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"Looks like he ain't coming."
Bella Primeaux glanced up from the news report on her smartphone display. The cowboy claiming the next bar stool was half-shot and full-ugly. She didn't know him, wasn't interested in knowing him, and there was no point in sparing him more than a glance. She pressed her elbows against the bar and swiveled two inches to the right, turning a cold left shoulder.
"What's that you're drinkin'?"
Bella glanced right. Another one was moving in. She was bookended by Crude and Rude. Experience told her that if they got no satisfaction, their type would go away.
"What does that look like to you, Loop?" the one on the right asked the one on the left. "Seven and seven?"
Loop? Bella swallowed the urge to laugh. She'd interviewed a rodeo cowboy named Rope who'd given a shout out to his brother Cash and his friend Spur. But Loop?
"Looks like tea." Loop was perceptive.
"Is that some of that Long Island iced tea? You wanna try some, Loop?" Rude signaled the bartender. "Bring us three more of these."
"Lemme try hers first," Loop said as he reached for Bella's glass from the left.
She slipped her phone into the woolen sack that hung over her shoulder on a braided cord. He could have her drink. She was leaving anyway.
"Is it whiskey and tea?" Loop sniffed, slurped and slammed the glass on the bar. "It's just tea."
"And it's yours now, Loopy," said a newcomer to the growing group.
Bella turned to her left, and her glance traveled quickly over the glass in the one called Loopy's grubby hand, past the full-ugly face to a faintly familiar one that loomed in the shadows above Loopy's cowboy hat. Familiar, fine looking, and frankly unsettling. It had been years since she'd seen the man, but he wore the years as well as his own straw cowboy hat. Surprising, considering where he'd spent the last couple of those years. His hat was battered, and his jeans and T-shirt had seen better days, but he made them look camera ready. She'd lost what little touch she'd had with high school friends, and Ethan Wolf Track was no exception, but she'd never quite shaken her interest in what he was up to. Generally it was no good.
But his smile was as disarming as ever.
"Sorry I'm late, Bella."
Loopy peeked over his shoulder and then turned back to Bella with a whole new brand of interest in his glazed eyes. "Why didn't you just say you were with Ethan Wolf Track? Hell, man, we were just"
"Long Island iced tea all around. Loopy's buying." Ethan's hand appeared on Loopy's shoulder.
"It's just tea. There's no whiskey," Loop said.
"Long Island iced tea isn't made with whiskey or tea." Ethan jiggled his hand rest. "You been living under a rock, Loopy?"
"Same as you."
"Nah, look at the difference." Ethan laid his hand on the bar beside Loopy's. "You need to get yourself some sun, boy."
Bella glanced between the two faces. The "boy" couldn't have been any younger than the man, but he didn't take exception. Ethan was still the man. The memory of a younger but no less commanding Ethan letting the boys know who was boss flashed through her mind.
"Iced tea for two," the bartender announced, landing the glasses on the bar with a thunk. "As for the other two, you want another beer? It's the same price as tea."
"No beer for these horses, Willie," Ethan said as he claimed both glasses. "Tricky, ain't it, Loopy? Pullin' the wagon and riding it, too?"
"You got your parole officer, I got mine. Far as I'm concerned, beer don't count," Loopy grumbled. "And it's Toby. That's a Toby Keith song, 'Beer For My Horses.'"
"Not without Willie," Ethan said as he glanced at Bella and gave a nod toward a corner booth. "Not on my wagon."
Bella was off the bar stool, but she wasn't looking for a booth, and the man and his boys could do what they pleased with their wagon. She wouldn't be vying for a parking spot at the Hitching Post. She'd already crossed the place off her list of possible sites for her report on Rapid City's hottest singles' hangouts.
"Would you rather go someplace else?" Ethan asked her quietly.
She looked up, taken by the change in his tone. He was speaking for her benefit alone, and he sounded sincere, even hopeful. Tension drained from her shoulders as she shook her head. "We can catch up right here."
As she neared the high-backed booth, she saw a big book lying open on the far side of the table beside a cup half-filled with black coffee. She slid into the near side, her back to the room.
"Looks like he ain't comin'," she drawled as she checked her watch.
"Maybe he's still working on his story." He set his glass on the table and dropped his hand over the book, which he closed, swept off the table and deposited on the seat beside him in one quick motion. His eyes danced. "Better be a good one, huh?"
She shrugged, subtly acknowledging that he was playing along. "You were here all along. All I saw was the hat."
"It serves many purposes." He pulled down on the brim, shadowing all but the generous lips and their slight smile.
"I'm surprised you remember me."
"I watch TV."
"So you don't actually remember me."
"Really took me back when I saw you sitting on that bar stool. You sat in front of me inwhat class was it? English?"
"History. Don't remember any names or dates, but I never forget a woman's back. You have a small" he hooked his hand over his shoulder and touched a spot near the base of his neck "beauty mark right here."
"Beauty mark?" She laughed. "It's called a mole."
"Not in my book."
"Which book is that?" She wondered about the one he was sharing his seat with.
"History. My favorite class. Liked it so much, I took it twice." He dropped his hand to the seat as he leaned back, grinning. She imagined him patting that book as though he wanted to keep a pet quiet. "You were there the second time around."
"No wonder you had all the answers. You'd already heard the questions."
"I didn't hear anything the first time." He leaned closer, getting into the reminiscence. "We did a project together. Remember?"
