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Rodeo Ashes

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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"How did I fall for this?" Lacie Gentry squeezed the steering wheel of her parked SUV with both hands until her fingers went numb. "Because I'm the biggest idiot in Texas. And to top things off--I'm talking to myself."
Movement in front of her car. Strains of a crying in your beer country song twanged out the open bar door. Please let it be one of her friends ready to head home. She looked up into the leer of a man.
Oh goodness, what if he comes over here? Without taking her eyes off him, she found the lock button. The loud click broke the spell and he turned away.
Her breath released in a huff.
She couldn't stay here like a sitting duck, waiting for some carjacker. Or worse. She'd never heard of anything good happening inside or outside a bar. Maybe she could go somewhere else and wait. But if she did that, how would her friends find her when they got done with whatever they were doing in there.
She waited until the man drove away, then scanned the Fort Worth parking lot three times, unlocked the door, and bolted to the bar. The barely August night air hadn't cooled one iota, but a chill moved through her.
Safer inside or out? At least there were witnesses inside. She scurried into the bar as if wolves waited in the shadows.
But the wolves were inside.
A dish-water blond man swaggered over to her. "Hey beautiful, I lost my phone number. Can I borrow yours?"
She sidestepped him and searched for a quiet corner.
One of her friends was with a man in a booth. Big time public display of affection. Lacie averted her eyes and spotted a corner. She hurried to the table.
No one notice me. No one notice me. No one notice me.
She scanned the bar for her other friend. There on the dance floor with a man. If that could be called dancing. Lacie's jaw dropped. What had she been thinking getting in the car with these two? That they were grown women now with sense and decency? Wrong.
A painfully skinny man stumbled in her direction. She looked down at the table in front of her.
"Hey baby, I hope you know CPR, because you take my breath away!" He leaned close enough for her to smell the liquor on his breath.
"Excuse me." She inched past him, searching frantically for an escape.
A neon sign proclaimed--Gals and she ran for the safety of the ladies' room.
The door swung closed and she surveyed the dingy bathroom.
A denim-clad woman swayed to the country music as she stood at the sink applying lipstick. She missed her mouth and giggled, then tried again.
Lacie found a clean, empty stall. Lord, if you'll just get me out of here safely, I'll never be so stupid again. She dug her cell phone from her pocket.
Mama had told her never, ever, ever to step foot in a bar. And she never had. Until now. Twenty-eight years old and first time in a bar.
She grabbed a wad of toilet paper, shut the toilet lid, and covered it with three paper liners, then sat.
Call Rayna and Clay? Lacie would never hear the end of it. Her friends already thought she was too trusting and naive. They didn't need any more ammo to convince her to move.
No choice. Just wait it out. Besides, even though Marcy and Geena hadn't acted as friends, Lacie couldn't just leave them here with no ride home.
Rayna and Clay would ask questions if she came in really late, but she'd come up with something and Max was fine with them.
Half the time, she still thought of her son as Little Mel, even though she'd changed his nickname to Max over a year ago.
The door opened, followed by a female moan. High heel clad feet stumbled to the stall next to Lacie. Heaving and splashing liquid. A fowl odor emanated.
Lacie's stomach lurched. Covering her nose and mouth with one hand, she wrenched the door open and bolted for the exit.
She ran into something solid, then stepped back away from the wobbly man. "I'm sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going."
"That's all right, Darlin'. Can you give me directions?"
"To where?"
"To your heart."
Lacie rolled her eyes and blew out a big breath. Hmm. Drunk guy or hurling woman in the bathroom?
"Here's your Coke, sweetheart. I found us a table right over here." A man's hand clamped on her elbow.
She spun around to give him a piece of her mind and met celery colored eyes from the past. Quinn Remington.
"Sorry man." The drunk splayed both hands up in the air and slunk away. "I didn't know she was with someone."
Quinn tucked her hand in his elbow and steered her toward an empty booth.
Sweetheart? They'd gone to high school together, but never even came close to dating. And she hadn't seen him since graduation. They definitely weren't on sweetheart terms. Much less touching terms.
Besides she was a widow. She pulled her arm away from him.
"Relax Lacie, I'm not making any moves, just trying to rescue you. Unless you were interested in that guy."
"Oh. Definitely not." Heat warmed her face. "Thank you."
"I get the feeling you're not exactly comfortable here."
She scrambled to the safety of the booth. "I've never. . . never been in a bar before."
Quinn sat across from her. His black coffee colored hair such a contrast with the pale eyes. But his eyes were different than she remembered. Haunted. Pain dwelt there.
His eyebrows rose. "Never?"
"Well, I've been to restaurants that have a bar in them, but never to a plain ol' bar before."
"I wish I could say the same."
As far as she knew, he'd never done the party scene in high school and hadn't been a drinker. She'd never pegged him as the type to hang out in a bar. "If you don't like bars, then why are you here?"
"Looking for one of my ranch hands."
Her parched lips longed to taste her coke. But what else was in it? Not that she didn't trust Quinn, but he might think mixed drinks were the norm. "Is he here?"
