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"Do you know what your problem is, Eloise?"
"I didn't know I had a problem, Gran." Eloise Tipple held the diner's heavy glass door for her frail grandmother and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Her helpful gran had been doling out a lot of advice over the past three months, ever since Eloise returned home to the small town of Wild Horse, Wyoming. "When I look at my life, I see blue skies. No trouble of any kind."
"Then you aren't looking closely enough, my dear." Edie Tipple padded by, the hem of her sensible summer dress fluttering lightly in the wind. "Your life has been derailed. I intend to fix that."
"It wasn't derailed, Gran. I had a car accident, not a train accident," she quipped. She let the diner's door swoosh shut, adjusted her pink metallic cane and followed the sprightly elderly lady toward a gleaming 1963 Ford Falcon. She hoped humor would derail her grandmother because Eloise knew precisely what track Edie was on. "Are you going to stop by the church before you head home?"
"Don't try and change the subject on me." Gran hauled open her car door. "It wasn't fair the way you lost your career and your fiancé."
"We had only discussed marriage, he hadn't actually proposed to me."
"That's still a big loss. It cost you so much." Gran rolled down the window, cranking away on the old-fashioned handle. "I have a solution in mind."
"A solution?" Oh, boy. She gave her long blond hair a toss. The car accident had ended her ice-dancing career, a career she had desperately loved, and her heart had been broken by a man who left her for someone else. At twenty-four, a girl didn't want to feel as if the best part of her life was behind her. She didn't want to think there were no more dreams left in store. "You don't mean another blind date?"
"There's nothing blind about it. I know the boy's grandmother. He's the one for you, Eloise. I can feel it in my bones." Gran folded herself elegantly behind the wheel, diminutive in stature but great of spirit. Her silver curls fluttered with the brush of the breeze as she clicked her lap belt.
"I don't want to go on another fix-up." Eloise gently closed the heavy car door with a thud. "The last twelve have been complete disasters. I don't want to be tortured anymore."
"How hard can it be to have a nice dinner with a young man? " Gran recovered her car key from behind the visor and plugged it into the ignition. The engine roared to life with a rumble and a big puff of smoke. "His name is George, and he's an up-and-comer. I have it on good authority that he's a hard worker and very tidy. That's important when you're considering a man as marriage material."
"Sure. I'll make a note of it." Eloise, unable to stop herself, rolled her eyes.
"I saw that, young lady." Gran chuckled. "You don't want to work at the inn for the rest of your days, do you?"
"I don't know. I like my job. I'm trying not to look too far ahead. My future may be an endless line of one blind date after another. Scary. Better to live in the moment." She pushed away from the car door. "Thanks for meeting me for lunch, Gran."
"Then I'll tell Madge to tell George it's a date." Gran put the car into reverse. "Friday night at the diner. Don't frown, dear. Hebrews 11:1. Believe."
"I'll try." At this point, she was a skeptic when it came to happily-ever-afters. She was recovering from a broken heart. Love hadn't turned out well for her. Could she endure one more blind date?
She simply would have to find a way. The hot, late May sun chased her as she circled around to her car, slipped behind the steering wheel and dropped onto the vinyl seat. Hot, hot, hot. Eloise rolled down the window and switched on the air conditioner, which sputtered unenthusiastically. She swiped bangs from her forehead and backed out of the space.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That was the verse Gran had referenced, and it stayed on her mind as she drove down the dusty, one-horse main street. The precise stretch of sidewalk-lined shops, the march of trees from one end of town to the other, hadn't changed much since she was a child.
Way up ahead on the empty street, a pair of ponies plodded into sight, ridden by two little girls heading toward the drive-in. They were probably getting ice cream. Memories welled up, good ones that made her smile as she motored toward the library.
She caught sight of the grill of the sheriff's Jeep peeking around the lilac bush next to the library sign. Sheriff Ford Sherman had his radar set up and was probably reading a Western paperback to pass the time between the span of cars.
