“Cassidy, have you been to Liz’s new salon?” Heather Saldana asked as she scraped some of the olives to the side of her salad.
Since Cassidy’s hair was twisted into a claw clip on top of her head, Cassidy would have to say Heather knew she hadn’t.
“No, is it nice?” she asked, just to make conversation. Every penny she had was either put back into the RV park she’d built on her land to house the oilfield guys, or tucked into her escape fund. No way was she spending it on herself in a salon.
“Oh, it’s great. She’s made it really luxurious. The chairs are just heaven, and she has these stones for your feet. And she hired a manicurist from Houston.” Trinity waggled her fingers at Cassidy. “Aren’t these just perfect for wildflower season?”
Her nails were decorated like tiny wildflowers, each finger a different flower. They were, admittedly, adorable. Cassidy curled her own uneven nails out of sight.
“Victor’s coming home from a hitch tomorrow and I imagine my nails are all I’ll be wearing.” Heather nudged Victoria, who laughed.
Trinity turned to Cassidy. “You should totally go, but you need to make an appointment. She’s pretty busy already. I think everyone’s just so anxious to see what she’s done with the place.”
Liz had rented the store in the center of the block on the rundown square a few months back. Her plans for a modest salon had expanded as money started pouring into the town when the men found lucrative work in the oilfields and their wives started looking to spend the money. Places like that were few and far between in Evansville, but the boom was providing opportunities no one in their quiet little town had expected. Several residents had flocked to the fields. Including Cassidy’s ex, Mason, who’d started driving trucks and left her behind.
After Cassidy made an empty promise to check out the salon, she ensured her customers had all they needed before she made her escape to the kitchen.
“Lucky you,” Carla Martinez said, looking through her lashes at the three women at Cassidy’s table.
“They may be gossips, but they’re good tippers.”
Not in Cassidy’s experience, probably because they’d all gone to school together, though Heather, Trinity and Victoria had been a couple of years older. In a school the size of Evansville High, everyone knew everyone else.
“Think they’ll tip me enough to go get wildflower nails?” Cassidy asked, forcing a light tone.
Carla rolled her eyes. “Manicured nails are wasted on you, seriously. You’d just gnaw them off.”
“That’s not fair. I don’t bite my nails.”
“You just chew on them.” Carla hefted her purse on her shoulder, her shift over. “I’m outta here. Need me to do anything else before I go?”
Knowing Carla wanted some time alone before her kids got home from school, Cassidy made a shooing motion. “Go. Enjoy peace and quiet.”
Cassidy kept an eye on her remaining table while she did her side work. Unlike Carla, she was in no hurry to get home. Her peace and quiet was here, even during the lunch rush.
The door swung open—odd this late in the day—and a man Cassidy didn’t recognize walked in. He was a big guy, not uncommon in ranching country, but what was unusual was that he was alone. For a moment, she thought he’d join Heather, Trinity and Victoria, but he chose a table closer to the pool table.
He drew the attention of the three women, who quieted, nodded in his direction and whispered.
Grateful for a distraction from her other customers, Cassidy picked up a menu and crossed to the man, who sat back in the creaking wooden chair and smiled at her. Wow. He was a cutie, blond hair sticking up just slightly as it grew out of a short cut, blue eyes fringed with thick lashes, a straight nose, a strong chin. She placed the menu on the table in front of him.
His voice was gravelly, and sent skitters of awareness down her spine, reminding her how long it had been since she’d been out with anyone, had a man other than her regulars give her attention.
No, she needed to push that thought out of her head right now. She wasn’t sticking around here. Once she made her money, Evansville was going to be in her rearview mirror.
“What can I get you to drink?”
“Sure. I’ll be right back. Will anyone be joining you?”
“Nah, I’m on my own today.”
Something about his blue eyes was familiar, but she couldn’t place how she knew him. “I’ll go get your tea.”
After she delivered the tall glass in the textured plastic glass, she went to check on the ladies, who had shifted their chairs so they could watch the newcomer.
“Do you know who that is?” Victoria asked Cassidy, not as quietly as she probably hoped.
Cassidy shook her head as she cleared the plates from in front of the women, in a subtle effort to invite them to leave.
“That’s Grady McKenna. You know, of the McKenna ranch.”
