ank Eden closed his eyes as the tart sweetness of lemon icebox pie slid into his mouth. If his sister could cook this well, he would never have had to leave the ranch on a perfectly good working day.
Not even the rattle of a tray filled with dishes could distract him.
“You look like a man who’s enjoying hisself.”
He opened one eye to see Henrietta Gibbs’s ample bosom leaning over the back of the next booth. Her round face was painted to perfection—he’d never seen one inch of real skin above her neck. Her hennaed hair was piled on top of her head in curled contortions held in place with liquid-armor-in-a-can.
Hank swallowed reluctantly, and the last bite slid down his throat. “Damn, Hen. When did Butch learn to cook?”
The owner of the Whiskey Mountain Café released a laugh that sounded like the bark of one of Hank’s blue heeler dogs. “You don’t really think my old man made that pie, do ya? He can’t cook nothing that don’t have beans in it.” Hen raised her voice so her husband would be sure to hear.
Hen and Butch’s lighthearted feud was a running joke at the café, but it was their spats as much as Butch’s four-alarm chili that kept the folks in Dubois, Wyoming, coming back decade after decade.
Hank’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you made this pie.”
Henrietta flopped one hand at him and ambled over to run her rag over an already-clean table. “You got beans in your head? You know Butch don’t allow me in his kitchen ’cept to pick up orders. I work the front, he works the back. That’s the way we both like it. Ain’t likely to change after thirty years.”
“Alex made them pies.”
Hank peered around Henrietta’s ample figure. “There’s more?”
She barked another laugh. “There was this morning. Apple, cherry, coconut custard—”
“All as good as this?”
“I’d like to meet this fellow. He anywhere around? I don’t suppose he—”
“Whoa, cowboy. Alex ain’t no fella. She’s female.”
“Female? Did you say Alice or Alex?”
“Alex. For Alexandra. Last name’s Miller. Zeke towed her and her car in last Thursday. A heap of junk, if you ask me. And I seen some junk heaps in my day. Foreign job. Sorry thing broke down just this side of the reservation.”
“So you hired her?”
“Not really. Can’t afford any more help. You know that. There’s not enough work around here for me, not till summer tourist season. Poor thing’s just working for tips, trying to earn enough to get her car fixed.”
“She looking for a job?” Hank asked.
“You got one?”
“I do if she can cook everything half as good as that pie. Mrs. Johnson quit. Couldn’t stand living so far from her grand-babies since her boy moved down to Texas. We’ve been eating Claire’s cooking for the past two weeks.” He grimaced as he remembered last night’s supper. “My men are threatening to quit if I don’t find someone who can at least make a decent pot of coffee. You know how much good grub means to cowboys.”
Henrietta heaved a sigh and plopped down in a chair. “I can’t vouch for nothing but the pies. You know how Butch is about his kitchen. The only reason she’s allowed to make the pies is that she got here earlier than Butch one morning before she knew any better. Poor thing. Thought she was helping out. Didn’t deserve the blessing-out Butch gave her ’fore he tasted that pie. After he did, he couldn’t say no to her.”
“But can she cook anything else?”
“She claims to be a cook, and I believe her. Crust like that only comes from them that knows their way around a kitchen. She was headed for California when she got stuck here. Gonna study under some chef at one of them hoity-toity restaurants that serve white goop all over everything.”
“Where she staying?”
“I talked Henry into letting her have a special rate down at the Horse Creek Motel. Even so, she’s barely making enough to cover a room.”
Hank’s brow lifted. “She’s that bad off? Where’s she from?”
“Alabama is all I know, and that only ’cause I had to know where she got that accent.”
He nodded. The Code of the West had always forbade delving into a person’s past, and that code still held. But Wyoming was a long way from Alabama, and he wondered how she wound up here. “I wonder if she—”
“Hen! You here?”
The female voice came from the kitchen, and both heads swiveled toward the swinging door. Hank could hear Butch saying where to find Henrietta.
“That’s her,” Henrietta told him, then raised her voice. “Come on in here, Alex. I got somebody that wants to meet you.”
The door swung out, and Hank’s first impression was a pair of legs that reached from the floor to heaven. His widening eyes followed the faded, form-fitting jeans to gently flaring hips. Above the jeans he couldn’t tell much because an oversize denim jacket on top of a flannel shirt hid her from the hips up. Telling himself it was ridiculous to feel cheated, Hank noted the binoculars hanging around her neck before meeting a pair of golden-hazel eyes that regarded him suspiciously.
He blinked. “You’re just a kid!”
Alex stiffened. “Nice to meet you, too, mister.” She spun on her heel and headed back into the kitchen.
“No, wait!” He rose to his feet as she stopped and looked at him over her shoulder. “I’m sorry. You’re just so young.”
Her thick mass of deep brown hair—tied back with a blue rubber band—gleamed with rich red highlights in the dim light of the café. It fell halfway to her waist, and Hank had to drag his mind back from wondering what it would feel like spilling over his bare chest. Hell, he couldn’t hire this woman. If he were reacting like a randy jackrabbit, every unattached cowboy in the Wind River Valley would be hanging around his back door. And the three single hands he had wouldn’t be able to keep their minds on business.
Her chin lifted a notch. “I’m twenty-five, if it’s any of your business.”
Henrietta cleared her throat. “Alex, this here’s Hank Eden. He usually ain’t this rude. He needs a cook out at his ranch. You interested in helping him out for a while?”
The golden-brown eyes traveled down his frame, as if assessing his worth—both as a man and a boss. Though secure in his abilities at each, Hank had to steel himself to keep from squirming under her perusal.
“How much does it pay?” she said at last. She drew out the words, and for the first time Hank noticed her deep Southern accent. Her voice flowed over him like warm honey.
Hank surprised himself by suggesting a ridiculously low amount of money.
