Authors: Leighann Dobbs
About the Author
Also by Leighann Dobbs
Nick Bradford’sentire future rested on the outcome of a chili contest.
Not just any chili contest, though. This was the Sweetrock, Montana, annual chili contest, which carried a ten thousand dollar grand prize. Nick shouldn’t have been worried—after all, he’d been cooking since he was a kid and made one of the spiciest, hottest,andmost sought after chilies in Montana.
So why was his gut all churned up like the dirt in the middle of a rodeo ring?
Tipping up his black cowboy hat, Nick swiped at the sweat forming underneath and then adjusted it so as to avoid the glare of the early August afternoon sun while he surveyed the inside of his booth. The three-walled blue and white striped canvas tent was similar to all the other displays at the Sweetrock Fairgrounds. He thought he had everything he needed—prep tables, small fridge, a portable sink, and cooking areas. He hoped it would be enough—he’d never had to cook at a fair before.
But things were different now.
He gazed out at the rest of the grounds. White, blue, and yellow tents were set up in rows along the perimeter of the field interspersed with colorful vending carts and all leading to the rodeo ring in the middle. The grounds were empty now, but tomorrow throngs of people would descend, and the air would smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and fried dough while the happy cries of children mingled with raucous shouts from the beer tent and hoots from the rodeo ring. Right now, though, it was blessedly quiet.
Nick ran a visual check on his supplies one last time. Crockpots. Check. Electrical outlets. Check. Large Stainless Steel pots. Check. Fridge hooked up and working. Check. Spices…now where did he put that ground cumin?
Nick dashed over to one of the tables and rummaged through the unorganized assortment of spices. The voice of Beulah Grady, who had been the hostess in his family restaurant, The Chuckwagon, for about the last hundred years rang in the back of his head.
“You gotta get more organized, boy. How you gonna run this place with your parents gone?”
It had been a fair question. The truth was that Nick hadn’t paid much attention to the day-to-day operation of the family restaurant while his folks were alive. Heck, the restaurant had been in the family for three generations, and Nick supposed he just figured it ran itself. He’d taken for granted someone would always be there to run it while he spent his time in the kitchen cooking up the trail foods and meals his customers appreciated.
But then his mom lost her long-time battle with cancer, and his father died six months later, leaving Nick with a boatload of debt and a restaurant he didn’t know how to run. Now it was all on him and, unfortunately, it appeared his parents were just as disorganized as he was. The restaurant had been barely limping along as evidenced by the foreclosure notice he’d received just last week.
Nick’s jaw tightened. He’d already had to sell the family ranch to pay off some of their debt. He couldn’t even afford to care for his own damn horse. The thought of it twisted his heart. Nacho was his best friend, but with the ranch gone he had nowhere to keep him and all his money was going into the restaurant. He’d been forced to make a deal with the trail riding outfit in town to feed and board Nacho. At least he was warm, safe, and fed.
If it were only about Nick, he’d just let the restaurant go, but it wasn’t just about him. His sister, Rena, and her young daughter, Amy, depended on the income from The Chuckwagon. He couldn’t let them down.
A flurry of nerves battered against his stomach. So much depended on him winning this contest.
“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Nick’s best friend, Cash Campbell, had sauntered into his tent unannounced. Nick didn’t know how Cash managed to sneak around like that. The man was two inches taller than Nick’s six foot four frame and built like a sumo wrestler. He had to weigh almost three hundred pounds, but somehow he managed to move around as light as a ballerina.
“Sure,” Nick said. “You know I cook the best chili. People come from miles around eat it.” Nick hadn’t told Cash, or anyone for that matter, that the restaurant was in trouble. It was his problem to solve and he didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him or trying to give him a handout.
“Sure you do. I reckon you’ll do just fine.” Cash’s light blue eyes slid over to the booth across the aisle from him. The knot in the middle of Nick’s stomach tightened as he followed his gaze. All the contestants in the chili cook-off were situated with their booths in the same row.
He’d been so focused on his setup that he hadn’t been paying attention to the other booths, but now he could see the one across from him was set up with gleaming stainless steel tables and rows of methodically organized spices.
When had that happened?
“Whose booth is that?” Nick had grown up in Sweetrock and knew almost everyone who would be entering the contest. With the ten thousand dollar grand prize, it attracted a lot of interest. But he didn’t know anyone who would have a setup like that.
“Not sure. I heard talk of some new city slicker come down to enter the contest,” Cash said as Nick pushed past him to read the name tag on the side of the tent.
“Sam Dunn.” Nick turned back to Cash. “You ever heard of him?”
Cash shook his head.
Nick’s brows tugged together. He didn’t like the looks of this at all. He glanced back at his own space. It was a jumbled mess. This area was organized, but did that necessarily make for better cooking?
“What are you doing?” The velvety female voice hit Nick in all the right places, and he spun around to see its owner. She looked just as good as her voice sounded. Long black hair, voluptuous full breasts, a slim waist, and a flash of anger in her gray eyes. Feisty. Nick liked that. He reined in the jolt of desire that coursed through him. It was obvious this girl was Sam Dunn’s assistant, and he’d better tread carefully.
Who had an assistant at a chili contest, anyway? The guy must be a real pro. Nick’s unease deepened.
“Just checking out the tent, Ma’am.” Nick flashed her his most charming smile. The one that usually softened women up. Except it didn’t seem to work onthiswoman. Which was just as well. Nick didn’t have the time or inclination to get involved with anyone. He’d learned long ago that getting attached only led to heartache.
She scowled at him and pushed past him into the booth. “Well, there’s nothing here to see.” She turned her back, ignoring him as if he was as inconsequential as a fruit fly. Which only made Nick want to soften her up even more.
“Hey, guys.” Nick turned to see another of his long-time friends, Tessa Riley, her arms loaded with grocery bags.
“Hey, Tessa.” Cash glanced at Nick, who shrugged.
Tessa had grown up in Sweetrock and was clearly bringing groceries into this guy’s tent. What was up with that?
“Do you know this guy?” Nick jerked his chin toward the name.
“Huh?” Tessa’s eyes drifted from Nick to the name tag and back again. “Oh, umm…you could say that.”
“Really?” Nick’s brows tugged together. He glanced down the row of tents leaning out to read the name tags. “I don’t recall any of the other guys having assistants. That’s unusual, isn’t it?”
“Otherguys?” the dark-haired woman said.
“Yeah, most of the chili cooks are men. I mean, except for Beulah but she doesn’t count. She’s been in the contest since Moses came down from the mountain.” Nick turned his attention back to the woman who had a bemused smile on her face.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “So you think only men can cook chili?”
“Well, yeah…I mean, no. I mean, it is a man’s meal, Miss…what did you say your name was?”
“Oh, where are my manners,” Tessa said, one side of her mouth quirking up mischievously. “This is my college roommate, Samantha. Samantha, these are old friends of mine, Nick Bradford and Cash Campbell.”
“Ma’am.” Cash tipped his hat and shook Samantha’s hand, and then she held her hand out to Nick.
Her hand was as warm as the sunshine and as soft as velvet. Nick felt an unwanted tingling as he shook it. He let his hand linger, fixated on the way her gray eyes had turned slate blue. “Nice to meet you, Samantha.”
She withdrew her hand, favoring him with a bright smile. “Oh, you can call me Sam.” She nodded toward the name tag on the side of the tent. Nick’s heart froze, knowing what she was going to say next before the words came out of her mouth. “Sam Dunn.”
* * *
Sam watchedthe two cowboys retreat to the booth on the opposite side of the aisle. They sure did grow them bigger here, she thought, her eyes straying to the first one, Nick. Her pulse kicked up a notch as she noticed how his broad shoulders tapered to a thin waist. How he had a little swagger in his step as he walked back to his booth, and now that she was looking at him from the back, she couldn’t help but notice how nicely he filled out those faded blue jeans.
Her eyes jerked back to her own booth. She had no business checking out some strange cowboy, especially one that was her competition. Though she had to admit it was cute the way his face had gotten all red when he’d realized she was Sam Dunn. What had he thought? That Sam was a man? As if only men could make good chili.
She’d show him.
She turned her attention to the spice rack she’d brought with her. She wasn’t down here to ogle cowboys no matter how warm and gooey their brown eyes were or how much they crinkled up at the edges when they smiled.
She had much more important business here. The chili contest. Double checking her spice containers, she made sure everything was labeled properly. Sam was nothing if not organized. Her parents had taught her that, and it had served her well. Almost too well, as she feared her organizational skills had had a part in her getting fired from her last job.
The thought reminded her of why she needed to win this contest so much, and she glanced back over at the tent across the aisle to make sure her competition wasn’t watching.
Why had they been over at her booth anyway? Were they trying to sabotage her somehow, or figure out her ingredients list? She’d expected the competition in the chili contest to be fierce—a ten thousand dollar prize was nothing to scoff at—but she’d hoped people wouldn’t stoop so low as to steal or commit sabotage. Maybe in Boston they would, but not out here in Montana. Wasn’t everyone here supposed to be kind and wholesome? At least that’s what Tessa had told her, but Sam knew better. She’d lived all over the world, and if one thing was true everywhere, it was that there were very few people you could trust.
She grabbed a rag and wiped down the stainless steel table she’d splurged on for a food prep surface. Everything here got dirty so fast. And the grasshoppers were the size of cats.
“Ughh…there’s so many bugs out here. How do you stand it?” Sam swatted away a gnat that was showing an interest in her hair.
“The bugs don’t bother me so much as the snakes,” Tessa said.
Sam jerked her head down, looking under the table and at the edges of the tent
Tessa laughed. “There’s none here, but you gotta be careful in tall grass. Especially if you take the horses out on the trail.”
“Oh.” Sam relaxed. She didn’t have time for horseback riding much as Tessa, who worked as a trail guide, might like to take her. “Now I really can’t wait to get back to Boston. We don’t have snakes there. Or all these bugs.”
“That’s too bad.” Tessa slid her eyes across the aisle. “I think Nick took a liking to you.”
Sam’s brows tugged together. She ignored the way her heart leaped at the thought of Nick ‘taking a liking’ to her, but she couldn’t help but sneak a peek at Nick’s booth. His friend had left, and he was there alone. His face was in shadow from the brim of his black ten-gallon hat, but the waning light accentuated the angle of his strong jawline and the flex of his muscular biceps as hefted a large stainless steel pot.
“I’m not interested in getting involved with any of your cowboys.” She turned back to Tessa. “And you know I can’t stay.”
“Well, I wish you would. I miss you.” Tessa’s big blue eyes were like an open book.
Sam could see her friend genuinely missed her. And the truth was that Sam missed Tessa, too. They’d been tight in college. Four years of doing almost everything together. Sharing the ups and downs. But Sam’s life was in Boston, now. Montana didn’t have the same level of sophistication and Sam loved the energetic vibe of the city with all the upscale buildings, fancy cars, and shops. Besides, Boston was the place she’d lived the longest. Her parents were both in the military, and she’d moved every year as a kid. She wanted to put down roots and craved the stability of having a home that was the same year after year.
Except she didn’t actually have a home. Not anymore. But that would all be remedied just as soon as she won this contest.
“You know I need to use the money from winning this contest as seed money to get a loan to start my own restaurant,” Sam said. She needed much more than ten thousand dollars, but most banks wouldn't lend her a dime unless she had some of her own money invested, too.
“I know, but maybe you could start your restaurant here.”
Sam’s heart twisted at the needy edge in Tessa’s voice. Though they’d not been able to see each other very much in the five years since college, they’d stayed close with phone calls and texts. Still, it wasn’t the same as actually being there. When things had gone bad for Sam, she’d called the one person she’d known she could count on—Tessa.
Just as Sam had helped Tessa when she was at her lowest after a big breakup in college, Tessa was now helping Sam. She was the one who had suggested the contest which would get her enough seed money to get back on her feet. And meanwhile, Tessa was putting her up at her place—a small house on the edge of her family’s ranch. Good friends like Tessa were hard to find.
But she couldn’t start over here in Sweetrock, could she? No, the city life suited her. Besides she was opening a bistro that would be more suited to Boston, not urban Montana. And she had all her Boston friends to get back to…didn’t she?
Sam’s brows tugged together as she realized she’d lost most of her friends along with her job. She still had her family back east, though. Not that they were that close…but family was important to her.
“My parents are expecting me to start it back there…”
“You still haven’t told them yet, have you?” Tessa asked.
Sam looked away and focused on putting the chopped sirloin in the small fridge that had been provided to her. Tell her parents she was a failure? No way. They wouldn’t understand.
Failing was not an option in the Dunn household. To her parents, everything was about careful planning and organization. And people who planned and organized did not get fired, no matter whether it was their fault or not.
Images of the jealous head chef, Lizette came to mind and she slammed the door of the small fridge closed.
It wasn't fair that she'd gotten fired in the first place. She'd been practically running that restaurant as well as cooking in it. But her combined skills were a threat to Lizette. Those skills made Sam more valuable which was why she’d always suspected Lizette had done something to get her fired.
To add fuel to the fire, Sam's boyfriend, Eddie, had broken up with her to date Lizette the year before. So, Lizette had two reasons to want Sam out of the way. She'd probably hoped Sam would leave town and there'd be no chance of her stealing Eddie back.
Not that Sam wanted Eddie back. She'd gotten over him pretty quick. But she'd really liked the job. That was one of the reason's she'd stayed in Boston after the break-up. She wasn't going to let something stupid like that run her out of the only place she'd been able to put down roots, shallow as they were. Even if she did end up having to work with the sultry blonde that had caused it.
Sam placed her palms on the table and leaned across it toward Tessa who stood on the opposite side.
“You know how my parents are. I can’t tell them I got fired from my job.” She lowered her voice, whispering the last three words. “I just need this one little break. I know I can make a go of a new restaurant, and they’ll never need to know about that.”
Tessa hefted the last grocery bag up onto the table and pushed a damp red curl off her forehead. “Well, I just hope this works out for you. Let’s get these things put away. You need a break. You’ve been working hard to set this up. It’s a billion degrees out, and I have just the thing that will help us blow off some steam and relax.”
Sam raised a skeptical brow. Tessa had that look in her eye—the one that told Sam she was up to something. Something Sam probably wouldn’t like. Unfortunately, the look also meant that Tessa wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Oh, well, blowing off some steam might be fun. She could use a break to clear her head before the contest opened tomorrow. Looking around, she could see the other contestants preparing their booths for the big day. She didn’t know how many people she was competing against in the chili contest, but it didn’t matter. She had an edge. A secret weapon.
Opening her purse, she pulled out a yellowed and worn piece of paper which was protected in a plastic sleeve. Feathery writing in faded ink scrawled across it. Her grandmother’s spicy chili recipe. Gram had won chili contests all over the west with that recipe and Sam just knew it was going to help her win this one. She’d be a shoe-in as long as she kept her focus.
Feeling more positive about her chances of success, she shoved the recipe back into the zipper compartment in her purse. She didn’t dare take her eyes off it for fear it would fall into the wrong hands.
They finished putting things away and left the booth. Her eyes drifted over to the tent across the aisle as they walked away. Nick was still there. He looked up, catching her eye. Then a slow, lazy smile spread across his face, and he inclined his head toward her, setting her heartbeat galloping in her chest.
What was wrong with her?
She turned abruptly and jogged after Tessa, who had gotten several paces ahead. She’d have to make an effort to keep her eyes out of Nick Bradford’s booth. She wasn’t about to let any charming cowboy distract her from making the best chili in Sweetrock.
