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Nick Benson tightened his grip on the steering wheel and fought against a press of anxiety as the road sign ahead read: Grady Gulch5 Miles.
A man wasn't supposed to feel this way when he was returning home after a two-year absence. He should be excited to connect with old friends and family, but instead each mile that took him closer to his hometown knotted the ball of anxiety in his belly tighter.
He hadn't wanted to come back to Grady Gulch, Oklahoma. In the past two years, he'd begun to slowly build a new life working as a ranch hand on an old friend's place in Texas.
Home had once been a happy place. Even though the Benson siblings had lost their parents at an early age, Nick's eldest brother, Sam, had managed not only to keep the family ranch prosperous, but he'd also kept them together as a unit. Now all of that had changed.
His sister was dead, his oldest brother was in jail and his other brother had fallen into the bottom of a bottle of booze.
His hands slowly unclenched from the steering wheel as in the distance he saw the massive billboard cowboy that topped the low, flat building of the Cowboy Cafe.
The cafe had been as much a part of Nick's life as his brothers and sister had been. On impulse, as he reached the eating establishment he pulled into the parking lot, deciding that at least he could enjoy a home-cooked meal before driving on to the family ranch and beginning to deal with the difficult issues that awaited him there.
It was just after one in the afternoon, and he'd been on the road since early morning. He'd stopped at a convenience store along the way for soda and a bag of chips, but that was all he'd eaten since leaving Texas just after dawn that morning. As he found a parking space in the lot, his stomach gave a loud rumble of anticipation.
He turned off his engine and looked at the building for a moment, remembering all the good times he and his sister and brothers had shared here. It wasn't unusual for the four of them to eat dinner together here at least twice a week.
Sam, the eldest and the most serious, played the role of parent, insisting that each of them order a side of vegetables to go with whatever else they had ordered. Adam emulated Sam, wanting to be just like the brother who was two years older than him. Meanwhile, Cherry was the one who would unscrew the top of the salt shaker just before Nick would salt his fries. She would sneak pickles off her brothers' plates and flirt shamelessly with any cowboy who walked in. By the time the meal was over, they were all laughing together. Then had come the car accident, and the laughter had died.
He shook his head as if he could dispel the very thought of the sister he had loved, the sister he had lost. There had been only two women in Nick's life who'd owned pieces of his heart, one was the sister he'd lost to death. The other he'd left behind in a fog of grief and despair.
Cherry was gone forever, but Nick had spent the past two years of his life trying to forget the other woman, and there were times in those two years he'd actually thought he'd been successful.
He finally got out of the truck and stretched with arms overhead to unkink the muscle knots that had claimed his body from hours behind the wheel. The scent of onions frying, potatoes and savory sauces filled the air, and his stomach rumbled with a new pang of hunger. Definitely time to fuel up. He had a feeling he was going to need all the strength he could muster to deal with whatever awaited him at the family ranch.
He knew that by walking into the cafe he'd probably be feeding the gossipmongers, but it wouldn't be the first time and it probably wouldn't be the last. Besides, might as well get it over with now, let people know he was back in town. By going inside the Cowboy Cafe, the word would shoot around Grady Gulch with the speed of a bullet.
As he walked into the restaurant, a little bell tinkled and he swept his black cowboy hat off his head, assuming the owner, Mary Mathis, still had her no-hats-while-eating rule in place.
Sure enough, as he looked at the wall next to the door, he saw an array of cowboy hats hanging from hooks, and he added his own to the unusual decor.
It was just late enough that the lunch rush was gone and there were only half a dozen people lingering either at the tables or at the long, polished counter.
As he made his way across the room to a booth on the other side, he was aware of several gazes following his progress. He slid into the booth and looked at the counter, where a waitress he'd never seen before poured coffee for one of the two men seated there.
He recognized one of the older men as George Wilton, the town's resident curmudgeon. George had probably been sitting at the counter since early morning, drinking coffee and complaining about anything and everything that crossed his mind. Some things never changed.
He smiled as he saw a familiar pretty blonde hurrying toward him. "Nick Benson! Well, aren't you a sight for sore eyes," Mary Mathis exclaimed.
