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Logan Carswell, former catcher for the Chicago Cubs, had two surefire remedies for a troubled mind, and he couldn't use either one. Booze was out because he'd taken pain meds for his knee so he could dance at Alex Keller's wedding reception in Shoshone, Wyoming. As for the second method, he didn't know any of the women in this tiny town well enough.
Eventually, in spite of the meds, his knee began to bother him. Retreating to one of the Spirits and Spurs's wellworn bar stools, he swiveled to face the dance floor, where Alex was twostepping with his bride, Tyler. Logan had known him ever since they were both kids living in the same Chicago neighborhood.
Alex had never had trouble getting girls, with his allAmerican blond good looks. Add to that his natural charisma behind a microphone, and he'd been able to pick and choose. Apparently he'd chosen Tyler, a darkhaired Italian beauty, or she'd chosen him.
Near as Logan could tell watching the happy couple on the dance floor, they were both quite pleased with the situation. Alex was obviously in love and seemed to have his life together at last. Logan should be so lucky. But he refused to allow his problems to cast a shadow over this celebration. "Can I get you anything, Mr. Carswell?" Logan swiveled back to the bar and concluded that luck hadn't totally deserted him. Of the two bartenders working the wedding reception, he'd drawn the girl instead of the guy.
He'd noticed her earlier. She wore her sunstreaked brown hair in a nononsense ponytail and didn't seem to go in for a lot of makeup. Her hazel eyes tilted up slightly at the corners, adding a touch of the exotic to her girlnextdoor appeal.
From her enthusiasm and ready smile, he guessed she might be exactly his typea born optimist. He could sure use a dose of optimism right now.
As he gazed at her, he realized she was looking right back with similar interest. He'd built a night of outstanding sex on less. But Shoshone was a folksy town, and onenight stands wouldn't go unnoticed around here the way they would in Chicago.
Still, he could flirt with her a little without doing any harm. He tipped back the Stetson that Alex had insisted he buy, along with the requisite jeans, boots and yoked shirt. "I think this is the part where the teetotalling stranger orders a sarsaparilla." He wished he could remember her name, but if someone had mentioned it, he'd forgotten.
She laughed. "Sorry. Don't have that. But the root beer is excellent."
After placing a coaster decorated with a bucking bronco in front of him, she picked up a glass mug. Her nails were short and unpolished, her movements quick and efficient. "How do you like Shoshone so far?"
"We think so."
He grabbed the first conversational topic he could think of. "Is it true that this bar is haunted?"
"So they say. That's why it's called the Spirits and Spurs." She filled the mug to the top, and foam oozed over the lip. "Personally, I've never seen a ghost in here, but some claim they have."
Logan had never considered root beer foam erotic, but as it slid down the side of the mug, his balls tightened. Not much, but enough for him to register the sensation. Yes, a good romp in the hay with someone cute and personable like this bartender would be therapeutic, but he didn't give himself much chance of having that any time soon.
She allowed the foam to settle before putting the mug on the coaster. "I've never talked to a major league ballplayer before." She sounded fascinated by the prospect.
Oh, boy. If she had a fantasy image of him as some big celebrity, he needed to nip that in the bud. "I'm afraid you're not talking to one now, either. I'm out of the game."
She met his gaze with sympathy in her eyes. "I know. Alex mentioned it. He said if you were still playing, you wouldn't have been able to come to the wedding."
"Right." He managed a smile. "At least some good came out of it."
"Still, it can't be easy. But kudos to you for putting on a brave face for the party."
A knot loosened in his chest. Just kind words from a complete stranger, but they soothed him in a way he couldn't explain. "No, it's not." He rarely admitted that to anyone, because nobody liked a guy who felt sorry for himself. But after tonight, he'd probably never see her again, so letting down his guard was easier.
"Josie said you were a starting catcher for the Cubs."
That made him smile for real. This adorable bartender didn't follow the game, or she would have known that fact without getting the info from Josie, Alex's sister. Logan's injury had come while defending the plate against a rather spectacular slide into home, and the news clip had been replayed a lot last year.
