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Cowboy Up(2)

By:Harper Sloan

Hazel’s, the local honky-tonk, is just outside of Pine Oak—on the farthest opposite end of Wire Creek, inside Law Bone city limits. Okay, to call it a honky-tonk would be a stretch. It’s a motorcycle bar that plays country music. It caters to a rough and rowdy crowd, but no one in there ever pays me a lick of mind. Of course, that’s probably because one of my best friends is the owner, but even when he isn’t there, I’m the last thing a man inside that place is looking for.

I’m shy by nature, an introverted book nerd who can handle fictional people a lot better than I can deal with real ones. I’m not a head turner. I never really gained the skills needed to make myself look anything but . . . well, plain. I tried. In high school, my best girlfriends always tried to teach me the ins and outs of being girly, but I was too interested in sticking my nose in a book and crushing on fictional cowboys to really retain any of it. I figured that, like in my books, the right man would love me for me and not for what the enhancements of makeup and fancy clothes could do.

I glance up at my reflection in the rearview as I pull into the lot and park, and fight off a cringe. I look sad, and that sadness makes me look much older than my nearly thirty years. My brown eyes don’t shine with the mirth most women my age have dancing in theirs. Those are the carefree women who still believe they’ll find a life partner to ride off into the sunset with. Just the thought makes me snort.

Where I always found my ordinary features and dull brown hair to be boring, I know the one thing I actually do have going for me is my figure. I’ve got the body of a dancer—thin and petite. It’s my greatest attribute. I might not have all the curves most men seem to love, but I’ve been blessed with a body that requires minimum work to keep trim and firm.

There isn’t anything about me that particularly screams, Hey, look at me! but I’ve been told men like my shape because it makes them feel like they were made to protect me—or so my good friend Luke always says.

“Speak of the devil,” I mumble with a smile, seeing Luke standing under the awning outside of Hazel’s front door, blowing a long stream of smoke from his mouth. The burning tip of his cigarette stands out in the darkness around him.

Luke Hazel, half of my best-friend duo, and twin brother to Lucy, is a dog, but at least he’s an honest dog. Loyal to those he loves. Protective to the max. With his harmless flirting, he’s also helped to give me back some of the confidence I lost over the years.

“Carrie,” he drawls when I step out of my car and pull my cross-body purse over my head. I roll my eyes and cringe at the nickname he knows I hate.

“Lukie Dukie,” I jest, tossing out the nickname that I know he hates, placing my hands on my hips and arching a brow at him.

Not even fazed, he kicks off the wall he’d been leaning against and walks my way. No, he struts. Because a simple walk wouldn’t be good enough for this guy. He thinks he’s God’s gift to the females of the world. I laugh softly and fall into his arms for a hug when he reaches me.

“Not a good night to be here, sweetheart.”

I push my hands against his abs and look up at him. “And what makes tonight different from all the other nights you say the same thing?”

“Rowdy, babe. Got some out-of-towners ridin’ through lookin’ for a good time. Not sure how they’ll act when I pull the shotgun out if they try to get in your shorts.”

I feel my nose twitch as I frown at him. “No one’s gonna worry about me, Luke.”

He shakes his head. “Not sure how many times I have to drill it in your head, babe, but every man in there is ‘gonna worry about you.’ ”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Luke. Even if you’re right and I get some attention tonight, I’ve dealt with worse than some drunken bikers and you know it. And who says I wouldn’t enjoy a little of their attention anyway?”

He frowns. “Yeah, Carrie, but that doesn’t mean I want to put you through some bullshit just because I know you can handle it.” His frown deepens, and I know the exact moment the rest of what I said registers. He doesn’t call me on it, but he knows better than to ask if I’m ready for that kind of thing. “Told you, just like I tell Luce, this ain’t a place to find a bedfellow.”

I smile at the mention of Lucy. “You and I both know you’re going to act like my babysitter the second I walk in there, so how about you stop acting like my big brother now and let me get a drink and forget about things for a while, hmm?”

His eyes narrow. “What you got to forget about, sweetheart?”