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Jaclyn's divorce was final today, but she didn't feel much like celebrating. Her father-in-law and ex-husband had made her life beyond difficult with all their legal motions and expensive lawyers. She'd spent almost everything she'd earned waitressing on her own pathetic attorney—had run up a sizable bill, besides—and still she'd gotten no spousal maintenance, a mere pittance for child support and no more custody rights than Terry.
But she had escaped. Finally. She'd won in that regard and in one other: the court had given her permission to leave Feld, as long as she didn't go farther than a two-hour drive. Now she lived in Reno, Nevada, a mini-Las Vegas, self-dubbed the "biggest little city in the world." With a small strip of casinos, a constant influx of truckers and slot machines in every gas station and convenience store, it wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind when she left the Wentworth ranch, but it was better than Feld. At least she was free to build a life for herself that didn't include Terry's family and their influence. No more nights spent searching for him, wondering where or when he might turn up. No more heated arguments and denials.
And no more financial security. For better or for worse, Jaclyn was on her own. And being on her own could be downright lonely, she realized, rinsing off the knife she needed to slice pie for table number five. It was summer so the kids were out of school. Terry had come from Feld to pick them up, and now she was looking at three full days without them. She had to work tonight and tomorrow, but she was off, for a change, on Wednesday. What would she do with herself?
Maybe she should offer to take a shift for one of the other waitresses. She was already scheduled for forty hours this week, but heaven knows she needed the money.
"I just seated another table at your station," the hostess informed her. "Can you handle it? Or should I have Nicole punch in?"
It was late afternoon, before the dinner crush. Jaclyn was the only waitress on the floor and had three tables going already, but she could manage another. On a busy night at Joanna's, the manager assigned five tables to each server. Sometimes, when they were slammed, Jaclyn took six. "No problem. I've got it."
"Two men," the hostess responded. "And one looks good enough to eat."
Jaclyn didn't care if they were handsome. She felt no desire for another relationship, at least not yet. That they were male was significant, though. In her experience, men usually tipped better than women or families or seniors.
She delivered dessert to the four older women dining together at table five and approached the newcomers to find them both perusing the menu.
"Can I get you something to drink?" she asked.
"I'll have a Coke," the man on her right replied. Heavyset and about forty years old, he was resisting the loss of his hair by combing the few remaining strands over the dome of his head. He certainly didn't look good enough to eat. Which meant..
The man on her left lowered his menu. He had warm brown eyes, black hair and a ruggedly attractive face with a slightly cleft chin. His dark tan gave the impression that he worked outdoors, despite the business suit that fit his athletic body to perfection.
"Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?" he asked.
Jaclyn shook her head. Working in a café-style restaurant open twenty-four hours a day, she heard that line a lot. Only, it was usually after dark, not at four o'clock in the afternoon. Still, she had to admit it sounded better coming from a man who looked as if he could be plastered on a billboard advertising designer suits.
"I doubt it. I'm new to Reno."
He frowned. "I never forget a face. Where did you live before?"
"A little town off the loneliest road in America."
"Highway 50. You're from Feld," he said. "You were Terry's girl."
Jaclyn blinked in surprise. "Yeah. How did you know?"
"I lived there for a while."
Even here she couldn't completely escape Feld or Terry. Jaclyn racked her brain, trying to remember who this man was. He looked about her age. If he'd lived in Feld long, she'd certainly know him.
And then it dawned on her. This was Cole Per-rini, the boy who'd moved in right before their senior year. The wiry, rangy youth was gone. He seemed at least two inches taller and nearly fifty pounds of pure muscle heavier. But it was definitely Cole. The eyes and that cocky grin gave him away, along with a certain hard-bitten edge that seemed to warn everyone to keep their distance or take their chances.
"Oh, you're Cole," she said, remembering far more than just his name. The oldest son of a poor mining family, he'd lived in a cheap trailer just outside town and driven a beat-up old truck. Terry had been voted most likely to succeed that year, whereas most people had expected Cole to drop out. But he hadn't. The girls had mooned over him because he was handsome and dangerous. Terry's crowd hated him—for the same reasons.
"You married Rochelle," she added.
He winced. "We're divorced."
"I know." The beginning of Cole and Rochelle's story was common knowledge, at least in Feld. Rochelle had loved Cole to distraction and chased him for more than a year. He'd married her and she'd gotten pregnant right away. The rest Jaclyn had heard when she'd run into Rochelle years ago. The marriage had ended in divorce just a few months after Rochelle miscarried.
"You still with Terry?" he asked.
"No." Didn't finding her here tell him that?
"It's okay. My life's the way I want it," she insisted.
"Right. You were pregnant when I left Feld, weren't you?"
He remembered that? The last time Jaclyn had seen Cole Perrini was at the grocery store about ten years ago, a month before she'd given birth to Alex. Wearing an enigmatic smile, he'd shaken his head at her before strolling outside and driving away. And she hadn't seen him since. She'd wondered what he'd been thinking, and guessed he was letting her know how crazy he thought she was for marrying Terry. He'd actually told her once, back at a high-school football game, that she'd be a fool to do so. But she'd laughed and asked him who he thought would be better for her—him? He hadn't answered.
"I have three kids," she said. "Alex is almost eleven, Mackenzie is five and Alyssa is three."
"So the divorce is fairly recent."
"Very. It's final today."
He raised his brows and looked around the restaurant, obviously taking in the fact that after twelve years and three kids, this was where Jaclyn Wentworth found herself.
Shame warmed Jaclyn's cheeks. Waiting tables wasn't exactly where she'd hoped to be at thirty-one. She'd wanted to be a wife and mother, to help Terry run the ranch, to grow old and gray with him. She'd never dreamed she'd need to be more than that. But life had a way of sending one scrambling for Plan B.
