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Ben Callahan paused in the doorway of the Lucky Break, the bar that he'd inherited from his grandfather, trying to figure out what was different. Scanning his surroundings, his senses honed by nearly eleven years as a navy SEAL, his gaze finally landed on the source of his curiosity. Her.
A good deal of smooth, shapely feminine thigh was exposed by the short denim skirt that also showed off a spectacular bottom line. He wasn't the only one who noticed. Men filing in for the lunch hour bestowed appreciative glances on the new waitress as she walked from table to table taking orders.
Dark-brown hair was caught in a loose ponytail that swished around her shoulder blades as she moved. The movement drew his attention to her strong, slim shoulders, tight waistline and long, graceful neck.
As she turned, he saw she wasn't big on top, but she sure made the most of what she had. A tall drink of water, was the phrase his mother often used; it came to mind as he watched his new waitress.
Charlie, his best friend and second in command at the bar, had been in charge of hiring while Ben was out of town talking to the Feds. He didn't want to be away any longer than he needed to, given the circumstances, but now he could stick close to home.
Fortunately, Charlie had been lucky with finding a new waitress for them. Interviewing new help wasn't a job Ben relished, even as owner of the place, mostly because his mother was too likely to send in the daughters of her friends, who were better candidates for marriage than waitressing. Then there were former girlfriends who came around since he'd been back, some of them still single, others divorced.
That was the problem with returning to the town where you grew up. He still wasn't completely used to it. It had only been a year, and leaving military life behind hadn't been an easy choice.
Family, legacy and land often went together in Texas. Those ties meant somethingit was a lesson he'd learned in the SEALs, where connections to your team meant everything. They meant your life. Connections to your family worked the same way, that was how Ben saw it, anyhow. He had served his country and now he served his family.
As well as copious amounts of beer to the locals.
When his grandfather had died, Ben hadn't been home in over two years. He couldn't change that, but he could do his granddad proud now.
Ben was slowly getting used to civilian life and he enjoyed it, for the most part. He'd moved into the old house behind the bar, and he had picked back up with rodeo, mostly bullriding and some roping. He was used to regular adrenaline highs, and rodeo satisfied that urge as well as possibly garnering championships for his parents' ranch.
The last show he had been in had provided a little more excitement than he'd been looking for, though, when he'd seen a murder. One of the judges from the rodeo was shot, execution style. Ben had been in the wrong place at the right time, witnessing the whole thingthough he hadn't been able to stop it.
It turned out it wasn't a crime of opportunity, but had been connected to organized crime's attempts to control large rodeo purses by drugging animals and by pressuring the judges. The man they'd killed had been one of the judges who had refused to play along. His three kids were now left without a father.
The killer was now in San Antonio, and Ben's testimony was going to put him away. Or, as the U.S. Attorney's office would have it, Ben's testimony would give them the leverage to make a deal that would lead to the bigger players the killer worked for. The FBI was involved, and the U.S. Marshals, and who knew who else? That split second had turned Ben's life upside down.
He knew from his military experience that a smaller evil was often the price of stopping a larger one. It was how the world worked, but he didn't have to like it.
He was also perfectly aware that, because the deal or the conviction rested on his testimony, he was in a certain degree of danger right now.
So he'd canceled his late-summer rodeo appearances for this year, claiming he needed to be home to run the business. The government had offered him protection, which meant living at a safe house until the trial, but that wouldn't help his family or friends. They'd even offered him Witness Protection, but he wasn't about to leave the life to which he had just returned. Besides, SEALs didn't run.
The trial was in three weeks, the Justice Department had done a good job of keeping his identity out of circulation; they'd squelched any news stories about the incident, so Ben hoped they would get to the end of this without trouble. So far, so good.
"Welcome back, boss," Charlie said, closing the space between them as he walked out of the kitchen, spotting Ben standing by the door.
Ben smiled and clasped his friend's hand tightly.
"Good to see the place still standing, Charlie."
"It was a lonely four days. We did okay. Good to have you back, though."
"Thanks," Ben said, and looked at the new waitress again.
This time, she noticed him too. Looking at him with big, dark-brown eyes, she smiled slightly and then turned back to her customer. "new girl?"
"Yeah. She's doing a great job, so far, though it's only day two."
"Don't recognize her from around here," Ben said neutrally, but his mind was on immediate alert.
Anyone new was a question mark. Normally Ben wouldn't question a stranger showing up for a job, but right now, things were a little touchier than usual.
"She broke up with her boyfriend, came down from El Paso looking for a job and a place to stay. Seems capable enough, and she sure is nice to look at," Charlie said with a grin, his eyes noting some of the same attributes that Ben had been admiring. "Um, I rented her the apartment upstairs, too. Figured, what the heck? At least we know she won't be late for work."
Ben's frown was his response to that news. Of course, Charlie didn't know about Ben's situation. Ben didn't want anyone to worry when there might not be anything to worry about.
"I had to do it, Ben," Charlie said, reading his expression. "When I came in yesterday, she was sleeping in her car in the parking lot. I couldn't let her stay there until she had enough paychecks to get a place. Besides, she agreed to work extra shifts in exchange for no rent."
"You check references, get her background?" Ben asked casually, walking toward the kitchen.
"Do I look like an idiot?" Charlie asked.
