“Abbie Jackson is back in town.”
Jake Galloway, halfway through dialing his wholesaler to blast him for a late delivery, hung up the phone and stared at Barney, his short-order cook. “Abbie? She can’t be. It’s the beginning of the semester.”
“All I know is she’s back.”
“For the weekend, maybe?”
Barney skillfully flipped a few eggs. “Nope. She quit med school. Showed up last night and dropped the bomb on her mother. Elaine’s having a fit.”
Jake was stunned. “I can imagine.”
“It’s a real shame,” Barney went on. “If anybody had the smarts to be a doctor, it was Abbie. Just goes to show you. Can’t figure out people no matter how long you know ’em.”
Jake nodded absently. Some people were a mystery, but until a couple of seconds ago, he would have sworn Abbie wasn’t one of them. She had a plan. From the day she’d shown up at the age of sixteen in his newly opened restaurant, Jake’s Place, she’d known exactly what she was going to be: a doctor. She maintained this with such intensity that no one had doubted for a minute that she’d reach her goal.
The news had startled him so much he’d forgotten the job he had to do before it was too late.
“Hang on a sec,” Jake told Barney. He dialed the wholesaler again, got him on the phone this time, and made it quite clear that his meat order must be delivered at once because Jake’s Place wasn’t a vegetarian restaurant. Nope. They specialized in good old-fashioned Texas comfort food, heavy on the barbecue, which took a long, long time to cook, which meant that if those ribs didn’t get to him fast…
When he hung up on the manager, who’d agreed to bring the ribs himself, he went right back to the topic of Abbie.
“Why’d she quit?”
“Dunno. Haven’t heard that part yet.”
Jake bit back a sigh. That was the frustrating part about small-town gossip. You got just enough of the story to pique your interest before the news dried up. The details would filter in eventually, one at a time, but he wanted to know now.
It would take something major to make Abbie give up her plan. Flunked out? No way. Stressed out from the work? Nothing had ever stressed out Abbie as far as he knew. A disastrous love affair?
“You okay?” Barney shot him a glance—a quick one, because he had food on the grill.
“Yeah,” Jake said and turned his attention back to his own problems.
Maury, one of the foster boys who lived with Jake’s friend, Rafe, swung through the back door, ready to start working. “Hey, Jake. Rafe said to tell you Abbie Jackson is back in town.”
“I heard,” he told the teenager, smiling at him. He was fond of all Rafe’s boys, but he and Maury had a special bond—cooking. In fact, Jake didn’t know how he’d get along without Maury when school started and he had to reduce his hours.
Maury looked a lot like a St. Bernard and acted a lot like one, too. “Can I start working on the ribs?” he asked, practically salivating.
“Chopping the veggies for the beef stew, yes,” Jake told him. “Can’t cook the ribs until they get here.” The beef stew was actually Boeuf Daube, but if he admitted it, it would scare off most of his customers.
Jake’s Place, his diner, had become the most popular eating place in Falling Star, Texas, an isolated community off the main highways in the Texas Panhandle.
His customers came from all over, often forming an impressive line outside. His days on the rodeo circuit were long behind him. Now he spent his days making the best grub in Texas. Not just barbecue. Breakfast, lunch, and three dinner specials plus barbecue.
He’d succeeded with the diner. He had a career; he had his friends, Rafe and Clint, and he loved his hometown of Falling Star. Life was good.
It hadn’t always been good. Ignored by his parents, he’d predictably acted out as a teenager. When he got into trouble with the law, they disowned him.
He’d ended up in a juvenile correctional facility where he’d met Rafe and Clint. They couldn’t have been more different in appearance and personality, but they’d shared a common goal—to learn from their mistakes and end up as honest, productive citizens.
They’d made it. All three of them had started out as rodeo contestants. Rafe had moved on first, gone to vet school on scholarship, and was now veterinarian to Falling Star and numerous other towns. Jake was next.
After excelling in culinary school, he knew his restaurant had to be in Falling Star. Clint was a businessman and sheep farmer. They’d made it by supporting each other, each making sacrifices on the others’ behalf. They might not be blood relations, but Jake considered them his family.
The people of the valley didn’t know about their pasts, and the men wanted to keep it that way. It didn’t matter what they’d done as kids. What mattered was what they were doing now as adults.
And at the moment, he wasn’t doing a whole lot. He opened at seven, and the pace was frantic until nine.
