ulia Woods stayed on Stephen’s mind all day. Due to the hail damage a week ago, he and his cousin had been busy giving estimates on roof repairs. Stephen focused on work while with a potential customer, but Julia popped back into his mind as soon as he finished.
She fascinated him . . . and he didn’t know why.
Sure, she had a gorgeous body with full breasts, wide hips, and a well-shaped ass. He’d always preferred long hair on women, but her short, blond curls looked perfect on her. She had huge blue eyes the color of cornflowers. He could make that comparison only because his mother had planted all kinds of flowers and shrubs around his parents’ home and made sure her sons knew the name of every one. Not sure how that would help him in his life, he and his brothers still obeyed her and learned the species, colors, when each one bloomed, how long it bloomed, and if it was an annual or perennial. He’d be set if he ever decided to go into the florist or nursery business.
His current business kept him plenty busy. In fact, he should’ve left to meet Dusty at Boot Scootin’ fifteen minutes ago.
A quick text to let his cousin know he’d be late and Stephen took off. His heart beat a little faster the closer he got to the country bar. If Julia had decided to accept Dolly’s offer for a cheeseburger, he’d get to see her again. He’d kicked himself more than once ever since he left Dolly’s house for not asking Julia out when he had the chance.
Stephen pulled into the parking lot of the bar. Few vehicles filled the spaces at five-thirty on a Thursday evening. He knew that would change, as soon as more people got off work and hit the bar for a cold beer and some of Dolly’s amazing cooking. She featured chicken enchiladas on Thursday nights. Stephen’s mouth watered just thinking about them.
Pulling open the heavy wooden door, he stepped into a large room filled with tables, chairs, and booths. The Texas Rangers played on the big-screen TVs, the clack of pool balls sounded from the back room. Dolly stood behind the bar, along with her weeknight bartender, Mel. Keely wove her way through the tables, her round tray loaded with bottles of Bud and Coors. He nodded to the people he knew, which included almost everyone. Living in a small town and being on the volunteer fire department meant he knew most of the residents.
A quick glance around the main room produced no Dusty, so Stephen headed for the pool room. He heard his cousin’s laugh as he stepped through the archway. Dusty stood next to one of the pool tables, holding a cue stick with its butt resting on the floor, talking to Julia.
The sight of her had his balls tightening with lust.
As if she sensed his presence, she turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. Stephen definitely felt something pass between them. Impossible to ignore that “something’s” lure, he walked toward Julia and his cousin. She stared into his eyes as he approached her, keeping that tether between them.
He wondered if his fingers would get singed when he touched her.
“Hi,” he said once he stood before her.
“Hi,” she said with a hint of a smile.
“Hey, y’all already know each other?” Dusty asked.
“I met Julia when I did Dolly’s estimate this morning.”
“How’d that go?”
“Dolly gave us the thumbs-up for the job.”
Dusty smiled. “Great.” His smile quickly faded as he met Julia’s gaze. “Uh, not great that she had hail damage, but great that she gave us the job to fix her roof.”
Julia smiled. “I knew what you meant.”
Stephen let his gaze wander over Julia while she had her attention focused on Dusty. She wore a blouse the color of ripe raspberries, faded jeans, and running shoes so white, it had to be the first time she’d worn them. Silver studs adorned her earlobes. A single strand of silver hung down the front of her blouse to below her breasts. She wore little makeup, but whatever she used on her eyes made them look huge.
My God, you’re stunning.
Two sizzling plates of chicken enchiladas passed by Stephen on the waitress’s tray. The enticing aroma made his stomach growl. “Man, those smell good. Have y’all eaten yet?”
“I was waiting for you,” Dusty said.
Stephen looked directly at Julia. “How do you feel about chicken enchiladas?”
The waitress, Monica, stopped by them and smiled at him. “Hey, Stephen, ready for a beer?”
“Yeah. And how about three plates of those enchiladas?”
“One, two, or three per plate?”
“How many can you eat, Julia?” Stephen asked.
“I’m really hungry. Probably two.”
“Two for the lady, three for Dusty and me,” Stephen told Monica.
The waitress smiled. “You got it.” She looked at Julia. “Ready for another glass of wine?”
Once the waitress left them, Stephen motioned toward a table for four in the corner that he knew had to be Dusty’s from all the paperwork spread over it. “How about if we sit down?”
“Hey, Dusty,” Quade Easton called out from one of the pool tables, “you’re up.”
“Y’all go ahead,” Dusty said. “It’s my turn to beat Quade.”
Stephen snorted with laughter. “In your dreams.”
Dusty frowned. “It could happen.”
“Maybe when the sun rises in the north.”
“I won’t tell you what you can do with that comment with a lady present.”
Stephen motioned for Julia to precede him to the table. The mess his cousin always left made Stephen glad that Dusty’s wife, Hannah, took care of the office and billing. As organized as Dusty was messy, she kept their business running smoothly.
Julia slipped into the chair next to the wall and he took the one opposite her, facing the room. They’d barely taken their seats when Monica arrived with their drinks, along with a basket of tortilla chips and three small bowls of salsa. “Food up in five.”
“Thanks, Monica,” Stephen said.
Picking up all the paperwork on the table, he stacked it into a pile for Dusty to figure out later. He waited for Julia to take a sip of her blush wine before he drank from his beer bottle. Although he couldn’t call this an official date, he planned to take the opportunity to get to know Julia better. “Are you getting settled in at Dolly’s?”
She nodded. “Dolly’s been great. I understand why my mom loves her so much.”
“Did you try the cheeseburger for lunch?”
“No, I didn’t get here until about ten minutes before you did.” She pushed a blond curl behind her ear. It immediately popped forward to touch her temple.
