She never thought she’d be here.
Barely making ends meet, waiting tables in some butthole town in Louisiana. All she had left in her life was Ryker, her three-year-old son, and as anyone that has children knows, it’s a wishy-washy relationship with a toddler.
Not to mention the too small shorts riding up her butt cheeks that the diner had her wear. The white shirt she wore was a thin fabric that forced her to wear an undershirt. MEGAN’S was written on the back in bulky, black letters.
Considering there was no competition for food within forty miles, she guessed it didn’t matter what it looked like. The place was undeniably overdue for some TLC, and with the busyness of the restaurant and how they rushed their employees out of the door as soon as their shift was over, it was hard to do any extra cleaning. No overtime … ever.
Though, she thanked God, because it could have been worse … and it had been.
It’d been their fifth home in the last year and a half, finally settling down somewhere she knew he wouldn’t find her. But that had been what she thought after each move, and most times he came within reaching distance of them.
Hopefully, this time would stick, and she could stay hidden. No more accidental friendships or giving away her real last name. She could settle down and have a normal life—maybe.
The places she’d chosen before were all bigger cities, thinking she’d blend in, but the more people, the more chances of connecting with someone.
More people to see you. More opportunities to be caught. She figured she’d try somewhere small next, and Pine Valley didn’t even seem to be on the radar.
Swayze walked over to the window where Oscar slid her plate underneath the hot light. “Here ya go, sister,” he said. “Order up.”
Swayze grabbed the plate with one hand and the ketchup from the tray behind the counter with the other one. “Thanks, Oscar.”
Oscar was her favorite coworker at Megan’s. He kept to himself mostly and knew how to handle the townspeople well. He reminded Swayze of a Hispanic Jack Black, without the jokes, but she never told anyone because it sounded a little judgy. Not that it seemed to matter in Pine Valley because it seemed to be their town motto.
Come judge with us.
The other waitresses were born within a few years of Moses and didn’t seem to like her very much anyway. Tonya was her least favorite due to the fact that she always looked like she had a lemon in her mouth and found little things to pick at Swayze about. Plus, she smelled like cigarettes and Vaseline.
Thinking about it, nobody in the small town seemed to like her. It was her own fault, she figured. They had invited her to church and community gatherings, but she never went.
Making new friends had never been easy for Swayze, and moving to a town where you knew no one was hard. How do you tell someone after they’ve invited you somewhere ten times that you can’t go? It’d be too risky. Then the suspicions would skyrocket, and everyone would know what they all thought.
She really was bad news.
If he tracks us down again—
She wouldn’t think about it; her anxiety suffered enough. Keeping her head down, eyes and legs closed was the key to being incognito. Nobody allowed in her home and keep the chitchat to a minimal.
She twirled around to bring Ms. Mable her plate and noticed her manager standing at one of her booths. It couldn’t be good, because he had that crazy caterpillar brow look, with his hands animatedly waving around. Great …
“Here you go, Ms. Mable. Your scrambled eggs and ketchup.”
“Oh, thank you, dear,” she said, taking a drink of coffee with shaky hands. “You sure are a pretty young thing. I used to have legs like that in my day.”
Most days, Ms. Mable didn’t know what day it was, and Swayze had to help her out to her car because she had forgotten where she had parked. She seemed to be doing better over the last week. Although she looked hot as hell in that cardigan in the June heat.
She never showed up without a fresh perm and her pants ironed with a crease. Swayze spent most days slipping in a few sentences when she could, because her husband had died of old age a few years before and the loneliness clung to her like a bad day.
Swayze had become accustomed to feeling lonely, but at least she had her son with her.
A crackle of thunder made both Ms. Mable and Swayze jump. “It’s supposed to storm in a little while. I figured I better eat lunch before it starts to pour on me,” Ms. Mable said.
“I think we have an hour or so,” Swayze said.
She looked over at her manager, who wore an annoyed expression, adding to the permanent frown on his face. Dobbs was not manager material, and in any other place, it wouldn’t have jived, but he seemed to know everyone in town and it worked for the eighty-five-year-old owner Swayze had never met.
