Rory kept telling herself that it was better to be dateless and alone than married to the wrong man. Some days it empowered her. Other days it depressed her.
Her love life wasn’t the only source of melancholy. Twenty-eight years old, with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and she was still slinging drinks for tips. She was still living in the same small hometown in the same small cabin she’d grown up in.
The more things changed the more they stayed the same.
But she’d had a full, exciting life in college, which made it worse, living in Dullsville, USA again. She’d joined several exchange programs during grad school, which had added almost two years to the time it took to earn her degree. But it’d been worth it, seeing the world outside of Wyoming. She’d spent half a year in South America studying tropical land conservation practices. She’d lived on a large cattle ranch on the big island of Hawaii. She’d mapped wildlife habitats and migration patterns in Alaska and Canada.
After graduation she’d interned for a year with the Wyoming State Parks Department. But the hiring freeze meant she didn’t land a permanent job after the internship ended. Her relationship with Dillon, her boss in the WSPD office in Cheyenne, had hit the skids at the same time, so taking a part-time position with the WNRC in Moorcroft had been a no brainer. Her living expenses were next to nothing. Working part-time gave her time to apply for jobs all over the country, with every agency under the sun.
Pity she hadn’t bothered sending off any applications in the past month—she could only take so much rejection. Maybe that was another sign of depression? Or boredom? She knew it wasn’t a sign of contentment.
At least her mom seemed happy to have her around, although she and her husband, Gavin, were joined at the hip and lips when they weren’t traveling across the country. Most of her friends in the area were married or in a steady relationship. Even her stepsister Sierra was all grown up and living in Arizona while she attended ASU. Rory got a little misty-eyed thinking about when Sierra had shown up at the Twin Pines with her dad and Rory’s mom on her twenty-first birthday so Rory could make her first legal drink. She missed that sweet little brat.
“Rory? You are a sight for my tired old eyes today.”
She looked up at a new customer and grinned. “If it isn’t Donald, my favorite bald man. What’s up?”
“The wind for one thing. Getting cold out there.” He rubbed his hands together.
“You want the usual?”
“Nope. I’m feeling daring tonight. How about you add an extra kick to my red beer? A couple slices of jalapeños, some of them peppers and a handful of olives.”
“You got it.” Just like that her mood brightened. Hard to pity yourself when faced with a cancer survivor who’d been through chemotherapy hell. But Donald was always upbeat. Her favorite part of bartending was talking to customers. If she was totally honest, she hadn’t taken the bartending gig because she needed money, but to stave off loneliness. Hard to believe she could be lonely in her hometown, but she did spend many of her nonworking hours by herself. At least slinging drinks gave her some social interactions.
Rory slid the drink in front of Donald. “Taste it. If it’s too spicy I’ll dump it out and start fresh.”
He sipped. Smacked his lips and grinned. “Perfect. Your talent is wasted here, Rory girl. You oughta be in New York City, making killer tips as head mixologist or whatever fancy name they’re calling bartenders these days.”
“I’ll take the compliment, but I’m too much of a bumpkin to ever work with sophisticated clientele and booze.”
“How’re things going at the day job? You been out massaging black-footed ferrets’ poor tired feet and polishing the horns on the horn-billed prairie grouse?”
She laughed. Like most lifelong Ag men, Donald poked fun at state wildlife and conservation agencies’ policies. But unlike other men she’d run across, he meant it tongue-in-cheek. “I can always hope that’s on my to-do list at the office tomorrow.”
“If you catch one, let me know. My wife’s got a killer recipe for poached grouse.”
Rory groaned at his pun.
An hour later the crowd had dwindled. She asked Naomi, the manager, to watch the bar so she could take a break.
As she left the bathroom, a hulking guy barreled toward her. His hair was as unkempt as his scraggly beard. She flattened herself against the wall to let him pass, but he boxed her in. At six foot one, she was used to towering over most men. But this ZZ Top impersonator topped her by two inches.
Then he was in her face.
“Look, buddy, I don’t know what you want, but I don’t have any cash on me and if you don’t back off, I’ll—”
She froze. That deep voice. The way he said her name reminded her of… No. Couldn’t be him. He’d just up and disappeared from her life three years ago without a word and as far as she knew, no one knew where he’d gone.
