Miss firecracker, p.18
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       Miss Firecracker, p.18

         Part #2 of Wild West Boys series by Lorelei James
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Page 18

  Author: Lorelei James

  “You know I’m not like that!”

  “And you know I am not a liar. ” Blake sighed. “Look, I’ve gotten used to women pretending to like me for other reasons. Hoping I’ll introduce them to my good lookin’ wild McKay cousins. Or because they expect I’ll sneak them free drinks. Or sweet-talk me into doin’ their home repairs for nothin’.

  “The reason I didn’t tell you about the years I spent a sheep rancher? That’s not who I am, anymore than Miss Firecracker is who you are. It’s afforded me some opportunities. Just like the title did for you. So I didn’t lie. I was a carpenter. I was a sheepherder. But right now? I am just a bartender. ”

  Her stomach clenched at his defeated tone.

  Blake slid from the stool. “I didn’t play you. I don’t have plans to ruin your business by being in your bed. I am a decent guy who is tired of defending my livelihood at every turn to people who don’t judge me as hard as I judge myself, no matter if I’m herding sheep, or nailing trim, or making drinks. I’m tired of explaining myself. I thought I didn’t have to with you. I thought you were the first woman who saw me—the real me—who looked beyond labels, because you defy every one that’s ever been put on you. ”

  He wouldn’t even look at her.

  “Was I wrong, Willow?”

  Dave poked his head around the corner. “Blake. Phone. ”

  Blake sighed and started to walk away.

  Don’t go.

  Willow stared after him. Confused. Heartsick. And feeling the unwelcome urge to cry.

  Talk to him.

  Forget him. He’s leaving anyway.

  She exited through the front door at a dead run and didn’t look back.

  Blake raced out the service entrance only to see gravel flying as Willow roared off in her truck.

  “Fuck!”

  He flipped open his cell phone to call her, to demand she get her ass back here so they could talk this out, when he realized he didn’t have her cell phone number.

  “Fuck. ”

  “Standing in the parking lot and swearing at the memory of her tailgate ain’t gonna do you any good, West. ”

  Blake slumped against the building. “Think I don’t know that, Dave?” He glanced over at his friend. “Perfect timing, by the way. ”

  Dave laughed. “I sincerely hope you aren’t blaming your stupidity on me. ”

  “It might’ve been easier if I’d had the chance…shit. I had lots of chances. I didn’t take any of ’em. I totally f**ked this up. ”

  “Yep. ”

  “Thanks for the support. ”

  “Anytime. So you and Willow Gregory, huh?”

  “I don’t wanna talk about her. ”

  Dave handed him a bottle of water. “Okay. Then can I ask you something else?”

  No.

  “Why the big secret about being a sheep rancher? Why’ve you always been embarrassed about it?”

  “Maybe it’s all the jokes. ‘Wyoming. Where men are men and sheep are nervous. ’ Or maybe it’s because the rest of my family, on both the West and McKay side, are cattle ranchers. Successful ranchers and we’ve always struggled. Or maybe it’s because my brother bailed on the ranch as soon as he could and left me with no choice but to stay on and help Dad. ”

  “You could’ve left. ”

  Blake shook his head. “We barely scraped by most years, so no way could he afford to hire help if I left. What was I supposed to do? Act like the sheep business he’d devoted his life to wasn’t good enough for me? Act ungrateful?”

  But weren’t you doing that by hiding how you’ve spent the majority of your life?

  “No. But instead you made yourself miserable?”

  “I didn’t hate working on the ranch. Not like Nick. It was just what I did, kinda like washing bar glasses. It’s not exciting, but you just do it anyway without thinking about it because it needs done. ”

  “Okay. I get that. So was it the same ‘I don’t wanna be ungrateful’ story when you learned carpentry?”

  “Sort of. ” He cracked the lid on the water bottle and took a long drink. “Except I’d bet a hundred bucks that my cousins Chet and Remy only offered to teach me because they felt sorry for me. ”

  “Why?”

  “After Nick left, they thought I’d gotten trapped in a life I hadn’t chosen. ”

  “Weren’t you?”

  “I hadn’t thought of it that way until I started working for them. So yeah, the upside was I learned a new skill set, but I got the impression they felt they were doing me a favor, ya know?”

  “I hear ya. But again, you were too nice a guy to say no when they asked you for help?”

  “Pretty much. ”

  Dave sighed. “You ever done anything you’ve wanted to do job-wise? Without worrying about whether your decision will hurt a family member’s feelings? Or without being embarrassed about what you’re doing?”