“I may be young, Mr. Eden, but I’m not stupid.” Alex turned to walk through the kitchen door. A few seconds later he heard the back door open and slam closed.
He watched the kitchen door until it stopped swinging. He’d panicked. Gut feeling told him Alexandra Miller was trouble. He’d never reacted to a woman so strongly. He’d never wanted to drag a woman who hadn’t uttered twenty words in his presence to the nearest bed. Until today.
“If your momma was alive, she’d whup your butt all the way to the Idaho line. Why in tarnation were you so rude?”
He turned to see Hen’s incredulous face, then lifted his hat and plowed a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”
“You want a cook, don’t you?”
He took a deep breath and released it as he sank into the padded booth. “I’ve got to have one. We’ll starve on Claire’s cooking.”
“I don’t know nobody else around these parts looking for a cooking job, do you?”
Hen threw up her hands. “Are you crazy or something? You all but dared her to take the job. Look, Hank, she ain’t no buckle chaser, if that’s what’s got you worried. Matter of fact, she’s on the shy side. A couple of cowboys were in here the other day, hittin’ on her, and she hid out in the kitchen with Butch.”
Hank had a sudden urge to ask Hen who those cowboys were so he could do some hitting himself. But he didn’t voice it. How the hell could he feel so protective toward a woman he didn’t even know? A jaw muscle twitched in frustration. “She’s too young.”
Hen snorted. “Pots and pans don’t care how old you are. ’Sides, you were a year younger than her when you took over operations at the Garden.”
“That’s different. When Dad and Momma died Travis was only fourteen and Claire—besides being a girl—was only nine. There was no one else to do it.”
“Just like there’s no one else around to be your cook. God sent her here just when you needed her. You gonna turn your back on that?”
Hank stared blindly at a taped-over vinyl patch on the booth’s other side. Hen was right. He had to hire this young woman. Whether God or fate or the two combined had a hand in it, she was a cook and she was right where he needed her when he needed her. The only other choice was to put an advertisement in the newspaper and wait until someone else responded. That could take weeks. As it was, he was only going to need a cook for a few months, if all went according to plan. He hated hiring someone for such a short time, especially when he couldn’t tell them the job wasn’t permanent. But he had to have a cook. If he didn’t his belt buckle would soon be rattling against his backbone, and his ranch hands would all quit.
Henrietta rose as a customer came in. Hank’s gaze shifted to the kitchen door. When he first laid eyes on Alex, he’d felt like a lassoed calf—all tied up—when he just wanted to get the hell out of there.
He’d been biding his time for eight years, waiting for his younger brother and sister to grow up. Travis finished high school four years ago, and Claire would graduate in May. He could finally see the light at the end of the lasso. The last thing he needed was another rope tying him to the Garden.
Muttering a curse, he shook his head to clear it.
Alex Miller was a woman, just like any other. He needed a cook and she could cook. That’s
he needed. As long as he remembered that, he’d be okay.
“Any idea where she went?” he asked as Henrietta walked past him.
“Shouldn’t be too far out back. Likes to watch for critters with Butch’s glasses.” Hen opened the kitchen door with her rear end and sang out to her husband, “Wake up, honey.”
Hank stood and threw down more than enough cash to cover the pie and coffee. He nodded to the other customer, a newcomer to Dubois whom he’d met but didn’t know well, then grabbed his coat and headed out the door.
A shrill whistle led him around to the back of the café. Alex sat on the lowered tail of Butch’s truck, patting her thighs to urge Butch’s Labrador over. The big black dog tore across the yard, eager to have her attention.
Though she didn’t look at him directly, Hank knew the instant she became aware of his approach. She went still for a split second, then lifted Butch’s binoculars and trained them on Whiskey Mountain.
His boots crunched through the gravel, but she didn’t move when he walked up and sat next to her, the truck dipping under his weight.
“You’ll get a better view of the sheep in the summer,” he said. “We’ve got the largest herd of bighorns in North America. Nearly a thousand.”
“Hen told me.”
“They built a national center here that tells about the sheep. They’ve got a mountain in the middle of it with little figures of—”
“I went there day before yesterday.”
“Oh.” Hank scanned Whiskey Mountain. His sharp eyes could barely make out movement about halfway up the side. “Well, how was it? I haven’t been yet.”
Her mouth quirked and the binoculars dipped slightly, but she said nothing.
“Look, I’m sorry about what I said in there. It’s just that every cook I’ve hired has been old enough to be my mother. You took me by surprise.”
Slowly she lowered the binoculars and turned her head to study his face. In the sunlight her eyes were molten gold. Their flickering fires fascinated him.
Finally she said, “Forget it.”
“I’d like to start over, if that’s okay. You know, get off on the right foot this time.” Though she didn’t move, Hank saw her eyes glaze over, the gold suddenly tarnished. “Something wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t be your cook. I’ve got a job. Well, not a job, really, more of an internship. I’m going to study under Etienne Buchaude.”
The reverence in her voice spoke volumes. “He’s a good cook, is he?”
Her eyes widened at his careless observation. “Cook? Monsieur Buchaude is one of the greatest
in the country.”
Enjoying her pique, he pushed further. “What’s the difference?”
“Cooks prepare food. I am a mere cook. Monsieur Buchaude is an artist.”
“You mean those fancy sauces and flowers on the plate?” Hank snorted. “Give me a cook anyday. Like you.”
She evidently realized which path he was leading the conversation down because she leaned back and shook her head. “I can’t.”
Hank cursed under his breath and looked away. So much for subtlety. What now? Put an ad in the paper and cross his fingers? What if his men quit? Where would he be then? Good ranch hands weren’t easy to come by these days, not around Dubois. They’d all moved to parts of Wyoming where ranches weren’t being taxed out of existence.