All For a Cowboy

AFACChapter One

WAS THERE ANY way she could wear sunglasses all day?

Shae McArthur tipped the dark glasses down and tilted the rearview mirror so she could see her eyes. Dreadful. As if she’d been crying all night. More like crying for a week, to the point that even if she wanted to cry again, she’d have no tears left. The last registry had been canceled, the last deposit surrendered, all the many details involved in calling off a wedding dealt with—to a degree. There was still the matter of informing friends and extended family. And the embarrassment. No, make that the flat-out humiliation.

Shae lowered her head to the steering wheel, summoning strength. She wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and shut out the world for…oh…ever, but she had a huge presentation that day, which she would give with swollen eyes. In an effort to distract, she’d slicked her long dark hair into a barrette at the back of her neck and worn a bright red dress and chunky jewelry, hoping to draw the eye away from her puffy face.

Shae pushed the sunglasses back into place and opened the Audi door. At least she could wear them until she got to her cubicle. Forcing her lips into a semismile, she crossed the parking lot and pushed through the front door of Cedar Creek Enterprises: Guest Ranch Division—not to be confused with Cedar Creek Enterprises: Real Estate Division one door over.

“Way to take surprise vacation days,” Gerald Bruffett muttered as he crossed in front of her carrying a presentation board.

“It couldn’t be helped,” Shae replied.

“Floral emergency?” he called back to her as he disappeared into the conference room.

Shae ignored him and walked on. Her part of the presentation had been completed before she’d left for her sister’s wedding—and the worst day of her life—exactly one week ago. She was prepared. Sort of. The fine-tuning she’d hoped to do the past week hadn’t been done, but if there was one thing Shae was good at, it was winging it. Heaven knew she’d done it enough over the past year.

“What happened to you?” Melinda Brody asked as soon as Shae walked around the cubicle wall. So much for red dresses and chunky jewelry—or sunglasses, for that matter—distracting anyone.

“Allergies.”

“Since when have you had allergies?”

“Last Sunday,” Shae said darkly as she shoved her purse into the bottom drawer of her desk. Mel had known her for way too long. She’d also been her only friend to decline the invitation to become a bridesmaid, because she spent every moment of her free time studying for a law degree.

Shae sat and pulled off the sunglasses, surprised at how shaky she was—she who breezed through situations ordinary people hung back from. She who had to tell her colleagues that the wedding was off.

“Allergies, my ass,” Mel muttered as she returned to her keyboard.

Shae swiveled her chair toward her friend, who was now focused intently on the screen in front of her, and moistened her lips. “Mel?”

“Yeah?” her friend asked, still focused on the screen.

Reed called off the wedding. The words stuck in her throat. She was gearing up to try again when Gerald stuck his balding head around the wall, somehow looking both harried and smug.

“Wallace wants to see you,” he said. Mel, who answered directly to the division manager, started to get up, but Gerald shook his head. “He wants to see Shae.”

“Thanks,” Shae said with a frown and Gerald disappeared again. “Any idea?” Shae asked Mel. She hated going in blind if there was something she needed to know.

Mel shook her head, her eyebrows drawn together in a faintly perplexed expression. “Not a clue.”

Risa Lewis, Wallace’s associate, who, as usual, was wearing way too much makeup, smirked at Shae as she walked by. Risa always smirked at her, so that was no big deal, but this smirk seemed particularly self-satisfied, making Shae’s stomach tighten as she approached the open door of Wallace’s office. Something about this felt off, and when the division manager glanced up at her, all business, Shae’s midsection tightened even more.

“Close the door, Shae, and have a seat.”

Shae smiled, hoping it actually looked like a smile. “Thank you, Wallace.” She sat on the other side of the cluttered oak desk, smoothing her skirt.

“Shae, there’s no easy way to do this, so I’m just going to lay it out. We have to let you go.”

For a moment Shae simply stared at him, very much as she’d stared at her ex-fiancé less than a week ago, trying to wrap her mind around what he’d just said. This had to be a joke, something he’d cooked up to drive home the point that she’d taken vacation days at an inopportune time for the company.

