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"Hey, cowboy." The blonde barmaid leaned across the three-foot expanse of aged wood. "I know just what you need to make your day complete."
Devlin Murphy glanced up from his mouthwatering burger and thick-cut fries, the house specialty here in the Blue Creek Saloon. He wasn't really a cowboy, despite the black Stetson perched on his head. She must be new and it'd been a while since he'd been in here.
Eight long months to be exact.
His brothers had tried to coax him to his old stomping grounds a few times since he'd gotten his feet back under himliterally. Devlin just hadn't been ready.
But spring had come early in Destiny, Wyoming, and on this warm, late April afternoon, Dev decided it was past time to rejoin the world of the living.
He bumped up the brim of his hat and offered what he hoped was more of his old prowler grin than his recent pain-filled grimace. Not an easy feat thanks to the familiar white-hot fire crawling down both shoulders toward his elbows.
"Oh, yeah? What's that?"
"Just one minute." She offered a quick wink and then turned away.
That simple gesture did nothing for him. Not anymore.
This time last year he would've been all over that suggestive sign, making sure he left with her phone number, if not the lady herself.
Now? Not interested.
And wasn't that just another kick in the ass to go along with the butt whipping he'd taken since the helicopter crash that had left him and his eldest brother, Adam, stranded for three days in the Grand Tetons National Forest.
A helicopter he'd been piloting.
Thankfully Adam had come out with just a few bruises and scratches. Dev had been the one who'd spent five months in the hospital dealing with a broken leg and two broken arms. His recovery had been slow and painful, and while he could finally take care of himself again, he'd hit a brick wall with his physical therapy. When he bothered to go, the weekly sessions were painful, without any lasting results to show for his efforts.
Of course, sitting at a bar with a straight-on view of the rows of bottles waiting to be mixed and poured for the saloon's patrons probably wasn't the smartest thing to be doing right now. Not with three of his former best friends staring back at him.
Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker.
Yes, he and the boys went way back. Back to before he could even drive. But the four of them hadn't pulled an all-nighter in six years.
That didn't mean the desire had left him.
No, that stayed with him every day.
Just then the barmaid returned and placed a frosty mug of freshly poured beer in front of him.
Every pain-filled muscle in Devlin's body froze.
"Here you go." She offered a toothy grin. "You look like a man who's earned a tall, cold one."
Dev kept his gaze glued to the glass, the golden color calling to him like buried treasure to a weary pirate. White frothy foam lapped against the rim while beads of condensation chased one another down the length of the mug until they soaked the paper napkin below.
He swallowed, his forearms pressing hard into the rolled edge of the bar as his fingers curled into tight fists. A deep inhale through his nose caused the yeasty, bitter flavor he still remembered to come alive again inside his mouth.
Damn, coming here had been a bad idea.
"Uh." He paused and blinked hard, breaking the hypnotic hold the beer had over him. After clearing his throat, Dev looked up at the barmaid and tried to summon the courage to set her straight. "I don't"
"Lisa, why don't you take care of the crew at the end of the bar?" A strong feminine voice cut him off. "I'll take over here."
The blonde turned and looked at her boss, Racy Steele, the fiery redhead whose personality matched her name even though she was happily married to the town's sheriff and was the mother of twins.
"But I'm talking to I mean, I'm helping "
Dev sat silently as the two women stared each other down. He knew who would win, and sure enough, when Racy tilted her head slightly, the barmaid shrugged and turned away.
With the ease of experience, Racy made the beer disappear, replacing it with a tall glass of ice water. "Sorry about that. She's new."
Dev nodded, releasing a deep breath.
"It's good to see you up and on your feet again," Racy continued, offering an easy smile. "You've been away from the Blue Creek for too long."
"Been away from everything too long."
"Of course, when you are here you usually don't sit at the bar."
Another defense mechanism.
When he'd decided to give up the booze, he refused to give up the friendships or the fun. Somehow sitting in one of the booths or the tables scattered around the large dance floor made the ongoing battle easier to fight.
"Yeah, I know." He grabbed a fry and popped it into his mouth.
"And you rarely come in alone."
He'd waved to a couple of familiar faces when he'd first come inside, but purposely kept walking until he reached the bar, determined to do this by himself.
