TOLD YOU she couldn't do it.”
“Oh, right, like I disagreed.”
Abby Stanton made a face at her two sisters. It actually looked as if there were four of them unless she really concentrated on focusing her eyes so she didn't see double.
What was it they had her drinking? She wasn't exactly sure. She recalled Emily and Bree discussing what she should order that would be in keeping with the theme of the nightâAbby Stanton Becomes a Wild Woman. They'd mentioned Kamikazes and Slippery Nipples. But she wasn't sure if she'd actually downed either of those. Or both.
Both seemed likely since she was beginning to think this was a suicide mission and every time she caught a glimpse of a certain cowboy over by the bar, she could imagine her nipples being slippery.
“A wild woman would squeeze his buns the next time he walks by,” Bree said, goading Abby about that same cowboy, who'd caught her attention. “So that's the deal. You want to prove you can be a wild woman, you squeeze his buns.”
A wild woman. Wasn't it enough that she was in a bar and so drunk she could hardly see straight? Because that was pretty wild for a woman who'd grown up in sleepy Clangton, Colorado, a not too large town spread out over a twelve-mile central radius and more outlying farm and ranchland than anyone had bothered to count in the past hundred years.
“I don't think he'd mind too much, Ab,” Emily added encouragingly. “He keeps looking over at you, watching you.”
“Who is he?” Abby asked as if that would make a difference in accepting or rejecting the challenge.
With a population of 2,032 people in Clangton, it wasn't as if everybody knew everybody else. But Abby, Bree and Emily had been born and raised there and ran the Three Sisters Bakery in the middle of town, so while they might not know every name, it wasn't hard to pick out a new face. Especially one with features that could have been designed by da Vinciâwell-defined planes of masculine perfection in a broad brow; a nose that was long, thin and flared slightly at the nostrils; a chin and jawline sharp enough to slice bread; and cheeks that dipped in just enough to make him ruggedly handsome.
“That's Cal Ketchum,” Bree said in answer to Abby's question about who the guy was. “He's the new owner of the old Peterson place. Remember, I told you about him. He was friends with Cissy Carlisle's cousin in Denverâthe cousin who rotates women like other people rotate their tires. He put Cal Ketchum in touch with Cissy so she could finally use that real-estate license of hers to sell him some property.”
Emily picked up where Bree left off. “Cal Ketchum took Cissy out a few times after he moved in. She really liked him but she said that the first time she mentioned that she wanted to get married somedayâjust in general, not necessarily to himâhe said he was not the guy for her, that he wasn't interested in marriage. Cissy says he's an even bigger ladies' man than her cousin is. She called him the original serial dater. A real so-many-women-so-little-time sort of guy, who'll never settle down and take a wife because it would limit him too much.”
“great And you want me to goose him and make him think I want to be next on his hit parade of women?”
“A wild woman would do it just because he has the best butt in this place,” Emily said, not sounding like her usual conservative self. “Guess you'll just have to admit you aren't a wild woman.”
Which meant admitting that she
what Bill Snod-grass had said she wasâthe reason he'd given for breaking their engagement. He had accused her of being a too shy, too quiet, too predictable, too steady, too provincial bore.
Okay, so he hadn't said she was a bore. At least he hadn't used that particular word. But that's what he'd meant. And tonight Abby had set out to prove she could be as unshy, unquiet, unpredictable, unprovincial and unboring as the best of them. At least to herself. Bill Snodgrass was history.
Just then Bree sat up tall and waved Cal Ketchum over to their table. “Okay, he's coming. I'm giving you the setup.”
Abby glanced up to find the tall, muscular man headed in their direction, his eyes locked on her the whole way despite the fact that it was her sister who'd summoned him.
Oh, but what eyes they were! An incredible aquamarine color as clear as a spring-fed lake on a blistering summer's day.
Or maybe it was his eyes that were blistering her because they seemed to drill into her with a smoldering heat that made her think all over again about slippery nipples.
“Ladies,” he greeted them all while still keeping those gorgeous eyes on Abby alone. His voice was like another drinkâa hot toddy of dark whiskey, warm honey and just a hint of lemon to add a tang to it.
Abby was relieved that he stopped across the table from her. Between Bree and Emily. Out of her reach and freeing her from the looming challenge. At least for the moment.
“Somethin' I can do for you?” he asked.
“We just wanted to know if you're who we think you are,” Abby answered, sounding overly bright, overly cheerful, overly loud and nothing at all like herself.
Even so, it won her a bad-boy smile that was enough to make her toes twitter.
“Who do you think I am?” he queried with an edge of teasing to his tone.
“Cal Ketchum,” Bree said as if it were a quiz show and she needed to be quickest with the answer.
He bowed his head slightly, glancing at her for only a split second before looking back at Abby. “That's me,” he said, pausing then as if waiting for them to introduce themselves. But when they didn't, he said, “Are you all celebratin' somethin'?”
“Freedom!” Abby responded too abruptly for it to be true, holding her glass aloft. But the motion was jerky, and she sloshed some of the contents over the rim to spill on the table.
Without considering that it might ruin her wild-woman image, she used a napkin to wipe the outside of the glass clean. Then she set it down and primly mopped up the small puddle.
When she'd finished, she raised her gaze to the man again. His mouth was pale and supple looking with lips that curved gently upward at the corners even when he wasn't smiling. But now he was smiling. A small, secret, knowing smile that drew two deep, curving lines on either side of his mouth and made her think he could see right through her.
