Meeting in a Colorado Roadhouse
DAY TWO, Kanorado 11am MDT
State of Control draft, Copyright WRBJr Living Trust
She must have consumed half a dozen cups of coffee. The roadhouse began to fill with an early lunch crowd. The rumble of men’s voices rose, the occasional higher pitch of a woman’s breaking through. Several groups had milled near her, casting glances at the empty chairs at her table. She felt the social pressure of sitting alone taking up dining space. “I could eat a salad,” she told the waitress, a pert cowgirl-type in a Western shirt, Levis stuffed into red cowboy boots.
“Okay, Hon, you got it.” Hon seemed a common form of address here. It grated. Vicky would never stand for it.
The big-bellied man from the red Dodge pickup was playing pool with a seed-cap wearer. His cue ball always seemed to end up on the far side of the table so he could look at her while ostensibly lining up a shot. Whenever their eyes met, he grinned. She returned a brief smile the first time, then busied her gaze elsewhere. He sank the eight-ball on a nice bank shot and sauntered her way while his opponent racked the balls again.
He grounded his stick, thumbed back his straw hat, and spoke in a lazy drawl. “A shame to see a little lady all alone like that.” His drawl gave a “d” sound to the “ts” in little.
She measured him. His lower face was sun-reddened, his broad forehead was pale; must wear the hat all the time. Extra flesh marred the hard lines of his face, but he was powerfully built, a bull. A bull with a wide innocent grin and cold blue eyes assessing as her own. She let the silence stretch. “You waitin’ for somebody, liddle lady?” He wasn’t going to let it drop.
“Not you,” she said succinctly.
He blinked and his smile went out. “Nowww,” he drawled, “Ain’t no need to get on your high horse, liddle — “
“Hey, Bart!” The bartender was yelling at him.
“Yeah?” Without taking his frank gaze off her.
“See you a minute? Like now?”
“Don’t go anywhere now, heah?”
She saw the bartender lean across the bar to him. Saw his eyes jerk back at her in surprise. Felt a stab of alarm: they were talking about her. Then the waitress blocked her view, delivering her salad. When the waitress left the bull-shouldered cowboy was almost back to her table, not smiling. She was astonished when he swept his big hat off in a courtly gesture, almost a bow, and inclined his head.
“My apologies, ma’am,” he said seriously. “I shore didn’t know you was spoke for.”
Her mouth was already open to demand what he meant when she got control. Better not to ask. “Thank you for your courtesy.”
“You bet, ma’am.”
He turned back to the pool table and made a poor break, failing to sink a ball. After that when she noticed his glance he hastily averted his eyes. The bartender refilled her coffee.
“Don’t mind Bart,” she said. “Thinks he’s a stud hoss, see. I set him straight. He didn’t even want to be messin’ with you when Gray got here. And Gray’s pulling in right now.”
Gray. If the word Kanorado had set her pulse fluttering, that one word was a sledgehammer to the heart. Gray, pulling in right now. She felt she couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t touch the salad if she was starving.
The front door opened. A man walked through. In her stunned state his big-hatted silhouette filled the doorway. He came straight through the crowd, a few nods left and right, partially raised hand here and there. Gray Western hat she noticed inanely, hence Gray? Crisp clean denim cowboy shirt, tan whipcord pants. His fancy boots had the same exotic reptile-skin banding and rich chocolate color as her own. Of course they did. She had purchased hers because — the thought blew away.
The big man nodded as he passed the pool table. “Bart.” His voice was deep, almost a growl. She felt faint. He stopped in front of her and gazed down with dark eyes that seemed to smolder. If Bart was a bull this was a bear of a man, looming over her with a broad face like something cast out of brown metal.
He seemed to instantly sense her intimidation and hunkered in front of her to bring their eyes level. When he spoke his voice had gone soft. “I knew you’d get here if you could,” he said. “Welcome to Kanorado, my love.”
The last two words evoked a hot gust of nameless emotion. She rose out of the chair as if levitating. He rose with her, smiling down from what seemed a great height.
“Gray?” Her voice sounded to her like a dismal croak.
His smile softened his face to match his changed voice. He held out his big right hand. She took it with her right, without thinking. Even flinching from reawakened neck pain, she noted how warm and large his fingers were. She’d tried to control the flinch but his eyes narrowed and his smile went away.
“A-huh!” he said. “Thought maybe so.” Then he was beside her, turning her, thick right arm falling naturally around her waist as he steered her toward the back door. “We have to get out of here, now!” His voice a growl again, low and urgent.
“But my bill — “
“Sally knows I’m good for it. Come on.”
Not that there was a need to urge her. She could no more stand against that sheer physical force than an avalanche. And she didn’t want to. The instant his big arm went around her a strange calm descended without doing anything to diminish the drumming in her blood.
The bright sun brought tears. “You got anything you need to get out of your car?” he asked tensely.
“Just my backpack — “
“Let’s get it. Now.” His voice brooked no argument.
From somewhere inside, the cranky voice she called Vicky told her to dig in her heels right now. She ignored it. He led her unerringly to the Taurus. “How did you know which car — “
“Later,” he said shortly. “We have to move.”
She tried to make a stand then. “I’m not leaving my car!”
His face went expressionless, and she knew instantly why Bart had been contrite at the idea of crossing this man. Then his look turned pleading. “We have to leave the car. Trust me, love. You always said you trust me.”
She had? Her head swam. When did she ever trust anyone that much? But she found resistance melting. She unlocked the driver’s door, pulled it open, thumbed the trunk release. While she got the backpack she heard a soft exclamation, found him squatting on his heels by the front seat. One long fingertip probed a small, stained round hole in the backrest. He stood up and shut the door.
“That all you need?” He took the pack as if it were stuffed with straw. “My truck’s over there.” A huge beast of a pickup for a huge beast of a man. High-wheeled long-box Ford, blue and silver, four doors, running lights on the cab. A fancy design on the door she couldn’t decipher.
He was right behind her when she paused at the passenger side. His presence enveloped her. She was dizzy, frightened, elated all at once. Her overall feeling was one of safety. She did trust him, preposterous as that was. She wanted to lean into him when he reached around her to open the door.
She did, and felt his lips come down warm and soft on the crown of her head. She should have been alarmed. Shocked even, at this intimacy. But a sensual jolt ran through her. He handed her up into the truck and strode around while she wondered if his lips had left an indelible brand.
This Western stuff is going to what’s left of your head, the small interior voice said. Are you crazy?
“Shut up,” she whispered fiercely. “Shut up!” Then he was in the truck beside her, keying the big engine to life. They jounced roughly out of the parking lot, moving fast.