* * *
You wouldn’t have known it to look at him, with three soused cowgirls hanging from his arms, but Joey McIntyre was bored. And charming these ladies into letting him drive them home was nothing more than his duty as part owner of the Long Branch, Big Falls Oklahoma’s most popular claim to fame, after the falls themselves. This year, though, the nearby Holiday Ranch was rapidly becoming another.
The player piano was tinkling an 1890s version of “Joy to the World,” and hidden projectors beamed tiny illuminated images on every wall; Christmas trees, Santas and stars.
A soft-handed sweetie stroked his face, or tried to, and managed to poke him in the eye. “You’re a real hero, giving us a ride home, Joey. You gonna come in for a nightcap?” Her knees bent and she sank floorward. Joe tightened his arm around her waist to hold her upright, and she beamed up at him, wafting beer breath that would’ve scared the jingle bells off a reindeer at twenty paces.
“Yeah, Joe, you have to come in,” said the one on the other side. She was trying to make herself tall enough to nuzzle his neck, but kept tipping off her stilettos.
The girls’ night out had taken a turn for the rowdy by the fifth or so round, and when one of the girls reached for her keys, Joey knew it was time to step in. It was times like these he wished Darryl Champlain hadn't quit his job as their bouncer-slash-head of security to go back to full-time songwriting.
The third hayseed honey shuffled along behind him, her hands on his shoulders, head kind of bouncing along against his back because she could hardly hold it upright. She mumbled something but he wasn’t sure what.
They all wore skin-tight jeans so low slung they gave even scrawny girls a muffin top, and blouses that showed varying amounts of cleavage.
“I should’ve cut them off,” the new waitress said. “I should’ve cut them off at four rounds.” Her name was Heidi, and it fit. Blond hair and blue eyes so round she always looked either scared or surprised.
“I think they had a head start before they got here,” Joey said. He didn’t want her to think she was in trouble. “It’s a bar. People are gonna drink. Will you check to see if we got all their crap from the table?”
Nodding and gnawing her lip, Heidi hurried away. One of the girls listed left, taking him and the other two with her, but he managed to keep from hitting the floor, then got them all upright and back on track for the garland-draped batwing doors again.
He looked back at the bar, not wanting to leave the place unattended, but as usual, his brother Jason was nowhere to be found. He was spending all his time at his fixer-upper outside of town or over at Sunny’s Bakery these days. Not much help running the saloon anymore. But he did spot Rob, taking a shift behind the bar while his country-fresh Kiley sat on a saddle shaped barstool, making doe eyes at him.
He caught Rob’s eye, inclined his head, and his brother hopped over the bar and jogged up to him. “You uh, sure do have your hands full there, little brother.”
“Yeah. Can you hold down the fort while I get them home?”
“I can.” He assisted by taking Joey’s keys from his belt loop, and putting them into one of his hands, which he couldn’t move because it was holding up a drunk girl. A drunk girl who was smiling sloppily up at him and trying to bat her lashes. Looked more like she had something in her eyes. “You gonna be okay with all this?” Rob asked.
“Lucy’s place is the closest. I’ll drop ‘em off there, make sure they get inside.”
“And not go inside with them. Cause they’re drunk.”
Joey sent him a look. “You think I’m immoral or just stupid?”
Rob shrugged. “Hey, you’re the billionaire bachelor of Big Falls, pal. I’m just looking out for you.” He eyed the women, each of whom was pawing Joey in her own way. Suzy Jennings, Betty Lou’s niece, was petting his back like he was a cat. Geri Starbuck (no relation) was trying to lick his neck, but couldn’t reach.
“Just help me get ‘em in the truck, huh, Rob?”
Nodding, Rob turned toward the exit, just as a redhead came through the batwing doors, stopped about three feet in front of Joey and looked him right in the eyes.
He was so surprised to see her that he let go of the girls on either side of him, and took a step toward her. All three cowgirls landed ass first on the hardwood floor.
“You dropped something,” she said with a sarcastic lift of one brow.
“Hello Joe. Haven’t changed much, I see.”
“I don’t know what you...oh, this? No, this isn’t what you... Shoot, how the hell are you? It’s been what, four years?”
“Something like that.”
Rob cleared his throat and Joey remembered his brother’s presence, looked his way, saw him nod at the three on the floor as if to remind him of his unfinished business. But Rob’s new bride stepped in. “Rob and I will get these three home so you can catch up with your...friend.” Then she extended her hand. “Kiley McIntyre. Welcome to Big Falls.”
Emily smiled, her face softening. She was still beautiful. More elegant than he remembered. Her cheekbones seemed more pronounced, her eyes, more deeply set than before. Then again, she’d only been twenty last time he’d seen her….
Outside his father’s Texas mansion, in the grotto behind the waterfall, among the ferns and honeysuckle, beneath a midsummer moon.
“Emily Hawkins,” she said. “Good to meet you, Kiley.” Then she added, “Hello Rob.”
“Good to see you again, Em. How are you?”
“Great. Wonderful.” Joey thought her eyes didn’t match her words, and while her lips tried to turn themselves upward, it wasn’t a smile. It was some kind of hidden pain, trying to impersonate one.
Kiley helped the girls to their feet, one at a time. “You’re gonna ride in the back of the pickup. You’re gonna sit still and shut up and hold your vomit until we get you home. Understood?”
They nodded at her, and no wonder. She was sweet and young and freckled, but she sounded more like Vidalia just then.
“You puke in the truck, you’re cleaning it with your toothbrushes. So just don’t.” She took a girl’s arm in each hand and marched them out the door. The third was clawing at Joey’s jeans, trying to pull herself to her feet.