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It shouldn’t be this hard.
Joey Douglas shifted the shoulder strap of her heavy bag as she stood on the corner in front of the library where she worked. She looked up at the familiar statue, wishing Last Stand hero Asa Fuhrmann could imbue her with some of the dauntless courage he’d shown in the revolutionary battle that gave her beloved hometown its name.
She reached out and touched the man’s foot, wondering as she did how the man would feel knowing the future statue of himself would have a shiny spot on its right toe from the touch of all the locals who thought it would give them luck. She wasn’t sure when that tradition had started, only that she’d known it all her life.
Quit stalling. You’ve only got your lunch break to do this.
It really shouldn’t be this hard. She was perfectly capable of conversing with Slater Highwater. In fact some of the most invigorating conversations in her life had been shared with the man who ran the famous Last Stand Saloon. Once they got started, the challenge of keeping up with his agile mind was all she could think about.
No, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the embarrassing fact that she’d spent far too much of her life pining after the man like some lovesick maiden in a historical novel. She needed to thoroughly quash that.
Which should be easy; all she had to do was think about her sister. Because no matter how much pleasure she got out of those conversations, or how much he also appeared to enjoy them, the bottom line never changed. Slater had been madly in love with Diane, and any man who wanted all that beauty and glamour would never, ever look at Joey that way. She was many things—brilliant, quick, kind, generous, according to her friends—but glamorously beautiful? No. Never. That was Diane—her mouth twisted as she silently corrected herself to her sister’s preferred Diandra, the name she’d adopted when she was sixteen—that was Diandra’s province, and ever would be.
And since he’d been madly in love with her and they’d been engaged, that was obviously what Slater wanted. Not a quiet, demure assistant librarian who had grown up in the shadow of that glamorous sister. Who had learned early on she would never invoke that kind of vivid excitement. Who had instead turned to books and learning and cultivating what she did have: a sharp, inquisitive mind.
And yet the longing had lingered. The only saving grace was that he didn’t know it.
It was time—past time—she outgrew this ridiculous…whatever it was.
Use some of that vaunted brainpower of yours to control your silly imagination.
Resolved now, she turned away from the statue she’d gone out of her way to get to for that lucky touch, and started toward the saloon.
She would be light, airy, and confident.
She had fifty-two steps to make sure she had herself in hand.
She would likely need every one of them.
Slater Highwater was getting mightily tired of being asked what he was doing here. And yet, inevitably, it happened. He’d tried a multitude of answers over the years.
The basic Running a saloon. Well, duh.
The sarcastic Polishing a glass? Too obvious.
The esoteric Getting in touch with my roots. Way too touchy-feely.
For locals who knew his family, he’d been trying If I wasn’t here, who would my brother fight with?
That one at least seemed to get a laugh, but only because everybody in town—heck, across the country now that he’d gone internet viral—admired and respected Last Stand Police Chief Shane Highwater far too much to ever fight with him. Even the former reporter who’d been on a crusade to take him down had not only switched sides, but was practically living with him now. He’d come across them in an empty stall at the ranch the other day, obviously having just finished a little afternoon conjugation of verbs, and Shane hadn’t even looked embarrassed when he realized his brother was there.
“Mind you don’t frighten the horses,” he’d said as he passed by.
“Why we chose the empty one,” Shane had retorted with a grin that had made Slater feel an odd sort of wistfulness inside. They weren’t really even fighting much anymore. Shane was too damned happy.
He didn’t begrudge Shane what he’d found with Lily Jones. They’d certainly had to fight their way—sometimes literally—to it. And Shane deserved it, there was no denying that. There was nobody who deserved it more. Which was a thought Slater knew would boggle those who knew how he and his brother were at constant loggerheads. He wasn’t sure he could even explain it himself. At least, not without confronting the problem at the very core of his antagonism toward his two-years-older brother, and he didn’t know if he would ever be ready to do that.
