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She was back where she started.
How many years had she itched to get out of Clayton, Colorado, aka Hicksville? As soon as she graduated from high school, Vivienne Clayton headed for New York to make her name as a gourmet chef.
But here she was. Back in her hometown. And looking for a job at the Cowboy Café.
Oh, the irony!
Vivienne adjusted the black cardigan she put over the white ruffled T-shirt she'd agonized over choosing. She glanced down at the skinny jeans and black flats she'd chosen for her mission. Too dressy? Not dressy enough?
It would be perfect if she were applying for a chef's job at any restaurant in New York.
But for the Cowboy Café?
C'mon, Vivienne, she told herself, finger combing her long hair away from her face. You're a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. You can rise to any culinary occasion. Rise to this one.
And before she left the house this morning, her sister Brooke had said she'd be praying for herfor what that was worth. Vivienne wasn't sure God heard prayers anymore.
Back in New York, living in her tiny apartment, she felt like a minuscule mote in the endless humanity filling the city. She doubted God even knew where she was then.
Doubted he even cared that she was back in her hometown now.
Just before she took a step up to the door, a memory intruded. Her as a young girl coming to this selfsame café, hoping to get a job as a waitress, hoping to help out her family after her father passed away.
But that was then. This was now, and now she was taking charge of her life.
Before she could reach for the door, however, it flew open and a teenage girl stormed out, sandy brown hair flowing out behind her, her eyes a smudge of black mascara and green eye shadow, tears coursing down her cheeks.
"I hate the ranch. I hate living there!" she shouted to the tall, broad-shouldered man who came out right behind her, dropping his cowboy hat on his head. "Just because you're my brother doesn't mean you can make me go back."
"Bonnie, now is not the time," the man growled. He slanted an embarrassed glance toward Vivienne.
And to her surprise, Vivienne couldn't look away. Time halted as her heart quickened with an unidentifiable emotion.
He was good-lookingshe had to concede thatbut something else was happening with her reaction to him. She knew him. Clayton wasn't a large town, and she had grown up here. She held his gaze, searching his hazel eyes, making note of his dark brown hair, glancing over his stubbled cheeks and chin.
"Viv?" he asked, his dark eyebrows shooting together in a frown. "Vivienne Clayton? I heard you were back."
She blinked, trying in vain to pull up something to trigger a memory. But nothing. She lifted her hands as if in surrender. "Sorry, I don't remember who you are."
His eyes grew suddenly hard and he pulled back as if she had slapped him. "And why would you?" he said with a short laugh.
Who was he? And why did she feel they had some history? Some connection? And how come he seemed angry with her?
"So are we going back to your stupid ranch, Cody?" Bonnie's imperious voice rang out down the street as the man named Cody jerked his gaze away from Vivi-enne's.
"Just get into the truck," he ordered. "We're leaving right now."
As he walked away, his long legs eating up the distance between him and the young girl, the mention of his name teased recollection out of Vivienne's past. And her face flushed as the memory returned.
It was years ago. When she was still in high school. She had been hanging around after school with her friends, tossing her long blond hair in an effort to gain the attention of the basketball player who had snagged her interest.
Until a tall, lanky senior tapped her lightly on the shoulder, asking if he could talk to her. She turned to him, puzzled as to what he could want.
Working his cowboy hat in his hands as he stood in front of her, Cody Jameson stumbled out a halting request for a date.
Normally, if a senior asked a sophomore to go out, the answer would be an automatic yes. But Vivienne remembered looking at the frayed collar of his shirt and the patch on his faded blue jeans. While the other guys in school all wore loose shirts open over T-shirts, baggy pants and sneakers, Cody still wore narrow blue jeans, shirts with snaps and cowboy boots.
And while Cody wasn't hard on the eyes and seemed like a decent guy, a cowboy from Clayton, Colorado, had never figured in Vivienne's glittering future in the Big Apple.
Hearing her friends giggling at Cody's stumbling invitation didn't help the situation. Though she kind of liked Cody, there was no way she could accept his date in front of them. They'd tease her forever. So she laughed, as well, just to show her friends he didn't matter, and turned him down flat.
