Oklahoma Moonshine, Chapter One
Copyright 2016 Maggie Shayne All rights reserved No copying in any form is permitted We take this seriously
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Robert McIntyre found the strawberry blonde of his dreams out behind the Long Branch Saloon near the trash cans. She was bending at the waist and twisting sideways, using her cell phone’s glow to try to see the back of her left thigh and holding her skirt up high in the effort. As a result, he could see the full length of her long leg from the shapely calf emerging from the top of her cowgirl boot to sexy curve of her thigh.
He stopped looking by sheer force of will, cleared his throat and said, “Can I uh, help you with something?”
She straightened, gasped, dropped the skirt and damn near jumped out of it all at once. He held up both hands, “Easy, I’m just one of the owners, taking out the trash.” He held up his plastic bag as if to prove it, and reminded himself that she wasn’t the woman of his dreams. He didn’t dream about women. He had nightmares about them.
She blinked at him for a second, then smiled, patting her chest with her hand. “You scared me half outta my boots.”
He was getting sucked into that big white smile, so he lowered his head as if to inspect said boots as he carried the overstuffed bag to the trash can nearest her, took off the lid and dropped it inside.
Cowgirl boots, they were. Brown leather with pink embroidery and heels that would challenge a tightrope walker.
“I was s’posed to meet an old friend here for a nightcap,” she said. “But I guess she’s not coming. I walked around back looking for a few more bars on my phone, and caught my skirt on a branch. I think a thorn got my leg.” For some reason, every bit of it seemed false, and alarm bells sounded in his head. “You uh—need me to check for you?”
Her brows rose high over those big, innocent eyes. In the overhead lamplight, he thought he saw freckles across the bridge of her nose. “Are you flirting with me?” He blinked. “I don’t think so. But if you’re here for that nightcap, we’re closed.”
“Oh.” She lowered her head. Wavy ribbons of pale honey and sunshine fell down over her cheek.
“I’m the only one here. Otherwise I’d invite you in.”
“I don’t mind that you’re the only one here,” she said, real fast and eager. And she beamed those eyes at him, all full of hope. “I mean, you’re one of the McIntyres, aren’t you?”
“Rob,” he said nodding.
“Kiley,” she said, extending a hand.
He took it. She had a nice hand, soft and warm, and she gripped his all snug and strong. She had an honest handshake. That was a good sign, right?
“Everyone knows you McIntyres are upright citizens. I’m not scared to be alone with you. And I sure could use that nightcap.”
He had no freaking idea why he was grinning like a friendly chimp, and he quickly tried to press his mouth into a straight line. “Come on in. I could use one, too.” Stupid, stupid, stupid, his brain said. He extended an elbow and she grabbed onto it, walking close enough that her perfume made his brain go fuzzy. Maybe not so stupid, he thought.
They crossed the brand new deck, and he opened the door for her, then watched her as she sashayed on through, her skirt swaying, her boots tapping the floor. The big lights were all turned off, but there were night lights on. They were spaced evenly at floor level throughout every room at the Long Branch. As they walked through the kitchen, the counters and dangling pots and pans, and giant cook surfaces and sinks and coolers were all easy to distinguish. “This way,” he said, guiding her toward the big double doors, then through them into the barroom.
It was dimmer there, and all the chairs had been tipped up on top of the tables. He walked her right up to the bar, and she slid onto a saddle shaped stool, sidesaddle style.
Rob went behind the bar. “What can I get you?”
“Rum and Coke. Helps me sleep.”
He made her a drink, grabbed himself a long neck, and stayed on his own side of the bar. “You don’t sleep well, huh?”
“Not tonight. Tonight my dream is circling the drain.” She held up her glass. “Here’s to believing in last minute miracles.”
He tapped her glass with the top of his brown bottle and took a nice long pull from it.
She looked around the bar, pointed at the giant cardboard sign near the jukebox and said, “I’ve been seeing signs like that all over town. What’s it about?”
The cardboard thermometer measured dollars instead of degrees. It was painted red all the way from $0 to $275,000, but the word “goal” was way up at the $500,000 mark. She read the lines across the top aloud. “‘Big Falls’ Big Future'?”
“People are worried about drought,” he explained. “It’s been bad south of here, and forecasters say it’s coming our way, sooner or later. So the town’s raising funds to buy some property and build a reservoir. The land’s for sale at three-hundred and fifty, and the rest is to get the building underway.”
“I wouldn’t have thought a small town like this would be able to raise so much.”
“I’m surprised too. The church is giving half its bingo proceeds, firemen are holding chili socials. Every business in town is chipping in what they can. When anyone buys property here, the Post Office automatically sends them a flyer asking for a contribution. Even little kids are selling lemonade for the cause.”
“That’s nice, everyone pulling together like that.” Except she was frowning at that sign like she wished she could see through it.