"Not so far." He scanned the crowd. "He's a great guy, hard worker, but an alcoholic who hasn't admitted he has a problem yet. He went to one AA meeting and I agreed to be his accountability partner."
"That's sad, but it's good of you to try to help him. Anybody else would have probably fired him."
"May have to before it's over. When he doesn't show, it makes everybody else's load tougher." His gaze landed on her. "Why'd you pick tonight to hit your first bar?"
She rolled her eyes. "A couple of old high school friends are in town for a wedding. I thought we were going to the steakhouse down the street, but they piled out of my car and came here."
"I saw you come in a while after Geena Woods and Marcy Smithson."
She nodded. "I was afraid to sit in the car by myself. I think I got tricked into being their designated driver for the night."
"You never did seem to fit in with them." Quinn's gaze cut to the PDA in the booth across the bar. He winced.
A slow song urged more couples to the dance floor. Cowboy boots scuffed and shuffled. A few of the dancers could barely stand, much less keep their rhythm.
"They were always wilder than me. Always tried to get me to go to parties. I thought surely they'd settled down and it was safe to go to dinner with them. Not." She sighed. "My whole family always ribs me about being gullible." She bit her lip. "If you see any of them, could you not mention this?"
"I don't go home much these days." He sipped his drink. "How is Star?"
"Married a jerk. She's divorced and lives in Denton now." Moved there to be closer to me and wants me to move in with her. Like everybody else. "So where is your ranch?"
"In a little town called Aubrey."
"You're kidding. I live in Aubrey."
The music sped to a faster beat and the less lit couples formed into a synchronized line dance.
"Small world. What have you been up to for the last ten years?" He scanned her left hand. "I know you got married. Any kids?"
Something sharp jabbed her heart like it always did when people asked. She twisted her wedding rings. "I'm a widow."
"I'm sorry." His features pinched, as if he felt her pain. His hand moved toward hers, as if to touch it, but stopped a few inches away.
"Yeah, me too. But I have a little boy." That part always warmed her heart. Her life's joy. "How about you?"
"No kids. Never married. I guess I've been working too hard to take the time."
"What keeps you so busy?"
He cleared his throat. "Raising quarter horses. What do you say we get out of this place and get that bite to eat?"
"I'd love to." Her stomach growled, but maybe the music masked it. "But I can't just leave them here--as much as I'd like to. They do deserve it, but I can't."
"Just to the steakhouse on the next block. You can tell them where we're going and then I'll escort you safely back."
She glanced around the bar and located her two friends. Since Geena and Marcy were still occupied , why not? "That sounds great."
***
"From the looks of things back there, I don't think your friends will miss you." Quinn pulled a chair for her in the restaurant.
Lacie visibly relaxed, obviously more comfortable with her surroundings, as he claimed the seat across from her. She propped her elbow on the table, with her chin in her hand and concentrated on the menu.
Country music twanged, loud conversations, and the clinks of silverware surrounded them. He'd like to take her somewhere quiet with a dance floor. What he wouldn't give to Texas Two Step with Lacie Maxwell.
"What can I get you to drink?" The waitress shot him a flirty smile and never even looked at Lacie.
Lacie didn't seem to notice. "Unsweet tea."
"That's downright un-Texan. I'll take sweet."
Jaw-dropping gorgeous packed in tiny stick of dynamite. He'd always admired her pint-sized beauty from afar. Miss Popularity. From Homecoming Queen to Rodeo Queen. Practically engaged to someone else when they met, she'd barely known he existed, but she'd always been kind to everyone. He'd wished many a time that he'd met her first.
Maturity had only added to her beauty. Her blond hair wasn't as big as it used to be. Straighter, softer. But she still loved rhinestones. They lined her jacket and jean pockets, adding to her natural sparkle.
Her menu lowered.
Caught red-handed staring at her. Busted. "How'd you end up in Aubrey?"
A sigh bigger than her huffed out. "Mel was from Wichita, Kansas and always wanted to live in the country, so we found something small town in the middle."
Mel? The name twisted in his gut.
"Now I'm at a crossroads. My landlord sold my house. I have to be out by the end of next month."
But he'd just found her again. "You going home?"
"I don't know." Her menu rose and he couldn't see her anymore. "My parents think my little boy needs to be closer to family and Star wants me to move in with her. My friend owns a dude ranch in Aubrey and wants me to move into the suite at his ranch house."
Was the friend trying to worm his way into her heart? Or had he already? How long since her husband's death?
"I'll admit Aubrey hasn't been the same since. . ." Raw pain cut her words off.
Gently, Quinn pushed her menu down until he could see her face. "What do you want?"
Her eyes got shinier. "Nobody's asked me that in a while. I want. . . my life to be the way it used to be." She blinked several times. "But that's not going to happen, so I just want to do what's best for my son. Trouble is, I'm not sure what that is. I've been praying about it."
The waitress brought the teas and took their orders. He made a point not to look at her, courteous but not interested in anyone other than Lacie.
Lacie added two yellow packets and downed nearly her whole glass. "I didn't realize how thirsty I was."
"I can see that." He grinned. "Why didn't you drink the Coke I got you next door?"
Pink tinged her cheeks. "I wasn't sure what else was in it and I don't drink. Period."