After that she saw him from time to time. Once she had hoped to approach him, to apologize, but she never worked up the nerve.
After graduation, he disappeared to his uncle Ted's ranch, where he lived and worked. And when she graduated a few years later, she hightailed it out of Clayton and never gave him a second thought.
Cody Jameson had filled out and grown up, she thought, watching as he pulled his cowboy hat lower on his head before yanking open the truck door for Bonnie, his broad shoulders straining at his shirt.
But he was still a cowboy and she was a city girl, albeit transplanted to Clayton. Just for a while, she reminded herself as she pushed the old memories and history aside. I just have to stay long enough to fulfill the terms of the will. That's all.
And for now her biggest concern involved getting a job. Though Brooke liked having her live in the same house and hadn't pushed her older sister to work, Vivienne was too used to pulling her weight. She wanted to be able to pay her share of the bills.
Country music and conversation washed over her as she stepped inside the diner. Kylie Jones, recently engaged to Vivienne's brother Zach, stood by a table of patrons, hands on her hips, her brown ponytail bobbing as she laughed at one of the jokes from the group of old men hunched over the table.
Two stools at the counter were empty, so she walked over to one and sat down.
Then Kylie saw Vivienne and scurried over, grinning. "Welcome back! How was Denver? Busy?"
"Compared to New York, no. But it was fun." She'd gone to Denver to connect with an old friend she'd gone to school with and to give herself some breathing space.
Three months ago her life was on a completely different track. A tiny apartment in New York City. Sous chef in a trendy and up-and-coming restaurant and a boss who was encouraging, fun to work with and very attractive. They had dated a few times. During their last date they had shared hopes and dreams and whispered promises of a future.
When news came of the will and the inheritance, Vivienne wasn't sure she wanted to give up what she hadespecially when the money from Grandpa Clayton had so many strings attached. One of which was moving back to Clayton for a year.
Then, shortly after she'd come back from her grandfather's funeral, her boss told her they weren't compatible. Then he quit.
Vivienne's heart was broken. On top of all of this, the new chef was demanding and hypercritical of everything Vivienne did. She began doubting her skills and grew increasingly tentative. Five weeks ago she made a drastic mistake on a menu for a small, exclusive wedding at the restaurant.
And it cost Vivienne her job.
Now she was back in Clayton. No job. No money saved up. No boyfriend.
Back where she started. Looking for work and banking on a maybe.
Kylie grabbed a menu from the old cash register and poked her thumb over her shoulder. "There's an empty space in the back if you prefer to sit there. I have to bus it yet"
"Sorry, Kylie, I'm not here to eat. I'm, urn well looking for a job."
A frown wrinkled Kylie's forehead. "A job? But you're getting"
Vivienne held up a manicured hand, forestalling the next statement. As Zach's fiancée, Kylie would know about the inheritance their grandfather, George Clayton Senior, had given to each of his six grandchildren. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars was a lot of money no matter where you came from. And the 500 acres of land was a bonus, as well. But all of this would only come to each of them if all six of the cousins showed up by Christmas and then stayed around Clayton for a year.
Trouble was, none of the cousins knew if the sixth, Lucas, would show up in time, if at all. And if she stuck around Clayton for a year, Vivienne still had to find a way to pay off school debt and a credit card she had maxed out while she worked in New York.
"You know I won't get the money unless we all stick around for an entire year," she said with a determined note in her voice. "And until then I still need to eat and pay bills. So I thought I'd see if you had any openings."
Kylie ran a thumbnail along the edge of the menu, biting her lower lip. "We really don't need a waitress," she said slowly.
"I was thinking of the cooking part."
This netted her another frown from Kylie as she glanced over her shoulder. Vivienne followed her gaze and caught sight of Jerome's lanky frame through the pass-through window as he flipped a burger on the grill, the sizzle of grease and the smell wafting over her at the same time.
Don't be a snob. You need work.
"Um, I'm not sure Gerald or Jerome need any help." Kylie worried at her lower lip, wearing away the pink lipstick she had been wearing. "You'll have to talk to Erin about that."
