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She spotted him as soon as he walked through the door of Rosa’s Cantina: six-and-a-half feet of deliciously muscled, wide-shouldered, lean-hipped magnificence. He was a hard man to miss and more than one woman’s gaze locked on to him as he strode into the restaurant. He took off his Stetson and dragged a hand through the thick, brown layers of his hair as he scanned the interior. Jessie Montero’s pulse quickened when his blue eyes found her, lingered for a heartbeat, and then moved on.
Jessie had known Holt Claiborne her entire life and had harbored a crush on him for half of it. She only wished he could see her as a desirable woman and not just the girl who served up his favorite carne asada every Thursday night at Rosa’s Cantina, the Mexican restaurant she helped her father run on the outskirts of Last Stand, Texas. Her grandfather had purchased the restaurant just weeks before he married Jessie’s grandmother, Rosa-Maria, and had named the cantina after his bride. More than forty years had passed since then. But there had always been a cantina on this site, even before the skirmish that occurred during the Texas Revolution, when a group of local men had holed themselves up in the saloon and successfully held off a band of Mexican soldiers. The small, brief battle gave the town of Last Stand both an identity and a name. A marker located in town provided the names of the heroes involved, including Sherman “Shotgun” Claiborne, Holt’s great-great-grandfather. Rumor had it that he had abducted the beautiful daughter of a local Mexican rancher and forced her at gunpoint to marry him. Nobody knew for certain if that part of the story was true, but the marriage had apparently been a happy one, producing a half dozen children.
Looking at Holt now, Jessie thought he wouldn’t need to force her to marry him. All he’d need to do is ask and she’d run off with him. Not that that was likely to happen. Holt had been married once, years ago. It had ended badly and some said he’d sworn never to get married again. Not that Jessie was looking for a husband, but she wouldn’t say no to a little romance. Or even better, a torrid love affair. Although that wasn’t likely, either, she thought dismally. She’d been friends with Holt’s two younger sisters since childhood, and her grandmother, Rosa-Maria, had been the Claibornes’ housekeeper and cook at Riverrun Ranch for more than twenty years. If Holt thought of her at all, it was probably as a family friend and nothing more.
She needed to change that.
Tonight, he was with his two younger brothers, Evan and Luke. They were twins, but not identical. Technically, they were Holt’s half brothers. Their father, Gus Claiborne, had been married three times and had children from each marriage, and a fifth child from an affair he’d had during his last marriage. Now the three men sat down at a table near the bar.
“I’ll take this one,” Jessie said to Katie, one of the waitresses.
“But you’re not even a server,” Katie protested. “You’re the manager. You shouldn’t be waiting tables.”
“These guys are . . . special,” she said. Katie was new to the restaurant, so she didn’t yet realize that Jessie waited on the Claiborne brothers whenever they came into Rosa’s Cantina. “My grandmother works for them and we’ve known the family forever. Call it a professional courtesy.”
She loaded a basket filled with warm tortilla chips and a bowl of homemade salsa onto a tray and made her way through the restaurant to their table. The cantina was crowded and noisy, the Mexican guitar music that played through unseen speakers competing with the sounds of people talking and laughing. Overhead, dozens of brightly colored bulbs gave the large room a festive atmosphere, and strings of papel picado banners, cut from colorful tissue paper, crisscrossed the antique-tin ceiling.
“Good evening, boys,” Jessie said cheerfully as she set the food down on the table. She couldn’t help sliding a hopeful glance at Holt, but he was focused on his menu with a single-minded intensity, as if he’d never seen it before and had no idea what to order. That might have worked, if he hadn’t been coming to the cantina every Thursday night for the past eight years.
He was deliberately trying to avoid talking to her.
“Hey, Jessie,” Luke said with a friendly smile.
“Nice to see you, Jess,” Evan added, giving her a cheeky wink. “As always.”
Unlike his brothers, Holt didn’t greet her. The only indication he was even aware of her was a small crease that appeared between his dark eyebrows. Not quite a frown, Jessie thought, but pretty darn close.
“What’s wrong, Holt?” she asked. “Cat got your tongue, as well as your manners?”
He did look up then, ignoring Evan’s amused snicker. The pure blueness of his eyes always made Jessie feel a little dazzled, but when his gaze locked on to hers, she actually felt the floor tilt beneath her feet.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my tongue,” he drawled.
His words caused all kinds of juicy images to swirl through her vivid imagination as she struggled to form a response. “So, it’s just the manners, then.”
“I’m still working on those.”
