The blaring hard rock music he heard was Ken Abrams' second clue that they weren't at Spitfire, the only tavern in Fever, Texas. An hour would be just about right for a drive to Lubbock, an hour away--which was about how long it'd taken to get here.
When his wife's four brothers had come to Triple Aces Ranch earlier tonight, where Ken had grown up while his old man was a hand and he was now a co-owner, he hadn't been able to avoid going off with them. He knew the Sanford brothers too well to argue with them. They were practical jokers and damn mean when they wanted to be. Ken had worked double-time to get them and their old man to approve of him being with Karla, and he guessed after more than six years--five of those years estranged from Karla--the brothers were looking to string him up for his crimes. They'd probably waited this long to do it to catch him seriously off his guard.
Ken had gone along with their insistence in blindfolding him...probably not the smartest move he'd ever made, but he'd hoped whatever "surprise" they had planned for him would be over quickly. But now he was hearing music that wasn't often listened to in the Texas Panhandle. The hard rock was pouring out over the night as if from a live concert, and Ken found himself getting more and more wary. What the hell were the Sanford brothers up to this time? He'd been waiting for five years for them to get even with him.
Ken grimaced beneath the tightly-tied, blindfold scarf they'd forced him to wear. For all of about ten minutes, he'd thought he'd gotten out of joining another party. The boys back at the ranch were enjoying a supposedly tame bachelor party at the Spitfire that Ken had spent a lot of time and ingenuity crafting an excuse to get out of attending. Maybe he'd only been exempted because tomorrow marked the date five years ago when he'd lost almost everything that mattered to him. The last of the five bachelors at Triple Aces was getting hitched--after a true whirlwind romance that'd started barely a month ago. Rogue ladies' man Shawn Jacobs was marrying high-powered, "Miss All-That" April St. Clair tomorrow.
The wedding was to be the event of the century in the tiny cattle town of Fever, Texas. April had spared no expense--not that she would ever have to, considering that she was pretty much made of money--first in a proper church wedding officiated by Pastor Doc, the only reverend in town, and then at the blow-out reception they'd be holding back at Triple Aces. The whole town had been invited and then some. Shawn had said a dozen times if he'd said it once, that personally, he didn't care how or where they got married as long as it was ASAP. The guy was dead-drunk on his woman and wouldn't be satisfied until she was hog-tied to him for life. Ken had felt the same way on the night before his wedding.
After the honeymoon in Italy, they were planning to settle on the ranch, but April would be keeping her luxury townhome in Lubbock, close to the prestigious law firm where she was a partner. While the idea was that she and Shawn could have some privacy there once in a while, they'd also decided that Panhandle winters were nothing to fool around with--if the weather got bad while she was at the office, she wouldn't have to drive an hour over treacherous roads to get home.
Seeing Shawn and April so much in love had been something of a nightmare for Ken, partly because he knew it would only get worse once she lived on the ranch pretty much full-time. Certainly didn't help that their wedding was taking place on the anniversary of the worst day of his life...
When Ken tried to shift around in the cramped back quarters of the truck, Karla's youngest brother, Colt, uttered with enthusiastic mirth, "Settle down, cowboy. We're almost there. And then you're gonna thank us. Trust me."
Ken almost groaned out loud. He'd gotten free and clear of having to attend a bachelor party that would only remind him of everything he'd stupidly lost, somehow or other, and now the Sanford bullies were about to get the last laugh. They usually did. Since he and Karla had started dating, the boys had been testing him, making him the butt end of their "fun", and he hadn't argued. His past was nothing short of notorious, and it wouldn't be easy for any of them to forget his well-rumored, legendary exploits with Maggie May.
For a while there after he and Karla were married, he'd actually gotten himself to believe her old man and brothers had signed off on him--given him their seal of approval. The Sanford brothers had started including him in their practical jokes, making him think he was an official brother. And then the tragedy had happened, and Ken had guessed all his efforts were for nothing. He'd lost Karla anyway, and it didn't matter what her all-male family thought of him now. When she'd walked away from him for a reason he still wasn't entirely sure about, it'd been all the proof her relatives needed that he wasn't worthy of an angel like her.