“I have a marketing presentation today for the new acquisition,” she blankly.

Wallace gave his gray head a firm shake. “Risa has a marketing presentation today.”

Shae’s eyebrows shot upward. “You gave her my part of the project?”

“No. You did that.”

“I don’t understand.” And the numbness spreading through her insides as she realized just how serious Wallace was about firing her was making it hard to breathe.

“For the past eight months your mind has not been on the job.”

“I—”

He raised a hand. “You have been immersed in planning and executing not company business, but a wedding instead.”

“I’ve done my job—”

“Not with your full attention.” He leveled a hard stare at her over the top of his glasses. “You could have done better.”

Shae swallowed dryly, desperately trying to come up with a strategy, but her brain, which always came up with a solution—except with Reed—seemed paralyzed.

Do. Something.

She cleared her throat and said in her most reasonable voice, “If you’d given me some warning…a chance to redeem myself… If you would perhaps consider this a warning?” She smiled at him hopefully. Wallace had always liked her; surely he’d change his mind. Give her just one more chance. After all, she was good at what she did—especially when she was focused on it, and damn it, she would focus on her job, and only her job, in the future.

“Miranda is adamant that we need to cut back.” One corner of his mouth tightened ominously at the mention of the company owner’s name. She was a woman people tended to tiptoe around, but Shae had always prided herself on getting along well with their demanding boss. So why had she now been singled out?

“I’ve spent the past four days going over employee performance,” Wallace continued. The four days she’d been gone. Things started to fall into place.

“I took legitimate vacation days,” she protested.

“With very little warning.”

“I had a personal emergency.”

Wedding related? He didn’t need to say it. Shae could read it in his face. “I’m sorry about this, Shae.”

“Reed called off the wedding,” she blurted. “I needed a couple days to deal with it.”

A look of dawning comprehension crossed Wallace’s face. “I can understand that,” he said after a few silent seconds. “But it doesn’t change things.” His voice softened as he said, “I know this is a shock, but it’s not negotiable.” He pushed a packet toward her. “I’d like to go over the severance package with you.”

Shae didn’t hear a word he said about the packet, but she must have nodded at the right times, because he continued to explain while she tried desperately to think of some way to save herself. She’d always been able to save herself.

Finally he said, “Vera will escort you from the building and be in contact in case you have any questions regarding severance.”

That got through to her. Shae’s head snapped up. “Escort me?” As in, she’d have to walk past Risa and out the door with Vera dogging her?

“Company policy.”

“I need my purse.”

“Vera has already collected your things.” And sure enough, when she walked out of Wallace’s office, the older woman was waiting near Risa’s desk with a cardboard box, her Dooney & Bourke purse balanced on the top of her belongings. She reached for the box, but Vera stepped back.

“I’ll carry it, dear.” Shae tilted up her chin, inhaled as she focused on the exit thirty feet away and started walking, wincing a little as her phone began buzzing from inside her purse. Last week it would have been a caterer or florist. This week it was probably her family, checking up on her.

Well, now she had more bad news for them and she had no idea how to tell them.

JORDAN BRYAN DIDN’T know how much longer he could drive without finding a place to pull over and sleep. His travel partner had been drifting in and out for most of the day, but once it got dark, the poodle had conked out for good.

The poodle.

Go figure.

Once he’d made his mind up to go, Jordan had tried to slip away while the dog was on his neighborhood rounds, but Clyde had come scampering around the Arlington apartment complex at the last minute, skidding to a stop at the curb next to the car, curly head cocked to one side as if to say, Really, man? After all this you’re running out on me?

Yeah, he was. He was running out on everything and nothing. He was running and he couldn’t even say why, except that every day he stayed where he was, doing the mindless job he’d been given, added to his raging sense of unrest.

