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Suzanne Caldwell shoved against the spot in the door of the 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 midsentence.
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 Suzanne 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 ached 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 acknowledgment, 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 wavered 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 coffeepot 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 no doubt 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 choosing whom 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 and if you want a job, you've got it. 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.