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Evie’s breath caught in her lungs, as Charlie’s truck barreled over a ridge. The purple and dark blue hues of the mountain in the distance added a dramatic counterpoint to the beauty of the pasturelands in its shadow.
So Montana is drop-dead stunning. Who knew?
For a woman who’d spent the first nineteen years of her life working her backside off to leave rural Ireland, it was a startling discovery. County Kildare was undeniably pretty, the lush green fields, thatched cottages and endless hedgerows the fodder of a thousand tourist photographs. But Ireland had never taken Evie’s breath away. She always figured that was because she had never fit into rural life. The endless gossiping and all those small-minded parochial attitudes and prejudices were something she’d found confining and claustrophobic, which was why, when she’d ended up in Dublin and then New York, she’d lapped up the energy and anonymity of city living.
But how could anyone feel claustrophobic underneath this endless blue sky? Or confined by the drama and majesty of this landscape? Intimidated maybe, dwarfed definitely, but also free. Her lungs expanded as she took in a deep breath of air so pure and fresh it made her light-headed.
Lifting her iPhone she snapped a photo to stick on her Evie8 Instagram account to go with the ones she’d already taken of Marietta Rodeo’s Main Street Parade that morning and the opening ceremony at the new rodeo grounds.
Marietta had looked to Evie like something out of a western movie during the parade—complete with decorative storefronts decked out in flags and fairy lights, and enough men moseying about in cowboy hats, boots and chaps to fill a Clint Eastwood convention.
The opening ceremony at the newly built rodeo grounds, a short walk from the town’s Main Street, had been a surprisingly moving affair. A young local woman had belted out “America the Beautiful” in dulcet tones that had made tingles rush up Evie’s spine. A series of dedication speeches had followed—including one from a hunky local bareback bronc rider called Shane Marvell, which Evie had found both witty and self-deprecating. The unveiling of a statue—a startlingly dramatic creation from another local artist of a bucking bronco in copper, a nod to the town’s copper mining history—had supplied even more fodder for Evie’s Instagram account.
She and Charlie had wandered back through the downtown area after the ceremony had wrapped up. The weekend rodeo bonanza was now in full swing—with stalls and stands selling everything from huckleberry lemonade to cowboy-boot-shaped chocolates. Charlie had tried to tug her toward a stand where some of the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls were signing autographs and posing for selfies—so she could introduce Evie to them. But with Janice’s words about “finding new meat” for her column echoing in her head, Evie had cried off. After catching a six a.m. flight out of LaGuardia, she needed a little downtime before she braved tonight’s events or met any actual cowboys.
This small-town rodeo was much more full-on already than she’d been expecting. And it was obviously a big deal for the community. She wanted to do it justice in her column. And she couldn’t do that if she was feeling fragile and out of sorts.
Luckily the drive back to The Double T had given her the much-needed breather she had been looking for and then some.
The truck swung onto a rutted farm track and a white clapboard house, a couple of big red barns and a collection of cattle pens nestled among a grove of pine trees that clung to the banks of a river came into view. The water sparkled in the dazzle of September sunshine as it snaked its way past the back of the house and along the valley floor. The truck trundled into the yard and Charlie braked in front of the white house, which up close looked welcoming as well as picturesque with its peeling paint and worn porch swing.
“What a cool place,” Evie murmured to Charlie. “No wonder you love living here.” It still wouldn’t be for her, she didn’t do rural, or small town, but she could absolutely see why Charlie would love it, with her photographer’s eye for beauty. “The eye candy options must be endless—landscape-wise.”
“The landscape’s only part of it,” Charlie said, slanting her a smile that lit up her eyes with innuendo. “The man candy options are pretty awesome, too.”
“Logan’s certainly very cute,” Evie said. She’d been introduced to Charlie’s rancher dude in town during the parade.
Logan had been gruffly polite, ruggedly handsome and distant, probably because he had a tin star pinned to his flannel shirt and he had been busy corralling a crowd of several thousand people.
But he’d reserved one slow megawatt smile for Charlie as she and Evie had headed off toward the rodeo grounds for the opening ceremony—which had made Evie’s heart clutch painfully in her chest. Had Dan ever looked at her like that? She couldn’t remember.
“Although I never would have paired you with a lawman,” Evie added, stifling her thoughts about Dan.
Stop being a misery, you’re here to soak up the atmosphere and reinvigorate your column, not turn into even more of a killjoy.