Nick smiled at the woman who had owned the cafe for the past five years. "Yeah, I figured it was time I get back here and take care of some business. But before heading to the ranch, I thought I'd fill my belly with some of your food and maybe a piece of your famous pie. Sounds like I'm going to need all the strength I can muster," he said.
Mary's smile turned sympathetic. "I'm so sorry for your troubles, Nick. But, there's no question that Adam needs your help right now. The whole incident with Sam has nearly destroyed him. Rumor has it Adam is spending most of his time at The Corral, drinking himself into oblivion each night. He comes in here every once in a while looking like a broken, very hungover man."
"That's why I decided it was time to come home," Nick replied. "I could tell by the phone calls I was getting from him that things were definitely reaching a crisis point." He frowned as he thought of his older brother, who had in the past couple of weeks called him day and night, drunker than a skunk and begging him to come home.
"He needs you, Nick," Mary said, and then looked back toward the kitchen area behind the counter. "I've got to get back there. I'm teaching Junior how to make an apple pie, and if I'm not there watching his every move he'll have that pie crust turned into a smiley face. I'll send a waitress right out to take care of you."
"Thanks," Nick replied. He smiled as he thought of Junior Lempke. The shy, mentally challenged man in his mid-thirties had worked for Mary since she'd bought the place. He'd started as a busboy, with the simple task of clearing tables after diners left. It hadn't taken long for Mary to recognize that he was capable of doing more under close supervision.
It was nice to think Mary was now working with Junior to do some of the cooking. Although extremely shy and withdrawn with most people, Junior appeared not to have a mean bone in his big body.
Nick pulled the menu from where it stood between the salt and pepper shakers and opened it, although he already knew that his stomach was crying out for one of Mary's famous burgers and a side of her thick-cut, deep-fried onion rings.
What he didn't want to think about was the mess that had once been his family. Sam was in jail for attempted murder, Cherry was dead from a car accident and Adam was on an alcoholic downward spiral to disaster. Welcome home, he thought ruefully.
He sensed somebody moving to his side and looked up. He wasn't sure who radiated more stunned surprise, him or the woman clad in the black Cowboy Cafe T-shirt and tight jeans, the dark-haired woman he'd spent the past two years trying to forget.
"Courtney " Her name fell from his lips in utter shock. "Wha what are you doing here?"
The surprise that had momentarily flittered across her pretty features was usurped by a black stare that displayed no emotion whatsoever. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm working. Now, what can I get for you?"
Her features might not show any emotion, but he couldn't help but notice the slight tremble of her hands as she clutched an order pad and pencil.
"But why aren't you in Evanston?" he asked. Evan-ston was a small town almost thirty miles away where she had lived with her parents when he'd left town. He'd just assumed by now she'd be married to one of the respectable, financially well-off suitors her parents had paraded before her as potential husband material.
"I'm not in Evanston because I'm here," she replied tersely. "Are you ready to order or not?"
She was lovelier now than she'd been when they'd dated, before he'd blown out of town on a wild wind of grief. Her dark hair was longer and her features had matured from pretty to almost beautiful. She'd always been slender, but now there was a little more curve to her body.
Why was she waitressing in Grady Gulch when she could be in Evanston, where her father was the mayor and her mother ruled the social scene?
"You know, I've never stopped thinking about you," he said softly. He'd tried. God, he'd tried to forget her.
"You want a cup of coffee to go with that plate of crap?"
He sat back in the booth, as if physically thrown there by both the vitriol in her voice and the hardness that gleamed in her emerald-green eyes. For a long moment he was speechless.
"Order up or move along," she said. "I've got other customers and things to deal with."
He frowned. "I'll have a cheeseburger and onion rings and a tall glass of milk."
"Got it," she replied and then whirled away to leave the booth as if chased by the very devil himself.
Nick stared after her and wondered what had happened in the past two years that had brought her to this place in time, working as a waitress thirty miles from her hometown.
In the two years that he'd been gone, had the world gone crazy? George Wilton looked perfectly content at the counter as he finished his meal. Adam had become a drunken shadow of the man he'd once been, and the woman he'd once loved with all his heart was in a place where she didn't belong.
