Hustled To The Altar

By: Dani Collins

8:17 a.m., Friday

Greenbowl, Montana

Nowhere in Renny O’Laughlin’s Guide for a First Time Bride did it say, “On the day before your wedding, visit your old boyfriend in a pool hall.”

So much for doing things by the book.

On the other hand, the author would probably condone her behavior, if he understood the circumstances. Maybe. Okay she was rationalizing, but she was here to lift a weight off her conscience, not add to it.

Reaching for the worn door handle, she paused when the voice of reason, her fiancé’s, said, “Respectable women don’t enter pool halls unescorted.”

Renny tensed. Sometimes Jacob was so old-fashioned it was— No, it was nice, she affirmed to herself, but couldn’t resist trying to lighten him up.

“I’ll be sure to remember that when I become one,” she teased.

It didn’t work. He continued to frown.

Renny couldn’t blame him. She had left the sensible woman he knew on her bedroom floor with her housecoat. But explanations would take time she didn’t have, so she conjured her “of course there isn’t a problem, officer” smile and patted his arm. “It’ll be better if I see him alone. I’ll be five minutes. Tops.”

Tugging open the heavy door of Shakey’s Billiards and Bar, she entered. She could have played the proper lady and brought Jacob with her, but she wasn’t sure how Con was going to react to her news. Rather than set herself up for humiliation in front of Jacob, she opted for speaking to Con in private. So here she was, unescorted, taking in the scents of stale popcorn and fresh coffee drifting on the air.

She heard the clatter of an adding machine and waved toward the bar where Shakey sat tallying last night’s receipts. He was a paunchy man with a gray beard and a seaman’s hat.

“I need a word with the Prince of Play,” she explained.

“Number five table.” He pointed.

It wasn’t necessary. The place was a tomb, dimly lit but for a slant of sunshine through the open back door, empty but for Indiana Jones slouched over a pool table wearing ancient jeans, a bed-head haircut and a pretense that he wasn’t waiting on adventure.

Pressure built in her throat as she walked toward Conroy Burke.

He tapped the cue ball. It kissed the seven, sending it whispering at an angle. His concentrated expression relaxed into satisfaction as he straightened.

“You want a word with me?” He spoke in a genial tone, almost indifferent. “What happened to waiting until hell froze over?”

Show no fear, she reminded herself. “It only took six months. Who’d have guessed?”

“I did. Looks like I won the betting pool.”

“You expect me to believe you turned our breakup into a game? You’re not that shameless.”

“Cookie, I take pride in being that shameless.”

She’d give him that, but he wasn’t cruel. If there was a game going on, it was between the two of them and it was going on right here.

She drummed her nails on the rail of the pool table. “You’re trying to score the first point.”

“I’m not trying.”

“You’re the most trying individual this close to the Rockies.”

“Flattery isn’t necessary.”

“I had you at hello?”

His mouth twitched and that made her chuckle, not so much from amusement as relief. After six months of silence, she had wondered if he would speak to her at all. Sparring with him was tricky, risky even, but familiar.

They locked gazes.

For a few seconds, she let herself bask in the tingling self-awareness she always felt around him, the way her hair felt softer when she brushed it off her face, the way her heart beat a little faster, the way each breath felt lighter. She had missed him, she realized, and glanced away in mild alarm.

“How’s the play value?” she asked. It was a question she would ask of any game he was designing.

“On our breakup? Until now, lousy. The rules weren’t clear and it dragged on too long.”

Interesting attitude, considering the most competitive man in America had given up after a handful of unreturned texts. Sure, he’d been busy selling his company, but if he had cared enough, he would have fought for her. Still, he was giving her something with the admission, so she gave back.

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