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Kate Muldoon was behind the hostess station, checking the reservation list, when the restaurant entrance door opened. A smile of greeting on her lips, she glanced up to see a man just inside the door and felt a strange skip beat in her chest.
The first word to jump into her mind was cowboy. Kate couldn't say why that particular descriptive word came to mind. There wasn't a pair of boots or a Stetson in sight. He was dressed the same as most patrons, casually in jeans that hugged his hips like a lover, a pale blue button down shirt tucked into the narrow denim waistband, the sleeves rolled up to mid-forearm.
His height was impressive. Kate judged him to be six feet five or six inches tall at least, maybe more. He was lean, muscular and rangy. He had a head full of thick, straight dark, almost black, hair with strands of deepest red glinting under the lights. It was long, caught at his nape and was tied with a narrow strip of leather.
He was striking—sharply defined features, a squared jaw and piercing dark eyes. His skin was tanned, near bronze. Part Native American, perhaps? Maybe.
But he wasn't what she would call handsome, not in the way Jeff was….
"May I help you?" Kate asked brightly, pushing away errant thoughts of her former lover.
"I don't have a reservation, but I'd like a table for one, if you have it." His voice was smooth, low, rather sexy and alluring.
Telling herself to grow up, Kate said, "Yes, of course. If you'll follow me." Scooping up a menu, she ushered him to a small table for two set in a corner between two curtained windows.
He arched a dark brow with visible amusement when she slid out a chair forhim. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she replied, handing him the menu. "Tom will be your server today." Feeling oddly breathless, she added, "Enjoy your dinner."
Kate felt the shivery effects of his smile all the way back to her station. Ridiculous, she chided herself, dismissing thoughts of the tall man when she noticed a line of unexpected guests waiting for her.
Greeting and seating the hungry patrons who had suddenly shown up snared Kate's focus. After seating a party of four nearest the corner table, she heard the tall man quietly call to her.
The shivery effects began all over again. Sighing through her professional smile, she stopped at his table. "Can I get you something?" she responded, noticing his half-empty beer glass. He smiled, this time with a suggestive hint. Kate felt the shiver turn into an unnerving shimmering heat.
"Is Vic in the kitchen this evening?"
His question threw her for a moment. She didn't know what she had expected, but an inquiry about her boss wasn't it. "Yes, he is," she answered, instantly regaining her composure.
"Would you give him a message from me?"
"Yes, of course." What else could she say?
"Tell him Hawk would like to talk to him." He smiled again, revealing strong white teeth.
"Hawk… just Hawk?" she asked. Lord, the man had a killer smile.
"Just Hawk," he said with a soft laugh. "He'll know who you mean."
"Uh… right. I'll tell him," Kate said, turning away to head for the kitchen. It was a good thing Jeff had immunized her against men, she thought, pushing through the swing door to the kitchen. That kind of man would get under an unwary woman's skin in a hurry.
That was one appealing package of femininity, he mused, his gaze fixed on the subtle yet intriguing movement of her hips as she pushed through the door to the kitchen. Of average height, she was all woman from the riot of loose curls in her long dark hair to her slim ankles, and everywhere in between. And he had noticed she wasn't wearing a ring on the third finger of her left hand.
Of course, that didn't necessarily mean she wasn't married. Hawk knew of many men as well as women who didn't wear their bands of commitment. Cramped their style, he supposed. He was wondering if she might be one of those women when a familiar voice broke into his musing.
"Hawk, you old dog, when did you get into town?" Vic Molino came to a stop next to Hawk, a big smile of welcome on his handsome face, his right hand outthrust.
Rising, Hawk grasped the hand and pulled the shorter man into a buddy embrace.
Stepping back, Hawk flicked a hand at the empty chair opposite his. "Got a minute to talk… or are you too busy in the kitchen?"
Vic grinned. "Always got a minute for you, Hawk. How the hell are you?" He arched his dark brows. "It's been a long while since your last visit."
"Yeah, I know." Hawk grinned back. "Been too busy making money. Now, before winter sets in, I aim to spend a little of it."
"I hear you." As he spoke, a server came to a stop at the table. Vic smiled at him. "I'll take care of this customer, Tom, but you'll still get the tip." He lowered his voice dramatically, as if to prevent Hawk from hearing him. "And he's a big tipper."
Tom smiled. "Thanks, Vic." He turned to leave but Vic stopped him before he could take a step.
"One thing, Tom. You can bring me a pot of coffee." He shot a glance at Hawk. "You want a fresh beer?"
Hawk shook his head. "No, thanks. I'm going to have wine with dinner, but I would like a cup of coffee."
"Coming right up, sir," Tom said, hurrying away.
Hawk glanced around the dining room. "Business looks brisk, as usual."
"It has been good," Vic said, a touch of gratitude in his voice, "even with the slump in the economy." He pulled a frown. "I didn't even get a vacation this year."
Hawk gave him a droll look. "Poor baby. Lisa cracking the whip over you, huh?"
Vic flashed a white grin. "Never. My bride is too much in love with me to find fault."
Hawk felt a touch of something—longing, an empty sensation. Surely not envy for his friend and the bride he'd married over five years ago.
