A movement in the noisy restaurant tugged Laura Katz’s attention. She stopped midstride; a tray of drinks balanced on her right palm. A brief glimpse of the back of a man entering the men’s room raked shivers down her back. The forward slope of the shoulders, the dip in the walk. Something familiar. Something unwanted.
The din of the room subsided. Her breath grew shallow.
Her ex-husband was trouble. If the jerk had followed her to Mustang Valley…
The scent of sizzling steaks and baked potatoes brought her back to the present like smelling salts. She pushed aside a rising anger and continued toward table four with a deep breath. Through loud conversations and laughter, she zig-zagged between a half-dozen round, wooden tables, dodging a teen who unexpectedly jumped from his seat.
After delivering the drinks, she turned from her customers just as Randy Silva walked through the restaurant door. The foreman on the Meadowlark Ranch was a hard man to miss. When the six-foot-four cowboy strode into a room, it was as if he stood in a spotlight and begged to be noticed—at least in her mind. A green plaid, western shirt nicely clad his broad shoulders, and his long, jean-covered legs ended at the toes of black leather cowboy boots. She paused and fussed with her order pad to watch his muscled legs stride into the room. He was quite a bit older than her, she guessed, but wow…maturity in that form sure beat the hell out of guys in their twenties.
He chose a table by the side window in her section and took off his white cowboy hat to expose shiny, chestnut hair cropped short around the ears and neck, yet a few strands fell onto his forehead. He set his hat on the chair next to him, then settled on a seat facing into the dining room. Resting his hands atop the menu on the table, he glanced around.
The cowboy had been at his mom’s in Tucson for Christmas when she’d moved onto the ranch three months ago to work for Phoebe and Mason Meadowlark. After the holidays, they’d crossed paths a few times on the property; he’d been busy doing whatever he did with cows and horses while she’d been chasing after five-year-old Sky Meadowlark in her part-time nanny capacity. The little guy kept her hopping. That didn’t mean she hadn’t noticed Randy—noticed the baritone voice and the moss-green eyes she imagined noticed her back. A collision in the entryway when she’d been playing hide and seek with Sky was enough for her to discern the warm ruggedness of the man under the cowboy guise.
Truth was, after that encounter, she’d not paused long enough in his presence for more than a casual hello which should’ve suited her fine at this point in her life. She didn’t want anything more right now, so she’d avoided him and the temptation. But then she’d see him again, and as if he was a little horseshoe magnet she’d played with as a kid, and she was pulled like iron.
He just had to sit in her section tonight. There’d be no avoiding him now.
She smoothed her blouse into the waistband of her jeans, checked her breath in the palm of her hand, and headed toward his table. Yeah, suited her fine.
So, stop with the primping and treat him like any other cowboy.
“Good evening, Randy. Have you had enough time to decide what you want?”
“Hello, Laura.” He thumped his knuckles on the closed menu. “I think I have this menu memorized.”
“Either you eat out too much or Mel’s Steak House needs a menu update.”
“I’d say a little of both, but don’t tell Mel. What he cooks is good, and he’s temperamental, so let’s leave well enough alone.” His smile started with his eyes then the corners of his full lips tipped upward. Perfect right down to his square jaw.
The flutter pushed the next question out. “Are you waiting for someone?” Although a perfectly normal question to ask a lone customer, her reason for quizzing this patron went beyond her waitress job.
“No, all alone tonight.” The upbeat tone of his answer conveyed that was quite all right.
“So, what can…I…bring…?” In her peripheral vision, the man going out the entrance jarred her. She jerked her head in that direction as the old feeling of dread covered her like a thin veil of fog.
“N-no.” Laura shook off the doom and disaster and refocused on Randy, whose gaze drifted back from where she’d been looking.
She had to stop expecting unhappiness every time a good feeling came over her. And the cowboy waiting for her to take his order certainly gave her a share of good feelings.
Feelings that tightened her thighs and nipples.
