There were dumb ideas.
And then there were super-colossal moments of idiocy like Larissa Martine was having right now. The kind of moments where you try and fulfill a pact with your Manhattan girlfriends to make peace with a brooding Wyoming cowboy from your past. It turned out the grand schemes that sounded profound while sitting in a cute tapas place in Tribeca didn’t go well at a dive bar on the outskirts of Cheyenne on a Friday during happy hour.
She’d driven five hours out of her way on the trip from New York to Las Vegas to keep the pact. She’d simply wanted to own up to her mistakes with rancher Matt Briggs—even though she hadn’t laid eyes on the man in eight years—and move on. Time had not eased the guilty feelings on her conscience for the way she’d left town. Left him.
Still, she’d probably been naïve to think that righting the wrongs of her past would magically fix the run of bad luck she’d been having—personally and professionally. But desperate times called for desperate measures and she needed to do something to change her life’s downward spiral. As a veteran Broadway dancer, Larissa understood that sometimes you had to land on your ass to see your own mistakes. She was chalking this up to one of those times. Waving over a server, she slapped some cash on the sticky bar at the Thirsty Cow.
“Can I have the Sky Country pale ale?” Larissa called over the classic country music, a Patsy Cline tune that she hadn’t heard since she’d ditched her cowboy boots for dance shoes.
She hadn’t missed the boots, the dust, or the ranching. But she’d missed Patsy.
“Coming up.” The server—one of three guys working behind the bar—gave a nod and slid a glass from a hanging rack near a sign showing a neon blue cow carrying a frosty mug.
Pivoting on the heel of strappy gold sandals she’d inherited from a costume designer, Larissa peered around the place once more. She’d heard from a former school friend that Matt Briggs frequented the Thirsty Cow on Fridays, leaving his ranch long enough to grab dinner and a beer. Larissa had hoped to see him here, on neutral terrain, instead of trying to catch him at the Briggs family spread, or at the Split Fork Ranch, a place that he’d bought on his own right after college.
A place he’d talked about sharing with her one day.
Back when their relationship had gotten a little Too Real and she’d started panicking. But for tonight, she’d liked the idea of talking to him after a cold brew, when there was a chance he would be more mellow. Less likely to think her eight-year-old apology dreamed up in a Tribeca wine bar was the lamest thing he’d ever heard.
Yeah. Who was she kidding? She was going to have a hell of a time forcing this conversation no matter where they were. Because how could she apologize without telling him the real reason she fled? That was definitely not bar talk.
“Pale ale.” The bartender set her beer in front of her, the foamy head sloshing up the sides of the glass but not spilling. He slid her money back toward her. “This one is on the guy at the end of the bar.” He nodded to his left to indicate which direction.
“I’d really rather buy my own.” She shoved the money at him again, but the server was already waiting on someone else three stools down.
Edging back on her heels, Larissa looked through the sea of Stetsons to find whatever cowboy Casanova had bought the drink. She’d say thank you, finish her beer, and be on her way. Easy enough since she’d booked a room at a motel cabin across the street. Tomorrow, she’d make the trek out to Briggs Ranch to try again. Failing that? She was Vegas bound for dance auditions and a new chapter in her career. If she couldn’t find Matt in two days, maybe they weren’t meant to make amends after all and she could hit the Strip with a clear conscience that at least she’d tried.
“Excuse me.” She slipped past a couple of airmen from the local military base and edged around an animated redhead telling stories about her days as a rodeo queen.
Only to spot the black Stetson at the end of the bar.
With the stool swiveled sideways, he was able to put his back against the wall. Hat pulled low, he tipped his head to one side to hear the words of a sunny blonde in a short white dress. The woman made no secret of her interest, her enviable body brushing up against the cowboy as much as possible without overtly humping him in public. Was she thanking him for her beer, too?
The thought should have been totally off-putting. Yet something about the mystery drink-sender snagged Larissa’s attention and wouldn’t let go. The sharp line of his jaw shadowed with dark bristle. The slight movement of his lips as he said something low for the woman’s ears only. In a tight black tee and faded denim, the man’s body had an automatic appeal that Larissa hadn’t felt in ages. Male dancers were strong and athletic, their bodies honed for their art, yet none of them had ever flicked the switch that suddenly turned on inside her right now.
What was it about lean hips in a pair of worn-in jeans that made her blood surge and her fingers itch to trail down his T-shirt to see if his abs were every bit as impressive as the rest of him?
While she stood there, openly gawking, the blonde walked away and left the cowboy alone at the bar. Then, his Stetson tipped up.
Revealing the face of Matt Briggs.
The man she’d broken up with eight years ago in a text message.
After working a ranch his whole life, few things surprised Matt Briggs anymore. He’d seen a grasshopper invasion eat the wood off his fence posts. He’d weathered an unexpected October blizzard that devastated his cattle herd and almost drove him to bankruptcy. Once he’d even nabbed a thief outside the local feed store with a lasso because it had been July and way too hot to run the guy down.