She’d never met a manager who talked to their employees in front of everyone. Who taught Dobbs’ management class? They needed to find a new instructor.
She walked toward the table, noticing the ticket that dangled from Dobbs’ fist, and the look on the elderly couple’s faces told Swayze everything she needed to know. “Yes, sir.”
“The Sweenys are very upset because you charged them twice for their coffee.”
Seriously? Swayze looked over at the couple; the man stared down at the red and white checkered tablecloth, and the woman tilted her nose up in the air. They were regulars that came in twice a week, ordering the same thing every time, and never tipped.
She’d never forget the first time she met the Sweenys because she’d spilled coffee on their table, cleaning it up instantly with the washcloth that hung from her apron.
Mrs. Sweeny insisted shortly after Swayze walked away that she hadn’t cleaned it properly and did it herself.
It’d been downhill since then.
Swayze didn’t care if they ever came back.
“That’s because Mrs. Sweeny asked for another cup,” Swayze said, pointing toward the sign hanging from the register.
No free coffee.
“I did no such thing,” Mrs. Sweeny said.
Swayze bit her tongue, trying to hold back the slew of curses that filled her throat. Is this woman seriously calling me a liar? With her fifty gold rings on her bony hand and a BMW sitting out in the parking lot that cost more than the restaurant they were dining at—over a dollar ten?
The doorbell dinged, and heavy footsteps fell behind it, stopping at one of the booths, but Swayze couldn’t greet anybody. She was on the verge of strangling the Sweenys.
“Why would I make that up?” Swayze asked. “I physically went and got her another—”
“Swayze, can I talk to you for a minute?” Dobbs asked.
Weren’t they already talking?
Swayze followed Dobbs’ squatty figure out the front door and into the humid breeze. Lightning flashed in the distance over a random field, and the smell of rain had moved in closer. Regardless of the weather, the summer heat instantly formed sweat on Swayze’s forehead, and she wiped it off with the back of her hand.
Dobbs pursed his thin lips, swiping his few strands of hair that he had left off of his forehead. “We’ve already talked about this, Swayze. Now, the Sweenys are prominent in this town. They’re a founding family. What she says goes.”
Swayze sighed, leaning her weight on her worn, off-white Keds. “It’s hard to remember who gets special treatment around here.”
Dobbs placed both hands on his wide hips, tugging nervously at his thin, black belt that wasn’t helping much to keep up his worn khakis. “Now, you listen here, we don’t give out special treatment in this town.”
“Yeah, giving someone free coffee and others not is special treatment,” Swayze said.
Dobbs tightened his lips into a thin line. “I’m the boss here, and I’m tellin’ you to not charge her any more for the extra coffee. This is strike one.”
Strike one? Swayze didn’t have any leverage because she was new and needed the job to support her son. Swayze tightened her chocolate ponytail and nodded. “Okay. Can I go back inside now?”
Dobbs gestured her toward the door.
Sighing, Swayze pushed the door opened and waltzed inside. A hushed whisper fell over the restaurant, but no one seemed to notice Swayze. She didn’t know what they were whispering about, but honestly, she was too angry to care.
A couple of older men sat at the end of the diner’s bar table, looking over toward the booth where she assumed Kaden King sat. At least it looked like him from the back, and he usually came in around that time every day.
Kaden King gave Swayze the creeps with his fuming scowl and dark eyes. The guy looked like he’d never had a good day in his life. His life couldn’t be that bad, could it? Compared to what she’d been through, nothing sounded too big to overcome.
Swayze grabbed a menu from the holder, passing by the whispers and stares to stop at the booth.
She placed a menu down, pulled out her pad and pen from her apron, and took the cap off with her mouth. “How ya doing today?”
Terrible, I’m sure.
When she glanced at the man she assumed was Kaden, it was not him.
Kaden King was nice looking, but she’d gotten over it after the second day working. His assumed brother, maybe, was ruggedly handsome.
The kind of handsome you see in an old western, or a good ole boy movie. The kind that takes your breath away. The kind that gets you into a whole lot of trouble, especially if you’re trying to stay incognito.