Time to put a halt to this nonsense. "Look, guys," he started, "I don't know about this..."
But he was being pushed to the side by one set of hands and passed off to another pair. His feet touched the ground, and he felt himself being propelled out of the truck and toward the ever-growing volume of music. The beat was pounding inside him like he'd swallowed a drum. Wherever the hell he was, he was sure Karla's brothers had dragged him to a place he definitely didn't want to be.
I can take on maybe two cowboys but not all four of 'em. So there's no way to prevent this. Hell and damnation.
He couldn't see through the itchy scarf, but he knew when he was propelled through a doorway that he was inside now, and he was far from alone. He sensed a crowd of people, smelled smoke, and lights flashed across his face at intervals.
"Here we are, cowboy," Charley, the oldest Sanford brother, said on a chuckle, and then Ken's blindfold came off. He blinked, trying to get his eyes to adjust. At that point, he honestly wasn't surprised to find himself in a shadowy nightclub, surrounded by the brothers. The flashing he'd sensed were neon strobe lights, but the room was all but pitch black when the lights weren't flickering. The pulsing music was for the exotic dancers on the t-shaped stage. His only relief was that none of the girls prancing around up there were actually naked. Pretty close, but if anything more came off, he'd be running for the door.
He'd been without a woman for five years, but he'd realized early on that no one could take Karla's place in his heart, let alone his bed. He didn't even care to look at another woman that way--naked or clothed. Karla had been a dirty-faced tomboy most of her life with a mile-long black braid running down her back like a back-strapped sword. She'd come with her daddy, owner of the Sanford Ranch, nearly every time the old man came around Triple Aces. She'd been a wildcat from the start and nobody got near her if she didn't want him to. And then suddenly she had wanted someone to. Him.
"None of your wives mind you bein' in a place like this?" Ken asked with a glare at each one of them. He deliberately included a threatening tone to his words. He could let their wives know where they were, if the boys gave him a reason to--like forcing him to stay here for even one more second.
"What they don't know..." Nathan started with a chuckle that caught on with the rest of them.
"Look, I don't know why you brought me here. I'm not the one gettin' hitched tomorrow. I don't need a bachelor party."
Duke and Colt pushed him forward, toward one of the few empty tables in the club. "No, but you been a married bachelor for too damn long, Ken," Charley said forcefully. "Time for you to get back out there, buddy."
Ken allowed himself to be pushed the rest of the way to the table, but he purposely sat in the one chair that put his back to every part of the stage. He didn't have to look at those women gyrating and convulsing to the throbbing music. He'd have a drink, and then he was leaving. End of story. Jared or Alex wouldn't mind quitting the bachelor party early and coming on out to get him.
"Are you saying you think I should divorce your sister?" he demanded when they were all sitting down, the other four gawking like they'd never seen a dancing woman before. Their wives would skin them alive if they found out, too. Ken couldn't see that this would be worth it for any of the boys.
"Or she should divorce you and you can both get on with your lives," Colt added without bothering to look at him. His eyeballs were all but bulging out of their sockets.
Get on with his life. That was the one thing Ken didn't want to do. He'd allowed Karla this long, silent separation, even when it'd stretched into years. And every damn day he'd prayed that she'd come back to him. The few times he'd tried to contact her, she'd been as cold and volatile as a rattlesnake. No, he wouldn't be the one to go to her because he wasn't willing to risk her asking him for a divorce. He wasn't ready for that. He never would be. Could her brothers actually be encouraging that final step? They'd always been overprotective of her, almost as much as her daddy had.
Ken felt the waitress appear beside him at the table and she said monotonously, "What can I get you, cowboys?" He deliberately didn't look at her. But then Duke all but shouted, "What in sam-hell do you think you're doin' here, dressed like that, Karla-bug?"
That got Ken's attention. He turned and looked up to see hiswife dressed in shiny, shimmery, skintight hot pants and a low-cut cropped top. While he imagined both of them looked like startled buffalo, goggling in shock at each other, he had no wish whatsoever to laugh. He only wanted to put his head down and charge.
