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A clap of thunder vibrated the air. Cara Winters jumped at the sudden sound. Staring out the wind-shield of her blue Chevy, she could barely see the front door of the restaurant ten yards away. Sheets of gray rain hammered the packed parking lot. With a glance at the clock, noting it was twenty minutes after noon, she grabbed her umbrella from the seat next to her.
She hated being late. Again she studied the distance to the restaurant and noted a lessening in the intensity of the storm. If she hurried, she shouldn't get too wet.
Clasping the handle, she readied herself for the mad dash. She shot out of the car, opening the umbrella as she slammed the door closed with her foot. Then she rushed toward The Ultimate Pizzeria, her total attention on the entrance.
Halfway across the parking lot, a blaring horn froze her. She pivoted toward the noise, her eyes growing round. A red sports car swerved to avoid her and splashed a puddle of water down her front. The wind caught on her umbrella, and turned it inside out. What the puddle of water didn't get wet, the pouring rain did.
She sidestepped another small lake and continued her sprint to the restaurant. Maybe they had a towelor severalshe could use. Being drenched was a fitting end to her horrible morning.
As she reached to open the door, out of the corner of her eye she noticed the red sports car park in the back. She thought about waiting to give the driver a piece of her mind, but that would take time and energy she didn't have.
Shivering from being cold and wet, she welcomed the warmth in the pizzeria as she scanned the tables for her son and Laura Stone. Her friend waved from the other side of the restaurant,and Cara quickly made her way to the table beside one of the large picture windows that faced the street.
"I'm sorry I'm late. The second interview ran over, but I didn't get the job. Either one." Cara slipped into the chair across from Laura and smiled at Timothy, whose mouth was full of a bread stick.
Her friend's gaze widened. "I'm sorry about the jobs, but what happened to you? Did you go swimming? I know you're new to town, but it's only March and still cold in Cimarron City."
"Funny. I'm laughing on the inside."
"Seriously, what happened?" Laura dumped a packet of sugar into her iced tea and stirred it.
"I almost got run over in the parking lot, and the guy didn't even bother to check and see if I was all right. What has happened to chivalry in this century?"
Timothy swallowed his food. "What's chiv-alry?"
"Hon, it's about courage, honor and protecting the weak."
"You aren't weak, Mom."
Cara chuckled. "No, but I am wet."
She noticed her friend's gaze shift to something behind Cara. Before she had a chance to peer over her shoulder to see what had captured Laura's attention, a thick terry cloth towel was dropped onto the table in front of her. She must really look bad if a stranger was giving her something to dry off with.
Cara twisted around in her chair to thank her rescuer. A tall, lean man with shaggy dark brown hair filled her vision. Her gaze traveled up his torso and came to light on the somber expression of the man who had nearly hit her. All words fled from her mind as she stared into his hazel eyes.
"Noah, when did you arrive? When I came in, they said you had a business meeting and had gone to your office."
Cara heard her friend speaking to the man, but she couldn't tear her gaze away. From the distance in the parking lot and the heavy rain, she hadn't really gotten a good, up-close look at him. Now she did, and he was probably the handsomest man she'd ever seen. Bar none!
Averting his gaze from her, Noah grinned at Timothy and then Laura as he sat in an empty chair. "I just got here. I see you're with the woman I nearly ran down." He gave Cara an apologetic look, the corners of his mouth curving up while dimples appeared in his cheeks. "I'm very sorry. I didn't see you between the parked cars. I would have stopped, but I didn't want you to get wetter than you already were."
Heat seared her face. She lowered her gaze and fastened it upon the towel. "Thanks for this." She lifted it and wiped her damp hair and face.
"This is my friend Cara Winters, and her son, Timothy, from St. Louis. She finally decided to take me up on my suggestion to move here."
After greeting her son, the man held his hand out for Cara to shake. "Nice to meet you. I'm Noah Maxwell, the proprietor of this fine establishment. I know my armor is a bit tarnished, but I hope the towel and apology restore some faith in chivalry."
She paused in an attempt to make herself more presentable and draped the towel over the arm of the chair. She clasped his hand and shook it once before releasing it. Her fingers tingled from the warmth radiating from his hand. "You're a friend of Laura's husband, aren't you?"
"Yeah, we've known each other for years. Peter, Jacob and I were foster brothers."
"Ah, yes. I met Jacob and his wife yesterday."
"How long have you been here?"
"Just a few days."
Noah transferred his attention to Laura. "Why didn't you say your friend was moving here? I know how long you've been wanting her to come."
Cara folded her hands in her laptightlyto erase the warmth of his fingers about hers a moment ago, but she still felt the touch. "Not her fault. She didn't know until the last minute. I finally sold my house and had been planning to move into an apartment in St. Louis." She glanced at her son. "Both Timothy and I decided since we had to move why not come to Oklahoma. He missed Laura's boys. They were buddies. And I missed Laura."