"Everyone's working," he finally said. "You know, being how it's Wednesday."
Racy braced her elbows on the bar, leveling a familiar stare that told him she wasn't buying his flimsy excuse. A move she'd probably perfected over the years from dealing with Blue Creek customers. "Except you?"
"No, I'm back behind the desk at the family business."
Finally. Only whenever he sat for longer than an hour in front of the bank of computers that he used to design the home security systems sold by Murphy Mountain Log Homes, his shoulders started to pulsate, sending electric shocks into his elbows and making his fingers numb.
"Just decided to get some fresh air."
"Inside a bar? At two in the afternoon?"
"I had a craving." Damn, that didn't sound right. "For a burger."
"Do you need me to call anyone?"
Her softly spoken question caused Dev's back to stiffen, his hands falling to his lap. He rubbed at the front pocket of his jeans, searching for and finding the bronze Alcoholics Anonymous medallion he always carried with him. A reminder of what he had achieved over the last six years.
"Someone like the good sheriff of Destiny?" he asked, an edge to his words.
"If you need to talk to Gage, he'll come. As a friend." Compassion filled Racy's brown eyes. "You know that, right?"
The fight disappeared as quickly as it came.
Hell, he and Gage had a history that went back to playing football together in high school. He was also the one who took Dev to his first AA meeting. "Yeah, I know."
"Or maybe there's someone else you'd like to talk to?"
Meaning his sponsor.
Mac had been there for Dev from the very beginning. They'd met at a local meeting, bonding over a shared love of flying, and soon Dev had asked the older man to be the one person he could turn to, anytime day or night, the one person who'd understand the fight Dev faced as he struggled for sanity, for sobriety.
For his life.
Dev pulled in a deep breath, and then slowly released it. The crisis had passed. He'd faced temptation before and would again. Recognizing the want and walking away was something he'd done on a daily basis, especially over the last few months. "No, thanks. I'm good."
There was that head tilt again.
"I mean it, Racy. Just let me enjoy my meal." He paused, searching for a way to lighten the mood. His gaze flicked to the end of the bar. "And the view."
Racy grinned. "Forget it, Murphy. She's only twentythree."
"Ouch. Now, you're making me feel old."
"You're not old." Racy fiddled with something behind the bar out of his sight. "She's just too young."
Dev reached for his burger. "Doesn't look that way from here."
"She was still in elementary school when you were going to fraternity parties at the University of Wyoming."
"Thanks a lot." Okay, that was too young even if he had been interested. Dev took a bite of his burger, chewed and then swallowed, watching as Racy hovered nearby. "You don't have to babysit me."
"I'm not babysitting." She wiped down the already clean areas on either side of him. "I'm working."
"You do realize the Blue Creek belongs to me, right? That means I get to decide where and when"
A buzzing noise had Racy dropping the rag and reaching for the cell phone tucked into a rear pocket. Her face lit up with a big smile as she hit a button and pressed the phone to her ear.
"Hey, honey. How's the world's sexiest sheriff?" She offered Dev a quick wink, then laughed. "Yes, I can feel you blushing from here."
Devlin just shook his head as Racy stepped away to have a private conversation with her husband. Sometimes it still amazed him that Racy and Gage, two people as different as night and day, had fallen in love and married, but he'd stood up for them at their wedding.
Something he hadn't been able to do for Adam and Fay.
His sister-in-law had been almost four months pregnant by the time she and Adam had worked out their issues last summer, and they hadn't wanted to wait any longer to get married.
He'd ended up watching a video of their September wedding from his hospital bed, unable to keep his promise to be his eldest brother's best man.
At least he'd been back on his feet, sort of, when the newest member of the Murphy family, Adam Alistair Murphy Jr., A.J. for short, had arrived back in February.
"How about a fresh piece of apple pie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert?"
Racy's question pulled Dev from his thoughts, and he realized she'd finished her call and had cleared away his empty plate. "No, thanks."
He climbed off the bar stool, leaning heavily against the bar as he dug for his wallet. Damn, his leg felt like jelly and he'd left the cane his physical therapist insisted he still needed in his Jeep.
"Time for me to head back to work."
