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Amanda Altman's back in town.
It was all anyone could talk about and Nathan Battle was getting pretty damn sick of it. Nothing he hated more than being at the center of a gossip tornado. He'd already lived through it once, years ago. Of course, he'd escaped the worst of it by moving to Houston and burying himself in the police academy and then his job.
Wouldn't work this time. He'd built his place here. He wasn't going anywhere. Mostly because Nathan Battle didn't run. So he'd just have to ride this mess out until the town found something new to chew on.
But that was life in Royal, Texas. A town too small to mind its own business and too big to have to repeat the same gossip over and over again.
Even here, he thought, in the hallowed halls of the Texas Cattleman's Club, Nathan couldn't escape the talkor the speculation. Not even from his best friend.
"So, Nathan," Chance asked with a knowing grin, "you see Amanda yet?"
Nathan looked at the man sitting opposite him. Chance McDaniel owned McDaniel's Acres, a working dude ranch and hotel just south of town. The man had built the place from the ground up on property he'd inherited from his family, and he'd done a hell of a job.
Chance's blond hair was cropped short, but he still couldn't get the wave out of it no matter how he tried. His green eyes were amused and Nathan shook his head, knowing that he was the source of his friend's amusement.
"No." One word. Should be concise enough to get his message across. And maybe it would have worked with anyone else. Of course, Nathan told himself wryly, it wouldn't be nearly enough to get Chance to back off. They'd been friends for too long. And nobody knew how to get to you better than a best friend.
"You can't ignore her forever," Chance mused, taking a sip of his scotch.
"It's worked so far," Nathan told him and lifted his own glass for a drink.
"Sure it has," Chance said, muffling a laugh. "That's why you've been such a cool, calm guy the last couple of weeks."
Nathan narrowed his eyes on his friend. "Funny."
"You have no idea," Chance agreed, lips twitching. "So, Sheriff, if you're avoiding the Royal Diner these days, where are you getting your coffee?"
His fingers tightened on the heavy, old crystal. "The gas station."
Now Chance didn't bother to hide his laughter. "You must be desperate if you're drinking the swill Charlie brews down there. You know, maybe it's time you learned how to make decent coffee yourself."
"And maybe it's time you let this go," Nathan told him. Irritating is what it was, he thought. His whole damn routine had been splintered when Amanda moved back home to Royal. Used to be he started off his day with a large coffee and maybe some eggs at the diner. Amanda's sister, Pam, always had his coffee ready for him when he walked in. That was a routine a man could count on. But since Amanda blew back into his world, he'd had to make do with Charlie's disgusting coffee and a packaged sweet roll.
Even when she wasn't trying, Amanda found a way to screw with him.
"Seriously, Nate," Chance said, lowering his voice a little so the other members of the TCC couldn't overhear, "from all reports, Amanda's here to stay. Seems she's been making some changes to the diner, settling in. Even talking about looking for a house of her own, according to Margie Santos."
Nathan had heard all the same talk, of course. Hard not to, when everyone in a ten-mile radius was more than eager to talk to him about Amanda. Margie Rice was the top real estate agent in Royal and one of the biggest gossips as well. If she was spreading the word that Amanda was looking for her own place, then Nathan had to admit that she was here for the long term.
Which meant he couldn't ignore her for much longer.
Too bad, because he'd finally gotten good at not thinking about Amanda. Wasn't always the case. Several years ago, Amanda was all Nathan thought about. The passion between them had burned hotter than anything he'd ever known. She'd filled his mind, waking and sleeping.
Of course back then, they'd been engaged.
He scowled into his glass of scotch. Times change.
"New subject, Chance," he muttered and let his gaze slide around the main room of the TCC.
While his friend talked about what was happening at the ranch, Nathan's mind wandered. Over the years, it seemed like inside the TCC, time stood still. Even the fact that women were now officially members of the long-standing, males-only club hadn't affected the decor. Paneled walls, dark brown leather furnituresofas and club chairshunting prints on the walls and a big-screen TV so you didn't miss a bit of any Texas sporting event.
The air smelled of lemon polish and the wood floors and tables gleamed in the lamplight. The TV was on now, but muted so that members could sit and brood behind newspapers or chat without having to shout to be heard. The soft clinking of crystal against gleaming wood tables underlined the hushed conversations surrounding them.
