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Cash could hear her laugh the moment he walked through the door.
He stood just inside the bar, unmoving, totally alert, like a wolf trying to catch a scent on the wind, listening for Milly’s sound in the general uproar.
The Barrel was a noisy cowboy bar, especially on weekend nights—people talked and laughed, the jukebox played, the TV blared—and the noise didn’t stop at his arrival. In fact, no one even seemed to notice him at all.
Nor did he notice them as he listened. The cold wind slapped the door shut behind him. He stood still, listening.
And then he heard it again—gay, happy, musical. Milly. Laughing like she didn’t have a care in the world.
He turned in the direction of the sound and spotted her, sitting with three other women at a table near the window.
She had her back to him, but it didn’t matter. He knew Milly’s back. He’d pressed his body against it on more than a few cold winters’ nights. He knew the long dark hair that hung down it in a curtain almost to her waist. He’d twined his fingers through that hair, had buried his face in it, slept with his cheek against it.
He even knew that shirt she was wearing. He’d torn the buttons off it once in his eagerness to love her.
Hell, he was still eager to love her. And he’d always thought she was eager to love him.
But she was marrying somebody else.
His brows drew down, and he moved, heading deliberately toward her table. He was maybe ten feet away when one of the girls looked up and saw him.
She stopped talking. Her smile faded. Her eyes widened. She went totally still. One by one the other girls did, too, until finally Milly turned to see what they were looking at.
For an instant her eyes widened just a little bit, too. But then they went blank and flat as stones as her gaze slid slowly up past Cash’s gold Salinas winner’s belt buckle to his rough, unshaven jaw and scowling face.
He shifted his weight slightly under her gaze. Okay, so maybe he didn’t look like some Sir Galahad. He hadn’t taken the time to shave. He’d figured she’d need him so much it wouldn’t matter.
“Cash.” There was no welcome in her voice. No need, either. Her tone was as flat and disinterested as her eyes. She didn’t look him in the eye.
Probably couldn’t, Cash thought. She knew she was making a mistake. She just couldn’t say so. Yet. She would. He knew she would.
“Milly.” He said her name almost gently. Patiently. A hell of a lot more patiently than he felt. But he was willing to play along if this was the way she wanted it.
He didn’t suppose it was really fair to Dutton, the guy she was engaged to at the moment, but that wasn’t his problem. If she wanted to do things this way, that was fine by him.
He’d known what she was up to the minute her mother had told him where she was.
“The Barrel?” he’d said. “She went to The Barrel?” He’d started to smile. “Is she . . . tempting fate?”
Everyone knew the old story about how local women went to The Barrel right before their weddings.
“Just to be sure they’ve got the right man,” Milly had told him once. One time, back during World War II sometime, one of them hadn’t. She’d gone to The Barrel with her friends to celebrate her upcoming marriage—and had eloped with a sailor home on leave.
Since then a fair number of local women had gone to The Barrel to “tempt fate,” as they called it.
Cash guessed Milly was doing the same thing. So, fine, worked for him. He could sweep her off her feet—and away from Dutton. Cash understood all about a flair for the dramatic. He rode broncs, didn’t he?
Now he waited. He tapped the toe of his boot.
“Go away, Cash,” Milly said.
His brows drew down. “What do you mean, go away? I came all the way from Nebraska! Drove thirteen hours.”
“Why? I didn’t send you an invitation.”
An invitation? To The Barrel? Of course not!
She meant to her wedding. And that was something else that galled him. They’d been lovers, hadn’t they? Of course they had! For years! There wasn’t anybody on earth closer to Milly Malone than he was.
And she hadn’t even had the decency to invite him to see her get married!
Well, hell, it didn’t matter, did it?
“I reckon I won’t need one,” he said as coolly as he could, “if there ain’t going to be a wedding.”
Milly’s eyes bugged. No longer flat and disinterested like her voice, they raged with fury and sparkled with green fire. “There is most definitely going to be a wedding, Cash Callahan,” she said through her teeth, and her voice wasn’t flat and disinterested, either, now, “and you’re not invited.”
“Now that’s what I call poor sportsmanship,” Cash said, refusing to let her see her words hurt. “I’d invite you if I was gettin’ married.”
“Fat chance! You’ll never get married! You won’t stay anywhere long enough. And who’d have you? A man whose idea of staying power is eight seconds max!”
That stung, too, but he wasn’t admitting that, either.
“Aw, you know I can last longer than that, babe.” He slanted her a wicked grin, designed to remind her of the times they’d spent in bed together when he’d lasted a whole lot longer than eight seconds. He remembered them well—and he knew she was remembering it, too.
