Authors: Sherryl Woods
The western supply store would be her first stopâ¦right after she finished the blueberry pancakes her mouth had been watering over since Jake had mentioned them.
he Starlight Diner, with its neon sign in the window, bright red vinyl seats and tabletop jukeboxes filled with oldies, was a Whispering Wind tradition. It was one of those rare places where the home-style food was every bit as savory as the gossip. Most folks in town passed through it on a weekly, if not a daily basis. Teenagers for two generations had done their courting there over burgers, cherry sodas and milk shakes. Ranchers dropped in when they came into town for feed. Housewives met for lunch when they drove in to shop for groceries. There was hardly an hour of the day when it wasn't busy.
This morning heads swiveled and a hush fell over the place when Jake and Megan walked in the door. Jake realized too late that he should have anticipated the reaction, given the awed response of the waitress at the ice cream parlor the day before. Megan gave everyone an awkward little wave, then slid into the only available booth, one right in front, in plain view of the gawkers.
Owner Henrietta Hastings, tall and lanky with gray hair as short as a boy's, bustled out from behind the counter, scowling. “What's the matter with you people? Didn't your mamas teach you any manners?”
she demanded of the crowd in general, hands on narrow, jeans-clad hips. “It's not polite to stare.”
Chastized, the customers dutifully returned to their food and their conversation, but surreptitious glances slid in Megan's direction every few seconds.
Order pad in one hand, coffeepot in the other, Henrietta blocked their view. She filled Jake and Megan's cups to the brim, then beamed at Megan. “Child, it surely is good to have you back again. Are you here to stay?”
Eager as always to discover her intentions, Jake watched Megan's reaction. She looked as if the woman was trying to pin her down to a long-term contract that wasn't written in her favor. Megan squirmed, her gaze shifting from Jake to Henrietta and back again.
“It's hard to say,” she responded finally. “There's a lot to consider.”
“Well, of course there is,” Henrietta soothed. “I never meant to push. It would be good to have you back, though. No question about it. Too many of our young people take off and never set foot in Whispering Wind again. If that keeps up, the town will just die of old age one of these years.”
“It can't be that bad,” Megan said. “This place is as busy as ever. Isn't that Barbara Sue you've got working behind the counter? You never had another waitress in here before.”
A cloud seemed to pass over Henrietta's face, but it came and went before Jake could pinpoint the cause.
“She helps out when she can,” Henrietta said vaguely. “Still doesn't change the fact that the town's
all but dying. Look at the gray hair, what there is of it on some heads,” she pointed out, nodding toward the balding Realtor, Josh Wilson. “Aside from you and Jake, do you see a soul in here under forty? Not a one.”
She paused, apparently to allow them to survey the customers, before adding, “Of course, some of the young ones do go on out to that fast-food place that opened up on the highway. What kind of breakfast can you get in a place like that, I ask you? Nothing healthy, that's for sure. Now what can I get you? Do you need to see the menu? Haven't changed a thing in twenty years, but could be you've forgotten.”
“Not a chance,” Megan told her. “Blueberry pancakes.”
“Two or three?”
“Three,” Megan said with gusto. “I've been dreaming about those pancakes all morning.”
Jake grinned. “Double that, Henrietta. Then I'll finish whatever Megan can't.”
“If you want more than three, you'd better order your own, pal, because I intend to eat every bite,” Megan countered. “I hardly had anything for dinner last night. Somebody I know grabbed up most of the pizza.”
“Must have been Tess. That girl sure can eat.”
“Tess, my eye,” Megan retorted.
Henrietta listened to the exchange with a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “You two still battle over every little thing, don't you? All that fire ought to lead somewhere, if you ask me.” She sashayed off without waiting for a response.
“Interesting observation, don't you think?” Jake said when she'd gone.
Megan regarded him with feigned innocence. “What observation was that?”
He chuckled. “Okay, we'll let it go for now.”
When the pancakes came a few minutes later, he watched with amusement as Megan attacked them as if she hadn't eaten in months. He suspected she hadn't consumed anything like this in that time or longer. She looked as if she lived on skimpy little salads, cartons of yogurt and grapefruit. If she was going to withstand the Wyoming winter, she needed a little meat on her bones.
She lifted her gaze from her plate and caught him staring. “What?”
“I was just thinking maybe I ought to give you my pancakes, instead of the other way around.”
“You're too skinny.”
“I am not,” she retorted indignantly. “I've weighed exactly the same thing for years now.”
He recognized her ploy. “Going back how far?”
“Since I was fourteen.”
He vividly recalled the gawky teenager, all arms and legs and still growing. “How much taller are you now?”
“An inch or so,” she grumbled, clearly aware that she'd fallen neatly into his trap.
“More like three or four.”
“I had no idea you were paying such close attention.”
“Darlin', I've always paid attention to you. At fourteen you barely reached my chin.” He deliber
ately lowered his gaze from her eyes to her lips. “At sixteen, your mouth was conveniently level with mine.” He met her eyes again. “You can still look me in the eye, and believe me, I've grown, which puts you at five-ten, easy.”
“Five-nine-and-a-half,” Megan countered, as if that half inch made him a liar.
“Do you really want to quibble over that?”
“I don't want to discuss this at all,” she declared huffily.
“Because you know I'm right. You obviously hang out with too many fashion models, who'd blow away in a stiff wind.” He picked up a pitcher and reached across. “Here, add a little cream to your coffee.”
She regarded him balefully. “I don't think a teaspoon of cream is going to have a big impact on my weight, one way or the other.”