"I wasn't going to mention it. You still owe me."
"I bought all the materials. Actually, I did all the work. You were going to come to my house the night before it was due, but you never showed up."
"Forgot about that part." He arched an eyebrow and cast a pointed glance at her watch. "How do you keep getting mixed up with guys like that?"
"I'm not meeting anyone," she confessed.
"Then what the hell are you doing here?" He pulled a dramatic grimace as he glanced past her.
She shrugged. "Checking the place out."
"For what? This ain't no singles' bar, woman. This is a hole in the wall."
"Maybe I'm not single. Maybe I'm here doing my job." She gave herself a second to rein in her rising tone. "And maybe I didn't need to be rescued."
"In the old days, you wouldn't've said maybe. Once you got to talkin', you were as sure and self-determined as any girl I ever met." He gave her the no-bull eye. "I don't know about the rest, but you're not married."
"That doesn't mean I'm single."
"I think it does." He took a drink of his tea, then looked at her again. "So how much do I owe you for labor and materials?"
"Since it was a required class, I think you owe me your diploma."
"I showed up for the report. I had all the facts and figures. Hell, we got an A, didn't we? Can't do any better than that." He shook his head. "We'll have to come up with something else. You sure don't need my diploma."
"And you sure have a better memory than you first let on." She gave a tight smile. "I guess we can call it even. Being Ethan Wolf Track's history project partner raised my lowly underclass social status a notch."
"What were you, a sophomore?"
She shook her head.
She smiled and nodded.
"How did you get into that class as a freshman, for God's sake?"
"I took a test. Actually, I took several. They had a hard time coming up with a schedule for me." She lifted one shoulder. He had his muscles, she had her brain. "And you were a senior and the captain of everything."
"You were smart. It didn't take a test to figure that out. You were goin' places." He glanced around the room. "Better places than this."
"I go where the story is. Or where we think it might be." She tested out a coy look as she sipped her tea. "Stay tuned."
"Do me a favor. Give me a heads-up if this place is gonna be raided. I try to stay out of trouble these days."
"By doing what?"
"I guess you could say I'm a cowboy."
"Like your brother?"
"Not a rodeo cowboy like Trace. A working cowboy. A ranch hand. I work for the Square One Ranch."
She had no idea where that was, but he seemed to think the name of the place spoke for itself, so she made her usual mental note. Find out. It could lead to something.
"So you're one of a dying breed," she said. "I did a story on a guy who calls himself a cowboy for hire. He says he has more work than he can handle. Do you ride a horse or an ATV?"
"What's an ATV?"
"All terrain.. " She caught the smile in his eyes. "You know, vehicle."
"Those kid toys? Couldn't call myself a cowboy if I rode one of those things. Hell, I was raised by Logan Wolf Track."
"He trains horses, doesn't he?"
"He does, and so do I. I'm training a mustang right now. Entered up in a contest." He winked at her. "Gonna win it, too."
Deja vu on the Wolf Track wink. She'd been on the receiving end of one or two of those babies years back, and the experience had given her the same tummy tickle that was not going to get a smile out of her now.
"You're talking about the competition they're running at the new Wild Horse Sanctuary near Sinte?"
"The wild horse program is pretty new, but the Double D Ranch has been there forever," he reminded her. "I hired on for a couple of summers when I was a kid, back when old man Drexler was running it. Now it's his daughters."
"I know. I've been reading up on the place." She took a breath, a moment's pause. They'd been playing a circuitous game, and she'd just landed at the foot of a ladder. One person's connections could be another person's rungs. They could be fragile, but as a journalist, she was weightless. Most sources had no idea she'd gotten anything from them.
But Ethan Wolf Track wasn't most sources. Sure, he'd been a source of adolescent anxiety and disappointment, but hadn't that been his job back then? It was up to the captain of everything to teach the princess of nothing not to expect too much. Bella had always been a quick study. Still, he owed her.
"I think it's wonderful, the way the Drexlers have worked out a deal with the Tribe to set aside some of that remote reservation land for more sanctuary."
The Tribe being her people and Ethan's adoptive father's people. Logan Wolf Track was a Lakota Sioux Tribal councilman. Ethan looked Indian, too, but she'd never asked him about his background. Everyone knew that his mother had left Logan to raise her two boys, whom he'd legally adoptedjust up and left and never came backbut nobody asked too many questions. It wasn't their way. Ethan and his older brother, Trace, were Wolf Tracks.
"Are you working on a news story?" he asked.
"I've been digging around." She folded her hands around her glass and studied the two shrinking chunks of ice. "There's definitely a story thereone that goes back a waysbut I'm looking for the details on my own. It's not the kind of assignment I'm likely to get from KOZY-TV."
"Why not? They don't like mustangs?"
"They're fine with mustangs. They don't like digging around."
"Isn't that how you come up with news? Dirt sells."
"But sleeping dogs don't bite, and the suits at the stationsuch as they are here in good ol' Rapid City, South Dakota, you know, not exactly coat and tiethey don't want to get their business-casual clothes torn." She ignored his quizzical look. "Let's just say they don't pay me to dig." She smiled. "But it's fun, isn't it? You dig?"
He chuckled. "Postholes, yeah."
"When you were hiring out as a kid, did you ever work for Dan Tutan?" The change in his eyesquizzical to coldwas barely discernible, but it was there. "You know, the Drexlers' neighbor."
Oh, yeah. He knew.
But he shook his head. Interesting.