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Lizzy Wiles blew a strand of her long brown hair away from the side of her face as she poured George Wilton another cup of coffee. "How's that meat loaf?" she asked the old man, who seemed to wear a perpetual frown every time he came into the cafe. She already knew what the answer would be because they had had this same conversation every Friday night for the past month since Lizzy had started working as a waitress at the Cowboy Cafe.
"Dry. The meat loaf is always dry," George grumbled.
"George, every Friday night the special is meat loaf, and every Friday night you come in here and order the special. Why don't you try something else if you don't like the meat loaf?"
George's grizzled gray eyebrows pulled together across his forehead. "But, I like Mary's meat loaf. It's just dry. Why would I want to order anything else?"
"Just asking," Lizzy replied with a wry smile as she turned to put the coffeepot back on the burner. She grabbed a clean wet towel to wipe up one area of the long counter and gave a quick glance at her wristwatch.
Quarter to seven. On Friday and Saturday nights the cafe stayed open until midnight. For the rest of the five days a week the usual closing time was ten o'clock.
Lizzy came in at two in the afternoons and closed six days a week. She'd blown into the small town of Grady Gulch, Oklahoma, a month ago and had decided that the Cowboy Cafe was the perfect place to accomplish two of the items on her bucket list at the same time: meet a cowboy and work as a waitress in a small cafe.
Mary Mathis, the pretty owner of the cafe, had taken Lizzy under her wing, not only giving her a job but also a place to stay in one of the four small cabins directly behind the restaurant.
As she wiped the counter she glanced around the cafe. The dinner crowd had finally thinned out, and for the first time she felt as if she could take a deep breath and slow down the crazy pace she kept up from four to about six-thirty each evening.
She checked her watch once again. Five minutes and he'd walk through the door. Every Friday night that she'd worked there he'd always arrived at precisely seven o'clock.
He always sat in the same place, the third booth next to the window. Lizzy worked the counter, never the booths. She'd asked Candy Bailey, the waitress who worked the booth section of the restaurant, what she knew about the lone cowboy, but Candy had been working at the cafe only a few weeks longer than Lizzy and didn't know anything about him.
Not that Lizzy really wanted to know any intimate details about him. It was just idle curiosity, that's all. He was hot and handsome and always alone. It was just interesting. Still, at seven o'clock when the little bell over the door tinkled and he walked in, Lizzy's heartbeat quickened more than just a little bit.
He was a tall drink of water clad in a worn pair of jeans, which hugged his slender hips and long legs, and a white T-shirt that stretched taut across his broad shoulders.
The first thing he did after entering the front door was remove the black cowboy hat from his head and hang it on one of the many hooks that were screwed into the wall by the door.
Mary Mathis had a rule in her establishment: no hats allowed while eating. She'd made it easy with the hooks for the cowboys coming in to abide by her strict rule.
Mr. Hot Cowboy's slightly unruly dark hair showed no residual effect from having worn the hat. His hair held just enough lazy curl to make a woman want to run her hands through it. Not that Lizzy would ever consider doing that. It was just something she'd noticed.
She rewashed the counter area she'd just cleaned as she surreptitiously watched him walk to the third booth, which had last held a rather unruly family of four.
He sat, as he always did, on the side of the booth facing the door. He never picked up a menu, and he rarely greeted anyone else who might be in the cafe at the same time.
He was like an island unto himself, sculptured features set in granite as he stared at the laminated tabletop as if it might hold all of the answers to life's mysteries.
There was no question that he pulled a sharp physical response from Lizzy. She'd been in town for a little over a month, and she definitely thought he was the hottest thing walking in the small town of Grady Gulch.
"Lizzy, order up," Mary's pleasant voice called from the pass window.
Lizzy turned away from the eye candy and hurried to the window that separated the dining area and the kitchen. "Tell Fred that the steak is grilled just the way he likes it, still half mooing on the plate," Mary said. "And you can take a break if you want to. Things have slowed down since the dinner rush has passed."