Although he was seated, her petite, five-four height allowed her to easily look into his tanned, handsome face. With his gaze, all thoughts of her ex-husband went hazy. “Sorry. Thought I—never mind.” She perked up her smile. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll take a bottle of this week’s micro-brew, the T-bone, rare, with beans and a salad. Thousand Island on the side.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be back with that beer in a flash.”
After dropping off the order, she went to the bar for the beer. She rested a foot on the brass railing and couldn’t help but slide a glance. Their gazes met, and she diverted her attention back to the bar.
Could he be flirting? She smiled and tapped her fingers to the beat of the country music playing overhead.
“Here’s your brew, Laura.” The bartender set the bottle in front of her and moved down the bar to a customer.
On her trip back to his table with the beer, she saw Randy smile in her direction, which triggered her smile. “Here you go.” She set the bottle on the table. “Your dinner will be out soon. Mel said to tell you the T-bone will be the thickest cut he has available. Apparently, you have some pull around here.”
He chuckled. “Like you said, I eat out too much, which makes me wonder why I haven’t run into you before now.”
“You must be eating here on the nights I don’t work. I’m on Tuesday through Friday, two to eight.”
“That’s probably the case. I—”
“Excuse me, miss?” a woman a table over called out.
Laura shrugged and winked at Randy. “Just yell if you need anything.”
She moved on to the patron who’d hailed her. Then, gliding around her section, she checked on customers’ needs, refilled coffee, and delivered desserts occasionally peering in Randy’s direction. His responding gaze met hers more than once. She snickered to herself—was he watching her or feeling watched?
On her way to the kitchen to pick up the cowboy’s order, she stole yet another peek. He sat beneath a neon beer sign so his chestnut hair alternated reflecting yellow and red. His full attention was zeroed in on someone at the bar. The sudden malcontent of his mood was evident by the tightness of his jaw. She scanned the bar, but no one appeared to be returning his stare.
When she delivered the food to his table, he sat contemplating his half-empty bottle with a far off, unhappy expression, his full lips slanted downward.
“I hope that frown isn’t because you had to wait too long for your steak.”
He jerked his chin and attempted a smile, but his furrowed brow remained. “Oh, no.” A half-hearted wave of his hand accompanied his words. “I was thinking about something I’d rather not think about.”
“Well, stop that. You’ll get indigestion.”
“Ha. Okay.” His creased brow smoothed with the slightest hint of a smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
One at a time, slowly, she lifted the heavy, ceramic plates lined along her forearm—salad, steak, and bread—setting each in front of him. She was in no hurry to leave the cowboy to his dinner. For weeks, she’d been avoiding him, and now, the close proximity made his company irresistible. “I would’ve brought the salad out first, but Mel informed me you like yours with your meal.”
“And he’s correct.”
“Steak sauce, catsup, and whatever else you need are on the table. Can I get you another brew?”
“I’m good. Thank you.”
“Okay then. I’ll leave your bill, but give a wave if you need anything else.” They looked at each other as if something more should be said. Not knowing what, she pivoted on her toe to leave.
“If you get a break, maybe you could join me.”
“Oh.” His invitation caught her off guard. His eyes crinkled at the corners, sparkling with the overhead lighting. A quick palpation of pleasure thumped her chest. “Um, well, thanks, but I’m off in about thirty.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. You said eight. Then, maybe we could go for coffee? After all, we both work for the Meadowlarks, and I’d say it’s about time we got to know each other.”
“Sure. If you finish before I’m off, why don’t you see if you can a table out on the porch.” She nodded toward the door. “Coffee here is pretty good.”
“I’ll do that.”
“How do you take your coffee?”
“Me, too! See you in a bit.”
Moving to another table, Laura stepped lighter, and the fatigue from a six-hour shift nearly done didn’t bother her so much. “Would you like dessert?” she asked the couple at the next table. Without looking up, as if she wasn’t worth their attention, they declined with shakes of their heads. She thanked them and left their bill. Unfriendly customers couldn’t destroy a good mood.
Taking a break in the fresh air before the drive home would be a nice respite. Her lightheartedness was merely the anticipation of a social interlude with a possible new friend. Nothing more. She’d moved away from Timberline and all of her friends, had been working two jobs, and hadn’t had time to get to know anyone. The fact her first social moment would be with Randy, a rugged, handsome cowboy…
Not the point.