Her future depended on it.2
“You’re not wearingthat, are you?” Tessa stood in the door frame, her brows pulled into a tight frown as she appraised Sam’s outfit.
“What? Isn’t this nice enough?” Sam hadn’t expected to go out clubbing while she was in Montana and she hadn’t brought any of her usual outfits. Most of her clothing was in storage back in Boston along with a few personal items she’d packed from her apartment when she’d been forced to move out. But she had managed to cobble together what she thought was a respectable outfit. She knew Montana’s bars wouldn’t be as sophisticated as the places she was used to in Boston, but she thought her slim A-line black skirt, cream-colored silk blouse, and three-inch stilettos would suffice.
“No. No.” Tessa shook her head and darted over to the closet pulling out fringed vests, gingham shirts and denim, denim and more denim as Sam watched in horror. The country look was perfect for petite Tessa with her voluptuous curves and mass of curly red hair. But Sam couldn’t pull it off. Her looks called for something more…simple.
“I don’t think these would fit me.” Sam hoped that would be a good enough excuse.
Tessa leaned back to look her up and down. “Have you gained weight since college?”
Sam shrugged. “Maybe just a few pounds…”
“Good. Me, too. These should fit perfectly.” Tessa slid a denim skirt out of the pile and paired it with a yellow checked shirt that had flap pockets in the front with embroidered daisies on them. She pulled Sam over to the mirror then held the outfit up in front of her.
Sam blanched. She looked like a rodeo clown, and she was pretty sure the flap pockets and daisies would only serve to draw attention to her ample breasts—something she always tried to play down when dressing.
“Maybe something a little less ostentatious,” she suggested.
Tessa shot her a look. “Are you saying my clothing choices are ostentatious? This is the kind of stuff we wear out here. We’re in cowboy country.”
How could Sam forget? Her thoughts flicked to the cowboy, Nick, she’d met earlier.
Why was she still thinking of him?
Sam had only had a few serious relationships in her twenty-seven years, but they never seemed to last long. Much like her childhood residences, never hanging around in one place for too long, her boyfriends never seemed to want to hang around for long either. Which was fine with her. Sam didn’t need anybody to complete her. She could count the dates she’d had in the past year on one hand.
The men in Boston had been different than Nick and Cash. Back east, they wore Armani suits and smelled of flowery cologne. But Nick had been different. Rugged. Manly. She had to admit there was a certain attraction to the cowboy type. Maybe that’s why Tessa had wanted to move back here so badly.
Her eyes fell on a plain white scoop neck tee-shirt with a thin line of denim piping around the collar and the edge of the cap sleeves. It was simple. More her style.
“How about this?” She held it up, pairing it with the denim skirt. The blue around the neck made her gray eyes pop, and Tessa smiled her approval.
“Okay, but there’s one more thing you need for the outfit.”
Tessa bent down and rummaged at the bottom of the closet, then pulled out a pair of red cowboy boots.
Sam looked down at her expensive stilettos. “But these are Jimmy Choos.”
“Choos, Schmoos.” Tessa shoved the boots into her hand. “We don’t care about designer shoes out here, and besides, these boots are a lot more comfortable. You’ll thank me for this later, especially with where we’re going. “
Sam’s stomach knotted. “Why? Where are we going?”
Tessa smiled and gestured at Sam to get going with changing her outfit. “Where everybody goes to unwind. The Bull Sheep Bar.”
* * *
Sam stoodin the doorway of the dimly lit bar and tugged at the bottom of her skirt, which showed off a lot more leg than Sam usually liked to show.
The Bull Sheep Bar wasn't anything like the bars she was used to in Boston. Sure, they had a wide variety of places there just like anywhere else. But the places she was used to ranged from upscale bars with sleek marble floors, shiny contemporary bar-tops, plush seating, and the tinkle of jazz in the background to dark rooms with sticky floors, strobe lights, and pulsing disco music.
But The Bull Sheep was none of these. It looked more like an old barn than anything else. The walls were rough sawn boards, the floor polished concrete. The decor consisted of ropes, saddles hanging on the wall, and pictures of cows. The tables of long pine boards and chairs that looked like they'd been made from logs were scattered around the edges of the room. The center stood empty—a dance floor, Sam assumed, given the fact that a band was just now assembling their equipment at the front of it.
It must be a popular place because it was quite full. Plenty of beer bottles lined the tables. The noise level was a constant drone of laughter and clinking glass. The tables were all full, but one couple over at a long table with plenty of extra seats was waving to them. Tessa waved back. "There's my friends. We'll sit with them."
Sam grudgingly let Tessa pull her along. Though she wanted to spend time with Tessa, she wasn't up for a big party. She wanted to focus on the next day. The start of the chili contest. She certainly didn't want to make any new friends since she had no plans to stay here.
But Tessa had saved her butt by letting her stay with her for the contest, not to mention suggesting it in the first place. She owed her. What could it hurt to have a fun, relaxing evening and meet some new people? After this, it would be all work and no play.
"Hey, everyone, this is my friend Sam from college." Sam relaxed amidst the welcoming smiles as Tessa did a round of introductions. "This is Kade Morrison, Melina Diaz, Jackson Jennings, and over there Iris and Donnie Walters."
Sam shook hands with all of them. Each one of them had a firm, friendly handshake. She immediately felt right at home in the midst of them, and the men even stood to make her acquaintance. Apparently, chivalry wasn't dead after all.
As they all sat back down, she couldn't help but notice how Donnie pulled the chair out for his wife and how they immediately intertwined their hands again after they were seated. A pang of envy shot through her when she caught the loving look they gave each other. Weird, because she'd never been one to be envious of other couple’s relationships. Was this part of getting older? Some sort of biological clock thing? She certainly hoped not. She was barely twenty-eight and liked things just the way they were.
Melina, a bubbly woman with mink-brown colored curls and a figure that would make a swimsuit model jealous shot out of her chair, waving enthusiastically in the direction of the front door. She swayed a bit and Sam's eyes dropped to the two shot glasses sitting in front of her. Apparently, she'd had a head start with the drinking. "Oh, hey, y'all. Here comes Cash and Nick!"
Sam's eyes jerked to the front of the room. Nick? Certainly she couldn't mean the Nick that Sam had met earlier in the day. The Nick that was her competitor in the chili contest. The Nick that made her heart do strange things. Surely, there was more than one Nick in the town of Sweetrock?
No such luck. The crowd parted, and that very same Nick strode toward the table. He wore faded jeans and a gray tee-shirt that might've looked sloppy on someone else except the way he filled it out looked anything but. He wasn't wearing a hat like he'd been at the fair, and she could see his hair was dark brown and cut short. He'd shaved, and his face was baby clean. He wore that cocky smile as he strode over to the table and then his eyes met hers. Her heart jerked, and she looked away, but not before noticing his eyes widen.
She shot a look at Tessa, who was seated directly across the table from her. The smirk on her friend's face told Sam that Nick's presence was no coincidence. Tessa was up to something. Sam shook her head and raised a brow, letting Tessa know she was on to her. Then she leaned across the table and whispered, "It won't work."
Tessa stood, placed her hand on Nick's arm and addressed the two newcomers. "Nick and Cash, you remember Sam, don't you?"
Tessa moved one seat over and shoved Nick down into her vacant chair so that he was sitting directly across from Sam. Why had she done that? Now Sam would have to stare at Nick all night. Of course, that was precisely why Tessa had done it. Tricky. She'd have to remember that so she could get back at her some day.
"Ma'am." Cash tipped his hat at her before taking it off and stowing it on his knee. Sam nodded back, managing a smile. After all, it wasn't Cash who was her competitor.
"How are you doing? Did you get your setup squared away at the fairgrounds?" Nick asked.
"Fairgrounds?" Kade asked. "What are you guys talking about?"
"Sam here is in the chili contest," Nick said. "If you can imagine a New Englander making chili."
His comment rankled Sam, but got a laugh from the others, so she held her tongue.
"That's right." Cash signaled the waitress then turned his attention back to the table. "We've got two competitors right here at the table."
The waitress came and they all ordered a beer, then Jackson picked up the conversation again. Leaning across Melina, his beefy forearm on the table, he addressed Sam. "So, you're some kind of chef? Is that why you entered the contest?"
Sam's chest tightened. She didn't need to get into the whole thing about losing her restaurant job with these people. Nor did she have any intention of letting Nick know about her grandmother's prize-winning recipe.
"Yes, I'm a chef back in Boston. While I'm here visiting Tessa, I figured it would be fun to enter the contest." She turned and looked straight at Nick. "They say my chili is the best in Boston." She knew it was snippy, but couldn't help herself after his earlier comment implying New Englanders didn't know how to make chili. Little did he know Grandma Dunn was actually from Montana…and so was her recipe.
Nick's posture stiffened.
Cash burst out laughing. "Well, that sounds like a challenge."
"It sure does!" Jackson chimed in.
"Hey, I think that calls for a side bet," Kade said.
"Yeah!" Everyone at the table bubbled with enthusiasm that made Sam uncomfortable. Clearly they were all good friends and the bet was just in fun, but she had everything riding on this contest and she wasn't sure she wanted the added pressure. But what could she say?
Donnie pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. "My money's on Nick." He produced fifty bucks and slapped it down in the middle of the table.
Iris, a petite woman with spiked up, blonde-streaked hair and large green eyes, frowned at her husband. "Well, that's not very gentlemanly, betting against a newcomer." She pulled a brown suede purse loaded with fringe off the back of her chair and rummaged inside, coming up with a handful of crumpled bills, which she threw on top of Donnie's. "My money is on Sam."
"Well, I'm in a bit of a disadvantage." Melina tipped back another shot. "We've all had Nick's chili. What's yours like, Sam?"
Normally, Sam would've felt uncomfortable at being put on the spot, but she liked the camaraderie of the group. She could tell it was all in fun. She paused for drama before answering and then said, "Hot and spicy with lots of meat."
The table erupted in laughter.
"Well, that's just how I like it." Melina tossed fifty bucks into the middle of the table. "I'm going with Sam."
"Hey, mine's hot and spicy, too," Nick said.
"Maybe not as hot and spicy as hers, though," Cash wiggled his brows as he pulled out his wallet. "But since we're such good friends I'll put my money on you."
"Well, then, I can go with my good friend Sam. I've had her cooking, and it's top notch." Tessa had to yell to be heard over the sound of the band tuning up behind her. She stood and slapped her money on the table.
Jackson and Kade added their money to the pile, Jackson earning a smile for his support of Sam and Kade earning a good-natured scowl when he announced he was betting on Nick.
Donnie stood and gathered up the money. "It's settled, then. I'll hold the money. We'll do the usual rules. Half of the pot gets split among the winning betters and the other half goes to either Nick or Sam, depending on who wins."
Sam was pleasantly surprised. That would be around a hundred and fifty bucks which would help reimburse her for some of the money she'd had to put out to outfit herself for the contest. She'd almost drained her bank account dry and without a job, she didn't have any way to replenish it. She was betting everything on winning this contest.
Besides, since she was planning on winning, she might as well win this bet money, too.
The band started playing, and Tessa jumped to her feet. "Come on, you guys. Let's dance!" She pulled on Cash's arm and shot Sam a smirk.
Panic lapped at Sam as she recognized the song—a slow dance. She looked around the table. Donnie and Iris had already made it to the dance floor. Kade had his arm around Melina's waist, and Jackson was flirting with a perky blonde from the next table.
Her eyes came to rest on Nick.
It was just the two of them left at the table.
Already halfway to the dance floor, Tessa looked back at them. "What are you two waiting for?" She gestured for them to join her and Cash.
Nick got up slowly and extended his hand across the table, his face set in a cocky, lopsided grin. "What do you say? You wanna cut a rug before we become adversaries in the chili competition tomorrow?"
All of Sam's warning bells were telling her not to dance with Nick, but she didn't really have much of a choice. She didn't want to look like a bad sport.
She rounded the table and took his hand, stepping onto the dance floor. As soon as their hands touched, she was hyper-aware of him. The scent of soap and leather wafted toward her, and when he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close, her pulse skittered like a frightened baby rabbit.
As Nick swept her onto the dance floor, Sam knew she should have paid attention to those warning bells. Because Nick Bradford with his deep brown eyes, cocky smile and cowboy swagger could be extremely dangerous to her heart.
* * *
Nick gota whiff of fresh fields and honeysuckle as he stepped onto the dance floor with Sam. She didn’t smell like someone he should be adversarial with. Didn’t feel like one, either. Not the way his hand snugged into the small of her back or the way her palm fit perfectly inside his as if they were made to go together. It made Nick wonder what other parts of them would fit like they were made to go together.
No sense in thinking that. Sam was his competition in the chili contest, not his date. Not to mention that she was going back to Boston soon, and Nick wasn’t the type for a quick fling. Though he might make an exception for Sam, especially with the way she looked in that short skirt.
Better keep your thoughts on the chili contest.
Nick was accomplished at the two-step, and he spun Sam around effortlessly despite the fact that she tripped over her own feet a couple of times. He made sure to keep an inch of space between them. No telling what might happen if he had her pressed up against him. As it was, her ample breasts had brushed his chest one too many times for him to keep to his gentlemanly thoughts.
Struggling to turn his thoughts to the chili contest, Nick wondered why Sam seemed so confident about her chili. What did she know that he didn’t?
“So, what makes you think you can compete with homegrown Montana chili?” He asked the question lightly, but then regretted even asking it as he watched the dreamy look in her captivating gray eyes evaporate. Her expression shuttered, and her posture stiffened.
“What makes you think your country chili is better than my sophisticated Boston chili?”
Nick laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t say Boston is exactly known for its chili. Aren’t you guys known for something else? Baked beans maybe?”
Sam relaxed a little. “Yeah, you’re right, but I have a secret weapon.”
Nick almost stopped in his tracks. “You do? What?”
“Well, now, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?” she said coquettishly as he spun her around then pulled her in tight. Their bodies were closer now, her breasts against his chest causing a jolt of desire to run through him.
“I bet it has something to do with the heat and spice.” Nick’s voice was rough.
“That’s the key, right? You should know. After all, you are the chili king around here, aren’t you?” Her eyes, which had turned that slate blue color again, held a challenge and a spark of something else. Desire?
“But what’s the secret?” Nick leaned down closer to her and whispered. “A special variety of chili peppers?”
She’d stepped even closer, and now her sensual curves were melded against him. It felt like heaven. Her head was tilted up to look at him, and her eyes deepened as she answered. “Maybe a variety of peppers, or maybe a technique. That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
Nick’s body tightened. “I’d like to find out.”
His mouth hovered above hers. So close. His gaze dropped down to her plump, pouty lips and he wondered what they would taste like.
Just a fraction of an inch and he could find out.
Then he realized the music had stopped. No one else was dancing. In fact, Tessa and Cash were standing next to them looking at them funny.
“What are you guys doing? The song is over.” Tessa’s face had a definite smirk, and her sapphire eyes twinkled with amusement as she walked past them leading the way to the table.
Nick heated with embarrassment and reluctantly let go of Sam. Heading back to the table, he berated himself for losing control. Heck, if she’d asked for his ingredients list he’d probably have given it to her like some virgin schoolboy with a crush. Maybe that was her plan all along, to charm his recipe out of him or get him so worked up he couldn’t focus. Well, it wouldn’t work. Nick was no schoolboy. He didn’t let a pretty face get him all confused.
