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Brooke Vincent wiped her sweaty palms on her khaki slacks, hoping the woman sitting across from her didn't notice. She needed this job, but didn't want to appear as desperate as she actually was.
"You seem like a nice girl, but your resume is a little thin," Merline Teague said as she sat back in her office chair.
Understatement of the year.
"I know," Brooke said. "I guess I've been one of those free spirits, trying to experience lots of different things." Brooke winced at the lie, at how it might make her seem like a bad bet to hire. Of all the untraceable things she'd put on her resume, the only one that held any truth was the summer backpacking trip through Europe. It'd been an unexpected and fantastic gift from her mother before Brooke had gone to college, the first thing to really expose her to the wide and varied world outside of West Virginia.
"Well, there is something to be said for seeing a bit of the world and finding yourself while you're still young," Mrs. Teague said.
Brooke tried not to get her hopes up too high at the older woman's seeming understanding.
"Do you feel like your wandering days are over, at least for a while?" Mrs. Teague asked.
"Yes, ma'am." A little surge of hope swelled in Brooke, but she did her best to hide it.
The proprieter of the Vista Hills Guest Ranch rested her elbows on the arms of her chair and clasped her hands over her chest. "Being a cook for a guest ranch seems tame next to touring the Yorkshire moors and walking in the Bronte sisters' footsteps."
Brooke hurried to assure Mrs. Teague she wouldn't be disappointed in life in rural Texas. "Not really. Every place has its own personality," Brooke said. "Here, there seems to be a real connection to the land, a unique identity like you've stepped out of one world and into another."
When she noticed the surprised expression on her potential employer's face, Brooke nearly kicked herself. She sounded like a splashy tourist brochure. If she truly wanted to leave her old life behind and start over, she had to stop acting like a polished city dweller who was very good at reading people and telling them what they wanted to hear.
But that was the problem, wasn't it? She didn't really want to start over. Sometimes you just didn't have a choice.
She forced a laugh she was far from actually feeling. "Sorry. Guess I've been reading too many travel magazines. I just really enjoy cooking and believe I could do a good job for you." At least that much was true.
Mrs. Teague didn't immediately respond. Instead, she sat staring at Brooke as if she was dissecting every word Brooke had spoken, every facial expression and eye movement. It proved remarkably difficult not to fidget.
"I tell you what," Mrs. Teague finally said. "I'll give you a tryout. The guests are on their own tonight, so you can cook for the family. If it goes well, we'll talk again after dinner."
Brooke schooled her expression, cloaking an excitement she would have never imagined a year ago. "What would you like?"
Mrs. Teague smiled. "Surprise us."
Her mind jumped to all the elegant menus at the Davenport, the hotel where she'd been the convention manager, a parade of highend entrees and decadent desserts. But this wasn't a four-star hotel in Washington, D.C. A guest ranch in the Hill Country of Texas required a bit different fare from Maine lobster and hazelnut souffle.
"Okay. You won't be disappointed, Mrs. Teague. I promise."
Please let me fulfill that promise.
"Well, come on." Mrs. Teague stood and motioned for her to follow. "Let me show you the kitchen and dining areas. You can look through the supplies, see if you need to go into town for anything."
When they reached the kitchen, it was bigger and more modern than she expected. It occupied the back half of a great room that also included the family's comfortable-looking living area. A large dark-wood island stood in the center of the kitchen with copper-bottomed pots hanging from an iron rack overhead. Cobalt-blue and terra-cotta tiles covered the floor and backsplashes, and marble countertops gleamed. Her hands itched to put the stainless steel appliances to work creating something scrumptious. Amongst the appreciation was a pang for the kitchen she'd left behind, that entire life.
She shook off those negative thoughts and made herself focus on the tour.
Mrs. Teague pointed toward the dining room adjacent to the kitchen. "When it's just family, we eat in here. But when guests are here for meals, we use the dining area we added to the back of the house." She motioned for Brooke to follow her through a set of glass double doors on the back side of the kitchen.
The room she stepped into had the same feel as the other parts of the house she'd seen: homey, Western, welcoming. Several wooden tables were scattered around the room. Punched-tin napkin holders sat alongside salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of cowboy hats and boots. A long wooden sideboard with leather-covered front drawers and forged-iron drawer pulls occupied one wall. A mammoth antler chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling.
"We have ten guest cabins, so we're set up here to feed up to forty people," Mrs. Teague said. "Though it's not often that many. Sometimes it's mainly couples, so the number might be half that. Then you have late sleepers who skip breakfast, and the tourists who want to try out the restaurants in town. But we ask the guests to give us a meal count each day for the next day so we know how many to cook for."
Brooke continued to scan the facilities. "It's a lovely room." More intimate than the hotel ballrooms she was used to.
"Thanks. We didn't want it to feel impersonal like a lot of places that serve large numbers all at once." With that, Mrs. Teague led the way back into the kitchen.
"That's about it," she said after she'd pointed out a few more highlights. "Any questions?"