She avoided glancing toward his table as she did a final check on all of her customers. On her last trip to the kitchen, she couldn’t help stealing one more peek at her handsome customer.
A man she’d seen at the bar earlier stopped beside him, his body canted forward as he spoke. When Randy pushed aside his plate and fisted his hands on the table, she slowed. This wasn’t a pleasant conversation between old friends. The guy looked to be in his forties, but much shorter and certainly softer than Randy. Standing directly beneath the wagon wheel chandelier, his short, black hair glinted. A scar along his chin shown white against olive skin.
She had no hope of hearing their words over the din of the restaurant, but when the patrons around them paused their eating, the scene drew her in. Randy’s mouth took a hard line, and from the squint of his eyes, Laura didn’t think she’d want to be on the receiving end of his glare. When the man said something, Randy jerked back and made a movement to rise.
She caught her breath.
The guy heaved upright, stepping backward with a final word. When he made a fast exit, Randy relaxed back onto his chair. He nodded at the diners nearest him as if apologizing.
Laura continued to the kitchen with a smile. She might’ve just come close to seeing her first cowboy brawl.
Blood still pumped heat to his face and limbs as Randy left the noisy dining room for the quiet porch of the restaurant. The cool spring air took on an extra chill as a breeze washed over his angry mood. A lone man rose from the corner table, and Randy moved to grab the chair that would give him a view of the door as well as the grounds. He shouldn’t have let that mealy-mouthed wimp, Charles Farley, get under his skin and piss him off. He thought he was years past his hot-headedness. But the man was an ass and deserved to be knocked down a peg.
He’d noticed the duo sitting at the bar just before his meal came. Charles Farley and Brad Markham had leaned toward each other, all too friendly, drinking and talking. Old man Farley would be very unhappy to know his son socialized with the developer—the same one after his land, as well as Randy’s spread. He hated to be a rat, be the one who brought ugly news to a father, but Johnson deserved to know his son might be working against him.
Until Charles confronted him tonight, he’d had no idea why he didn’t trust the son of Johnson Farley. When he’d seen the two at the bar, he’d thought the meeting might’ve been harmless enough—Markham working on the son to get through to Johnson, and Charles holding steadfast to his father’s view. Yet, something the older rancher said, a few months back, about his son urging him to retire and move into town niggled in his thoughts. Then the ass wipe had the audacity to stop at his table and accuse him of influencing his father to hold tight to his land.
While he found the son’s allegiance to his father questionable, he had no doubt Markham was a man not to trust. A little too slick for his tastes. He’d started out friendly, explaining how the proposed development had nothing but benefits for the Mustang Valley area.
Randy snorted under his breath. Taking good cattle and horse country, destroying the wide-open spaces for planned housing, shopping, spas, and a community center didn’t sound beneficial at all. His own plans for his land would be far more beneficial than any city developer could concoct.
First time he’d met the man, his sales pitch matched his shiny suit and gold-lettered business card. When he’d addressed the Ranchers’ Association meeting, however, the guy had wrapped his presentation persona in a western shirt and creased jeans and covered his white-blond crewcut in a straw cowboy hat. Farley hadn’t been fooled with the attempts to be one of them, and neither had he. The repeated requests to take a look at his offer had grown less and less…friendly.
He drummed his fingers on the table. Charles and Markham. How a man like Johnson, strong and decent with a solid bond to the earth, could’ve spawned a money grubbing, spineless excuse—
“What a beautiful night.”
Embroiled in his thoughts, he’d not watched for Laura as intended, and now she stood beside the table with a full tray. He jerked back and stood. “Let me help.”
“Oh, sit. I’ve got it.” She emptied her hands of a coffee carafe, two mugs, two plates of dessert, and forks wrapped in napkins. In the center of the table, she placed a glass jar containing a burning candle. “The porch roof lights are so dim. We can use a little extra illumination to see our food.” She leaned the tray against the wall before sitting. “I thought we should have some of the apple strudel the customers have been raving about all night.”