Their youthful contretemps had been, Dad had always said, normal between two strong-minded boys. What his father would say about how they were now, what he would think about his second son’s failings, he tried not to think about. Instead he indulged in a bit of useless wondering about what it would be like to be anonymous rather than from one of the most well-known founding families in Last Stand.
He set down the glass he had been polishing, lining it up neatly next to the others in the row. It was Friday afternoon, the last day of May and the weather had been lovely all week—well, Texas lovely, meaning it was still only in the eighties, three weeks before actual summer. This weekend was predicted to maybe break the ninety mark, so tonight would be a zoo. He didn’t want to be thinking about clean glasses when he was pouring five drinks a minute and remembering who wanted a head on their beer and who didn’t. Of course, he could leave the glassware to Luke, since it was technically one of the things the kid was hired for, but he’d found the routine of washing, drying, and setting out the glasses helped him quiet the more restless parts of his brain. Of which there were far too many, as Dad used to say.
“A is still A.”
Slater blinked, startled out of his rambling thoughts. He looked at the woman across the bar and smiled. Only Joey Douglas would open a conversation with Aristotle. Well, other than him, but he wasn’t counting that.
“Indeed, it is.”
“You looked as if you were pondering weighty things,” said the assistant librarian. She was, as he would have expected in the middle of her workday, wearing her usual businesslike, muted attire, dark slacks and a crisp white blouse. She had her usual rather capacious bag—he suspected with several books inside, or maybe the journals he often saw her writing in—slung over her shoulder. All very professional.
But even the way she had her long, medium-brown hair tied back in a ponytail at her nape couldn’t hide the crayon-red streak over her right ear.
“Too weighty for a Friday afternoon, anyway,” he agreed. “Can I get you something?” His brow furrowed. “Or do I have a book overdue?”
She laughed. She had a nice laugh. Much nicer than her sister’s; Diandra’s had always had that edge that had made him wonder what she was really laughing at. Or who. Which he had, to his chagrin, eventually found out.
Joey’s laugh was open, honest, simple, and true.
“No, you’re good. I usually just renew you anyway.”
“Is that your tactful way of saying there’s not much demand for my reading material?”
“I think most people just find it too heavy.” He blinked. True, they weren’t popular novels, but—“To carry around in print,” she added, with perfect, split-second timing.
A laugh burst from him almost involuntarily. Joey also had a better sense of humor than her sister. He liked that about her. “Nicely done,” he said. “So what can I do for you?”
An odd expression flickered over her face for an instant, but she only said, “Actually, I was hoping you had that wine for me.”
He’d forgotten. “I do. It came in this morning. Hang on, it’s in the back.”
He glanced around, and at this moment there was no one who appeared to be dying of dehydration in view, so he stepped into the back room and grabbed the bottle of wine. It had been a week ago that Joey had been in and they’d ended up talking about her parents’ upcoming anniversary, and how she’d like to get them something to remember their honeymoon. They’d taken it in the wine country of California, and whenever they spoke of it, one particular winery always came up as their favorite, for the wine and the kindness of the people who ran it, and the town in general. He’d offered to see what he could do about finding it, even as he’d teased her about the treachery of bringing a California wine into what was fast becoming Texas wine country.
He thought he heard her voice again, and leaned back to look toward the bar. She was talking to Luke, who was, unusually, chatting happily. He was generally very shy and hesitant with people, but clearly Joey was someone he felt comfortable with. Slater could understand that. She was a very…unstressful person.
And with hidden depths. That quiet exterior hid a lot. He’d always known that. Even as a kid she’d made him think, and that happened rarely enough that he’d never forgotten.
When he came back and set the bottle of merlot on the bar in front of her, she looked at the label with the spreading oak tree and smiled widely. “That’s it. They still have the empty bottle from the last one they finished, and that’s the label.”
“They haven’t ordered more themselves?”
She shrugged. “They wouldn’t. They’re very frugal, and that would be too…extravagant.”