He reached for the syrup. Megan scowled. “Don't you dare. I won't have these pancakes ruined with syrup.”
“More butter, then,” he suggested hopefully.
She brushed away his hand. “If you do this every time we share a meal, it's going to get to be very annoying.”
“I'll try to restrain myselfâthat is, if you'll promise to share lots of meals with me.”
“Don't press your luck, Jake. At the rate you're spoiling this one for me, there's not a big inducement to repeat the experience.”
He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “You win. Not another word. Enjoy. Eat up.” He grinned. “Whoops. Sorry.”
“You are not sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Peggy Barkley inquired, standing beside the booth and regarding them both with undisguised curiosity.
Megan's expression brightened. “Peggy, slide right in here beside me,” she said, scooting over. “Jake and I were just having a discussion about food.”
“Sounded to me like he was apologizing. I thought maybe you were talking aboutâ¦” She glanced at Jake. “Well, you know.”
“The infamous missing cattle,” Jake suggested, surprised at the lack of bitterness in his voice. After getting into it with Megan the night before, maybe he was finally letting go of the anger. “We've pretty much exhausted that topic.”
“Along with this other one,” Megan added. “No more talk about food, okay?” She turned to her friend. “What brings you in here? Henrietta made it sound as if no one our age ever darkens her door.”
“Actually, that's true enough. I can put on five pounds just looking at those pancakes,” Peggy said, waving off Henrietta's offer of coffee, as well. “I was in town to pick up some supplies from the feed store for Johnny. I spotted you sitting here as I was walking past and thought I'd sneak in long enough to say hi and invite you over to dinner tomorrow nightâthat is, if you don't mind having three kids underfoot. You can bring Tess, too.” She glanced toward Jake. “You're welcome to come along, too. It won't be fancy, because the kids won't eat it if they don't recognize it, but it will be filling.”
“I'd love to come,” Megan said.
The ready response surprised Jake. Even though the two had been close once, he'd expected Megan to keep some distance between herself and old friends
to make the break easier if she decided to go back to New York eventually. But Megan seemed genuinely pleased by Peggy's invitation. As for Peggy, she lookedâ¦what? Relieved, maybe. As if she'd feared a rejection.
“What can I bring?” Megan asked.
“Just yourself,” Peggy insisted. “If you show up with some dish you've whipped up that puts my food to shame, I'll never forgive you.”
“Can I bring a bottle of wine or some beer?” Jake asked.
Peggy chuckled. “I doubt they make a wine that'll go with whatever I whip up. Bring some beer if it suits you, though Johnny always has a six-pack on ice.” She stood up. “I'd better run. I've got a million things to do and no time to do them.”
She leaned down and brushed a kiss across Megan's cheek. “See you, sweetie. I'll be looking forward to seeing you both tomorrow night.”
Jake watched her go, then shook his head. “I get breathless just listening to her.”
“She hasn't changed one iota in all these years,” Megan said. “She's so happy.”
“She does seem that way, doesn't she?” Jake said, his tone neutral.
Megan stared hard at him. “You sound as if you think she might not be. Do you know something I don't?”
Rumor and innuendo, Jake thought, deciding to keep both to himself. “Of course not. I've hardly seen Peggy since I've been back.”
“I've run into him once or twice. Don't make a
big deal out of it,” he admonished. “I wasn't implying anything.”
“If you say so,” she said, but she was clearly skeptical.
“Are you ready to go see the judge about the restraining order?”
The question served its purpose. Her spine straightened and fire sparked in her eyes. “Absolutely.”
It took little persuasion to get Judge Lawton Kinsey to agree to the restraining order. He was one of Tex's oldest friends, and he knew all about Tess, right down to the agreement Tex had made with her mother.
“You take this on over to the sheriff. If that woman shows her face anywhere around Whispering Wind, Bryce will sit her down and have a little chat with her telling her what's what.”
“Thank you, your honor,” Megan said.
“That's Lawton to you, Meggie. We go back too far to stand on ceremony while we're in my chambers. Tex was mighty proud of you, you know. Never had a talk with him that he didn't tell me everything you were up to and all you'd accomplished.”
“Thank you. It means a lot to hear that,” she said, a suspicious sheen of tears in her eyes. “He neverâ¦well, Tex wasn't much with words.”
Hearing the pain in her voice, Jake cursed the old rancher for not having said as much to her on occasion. It would have meant the world to Meggie to have had his approval. Jake reached over and grasped her hand, gave it a squeeze.
“Let's go, darlin'. We still have things to do.”
They dropped off a copy of the restraining order with Bryce, then went by the western supply store,
where Megan asked Nate Hollings if he had any idea which boots Tess had her eye on.
“I believe it was these right over here,” he said, leading the way to a pair in soft, fine leather. “She's come in here a half-dozen times and just stood and stared at 'em. She said Tex had promised 'em to her when she learned to ride.”
“We'll take them now,” Megan told him. “I'll have to guess at the size, but she can bring them back if they don't fit, right?”
“Absolutely. We'll get 'em custom fitted, if need be. When you spend this much on a boot, it ought to be right. It's meant to last.”
“She'll outgrow them in a year,” Jake warned.
“It doesn't matter,” Megan said. “She needs these boots.”
“And you need to give them to her,” Jake murmured under his breath as Megan went off to pay for them.
“Where are we going now?” Megan demanded when Jake turned in the opposite direction of the ranch as they drove out of town. She was still clutching the package with Tess's boots. For some reason she couldn't entirely explain, she didn't want to let go of them. “I want to take these home to Tess.”