“Make the cola half-regular and half-diet, Shandi. With a wedge of lemon. Not a slice, okay? A wedge. With lots of ice. I like my cola really cold. And can you make sure there are no seeds?”
Shandi Flanagan’s pencil stopped on the notepad. Most times, she could memorize her customer’s orders, but her sister had always been picky. “In the lemon?”
Kimmee blinked, as if the question dropped out of an alien’s spaceship. Her eyes, made up with high-end department store shadow and liner expertly applied from techniques she’d learned from a You Tube video, rounded. “Do the ice cubes around here have seeds?”
The rest of the customers at the table burst out laughing, including Beau and Brock Paxton, and why did that make Shandi feel betrayed? She’d grown up with all three of the Paxton brothers. They knew she was a good waitress, and even if her question was a stupid one—okay, she should’ve known Kimmee was talking about the lemon wedge and not the ice cubes—they shouldn’t have taken Kimmee’s side and laughed at her expense.
At least, Ava Howell and Lucienne Dunn, who’d soon be marrying Beau and Brock respectively, were engrossed in the menu for their meal selection and weren’t paying attention to anything Kimmee ordered.
But if there was one good thing Shandi could take from her blunder…Jace Paxton hadn’t been here to laugh at her, too.
She reached over the empty chair that would be his as soon as he arrived and snatched the Greasy Bull’s laminated menu right out of her sister’s hand.
“Ha-ha,” she said with a forced smile. “I knew what you meant.”
She tucked the menu under her arm and moved around the table to take the rest of the orders quickly, like she always did. She finished up with Tim McGowan, one of the cameramen from the Dallas television station where Kimmee worked, and after jotting down his order, discovered he was as fussy as she was.
Suppressing a sigh, she crossed the restaurant’s main eating area and unloaded her stack of menus at the hostess podium, then skirted the bar and entered the kitchen. She’d been working at this place since she was a junior in high school and had learned a long time ago, no matter what she did, customers could still be condescending and demanding.
Too bad it was her own sister who made her feel lower than a bug on a dirt road, even if she didn’t mean to. But that was just Kimmee.
Most folks in Paxton Springs, though, were friendly and patient, more like family than nameless bar-and-grill customers. They knew she’d do a good job for them. Chuck Olson, the owner, treated his customers right, too. Folks often said Shandi and Chuck made a fine pair working together. Almost like father and daughter.
And wouldn’t that have been nice?
Except he wasn’t her father, as much as she would’ve liked him to be, since her own father hadn’t had a clue what it meant to be one.
She paused at the kitchen’s computer and entered the meal orders for Kimmee’s table with quick taps on the screen. Chuck shuffled in behind her and sank heavily in the chair at his desk, tucked in the corner behind the computer stand. It didn’t matter how often Shandi suggested he needed a separate room for his office. He insisted on keeping his desk in the kitchen, just so he could keep an eye on things.
Poor guy looked exhausted. Ever since his heart attack six weeks ago, he’d been unable to gain his weight back. His stamina was that of a man twenty years older. And his color, pale and a bit ashen…well, he worried her.
“You should go home, Chuck,” she said, her fingertip hovering over the screen, her attention more on her boss than food orders. “I can handle it tonight.”
“I know you can,” he said, propping his elbow on a stack of papers. “Not much going on at home, though. Might as well be here.”
“Saturday nights are getting too much for you,” she said.
“Busiest night of the week. Hard to stay away.”
“I know. But you should.” She finished her order-entering but delayed heading to the refrigerator for her sister’s lemon. “These late nights are tough. You need to get yourself into bed earlier than you have been. You could use the rest.”
He frowned. “Don’t need reminding, Shandi.”
She smiled, hiding her worry. “You’re the boss around here. Give yourself a better schedule. When you’re feeling stronger, you can put in more hours.”
“Nag, nag, nag.”
“Someone has to.” Giving his shoulder a quick pat of affection, she hustled off to the stainless-steel refrigerator to grab the lemon.
Cody Olson, Chuck’s son, glanced up from the flat-top griddle, splattering with a pair of quarter-pounders.
“That’s our last lemon, Shandi,” he said, his cheeks flushed around his moustache and goatee.