From now on, he would have to keep his head when he was around Sam Dunn. For the first time, a niggle of worry settled in his gut. This chili competition might be tougher than he’d imagined.3
It turnedout that the red cowboy boots Tessa had lent Sam were much more comfortable than her chef’s clogs, so she borrowed them the next day for the opening day of the chili contest. Instead of her white chef jacket, she put on a black tee-shirt, her favorite pair of jeans—the ones that were so faded they felt like a soft flannel shirt—and a blue and white checkered apron. Not only did she have to cook the chili, but she had to sell it, too.
The way the contest worked was that fairgoers who bought the chili could cast a vote. It was a good set up because she could also make money on sales of the chili. The scores would be tallied every day, so one could see who was in the lead each morning. The contest ran for ten days and on the last day, there was a proper judging with judges who had a culinary background. Their votes counted fifty percent toward the winner while the votes that had accumulated during the week counted for the other fifty percent.
Sam figured looking less like a chef and more like a country girl would sell more chili, and the more chili she sold, the more chances of getting a vote.
She’d already organized her booth to perfection the day before, so she got cooking right away. There wasn’t a big crowd this morning, and not too many of them were in her aisle looking for a bowl of breakfast chili. A few old cowboys with their white hats and gray mustaches. A gaggle of church ladies in bright polyester and a few middle-aged tourists seeing the fair while they were in town.
She couldn’t help but sneak a few peeks over into Nick’s tent through the sparse crowd. He wasn’t nearly as organized as she was and she caught him rummaging through boxes and throwing bottles over his shoulder, apparently looking for his ingredients. She felt a little sorry for him, but his disorganized mess might help her win the contest. Though when she looked at Nick’s broad shoulders and handsome profile, thoughts of winning were replaced by other much less innocent thoughts.
Images of their dance and almost kiss the previous night played over and over in her head. How would it feel to have Nick’s lips pressed to hers?
She wanted to know. But that was never going to happen.
She wasn't in the market for a boyfriend or a quick fling. She hadn't dated anyone in over a year, but it wasn't because she was broken-hearted and pining for Eddie. On the contrary. She'd gotten over him real quick and liked being solo. Unencumbered. Besides, she was here for the contest and the sooner she won and got out of Sweetrock with her ten thousand dollar winnings, the better.
She chanced another glance over, to find Nick looking at her. Their eyes locked and heat flushed through her body. Why did her biggest competitor have to be the hottest cowboy in Montana?
Her cheeks burned as she realized Nick was probably thinking about their almost-kiss too, and Sam was glad she and Tessa had made an early night of it.
Tessa was a riding instructor and trail guide at a ranch called Happy Trails. She’d had an early morning trail ride scheduled, so she’d wanted to go home shortly after the dance. Sam had been reluctantly happy to oblige. She knew in her heart that there could be nothing between her and Nick—long distance romances never worked out. Plus, she wanted a good night’s sleep so she could have a fresh mind for the first day of the chili contest.
The contest was what was most important to her.
So then why did she keep thinking about the feel of Nick’s body pressed against hers and that dark, lusty look in his eyes?
And why on earth had she told him she had a secret? Because he’d been acting so superior, that’s why.
His comments about men making the best chili and how someone from New England couldn’t possibly cook it had gotten to her and she just had to take him down a notch.
Daddy always said she was too impulsive. Didn’t think enough before she opened her mouth. It had gotten her in trouble before, and she realized she shouldn’t have lost her cool. She had a feeling she was going to regret telling Nick she had a secret.
She chewed her bottom lip, catching Nick’s eye once again. Was he looking over here to check her out or was he trying to figure out her secret?
Around ten o’clock the customer traffic picked up and she got busy, leaving no time to think about Nick. The spicy smells of the chili and the din of the crowds surrounded her and in no time, Sam got into her cooking groove.
Food prep and cooking put her into a meditative trance, and she moved easily from one job to the next. Juggling the tasks of ladling out bowls of steaming chili while making sure she had enough peppers chopped and the ground beef browned to go into the next batch, all the while keeping her crockpots and stove pots simmering so she would have a ready supply for the hungry customers.
She was busy taking the seeds out of a jalapeño pepper, being careful not to wipe her eyes, when a gravelly voice chimed up from the front of the tent.
“So, you’re the new contestant.”
Sam spun around but didn’t actually see anyone there. Where had the voice come from?
“Well, let’s have a taste of your chili,” the voice demanded.
It appeared to be coming from behind one of the large stainless steel crockpots she had sitting on the front table.
Sam stepped forward and peered over to find a little old lady bent over with her nose to the lid of the pot. She was only about four feet tall and rail thin. Her brown hair was pulled in a tight knot on top of her head, her face wrinkled like a piece of paper that had been crumpled and then gone through the wash several times. But her eyes, peeking out from behind turquoise-rimmed rhinestone studded half-moon glasses, were clear blue and as sharp as one of Sam’s best Henckels chef’s knives.
Sam wiped her hands on her apron, pulled off her gloves, and stuck out her hand to shake. “Hi, there. I’m Sam Dunn.”
“Beulah Grady.” The name sounded familiar, but Sam didn’t have time to remember from where before the old lady crushed Sam’s hand in her gnarled one, her handshake as firm as a trucker’s. She jerked her head in the direction of Nick’s tent. “So you’re fixing to compete with Nick Bradford, eh? He’s a hometown favorite, you know.”
Sam’s eyes flicked over to see Nick laughing and joking with a crowd of people as he served them chili. Her stomach tightened. He certainly was a favorite. Known to everyone, and from what she could tell, well liked. Could she really compete with that? “So I’ve heard.”
Beulah rocked back on her heels, her face scrunched up. “What did you say your last name was?”
“Dunn. Samantha Dunn.”
Beulah’s brows tugged together. “You know I recognize that name. Your people are from around here, aren’t they?”
Sam stared at the old woman. Dunn was a pretty common name, but oddly enough her people were from around here. Or at least her grandmother, the same one that had given her the chili recipe. “Yes. As a matter of fact, my grandmother grew up around these parts.”
“That’s right. Over in Chester, wasn’t it?” Beulah named a town to the north even smaller than Sweetrock.
“Yes, it was.” Sam was surprised. The old woman must have a memory like a steel trap. “Did you know her?”
“Not personally, but you know how it is in these small western towns. Everybody hears about everybody else. So that’s good, then. Hometown girl coming back to her roots.” Beulah winked at Sam. “I like that. It’s a good story. You here to stay?”
“Oh, no. I won’t be staying. I’m going back to Boston.”
Beulah’s left brow shot up. “Uh-huh. We’ll see about that. Once you city girls get a taste of this clean country living and Sweetrock cowboys, you never go back to the city. Heck, that’s how I ended up out here myself.”
Sam couldn’t imagine Beulah as a young city girl staying out here for some cowboy, even though she had to admit the small town of Sweetrock did have some endearing qualities. The clean air was a nice change from the diesel-scented air in Boston and the stretches of land without buildings that had made her feel exposed on her first day here now gave her a sense of freedom. She was even starting to get used to the bugs. And so far, everyone she’d met had made her feel at home. But none of those things—especially not the cowboys—were compelling enough to make her stay.
“So, let’s have a taste of your chili.” Beulah interrupted Sam’s thoughts.
“Oh. Right.” Sam ladled a big puddle of chili into the plastic bowl, dunked in a spoon and topped it off with a sprinkle of cheddar and a cornbread biscuit then handed it to Beulah.
Beulah pushed the biscuit aside and dipped her spoon in. She swished the chili around in her mouth. Her wrinkled lips puckered and her features contorted into a variety of faces while Sam anxiously awaited her verdict.
Beulah swallowed and patted her lips with the brown paper napkin. “Not too bad, but it’s not spicy enough. We like it hot around here.”
Sam glanced at the jalapeño peppers she had on the cutting board. She’d put as many in as the recipe called for. Did it need more? Maybe Beulah’s old tastebuds didn’t work properly. “It’s not hot enough?”
Beulah shook her head. “I don’t think so. Can’t say as it would beat mine.”
“Yep. Three booths down.” She pointed down the aisle to a yellow and white striped tent.
“Oh, you’re in the contest?” Now Sam remembered Nick saying something about Beulah being one of the few women in the contest, and she’d since noticed all the other contestants were men. Sam felt an instant camaraderie with the old lady.
“Yep. Been in it every year for the past seventy years.” Her face contorted into a frown. “Ain’t won yet, though. In fact, I usually come in dead last.”
“Seventy years? How old are you?”
Beulah leaned in toward Sam and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Ninety-six. But don’t tell anyone. I got them all thinking I’m only ninety.”
And with that, she strode off, leaving Sam staring after her. Montana sure did have its share of characters. But the people were nice. Friendly. Not standoffish like they were in Boston. Maybe life here wouldn’t be so bad?
Thoughts of her family squelched any ideas about moving out west. Her parents were expecting her to come back and start a restaurant. She’d told them that was what she was doing, and that’s what she intended to do. Never mind that she’d left out a few details like how she got fired from her previous job and led them to believe that she’d saved up money. She couldn’t tell them she was a failure. Her parents didn’t tolerate failures.
A new wave of customers came, and she didn’t have time to think about anything but serving up chili. Chili that might not be hot enough. Was Nick’s hotter?
Maybe she should adapt her grandmother’s recipe?
During the next lull, she slipped the recipe out of her purse and went over the ingredients. She could add more jalapeños, or substitute some of the ones she had for ghost peppers. Ghost peppers were among the spiciest of all peppers. That would add some heat to the chili.
“What you got there?” The voice startled her, and she jerked her head up to see Nick looking over her shoulder. Had he seen the recipe? She shoved it in her back pocket.
“Just a grocery list.” She smiled.
Nick scuffed his feet like a schoolboy and Sam’s heart hitched.
Damn, he was cute.
“I just stopped over to see how you did on the first day.” He sounded friendly enough, but Sam was suspicious.
“Pretty good. How about you?”
Nick glanced over at his tent and Sam followed his gaze. The place was a mess. Spice containers and cans of tomatoes everywhere. The stove needed to be cleaned, and the serving table had gobs of chili all over it. Compared to her own place, which was neat as a pin, it looked like a bomb had gone off.
“Pretty good. I think I sold a lot of chili,” he said.
“You don’t know?”
Nick pulled a lot of cash out of his pocket. “Well, looks like I did here.”
“Is that how you keep track?” Sam was astounded. She had detailed records in the logbook of her sales.
Nick shrugged. “Is there a better way?”
Surely he must be joking. Didn’t the man own a restaurant? How could he possibly manage it if that was how he kept track of sales? Maybe he had an accountant or someone else to do that for him. Either way, it was none of her concern. Her concern was winning the contest and their little side bet.
“So, I was wondering if you wanted to go for a beer and celebrate our first day of competition,” he said.
Sam’s heart leaped. Was he asking her out? Maybe if things were different she’d consider it, but right now they were competitors, and she wouldn’t be in town long enough to start something up. Though her heart seemed to want her mouth to say yes, thankfully her logical brain took over when she opened her mouth. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. We’re competitors.”
Nick stepped closer. The nearness of him raised the heat in her body and caused a flutter low in her belly. Never mind that it was already eighty-five degrees out, and she was drenched in sweat from cooking—somehow, his nearness made her even hotter. He traced his finger down her arm, and she shivered, despite being overheated. “I was thinking maybe we could compare notes.”
Sam's libido slammed to a stop.
So, that’s what he was after. Last night she’d made the mistake of telling him she had a secret and now he was trying to wrangle it out of her.
Well, she wasn’t that stupid. She had no intention of sharing anything with him. Nick already had a restaurant. He didn’t need the money like she did.
She stepped away. “Not so fast cowboy, I’m on to you. I’m not giving away any of my secrets so you can win.”
His face fell and for a minute she thought his invitation had been genuine and not a ruse to get information from her. Then again, he was probably just a good actor. Most men with his good looks were. “I didn’t mean it like that. Just a friendly beer.”
Nick’s eyes flashed with regret. Regret that she wouldn’t share a beer with him or that he wouldn’t be able to get her drunk and get her to spill her secret?
“Okay, then. You have a good night.” He tipped his hat and headed back to his booth.
Sam picked up a white kitchen towel and started scrubbing the front table. The chili stands were only open until six p.m. After that, most of the people were in the bleachers watching the rodeo and buying the food from the concession stands over there. It was already five forty-five, and she had some shopping to do afterward. She wanted to leave her area clean and organized.
Across the way, Nick was flirting with a brunette who Sam had noticed hovering by his crockpot several times that day. Not that she was counting. Apparently, he’d gotten over her rejection pretty quick.
She threw the towel into the sink. Her booth was clean enough and suddenly she couldn’t wait to get away from the fairgrounds. Tonight, the faster and further she got away from Nick Bradford, the better.
* * *
Nick’s eyesdrifted over Evelyn’s shoulder as she rambled on. Nick wasn’t paying any attention to what the brunette said. He was more interested in Sam, who was vigorously scrubbing down her tables. Sam was chewing her bottom lip, a habit he’d noticed she had when she was thinking. His thoughts alternated between wondering what she was thinking so hard about and wishing it was his lip that her teeth were nibbling on.
Damn, that girl could get him all riled up! Had she really thought he was trying to get some chili cooking secret out of her?
“So what about it, Nicky?”
Nick brought his attention back to Evelyn. She was cute, he supposed. But he wasn’t interested. Not since…his eyes drifted back over to Sam, her jet black hair gleamed in the sun. Though he couldn’t see her eyes, he wondered if they would be light gray like the first time he’d met her, or if he would see that slate blue tinge they’d had when they had been dancing.
His eyes flicked back to Evelyn. “Sorry. What?”
“You wanna go have a beer at The Bull Sheep?”
“Oh.” Nick sucked in a breath. He’d noticed Evelyn had come by his booth several times, but it hadn’t dawned on him that she’d been working up the nerve to ask him out. He just assumed she liked his chili. Dang, he hated the feeling of getting turned down, and he didn’t want to be the one to inflict that on Evelyn, but he really didn’t want to go drinking with her. He had a big mess to clean up here. “Sorry, Evelyn, but I got a lot to do here, and then I have to work at the restaurant…”
“Okay, no biggie.” She sauntered off, giving Nick a clear view of Sam’s booth. But Sam was gone, her booth sparkling clean. The other chili contestants had closed up shop for the day, and it was time for Nick to do the same.
Looking around his own tent, he realized it was quite messy compared to Sam’s. How did she keep all her stuff so organized? And why had she seemed so surprised that he kept track of his purchases by the wad of money in his pocket? He’d seen her jotting stuff down in a little notebook throughout the day. Was she recording her sales?
His eyes drifted to the board at the end of the row. Tomorrow morning, they would post the name of the leader. That went by voting, though, not sales. No matter how many bowls of chili you sold, if people didn’t like it, they wouldn’t vote. And the votes were the only thing that counted toward the grand prize, so who cared about keeping track of sales?
Of course, he could use the money from the sales since he was flat broke, but that alone wouldn’t be enough to get his restaurant out of foreclosure.
Thoughts of losing the family restaurant reminded him that he should be focusing on the chili contest and not the cute cook across the aisle. She’d practically ruined his cooking the entire day. He couldn’t stop sneaking glances over at her, noticing how the apron hugged her thin waist or how tight her jeans fit when she bent over to grab something out of one of her coolers.
He couldn’t forget the way she’d felt in his arms the previous night, all soft and sensuous. He’d never had such a strong reaction to a woman before…too bad this one seemed to want to have nothing to do with him. It was embarrassing the way he was making a fool of himself over her. Even Cash had noticed. He’d ridden him pretty hard about the thing on the dance floor the night before and even today he’d joked that Nick was so distracted by Sam that his chili had no heat.
Was that true?