She looked like there’d be fire coming out of her ears any second now. Cash stepped back, wondering if maybe he’d overdone it a bit. He tugged on the brim of his hat. “You just think about that a little, sweetheart. Think about me.”
“If I thought about you, I’d remember all the times we had,” Milly said tartly. “The good ones and the bad ones—and mostly the ones where every time I turned around you were packing up to leave me again.”
“But I’m not going to think about you, Cash. You’re done. Finished. Over. Past.” She lifted her glass to her lips and drained it, then set it down with a thump and looked straight into Cash’s eyes. “Gone,” she said. “Like that.”
He blinked. His brows lifted, then lowered. He scratched the back of his neck. He looked hopefully at the other three girls. Two looked away. Only one, Milly’s friend Poppy, whom she worked for, looked back. She looked fed up.
About the same way he felt. “You talk some sense into her,” he said to Poppy.
She shook her head. “This is not my problem.”
“Well, she won’t listen to me.”
“Maybe you’re not saying the right words.”
“Forget it, Poppy,” Milly said sharply. She poured herself another glass from the pitcher on the table then lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the future. To love and marriage. To happily ever after. To me . . . and Mike.”
All three of her friends raised their glasses and clinked them against Milly’s.
Then quite deliberately Milly turned away and started talking about the flowers she and Poppy were doing for the wedding.
Cash stood there, staring down at her. But she didn’t look at him again. She didn’t even acknowledge his presence. It was as if he had vanished into thin air.
“Prettiest things you ever did see,” she said just as if he wasn’t breathing down her neck. “Long-stemmed yellow roses and—”
Cash let out a long, disgusted breath. Then he stepped around so that he could look down into Milly’s stubborn face, and he jerked his head toward the bar. “You talk about those flowers long as you want. You talk about weddin’ cakes and petit fours and all that claptrap. I’ll wait. I’ll be right over there when you need me. But I’m not waitin’ forever, Milly. So you just give a shout, darlin’, when you want to start makin’ sense.”
When she wanted to make sense!?
Well, that was Cash Callahan for you—arrogant and wrong-headed to the end.
How dare he come barging in here, big as life and twice as sassy, and act like she ought to fall into his mouth like a ripe plum?
She’d been the ripe plum in Cash Callahan’s life far too long—and look what it had got her: nothing.
He wasn’t any closer to marrying her now than he’d been when they’d met five years ago! And if he thought for one minute she was going to change her mind and give up a great guy like Mike Dutton and a chance at marital happiness just so she could be available whenever the great Cash Callahan deigned to pass through town for the rest of her life, well . . .
“He can sit there and rot for all I care,” she said in a tone quite loud enough to carry to the bar where Cash had settled in and was already pouring himself a second glass of whiskey. “And how dare he tell me he won’t wait forever! How long does he think I waited, for heaven’s sake?”
“He doesn’t think, Milly,” her friend, Bev, the librarian, pointed out calmly. “That’s the trouble with Cash.”
“He always just expected you to be there,” her other friend, Tina, said.
It was nothing that Milly didn’t already know. “I don’t want to talk about Cash,” she said firmly. “I want to celebrate my marriage. I want to laugh, to sing, to dance—”
“Here?” Both Bev and Tina looked at her, askance.
“In my heart,” Milly said. “I need to laugh and sing and dance in my heart.”
Poppy reached over and squeezed her hand. “Go for it,” she said. “Go for what you want.” Poppy’s eyes were wide and sincere as she picked up her glass and toasted Milly.
Taking courage, Milly drank another glass. She tried not to look at Cash. She didn’t need to. If Cash Callahan was anywhere within a hundred miles, her internal radar could sense him. She’d been attuned to him since the night she’d met him five years before.
Well, damn it, it was time to get retuned.
Five years was long enough to be a fool. She was done with Cash. Finished. Through.
She raised the glass of ginger ale she was drinking, then looked over at Cash and lifted her glass in a mock toast.
He didn’t pretend not to notice her.
“To me,” she mouthed. “And Mike.”
Cash glared at her over the top of a whiskey bottle, his eyes accusing her all the while.
He debated sending over a pitcher of beer with his compliments. He went so far as to ask the waitress what they were drinking and smiled to himself when he found out it was ginger ale.
“Two of them had a beer apiece,” the girl told him. “But they aren’t real heavy drinkers.”
At least that much of Milly hadn’t changed.
Her head sure had. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking—hadn’t been able to for a good long time now. He tried to figure it out, but every time he got close, his glass was empty, and he needed a bit more to get further on with the puzzle, and then somehow he had to start over.