“Well, I hope you're enjoyin' yourselves,” he said, sounding dubious and slightly confusedâprobably about why they'd called him over when all the three of them were doing was gawking. “Was that all you wanted?” he asked.
“Pretty much,” Bree said airily.
“Okay. Well, now that you know, I hope you have a nice evenin',” he said. being a good sport about things and not at all embarrassed or put off by the fact that clearly they were playing a game with him.
He seemed to catch sight of someone he knew then and stepped around Bree's chair to head for the portion of the saloon behind Abby. Which meant he was going to pass by her after all.
Bree kicked Abby under the table, reminding her of the challenge to prove she really could let loose by pinching the man's backside.
Would she or wouldn't she? she asked herself as time and the handsome cowboy seemed to move in slow motion.
“Do it!” Emily whispered.
And she did. Sort of.
As the back pockets of a pair of tight blue jeans covering a firm, not too round, just right rear end slid by nearly at eye level and close enough for her to reach out an unsteady hand, Abby gave him a tentative little pat.
Still, it stopped him cold and made him turn only enough to look straight down at her with those turquoise eyes.
Abby wanted to crawl into a hole.
Thinking as fast as her liquor-sludged brain would allow, she said, “Bug!” and started stomping her foot on the floor as if to kill what she hoped he'd think she'd just brushed off his backside.
“Bug?” he repeated with just a tinge of facetiousness to his tone, not looking anywhere but at her.
“On you. It might have bitten you,” she babbled like a kid compounding a lie to make it more believable. But all the while she could feel the heat that rushed to her face, and no doubt turned it cherry-red to give her away.
“Nice try,” he said, winking at her before moving on.
Abby wasn't sure whether he meant that the story about the bug on his backside had been a nice try at covering up or if the pat itself hadn't been any better than a nice try.
She only knew that she needed a quick diversion, so she reached for her glass again and downed its contents in one gulp as if the fiery liquid would wash away the embarrassment she didn't want anyone to see. Then she slammed the glass on the table in a completely false show of bravado and said, “So there.”
Bree and Emily laughed.
And a bit of the real Abby emerged to give them a big-sister lecture. “It wasn't very nice of you guys to get him over here and then not at least make conversation so it looked like you called him for a reason.”
“We did call him over for a reasonâto get you to goose him,” Bree answered, sounding pretty drunk herself.
“So how was it? Does it feel as good as it looks?” Emily asked.
Abby drew herself up and pretended indignation. “We wild women don't pat and tell,” she claimed loftily. Then to escape further questions, she pushed her empty glass to the center of the table and said, “Order me another drink while I play some music on the jukebox.”
She stood for the first time since arriving at the Clangton Saloon and discovered something had melted the starch out of her legs and taken away her equilibrium. As with forcing her eyes not to see double, she had to concentrate to walk in a straight line.
The place was big, all done up like an old Western saloon to put some truth to its name. A carved-walnut bar the full length of an end wall was the centerpiece of the establishment. Behind the bar was a gigantic framed mirror that reflected everything and everybody.
There was floor space enough for dancing and a sea of tables that were all full on this Saturday night as Abby carefully navigated through the crowd. She kept her eyes trained on the bright neon yellow-and-green lights of the jukebox where it stood beside a wide archway with intricate latticework in a fanned wagon-wheel design across the top. The archway led to an adjoining room with four pool tables, a dartboard hung on one wall and checkerboards and chessboards set up on tables in alcoves that jutted out behind velvet tie-back curtains.
“Sorry to hear about you and Bill,” someone said as she passed a table.
Someone else added, “Me, too. Keep your chin up.”
Abby just raised an acknowledging hand in the general direction of the voices, afraid she'd lose her balance if she looked around to find faces to go with the voices. It didn't matter anyway. Clangton was a small enough town for word to travel fast, and she'd been answering so many sympathetic comments like that since Bill had dumped her three weeks ago that it was beginning to seem like the only way folks could greet her anymore.
The selections on the jukebox were all country-westernâmost of them the lost-love variety. But Abby managed to choose one of the few lighthearted ditties that was available. Then she decided to make a trip to the rest room before she returned to the table.
The bathrooms were at the end of a small hallway next to the bar where the man whose rear end she'd just patted had been standing most of the night. He wasn't there now, though, and she was grateful for that.
Inside she took care of business and then washed her hands. As she did, she couldn't help catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, doing a double take because tonight she really didn't look the way she usually did. The wild-woman image she'd adopted had seemed to require different clothes than she ordinarily wore, different makeup. A little shopping that afternoon had netted her the revamped look.
Rather than the loose-fitting blue jeans and tops that made up her wardrobe, she'd purchased a pair of black denims that hugged her every curve like sausage casing. The lowermost point of her V-necked T-shirt dipped into her cleavageâthe artificial cleavage the new pushup bra gave her.
And as for her makeup, she had applied a whole lot more than the everyday light mascara and blush. Tonight she had on eye shadow that deepened the already dark brownâalmost blackâcolor of her eyes, and even eyeliner to outline them. And lipstickânot her regular bare hint of tint in what was mostly gloss. Tonight she had on something called raisin.
Plus her hair was bigger than she normally ever let it get. As a rule the middle-of-her-baek length of dark, dark coffee-bean brown, naturally curly hair was brushed into a tight plait or held in a ponytail or at least kept under control by barrettes. But in anticipation of this evening she'd scrunched and sprayed it to within an inch of its lifeâall while bending upside down to get the most volume she possibly could. It left her with an untamed riot of curls all around her face and shoulders.