Nick dipped a spoon into the last crockpot that hadn’t been cleaned. The tangy taste of spices and savory browned meat mixed with the acid of the tomatoes was nearly perfect. Nearly. It could use a little more heat, though. Here in Montana, most people liked their chili hot and spicy—the hotter, the better. He’d better make sure he had enough ghost peppers to ratchet up the heat.
He rummaged around in the vegetable bin, looked in several plastic grocery bags and then finally in the cooler where he found the hot peppers. Only one ghost pepper left. He better get to the store and buy some more.
It was already past six, and the other tents were closed up. Technically he couldn’t sell any more chili tonight, and there was no one in the aisle anyway. Everyone had wandered off to watch the rodeo. He quickly wiped down the table in the front and then closed his flap, walked to the parking lot and got into his Ford F150 then drove toward town.
Sweetrock had two supermarkets, one a big chain market and the other family-owned for the last hundred years. Nick liked to frequent and support the family owned market, Dickinson’s.
Dickinson’s was a lot smaller than the chain store, but it had everything Nick needed and they prided themselves on stocking local food whenever possible. The cool, air-conditioned temperature was a welcome respite from the heat as Nick stepped inside, greeting a few of his friends and neighbors as he did. His eyes fell on Beulah in the checkout lane, a pile of produce on the counter in front of her.
“Hey, Beulah. You need me to carry these bags out for you?” Nick asked.
Beulah scowled at him. “I don’t need any help from any young whippersnappers. I can handle my own groceries. Been doing it for almost eighty years. I’m just picking up some things for the chili cook-off tomorrow to make my chili before I head out to The Chuckwagon. Are you on in the kitchen tonight?”
Nick nodded. Now that his parents were gone, he rarely left the restaurant preferring to be there as much as possible, just in case he was needed. He'd hardly even gone out for drinks—other than last night—in months.
Cooking was Nick’s passion, though, so he didn’t mind being in the kitchen. He was known for his perfectly seared steaks, trail grub dishes and giant burgers. He took pride in his food and people came from all over to eat it. At least they used to…lately, it seemed only the regulars stopped in. If he didn’t need the ten thousand dollars from the chili contest so desperately, he never would have spent so much time away from the restaurant.
His eyes fell on the ghost peppers in Beulah’s pile, and he remembered why he was there.
She noticed him looking. “If you’re after ghost peppers for the chili, you better hurry. There’s only one left.”
Nick’s chest tightened. He’d better hurry on up, then. He turned toward the pepper aisle, addressing Beulah over his shoulder. “Thanks, Beul. See you at the restaurant.”
He knew just where the peppers were. Last aisle on the right just around the corner from the onions. He skidded around the corner, his eyes homing in on that one ghost pepper sitting in the bin all by itself.
He reached his hand out toward the pepper. At the same time, a much smaller and daintier hand reached for the same pepper.
Nick’s hand closed over the pepper as he looked down at the other hand’s owner.
His hand was still wrapped around the pepper. Hers hovered uncertainly in the air. He’d gotten there first, but somehow the victory didn’t seem very sweet.
She withdrew her hand and frowned at him. “Nick. Figures you would be here after the same pepper. I’ll just have to have them restock.”
Nick pulled the shiny red pepper out of the bin and held it in the palm of his hand. “They don’t have any extra stock out back here. Everything’s fresh. If there’s no more in the bin at this time of night, then this is the last one.”
“What do you mean?” Nick’s heart melted at the desperate look of disappointment in her eyes. He’d do just about anything to make that look go away.
But why was she so disappointed? Surely, the contest wasn’t that important to her. He’d figured she’d entered on some kind of lark. Something to occupy her time before she went back to Boston.
He looked down at the pepper in his hand. “There won’t be any more until tomorrow afternoon.”
“I already checked the big grocery store, and they don’t even carry them.” Sam’s voice drooped in defeat.
Nick almost gave her the pepper, but then thoughts of his sister and niece flashed through his mind. He needed to win the chili contest for them. After what Rena’s jerk of an ex had done to her, they deserved it. He was all Rena and Amy had now, and he couldn’t let them down any more than he already had by not being able to save the restaurant.
The pink foreclosure notice flashed through his mind. He needed this win a lot more than Sam did. But the devastated look on her face twisted his heart. He couldn’t give the pepper to Sam but maybe…
He snapped the pepper in half. “I guess we’ll just have to share it.”
Maybe only having half a ghost pepper would make his chili less hot, but with the way Sam was smiling at him, he couldn’t help but feel that he’d done the right thing. And even if giving her half the pepper meant he’d jeopardized his chances of winning the chili contest, the way she made him feel right now made it totally worth it.4
Sam tightenedher apron and glanced at the scoreboard. She was tied for first place with Nick. She glanced over at his tent. The morning sun sparked off the messy array of stainless steel canisters and spice containers scattered on his tables. Then she looked at the half of the ghost pepper on her cutting board. The small red pepper packed a powerful punch, but would half be enough to boost up the heat of her chili?
She wouldn’t even have that if it wasn’t for Nick’s generosity. She looked over again and their eyes locked. She held up the pepper and mouthed a ‘thanks’, earning her a bright smile that kicked at her heart.
Their gaze held for a few seconds until someone stepped up to Nick’s booth, blocking her view. Soon there would be lots of other customers looking to eat chili. Sam better get cooking if she wanted a fresh batch to offer them.
Her phone erupted in song, and she looked down at where it lay on the table. Her mother. She let it go to voicemail. She felt bad about avoiding their calls, but talking to her parents meant lying, and she hated lying. Besides, she didn’t have time now. She had to get cooking.
Soon she was lost in the mindless task of chopping, cooking, and combining. Pinto beans, garlic, oregano, tomato sauce, cumin, chili powder, ground beef, salt, habanero pepper, and jalapeños. These were all part of her grandmother’s recipe. Then she chopped up her half of the ghost pepper and added a little bit to the pot, saving the rest for future batches.
No sooner was she done than the customers started to arrive. There were more today than the day before, and she was kept busy ladling out the chili to which she added a wedge of lime, sprinkled shredded cheese, and a biscuit.
When the crowds finally thinned enough for her to glance over into Nick’s tent, she was upset to see that it looked like things weren’t going as well for him as they were for her.
Nick stood in his tent, his hair shaggy from rubbing his hand through it, his apron stained, five o’clock shadow on his chin. Sam’s fingertips tingled wondering how it would feel to brush them against that stubble. Better yet, how would it feel if the stubble was brushed against her own lips…her neck…her thighs. Better not be having those kinds of thoughts. They would only distract her, and she had much more important goals than a one-night stand with a cowboy, even if he was hotter than the ghost pepper she’d just added to the chili.
Across the way, Nick was opening one tin after another, looking inside and then tossing the tin back on the table. Obviously, he was looking for something, but the disorganized mess that was his work area made it hard for him to find it. From the looks of things, he was becoming distraught. Sam’s heart pinched for him. If his area weren’t such a mess, it would be a lot easier for him to get his cooking done. She could easily clean that area up and organize it for him in a few minutes. In fact, she should do that now. It was the least she could do considering how he’d shared the pepper with her. And if she missed selling a few bowls of chili—well, then, so be it.
She peeled off her food prep gloves and started over, but before she got out of her tent, a curly-haired blonde stormed up to Nick. Sam hesitated. She couldn’t hear what they were saying but it looked like they were arguing about something.
Maybe now wasn’t a good time?
Customers started lining up again, and Sam absently served chili while she watched the argument across the aisle. She could tell they were upset. Their faces were inches apart, their hands gesturing rapidly. Then Nick backed off, scrubbed a hand over his face then put both hands gently on the girl’s shoulders. Sam couldn’t hear what he was saying, but whatever it was must have placated her. Then he kissed her forehead.
Wait a minute, was that Nick’s girlfriend?
While Sam tried to process that, a little girl of about seven or eight ran into the booth. She had blonde hair just like the woman and bore a striking resemblance to Nick, who whirled her up in the air with ease, spinning her around, then tickling her side before putting the giggling girl gently down again.
Nick had a kid? Was he married? Obviously, he cared very much for the child, but what the hell did he think he was pulling?
What a jerk! Here he was practically kissing her the other night on the dance floor and asking her out last night and the whole time he was involved with someone?
And to think she was going to help him organize his cooking area. No matter that he’d shared the stupid pepper with her—she didn’t want to have anything to do with him now.
Thoughts of another blonde came to mind. Lizette. The woman that Eddie had dumped her for and who had also had gotten her fired from her job. Why was it always a blonde? Probably for the best that she hadn'tactuallykissed Nick.
Sam’s eyes drifted to the scoreboard. This morning she hadn’t minded that they were tied, especially since Nick had shared the pepper with her. The peace offering had dampened her urge to win. But now that it was clear that he was trying to play her, she was going to pull out all the stops to beat him. She had to do something to give herself an edge. Something that would draw more customers to her booth and give her more chili sales and, therefore, more chances for votes.
Sam reached for her purse and her grandmother’s recipe, had a panicky moment when it wasn’t there, then remembered it was in her back pocket. Pulling it out, she squinted through the chili-smeared plastic to study the ingredients. She’d shown the recipe to Tessa, who had been shocked that she carried the original around. Tessa had suggested typing it up, making copies, and putting the original in a safe place, but Sam didn’t want more than one copy floating around. She wanted to keep the only copy strictly in her possession where no one else could get ahold of it.
Over in his booth, Nick now had his arm around the perky blonde. His eyes locked on Sam’s, then dropped to the recipe in her hand. Her back stiffened, and she shoved it into her back pocket. No way did she want him getting his eyes on that.
She might have softened toward Nick Bradford this morning, but that was gone now. Obviously, he’d just been cozying up to her to find out her secrets. Well, now it was ‘game on’. She’d smoke him in the contest, and then she’d take the grand prize and the side-bet money with no qualms.
But what was she going to do to attract more customers? She watched as a middle-aged couple stopped at Nick’s booth. The husband filled his bowl to the brim with chili, but the wife only took a small portion. She was more interested in the corn bread. Made sense. Sam had seen at her own booth that the men preferred big bowls of meat-laden chili while the women liked the cornbread better. From her extensive restaurant experience, she knew that men and women usually preferred different types of foods.
Suddenly, Sam knew exactly what to do to get more customers.
The next day, Nick stared at the disorganized array of spices on the table in front of him. It was the third day of the chili contest, and he'd arrived to find the score from the previous day had been tallied. He was now in first place, winning over Sam by a narrow margin. It was a hollow victory.
Sam was busy in her booth, her back to him. The apron snugged across her thin waist accentuated the curve of her hips and had him wondering how those curves would feel snugged up against him.
He couldn't waste time or energy thinking about Sam. Nick had had his share of women, even a few that he'd been serious about, but he'd never met one that took hold of his thoughts like this one. Maybe it was the fact that she was his competitor or that she was just passing through. Either way, he had to stop thinking about her. His preoccupation with her was making him even more disorganized and affecting his ability to cook.
He'd even screwed up several orders at the restaurant last night. His usually perfectly-seared steak had turned out black, and his trail grub specialty had been left untouched on several tables. Nick was losing it. He couldn't afford to do that because of some schoolboy crush he had on a girl, even if she was just about the sexiest thing he'd ever seen. He needed to rein in his hormones. This wasn't just about him—he had Rena and Amy to think about.
A pang of guilt shot through him as he thought of Rena. He'd hated lying to her the day before when she'd confronted him here in the tent, but he couldn't tell her the truth. He didn't want her to know how bad off the restaurant was or that they were near getting it taken away from them. Bad enough she'd talked him into letting her look at the books and try to revamp the restaurant processes. It made it harder for him to shield her from the truth of how bad things were. As a single mother, she had enough to worry about, and Nick didn't want to add to that. Rena didn't know he was banking everything on the ten thousand dollar grand prize of the chili contest, and she saw his participation in it as being foolish and irresponsible. Better she think that of him than know the truth.
With one batch of chili simmering in the crockpot, Nick measured out the spices for the second batch. It was still early in the day and traffic was sporadic, but he happened to notice a larger crowd at Sam's tent than his. No worries—the traffic tended to ebb and flow, and he was sure he'd have a line of customers to rival hers soon.
Once he had everything going for his second batch, he snuck another glance over at Sam, hoping to catch her attention. Just a glimpse of those baby-grays of hers. But she didn't look up. It was almost as if she was ignoring him. The reception she'd given him earlier that morning when they'd both opened up had been downright chilly. And here he'd been nice enough to share that ghost pepper with her. She could've at least shown a little gratitude. All the more reason to forget about her.
He tossed some ground beef into his cast iron frying pan and then turned to help the older couple that had come up to taste his chili. Soon another couple joined them, then a group of three men. Just as he thought. Even though Sam still seemed to have a steady flow of customers, his line was growing rapidly.
Nick knew that people were supposed to vote for the chili because of the taste, but it couldn't hurt him to pour on the charm, which he did, favoring the ladies with his boyish smile and chatting it up about fishing, horses, and hunting with the men. If the people liked his personality, maybe that would earn him extra votes.
Besides, Nick was a people person. He liked talking to them and getting to know them, even if it was only in passing. Soon he had the crowd in his tent laughing and joking amongst themselves, and the friendly vibe drew even more people over. Now his crowd was as big as Sam's and people coming up the aisle swiveled their heads between his side and hers, trying to decide which to try.
Nick knew it was the fun, friendly vibe that was drawing people to his tent…but what was it that was drawing them to Sam's? Was she charming her customers, too? He could certainly see how that was possible, but it seemed like her crowd had more women. Sure, that's it. Women flock to women. It was just a fluke that she had a big crowd since more women were at the fair this time of day.
Satisfied that his crowd would soon be larger than Sam's, Nick went back to bantering with the customers. He was discussing the right bait for trout fishing Montana streams when his nose twitched. What was that smell?
Something was burning…his ground beef!
Twisting around to look at the stove, he saw smoke rising from the cast-iron pan. He rushed over, flicking the gas burner off and whipping his hat from his head to fan the smoke away. The last thing he needed was smoke billowing out into the aisle driving customers away from his chili.
Dang!That would set him back some. Panic raced through him. Hopefully, he would be able to get the next batch of chili out in time before the current batch was all gone.
He tossed the hard black clumps of ground beef into the trash and threw the pan into the sink. Thankfully, he had another large cast-iron pan, and he dropped that onto the stove, then put some hamburger in to cook. When he turned back, he noticed that Sam's crowd had grown even larger.
Now, no one was in front of his booth—they were all at Sam's. He narrowed his eyes, squinting to see what was going on over there.
The crowd parted slightly, and his heart jolted when he saw Sam, a big smile on her face. Her sleek black hair was pulled up onto the top of her head in a high ponytail that cascaded halfway down her back.
If he ran his fingers through that hair, would it feel like silk? Suddenly he was afraid that he'd never get the chance to find out.
Several couples stood leisurely chatting in front of her booth, the men happily eating steaming bowls of chili. The women holding…what was that?
He craned his neck to see what the women were holding. They looked like little yellow cornbread muffins…no not muffins—cupcakes! And not just regular cupcakes. She'd fancied them up with frosting and decorated them in all kinds of cute shapes—cows, horses, bunnies, dogs, cats. The women were going crazy over them.
Nick jerked his attention back to his own tent. To his plain squares of cornbread. Manly cornbread. He'd never thought about appealing to women. Heck, at The Chuckwagon everything was geared toward appealing to men as it had been for the past hundred years.
But over at Sam's tent, the cupcakes had drawn the women's attention, and the women had pulled their men over with them.
It was a dirty trick!