"In fact," Vic went on smugly, "Lisa's too happy at the present to find fault with anyone." He paused, waiting for the look of confused curiosity to bring a frown to Hawk's face.
"Well," Hawk said. "Where's the punch line?"
Vic gave a burst of happy laughter. "She's pregnant, Hawk. After all this time, all the praying and hoping, we're going to have a baby."
Hawk lit up in a smile. "That's wonderful, Vic. When's the baby due?"
"In the spring. She's in the beginning of her second trimester."
"Damn! Damn, that's great, for both of you. I know how much you've wanted a child." Even as he congratulated his friend, Hawk again felt that twinge of empty longing. He brushed it off as he shook Vic's hand.
"Yeah," Vic said, grinning like a kid. "We were almost at the point of accepting that there would never be a baby for us."
Grinning back at him, Hawk raised his glass of beer. "Well, here's to perseverance." Bringing the glass to his lips, he downed the beer remaining in it. As he set the glass down, the hostess came to the table with a full fresh pot of coffee.
"Tom was busy at another table," she explained. "So I brought this over. Is there anything else, Vic?"
"No thanks." Vic shook his head. As she started to turn away, he stopped her by taking her hand. "Wait a minute. I want you to meet an old friend."
"Okay." She smiled at Hawk.
He felt an instant of breathlessness. He stood up as Vic rose from his chair.
"Hawk," Vic said, "this lovely lady is Kate Mul-doon, my hostess and Lisa's and my friend." He smiled at her. "Kate, Hawk McKenna. We've been friends since college, and he's been Lisa's friend since our wedding." A teasing gleam shone from his eyes. "I suspect she'd have grabbed him if she'd met him earlier."
"Right," Hawk drawled, offering his long-fingered hand to her. "Nice to meet you… Kate?"
"Of course," she answered. "Hawk?"
"Of course," he echoed.
"Have a seat, Kate," Vic said, rising to grab an empty chair at the next table while beckoning to someone.
Kate shook her head. "I can't, Vic. There are custom—"
"Yes, you can," Vic interrupted. "You haven't had a break yet."
Kate gave him a dry look. "I started working only two hours ago."
"Long enough," Vic said, turning to the young woman who had come to a halt at the table.
"You employed the imperial wave, sire?" the woman said, her blue eyes fairly dancing with amusement.
Vic laughed as he watched her give a quick glance at Hawk, her eyes widening with surprise. "Hawk!"
"Hi, Bella." Hawk said, getting to his feet just in time to catch her as she flung herself into his arms. "Subdued as ever, I see." Taking her by the shoulders, he set her back a step to look at her. "And beautiful as ever."
"I bet you say that to all your friends' sisters," Bella said, laughing. "You look great, Hawk."
"Thanks." Hawk smiled. "So do you."
"If this ritual of mutual admiration is over," Vic said, "I'd like you to take over at the desk for Kate for a while."
"Sure." Bella gave Hawk another quick hug before turning away. "Will I be seeing you while you're in town, Hawk?"
"Of course." Hawk smiled.
"Good." Bella smiled back. "Take your time, Kate. I can handle the ravenous crowd."
"Thanks, Bella," Kate said. "I'll only be a few minutes."
Her soft, almost smoky-sounding voice, along with her smile, caused an even stronger searing sensation in Hawk's stomach and sections south.
"So," Vic said, "how long are you going to be in town this time, Hawk?"
"I haven't decided yet. I have a room for a week." Hawk shrugged. "After that… depends."
"On what?" Vic laughed. "The weather?"
Hawk grinned. "Yeah, the weather. You know how much it concerns me." He shook his head. "No, actually, if I'm tired of the whole scene at the end of a week, I'll head home. If not, I'll make other arrangements."
"And where is home, Hawk?" Kate asked.
"Colorado," Hawk said. "In the mountains."
She laughed. "Colorado is full of mountains."
A tingle skipped the length of his spine. He drew a deep breath, willing steel to chase the tingle from his back. "I'm in the southwest corner, in the San Juans, a double jump from Durango."
"A double jump?" she said.
Vic answered for him. "Hawk's got a horse ranch in a small valley in the foothills there," he said. "I gotta tell you, this guy breeds and trains some gorgeous horseflesh."
"And I'm damned good at it, too," Hawk drawled around a quick smile.
Once again he felt that strange reaction to the conversation, a reaction he had never felt before. Hawk wasn't sure he liked it.
They chatted for a few moments longer. Then Kate excused herself to get back to work.
Unaware of his surroundings, Vic, or the soft sigh he expelled, Hawk watched Kate walk back to the hostess station, head high, her back straight, as regal as any queen.
"Attractive, isn't she?"
Vic's quiet voice jolted Hawk into awareness. "Yes," he said, shifting his gaze to his friend.
"And you're interested." It was not a question.
"Yes," Hawk admitted without hesitation.
"A lot of men are." Vic shrugged.
"I did notice she was not wearing a ring on her left ring finger." Hawk lifted his brows. "Is she attached?"
Vic shook his head. "No."
"Why do I have the feeling that if I said I wanted to ask her to have dinner one evening with me, you'd tell me she'll refuse?"
"Because she very likely would." Vic gave him a half smile. "She always does."