Austin, Texas, in the spring of 1866
TO COOK, CLEAN AND WASH FOR SEVEN MEN ON A RANCH ABOUT 70 MILES SOUTHWEST OF AUSTIN.
“I wouldn’t do for seven men if they was to offer me every cow between here and the Rio Grande.”
“Too many Indians and rustlers in the brush country.”
“There’s a lot of poor widows in Texas since the war. They gotta find some way to live.”
“Seven men! Who’s to say they ain’t got more in mind than housework?”
“He’d be hard-pressed to tell those women from his longhorns.”
“They’d take up with any man as long as he had one arm and a leg.”
“Ought to get himself a squaw.”
Rose Thornton noticed him the minute he walked into the Bon Ton Restaurant. Any woman would notice a man like that. And not just because he stood over six feet or because he looked so handsome you couldn’t be a female and not notice him. Something about him said here stood a man who was a man.
“I never knowed anybody to be so slow. You got a man back in the kitchen?” Luke Kearney demanded impatiently.
Rose’s gaze never left the stranger. She noticed his pants. Confederate Army gray. She noticed his hat, too, when he hung it on a peg by the door. Cowboys didn’t take off their hats indoors. Ex-Confederate Army officers did. He took a table against the wall across the room. He showed no sign of impatience.
“You going to hang on to that plate the rest of the morning or you going to set it down?” Luke asked.
Rose set the plate before Luke. As she turned to see what the stranger wanted, Luke grabbed her wrist.
“You needn’t run off so fast.” His grip hurt. “How about a little company?”
“I’ve got another customer,” Rose replied. Her quiet, low-pitched voice contrasted sharply with Luke’s tenorish twang.
“Let him wait. I ain’t through talking to you yet.”
Luke’s friends, Jeb and Charlie, stopped eating to watch, smiles of anticipation on their unshaven faces.
“I don’t have time to talk,” Rose said, trying to wrench her wrist from Luke’s grasp. It mortified her to be mauled in front of anybody but especially this stranger. “Dottie didn’t hire me to keep customers waiting.”
“You’ve kept me waiting too damned long,” Luke said, the harsh tone of his voice and the look in his eyes stating clearly what his words hadn’t—not yet. “And I ain’t giving up my claim for no ex-soldier.”
“You have no claim on me, Luke Kearney,” Rose stated, her embarrassment replaced by anger.
“You can’t hold out forever,” Luke said as he attempted to encircle Rose’s waist with his free hand. “One of these days you’re gonna realize you were made for better things than dishing up grub.”
“Slopping hogs would be better than having anything to do with you,” Rose replied as she pulled away. “Now let me go.”
Jeb and Charlie snickered. That made Luke mad. He jerked Rose’s wrist so hard she nearly fell against him.
“I ain’t letting go till you promise me more than a plate of hot steak.”
“How about some hot grease down your front?”
Jeb and Charlie laughed.
“Watch your tongue. I might take a notion to teach you how a Southern lady ought to behave.”
“How would you know?” Rose shot back. “A real lady would cross the street if she saw you coming.”
Jeb and Charlie’s laughter turned to guffaws.
“I’ve a good mind to…”
“I doubt you have a good mind at all,” the stranger said, speaking quietly, unexpectedly. “It certainly isn’t occupied with good thoughts.”
Spinning around, Rose gaped at the stranger, too astonished at his intervention to remember not to stare. Even leaning against the wall, he made a strong impression. No one could miss the width of his shoulders or the bulge of muscles under his shirt. His large hands and thick, powerful fingers gave the impression of boundless strength.
But his expression affected her even more strongly. His black eyes, utter confidence in their depths, stared at Luke with icy contempt. No muscle quivered in his temple; no muscle emphasized the line of his jaw; no muscle clamped his jaw tight. His face showed no expression at all.
Only his eyes.
“You stay out of this, mister,” Luke warned. “This is between me and the lady.”
“If you treated her like a lady, there’d be nothing between you,” the stranger replied.
The stranger smiled at Rose.
Bemused, she looked away.
“I’ve been patient with you ’cause you were a Johnny Reb,” Luke said, “but I don’t put up with nobody butting into my business.”