The worst part was he had a dreadful feeling this was just the beginning, that things were going to get crazier before they got better. He'd better prepare himself for more surprises that lie ahead.
Courtney Chambers placed Nick's order with Rusty the cook and then sank down in a chair in the kitchen area, her legs shaking so hard she might never walk again.
She should have expected that he'd eventually come back home, especially after Sam and Adam's recurrent plunge into despair. And she should have expected that if he did come back to Grady Gulch, he'd eventually make his way back into the Cowboy Cafe.
But she hadn't been expecting it to be today, and in the very depths of her heart she'd hoped she'd never see him again. Just looking into the brightness of his blue eyes had brought back all the heartbreak, all the anguish he'd left behind when he'd disappeared from Grady Gulch without a word on the day that his sister had been buried.
She'd loved him as she'd never loved another man, had given herself to him and only him with the notion that eventually they'd get married and raise a family together. And then he'd disappeared and she'd never heard from him again.
She straightened in her chair as Mary touched her shoulder. "Are you okay?" Mary looked at her worriedly.
"I'm fine," Courtney said with forced reassurance. The last thing she wanted to do was bother her boss, the woman who had been equal parts employer and surrogate mother to her for the past two years.
"Are you sure?" Mary raised a pale blond eyebrow.
"I'm good. Just resting my feet for a minute or two while Rusty gets my order ready," she replied, knowing that it was very rare she simply sat to wait for an order.
Mary eyed her skeptically for a long moment and then nodded and moved back to where she had been working with Junior. Courtney sighed in relief. She didn't want to lie to Mary, who had been so good to her, but she also didn't want anyone to know how badly seeing Nick again had affected her. She'd thought she was emotionally dead where he was concerned, but she was apparently wrong.
"Order up," Rusty said, and Courtney reluctantly got to her feet, knowing she'd have to look at him again. She filled a big glass with milk and then grabbed the plate from the pass window and headed back to the booth where Nick sat.
Why hadn't he gotten obese in the two years since she'd last seen him? Why hadn't he grown a beer belly and jowls? Why hadn't that charming cleft in his chin fallen off his handsome face? Or his broad shoulders turned to toothpicks?
Why, oh why, after everything that had happened, did her heart still lurch more than a little bit at the sight of his thick dark hair, his chiseled features and those amazing blue eyes?
She was so over him. She'd moved on, and he had no place in her heart, in her life. He deserved nothing from her but the plate of food she slid down in front of him along with the glass of milk and the edge of contempt that welled up inside her.
She started to leave the table but gasped in surprise as he grabbed her by the wrist to stop her escape. "It isn't that busy," he said. "Why don't you sit with me for a minute or two?"
"Why would I want to do that?" she replied as she pulled her wrist from his grasp. Her need to escape was overwhelming, but she didn't want him to see that he bothered her in any way, that he still had any power at all over her.
"I don't know. I thought maybe we could catch up a little bit."
"Why?" She forced a light laugh. "I mean honestly, Nick, what on earth would we have to talk about? You've been gone for two years. We've both moved on with our lives."
He studied her intently, and she kept her features carefully schooled so as not to display any of the turmoil that twirled around in her stomach. "I should have called you," he finally said.
Her stomach clenched. "Yes, you should have," she agreed. "But, you didn't, and time went by and life went on. It's all water under the bridge. Now, is there anything else I can get for you?"
"Not at the moment," he replied after a long hesitation.
She turned and left the booth, but she was aware of his gaze lingering on her, heating the center of her back. She escaped back to the safety of the kitchen and once again pasted a smile on her lips.
Instead of keeping Nick Benson in her mind, she thought of Grant Hubert, the man she'd been dating for the past two months.
Grant was everything Nick hadn't been dependable and mature. He was thirty-five, the vice president of the local bank, and he'd been the first man she'd allowed into her life in any way since Nick.
Grant didn't stir in her the same crazy emotions that Nick had once evoked. Instead he felt solid and predictable, and that was exactly what she needed in her life at this moment.