“What about your friends? Surely a young woman as attractive as you—”
Rose looked up. “I don’t have any friends, either. The family I used to live with moved to Oregon to escape the war.” Rose pushed her chair back and got to her feet. “I’d better go. Thanks for breakfast. And for Luke.”
George had risen with her. “I don’t expect any thanks. No lady should have to endure such treatment.”
Rose paused in the act of turning away. “What makes you think I’m a lady? You don’t know anything about me.”
“I just know,” George replied. “My mother was a lady.”
Rose’s gaze locked with George’s. That had to be the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. That a stranger, a man who knew nothing about her would say it—he knocked Luke down so he must mean it—well, it made her want to fling herself at his feet.
Abruptly she dropped her gaze and hurried away. A moment later she returned with George’s steak. Without meeting his gaze, she started to clear away the debris. He stopped her.
“They’ll do that,” he said, eyeing Jeb and Charlie.
Rose looked nervously in their direction, but neither man spoke.
“I think I’d better…”
“You’d better see to that man in the corner. He’s waited patiently for quite some time.”
With a fatalistic shrug of her shoulders, Rose went to take the order. Two more men came in before she finished.
Jeb and Charlie finished eating just about the time Rose finished taking the last order. Without saying a word to each other, they got up and began gathering up the broken pieces of furniture. They didn’t look up until they each had an armload of splintered wood.
“Put it on the woodpile out back,” Dottie said, entering with broom in hand. “I’ll use it for kindling.” She handed the broom to Charlie. “And sweep up the splinters. I won’t have the customers saying I keep a messy place.”
Rose could have heard a deep breath, had anyone dared take one, as the men swept the floor and set the tables back in order. They left without saying a word or even once looking at George.
“You know you made three enemies this morning, don’t you?” Dottie asked.
George finished his steak and got up. His cold gaze appraised Dottie. “I had several million during the war. Three more aren’t going to make much difference.” He walked over to the wall pegs and settled his battered hat over his eyes. “Good day, ladies,” he said and walked out into the street.
“That man’s going to get himself killed,” Dottie said.
“He survived the war,” Rose said. “What’s he got to worry about in Austin?”
“Men who’ll shoot him in the back and be glad of it,” Dottie stated, disgusted that Rose should ignore the obvious. “And Luke’ll be at the head of the line.”
“I don’t think he cares about Luke,” Rose said. “He’s a gentleman.”
Dottie turned on her angrily.
“He may be a gentleman, though I never knew a man who was out for anybody but himself, but that ain’t going to help you when you’re looking for another job.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t keep you on here. The minute you’re done serving, come get your money.”
The blunt announcement stunned Rose. “You can’t do that. Nobody else will hire me.”
“That’s not my problem,” Dottie said, not meeting Rose’s eyes. “I can’t afford no more cowboys breaking up the place. There won’t always be someone like him to make sure I get paid. Who was that man anyway?” Dottie demanded, turning to her customers.
“Never seen him,” one of the men volunteered. “He come into town this morning looking for a woman to do for him and six other men.”
“There. Go offer for that job if you think he’s so wonderful,” Dottie said.
She waddled off to the kitchen.
Through the haze of shock and disbelief, Rose clutched at the only straw she could see. “Do you mean he’s advertising for a housekeeper?”
“Guess so. He put up a sign outside the sheriff’s office.”
“Why doesn’t he hire a cook?”
“Go ask him,” the man said, a mocking smile on his face. “Seems like he’s already got his eye on you.”
Rose felt the heat rise in her face, but she refused to let Dawson’s gibes get to her. She had to think.
But for the next two hours she had no thoughts to spare for George Randolph or herself. His turn-up with Luke had made the Bon Ton the most popular eating place in town. Everybody wanted to know where he sat and how many tables Luke broke. Long before the rush ended, she began to wish he had gone to another restaurant to eat.