Maggie smiled at the good-looking cowboy who had planted himself opposite her at the counter. He had come in here every day for the past few weeks and wasn’t showing any signs of getting tired of her cooking—or her company—yet.
“Morning, Maggie. I’ll take a coffee and one of those cinnamon buns, please.” His baby-blue eyes twinkled as he removed his hat and placed it on the stool beside him.
“Coming right up. This is getting to be a regular habit, isn’t it?” She grinned at him. “Not that I’m complaining, of course.”
“Yeah. No one cooks like you do. It’s well worth the trip.” He took the plate from her, sniffing the fresh cinnamon.
“Oh, right.” She felt a little disappointed.
He must have noticed her expression. “You sure know the way to a man’s heart,” he added quickly.
Good save. She snickered. “Well, I wish that was all it took,” she joked.
He raised his eyebrows, taking a swig of his coffee. “You’re not gonna tell me you’re single?”
She giggled. “I sure am,” she told him, admiring his subtle way of asking. “I know it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” She put a hand to the back of her head, posing like a model. Sticking her nose in the air, she gave him a blasé look before bursting into laughter. She knew she was a little too old and a lot too fat to pull off a super-model appearance, but she was having fun pretending. In truth, she was still in her twenties, but she felt more like a hundred and twenty.
“I can’t for the life of me imagine why you’re not wed.” He sounded serious, much to her amazement.
She sighed, quickly turning away from his handsome face while wiping her hands on her apron.
“Can we get some coffees over here, miss?” An older gentleman had just sat at a window seat with a lady, whom Maggie guessed would be his wife.
“Of course.” Maggie suddenly felt flustered. She hadn’t taken any notice of them coming in, as she’d been too busy laughing with Aiden Fielding, the gorgeous cowboy.
Her hand shook as she poured the coffee, and she tipped one of the cups over with the edge of the coffee pot, sending the hot, black liquid running all over the counter.
“Damn!” She felt herself go hot and knew she was blushing. Panic overtook her as she quickly tried to rectify the mess.
“Hey, hey. Are you okay?” Aiden was on his feet in a second, moving everything out of the way of the stream of coffee that was threatening to engulf everything in its wake. His voice was calm and gentle, and Maggie wished she could be as composed as he was.
“Yeah, I just…” She took a cloth and soaked up the spill, surprised to see Aiden dive behind the counter and grab a clean cup.
He quickly poured the drinks and placed them on a tray while she cleaned up the counter. “Did you scald yourself?”
He was right next to her, and she was surrounded by his fresh cologne. She had admired his scent from across the counter, but he was even closer to her now, and she was immersed in the heady aroma. He was a gorgeous-looking guy and seemed to really care about her. But she had to remember he was way out of her league—and age range. Although he must have been a year or two her senior, she usually went for much older men than him—not that she’d had that many.
“Er…no. No, I’m fine. Thank you,” she stammered as he stared at her with his big, concerned eyes. “I’d best take these over.” She took the tray, brushing past him as she squeezed from behind the counter to serve her customers.
“I can recommend the cinnamon buns,” Aiden called over to the elderly couple as Maggie served their drinks.
“Now that sounds like a good idea,” the man remarked, looking first to Aiden then to his companion. “What do you think, Sylvia? Cinnamon bun?”
Maggie noticed the lady’s face light up, much the same as she was sure hers did when someone mentioned food.
“Ooh, yes please.” The lady smiled excitedly.
“We’ll take two, please.” The man nodded at Maggie.
“No problem.” She quickly returned to the counter and placed two of the warm buns onto a plate. She loaded up the tray with knives and side plates, as well as a couple of napkins then smiled at Aiden before taking them over to the couple.
“Thanks for that. You’re good for business,” she told the cowboy when she arrived back at the counter. He had already returned to his seat opposite her and was sipping his coffee.
“Gotta keep you employed,” he said with a laugh.
“Ain’t that the truth.” She sighed, rolling her eyes.
He frowned. “Now that’s the second time this morning I’ve said the wrong thing,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Is everything all right, Maggie?”
She balked, shocked that she had given away her feelings. “Oh, of course. No, you didn’t say anything wrong.” She tried to assure him but could see he wasn’t convinced. “Everything’s fine, really.”
She busied herself tidying away some dishes so she didn’t have to look at him, but she could feel his eyes boring into her.
“Do you like working here?” he asked after a few minutes.
She turned back to him, smiling. “Yes, of course.”
She followed his gaze as he looked around the little café. It was a cozy place with red-checked tablecloths on wobbly-legged tables, surrounded by old, mismatched chairs. A couple of booths occupied one end while a row of tables stood in front of the large window. At the other end was the door to the small kitchen that backed from the counter where Maggie served coffee. Tall bar stools lined the counter from the patron’s side so customers—like him—could easily perch up there and have a quick drink or chat to the waitress.
“Does it ever get busy in here?” he asked.
“Not really,” she told him. “Which is just as well, being as the boss refuses to take on any more staff. He reckons I cost him enough, already. Ha!”
She thought back to the pittance she earned working here every day. Her only consolation was that it was easy work and she didn’t have to travel far to get here. Trouble was, Bracken Ridge, where they were situated, was so far away from anything that they hardly had any customers. The Melrose Motel stood opposite them, but business wasn’t exactly booming there either, so she didn’t get many residents to cook for. Most people just drove right on through the tiny village to get to the more interesting towns of Almondine or Pelican’s Heath, a short trip down the road.
