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"Put your hands in your pockets, boys, and dig deep. I'm about to lighten your loads."
Bending over a pool table that had seen more money change hands than Chase Manhattan Bank, Audrey Griffin stretched one toned, well-muscled arm along the green felt. Loose auburn waves spilled over her shoulder as she cocked her opposite elbow back and lined up a seemingly impossible shot.
"Thirteen in the corner," she called, then sank the ball so fast, a few of the men around the table cussed a blue streak guarandamnteed to set their mamas to praying.
Laying her cue stick atop the well-used table, Audrey brushed her hands, shrugged and let an obnoxious grin spread over her face. "Anyone for darts?"
Colby Dale told her what would have to happen to hell before he played anything with her ever again, but he tossed her a ten spot before walking away. Two of the others coughed up handfuls of dollar bills, and Jed Clooney gave her two bucks in change plus an IOU, just to be irritating.
"Aw, c'mon." Audrey gathered her winnings, patting the cash into a neat pile. "I've been beating y'all since Red Bullet won the Preakness.You gotta be used to it by now."
"You've been gloating about it that long, too," Jed reminded her as he gathered up cue sticks, "and we're not used to that yet." But he tweaked Audrey's nose as he passed by to show there were no hard feelings. "Nice game, junior. The old man would be proud."
Audrey felt tears well up.
Blinking the emotion away, she pushed her smile higher. No way would she lose it now. Not when she'd been sucking it up successfully all day.
"Beer! I'm buying." Leading the procession to the bar, sheordered ten Michelob drafts from Herman, the proprietor of Hot to Trot, added shots for those who wanted them and raised her jigger of bourbon immediately when it came. "Live for today, for tomorrow we may die," she toasted, trying to remember if there was more to the quote, then deciding it was fine just as it stood.
The boys must have agreed with her, because every shot glass bottomed up along with hers. The glasses returned to the bar with a clunk, warm hands reached for icy beers, and talk turned to a couple of local yearlings that had graduated from the Keeneland spring sale in April.
As the conversation heated up along the mahogany and tufted-leather bar, Audrey relinquished her stool and stepped away from the others. The guys would be content to nurse their beers and talk horses the rest of the night, but she didn't have the focus right now to discuss business. Nor did she have the desire to chase her whiskey with beer. It felt better tonight, or at least more appropriate, to let the eighty-proof Kentucky bourbon have its way with herburning the back of her throat, threading her veins with a thin coil of heat that made her feel uncomfortably weak. Patting the base of her throat, where the alcohol stung, she decided that bourbon and life had a lot in common: fun in the moment, but you had to be prepared for consequences.
Antsy, Audrey glanced around the room and spied the jukebox. Music. That's what she needed tonightand not the sticky Peyton Place theme currently playing, either. Slipping away to feed the machine, she chose her songs, then faced Hot To Trot's scuffed square of a dance floor, her gaze flicking toward the bar.
A couple of women with whom she'd gone to high school had joined the group of men, scooting their jeans-clad, teeny tiny tushies onto bar stools already occupied by a jockey and a groom from Quest, the same stable at which she worked. Each woman had one superslender arm flung around the neck of the man whose seat she shared, probably to avoid falling off. Audrey smiled. If she tried to plant her generous bootie on a stool that was already taken, she might hip check some poor jockey into the next county.
As the first of her music selections began to play, she took a breath and determined to have a good time, even if she danced alone to every song. Since eleven that morning, nasty what-if thoughts had been pelting her brain like buckshot. Sound and movement might drown them out.
Reminding herself that dancing by one's lonesome ranked pretty low on the list of life's injustices, she prepared to dive in
And then she saw him.
Golden-haired and granite-jawed, over eighteen hands high and as broad as a lumberjack, he seemed bigger than life in every way, as if he'd been carved from the side of a mountain. Earthy, hard-edged and enduring, he gave the startling impression that he had been around since the beginning of time that he could be around forever.
Since she was a kid, Audrey had been a dedicated people watcher. One of her worst habits, aside from cutting her toenails on the bed, was to file people into categories of her own creation. The stranger at the bar fit neatly into "Blessed At Birth." Born beautifuland unless she missed her guess, richhe'd probably developed his taste for designer clothing in preschool.
Despite the dim bar lighting, the man's bloodline was plain as day. He'd been born to win. His suit covered a body clearly trimmed of excess. His hair was perfect, and she'd bet a dollar to a doughnut that his nails were manicured, which made her curl her own fingers into her palm. She was a farrier; she spent more time working on horses' hooves than on her own cuticles.
Audrey didn't date much, but when she did, she had rules. Thoroughbreds were strictly off-limits. All that perfection made her queasy. The men to whom she was attracted were usually local guys from the community college, where she took one class every semester. What the men she dated had in common was that they were not interested in long-term anything (which kept the goodbyes quick and pain-free, exactly how goodbyes should be) and they were average. Not awash in so much testosterone that they seemed like superheroes waiting for a damsel to rescue.
Audrey Griffin was not a girl who believed in knights-in-shining-armor or in being rescued.
She'd already spent a good dozen of her twenty-four years pulling herself up by her bootstraps. Would it be so awful if she lost herself in a man who looked as if he could vanquish a dragon without breaking a sweat? Just this once.
All day she'd felt as if she were disappearing, bit by tiny bit. The stranger's gaze seemed to bring her back.
And if his gaze is that powerful, imagine what his touch can do.