* * * *
Karla flopped her large, round tray in front of her at the sight of all four of her brothers sitting around the table with her husband. That alone was worrisome. She knew better than anyone else that her siblings could be bullies, especially if they believed someone had hurt her. They all did believe Ken was at fault for their separation. "What are you guys doing here?" she demanded. "Shawn's bachelor party too tame for you?"
Charley, by far the most protective, thrust that stubborn Sanford chin at her and pointed an accusing finger her way. "Explain yourself, sis. Now."
She all but groaned, knowing better than to let him get away with his bullying. All her life, her brothers had acted like she was two years old and couldn't make a decision or take a step on her own. But she had to admit she wished they'd never found out about this--where she really worked. Seeing Ken shocked her too much to take her brother on the way she should have.
What in the world was Ken doing here? He had to know her brothers were up to no good. But to come here... Her teeth clenched. Okay, so maybe she hadn't expected him to live out their long separation celibately, even if she had, but she'd certainly never anticipated Ken coming to a place like this. What were the odds?
Sudden dawning fell over her. Pointedly not looking at her husband, she said to Charley, "Let me guess? Alana suggested that this was a good club for all of you to come to?"
"Now how'd you know that?" Nathan demanded in genuine surprise.
Karla shook her head. She should have known. Her best friend Alana was in love, happily married to her Prince Charming, her first child on the way. She wanted everyone to be as happy as she was, and she wasn't above matchmaking, even if it meant sending Karla's husband to the questionable place where she worked.
Without waiting to take their orders, she turned around and started back toward the bar. She was well aware that her brothers and husband were getting a good glimpse of her backside, if they cared to look. Fortunately, the waitress uniforms were pretty much the worst part of working at Hot Stuff Exotic Dance Club. While the form-fitting, lamé hot pants and crop top weren't exactly sleazy--in a weird kind of way, they were flattering to her body-type and shape--she'd never felt truly comfortable in them, especially tottering on the three and a half inch heels she'd had to learn to walk in. She'd probably never get used to how tired her feet were after a shift. The only thing worse than the uniform were the customers who came in and didn't respect a waitress's right not to be fondled in any way, shape or form. So many assumed she came with the drinks, literally, or that, because there were half-naked women on the stage who intended to turn them on, they were justified in taking their jollies out with any woman on ground level. But she could handle herself. In five years, she'd taken good care of herself while at work. Growing up with four ruthless, practical-joking, older brothers had taught her to be tough enough to handle just about anything.
"Denise." Karla grabbed hold of her friend and fellow waitresses' arm, dragging her over to a quiet corner. "Can you take table four?"
"That's your table."
"I know. My brothers are sitting there." Karla had to admit she didn't like the idea of sending busty Denise over to their table. Her chest all but popped out of her too-tight crop top--and the effect was sleazy enough to thrust the already dubious loyalty of her brothers into hot water. More than that, I don't want Ken to look at her. True, Denise is about the only female here I trust not to go after him, especially when I tell her who he is. But the rest of the girls will pursue him with a vengeance when they find out he's my husband. It's the way they are. If Ken was good enough for one woman to marry, he's good enough to chase...even if he is still married.
Denise was craning her head around, trying to get a look at table four. "Thought you had four brothers. I'm seein' five, sugar. Or 'm I countin' wrong again?"
Okay, so Denise wasn't the brightest daisy in the bunch usually. She looked a lot like Katy Perry with her big, blue eyes perpetually open wide in a not-all-there expression. This time, she seemed to realize something was up when she looked back at Karla, who wanted to lie. She didn't. "No. You're not counting wrong. The fifth is my husband."
Denise's eyes popped even more, and she exclaimed joyfully, "Ooh! Which one?" Now she was really craning.
Karla put her hands on her friend's shoulders to keep her from calling attention to herself with her pointed gawking. "The one in the beat-up cowboy hat with russet hair curling at his neck."
"Wow," Denise said when she finally got a satisfactory eyeful. "And you dumped him?"
"I didn't marry him for his looks, Denise."
Her friend snapped her gum. "'Course not. But a man that good lookin', sugar, who would blame ya?"
Karla sighed. "I didn't exactly dump him either."
"Now I know why."