Slater drew back, his brow furrowed. An image of Diandra, clad in designer clothes, shoes that were more expensive than her car payment, and diamond earrings that she’d said—he’d thought jokingly—had cost more than her parents’ house. Maybe it hadn’t been a joke.
“Yeah,” Joey said dryly. “Hard to believe my sister came out of that environment, isn’t it?”
“That’s an understatement,” he muttered. Then, conscious that he’d betrayed more than he’d meant to, he picked up a glass he’d already polished, and rubbed at it again.
“How much do I owe you?” she said abruptly. He slid the bill across the bar. She looked at it and frowned. “What about the shipping?”
“I had it packaged with some other stuff from a supplier out there, so no extra charge.”
“What about some kind of service charge for your trouble?”
He smiled as he shook his head at her. “I don’t usually have people trying so hard to give me money.”
“You did something extra. You should get paid for it.”
“Tell you what, come back later and buy a drink, and we’re even.”
She smiled back at him then, whatever had put that note in her voice clearly gone now. She also had a very nice smile. “Deal.”
He went back to polishing glasses after she’d gone, but she lingered in his mind. And his mind being what it was, most of his thoughts were about how on earth two such different women had come from the same parents and out of the same home. He set about considering it analytically, ignoring the fact that mankind had been arguing nature versus nurture forever.
Of course, all that mental activity was mainly so he didn’t think about his own stupidity, and the bitter conclusion that had been the end of what he’d thought was the romance of his life. With Joey Douglas’s big sister. Who had made her decision clear in the ugliest way possible, and left him without a backward glance. She’d then proceeded to get married to someone else barely five weeks later. And if the rumors he’d heard were true, someone else two years after that, and yet another after that. He thought the last one might stick, the flashy, glib, big-city lawyer who would probably end up president someday if more people didn’t smarten up.
He set down the last glass and determinedly looked for something that would take more concentration. He didn’t know why he was so edgy, but it had been that way for a couple of days now, and no amount of work or his go-to distraction, reading, seemed to be helping. Nor was there anything to do. The bar was polished to shining, as were all the tables. At least, the ones that were unoccupied; he tended to leave people be while they were seated and actively consuming his products. The floor was clean and swept, ready in case anyone wanted to dance tonight. Luke saw to that; the boy’s fierce attention to detail might slow him down, but it resulted in a perfectly done job.
Which brought him back to how easily Luke had talked to Joey. Slater knew she had the knack for quiet helpfulness from their encounters at the library. It had fascinated him, how she seemed to be able to figure out what people wanted when they didn’t even know themselves. He’d found himself asking her more than once what she’d recommend for him, just to see what she thought would interest him. He’d checked out every one eventually, and found to his surprise he liked them all in different ways. The non-fiction books, his usual go to, were fascinating reads, some about obscure things he never would have thought to read about himself. The fiction ones captured him, and had him thinking he needed to up that segment of his reading time.
I can usually find things people like or need in non-fiction, but my heart belongs to fiction.
Her words when he’d mentioned how much he’d enjoyed one of the novels she’d recommended came back to him now, and made him smile.
“That’s an interesting smile. What’s up, Bro?”
He snapped out of what had nearly become a reverie and looked up to see his little sister, Sage, standing there with raised eyebrows. Normally when she showed up with her long, dark hair in the twin braids she’d worn all the time as a child, he would have launched into their routine, the teasing exchange about what she was doing in a bar and her reminding him she was well over legal now. But something about her expression made him give her the truth, simply.
She snorted inelegantly. Sage never worried much about being elegant although, despite the fact that she was here now in her usual jeans and a T-shirt, he knew she could pull it off. The curse of being raised by a family of males, he supposed. Or the simple fact that she was a hardworking, and very proficient rancher.
“When are you not?” she asked. “Sometimes you think too darn much.”
“That,” he said with a crooked smile at this girl who had been the main reason the Highwater clan hadn’t splintered completely apart after their father’s death, “I cannot argue with.”
End of Excerpt