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Shane Nichols was at a loose end.
His older brother, Mace, could have told you that was a dangerous situation. But then, Mace had known his little brother for all of Shane’s thirty-two years. Mace remembered the tipped-over outhouses, the burrs under the saddles, the super glue in Ms. Steadman’s pencil box, the itching powder in old man Houlihan’s underdrawers. And, of course, he remembered the chicken . . .
So when the doctor told Shane to cool it, chill out, Mace would have advised following up his advice by doing something about it—like tying Shane to a bed.
Of course Doc Reeves didn’t know Shane like Mace did. So all he said was that it wasn’t every day a guy had his thumb sewn back on. These things took a while to heal. In the meantime, Shane should kick back and relax, take a little time off, enjoy life instead of busting his butt going down the road from rodeo to rodeo to rodeo.
Good advice as far as most guys were concerned.
Not the best for Shane.
He needed to be involved, on top of things. That was how he’d lost his thumb in the first place, of course—in a nasty encounter with a loose trailer, a spooked horse, and some rigging. He’d been helping out a friend—as Shane was wont to do—and he’d paid the price.
Fair enough. He’d do anything for a friend. But he was tired of paying. He’d been kicking back and relaxing for three weeks now, wearing out his welcome at his brother’s small ranch northwest of Elmer, Montana. Going stir-crazy.
He had helped Mace go over the herd books, discussing ad nauseam the finer points of every one of Mace’s steers and mamma cows. They could have spent another lifetime on it as far as Mace was concerned.
It drove Shane up the wall.
He enjoyed plate after plate of his sister-in-law Jenny’s home cooking. She made him every one of his favorite foods. He could have grown fat and lazy just enjoying the comforts of home. After all, the ranch, though not large, was a damn sight bigger and more comfortable than the truck camper he was used to.
But bigger only meant he could spend his time pacing the rooms.
He had adoring nephews Marcos and Tonio to play with, to tell “goin’ down the road” rodeo stories to. And he basked in their hero worship at the same time that he itched to get back on that very road. He had his niece, Pilar, willing to entertain him with recitals of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” on the piano whenever he said the word—which was fine for the first hundred and fifty times—but not forever.
This was beginning to feel like forever.
And Shane Nichols was not a forever kind of guy.
He was a mover, a shaker, a “do it now, regret it later” man.
He needed drama. High stakes.
He didn’t want to row his boat anymore that week. He wanted a 300-horsepower outboard motor. He didn’t want to tell stories about bulls or broncs. He wanted to ride one! He didn’t want cozy fires and early bedtimes.
He wanted lights. Noise. Action.
That was why he ended up at The Barrel in Livingston that cold November night. It was the first time he’d been in a bar since the accident. There hadn’t been a lot of point. He couldn’t drink.
“Bad for the circulation,” Doc Reeves had told him when he’d finally let Shane get on with his life three weeks before. “Gotta get as much blood to that thumb as we can. So . . . no alcohol. No coffee.”
Next thing you knew he’d be saying, “No women,” Shane had thought glumly.
It didn’t take a medical degree to realize that blood pooling in another specific part of his body would detract from the red stuff that was supposed to be healing his thumb. Fortunately he got out of there before old Reeves had time to think of that!
Not that Shane was overloaded with women.
Not at the moment anyhow.
He’d had his share of buckle bunnies, the rodeo groupies who made a point of chatting him up in a hundred bars across America. He’d had them bat their eyelashes at him and write their phone numbers on grocery receipts and cocktail napkins and—once—on the leather label on the hip of his jeans.
“But, darlin’, I won’t be able to read it there,” he’d protested.
The girl had giggled and showed him deep dimples, then brushed a kiss across his lips. “I know, sweetheart. But every time you take your pants off, you’ll think of me.”
He thought of her now. The blood in his thumb was considering making a move. For all the good it would do. Shane hadn’t had a woman in so long it hurt.
And if watching his brother smooch with Jenny every day was difficult, knowing what they were doing when he wasn’t watching was ten times worse!
He could tolerate all their lovey-dovey stuff for short amounts of time—Christmas, say, or a brief weekend stopover.
But three weeks!
A guy could only allow all his blood to go to his thumb for just so long! Shane was already past it.
He needed a distraction. And that had brought him to The Barrel, where he’d been delighted to find his old rodeo buddy Cash Callahan deep in a bottle of whiskey.
Shane looked longingly at the whiskey, then took another long swallow of ginger ale.
“Ginger ale?” Cash had looked disbelieving when Shane ordered it.
