Excerpt: The Cowboy Crashes A Wedding
Code of the West
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 — people talked and laughed, the juke box 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 then, sitting with three other women at a table near the window.
She had her back to him, but it didn’t matter. He knew her 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 have thought she’d be pretty eager to love him.
But she was marrying somebody else.
His brows drew down, and he moved, heading deliberately towards 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 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, but he hadn’t taken the time to shave. He’d figured she’d need him so much it wouldn’t matter.
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, he’d be happy to oblige her. He understood 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 that. 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 picking up to leave me again.”
“Now, darlin’ —”
“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 disgusted.
About the same way he felt. “You talk some sense to her,” he said to Poppy.
“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 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 he 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 wouldn’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 in order to know he was there. If Cash was anywhere within a hundred miles, her internal radar could sense him. She’d been attuned to Cash Callahan 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.