Evan made a small scoffing noise and said something that sounded like, Yeah, right.
“Ah,” Jessie murmured. “Maybe you need an experienced handler.”
For just an instant, something flared in his eyes, like the blue flame of a gas burner. Then it was gone and Jessie wondered if she had only imagined that incandescent flash of heat.
After a scant second, when it became obvious he wasn’t going to respond to her provocative statement, Jessie drew in a deep breath and turned her attention back to the twins, who were as different in temperament as they were in looks. “The usual for both of you?”
“You know us too well,” Luke said with a warm smile. “The usual, and a round of beer for the table.”
The usual consisted of the house special or Tres Compadres, a plate consisting of premium grilled skirt steak, grilled chicken, and a marinated shrimp skewer with all the sides. Holt was still studying the menu, but Jessie knew he would order the carne asada, as he always did.
“You got it,” Jessie said.
She liked Luke, whose girlfriend, Jorie, had been her best friend since middle school. Luke had recently returned to Last Stand after a twelve-year stint in the army as a K9 handler. Both he and his service dog had been injured in combat, but Luke had been able to adopt Elsa, his devoted German shepherd, and the two were nearly inseparable.
Luke and Jorie were building a house together out on Hickory Creek Road and Jessie couldn’t be happier for them. With his military law enforcement background, Luke could come across as tough and insensitive, but Jessie knew he had a heart of pure gold and would do anything for those he loved. And he loved Jorie Russell, the lucky girl.
Jessie wanted what her friend had. Not with Luke, of course, but with Holt.
She liked Evan, too, but he rarely took life seriously, and could usually be seen with a different girl every weekend at the Last Stand Saloon. When he wasn’t working cattle, he volunteered as a firefighter for the Last Stand Fire Department.
She was swinging away from the table when Holt’s voice stopped her. “Tequila.”
She turned. “Excuse me?”
Holt leaned back in his chair and his eyes glinted with lazy humor. “I’d like a tequila, please. Neat.”
Jessie felt the impact of that volatile blue gaze all the way to her toes, which were curling inside her Tony Lama boots.
“Any particular brand?” The cantina had an impressive collection of tequilas, ranging from five-dollar shots to some that would set a customer back more than two hundred bucks. Holt didn’t always order tequila but when he did, he usually chose a ten- or twelve-dollar shot.
“Surprise me,” he said, and turned his attention back to the menu.
His tone said he didn’t particularly care what brand she selected. He hadn’t been rude, exactly, just . . . indifferent. To both the tequila and to her.
She’d had a thing for him for as long as she could remember, but no matter what she did to try to gain the handsome rancher’s attention, he seemed determined to ignore her. From the time she’d turned eighteen and had begun working at the cantina, she’d been asked out by more cowboys than she could keep track of, so it wasn’t as if she was ugly. In fact, she’d been called gorgeous.
Her looks aside, she was smart, hardworking, loyal, and passionate. Any guy would be lucky to have her. Call her crazy, but she was only interested in one guy, who apparently neither knew nor cared about her existence. The thought filled her first with sadness and then with a kind of fierce determination.
“You got it,” she said sweetly and spun on her heel, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder. How many times had her mother warned her that one day her impetuous nature would get her into trouble? Right now, she didn’t care. She would get a reaction out of Holt Claiborne if it was the last thing she did.
She signaled to Ruis, the bartender.
“Three Bud Lights and . . .” She paused, perusing the selection of tequila on the top shelf behind the bar. “A shot of 1800 Coleccion.”
Ruis’s eyebrows shot up and he gave a low whistle. “Who’s the big spender?”
Jessie shrugged as she placed the three bottles of Bud Light on the tray and watched as Ruis drew down a full-bellied snifter glass and carefully measured out the golden liquor. “Holt Claiborne.”
Ruis shot her a startled look. “Seriously? He almost never orders tequila and, when he does, it’s always Patron.”
Jessie took the snifter and placed it on the tray next to the beers. “I asked him if he had a preference, and he told me to surprise him. So this is me, surprising him.”
Ruis had worked at the cantina for more than ten years, and Jessie looked on him more as a big brother than a coworker or employee. She trusted him, and had always appreciated that he treated her as a friend and not an employer.
“At one-hundred-thirty bucks a pop?” Ruis shook his head. “Not cool, Jess.”
Ignoring him, Jessie picked up the tray and brought it over to the table. “Here you go,” she said and placed the drinks on the table, sliding the snifter toward Holt. “Ready to order?”
