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"Lock up your women and check your ammunition supply, men. Cain Paxton is back in town!"
The sun had yet to crest the trees interspersed throughout Almost, Montana, but Merritt Miller had already heard variations of that warning at least four times since the first customer had shuffled into Al-vie's cafe shortly after 6:00 a.m. After the second alert, Merritt had gone to ask Alvie Crisp herself about the matter, as the sturdy woman worked.
"Who's Cain Paxton?" Martha had asked.
Barely glancing up from her work, single-handedly preparing breakfast for a near capacity crowd, Alvie had replied, "Someone you better not give two seconds of thought to, Miller Moth." Pausing, the salt-and-pepper-haired woman wiped perspiration from her broad forehead with the back of her left hand. Outside, it might be struggling to stay above twenty-eight, but it was always somewhere between toasty and roasting in the kitchen. "Just another mother's heartbreak," Alvie continued, "another father's shame."
Merritt had ignored the nickname Alvie had given her on the first day she'd begun working here, now over two years ago. It was milder than some she'd been called in her twenty-seven years. She knew she was a drab specimen of womanhood compared to the pampered daughters and wives who sometimes dined here when reluctantly staying in town to shop if weather or time didn't allow them to get to Montana's larger cities like Bozeman or Billings on either side of them, or the state capital, Helena, to their north. Her petite, thin frame had never turned heads, nor had her pale face earned studied admiration. Her one good featureher dark brown hairhad to be constantly tied back by an elastic band because there was plenty of it. In these last three years of her "emancipation," as she secretly dubbed it, she'd come to the conclusion that she was meant to sit alone on the grocery shelf of life. If her unspectacular looks weren't reason enough, her semi-lameness made it official.
"I was just wondering what the fuss was all about," Merritt said softly as she returned again to pick up the twin plates brimming with ham, eggs over easy, hash browns and biscuits with gravy for table three. The only Paxton she knew owned one of the biggest ranches in the area, and as far as she knew he was an aging widower and childless. "Usually all anyone wants to talk about is the price of beef, feed, cranky machinery or how your cooking has 'hit the spot.'"
Alvie grunted as she turned another batch of thicksliced bacon. "Helps to be the only joint in town. After you deliver those plates and refresh everyone's coffee mugs, come on back here. I want to talk to you about the latest weather report I heard on the radio."
"Is the storm coming in early? From the looks of the skies, it sure seems like it will be a strong one." Merritt didn't know how the woman discerned anything with the thing turned so low. All she was hearing over the conversations flowing in from the dining room was static.
"That it is, and it's going to be worse than they thought. Now move, child."
Merritt went with a slight smile rather than hurt feelings. She was well used to Alvie's frank, no-nonsense approach to things and that was also reflected in her appearance. Her employer's clean-scrubbed face was as bare of makeup as her own. Alvie's hair was shorter, but still pulled back into a tight bun. As always in cold weather, she wore a white chef's apron over overalls and a man's plaid flannel shirt. Today's was mud-brown, like her hiking boots. No frills for the woman who had buried two husbands and a daughter; she said what she meant and meant what she said. But her heart was gold. Merritt could vouch for that. Alvie had been the one to give her a job and a place to stay when she'd first arrived here with barely enough money left in her wallet to pay for a night's stay in a cheap motelif there'd been such a thing in Almost.
On the way up front, Merritt grabbed a full pot of the aromatic coffee from the machine's secondary hot plate, then delivered the two platters to ranchers who never paused in their intense conversation. They were regulars and knew that unlike the other waitress, feisty and flirty Nikki Franks, she didn't crave small talk with them, let alone anyone to flirt with. She topped off their mugs, then continued around her half of the cafe to see who else needed another dose of caffeine before braving the day's weather.
After returning to the kitchen, Merritt watched Alvie remove the bacon and add a slab of sirloin for one of Nikki's hungrier customers. Then she started on two orders of scrambled eggs. As she often did, Merritt picked up the ladle in the nearby bowl and stirred the pancake batter to keep it from settling.
"So how much snow do they expect?"
"Maybe a foot before you head home tonight. Twice that before we open in the morning."
Since Merritt had spent her whole life where snow was common, and this wasn't her first winter in Montana, she wasn't immediately intimidated. Besides, Thanksgiving was just around the corner. It might not say "winter" on the calendar, but frigid weather had definitely dipped below the forty-ninth parallel from Canada. "Okay. Guess I better arrange to come in earlier tomorrow." As a rule, she arrived minutes before the doors opened at six o'clock.
That earned her a critical look from Alvie. "I want you to be kind to your body and spend the night upstairs on my couch."
Alvie had many good qualities, but coddling didn't seem to be in her DNA any more than hugging was. Nevertheless, Merritt had been the recipient and witness of enough kindnesses by the two-time widow to know she had a soft side that appeared when she wanted it to. Apparently, this was one of those moments.