"Cara is a free spirit. When I asked her to come to Cimarron City, I extended an open-ended invitation, which I'm thrilled she accepted. I'd about given up on her moving here." Laura leaned forward. "We want to keep her here, so she needs a job and a place to stay. Any suggestions?"
Noah scanned his restaurant. "Have you ever been a waitress? One of mine will be going on maternity leave at the end of this week."
Cara shook her head. Like Laura, she had been a wife, mother and homemaker with no skills beyond that. Not very marketable, she'd realized after the fifth interview with no hope of a job. "Unless you count waiting on my family at mealtime."
"Close enough. You're hired."
Her mouth fell open. "Just like that?" She snapped her fingers and her lips closed.
Noah's laughter spiced the air. "I need a temporary waitress. You need a job."
"Don't you have to check my references?" Despite her lack of experience in the workforce, even she knew that much.
Noah turned to Laura. "Will you vouch for your friend?"
"One hundred percent. You won't get a better worker than her."
Noah then shifted his attention to Timothy. "What do you say about your mom? Is she a good worker?"
"She's the best!" Timothy scooped up another bread stick and took a bite.
Noah's sharp, assessing gaze swiveled back to Cara. "There. I've checked your references. Do you want the job? I know it probably isn't what you're looking for, but it's temporary until my waitress comes back in six weeks. The tips aren't bad here, and it'll give you some time to look for a different job."
Two warm patches continued to flame her cheeks. She wasn't used to a man looking at her with such intensity. Married right out of high school, she'd basically led a sheltered life where men were involved. "As long as you know I've never done anything like this."
Noah rose. "I'm a risk taker. I think I can handle it. Can you start on Friday? The weekends are very busy around here.You might as well plunge right in."
Three days. "Sure." Thoughts flew through her mind. She had so much to do before she started the job. Enroll her son in school. Start looking for a place to live. She didn't want to live off Laura'sor anyone'scharity for long.
"I'll see you at eleven then on Friday."
The quick smile that graced his mouth made Cara's heart palpitate. After he left, she said, "Once I get past the fact he almost ran me down with his car, he's a charmer."
"Noah is a dear friend. He's very charming and kind, but he's left a string of broken hearts in Cimarron City," Laura said.
Cara straightened, lining up her fork and knife next to her plate. "You don't need to worry about me."
"Mom, I need to go to the bathroom."
Cara began to rise.
"I'm eight. I can go by myself."
"Sure, hon. You see where it is?"
He nodded and left.
When he disappeared inside the restroom, Cara swung back to her friend. "Just because I said Noah Maxwell was charming, doesn't mean I'm interested, Laura. Being married once was enough for me. My son and I are happy the way things are." If she said it enough, surely she would begin to believe it.
"It seems the last year I was in St. Louis all we talked about were my problems. You haven't talked much about your marriage to Tim."
Although the sentence wasn't really a query, Cara glimpsed the question in her friend's eyes. "It's not a secret we were talking about divorcing before he became sick. I couldn't leave him when that happened. I'm not even sure I could have if he'd remained healthy." Her husband's long illness had wiped out their savings and what little life insurance he had went to finish paying off his medical bills and to give her some time to figure out what to do with her life. But she still didn't know what that was.
A waitress brought a large Canadian bacon pizza and placed it in the middle of the table. After she left with Cara's drink order, Laura said, "I took the liberty of ordering. Timothy seemed to think you wouldn't mind."
The aroma wafting to Cara made her mouth water. "Not one bit. I'm starved. I got out of your house this morning so fast I didn't even get a cup of coffee. Thankfully I didn't yawn through the interviews."
"Noah's pizzas are fabulous even if I'm a little partial."
Cara surveyed the busy restaurant, noticing Timothy weaving his way back to them. "It's a good thing I like pizza since I'll be working here at least for the time being. Now all I have to do is find a place to live with my son."
"You've got one for the time being. My house."
"I can't impose for long. You already have too many people under one roof."
"The more the merrier, I say. Remember I chose to have four children, so I'm accustomed to a lot of people around." Laura grinned. "Besides, soon our new addition will be finished and we'll have two more bedrooms."
"No, this is important. I have to make it on my own. I hope you understand." She couldn't make the same mistake again of depending on someone else to rescue her.
Laura fixed her with a kind look. "I understand perfectly. You remind me of myself this time two years ago when I first came to Cimarron City." She took a slice of pizza. "But remember you aren't alone. The Lord is with you and so are your friends."
If only it were that simple. Cara picked up her own piece to eat while Timothy reseated himself. Her son had to be her main focus now.