One of the biggest ranches in South Texas, in the same family for over a hundred years. Two brothers and a sister. Now she remembered why she recognized those blue eyes. His sister, Sage, had tormented her all through high school. She didn’t remember Grady at all, though she didn’t think he was much older than her.
“Grady’s the one who went into the Air Force out of high school. I didn’t know he was out, and back. And damn, he looks good.”
Heather nudged her friend. “Remember you’re engaged to my brother!”
“I can still look. It’s not like Ben doesn’t look at Cassidy’s ass every time he comes here.”
Cassidy almost dropped the dishes as all three women turned their attention from Grady to Cassidy’s ass.
“Cassidy! Phone call!” Charlie, the cook, called from the kitchen.
Her stomach clenched, and she turned, carrying the dishes back to the kitchen. She set them on the counter and frowned at the expression on Charlie’s face.
“Your mom,” he said, confirming her fear.
She took the phone, wishing it was cordless so she could have some privacy instead of being tethered to the register. “This is Cassidy.”
“Yeah, Cassidy, sorry to bother you at work.” It was Dylan Hoyt, one of the oilfield workers staying at the RV park she’d built on her land, who acted as unofficial manager when she was at the cafe. “Your mom is kind of wasted and she’s knocking on all the guys’ trailers. They worked the late shift, and they’re not so happy about it. I tried to get her back to the house, but she wouldn’t go.”
“All right. All right.” She lifted her thumbnail to her mouth, but thought about what Carla said, and lowered it again. Damn, she needed some kind of stress relief. “It’ll take me a bit to get there. I have a couple of customers right now, and Charlie’s by himself. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Charlie took the phone from her. “I’ve got it. You go on.”
Cassidy wanted to argue, to resist, because God knew she didn’t want to go home. But she couldn’t have her mother chasing off her tenants. Those guys paid her rent, and they were her ticket out of here. She had to deal with this.
“I’m sorry, Charlie.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that. Just get your guy’s order before you leave, and maybe leave a pitcher on each table. I don’t think those ladies are leaving as long as he’s here.”
He was probably right. She carried her order pad back to Grady’s table, aware he was watching her every step.
“You decide what you want?”
“Sure, I’ll take a chicken-fried steak. Haven’t had a good one in a while.”
“I heard you’re just back from the military?” She didn’t have time to engage him in conversation, but she couldn’t deny her curiosity.
He glanced toward the women at the other table, a half-smile curving his lips, letting her know he knew where she’d gotten her information. “Not just back. I mean, yeah, just back to Texas, but I was in North Carolina for a couple of months. Good to be back in Texas, though. No place like home.” He held his glass while she refilled it with tea. “You never left?”
Did he remember her? “Not yet.”
He lifted his eyebrows, but she didn’t elaborate. She couldn’t. “I need to put your order in, then I need to run. A family emergency. Charlie will take care of you. I’ll ask in advance for you to forgive him. I swear, we usually have better service.”
He smiled, white teeth flashing. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Wow. That smile lit up his whole face, and lit something deep inside her. But she didn’t linger, instead hurrying his order back to Charlie, delivering pitchers to both tables, then grabbing her purse and bolting.
The drive home over the crumbling asphalt roads took longer than usual, probably because Cassidy was dreading it so much. She turned onto the gravel road she’d just put in for easier access for the RVs, then pulled into the parking area where the guys kept their trucks. She took a deep breath and opened the car door, scanning the area for her mom.
And there she was, stumbling down the steps from a Rambler, tugging up the sagging strap of her camisole. Ah, hell, had she just gone into Chris’s trailer?
Her mother twisted and fell on the gravel, then rose to her knees, tugging at the blouse again. “Cassidy! You’re home early.”
Cassidy hurried to her side to help her to her feet. “Mom, what are you doing? You know these guys work the night shift and need their sleep. You need to leave them alone.”
Angie Simon slumped against the side of the Rambler and pushed her hair back from her face. She should still be a pretty woman. She was only forty-three, but the drinking and the cigarettes had put miles on her. Apparently, though, that didn’t stop the workers from taking advantage of her advances.
“You leave me alone out here in the middle of nowhere all day long. I’m lonely.”
Cassidy had taken her mother’s car keys on purpose, because she couldn’t risk her driving into town to buy more alcohol, and then getting behind the wheel wasted. So far, she hadn’t hurt anyone, though she had two DWIs on her record.
“These are men with families, working men. They are not here to entertain you, or for you to entertain them. Where did you get the liquor?”
