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It wasn't against the law for her to catch the bridal bouquet, Barbara Strong told herself as she cupped her hands to catch the flowers that had been thrown so expertly at her. Besides, if the bride didn't care that the bouquet went to someone who wouldn't fulfill the prediction of being the next to marry, what did Sheriff Wall care?
The sheriff was standing across the room from Barbara and scowling at her as if she'd just lifted the silverware. There was enough music and chatter all around that Barbara doubted anyone else noticed the sheriff's frown--especially not now that everyone was looking at her.
Great, she thought, as she forced herself to smile. The whole town of Dry Creek, Montana; all two hundred people, had seen her catch Lizette's bridal bouquet, and now they had one more story to tell each other about her.
For months, Barbara had thought that the interest people here showed in her and her two young children had been because their arrival was the only thing that had happened in this small town for a long time. The days had been cold and people hadn't been able to make the trip into Billings very often. Some days there had been so much snow on the roads no one went anywhere. Added to that, everyone had complained that the television reception had been worse than usual for some reason this past winter.
People had been bored.
Barbara had understood why they would be looking for something new to entertain them. But she and her children had been here almost five months now. In television terms, they were last year's reruns. Nobody should be watching them with such keen interest, especially not the sheriff.
The chatter increased as people came upto Barbara and congratulated her. It was dark outside, but inside the large community center, strings of tiny white lights glowed along the rustic wood walls. A circle of people stayed around Barbara after the initial flurry of congratulations had died down.
There was a full minute of awkward silence as everyone seemed to stare at their shoes or boots and wait for something. Now that they had her surrounded, Barbara realized, they didn't quite know what to do with her.
Charley, a white-haired man, was the first one to clear his throat.
"I don't expect you've had a chance to meet my nephew. He lives in Billings," Charley said as he stepped closer to Barbara and lowered his voice. Charley was one of the first people Barbara had met when she'd arrived in Dry Creek last fall. "I don't mind saying he's a fine man. Single and he loves kids. Works as a mechanic in a shop, too, so he could provide for a family--even now he might be able to fix you up with a car so you'd have one. Sort of a courting present, you know--like flowers. He's good with cars."
Charley and some other old men spent their days around the woodstove in the hardware store and they seemed to know more than most people about what was going on in this small town. Barbara respected Charley. He had been a rancher all his life and still had a tan line on his forehead that marked where the brim of a straw hat would normally sit. He knew about hard work. He was also one of the leaders of this community. His roots went deep here. That was one reason why Barbara wasn't as annoyed as she could have been with his matchmaking.
"You know I can't accept a--" Barbara started to say. She'd begin with the obvious protests and work her way up to all the reasons she wasn't ever going to get married again.
"Oh, it'd be his pleasure, don't worry about that. He'd love to help out a pretty young woman like yourself."
Charley smiled at her. Barbara thought he looked relieved to have his piece said.
Jacob, one of the other old men who regularly sat by the woodstove, shook his head in disgust. Jacob was the one who had invited Lizette, who had just married Barbara's cousin Judd, to come to Dry Creek and open up her dance studio.
"She's young all right!" Jacob protested. "I don't know what you're thinking. That nephew of yours has to be fifty if he's a day. If no one cares about age, I could court her myself. And I'll be seventy-six this July." Jacob's voice rose higher with each word he said and his gray beard quivered with indignation.
"Come to think on it, maybe I will do just that--if you can't come up with someone better than your nephew! Besides, what's wrong with that son of yours? He's sitting out there on that ranch of his not more than five miles from here. He could use a wife--and he's young enough." Jacob looked around the room. "Where is he anyway? I don't see him here."
"He doesn't come to weddings," Linda, the young woman who owned the café, said softly as she stepped closer to Barbara's side. "Besides, Charley's son is already in love with someone else. We need to find Barbara a man who's going to be hers exclusively. That's the only way it can really work."
Barbara was surprised to smell jasmine perfume on Linda. In the five months she had known the café owner, the young woman had seemed to go out of her way to avoid perfume and skirts and anything that would hint that she was an attractive woman. Usually, she just wore a big white chef's apron over her blue jeans and T-shirt.
