Suzanne Caldwell shoved against the spot in the door of Amanda Mae’s Old West Diner where the “waitress wanted” sign filled the glass. The scent of fresh apple pie greeted her, along with a rush of noise. Though there were no more than ten people at the counter and in the booths, the place was as rowdy as a party. Women wearing jeans and tank tops sat with men dressed in jeans, T-shirts and cowboy hats. She didn’t get two steps into the room before the noise level began to drop. As if noticing the stranger, people stopped talking mid-sentence.
She clutched her six-month-old baby, Mitzi. There was nothing like walking into a roomful of staring strangers to make you realize how alone you were in the world.
And she was definitely alone. She’d run out of gas about a mile out of Whiskey Springs, Texas, and, literally, had no one to call for help.
No family. Her grandmother had died six months ago and her mom had died when Suzanne was six. Her dad, whoever he was, had never acknowledged her.
Her mom and grandmother were both only children so she had no aunts, no uncles, no cousins.
And no friends. The wonderful sorority sisters who’d vowed to be her ally for life had dumped her when she got pregnant by a popular university professor. It was her fault, they’d said, and had accused her of trying to ruin Bill Baker’s career. As if. The guy had gone on a campaign to seduce her and had wormed his way into her life because of her grandmother’s fortune. When Martha Caldwell made some major mistakes in money management and lost the bulk of her wealth, Professor Baker suddenly didn’t want to see her anymore. And he most certainly wanted no part of their baby.
So, yeah. She was alone. Alone. Broke. Desperate to make a home for herself and her baby. And she’d left Atlanta bound for Whiskey Springs hoping to find some help.
But after walking the last mile on a hot June day, her heels thumped in her black stiletto boots. Mitzi squirmed in her arms. Her heavy diaper bag was dislocating her shoulder. Still, she kept her head high as she made her way to the first empty booth. By the time she got there, the diner was dead silent.
A waitress shuffled over. “Help you?”
She cleared her throat. “I’d like a piece of the apple pie I can smell, a cup of coffee, a glass of milk and some pudding, please.”
“What kind of pudding?”
She swallowed. Not one person had turned back to his or her coffee or food. They just stared as if she were a zombie or vampire or some other mythical creature they’d never seen before. “What kind do you have?”
“Vanilla or chocolate.”
“Mitzi loves vanilla.”
Without so much as a word of acknowledgement, the waitress scurried away.
“You’re not from around here.”
Knowing the man could only be talking to her, she followed the voice and found herself staring into a pair of the shrewdest eyes she’d ever seen. Cool, calculating, so black the pupils were almost invisible, his eyes never blinked, never waivered as they held her gaze.
Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.
“No, I’m not from around here.”
“What’s your business?”
“None of yours.” She turned away from the penetrating, unsettling eyes and shifted Mitzi on her lap.
To her horror, the man walked over and plopped down on the bench seat across from hers. His full lips pulled upward into a devilish smile. His dark eyes danced with pleasure. “Now, see. That’s not just a bad attitude; it’s also wrong.”
She should have been scared to death. He was big. Not fat, but tall and broad-shouldered. The kind of guy who could snap a little five-foot-five girl like her in two. But instead of fear, a very unladylike shiver of lust rippled down her spine.
“Everything that happens in Whiskey Springs is my business because this is my town.”
Not at all happy with herself for even having two seconds of attraction to an ill-mannered stranger, she said, “Your town? What are you, the sheriff?”
He chuckled. The people at the counter and in the booths around them also laughed.
“No. I’m Cade Andreas. I own this town. I bought all the buildings last year. I lease the businesses back to their proprietors, but I still own every square inch, including the one you’re sitting on.”
Oh, good God. This was Cade Andreas?
Fear and confusion immediately replaced attraction. Wasn’t the Andreas family broke?
She owned one-third of Andreas Holdings stock and hadn’t been able to sell it because the company was on the skids. What was he doing buying a town?
“And I’d like to know what brings you to my town.”