He couldn't believe Sam would stoop so low. Sure, cornbread went with chili like salt went with tequila, but making the cornbread into cute little cupcakes was going too far. She was attracting people to her tent under false pretenses, using something other than the chili itself.
Nick's blood pressure rose. She was nothing but a smooth operator. A city slicker who would stop at nothing to win. Well, if that was the case, then two could play at that game.
Nick flicked the gas off under the cast-iron pan, covered the top, and stormed off toward the beer tent.
* * *
Sam had beenup all night cooking the cornbread cupcakes. She was a much better baker than a chef, but her parents thought baking wasn't a real career. They thought it was frivolous. Only an accomplished chef that could open a five-star restaurant was career material in their book.
Pride swelled in her chest as she handed a pink-frosted cupcake decorated with the ears, nose, and eyes of a pig to the middle-aged woman on the other side of the table. Her designs had come out pretty good even if she did say so herself, and she'd gotten lots of compliments. It seemed the women appreciated having something different and sweeter to offset the heat of the chili.
It had been fun to create the various designs, and she knew that would attract a crowd. She was sure she would get more votes than Nick. The other contestants were so far behind she didn't even consider them as competition, though she was happy to see that Beulah had risen to second to last. She'd taken a liking to the old lady despite her gruff exterior.
But come mid-afternoon, Sam's excitement was dampened. Her booth had attracted a big crowd because of the cupcakes all morning. She'd been crazy busy and sold a lot of bowls of chili. But now the traffic seemed to have died down.
A niggle of unease sprouted in her gut. Why had the people stopped coming? Was something wrong with her cupcakes and word had gotten out they were no good? She'd expected the crowd to grow even larger once people started talking about them, but now it seemed that even as her crowd was dwindling, Nick's was getting larger.
What was going on over there?
The crowd was mostly men, and they appeared excited. Pushy. Almost as if they were jostling for position. She stood on her tiptoes trying to see over their heads, and then she crouched down angling her head to try to see through the crowd, wondering just what Nick had done to attract so many people.
A large cowboy in a gigantic white ten-gallon hat moved to the side and that's when she saw it. Nick had what looked like an old gold-fish bowl on the table with blue ticket stubs inside. Raffle tickets? Was he raffling something off?
Wait, there was something leaning against the front of the fish-bowl. Another person moved and now Sam could see what it was. A handwritten sign in dark black pen—Buy A Bowl Of Chili And Win A Chance For Free Beer Tent Passes.
Sam clenched her fists so hard that her nails bit into her palms. Anger coursed through her veins. Nick was running a lottery and bribing people to buy his chili!
That couldn't be within the rules, could it?
Now everyone was going over to his tent and buying his chili instead of hers. That wasn't fair!
She wasn't a tattle-tale, but she was sure that running a raffle was against the rules. She wouldn't tell on him, but she hoped someone would. Maybe he would get disqualified. It would serve him right.
Here she was thinking people in Montana were a different breed. That cowboys had some code of honor. Turns out they were no different than your average riff-raff back east.
She couldn't wait to get this contest over with and return to Boston.6
Sam was still pissedwhen she got home that night, but she didn’t let on to Tessa about Nick’s raffle and simply played up the fact that the customers loved the cupcakes.
Tessa seemed genuinely thrilled for her and happy that her investment in betting on Sam with her friends might pay off. Since Sam knew Tessa and Nick were close, she didn’t want to ruin the good mood of her success by talking badly about him. Even though she wasthinkingbadly about him.
Then again, she wasn’t exactly sure that making the cornbread cupcakes were within the rules, either. Surely, cupcakes weren’t nearly as bad as an actual bribe? Best to keep quiet about it, but if Nick was going to use the same bribe tomorrow then she was going to march right over there and have a word with him. She’d just make sure she didn’t have any cornbread cupcakes in her booth in case the judges decided to check things out.
Tessa had the night off, and the fridge was empty. Neither one of them wanted to go grocery shopping, and they were both starving. Sam had had her fill of chili earlier in the week and hadn’t eaten much of anything all day. Since they’d overdosed on cupcakes the night before, they were both craving a real meal.
“I know a great place where we can go and grab a really good burger,” Tessa said.
Burgers had been their go-to meal in college when their budgets didn’t dictate that they ate ramen noodles. And when things were going badly for one of them, somehow a greasy burger oozing with cheese and dripping ketchup always made things better.
Sam could use that right about now.
“The Bull Sheep?” Sam asked.
“No, someplace better. A real restaurant.” Tessa grabbed her purse. “I want to show you a real Montana burger made the way they’re supposed to be made. Thick and juicy.”
Sam showered and changed into a brown tee-shirt with a white and black design on it and her favorite faded jeans. Her sophisticated Boston wardrobe had no place here in Sweetrock.
Funny thing was, she was starting to really like the more casual attire. It was more comfortable. And she was developing quite a crush on cowboy boots. Tessa’s closet was full of them, in all colors and styles. Sam liked the way they felt on her feet—comfortable but sturdy. She liked the hollow thudding sound they made. Much more substantial than the clack-clack-clack of high heels. Not to mention that her slim leg jeans fit perfectly into the tops and the boots riding halfway up her calf gave her outfit a little pop at the bottom. Tonight she was wearing a brown pair with a black and white stitched design on the top that almost matched her tee-shirt. She was definitely going to have to look into getting some cowboy boots when she got back to Boston.
“Maybe tomorrow night we can saddle up a couple of the horses in the barn and go on a ride,” Tessa said as they drove away. She’d been after Sam to try out one of the horses at the trail riding place where she worked, but Sam had been too busy with the contest. She had only been on a horse a couple of times and not since college. Sam had to admit the prospect was a bit daunting.
Tessa prattled on about horses as they drove down the winding country roads. It was clear to Sam that Tessa loved horses, and Sam’s heart gave a little tug at the thought of having an animal to take care of. Something soft and furry that was always happy to see you when you got home. And didn’t argue with you. Or cheat at contests.
Of course, she couldn’t have a horse in Boston, but maybe a cat. Because they’d moved around so much when she was little, she’d never been able to have a pet, and she’d really wanted one as a kid. Of course, that would have to wait until she had an actual place to live.
The road opened up ahead to reveal wide fields and far-away mountains. The sun was just setting behind them, and it splashed the mountains ahead in purple and pink while the field glowed golden-yellow. It was breathtaking.
“Look!” Tessa pointed to the right, and Sam looked in wonder at the two deer in the field. One had its head down, grazing, and the other was looking straight at them, her ears alert like radar dishes. As they watched, a hawk swooped down, picked up a small rodent and flew off with the poor creature in its talons. Sam was mesmerized—you never saw stuff like that in Boston. No wonder Tessa loved it here so much.
“Think you’re starting to appreciate the country out here, aren’t you?” Tessa teased.
“Well, it is pretty. So wide open. But there’snothingout here,” Sam said.
“That’s why people like it.” Tessa pulled up in front of a big old barn. It looked to be a hundred years old with a wide porch added to one side and hitching posts on the railings.
“This is the restaurant?” Sam asked. Even though it was old, it seemed to be in good condition. A big sign hung over a double glass door. The door was obviously a more modern addition—the sign she wasn’t sure about. It was made from a huge old board with the name of the restaurant branded into it like the brand on a cow—The Chuckwagon.
Tessa laughed. “Oldest restaurant in Sweetrock. And the best.”
The swirl of dirt kicked up by Tessa’s jeep was just settling as they stepped out. The restaurant backed up to a wooded area. To the left was a large expanse of land that looked like it ran straight to the mountains. A brook meandered along the edge of the dirt parking lot, which had obviously been shaped to accommodate the path of the brook. It was hot as Hades, but the babbling sound of the brook had a cooling effect. They walked across the lot, listening to the buzz of insects and the croak of frogs. A coyote howled somewhere off in the distance just as Tessa pulled open the glass and gestured for Sam to precede her. “After you.”
Cool air washed over Sam as she stepped into the large barn. The boards on the inside were just as rough as the outside, but you could hardly see them as they were covered with a hundred years of memorabilia.
Tooled leather saddles, lassos, bridles, stirrups with etched designs, old farm equipment and tons of pictures of rodeos and cowboys dating from present times to a hundred years ago.
The lighting was dim—not so dark that you couldn’t see your meal, but not glaring. Just enough to give it a subtle, relaxed ambiance. It was obvious the place had been a barn at one time since some of the original stalls were still intact and now had been turned into cushioned booths that made for cozy private seating.
The center of the restaurant was dotted with white linen-covered tables and sturdy wooden chairs with leather cushioned seats held on by antique brass rivets. Tessa stopped at the podium beyond which a brown bun of hair could be seen poking up. Sam peeked over and recognized the woman—Beulah—from the chili contest.
“Greetings.” Beulah popped out from behind the stand with two menus in her hand and exchanged a look with Tessa.
“Table for two?” Beulah started into the restaurant without waiting for their answer. She was wearing black slacks and a black shirt with a white leather fringed vest. The fringe hung down to her knees and swayed back and forth like the rubber strips at a car wash. It might have looked ridiculous on anyone else, but for some reason, it worked on the feisty old lady.
She led them to a table near the back, and they sat down. Sam’s stomach rumbled as she dived into her menu. It was covered in plastic and scattered with pictures. Lots of beef and steak. There were several choices for burgers, but Sam was surprised to find that there were no seafood items or salads. Not even a dessert menu. It was light years away from the menu at the trendy city restaurant where she had worked.
“The menu is really basic. Mostly meat and potatoes. Is that what you guys like to eat out here?” Sam knew that food preferences differed per geographical area, but this menu seemed rather unusual.
Tessa shook her head. “The Chuckwagon has been an icon in town for close to a hundred years. This is pretty close to the menu they started out with.”
Sam opened her mouth to start on a diatribe about modern eating habits and how important a balanced menu was, but Tessa raised a hand to cut her off.
“I know. Times have changed, and it’s not just cowboys and rodeo hands coming in to eat here now. They need to appeal to a more diverse clientele, or this place is going to go under. But try to getthemto see that.” Tessa gestured out to the restaurant. “You can see the restaurant is pretty much empty.”
It was pretty empty. Even in this small town, a nice place with this kind of ambiance should have had more than the five customers it had now.Ifthe food was any good. Maybe it sucked, but Sam didn’t think so. Tessa wouldn’t have recommended it if it did. Sam doubted the place would be in business long.
“That’s too bad.” Sam’s eyes dropped back down to her menu. She felt bad for the owners, but it wasn’t her problem.
“Hey, Rena!” Tessa’s eyes focused on someone beyond Sam’s shoulder, and she turned to see who it was. Perky. Curly blonde hair. Big blue eyes.
She spun back around to Tessa, but Tessa was already waving the girl over. Sam opened her mouth then shut it just as quick. What was she going to say? That she didn’t want to talk to Nick’s girlfriend? And why not? It wasn’t likeshewanted to date him or anything.
“Rena, this is my friend Sam that I told you about.”
Tessa had told Nick’s girlfriend about her? Sam shook Rena’s hand, trying to be as pleasant and polite as possible.
“Nice to meet ‘ya,” Rena said. She seemed genuinely glad to meet Sam, poor thing. Sam felt sorry that she was saddled with a flirting, cheating liar like Nick. She could see why the woman would be attracted to him, though. He was handsome and obviously kept his body in good shape. Thoughts of Nick’s body made her squirm in her chair. What was wrong with her? She didn’t want anything to do with him. Poor Rena could keep him. But if the girl hadn’t already figured out what Nick Bradford was all about, then Sam wasn’t about to be the one to enlighten her.
“You wanna join us?” Tessa asked Rena and Sam prayed she’d say no.
“Can’t. I’m just waiting for Amy then I gotta get her home and ready for bed.”
“Mommy! Uncle Nick bought me a horsey!”
Uncle Nick? So maybe she wasn’t his kid. She never understood why women had their kids call their boyfriends ‘uncle’.
Amy came running over with a purple toy horse extended in her hand.
Rena’s face beamed as she looked at the girl. “It’s beautiful!”
Amy brought it around to each of them so they could all make a big deal about how beautiful the horse was.
Amy’s blue eyes turned serious. “This one’s okay, but I want a real pony.”
Rena’s face turned sad. She ruffled the girl’s blonde curls. “Maybe someday.”
“But I used to ride Nacho. Why can’t I ride him anymore?”
“Because Uncle Nick doesn’t have him anymore.”
A pang of sadness for the little girl pierced Sam’s heart.What had happened to Nacho?
Tessa bent down to Amy’s level. “I’ll tell you what. Maybe I can bring you to the barn, and you can pet Nacho. Maybe even ride him.”
Amy turned gleeful. “Really?”
“Uh-huh.” Tessa looked up at Sam and explained. “Nacho is on loan to us until his owner can afford to board him somewhere.”
Sam frowned. Hadn’t she said Nacho was Nick’s horse? Why couldn’t he afford to board him? As if her thoughts had summoned him, Nick’s voice rang out from behind her.
“Amy where did you…oh. Hi, Tessa. Sam. Sis.”
Sam spun around. Her eyes flicked from Nick to Rena to Amy. No wonder Amy looked like Nick. She was his niece. Rena was his sister, not his girlfriend. Why did she feel ridiculously happy about that?
Her cheeks burned. She was glad she’d never mentioned anything to Tessa about what a slime ball Nick was to be flirting with her when he had a girlfriend. Her estimation of Nick ticked up slightly. But only slightly. He’d still pulled a fast one with the raffle tickets.
She nodded a greeting at him and then turned her back, her heart tweaking when she noticed the cold look he’d given her. Apparently, he was just as annoyed at seeing her as she was at seeing him.
“Well, I have to get into the kitchen.” Nick rushed off toward the front of the restaurant.
“Kitchen? Does he work here?” Sam was confused. She thought Nick owned a restaurant. What was he doing working here? Unless…
“This is our family restaurant. Started by our great-granddaddy and run by our parents…before they died.” Rena’s eyes misted. “Nick’s doing everything he can to keep it afloat, but honestly, I just don’t know.” She looked down at Amy and fluffed her hair, then plastered a smile on her face. “Well, you didn’t come here to hear my tale of woe. You ready to go home, pumpkin?”
“Yes, Mommy.” Amy grabbed her horse from the top of the table and started away, and then she stopped and turned to Tessa. “Now don’t forget. You’re gonna take me to see Nacho.”
“I won’t.” Tessa watched them leave with a wistful smile on her face. “Maybe I shouldn’t have promised that.”
The waitress appeared and they ordered cheeseburgers, fries, and beer then got into a discussion about old times. Sam wanted to ask more about Nacho, but they started to reminisce about their college days and by the time the burgers and beers came they were giggling just like they used to back in college. It felt good. Sam hadn’t laughed with anyone like that in a long time.
She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed Tessa. They could share any secret. She could tell Tessa any of her troubles and know she would understand. And they could depend on each other for anything. A pang of loneliness sprang up inside Sam as she realized that while she had friends in Boston, none of them were quite as close as she and Tessa.
Sam lapsed into thought as she ate her burger. She’d been under the assumption that Nick’s restaurant was doing good, but obviously, it wasn’t. Was that why he was in the chili contest? Maybe he needed that prize money as badly as she did. Her heart swayed a bit in his favor. She still didn’t approve of him using the raffle ticket bribe, but she could see how he would be tempted, especially after her cornbread muffins had stolen the show. She knew how it felt to be desperate and needing that money to dig out of a hole. Maybe she had been too harsh in judging him.
They were almost done with their burgers when Beulah appeared at the corner of the table. “So, I saw those cornbread cupcakes you made for the chili contest. Pretty fancy.”
