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Ten-thirty on Monday night, and it was past closing time at Texas Chili Witches Café. Sunny Payton closed out the register while the late staff, dressed in their jeans and red Chili Witches T-shirts, bussed the tables and cleaned the kitchen. Coming off a twelve-hour shift, she was bone tired, her feet ached and she was ready to go upstairs and soak in an herbal-scented bath for about a week and a half.
After she stowed the receipts in the office safe, she let her employees out the back door, calling good-night and seeing they all got in their cars safely.
"Jeff, I want to hear that you aced your chem test," she said to a tall, lanky blond.
He grinned. "You're as bad as my mama."
"Worse," she said, grinning back. "A million times worse."
Most of the staff were students from the University of Texas, working flex hours to pay for those cars or buy books, which were outrageous these days, even more costly than when she was in school nearly a dozen years ago. The cooks had left earlier, one of the perks of their job. The students came and went, but the cooks and a couple of others were longtime employees. Many of them had worked for her mother and Aunt Min when they ran the place.
Sunny checked the kitchen, then made a last trip through the two dining areas with the scarred, red-topped tables and rough cedar walls filled with Texas memorabilia, funny signs and assorted collectibles. The kitschy wall decor was swapped out occasionally, and the computer and register were state-of-the-art, but not much else had changed for as long as she could remember.
She was reaching for the light switch when she saw him.
Her heart lurched as italways did. He sat at his usual corner table, a cup of coffee near his hand.
"Hello, Sunny." He smiled. "Busy day?"
She nodded and sat down beside him. "Very. We had a little cold snap today, and everybody in Austin was in the mood for chili. It's supposed to be back up to ninety by the weekend, so things will be manageable again. I haven't seen you for a while."
He smiled. "Miss me?"
"I always miss you, Senator."
"How's your sister?"
"Cass is settling in and doing well. It's good to have her home. Now she and I can share the work, and Mom has finally been able to retire completely."
"That's good. I'll have to drop in on Cassidy."
Sunny laughed. "You do, and you'll scare the pants off her."
He smiled. "It's good to hear you laugh again."
"Oh, I laugh a lot these days."
"Glad to hear it. Maybe now you're ready to meet a special fellow."
She shook her head. "I already did. Brian. He was special. I don't need anyone else." And she didn't. Brian was the love of her life. When he'd died, a part of her had died, as well.
"Honey, it's been three years since—"
"Sunny!" her sister yelled from the back.
"Sounds like Cassidy," the Senator said, tenderness filling his eyes.
"Ignore her." Sunny absently reached to touch his arm. As usual, her hand only touched the table.
"Your sister is tough to ignore."
"Who are you talking to?" Cassidy asked as she charged into the room.
Cass rolled her eyes. "Oh, gawd! Not that again. I just got home from the play and decided I want a beer." She walked behind the small bar and grabbed a mug. "Want one?"
"You know I hate beer."
Cass drew a draft and joined Sunny at the table.
"How was the play?"
"How was the date?"
"Abysmal. He had an ego the size of Texas and a brain the size of Rhode Island. If I ever agree to another blind date, tie me to a chair."
Sunny laughed and glanced toward the Senator.
He was gone.
And so was his cup.
Wonder what had prompted his visit? With him, one never knew.
At noon on Wednesday, Sunny was helping clear a couple of empty tables when she spotted two very tall guys hanging their white ten-gallons on the hat rack by the door. When they turned around, she sucked in a little gasp—and she rarely did that, but these two were unusually good-looking men. Texas Rangers by the looks of the silver badges on their dress shirts and the narrowed cop eyes that quickly scanned the room.
As she approached, the dark-haired one grinned and said, "Boy howdy, it smells good in here."
The sandy-haired one only smiled slightly, dipped his head and stared at her with the greenest eyes she'd ever seen. Taken aback by their color and the intensity of his look, an odd feeling flashed over her.
She forced herself to break eye contact. "And everything tastes as good as it smells. First time at Chili Witches?"
"Yes, ma'am," the dark-haired one said, "but I 'spect it won't be the last if your chili is as good as I've heard it is."
"Count on it," Sunny said. "It's an old family recipe we've been making here for over forty years. We have mild, medium and 'hotter than hell,' as well as a vegetarian version. Don't try the 'hotter than hell' unless you have a well-seasoned mouth and a cast-iron belly. Grab any table that suits you. The one in the corner is free."
The men looked at each other. "Anywhere you want is fine with me," the sandy-haired one said. "You like to keep your back to the wall, Outlaw?"
The men started for the corner table, but Sunny stopped in her tracks. Outlaw? It was not a common name, but not that unusual, either. Although she rarely heard it. Was it possible…? Nah.
She followed them to the table as they sat down. Picking up two menus wedged between the sugar dispenser and a black minicaldron of saltine packets, she handed them to the Rangers. "Your server will be with you in a minute. May I get you something to drink?"
"Iced tea would be mighty nice," the dark-haired one said. He was a charmer. A married charmer by the looks of his shiny gold ring.
"Iced tea for me, too," said Green Eyes as he gave her the once-over.
His left hand was bare. Not that his marital state mattered to Sunny one way or another. She wasn't in the market for a man. But she had to admit his slow perusal revved her motor just a little. Just her pesky hormones acting up, she decided as she hurried to the drink station. She ignored the ominous tingle rising along her spine, the one that usually warned of some momentous or unusual happening.
The Senator suddenly materialized behind the bar. "Mighty nice-looking young fellow," he said.
"Which one?" she asked, being careful to keep her back to the room.
"Both of them, but I was thinking of the green-eyed one for you."
She made a snort. "Forget that," she muttered out of the side of her mouth. "Don't meddle in my love life."
He smiled. "What love life?"
When she headed back to the table with their tea, the one called Outlaw was staring at her and frowning.