“Sweet Jesus. You’re even prettier than I remembered.” He ran his knuckles down her jawline.
“Stop it.” Rory jerked her head away. “I don’t know who you think you are—”
“You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
She had a split second of recognition right before he said, “It’s me. Dalton.”
And then he kissed her.
When Dalton tried to deepen the kiss, Rory shifted. He automatically twisted his pelvis to protect his crotch—the crazy woman had kneed him in the ’nads before—so the swift punch to the gut caught him unprepared. He stumbled back a step and managed to duck when he saw Rory’s fist headed for his head.
Out of reflex he grabbed both her wrists in one hand, trapping her hands between them as he pinned her against the wall. “The gut punch and haymaker might lead me to believe you’re not as happy to see me as I am to see you.”
Rory’s breathing was choppy. Her pulse jumped erratically beneath his fingers. And her eyes, those stunning green eyes stared back at him with suspicion and just a little hatred.
What did you expect? That she’d fall into your arms?
“You’re stronger and quicker than you used to be,” Rory said.
“Got tired of getting my ass kicked.”
“You deserved it most of the time.”
He grinned. “No doubt.”
“Let me go.”
“You gonna take another swing at me?”
“Not unless you try to kiss me again.”
“Might be worth a black eye.”
Now her eyes held panic. Awesome. “Rory—”
“Dalton,” she said sharply, cutting him off. “What do you want?”
“To talk to you.”
“Then let me go and come up to the bar and I’ll make you a drink.”
“I won’t turn you into a pariah for associating with me, jungle girl.”
Her lips formed a sneer. “You reminding me of the times when we were kids and I didn’t hate you isn’t helping your case, McKay.”
“But it ain’t hurting it, either.” He released her.
“Did you go to law school since I last saw you? Because that was a lawyer’s tactic.”
“That’s why I cornered you. I wanted to plead my case without interruptions. Or without anyone recognizing me.”
Rory gave him the wide smile that made his heart skip a beat. “I doubt your mother would recognize you.”
“Guess we’ll see if that holds true later this week.” Dalton slumped against the wall next to her.
“FYI, no one is gunning for you anymore about jilting Addie.”
“I heard that she married Truman. I’m happy for them.”
A few beats later, she said, “Enough with the bullshit small talk and you trying to maul me, Grizzly Adams. Why are you here?”
He snorted. Grizzly Adams. “In Sundance? Or at the Twin Pines?”
“I’m in Sundance because Casper had a stroke.”
The hard glint to her eyes softened. “I’m sorry. Is he okay?”
“He can’t talk. And without coming across like a dick, that ain’t all bad. Weather was shitty in Montana and I just got here mid-afternoon. Saw Casper, took a rash of shit from my brothers and I figured what the hell. Why not add your scorn to the crap I’ve dealt with today? Facing my demons and all that.”
Rory cocked her head. “I’m a demon for you?”
Dalton couldn’t stop himself from touching her beautiful face. “You’re my biggest demon. I wish things had happened differently. But at the time…I didn’t have a choice.”
“You tell me. I had no idea you were livin’ in Sundance.”
“How’d you find out?”
Rory muttered, “I’m gonna kick her ass. You’re back in Sundance for…how long?”
“No idea. So can we get together and talk?”
“You know what about,” he said softly.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped. “Act like everything was just a misunderstanding and give me those goddamned puppy dog eyes, Dalton. You know what you did to me.”
“And you think it was easy for me?”
“Yes. Because you left the next day. The very next day, after you told me—”
“Don’t you think I at least deserve a chance to explain?”
Rory laughed bitterly. “Fat chance, McKay.”
Then he was done being a nice guy. Dalton blocked her body with his. “You’ll give me a chance or I’ll seize the chance when it arises and I won’t give a damn about whether it’s convenient for you.”
“Like right now?” she demanded. “When I’m working?”
His mouth brushed her ear. “So I’d pick a time and pick a place for us to meet if I were you, or make no mistake, it will be on my terms.”