night out. Mike has been hovering like a mother hen,” McKenna said.
They all laughed.
“Poor guy. I’m sure it will all be fine, though,” Erin offered. “I can’t imagine Franchesca settling for anything less than things going exactly as she wants them to.”
They all lifted their glasses in a toast to that.
McKenna’s other sister-in-law was a ball of energy and just the right amount of feisty to keep her brother, Mike, on his toes. Having lost his first wife in a car accident, he’d been raising his daughter, Annalise, on his own. Franchesca had swooped into their lives and saved them both. She was the whirlwind Mike needed to get him back to living life.
McKenna sat back again and let the sound of Florida Georgia Line singing about what they all should have growing up move through her. She swayed a little to the music and looked around. Holly and Erin were now in discussion about what baby names they thought Mike and Franchesca would decide on, while Noelle texted Wes to check on him and Joy.
Grey’s hadn’t changed much over the years. It hadn’t really changed at all. With a battered bar along one wall, booths filled with people out to relax on a weekend, and tarnished floors, it was the epitome of a small-town saloon. Not that McKenna had frequented Grey’s all that much. Having grown up in New York, she and her family had built a home in Marietta when she was young and visited often, but not for more than maybe a month at a time. By the time McKenna was old enough to even enter the doorway of Grey’s she’d spent most of her time in New York or traveling the world. Her favorite thing to do. So she was no expert on Marietta’s watering hole. But she was grateful for a night out with the girls.
As she listened to the other women chat, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of emptiness. One she’d been battling since her mother died. Not somebody who often thought of settling down, McKenna had traveled the world, sure to check off as many bucket list items as she could. But with her mom gone, family had moved to the forefront of her mind, not how many places she could visit in a year.
But with her three brothers happily married now, the itch to be near the family and to be a part of things again nudged at her. Was she the settling-down type or were her brother’s lives making her think it through more than she wanted to?
“I don’t know about you, but I could use another drink.” Holly held up her empty glass.
“I’ll get it. This round is on me,” McKenna said as she stood.
“I’m good.” Erin said.
Still nursing Joy, Noelle had stuck to iced tea all night and her glass was still full.
McKenna nodded then made her way to the bar, having to lean in sideways between two guys on barstools. She waved a hand to the bartender who nodded at her drink order then went about filling it. The man in front of her glanced her way but then turned his attention back to his beer.
The man behind her, however, took the opportunity to pat her on the backside while shouting, “That round of drinks is on me, honey.”
She turned and placed a hand on her hip. “No thanks, sugar. And if you touch my ass one more time, you’ll be wearing my round of drinks.”
“Ohh!! A feisty one. I like that in a woman.”
Before McKenna could respond, the man behind her stood. She could feel his chest against her back, the heat of him sending a sensation through her unlike anything she’d ever felt before.
“I believe the lady said she’d prefer to be left alone.”
His breath was on her neck as he spoke. All her senses alive and tuned in to the man behind her, she still glared at the jerk in front of her, now standing as well.
“You got a problem, son?”
The man in front of her was drunk and angry. A bad combination. She had no clue what state the man behind her was in, but she fought the urge to deck the punk who stood before her. She clenched her fists at her sides and stuck out her chin.
As if reading her mind, the man behind her put his hands around her fists, a move so subtle and soft it took her a second to realize he was holding her back.
Of all the nerve! She could take care of herself.
“Hey, Frank! Simmer down. I don’t want any trouble in here tonight.” The bartender had returned and although the scene playing out hadn’t been noticed by many, he quickly assessed the situation.
Frank looked at McKenna then at the man behind her. His eyes narrowed for a moment then he waved a hand at them. “Bah. You’re aren’t worth it anyway. Too skinny.”
As he took his seat, McKenna tensed. Too skinny? What the hell?
Again, sensing her thoughts, the man behind her gripped her fists a bit tighter, keeping her in place, and willing her through his touch to settle down. She took a deep breath in and let it out. Pissed off or not, Frank wasn’t worth it, either. Beer-bellied loser that he was. His breath smelled like beer nuts and whiskey. Bleh.
With a slight shake, she broke free of the man’s hands and turned to face him. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and had a Chris-Evans-with-a scowl kind of look going on. A scar about two inches long ran down the right side of his face. His crystal-blue eyes searched hers. For what?