Swayze’s mouth dried at the sight of him, leaned back effortlessly in the booth, one arm wrapped around the back of the seat, the other holding his menu. Those light green eyes were playful, but intense. The focus he had would make any straight woman’s heart flutter.
If his looks weren’t enough, and those green eyes weren’t completely sucking the thoughts out of her head, his voice sounded like dark chocolate, the kind you say is better for you though it’s still sweet and full of calories.
“Well,” he said, leaning forward on one elbow, taking her in. “If I would have known there was something new here in town, I would have come back a lot earlier.”
Heat crawled over her shoulders and tingled on the way down to her toes. She was sure Kaden hadn’t said a word about her, because most of the town was still trying to figure her out and seemed unwelcoming anyway. If Kaden was his brother like she assumed.
She tried to stop her overactive imagination from conjuring up the image of what he looked like standing up. Was he as tall as she imagined? Were those wide shoulders any indication of how strong he’d be holding her?
Or how big his hands were …
“I’m Montgomery,” he said.
“Swayze,” she said, avoiding eye contact and his outstretched hand. It was too much to look at him. She didn’t move to Pine Valley to find a man, but rather to run away from one.
When he didn’t lower his hand, she looked up at him, noticing something familiar about his face. She was positive they had never met in person, but he looked familiar.
He lifted a heavy brow and looked down at his waiting hand. Dude wasn’t taking her resistance as a hint. She reached forward and took his hand, noting the way his callouses felt against her soft palm.
“What can I get you today?”
Montgomery grinned at her, his eyes slowly dropping to the menu in his hands, and back up to her face.
He licked his lips that were thick, the kind of thick you can’t stop your mind from imagining on you. His backward baseball cap revealed his perfect, square forehead and piercing eyes, and to have that strong jawline with it? It seemed unfair to her. A chunk of dark brown hair peeked from the front of his cap in a thick wave. Where had this man come from? Mars? Asgard? Krypton?
“I’m assuming Oscar is still here?” he asked.
She nodded without looking up.
“Then I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries. Tell ’im it’s for Montgomery King—he’ll know how I want it.”
King. Bingo. There was no way this man wasn’t related to Kaden. She wanted to ask if they were brothers or cousins, but speaking meant looking up, and that meant the chance of having a conversation that she was sure would contain babbling.
She scribbled down his order, praying her fingers to hurry, because getting out of his line of sight seemed the best thing to do.
“No wedding ring,” Montgomery said.
She met his gaze, her thumb reaching to the inside of her ring finger to nudge the ring that she no longer wore. Montgomery seemed to notice her movement, but it didn’t deter him from giving her a lopsided smile.
“No,” she said.
It was all she could think to say. She needed to snap out of it. Even a one-night stand that rocked her world would threaten her new, small-town life. If everyone talked about her, that meant everyone knew her name.
All it would take is for him to ride through looking for her, and she was sure the town would lead him straight toward her house.
Montgomery studied her face with the same grin that hadn’t left his mouth. Swayze wanted to tell him she was single, and that she needed a stress relief of the penis variety but couldn’t. The words you’re so rugged and perfect were stuck in her throat, replaying over and over in her head, but she tried to push it back with the rest of her not the time thoughts.
His wide shoulders in that Carhartt T-shirt should have been banned. Would Dobbs take offensive if she put a No tight T-shirts sign on the door?
“So that means I can take you out—”
Swayze turned to the harsh voice behind her. There was Kaden King in the flesh, dirty scowl and hardened, brown eyes on point, not that she expected anything less.
His tone made Swayze’s skin crawl. It was evident that Kaden wasn’t part of her fan club in Pine Valley. If she hadn’t known it before, she knew it now. The stank eye he tossed her way proved her right.
Swayze noticed the slight shift in the room. All the tables focused in on them. “Well, if it isn’t my big brother, Kaden. Nice of you to stop by. News truly does travel fast around here.”
Kaden’s heavy footsteps closed in on Swayze until she felt his presence beside her. “What in the hell are you doing back in town?”