The dog had then taken it upon himself to trot around the car to the driver’s side door and jump up, his toenails scratching the metal. Jordan had tried to harden himself, just as he’d hardened himself that morning when he’d abruptly told his supervisor he was leaving his mercy job and wouldn’t be back, but at the last minute he’d opened the door. The homeless poodle had jumped in, scurried across Jordan’s lap and settled himself in the passenger seat as if there’d never been any question of whether or not he’d be going. Jordan only hoped that the dog knew what he was getting into traveling cross-country in a tiny used Subaru with no air conditioning.

He snorted now at the thought and wiped a hand over his tired face, his fingers grazing the numb ridges of the burn scars near his ear before he reached over to turn the volume of the radio up. Hell—he didn’t know what he was getting into—or going back to.

He just hoped Miranda hadn’t screwed him over.

THE BLACK BUTTE Porter that Reed had left behind wasn’t working.

Shae set the glass on the table and reached for the tequila, pouring a healthy shot before settling back against the teal-blue sofa cushions and staring out across the room. It looked barren without the boxes of wedding favors, her master plan board…her dress. The dress was listed on Craigslist for a price she’d never get but was still half of what she’d paid. The favors and master plan board were in the trash, along with the tasteful ivory invitations embossed with indigo lettering inviting one and all to celebrate the joining of this man and this woman.

Shae socked back the shot and poured another. She hadn’t heard from Reed in two days, but even if she did, it would just be a courtesy on his part. Whatever they’d had was well and truly over—mainly because she wouldn’t be with a guy who’d done this to her. A little notice might have been nice, before she and her parents had spent a fortune.

Shae reached for the bottle again. She probably should have had a clue that something wasn’t quite right when he’d refused to move in together to save rent after she’d pushed the wedding date back for a second time so she had time to make everything perfect. He hadn’t given a reason, but had said simply, “Let’s wait.” And since he’d seen things her way in all the other matters pertaining to their wedding, she’d agreed. It was only a matter of two months’ rent, and her apartment had been jammed with wedding stuff, anyway.

Tequila dripped onto Shae’s leg as she poured the next shot. At least he’d told her before the invitations had gone out. She’d organized her stunned bridesmaids into a phone tree, except for her stepsister, Liv, of course, who was on her honeymoon. Liv, who was happily married.

Was she jealous? Hell, yes.

Shae brought the glass to her lips, coughing as she inhaled the fumes at just the wrong moment. She wrinkled her nose, scowling as the doorbell rang. What? What now? No doubt someone had just hit and totaled her new car where it was parked on the street.

Fully expecting to see either a neighbor or her stepmother, she peered through the peephole to see Mel standing there. Shae unlatched the door and pulled it open. Mel shoved her hands in her back pockets, shifting her weight uncomfortably. Silently Shae stepped back, allowing her to come in. Once the door was closed, Mel turned toward her. “I heard the wedding is off.”

“Yep.”

“Were you going to tell me?”

“I was, but then the bad thing happened and I figured Wallace would pass word along,” Shae said, going to sit on the sofa. Mel stayed where she was.

“He did,” Mel agreed. She nodded at the bottle with the full shot glass sitting next to it on the coffee table. “I see you’re coping.”

“Just numbing the pain for a while. Getting fired came as kind of a shock.”

“Really.” Since Shae had thought this to be a sympathy visit, Mel’s flat tone surprised her. “Did you know?” she asked candidly.

“That Wallace was letting you go? No. But I understand why it happened.”

Shae studied Mel for a moment, more than a little surprised at the answer. They’d known each other forever, and even though they were polar opposites in many ways, their friendship had remained strong since the first grade. There’d been times when they’d gone their own ways, lived their own lives without a lot of contact, but Shae knew she could count on Mel. Or she had.

“Why can you understand it?” Shae asked.

“Because you were living and breathing that wedding. And when Montana Skies signed on for the photo essay, you spent the majority of your time in another world that had nothing to do with the job. Even when you were there, you weren’t there.”

“I did my job,” Shae protested.

“You went through the motions. Gerald and Risa were forever clearing up loose threads you left.”

