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Drake Brewster was used to women liking him, but Tracy Gibbons, the beautiful bartender at Spirits and Spurs, clearly didn't. Oh, she was polite enough when she served him a beer, but her smile was mostly fake, as if she was forcing herself because he was a customer. He even knew why she didn't like him, but that didn't help much. When he thought about her reasons, he had to agree they were legitimate.
In point of fact, he wasn't particularly popular with anyone in Shoshone, Wyoming. He was the guy who'd had sex with his best friend's fiancée six months ago. On Christmas Eve. Apparently word had gotten out, and now everyone avoided him like a skunk at a Fourth of July picnic.
That very same best friend, Regan O'Connelli, happened to be quite popular in this neighborhood. Well connected, too. After severing his business relationship with Drake back in Virginia, as well he should have, he'd gone into partnership with Shoshone veterinarian Nick Chance. It had been a logical move since one of Regan's sisters had married Nick's brother Gabe, and another had married Nick's brother-in-law Alex. Getting hooked into the Chance family opened all kinds of doors around here, apparently.
Getting crossways with the Chances, though, slammed those doors shut in a man's face. Regan, who swore he'd forgiven Drake for the fiasco with Jeannette on that fateful Christmas Eve, said Drake should give people time. They'd come around.
Three weeks into his stay, Drake wasn't so sure. The deep freeze was still on, except for Regan and his new fiancée, Lily King. Drake gave Lily much of the credit for Regan's willingness to forgive and forget. She was a softhearted woman.
In fact, her soft heart had nearly been her downfall when she'd bought Peaceful Kingdom, a horse-rescue operation outside of town, and had accepted every unwanted animal dumped at her feet. Besides the horses, she'd taken in two potbellied pigs and several chickens. Regan had saved her from herself, and in the process, they'd fallen in love. She encouraged Drake to visit as often as he could, but he didn't want to wear out his welcome. Couples in love needed alone time.
That should have fit right in with his plans. Before leaving Virginia, he'd put his vet practice in the hands of a colleague and hadn't specified when he'd be back. Then he'd rented an isolated cabin just outside the boundary of the Last Chance Ranch so that he could make amends with Regan and take a few weeks to reevaluate his life.
He'd imagined long solo hikes and intense periods of soul-searching would help him figure out how he'd veered so off track that he'd gone to bed with his best friend's girl. His life couldn't be working if he could do something that disloyal, and he'd hoped for some insights.
Surprisingly, his jealousy of Regan's self-confidence had been one of his issues. Realizing he'd set out to sabotage his friend's sense of self-worth was an ugly truth he'd had trouble facing. But he had faced it, and consequently he and Regan were okay.
His period of self-examination had yielded another nugget of wisdom. He wasn't into long solo hikes and intense periods of soul-searching. He was a sociable type, a Southerner who loved to talk, and he craved the company of others. But except for Regan and Lily, nobody within a thirty-mile radius craved his company, and that sucked.
Yet here he was, anyway, sitting on a barstool at the Spirits and Spurs during happy hour trying not to look as lonely as he felt. A few people had said hello, but then they'd gone back to talking to whomever they'd come with. Nobody seemed interested in a prolonged encounter with the guy who'd wronged Regan O'Connelli.
Tracy made a circuit of the bar area, her dark hair shining, her red lipstick glossy and inviting. She glanced at his nearly empty glass. "Another round?"
Drake considered giving up and going back to the cabin but couldn't make himself do it. "Sure. Thanks."
"Coming up." That fake smile flashed again.
He watched her walk away. She had the perfect figure for jeans, and he'd noticed other guys checking out her ass. But someone with his hound-dog reputation couldn't be caught doing it, so instead he studied her hair. It was up in some arrangement that kept it out of the way, but he pictured how it would look loose. It might reach halfway down her back, at least, and sway as she moved. Nice.
He didn't want her to see him staring like some wet-behind-the-ears doofus, so he grabbed the menu out of its holder. Then he proceeded to scan the offerings as if fascinated by what he'd found, although he knew them by heart.
"Here you go."
He glanced up, as if he hadn't noticed her coming toward him. "Thank you, ma'am." The beer foam was perfectly symmetrical. He raised the glass and admired it. "Very pretty." He meant the compliment for her, but he could always claim he'd been talking about the head on his beer.
"Thanks." She didn't quite roll her eyes, but she looked as if she wanted to. She gestured toward the menu. "Would you like something to eat?"
He wasn't hungry, but picking up a menu was a classic signal and there wasn't much in the refrigerator at the cabin. "I would, indeed. What do you recommend?"
She paused, confusion shadowing her brown eyes. "Don't you want your usual burger and fries?"
"I find myself wantin' something different." That she'd noticed his ordering pattern meant nothing, of course. Any good server would do that. But it pleased him, anyway.
"Well, then you might try the barbecued-pork sandwich. Lots of people like that."
"Do you like it?"
She hesitated, as if not wanting to give him personal information. "I'm partial to the burgers here," she said at last.
"So am I. I'll stick with my usual, after all."
"Okay. I'll put in the order." She started to turn away.
When she looked back at him, her expression was guarded. "What?"
He tried to remember if he'd ever used her name, although he'd known it for days. Maybe not. Southerners tended to use ma'am most of the time. He took a deep breath, finally ready to tackle this situation head-on. "I've been coming in here quite a bit lately."