"Me neither. I can assure you, it was just Coke."
"Oh well, coke isn't as thirst quenching anyway. It burns all the way down."
"True. But bars don't generally have tea" He took a long drink of his tea, letting the sweet coldness bathe his dry throat.
His gaze settled on Lacie again. Falling under the spell she'd cast on him almost ten years ago.
After all these years, he'd caught up with her again. But she'd probably be moving soon. Unless. . . was her friend the new man in her picture? Her reason for staying in Aubrey? Or maybe a career? He liked that thought better. "Do you work?"
Her pretty blue eyes squeezed shut. "No, Mel left me in pretty good shape with life insurance. And we had a pretty good nest egg before that."
Something twisted in his belly. "You shouldn't tell just anybody that. There are losers all over the place looking for widows with funds to take advantage of."
"But you're not just anybody. You're Quinn Remington. Good ol' boy from San Antone."
Bile coated the back of his throat, as a familiar wave washed over him. He used to be. Until he'd killed a man. He swallowed hard, pushing the guilt down, and forced a smile. "Did you work before your son was born?"
"I taught kids how to ride horses at my friend's ranch."
"I bet you were great at that."
"It was fun." Her eyes sparkled. "How did you get into raising quarter horses? Didn't you want to raise rodeo stock and such?"
His heart withered inside him. That dream took a wreck of a U turn. "I decided on something tamer."
"If you just came to Aubrey and you haven't been home in a while. What about in between?"
The in between. If only he could redo the in between. "I had a ranch in the Southlake area."
"Wow, that's an expensive area. You've done well for yourself."
He couldn't get into his past. Had to steer her away. "Do you still barrel race?"
"Not for about five years."
"But you were so good and you loved it. The prettiest rodeo queen of 'em all."
Her face reddened. "Mel's career required a lot of travel. For the last few years, I just supported him and didn't have time for barrels. And since my son came, I have even less time."
"What kind of career did your husband have?"
Her throat convulsed. "Rodeo. At the pro level."
Wished he hadn't asked. "If you decide to stay in Aubrey, I could use a horse trainer at my ranch. I've got a guy who teaches adults to ride, but he's kind of gruff and terrible with kids. You could teach our future barrel racers."
Her eyes lit up. "I don't know. I'd love to get back into teaching kids. But I don't want to take time away from my son."
"Maybe part time?"
"Maybe."
"How old is your son?"
"Just turned two in April." She sparkled. The boy was obviously her reason to live. "He's with my friends tonight." She checked her watch. "Hopefully in bed by now."
"How long since your husband. . ? Never mind. Shouldn't have asked."
"Almost two and half years." Her voice came out barely a whisper.
If her boy two, four months ago, that meant she'd been pregnant when her husband died. Bore their son alone. Raising him alone. "I'm really sorry. Must have been a hard row to hoe."
"I got Max to remember him by." She smiled. Genuine. "And he's so much like his daddy. We gave him my maiden name, Maxwell. I used to call him Little Mel, but a sensible friend sat me down and said, 'Now Lacie,'" she deepened her voice. "'He won't always be little. I know it's your way of honoring Mel in naming his boy after him, but the boy needs his own name.' So Little Mel became Max."
Her sensible friend was a man. The friend that wanted her to move in his ranch house? How good of a friend? Just a friend or more than that?
Their server brought their food on a huge tray. Her steak was almost as big as his. Where would she put it?
Quinn unrolled his silverware from the cloth napkin.
"Ahem."
He met her gaze.
"Aren't you going to pray?"
He swallowed hard. Hadn't done that in a few years. "You go ahead."
"Thank you, Lord for this food. For all the blessings you heap on us."
Blessings? Lacie's husband died, leaving her to raise her son alone. Where was the blessing in that?
"Help Geena and Marcy to realize they're not really living and to make better decisions in the future. Help them see something in me that leads them to you. Be with Quinn's ranch hand too. Give him strength to kick the bottle. In Jesus name, Amen."
A dull ache hollowed out in his chest. He used to pray like that.
Quinn cut his steak in silence, while she tore into hers. Big appetite for such a little thing.
"I think you helped me decide to stay in Aubrey."
"Really?" Just like that. His insides warmed.
"I'm twenty-seven years old. Too old to go running home to Mama and Daddy. I'm not a city girl anymore, so that rules out San Antonio and Denton." She blew out a big breath. "I've felt so much pressure from all sides, I couldn't think clearly. Sometimes just saying it all out loud clarifies things. Thanks."
"Glad to be of help." She'd be sticking around. But moving into her friend's ranch suite. What kind of friend? "Reckon you'll be packing up soon then."
"Yeah. I'm glad Mel and I didn't get around to building a house, since I don't have to worry about paying for it. God works things out for the best."
Not always. "I wish things had turned out better for you, but I'm glad you're planning to stay for the time being, Lacie Maxwell. Let me know if you're interested in that job."
"Gentry."
Quinn's fork clattered to the table. "What?"
"It's Gentry. Lacie Gentry."
Her words shot through his heart. No. No. No. Mel Gentry. It couldn't be.

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