"Is something wrong?" Sunny asked.
"No, no. Everything's just fine, but I'm trying to remember where I know you from. Have we met before?"
"I don't think so," Sunny said.
"You sure look familiar."
"Maybe I just have one of those faces." She ought to let it drop and leave, but a funny little feeling tickled the back of her neck. She just had to ask. "Did I hear you're called Outlaw?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Sam Bass Outlaw at your service."
What felt like a five-pound rock hit her stomach and bounced. "Sam Bass Outlaw?"
"That's me. My granddaddy was big on all his descendants having the names of famous outlaws. He claimed it was good name recognition for anyone in business or politics—or law enforcement. I've got three brothers and a sister all named for shady characters and all in some kind of law enforcement— except my sister, and she used to be an FBI agent before she quit and bought a newspaper. There's Cole Younger Outlaw, Jesse James Outlaw, Frank James Outlaw, and Belle Starr Outlaw. My daddy was John Wesley Hardin Outlaw, and his brother was—"
"Butch Cassidy Outlaw," Sunny finished before she could stop herself.
Sam's eyebrows went up. "How'd you know that?"
She sighed. Had the Senator engineered this whole thing? "My name is Sunny Outlaw Payton—or more accurately, Sundance Outlaw Payton. Butch Cassidy Outlaw was my father."
Sam looked puzzled. "But Uncle Butch and his—"
"I know. But he was my father."
"Are you sure?"
She turned and hurried away.
"What was that all about?" Ben McKee asked Sam.
"I'm not quite sure, but I think I just met my cousin. Now I remember why she looks familiar. She reminds me of my sister, Belle. Both tall, brunette. Same eyes. Same nose. Well, I'll be damned."
"And you never knew you had a cousin?"
"Nope, not by Uncle Butch. I don't even remember him, but I know he and Aunt Iris never had children."
"His wife in Naconiche. I never liked her much. She was a sour-faced old prune who put the fear of God into us kids if we so much as spilled a cookie crumb on her settee. I hated to go visit her."
"I take it your uncle is dead," Ben said.
Sam nodded. "Somebody shot him thirty years ago. Right on the steps of the capitol building. Be funny if it was Aunt Iris. Well, not funny, but ironic."
"They didn't catch his killer?"
"Nope. Never did."
"She's a beautiful woman," Ben said.
"You interested?" Sam asked.
"Me, too," Sam said. "But in a different way than you are. I've got to call my folks. They're not going to believe this."
"I don't imagine your aunt Iris is going to be happy about it."
"Aunt Iris is long gone."
"May be, for all I know. She married a preacher about fifteen or twenty years ago and moved to Des Moines. We haven't heard from her since. Not even a Christmas card."
Their chili came, served by the young man who was their waiter. He also delivered a cauldron of the oyster crackers they'd ordered along with chopped onions and a couple of kinds of grated cheese. They both dug in. This was good chili. No, it was great chili. But hot. Real hot.
"Are you sure we ordered the medium?" Ben asked.
"Hoo-wee," Sam said, "this stuff is hotter than a three-dollar pistol. But good. I'll bet the hottest kind would blister the paint off a butane tank. Dump some of those oyster crackers in it. And some of that cheese. Cuts down on the fire."
Ben doctored up his bowl and ate the whole thing. His forehead was a little damp when he finished, but he'd enjoyed it. A girl came by and refilled their iced tea glasses. He chugged the second glass and looked around for Sunny, but she still hadn't reappeared. Where had she gone?
Sam must have read his mind. "Wonder where Sunny ran off to?"
Ben shrugged. "I was wondering the same thing."
When the waiter came to get dessert orders, Sam asked him about Sunny.
"She must be in the office."
"The office? She the manager?" Ben asked.
"Owner and manager. One of them. How about some peach cobbler with ice cream? Or pecan pie?"
They both ordered cobbler.
"How long has Sunny been the owner and manager of this place?" Sam asked the waiter before he could leave.
"Couple of years, I think. She took over from her mother and her aunt before I started working here."
"From her mother?"
The waiter nodded. "Her mother and aunt started the café. My grandfather says he's been coming here since it opened back in the seventies. That was way before Austin built up so much downtown. I'll get your cobbler."
Sunny sat in her office for a long time, staring out the window at the courtyard and fighting the urge to go back and ask Sam Bass Outlaw about his family. Her family. Her family and Cassidy's. She'd always longed to meet them, but her mother would have been mortified if she'd tried. Probably still would be.
Should she tell Cass who had just dropped into Chili Witches? Knowing her twin, Cass would go charging to his table and demand answers. She picked up the phone to call upstairs, then put it back down again.
Maybe it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
A couple of days later, Ben McKee managed to shake loose from a case he'd been working on by lunchtime. He'd had a hankering for some more chili ever since he and Sam had visited Chili Witches. He'd had a hankering to see Sunny again, as well. She was a good-looking woman with a warm smile, and he'd been thinking about her a good bit. He hadn't been in Austin long and hadn't had much time to meet any ladies.
Oh, his sister Tracy had been trying to fix him up with this one and that, but he'd sidestepped her efforts at matchmaking. He wasn't interested in the type of women she wanted to introduce him to—the picket fence and happily-ever-after kind. He'd tried that, and he was still paying the price for it. Only thing good that had come from his marriage was his son, Jay.
He grinned at the thought of his five-year-old towhead as he pulled into a parking spot by the café. God, he loved that little boy. No way in hell was his ex getting her hands on him again. Marla had never wanted Jay; she was a party girl and having a kid cramped her style. Having a husband had cramped it, too.
Ben spotted Sunny the moment he walked in the door. Her back was to him, but he'd recognize the curve of her jeans anywhere. When she turned and spotted him, she grinned.