"Yes, you have." She didn't seem particularly happy about it, either.
"And you're always polite to me."
"I certainly hope so. If I'm not nice to the customers, I would probably get fired."
"I appreciate that, but I'll bet there are some customers you look forward to serving and some you don't."
Her gaze became shuttered. "I'm grateful for any and all customers who come through the door. Without customers, Spirits and Spurs wouldn't be in business."
"Nice speech. I admire your dedication. But the fact remains that you don't like me."
She opened her mouth as if to reply. Then she closed it again.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to complain to anyone about it." He sighed. "Hell, you're in the majority around here when it comes to holdin' a bad opinion of me. But nobody will say it to my face. They're unfailingly polite and then they act like I have a contagious disease."
"I'm Regan's friend." Her gaze turned very cold. "I'm also friends with his sisters. If you think my attitude is chilly, you should try having a conversation with Morgan, Tyler or Cassidy."
"Yeah, I figured that wouldn't work out, so I haven't tried."
"I know everything's supposed to be hunky-dory between you and Regan. Lily told me all is well, but she's the kind of person who would make excuses for a serial killer."
"A serial killer? Isn't that a bit harsh?"
"I know you haven't actually killed anyone, but you betrayed your best friend." Anger kindled in her brown eyes. "If you ask me, Regan's letting you off way too easy." Then she blushed and glanced away. "Sorry. I get a little worked up when I talk about this. It's really none of my business."
He thought she was mighty pretty when she was worked up, but he wisely didn't say so. "I get the impression that it's everybody's business around here."
She didn't deny it, probably because she couldn't. When she looked at him again, her gaze was disconcertingly direct. "Why stay, then? You patched things up with Regan, so why not go back to Virginia where where you're from."
Where you belong. Although she didn't say the words, they hung in the air. Except he didn't belong in Virginia anymore. He couldn't explain why, but the thought of returning to his old life made him shudder.
Whoever he'd been back there wasn't the man he wanted to be here and now. The location might have nothing to do with it, but he wasn't going to take the chance that he'd fall into his old patterns.
He shrugged. "I must be a glutton for punishment."
Something shifted in her expression. It became more open, and unless he was mistaken, she seemed genuinely interested in him for the first time ever. "I see."
"What do you see?"
"That you're doing some kind of penance."
"I wouldn't put it that way." The assessment made him uncomfortable. He wasn't a masochist or a martyr.
"You just called yourself a glutton for punishment."
"That's an expression, something folks say. It doesn't mean that I"
Intensely grateful for the interruption, he swiveled to face Regan, who came toward him looking like the seasoned cowboy he'd become, complete with boots, worn jeans and a ten-gallon hat. Drake had bought some boots and a couple of pairs ofjeans that still looked new. He was holding off buying a hat. He couldn't say why.
He held out a hand to Regan. "Hey, buddy! What's up?"
"Not much." Regan shook hands, but the dark eyes he'd inherited from his Italian mother moved quickly from Drake to Tracy. "Am I interrupting?"
"Nope!" Tracy waved her order pad. "I have to put in Drake's food order and check on my other customers. Can I bring you something?"
"I'll take a draft when you have a minute. I actually came in to see you, but I wanted to ask Drake a favor, too, so this is perfect."
"All righty, then. I'll be back." She hurried toward the kitchen.
Regan slid onto a barstool on Drake's right. "Did I interrupt something? You both looked mighty serious."
"Not really. I made a dumb remark and she picked up on it."
"What'd you say?"
"She wondered why I'm stayin' here when nobody likes me, and I"
"Hang on." Regan shoved back the brim of his Stetson. "She actually said that nobody likes you? That doesn't sound like Tracy."
"Actually I'm the one who said that, but she didn't disagree with me. You have to admit I'm not the toast of Shoshone, Wyoming."
"Maybe not yet."
"Maybe not ever. You have loyal friends who don't forgive easily. I understand that. Tracy asked a logical question, and I gave her a flip answer."
"I said maybe I was a glutton for punishment."
"Oh, boy." Regan chuckled. "I'll bet that got her attention."
"It did, but why are you so sure it would?"
"She's studying to be a psychologist, but don't mention that I told you."
"Why? What's the big secret?"
"It's not actually a secret. As you've discovered, gossip is a favorite pastime in this little town."
Drake pretended to be shocked. "Really?"
"Yeah, yeah. Anyway, people kind of know because she keeps her books behind the bar and studies when it's not busy in here. But she's not ready to announce it to the world. I think she's worried that she doesn't have the intellectual chops to pull it off."
"You're kidding." Drake thought of her efficiency and the intelligence shining in those brown eyes. "She's smart as a whip. Anyone can see that."
"Yeah, but nobody in her family has ever set foot on a college campus. She's only taken online classes so far, and she probably doesn't want to make a big deal out of this and then fail."
"She won't fail."
Regan smiled. "Spoken like a man who always knew he'd end up with a degree and a profession. She doesn't have that kind of background, and she has doubts."
"Well, she shouldn't, but I see your point." He paused. "Wait, are you saying she was trying to psychoanalyze me? That's all I need."
"At least it would be free."
Drake skewered his friend with a look and discovered Regan was working hard not to laugh. "It's not funny, damn it. I might need a shrink, but I sure as hell don't need a shrink in training. I'm messed up enough without accidentally gettin' the wrong advice."