“They’re my assistants.” And if there was one thing Shae was good at, it was delegating.

“You weren’t doing your part.”

“Well,” Shae said briskly as she got back to her feet. “Thank you so much for stopping by. I feel better now.”

“I’m not here to bury the knife deeper,” Mel said bluntly.

Shae wrinkled her forehead. “Then why does it feel so much like that’s exactly what’s happening?”

Mel sighed. “Pretending you were fired for a bogus reason might make you feel better tonight, but it won’t help in the long run.” She nodded at the bottle. “Are you willing to share, or do you need the whole thing?”

“I’ll let you have a little,” Shae said, getting to her feet and walking into the kitchen. With altitude the tequila had more of an effect. She turned around. “Maybe you’d better have that shot,” she said pointing at the glass she’d left on the coffee table. Getting drunk out of her mind sounded good in theory, but was the aftermath worth it? Wasn’t she dealing with enough aftermath as it was? “If you’re not afraid of loser germs.”

Mel smirked at her as she reached for the shot and sipped at it. Mel always had been a sipper, very much like Liv, while Shae was a tosser. She liked to have the whole thing. Now.

“Have you told Whitney and Bree and Heather—”

“No,” Shae called from the kitchen, stopping Mel before she could name all seven bridesmaids. She turned on the faucet, filled a glass, thought about what she wanted to say. A moment later she walked back to the doorway, took a sip of water and faced the truth. “I don’t think they’re that anxious to hear from me.”

She’d run them hard for over a year. As the plans had escalated, so had their duties, and she had been sensing some rebellion close to the end. Besides that, there was the embarrassment factor. Dumped and fired. Shae gave a sniff, feeling the ridiculous tears starting to surface again. She was not going to fall apart. Not again.

“How’d Risa’s presentation go?” she asked as she came to sit beside Mel, who’d barely made a dent in the tequila shot.

“Not so well,” Mel said. “Miranda was there, and you know the effect she has on people.”

“I know the effect she’s had on me,” Shae said darkly. Hearing that Risa had crashed and burned wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. “And do you know what really fries me? I admired her. I thought that she was a tough, capable businesswoman.” She’d actually thought they were two of a kind, confident go-getters who said what they thought, went after what they wanted.

“I think she still is, Shae.”

Shae hated hearing that. Hated thinking that she’d screwed herself here. Much better to feel the victim…except that Shae never embraced that sort of role. She changed things that needed to be changed until she was happy with them. How was she going to change this?

“So you’re saying I lost my own job,” she finally said.

“It was like wedding planning possessed you.”

“Planning a wedding is time-consuming and stressful,” Shae said, once again eyeing the tequila bottle.

“I understand, but it was…” Mel made an odd face. “You were…” She shifted her position on the sofa, turning toward Shae with a frown knitting her forehead. “It was like everything had to be beyond perfect—bigger and better than any wedding anyone had ever seen.”

“There’s a problem there?”

“There is if you let the need to be the best rule your life.”

“I like things to be…nice.”

“Over-the-top nice.” Mel exhaled and settled back against the cushions. “I’m just trying to point out what got you into this trouble. And until the wedding plans began, you poured that energy into the job, which was why Miranda loved you. And Gerald and Risa hated you.”

“Gee. Thanks so much.” “You know it’s true,” Mel said. “And you know it doesn’t bother you that they resent you.”

“Touché.”

“Do you have any leads for jobs?”

“I’ve only been fired for a matter of hours.”

“Are you telling me you don’t already have a plan?”

“I have a list of firms to cold-call,” Shae admitted before sipping the water again. “I’ve posted my résumé on the job search sites.” Her mouth tilted down at the corners. “I want my old job back. I liked it. And Mel, I was ten months away from being vested in retirement. Ten months!”

Mel reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “If you need a reference, I can give you one.”

“Meaning Wallace won’t?”

“I don’t know. Depends on Miranda.”

“Yeah.” Shae pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment. She’d get past this.

