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Nearly a week later, Laila sat at a corner table in the bar section at the Hitching Post, keeping her eye on the entrance as she traced the sweat off the mug of a lemonade she hadn't touched.
She'd been playing phone tag with Cade, and they'd finally agreed to meet here tonight, among the after-work crowd enjoying Happy Hour in this rumored former house of ill repute that'd been turned into a bar and grill.
She tried to ignore the line of ranch hands at the barthe men who kept glancing over and peering at her from beneath the shade of their hats. One in particular, Duncan Brooks, who worked on Mayor Bo Clifton's spread, was trying to catch Laila's attention.
Then again, he always was, and she wished he wouldn't do that. The mustached, stocky cowboy was forever looking at her with that moony gaze men sometimes got when they were around Lailathat struck-by-a-beauty-queen gander that made her wish she had set out to clear up everyone's perceptions of her from the very first time she'd been old enough to date.
With a polite nod to Duncannothing more, nothing to encourage himshe took a sip of her lemonade and shifted her attention to the painting over the bar. It featured the Shady Lady herself, Lily Divine, draped in diaphanous material, wearing a mysterious smile. Long before Thunder Canyon had experienced its recent gold rush and the place had moved from a sleepy spot on the map to a boomtown with a resort that attracted the rich and adventurous alike, and long before the town had undergone an economic fall that they were still recovering from, Lily had been a woman of questionable morals. A supposed heartbreaker.
Was that what Cade thought about Laila now, after she'd shot him down at the pageant?
Was that why he hadn't been returning her calls?
She would soon see, because he was just now walking through the entrance, pausing to glance around for Laila.
She waved a tentative hello, and his hands fisted by his sides, just as they had the night of the pageant. He walked toward her in his sheepskin jacketa necessity now that the weather had finally turned from Indian summer to October cool.
Laila held back a frown. It was tough to see Cade Pritchett in such a state. He was a hardy man, a local hero who'd played down his part in rescuing a young girl from drowning in Silver Stallion Lake about a year ago. Naturally, he'd refused any accolades.
He was the best of guys. The best of friendsuntil recently.
She'd already ordered a soda for him, and as he doffed his jacket, tossed it over the back of a chair, then sat, she pushed the beverage toward him as if it were a peace offering.
"I wasn't so sure you'd come here tonight," she said.
Cade didn't utter a word. After years of dating himnever serious enough to have gotten totally intimate with him, thoughLaila nevertheless knew enough about Cade to realize that he was weighing whatever he was thinking carefully before saying it.
She also knew that when he spoke, it would be in a low voice that would give most any girl delicious shivers and, not for the first time, Laila wondered just why it didn't affect her like that.
What was wrong with her that she didn't feel that way about him or about anybody, much, except for a couple of men who'd seemed like Mr. Rights until they'd proven to be Mr. Maybe-Not-After-Alls?
A flash of roguish brown eyes and an equally devastating grin flew across her mind's eye, but she quashed all thoughts of Jackson Traub.
He certainly wasn't her type, and she'd been reminding herself of that all week.
Cade met her gaze head-on. "I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, and what I have to say to you now isn't impulsive or ill-considered. I've even been thinking about what I came here to tell you long before the pageant."
She didn't like how this was starting. "I'm not sure I know what you're talking about."
"The future, Laila."
His direct manner made her wary.
"You're not the only one who's entered a new phase of life," he said. "When a person gets older, he starts to reassess where he's been. Where he's going."
His blue gaze was so intense that Laila prayed he wasn't about to say what she thought he was going to say
But he went and said it, anyway. "I wasn't fooling around when I asked you to marry me."
She tried not to react, even though it felt as if a shadow had steamrolled her. "Cade, I didn't mean to embarrass you by turning you down so publicly, but you know how I feel about marriage."
"I know how you always said you feel."
Now Laila was really confused. Had she been sending Cade mixed signals or something? But that couldn't be the case. She'd always been very clear on her feelings about staying single.
"Cade " she said softly just before he interrupted her.
"Just listen I know full well that you're not in love with me. But we have a lot to offer each other in spite of that."
He paused, and she searched his gaze, seeing that there was something deep going on in this man. Sadly, she even wondered if this had anything to do with how Cade had lost the woman he'd wanted to marry to an early death years ago.
Maybe that was why Laila had been drawn to him, as a companion more than anything else. He had shut down emotionally after his lover's passing, and he'd probably seen in Laila a person who didn't get involved much with heavy emotions herself.
Did he think that she would never expect more out of him than he was capable of giving after having his heart broken?
The realization left her a bit hollow. It wasn't that she couldn't love anyone, it was just that she'd always thought of herself as a career womanone who'd worked her tail off to become branch manager of the bank. One who, admittedly, loved to flirt and play the field to a certain point.
At her silence, he had straightened up in his chair, as if thinking that she was actually considering his point. He seemed so confident now that a scratch of pain scored her.
"Right before the pageant," he said, "I had a good long talk with my brothers."
"And with your other friend, Jack Daniels?"
Cade's skin went ruddy. "All right. A little whiskey was involved, and the more I had, the more I decided I wanted to get an answer from you once and for all about where we were headed. And I don't regret bringing this up, Laila, not even in such a spectacular fashion. Not even if I made a donkey of myself at the pageant and my own brother took enough pity on me to propose, too, turning my folly into a joke everyone could laugh off."