Stephen thought. “Dolly yelled out my name to everyone and they all said hi. I followed the sound of the pool balls back here. Dusty was the first to approach and welcome me to Lanville, so I stood and talked with him until you arrived.”
“Did you do any exploring today?”
“I did.” She cradled the stem of her wineglass in both hands. “Dolly gave me a map and I drove around, checking out the town. I love the courthouse square. I didn’t do any shopping, but plan to in the next couple of days, especially in the bookstore.”
Something they had in common. Stephen loved to read. “I thought a modern California gal like you would have one of those electronic readers.”
“I do, but I love print books, too. There’s something so satisfying about holding a book in my hands and breathing in the scent of the paper.” She wrinkled her nose. “You probably think that’s silly, don’t you?”
No, it gave him a hint to the sensual woman he expected her to be. “Not at all. I’m a reader, too, so I understand what you’re saying.”
He must have said the right thing, for she smiled and took a chip from the basket. “What do you like to read?”
“Mysteries, mostly. I like psychological thrillers, a little bit of sci-fi.” Beer bottle in hand, he leaned back in his chair. “I’ll bet you like romances.”
“Guilty.” She broke her chip and ate half of it. “But I also like mysteries, too. I want a satisfying ending, no matter what I read.”
He could add “romantic” to the list of words he’d use to describe Julia. He already had “beautiful” and “charming” and “sexy” on that list.
Stephen saw Dolly walking toward them, carrying a large tray. “Hey, boss lady, you playing waitress?”
“Only for y’all.” She set three platters of food on the table, then rested the tray on her hip. “I had to be sure you’re taking care of Julia.”
“I’m being a perfect gentleman.”
She switched her gaze to Julia. “Is he?”
“He is,” Julia said with a smile.
“Good.” She pointed one finger at Stephen. “Be sure it stays that way.”
He gave her a sharp salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
Once Dolly left, Stephen picked up one of the bowls of salsa and poured it over his Spanish rice. He forked up a big bite, along with the refried beans. The mixture of heat and spices slid over his tongue and he almost moaned in pleasure.
He ate in silence with Julia for a few moments before speaking again. “So what’re your plans for tomorrow?”
Before she said anything, he heard
from the pager on his belt. A grass fire. Part of him cringed at the possible loss while part of him savored the quick adrenaline rush at the thought of being in the middle of the action and danger.
He gobbled the last two bites of his supper. “I gotta go.”
“There’s a grass fire somewhere.” He glanced at Dusty’s untouched plate. He hated that his cousin didn’t get to eat, but knew Hannah would take care of him. He also hated leaving Julia when they’d been getting along so well.
Knowing the fire wouldn’t wait, he pushed back his chair and stood. He dug two tens and a five from the front pocket of his jeans and tossed them on the table next to his platter. “Catch you later.” He rushed toward the exit, along with the four other guys who also belonged to the fire department.
Julia turned in her chair and watched the men leave Boot Scootin’. Apparently most of the ones here tonight belonged to the volunteer fire department. She remembered many times when she’d dropped everything in a second and hurried out to fight a forest fire. Even worse, hurrying out to fight a house fire and hopefully save some of the family’s mementoes that could never be replaced.
Worry formed a knot in her stomach. Stephen said it was a grass fire, but those could get out of control so quickly.
“Gets quiet when the guys leave,” Dolly said as she touched Julia’s shoulder.
“Stephen said it’s a grass fire.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. We’re in a bad drought and the smallest spark can set off a blaze. Course, you already know that.”
“Yeah.” She pushed her half-full plate to the side, next to Dusty’s pile of paperwork. “Dusty left all his stuff.”
“I’ll call his wife and let her know. She’ll come by and get it.” Dolly picked up the untouched platter. “I’ll fix this to go, plus a plate for her. She runs the office for Dusty’s and Stephen’s company, but also works part-time at the hospital. She gets off at seven on Thursdays.” She touched the side of Julia’s plate. “Want that to go? It makes a great midnight snack.”
“I’ll come with you and take care of it.”
Julia followed Dolly to the kitchen. She nodded to Dolly’s helper, Rosa, who she’d met when she first arrived at Boot Scootin’. To Julia, Rosa looked like a Mexican version of Alice from the old sitcom,
The Brady Bunch
Dolly handed Julia a Styrofoam container for her food, then gave Dusty’s platter to Rosa. “Make this to go and fix another container the same way. Hannah McGettis will pick them up on her way home from work.”
“Chips and salsa, too?” Rosa asked in her lovely accent.
“Yes. Double on the salsa. Hannah really likes it.” Dolly turned to Julia. “She’s expecting her and Dusty’s first child in two months. Once her morning sickness phase ended, she started craving hot and spicy.”
“I crave hot and spicy, too, but I can’t blame that on pregnancy.”
Dolly laughed out loud. “Well, then, you’ll be happy to know there are chips in my pantry and salsa in the fridge.”
“Great.” She closed the lid to her container. “Thank you for the delicious meal.”
“You heading out?”
Julia nodded. “I’m a little tired. I think I’m still recuperating from the long drive.”
“I’m sure you are.” Dolly gave her a quick hug. “Go home and relax. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Two couples entered as she left the bar. The dark-haired men looked so much alike, they had to be brothers. One dipped his head in greeting while he held the door open for her. The other man and the two women smiled at her.
One thing Julia could say about the people in Lanville—everyone had been incredibly friendly to her.
Once inside her car, she draped her arms over the steering wheel while trying to decide what to do with the rest of her evening. She hadn’t lied to Dolly about being tired, but it wasn’t the kind of tired where she’d fall asleep if she went to bed early. She felt . . . restless, edgy, as if she needed to do something but had no idea what.