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Rock bottom was one thing. This had to be a new low, even for her.
Elise Clifton hunched onto the bar stool at The Hitching Post, painfully aware of her solitary status. She wasn't sure which made her more patheticshowing up alone at Thunder Canyon's favorite watering hole or the fact that she would rather be anywhere else on earth, including here by herself, than home with her family right now.
She sipped at her drink, trying to avoid meeting anyone's gaze.
So much for the girls' night out she had been eagerly anticipating all week. She was supposed to have met her best friend Haley Anderson here for a night of margaritas and girl talk, accompanied by a popular local band.
Two out of three was still a winning average, she supposed.
The band was here, a trio of cute, edgy long-haired cowboys belting out crowd-pleasing rockabilly music. Margaritas, check. She was almost done with her second and heading fast toward number three.
But the girl talk was notably lacking.. .maybe because Haley had called her twenty minutes ago, her voice hoarse and full of apologies.
"I'm so sorry I didn't phone you earlier," Haley had rasped out. "I completely zonked and slept through my alarm. All day I've been hoping the cold medicine would finally kick in and I would be ready to rock and roll with you at The Hitching Post. No luck, though. It's only making me so sleepy I'm not consciously aware of how miserable I feel."
"Don't worry about it," Elise had answered, trying to keep any trace of her plummeting mood out of her voice. She couldn't really blame Haley for her bad luck in coming down with a lousy cold on a night when Elise was particularly desperate for any available diversion. She would be a poor friend to make a big deal about it, especially when Haley probably felt even worse than she sounded, which was pretty bad.
"We can reschedule as soon as you're feeling better," Elise had said. "The Hitching Post will still be here in a week or two."
"Deal," Haley croaked out. "If I ever get feeling better, anyway. Right now that doesn't seem likely."
"You will. Hang in there."
That was about the time Elise had gestured for her second margarita as her plans for the evening went up in smoke.
"Thanks for understanding, honey. First round is on me next time."
Elise sighed now as the band switched songs to one she hadn't heard before. She watched the blinking of Christmas lights that some enterprising soul had draped around the racy picture of Lily Divine adorned in strategically placed gauze that hung above the bar.
Even Lily Divine was in a holiday mood. Too bad Elise couldn't say the same.
Usually she enjoyed coming to The Hitching Post. Once rumored to be Thunder Canyon's house of ill repute, the place was now a warm, welcoming bar and grill. Locals loved it for its enduring nature. Unlike the rest of Thunder Canyon, The Hitching Post had remained unchanged through the ebbs and flows of the local economy.
With hardwood floors, the same weathered old bar and framed photos from the 1880s on the walls, the restaurant and bar likely hadn't changed much since the days when Lily Divine herself used to preside over the saloon she'd inherited from the original madam.
Elise had never been here by herself, though, and was quickly discovering how that created an entirely different dynamic. She felt more alone than ever as she sipped her drink and tried to avoid making eye contact. With a lone woman in a bar like The Hitching Post, it probably looked as if she was on the prowl, in search of some big, strong cowboy to help her while away a cold winter's night.
One such cowboya little heavy on the outdoorsy aftershavesat three stools away. He'd been eyeing her for the past ten minutes and she was trying her best to pretend she didn't notice.
Maybe if she had stayed at Clifton's Pride, she might have been snuggled up right now in a fleece blanket watching some movie on the big-screen television at her family's ranch house instead of perched here at the bar like some kind of sad, pathetic loser.
She took a healthy swallow of her margarita and gestured to Carl, the longtime bartender, for another one as she swung her foot in time to the music.
Who was she kidding? If she had stayed at the ranch, she wouldn't be snuggled up with a movie and a bowl of popcorn. Not when her mother and brother had companyhence her escape to The Hitching Post, so she wouldn't have to smile and nod and make nice with Erin Castro. Right this moment Erin was having dinner with her miraculous, newfound familyElise's own mother, Helen, her brother Grant and his pregnant wife, Stephanie Julen Clifton.
Escaping the family gathering had probably been cowardly. Rude, even. Helen and John Clifton had raised her to be much more polite than that. But the truth was, she wasn't sure she was capable of spending a couple of hours making polite conversation just now, even though she liked Erin.
She couldn't blame this twisted tangle on the other woman. It wasn't Erin's fault that a nurse's error twenty-six years ago during an unusually hectic night at Thunder Canyon General Hospital and a string of mistakes had resulted in two baby girlsborn on the same night to mothers sharing a roombeing inadvertently switched.