The haze of anger had churned his mood foul and wouldn’t make for a relaxing time to get to know Laura. He could make up some reason to excuse himself and go home; another day would probably be better. But he’d made this date and couldn’t be rude. “Smells good. Thanks.”
While they busied themselves unwrapping the forks, silence grew as thick as the night beyond the edge of the porch.
She poured the coffee. “You don’t have to eat it. I just thought—”
“I want it.” He reached for conversation and found his mind cluttered with snatches of the confrontation with Charles. “I, uh, ran into someone inside and…sorry.” He’d been rattled moments before, and now, getting his mood to calm in the presence of a lovely woman further ruffled his demeanor.
She paused, coffee carafe in hand, eyebrows in a slight frown, and body language that said she might bolt at any moment.
Randy cleared his throat, took a breath, and smiled. “This is a beautiful night.” And he did want to get to know the attractive young woman across the table. How often had he caught a glimpse of her at the ranch and wondered when there’d be a chance to see if her company would be as appealing as her physical appearance? She’d been a nice distraction during dinner, before the idiot had disturbed him, and he wouldn’t let the evening end on a sour note.
Her frown smoothed as she set the coffee on the table.
He swallowed down his irritation and raised his mug in a mock toast.
The candlelight danced over the blonde hair, now out of the work pony-tail and resting on her shoulders, revealed the peach of her cheeks in a flicker, and, for a soft moment, highlighted her smile. She clinked his mug.
The tension eased from his shoulders as they sipped in unison, and he gazed over his coffee. After seeing her a few times at the ranch during her first weeks as Sky’s nanny, he’d had a notion to strike up a friendship. She appeared to be more than a decade younger, but he’d seen enough of her interactions with the youngest Meadowlark—and enough of her legs—to hope she wouldn’t find age a deterrence. But the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. Until tonight.
He’d watched her all throughout his meal. He couldn’t help but admire the jean-clad butt of his waitress. Her blonde ponytail had swayed to the left when her hips swayed right, and vice versa. The rhythm was a bit hypnotic. The thump of an old Keith Urban song had played overhead and seemed to keep time with her.
He definitely wanted to get to know her better.
Clearing his throat, he asked her the first thing that came to mind to get the conversation going. “What’s the J for? I know your last name is Katz, but you signed the bill Laura J.”
“Jane. There’s a Laura that works the earlier shift. They wanted to be able to distinguish the bills. This place still does everything old style. And I don’t care to use my current last name any more than need be.” She rolled her eyes and gave her head a slight shake. “I really need to take the time and get it changed.”
The last comment seemed directed inward more than at him. He drank his coffee and waited to see if she’d elaborate, but she filled her mouth with dessert and gazed toward the roses that grew along the porch.
Out of the restaurant and away from the smell of food, her sweet scent drifted across the table. For some reason, his childhood in Argentina came to mind. His nose twitched as he focused inward, and it came to him. Blue Argentine Starflower. Hmm. How strange and wonderful at the same time.
“How do you like living on the Meadowlark Ranch?” He scooped up a forkful of strudel.
“Truthfully, I’m loving it.”
“So, little Mr. Sky hasn’t got you packing your bags and running back from where you came?”
She laughed. “Not yet.”
“Where did you come from? You’re not a Mustang Valley gal.” Not that a certain kind of woman lived in Mustang, but Laura possessed a bit of something different he couldn’t put his finger on. Whatever he saw didn’t come across in her style, which was simple and easy on the eyes in her fitted T-shirts and shorts more often than jeans.
Not a big city either. And not far away. Maybe Laura was just different in her own way. The few times he’d seen her on the ranch, they’d spoken little, but she had a way of looking at him. More like looking into him. Her eyes told a tale of maturity beyond her twenty-some years. “You must know Mason’s brother, the sheriff.”
“I do. His daughter, Jenny, is my best friend. I wanted to make a change, and she knew Phoebe needed a part-time nanny for her son.” Another drink of coffee, and she shrugged. “But I needed more than a few hours of income, so Mason put in a good word for me with Mel, and three weeks ago, when the position here opened, I got the job. Works out perfect for me.”