He wasn’t sure how many whiskeys he’d had when a man slid onto the barstool next to his.
“Hey, buddy, Long time, no see.”
Cash looked up as fellow roughstock rider, Shane Nichols, settled in on the stool beside him.
“Hey.” Cash gave him a nod and as much of a grin as he could muster under the circumstances.
Shane Nichols was the Montana equivalent of a good ol’ boy. A little impetuous now and then. A little crazy sometimes—he was a bull rider, after all—but a better man didn’t exist. And he’d commiserate. He knew about a guy’s priorities. Cash pushed the bottle in his direction.
Shane looked longingly at it, but shook his head, then asked the bartender for a ginger ale.
“Ginger ale?” Cash looked at him, disbelieving. “Hell’s bells. Not you, too!” What was the world coming to?
“Doc’s orders.” Shane lifted his hand and waggled it at Cash. It was wrapped in a cast—and then Cash remembered. Shane had lost his thumb in a freak accident a while back—something to do with a trailer and a runaway horse—and had managed to have it sewn back on.
“Doc don’t want your thumb to get drunk?” Cash asked with a faint grin.
“Somethin’ like that,” Shane agreed. “Whole list of things it can’t do. Whole list of things I can’t do.” He looked glum. He tipped up the glass and downed it all in one gulp, fidgeted on the stool, then ordered another.
“Like ridin’,” Cash guessed. He sat in commiserating silence for a moment, then said, “I drew Deliverance down in Houston.”
Shane grinned. “Oughta win big on that ’un.”
“Hope to. Gotta stay on ’im first.”
“No sweat. Ridden him before, haven’t you?”
Cash nodded. “Twice.”
“No sweat then.”
“Bucked off ’im twice, though, too,” Cash admitted.
“Aw, well, that don’t count,” Shane said. “Gotta look on the bright side.” He looked down at his casted hand and sighed.
Cash, having already looked on the bright side, sighed, too. His gaze strayed to the women by the window once more. Shane’s gaze followed. An interested look flickered across his face. He half stood.
Cash saw the look and grimaced. “Don’t bother,” he said bitterly. “She’s taken.”
Shane’s gaze swiveled to meet his. “Huh?”
Cash scowled into his glass. “Don’t see why she couldn’ta waited,” he muttered.
Shane settled back onto the barstool. “Huh? She who? Waited for what?”
“Milly.” Cash jerked his head toward the women again.
Shane followed his gaze curiously. Cash could see him sizing them up as they laughed and talked. “Who’s Milly?”
“My girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend.” Cash poured himself another whiskey. He tipped the glass and downed the whiskey in a gulp, then smacked the glass back down on the counter again. “Damn her.”
Shane eased around to study the women at length. His eyes got wider the longer he looked. Cash wasn’t surprised. They didn’t fit into the bar scene. Cash knew that.
Shane had been to enough bars that he knew it, too. “What’re they doing here?”
“Celebratin’,” Cash muttered into his glass.
Shane lifted a quizzical brow.
“It’s a tradition,” Cash explained grudgingly. “Local girls do it. Come to The Barrel with their girlfriends once before they get married.”
Cash shrugged, annoyed. “How the hell should I know? Damn fool notion if you ask me. Milly says it started when some ol’ gal dared another one to check out the rest of the men before she tied the knot. Temptin’ fate, she calls it.”
Shane raised a quizzical brow.
Cash poured himself another shot, thumped the bottle down again, gulped the whiskey and answered the unspoken question. “Not likely.” Then he scowled once more in the direction of the table full of women.
Shane nursed his ginger ale and studied them, too. “Interesting notion,” he said at last. “Never heard of such a thing in Elmer. Of course, we only have the Dew Drop up there. Not that many fellas worth lookin’ at.”
“Only takes one.”
None of women looked at them. Cash’s fingers tightened on his glass.
“Which one’s Milly?” Shane asked at last.
“The pretty one.” Cash didn’t take his eyes off the glass in front of him. “Long dark hair. Green eyes.”
Shane turned his head and looked. “Ah.” There was a smile in his voice now. Cash could hear it. “Yeah,” Shane said, properly appreciative, “she’s somethin’, all right.”
“She’s that,” Cash agreed grimly.
“How come she’s your ex, then?”
“’Cause she got tired of waiting.” Cash swirled the whiskey in his glass, then took a swallow and shut his eyes. “Just like a woman. I’da waited for her. I’da waited till the cows came home for her! But no, she didn’t want to wait. Said life was passin’ her by, said all her friends were gettin’ married, when were we gettin’ married? Hell, do I look like I’m ready to get married?” He glared defiantly at Shane.