He nodded and then turned to toss cash on the bar next to his beer. He moved around her and walked out, a slight limp as he went.
McKenna took the drinks back to the table.
“What was that all about?” Noelle asked as McKenna set down the glasses.
“Yeah. We saw you standing up to that guy. He was a lot bigger than you, you know.”
McKenna rolled her eyes at Holly as she sat back down. If her friends and family only knew the jerks she’d had to stand up to in her travels, they’d agree this guy was nothing. The handsome one who’d held her back intrigued her much more.
“We were ready to jump in and help, just so you know, but it looked like Wyatt had things under control.” Erin took a sip of her drink and set it back down.
“Yeah. The guy who was holding your hands… excuse me, fists, so that you wouldn’t deck the ass grabber.” Holly grinned. “Although I’ll be honest, I would have liked to have seen that.”
“Who is Wyatt?” McKenna was way past thinking about the guy she’d almost punched. She wanted to know more about the man with the beautiful eyes and the slight limp.
“He’s Wendell’s son,” Erin offered. “Wendell works for us at Tanner Ranch. He’s been my dad’s right-hand man for years. We’d have been lost without him through the years we worked to keep the ranch going.”
McKenna admired Erin’s tenacity and all the blood, sweat, and tears she’d put into keeping her family’s ranch going. Her dad had been a rodeo rider in his glory days, but a car accident had put him in a wheelchair. The two of them had done what they could to keep things going. Thankfully, after Lucas married Erin, he’d been able to make the ranch all Erin dreamed it could be.
“Wyatt was a bull rider until he got thrown into a fence. It put him in the hospital for weeks with a head injury and damage to his hip that he never fully recovered from.”
“Which is why he limps.” McKenna took a sip of her drink.
“Yes. He’s a great help to Wendell at the ranch though. There’s still a lot of work he can do, but he’s pretty quiet. Does his work then goes home. Hasn’t been the same since the accident.”
Noelle patted her sister’s arm. “He can recover. Well, not to the way he was before, but he can start again.” McKenna nodded at her sister-in-law.
Noelle’s life had been turned upside down by a car accident. Not able to dance again professionally, she’d opened a dance studio in Marietta and was the goddess that all the little girls in town worshiped.
“It’s been a tough road for him.” Erin frowned and shook her head.
McKenna looked at the front door of Grey’s where Wyatt had walked out minutes before. He’d come to her rescue then left. Nothing more than a quick question to make sure she was okay. But he wasn’t okay. There was pain in his eyes, a pain she wanted to know more about. And although he was a mere stranger to her, she wanted to help him heal.
Wyatt opened the door to Grey’s and breathed in the fresh night air. It was spring in Marietta, but the evening air was still cool, a major difference from the air inside the saloon. He didn’t go out often. Hell, he didn’t go out at all, except out for a beer with Jeff or a friend every once in a blue moon. But he’d had a rare free night and chose to sit and sip a cold one, because why not?
As he made his way to his beat-up old truck, he shook his head. The last thing he imagined he’d find tonight was a spark plug of a woman with long, auburn curls that ran down her back like a fiery waterfall, willing to take on a guy three times her size. Wyatt chuckled as he climbed into his truck and revved the engine.
He was more than willing to stand up for the woman, but was relieved things ended peacefully. Frank was drunk and had a few pounds on Wyatt. Beer-bellied pounds, but still. What still rattled him, however, even as he drove through town toward home, was that his hands still tingled from where he’d touched her. A tiny thing, her hands had almost fit completely inside his. And yet he didn’t doubt that she could have broken free of him and given Frank a beating he’d never forget.
Wyatt laughed out loud. The sound surprising him as it echoed through his truck. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d laughed. Hell, he wasn’t even much of a smiler these days. He turned up the radio. David Nail was singing about wanting whatever the woman’s got that’s caught his attention. The worked-up redhead sure got Wyatt’s attention.
He shook his head. Nope. No women. His life was screwed up enough. As intriguing as she was, the woman from Grey’s was a good story, something to think about from time to time to entertain him. But he’d be damned if he thought about making her anything more than a memory.
As he drove, the reality of his life seeped back in. His world, the one he’d always wanted for himself was long gone, a distant dream. As were women. They had no place in his life. No matter how much they made him forget his troubles, even for a short time.
End of Excerpt