Chad waited for Katherine in the lobby, tapping his fingers impatiently against his thigh. What the hell was taking her so long? When the elevator door opened, she presented a “ta da” stance with her legs together, knees bent, hands held in the air. Her mouth took on an o shape. Chad laughed and pulled her in for a quick hug.
“You’re the prettiest cowgirl I’ve ever seen.”
“Do I honestly look okay? I’ve never owned anything like this before. I feel a bit out of place.”
He stepped back to examine her outfit. Crisp, new blue jeans, gingham blouse tied around the waist, red western boots, and even the hat. He laughed. “You look great. How did you pull this off so quickly?”
She blushed. “I must confess. My legal assistant, Beth, went shopping for me. She does it a lot; I’m afraid to admit.”
Chad flashed a momentary look of displeasure. That figured, too good to shop for herself, relying on the “underling” to do her bidding. This Beth person must have to put up with a lot from her.
She shook her head. “Oh no…it’s not like that,” she said. “Beth and I are friends. I’d do the same for her.”
He relaxed. “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me there.”
She waved her hands around as if they were giant erasers. “Let’s just erase that part. I don’t want to start the evening out on a bad note.”
He held out his elbow, and she accepted it. “Where are we going tonight? I’m so excited to try something new.”
“We’re going to the Chuck Wagon. They have the best steaks in town.” He looked at her accusingly. “And you have to get a steak, none of that sissy chicken shit.”
For a moment, she was tempted to protest. She never was a beef-eater, but she softened when she saw his frown. She smiled, a little hesitantly at first, and then she laughed. She could be a fair sport about it. Why not? She might like it. She nodded and put on a grin. “Okay,” she said. “I usually get chicken or fish, but I guess I can live dangerously tonight.”
“That’s the spirit!”
He led her to a pickup truck. She eyed it for a moment. He mistook her stare. “I know it’s not a BMW or anything, but if we’re going to the Chuck Wagon, we’ve got to go all the way.”
“It’s fine. Really. I don’t mind the pickup truck. I was just thinking about it being another new experience. It seems I’m full of them tonight.”
He helped her into the cab and then ran around to get in on the driver’s side.
“To tell you the truth,” she said. “I’ve never even seen the inside of a truck before.”
He stared, incredulous. “I guess you’d better sit back then, little lady `cause you’re about to experience the ride of your life.”
He turned on the radio and country music poured from the speakers. He sang along, exaggerating the tunes, making her laugh. She did her best to keep up, but without knowing the words, she got lost and gave up. She sat back and watched him, enjoying his exuberance.
He pulled into the parking lot of the Chuck Wagon, circled the lot a few times, and got irritated when he couldn’t find a spot. He banged on the steering wheel.
Katherine flinched. “It’s okay,” she said. “If you want to go somewhere else, I’m flexible.”
“No, goddamn it. I said we’re having Chuck Wagon tonight, and we’ll circle the lot all night if we have to.”
He didn’t need to look at her for Katherine to imagine the darkness in his eyes. He sat with his spine straight, arms gripping the steering wheel tightly while he scanned the lot for an opening. She pulled back from his sharpness, inching her body as far away from him as possible. As he circled the lot, she stared out the window.
“Aha!” he shouted. Katherine jumped and looked where Chad pointed. A truck backed out, and Chad rushed to get it before anyone could snag it. “There, see,” he said, “patience paid off.”
He put the truck in park, and she took off her seatbelt, preparing to climb out. He put a hand on her arm to stay her. “Oh, no, you stay there. I’ll escort you out, like a gentleman.”
She sighed and did as told. “Thank you,” she said, as he helped her down from the cab.
“It’s my pleasure.”
She could hear music pouring from the restaurant and knew she was in for an earsplitting evening.
Chad bounced in time to the music. “Isn’t it great?” he asked.
She laughed nervously, forcing a smile. “Yeah, it’s great,” she said, dreading how it would be once they got inside.
They arrived at the door, and he opened it for her. To her horror, it was even louder than she had imagined.
A waitress greeted them with a big, flashy, country smile. “Howdy,” she said. “Hankering for a steak tonight, are we?”
Katherine resisted the urge to ask if “we” meant she would be joining them, and no, she wasn’t “hankering” for anything. What she wanted was some classical music and a nice salmon at her favorite seafood grotto down on the wharf, but she smiled and played along.
“You bet we are,” Chad said.
He took Katherine’s hand as they followed the waitress. They no sooner sat down than Kylee Ann—at least she was according to her nametag—thrust oversized menus in their hands. “I’ll be right back.” She moved away, her hips swaying in time to the music.
Katherine smiled and began perusing the menu.
Chad took it from her. “No, you don’t,” he teased, “you’re having the cowgirl special.”
“Do I dare ask what that is?”
“Ten ounce T-bone, garlic mashed, veggies, and garlic cheese toast.”
She grimaced, mentally calculating how long it would take her to work off those calories on the treadmill. She looked down at her waistline.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “You just get those thoughts right out of your head. You’re too thin. You can afford the calories.”