He cut away a bite of dessert and purposely lowered his voice. “You do know the history of this place, right?”
“Oh, yeah.” She laughed. “Barb—you know Barb?”
He nodded, non-committal. Leave it to Babbling Barb to give her the story.
“She gave me the tour my first shift. Had to show me the exact toilet stall where they found the waitress with her throat slit six years ago when this place was the Ranch House Restaurant. Told me how a madman had followed Phoebe to Mustang Valley, and how she captured the guy singlehandedly.” Her expression went from wide-eyed amazement to amusement with mention of his boss’s wife.
He chuckled. “Phoebe has quite the bad-ass reputation around here.”
“I guess.” She sipped coffee. “Jenny had told me a bit of the story before I moved, but I got a more colorful version from Barb. Phoebe says she doubts anyone will bully Sky when he goes to school. With her legendary status, they’d be afraid to.”
He laughed with her. “At least Barb didn’t scare you away. We’re really pretty mellow here on the prairie.”
“Hmm.” She tapped a finger to her chin. “Except maybe for the guy who upset the end of your meal?” Pushing her half-eaten dessert away, she leaned forward. “Felt like trouble to me.”
Her stare searched his face, curiosity evident. Apparently, Laura tended toward bluntness. The slight smile and wide-set eyes begged for information. At least she’d waited to quiz him until after his anger had cooled. The spring night, candlelight, and her company had restored his calm.
“Well, Laura Jane, Charles Farley might’ve been raised in Mustang, but he’s not a prairie resident now. He’s from down in Phoenix, and yes, he might be trouble. He wants me to sell my land to a developer and influence his father to do the same.” He cut a bite of dessert, but only toyed with it as a wave of irritation over the conversation earlier with the man stole his taste for the sweetness. “Only his father doesn’t want to sell, and neither do I.”
She quirked a brow. “Sounds like a son trying to get his inheritance early.” Her bare, moist lips smirked.
Farley’s words faded as he stared at her mouth and wondered if she’d taste as sweet as the strudel. “Does have that ring to it.”
“But what kind of trouble can he possibly make?” The smirk left, to be replaced with a pouting lower lip as she frowned.
Damn, the woman was definitely a distraction. He transferred his gaze to his coffee and focused on answering her question.
“Just the annoying kind, like a pesky mosquito on a summer night.” He needed to keep that attitude and his temper at bay. “His father will have to put up with the brunt of his annoying perspective.”
“No one has said anything about someone wanting to buy the Meadowlark Ranch. Isn’t their land right next to yours?”
“Yep, it is, but the development is planned northwest of the Meadowlarks. My spread is the southernmost boundary.” He sipped the strong, black coffee as if it could wash away the bitterness of conversation about the development.
“So, you’re not only Dirk’s and Mason’s foreman, but have your own ranch to run. Isn’t that a lot to do? Do you have cows on your ranch, too?” She lifted the coffee carafe and splashed more into their cups.
He couldn’t help smiling. She definitely wasn’t from around here. “My ranch is small compared to the Meadowlark. No cattle on my spread.”
“Hmmm. I detect amusement.” Her grass-green eyes narrowed, and there went the finger tap on her chin again. “I said cows, and you said cattle.”
He cleared his throat and hoped to sound diplomatic. “The Meadowlarks are cattle ranchers. Cows are female cattle. Within their herd, you’ll find cows, heifers, bulls, and steers.”
She tilted her head, batted her lashes, and nodded. “Thank you for the education. I’d say I have a lot to learn about cow—cattle—but I can’t say I really give a bat’s butt about them.”
He laughed, delighted with her bluntness. “Don’t let Dirk hear you talking like that.”
She waved him off. “Ah, he’s an old sweetie. He loves his grandson so much, and Sky loves me, so he wouldn’t care what I call his cows, or his bulls.”
“That kid does have him wrapped around his finger.” He moved his coffee mug, not interested in the java, but happy to continue visiting with Laura Jane. The physical attraction might have been the flame that drew him, but her charming sense of humor and ease of conversation held the real warmth.