Mel finally finished off the shot and set the glass on the table. “I have a study session. Are you going to be all right here? Because I can cancel and stay.”

“Don’t do that,” Shae said. She would have liked the company, but she was beginning to think some alone time wouldn’t be bad, either. She’d had enough hard truths for one night.

Mel picked up her purse, then gestured to the tequila bottle. “Maybe you should do yourself a favor after I leave…pour the rest of that bottle down the sink.”

Shae flashed her friend a frown. Damned if she was pouring good tequila down the sink. Shae picked up the bottle, putting the stopper back in and pressing it down hard before handing it to Mel. “If it makes you feel better, take custody. I really need to be alone.”

“Are you sure?”

“No. I want you to stay and tell me about how I had my head up my ass for months.”

Mel smiled. “Call if you need me?”

Shae closed her eyes. Mel was the best friend she’d ever had. And the most sensible. Maybe this was the time to tell her that her head had been where the sun didn’t shine, while she was still reeling from shock. That way it didn’t ruin yet another day.

“I’ll call,” she said. “Will you be available to answer? I know how you are when you study.”

“I’ll leave the phone on.” She gave Shae a quick hug. “Call.”

“I will.”

Once Mel’s footsteps faded into the distance, the apartment was too quiet. So quiet that the lack of sound seemed to press in on her. Where were the noisy neighbors when she needed them?

The phone rang then, the vibration making it dance on the glass coffee table. Shae glanced at the number. Vivian calling for the second time since hearing Shae’s most recent bad news. Shae wanted to ignore the call, but if she did, her stepmother would be there knocking on the door, probably with her father in tow.

The phone rang again. One more ring and it would go to voice mail.…

Taking a deep breath and suddenly regretting the lack of readily available tequila, Shae picked up the phone, forced a smile and said hello.

Her father’s voice, heavy with concern, answered her. “Shae, honey. We’re in Missoula and Vivian wants to stop by, if it’s not too late.”

In Missoula? At this hour?

“Dad, I’d love to see you,” Shae said. There was no way she could turn them away after they’d obviously driven in from their home a good hour away.

“We’re right outside. I thought it might be too late, but we passed Mel as we turned into the cul-de-sac.”

“Come on in,” Shae said, picking up the shot glass and carrying to the dishwasher, where she popped it in out of sight. “See you in a few.”

She hung up, raced into the bathroom and quickly gargled some mouthwash. If Vivian thought she was drowning her sorrows, no telling what steps she’d take. Seconds later the doorbell rang. Vivian hovered for a moment, then said, “I can’t help it,” and threw her arms around Shae. “I’m so sorry, sweetie.”

Shae tried to smile as she gently eased out of Vivian’s embrace and then hugged her father.

“I called around,” her father said. “Checked with some buddies to see if they’ve heard of any openings. No luck yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.”

“The problem is the real estate market,” Vivian lamented, taking Shae’s hand and leading her to the sofa.

“I know,” Shae replied gamely.

“Of course, we’ll help you with the bills until you get back on your feet,” her father said. Shae started to say thank you, but he held up a hand. “No arguments.”

“I appreciate that,” Shae said. The bills were her big concern at the moment. She’d charged an entire trousseau and had yet to see the final damages. And then there were the living expenses, which were going to catch up with her soon, since she’d been living paycheck to paycheck, spending every dime she had, as well as several dimes she didn’t have, on the wedding. “I’ll pay you back, of course.”

“Of course,” Vivian said, shooting a glance toward her husband that Shae couldn’t quite interpret. “Whenever you can.”

Her father sat down on the sofa, pulling a list out of his jacket pocket. “Here are the guys I contacted for you. You should check back in with them periodically. Several of them owe me favors. The ones without check marks are people I couldn’t get hold off.”

Shae stared down at the list, a bit overwhelmed. Her parents were in full rescue mode, and even though a small voice inside her protested, it was soon overpowered by logic and necessity. These were her parents. This was what they did, and Shae wasn’t about to stop them.

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