"Yes, I was a catcher," he said. At least she wouldn't be pestering him for gossip about the bigname players. Sure, his ego took a small hit because she wasn't a fan, but all things considered, he counted it a good thing that she wasn't.
He decided to extend the friendliness. "So how long have you been tending bar?"
"Not long. I was the restaurant waitress until recently, when Josie asked me to start easing into her job so I'll be comfortable with it by the time her baby's born and she has to take time off."
"You seem comfortable with it now."
"Only because she sent me to a crash course in bartending."
Logan nodded. "I know all about those. When I was in the minors, I supplemented my income serving drinks."
"Yikes. You probably know more about this than I do!"
"Nah. It's been several years. Excuse me for not remembering, but what's your name?"
"Caro. Caro Davis."
"Karo like the syrup?"
"Caro like short for Carolyn. Josie started calling me that a while back, and I like it. I feel more like a Caro than a Carolyn, anyway."
He thought the shorter name suited her. "Is Josie a good boss?" Logan remembered Josie as a pesky little kid who was constantly tagging after him and Alex. He had a hard time imagining her as a wife and mothertobe, let alone the proud owner of a cowboy bar in Wyoming. She'd married Jack Chance, the oldest of the three Chance brothers, and seemed blissfully happy living at the Last Chance Ranch, located about ten miles outside town.
Caro grinned at him. "As if I'd tell you if she wasn't. But she's great. She managed to promote me to this position without upsetting Tracy, who's a little young to take over Josie's job, or Steve, who's a new hire but knows bartending. Either of them could have resented me getting it. Josie handled it beautifully."
"Hey, Caro." The tall guy sharing bartending duties glanced her way. "Orders piling up down here."
"Be right there, Steve." She smiled at Logan. "Excuse me. gotta do my job."
"You bet." He watched her walk away, ponytail bouncing. Damn, that smile of hers really cheered him up. He'd love to see more of it. He'd love to no, he shouldn't start imagining how her perky self would react in bed. He shouldn't, but he did.
"Hey, Logan, don't be hitting on my best employee." Josie took the bar stool on his left and punched him playfully on the shoulder. She was more dressed up than he'd ever seen her, all blue satin and lace. Instead of braiding her hair in one strand down her back as she usually did, she'd created an upswept arrangement that made her look like a princess.
He winked at her. "Wouldn't dream of it."
"Yeah, right. You were sizing her up just now, and don't try to deny it."
"Just having some innocent fun." Thoughts weren't deeds, right? "By the way, you look terrific, Josie. This Jack character must be treating you right."
"Don't try to change the subject." But her gray eyes, so like Alex's, sparkled with obvious pleasure at the compliment. "Caro has enough on her plate without having you swoop in and dazzle her with your bigcity ways."
"Bigcity ways?" He pressed a hand to his heart. "You make me sound like an operator. I'm wounded."
"You know what I'm talking about, Logan. A guy can't live the life you have without picking up a boatload of polish and sophistication."
"Now that's more like it." He winked at her. "Thanks for the compliment, Josie."
"See, that sly wink is exactly what I'm talking about. And I can tell she's impressed with you."
"You think so?" His poor ego could take all the help it could get.
"Don't mess with her, okay?"
"I had no such plans." He'd already decided that getting cozy with a local girl would be a mistake. Now Josie was warning him off of this particular one, which was more than enough to cool his jets. He really wasn't here to cause more problems. He already had enough to handle, like what the hell to do with the rest of his life.
But he couldn't help being curious about the cute little bartender. "What did you mean when you said she has enough on her plate?"
"It wouldn't be my place to tell you."
"No. Listen, take my word for it." Josie patted his arm. "Caro's become a close friend in addition to being an employee, so I can tell you with certainty that she doesn't have time for romance right now, and she especially doesn't have time for someone who will be gone in a couple of days."
"Is that when my guest privileges expire?"
She flushed. "Uh no! You can certainly stay as long as you want. I just thought, with Alex and Tyler leaving on their honeymoon tomorrow, that you'd well, you'd want to go back to Chicago."