"Nope, but I know you and beautiful women, my friend," Ben said with a smile. "She could be the worst waitress on the planet or a convicted felon, but looking like that. "
"Don't worry, I checked her out. Joanna Wallace. Nothing significant, the usual history of deadend retail and restaurant jobs. No convictions, clean driver's license. Nice enough. Seems to have made a few bad choices about the men she takes up with, though she didn't share too many details."
Ben nodded, glancing through a stack of mail he picked up from the counter. It was easy enough to create a history, set up references, but he was also being paranoid. He'd put a sign out front and someone had come by to apply for the job. Why not her?
Besides, if the mob wanted to take him out, Ben doubted they would send someone like that, he mused. Still, he'd check her out through his own sources as soon as he could.
"Thanks, Charlie. I appreciate you taking that task off my shoulders," Ben said.
"No problem. Lisa likes her, too, if that helps. I let her interview her as well before we made a final decision."
Ben nodded. "That was smart."
Lisa was his one full-time waitress, but her husband had recently left her with their two kids. While she took extra shifts, they needed someone else to cover gaps and help out during the busiest times. Lisa was worth her weight in gold, and it was important that she could work with whomever they hired.
"I'm missing a leg, not a brain," his friend reprised jokingly, as he often did about the limb he was missing after repeated tours in Iraq. The last tour had seen his leg blown off in a roadside explosion. Yet Charlie never complained, more often using humor to make others comfortable.
"I didn't balance the books this week. You know I suck at math, so I thought I'd leave that to you," Charlie added.
"I knew I should have stayed away a few more days," Ben said with a rueful shake of his head, making both of them laugh as Charlie returned to the grill.
Ben planned to hire a bookkeeper one of these days. For now, he was learning something new every day about running the business, and knowing the finan-cials was as important as anything else. So, he did the books, the ordering, and everything else that came with running a roadhouse, and he was slowly learning the tricks of the trade. He'd hung out here all the time as a kid, helping his grandfather, and then as a teen, meeting here with his friends. The Lucky Break was a large part of his life, though he needed to upgrade some things. He now also appreciated all of the work it took to run a successful establishment.
It was a challenge he could dig into, focus on, and he owed his grandfather the best job he could do. To Ben's amazement, as the months passed, he enjoyed it more and more. There was always something to keep him busy, and when he wasn't doing something here, he was fixing up the house, working at his parents' ranch down the road, or practicing for the next rodeo.
While he'd loved being a SEAL, real life definitely had its attractions, he thought as he walked out from the kitchen to the bar. Washing his hands, his gaze landed on the new waitress again.
Lisa, also working the lunch shift, winked at him and waved. Ben nodded back, slipping behind the bar to pitch in with the increasing lunch crowd.
Joanna approached the bar with an order. Close up, she was even more stunning. He almost wouldn't have blamed Charlie if he had hired her for her looks.
"Two drafts and one cola," she said, her brown eyes meeting his as she shot her hand over the bar in greeting. "Hi, I'm Joanna. Lisa tells me you're the boss."
He nodded, his eyes drifting to her lips. She wore no lipstick, just some gloss, and her skin was also unadorned, no cosmetics marring her clear, tanned complexion.
"Ben, Ben Callahan," he offered calmly enough, though her touch and her eyes had almost turned him hard with immediate lust, right here behind his bar. She had a strong grip for a woman, those long, slim fingers closing around his, but her skin was like satin.
Ben cleared his throat, letting go of her hand and turning to pull down some glasses for the beer and the soda, loading them up on a tray and handing them back to her. He wasn't used to losing control, certainly not from one touch.
"Thanks," she said, starting to turn away.
"Joanna," he said, stopping her, his mind clearing.
"Make some time to talk for a few minutes after your shift? Maybe catch a bite? I like to touch base with new employees, you understand," he said.
She nodded, seeming unfazed. "Sure, no problem."
Watching her walk away, the little alarm in his brain just wouldn't settle down. He couldn't quite figure out why, but there was something about her that didn't scream down-on-her-luck. She also didn't seem like a woman to take up with the wrong kind of guy. Self-confidence and intelligence practically crackled in the air around her as she moved.
She exuded an earthy sexuality that had likely brought more than one man to his knees. The vision of what he'd like to do on his knees before Joanna Wallace made him shake his head, and he got back to work, turning to greet and take the lunch orders from a couple of local ranch hands who pulled up to the bar.
He supposed his physical reaction to a beautiful woman wasn't out of the usual. Ben hadn't been with anyone in a while. Life had been too crazy.
He'd had a one-nighter on his last military leave, and that was well over a year ago. Since then, things had just not lined up in the right way. Not that he hadn't had some offers since he'd come home, but he didn't want to make things more complicated in his own backyard.
And truthfully, none of the women he'd met had inspired him that way.
Joanna Wallace definitely inspired him. Still, lust was mingling with caution in a very uncomfortable way.
As he conducted his work at the bar, he watched her interact with a table of customers who seemed captivated by her. She joked with them, smiling broadly, her laugh rising over the din of the room. Her eyes met his across the space again, as if she'd felt him watching her. She was aware of him, too.
Her posture, the slight apprehension in the way she held her shoulders when she looked at him, told him what he wanted to know. Part of it, anyway. She was hiding something, and by the end of the afternoon, he intended to know what it was.