"You know I have to see to matters at the house. The barn cats will be craving some warm milk, especially tonight, and the stove needs tending to keep the pipes and Wanda and Willy's tank from freezing."
Wanda and Willy were her goldfish, the only pets she allowed herself to have, except for the stray cats that had been homesteading the barn on and off since it was built decades ago for Alvie's grandmother, who'd been a bride at the time. The house still belonged to Alvie, a one-bedroom wood-frame dwelling on several acres of land. It had stood empty for some time because it was more convenient at Alvie's age to live upstairs in the apartment over the cafe. Alvie had let Merritt stay there as part of her salary the minute she learned Mer-ritt could bake.
"And what if Leroy can't get the truck started in the morning and come get you?"
It wouldn't be the first or last time, Merritt thought wryly. Alvie's live-in boyfriend handled the counter traffic at the cafe and seemed genuinely sweet on Alvie, but he was pretty useless as a mechanic or with most handyman chores. "Don't worry. I'll walk as I usually do."
With a sigh of exasperation, Alvie pointed at her with her stainless spatula. "You fighting blizzard-strength winds when there's not so much as a truck tread to follow to ease your way is an invitation for trouble, especially at that hour. Besides, you already spend more hours on your feet than any doctor would say is sensible. If you went to a doctor, which you won't."
Merritt prepared two more baskets of biscuits and bran muffins rather than wasting her breath. The walk was barely a mile, and doctors cost more money than she could afford. She already knew what she needed for her damaged hip from the one time she did need to get medical input, and she definitely couldn't afford that. Why go again?
"Walking has helped me build up my strength," she said when Alvie finally finished. "And when have I ever not pulled my weight around here?"
"You work harder than Nikki or Leroy combined," Alvie acknowledged. "That's another reason I need you to be reasonable."
She had dough rising at the cottage for this afternoon's baking, too. Merritt's mind was made up. She was going home. Thankfully, the cowbell on the cafe's door sounded and saved her having to further explain. After taking one of the baskets and accepting the omelet she'd been waiting on, Merritt headed up front again.
She grew aware of the changed atmosphere even before she rounded the lunch counter. Silence loomed throughout the large room. Then she noticed that almost everyone was staring at the newcomer standing just inside the entryway. He was an imposing figure as he fought the wind to pull the door closed behind his frame, big-boned with plenty of muscle to reinforce that. He succeeded with that wrestling match, then scanned the room with a combination of wariness and the same resentment some were radiating toward him. One look at his Native American coloring and stern features immediately had a number of diners shifting around to return to their meals. The rest took their time, but conversation remained a whisper of what it had been.
The stranger wasn't basketball-player statuesque, but he had to be at least six feet, which was intimidating to a woman who had to stretch to make five-three. There was something about the man's bearing that made Merritt think of the mountains she liked to look at from her kitchen window at the cottage as she washed dishes. His denim jacket was too light for this weather, and it and his jeans were a half size too small. No wonder Nikki was staring open-mouthed from the far corner of the room. Usually, the flame-haired Energizer Bunny pounced on any and every male who walked through the front door if they weren't regulars with an established preferred seating choice. She even dressed to entice; today she was wearing a skintight green sweater and jeans that left little to the imagination. But this man was no one to trifle with. Although she hadn't yet heard his name spoken, Merritt realized she had to be looking at Cain Paxton.
When his gaze fell on an open seat at the counter, the man sitting beside it shifted his hat onto it. Ashamed at one of Leroy's regulars, Merritt quickly set her customer's plate before him and went to correct the situation.
The breathless quality of her voice told her that she was as rattled as everyone else. When his dark gaze zeroed in on her, she wondered if that was what being hit with a Taser was like.
"It appears some of your customers object to that," he said.
Swallowing, she tore her gaze from his and glanced around in desperation, ultimately focusing on the table beyond the far end of the counter in the corner of the cafe. It rarely got used and would probably be a tight fit for him, yet she still found herself saying, "Will that do, sir?" She maneuvered to pluck a menu from the counter, then awkwardly shifted between tables to lead him to the corner.
"Perfect," he told her.
Not surprisingly, he chose the chair against the wall that would allow him to face the door, but he could only manage to get one leg under the table. The other he stretched beside it and half out into the aisle. His thigh was larger than both of hers combinedand she supposed so was his boot size.
Her throat dry, Merritt all but rasped, "Coffee?
"Just coffee. Black."
"I'll be right back."
What happened next was ridiculous, since Merritt knew perfectly well where that long leg was; nevertheless, as she turned away, like a bird fooled by its reflection in glass, she managed to walk right into it and trip. With no chance to protect herself, she fully expected to hit the floor face-first. Then, to her amazement, a strong hand slowed her fall. A heartbeat later, another completely averted catastrophe.