A woman's laugh pealed out just then, shattering the quiet and Nathan grinned as he noted that Beau Hacket actually cringed at the sound. At nearly sixty, Beau was short, thick around the middle and with a lot more gray in what was left of his dark red hair. He had a big laugh and a narrow mindhe believed women belonged in the kitchen and didn't care who knew it.
Now, Beau fired a hard look around the room as if to silently say, Did you all hear that? That's just wrong. Women don't belong here.
No one said anything, but Nathan read the tension in the room and noted more gritted jaws than usual. Women were members, but they still weren't really welcome. Everyone was gathered for the weekly TCC meeting and none of the old guard were happy about having women included.
"Sounds like Abigail's enjoying herself," Chance muttered into the stillness.
"Abby always enjoys herself," Nathan mused.
Abigail Langley Price, married to Brad Price, had been the first female member of the club. And, of course, she was having a good time now, since she had women to talk to in here. But it hadn't been easy on her, gaining acceptance at the TCC. Even with the support of Nathan, Chance and several of the other members, she'd had to fight her way inand Nathan admired that about her.
"Does it feel weird to you," Chance asked, "to have women in the club now?"
"Nope." Nathan finished off his scotch and set the empty glass down on the table in front of him. "Felt weirder when they weren't allowed in here."
"Yeah," his friend said. "I know what you mean." Leaning forward, he braced his elbows on his knees. "But men like Beau over there aren't happy about it."
Nathan shrugged. "Men like Beau are always complaining about something. Besides, he and the others are just gonna have to get used to it." Then he added what he'd been thinking a few minutes ago. "Times change."
"They really do," Chance agreed. "Like, for example, the vote we're taking tonight."
Relieved to be off the subject of Amanda, Nathan turned his thoughts to the upcoming vote. It had been the talk of the town for days. Once Abigail and the other women became members of the TCC they'd had some ideas of their own to put forth and tonight marked the vote for one of the biggest items.
"The child-care center?" Nathan asked and Chance nodded.
"It's a big deal and only going to make the hard-line members more irritated than ever."
"True," Nathan agreed, imagining the fireworks that would soon take place over the vote. "Only makes sense if you think about it, though. A safe place for the kids while their parents are here. Probably should have done it years ago."
"Right there with ya," Chance told him with a shake of his head. "But I'm not sure Beau's going to agree with that."
"Beau doesn't agree with anything," Nathan said with a chuckle. As town sheriff, Nathan had to deal with Beau Hacket on a regular basis. The man had a complaint about everything and everyone, and didn't mind taking up the sheriff's time with them. "A more contrary man has never lived."
The clock over the river-stone fireplace began to chime the hour and both of them stood up.
"Guess it's time to get the meeting started."
"This should be good," Chance told Nathan and followed him down the hallway to the official meeting room.
An hour later, the arguments were still being shouted out. Beau Hacket had some support for his Neanderthal opinions. Sam and Josh Gordon, the twins who owned and operated Gordon Construction, were getting to be just as hardheaded as Beau.
"Is it just me," Nate whispered to his friend Alex Santiago, "or is Sam Gordon starting to become more and more like Beau Hacket?"
Alex shifted a look at the twin who was spouting all the reasons why children didn't belong in the TCC.
"It's not just you," he answered quietly. "Even his twin looks surprised at Sam's arguments."
Alex hadn't lived in Royal very long, but he'd made lots of friends in town and seemed to already have a handle on the town and its citizens. A venture capitalist and investor, Alex was wealthy and had become, in his short time in Royal, very influential. Sometimes Nate wondered why a man as rich as Alex would choose to settle down in Royal. But at the same time, he told himself with a smile, people probably wondered why Nathan Battle chose to be the town sheriff. Since he owned half of the Battlelands Ranch, Nate was rich enough to not have to work at all.
But then what the hell would he do?
Shaking his head, Nate gave a quick look around the long table at the members gathered. Not all of them were present, of course, but there were more than enough for the voting. Ryan Grant, former rodeo star, was attending his first official meeting and Nate saw the bemusement in the other man's eyes. Dave Firestone, whose ranch ran alongside Nathan's family spread, was lounging in a chair, watching the goings-on as if he were at a tennis match. Beau was nearly purple in the face, shouting down anyone who argued with him. Chance was sitting beside Shannon Morrison, who looked as if she wanted to stand up and tell Beau Hacket exactly what he could do with his outdated opinions.
