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On a typical Monday, Owen MacGregor would have never set foot in Meg Ripley's restaurant. He would have done what he always did, which was drive up to the Java Hut, order a tall black coffee from dour Esther Grinnell and drive the final eighty miles home. But on this bleak October morning, when the sky looked as if it was about to unleash a wild storm on his corner of Montana, Esther's coffee shack was inexplicably shuttered and Owen needed food. Boo nuzzled his collar and Owen reached up and scratched the dog's chin.
"You hungry, too?" That was a dumb question, since the little mutt was always ready to eat. When he wasn't sleeping. Or sprawled on the couch watching television. Owen had found the skinny stray hanging around the barn weeks ago. He'd brought him inside, fed him and named him. Content with his new living arrangements, Boo now had little use for the outdoor life.
Owen hesitated at the flashing red light at the intersection of Highway 10 and Main. Two blocks to the right, at the north edge of town, was a hot breakfast with his name on it, along with bacon for the dog gazing out the window and wagging his tail. Boo was looking for McDonald's, his favorite place in the world, and expected a treat whenever he rode along in the truck. But Owen hadn't had an appetite two hours ago after his weekly trip to Hopewell Living Center, and had sped past the cluster of Great Fall's fast food restaurants next to the highway. It had taken some time for his mood to lift and his hunger to set in.
And now the thought of breakfast was strong enough to make him consider stepping into the Dirty Shame Cafe. Oh, the sign in front of the building read Willing Cafe, but folks born and bred in the area knew the place as "The Shame" and probably would always call it by its original name. He'd heard Meg had changed the name on the menus, but he also knew she couldn't fight history.
Boo whined and wagged and licked his ear, but Owen didn't smile. He rarely smiled these days . His own fault. He'd spent most of his adult life in an office, dealing with politicians and lawyers. He had a gift for dealing with difficult people, and he'd turned a law degree into one of the top environmental firms in the country.
And yet he rarely felt any degree of happiness.
Owen turned the steering wheel and stepped on the gas. The world wasn't going to come to an end if he walked into Meg Ripley's restaurant and ordered a couple of fried eggs.
With luck, she wouldn't be there.
With luck, she'd ignore him.
With luck, he'd be able to ignore her.
Owen didn't imagine his luck, meager as it was this morning, would hold. For one thing, he assumed Meg would be working. He also assumed she still lived in one of the original cabins adjacent to the restaurant. And ignore him? Well, that was the best he could hope for.
She was thirty-two, unfortunately young enough to remember their disastrous summer together, unlike his irate mother, who this morning had demanded he apologize for sitting on her cat even though she hadn't owned a cat in two decades, and he'd made the mistake when he was nine. His mother's memory had become increasingly faulty, her confusion more apparent this past year. He hadn't told her about his temporary move to the ranch; she assumed he was still working in DC and so far it hadn't occurred to her to question his weekly Sunday visits, though on the rare times she mentioned his work, he'd told her he'd taken some time off. She hadn't seemed to understand, which was just as well. Explaining he'd used the settlement of the ranch property as an excuse to leave an increasingly boring career would not have been easy. His mother had no love for the Triple M.
Boo whined again as Owen drove past the restaurant to find a parking spot in the lot next door. The dog believed "stop" equaled "food," and he was usually right.
Owen took a couple of minutes to stretch while Boo trotted over to a half-dead bush and lifted his leg. Then the dog hurried back to jump in the front seat, knowing he would be rewarded with food after guarding the truck while his owner was inside the building doing whatever humans did before they brought food to their loyal canines.
"I'll be back," Owen promised. He was talking to his dog a lot more often lately, which was the behavior of a man who had settled into a solitary lifestyle. No, he told himself, he wasn't going to turn into his late uncle, a grizzled loner who preferred dogs to people and rarely bathed. He didn't want to end up dying alone, freezing to death next to a barn, his body discovered a week later by a UPS driver. That was not a lifestyle Owen would willingly choose. Although lately he'd begun to wonder if he'd started down the "eccentric bachelor" path without being aware of it.
