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Clutching the mail in one hand, Grady Weston paced the narrow corridor inside the post office. He glanced distractedly at the row of mailboxes, gathering his courage before he approached Caroline Daniels, the postmistress.
His tongue felt as if it'd wrapped itself around his front teeth, and he was beginning to doubt he'd be able to utter a single sensible word. It shouldn't be so damned difficult to let a woman know he found her attractive!
"Grady?" Caroline's voice reached out to him.
He spun around, not seeing her. Great. Not only was he dreaming about her, now he was hearing her voice.
"Open your box," she instructed.
He fumbled for the key and twisted open the small rectangular door, then peered in. Sure enough, Caroline was there. Not all of her, just her brown eyes, her pert little nose and lovely mouth.
If he'd possessed his brother's gift for flattery, Grady would have said something clever. Made some flowery remark. Unfortunately all he managed was a gruff unfriendly sounding "Hello."
Caroline had beautiful eyes, dark and rich like freshly brewed coffee, which was about as poetic as Grady got. Large and limpid, they reminded him of a calf's, but he figured that might not be something a woman wanted to hear, even if he considered it a compliment. This was the problem, Grady decided. He didn't know how to talk to a woman. In fact, it'd been more than six years since he'd gone out on an actual date.
"Can I help you with anything?" she asked.
He wanted to invite her to lunch, and although that seemed a simple enough request, he couldn't make himself ask her. Probably because their relationship so far hadn't been too promising. Calling it a "relationship" wasn't really accurate, since they'd barely exchanged a civil word and had never so much as held hands. Mostly they snapped at each other, disagreed and arguedif they were speaking at all. True, they'd danced once; it'd been nice, but only when he could stop worrying about stepping on her toes.
Who was he kidding? Holding Caroline in his arms had been more than nice, it had been wonderful. In the month since, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about that one dance. Every night when he climbed into bed and closed his eyes, Caroline was there to greet him. He could still feel her softness against him, could almost smell the faint scent of her cologne. The dance had been ladies' choice, and that was enough to let him believehopeshe might actually hold some regard for him, too. Despite their disagreements, he'd been the one she'd chosen to ask.
"You had lunch yet?" Grady asked, his voice brusque. He didn't mean to sound angry or unfriendly. The timbre of his voice and his abrupt way of speaking had caused him plenty of problems with Maggie, Caroline's five-year-old daughter.
He'd been trying to get in the kid's good graces for months now, with only limited success. But he'd tried. He hoped Caroline and Maggie gave him credit for that.
Caroline's mouth broke into a wide grin. "Lunch? Not yet, and I'm starved."
Grady's spirits lifted considerably. "Well, then, I was thinking, seeing as I haven't eaten myself..." The words stumbled all over themselves in his eagerness to get them out. "You want to join me?"
"Sure, but let me get this straight. Is this an invitation, as in a date?"
"No." His response was instinctive, given without thought. He'd been denying his feelings for her so long that his answer had come automatically. He feared, too, that she might misread his intentions. He was attracted to Caroline and he wanted to know her better, but beyond thathe wasn't sure. Hell, what he knew about love and marriage wouldn't fill a one-inch column of the Promise Gazette.
Some of the happiness faded from her smile. "Understood. Give me a few minutes and I'll meet you out front." She moved out of his range of vision.
Grady closed the box, but left his hand on the key. How could anyone with the skills to run a thriving cattle ranch in the Texas Hill Country be such a fool when it came to women?
He rapped on the post-office box hard enough to hurt his knuckles. "Caroline!" Then he realized he had to open the box. He did that, then stared through it and shouted for her a second time. "Caroline!"
Her face appeared, eyes snapping with impatience. "What's the rush?" she demanded. "I said it'd take me a few minutes."
The edges of the postbox cut into his forehead and chin and knocked his Stetson askew. "This is a date, all right?"
She stared back at him from the other side, and either she was overwhelmed by his offer to buy her lunch or surprised into speechlessness.
"All right?" he repeated. "This is a date."
She continued to look at him. "I shouldn't have asked," she finally said.
"I'm glad you did." And he was. He could think of no better way to set things straight. He hadn't invited her to lunch because he needed someone to pass the time with; if that was what he'd wanted, he could have asked his sister, Savannah, or her husband or Cal Pattersonor any number of people. No, he'd asked Caroline because he wanted to be with her. For once he longed to talk to her without interference or advice from his matchmaking sister. It didn't help to have Maggie there hiding her face in her mother's lap every time he walked into the room, either. This afternoon it'd be just the two of them. Caroline and him.
Grady respectfully removed his hat when she joined him in the lobby.
"This is a pleasant surprise," Caroline said.
"I was in town, anyway." He didn't mention that he'd rearranged his entire day for this opportunity. It was hard enough admitting that to himself, let alone Caroline.