Ouch, what a warm welcome.
“Oh, you know, just comin’ back to help my big brother with the ranch.”
Kaden scoffed. “I don’t need your help. You show up after five years with that stupid shit-eating grin on your face to help? I don’t need it, and I don’t want it.”
Montgomery shrugged, and the tension rolled off his back. “Too bad I don’t care. I own half the business, and I’m back to help. You’ll eventually get over it.”
“And you’re already trying to pick up some girl,” he scoffed. “Figures. Bulls and girls. That’s all you’re good for. Other people’s girls, for that matter.”
Jeez, who peed in Kaden’s Cheerio’s this morning?
Bulls and girls? She knew he’d looked familiar to her. There was a small library downtown on the square where she’d take Ryker sometimes. His picture was plastered to the walls with newspaper articles and banners.
He was some small-town hero or something.
A famous bull-rider.
Swayze guessed that didn’t matter to Kaden, apparently.
She wanted to walk away without being rude, so she turned to try and put in his order, but his voice stopped her. “You don’t have to leave because the Grinch is here. It’s not even close to Christmas. Take your ass back to the ranch; I’ll meet you there after I’ve eaten.”
Swayze pointed toward the kitchen. “I’m gonna put in your—”
“And of all the girls in town, you go after the new one that’s obviously running away from something.”
Hey, now. Swayze turned toward Kaden, who didn’t seem bothered that she could hear, but Montgomery beat her to saying something.
“Of course you’d think that. Did she tell you that? Or are you just assuming, like everyone else does here?”
Kaden bent forward, both fists braced on the table. “It’s not that—”
“What’s up your ass then?” Montgomery asked. “You like her or something?”
Kaden tightened his jaw. “No—”
“Then let me ask her—”
“He’s right,” Swayze said. Both brothers looked over at her. She hoped they couldn’t see the tears gathered at the edges of her eyes. “It’s not a good idea. I’m going to put in your order.”
She walked the menu and ticket over to Oscar behind the kitchen window. She could feel his eyes on her as she disappeared around the corner toward the bathrooms. Apparently, the entire town thought she was some kind of runaway. She didn’t know any runaways at twenty-seven; she thought that was called moving. Who the hell asked her though?
When she walked back toward the front, she noticed them arguing again, but Montgomery never stood up or got mad, no matter how mean Kaden looked.
She guessed brotherly love was overrated all around the board.
Kaden didn’t stop his hushed verbal attack when she dropped Montgomery’s drink off, but it didn’t stop Montgomery from smiling and watching her walk away.
His laid-back demeanor wasn’t something she was used to. It didn’t matter that his I don’t care attitude attracted her to him, or maybe it had more to do with the way his eyes made her hot all over.
The less people she interacted with, the better.
Swayze avoided the brothers all she could the rest of her shift, dashing out before they paid, but leaving the ticket on the table. The two big pickups parked in the makeshift parking lot had to be theirs.
She had money enough to buy those types of things once before, but it had all been taken away. Blindsided her so quickly that her head spun; now she would be thankful for a hooptie that would get her from point a to point b.
When she fled from home, she left everything: her Mazda, most of her belongings and clothes. She’d packed all her son owned, along with necessities for herself, and bought two bus tickets to Kansas City, the biggest town closest to them.
Mistake number one.
At least her legs had gotten a great workout over the last three months with her walking everywhere. The town was very small but spaced out, and some days were harder than others. At least the other towns had cabs and Uber drivers. Swayze didn’t mind the walking too much but hated it for when the weather would turn cold, and she had to drag her son around in it.
She found a woman to watch Ryker when she worked that lived a few streets over from the diner. It’d felt like pulling teeth trying to find a sitter for him.
Swayze made it to her ten minutes later, praying that she would make it home before the rain. Ryker flew out the threshold before she could greet Lena.
“Hey, girl, hey,” Lena said.
Swayze smiled at her, trying to hold back the frustration from the day. Lena seemed to be the only person that would tolerate her in town. It was obvious that she wasn’t from the south, with her fast talking and her Italian roots.
