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It was the second biggest wedding the small town of Lost Gun, Texas, had ever seen. Next in line only to the marriage of pro bull-riding legend Pete Gunner who'd married his one and only earlier that year.
Nikki Barbie hadn't been in attendance at that particular event because she'd been home nursing a bad case of strep.
Weddings were definitely not her thing.
The truth struck as she stood to the right of the minister of the Lost Gun First Baptist Church and listened to her two oldest sisters vow to "love, honor and cherish."
Crystal and April were marrying the Barber twins in a massive double-wedding ceremony, complete with a fairy-tale theme that translated in the form of castle-shaped sugar-cookie favors and a live butterfly release. Jimmy and Jake Barber were the hottest team ropers on the rodeo circuit and members of the Lost Boys, which meant that in addition to the few hundred guests, there were at least a dozen reporters crowded inside the sanctuary. Snapping pictures. Documenting memories.
This was definitely the worst day of her life.
And not just because she was wearing a floor-length, pink satin dress, complete with parasol and matching sandals.
Raylene Barbie-Nikki's mother and owner of The Giddyup, Lost Gun's oldest and most popular honky-tonk-was the culprit behind the tragic state of Nikki's life. Raylene was a card-carrying, ball-busting Southern bad girl who would sooner guzzle a lukewarm beer than narrow down her options and give up her freedom to just one man.
Not that she didn't like men. Quite the opposite. She appreciated a good hunk of beefcake as much as the next red-blooded woman. More so, in fact. Ray-lene Barbie went through men faster than the members of the ladies' auxiliary went through panty hose.
Men were good for one thing, and it had nothing to do with any sort of happily ever after. They were fun. Exciting. And very, very temporary.
Which explained why she sat in the front row and stared at her youngest daughter as if she were the last beer in the cooler at a Fourth of July picnic.
Nikki was so screwed.
She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat and tried to focus on the positive. At least her mother had shown up for the wedding, which had made Crystal and April two happy campers. The woman had been giving them both the silent treatment since they'd announced their engagement six weeks ago, and so there had been speculation about her putting in an appearance on the most important day in their lives. But she'd come through, even if only out of desperate hope that they would both back out at the last minute.
Nikki drew a much-needed breath and tried to settle the gymnastics routine currently going on in her stomach. Sweat beaded on her upper lip. Her hands went damp and she had to readjust her grip on the heavy bridesmaid's bouquet.
Tulips, of all things. And baby's breath. And while the entire thing looked sweet and delicate, that was the point entirely. The Barbie sisters didn't do sweet and delicate. Crystal and April lived in hot-pink cowboy boots, itty-bitty tank tops and black leather miniskirts. They were bold. Beautiful. Bad.
Once upon a time.
They'd traded in their racy clothing for two of the biggest, most poofiest white dresses this side of the Rio Grande. They were giving up their old ways. Getting married. Settling down.
Nikki sucked in a much-needed breath. Geez, it was hot. And stuffy. And bright.
Daytime weddings should be outlawed. Particularly when they took place at a church where the reverend prided himself on locking in the temperature at an economy-saving seventy-five degrees.
Sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows of the sanctuary, temporarily blinding her. She blinked and swallowed against a rising wave of nausea and the crazy urge to call a halt to the entire ceremony.
If Crystal and April weren't sane enough to do it themselves, then she needed to step up. To preserve her own sanity.
Her lips parted. Her tongue moved. Her voice box squeaked-
The sound of a throat clearing cut her off before she could blurt out the first word. Her gaze snapped up and collided with the best man who stood directly across from her.
Cole Unger Chisholm, pro rodeo's biggest and best saddle-bronc rider, narrowed his gaze as if to say "Stay out of it," and her own gaze narrowed.
She clamped her lips shut and frowned. He had a lot of nerve. He was the crazy one. The impulsive wild card who prided himself on doing the outlandish. From standing upright on a bucking bronc during the last few seconds of his ride, to flipping off reporters when they got a little too close, Cole was the quintessential bad boy. The last one left now that the rest of the infamous Lost Boys were officially off the market.
He was the one more likely to make a scene and blow the ceremony. He was outlandish. Unpredictable.
And damned good-looking.
He wore a black tuxedo jacket that outlined his broad shoulders. A crisp white shirt, starched Wranglers and spit-polished black cowboy boots completed the outfit. His usually long and unkempt brown hair had been pulled back to tone down the bad boy look, but the shadow covering his jaw killed the effort. He still looked like every woman's wet dream. The perfect man for a one-night stand.
If Nikki had been into one-night stands.
She wasn't, even if she had entertained a few choice fantasies about Mr. Saddle-bronc champion. But those were her own most private thoughts. It wasn't as if she meant to act on them. Ever. Which was the main reason she was about to freak fifty ways to Sunday.
Despite her own reputation as a bona fide bad girl, she wasn't the real deal like her two older sisters. She hated late nights and loud music and too much booze. Three very important truths she'd managed to hide from her mother up to this point because Raylene's attention had always been fixated on the older girls. They'd been her pride and joy. Two chips off the old block. Until now.