Then it slowed until just before noon when everyone worked flat out on lunch until two, which gave him plenty of time to get ready for dinner. He had two waitresses, Becky and Colleen, who needed full-time work as much as he needed to know he’d have dependable help.
With Maury on deck, Jake was free to wander around the dining room, giving the customers who were straggling in for an early lunch some personal attention.
“Hey, Ray, Ed,” he said to two of Falling Star’s city selectmen. “Sit anywhere you like. Want a dark corner to conspire in?”
“If you can think of something for us to conspire about,” Ray said. “This town could use a good fight.”
“Hey, Jake,” Ed said. “Did you hear Abbie Jackson’s back in town?”
That was it, the new news. When some newer news came in, they’d stop talking about Abbie.
He took their orders himself, and while he scribbled on the pad, he was thinking about Abbie. Smart, friendly, efficient, and pretty—well, beautiful in her own way. She’d waitressed for him summers and holidays from the time he’d opened the restaurant eight years ago.
He’d seen her through her college years and was both proud and heartbroken—in a selfish way—when she was accepted to medical school. Of course, she was the best waitress he’d ever had. She was also the most overeducated one he’d ever had.
He seated a few more early lunch customers, since Becky and Colleen were setting tables, then went into the kitchen area and perched himself on a stool beside Maury, who was chopping almonds and dried apricots like a pro. Jake began trimming the chicken for the tagine, which was tonight’s second special. He called it “Chicken Delight.”
He was working automatically and lost in thought when Becky appeared at his side, beaming. “Abbie Jackson is back in town,” she said, “and she’s here for lunch.”
Surprised at how happy that made him, Jake stood, washed his hands, and went back into the dining room. He looked around for Abbie, then took a second look at the stunning brunette who was smiling at him. This was Abbie?
Jake suddenly had a burning desire to check his appearance in a mirror, which was dumb. He’d known Abbie for years. She was like a little sister. It didn’t matter what he looked like. It was how she looked that threw him.
She looked more mature. More polished. The awkward bookish girl he remembered had been replaced by a confident, elegant woman.
He approached her, feeling dazed. She’d stopped by Jake’s Place from time to time when she’d been on breaks from college, but when had her transformation happened? The Abbie he remembered had sported a bouncy ponytail.
Now, sleek dark hair fell to her shoulders and swung forward to frame her face. He couldn’t help skimming her up and down—any male would. Her bright-red turtleneck made her skin look translucent and her brown eyes a deeper, more vibrant chocolate-brown. Five four, five five, she was slim, but curvy, too. In the black skirt she wore with boots, she looked absolutely female.
When he reached her, he couldn’t figure out what to do. A couple of years ago, he would have given her a big hug. Now it didn’t feel right, so he stuck out his hand and gave her a big-brotherly smile. “Hey, Abbie, it’s great to see you again.”
She raised an eyebrow at his outstretched hand, shook it, then said, “No hug?”
“Not until our third date.” He felt himself flushing. “I mean...”
She seemed to be trying not to giggle. “So how’ve you been?”
“Good. Fine. Um, good.” Jake cleared his throat. He knew he was acting like a dork, but he was confused.
Every cell in his body was screaming at him to flirt with this gorgeous woman, but he couldn’t. The gorgeous woman was Abbie. She was still eight years younger than he was—time didn’t change that—but eight years didn’t seem like such a big age difference now.
He brought himself back to reality. She was also a woman in the middle of a personal crisis. Something momentous had happened to cause her to drop out of med school. Now was definitely not the time to hit on her.
“So are you home for a while?” He waved her over to one of the booths against the west wall.
She sat and looked up at him. “Yes. And I need a job.”
It was the last thing he’d expected her to say. “A job?”
Her smile was rueful. “Yes, that is, if you need help.” She glanced around the diner, looking a little less confident all of a sudden. “Actually, it looks as if you already have it under control. I just wanted to check with you first...”
His brain came to life at last. “Of course, I’ll give you a job,” he said as fast as he could get the words out. “Absolutely. No question about it. Only question is, why would you want to be a waitress again?”
With the direct look he’d come to associate with her over the years, she said, “You’ve probably heard that I’ve taken a semester off from school to think things through.”
It wasn’t exactly what he’d heard, but he nodded.
“I need to work, pay my mom rent—”
She must have noticed his surprise, because she said, “No, she hasn’t asked me to pay rent. But she’s hysterical that I’ve come home. I just want to—”
“Feel more independent,” Jake said.
“Oh, yes.” She said the words on a long sigh.