And then there was Gil Addison, the TCC president, standing at the head of the table. His dark eyes flashed and Nate knew that his friend had about reached the limits of his patience.
Almost at once, Gil slammed his gavel onto its pedestal until he had quiet. The echoes of arguments and recriminations were hanging in the still air like battle flags when Gil said, "Enough talking. Time for a vote.
All in favor of the child-care center being added to the TCC, say 'aye.'"
All of the women, including Missy Reynolds and Vanessa Woodrow, spoke up, but Nathan, Alex, Chance and several of the others were quick to contribute their votes.
"All opposed," Gil added, "say 'no.'"
A few loud voices were heard.
The gavel slammed down again sharply. Gil nodded at the group and smiled. "Motion's passed. A child-care center will be added to the Texas Cattlemen's Club."
Beau and a few of the other members, still bristling over the fact that women were now included in their group, were practically apoplectic. But, there was nothing they could do about it.
As Beau stormed out of the meeting, Nathan watched him go and almost felt a flicker of sympathy. He could see the other side of the situation, but you couldn't stay locked in the past. The world moved every damn day and you moved with it or you got steamrolled. Tradition was one thing, being stuck in the mud was another.
Change happened whether you liked it or not, so the best way to handle it was to hop on board the train as opposed to stretching your body across the tracks and being run over. Which was, he told himself, a good way to think about how to deal with Amanda.
"This is great," Abigail Price said with a wide smile for her friends and those who had supported them. "And our Julia will be the first child enrolled as soon as we're up and running."
"You bet she will, honey." Brad Price gave his wife's hand a squeeze. "Shame Beau and the rest are upset, but they'll get over it."
"You did," Abigail reminded him with a smile.
True enough, Nate mused thoughtfully. Not too long ago, Brad and Abby were butting heads every chance they got. He'd done his best to keep Abby out of the TCC and now just look at themin love, married, and with a great little girl.
While everyone around them talked, Alex suggested, "Why don't we head over to the diner and get some coffee and pie?"
"Good idea," Chance agreed and flicked a glance at Nathan.
Friends could be a real pain in the ass sometimes, Nathan told himself. These two were trying to maneuver him into a meeting with Amanda and it just wasn't going to work. He'd see her. In his own time. In his own way. And damned if he was going to put on a show for the folks in Royal.
"No thanks," he said, pushing up from the table. He didn't even look at the other members in the room. "I'm headed back to the office to finish up some paperwork, then I'm going home."
"Still in hiding?" Alex murmured.
Nathan bristled. "Pretty hard to hide in a town the size of Royal."
"You should keep that in mind," Chance told him.
Irritated, Nathan just gritted his teeth and left. No point in arguing with a jackass, he thought.
Amanda was so busy she almost didn't have time to worry about Nathan. Almost.
Turns out, even running the family diner, looking for a new house and arranging to have the transmission in her car replaced still left her brain enough room to plague her with thoughts of Nathan Battle.
"Bound to happen," she reassured herself for the fortieth time that morning. Just being in Royal had brought the memories rushing back and, there were a lot of memories.
She'd known Nathan most of her life and had been nuts about him since she was thirteen. She could still remember the sharp, bright thrill of having Nathan, then an all-powerful senior, taking a lowly freshman to the senior prom.
"And, if we'd just stopped it right there, it would be all sunshine and roses," she murmured as she refilled the coffee urn with water, then measured in fresh coffee grounds.
She pushed the button to start the brewing process, then turned to look out at the diner. Even with the changes she'd made in the last couple of weeks, being in this place was as good as being home.
She'd grown up in her parents' diner, working as a busgirl, and then a waitress when she was old enough. The Royal Diner was an institution in town and she was determined that it stay that way. Which was why she'd come home after her father's death to help her older sister, Pam, run the place.
As that reminder rolled through her mind, Amanda squared her shoulders and nodded briefly to herself. She hadn't come home because of Nathan Battle. Even though a shiver swept through her at just the thought of his name, she discounted it as sense memory. Didn't mean a thing. Her life was different now.
She was different now.
"Amanda, my love, when're you going to marry me and run off to Jamaica?"