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Laurel was making the rounds of the Cinnamon Stick Cafe with a fresh carafe of coffee, when she noticed Maddie Turner's mug needed refreshing. She paused to serve the stocky, gray-haired rancher, who glanced up from the papers she was reviewing to give her a smile.
"Thanks, Laurel. Could you get me another cinnamon bun, too, please?"
"You bet, Maddie." After two months of running the Cinnamon Stick while Winnie convalesced on her parents' farm, Laurel was a fixture with all the regulars. And Maddie Turner, owner of the Silver Creek Ranch, sure did love her baked goods.
When she'd first started working at the cafe, Laurel had drooled over the cinnamon buns, too. Now, just the sight of one of the frosted goodies made her queasy. Laurel tried not to inhale as she plated one of the buns, then passed it to Maddie.
Back behind the counter, she put on a fresh pot of coffee. As she filled the carafe with water from the tap, her gaze was drawn out the window to the line of willow trees that grew between the cafe and the creek for which the town was named.
Another lovely September day. She wished she had time to get out and enjoy the sunshine, but, as usual, she was being run off her feet.
When Winnie told her, ten months ago, that she'd fallen in love with a cowboy and was going to move to Coffee Creek to open her cafe, Laurel had thought how quaint.
Now she knew better. The cafe was charming to look at, the food was devilishly delicious, but the work? It was damned hard. The first month she'd had so much to learn, she'd been running all day long. Then, when she'd finally found her rhythm, she'd caught some sort of bug that she still hadn't managed to shake.
What she needed was rest, but she wouldn't complain. How could she, in the face of what Winnie was going through? Thank heavens for Eugenia, Vince and Dawn, Winnie's regular staff. Without their help, and willingness to work extra hours, she could never have kept Winnie's cafe afloat while her friend struggled to deal with the double whammy of losing her fiance and dealing with what had turned out to be a difficult pregnancy.
Laurel still couldn't believe what had happened.
Imagine losing your fiance on the day of your wedding. Actually being in the church, in your gown, waiting Laurel felt sick every time she thought back to that day.
In the awful hours following the grim news, she'd canceled her flight back to New York, and she'd promised Winnie she would stay in Coffee Creek as long as she was needed, never guessing she'd still be here two months later.
But with Winnie laid up in bed on doctor's orders, what choice had she had? She couldn't let Winnie lose her business as well as the man she'd been planning to share her life with.
With a long sigh, Laurel replaced the coffee carafe in the machine. Maddie, finished with her paper and her coffee, waved as she made her way out of the cafe and into the ancient Ford truck angle-parked out in front. Laurel was clearing her table when Vince Butterfield, Winnie's baker, came out from the kitchen.
She couldn't believe it was eleven o'clock already. "Time to call it a day?"
He nodded, never one to use a word when a gesture would do.
"See you tomorrow, Vince."
He tipped his head in her direction, just half of a nod this time, then made his way out the back door.
Laurel still found it amazing that this mana weathered and scarred ex-bronc rider who looked about ten years older than his real age of sixty-twowas responsible for the bakery's rich cinnamon buns, mouthwatering bumbleberry pies and buttery dinner rolls. He came in every morning, except Sunday, at four in the morning and worked his magic for seven hours before getting on his bike and riding out to his trailer ten miles from town.
Winnie had confided some details of his past to Laurela former rodeo cowboy with a drinking problem, he liked the early hours at the bakery since they left him too exhausted to stay up much past eight in the evening. Early to bed meant no late nights at the bar, which meant no more drinking.
"He figures this job saved his life," Winnie told her. Laurel wondered how Winnie knew so much about him. The man had never said more than three words in a row to her, and those had been, "nice meetin' ya."
The door chimed and Laurel glanced up to welcome her next customer. The smile forming on her face froze the minute she saw him.
She'd heard he'd been out of the hospital for several weeks now. And had wondered when she was going to see him.
It seemed now was the moment.
He looked good, though his hair had been cropped and she could see a long scar on the side of his head. His dimple flashed when he gave her a smile, though not as deeply as before. Laurel figured he'd lost about fifteen pounds.