She raised her gaze to his face. A day-old growth of beard covered his chin and cheeks, giving him a sexily disreputable look. His lips were full, firm, kissable. His nose had been broken – undoubtedly in a fight – but it wasn’t disfigured, more like masculine. Definitely not dainty. There was nothing dainty about this man. He was all male. One-hundred percent, grade A, prime specimen sexy.
Finally, their eyes connected. Her chest tightened. Her breathing stalled. She could have blamed that on her unwitting attraction, but refused. A guy who bought a town had to be more than a little arrogant. Definitely past vain. Maybe even beyond narcissistic. And she’d learned her lesson about narcissistic men with Mitzi’s father. It would be a cold, frosty day in hell before she got involved with another self-absorbed man. So she refused to be attracted to Cade Andreas. Refused.
But she still needed a job. She might own stock worth millions of dollars, but nobody wanted to buy it. Potential didn’t sell stock these days. Dividends did. And in the past two years Andreas Holdings hadn’t paid any. So she was hoping that since she owned one-third of the company they could at least let her work there. The choice to approach Cade Andreas, the youngest of the three brothers who owned controlling interest of Andreas Holdings stock and ran the company, was simply a matter of practicality. Texas was driving distance. New York City, the headquarters for the corporate offices, wasn’t. Still, if they gave her a job, she’d get there somehow. She’d go anywhere that she could put down roots and make a home. Maybe find some friends.
“What brings you to my town?”
This time the words were harsh. Not quite angry, but definitely losing patience.
She glanced at the waitress who stood behind the counter, balancing a coffee pot and Suzanne’s piece of pie, obviously holding them hostage until she answered Cade.
She looked back at him. His already sharp eyes had narrowed in displeasure, and she had the sudden, intense intuition that if she told him who she was – in front of his adoring friends and the frozen waitress – he would not jump for joy. She would bet her last dollar that none of these people knew how much trouble Andreas Holdings was in and Cade would not be happy with the person who announced it.
There was no way she could say who she was and why she was here without talking about something he would want kept private, and no way she could explain her presence in this two-bit town so far from a major highway that no one was ever just passing through.
She glanced around, saw the sign in the door advertising for a waitress and grabbed the first piece of good luck that had come her way in over a year.
“I heard about the job for a waitress, so I came.”
“In your fancy boots, with your baby all dolled up?”
“We put on our best stuff --” she said, making herself sound as if she fit the part of a waitress. She regretted the deception, but if anybody ever deserved to be played, this guy did. Owned a town, huh? She potentially held the future of his family’s company in her hands just by whom she chose to sell her stock to, yet he’d never once considered that she might be somebody worthy of his time. “-- For the interview.”
A short, round, dark-haired woman wearing an apron scampered out of the kitchen. “You’re looking for a job?”
“Yes.” The truth of that brought her back to reality. Her purpose for coming to Whiskey Springs had been to get a job – from Andreas Holdings. Now that plan was on hold. She wasn’t exactly here to be a waitress, but money was money. And she needed some. Now. Today. She had enough cash to pay for her piece of pie and even buy extra milk for Mitzi, but after that she and Mitzi were sleeping in her car.
“I’m Suzanne Caldwell.” Because her grandmother had held the stock in a trust, her name wasn’t mentioned on any documents, so she could give it without worry. “This is my baby Mitzi.”
Mitzi picked that exact moment to cry. The little brunette scrambled over. “I’m Amanda Mae.” She shot Cade an evil look, causing Suzanne to immediately love her. “Real men don’t make babies cry.”
Cade held up his hands innocently. “Hey, I was on my own side of the booth the whole time. I didn’t touch her.”
“You’re threatening her mama.”
His face fell. “I never threatened her!”
“Just your voice is threatening.”
He sighed. “Yeah. Right. Whatever.”
She took the baby. “Would you like a bottle, little Mitzi?”
Suzanne said, “I ordered some milk and pudding for her.”
Amanda Mae looked horrified. “June Marie, where are you with this baby’s food?”