“I noticed.” Refrigerator door closed, lemon in hand, she took a knife and cutting board and found a small section of stainless-steel counter space. She sliced the citrus in half.
“Use the slices in the container by the soda fountain.”
Her knife halted. “Special request, Cody. Wedges, not slices.”
He sighed loudly, as if the request thoroughly disgusted him. “Whatever.”
Chuck’s mouth tightened. It wouldn’t be the first time his annoyance with his only offspring showed. For being twenty-seven years old, two more than Shandi, Cody often acted like a kid half that age. Most times, Chuck had his hands full with him.
“Anyone I know?” Chuck asked while Shandi guided the blade to form a perfect pair of wedges.
He grinned. “Say no more.”
“I know, right?” Using the tip of the blade, she flicked a seed from the wedge; finding another, she did the same.
“Heard she was in town. Going to put the Paxton’s new resort on TV?”
“She’s filming an ad for them, yes.” She held up both wedges to the light, making sure she didn’t miss any seeds, and wasn’t it just crazy she was going through so much trouble, all on account of her sister’s persnickety ways?
“It’ll be nice, no matter what. That girl will look good in any commercial.”
Again, she forced a smile. “Yes. She will.”
Chuck was probably mentally comparing Kimmee’s gorgeousness with Shandi’s plainness. Most folks did, one time or another.
“She’ll be heading back to Dallas soon?” Chuck asked.
Shandi finished wedging. Wasn’t like Chuck to be this chatty, not with folks filling up the restaurant on a Saturday night. “In the next day or two, I think.”
“But you’ll always be here, won’t you, Shandi?”
She paused at that. His gaze stuck on her like melted cheese on a hamburger.
“Can’t ever see myself leaving Paxton Springs, Chuck,” she said quietly.
Small town living suited her. She’d never lived anywhere else but right here, and that’s the way she liked it. Familiar, with down-to-earth friendly folks she’d known her whole life.
Shandi hated surprises, hated upending her structured, narrow life, too. She always had.
Which is why Kimmee was a hot-shot reporter for a big city television station, traveling all over the country to film one story or another, and Shandi was firmly rooted in her hometown, working two jobs to make ends meet without much difference in her days, week after week. Month after month.
Familiar and predictable.
Two sisters couldn’t be more different.
Leaving the kitchen, Shandi grabbed a large plastic red cup from the stack behind the bar and loaded it with ice at the soda fountain. She didn’t have time to puzzle over Chuck’s question, but her answer had seemed important to him. If it was pertinent, he’d bring it up again. Later, when she wasn’t so busy.
With her round tray balanced with assorted bottles of beer, Kimmee’s cola, and a small dish of lemon wedges, she rounded the bar. The door opened, then, and Jace Paxton strolled in.
Her pulse kicked, her step faltered, and she gritted her teeth. Why did he still have that effect on her? She’d told herself a million times she was over him. Over. Him. She swung around, back to the cooler, and grabbed his brand of beer. A quick flick of her wrist at the opener, and the cap popped off. She added the bottle with the others on the tray.
He was only a few steps ahead of her and no sooner settled his lean-and-tall cowboy body into the chair when she reached around his shoulder, plunked the bottle down in front of him, and kept moving.
His head angled toward her, and his eyes crinkled. “Thanks, Shandi.”
“Wow. She knows what kind of beer you like?” Kimmee asked, a perfectly plucked brow raised. “She didn’t even have to ask.”
“Been coming here a long time,” he said with a nod, lifting the brown bottle to his lips.
Shandi concentrated on serving the right beverage to the right customer. She didn’t want to wait for Jace to say something nice about her.
But she did.
“She’s the best waitress I’ve ever had,” Beau said, going for his beer, too.
“I don’t know how she does it.” Ava shook her head. “She keeps everyone’s orders in her head like she’s got a photographic memory or something.”
“She never makes a mistake, either,” Lucienne added. “Never writes anything down.”
Shandi smiled her thanks, set the beer in front of Lucienne, and took a small measure of comfort that she was appreciated by most everyone at the table.
Even if Jace didn’t seem to be one of them.
“Sometimes I have to write orders down,” she admitted, moving onto the Dallas cameraman. “But not always.”