Obediently Shane shook his head. “Nope. Sure don’t.”
Cash gave a quick nod, glad at least that Shane understood. “Eventu’ly, I told her. We’ll do it eventu’ly. Gimme time, I said. Hell, I wasn’t askin’ for forever! Then last summer a friend of hers was gettin’ married, and they came here for their damned ol’ girls’ night out before the wedding, and Milly met him.”
“Dutton. Mike Dutton. God’s gift to women . . . or at least to Milly Malone. She’s marryin’ him Saturday.”
“Whoa.” Shane’s eyes got wide.
“That’s what I said,” Cash growled. “Didn’t do me a damn bit of good.” He finished his whiskey and glowered in the direction of the women at the table. “She tol’ me to take a hike. Tol’ me I’d lost out. Lost her.” His fists clenched and he started to stand, but the whiskey was stronger than he was, and he wavered, then dropped back on the barstool again. “Hell,” he muttered. “’S hell.”
“I reckon,” Shane said sympathetically.
“It is,” Cash affirmed. His mind felt fuzzy and out of kilter. Like his life. “Don’t make a bit a sense. She doesn’t love him! She loves me!”
“Course she does,” Shane agreed, his voice soothing.
But Cash wasn’t in the mood to be soothed. He was in the mood to be miserable, and he was more than halfway there.
“She’ll be sorry.” He set his elbows on the bar and propped his head up with his fists. “She’ll be damn sorry. She’ll wake up Sund’y mornin’ married to the jerk an’ realize she made a mistake. But then it’ll be too late.” His eyes shut, something stung, in behind the lids. His throat felt tight, thick. It ached. “’S already too late,” he said, his words slurring. And as the truth of his words hit home, he put his head down on the bar.
“It’s never too late,” Shane said flatly. “She’s not married yet. Talk to her. Tell her—”
“She won’t listen.” Cash wiggled his brows and managed to get his eyes open again. “Tried.”
“Make her listen. Insist.”
“Yeah, right.” Cash sighed. But Shane was right. He went after what he wanted. A man could do worse than listen to Shane. “I’d stop the weddin’ if I was gonna be here,” he said wistfully. “She’d have to listen then.”
Shane flashed a grin. “Reckon so.” He turned his head and shot a quick glance in the direction of the laughing women.
Cash saw Poppy looked back at his buddy, then she turned her gaze on him.
Once upon a time Cash thought he could have counted on Poppy to make Milly see sense. She was a good ’un, that Poppy. Leastways he’d always thought so.
But Poppy seemed to be taking Dutton’s side. What was it she’d said? Somethin’ about Cash sayin’ the wrong words?
Hell, he’d be tickled to say the right ones if she’d like to tell him what they were! But all she did was give him a longer, almost pitying look, then deliberately turned back to Milly.
Shane frowned, then picked up his ginger ale and looked at Cash. “Why don’t you?”
“Can’t. Told you. Drew Deliverance down in Houston.” He said the horse’s name with the reverence it deserved. “So I can’t stay.” He shrugged. “If she’d wait, I could be back on Tuesday . . .”
But she wouldn’t wait. Cash knew that. She’d go right ahead and marry ol’ Dutton just because Cash wouldn’t be there to stop her.
Both men glared at the table of women. Then Shane shook his head, disgusted. “Women,” he muttered.
“’Bout ready to hit the road?” Dennis Cooper, one of Cash’s traveling partners, clapped a hand on Cash’s shoulder. He’d come in shortly after Cash had settled at the bar. He’d been ready to leave then, but Cash couldn’t. He’d told Milly he would stay. He’d said he would wait until she came to her senses.
Now, after more hours and more whiskey than he wanted to think about, she’d done nothing of the kind. She was just about out of time.
Wordlessly Cash stared at the almost empty bottle, then at the woman whose stubbornness had made him drain it.
Denny glanced at his watch. “We better be makin’ tracks if we’re gonna get out ahead of the storm.”
Cash frowned. “What storm?”
“Mark’s been listenin’ to the radio. Says there’s a big one comin’. Blowin’ in by morning, they say. So I say it’s about time we headed south.”
Cash considered that. He considered Milly.
She lifted her glass and toasted him with it. “To me.” He saw her form the words. “To Mike.”
Cash poured the last of the whiskey into his glass and swirled the liquid, staring into it. Then: “Guess so,” he said. “Ain’t nothin’ left for me here.”
He shut his eyes, tipped his head back and drained the glass. It didn’t burn near as bad as the first glass had. Maybe he was getting anesthetized. He opened his eyes, blinked rapidly, and shoved himself to his feet. “Let’s go.”