The waitress hustled over, set Suzanne’s pie in front of her and poured her a cup of coffee before she rushed away and got both the pudding and the milk.
Eyes narrowed, Cade studied the woman across the booth from him. She was a pretty little package. Eyes so blue they bordered on the purple color of the wildflowers that grew on his pasture in the spring. Black hair cut in a straight, blunt line at her chin, giving her a dramatic look that didn’t fit with a woman who needed a job as a waitress. And those boots. Black stilettos. The kind a man envisioned on his chest, pinning him to a bed.
He stopped those thoughts. She might be a pretty with her perfect nose and full, tempting lips, but he wasn’t interested.
Still, he had no doubt that he had to keep an eye on her. Something wasn’t right with her. It wasn’t just her city-girl clothes. Her demeanor didn’t fit. Waitresses didn’t have smooth hands, perfect posture, an unblinking stare.
He rose from the booth. “Well, seeing as how you got the job you wanted, I guess we’ll be running into each other from time to time.”
She only smiled. A cool, remote smile that heated his blood and all but challenged him to turn on the charm and see how long it would take to get that smile to thaw. Luckily, he was smarter than that.
Amanda Mae said, “Do you have someplace to stay, honey?”
She faced the diner owner. “I – No. Actually, I need a place to stay.”
“Hotel’s in the next town over,” Cade said, striding back to his seat at the counter and his now cold coffee.
Amanada Mae shot him another evil glare. “Or she could use the apartment upstairs until she gets on her feet.”
“I’d like that.” Suzanne pressed her fingers to Amanda Mae’s hand in a gesture of appreciation that stopped Cade cold. Maybe she was in need of a little help? Her crisp white blouse and fancy jeans could be the last good things she owned. He hadn’t heard a car drive up. He glanced out the big front window into the street. He didn’t see a car. She could be dead broke--
Nope. His business sense wouldn’t accept that. Something about her screamed money. Big money. If she was pretending she didn’t have any, there was a reason.
Damn. He was going to have to keep an eye on her.
Immediately after Cade left, Amanda Mae took Suzanne upstairs to look at the little furnished apartment.
“One of the waitresses always lives here,” she said, leading Suzanne into the tiny bedroom that barely had enough space for a crib and a double bed. “So we keep it furnished.”
Gratitude weakened Suzanne’s knees. At least now they wouldn’t have to sleep in her car tonight. She turned Amanda Mae to with a smile. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Amanda Mae stuffed a few bills into her palm. “And here’s some money to go to the secondhand store down the street and buy some sheets and towels.”
Her face reddened. This time last year she was telling her grandmother she was three months pregnant and that her baby’s daddy wanted no part of her. Her wonderful, loving grandmother had taken her hand and told her not to worry. That everything would be okay. Even though she’d made some bad investments, they still had the Andreas Holdings stock.
A couple of months hadn’t just changed everything; they’d taken away her home, her only family. Instead of being a well-loved granddaughter, she was a broke single mom. So alone her only contacts had been lawyers and accountants, until her grandmother’s estate was settled. Then even they didn’t call.
Tears welled up. She caught Amanda Mae’s gaze. “I’ll pay you back.”
Amanda Mae squeezed her hand. “In good time. For now, I’m just happy to have some help for the breakfast crowd.”
Driving back to his ranch, Cade speed-dialed the number for his assistant.
“Hey, Eric.” He’d hired Eric right out of grad school because he was sharp and educated, but also because he had total recall. If someone mentioned an aunt, cousin, sister, brother or long-lost friend even once in a conversation, Eric would remember him or her. “Have you ever heard of Suzanne Caldwell?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Who is she?”
“Just a woman who came into the diner today. She took the waitress job, but something just didn’t seem right about her.”
“Ah. I’m guessing your business sense kicked up.”
He scowled at the phone. “Don’t poke fun at my business sense. It’s made me rich enough that I’d never have to work another day in my life. While you, on the other hand, still work for me.”