Another pang shot through Sam. Her cupcakes had not only drawn customers away from Nick’s tent but from Beulah’s, too. She hoped the woman wasn’t upset with her. “Thanks.”
“Sam’s a top notch pastry chef.” Tessa added.
Beulah nodded. “Yeah, but that’s not what you do in Boston, right?”
Sam shook her head. “No, my parents always felt it would be better to be a head chef and open my own restaurant.”
“But you prefer pastries, don’t you?” Beulah said.
Sam frowned at Beulah. Was it that obvious? “How do you know?”
“Oh, I’m perceptive. You did draw a big crowd with them.” Her eyes saddened as she looked around the restaurant, caught the eye of a busboy and nodded encouragement to him. “We could use something like that in here to draw a crowd.”
“Sure could.” Tessa was studying Sam over the rim of her frosted beer mug in a way that made her uncomfortable.
“Well, I’m sure you can find a pastry chef in Sweetrock.” Sam dragged one of her fries through a puddle of ketchup.
“Maybe.” Beulah turned back from her survey of the restaurant floor to look at Sam. “I noticed your tent at the fair is nicely organized. The Bradfords…well…I love ‘em like family, but they ain’t that organized. I should know. I’ve worked here for a few generations of ‘em. The restaurant used to thrive in spite of that, but now…well, they could use some organization. Can’t run a restaurant proper without it these days. Do you find that your organizational skills help you run your restaurant?”
Sam blanched. She didn’t actually run a restaurant. In fact, she didn’t even work in one anymore. Ironically, she suspected it was her organizational skills that had gotten her fired. She’d always been very organized and had taken over the books at the restaurant as well as some of the day to day decisions and menu planning. Lizette had been jealous because the restaurant owner was impressed with Sam’s abilities.
The thing was, Sam had never been told why she’d been fired. She’d just been told she was no longer needed. She was sure Lizette had lied to the owners. Maybe she'd told them customers complained about Sam's cooking, or that Sam was stealing or even that her menu decisions were causing a downturn in diners. Whatever it was, Sam was sure that Lizette had used her good looks and skills at manipulating people to get rid of her. There was nothing Sam could do about it.
Nick came out of the kitchen. Even in the white chef jacket and black and white checked pants he looked hot. He scanned the dining room, homed in on Beulah and arrowed toward them. “You wanted to see me? Is something wrong?” His gaze flicked down at Sam’s half-finished burger. “Is there a problem with the burger?”
“No, it’s great.” Sam caught Tessa pointing covertly to the corner of her lip, and she swiped at hers. Did she have ketchup there?
Nick turned to Beulah. “What, then? Rodney said you signaled him for me to come out.”
Nick nodded at the busboy who Sam had seen Beulah nod to earlier. Had Beulah’s nod been a code to summon Nick? She didn’t have anything like that at her restaurant. Correction. Herformerrestaurant. Maybe she would institute something at her new one.
“Well, far be it from me to meddle, but I was just talking to Sam about her cornbread cupcakes, and I got to thinking we could use something like that around here. You know, a lot more ladies would come in if we had a proper dessert menu and some lighter fare,” Beulah said.
Nick crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at Beulah. “What do you mean? We’ve had the same menu for a hundred years.”
“Exactly my point.” Beulah gestured to the half-empty restaurant. “Things have changed in a hundred years. Diners tastes have changed. We need to keep up with the times if we want to draw in the crowds.”
Nick glanced around as if noticing for the first time how empty the restaurant was. “Yeah, but we still have the regulars… and besides, I don’t know if I like those cornbread cupcakes.” His gaze turned to Sam, his eyes hard and accusing. “That seemed like a little bit of a cheat.”
Sam’s back stiffened. Who the hell was he to be talking about cheating? “Oh, and giving away tickets to the beer tent isn’t?”
Nick flushed, and Beulah looked at him over the tops of her half-moon glasses. “Yeah, that was going a little too far, Nicky.”
Nick rubbed his hand through his hair, a flush creeping into his cheeks. “I guess you’re right. I do apologize for that. Maybe it was going a bit too far. But Sam started it with her cupcakes and Daddy always taught me that if someone played dirty, you had to play dirtier to win.”
His eyes dropped to the corner of her lip. Did she still have ketchup there? She swiped at it again. “I wasn’t playing dirty!”
“Well, now, Sam, I do think you made those to give yourself an advantage, didn’t you?” Beulah’s stern look pierced Sam. For a little old lady, she was intimidating. “Strictly speaking, it’s the chili that is supposed to draw the crowd over.”
Sam deflated. “I guess you’re right. Maybe I was wrong to do that.”
“Good. Then you two should shake hands and call a truce.” Beulah waved her hand between Nick and Sam.
“Well, I hardly think that’s…” Sam started, but the stern glare she got from Beulah told her not to argue.
Nick stuck his hand out. “Truce?”
Sam put her hand in Nick’s. It was warm. Friendly. She looked up at his velvety brown eyes and her heart hitched. She struggled to act casual even as she knew she was holding his hand for a bit too long.
Beulah cleared her throat and Nick slowly broke the handshake.
“So anyway, Sam here is really organized in her booth, and she’s a whiz with desserts. I think we could use her here.”
“What?” Nick and Sam jerked their gaze from each other to scowl at Beulah.
“Yeah. We need to attract more womenfolk. Sam’s got experience.”
Sam looked at Tessa for help, but she just raised a brow, pointed to the corner of her mouth and shrugged. “You do have the experience they need.”
Sam picked up her napkin and swiped at her mouth again.
Nick shook his head. “We’re not looking to hire anyone right now.”
Sam held up her hand. “And I’m not looking for a job.”
“Right. See. So we’ll have to just work things out the way we always have.” Nick looked pointedly at Beulah. “Speaking of which, we both better get back to work.
“Besides, I’m heading back to Boston in a week,” Sam added.
“Uh-huh.” Beulah shot Tessa a wink before she started toward the front of the restaurant, managing to get the last word as she parted. “I’ve heard that one before.”7
The rib-eyesteak sizzled as Nick placed it in the carefully seasoned pan. The smell of grilled meat and fried onion rings cut through the air as he shifted his weight on the rubber mat under his feet. The restaurant couldn’t take another bunch of screw-ups like he’d made the other night. He had to focus on cooking, but his attention kept straying to Sam.
There was something about her that affected him like no other woman. Sure, she was beautiful, but Nick had dated many beautiful women before. And he could tell she was smart. She had a fire in her eye that made Nick’s blood race.
She’d looked cute out in the restaurant with that blob of ketchup on the side of her mouth. And even though he was still a little mad about the trick she’d pulled with the cornbread cupcakes, he’d had all he could do to stop himself from kissing it off.
Thoughts of kissing Sam made his body tighten. But that was dangerous territory—best that he direct his thoughts from Sam to something more practical. He thought he’d seen a flicker of interest in her sexy gray eyes, but she’d be gone in a week and where would that leave him? Though, what a week it could be. He almost dropped the spatula thinking about what he could get up to with Sam in a week’s time.
Too bad it was the week of the chili contest and Nick had to focus on cooking chili and not trying to wrangle a filly into his corral. No matter how tempting a ride around the corral with her would be.
And what the heck had Beulah been doing going on about hiring her? When that old woman got a bee in her bonnet about something it was hard to dissuade her, but they didn’t really need desserts or organization that bad, did they?
Nick glanced at the stainless steel bar where they put the incoming orders. It should be crowded with them at this time of night, but there were only two. His stomach sank. Beulah was right. He did need to do something to turn things around in the restaurant after the contest was over.
That was if he even stillownedthe restaurant.
If he didn’t have ten thousand dollars by the end of the month, the bank would take it. One hundred years in the same family and Nick would be the one to lose it.
Would a menu change really bring in more people?
Images of Sam in this very kitchen organizing it and cooking right along with him drifted to mind. He imagined how it would feel to be working in the same area, their bodies close as they passed in the narrow area or reached for the same pot.
Nick turned the flame down under the pan. Why would Sam want to come way out here in the middle of nowhere to work in a restaurant when she had better opportunities in Boston? Heck, she wanted to open up her own place, not come work for some old steakhouse. She probably already had a place picked out and plans in the works.
It was crazy for Beulah to think she would even consider working at The Chuckwagon. In this outdated and disorganized kitchen where his grandpa had cooked alongside his grandma and his pa alongside his mother, and someday Nick hoped he would cook alongside…
Well, no sense in thinking that far into the future, the restaurant might not even be his when he found someone to share his life with.
An even crazier thought flashed through his mind. Him and Sam a few years from now, a pack of kids running around the restaurant. Their kids. Even a daughter like Amy. His eyes fell back to the steak, and he flipped it over on the other side.
He had no right to be thinking about a future. Not when Rena and Amy had theirs tied so closely to his. If anyone knew that a marriage doesn’t always work out, it would be Rena. Nick’s heart twisted when he thought of Amy with no father. He could tell she was confused as to where her daddy was. Why didn’t he come to see her? Didn’t he love her?
Nick had tried his hardest to fill those shoes, but he was no substitute for a real father. He hadn’t done a very good job of it either considering that he’d failed her by losing Nacho. Sure, he tried to make up for it by buying her toy horses, but it was obvious the girl’s heart was broken that he’d had to give up the horse. Heck, his own heart was broken about that. But there was no other way. He’d had to sell off everything he owned just to pay off most of the family debt, and now he had no place to keep Nacho or money to board him.
He was lucky Evangeline at Trail Riders was taking him in and would let Nick buy him back if he ever got the money. But right now he had no idea if that would ever happen. He was putting everything he had into saving the restaurant, and if that didn’t work, getting his horse back would be the least of his worries.
He kept his eyes glued to the steak as Beulah’s words played back in his head. She thought they needed a change of menu. Was that true? It had always been beef, elk, bison, a little chicken, and sometimes salmon. It was everything a man could want to eat. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? It was everything amanwould want to eat, but not much for women.
Sam had attracted the women to her booth with those cupcakes at the chili contest. Maybe Beulah was right. Maybe they did need to change the menu. Maybe Sam would give him some advice on that. She knew what kinds of foods should be on a menu that would attract women. And that would mean spending time with her and…
No sense in thinking about what might happen if he spent time with Sam. He had one job to do, and that was to keep the restaurant going.
Nick plated the steak with a mound of garlic mashed potatoes. It was cooked to perfection. That’s what happened when you focused. And that’s what he had to keep doing. Focus on the restaurant. All his thoughts and actions had to go into winning the chili contest and keeping the restaurant running. He didn’t have any time to spend thinking about Sam Dunn, no matter how enchanting she was.8
Sam heavedthe sack of onions out of the back seat of her VW Jetta. It was only eight a.m., but the heat had risen to almost eighty degrees already. She wiped her arm across her sweaty forehead as she hip-checked the car door closed, waiting to hear the snick of the automatic lock. The car was just about the only decent thing she owned. If she didn’t win the money from this contest and get her new restaurant going fast, she’d be living in it.
She was lucky she could still make the payments. She’d saved up a little from her job, but most of that had gone to buying supplies for the chili contest. There was still a little left, but that wouldn’t last long.
Which reminded her, she needed to check her bank account and make sure she’d transferred enough for the car payment from savings to checking. She had set it up to be paid automatically, but with getting fired, frantically looking for another job, losing her apartment and then the trip out here she hadn’t been paying close attention to finances. Now that no new paychecks were being deposited, it would be wise to double check that there was enough to cover the deduction. That’s what organized planners did.
Her thoughts turn to Nick, her heart softening. Given what she’d found out at the restaurant last night, he might be banking on winning the chili contest money as much as she was. She glanced into the car. A tray of cornbread cupcakes smiled up at her, but since they’d declared their truce, she wouldn’t use them. She’d given her word and furthermore, winning by using some kind of trick wouldn’t be right.
For the first time, Sam wondered if winning at all would be right. Nick had his family restaurant on the line and what did she have? She just wanted the money to open her own place, but the ten thousand wasn’t enough to outfit a top-notch restaurant. She was still going to have to find someone else to help finance it. Or get a job in another restaurant to save up more money.
Beulah’s words from the night before came back to her. A job at The Chuckwagon could be…interesting. Maybe she could even help them straighten things out. She wondered how badly disorganized it was and how much that was affecting their bottom line. She knew making changes in the back-end of things could increase restaurant profits dramatically. A tingle of excitement ran through her. It would feel good to help put the restaurant back on track, and she supposed she could stay a few more weeks…or a month. She had no place to go back to in Boston anyway. But then she remembered, Nick had said they weren’t hiring. Apparently, he wasn’t open to the idea.
“Hey, there, let me take that for you.” Sam spun around to see Nick standing behind, her holding his hand out to take the onions. Normally, pride would dictate that she refused, but the bag was heavy, and it was hotter than hell. She handed it over, and Nick slung it across his shoulder as easy as if it was filled with feathers. Today, he wore a plain white tee-shirt and Sam couldn’t help but watch his tanned biceps flexing as he balanced the onions. He caught her looking and a lopsided grin spread across his face. Sam flushed, her cheeks heating as his gaze lingered on her.
“Well, I guess we better get cooking.” He gestured for her to go ahead and they walked toward the tents together.
As they turned down the aisle, Sam’s eyes went directly to the scoreboard.
“We’re tied!” they said at the same time, then looked at each other and laughed. Sam sensed an easy camaraderie in Nick’s demeanor. Gone were the adversarial feelings of the day before. Now it seemed as if they were becoming friends. Maybe even something more, judging by the way he was looking at her. No, probably not. There wasn’t time for that. Not if she kept to her plan of leaving after the competition.
Then again, what was the rush to go home?
Nick came into her tent. “Where do you want these?”
Sam bent over to open the cooler. Looking back over her shoulder, she caught him staring at her backside and heat coursed through her. Damn, she had it bad.
“In here,” she squeaked out.
Nick raised a brow and dropped the onions inside, then tipped his hat and backed out of the booth. “Good luck today.”
“You, too.” Sam watched him walk back to his tent then turned before he could catch her watching. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him sweep the raffle jar off the table and into the trash. It looked like Nick was going to honor their truce as well.
She set the ground hamburger to cooking and got out her spice canisters, organizing them on the table before she started chopping the onions. It was too early for customers, but all of the contestants cooked the chili fresh each morning and she liked to simmer hers for at least an hour. The row was quiet except for the sizzle of browned meat and the chopping of vegetables. Even Beulah was quiet down in her booth, cutting up hot peppers for the day.
Across the way, Nick was in his tent doing the same but in a less organized manner, rummaging through cans and foraging around in his booth. It took him so much longer to find his ingredients. Sam itched to go over and help him but then reminded herself that it wouldn’t be wise. Nick was her competition—though suddenly she found her competitive spirit had been dampened. She wasn’t as keen to win the contest and snatch the ten thousand dollar prize from him as she’d been yesterday.
The relative silence was shattered by the squeal of Amy. Running down the aisle in a blur of pink and purple, she careened into Nick’s tent.
“Uncle Nick! I’m going to ride Nacho today!”
Rena wasn’t far behind. She stopped in the aisle, a smile on her face as she watched the excitement bubble out of Amy. She turned to Sam. “I don’t know where she gets the energy.”
“Wish you could bottle it up. I could use some.” Sam swiped at her damp forehead.
Rena’s gaze swept past her into her booth. “Boy, you reallyareorganized.”
“My parents are both in the military, so being organized was drilled into me since before birth. It was all military corners on the beds in clothes precisely folded in drawers.”