She’d married a logger during college and moved back home with him, but never seemed to mind the small-town life. She was short, hid underneath big clothing, but looked petite, with a big smile and personality. She never seemed to have a bad day, or at least she didn’t show it. “How was he today?”
“Momma. Lena said go outside!” Ryker pursed his little lips and looked through his shaggy, blond hair at his mom. He still wore his Batman cape that he’d refused to take off, unless to bathe, for days. “Do you hear the plane?”
Lena laughed and tried to keep her hair from blowing in the growing wind. “He has had so much energy today and ate me out of house and home.”
Swayze knew that feeling. She had felt overwhelmed with her grocery list for months, but she’d sell a kidney to make sure her little man ate. “Thank you for watching him. Did he nap?”
She nodded. “Yeah, he did, for about an hour and a half. It’s looking pretty bad out there. I don’t have the truck today, but I could call someone to give you a ride?”
“Nope,” Swayze said. “The weather forecast said we have another half hour. We’ll be okay. I work the lunch shift tomorrow too.”
Lena nodded. “Okay, girlie. See you then.”
Swayze grabbed Ryker’s hand and started down the road toward home. Home was a small duplex four miles toward the railroad tracks. It was definitely a humble home, but quiet, and had two rooms.
“How was your day, sweet boy?”
Ryker pointed toward the semi heading down the road. “Truck, Momma! It’s a big truck!”
“I see that truck,” Swayze said.
Ryker went on, pointing at random trees and trying to get away from her as they walked. She could feel the pavement through her worn Keds with each step, but Ryker needed some bigger clothes, and that would come first.
Thunder roared again, which made Ryker hold onto Swayze’s leg, and rain began to sprinkle down on them. Swayze cursed inwardly, tying his Batman cape over his head to keep him dry. Swayze put some extra pep in her step to get them home, but with a thirty-pound child on your hip, it proved more trouble than it was worth. Who cared if her white T-shirt soaked through to her bra, and she looked like a drowned rat?
The rumble of a truck engine bellowed beside them, and Swayze snatched Ryker back behind her, taking in the huge, black pickup.
Swayze’s heart skipped a beat as Montgomery rolled down his window, leaning over to get a good look at both of them. “Didn’t mean to startle you, darlin’. Who do we have here?”
Swayze looked down at Ryker’s hopeful, brown eyes and the Batman cape wrapped around his head. He needed to stay away from any male figure until she could make sure they were safe where they were. She didn’t want him to get any kind of attachment to a man and have him not stick around, or they’d have to move again.
He’d suffered enough already.
“My son. Can I help you?”
Montgomery drug his gaze from Ryker to meet Swayze’s heated stare. If she had to be cold to get him to back off, she would do it.
He chuckled beneath his breath, and it lingered against her chilled skin from across the cab of the truck. The man seemingly did not care what face she made at him.
“Well, I wanted to ask you why us going out would be a bad idea, but then I see your pretty tail walking, and I thought I’d offer you a ride, since it’s about to start raining cats and dogs out here.”
Pretty tail? Who did this guy think he was talking to?
Scoffing, she tugged her thrift store purse up her shoulder and looked down the empty highway. “We live right up the road; we’re fine. Thanks.”
“Now, I know you’re lyin’ because there isn’t anywhere to live that is closer than three miles up the road, and you’ve already walked three this morning. You seriously walk six miles a day?”
Embarrassment crawled up her body. Truth be told, she’d walked way more than six miles a day with double shifts. She was sure he thought the worst of her because what kind of person didn’t have a vehicle in a town like this?
And having their toddler walk with them? She was sure it was the talk of the town. “We’re fine. Thank you.”
Swayze started toward the duplex, willing this man to just go home and let her walk the rest of the way in solitude, but his truck crept alongside them. “I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if something happened to y’all. Or if you both get stuck in this downpour that’s—”
“We’ve got at least half an hour before it hits heavy, Montgomery,” Swayze said.
Montgomery leaned forward to look out of his front windshield. “Mont,” he said. “You can call me Mont, and I hate to break it to ya, girl, but it’s gonna hit any minute. Get in. I swear I’ll take you straight home.”