“Doc’s orders,” he’d muttered then.
Now, after his third ginger ale, he was no nearer to being distracted, his thumb was throbbing, and he was beginning to think maybe a little disobeying orders might not hurt.
But every time he thought it, he remembered he wanted to ride again.
He didn’t know what he’d do if he couldn’t ride again. His whole life had been rodeo since he’d been in high school. He’d graduated only because he knew his brother would’ve likely taken a belt to him if he hadn’t. But the minute he had his diploma in hand, Shane had lit out to make his name in the rodeo world.
He might not be another Jim Shoulders or Tuff Hedeman or Ty Murray, but he’d been to the NFR seven times. He’d finished second the year Taggart Jones had won the Bull Riding World Championship. Twice he’d finished third.
Those didn’t count, of course. The gold buckle was what counted. But he could still win the gold buckle, he told himself, if he could ride.
He had to ride. It was his life.
He kept working on the ginger ale.
Cash kept working on the whiskey.
“Don’t see why she couldn’ta waited,” Cash muttered, head bent over his glass.
Shane, who’d thought they’d been talking about the gelding Cash had drawn at the rodeo down in Denver, said, “Huh? She who? Waited for what?”
“Milly.” Cash jerked his head toward the group of women sitting at one of the tables by the window at the front.
Shane had seen them first thing when he’d come in. With women on his mind, he’d been quick to size them up. Check them out.
There were four of them, eating and talking and laughing. They didn’t seem to be doing much drinking. He saw two beers and two soft drinks. He’d seen the same beers and the same soft drinks when he’d come in an hour before. Obviously no serious drinkers there.
“My girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend.” Cash poured himself another whiskey from the bottle he’d got the bartender to leave next to his glass. 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 so he could study the women more readily. He wouldn’t have thought any of them was Cash Callahan’s type. From what Shane remembered, Cash preferred his women brash and blowsy and, as the song said, a little on the trashy side.
None of these women fit the bill.
They all looked cheerful and wholesome and like they didn’t belong in The Barrel at all.
“What’re they doing here?”
“Celebrating,” Cash muttered into his glass.
Shane lifted a quizzical brow.
“It’s a tradition,” Cash said. “Local girls do it. Come to The Barrel with their girlfriends once before they get married.”
Cash shrugged. “How the hell should I know? Damn fool notion if you ask me. My ma says it started when some ol’ gal dared another one to check out the rest of the men before she tied the knot. Tempting fate, my ma calls it.”
Cash poured himself another shot, thumped the bottle down again and gulped the whiskey. “Not likely.” He scowled in the direction of the table full of women.
Shane nursed his ginger ale and studied them, too. “Interesting notion,” he said. “Never heard of such a thing in Elmer. Of course, we only have the Dew Drop up there. Don’t reckon the girls think there’s many fellas worth lookin’ at.”
“Only takes one.” Cash’s knuckles went white as his hand closed around the whiskey bottle once more. He didn’t take his eyes off the women at the table.
None of them looked back at him.
“Which one’s Milly?” Shane asked, considering them carefully.
“The pretty one. Long dark hair. Green eyes.”
Shane picked her out at once. Not that he was close enough to see her eyes, but there was only one pretty one. She’d caught his eye at once. And yes, she had lots of long dark hair for a guy to tangle his fingers in. But it was her smile, her laughter—a throaty, musical laugh—that caught Shane’s immediate attention.
He had no idea what she found amusing. But her lively smile, her genuine enjoyment of whatever one of the other women was saying, was contagious. It made Shane smile just to look at her.
“Yeah,” he 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. Shane, watching him, could almost feel the burn in his own throat.
“Just like a woman,” Cash muttered. “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.”
No more than he was ready himself. Marriage was something that happened to other people.
“Eventu’ly, I told her. We’ll do it eventu’ly,” Cash went on. “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 she met him!”
“Dutton. Mike Dutton. God’s gift to women . . . or at least to Milly Malone. She’s marryin’ him Saturday.”
Shane’s eyes widened. “Whoa.”
“That’s what I said. Didn’t do me a damn bit of good.” Cash finished the 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, wavered and plopped back on the barstool again. “Hell,” he muttered. “’S hell.”
“I reckon,” Shane said sympathetically, though he frankly thought Cash ought to be celebrating having escaped the preacher’s noose.
“It is,” Cash affirmed. “Don’t make a bit a sense. She doesn’t love him! She loves me!”
“Course she does,” Shane agreed soothingly. He was always ready to support a buddy. And, hell, it was probably true.