Linda had spoken of some unrequited love in her life one morning when she and Barbara had sat at a table in the café and shared a pot of tea. Barbara wondered if Linda was thinking of that love now, whoever he was. If she was, it had brought a wistful, fragile look to her eyes.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not--" Barbara tried again. She looked at the faces around her. She liked all of these people. She didn't want to disappoint them. She just wished they could have asked her for something she could give. "Of course, I appreciate it. But you don't need to--"
"Don't you worry none about finding a man who will be yours altogether. My nephew will be faithful," Charley interrupted staunchly. He'd found his second wind, Barbara thought in dismay. "He may be old, but he's a fine man. Committed."
"Well, I'm committed, too, if that's all you need," Jacob replied. "Should be committed is more like it, you old coot," Charley said. "No one here is talking about you."
Barbara saw the vein grow more pronounced on Charley's neck.
"No one needs to be committed," Barbara said as she held up her hands in surrender. A petal or two fell off the bouquet as she lifted it. She made sure she smiled when she talked. She supposed she should be touched that people were worried about finding her a new husband. "It's all been a mistake. I didn't mean to catch the bouquet; it was just reflexes. The thing was coming at me and I just grabbed it so it wouldn't hit me. It doesn't mean anything. I'm not looking for a husband."
She didn't add that now that she'd had a moment to think about it, she wished she'd had enough sense to duck when she'd first seen the bridal bouquet heading her way. Failing that, she should have let it hit her square on. She wasn't sure if she'd live long enough for the story of how she'd caught Lizette's bouquet to fade from the minds of everyone around here.
That was because every story about her lasted longer than it should. That was what had finally made Barbara realize something was wrong.
Barbara had been okay with all of the interest at first. She'd moved around enough to know how it was when a new person moved into a small town. The heightened-interest stage came first, but usually it didn't last long, and once it was over, someone would ask the newcomer to serve coffee at a PTA meeting or head up a fund-raiser for the school, and that was an official sign that the person was no longer an outsider but a member of the community.
Barbara was prepared for this cycle. She wasn't sure how many times the person needed to pour coffee before they really belonged to the community, but she figured it was probably somewhere around a thousand cups of coffee poured at various functions.
It was the after-coffee place that Barbara wanted to reach--the place where she was a comfortable part of everything just as these people standing around her now were part of it all.
She'd begun to wonder if she'd ever reach that place. There was a moment of silence as the conversation stopped swirling around Barbara. There was still noise elsewhere in the community center, but the circle around Barbara had grown quiet.
"I suppose we can't blame you for not looking for another husband--you probably still have feelings for the one you have," Charley finally said quietly.
"Of course she has feelings," Linda agreed and then sighed. "Sometimes that's just the way of it. No matter what you do, the feelings stay with you."
"They say even geese mate for life," Jacob added with a grunt. "Doesn't matter what kind of a bird they end up with, they stay hooked to that one. Reckon it's the same with her and him."
Barbara shook her head. Finally, they were at the heart of why the people of Dry Creek were so fascinated with her. If it had only been she and her children who had moved to town, the others wouldn't have been interested for so long. No, the interest was mostly because of him.
Her ex-husband was sitting in the jail in Billings awaiting trial for robbing several gas stations. It was obvious that the people of Dry Creek were watching to see what happened with her and Neal before they welcomed her into the fold and asked her to do something as simple as pour coffee for them at some function. Barbara wasn't sure what people expected to learn about her by waiting, but she had a sinking feeling that at least some of them were wondering if she was going to play Bonnie to her ex-husband's Clyde.
Barbara didn't know how to explain to everyone that Neal no longer held any part of her heart or her life. He didn't have the faithfulness of a tomcat, let alone a goose. She wouldn't follow him anywhere...and certainly not into a life of crime. If she had learned anything from Neal, it was that crime ruined lives. She'd never be Bonnie to anyone's Clyde.
She hesitated long enough that a whisper came from somewhere behind her. Barbara knew she wasn't supposed to hear it.
"Poor thing. She's so brave," the woman's voice said, low and filled with pity. "And him sitting there in jail--he's not worth it."