But right now, seeing the woman who’d dumped him in the most yellow-livered way imaginable standing in a crappy Cheyenne watering hole surprised the hell out of him. After almost falling off his barstool from shock, he’d asked the bartender to send her a drink—just in case she thought she could set foot in this town again and not at least acknowledge him. She might have gotten away with a breakup by Blackberry back in their college days. But he damn well wasn’t going to let her get away that easily this time.
Did it make him a bad guy that he wanted to see her squirm?
Not even close.
He deserved the payback.
“Hello, Larissa.” He slid to his feet because the manners were too deeply engrained to ignore.
She froze for a moment, green eyes wide even though he was the one who ought to have a lock on being surprised. She looked even better than he remembered her from their days at the University of Wyoming eight years ago when he’d been a senior and she’d been a sophomore. They’d met through a ride-sharing bulletin board since they’d both grown up in the Cheyenne area and made the commute to Laramie. He’d liked getting to know her on a couple of snowy carpools home while they waited for accidents to clear on I-80.
Liked taking her home with him one incredible night at the end of his senior year. He’d been buying his own ranch then and ready to plan a future together when he’d gotten her text that she’d quit school and wasn’t coming back to Wyoming. She’d decided to pursue a dance career on Broadway.
Nothing like a giant middle finger waved in his face, cyber style.
“Matt.” She flipped her thick, dark hair behind one shoulder, a breezy yellow blouse sliding against her lean dancer’s body. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” She flicked her gaze over his shoulder and he had to turn his head to remember what she meant.
Who she meant.
“You weren’t interrupting.” He folded his arms across his chest, taking in the woman who’d once persuaded him to dance with her in a barn during a rainstorm.
No woman should have that kind of power over a man.
“Sure looked like I was interrupting.” She eyed him over the rim of her beer glass as she took a sip.
“Looks can be deceiving.” He’d known Tammy Lynn Searles since they were kids. She’d never be more than just a friend. Besides, she was only here for Matt’s sister’s bachelorette party going on in the back room. “A friend once taught me never to trust appearances.”
“Is that so?” Larissa lowered her beer, her eyes wary.
“Hell yes. Just because a woman acts like she wants more from a relationship doesn’t mean she won’t text you the next day and say she’ll never see you again.” He tapped the bottom of his longneck to the side of her glass in an easy toast. “Good life lesson.”
“Feel better getting that out of your system?” Larissa leaned an arm against the bar close to where he’d been sitting. A small locket around her neck glinted in the blue light from the neon bar sign blinking above the dartboard.
“Not really.” He told his eyes to move upward from the necklace, but they slid south anyhow, enjoying the view of her long legs in dark jeans in spite of himself. Her sky-high heels put them almost nose-to-nose, the gold sandals showing off pink toenails. Even when she’d been an amateur dancer locally, Larissa had always been at home in her body, a quality he’d enjoyed all the more on those nights they’d shared a bed—or, more often—a hayloft. Maybe he shouldn’t be in such a hurry to hold a grudge. “Just stating a fact.”
“Because if it makes you feel better, I’d rather get it all out there in the open.” She settled her glass on the bar and then turned to face him directly. “Fire away.”
“I’m feeling great, but thanks for the offer.” He wasn’t about to tread into the wreckage of a long-ago relationship for her amusement. Especially not in full view of the Thirsty Cow’s happy-hour crowd. None of it mattered anymore.
She opened her mouth—no doubt with a retort of her own—but he cut her off. He wasn’t going to let Larissa Martine know she’d trampled his heart like a surprise stampede. Better to keep her at arm’s length.
“But to hell with the past.” He lifted his beer and drank to that idea. “Tell me what brings a Broadway star back to the Cowboy State?”
Her mother had succumbed to breast cancer when Larissa was a teen, and her father had stuck it out on their small sheep farm for another year before he’d put the place on the market and moved to Portland. Larissa had stayed on to help the new owners, attending college while she lived in the manager’s quarters to oversee the sheep herd. Matt knew it had been tough for Larissa to walk away from the animals, but her mother—a frustrated artist out of her element on a sheep ranch—had wrested a promise from Larissa before she died. She insisted Larissa go to New York and live her dreams in a way that her mother hadn’t been able to.
The call to action had been a defining moment for Larissa—one she’d been powerless to ignore, even for the sake of the life Matt might have given her.
“I’m hardly a Broadway star.” She sidestepped a tipsy couple in the middle of a make-out session that kept them from looking where they were going.
Happy-hour antics at a cowboy bar were as raucous as other bars after midnight, given the hours that ranchers were forced to keep. He wondered if Larissa remembered that.
“Semantics. The work has kept you busy for years.” Eight, in fact. “Why the trip home now?”
“I’m moving to Las Vegas. Starting my career over again.” She shrugged. “Cheyenne was practically on the way.”
On the way? Hardly. Hmmm…
“Checking on the sheep?” He couldn’t imagine what else would be the draw since she had no family here anymore.