“He’s only a reserve deputy,” Charlie said, still with that naughty smile on her face as she walked round the back of the pickup to lift out Evie’s suitcase. “And his handcuffs come in very useful when our sex life needs a lift.”
Which, from the pheromones Evie had felt pinging off the two of them, was probably never.
“I’ll bet.” Evie laughed, but it sounded a little strained. They entered the house, which smelled of old wood and lemon polish. A glimpse at the living room revealed a couple of old couches facing a large old-fashioned fireplace with a wood-burning stove and a flat-screen TV on top of the mantel. The view of the river and the mountain beyond from the back porch reminded Evie of Charlie’s charity calendar, which had been hanging in The Brooklyn Voice’s office since January.
“I definitely remember that view from your calendar,” she shouted as she followed Charlie down the hall. “But I’m sure there was a naked hottie draped in the stars and stripes out there last time I looked,” she finished, keeping her tone light and teasing.
She and Charlie had never had a super-deep relationship. They’d shared beers and margaritas and girl talk and swapped stories about how nuts New Yorkers were during the year when they’d roomed together before Evie had hooked up with Dan. But that was about as far as it went.
“That would be Lyle, Logan’s brother and my sister Em’s main squeeze nowadays. They live together in town.”
Evie walked into the kitchen behind Charlie. The classic fridge, glass-fronted cabinets, an ancient stove and a butcher block table covered in a checked oilcloth looked homely and lived in, like the rest of the house. The window above the sink looked out onto the riverbank, where an ancient tire hung by a threaded rope from a tree limb, almost as if the swing was waiting for a new generation of children to come and play.
Evie rubbed the pang in her chest as Charlie began setting out mugs for tea.
How had Deputy Logan Tate managed to domesticate her friend? He must have some serious wonder junk in his pants—because Charlie had always been the girl least likely to settle down.
“Your twin is living in Marietta now, too?” she said, surprised to hear that Emily had relocated here. She’d only met Emily a couple of times, when she’d come over from the London gallery she ran to visit Charlie in Brooklyn. From what she could remember, Em had been a little uptight and a lot overprotective. But she couldn’t imagine her settling in a small Montana town any more than she could imagine Charlie being here.
“I’d like to take credit for converting her, but the truth is she fell hard for Logan’s sweet-talking brother Lyle,” Charlie said as if it was no big deal.
“And gave up her career in London?” Evie couldn’t hide her shock.
Charlie turned. “She’s running the art exhibitions in town, does some work in Livingston and Bozeman. I think she realized she wasn’t that happy in London—especially after she’d met Lyle.”
“Well, I suppose he does have a very nice ass,” Evie said, still trying to get her head around the news. This place was starting to sound a bit like The Stepford Wives.
“Couple that with his cute personality and it’s a win-win.” Charlie laughed, obviously amused by Evie’s confusion. “You’ll meet them both tonight at the picnic in town—most of the calendar guys will be there, celebrating hitting fifty thousand in sales. We thought we’d head to Grey’s Saloon afterward. Lyle’s going to be playing a couple of sets—because as well as being a sweet talker he’s also a sweet singer and guitar player.”
They obviously made men talented in Marietta.
“I’m a bit wrecked actually,” Evie said, trying to keep the strain out of her voice.
While she was totally over her divorce, she did not have any desire to be cast in the role of giant gooseberry. Awkward or what?
“I’ll probably duck out after the picnic if that’s okay.” Which she was only attending to add more color for the column.
She was already freaked out at the thought of all the families that Charlie had told her would be there tonight. Six of the guys from the calendar were in loving relationships, some with babies already. While seeing people in couples and family groups with their kids didn’t bother her as much as it once had—after a year of therapy—that didn’t mean she wouldn’t rather be somewhere else this evening.
She felt the gaping space in her stomach that had tormented her for so long. And ignored it.
She’d had to stop thinking about that fictional bundle of joy she’d once imagined would be hers, just because she wanted it so much. Two years of trying to have that fictional baby—the endless rounds of clinic appointments and invasive investigations, the extreme hormonal shifts caused by treatment that made her feel fat and frumpy and not herself, all those secret resentments she couldn’t voice because the doctors had never been able to pinpoint a cause for their infertility—hadn’t just sucked the joy out of her marriage, it had also sucked the joy out of her life. And the one thing she didn’t want to be anymore was that joyless woman who couldn’t seem to stop obsessing about the one thing she couldn’t have. Especially now that she knew the fault had been hers all along.