It gave him time to notice how luscious her mouth looked with shiny red lipstick smoothed over it. A wave of awareness washed over him. This wasn’t good. He had to keep his hormones in check.
“Thanks, Jake,” she said softly. “I hope you’re not just doing this because...”
“Because you’re the best waitress I’ve ever had?” He smiled at her, feeling more in control now. “When can you start?”
“Tonight at the dinner shift?”
He nodded and pushed back from the table, wanting to put some distance between them.
“Thank you again.” When she smiled, her skin seemed to glow.
“No problem.” He couldn’t think of a closing line. Finally, he fell back on his standby—food. “How about some pie? I’ll send out a piece of chocolate meringue.”
“You remembered that was my favorite,” she said. She looked so pleased that he felt uncomfortable again. Dang it all. Now was definitely time to get back to the kitchen. “Of course I remembered.”
He signaled Colleen and told her to rush the pie to Abbie, then review the new procedures with her. With a final wave in Abbie’s direction, he retreated to safety. This reaction he was having to her was not only surprising, it was annoying.
“Cut it out,” he muttered.
“Cut what out?” Maury looked up at him and blinked. “I was just working on the squash.”
Jake glanced at Maury’s workstation and was amazed to see the progress the boy had already made on the vegetables that would go into tonight’s third special, a vegetarian-but-you’d-never-know-it pasta dish.
The menu called it “Creamy Linguini.” He gave the impression that he was taking it slow and easy until you saw what he could accomplish in a short time. He had a real future ahead of him in the culinary arts.
Realizing Maury was still waiting for an answer, Jake said, “Ah, sure, the squash.”
Colleen appeared at the pass-through. “Jake, phone call for you.”
Jake stepped into his small office off the kitchen, relieved to have a distraction. “Jake’s Place,” he said cheerfully.
“I’m calling for Jacob Galloway,” said a crisp voice with a British accent.
“It’s Jake speaking,” Jake said, pacing back and forth while he was on hold, his mind still on Abbie. He glanced into the dining room, saw her laughing with some of the customers, then groaned and ducked back inside the office.
“Jake!” The man on the phone spoke enthusiastically. “Richard Stein here. I’m with Abernathy Foods, and I’m interested in your restaurant.”
“It’s not for sale,” Jake said, and the phone was on its way to the cradle when he heard Stein say, “No, no, I’m quite aware of that.”
He put the receiver back to his ear. “You want a reservation?” he asked warily. “We don’t take reservations—”
“No,” the man said again, adding a lot of ho-ho-ho-ing. “I mean, yes, of course I’d love to have dinner there, but I’m in New York, you see, and don’t have a lot of time to...”
“I don’t have a lot of time, either, Mr. Stein,” Jake said. “I’m in the middle of the lunch crunch.”
“This will just take a minute,” Stein said. “What I called about was franchising Jake’s Place. I read the great review you got in the Star Telegram a few months ago, and we sent a couple of our people to check out your place. They came back with stellar reports. We’ve run some numbers, and now we’d like you to come to New York, see our operation, talk about the offer—”
“What?” Jake said. He couldn’t quite focus on what Stein had just said. Somebody he didn’t even know had checked him out and was running numbers on him? What the heck did that mean? And was Abbie still out there?
Without thinking, he shifted to the doorway again. Abbie was gathering up her bag and her jacket and talking to Colleen and Becky. Almost as if she felt his gaze, she turned to meet it. He raised one hand in goodbye. She smiled and waved back. He wanted to know what “things” Abbie was home to “think over” a lot more than he wanted to know what Stein was talking about.
“...interested in franchising your restaurant, opening several others like it. We’d start small, stick to Texas locations for starters. Then if they’re a go, we’d... Jake? We still connected?”
Jake refocused. “Sorry,” he said. “Give me your number, and I’ll call you back. I’m pretty busy right now.”
“Sure,” Stein said. “Those customers come first, don’t they?” He rattled off a number, then repeated his name and Abernathy Foods a couple of times. Jake jotted down the information on an order pad, even though he probably wouldn’t call him back. The idea of franchising didn’t appeal to him.
“When can I expect your call?” Stein asked. Cornered, Jake couldn’t bring himself to say never. “Um, two thirty?”
“Great,” Stein said, sounding perfectly happy about being told to wait a couple of hours. “I’ll be here.”
Still holding the phone, Jake watched Abbie hug Becky and Colleen, wave to the friends she’d been chatting with, and then leave.
You bet, as the cowboys said, he was busy all right. Busy thinking about Abbie.
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