“Jordan was nice enough to buy me a bottle the last time he went to town. And Chris brought back some weed.”
Jesus. Thanks for the help, guys. She should let her mother bang on their trailer doors all day long. Maybe they’d supplied her in the hope she’d pass out.
Cassidy tucked her hand under her mother’s arm and guided her toward the house.
Her mother pulled away. “I don’t want to go home. Take me into town.”
“Oh, no. I have to go back to work. You need to go in the house and sleep it off. Did you take your birth control pills?” Because the last thing she needed was to raise her mother’s baby.
Angie looked affronted. “I always remember. And I use a condom, too. Can’t be too careful.”
“Too much information,” Cassidy muttered, urging her mother forward.
“You need to get a man.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“You’d relax if you got laid.”
“Mom!” But the picture that came to mind was Grady McKenna and that lazy smile. She pushed it away again. “I’d relax if you’d stop drinking and bothering our tenants. I’d relax if I could trust you to behave yourself like an adult.”
“You’re no fun,” Angie pouted.
No. No, she wasn’t. She was no fun, and she had no fun. All she wanted was enough money to maybe put her mom in rehab and get the hell out of Dodge.
She got Angie into the house and into the shower, and went to the kitchen to make coffee. While it was brewing, she searched in all the usual places for the booze and the pot. At least the house wasn’t very big, and her mother wasn’t adept at hiding things, because Cassidy found the bottle, plus a couple others, and the bag of pot. She considered the pot a moment. What was she going to do with it? Flush it, maybe. The booze was going down the drain.
Every time she did that, she winced. Even if it wasn’t her money, it was expensive. Still, she twisted off the tops, wrinkling her nose at the smell, and dumped the contents down the drain, running the water at the same time so her eyes didn’t burn from the fumes.
Once the job was done, the weed flushed and the bottles in the recycle bin, Cassidy poured a cup of coffee and set it on the table. The shower wasn’t running any longer. She headed down to the bathroom and opened the door to see her mother sitting naked on the toilet, rocking herself back and forth and sobbing.
“Oh, Mom.” Cassidy wrapped a towel around her mother’s shoulders, crouching before her at the same time. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not pretty anymore!”
“Mom, don’t be silly. You’re still beautiful.”
“When I was a girl, all the boys wanted me. I was Bluebonnet Queen. Everyone thought I was the most beautiful girl in town.”
Cassidy knew the rest of the story. Angie had let the fame go to her head, had let the boys talk her into bed, had her heart broken when Cassidy’s father denied the baby was his. Cassidy’s grandparents had helped raise her, up until the time when she was thirteen and they had had enough of Angie’s drama, left the land to Angie and Cassidy and moved to Oklahoma to be closer to Cassidy’s uncle and his nice, normal family. They spent most of their retirement in an RV driving around the country, but never back to Texas.
Angie hadn’t allowed the stigma of being a single mother in a small town keep her down. She lost her baby weight and started dating again. Cassidy wasn’t sure if she wanted a father for her baby, or if she just wanted to prove to herself that she could still get a man.
She could get a man, but not a father for her baby. Cassidy wondered how hard she tried.
“Let’s go get you something to eat,” Cassidy said now in an attempt to stem the pity party. “Did you eat today?”
“I just want to feel pretty.”
“I know, Mom, but you can’t go to these guys. They pay us to live here, and we need that money.”
“What for? We’re not poor.”
Thanks to her grandparents, who signed over their land to her when she became of age, they didn’t have house payments, only taxes. But she’d borrowed against the land to put in the RV park, the gravel road and parking area, the hook-ups, the drainage, and the laundry hut. She owed the bank a pretty penny that she had to pay back before she could funnel serious money into her escape fund.
Her mother wasn’t privy to either concern. The land was Cassidy’s, and it was her decision. Her salvation.
“We’re doing what others are doing—taking advantage of what we can go get some of this oil money before they leave.” Or before they found more permanent housing.
She got her mother dressed and into the kitchen, made her some soup and settled her in front of an afternoon talk show before Cassidy headed back to the restaurant.
“Didn’t expect to see you,” Charlie said when she walked in. Debbie was lounging by the drink station, called into work early, though no tables were occupied.
Cassidy didn’t tell Charlie she hadn’t wanted to stay home with her mother. Instead, she said, “Put me to work.”
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