“But surely if business picked up, he’d have to?” Aiden appeared thoughtful.
“Yeah right. Like that’s gonna happen.” She wiped her hands in her apron again. “Between you and me, it’s more likely to close down altogether,” she told him in a hushed tone.
Aiden looked surprised. “So where does that leave you?”
“Oh don’t worry about me. I’m likely to be out of a home before I’m out of a job anyhow, so it won’t make much difference either way.”
His shocked face told her she had said too much, and she inwardly admonished herself for letting her tongue run away with her. There was just something about Aiden. He was so easy to talk to.
“Thank you very much, dear. That was lovely.” The elderly couple left their table, calling over to her from the door.
“Glad you liked it. Come again.” Maggie was grateful for the distraction and hurried on over to clear their table, noticing that they had left a large tip along with their payment.
When she returned to the counter, Aiden was taking a call on his cell. “Yeah, tell him we’re interested,” he said. “Definitely. We want that land at the best possible price, ya hear? Thanks for that.”
“Everything all right?” she asked, sad to see him stand up.
“Just peachy. I’m hoping to accrue more land for the ranch, expand a little.” Excitement shone from his eyes as he nodded, smiling. “Say… How about a drink tonight? What time do you finish?” He put his hat on.
She frowned in surprise. “Don’t you think I’m a bit old?”
“Too old to go for a drink?”
She snickered, her heart racing. She really liked the guy, and she did enjoy his company. He had a point, though. They were only going for a drink. “Okay. I get off around seven.” Something burned inside her, and she couldn’t help smiling at the thought of spending more time with the hunky cowboy.
“I’ll be here, then,” he told her with a grin, throwing a handful of notes on the counter.
“I’ll look forward to it.” She was sad to see him go, but it was nice to think it was only for a few hours.
* * * *
Aiden climbed into his truck. He liked Maggie Welch a lot and was pleased that he’d finally plucked up the courage to ask her out. It had been several weeks since they’d met, and he’d liked her from the start. She always seemed quite happy and cheerful, so it was a shock to see her flummoxed and a little pensive today. Something must have happened.
He drove down the back road toward Pelican’s Heath, looking forward to seeing her again tonight. It was obvious he’d said the wrong thing when he mentioned her being married. He’d meant it as a compliment but could see he’d hit a raw nerve. And what about losing her home and job? That poor girl always seemed to put on a brave face, but it seemed things weren’t quite as they appeared with her.
Ben, his older brother was waiting for him when he pulled up at the ranch. “No prizes for guessing where you’ve been.”
Aiden grinned. “I’ve got a date with her tonight.”
Ben hooted with laughter. “Well now, you actually did it? What in hell kept ya, bro?”
“Very funny. I just wanted to wait for the right moment. That’s all. I don’t think she’s as confident as she makes out, you know?”
He followed Ben over to one of the meadows that looked out to the south of the Fielding Ranch.
“I can’t wait to meet this one,” Ben murmured, shaking his head.
“Maybe in time, bro.” Aiden wasn’t so sure his family would approve of Maggie.
Ben chuckled, looking out over the land in front of them. “Well, you’ll sure be able to impress the girl if we get all this,” he remarked.
Aiden sighed. He knew money and land weren’t going to impress a girl like Maggie, and he was glad of it. He couldn’t explain that to Ben, though.
“Well, I’ve told Walker we’re interested,” he said, “but at a reasonable price. We can’t let this guy know how much we want it.”
Ben nodded. “Yup. I don’t even know this guy, Rossington. Seems he just recently acquired the spread, and now he wants to sell it on. I knew old Jake Parry had passed away, but I thought his family was keeping the place on.”
“Maybe they’re finding it hard to cope,” Aiden mused. “Perhaps we should’ve offered them more help?”
“If they were anything like the old man, they’d have had to beg for it.” Ben snorted. “That old cuss wouldn’t give you the time of day. He sure wouldn’t thank you for offering any kind of help. Probably misinterpret it as an insult, if you ask me. No, I reckon we were right to leave well enough alone there, bro.”
Aiden sighed. Ben was probably right. Jake Parry was known for not being the friendliest of men, and his family seemed to be behind him all the way. He’d been a wealthy guy, though, and owned a lot of land hereabouts. If they could just get their hands on the few acres that bordered their land, it sure would provide a much-needed boost to the Fielding Ranch.
“I’d love to see a few thoroughbreds over there,” Ben remarked wistfully, pointing to one of the fields.
Aiden shook his head. “Nah, I reckon we should get more quarter horses. They’re good all-rounders. And if we’re gonna start giving riding lessons, as Josie suggested, they’d be perfect for the job.”
Ben frowned, looking back at him. “But think what it would mean to get some more real good thoroughbreds. It’d give a good impression to folks who came to take your lessons, too. Let them see how affluent we are. We’ve got to make it look good, and the few we’ve got don’t exactly stand out.”
Aiden sighed. This argument was getting old. Ben had always been more interested in how things looked to the outside world, instead of what was practical.
“But we won’t be that affluent if we go throwing good money away on show horses,” he objected. “We can get more quarters for the same money, and they’ll be a lot more useful to the ranch as a whole.”
“Nah, we’ve got enough. We don’t need to bring in any more, at least not yet a while. I reckon we need to lift the prestige of the Fielding a little, and the best way to do that is to buy the best.”
Aiden rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s think about that once we’ve got the land, shall we? One step at a time.”
Ben nodded and smirked, which let Aiden know that, as far as he was concerned, he’d won the argument. Damn!