Was AJ counting down the days to escape ranch work and the never-ending sink of time and money? Hours and days and years of being beholden to the weather and then to the cattle market?
Cord had little doubt she’d miss the land, the people, and the connection to both.
Folks who’d never had either would never understand that permanent sense of loss.
Once she graduated, would she settle down with a financially stable guy? Pop out a couple of cute kids? Entrench herself in the suburbs, drive a minivan and wear pastel colored tracksuits?
He snorted disdain. AJ was a horsewoman to the core. He couldn’t help but think marrying a man without her same love of the true Western lifestyle would be akin to a slow death. Would the lack of those necessary things in her life extinguish the light in her eyes and her soul over time?
Made him uncomfortable to think along those lines, but ultimately there was nothing he could do, besides offer to marry her. Right. Then she’d be more tied down than ever.
Despite her sweet words, he doubted she’d welcome a permanent tie with him—a thirty-five-year-old man with a kid. AJ was just starting her life and her career. She’d chosen him for a bed partner because he was safe. Experienced. And handy. It was inevitable their paths would diverge and veer different directions.
Somehow he managed to put AJ out of his mind for the rest of the grueling day’s work. Dissecting Colt not showing up again was pointless too. By the time he’d run the John Deere out of gas and bumped his way across the various pastures to the house, Cord admitted he and Colt needed a break from each other. Working with family was tough.
He and his father had been at loggerheads for years until Cord had left for Seattle.
Sometimes the best decision to keep the peace was distance. Literally. Luckily there were plenty of other sections on the McKay ranch for his brother to work.
Cord parked in the yard at seven-thirty. No sign of AJ. No message. No note. No doubt he’d think up a suitable penalty for her cheeky behavior.
After cleaning himself up, he slapped together a roast beef sandwich made from dry bread and washed it down with a Fat Tire beer. Ky was amazingly talkative and seemed to be missing him. By the time Cord hung up, he was surprised to see darkness had fallen and it was damn near nine o’clock.
He sat on his couch in his dark living room, bone tired. Knowing he had another full day of the same planned for tomorrow, the best thing would be for him to crawl into bed and rest up while he could.
Then again, morning wouldn’t come earlier whether he stayed home or if he checked out the action at the Golden Boot.
Cord slipped on his going-to-town boots and dress hat, grabbed his keys and his wallet and made the trek into town, knowing in his present mood a run-in with either Colt or AJ spelled trouble.
“I’m thinking of hiring a stripper for my bachelorette party.”
AJ spun the bar stool with an arch look. “Male?”
“Where are you gonna find a male stripper in this town?”
Liza smirked. “I have my sources.”
“Come on, Liza, spill it.”
“Rumor has it a couple of the male strippers who travel to the venues between Cheyenne, Billings and Rapid City have been killing time in the area.”
“Killing time with who? And how come you didn’t tell me this before now?”
“Because I just found out last night and you haven’t been hanging out with me. A sad, sad fact, because I’m about to become an old married lady.”
AJ waved down the bartender for another draft beer.
“Whatcha been doin’?” Liza stirred the Jack and Coke before taking a hefty sip from the striped straw.
Answering— screwing around—although accurate, was not an option. “My sister left her husband. She and her kids moved in with Ma and me. Which is ironic, because mom sold the ranch and she’ll be moving as soon as she’s able.”
“Then you are going back to Denver?”
Liza squeezed AJ’s hand. “That sucks. I’m sorry. That mean you won’t be living here at all?”
“Who knows? Once I graduate I’ll actually have a way to support myself, since the
‘princess and knight’ scenario we dreamed up in third grade hasn’t panned out for either of us.”
“Speak for yourself. Noah treats me like a princess even if he is welding armor rather than wearing it.”
“True. I am happy for you, Liza. How did we get sidetracked from the stripper story?
Who’s flashing their butt for bucks?”
“Have you talked to Keely? Will she be here for the bachelorette party?”
“Shoot. I forgot to ask her.” That was an odd question. Out of the blue. “Why?”
Liza started chomping on her straw, a sure sign of distress. When they’d been in school, by the end of the year everything in Liza’s pencil box looked as if beavers had gnawed on it. “Along the rumor vein…I heard if Colt McKay has enough to drink he’ll start stripping. Doesn’t care where, or when, if it’s a private gig or right out in public.”
“Holy crap, Liza, you weren’t thinking of hiring him for your party?”
“God, no. But that’s the thing. He’s been everywhere with that female stripper and the male stripper I’m considering is a coworker of hers. Colt is a party crasher. Keely would freak if she saw firsthand some of the rank stuff he’s been doing.”
AJ hadn’t heard anything out of the norm where Colt was concerned, besides him hitting the bottle hard. “I’m sure she can’t make it because of tests. A stripper? Really, Liza? Why?”
“Because I’ve always been the goody-two-shoes-girl-next-door. Just once, I’m dying to throw an outrageous party that’ll be the talk of the county for ten years. I want everyone to say, ‘Hey, remember Liza’s bachelorette bash? Now that was one helluva wild time!’ instead of tea and cookies and stupid bridal shower games.”
AJ empathized. Neither she nor Liza craved the attention wild child Keely McKay garnered without trying, but once in a while—or once in a lifetime in Liza’s case—it’d be fun to shatter perceptions about shy girls and cut loose in a way that’d leave Keely’s mouth hanging open in shock.
“I’m in. You need help planning it?”
“Some. I’ve rented the backroom. My sister and I are making the food.” A mischievous smile appeared. “Cocktail weenies, brats, Rocky Mountain Oysters, meatballs. We’re gonna have a brat sucking and ball licking contest. And we went online and ordered a bunch of really raunchy party favors.”