Cash Callahan was a good-looking son of a gun. Dang near every woman he smiled at fell head over tail for him. Shane didn’t know Mike Dutton from a hole in his shorts, but he’d be willing to bet Dutton wasn’t near as good a guy as like Cash.
“She’ll be sorry.” Cash rested 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. ’S’al’ready too late,” he said, his words slurring. 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’s eyes closed. He wiggled his brows and managed to get his eyes open again. “Tried.”
“Make her listen. Insist.” It was the only way to handle a woman. Firmly. Shane knew that.
“Yeah, right.” Cash sighed. “I’d stop the weddin’ if I was gonna be here,” he said wistfully. “She’d have to listen then.”
Shane grinned. “Reckon so.” He shot a quick glance in the direction of the laughing woman.
She looked his way, too. For an instant their gazes locked. Then instantly hers skated quickly over him to land on Cash. She gave Cash a longer, almost pitying look, and shook her head. Then she deliberately turned back to her friends with a smile.
Shane heard her laugh. She had a great laugh, full-throated and happy. Was she enjoying Cash’s misery? he wondered, his annoyance rising. He’d like to see her face when Cash stood up in a pew and called out his objection!
“Why don’t you?” he said eagerly.
Cash shook his head. “Can’t. Drew me a great bronc down in Houston. Deliverance.” He said the horse’s name reverently.
Shane whistled. “That is a good ’un.” There were a handful of sure-money broncs in the rough stock trade. One of them was Deliverance. If a guy could stay on, he could win big on a horse like that. You didn’t turn out a horse like Deliverance.
Cash nodded solemnly. “So I can’t stay.” He shrugged. “If she’d wait, I could be back on Tuesday . . .”
She wouldn’t wait.
Cash knew that. Shane knew that.
She’d go right ahead and marry ol’ Dutton just because Cash wouldn’t be there to stop her. It was a damn shame the way females were so all-fired impatient all the time.
Shane glared at the table of women on his friend’s behalf.
The one with the long dark hair—Milly—met his gaze for another instant, then once more looked quickly away.
Guilt, Shane thought. Served her right.
There wasn’t a finer guy in the world than Cash Callahan. He might be a little footloose sometimes. He might drink a little too much whiskey on occasion. He might think a good bronc was worth driving to Houston for. But he’d be there when the chips were down—if she really, really needed him. Shane knew that.
Didn’t Milly know it?
Shane shook his head, disgusted.
“’Bout ready to hit the road?” Dennis Cooper, one of Cash’s traveling partners, sidled up to the bar.
Wordless, Cash stared at the almost-empty bottle. Then, slowly, he eased his body around so he could get a look at the women at the table once more. They were laughing and talking. Not one—especially not the pretty one, Shane noted—paid any attention to him.
Dennis glanced at his watch. “We better be makin’ tracks if we’re gonna get out ahead of the storm.”
“Mike’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 poured the last of the whiskey into his glass and swirled the liquid, staring into it. “Guess so,” he said. “Ain’t nothin’ left for me here.”
He shut his eyes, tipped his head back and drained the glass. Shane watched his friend’s Adam’s apple bob, watched his lips press together in a tight line.
Then Cash opened his eyes, blinked rapidly, and shoved himself to his feet. “Let’s go,” he muttered. He gave Shane a soft jab to the upper arm. “Take it easy.” A pained grin quirked one corner of his mouth. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Shane grinned at that. “Leavin’ the field wide open, aren’tcha?”
Cash laughed. “Damn straight.”
Then he tugged his hat down tight on his head and squared his shoulders. Bow-legged, swivel-hipped, he followed Dennis toward the door.
Shane watched to see if Milly would look at him as he passed.
Would she watch him walk out of her life? Would she feel his pain? Share it?
As he approached their table, Cash turned his head to look at the women. It was no furtive glance, no quick look. He kept his eyes glued on them as he passed.
They continued to laugh and talk, not even pausing. The dark-haired one even lifted her glass in a toast. Shane heard throaty, cheerful, musical laughter. He knew damn well whose it was.
Cash reached the door, stood there.
Then the laugh came again.
Shoulders hunched, head bent, Cash went out. The door banged shut behind him.
As soon as he had, the long-haired beauty looked up. Her gaze went to the door. A sad look crossed her face. She sighed, then turned back to the other women and said something. Then unhappily she shook her head and took a long swallow of beer.
So she did have feelings.
Shane took a long swallow of flat ginger ale and considered that.
End of Excerpt