He came up to the counter hesitantly, holding his hat politely in hand.
Through the grapevine, Laurel had kept posted on Corb's recovery from the accident. He'd been in a coma for forty-eight hours, and in critical condition for several days beyond that. All in all he'd been in hospital for almost three weeks, with visits strictly restricted to family members only.
Or so Laurel had been told when she'd called the hospital to ask about him.
She'd wondered if maybe he would phone her when he was finally released, and when he hadn't, she'd told herself she shouldn't be surprised. He'd been through a lot physically, and had lost a brother besides. He wouldn't have time or inclination to think about the woman he'd flirted with, and charmed, during the week before his accident.
But now he was here, and clearly his smile and the sparkle in his eyes hadn't been damaged one bit by his accident. She took a cloth to the clean counter, willing her heart to return to its regular standing rate of sixty-five beats per minute.
"Hello, sugar. Looks like Coffee Creek got a whole lot sweeter since the last time I was in town."
She smiled, thinking he was feeding her the same line on purpose. But when she glanced up at him, she saw no recognition in his eyes. "Corb?"
He looked puzzled. Then he frowned. "Have we met before?"
Oh, Lord. She'd heard he had some memory problems after the accident. But she hadn't been prepared for this. "I'm Winnie's friend from New York City. Laurel Sheridan. I'm so glad you're feeling better. I was meaning to" She stopped, wanting to say so much, yet not knowing how to begin.
He didn't remember her. How was that possible? He'd touched and kissed the most intimate parts of her. They'd stayed up talking until the wee hours of the morning, sharing their deepest secrets.
She'd told him her entire life story. She hadn't intended tonormally she was quite reservedbut he'd seemed so genuinely interested in everything about her.
The bells over the door chimed again, a fact Laurel barely registered until Jackson joined them at the counter and tapped Corb on the shoulder.
"You here to flirt? Or order coffee?" He nodded at Laurel. "Hey, Laurel. Any word on how Winnie is doing?"
"She's okay." Winnie had made her promise not to say a word about the baby. She wanted to wait until she was well enough to return to Coffee Creek and deliver the news to the Lambert family in person.
"Will she be coming back soon?"
"I doubt it. She's had some health issues, and for now it's good for her to be around her mom and dad." She glanced at Corb who was listening to the exchange intently, lines marring his high forehead and obscuring his charming grin.
"So you're Winnie's friend from New York? The one who was traveling down to be her maid of honor?"
"He doesn't remember much about that week," Jackson said by way of explanation.
Corb nodded. "Scared me at first. I guess I'm kind of glad I don't remember the crash." He swallowed. "But there's lots of other stuff that's gone, too. The specialist told me it's normal, though, so I'm trying not to worry about it."
Laurel knew she shouldn't take his loss of memory personally. But it was hard not to feel hurt that he didn't recall her at all. "Is it possible your memory will come back?"
He shrugged. "They say it could happenbut no guarantees." He stiffened his spine, and managed another smile as he offered her his hand. "Hard to believe I could forget a woman as beautiful as you. Must have been some knock to the head, huh?"
It was so weird to shake his hand, as if they were strangers making their first acquaintance. Playing along though, she kept her tone light. "Nice to meet youfor the second time. I take it you're here for coffee. Like to add a couple of cinnamon buns to your order?"
"I'll take one, sugar. How about you, Jack" He turned to confer with his foster brother, but Jackson was already on his way out the door.
"I'll skip the coffee for now and go put in that order at the feed store."
"I'll meet you there," Corb said. Then, leaning over the counter, he added, "Say, Laurel, I was wondering if you could give me Winnie's number at her folks' place. I've been meaning to call her and see how she's doing. My family's been treating me like an invalid. Mother put me in the guest room at the main house, and until today, wouldn't let me even touch the keys to my truck. So I haven't had much chance to check in on her."