“Big parties, well, hell, we’ll give you a pass.” Brock grinned.
Shandi grinned back. “’Preciate that, Brock-ey.”
His expression shifted to a mock scowl. “Hey. You better watch out.”
“Brock-ey?” Lucienne burst out laughing. “Seriously?”
Jace braced his elbows on the table. The gesture stretched his dark blue and white checkered shirt across the breadth of his shoulders, and Shandi dragged her attention off him. Ignoring their banter, his gaze fastened onto her sister as if he wanted to swallow her up.
“It’s real good to have you back in town, Kimmee,” he said, his voice low and sultry.
Not that Kimmee seemed affected. She lifted the red cup, tucked the straw between her glossed lips, and sipped delicately. The cup lowered. “I go by Kimberlee now. With two ‘ee’s.”
“Yeah?” He drew back.
“It’s my professional name.”
“You’ll always be Kimmee to us.”
She shrugged and batted her lashes. “You’ll get used to it, eventually.”
Shandi headed across the restaurant again, dodging tables. If Jace wanted to flirt with her sister, he could flirt until the moon dropped out of the sky. She didn’t care.
In the kitchen, Cody’s flat-top sizzled with beef. Shandi pulled out a third-pounder and a tub of bleu cheese from the refrigerator; adding the burger to the griddle, she set the tub on the counter so she wouldn’t forget to top Jace’s order. The beef and bleu cheese combination were his favorite. Rarely did he order anything else.
“Make sure you charge him for that cheese,” Cody said, scowling at her while he prepared Ava and Lucienne’s taco salads. “Most times, you don’t.”
“It’s the little things, you know?” Shandi said. The guy was in a foul mood tonight, for sure.
“Yeah, well, you see money growing on the walls around here? We can’t be giving food away.”
Shandi hurried forward to take a tray of dirty dishes from Jessica Holden, another waitress. She made a point to ignore him while she carried the load to the dish pit.
“How long you figure the Paxtons have been coming here, Cody?” Chuck demanded. “They’re good customers, and if Shandi wants to do a little ‘on-the-house’ now and again, I don’t have a problem with it.”
“Well, you should, Dad. Ain’t no way to run a business.”
“When did you become an expert?” Chuck shot back.
The argument did little to improve Chuck’s fatigue. In fact, he looked more tired than ever, and Shandi exchanged a worried glance with Enrique Romero, who’d washed dishes at the Greasy Bull for as long as she could remember.
A small man in his fifties, Enrique worked tirelessly and kept his mouth shut through most every conversation in this kitchen. Conversations that often included terse exchanges between father and son. Enrique pulled his dark-eyed glance away from Shandi, but not before she glimpsed the same disapproval as her own.
After easing a mesh basket full of fries into bubbling hot oil, Shandi hurried out of the kitchen for a quick check on her customers. From all the raucous laughter happening around Kimmee’s table, the group was having a good time, and she tried not to feel left out. It was her job—and Chuck’s—to make sure the patrons at the Greasy Bull enjoyed themselves. The camaraderie and plenty of good food and cold beer is what kept them coming back. And provided her a paycheck.
But it was a bad idea to want to be with them. Jace, most of all. Sitting next to him. Hearing his throaty laughter and sexy drawl. Feeling the solid strength in him from his big cowboy body.
A bad, bad idea. And a terrible waste of her time and life.
Since her customers didn’t need her for the time being, she headed back to the kitchen and met Chuck coming out. She performed a quick side-step to avoid knocking into him.
“Need to talk to you,” he said.
“Can it wait?” Her fries would be done any minute, and Cody already had a tray loaded with salads and sides. “My orders are about ready.”
“Sure. As soon as you get a minute.”
Back into the kitchen she went, plated the orders from memory, and lifted the heavy tray, balancing its weight on one shoulder.
Back out into the restaurant she went, taking a tray stand with her. At Kimmee’s table, she efficiently unfolded the stand one-handed and eased the tray on top. Working quickly, she began to distribute the dinners, then rushed back to get the second tray, as heavy as the first, and the last of the ordered meals.
“Need some help, sweetheart?” Jace asked.