He disconnected the call. But when he though of Suzanne, the hair on his nape snapped up. Damn it! Why would a waitress activate his business sense? And why was he going back to his ranch when his instincts were screaming that he should be checking into this?
Slamming on the brakes of his Chevy Silverado, he manipulated it through a fishtail and headed back into town. He pulled his truck into a parking space at the diner, but when he walked by the huge front window, he saw that the new waitress wasn’t inside.
His instincts calmed, his intuition quieted and he cursed himself for being the suspicious fool that Eric hinted he was. But before he could turn around and go back to his truck, he saw Suzanne coming down the outside steps from the second-floor apartment, carrying her baby.
A hot rush of desire whooshed through him. Luckily, the hair on his nape also prickled the way it always did right before a negotiation went sour. The first reaction might have been attraction. But the nape prickle? That was his business sense. The one that told him he was about to get into a fight. Not a fist fight, but a disagreement, or maybe a battle to protect what was his. He slid into the alley between the general store and the hardware and watched her head up the street.
Unfortunately, the view from behind was every bit as stunning as her front profile. Her straight black hair fringed the collar of the crisp white blouse that hugged a trim, toned back. It slid along the indent of her small waist to an absolutely perfect behind that swayed ever so slightly with every step of her long legs – legs made to look longer and sexier by her stiletto boots.
Attraction hit him like a warm ocean wave and left him drowning in sensation. This time he had to admit it was only attraction. He tried to blink it away but failed. There was just so much about her that was geared to appeal to a man. No male alive could resist a nice waist curve that took him to a tight butt and long, shapely legs. Especially when the pretty little package had a face to match. Dramatic hair. Eyes that could very well glow in the dark.
He shook his head to clear the haze. Fantasizing would not do either one of them any good. He needed to figure out why she set off his business alarms or it would drive him crazy. Yes, that might make him a control freak. But he was a rich, successful control freak. And if his business sense said jump, his answer was always how high.
When he was sure she was far enough ahead that she wouldn’t see him, he followed her. When she ducked into the secondhand store, he stopped. He waited for her to get deep enough into the building that she wouldn’t notice him hovering beyond the display in the big glass front window.
Judy Petrovic, proprietor of Yesterday’s Goods, ambled over to her.
Suzanne turned and offered her a sweet, sincere smile, which nearly knocked Cade off his feet. He’d never seen her smile. Well, he’d seen her sassy imitation smile, but never a genuine smile until now. And he was glad. Had she smiled at him like that in the diner he worried he would have stuttered.
She handed her baby to Judy, then her heavy-looking diaper bag. Judy bounced the little girl as Suzanne dipped down and rummaged through a table of what looked to be sheets, maybe towels. Walking back and forth from the display to the cash register, she made a pile of linens before she grabbed a pair of secondhand jeans and a T-shirt, and several things for her baby. After Judy rang up her purchases, she paid with crumpled up bills that she’d been clutching in her left hand.
Cade pulled back and slid around to the side of the building, his chest tightening with regret. She’d said she’d come to Whiskey Springs for the job as a waitress and she’d taken it without a hint of regret. Now she was buying somebody’s old, worn sheets to fit on the old, worn mattress on a bed that had seen more years than most of the people in this town.
She really was broke.
And here he was spying on her like some old goof.
He was a goof. The truth was he wasn’t entirely sure that his sixth sense about her really was his business sense. It could be nothing but attraction. Lord knew, it had been so long since he’d been naturally overwhelmingly attracted to a woman that he might have forgotten the signs. He’d botched his first marriage so much that he stayed away from any woman who might inspire anything more than lust. And a woman with a baby wasn’t somebody a man should be fooling around with. Since he didn’t want to be attracted to Suzanne, he could be trying to kid himself into thinking it was his sixth sense. Rationalizing so he didn’t have to admit to anybody that he virtually tripped over his tongue when he looked at her.
A dry dusty breeze swirled around him, reminding him that he was hiding in an alley, spying on a waitress.
Good God. What was he doing?