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"You're better off without him, Sis," Emily said in a firm voice. "Dax Traub is an idiot if he doesn't know what he's losing. He's not worth another minute of your time."
Even though Liz was still reeling from the shock of her broken engagement, her sister's words made her feel slightly better.
"I think you're biased," Liz protested in a shaky voice.
She'd called Emily as soon as she'd gotten home from meeting Dax at The Rib Shack, DJ's latest addition to his successful restaurant chain. Apparently Dax had figured she wouldn't make a scene if he gave her the bad news in a public place.
At first Liz had been too stunned to speak, too busy trying to absorb words that seemed to have no meaning. Holding back the threat of tears as he'd sat across from her looking uncomfortable. He'd looked anywhere but at her as he'd squirmed in his chair.
When she'd asked him why in a ragged whisper, he had merely shrugged. "It's not you." His face showed more discomfort than regret or sympathy. "I'm sorry."
Still speechless, Liz had gotten to her feet, legs wobbly, and left the restaurant with as much dignity as she could manage. All the way home from town, tears running down her face, she had asked herself why. Why? Dax was handsome and sexy, his bad-boy image not hurt in the least by the motorcycle shop he owned. Apparently Liz just wasn't pretty enough or hot enough to hang on to someone like him. "He wasn't right for you, honey," Emily continued. "Why on earth did you get engaged to him in the first place? You hadn't dated long, had you? Did you even really know him?"
Liz leaned against the kitchen counter of the tiny cabin where she lived, a cabin owned by Emily and her husband."No, obviously not," she moaned, "but he was so insistent. When he proposed, he wouldn't take no for an answer and I hated to hurt his feelings."
"Oh, honey," Emily said, "now he's hurt yours, the bum. Maybe it's time to start putting yourself first. Getting married isn't your only option, you know."
Good point, Liz thought as she straightened and walked over to the window above the sink. The view of the trees never failed to calm her.
"I guess it's mainly my pride that's hurt," she admitted, realizing that what she said was true. How many men had she dated because it was hard to turn them down, even when she had no real romantic interest in them?
"Did you love him?" Emily asked. "Could you really picture yourself spending the rest of your life with him?"
Liz tried to picture herself with gray hair and bifocals, seated on a Harley with a shawl draped around her shoulders. "Maybe I was more in love with the idea of getting married than I ever was with Dax." After all, hadn't she been planning her wedding since she was a little girl?
At least she hadn't slept with him. She had wanted to wait and he'd been okay with that. Perhaps too okay.
"Truth be told, I don't think he's over his first wife, Allaire," Liz admitted aloud the niggling suspicion she'd refused to acknowledge before, even in her thoughts. As her fingers tightened on her phone, she watched a woodpecker drilling a nearby tree trunk in a quest for insects. "It probably wasn't a coincidence that we got engaged at about the same time she and DJ made their announcement," she admitted.
Emily groaned again. "You poor thing. If he was on the rebound—"
"You know what," Liz interrupted on a fresh burst of determination, "I'm going to get through this and I'll be okay. You'll see."
"I know you will." Emily's tone was instantly hearty—and as phony as the counterfeit twenty Liz had gotten stuck with at the bar last week.
Still, Liz appreciated her sister's support. Even if Emily did sometimes think Liz was a flake just because she had changed jobs a few times—well, maybe more than just a few—as she tried to figure out what she wanted to do until she met the perfect mate and married him.
Didn't most women like her—single, early twenties—want it all, a great career, a wonderful husband and a perfect family? Wasn't that still the American dream?
She rubbed her temple with her free hand. Was she being realistic in thinking it was possible? Perhaps she needed to rethink things.
Even though having a man in her life would be nice, like having a sports car, she didn't need one. She straightened. Emily was right; she had other options. This could be the first day of a new plan, a new direction.
A brand-new Lizbeth Stanton!
The notion was too fresh to share with her sister. She might remind Liz of all the other times she'd made fresh starts, make her doubt herself.
"Em, I've got to go," Liz said, glancing up at the clock. She had a couple of errands to run before her shift at the bar started. "Thanks, though. You know, for listening and all."
"You sure you're going to be okay?" Emily asked, sounding worried. "I wish I could come and see you, but—"
"No, really," Liz replied. "It's sweet of you to offer, but I'll be fine. I am fine," she said with renewed enthusiasm. Let Dax moon over his ex-wife, if that was what he wanted to do. She had better things to occupy her!
"All right, but call anytime, okay? I mean it." Emily didn't sound convinced, but Liz knew she was too busy with her own life and her husband to drop everything and hold Liz's hand.
"I know. I will. Take care." After a few more platitudes and promises to stay in touch, Liz finally ended the call. Part of her wished she'd refrained from confiding her bad news to Emily until she'd thought things through, but she wouldn't have been able to keep it secret forever. In a small town like Thunder Canyon, word had probably already spread like an oil slick.
She tossed her head, red-streaked ponytail bobbing. It had been good to be told that Dax was a rat who didn't deserve her. Perhaps she should have seen it coming—especially the way he'd stalked out of his little poker party after she crashed it. She'd been prepared to forgive his tantrum over a nice lunch. Instead he'd dumped her as coolly as canceling an appointment.
Before she got involved again just because she didn't want to say no and dent some man's fragile ego, maybe she needed to spend a little time figuring out what she needed. With a huff of self-righteousness, she grabbed a bottled water from the ancient refrigerator and went into the bedroom to change her clothes for work.
Just because she intended to turn over a new leaf didn't mean she wouldn't care about looking especially hot at the bar tonight. So that everyone who came in to find out if she was devastated could see exactly what Dax Traub had foolishly tossed aside.
Mitchell Cates sat in a corner booth at the Lounge, nursing a beer from some local micro-brewery he'd never heard of. It was early yet, too early for the dark-paneled lounge to have more than a couple of other customers.
Broodingly he watched a pair of tourists seated at the bar flirt with the bartender on duty. When she threw back her head and laughed at something one of the men said, Mitch found himself wishing he could make Lizbeth laugh like that. He could almost feel the melting warmth of her smile, see the sparkle of interest in her big dark eyes.
Tonight Lizbeth looked especially gorgeous with her dark red-brown hair piled on top of her head, curls and glittering ribbons bouncing in all directions. She was like a brightly colored bird, full of life and energy. What might be messy or overdone on most women looked just right on her. As did her clingy strapless silver top and short black skirt. How could such a petite body come equipped with legs that went on for miles?
He enjoyed watching them every time she came out from behind the bar. Just thinking about her made his mind shut down and his tongue flop around in his mouth like a trout on a hook. He felt like a kid with his first crush.
Scowling, he watched the two men at the bar get to their feet.
"Aw, come on, baby, loosen up," coaxed the one in the baseball cap, leaning toward Lizbeth as the other tossed some bills onto the bar. "It'll be fun. Trust us."
Shaking her head, she pointed to the older bald man polishing glasses at the far end of the bar. "It wouldn't be fair to Moses if I left."
The man who'd spoken to her glanced around the dim room, gaze sliding past Mitch as though he were invisible.
"It's dead here," he argued with a sweep of his hand. "Old Mose can handle it."
The three of them continued to banter until a gray-haired couple walked in and sat in an empty booth. The man looked over at Lizbeth expectantly.