“Beulah mentioned that she thought getting more organized could help The Chuckwagon. Maybe you…” Rena’s voice trailed off, and Sam squirmed. Why did everyone want her to lend a hand at The Chuckwagon?
“Yeah, that’s what she said, but it seems like you aren’t hiring, and I’m going back to Boston and starting my own restaurant anyway.”
Rena nodded, her eyes drifting from Sam and then over to Nick’s tent where Amy was still jumping up and down gleefully. Following her gaze, Sam couldn’t help but smile. Nick seemed just as excited as his niece.
The light in Rena’s eyes faded, and her face pinched. “I sure would hate to see the restaurant go under. Nick’s tried really hard, and I don’t know what to do to help. I don’t know a thing about the restaurant business. My parents never taught me anything, and I was married young and…well, I was busy with Amy. Now my parents are gone, our family finances are a mess, and I can’t even help out.”
Sam’s heart twisted for Rena. She didn’t know what it was like to feel helpless. She’d always taken control of every situation and paved her own way. “Well, if I could help I would. Maybe I could just come over and take a look at things.”
Why had she suggested that?
The brightened look on Rena’s face squelched any regrets. “Would you? Night after tomorrow would be great. I don’t have to work so I’d be there to show you around.” She glanced back over at Nick. “I don’t know why Nick’s spending so much time at this contest when he should be looking over the restaurant books himself.”
Sam didn’t say anything. Apparently, Rena hadn’t figured out that Nick probably needed the money for the restaurant. She didn’t want to be the one to enlighten her, and she was only speculating anyway. But judging by what she’d heard, they needed money bad.
Amy ran over and saved Sam from having to comment. She clung to Rena’s leg. “Can we go now, Mommy?” She looked at Sam. Her eyes bright and sparkling. “I’m gonna ride a horse today.”
“Tessa had an opening, so she texted me and were going to go for a little ride,” Rena explained.
Sam squatted down to Amy’s level. “Well, you have a fun time.”
“I will!” Amy grabbed Rena’s hand and tugged her out of the booth. She waved to Nick and then to Sam as her daughter pulled her down the aisle.
Sam’s gaze drifted from Rena and Amy to Nick. Their eyes locked. For a second, she forgot they were in the middle of the fairgrounds and almost ran over there and jumped into his arms. Then reality crashed in. She tore her eyes from his smoldering gaze and got back to work.
Dammit.Why did she have to be attracted to someone who lived a million miles away? Could there ever be something between her and Nick if she stayed? Maybe it was worth it to start something up, just to get him out of her system so she wouldn’t be distracted by thoughts of him when she went back to Boston. She’d need to have a clear head and put all her focus into her new restaurant, not moon over some cowboy that was halfway across the country. Then again, she had a feeling that once she got a taste of Nick Bradford, there would be no getting him out of her system.
Her eyes moved over to the score board again. If she didn’t get cooking chili, she wouldn’t have any money to start a restaurant in the first place. As she focused back on her work, her thoughts turned to her conversation with Rena.
Had she really just committed herself to looking at The Chuckwagon’s processes? Would Nick be mad? He hadn’t seemed that keen on it yesterday, but what did it matter? She could tell Rena was terribly worried about it, and if she could help a single mom and her child, then she was going to do it. And if that made Nick mad, then so be it.
Nothing went rightfor Sam for the rest of the day. First, she dropped scrambled hamburger on the ground, then one of her crockpots stopped working, and then she spilled chili all over herself. There was only one high point in the day. Beulah stopped by to sample her chili again. Sam had gotten more ghost peppers at Dickinson’s, and Beulah gave it her seal of approval, favoring Sam with a wink before swaggering back to her own booth.
By the end of the day, she was covered in chili, dripping in sweat and desperate for a drink. Tessa had texted to say their plans for a horseback ride had to be postponed to the next night. Sam was glad. There was no telling what might go wrong if she tried to get on the back of a horse.
She cleaned up her tent and practically ran out of the fair. At Tessa’s, she showered, threw on a white tee-shirt, a denim skirt—but longer this time than the one she’d borrowed the other day—and a pair of Tessa’s red and white cowboy boots. Then she hopped back in her car and headed to The Bull Sheep Bar.
It was early, and the nightly crowd had not yet descended which was fine with Sam. The music was low. No band tonight, just the jukebox. A few couples sat at various tables and a loud, rowdy bunch of cowboys occupied a booth in the back.
She’d taken a seat at the bar far away from everyone else, preferring to be alone right now until she could drink away the stress of the day. Beer wouldn’t be enough for that. Upon finding out that her favorite liqueurs were Baileys and Kahlúa, the bartender had suggested a concoction called a screaming orgasm that was made from vodka, Baileys, and Kahlúa.
The drink had a kick to it, but it was soothed by the creaminess of the Baileys. It went down easy. By the time Sam was halfway done, the alcohol had made its way into her bloodstream and was working its magic on her mood. She’d have to slow down, or she’d be calling Tessa for a ride home.
Relaxing back in her chair, she ran her fingertips on the smooth bar top. It was one long slab of honey colored wood with the bark still attached to the edges, encased in a thick layer of shellac. Across from her, three tiers of booze bottles were stacked against the wall, lit from behind so as to display the colorful glass. Stained-glass panels hung down from the top of the bar, and she relaxed back into her chair, resting her cowboy boots on the brass foot rail in front of her as she eyed the mocha concoction beckoning to her from its martini glass in front of her. She picked up the cool glass and took a big sip, then signaled the bartender. Just one more drink and then she’d top it off with coffee before driving.
Her thoughts turned to the chili contest, the reason why she was in Sweetrock in the first place. Not that it wasn’t great to come and see Tessa. In fact, it had been a visit that was long overdue, but she needed to get her act together. What if she didn’t win the contest? Then what was she going to do? She supposed she would try for another job in Boston. She could always tell her parents it was a strategic move on her part—a stepping stone that would position her better for her own restaurant. Surely one of her friends back there would know someone that could help her get another job. She glanced down at the messages on her phone. One from her parents and one from her sister. None of her Boston friends had even contacted her the whole time she’d been here. Some friends they were.
She wondered if going back to Boston was even the right move. Her family was there in the suburbs of Massachusetts, and she would miss not having them close. Glancing at the phone again, her heart tugged. She’d been putting off talking to her folks because they wouldn’t understand and she was embarrassed to tell her sister the truth. Sooner or later she was going to have to call them, though. She’d sent her mother several texts assuring her she was fine, but she knew her parents would worry if they didn’t talk to her in person. What would she tell them? She was no good at lying, but she’d have to come up with a suitable story so they didn’t know the truth of how bad things were for her.
Funny thing how the only person she could really tell her troubles to—Tessa—lived so far away. They’d been as close as sisters in college, celebrating each other’s successes and crying on each other’s shoulders at their failures. In fact, Sam had been instrumental in pulling Tessa from the depths of despair when her childhood sweetheart—some jerk named Derek Masters who Sam had never met and never wanted to meet—had screwed her over.
Sam could still remember how depressed the normally bubbly Tessa had been, and she was grateful that now her friend seemed much happier and well-balanced. She hoped Tessa would find another love, even though she’d never known her to have more than a week-long fling after that.
Leaving Tessa was going to be hard after reconnecting and having spent two weeks here.
But did it have to be that way? This last week with Tessa had been a lot of fun and brought back all those old memories and feelings from college. And it turned out that even though Sweetrock was in the middle of nowhere, living here did have its advantages.
But she’d only been here for a week. She was sure if she stayed here for any length of time all that would become dull and boring and she would crave the bright city lights again…despite what Beulah said. Not to mention that the opportunities out here for the type of position she needed were minimal.
“Penny for your thoughts?” The familiar husky voice sent a shiver down her spine, and she turned to see Nick slipping into the barstool beside her.
“I was just thinking about how different things are here than in Boston,” she said.
“I bet. So how was the cooking today?” Nick rested his forearms on the bar, picking at the label of his beer.
Sam blew out a breath. “Disastrous. One thing went wrong after another.”
Nick smiled. “I did notice you were covered in chili.”
Sam laughed. She could only imagine how she’d looked by the end of the day, hair frazzled and covered in red chili sauce. “How about you? How did things go for you?”
Nick shrugged. “Okay, I guess.” He swung his chair so that he was looking straight at her. “Somehow, I’m not as keen to win as I used to be.”
She turned her chair, too, their knees brushing against each other. In the light of the bar, Nick’s eyes were more amber than brown, and now she noticed they had little flecks of gold. Her pulse thrummed, and her head spun slightly. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that last sip of the drink.
“Winning isn’t everything.” Her voice came out low and soft.
“Exactly.” He leaned in closer and she found herself leaning toward him. It was like he had some kind of magnetic pull. His eyes flicked from hers to her drink. “What are you drinking?”
“Uhh…a screaming orgasm.” She flushed. The name of the drink sounded erotic on a whole different level when she said it out loud to Nick.
His eyes dropped to her lips for a second, then came back up to rest on her eyes. “Want another?”
Yes. Yes, she did.
She held his gaze. “Maybe later.”
He leaned even closer, a few inches away, his gaze dropping to her lips again. Was he going to kiss her this time? She sure hoped so. Her eyes fluttered shut.
“Hey, lady is that your Jetta out there?”
They jerked apart, and Sam whirled toward the door. A middle-aged man was holding it open with one hand and pointing to the parking lot with the other. Outside, she could see the blinking lights of a tow truck.
She bolted off her stool and ran outside, Nick following close behind.
“What are you doing!” Sam waved her hands frantically at the tow truck driver who took one look at her and stepped backward. He held his hands up as if to ward her off.
“Whoa, there, lady, back off.”
“But that’s my car.”
“Sorry, I have my orders. Please step aside.” The man looked at her warily as if he had experience with people making trouble when he towed their cars away.
“But I didn’t call anyone to have my car towed.” Sam looked around for another red VW Jetta. “You must have the wrong car.”
The man looked at her funny then flashed a clipboard in her face. Sam saw the word repossession in big block letters at the top.
Her car was getting repossessed?
“No. No. There must be some mistake my car is not getting repossessed. I pay the bills on time.”
The man started up the winch that pulled her car onto the bed of the truck. “That’s what everyone says, lady. Now step back, or I’ll have to call the cops.”
Nick put solid hands gently on her shoulders. “Maybe I can straighten this out.”
Sam wasn’t one to let anyone else fight her battles, but Nick was a lot calmer. Maybe she should let him take over. She nodded and stepped back.
Nick strode over to the man. “What’s this about?”
The man shrugged and angled the clipboard toward Nick. “Says here she didn’t make the payments.”
Nick cocked his head to read the paper then turned to Sam. ”This looks legit. Is it possible you missed some payments?”
She’d never checked her bank accounts. She must’ve shorted herself in the checking. Whipping her phone out of her back pocket, she logged into her online banking account, her stomach crashing when she saw her mistake. Why hadn’t she checked sooner?
It was a stupid mistake. One an organized planner would never make it. What would her parents think of her now? Her eyes burned as she pleaded with the tow truck driver. “I forgot to transfer money in the account. I can pay it now and bring it current.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I have my orders. I have to impound the car. You’ll have to work it out with your loan company.”
Sam watched helplessly as the man secured her car onto the truck. Why hadn’t the loan company called her? Weren’t they supposed to do that before they repossessed a car? Heck, she’d only missed two—okay, maybe three—payments, but they hadn’t even given her any warning. Then she remembered she’d lost her apartment, and the land-line that went with it was the one she’d given to the car loan company. The line had been disconnected. And she’d had all her mail forwarded to a post office box that she hadn’t had time to check.
“So there’s nothing you can do?” She pleaded with the driver.
“How’d you even find it out here. I’m from Boston.”
The man tapped the side of the car. “GPS tracker. They know where you are all the time now.”
Nick had put his arm around her, and she collapsed against him, her heart sinking. What the hell was she going to do now? She realized how sad her circumstances were—now she had no car, no home, and no job.
Nick held her in his arms, rubbing soothing circles on her back, and murmured things in her ear. It almost made things all right. Well, at least it made them a heck of a lot better.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get this straightened out,” he said.
Normally, the thought of anyone helping her would not have been a welcome one. She'd learned the hard way to only depend on herself after Eddie had dumped her. But Sam was in over her head. And thinking about Nick helping—evenwantingto help—made her feel all warm inside.
But she didn’t want to tell Nick all her problems. He’d think she was a nutcase. She pulled away, wiping at her eyes. “Thanks. I feel so foolish. I had meant to check the app, and I could’ve avoided all this, and now I have no car.”
“Don’t worry. Between Tessa and me you won’t be hurting for rides. In fact, looks like you’ll be needing one home tonight and I have my truck at the ready.” Nick pointed to a black Ford F-150 sitting at the edge of the parking lot, and her heart did a little flip at the kind gesture.
“Okay. I really appreciate that. I better go pay my bill, though.”
Sam wasn’t in the mood for drinking anymore, so they finished their drinks quickly. Sam tried to pay for Nick’s beer to thank him for the ride, but he refused and after a short, friendly, and flirty battle Nick won out and paid for both her drinks along with his one beer.
She appreciated that Nick didn’t try to make small talk on the way home. She was deep in thought. What was the procedure for getting her car released? Did she even have the phone number for the loan company? Why did Nick smell so good?
She was keenly aware of his nearness. She couldn’t focus. Her attention kept drifting over to the way his muscular body relaxed into the driver’s seat. His big hands on the wheel, bulky biceps peeking out from his tee-shirt. His thick thighs and…
When he pulled up in front of Tessa’s house, she was reluctant to get out of the truck. Reluctant to leave his company.
He came around to the passenger side door and opened it for her. The truck was high, and she slid out, stumbling a little. Maybe because of the alcohol still running in her veins, or maybe from the heady feeling of being near him.
He caught her by the waist to keep her from falling. Her hands clutched his biceps and their eyes locked. Instead of letting her go, he pulled her in closer, his face dipping toward hers.
His warm breath ghosted over her face, and she drank in the earthy smell of leather and musk as she looked up into his eyes, now dark with desire. This time, when his gaze dropped down to her lips, she knew nothing could interrupt their kiss.
The kiss was soft at first. Hesitant. As if Nick was feeling her out, unsure of how to proceed. But when she pressed herself closer to him, his arms wrapped tighter, and he angled his head, deepening the kiss.
His hands rubbed her back, her hips. She moaned, opening her mouth and letting his tongue in. It tasted of grainy beer and salty pretzels. His hands, hot and rough with callouses, strayed under her shirt to stroke her sides, her back.
Sam gave in to the moment, twining her arms around Nick’s neck and through his hair. Pressing herself closer, she tasted his tongue with her own. The flush of desire pressed at her core, urging her closer to him. She wanted more of Nick Bradford. Much more.
* * *
Sam tasted sweet. Like creamy chocolate and hot desire. Nick tangled his hands in her hair, gently slanting her head to deepen the angle of their kiss. Her hair was like the finest silk, just as he’d imagined it would be. When her tongue darted out to meet his, he moaned and pulled her closer.
Her skin was as smooth as butter. He couldn’t get enough of it, his hands caressing her back, the indent of her waist, the bottom of her ribcage, stopping just below her breast. Teasing. He let them drop to her hips, then around to her backside to pull her hips tight against his. She didn’t resist. In fact, she pressed even closer, grinding, the motion sending an arrow of heat straight to his groin.
He’d better stop now or he wouldn’t be able to stop at all.
He pulled away, breaking the kiss slowly. The look of confusion in her eyes tore at his heart. He traced his finger down the line of her jaw. “I want more but now is not the time.”
