Excerpt from AUSTEN'S INDEPENDENCE DAY
I always know when he’s walked into a room. The air thickens, the temperature rises, and I feel…noticed.
“Guess who just walked i-ii-in,” Ginny begins in a singsong voice.
I follow her bright eyes toward the front door. And there he is. Somehow he got in without setting off the bell.
Morgan Thornbrush. Back from the dead. Or West Texas, which is really the same thing.
Morgan takes off his motorcycle helmet, revealing his newly tanned skin. He smiles at me flirtatiously as he walks over to the bar. “Hey, bartender. Long time.”
He needs a haircut, but his hazel eyes still look at me like lasers, and his ripped jeans show off his cute butt better than anyone’s in town. I glare at him hatefully, and he looks back at me, unfazed. But his perusal of my body gives me goose bumps and my face goes hot.
“So, were you unbearably lonely out there in the desert? Painfully sunburned?” I say.
“I’m back,” he says simply.
We look at each other in silence for a long beat, until Ginny stands up and gives Morgan a quick hug, and then waves good-bye to me while she mouths “see you tomorrow” and leaves.
Morgan takes her stool and leans over the bar to kiss my cheek. He’s so close I reach out instinctively and gently touch the scar on his left cheek, and he pulls back in surprise.
Then I take another look at his face. Something’s different with him. Morgan’s eyes are…dull. They’re always so bright and brash, but not today.
“You look strange,” I say bluntly.
He narrows his eyes at me in warning, but I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut.
“Well, what the hell happened?” I say.
“I painted. Like I said I was gonna do.”
“Nothing else?” I say. “Nothing else happened?”
He ignores me and hops on top of the bar, leans back to grab an empty glass and presses it against the Lone Star tap to fill up, all in one motion.
“Every freaking time,” I say. “It’s not sanitary to put your ass on the counter. And how often do I have to tell you, I’m the bartender, not you?”
“Just helping you out.” Morgan reclaims his seat on the stool and takes a drink of his beer.
I stare at him, willing myself not to look at his mouth, that full mouth that’s so soft but strong and that I’ve missed far more than I care to admit.
“Morgan, what happened out there on your trip? Seriously, something big happened, didn’t it?”
“Figures you’d absolutely exaggerate,” he says, and I can tell he’s covering. “But maybe it’s not possible to find something else to do in this town. There’s probably not enough stimulation.”
“Sometimes there’s enough stimulation,” I can’t resist saying. “Especially now that you’re back.”
I leave the bar and walk around to give him a hug.
His arms go tightly around me and I bury my face in the familiar scent of his chest. Then I pull back and look up at him. Something smells different, too.
But before I can say more, Morgan steps away from me and starts speaking rapidly. “I’m getting married, Mace.”
His words cut me in the heart, and I stare up at him in shock, for once at a complete loss for words.
He takes a long slow breath before adding, “Just like you asked me to do. So you should probably sign those divorce papers
I stare at Morgan with wide eyes.
“You’re…engaged?” My voice comes out high and squeaky.
Those two little words hit me like a kick to the stomach.
For the briefest of moments, Morgan returns my gaze and I think I see a glimmer of his real self return. But he breaks the eye contact by giving a quick nod and putting on his motorcycle helmet.
“Who is she?” My voice sounds foreign to my own ears. “What’s her name?”
“Gigi.” His tone is neutral and I can’t read it at all.
“So I’ll come by tomorrow to pick up the papers.”
I follow him to the front door and watch him walk away from me and over to his Harley. He kicks the vintage bike into gear and drives down the long gravel driveway bordering the Cowherd. When he hits the bend that leads to Thornbrush Ranch, I lose sight of him.
And then I finally take my ring off my left hand and move it back to my right ring finger where it belongs.
I don’t bother taking off my bike helmet before I walk into the ranch house. My parents are out and I exhale in relief as I head for my childhood bedroom and bang on the closed door.Gigi lets me inside.
“You could have knocked nicely,” she chides me.
Thank God we’re not marrying for real. Gigi’s a nice enough girl, but she drives me crazy, and not in a good way.
I take off my helmet. “Relax, girl.”
She gazes up at me. “Well? What happened?”
I take a seat on the bed. “All set.”
“You told Macey about us?”
“Yep.” Then I change the facts just enough so Gigi won’t think any of this will be an issue. “She’s already signed our divorce papers and turned them in.”
Gigi’s busy doing something to her hair while she stares into her compact. Her huge head of blond hair and big blue eyes still shock the hell out of me when I look at her straight on.
“You didn’t tell her the truth about us, did you?” She closes her compact and looks back at me.
“If you knew Macey, you wouldn’t even be asking that question. She’d never let me do this if she knew.”
“Why not? You’re saving her family. Her father.”
I turn and look out my back window, the one in the direction of the Cowherd Saloon & Chapel. “Because Macey Henwood doesn’t accept help lightly.”
And she’d freaking kill me if she knew what I agreed to do to help her. For something she doesn’t even know about.
“Do you think she’ll wonder how you afforded this beauty?”
I don’t even need to look to know what Gigi’s bragging about. Her massive engagement ring paid for by her father.
“I’ll tell her savings.” I shrug.
“Well, where do you want me to sleep while we’re here? I need a nap.”
“Take the bed. Think of this room as yours and make yourself at home. I’m gonna stay out on the couch.”
Gigi’s eyes get even bigger. “What about for appearances’ sake? Shouldn’t we at least pretend we’re sleeping together?”
Shit. All I’m thinking is “no,” but I don’t know what comes after that.
Gigi’s watching me. “I have an idea. We’ll say I want to wait until marriage.”
I exhale. “To consummate relations or whatever?”
She giggles. “Sure.”
“Think your daddy will buy that?”
Gigi giggles some more. “Buy it? He’ll freaking love it. My two older sisters were very rebellious before they got married, so my parents have always been stricter with me. Nobody in my family thinks I’ve ever had sex before. I have, though.”
I hold up my hand. “No more details, please.”
“You’re such a gentleman, Morgan. Not even trying to kiss me.”
I haven’t even been tempted. Because ever since Vegas, I haven’t wanted to touch any woman other than Macey Henwood. Hell, truthfully she’s the only one who did it for me my whole life, but she always pushed me away. I dated other girls, I tried to put Macey in my rearview so many times.
It never worked.
Gigi yawns as she puts her head on my pillow. “And my mom seemed to be won over by your southern charm and rugged cowboy thing. Oh, my gosh, I’m just so nervous about our plan, Morgan.”
I lean over and kiss her cheek. “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out the way we both need it to.”
It better. Because Macey’s face when I told her just about wrecked me. I thought it’d be a relief to know she didn’t actually want me to remarry, but the devastated look in her eyes is something I never want to see again.
Macey Henwood is everything to me.
She. Is. Everything.
And I’m hurting her right now. And that kills me.
I leave the bedroom and head for the fields.