What she needed was for a hole to open up in the ceiling that would suck her right into it and out of this discussion. "I"
"I need to finish what I came here to say."
He'd raised his voice and, from the corner of her gaze, she saw Duncan Brooks stand away from the bar, obviously hearing Cade and not liking his tone one bit. Laila sent a reassuring smile at the ranch hand, letting him know everything was okay.
Appeased, Duncan went back to drinking his beer, hunched over it as he leaned on the bar.
"I'm tired of being alone," Cade said. "Aren't you?"
She sighed, hating that she would have to be terribly blunt. "No."
"Why does that surprise you?" she asked. "You know I love my life. I love going home to my apartment every night and eating what I want to eat, when I want to eat it. I love watching what I want to watch on T.V
"You don't ever get lonely? You never wake up at night in your empty bed and wonder if it's always going to be that way?"
She didn't know what to say, because there were times when that exact thing happenedshadows on the pale walls, the inexplicable sense that she was genuinely alone.
But then she would go right back to sleep, waking up to a new day, loving her life all over again, even as an itch of loneliness remained in the back of her mind
Still, there were good reasons she was never going to get married, and the biggest one was because of what she'd seen in her mom. Laila's mother had tried her best not to show how life had let her down. Even though Mom loved all six of her children, Laila had seen how she had ordered college catalogues and paged through them with a slight, sad smile at the kitchen table after she thought all the kids were in bed. She'd heard Mom say on more than one occasion that she should've taken her studies more seriously and that Laila shouldn't ever rely on her looks when she had such a brain.
And she also knew that Mom had settled down young.
Always wondering, never having the courage to ask, Laila had promised herself that she would give life a chance before getting serious with anyone, and she was damn happy with her decision as it stood.
She pushed aside her drink and rested her elbows on the table. "Loneliness is no reason to get married, Cade."
His jaw hardened as he surveyed her. Then, hardly swayed, he said, "We can learn to love each other I can even give you children before it's too late."
That really got her. But she wasn't sure why Cade's words smarted the way they did.
Had she been thinking about her future lately, even beyond wrinkles, in a more profound way than she even admitted to herself? And, heck.
She even wondered if she'd actually entered the Miss Frontier Days pageant for the final time because she'd needed some kind of reassurance that she was still young enough to be desirable, that she didn't need to change her life and get validation from marriage or kids.
Her throat felt tender as she tried to swallow. She didn't like what she was thinking, and she wouldn't let Cade's words bother her. But how could she tell him that she didn't feel more for him than companionship?
Just as she was wishing again for that hole to open up in the ceiling, there was a stir in the Hitching Post as someone sauntered inside.
As soon as she saw Jackson Traub bellying up to the bar in a dark brushed-twill coat with his Stetson pulled low over his brow, her body flared with heat.
Star-spangly, popping, sizzling heat.
Something she definitely didn't feel for Cade.
She must've been staring, and Jackson Traub must've felt it, because as he ordered a drink from the bartender, he pushed back his hat so she could see his brown gaze locking onto hers.
Her heart seemed to shoot down to her belly, where it revolved, sending the rest of her topsy-turvy, too.
She expected him to give her one of those grins he was so good at, expected him to maybe even wink as a reminder of the night he'd lightheartedly proposed like a scoundrel come out of nowhere.
But he only turned back to the bartender as the man slid a glass of what looked to be straight-up whiskey to him.
Jackson Traub scooped it right up, then downed it before ordering another, ignoring Laila as if nothing had ever passed between them.
Baffled, she stared down at the table.
Was he ignoring her?
Or could it be that he really didn't remember their "moment" at the pageant?
Or maybe there just hadn't been a "moment" for him.
Rascal. He was truly making her wonder. But let him play his games. She'd been dating since sixteen, when her parents had finally allowed it after she'd blossomed early. She had a pretty good sense of when a man was interested or not.
Still, she peered over at Jackson Traub again, just to see if he was looking.
"Laila?" Cade asked.
He sounded offended that she'd mentally wandered from the conversation. In fact, he was looking more intense than everso much so that Laila sank into her chair, wishing fervently, once again, for that hole in the ceiling to appear, suck her up and take her away from all the truths Cade was making her face tonight.
Jackson was a patient man.
He was also mildly perceptive, if he did say so himself, and he knew when a womaneven a cool beauty queen like Laila Cateswas aware of his presence.
As he nursed his second whiskey, he nodded to the man at the end of the bar, an acquaintance Jackson had met during his short time here. Woody Paulson, the manager of LipSmackin' Ribs, a joint that didn't so much compete with the rib restaurant of Jackson's cousin, DJ, as stay in its shadow.
Woody nodded back to Jackson, but the interaction didn't take his mind off Laila. He wondered if she was still watching him, yet he refrained from taking a peek. Instead, he imagined her in that white evening gown, the first time he'd seen the infamous Thunder Canyon beauty in person, on the stage, her long, wavy blond hair silky under the crown she wore, her blue eyes bright, her skin smooth and pale as cream.
A challenge if he ever met one.
A woman he wanted with every beat of his pulse.