She’d bored herself as well as everyone else around her. No wonder she’d managed to bore her readers, too.
But that didn’t mean that tonight wasn’t going to suck quite a lot. Following the picnic-style family barbeque with a bar hop flanked by two loved-up couples was going above and beyond the torture required to resurrect her column, surely.
“Up to you,” Charlie said nonchalantly, but Evie saw the flicker of sympathy in her eyes and tried not to wince.
Charlie read her column. She must know all about the failed fertility treatments, the divorce, the shock of Dan’s baby news, but she’d been surprisingly sensitive—for Charlie—happy to talk in platitudes as they caught up on the last eighteen months since they’d seen each other during the drive from Bozeman airport and then the hours watching the parade and the opening ceremony.
But just when Evie was sending up a prayer of thanks that all the epic sex Charlie was getting must have softened some of her blunt edges, her friend plonked the tea down in front of Evie, far too decisively.
“All right, I know I shouldn’t ask this…” she opened. “Given all the stuff with Dan and the baby making…”
“Then don’t,” Evie said, her stomach clenching painfully. Forget pang, she felt as if her guts had been twisted up and stuffed into her throat.
“But exactly how long is it since you last got laid?” Charlie said anyway.
Evie sputtered tea all over the butcher block table. “What?”
“Come on, Evie. We’re mates. And you know I’m not the polite, subtle type. How long? Because your column’s super vague on the details. Has there been any post-Douche shags or hasn’t there?”
“Dan wasn’t a douche,” she said, trying to grasp hold of the one part of this conversation she was prepared to have. “We just… The stress of the fertility treatment was too much for our marriage.” A marriage she had come to realize, during the course of the treatment, had never been all that strong in the first place.
She and Dan had had different agendas: she’d wanted a baby, and he’d wanted… Well, she’d never been all that sure what Dan wanted, but whatever it was, it had turned out not to be her.
“It’s invasive,” she added. “He had to take antibiotics, and having to inject me for ten days straight got old.” Plus she had become more and more obsessed with the outcome. And he hadn’t. She wasn’t even sure he had ever been. He’d been doing it all for her. And the fact he’d gotten his new girlfriend pregnant after telling her as much only made the feeling of inadequacy worse.
Having a baby with Evie had become too much of a chore for Dan, which had pretty much summed up their whole marriage. While things had been easy, Dan had been happy to go along with what she wanted, but he’d been increasingly less keen once the going had gotten tough. And the truth was so had she. She’d had to ask herself eventually whether she’d been viewing Dan as a sperm donor, more than a partner… And the answer had been… Well, inconclusive enough to have something else to be ashamed of when they’d parted ways.
“I know all that,” Charlie replied. “I read your column, remember. How you managed to find the humor in all that I don’t know. But Dan was still a douchebag in my book. What kind of guy dumps his wife just when she needs him the most? And then goes and shacks up with someone else and gets her pregnant less than a year after the divorce?”
“He didn’t dump me. It was a mutual split. And he told me the pregnancy was accidental.” Which she suspected was true, but somehow only made the situation worse.
Charlie rolled her eyes. “Is this an Irish thing? Because you’re beginning to sound like a martyr.”
Evie glared at her friend, feeling under siege. “My marriage broke up and I discovered I can’t have kids. But don’t worry, I did not become Mother Teresa while you weren’t looking.”
“Well good,” Charlie said, the sly look making Evie realize she’d just walked into a trap. “Because I have the perfect guy for you to break your drought with.”
“I don’t want to break my drought.”
“So you admit there has been one?” Charlie said, the ah-ha look in her eyes forcing Evie to admit the truth.
“Yes, there has, and that’s the way I want to keep it. I’m not ready to start dating again.” Why did she have to keep saying this to people? Hooking up was not the be-all and end-all of life.
“Who said anything about dating? What we’re talking about here is getting back on the horse.”
“I’m not doing that either. I’m not ready.”
“You will be when you meet Flynn,” Charlie cut back in, apparently completely undeterred by Evie’s reticence—so much for her friend’s new improved sensitive side. The woman had about as much sensitivity as a steamroller.
“He’s one of the hands here. Twenty-eight, very easy on the eye, with a butt that’s a work of art in Wranglers. Solvent, thanks to several very lucrative years on the rodeo circuit. In fact, his calf-roping skills are only surpassed by his skills in the sack—and he’s the hot ticket to win the tie-down roping, so there’s that. The man is what you Irish girls would call an absolute ride.”