She wasn’t too thin. In fact, she was the perfect weight. She sighed. “I guess you’re right.” She decided she would enjoy it now and worry about the calories later.
Kylee Ann returned with a pitcher of beer and two frosty mugs. Katherine started to protest, but Kylee Ann held up her hand, “It’s on the house, darlin’.”
Katherine blushed. “It’s not that,” she paused, biting her lip. “I’ve never had a beer before.”
Chad and Kylee Ann both let loose with a gut-busting laugh. Kylee Ann picked up the pitcher and poured some into one of the mugs. Katherine watched, wrinkling her nose as a white, frothy head appeared at the top of the glass. “Drink up, darlin’.”
Katherine hesitated, picked up the mug, and sipped gingerly.
“That ain’t drinkin’,” Kylee Ann said. She turned to Chad. “Show her how it’s done there, sweet thing.” She poured beer into the other mug. Chad picked it up and chugged it down. “Ah, that’s good,” he said when he’d finished.
Katherine laughed. “I don’t think I could drink it like that.”
“You never know until you try,” Kylee Ann said, encouraging her.
She picked up the mug again, did her best imitation of chugging, which wasn’t very good, and mimicked Chad’s, “Ah.”
Kylee Ann and Chad both laughed. Chad gave Kylee Ann their orders, and she walked off again.
Chad pointed at her beer. “You don’t have to drink it if you don’t like it,” he said.
She shook her head and touched the rim of her mug. “No, no…that’s okay. It’s not that bad.” She longed to bring Kylee Ann back and ask for a glass of wine, but she wanted to play the good sport, so she didn’t.
“How long have you lived in the building?”
He looked at her over the top of his mug. He swallowed and said, “About a month.”
“What do you do?”
“In the apartment?”
She shook her head. “I mean for a living. What line of work are you in?”
He struggled for an answer. He hadn’t expected the question. It took him off guard. “I do surveillance,” he said.
She frowned. “What kind of surveillance?”
“I watch people.”
She leaned forward and tipped her head sideways. “You mean like a private investigator?”
He nodded. “Something along that line.”
“That’s fascinating. I know a few PIs.” She wondered why she hadn’t heard of him before.
He nodded, as he already knew this fact. “I’m not that seriously into it. I’m just starting.”
She sat back. “I’m sure business will pick up.”
He nodded again, and they sat in silence for a moment. Just when she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, Kylee Ann returned with two salads. Katherine looked in horror at the wilted leaves on her plate. She managed a weak, “Thank you,” and returned to staring at her plate of leaves, the only adornment being two small cherry tomatoes and a few shredded carrots.
Chad dug right in and began chewing voraciously. Katherine hesitated, watching Chad chew. He paused. “What?” he asked with his mouth still full of lettuce. She smiled meekly. He pointed at her salad with his fork. “I thought you’d love salad.”
She looked down at her plate and then back at Chad. “Oh, I do.” She picked up her fork and gently poked a bite. Shaking off the excessive dressing, she put the bite in her mouth and winced at the strong vinegar taste of the dressing. She smiled and chewed.
Chad nodded. “That’s more like it.”
Blessedly, Kylee Ann returned with their meals. Katherine pushed away the salad she’d barely touched. Kylee Ann raised her eyebrows when she saw the nearly full plate but said nothing. She set down a plate in front of Katherine. Katherine gasped. “Are you sure this isn’t the cowboy special?”
As Katherine asked this, Kylee Ann set a plate twice as big down in front of Chad. “Never mind,” Katherine said, and they all laughed.
“Dig in, kids,” Kylee Ann said. She pointed at Katherine’s barely touched beer. “You want me to bring you something different?”
Katherine blushed in embarrassment and looked first at Kylee Ann, and then at Chad. “Would I be a terrible sport if I asked for a glass of white wine?”
“Heavens no, darlin’.” She took the mug and walked off again.
Chad didn’t comment, but Katherine got the impression he wasn’t pleased. She grimaced. “I’m eating the steak.” Just to prove her point, she cut off a small piece and stuffed it into her mouth. “It’s very good,” she said, surprised that she did like it.
Chad picked up his fork and began eating.
An awkward silence fell between them as they ate. Kylee Ann brought the wine and set it in front of Katherine. She gave Katherine a sympathetic smile. “Thank you,” Katherine said. She looked down at her plate and then up at Chad. “Does your family live here in town?”
Chad swallowed and looked at her for a minute. “My father lives close.”
“That’s nice. Tell me about him.”
He shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s quiet. He mopes around a lot.”
“That must get on your nerves.”
He shrugged again and let out a chortle. “I’m used to it.”
He shook his head. “Just me and Dad.”
“Took off when I was just a kid.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
He grinned. “What about you. I know you have a dad. I saw him that day on the beach.”
She nodded. “My mom’s been gone awhile.” Her eyes misted, and she looked down at her plate. When that felt awkward, she looked around the restaurant. She noted the hay on the floor, terra cotta floor tiles, and the numerous pairs of cowboy boots sitting on shelves scattered throughout the restaurant.