“It’s that kind of town.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” She studied her drink, turning the glass slowly on its coaster. “I grew up here. Well, ‘til I was thirteen anyway. Long time ago. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I got back here.”
He nodded slow. “Big Falls has a way of getting inside a person. I never intended to stay here either. But now….” He shrugged, deciding not to go on, or he’d start sounding like he believed the local tales about a town that chose its residents and refused to let them go. “You gonna tell me about this dream of yours that’s in danger of imminent demise?”
She smiled at him. He thought there should have been a ricochet sound effect to go with that smile when she aimed it his way.
“What is it about sitting at a bar that makes people want to whine about their troubles to the guy on the other side?”
“I don’t know, hon, but there’s no point bucking tradition, is there?” He found a clean bowl, scooped it full of bar mix from the canister, and set it in front of her. “Whine away.”
She smiled at him. “You’re a nice guy, aren’t you?”
“No. I’m brooding and grouchy. Ask my brothers.”
“I will.” She pinched a pretzel out of the bowl, ate it, sighed. “You know the old Kellogg place, out on Pine Road?”
“Hell yeah, I know it.” In fact, he’d been out there earlier in the week, looking at the ranch with Betty Lou Jennings, Big Falls’ resident gossip queen and only real estate agent. The Kellogg property was a thousand acres of prime ground; lush meadows with the Cimarron River running right through it, three ponds, and a hundred-acre woodlot, two barns and a sweet little farmhouse, all about to be auctioned off for back taxes. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. And she tipped her head sideways and gazed off into space, like she was seeing it in her mind’s eye. “That old-fashioned farmhouse with the flower boxes in front, and those shutters with the heart shaped cutouts in them, and the way the porch wraps around one side….” In his mind, those heart shaped cutouts in the shutters were gonna be the first things to go. He didn’t bother telling her so, but he had a feeling a strawberry blond storm cloud was about to start raining on his plans. And when she spoke again, it did. “I was planning to buy it. They’re auctioning it off tomorrow, you know.” “Yeah. I know.” He was planning to bid on it himself, on his own, not with the trust fund his father had set up for each of his sons, funds so big they were snowballing under the momentum of their own interest and dividends now. He wanted to buy the ranch with his own money. Not his father’s and not some bank’s. He’d saved up enough, and he was about 99% sure the old Kellogg place was gonna be the one.
It wasn’t in his nature to bid against a beautiful dreamer. But business was business.
“I don’t have enough, though,” she went on. “Half, maybe.” She turned her dewy glass on its coaster, back and forth, back and forth. “Grandma’s sending me her heirloom ring, she says it’s worth a fortune. There’s a jeweler in Tucker Lake who says if the stones are genuine, he’ll buy it. But if it doesn’t get here by tomorrow morning, before auction time, I’m doomed.” She held up her glass, and said, “Here’s to the US Postal Service. May it deliver.”
“Here, here,” he said. But something had changed in her voice and demeanor when she’d started talking about her grandma’s ring. Something that told him she was lying, and he couldn’t quite figure out why. It was in the way her eyes shifted away when his tried to lock on, and the softer tone. She took a long sip from her glass, seemed to really relish it, smacked her lips and closed her eyes, and then set the glass down again. “You probably think it’s stupid for a woman alone to think she could manage a thousand acres.” “I don’t think it’s stupid at all. It’s a beautiful spread.” He gave in to his worse judgement and came out from behind the bar, slid up onto a stool beside her. He could smell her perfume and feel the warmth of her body sort of reaching out to tease his. But he reminded himself that his track record with dishonest women wasn’t exactly stellar. “I’m curious though, what would you do with it? Run beefers?” “I don’t want to raise cattle. I’ve got other things in mind.”
He lifted his brows. “What other things?”
“Lambs and bunnies in the spring—for pets, not for eating. An acre-wide patch of shamrock and clover with miniature leprechauns peeking out here and there for St. Patrick’s Day, and four-leaf clovers and pots of gold foiled chocolate hidden for kids to find. I’ll host the biggest Easter egg hunt in seven counties at Easter time. I want to try to grow Christmas trees, acres of ‘em, so kids can come and pick their own right out of the field. We’ll take ‘em around on a wagon, or a sleigh those rare seasons when we get a little snow. Maybe have Santa driving it.”
“Wow.” The way her eyes sparkled while she talked about her plans, the pinkness in her cheeks, those things were damn near taking his breath away.
“I want to landscape the prettiest spot on the place, down by the riverbank, and make it even prettier, then rent it out for folks to hold wedding ceremonies.”
“You’ve really thought this through.” “I’ve been thinking about it since I was a kid.” She lowered her eyes. “I grew up on that ranch. Happier times.” She looked up at him and smiled, but it was a sad smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I want to spread my sister’s ashes there. But not unless I get the place. If I don’t, then… I just want to keep her near me.” And the rainstorm became torrential. How the hell was he going to bid against her now?
“I’m sorry,” he said