"Sure." Laurel wrote the number on an order slip, then tore it off the pad and handed it to him. According to Winnie, none of the other Lamberts had been in touch since the funeral and Olive hadn't even returned the calls Winnie made to Coffee Creek Ranch. So Laurel was glad to see at least one member of the family willing to reach out to her friend.
"Maybe I should ask for your number, too." Corb's eyes glinted with charm as he folded the paper and slipped it into the pocket of his jeans.
Gosh, this was weird. He was flirting with her as if he'd never met her before.
"You'll find me here most of the time," she answered lightly. "How's your mother doing?"
The flirting light left Corb's face. "Not so well. She's been spending too much time alone in her room. Now that I'm stronger, I'm trying to coax her out, get her working with the horses again. That's the only thing that'll cure her, I figure."
"I can't imagine your mother on a horse. She looks so fragile."
Corb laughed. "Looks are deceptive where my mother is concerned. But losing Brock has taken a toll. When Dad died, she didn't have the luxury of isolating herself with her grief. Us kids were a lot younger then and she had to run the ranch. Now she knows she can leave all that to me and Jacksonthough to be honest, it's been mostly Jackson up until now."
When Corb fell silent, Laurel passed him his coffee and bun, and Corb put a ten-dollar bill on the counter, refusing change.
He lifted the lid off his coffee and was about to add sugar, when Laurel stopped him.
"I already did that. Two packages."
He gave her a puzzled smile, then headed out the door.
As soon as he was out on the street, Corb let his smile drop. The effort of being himself these days was almost more than he could bear. All his life he'd been the easygoing Lambert, the charming one, the peacemaker. Never had his family needed him to fill that role more than they did right now. And never had he felt less like doing it.
Corb looked at the coffee and the bun he was holding. He ought to gobble it down and head over to Ed's Feed Supply, where he knew Jackson was picking up that alfalfa mix for the new palomino his mother had bought three months ago.
She'd actually bought the horse for Cassidy, though she'd never admit it. As if a new horseeven a great horsewould lure his sister back to Coffee Creek.
No, like B.J., Cassidy had decided to make her own way in the world, which meant there were only two of themhimself and Jacksonto carry on. Work was piled up so high at the ranch, he felt like they'd never catch up. He had no right to be taking a break and yet he found himself settling on one of the pine benches that flanked the cafe entrance.
He took out the cinnamon bun, and with his first bite, he could hear Brock saying that he was marrying Winnie for her buns. He'd always give a wink when he said this, and Winnie would groan.
Corb followed the roll with a long swig of the sweetened black coffee. It had caught him off guard that Laurel knew how he liked his coffee. Why didn't he remember Winnie's maid of honor?
Leaning back, he allowed his eyes to close for a second. Though he wouldn't admit it, not to his doctors or his family, he was suffering from some terrible headaches these days. He figured they'd ease off with time. But in a way he didn't want them to. Brock had died and he felt that he needed to pay a price, since he'd been the one to live.
Well, there was Jackson, too, but he'd joined the family when Corb was already fifteen, so it wasn't like they'd grown up together the way he and Brock had. God, he couldn't believe his baby brother was really gone. That damned moose coming out of the brush at just the wrong moment had stolen so much from so many people.
He felt especially bad for Winnie. It was too bad she'd taken off and left the county. He wished his mother would call her, but at the best of times Olive had not been fond of the woman Brock had chosen for his bride and these were definitely not the best of times.
Thankfully Winnie's friend from New York had stuck around to help her out. That had been real good of her.
But even from this one meeting, he could tell that Laurel Sheridan was that sort of person. You could see the kindness in her eyes, a warmth that gave her pretty face a special glow.
He admired her hair, too. Thick, red and long, all piled up in a luxurious mess. He wondered what she looked like with it down. The fact that he'd probably already seen her that way but couldn't remember, made his head throb.
What the hell was he doing, anyway, fantasizing about Winnie's friend at a time like this? His family was in mourning, damn it. Besides, it was weird that he couldn't recall meeting her when she obviously remembered him.
Had they spent much time together in that week before the wedding?
He wished like hell that he could remember.