“That’s a big truck too, Momma!”
“See? Even your son wants to ride.”
“I don’t know you,” she finally said.
Mont stared at her for a moment, parked his truck toward the side of the road, and got out. Oh no. Swayze picked Ryker up to her hip again and held him close. Regardless of his friendly nature, she didn’t know this man. He rounded the vehicle, looming over Swayze easily.
This man was tall like she had imagined back at the diner. Everything a girl dreamed of in a man, down to the dimple on the left side of his scruffy cheek. The work boots that had seen better days and torn jeans proved her theory of him working outside.
It was obvious after his argument at Megan’s that he owned half of the ranch with Kaden, but he’d been gone bull-riding. She could image him riding bulls with that slow, southern man swagger. You could look at the fine lines of his tanned face and know he was a man’s man.
Swayze hated herself for it, but she could easily imagine giving in to this man.
“I don’t want to scare you,” he said. “I’m Montgomery King, and I grew up ’round here. I’ve been gone away for a while. And you’re Swayze …?”
Swayze was her middle name, not the name she normally went by, but she was sure as hell not gonna give her last name again. That had ended in a move the last time.
She hesitated out of habit; lying had never been easy for her. “Miller,” she said.
Mont let her name roll off of her tongue. “Swayze Miller,” he said, eyes studying her. “It doesn’t fit you. Doesn’t sound right.”
She gave him a deadpanned look. “Sorry? It was the name I was born with.”
Mont titled his head to the side, crossing his big arms over his chest. “Too bad I don’t believe that, but I’m not gonna pry, it’s not in my nature.” He bent slightly to look at Ryker, which made her heart hum like a motor. “Hey, buddy.”
“Ryker, not buddeee,” he corrected.
Mont cracked a grin at him, and Swayze couldn’t help but smirk.
“Ah, so this is the man in your life that makes you smile. I knew somebody had to,” Mont said. “Nobody frowns that much.”
She didn’t frown that much. Hell, she used to be a full-of-life kind of gal. “I don’t frown—a lot.”
Mont lifted a brow at her, leaning back on his heels to give her a once-over, which made her squirm. She was not dressed to impress in her short shorts and Keds. She looked like a cheap knockoff Sookie Stackhouse, and the sprinkle of rain wetted her T-shirt more every second.
“Stop that,” she hissed.
Montgomery smirked. “Stop what?”
“Looking at me,” she said, adjusting her squirming toddler on her hip. She needed to end the conversation before he started acting up in front of this stranger.
Mont winked at her, sending her nerves all over the place. “I like what I’m looking at,” he said. “Now jump on in my truck since we know each other.”
“Really? I don’t know you—”
“Live a little,” he said. “Just let me give you a ride, and if you hate me after I’ll—well, I better not make any promises I can’t keep.”
“That was so hopeful,” she said.
“Time’s ticking,” Mont said.
A car passed and honked at Mont, who waved back at them. “If I go, will you leave me alone?”
Mont thought about it, stroking his chin. “As much as I can, but you see, Megan’s is the only place to eat in town, and since you work there—”
This was getting her nowhere. Swayze opened her mouth to tell him no thank you for the final time, when a downpour began to drench them.
“Rain!” Ryker shouted.
She sighed, defeated. “Okay, right down the road.”
Mont smiled slowly, reaching beside her to open her door. The smell of hay, sandalwood, and man flushed her skin, and she didn’t want to admit it, but it’d been a while since she reacted to a man the way she had. It’d been a while since she’d let a man get within two feet of her.
She felt sorry for the nice leather her thighs were stuck to because she was drenched just from the minute they were in it.
Swayze didn’t have a car seat for Ryker because she had to leave it behind, so she strapped him in while sitting on her lap.
Mont got in a second later, starting his truck. The radio blasted Sam Hunt, and the air conditioner hit Swayze face-on. She felt relief sitting there, doing her best to avoid how picturesque he looked with rain running down his shirt and arms, sticking to him like paint.