Chad watched her discomfort and did his best to hide a smile. His heart soared with elation at the pained look on her face, but he reached out and touched her hand with his. “I’m sorry. The memory is obviously painful. Do you want to talk about it?”
Katherine shook her head. “I’m okay. She died when I was very young, but I still remember her as if she were here just yesterday.”
He nodded. “Well, if you change your mind, I’m a good listener.”
She smiled and pushed away her plate. She sat back and stretched. “Time for dancing?” she asked.
Chad looked at her. Then he looked at her plate, barely touched, and said, “Are you sure you have enough strength? You barely touched your food.”
Katherine smarted from the comment but tried to push it aside. She managed a weak grin. “I ate plenty.” She gestured toward the half-full plate. “There’s a lot of food on this plate.”
Chad sat there saying nothing but thinking how rude she was, wasting all that food. He worked hard to pay for that meal. The least she could do was show appreciation for it.
She started to rise. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to use the ladies room.” Once she had escaped to the safety of the closed door, she heaved a huge sigh. She stayed as long as she dared, and when she felt he might miss her, she headed back to the table. As she passed the bar side of the restaurant, she was sidetracked by a group of dancers performing what was obviously the line-dancing about which Chad had told her.
She was about to turn and get Chad, when a large man pulled her by the arm, nearly ripping her off her feet and into the line with him. She started to protest, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She fumbled with the steps but realized they weren’t that hard to copy. She soon fell in step with the others.
Chad, wondering what was keeping her so long, went in search of her. He watched her dance, seething as the man put his arm around her and demonstrated the steps. She laughed joyously, which made Chad even angrier. Color rising to his face, nostrils flared, he stomped into the bar and grabbed Katherine from the line. He pulled her behind him as he attempted to walk back to the table.
Angered by his treatment of her, she pulled her arm from his grasp. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Me! What are you doing? I thought you just went to use the bathroom, and the next thing I know, I’m sitting there like a fool waiting for a date who’s never going to return.”
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest in a defiant stance. “Don’t you think that’s a little melodramatic?”
“Everything all right here?” her dance partner asked, sensing the tension between them.
Chad pulled back his fist and punched the man in the jaw, which was the wrong thing to do considering he was twice Chad’s size. The man, taken off guard, recovered quickly and picked Chad up with one arm. He walked him to the door, where he promptly threw him out.
Katherine heard Chad’s fists hit the door and then nothing.
The man returned to Katherine and extended his hand. “My name’s Ken. I assume that was your ride home?”
Katherine stared for a moment. Her jaw slackened, and then she burst out laughing. She took the offered hand, nodded her head and said, “That it was, Ken.”
“Then I suppose the proper thing to do would be to offer you a ride home.”
She shook her head. Ken seemed nice enough, but she wasn’t into accepting rides from strangers. “Thanks, Ken, but I can find a ride.”
“One more dance?” he asked. She hesitated for a moment, the music beckoning to her. He added, “Besides, you want to give Chad plenty of time to leave, right?”
“Sure, why not. I guess it makes sense.”
She stayed for two more dances, and when the second dance ended, she thanked him and went to make her phone call. She thought about calling John, but somehow that didn’t seem right. She called Beth. “I know it’s late, and Timmy’s probably in bed, but I need a huge favor.”
She explained the situation and twenty minutes later Beth pulled into the parking lot.
Katherine climbed into the passenger seat, turned and looked at Timmy asleep in the back seat.
Beth was laughing. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Did you have any trouble finding the place?”
“Naw, I’ve been here before.”
Katherine laughed. “How did you like it?”
“It was okay. Not my usual dive, but I had a good time.” She paused. “The old Beth would have loved it.”
Katherine nodded. Beth’s past was no secret around town, but nobody spoke of it. Beth’s trouble with Jack was a part of Beth’s past she was not proud of, even if it had given her Timmy.
“How did you like it?”
“It was fun, likewise not my usual dive, but fun still—at least it would have been if I’d had a different date.”
Beth laughed. “So…Mr. Flowers didn’t turn out so fragrant after all, huh?”
“Sadly, no, a real stinker you might say. He just seems so angry about everything. It’s a wonder he has any friends at all.”
Beth cast a sideways glance at her. “Who said he has friends.”
“I just assumed,” Katherine said.
“How much do you know about him?”
Katherine shook her head. “Not much, I’m afraid. He did pass the security check to get into the building, though. I guess I was basing my opinion on that.”
“Security checks don’t show everything. Maybe you should have him checked out further.”
“Maybe I should.”
They pulled up to her building. Tony opened the car door for her. He waved to Beth. “Good evening, Ms. Reynolds.”
“Good evening, Tony.”
Beth sped away. Katherine bid Tony goodnight and took the elevator to her apartment. She had an early day in court and was eager to get some sleep. She climbed into bed, reached to pick up her magazine, surprised to discover it missing.
“Housekeeping must have recycled it,” she said to Rainbow, who promptly meowed in response. “Oh well, it was getting old.” She turned off the light and fell fast asleep.