Damn. Hungry and lonely was a tough way to start the day.
"Do you think she'll marry me?"
"Of course not." Meg placed a plate piled high with bacon, eggs and hash browns in front of the hopeful suitor. She had no intention of coddling Joey Peckham, who was at this moment looking depressed, despite the fact that she'd just refilled his coffee and served him breakfast. "You must be out of your mind. She's not going to go out with you, so leave her alone."
"Deadly serious," she assured him.
"Aw, you're breaking my heart." He picked up his fork and, ignoring the paper napkin she'd slid next to his coffee cup, stabbed a chunk of fried egg. "And ruinin' my day, too, if you want to know."
"I'm not ruining anything. She danced with you once, at Pete's party," she reminded him. "It wasn't exactly a relationship."
"It could be. If she'd let it. If you'd talk her into giving me a chance." He spoke with his mouth full, so Meg turned away. Joey was six years younger than she was, but acted about fifteen instead of twenty-six. He needed to find himself a real, live girlfriend, the sooner the better, and stop imagining himself in love with every woman who two-stepped with him. Especially not with Lucia Swallow, who baked the restaurant's pies and was single-handedly raising three children since her husband had died in Afghanistan.
"You're hallucinating. Lucia is too old for you," she stated one more time over her shoulder, knowing as she said it that the only thing Joey wanted to hear was that she would support his romance.
Which she wouldn't. Lucia was a friend and Joey was an idiot.
"You don't know what it's like to be in love," Joey muttered.
"Maybe, maybe not. But I'm sure it's overrated."
"You have no heart," he said, looking down at his eggs again. "That's your problem."
"One of many," Meg agreed, trying not to laugh. "Really, Joe. Lucia's not the woman for you. And you're too young to be a father to those boys of hers."
He scowled down at his plate. "How come you know so much and you don't even have a boyfriend?"
"They're overrated, too." She gave in and laughed, all too familiar with comments about her private life. There were few secrets in such a small town. "And if you don't stop griping, I'll tell Lucia you have fourteen cats."
"That's my uncle. Not me."
Meg shrugged. "She'll think that kind of crazy runs in the family."
"We have dogs," Mr. Fargus interjected from his perch on the neighboring stool.
"Two poodles. Do you know my wife lets them dogs in the bed the minute she hears the back door slam shut? Every morning. None of them can wait for me to leave."
Meg could understand that. Ben Fargus, at the age of eighty-six, was a man who liked the sound of his own voice. Meg was accustomed to his opinions; they piled up like dirty dishes all morning long. She often wondered how his wife put up with him, but they'd been together for more than sixty years. By choice or habit, Meg had no idea, but poor Mrs. Fargus obviously had a lot of patience. Or was really good at pretending he didn't exist.
"Women," Joey said, shaking his head.
"So are poodles," Fargus stated. "Real smart, though."
"Huh," Joey said, letting that information sink in. "Meg, do you think Lucia would like a dog?"
What Lucia liked or didn't like wasn't any of Joey's business, so Meg pretended she didn't hear the question and poured more coffee into the halffull mugs lined up in front of the five retired men seated in their usual places at the counter. For many of her customers, breakfast at Willing's was a tradition only broken because of vacations, hospital stays or death. Despite such loyalty, Meg was always worried about making it through the winter.
"How's everyone doing? Martin, you need more half 'n' half?"
"I'm set, thanks."
It was a typical morning; the L-shaped room, as familiar to her as her own little house, was comfortably packed with the usual crowd. The mayor was holding his monthly meeting to discuss town business. The council members had pushed a couple of tables together in the back corner and from all appearances were involved in a serious discussion. Mondays were busy, but this morning had been almost hectic. There was something about the snow flurries and the gray sky that seemed to make folks want to get out and about while they still could, before a long, blizzard-filled winter began in earnest. And few seemed to be in any hurry to leave the snug warmth of the restaurant and head out into the wind.
Meg moved down the counter and dispersed coffee. The slender man on the last stool put his hand over his cup. "Thanks, Margaret, but I've had enough. Should be getting home, I guess."
