The woman straightened. Turned slowly.
It was Mia. But a Mia as unlike herself as a moth to a butterfly. Her new hairstyle made her look ten years older. Her bright, dramatic makeup was gone—no, not gone, just drastically lightened. What little she did wear made her softer somehow. More mature.
Even her clothes were different. On a day like today when her work might consist of heavy-duty scrubbing, he’d expect to find her in ratty, torn jeans and a tight T-shirt that showed all her blessed curves. Instead she was downright matronly in classically cut slacks and a fresh blue blouse.
Where was his Mia? His fun-loving, sassy, sexy Mia? Who was this…woman? The tirade he meant to unleash fell away.
“I’m right here,” Mia said, as if in answer to his question, and she even sounded different. Stiff. Mature. Like a school teacher. “What do you need?”
Need? He needed the woman he loved. The original one, not this frumpy, new version. Not that she looked all that frumpy, he admitted to himself. Not really. A little more mature, maybe, but still beautiful; nothing she wore could ever hide the truth of Mia’s body. Still, these clothes and that hairstyle didn’t stir up his libido like her normal style did. Mia used to be sex on a stick. Now she was…he didn’t know how to put it.
“I… uh…” Hell, he was stuttering like a child. “I need to talk to you.” There. That was direct.
“What about?” He braced his hands on the counter. “About us, that’s what. About you walking out on me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re gonna talk about it.” He stared at Mia. A stranger stared back at him. He expected her to give in, or at least look away first. This Mia met his gaze as bold as brass.
“No, Luke, I’m not. Not while I’m at work, anyway. If you have something to say to me you can meet me tonight at Ethan and Autumn’s place. Where I live now. We can make arrangements then for me to pick up the rest of my things.”
“Damn it, Mia!” He leaned farther over the counter. “You said you would marry me.”
“And you said I didn’t know a thing about business!” The cool, collected new Mia suddenly lost her control. “You said you couldn’t keep me out of other men’s beds.” Two bright spots of color highlighted her barely-rouged cheeks. “I don’t need anyone to say things like that about me. Certainly not my fiancé. Go on, get out of here. Go back to your cattle. That’s what you really want, isn’t it? Not a wife—just another cow to herd.”
She slammed through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen and they shut behind her, leaving Luke alone again. A cow to herd? That wasn’t what he wanted at all.
He wanted a wife. He wanted Mia. And damn it, he was going to get her back. Before he could follow her into the kitchen, however, his cell phone rang. He answered it when he saw the call was from his mother.
“Luke? You’d better get back here quick. We’ve got a problem.”
“Someone left a letter for you today,” Ethan said when Mia arrived back at the Cruz ranch later that afternoon.
“A letter? Like a bill?”
“No—a real letter. Don’t see many of those these days.” He handed her the thin envelope and Mia frowned at the shaky block letters that made up the address. She didn’t recognize the handwriting. In fact, she was amazed the post office had been able to make out the directions, the printing was so uncertain. She slipped a finger under the flap and forced the envelope open to find a single small square of paper inside.
There was no signature. Nothing except those two words. Mia shook her head at the misspelling. Who could have written it? Was this some kind of a joke?
“What is it?” Ethan said, looking up from his own bills long enough to notice her confusion. She handed the slip of paper over to him. His eyebrows shot up as he read the words. “Marry him? Huh, that’s pretty direct. Who’s it from?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like this handwriting. It looks like a child’s.”
Ethan was quiet a moment. “The postmark says Chance Creek. Do any kids in town know about your situation?”
“I don’t think so. It’s not like I have any nieces or nephews.”
“A mystery, then.” He smiled. “Maybe you should marry Luke.”
“Not you, too.”
“Come on. Give the guy a break. He’s crazy about you. Has been for ages.”
“He’s crazy about getting laid.” She would have laughed at Ethan’s shocked expression if the topic didn’t anger her so much. “He’s not crazy about what’s up here.” She tapped her forehead, remembering the way he’d stared at her in the restaurant this afternoon—like she’d suddenly grown horns. He obviously didn’t like her new look at all.
“Well, he is a man.”
“Don’t give me that. I’ve lived with you and Autumn, remember? I know what a real marriage is supposed to be like. Until I can find a man ready to give me that, I’ll stay on my own, thank you very much.”
“He’ll get there,” Ethan said. “Just give him a little time.” Mia wanted to hug the tall cowboy for his sentiment, but she held back, both out of a sense of propriety and because she wasn’t at all sure he was right.
“I hope so.”
By the time Luke walked through his front door that evening he felt like he’d been flattened by a freight train. The icy wind that had whipped through Chance Creek all day had pushed the snow in the pastures into drifts, and his mother had called because it packed so hard in one place that a dozen head of cattle had wandered right up and over a fence. He’d spent all afternoon searching for them, luring them back into their pasture and fixing the fence. Now his muscles ached, he was dog-tired and hungry as anything, too. He’d taken another run out to Amanda’s place and been relieved to find that all was well. Maybe some old geezer had taken a fancy to her because she referenced her friend again, and her walkway was clear of snow.
The envelope lying on the floor of his cabin stopped Luke in his tracks. Was it from Mia? His heart rate kicked up a notch as he bent down to retrieve it. It was odd Mia would write a letter rather than text him. She was rarely without her phone. His stomach dropped as he took in the address, written in uneven block letters, as if done by a kid—or a psychopath. What kind of letter was this?