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It had been a long day and it was colder than a well-digger's backside. Cade had been working like a dog and wanted a little reward. He wouldn't be getting it from a woman tonight, so Cade Pritchett looked inside the cafe, trying to decide whether or not to indulge in a slice of cherry pie.
Cade looked away. Since that insane moment he'd proposed to Thunder Canyon's beauty queen, the woman he'd dated casually the past few years, he'd become all too aware of his burning need for a family of his own. It didn't make sense because Cade wasn't interested in falling in love. He'd done that once and lost the woman to an accident. He wasn't interested in risking his heart, but he wanted more than what he had now. A partnership in his father's business, his own spread just outside of town and his hobby rebuilding motorcycles. Oh, and his hound dog, Stella. He should have listed her first.
From his side, he heard a sniffling sound. Curious, he glanced over and saw Abby Cates wiping her nose as she leaned against the cafe window. His stomach clenched. Abby, little sister of the woman he'd asked to marry him during the Frontier Days celebration. That had been a monumental mistake.
He heard Abby sniff again and Cade felt a surge of concern. He should check on the girl. The poor thing looked upset. He moved toward her.
"Hey, what's up? Or down?"
Abby glanced up in shock, her wide eyes blinking in surprise. "Hi," she said and gave another sniff and surreptitious wipe of her nose with her tissue. "What are you doing here?"
"Thinking about getting a piece of pie," he said. "Long day."
She nodded and blinked away her tears. "This is the beginning of one of your busy seasons, isn't it?"
"Yeah, how'd you remember?" he asked.
"Osmosis," she said. "I guess I eventually noticed during the last few years when you didn't hang around the house as much."
"Yeah," he said. "So, what's with the sniffles? I don't think it's allergies or a cold."
She shrugged and lowered her gaze, her eyelids hiding her emotions from him. "I don't know. Lots of changes going on at my house. I guess I'm going to miss
Laila now that she's getting married," she said, then froze and met his gaze. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to say"
He waved his hand in dismissal. "No problem. My pride was hurt more than anything else. Laila and I were never crazy in love. I shouldn't have been such a darned fool by proposing to her," he said.
"You weren't the fool. Laila was. She should have never let you get away," she said.
Cade laughed and shook his head. It felt nicer than he'd like to admit for Abby to rush to his defense, but he knew more than most that romance and emotion could be fickle and elusive. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his sheepskin jacket. "You shouldn't be out here in the cold," he said. "Let me buy you a cup of hot chocolate."
She met his gaze for a long moment, and he saw a flurry of emotions he couldn't quite name except one. Defiance.
She licked her lips. "I'd like something a little stronger than hot chocolate."
Surprise punched through him. "Something stronger," he said. "You're a little young for that, aren't you?"
She gave a husky chuckle. "Are you suffering from a little dementia due to your advanced years? I'm twenty-two."
"Whoa," he said. "When did I miss that?"
"I guess you weren't looking," she said wryly. Her chocolate-brown eyes flashed with humor, and his gaze slid over her silky, long brown hair.
"I guess not," he said. "So you want to go to the
"Sure," she said with a shrug, and they walked down the street to the town's most popular bar and hangout. It was crowded when they walked inside, so he hooked his hand under her elbow and guided her to the far end of the bar.
"Hey, Abby," a young man said from halfway across the room.
She glanced up and shot the guy a smile. "Hi, Abby," a young woman called. "Hey, Corinne," she said.
"You seem pretty popular here," Cade said, finding a space next to the bar. "How often do you come?"
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "I know those people from my classes at college. I'm usually too busy to spend much time here. They're probably surprised to see me here."
He nodded. "What do you want to drink?"
"A beer's okay," she said with a shrug.
He noticed her lack of enthusiasm. "What kind?"
"Whatever you're having is fine," she said.
He felt a twinge of amusement. "You really don't like beer."
"I'm working on it," she said. "At least once a year."
He laughed out loud. "I'll get you one of those pink girly drinks. Cosmo," he said to the bartender. "And a beer for me. Whatever you have on draft."
Moments later, she sipped her pink martini and he drank his beer. "It's loud in here," he said.
She stirred her drink with the tiny straw. "Yeah, I guess that might bother you older folks," she said with a naughty smile.
He shook his head. Her teasing gave him a kick. "Yeah, I'm thirty. Don't rub it in. What have you been doing lately?"
"School. College," she corrected. "I'm also working at the youth center. And as you know, my family can get a little demanding. I have a part-time job teaching skiing lessons at the resort when I can fit it in. What about you? How's that new motorcycle coming?"
He was surprised she'd remembered. "Close to perfection, but I'm still tinkering with it."
"You wouldn't know perfection if it slapped you in the face," she teased.
Cade liked the way her long eyelashes dipped over her eyes flirtatiously. Someday, Abby could be trouble, he thought. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean you have that perfection complex. Nothing you do is ever good enough. Not with your woodworking. Not with your motorcycle."
She nailed him in one fell swoop, taking him off guard. "How'd you know that?"
"I've known you for years." She took the last sip of her cosmo martini. "How could I not know that?"