Ken's good looks... Karla had never told anyone she'd had a life-long crush on him that had even outlasted his tawdry relationship with Fever's very own slut, Maggie May. Maggie had been his on-and-off girlfriend at sixteen and for years afterward. The May Ranch was a half dozen miles down the road from Triple Aces on one side, Sanford Ranch on the opposite. More than once, Maggie's old man had found his little girl in the haymow in compromising positions--and not just with Ken, though it'd been him most often. Ken had laughed and bragged about it later, like a rogue, without shame. Who hadn't seen him running down the dirt road at least once, tugging his pants back up while Maggie's daddy fired a pellet gun at his bare feet and yelled at him to never come back to his ranch again if he knew what was good for him?
When Ken had finally had enough of Maggie's cheating, fickle heart, Karla had started dating one of his best friends, Shawn Jacobs. At the time, she hadn't been consciously aware she'd done it to make Ken jealous. She'd never expected him to care one way or another, but he'd been insane when he'd seen her with Shawn. It was as if he'd seen her for the very first time--though they'd known each other all their lives! For the first time, he'd looked past her tomboy defenses and seen the woman she hadn't known how to become until they kissed for the very first time. They fell in love with that kiss, or so she'd convinced herself. In the years they'd been apart, she'd lost her certainty about that. Ken Abrams was nothing of the man she'd thought she'd fallen in love with more than six years ago. She needed to remind herself of that constantly just to keep going, tonight more than ever.
"Would you please just wait on the table for me, Denise?"
"Sure thang, sugar. So...all of your brothers are married?"
Denise pouted, then sighed and went to wait on them. Karla couldn't help laughing. Even Maggie May wasn't as boy crazy as Denise. Even at the club, she was always on the lookout for the cowboy who could steal her heart...temporarily or permanently, whatever.
Although she'd just arrived at work about twenty minutes earlier, Karla knew she needed fresh air before she got back to her job. She ducked into the break room, avoiding her boss's gaze, and opened the door there to the back alley. She'd gotten herself down to one cigarette a day. Usually she waited until her half-hour break, but tonight she needed it now. Her nerves were in chaos.
Ken, here. Why? Why now? The fact that he was here only made it worse that tomorrow she'd be facing the anniversary of her greatest loss. She'd miscarried her baby girl five years ago, and that unborn child had almost been full-term. She'd been less than a week from giving birth and starting a new life as a mother.
Karla couldn't blame Shawn for not remembering that fact when he and April had set their wedding date. There was no reason he should have factored someone else's worst day ever into his plans. He and April were in love, and they wanted to be together forever, starting as soon as possible. But the last thing Karla wanted to do was celebrate new love, new life, new beginnings tomorrow. She'd barely dragged herself to work tonight--and she'd only done that because no one who was off tonight could or would switch with her. She supposed if she'd admitted why she needed the time off, she could have gotten it, but she hadn't shared that with anyone in Lubbock since she'd moved here after leaving Ken...barely two weeks after the miscarriage. Not even Denise knew that, and she was the only co-worker Karla had a decent relationship with.
Moving to a big city, where she'd realized she'd find few if any friends, had been difficult for Karla. She'd never made friends easily, and the ones she counted closest had been girls she'd known all or most of her life: Alana Hamilton...well, Chapman since she'd married Jared. Colleen and Janaya Olsen (née Gaines), the elusive Gina Calhoun. She'd just known she couldn't go home to her father's ranch, where the memories of her mother's death when she was eleven would make the death of her own child that much worse. She certainly wouldn't get any understanding or consolation there. Men were all alike in that regard. Nothing touched them or changed their usual patterns. They just went on like nothing had happened, nothing had changed. She could truly believe most of them felt nothing at all, ever.
Though she didn't feel much better after she finished her cigarette, at the very least she wasn't shaking anymore. Quickly, she used the toothbrush from her locker, applied another coat of walnut-colored shimmery lipstick, then looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the back wall. She knew what her brothers and Ken must have thought when they saw her dressed like this, and she couldn't help cringing. Lord, I wish they'd leave! Maybe they're already gone. If only! With half-naked woman all over the place, the only thing that will get them out of here anytime soon tonight is a call from one of their wives.