"Thanks, Mary." Lizzy picked up the platter that held a rare steak, an oversize baked potato and green beans. She walked down to the end of the counter where Fred Jenkins, who worked as the town's only vet, sat on the end stool.
"Mary said it's still mooing, so you should be happy," she said with a smile at the balding middle-aged man as she placed the platter in front of him.
"That's the way I like it, either rare on the plate or healthy on the hoof," he replied. "Hey, by the way, I've got a litter of schnauzer pups I'm trying to find homes for. You interested in a puppy?"
"No thanks," she replied quickly, although her mind instantly filled with the vision of adorable button brown eyes and sweet puppy kisses. "I love dogs, but my lifestyle just isn't conducive to me having one. Footloose and fancy-free, that's me. But, if you'd like, I'll ask around for you."
"That would be great," Fred replied.
"Anything else I can get for you? I'm going on break."
"Nope, I'm good," he said. "Enjoy your break."
A few minutes later Lizzy sat at a table near the counter with a cup of freshly brewed coffee before her. There was a small break room in the back, but Lizzy rarely took her breaks there. She preferred to sit here at the small table in the dining area and people watch especially on Friday nights when he came in.
She took a sip from her cup and glanced in his direction. Candy was in the process of delivering his order. He always ordered the same thing, two pieces of peach pie and one cup of coffee.
As Candy left the booth he pulled one of the slices of pie in front of him and shoved the other to the opposite side, as if anticipating the arrival of another diner. But, in the four weeks that Lizzy had watched this ritual, no other diner had ever shown up to sit across from him.
He'd eat his pie, drink his coffee and not make eye contact with anyone in the place. Then he'd leave and the second piece of untouched pie would be thrown in the trash. It was a waste of good pie, but more than that it seemed like such a waste of good man.
Lizzy had speculated for the past four weeks each time he'd been in the cafe. All she could figure out was that each week he made a date with somebody he hoped would show up but who never did. Although Lizzy couldn't imagine a man like him being stood up by any woman with a beating heart.
Suddenly she wanted to make some kind of contact with him. She'd thought about him often after the first Friday night she'd seen him and had watched his actions and that spare piece of pie bite the dust.
You wouldn't dare, a little voice whispered in the back of her head as an idea began to form. It would be completely rude, wouldn't it? He 'd think you were completely crazy. She tried to talk herself out of the strong impulse that had sprung into her mind.
But, she would dare. Since her mother's death four months before, Lizzy was doing a lot of things she would have never considered doing before.
She hadn't even realized she'd made up her mind to follow through on her impulse when she found herself on her feet, her coffee cup in hand as she headed for the third booth from the window and the handsome cowboy who sat all alone.
She didn't give herself a chance to think, to second-guess what she was doing as she slid into the booth seat across from him and set her coffee cup on the table next to the extra piece of peach pie.
Gray eyes. She hadn't been close enough to him until now to see the color of his eyes. His stunning, long-lashed gray eyes stared at her as if she were a creature from another planet.
She gave him one of her brightest smiles. "As you can see from my name tag, my name is Lizzy Wiles. Well, actually my name is Elizabeth Wiles, but everyone has always called me Lizzy."
She noticed he'd already eaten half his slice of pie, and he continued to stare at her as she picked up the spare fork and took a bite of the piece of pie in front of her. "It seems such a shame to throw this away after you leave each week. Personally, my favorite is apple, but Mary makes a mean pie no matter what kind it is."
Up close he was nothing short of amazing. Chiseled cheekbones and a firm square jaw radiated masculine strength, but his full lower lip whispered of something hot and dangerously sexy.
Still, it was his eyes that captured and held her. They were shadowed pools that, at the moment, simmered not only with a vague astonishment, but also with an underlying sadness that she hadn't expected, that seemed to pierce through her very soul.