For one sliver of a second, she looked at him as if he was a dork then shrugged. "You want another one?" he asked.
She shook her head and smiled. "No. I'm a lightweight. Already feel this one. I'll take some water."
Cade ordered water for her and continued talking with Laila's little sister with whom he'd played board games and computer games when he'd been waiting for Laila. He was distracted by her mouth. Especially when she licked her lips after taking a sip of her water. Her lips were plump, shiny and sexy. He shouldn't notice, but he sure did.
"So you're busy at work," she said and took another long sip of water. "Bet your father's driving you crazy."
"Yeah," he admitted. "No need to repeat that."
She laughed. "I won't. That could be tricky working with your dad. I mean, I love my own dad, but I can't control him."
"That's for sure," he said, thinking of his own father.
She clicked her half-empty water glass against his beer and dipped her head. "We agree. Cheers."
"So, what are you majoring in?" he asked.
"Psychology. I finish next spring, but I may need to get an advanced degree. I like working with the teens."
"I can see where you would be good at that," he said, thinking that although Abby appeared very young, she was pretty mature for her age.
"I don't know what I'll do after I graduate. I haven't decided if I'll leave Thunder Canyon or not," she said.
Her statement gave him a start. "You would leave town?"
"I may have to if I want to get an advanced degree. Plus, with everything going on with my family, it may be time for me to strike out on my own by then."
He nodded. "If you wanted to stay, you could get an advanced degree online. And just because you move out of your parents' house doesn't mean you have to move out of town."
She smiled. "You almost sound like you'd like me stay. That can't be true. You barely notice me."
"You're a quality girl" He broke off. "Woman," he corrected himself. "I hate to see Thunder Canyon lose a good woman like you."
"Ah, so it's your civic duty to encourage me to stay here," she said.
He felt a twist of discomfort. "Lots of people would miss you."
"Well, I haven't made any decisions yet. I need to finish my classes first. I'm just glad the end is in sight. What do you think about the rivalry between LipSmackin' Ribs and DJ's Rib Shack?"
Cade would have had to have been deaf and blind not to know about the controversy between Thunder Canyon's longtime favorite barbecue restaurant DJ's Rib Shack and the the new rib place, which featured waitresses dressed in tight T-shirts. "I'm a DJ's man all the way. I don't like it that the Hitching Post started featuring LipSmackin' Ribs on the menu and I refuse to order them. I'll buy drinks here, but no ribs."
"So you've never even visited LipSmackin' Ribs?"
"I went a few times just to see what the fuss was about," he said.
"You mean the skimpy uniforms the waitresses wear," she said.
He shook his head and rubbed his jaw. "I pity your future boyfriend. He won't be able to pull anything over on you."
"Future? How do you know I don't have a boyfriend right now?" she asked. "I don't, but I certainly could. There are even some men who think I'm attractive, some who ask me to go out with them."
"I didn't mean it that way. And you be careful about those guys. You make sure they have the right intentions."
She shot him a playfully sly look so seductive he almost dropped his beer. "What would you say are the right intentions?" she asked.
His tongue stuck in the back of his throat for a few seconds. "I mean just thatyou need to make sure they have the right intentions. You shouldn't let anyone take advantage of you."
"Unless that's what I want him to do, right?"
He choked on his beer. Where had this vixen come from? Although she'd been a spirited competitor whenever she'd played games and been far more knowledgeable about sports than most females he knew, Cade had always seen her as Laila's sweet little sister. "I think it's time for you to go home. I'm starting to hear things come out of your mouth that aren't possible." He waved for the bartender to bring the bill.
"Oh, don't tell me I scared big, strong Cade Pritch-ett," she teased as he finished his beer and tossed some bills on the counter.
"There's more than one way to scare a man. Let's go," he said and ushered her through the bar to the door.
Abby felt higher than a kite. She'd been waiting forever for the time when it was just her and Cade. She'd had a secret crush on Cade since even before her sister had dated him, and watching Laila's wishy-washy attitude toward Cade had nearly put her over the edge on more than one occasion during the past few years.
But now, she thought, her heart beating so fast she could hardly breathe, she had Cade all to herself, if only for a few more moments. "So is most of your work right now for people who want to get special Christmas gifts?"
"A good bit of it," he said. "But there's a potential for a big order. We'll find out soon." He stopped abruptly. "Is that old man Henson trying to change a tire on his truck?" he asked, pointing down the street.
Abby tore her gaze from Cade's and felt a twist of sympathy mixed with alarm. "I think it is. Isn't he almost eighty-five? He shouldn't be changing a tire during daylight let alone at this time of night," she said.
"Exactly," he said and quickened his pace. "Mr. Hen-son," he called. "Let me give you a hand with that."
Abby joined Cade as they reached the elderly man, who'd already jacked up the truck. "I'm fine," he said, glancing up at them, his craggy face wrinkled in a wince of pain. "It's these dang rusted bolts."
"Let me take a shot at them. Abby, maybe Mr. Henson might like a cup of that hot chocolate I was talking about earlier."