Not that her backup plan included waitressing forever. She was hoping to find something else once she got on her feet, someplace she could work during school hours, instead of nights and weekends. She just hadn't found anything yet that paid enough to support her little family.
She shot a look at Cole's friend, who was watching her curiously, before asking Cole, "You still driving semis?"
He chuckled. "No, I gave that up when I got divorced." As though her momentary distraction had reminded him that he hadn't introduced his companion, he said, "This is Larry Schneider with Reno Bank and Trust. Larry, this is an old friend of mine from high school, Jackie Rasmussen."
"Jaclyn Wentworth," she corrected, smiling a greeting at Larry. Everyone she knew in Feld called her Jackie, but she'd started using Jaclyn when she moved to Reno. She would have switched to her maiden name, too, but she didn't want her last name to be different from her children's.
"What are you doing now?" she asked Cole, even though part of her didn't want to know. He looked successful sitting there in his tailored suit. He'd escaped Feld and landed on his feet. For that she was envious. Especially because she'd just taken a flying leap and landed in the gutter.
"I build houses."
"You're a contractor?"
Larry gave a genial laugh. "Not quite. Cole takes a pretty hands-on approach to his job, but he's not a contractor. He's a developer. And a good one. Haven't you ever heard of Perrini Homes?"
Jaclyn shook her head. "I've lived here less than a year."
"Well, he's got a subdivision near the golf course.
Four- and five-bedroom homes. You should drive by and take a look if you're ever in the market."
Jaclyn doubted she'd be able to afford a home of that size in the next twenty years. She barely managed to pay the rent on the house they lived in now. It was only eight-hundred square feet and older than the hills, but she'd rented it for the yard. Accustomed to wide-open spaces, she refused to raise her three children in an apartment.
"I'll do that," she said.
"I'd like to build a small development a few miles east of here," Cole said. "In Sparks. That's why I'm coming, hat in hand, to Larry, here."
Larry adjusted his silverware and smiled. "And I'll probably give you what you need. I've financed several of your projects already, haven't I?"
Working outdoors with his contractors explained the tan. A meeting with his banker explained the suit. "Sounds like things are going well for you," Jaclyn said.
Cole shrugged in a nonchalant manner. "Well enough, I guess."
The couple at one of her other tables kept swiv-eling their heads, looking for her and, no doubt, their check. And the food for table two was probably ready. She needed to get moving. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked Cole.
"I'll have an iced tea."
"It'll be just a minute."
Jaclyn left, feeling Cole's gaze trail after her. Who would've thought she'd run into him again? Especially here, now, when even pride was a luxury she couldn't afford.
She ducked into the kitchen and quickly tallied the tab for table three, but by the time she brought it out, the man was already standing.
"We've been waiting for ten minutes while you were busy flirting with that guy over there," he said loudly enough for half the restaurant to hear.
Aware of the attention he was drawing, Jaclyn flushed. "I'm sorry." She wanted to deny that she'd been flirting with anyone, but she handed him his bill and began to gather up the plates instead. Sometimes it was smarter to simply apologize. She didn't want a scene, not with Cole Perrini less than ten feet away. And not while Rudy Morales, her manager, was on duty.
"I think we deserve a break here—for the wait," he persisted. "You've made us late for a movie."
Then, why didn't he pay his bill and hurry off?
The woman who'd eaten with him lowered her eyes, a sure sign that he was making a fuss over nothing.
"I couldn't have been longer than five minutes," Jaclyn said. "I just ran into an old friend, that's all."
"Well, maybe you should visit with your friends when you're on your break."
"I've apologized," she said. "If it'll make you feel better, skip the tip."
"I wasn't planning on leaving a tip."
Jaclyn felt anger course through her. This guy was an opportunist, and he was trying to take advantage of her. Her natural instincts prompted her to stand her ground. But the nagging worry of how she'd support her children if she lost her job kept her voice cool and polite. Rudy was already looking for any excuse to write her up.
"What if I send home a couple of pieces of pie with you? Will that help?" she asked.
"I don't want pie. I think you should comp our meals."
"For waiting five minutes?" Jaclyn asked. "You never even told me you were in a hurry."
"I don't have to give you my schedule when I sit down to eat. Now, are you going to work with me, here, or do I have to speak to your manager?"
A knot of unease lodged in Jaclyn's belly. When she'd first started working at Joanna's, Rudy had pursued her pretty aggressively. She'd gotten firm with her refusals, and he'd had it in for her ever since. "Fine. I'll take it out of my tips," she said. "Why don't you just go ahead and leave?"
"That's more like it," the man replied, slinging an arm around his companion and starting for the door. "What kind of place are you running here, anyway?"
"It's a restaurant," a male voice replied. "In a restaurant, you order, you eat and you pay. Then you tip, generously."
Jaclyn looked up to see Cole Perrini towering over them all, and knew her day was about to go from bad to worse. Rudy would hear and "This is my problem," she said quickly. "I'll handle it."
"Yeah, let her handle it," the guy said. "We were just on our way out."
Cole smiled and lifted his hands, but he blocked their path, and a certain hardness in his eyes belied his casual stance. "That's fine. You pay your bill before you go, and we won't have a problem, right?"
The man's face turned scarlet. He sputtered for a moment, looking as though he'd press the issue, but a glance at Cole's superior size and build seemed to convince him. Throwing a twenty on the table, he grabbed his companion by the arm and stalked out, pulling her along with him.
Before Jaclyn could say anything, Rudy appeared.
"What's goin' on here, Jaclyn?"
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