"Where would you like to eat?" he asked. The town had three good restaurants: the cafe in the bowling alley; the Chili Pepper, a Texas barbecue place; and a Mexican restaurant run by the Chavez family.
"How about Mexican Lindo?" Caroline suggested.
It was the one he would have chosen himself. "Great."
Since the restaurant was on Fourth Avenue, only two blocks from the post office, they walked there, chatting as they went.
Or rather, Caroline chatted and he responded with grunts and murmurs.
Grady had long ago realized he lacked the ability to make small talk. Unlike his younger brother, Richard, who could charm his way intoor out ofanything. Grady tried not to feel inadequate, but he was distinctly relieved when they got to the restaurant.
In a few minutes they were seated at a table, served water and a bowl of tortilla chips along with a dish of extra-hot salsa. He reached for a chip, scooped up as much salsa as it would hold and popped it in his mouth. He ate another and then another before he noticed that Caroline hadn't touched a single chip.
He raised his eyes to hers and stopped chewing, his mouth full.
Caroline apparently read the question in his eyes. "I don't eat corn chips," she explained. "I fill up on them and then I don't have room for anything else."
He swallowed and nodded. "Oh."
A moment of silence passed, and Grady wondered if her comment was a subtle hint that she was watching her weight. From what he understood, weight was a major preoccupation with women. Maybe she was waiting for him to tell her she shouldn't worry about it; maybe he was supposed to say she looked great. She did. She was slender and well proportioned, and she wore her dark brown hair straight and loose, falling to her shoulders. In his opinion she looked about as perfect as a woman could get. Someday he'd tell her that, but not just yet. Besides, he didn't want her to think he was only interested in her body, although it intrigued him plenty. He admired a great deal about her, especially the way she was raising Maggie on her own. She understood the meaning of the words responsibility and sacrifice, just like he did.
She was staring at him as if she expected a comment, and Grady realized he needed to say something. "You could be fat and I'd still have asked you to lunch."
Her smooth brow crumpled in a puzzled frown.
"I meant that as a compliment," he sputtered and decided then and there it was better to keep his trap shut. Thankfully the waitress came to take their order. Grady decided on chicken enchiladas; Caroline echoed his choice.
"This is really very nice," she said and reached for the tall glass of iced tea.
"I wanted us to have some time alone," he told her.
"Any particular reason?"
Grady rested his spine against the back of his chair and boldly met her look. "I like you, Caroline." He didn't know any way to be other than direct. This had gotten him into difficulties over the years. Earlier that spring he'd taken a dislike to Laredo Smith and hadn't been shy about letting his sister and everyone else know his feelings. But he'd been wrong in his assessment of the man's character. Smith's truck had broken down and Savannah had brought him home to the ranch. Over Grady's obj ections she'd hired him herself, and before long they'd fallen in love. It came as a shock to watch his sane sensible sister give her heart to a perfect stranger. Still, Grady wasn't proud of the way he'd behaved. By the time Laredo decided it'd be better for everyone concerned if he moved on, Grady had wanted him to stay. He'd gone so far as to offer the man a partnership in the ranch in an effort to change his mind. Not that it'd done any good. To Grady's eternal gratitude, Laredo had experienced a change of heart and returned a couple of months later. Love had driven him away, but it had also brought him back.
Savannah and Laredo had married in short order and were now involved in designing plans for their own home, plus raising quarter horses. Savannah, with her husband's active support, continued to grow the antique roses that were making her a name across the state.
In the weeks since becoming his brother-in-law, Laredo Smith had proved himself a damn good friend and Grady's right-hand man.
"I like you, too," Caroline said, but she lowered her gaze as she spoke, breaking eye contact. This seemed to be something of an admission for them both.
"You do?" Grady felt light-headed with joy. It was all he could do not to leap in the air and click his heels.
"We've known each other a lot of years."
"I've known you most of my life," he agreed, but as he said the words, he realized he didn't really know Caroline. Not the way he wanted, not the way he hoped he would one day. It wasn't just that he had no idea who'd fathered Maggie; apparently no one else in town did, either. He wondered what had attracted her to this man, why she hadn't married him. Or why he'd left her to deal with the pregnancy and birth alone. It all remained a mystery. Another thing Grady didn't understand about Caroline was the changes in her since her daughter's birth. In time Grady believed she'd trust him enough to answer his questions, and he prayed he'd say and do the right thing when she did.
Their lunches arrived and they ate, stopping to chat now and then. The conversation didn't pall, but again he had to credit Caroline with the skill to keep it going. Half an hour later, as he escorted her back to the post office, Grady was walking on air.
"I'll give you a call tomorrow," he said, watching her for some sign of encouragement. "If you want," he added, needing her reassurance.