Heat rushed through her. The man seemed to glow in the darkness of the bar, more beautiful and more mysterious than the others present. Most mysterious of all, he never looked away. Men like him rarely noticed her, and that had never bothered her before, not a bit. Yet
She couldn't help it; his attention made her feel special, almost protected.
It was sophomoric; it was foolish. It was the kind of magical thinking she'd abandoned in junior high. Still, she had the feeling that nothing bad could happen if he was with her.
Oh, how she ached to believe the lie for a night.
Her song continued, filling the bar with its intoxicating rhythm.
Throat dry from the whiskey and nerves, Audrey took a step toward the stranger.
And then another.
He continued to watch her, too, and she wished she could better read his expression, but she decided to let the ambiguity be part of the pleasure.
She wasn't a sexy dancer, but she liked to move. Of their own volition, her hips began to sway to the beat. With nerves making her skin tingle, she gave him a smile that she hoped held the invitation to join her on the dance floor. Her mind began to whirl as she reached the place where she had only to raise her voice above the music in order for him to hear her. Should she speak now or wait until she was closer and could whisper the invitation to join her?
Moistening her lipstick-less lips, she drew them back in a smile of invitation, and
"Kentucky Ale and a Chardonnay." Herman's deep baritone resonated as he placed two glasses in front of Audrey's mystery man. "You want a bowl of peanuts for your table?"
Too quickly, too easily, her fantasy date's attention broke away from her and swung to the bartender. "No, thanks."
Audrey felt the first sickening moments of embarrassment. Two glasses? And one of them a Chardonnay?
He didn't look her way again, not the tiniest glance, as he unrolled bills from a rather thick wad of money, motioned for Herman to keep the change and picked up his drinks. Audrey watched him, trying hard to feel philosophical instead of fourteen, as his smooth gait carried him to a table in the shadowed corner of the bar.
Since his back was to her now, she risked following him with her gaze. Dim lighting or not, the truth was immediately apparent. Waiting for him on the opposite side of the round wood table sat a woman whose beauty seemed otherworldly. Where Audrey was tall with a perfect build for stable work, the other woman looked like a ballerina from the waist-up. A V-neck blouse in soft pink set off her mother-of-pearl skin and delicate collarbones. Audrey wore a short-sleeved, button-down shirt that could have belonged to a man. Her bold auburn hair seemed almost cartoonish compared to the other girl's soft, nut-brown waves. And when the lovely creature smiled, Audrey cringed inside.
She had sent a come-hither smile and wagged her hips at a man whose girlfriend made "perfection" seem like a criminal understatement. She, who had learned long ago that her highly imperfect life made running with the Thoroughbreds of the world about as likely as a draft horse competing in the Derby.
Audrey didn't think she was unattractive. She knew that if she put a little effort into her appearance she could look like well, a girl. But putting effort into her appearance would defeat her purpose: to weed out imposters.
Life was full of people who had no problem loving you when everything was going right. But throw 'em a curvefinancial ruin, physical hardship, a little terminal illness, sayand the phonies scattered like rats to a sewer.
Her eyes began to burn. She blinked hard. Lately she was tired and not above wondering why some lives seemed to be inherently more graceful, crafted more ex-quisitely hell, just plain easier than others.
Maudlin alert. Stop thinking.
Turning, Audrey let her eyelids drift shut as she moved to the beat of Cyndi Lauper's quirky vocals, intent on shutting out every other sound and especially intent on drowning out her thoughts as she danced alone toward the middle of the floor.
Raising her arms over her head, she sang along, pretending she believed every word of the lyrics.
"Girls just wanna have fun."
"If your eyebrows dip any lower, you're going to get hair in your beer."
His tablemate's comment jerked Shane from the odd trance into which he'd fallen. Reaching for his drink, he smiled apologetically. "Sorry. I must be jet-lagged."
"Mm-hmm." Hilary Cambria, who'd traveled with him to Kentucky from their native Australia, and who looked fresh as a daisy, gave him a pitying look. "You should be out there, dancing." Pursing the lips Shane had always thought were one of her best features, she cocked her head to consider him. "You need to lighten up, boyo. Live a little." She raised her glass. "Like her."
Shane didn't have to glance over to know whom his cousin meant. The redhead. The pool shark who bought shots for her mates and drank whiskey like one of the boys. There'd been so much laughter and melodramatic groaning around the pool table when he and Hilary had first entered the bar, he couldn't help but notice the woman who'd been in the middle of it all.
She behaved as if she hadn't a responsibility in the world. She dressed as if she didn't give a damn, yet she had more men around her than a swimsuit model.
He knew without having to look again that her skin was the color of wheat, her hair a red-brown that was several shades darker than her many freckles. She was tall, strong and curvy like a milk-fed farm girl, her innocent look at odds with her bold personality.
"Live for today, for tomorrow we may die." He'd heard her toast, and frankly it had irritated the hell out of him. He couldn't stomach a cavalier attitude toward life, yet part of him wanted to challenge her to a game of pool and give her a real race for her money. He wanted to spend the night finding out what was truer: the sassy attitude or the fresh-off-the-farm appearance.
Another part of him knew that a woman like the redhead was simply one of life's distractions, and he'd stopped indulging in those years earlier, when he'd realized his need to find a purpose for his life outweighed all other desires.
"I saw you watching her." Hilary interrupted his thoughts. "She wanted to dance with you, you know. She was walking right toward you."
Shane took a sip of his beer, buying himself a moment. He wanted to answer this well.