“So.” Mont started down the road, turning the air off of her chilled skin. “You live in the duplex that Roger Jones owns, right?”
Of course, he already knew where she lived. By the way everyone in the restaurant had stared at him, she was sure that information was very obtainable.
He’d just got here today, she assumed by the verbal assault from his brother, but nothing surprised her anymore.
She kept a sideways eye on him as they boomed down the road. “So, little man, your name is Ryker?”
“Ryker,” he said, pointing out the window. “Look at that big bird, Momma!”
Swayze couldn’t help but grin and fluff his hair. He’d been a wild child since birth, never wanted to sleep, only breast fed, refused the bottle from anyone. The pure thought of sitting down made the child go into cardiac arrest.
“You like birds?” Mont asked. “I have a field full of ’em. You’ll have to come see them sometime. If ya momma will loosen up, of course.”
Swayze never thought anyone would ever have to tell her to loosen up because she’d always been free willed and free loving. She’d been the go with the flow girl from high school, the one that was always down for the road trip in college—but she’d changed. Things had definitely changed for her once her momma died.
“Oh, yeah? According to your brother, you’re probably not welcome in that field.”
Mont grinned at her. “Ah, I’m not too worried about Kaden.”
Swayze glanced over at Mont, leaned back comfortably with his palm resting on the steering wheel, smiling. He had no idea what he was up against if he found her.
As fun as spending time with him and getting to know him did sound—it just couldn’t happen. Her son’s life was at stake.
“That’s not going to happen,” Swayze said.
Mont sucked his teeth and shook his head, leaning forward as he turned into her driveway. They shared a duplex with an older woman who seemed to be on her last leg and losing her hearing. Which was good, since Ryker was loud most of the time, and getting him ready to leave compared closely to herding cattle.
Mont parked his truck and turned to face her. “We’ll have to see about that.”
Swayze sighed, unbuckling her seatbelt and grabbing Ryker’s hand before she went to open her door, but Mont had already made it out of the driver’s side and over to open it for her.
She stepped out of his big truck, into the rain, and he grabbed Ryker before she could get to him, tossing him into the air while he wailed with laughter.
Something pinched her chest tight at the sight of him with a man. She tried to play Momma and Daddy, but it was hard.
“Thank you,” she said as he sat Ryker on the ground.
Mont met her eyes, searching her face for what she didn’t know. Reaching forward, he swatted something away from her face, but she jerked away.
This amused him and made him grin harder. “Feisty, doesn’t like to be touched or helped. Won’t give me a shot. This is gonna be harder than I thought.”
Swayze made her way toward the front porch of her duplex, watching as Ryker ran toward the foldout chair beside the door.
She turned to see Mont behind her. “Listen—you seem nice, but it’s not happening. I didn’t come here for that—”
“For what?” he asked. “To live a little, or to give a guy a chance? Or are we talking about falling in love?”
Swayze couldn’t help herself, but she let her head fall back, and she laughed. It’d been a while since she laughed like that. When she brought her face back down, she wiped away a stray tear.
“You don’t think you could fall in love with me?” Mont asked. “Prove it.”
“Ah.” She shook her head. “I know this trick, and it’s not working. Thank you for the ride. I’ve got to go now.”
Mont ignored her. “When do you work again?”
“Don’t throw rocks,” Swayze said, pointing at Ryker. “That’s a need to know basis.”
Mont smiled. “I’ll find out.”
She didn’t expect anything less. Swayze sighed because honestly there was nothing she could do to stop him from coming into the restaurant.
“I bet you work the lunch shifts,” he said. “Most days. So, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Not deliberately,” she said.
Mont nodded, fixing his baseball cap. “No, very deliberately,” he said. “I’ll figure it out. I’m useful like that.”
Swayze looked at the ground, her beat-up Keds compared to his worn but expensive work boots. Had he not realized how broke she was? Desperate for survival? If he did, he didn’t care. The sad thing was that if they’d met under different circumstances, she would have gone out with him.
But those circumstances weren’t a reality, and she had to keep her son and herself alive.
“Bye, Montgomery,” she said, hoping he took her resistance and left.