Brooke shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Then let's shoot for six o'clock." She patted Brooke's hand where it sat palm down on the large, cool surface of the island.
The friendly, familiar gesture surprised Brooke. But based on her limited knowledge of the other woman, it seemed totally in character.
The phone rang, drawing Mrs. Teague's attention to the caller ID. "Oh, I'm sorry but I have to take this."
"Okay, no problem."
Brooke smiled as Mrs. Teague headed out of the room, hoping only a few more hours stood between her and a job. Because, honestly, if she didn't get this position, she didn't know if she had the energy to start her search over again. When she'd found the ad online for the ranch cook opening at Vista Hills, something had made her latch on to it, planning her new life around the idea of working here.
She hoped that decision proved wiser than the one that had led her to Texas. The one that had forced her to walk away from the person she'd been before, as if Brooke Alder had never existed.
Ryan Teague pressed the hot brand into the board, the last piece of a large trunk he'd just finished constructing. When he pulled the branding iron away from the wood, his nose tingled as it always did from the scorched scent in the air.
He smoothed his hand over the imagea VHR flanked by a simple wildflower on one side and a horse on the other. He made a mental note to call the doctor in San Marcos who'd ordered the trunk as a wedding gift for his daughter.
After hanging the branding iron in its spot next to his shop's large outdoor stone fireplace, Ryan wiped the sweat from his face and headed inside to cool off and get a drink. It was only mid-May, but central Texas was already doing its damnedest to give Hades a run for its money in the heat race. Still, anything was better than the merciless inferno that was the Iraqi desert.
He froze halfway to the fridge as a chill swept through him, one that had nothing to do with the cranked air-conditioning. He closed his eyes, brought a view of the ocean to mind, and imagined the sound of the waves. He inhaled and exhaled slowlyonce, twice, three times.
The moment passed, thank God not a true flashback this time. They were less frequent now than they'd been two years ago, when he'd been shipped home with a hole in his leg the size of a baseball.
As if the injury had happened yesterday, he felt that blinding pain again. He fought the urge to reach down and rub the side of his thigh. But the pain was all in his head, his memories. He hardly ever even limped anymore. Months and months of hard work had him walking normally so he didn't have to be reminded of that horrible day every time he put weight on his leg.
Harder to banish was a head full of images no one should ever have to see. Despite the therapy and his family's support, he still wasn't sure the lessening of the flashbacks was a good thing. Part of him still believed he deserved them.
With a curse, he shoved those thoughts back to the other side of the world and crossed the distance to the fridge. He jerked the door open and found it empty.
He'd forgotten to restock. What a surprise. Sometimes he'd swear being nearly blown up had knocked some of his memory loose. As if to punish him for his absentmindedness, the sides of his parched throat stuck together. Time to go pilfer some sodas from his parents until he could get into town to buy his own. And with the length of the order list for his custom-made furniture, God only knew when that would be.
He walked the short distance from his shop-home combo to the main drive into the ranch. His parents' house, the ranch office and the horse barn were visible the moment he made the turn. Even though he didn't live far from his parents, a hill and several large live oak trees gave him the privacy he needed.
Choco, the family's chocolate Lab, descended the steps from the front porch and ambled out to meet him.
"Hey, boy," Ryan said as he crouched and gave the dog a good scratching between the ears. He nodded toward where Nacho, the yellow Lab, lay watching them from the porch. "I see your buddy is as lazy as ever."
Choco snorted as if agreeing. Ryan laughed then resumed his trek toward refreshment.
When he stepped in the back door to the kitchen, he noticed his mom standing behind the open refrigerator door.
"Perfect timing," he said. "Please tell me you have a cold 7-Up in there."
When the fridge examiner leaned back, it most definitely wasn't his mother. Instead, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty stared back at him.
"Oh, sorry. Thought you were my mom." For a moment he felt as though he'd wandered into the wrong house, then he thought maybe this woman was a guest. But why was she in the kitchen with no one else around?
Or had his mom finally hired a new cook? After years of seeing Trudy helping his mom in the kitchen, he hadn't been prepared for someone near his own age.
He hadn't even known his mom's weeks of interviews had finally come to an end.
"You're Mrs. Teague's son?" Was that a touch of nervousness in her voice?
"One of them. Ryan. Are you the new cook?"
The woman placed a package of chicken on the island and closed the fridge.
"Not yet. I'm making your parents dinner tonight, sort of a tryout"
A tryout? His mom hadn't required that of any of the other applicants. Then it clicked what day it was. He laughed, but at the stricken look on the woman's face he reined himself in.
"Sorry. Bit of a family joke." He pointed toward the calendar on the wall, one adorned with prints by famous Western painters like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. "Thursday is family night around here, with mandatory attendance by all. We each take a turn providing the meal and entertainment. Guess whose night it is."
She smiled, just a little, but it was enough to make something in his chest perform an unexpected flip-flop. Not a good thing.