She smiled and gave his hand a quick squeeze after taking his money. "You plan to stop by the firehouse on your way?"
That question caught him by surprise. "No. Why?"
"No reason. It's just that your name comes up whenever any of the team is here. I thought they'd like to know one of their best and brightest volunteers is up and around."
Yeah, up and around, but nowhere close to being able to rejoin the department. If ever. No, he wasn't ready to face his former coworkers yet.
Dev shoved his wallet back in his pocket and offered a quick prayer he wouldn't fall on his face when he turned around. "See you later, Racy. Thanks for the great meal."
"Say hi to your family."
Dev acknowledged her words with a wave, hating the ever-present limp that marked his walk as he headed out. His family said the slight hitch in his step wasn't as noticeable as Dev thought, but it was just another reminder of how much his life had changed in the last year.
Making his way across the gravel parking lot, he opened the door to his Jeep and climbed inside, trying to ignore the fresh round of pain racing through his veins.
Maybe this hadn't been such a great idea.
As wonderful as his family had been since the accident, Dev had been desperate to get out on his own again. Lord knew he hadn't had a moment to himself in the last four months except when he was in bed at night. Even then, either one of his parents or Liamthe only brother who still lived in the log mansion that was the family homewould check in.
He appreciated all they'd done for him. Hell, with two broken arms he'd been like a baby, relying on his family for everything from his meals to bathing. It'd been three months since the casts were removed and still everyone hovered.
He needed space to think, to breathe.
And despite his father's offer to replace the four-wheel drive Wrangler with something that made it easier to get behind the wheel, Dev had insisted on keeping itit was the vehicle he'd bought the day he kicked his drinking habit.
"But why the Blue Creek?" he asked his reflection in the rearview mirror as he turned over the engine and backed out of the parking space. "Why not go to Sherry's Diner? Or grab a sandwich at Doucette's Bakery?"
He didn't have an answer, or didn't want to come up with one, so he cranked up the radio as he slowed to a stop at the parking lot exit, waiting for the chance to pull onto the street.
Diagonally across from him was White's Liquors, a red brick building with a faded red, white and blue advertisement from the 1940s to buy war bonds still visible on the side.
When old man White had been alive, he'd had the ad repainted every five years in honor of the two brothers he'd lost during the war, but his kids owned the place now and the anniversary of the repainting had come and gone last fall without being touched up.
The traffic had cleared, but Dev still sat there, staring at the building, wondering about the ad and realizing he hadn't stepped foot inside the building in the last six years.
Hadn't needed to. Hadn't wanted to.
Until this very moment.
His grip was so tight on the steering wheel that his knuckles turned white. Pulling in a deep breath, he let go and put the Jeep in gear. Once he was on the street, he grabbed his cell phone and hit the button that connected him directly to Mac. Three rings later a buzzing noise filled his ear as Mac answered.
Mac's voice came through, but the reception was terrible. Dev released the pent-up breath with one whoosh. "Yeah, it's me. Can you talk?"
Dev's heart lurched. That was the last place he wanted to go. Okay, the second to last place.
"Heading home meet you there."
Every other word of Mac's was indecipherable, but Dev breathed a sigh of relief. "On my way."
"Dev need to arrived yesterday."
Circling the town square, Dev headed toward the sheriff's office and the fire station. His gaze firmly on the road ahead, he didn't allow even his peripheral vision to stray toward the open bays where a few of the firefighters were washing down the engine and the light-duty rescue truck.
"Mac, you're breaking up. This connection sucks." The tightness in Dev's chest eased as he headed out of town. "You can tell me when you see me. I'll be waiting on the front porch."
Moments later, Dev drove past the entrance to his family's ranch and the turnoff to his brother Adam's place, and kept going until he saw the road to Mac's farm. The land had been in his friend's family for generations, much like the land the Murphy M7 Ranch sat on, but it hadn't been a working farm for years.
Turning into the driveway, he started to slow to a stop near the two-story farmhouse, but noticed a car parked down near the metal hangar out back. When a storm had destroyed the unused barn almost a dozen years ago, Mac had it torn down and erected a steel structure that housed his baby, a 1929 Travel Air 4000 biplane.