Authors: Mari Carr & Jayne Rylon
“Thank you.” Curiosity finally won out. “Who are the flowers for?”
Liam’s expression darkened, sadness replacing the humor that had been there only seconds before. “Celia.”
“Oh. That’s right,” she whispered as recognition dawned.
He nodded. “Compton Pass isn’t such a big place. I’m not surprised you know the story.”
Celia Woods had been killed in a car accident a month earlier as she was traveling home from Denver. Apparently she’d gone to the city to pick up her wedding gown when a drunk driver crossed the median on the highway and struck her vehicle head on, killing her instantly. The Mothers and Vivi had rallied around the distraught Woods family…and her fiancé, Liam.
“You came to put flowers on her grave.” The midnight visit was incredibly romantic and terribly sad.
Liam glanced away from her, looking up at the moon. “Today was supposed to be our wedding day. I tried to get here all afternoon, but I just couldn’t face…”
Jade understood. While her pain had dulled with time, Liam’s loss was fresh, unbearable. “But you did make it. You’re here now.”
He shrugged, and she wished there was some way to erase the shame he obviously felt at being too upset to visit Celia’s grave. According to her mother, Liam and Celia had been high-school sweethearts, madly in love from the time they were seventeen.
“I’m sorry.” Small, meaningless words, but they were all she had to offer.
He looked at her once more. “It’s okay, Jade. I thought I was hanging in there these past few weeks, holding it together. Today…”
He paused. Jade’s stomach ached as she recognized the anguish in his tone.
“Today…the bottom fell out.”
“I think it’s really sweet that you came to bring her flowers.”
“Tell you what. Why don’t you finish up your talk with George while I go deliver these to my bride? Then I’ll come back and walk you home.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I’m perfectly capable of—”
“Either I escort you home so I know you got there safely or I’m snitching on you. Which will it be?”
She narrowed her eyes, despite the fact she was ninety-nine percent sure he was bluffing. To be honest, she was happy to wait. Until he had arrived, she’d thought she wanted to be alone. She’d been wrong. Having someone with her who understood made the night seem less desolate, less dark. “I’ll wait.”
“I’ll only be a few minutes.”
She reached out and touched his arm. “Take your time. Say what you need to say. I’m not in any hurry.”
He nodded, then disappeared into the shadows.
Jade wasn’t sure how long he was gone. She’d knelt once more. The words that had been trapped inside her for sixteen years suddenly free and flowing easily. She told George everything—about Mom and Dad, Vivi, the cousins. She shared everything written on her heart and more than a few secrets she’d never uttered aloud to anyone. She’d only just run out of words when she heard Liam’s footsteps on the path.
She nodded, then rose and fell into step beside him.
Pain was etched in his face, and she could see from his red eyes he’d been crying. She didn’t speak. Instead, she walked next to him, hoping her presence made him feel less alone.
When they arrived at her house, he turned to her. “It was nice to meet you, Jade.”
“You too. Thanks for walking me home.”
“My pleasure. Happy birthday.”
She waved as she backed away from him. “Maybe I’ll see you around some time.”
He grinned. “Maybe you will.”
He didn’t leave as she walked along the side of the house. She could feel his gaze on her when she hoisted herself up on the lowest branch of the tree outside her bedroom window. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard him chuckle as she climbed the tree skillfully—it wasn’t her first trip up the trunk—then raised the window she’d left cracked and crawled back into her room.
Once she was inside, she leaned out and found him still standing there, her silent guardian. He returned her wave before walking back the way they’d come.
Eight years later
Jade cursed the tap as it sputtered, leaving more foam than beer in the icy mug she was filling. “Hey, Bruce. The goddamn Bud Gold tap is fucked up again.”
Bruce scowled at her. “Nice language, Jade.”
Bruce had some nerve, calling her out for her foul mouth. She’d learned most of her more colorful four-letter words from him.
To prove her point, her boss came behind the bar, muttering, “Son of a mother fucking cock-sucking bitch.”
She shot him an
I told you so
look when he pulled down the lever of the tap and was spurted by a large glob of foam. He narrowed his eyes and grunted. “I don’t need to hear your lecture again.”
She’d been after him to replace the antiquated set-up behind the bar for a couple years. Nobody dealt with kegs and taps anymore, but Bruce was a creature of comfort for whom change came hard.
Hopefully, he wouldn’t be able to fix the thing and they’d get the Bottoms Up system she’d been lusting after since she started bartending at Spurs. No matter how many times she explained to Bruce that it would fill the cups from the bottom, quickly, efficiently and without too much head, he just rolled his eyes and said he didn’t need that fancy-schmancy shit in his place. Bruce prided himself on running an old-fashioned redneck bar.
Regardless, Jade knew it didn’t matter. Keg taps would become obsolete and he’d have to come over to her way of thinking eventually. That or he’d do as he had been threatening for months and sell the place to someone else so it would be their problem, not his.
Sienna and Daniel had actually tried to convince Jade to buy Spurs. She’d laughed at the suggestion, but every now and then, she considered all the improvements she could make and was tempted.
After several minutes of cursing and futzing with the ancient tap, Bruce looked at her. “I’m going to have to run out to my truck to grab some tools. Hold down the fort.”
Jade nodded, then glanced around the place. It was Friday night, which meant a full house. Dorian Whitacre and his brothers had set up their instruments and were playing a fast country song—loudly. The dance floor was packed with ranch hands and roughnecks kicking up their heels and celebrating the beginning of the weekend. Any time the Whitacre brothers performed it guaranteed a big crowd.