"Okay." She paused in front of Mr. Ferguson, her former algebra teacher, who'd long since retired, and set his check on the counter. "How's Janet? I haven't seen her in a while."
"She's been busy getting ready for the quilt show. She's been in her sewing room for weeks." He smiled the indulgent smile of a man who loves his wife. "She says it's going to be quite a show."
"I'm looking forward to it," Meg said, knowing the annual event would give business a boost. "I bought an ad in the program. It's on Saturday, right?"
"Yes." He frowned, trying to remember. "Sunday, too, I think."
"I hope I can get over there to see it." She'd have to remember to ask one of the high school girls to fill in for her for a couple of hours after the noon rush. The quilt guild would be selling coffee and desserts during the show at the senior center, but Meg hoped a soup-and-sandwich special at the cafe would bring in a little extra business.
"What are they doing over there?" Fargus gestured toward members of the town council huddled around a large table at the far end of the room.
"Planning to raise taxes, I'll bet," George grumbled. "I'm getting damn tired of taxes."
"You could move to Florida," Martin said. Meg hid her smile. George, a creature of habit who had been born in Willing, didn't even like going to Billings.
"There's something going on," Fargus declared. "We'll hear about it soon enough. Jerry's got some idea. I can tell by the look on his face."
They all stared down at the far end of the room. Sure enough, the mayor seemed excited as one of the town elders read aloud from a sheet of paper.
"If they're raising taxes, then they're trying to figure out how to get blood from a stone," George grumbled. "I've half a mind to go over there and tell them so."
Fargus snorted. "Like that would do any good."
"Maybe I should get on the town council," Joey mused. "Women like men with power, right?"
Meg noticed John Ferguson and Martin Smith exchanging an amused look before John grabbed his cap and stood to leave.
"Thanks for breakfast, Margaret." He set six dollars by the empty coffee mug. "Guess I'll get home before the snow starts for real." He turned as the door jangled to announce another customer.
And it wasn't just any customer, either, because the sight of this one made Meg's stomach tense and her mouth go dry.
Owen MacGregor, master of all he surveyed, was a tall, imposing man. A down vest, unzipped, covered most of his wide chest, and he wore the typical Montana outfit: jeans, boots and plaid shirt. He politely stomped his feet on the worn doormat and removed his hat, but before he could move toward a seat, a white-haired man called his name. Meg watched as he greeted the Burk-harts, an elderly couple in the process of holding each other up as they made their way across the room. Owen MacGregor played the gentleman and opened the door for them, allowing another burst of cold air in. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was the best thing to ever walk into the room. Even Mr. Ferguson looked pleased as the two men talked for a minute before the teacher disappeared out into the cold.
"Well, this is a surprise," Martin declared quietly to his cronies at the counter. "Didn't think he remembered where he came from."
"With Eddie dead and gone, I don't think there's anyone to run things," George said. "Guess that forced his hand."
"Irene's in a nursing home in Great Falls now," one of the other men informed them. "I heard she gets confused easily. My daughter-in-law works there, says the boy visits her every week."
Yes, Meg thought. He was always a devoted son. She'd assumed the old witch would live forever, queen of all she surveyed. She couldn't picture the regal Mrs. MacGregor incapacitated in any way. The last time Meg had seen her was after the funeral, and the widow hadn't let Meg in the house. Still, it was sad to think of Irene MacGregor in a nursing home.
She watched Owen slide into an empty booth and shrug off his jacket. He set his gloves on the table and picked up a menu. Which meant she was supposed to scurry over there with coffee and take his order, just as if they barely knew each other?
This was true, actually. He was a stranger now, far different from the young man who'd told her he loved her and given her his grandmother's sapphire ring.
Meg still remembered the day she heard he'd left town. She'd cried in her mother's arms for hours.
"You'd better get on over there," one of the men said. "MacGregor doesn't spend much time in town, so this is a special occasion."
"You're right." She managed a cheerful smile. "And I need all the customers I can get."
Well, she could handle it. No problem. She'd give him a minute to read the menu, and then she would saunter over and pretend they were friends.