Erin might have set into motion the chain of events that had led to the discovery of the hospital mistakeand the shocking truth that Elise's birth parents were a couple she had never even met until a few weeks agobut she had only been trying to look into a mysterious claim by a relative that the truth of her birth rested somewhere in Thunder Canyon. She had come here several months ago to investigate why she looked nothing like her siblings and had finally discovered that she was in reality the child of Helen and the late John Clifton, while Elisewho had spent her lifetime thinking she knew exactly who she was and her place in the worldhad been stunned to learn she was the biological child of Betty and Jack Castro.
Elise understood the other woman hadn't set out to drop an atomic bomb in her life, only to find answers. But every time Elise saw how happy her mother and Grant were now that they had found out the truth about the events of twenty-six years agoand in effect gained another daughter and sisterElise felt more and more like she didn't belong.
She took another healthy swallow of her drink, welcoming the warm, easy well-being that helped push away that sense of always being on the outside, looking in.
The funny thing was, she couldn't really blame Erin for that, either. She always felt like an outsider whenever she came to town because she was an outsider. Oh, she had lived in Thunder Canyon through elementary and middle school. She had loved it here, had thought she would stay foreveruntil the horrible events of that day more than a decade ago when her father and a neighboring rancher were murdered by cattle rustlers.
She couldn't say she was exactly a stranger in town. She and her mother came back occasionally to visit family and friends. Scattered throughout the bar and grill were various people she recognized. Her family's ties here ran deep and true, especially since Grant and Stephanie had revitalized Clifton's Pride, in addition to her brother's work as general manager of the Thunder Canyon Resort.
Grant certainly belonged here. Her mother, too, even though Helen had escaped the bad memories after her husband's violent death by moving with Elise to Billings when Elise was thirteen.
Elise didn't feel the same sense of connection. She had come back temporarily with her mother for the holidays while their family absorbed the shocking developments of the last month. But she was beginning to think she might have been better off booking a month-long cruise somewhere warm and exotic and an ocean away from this Montana town and all the pain and memories it held.
The desire was reinforced when The Hitching Post door opened with a blast of wintry air. Like everybody else in the place, she instinctively looked up to see who it might be, but quickly turned back toward Lily Divine, her stomach suddenly as tangled as those wisps of material covering Lily's abundant charms. Matt Cates.
She averted her face away from the door, mortified at the idea of him noticing her sitting here alone like some pathetic barfly.
He didn't seem to be on a date, which was odd. From the rumors she heard even after she moved away, Matt and his twin brother, Marlon, both enjoyed living up to their wild reputation.
Marlon was apparently reformed now that he was engaged to Haley. She didn't know about Matt, though.
Out of the corner of her gaze, she spotted him heading over to a booth in the corner where several other guys she vaguely recognized from school years ago had ordered pizza and a pitcher of beer.
Some of her tension eased. From his vantage point, he wouldn't have a direct line of sight to her. Maybe he wouldn't even notice her. Why would he? She had always been pretty invisible to him, other than as an annoying kid he always seemed to have to rescue.
She crossed the fingers of her left hand under the bar and reached for her thirdor was it fourth?margarita with her right.
"How'd I get so lucky to be sitting next to the prettiest girl in the place?"
Elise turned at the drawl, so close she could practically feel the hot breath puffing in her ear. She had been so busy hiding from Matt, she hadn't realized the cowboy had maneuvered his way to the bar stool next to her.
She definitely should slow down on the margaritas, since the ten gallons of Stetson cologne he must have used hadn't tipped her off to him.
"Oh. Hi." Her cheeks heated and she cursed her fair skin.
"I'm Jake. Jake Halloran."
She should just ignore him. She wasn't the sort to talk to strange men in a bar. But then, everything she knew about herself had been turned upside down in the last two weeks, so why not? It had to be marginally better than sitting here by herself.
"Hi, Jake. You from around here?"
"I'm working out at the Lazy D." His heavy-eyed gaze sharpened on her. "You sure you're old enough to be in here? You must have used a fake ID, right? Come on, you can tell me the truth."
"Don't worry, darlin'. I won't say a word."
He smiled and mimicked turning a key at his lips. He was good-looking in a rough-edged sort of way, with tawny blond hair beneath his black Resistol and a thin, craggy, Viggo Mortenson kind of face.
She supposed she was just tipsy enough to be a little flattered at his obvious interest. Not that she had the greatest track record where men were concerned. She sighed a little. Her one and only serious relationship had been a total disaster. Kind of tough to see it any other way after the man she'd considered her first real boyfriendand had surrendered her virginity tointroduced her to his lovely fiancée.