She watched as Holt raised the glass and swirled the amber liquid, before lifting it to his nose and inhaling. If he suspected he’d been served a luxury tequila, he gave no indication. But she noted how he didn’t throw the tequila back in one swallow. Instead, he sipped it, and his blue eyes closed for a moment as he savored the drink. Jessie couldn’t help but stare at him, riveted by the look of sublime pleasure on his face. Only the sound of Luke clearing his throat in a meaningful way drew her back to her surroundings.
“Do you know what you’d like to eat?”
Holt set the snifter down and looked at her, and in that instant, Jessie knew that he knew what she had done. The faintest hint of a smile lurked in one corner of his mouth and his eyes gleamed. “If I didn’t already have my heart set on the carne asada, I’d tell you to surprise me.”
Jessie’s heart skipped erratically beneath that shrewd look, but she forced herself to give him a placid smile. “Carne asada it is.”
As she walked back toward the kitchen, she couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder at Holt. Leaning forward, he said something to his brothers as he swirled his tequila, causing them to laugh, and then all three of them looked directly at her. Holt lifted his glass and Jessie’s face burned as she quickly ducked into the kitchen to place their order. She would pay for the tequila, of course. She didn’t know what had possessed her to bring him one of the most expensive liquors they carried, but there was no doubt she had achieved her goal.
Holt had definitely noticed her.
Amanda, one of the serving staff at the restaurant, and a good friend of Jessie’s, sidled up to her. “So? What’s going on? I saw him talking to you.”
Jessie tucked a loose strand of hair behind one ear. “That wasn’t talking. He just ordered his usual carne asada. No big deal.”
“Well, he must be in a good mood if he ordered the top-shelf tequila. What’s he celebrating?”
“He’s not.” Jessie slanted her a rueful grin. “He wanted tequila and he told me to surprise him.”
Amanda’s eyes widened and she gave a choked bark of laughter. “So you ordered him a hundred-and-something-dollar shot?”
Jessie rounded her eyes in mock innocence. “Was that bad of me?”
“Ha. I hope you’re not expecting a tip,” Amanda said with a grin.
When Jessie carried their meals to the table, she half expected Holt to call her out on the hoax, but he didn’t.
“Would you like another round of drinks?” she asked as she set the dishes down. “Maybe another tequila?”
Holt’s eyes held a knowing glint. “No, thanks. Another round of beers should do it.”
Jessie held his gaze for a second longer than necessary, then slowly picked up the empty bottles before turning on her heel and walking toward the bar. This time, she didn’t look back. She set the empties down on the bar top and swiped a hand across her eyes. She didn’t know why she bothered.
Short of stripping naked and dancing on his table, she doubted he would ever see her as a desirable woman. Jorie had once claimed Holt was the most intimidating of the three Claiborne brothers and that she’d be terrified to even flirt with him. But Jessie suspected his aloof manner was a deliberate ruse to keep women—all women—away. At least, any women who might look at him as a potential husband. And who could blame him? His own mother died when he was an infant and, as a boy, he’d watched two stepmothers walk out on the family. He’d shocked everyone when he’d decided to get married right out of college, but he’d soon discovered his young wife had been cheating on him. Adding insult to injury, she’d dragged Holt through a long, ugly divorce and from what Jessie had heard, his ex had taken him to the cleaners.
It was for precisely that reason Jessie stopped short of making any kind of overt pass at him. She knew instinctively he wouldn’t respond to that kind of advance and might even find it offensive. Surprisingly, his conservative nature was one of the things she liked best about Holt Claiborne. Her favorite fantasy involved her making him lose control. But how to do that when he seemed determined to ignore her? She could swish her hips and show off her cleavage with the best, but not in her family’s restaurant. She’d considered spending more time at Riverrun Ranch on the pretext of visiting her grandmother, but even that seemed just shy of stalking him.
Blowing out a hard breath, Jessie loaded another round of beers onto her tray. As she carried them back toward the table, she became aware of two things: Holt was speaking into his cell phone even as his eyes followed her progress with a strange intensity, and her father, Jose Montero, strode out of the kitchen wearing a distressed expression that caused alarm bells to jangle in her head. She reached the Claiborne table at the same time her father did and the two men exchanged a meaningful look. Before Jessie had a chance to set the tray down, Holt was removing it from her hands.
“What?” She locked her gaze on to her father’s anguished face. “What’s happened?”
“It’s Rosa-Maria,” Holt said, pulling out his wallet and dropping two crisp hundred-dollar bills onto the table. “She’s had a heart attack.”
End of Excerpt