“Then, what do you do on your ranch?”
“I breed horses on a small scale. Once in a while, sell one to another rancher.”
“Horses.” She leaned forward, the candle shooting a sparkle into her eyes. “That’s much more interesting than cattle. Maybe I can come over one day and see your…herd?”
He nodded. “You can say that. Or stable.” She wanted an invite to his ranch. He wanted to toy with a friendship. Right now, those two events were miles apart. Not that he didn’t want to see her again, but somewhere besides his ranch. “Mason and Dirk own quite a few quality stock horses.”
His hesitation and deflection brought a frown to her face. “Soooo, your stable isn’t really available for public viewing,” her voice teased.
“Well, s-sure.” This woman didn’t hold back. Her reaction caught him off guard, and a slight embarrassment gave him pause. “I only meant, in the meantime, there are plenty of horses right where you live.”
“Okay.” She loaded their dishes on the tray. “Have you had enough coffee?” Her tone and simple question transitioned into waitress mode.
“I have.” He hadn’t meant to insult her, but her crisp body language and the fact she didn’t take her eyes off her task indicated he had.
He couldn’t totally explain his reaction to the thought of a woman broaching the solitude of his ranch. Certainly couldn’t put his reluctance into words for someone he hardly knew, yet he didn’t want to leave the evening on a negative note. He’d acquired his land with the dream to eventually share his ranch with someone special. Until then…
It’s only a visit, Silva.
When she stood and lifted the tray, he jumped to his feet. “Thanks for having coffee with me. I’ve certainly enjoyed talking to you, Laura Jane.”
A brief smile came to her lips, highlighted by the flickering candlelight. “I’m a two-name lady now?” The waitress attitude vanished.
“Fits you.” Her kind of pretty went deep. Add a sassy attitude, and she warranted a name that reflected her personality. He wanted to experience more of just what made her Laura Jane. “Let’s do this again some time.”
Her eyes opened wide for a moment. “I’d like that.”
Randy put on his hat and moved around the table, relieved the awkward moment passed, and she hadn’t shot him down. He had no doubt of her capabilities, yet she’d softened and smiled again. Calling her Laura Jane flipped her mood.
Nice touch, Silva.
“Here, let me take that in.” Lifting the tray from her hands, he moved toward the door, pleased he might get a second chance. He couldn’t remember the last woman he’d enjoyed purely conversation with. Had he been so lonely? “Drive careful. See you sooner rather than later?”
“I hope so.” She opened the door into the restaurant and smiled. “Bye.”
When the door closed behind him, Laura stepped off the porch and rounded the corner of the building to her car in the parking lot beside the restaurant. She’d enjoyed herself and liked Randy Silva, although he came across a tad stand-offish.
Maybe getting an invite to his ranch is considered bad form so early in the friendship?
Damned if she knew anything about cowboy etiquette.
The light from the porch that spilled onto the parking area dimmed then faded away as she reached her car. The stars above were spotty and the moon non-existent, hiding behind dark splotches in the sky. The sweet strudel taste lingered with equally pleasant thoughts of the cowboy. Stepping carefully on the uneven footing of the gravel, she dug for her keys, and pressed the unlock button.
Her light mood dissolved into the darkness as the earlier uneasiness crept over her. She sucked in a breath, held it, her heart pumping against her ribcage. The noises from inside the restaurant didn’t carry outside, yet a sound…
She paused and glanced around. Behind her, near the road and in the halo of a close streetlight, Randy climbed into a truck. Her breath released in a quiet whoosh. She smiled at the sight of muscled legs hefting up into the cab, a well-defined butt settling onto the seat, and the beat of her heart took a new tone.
As she opened her door, a movement in the shadows beyond her, so dark, without form, held her for a split second.
Clark is not here.
She hurriedly slid into her car and thumped her steering wheel. “Gloom,” she spoke out loud as she started the car and backed out. “Stop looking for the gloom, Laura.” Out on the road, aimed for her new home, she smiled. “Make that Laura Jane.”