She glanced at her speedometertwenty-four miles an hour. Safe. She waved at the sheriff who looked up from his book and waved back.
Ice cream. That was an idea. There was nothing like the Steer In's soft ice-cream cones. Her mouth watered, clinching her decision. She had plenty of time left on her lunch hour and the temptation was too great to resist.
She hit her signal, crossed over the dotted yellow line and rolled into the drive-in's lot. The girls on their ponies had ridden up to the window in the drive-thru lane and one of the animals looked a little nervously at the approaching car's grill, so she slipped into a slot and parked beneath the shady awning. A brightly lit and yellowed display menu perched above an aging speaker. She rolled her window down the rest of the way and hot, dry air breezed in, no match for the struggling air conditioner.
"Eloise!" A teenager on roller skates gave an awkward wave and almost dropped her loaded tray. "Hi!"
"Hi, Chloe." She unbuckled so she could lean out the window. Chloe Walters still had the exuberant disposition she'd had as a small child, when Eloise had babysat her. "That's right, school is out for the year. Are you a senior now?"
"Yep. One more year and freedom." Chloe nearly dropped her tray again as she swept forward on choppy strokes of her skates and grabbed the edge of the speaker so she wouldn't crash into the car. "It's so cool you are working at the inn. We went there for dinner for Mom's birthday and it was really fancy."
"It is a nice place to work." The Lord had been looking out for her when she'd landed the job as executive manager at the Lark Song Inn. Good thing she had a business degree to fall back on. "How about you? I didn't know you worked at the drive-in."
"It's new. I really love it. I get all the ice cream I can eat." She grinned, her smile perfect now that her braces were off, and nearly spilled the contents of her tray yet again. "I'd better go deliver this before it melts. Do you know what you want? "
"A small chocolate soft ice-cream cone." The large size was tempting, but she'd never get it eaten before she was back behind the front desk. "Thanks, Chloe."
"I'll get it in just a minute!" The teenager, eager to please, dashed off with a clump, clump of her skates.
A big, dark blue pickup rolled to a stop in the space beside her. Tinted windows shielded any glimpse of the driver, but she recognized the look of a ranch truck when she saw it. The haphazard blades of hay caught in the frame of the cab's back window, dust on the mud flaps and the tie-downs marching along the bed were all telltale signs. The heavy duty engine rumbled like a monster as it idled, a testimony to the payload it was capable of hauling.
Chloe, her tray now empty, skated as fast as she could go up to the far side of the pickup. Eloise lost sight of the teenager, but judging by the speed with which she'd crossed the lot, it was someone she knew or wanted to. Remembering what it was like to be a teenager in this town, she smiled. She'd worked part-time in the library after school shelving books and hadn't had the chance to meet too many cute high school boys on the job. A serious downside to being a librarian's assistant.
An electronic jangle caught her attention, and she reached over the gearshift to dig through the outside pocket of her purse for her cell phone. No surprise to see the Lark Song Inn on her caller ID. A manager's job was never done. "Let me guess. The computer system froze up again."
"Good guess." It was her boss and the owner of the inn, Cady Winslow. "But after crashing twice this morning, the computer has given up the fight and has accepted it is going to have to talk with the printer."
"Maybe it's a lover's quarrel. Now they have made up and all is well." Since she was in her purse, she dug out a few dollar bills. "Maybe it will be a happily-ever-after for the two of them."
"It had better be. If their differences of opinion last and they refuse to talk, a breakup may be pending. The printer might have to move out and we'll never see him again." Cady's sunny sense of humor made it easy to work for her. "I know you're on your break, but I'm taking off and I want to make sure you see this text. It's from my little goddaughter and I think it is about the cutest thing I've seen in a while."
"Here it is. I'll see you bright and early for the staff meeting tomorrow? "
"I'll be the one holding the jumbo-sized cup of coffee and yawning."
"Jumbo-sized coffee cups. I'll put that in my to-buy list." Laughing, Cady said goodbye and hung up.