" marriage is a joyous union between two souls that marks the beginning of a new life together " the minister went on, and reality weighed down on
Crystal, her oldest sister and the one everyone had expected to follow in Raylene's footsteps and take over the honky-tonk, was getting married, of all things. Ditto for April. They'd both given up their wild and wicked ways, and their jobs as head bartender and chief bar maid, to pledge their undying devotion. Even more, they were packing up and moving to a ranch over an hour away, and Nikki would be the only one left to help Raylene.
No more hiding out in the kitchen, plotting her culinary future while she whipped up the typical bar food-everything from chicken wings to nachos. No more studying her butt off in the back room while her mom and sisters kept the party going out front. No more applying for sous-chef positions with a handful of Houston's top restaurants.
She was the only daughter left now. Her mother's last hope.
She swallowed again and tried to ignore the churning in the pit of her stomach. A drop of sweat tickled its way down Nikki's right temple. The razor burn on her legs prickled.
" take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband "
She blew out a deep breath and inhaled again. Her nostrils burned with the sickeningly sweet scent of flowers coupled with the half gallon of sickly sweet eau de gag me Margie Waltrip, Lost Gun's one and only wedding coordinator, had sprayed her with prior to the walk down the church aisle. Her stomach pitched and rolled.
" and do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife."
Easy. Just breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
" by the power vested in me, I pronounce each of you man and wife. Husbands, you may kiss your brides!"
She was not going to throw up, despite the blinding light and the overwhelming smell and her mother's hopeful stare.
Rather, she was going to paste a smile on her face and waltz back up the aisle with the rest of the wedding party.
Or waddle, which was about all she could manage in the huge dress.
And then she was going to find her way out of the maze of tulle and flowers, hunt down the church's nearest exit and run for her life.
She didn't waddle her way to freedom.
She wanted to. Boy, did she ever. But she couldn't make a break for it without upsetting her sisters, and so she climbed-at a much slower pace than usual thanks to the layers of fabric-into her beat-up Chevy pickup and followed the line of trucks and SUVs headed out to the Gunner Ranch where the reception was being held.
At the reception, she kept as wide a distance from her mother as possible, and ignored the phone in her pocketbook that vibrated every few minutes with a new text. The most startling of which?
How would you like to be my new bartender?
The last thing she wanted was to serve beers for the rest of her life. She'd spent the past few years dressing like her sisters and putting up a front to stay off her mother's radar, while secretly pursuing her culinary degree. She'd even managed to stash away a sizable nest egg to tide her over through an internship. She wanted out of here, a chance to live her own life, to fulfill her own dreams.
But first she had to make it through finals in two weeks without losing her focus.
Fat chance if she ended up slinging Coronas side by side with Raylene Barbie.
She ignored yet another text, finished taking the mandatory pictures and darted off toward the buffet line before her mother could pin her down.
She squeezed through the throng of wedding guests stuffed into the massive white tent where the reception was being held. A country band played a soft, twangy version of Willie Nelson's Always on My Mind.
Seriously? Forget Miranda Lambert's ballsy Gunpowder and Lead-the Barbie theme song. Her sisters really had gone off the deep end.
All the more reason to cut and run.
She bypassed the buffet and headed through a nearby tent that had been set up to house the food. After a quick glance to make sure no one was watching, she darted into the tent, and nearly collided with a waiter carrying a tray of crab cakes.
She paused to snag a sample before murmuring "Sorry," and turned to make her way through the massive square-shaped kitchen. Burners and stoves lined the outer perimeter. The inner area was a maze of preparation tables. People clustered here and there, busily arranging everything from trays of speared shrimp to platters of cold vegetables and gourmet cheeses. There wasn't a hot wing or a fried pickle in sight-none of the usual fare that her mother offered up at the honky-tonk. Even more proof that Raylene was, at this moment, going into shock from the one-eighty her world had taken.
Her mother wasn't much for gourmet cuisine, which was why Nikki had been lying about taking a pole-dancing class in Austin three times a week. In reality, she made the hour-long drive to attend an advanced gourmetentrée class to work on her very own twist to the traditional beef Wellington that was sure to win its way onto the menu in one of Houston's finest.
Fat chance now.
Her life was ruined. Her dream over. Her future tanked.
She fought down a wave of tears and bypassed a woman in a white chef's hat who fed slices of cake onto individual crystal plates. The sweet, sugary aroma teased her nostrils, promising a temporary distraction.
Forget that. She needed alcohol.
She snagged an open bottle of wine from a nearby tray and took a long swig. Her sisters had gone all out. Forget a box of Pinot Grigio from the local Pig-gly Wiggly. She was drinking an aged White Zinfan-del that slid down her throat with a smooth sweetness that eased the panic for a few seconds and slowed her pounding heart.
Another long drink and she left the service tent behind and headed for the barn that sat several yards away.
A little distance and a lot of wine and maybe, just maybe, she could figure out some way to deal with the disaster that was fast becoming her life.
She could spike her mother's favorite moonshine three times a week with a couple of Ambien. That, along with the one-hundred-and-eighty proof, would surely be enough to knock her mother out so she could finish the class, ace the exam and get her degree.
And, more than likely, cause some serious brain damage to the one woman who'd endured twenty hours and thirty-three minutes of labor on her behalf.
Of course, the moonshine wasn't any more an option than the Ambien. She didn't have a prescription, nor did she have any of Big Earl Jessup's famous White Lightning. The old man could barely remember his name, much less his prized recipe.