Her eyes cleared and she smiled. He almost changed his mind when she reached up and ran her fingertips over the cleft in his chin, but Sam was tipsy and upset over what happened with her car. Vulnerable. Nick wouldn’t take advantage. He wanted her, but not this way. If Sam was going to give herself to him, he didn’t want it to be because she wasn’t thinking with a clear head. He didn’t want her to have any regrets.
He laid a light kiss on her lips, her nose, and then her forehead. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the door.”
At the door, Nick gave her one more kiss, but it was more chaste this time. She opened the door and turned to him.
“Thanks…for everything.” Her cheeks flushed. Nick figured that by ‘everything’, she wasn’t just talking about the ride.
“You’re welcome. Will you need a ride to the fair tomorrow? I could pick you up.” Nick shuffled his feet, feeling like a schoolboy with his first crush.
Sam chewed her bottom lip as if deciding. “I don’t want to impose. I’ll ask Tessa to take me.” She leaned out and pressed her lips to his softly, her warm hand splayed flat on his chest. She let her lips linger against his for a few seconds, barely touching. He had all he could do not to crush her to him. Then she pulled back. She smiled, a wicked sexy gleam in her eye. “I’ll see you at the fair tomorrow.” He stood there mute as she touched her fingertip to his lips, then turned and shut the door.
Nick stood at the doorstep for a few seconds. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to get to the fair tomorrow.10
The next morning, the fairgrounds looked somehow brighter and more exciting to Sam. Her mind wasn’t on the chili contest anymore it was on Nick Bradford. She could barely keep her eyes from straying over into his tent and every time they did he would catch her looking and wink, setting her stomach aflutter.
She wondered if he felt the same way. Judging by the way he kept looking over, and the way he’d kissed her last night, it was a pretty sure bet that he did.
Tessa had dropped her off and promised to make good on the trail ride that she’d had to cancel the night before. Sam had mixed feelings about that. She hadn’t been on a horse in years. But Tessa really wanted to ride together, and she wanted to make her friend happy.
Though looking over at Nick brought thoughts of another type of ‘ride’ to mind, Sam wasn’t one to push off a friend for a guy. Guys could be fickle, but friends were forever. And besides, she was only here for another week. Maybe it wasn’t so smart to start something up with Nick.
But something had already been started. The kiss last night had been electrifying. More intense than Sam had ever felt with another guy and now she had an itch that only Nick could satisfy. And if Nick wanted the same, there was no way she’d be able to resist him.
She realized that he could’ve easily taken advantage of her the night before. She was tipsy and more than willing. She knew he’d read all her signals, but he’d backed off. It made her like him even more and her feelings for him all the more bittersweet.
Why couldn’t there be a guy like Nick back in Boston?
She was so busy thinking about Nick that it was ten o’clock by the time she realized she’d forgotten to look at the scoreboard. Glancing over, she was surprised to discover she was winning. Yesterday, she would have been elated. Today, not so much. Not now that she knew Nick needed the money as much as, if not more than, she did.
Nick had more at stake in this contest then she did. He had a family restaurant owned for generations and a child depending on him. Sam just had herself. She felt petty and small taking the win from him. But the contest wasn’t over yet. Nick might still pull ahead. The only bright spot in the score was that Beulah had crept up a notch and was now fourth from the top.
She went through the motions of making a new batch of chili and set it to simmer on the stove. Her eyes drifted over to Nick’s booth so many times it was embarrassing. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to go over there, just to stand near him.
What was wrong with her?
She was losing her head over some guy she barely knew. Was it just lust, or something more?
The early afternoon lull came, and her heart leaped when she saw Nick approaching her tent. She tried to act cool, but with him standing only an inch away she was anything but.
“I was thinking maybe we could go have a drink tonight. Pick up where we left off,” he said.
Her throat tightened, and she had to swallow a few times before she could speak. “I’d love to, but I’m going riding with Tessa tonight. We already had plans.” She explained so Nick would know she wasn’t putting him off.
He cocked his head to the side and raised his brow. “After?”
Sam’s lips quirked up into a smile. “Definitely after.”
“Hey, is anyone serving chili here?” A customer stood at her table, empty bowl in hand. Sam flushed and moved to serve him.
Nick headed over to serve the customers who had lined up at his tent, shooting her a hopeful look as he crossed the aisle. “See you later?”
“Absolutely.” Sam returned to the task of food prep and service, but chili was the last thing on her mind. Her thoughts were filled with Nick and the promise of the night to come.
The thoughts were bittersweet. She was falling for him hard already, and she knew long distance relationships never worked out. She pushed the thought away. No sense in spoiling things by thinking too much. For all she knew, this thing with Nick would run its course in a few days like it had with many other men. And then she’d be glad to get out of town with the ten thousand dollar prize money.
Her tent and Nick’s always had the most customers. She’d bet her life savings that one of them would be the grand prize winner. And that prize money was vital to her future. Hot guys like Nick would come and go, but this was a rare opportunity to get seed money to launch her career.
A pang of guilt shot through her. Nick needed the money for much more. But all was fair in love and war and now that neither one of them were using any tricks they were competing on a level playing field. Things were fair, and judging by the scores thus far, either she or Nick would win.
The question was…which one of them was she really rooting for?11
Sam had livedin three countries and all over the United States, but she’d only set foot in a barn twice before. She’d expected the trail riding barn to smell sweaty and dirty, but it didn’t. The earthy smell of manure mixed with the sweet smell of the hay and spiced with the scent of leather was pleasant, natural. The barn was neat and clean. Bridles, some fancy, and some plain hung on hooks. Her boots thudded on the floorboards and dry hay crunched underfoot as she walked down the long row of stalls. Horses of all sizes and colors, their heads hung out of the tops of their stalls, watched her curiously.
She stopped in front of one of the stalls. “So this is the famous Nacho I’ve heard about? Can I pet her?”
“Him.” Tessa smiled. “And go ahead. He’s very gentle.”
Sam was smitten as soon as she touched the soft velvety muzzle. The horse was a beautiful chestnut color with black mane and a white marking down his nose which Sam later found out was called a blaze. She’d never felt anything as cushiony as the tip of the nose of the magnificent creature who contemplated her with liquid brown eyes that seemed to be deep with understanding.
“Hey, Nacho. Nice to meet you.” The horse flicked his black tail in response.
Sam tore herself away from the beautiful creature and turned to Tessa. “Okay, which one of these guys am I going to try to ride?”
Tessa turned toward a light brown horse with a blonde mane and tail. “You can take Bella. She’s our gentlest quarter—“
“Tessa, can you take my appointment. I just got an emergency call. My mom’s been rushed to the hospital.” The harried women hovered in the doorway of the barn, her face searching Tessa’s.
Tessa glanced at Sam. “Well, I—“
“Go,” Sam said. “It’s obviously an emergency. I can hang out here and—“
“I’ll take her for a ride. I came to take Nacho out anyway and she can ride along with me.” Nick’s voice rang out from behind Sam, and both she and Tessa turned to look at him, Tessa with a smirk on her face and Sam with a confused look on hers.
“Oh, I don’t think…” Sam’s eyes flicked between Nick and Tessa, unsure if she should accept his invitation. She’d promised to go riding with Tessa and didn’t want to renege.
“That’s a great idea,” Tessa beamed. “Nick is an expert rider. You’ll be in good hands.” The way Tessa said ‘good hands’ made Sam wonder if she was talking about riding a horse or something else.
“I promise we’ll take it nice and slow.” Nick stepped further into the barn. His red plaid shirt hung open, revealing a navy tee-shirt underneath that was just a tiny bit too tight, showing off his muscular chest. The hopeful look on his handsome face made it impossible to resist. Not that Sam wanted to.
“Okay, that sounds great, then.”
Nick showed Sam how to saddle Bella. The horse seemed impossibly large, but Sam felt safe with Nick there. He helped her up into the saddle, his strong hands keeping her from falling over onto the other side, which she almost did. After a few minutes, she was comfortable in the saddle, and Nick got on Nacho and they headed down the trail at a slow walk.
The trails were beautiful, meandering through cool forest shaded by tall pines then opening up to vista’s that overlooked prairies that went on for miles and ending in the painted blues of the distant mountains. Birds chattered away in the trees, and squirrels rummaged in the brush beside the trails. Rays of sun slanted through the tree trunks, leaving long shadows. Soon it would be the magical twilight of dusk.
“You okay?” Nick rode beside her, asking the question every few minutes.
“Yes.” Sam had spoken very little, mesmerized by the swaying of the horse and the beauty of the scenery. The tall buildings, loud traffic, and smog-filled air of Boston seemed much less desirable in comparison. Just whydidshe prefer the city?
They came to a small stream. Nick stopped next to a gigantic oak tree. “Let’s rest for a while. The horses need a drink.”
She slid off the horse into his arms, the closeness of him ratcheting her pulse up. He kissed her lightly, but then let go, twinning her fingers in his and tugging her toward the stream.
At the stream, the horses dipped their noses in then walked back toward the tree where Nick tossed their reins over a branch.
Sam looked down into the stream. It was only a few inches deep, running at slightly more than a trickle and clear as a bell. She could see large smooth stones at the bottom. Her feet were hot and sweaty inside her boots, and she had an urge to dip her toes into the cool, clear water.
She kicked off her boots. “I’m sticking my feet in. You coming?”
Sam didn’t wait for Nick. She stepped in, balancing on the flat rocks as she waded in to mid-calf. The cool water swirled around her tanned legs, and she stared at it, mesmerized by the tiny fish that swam over to check her out. Nick splashed in, too, standing just behind her, almost touching.
To the west, the sun was a ball of fire, dipping down behind the sapphire mountains and painting the underside of the clouds in pink and orange.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.
“It sure is.” Nick’s voice was rough. She turned to look at him, but he wasn’t looking at the sunset. He was looking at her. “You’re beautiful.”
Her breath caught as he stepped closer, his hands coming up to her shoulders, his face dipping toward hers.
His kiss was soft at first. Tentative. Then he pulled her in tight, deepening the kiss. Exploring. Her head spun, she moved closer. Losing her footing, she slipped, unintentionally breaking the kiss.
“Whoa, there.” Nick kept her from falling in the water, and they both laughed before he pulled her up onto the grass. Then he kissed her again, this time, his lips trailing to her cheeks, her neck then back to her lips.
More intense now, his hands roamed her body, pulling the bottom of the gingham button shirt she’d worn out of her jeans and sneaking up under it, rubbing up and down her sides, then finally sliding in front to cup her breasts, his thumbs teasing her hard nipples through the silky fabric of her bra.
Sam moaned. She needed the feel of his skin on hers. Needed to touch him. She pulled the red plaid shirt off his shoulders, then snaked her hands up under his tee-shirt, her palms skirting his warm flesh, feeling the strong muscles of his chest, his abs.
He broke the kiss then trailed his lips down her neck, to the hollow of her throat and then moved down her chest. He flicked open her top button, then pushed the shirt aside and pressed a kiss to her skin. Then the next button and another kiss. The next button revealed her lacy bra and he stopped there, running his tongue along the top edge of the lace, dipping in just enough to make her knees grow weak.
He straightened, his eyes burning into hers, his fingers on the next button of her shirt.
“Okay?” He said it with a look so sweet that it almost brought tears to her eyes.
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and he crushed her to him again, searing her lips while he worked on the last few buttons.
He backed her up toward the horses. “Hold on.”
Sam held on, all right. She held on to his hips while she rained kisses along his neck, making it difficult for him to reach into the saddlebags from where he produced a black and red plaid blanket.
“You keep a blanket in there?” She was surprised.
How many times had he done this same thing here?
Somehow Nick managed to flip it open and spread it on the ground while still holding her close.
“I come here a lot,” he said, and then at her look added, “Just me and Nacho. I like to lie down and look at the stars and think.”
Sam glanced up at the sky. The sun had set, but the sky was still the grayish blue of twilight. “Stars?”
“It’s still too light out for them.” Nick dropped kisses on her face, down her neck and back up to her lips. “I’ll show you the stars later on,” he whispered as he swooped her up into his arms and gently lowered her to the blanket.
He kissed the shirt off her shoulders, his hands lightly exploring her, his thumbs slipping under her bra to rub against her pebbled nipples, causing her to suck in a breath with the exquisite pleasure.
Her bra snapped in the front and Nick made short work of it. His eyes roamed her body hungrily, his hands soon to follow and then his mouth kissed down one breast and then another. His tongue flicked over her nipples, causing her back to arch.
She wanted him more than anything. Pulling at his tee-shirt, she hiked it up over his head, spreading her palms on his bared chest and then raking her fingernails lightly down his stomach, causing him to shiver.
Her fingers rested on his abdomen, tracing the line of his jeans before dipping lower.
“Whoa, there.” Nick moved her hand gently away. “You first.”
Nick spun her on her back and kissed his way down her body, stopping at her belly button long enough to unzip her jeans. She wriggled out of them, her hands in his hair urging him lower.
Nick was an expert with his tongue and fingers, bringing her to the edge and back, the sweet ache of tension coiling tighter and tighter. She rode the wave higher then finally, shuddering, she cried out before crashing over the edge.
She fell back to earth, her heartbeat thrumming in her ears as the last chirps of the nighttime birds echoed in the air. And even though her eyes were closed, she saw the stars.
* * *
Nick thoughthis heart might burst as he looked down at Sam. Her face was flushed, her dark hair spread out on the blanket like a halo, and her breath still rapid from the orgasm.
He kissed his way back up to her mouth, forcing himself to go slow even though his instincts urged him to race ahead, to claim her as his own.
“I want you,” she whispered, kissing his neck, his chest.
He groaned as her hands fumbled around at his zipper and he helped her slide his jeans off.
The sky turned dark. Moonlight splashed over them. Impatient hands explored each other for the first time with caresses that were both tender and sizzling hot.
As they drove each other toward the edge, Nick had to remind himself to slow the pace of his fingers sliding between her legs, finding that sweet spot that caused her to arch her back in need. Need for him.
He wanted her so bad, it hurt.
“God, Nick. I’m almost there. Hurry!”
Her words broke his resolve, and he grappled around for a condom then slid inside her, filling her slow at first, savoring each stroke. Her moans and sighs spurred him on faster, the thrust of her hips urging him to go faster until he felt her clench around him, calling out his name. He quickened the pace, losing himself in her until finally he let himself go, diving over the edge right behind her.
He collapsed, sweaty and dazed, his face buried in the crook of her neck. Their chests heaved together as they caught their breath.
As Nick lay there feeling her breath caress his cheek, he knew that what had just happened was more than just great sex. Something had happened inside him. A connection in his heart. In the short time she’d been here, Sam had managed to reach in and grab a piece of him. The thought was bittersweet. Sam would be leaving town at the end of the week…unless something happened that made her want to stay.
Nick shifted onto his back and pulled her close against him. She nuzzled into his side, her head resting on his chest. Nothing ever felt more right.
Did Sam feel it, too?
Chancing a glance at her, Nick thought the satisfied look on her face told him she might. And with that thought, a small glimmer of hope flickered in his chest.
* * *
Sam drifted back to earth, letting her heartbeat slow from a full-on gallop to a trot. She felt as if she were floating on a cloud. Completely relaxed and happy. So happy.
Her body was pressed into Nick’s side. Warm and soft and hard in all the right places. Somehow Nick had taken his red plaid shirt and snugged it around her, and now she lay cocooned in his arms, feeling safe and protected.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she took in his strong jaw with its ghosting of stubble. She ran her fingertips across it. Scratchy like sandpaper.