"Here!" Something clattered and clanked, drawing her attention as she scrolled through her phone's list. Chloe held out her hand. "It will be a dollar fifty."
"Keep the change." Eloise handed over the bills and took the ice-cream cone thrust at her. She was trying to scroll through her phone at the same time, so she didn't instantly notice the ice cream was the wrong flavor.
"Hey, Chloe!" She hung out the window, but it was too late. No Chloe in sight. A tall, broad shouldered shadow crowned by a wide Stetson fell across the pavement. The shadow strolled closer accompanied by the substantial pad of a cowboy's confident gait as he moseyed into view.
"I think there was a mix-up," he said in a deep baritone, layered with warmth and humor. "The little waitress didn't look like she had things together. Is this yours?"
" She might be able to answer him if she could rip her gaze away from the shaded splendor of his face.
That turned out to be nearly impossible. The strong, lean lines of his cheekbones, the sparkling blue eyes and the chiseled jaw held her captive. He looked vaguely familiar, but her neurons were too stunned to fire.
Wow. That was the only word her beleaguered brain could come up with. Wow. Wow. Wow.
"I think the car-hop girl is new at this." He swaggered over with an athletic, masculine gait.
If only his drop-dead gorgeous smile wasn't so amazing, her command of the English language might have a chance of returning. She might be able to agree with him or at least point out that Chloe was simply being Chloe.
"You didn't order a chocolate ice-cream cone?" He was near enough now that she could see the crystal blue sparkles in his irises and the smooth texture of his shaven jaw. The gray T-shirt he wore clung to muscled biceps.
Again, wow. Fortunately, the power of thought returned to her brain and she was able to move her mouth and emit a semblance of an intelligent word or two. "I did. This must be yours."
"Pink ice cream. Really?" She felt a smile stretch the corners of her mouth. She arched one brow as she held out the paper-wrapped cone.
"Hey, it's strawberry, not pink." His chuckle was brief but it rumbled like dreams. He plucked the cone out of her hand and offered her the chocolate one. "That looks good. I thought about keeping it. Tell me something."
"I'm not sure that I should." She daintily licked the cone before it decided to start dripping.
"Why do you look familiar?" He leaned back against the steel arm holding the speaker and menu. "I've seen you somewhere before."
"I thought the same thing." Looking up at him with the dark Stetson shading his face and bright sunshine framing him in the background, the realization struck her like a falling meteor. She had not only seen him before, she knew him. She remembered a younger version of the handsome cowboy on the back of a horse riding through town years ago before she left town, attending the church service in a suit and tie, and in the back of the Grangers' pickup as they motored away from the diner. "You're Sean, one of Cheyenne's cousins."
"You know Cheyenne?"
"We've been best friends since kindergarten." Long distances could not change true friendship. "I'm the one with the white mare. Cheyenne and I used to always go riding."
"Now I remember." He took a bite of ice cream and nodded, his bright blue gaze traveling over her as he considered the past. "You have a gorgeous horse. Almost as fast as Cheyenne's girl."
"On the right day, sometimes she was faster. She still is." A drip landed on her knuckle, reminding her she was holding ice cream, which was obviously starting to melt. "What are you doing this far south? Don't you live with your family up near Buffalo?"
"Used to, but they tossed me out of the nest. My dad wanted me to get my master's, but I've been begging my uncle Frank for a job for years. He finally gave in."
"That's hard to believe."
"I know, that's what I tell him every day. But I'm determined not to be a disappointment." He winked, his easygoing humor only making him more attractive. He gave off the aura of a man confident of his masculinity so he didn't need to flaunt it.
"I wasn't talking about your work, I was wondering why you turned down the chance for more schooling? Why would you choose to live in Wild Horse?"
"Why not? What's not to like?" Dimples flirted with the corners of his chiseled mouth. "Clean air, more freedom than a guy knows what to do with and I get to ride my horse every day all day. There's nothing better than that."