"Who wants to talk to me?" A woman with red hair and a pencil stuck behind her ear showed up at the cash register beside the seat on which Vivienne had perched. The register chimed as she rang up a total and pulled the bill out of the top.
"I do." Vivienne tossed a glance at an old cowboy limping toward the counter. She had to hurry. Ted Jameson, Cody Jameson's uncle, may walk slow, but she remembered all too well that anything he found out spread through town faster than a wildfire. "I was wondering if you need a cook."
Erin shot her a frown, then grinned as she glanced from Kylie to Vivienne. "This is a joke, right?"
Vivienne squirmed. "No. I'm serious. I need a job."
"But goodness, girl. You're a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. And you're getting your inheritance."
Vivienne resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Who in town didn't know about her grandfather's will?
Kylie leaned closer, lowering her voice. "She only gets the money if all the cousins stick around for a year."
Erin nodded, understanding. Then she gave Vivienne an apologetic look. "Sorry, hon. I've got nothing. Jerome and Gerald don't really need any help."
"I can do pies," she offered. "And my mousse cake is so light, it would just float in here."
Erin scratched the side of her head with her index finger. "Arabella does most of my dessert and pastries."
So much for that idea. Vivienne had never thought her own cousin would end up being her competition for work.
"What about working for the resorts over the pass?" Erin suggested, brightening. "I don't"
"Her brother Zach would never let her do that," Kylie interjected with a firm shake of her head. "Not after that horrible accident he had to deal with on the road up there. And winter is coming, so the roads would be really bad."
Erin folded the bill she had just printed off.
"Even if she applied and got a job, he'd talk her out of it," Kylie continued, crossing her arms over her chest in a decisive manner, as if she and her fiancée were on the same page.
"So she can't work there," Erin replied.
I'm right here, Vivienne felt like saying as their talk slipped past her.
"Who can't work where?" Ted Jameson had reached the counter at the same time Erin and Kylie had reached their conclusion. His blue eyes looked all the brighter against his tanned skin. A fine network of white lines radiating from his eyes deepened as he frowned down at her. A battered straw cowboy hat sat askew on his head, and the grin he gave her had a few gaps. "Vivienne" Erin said.
"Can't cook at the resorts over the pass," Kylie finished.
"You can't cook?" Ted asked, leaning to one side to pull his wallet out of the back pocket of a pair of blue jeans shiny with grime. Vivienne guessed they hadn't been washed in months.
Mental note. Don't sit in any booth Ted has just sat in.
"I thought you liked to cook," he continued. "Thought you were some fancy chef?"
"That's right," Vivienne said, struggling to keep the haughty edge out of her voice. "I trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris."
Ted eased a few bills out of a wallet thick with cash. "Well, I suppose that means something to somebody."
"It's a very famous cooking school," Kylie explained. "Gourmet cooking, in fact."
"Gourmet, you say?" He snickered as he shoved his wallet in his back pocket. "Hey. That rhymes. I'm a poet."
"And you didn't know it," Kylie finished for him with a happy grin.
"So you really know your way around a kitchen?" Ted asked, snagging a toothpick out of the miniature wooden barrel sitting beside the cash register.
"Yes, I do. I cook very well." This was said with a defensive tone. Very well was not a phrase to be used by a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Graduates of that famous cooking school were superb. Amazing. Par excellence.
But her confidence had been shaken in the past month. How could things have gone so wrong with the wedding menu? She never had any doubts about her cooking.
Don't go there. That's over. Stick around long enough to get your inheritance. Then you can go back to New York with your head held high and your bank account flush. Then you can start your own restaurant and prove your old boss wrong.
"And you need a job?"
"Yes. I do."
Ted looked her up and down, as he unwrapped the toothpick. Vivienne felt like he was assessing her as he would a prize stud or a bull.
"You look like you have an idea," Kylie prodded.
A few more people came up behind Ted to pay their bills. The entry grew crowded.
Ted angled his head to the door as he tucked the toothpick in his mouth. "Let's chat outside," he said to Vivienne.