  “The only job I’ve ever gotten on my own was at the Rusty Spur. I like tending bar. I’m good at it. ”

  “I wouldn’t have asked you to watch my place if I didn’t know that. ”

  “Thanks. ”

  A bout of silence stretched between them.

  “Look, I wasn’t blowing smoke the night I talked about expanding LeRoy’s. With the storefront next door empty, I could add on a kitchen. Probably start out serving bar food and see how that goes. ”

  “I imagine it’ll go over well. ”

  Dave tossed his empty water bottle in the recycling bin and jammed his hands in his pockets. “I know you’re struggling to find a place to land after your dad’s stroke. So I just wanna throw it out there that if you’re interested, sincerely interested, not just being ‘Blake the nice guy’ to your old buddy Dave, but looking to make a permanent change in your life, well, I’d like to talk seriously about a partnership. ”

  That surprised Blake. “Why?”

  “I had nothing but time to think on the way back from Jackson Hole. I realized that Gloria was right about a lot of things. ”

  “Like?”

  “Like I don’t have a life outside of the bar. Makes it worse since I live upstairs and I can’t seem to get away from it. I need to. Soon. ” He squinted at the horizon. “We both work too damn hard, Blake. Be nice to share the workload. ”

  “That is true. ”

  Dave turned and grinned. “And the profits. ”

  “Yeah, you do have the beginnings of a goldmine here. ” Blake pushed up from the wall. “I appreciate the offer. Can I crash at your place and keep pouring drafts for the next couple days while I’m considering it?”

  “Absolutely. ” He hesitated. “Now can I say something about Willow?”

  “Have at it. ”

  “She’s a door slammer. She gets pissed, she slams the door and she stomps away. Once she cools off, she’ll come back around. ”

  “And if she doesn’t?”

  “You’ve got an entire bar to drown your sorrows in. ” Dave slapped him on the back. “Come on. You’re off the clock. Lemme buy you a drink. ”

  “Deal. ”

  Willow drove aimlessly. She passed by Mandy’s house, but something—probably pride—stopped her from pulling in and pouring her heart out.

  At that moment, Willow realized she’d been so focused on her job that she hadn’t maintained many female friendships. Her best buddy, Cerise, had married a soldier and they were stationed in Germany. Sure, they kept in touch via email, but it wasn’t the same as meeting in person and gorging on ice cream or margaritas.

  The guys Willow worked with were…well, guys. Good guys, but none of them would appreciate her spilling her guts. Not even over a beer. Not even if she was buying the beer.

  Willow could call her mother. She’d be secretly thrilled to hear her daughter finally had man troubles. Despite their polar opposite personalities, Willow got along great with her, which meant Mom
would know immediately something was wrong. Which meant her dad would know. Which meant Dad would threaten to take action. Which was never a good thing.

  You had a good thing with Blake.

  Up until I found out he lied.

  He didn’t lie. He just didn’t tell you everything.

  He should have.

  Since when do you have to know every little thing about someone within four days?

  That thought jarred her. She’d never expected that before.

  Besides, hadn’t Blake said he needed to talk to you?

  Crap. She’d forgotten that too.

  What if he’d meant to tell you about his past?

  Fine. But why was he embarrassed about raising sheep?

  Why were you embarrassed about being Miss Firecracker?

  Touché.

  Especially since you told Blake right after you met that part of your life was over and didn’t matter.

  Hadn’t Blake just said the same thing?

  That’s not who I am, anymore than Miss Firecracker is who you are.

  Her heart nearly stopped. What if she’d made a big deal…out of nothing? What if she was looking for an excuse to break it off with him first because she knew Blake was leaving? What if she broke it off in a manner that hurt him? So there was no chance she’d be hurt in return? And if she ended it when she was ticked off about something he’d done, it’d be easier to handle anger than sorrow.

  Wouldn’t it?

  No.

  On no. Oh no no no. Had she just made a big mistake?

  Blake was a good man. Truthfully, he was the nicest, most decent, honest, hardworking, thoughtful, sweet, caring, loving man she’d ever met.

  Didn’t you secretly believe the man was too good to be true?

  Yes.

  You don’t deserve him.

  Which didn’t matter now because she probably lost him.

  That’s when the tears came. A flood so intense she had to pull over on the side of the road.

  About five minutes into her crying jag, her cell phone pealed, “Who’s Your Daddy?” Willow debated on answering it, but her father would keep calling until she picked up. He was perverse that way. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and hit talk. “Hey, Dad. ”
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