"So, what's your name, cowboy?" she asked, aware that she sounded like a heroine in a Western romance novel.
The fork he held in his hand had never wavered until now. He carefully set it down next to his half-eaten pie, his eyes still holding that look of ambiguous surprise.
Before she realized his intention, he slid out of the booth, walked to the front door, grabbed his hat and then disappeared out of the cafe.
She stared after him, horrified that she'd apparently offended a paying customer to the point he'd left the cafe. He hadn't even finished his pie.
Her heart thundering with the feeling that she'd just made a dreadful mistake, she got up from the booth. What have you done, Lizzy? You should have just taken your break and minded your own darned business, a little voice inside her head chided.
She hurried into the kitchen, where she found Mary, the owner of the cafe, seated on a stool at a small table while Junior Lempke worked the grill, his tree-trunk-sized arms bulging beneath a grease-stained T-shirt.
"Mary, I think I just did something awful," Lizzy said as she pulled up a stool next to her boss. Lizzy's heart still banged painfully fast as she looked at Mary.
Mary Mathis was an attractive blonde with soft blue eyes and a beautiful smile. She not only mothered her ten-year-old son, Matt, but also her entire staff. "Lizzy, I've only known you a month, but I can't imagine you ever doing something awful," she replied.
Lizzy's cheeks burned with sudden shame. She should have never listened to that evil inner voice of hers. "You know that guy who comes in every Friday night and sits all by himself and orders two pieces of peach pie and a cup of coffee?"
Mary nodded. "Daniel Jefferson."
Daniel Jefferson. Lizzy now had a name to go with the handsome face and the hot body. "I ate his peach pie," Lizzy blurted out. "The extra piece, I mean. It was just a crazy impulse," she added hurriedly. "I'd watched him every Friday night and nobody ever joined him to eat the pie, so tonight I decided to."
Mary's blue eyes widened with surprise. "Oh, my goodness. What on earth did he do?"
"Nothing. He never said a word to me. He just got up and left the cafe."
Mary took a sip of her iced tea and gazed at Junior, who was carefully flipping a burger, a frown of deep concentration across his broad forehead. "Maybe it's a good thing." She looked back at Lizzy. "Maybe you shook him up just a little bit. Lord knows that man needs something other than his grief to think about."
Mary nodded. "Daniel and his wife, Janice, used to come in here every Friday night for pie and coffee."
Wife. Of course a man who looked like Daniel Jefferson would have a wife. She frowned at Mary. "But, if he has a wife, then why since I've been working here does he always come in all alone?"
"About a year and a half ago Janice and her best friend, Cherry Benson, were killed in a car accident. It was a terrible tragedy, both for Daniel and the Benson men, who had already lost their parents years ago. Anyway, every Friday night since Janice's death Daniel has continued what had been their tradition of coming in for pie and coffee."
"And the pie I ate was meant for his dead wife." Lizzy swallowed hard against her horror. She felt as if she'd somehow spit on his wife's grave. "Oh, I feel so awful. I'm so stupid."
"You aren't stupid," Mary replied. "You just didn't know his background."
"What should I do now? How can I make this right?"
Lizzy thought of the sadness she'd seen in his eyes. Grief. It was definitely an emotion Lizzy understood intimately, still suffered from when it came to her mother's recent death.
"You should do nothing." Mary got up from her stool and offered Lizzy a sweet smile. "Stop looking so worried. Daniel is a big boy and you might want to apologize to him when he comes in here again, but other than that don't give it another minute of thought."
Easy for her to say, Lizzy thought that night at closing time. She'd been able to think of nothing but Daniel Jefferson for the rest of the evening as she'd worked.
He'd lost his wife. What a tragedy and it was obvious he'd loved her desperately, had shared with her that forever kind of love that Lizzy had only read about. Almost two years was a long time to grieve, a long time to keep alive a tradition that kept his dead wife in the forefront of his mind.