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"Well, well, well. If it isn't Jessie the Jezebel."
Jessie Monroe stared down at the man who'd spoken, a row of windows to the right perfectly illuminating his handsome, scowling face. The glass coffeepot she held tipped dangerously toward his lap.
"Well, well, well," she mimicked. Her least favorite customer. "If it isn't Dr. Dolittle."
The restaurant seemed to grow quiet around them, everyone in the tiny diner no doubt listening in. Not surprising, since everyone supposedly "knew" what it was she'd "done" to Dr. Dolittle's cousin.
Dr. Sheppard leaned back, the orange vinyl squeaking in a way that sounded crass. He didn't seem to notice. "You going to pour me that cup of coffee or do I have to get it myself?"
She shifted her weight to her other leg, slowly lowering the pot, the liquid glug-glug-glugging as she poured. "Guess that answers your question, huh, Doc?"
"Guess it does." He gave her a smile that could only be called smug as he peered at her from beneath his black cowboy hat.
"I'll be back in a minute to take your order," she said in a monotone, turning away from his booth without giving him another glance. Damn the man. Not only did he think he was God's gift to women, but he always, always took pleasure in baiting her. His own form of revenge, she supposed.
"You and Dr. Cutie are exchanging evil glances again, I see," Mavis said, her dark skin glistening beneath one of the warming lights as she picked up four plates of food and balanced them precariously up her arms. It was late spring, but you wouldn't know it. The diner didn't have air-conditioning.
Jessie looked over at the table. "I think he likes me about as much as I like him."
"Well, then, I guess it's a good thing you don't have a crush on him like half the women in this town."
"Guess so," Jessie said. In fact, she was probably the only woman who didn't fancy the good doctor.
Not that she didn't understand his allure. She might not like him, but she was honest enough to admit that something in his eyes made her want to squirm.
Tall, dark and handsome he was, the term cliché and yet somehow appropriate. He looked like he belonged out on the range with a few hundred head of cattle milling nearby. There was nothing, absolutely nothing guaranteed to melt female hearts faster than a man who wore boots and who doctored furry little animals for a living.
"You gonna go back over and take his order, or shall I?" Mavis asked.
Jessie smiled. Leave it to Mavis to try to run interference. The two of them had formed a fast friendship the first day Jessie had come to work at the diner. They'd bonded over their mutual dislike of the pink polyester dresses they were forced to wear.
"No thanks, Mavis. I can handle Rand Sheppard."
"Can you?" the man himself asked when she walked up to him a second later, order book in hand.
Jessie turned as red as the blinking Open sign, or at least it felt that way.
Damn it, she hadn't meant him to hear. Or maybe she had. Her feelings always ran hot and cold where he was concerned. All that smirking self-confidence drove her nuts. "Dr. Sheppard, I hate to bruise that overlarge ego of yours, but I've eaten men like you for breakfast."
"Yeah," he said softly. "So I've heard." He looked back at his menu. "I'll take the Rancher's Special with a side of bacon and English muffins."
"English muffins?" she said with a lift of her eyebrows. "Would you like some Earl Grey with that?"
"Nope. Just the muffins," he answered gruffly, back to his usual surly self.
"Coming right up." She tucked her pencil behind her ear, much easier to do ever since she'd chopped off all her red hair. "Rancher's Special with a side of bacon and English muffins," Jessie called out, slipping the order sheet into the spinner, then flicking it toward Frank. "Extra arsenic," she muttered under her breath.
But as she moved about the Kleenex box-shaped diner, she couldn't stop herself from glancing in Rand Sheppard's direction. It seemed every unmarried woman in town had set her cap for him—and failed to win him. And while Jessie knew better than to form a crush on the man, a part of her still wished he'd treat her as kindly as he treated everybody else. But that would never happen, she thought, watching as a man from the Diamond W slid into the booth across from Rand. Jessie had one of the worst reputations in town, one that had started when she'd—supposedly— ruined Rand's cousin's life.
"She only lasted two days," she heard Rand say, over the clinking of dishes and silverware.
"Shortest vet tech career at Sheppard Veterinary."
Vet tech? He'd hired a new vet tech? What had happened to Sandy Anders, his old one? The woman was an icon at Sheppard Veterinary, almost as much a fixture as the ancient wagon wheels that guarded the clinic's gate.
"So what are you going to do?" she heard the wrangler—Pete, she thought his name was—ask. Jessie picked up a hot plate while straining to listen. "You need help."
"I know," Rand answered.
She set the plate down in front of Hank, the smell of cooked bell peppers and cheese wafting up to her.
"Can I have some salt?" Hank was one of her regulars, a crusty old cowboy with a beat-up straw hat.
Jessie handed him the sugar. "I said salt, Jessie." He tapped the scarred white laminate turned yellow with age.
She blinked. "Oh, yeah. Sure, Hank. Salt. Sorry."
She grabbed one of the forty salt-and-pepper sets on the bar beside the old-fashioned pie display, all the while listening in.
"You going to run another ad?" Pete asked.
"Guess I'll have to. But I don't hold out much hope of finding someone soon. You know how it is. Five hundred people want to work with animals, but only a few are qualified. Then they find out we're out in the sticks and, well..."
They didn't want to commute from the city. Jessie knew how it was. For three years she'd done the opposite commute from Los Molinos to the city— the nearby Bay Area. It'd taken her three years of night school and days of working in the diner, but she'd gotten her degree in animal science.
What Rand Sheppard didn't know was that she, Jessie the Jezebel, was a certified veterinary technician.
And she was about to ask Rand Sheppard for a job.
FIFTEEN MINUTES AFTER Pete had left, Rand didn't know what surprised him more, how hot the damn coffee was that Jessie Monroe served him, or that she slid into his booth after pouring him a cup.
"Mmph," he mumbled, as some of the coffee dribbled back onto his chin. "Too hot, I know," she said.
And, as always happened when he looked at Jessie Monroe, he was struck by her eyes. Huge. And green, so green they looked like the new leaves that sprouted up around town. So green he found himself wondering yet again how the heck they could be such an impossible color. And then, as he always did when he caught himself staring, he remembered who she was.
"You could have told me it was hot," he said, whipping the paper napkin off his place mat, the silverware tinkling as it spilled onto the Formica table.
"Why warn you? You've eaten here enough times to know it's hot, and that it doesn't taste very good."
He did. And that irritated him all the more. She riled him. She always had—even before she'd been responsible for his cousin going to jail.
"Look," she said, peeking over her shoulder toward the kitchen where Frank flipped bacon, oblivious to his employee's defection, "I need to talk to you."
Rand leaned back, his hand crumpling the napkin beneath the table. His whole body tensed, although truth be told he'd been on edge ever since he'd seen who his server was. "What about?" he asked, his fingers digging into the paper.
"I want to work for you."
If she'd told him she was about to rip her clothes off and dance naked, he couldn't have been more surprised. "What?" he asked.
Actually, he might like that.... "I want to interview for your vet tech job," she said, glancing at Frank again, the pink dress she wore gaping open as she leaned forward.
"But you're not qualified," he protested. Good Lord, the thought of Jessie Monroe coming to work for him...
"Actually," she said, lifting her chin, "I am. I have a degree in animal science."
"Lots of late hours at the coffee shop while commuting to the Bay Area."
"Gavilan," she said.
Something in his eyes must have made her think he wasn't impressed, because she added, "It's one of the top junior colleges in the state."
"I know it is," he said. It wasn't the college she'd gone to, it was that she wanted to work as his veterinary assistant. Her. Jessie Monroe. Who as a wild-child teenager had let Tommy take the rap for her.
Rand absolutely would not hire her.