There her pulse went again, kicking at his endearment. Which meant nothing. Just a habit of his, that’s all. Calling women ‘sweetheart’…
“Got it,” she said crisply. “And it’s Shandi, with an ‘i’,” she added for good measure.
Her retort only amused him, and she worked faster handing out plates. With his meal in front of him, he lifted the bun and checked beneath. Catching her eye, he winked.
“You’re the best, ‘Shandi-with-an-I’.”
“Why do you say that?” Kimmee asked, picking up a french fry but not biting in.
“She always remembers my bleu cheese.” He set the bun over its patty again and gave it a firm press.
“You didn’t even tell her you wanted a hamburger.”
“She just knows unless I tell her different.”
Ridiculous pleasure rolled through Shandi. It was a little thing, catering to her customer’s tastes, taking care of him that way, but that customer was Jace Paxton, and…well, damn it, no matter how good her pleasure made her feel, as quickly as it rose, she stomped it away, like a pesky flame in dry grass, killing it as fast as she could.
Feeling good because he said something nice about her would get her nowhere but back onto the road of disappointment. Again.
She grabbed the empty tray and stand and turned to head back to the kitchen. She was, after all, busy, and couldn’t waste time being so near Jace and hoping for a crumb of his attention—
She stopped in mid-stride and swung toward his table. He held up his beer bottle.
“Another one?” he asked.
“You got it.” She should’ve asked before skittering off like a jittery rabbit. “Anyone else need another round?”
No one else did, and she resumed her trip back to the bar, put the tray and stand in their places, and went to the cooler. Taking out Jace’s second beer, she uncapped it, but seeing Chuck in front of the bar sink, a dish cloth in his hand without wiping anything down, she hesitated.
He appeared deep in thought. It wasn’t like him to frown so hard. Whatever troubled him must be serious enough to make him ignore the noise and customer activity around him.
She placed a hand on his arm. “Chuck? You okay?”
He roused. His frown shifted to a ghostly smile. “Got a lot on my mind, Shandi.”
“I can tell.” She hesitated. Jace would have to wait a few minutes for his brew. “What’s going on?”
He sighed heavily and ran the dish cloth along the already-clean counter. “I’m going to sell the Greasy Bull.”
Her jaw dropped, and her breath hitched. “You’re what? Why?”
“You said it best. I need the rest.”
“Oh, Chuck.” Never in a million years had she expected him to drop his bombshell. “You can’t sell. It just wouldn’t be the same around here without you.”
“I’m not getting any younger. And my health…”
His voice trailed away. The admission seemed torn from him, and her heart squeezed.
“Take a couple of months off, okay?” she said. “I can manage the place until you’re stronger. If I have any questions, you’re just a phone call away, right?”
“There’s more to it than you think.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“Shandi.” His tired eyes lingered over her. “I need to find the right buyer. Just cut the strings and walk away. Not having to worry about the Greasy Bull will be the medicine I need now.”
Her mind reeled and spun, like blades in a fan. “The right buyer?”
“Someone who can come up with the money and take away the stress I’ve been living under. I want to visit my sister in Alaska. She says the fishing’s real good up there.”
“What buyer would be right for you?” Shandi could hardly think straight. But her pulse pounded in her temples. “Cody?”
He grunted. “It should be him.” His mouth tightened. “But it’s not.”
She blinked, her body dizzy. She clutched the neck of Jace’s beer bottle so hard, the glass should have snapped. “Who is, Chuck?”
His thin throat bobbed. Clearly, he had the words. They just wouldn’t come out.
And she knew. Because he knew, too. The dream she’d held deep inside. A dream so far-fetched, so high in the sky, it’d always been unreachable.
Had he given her the first chance to make it come true?
“I want to buy the Greasy Bull, Chuck.” The words rasped in her throat, and she had to say them again. She thumped the neck of the beer bottle against her chest. “Me. I’ll be your buyer.”
He sighed. Heavily.
His gaze lifted. Jace stood on the other side of the bar, his blue-gray eyes unwavering.
Shandi sucked in a breath of surprise. How long had he been there, listening?
But he merely lifted a corner of his mouth and indicated the bottle still gripped in her hand. “Just comin’ for my beer, sweetheart.”