“You are actually serious about this?” Evie said, wondering if all the hot sex Charlie was having had melted her brain cells.
“Just let me finish, Evie. I’ve been doing some research ever since you emailed last week to say you were coming. And Flynn is the perfect guy for douchebag-rebound sex.” She lifted her hand and began counting off this mythical calf roper’s assets on her fingertips. “One, he always puts out on a first date. Because that’s the only date he does—so, two, you don’t have to worry about commitment issues.”
“Fabulous, he sounds like a man-whore.”
“Not at all. He’s selective and exclusive. He just doesn’t do long term. And, best of all, I guarantee he will rock your world.”
“How do you know that?” For feck sake, she was starting to feel a bit sorry for the guy. Did he know Charlie was busy pimping him out? “Does Logan know you go around checking out other guys’ sex moves?” she added, starting to feel even more sorry for herself.
“I have reliable sources about Flynn. And no, Logan does not know, because he’s just enough of an unreconstructed cowboy to get mad about it. But what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him—and it could very well help you a great deal. You need to get your mojo back, Evie.”
Where had she heard that before? She was thoroughly sick of everyone sticking their noses into her mojo.
Evie rolled her eyes so hard she nearly dislocated her eyeballs. “When exactly did you become as much of a pimp as Janice?”
“When one of my best mates turned up in Montana looking like she hasn’t smiled—or had a halfway decent shag—in well over a year,” Charlie shot straight back, the sincerity in her voice making the ache in Evie’s stomach throb.
“I’m not shagging this guy, however fabulous his calf-roping skills,” she said eventually, but her anger had dissolved into a pit of humiliation.
“Why not?” Charlie seemed flummoxed.
No way could Evie divulge the real reason why not—that her confidence with men was so far down the toilet, it would take dynamite to retrieve it—because that would make her feel even more pathetic than she did already. So she seized on the only other reason she could think of. “Because cowboys are really just farm boys with sexier hats, and I have in-depth knowledge of how farm boys fuck.” She winced at the deliberate crudity, but as Charlie’s eyebrows launched up her forehead, she decided the shock value was worth it, to finally shut her friend up.
“Explain,” Charlie said.
“You’re forgetting, I spent the formative years of my sex life in rural Kildare—where my mammy was keen to tell me at every available opportunity that boys were only after one thing. I’m not a free spirit about sex like you are, okay?”
“But you were on Tinder?” Charlie cut in, looking confused.
“Which was for the column, and did not involve as much action as you obviously think. The fact is, I’m not wild or untamed or easily aroused. I need finesse, and sensitivity to get off. Which means I need a nice metrosexual guy who I’ve dated more than once.” Or more like several months. “And who has a slow hand, and is willing to take instructions. My experience of farm boys is that, like alpha guys the world over, they don’t take directions well. On top of that…” she added warming to her subject, because her few experiences of farm boys in the sack had not been exactly memorable. “They couldn’t find a clitoris if you gave them a road map. And they won’t give head either, even if you put a neon sign on your poonani saying ‘Lick here.’ Which means they suck when it comes to sexual healing. And not in a good way.”
“Logan’s not like that,” Charlie said, when she’d finally managed to lift her jaw off the floor.
“Then you lucked out. But at the risk of sounding like my mam, can we end this conversation now, because getting a blow-by-blow from you about how your boyfriend screws is way too much information. Especially as the three of us are going to be sharing a house for the weekend.”
Charlie lifted the tea and took a long swallow, her cheeks flushing a deep dark red. As Evie had never seen Charlotte Foster blush before, she considered it fitting payback for the blush that was currently incinerating her own face like the fallout from a nuclear explosion.
“Okay, I’ll shut up about Flynn,” Charlie said carefully. “But I still think you’re missing out on a surefire way to get your smile back.” Her friend’s lips tilted, the wistful expression making Evie want to cry. “And I always loved your smile.”
“We’ll just have to agree to differ on that,” Evie said, her hands shaking as she picked up her cold tea and gulped enough down to ease the boulder of grit lodged in her throat.
She didn’t just feel wrecked now, she felt flattened. But if it meant Charlie wasn’t going to try hooking her up with a cowboy again, it was worth it.
Now all she had to do was get through this evening’s family picnic without bursting into tears. After coming out of the why-don’t-you-screw-a-cowboy-showdown on top, that should be a doddle.
End of Excerpt