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Thedoor door suddenly burst open, sending a gritty It spray of sand over the newly polished wooden floor. Three men filled the entrance to the restaurant that smelled of fresh paint and baked apple pie. Their glances swept the interior, pausing briefly on Everett Billings standing at the kitchen door, before moving on to fix their stares on Rose Dubois and Kate McDermott. The man in the middle mumbled a lewd remark, and the others snorted in laughter.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen, but the restaurant isn't open," Everett Billings said nervously.
"It is now," the barrel-chested man in the middle said. They entered and headed for a table in the corner. Two more men followed, and another trailed behind.
The last man to enter held Rose's attention. He was tall, his legs long and muscular, and a holstered Colt was tied to his thigh. Unlike the other five men he didn't slouch or shuffle, but crossed the floor in a smooth, loping stride, his broad shoulders squared but relaxed, and his head held high in a way that suggested pride rather than arrogance.
Rose couldn't see what he had to be proud about. He was dressed just as grubbily as the motley crew he accompanied: wom Levi's, shirt, and vest, dusty, run-down-at-the-heels boots, and a battered, sweatstained Stetson.
Yet he stood out like a peacock amidst a gaggle of geese.
And the gang sounded just as disruptive as the honking fowl, boisterously loud as they scraped chairs across the floor to seat themselves at a table in the comer.
"Why did they have to sit down at one of my tables?" Kate whispered to Rose, as they filled a tray with glasses of icewater.
"Your lucky day, honey," Rose murmured.
"I don't think so." Kate picked up the tray and hurried over to the table.
The Harvey rules required all men to wear suit jackets in the dining room. There wasn't a jacket among this crew, but Rose doubted the manager would insist they don the ones offered to male customers for such emergencies. Billings had made a hasty exit into the kitchen the moment the group sat down.
Just their bad luck that she and Kate had arrived early; the other three Harvey Girls weren't due for another fifteen minutes.
As Rose continued slicing pies in preparation for the dinner train arriving in an hour, she watched poor Kate taking the men's orders.
Fred Harvey himself had handpicked Rose for this assignment, putting her in charge of the other four girls in the limited crew he'd sent in to "test the waters." Brimstone was still primitive and lawless, so the question was whether it would be advisable to build a larger Harvey House and make the town a scheduled dining stop on this trunk line of the Santa Fe.
The few honest and decent folks in the area had welcomed the possibility. Law and order had always followed after the arrival of Harvey Girls in the other towns along the route of the Santa Fe Railroad where Fred Harvey had established restaurants. It was common knowledge that the fine cuisine he offered, served on fine china and Waterford crystal by the hands of these pretty waitresses of fine moral character, was helping to tame the West as much as the Colt revolvers and Springfield rifles in the hands of courageous lawmen.
Since Rose's quest for a rich husband had proven unsuccessful after two years at the Harvey House in New Mexico, she had welcomed the transfer. A new location offered new faces and new hope.
However, in the week she'd been here, she'd seen that Brimstone offered nothing but sand, scorpions, and shiftless drifters like this gang. The so-called sheriff was as bad as the men he jailed. And her hope of finding a wealthy rancher was slimmer thanthe town's chance of finding an honest sheriff.
At a sudden outburst of loud laughter, Rose glanced over in time to see a blushing Kate walk away, followed by bawdy remarks and lewd glances. There were tears in the girl's eyes as she passed by Rose.
Why had Harvey sent a sweet girl like Kathleen McDermott to the lawless town of Brimstone? Fresh off a Wisconsin farm, the dark-haired young girl had a naive, wide-eyed innocence that belonged in a drawing room drinking tea with family and friends, not serving coffee to boisterous cowboys in a godforsaken town like Brimstone.
Though these men weren't cowboys any more than Rose was. In the West one fact was undeniable: working cowboys always treated a woman with respect and reverence; no man dared insult a lady in the presence of one of them. These men were ruffians -- good -- for-nothing drifters. Or even worse, gunslingers.
"Hey, sister, you here to help or just to look at?" one of them called out to her.
The gravel-voiced speaker was a big man whose flesh had begun to slide into bulkiness. Bushy dark brows hovered above gray eyes that were as icy as a morning in January. His cheeks and jaws were covered with a black beard.
"Are you addressing me, sir?" Rose asked coolly.
"Rather be undressing you, sweetheart. Right, boys?"
That brought another round of laughter and ribald comments from the others, except the tall one. He sat silently staring at her.
"Tell your girlfriend to hurry with that grub, and hustle your bustle over here and pour us some coffee.
What a rude excuse for a man! Rose picked up the coffeepot and stalked over to the table, determined to put him in his place.
"You want it in a cup, or should I pour it directly into your big mouth?"
"Hey, Jess, she's, sure got your number," one of the men said amidst their guffaws.
Jess appeared to lose his sense of humor when...The MacKenzies: Zach. Copyright © by Ana Leigh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.