She had no idea how much he dreaded going home. The season was in the middle of its usual August frenzy, with billboards and TV ads reminding him every ten seconds that some guys were playing ball and he was not. He was thrilled to get away from the unspoken message that he was a washed up hasbeen at the tender age of thirtytwo.
"Well, yeah, I need to get back eventually," he said. "But I've never spent time on a ranch, so I was thinking, as long as I'm out here, I'd like to play cowboy for a few days. Unless I'd be in the way."
"Of course not. We'd love to have you. Are you thinking about riding?"
He wasn't sure what he was thinking about, except that the Last Chance felt like a haven, and he could use one. "Riding would be great. I'll need a little instruction, but"
"What about your knee?"
"It's my right knee that's dicey, and I vaguely remember you mount from the left, so I should be fine."
Josie smiled at him, understanding in her gray eyes. "You can stay as long as you want, Logan. Glad to have you."
"I appreciate it." More than she knew.
"But leave Caro alone."
"You've got it." And to emphasize his willingness to ignore the lovely bartender, he left his halffull root beer on the bar and held out his hand to Josie. "May I have this dance, Alex's little sis?"
"Might as well. Can't drink!"
"That's right, you're on the wagon for the next few months. I'll bet you're popular as a designated driver these days."
"I am, at that." As they arrived at the edge of the dance floor, she moved into his arms. "I must say, you picked up country dancing really fast for a guy raised in the city."
Logan guided her expertly into the crowd of twostepping couples. "Thanks. Guess it's the athlete in me."
"Guess so." She twirled under his arm. "The Chance brothers are famous for their dancing. You're not quite in their league, but given more practice, you could be."
Logan grinned. "See? I have the boots, the jeans, the hat and the dance moves. I'm halfway to becoming a cowboy already."
The rush of drink orders finally slowed, but when Caro returned to check on Logan, he'd hit the dance floor with Josie. He'd left his unfinished root beer behind, though, which meant he might be back. She felt a little jolt of excitement as she remembered the way he'd looked at her with obvious interest.
And she'd looked right back. She had no business flirting with anyone right now, but those deep brown eyes temporarily made her forget her obligations. And that, she realized with a pang of guilt, was nice for a change. She just couldn't let it get out of hand.
Her grandma Bonnie, who had raised her, joyfully and without complaint, deserved all Caro's free time. Caro had been a baby when her parents divorced, and Bonnie had welcomed her daughter and granddaughter into her house. When Caro was twelve, her mother had died in a blizzard on her way home from work. Grandma Bonnie's strength had seen Caro through those dark days and taught her that a person had to be resilient to survive life's tragedies.
Her dad had started a new family by then, but Caro had never seriously considered living with him. She'd stayed with her grandma in the only home she'd ever known. Selling that beloved house so that she could afford assisted living in Jackson for the increasingly frail Bonnie had broken both their hearts.
Caro visited her grandmother every day in hopes she wouldn't feel abandoned, but she obviously wasn't happy with the move, necessary though it had been. For the first time since Caro had known her, Bonnie had lost her resilience and optimistic outlook. Caro had to be optimistic enough for both of them.
Lately Caro had done nothing but work and visit her grandma. No wonder she'd been bewitched by a heated glance. Besides, she'd been predisposed to find this exbaseball player intriguing.
Alex had warned everyone to tread carefully around Logan, whose wicked knee injury had ended his career and the dream he'd cherished from the age of seven. He'd made it to the big leagues and then to the Cubs, the team he'd always wanted to play for. Now he was done.
Caro had never been able to resist a person in need of comfort, a trait she'd picked up from her grandma. Besides, Logan was gorgeous, the kind of gorgeous that made her think of hot nights on cool sheets. Good thing he'd be gone soon. Once Alex and Tyler left on their honeymoon, Logan would have no reason to stay.
She filled several orders while Logan whirled around the dance floor with Josie, but somehow, about the time he returned to his root beer, she happened to be standing at that end of the bar. She hadn't meant to.