A quick peek in the back room proved every pool table had already been claimed. She saw Liam bent over, lining up a shot. If she weren’t working, she’d challenge him to a game. Though she’d never beat him, she had definitely come closer than any of the yahoos he was currently fleecing. While hustling wasn’t strictly allowed in Spurs, Bruce usually turned a blind eye. He sold a hell of a lot of beer to the guys in that back room, so he wasn’t about to bite the hand that fed him.
Liam had become a regular at Spurs in the past few years. She’d been surprised when he started showing up on Friday nights shortly after she’d been hired. Sienna insisted he’d taken up playing pool simply because it gave him an excuse to hang out at Spurs to keep an eye on her. Jade had dismissed her cousin’s supposition as a load of bullshit.
She figured that, like most of the cowboys in Compton Pass, Liam liked to kick back with a cold one at the end of a long week and blow off some steam. Whenever he wasn’t shooting pool, he’d find a woman to dance with. Jade had watched him leave with more than a few of the local single ladies at the end of the night and he certainly wasn’t keeping an eye on her as he sashayed out the door.
Sometimes she’d ask him about his dates, but Liam was always evasive, claiming it was a casual thing or a one-night deal. He hadn’t had a steady girlfriend since Celia. Jade wondered if he’d ever love anyone like he’d loved his fiancée. It was sweet in a very sad way.
For the past eight years, they had a standing date, meeting at the cemetery just before midnight on her birthday. She’d visit George while Liam took flowers to Celia. Usually they met at the gate to the churchyard. After they’d spoken their peace to the cold headstones, they’d meet up once more at the entrance. When she still lived at home, he’d walk her back to her parents’ place. Now that she lived on Compass Ranch, he’d escort her to her motorcycle, where they’d say goodnight and head home on their own.
Jade wished he’d find someone who could make him happy. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, with his dark hair and eyes. His tan skin reflected a life lived mostly outside. He constantly sported a five o’clock shadow and the crinkles around his eyes betrayed his penchant for laughter. Plus he’d definitely treat a woman right. He’d been raised a country gentleman, never failing to open doors, pull out chairs and tip his hat for women. She had offered to set him up with a couple of her friends—even her cousin Sterling—but Liam had just laughed and informed her he was perfectly capable of finding his own dates.
Over the years, Liam had become one of her best friends. Even though she had still been in high school when they’d met, he’d never acted like she was an annoyance or in the way, though she knew she got on his nerves more often than not. She laughed way too loud, cussed too much and didn’t have a problem sharing her opinions on most matters.
A scuffle near the bar caught her attention. Jade turned just in time to catch Roscoe Hutchins rearing back to throw a punch at Bucky Dorsey.
“Jesus. Same shit, different day,” she muttered as she walked around the bar and shoved her way through the crowd forming around them.
Rhonda Barker was standing between the two men, who were arguing with more bluster than muscle.
Jade struggled not to roll her eyes. “Break it up, guys. If Bruce comes in here and sees you starting this shit again, he’ll ban you for life, Roscoe.”
Roscoe pointed an angry finger in Bucky’s face. “I’m not leaving here until I’ve taught this little shithead to keep his hands off my girlfriend.”
Bucky laughed. “Your girlfriend came on to me. Maybe you need a few lessons in fucking, Coe.”
Roscoe lunged forward again, but this time Jade and Rhonda were both there to push him back. Not that Jade sensed he was trying too hard to get to Bucky. His actions were clearly more for show.
What a joke. Jade had been walking the razor’s edge of an explosion for weeks, looking for an outlet. Looked like she’d just found it.
“Enough!” Jade yelled. “Goddammit, you people are annoying. Roscoe, at some point in your miserable life, you’re going to have to figure out that Rhonda is a slut.”
Rhonda, who had been holding Roscoe back, dropped her hands and turned toward Jade, fury written on her face. “Hey! Who are you calling a slut?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Rhonda. Does that word not work for you? What would you call a woman who sleeps around? Whore? Tramp?”
Roscoe, shocked by the catfight erupting in front of him, stopped trying to get to Bucky. “Damn, Jade. Take it easy. It was just a little misunderstanding.”
Jade poked her finger into Roscoe’s chest. “No. It wasn’t. The two of you start this crap up every freaking weekend with a different guy. Rhonda cheats on you, you pick a fight with the loser of the week and—”
“Hey,” Bucky interjected. “I’m not a loser.”
Jade flipped her hands as if waving away a fly. “Go away, Bucky. You haven’t changed a bit since high school. You’re still thinking with the same head. It’s a shame it’s not the one with a brain in it.”
“Who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?” Bucky turned around and walked back to his usual spot at the bar.
“Listen, Jade,” Roscoe started, “I think maybe you should just—”
She raised her finger to cut him off. “Shut up. Where was I? Oh yeah, and after you
like you’re going to kick someone’s ass, you get booted out of the bar. I don’t know…maybe this is how you and Rhonda get off, but I’m sick and tired of the game. If you want to get pissed at someone, why don’t you start yelling at this faithless bitch? Or better yet, grow a pair and dump her ass!”
“You little cunt!” Rhonda lunged for her, and Jade was ready. She’d been itching to punch something for days.
Unfortunately Roscoe grabbed Rhonda, pulling her away as Jade felt strong, familiar arms wrap around her waist, lifting her from the screaming woman with ease.
“Hey!” She fought against Liam’s hold as he started dragging her out of the crowd.
“Easy, kiddo. I think you need to go outside to cool off for a minute.”
Jade tried to shake off Liam’s grip, but she was no match for his strength. The man was built like a brick shit house, towering over her by at least six inches. “Let go of me! They started it and now I’m going to finish it.”
Bruce came through the back door just as Liam lifted her up and tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “What the fuck is going on in here?”
Liam gestured toward the bar with a tilt of his head. “The Rhonda and Roscoe show.”