He gave Shane a soft jab to the upper arm. “Take it easy. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Shane grinned. “Leavin’ the field wide open, aren’tcha?”
Cash managed a harsh laugh. “Damn straight.”
Then he tugged his hat down tight on his head and squared his shoulders. Bow-legged, swivel-hipped, he followed Denny toward the door.
He wasn’t going to look at Milly. But he couldn’t help it. He had to look, had to give her one last chance. So as he passed, he turned his head. It was no furtive glance, no quick look. He didn’t even blink.
But Milly didn’t even glance his way. She just lifted her glass and clinked it against Poppy’s and together they laughed at some toast Poppy was making.
Cash’s jaw tightened. His fists clenched. He kept on walking. But he could still hear them. He heard them laugh again as he reached the door.
He put his hand on it, paused. Waited. Stop me, Milly. Stop me.
But she didn’t.
She didn’t even seem to notice when, shoulders hunched, head bent, Cash pushed his way out the door.
Milly didn’t watch him go. She finished her ginger ale. She thanked her friends for coming with her. “Now it’s official,” she assured them gaily. “I’m marrying Mike. No one at The Barrel swept me off my feet.”
“Only because he could barely stand on them,” Poppy said in a dry tone as they gathered their coats to leave.
“What are you talking about?” Milly said, keeping a smile pasted on her face. She tugged on her coat and began fumbling with the buttons.
“You know what I’m talking about. You know who I’m talking about.”
Well, yes. But she debated lying about it. Poppy would know she was lying, though. Poppy knew about those sorts of things.
“I don’t know why he came,” Milly mumbled at last.
“Because he’s in love with you.” The answer was quick and unequivocal, as matter-of-fact as Poppy always was.
“He doesn’t know what love is.”
“Not grown-up love, I’ll grant you that,” Poppy said. “Here, let me button that. You’d think you were the one drinking the beer not the ginger ale.” With deft fingers and complete concentration, she buttoned Milly’s coat for her. “But he cares. He’s just hopeless at saying so.”
“It’s too late for him to say so,” Milly said firmly. “I’m marrying Mike.”
They walked out into the cold January night and Milly felt a shiver run through her. She’d been shivering a lot lately. Feeling cold a lot. Wishing for warm arms around her, desperate for a warm body to hold her.
Mike. She wanted Mike.
“I’m surprised he showed up,” Poppy went on after they said good night to Bev and Tina and headed toward their cars. Cash, she was talking about. Still. Always Cash. Milly didn’t want to think about Cash.
“I’m marrying Mike,” she said firmly.
“If that’s what you want,” Poppy said mildly.
“It’s what I want! I don’t want Cash!” Milly knew she was raising her voice. She knew she was making a fuss. She knew Poppy didn’t believe a word she said. “I don’t want Cash,” she said plaintively again in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. “I don’t!”
Poppy took Milly’s hands in hers and rubbed them briskly. “I know,” she soothed. “It’ll be all right. It’s just nerves.”
“And Cash,” Milly said wryly.
“And Cash,” Poppy agreed with a grin.
“I’ll feel better when it’s over,” Milly said firmly.
“Of course you will.”
“It’s just the wait.”
“We should have eloped.”
“No,” Poppy said at once. “You’re doing it right. You wanted to do it in front of God and everyone. You said so. To show your commitment. To make a statement.”
“Yes,” Milly agreed. But it seemed like the statement was taking way too much out of her. She wanted it over—all of it: the waiting, the wedding, the promises. She wanted to be safely committed to Michael George Dutton, forever and ever. Amen.
Poppy gave her hands a squeeze and then smiled an encouraging smile. “You made it. You got through the night. Cash is gone. Stop worrying. The worst is over.”
“Yes.” It was. Of course it was. She’d seen him for the last time. He’d come. He’d seen. He hadn’t conquered. Milly pasted on the bravest smile she could muster. “Yes,” she said again. “It’s over.”
Later that night when she was lying alone in the bedroom of her apartment she told herself that again. “It’s over.”
Sometimes, though, she thought that the love she and Cash Callahan had shared wasn’t so much over as it was love that had never really begun. Not mutual love, anyway.
Cash had . . . passed through.
Mike was a man for the long haul. He would be there through thick and thin. He had held her hand and kissed away her tears more often than she cared to remember.
Well, she swore to herself now, he wouldn’t have to kiss away any more of her tears. She was done crying.
She was done with Cash. She was marrying Mike on Saturday. It was, she assured herself, the first day of the rest of her life.
She wondered why that didn’t cheer her up.
End of Excerpt