“As humorous as that may sound, I’m definitely stopping by to see Reba.” She smiled in a way that brought him right back to their shared past.
He shook his head. “You’ve been gone a long time if you think any rancher would find it odd to check on a good animal like Reba.” He’d been there with her the night that Merino was born. Had been with her when she’d named the ewe after a country and western singer.
For a moment, he let himself remember that night. The shared hours before dawn together in the barn—a rare time he’d let himself leave his own spread for reasons that didn’t have to do with his college coursework for the agriculture business degree. But Larissa had been special. Or so he’d thought.
“I guess you’re right.” A hint of sadness ghosted through her gaze and it occurred to him that her ranching life had been taken from her.
Sure, she’d left Wyoming of her own volition. But her father’s ranching days had ended abruptly when the Martine farm caused him too much grief without his wife. In the short span of two years, Larissa not only lost her mother, but her home and—in a way—her father, too.
Would she have ever started an affair with Matt if she hadn’t been so damn lonely that last year in Cheyenne on her own? He’d thought about that more than once since she’d lit out of town.
“How long are you staying?” Nearby he heard the volume rising from the private party in the back room where his sister and her friends were starting her bachelorette party. He’d been on tap for the first leg of designated driving, but one of their younger cousins was taking over the task before the women relocated to the next bar on Callie’s list.
“A couple of days at most.” She reached for her drink again, her expression uncertain. “Actually, there’s another reason I came here besides Reba—”
“Oh. My. God!” The feminine squeal from over Matt’s shoulder was instantly recognizable as the bride’s. “It’s Larissa!”
Callie Briggs had entered the bar with her plastic tiara and white tee with bedazzled “Bad-Ass Bride” spelled out in pink. Matt loved his sister dearly, but he’d be glad when the wedding mayhem—and all the expense that came with it—was done.
“Hi, Callie.” Larissa gave a warmer smile to Matt’s sister, he noticed, than she had to him. Not that he was surprised. Callie had taken to her as a teen, listening to Larissa’s advice on everything from her first boyfriend to her biology homework. “Looks like congratulations are in order.”
Callie peered down at her shirt. “I know, right? I figured I might as well broadcast it to the world, I’m so in love.” She flung herself into Larissa, hugging her tightly for a second before turning back to Matt. “I can still be friends with her, right, Matty? She dumped you, not me.”
Larissa, at least, looked embarrassed even if Callie had zero shame about revealing his crappy dating history to the world. He’d like to think it was the margaritas talking though. He’d made a pitcher for her and her crew before coming to the bar.
“She’s all yours, Callie.” Matt reminded himself he only had to get through one more week and the wedding would be done.
One day, he’d miss his sister when she moved out. Maybe. It was going to be quieter at his parents’ place, that was for sure. His mom’s place now, he corrected. He worried Callie had rushed to the altar to escape the emptiness of the Briggs Ranch house since their father died in a tractor accident last fall.
“Good.” Callie kept one arm slung around Larissa’s shoulders and tipped her head to Larissa’s temple. “Then I insist you come to the wedding. It’s Saturday, and it’s going to be a blast.”
Matt didn’t miss the look of panic on Larissa’s face before she launched into her refusal.
“Oh, Callie, that’s so kind of you, but I have an audition and—”
“No. I won’t hear of it.” Callie covered Larissa’s protest with a manicured finger, the perfect nails reminding Matt his sister hadn’t helped out with the horses in weeks. “No one tells the bride ‘no.’ And I’m the bride!” She pointed to the pink bedazzled word on her shirt for proof. “Come to my wedding with Matty. I’ve been on him to ask a date.”
His sister unwound herself from Larissa and rushed away toward the back room where a few of her friends were gathered in the doorway to wave her back inside. Inside the private room, Matt could see pink and white streamers, her girlfriends all wearing matching pink tees that said “I’ve Got the Bride’s Back.”
“Because that wouldn’t be awkward or anything.” Larissa’s soft comment at Matt’s side dragged a much-needed laugh from him.
“Don’t sweat it, Larissa. My sister hasn’t changed much since the last time you saw her.” He shook his head. “With any luck, she won’t remember half of what she said by tomorrow anyhow.”
“My luck has been at an all-time low recently,” Larissa muttered. “I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Then your best bet is to hope she’s too concerned about her wedding manicure to chase after you and tie you down. She took second-fastest time in goat-tying at the College National Finals Rodeo last month, so she’s totally capable.” He’d been proud as hell.
“Um.” Larissa peered warily toward the back room. “Good for her?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Matt couldn’t resist one more jab before he finished his beer and set down the bottle. “You can always take off during the night and send her a text.”
Larissa’s eyes narrowed but he didn’t much care. Callie’s appearance had reminded him how much he needed to get done over at the family ranch this weekend before he returned to Split Fork next week. He was spread too damned thin since his father’s death and the wedding wasn’t helping.
He refused to let Larissa Martine’s sudden reappearance distract him from the people who planned to stay in town.
The people who mattered.
End of Excerpt