He made short work of opening it. Two words were written on a scrap of paper in the same block handwriting he’d seen on the envelope.
What the hell did that mean?
Luke squinted at the paper. Cocked his head. Beauty pageant? Some squirt of a kid didn’t even know how to spell the words? What kind of a stupid joke was this?
He stumbled toward the couch, sat down heavily and leaned back against the cushions. Beauty pageant. The words meant nothing to him, although…didn’t Mia used to be in those pageants when she was young? He wondered which of her friends would know the answer to that. He couldn’t ask Mia directly, not after their last confrontation. If he did, she’d say he didn’t listen to her, and that wasn’t true—it was just sometimes when she was talking he made the mistake of looking at her and then he lost his concentration.
Beauty pageants. Who knew about beauty pageants?
He let the letter fall from his hand.
Rose Bellingham. He’d bet anything she had the skinny on them. She was close to Mia’s age, too.
He’d call Rose tomorrow and ask a few questions. Better yet, he’d head over to the Cruz ranch to talk with her face-to-face. He let his head fall back against the cushions and shut his eyes, just for a moment. Tonight he needed to head to the Cruz ranch to talk to Mia. Maybe she’d have calmed down by now. She couldn’t stay mad at him forever.
A second later, he was asleep.
Marry him. The note she’d received was still on Mia’s mind when she returned from work late the following afternoon. Why should she marry him? Luke hadn’t even bothered to stop by and talk last night like she’d suggested when he came to the restaurant yesterday afternoon. Apparently, sorting out their differences wasn’t all that important to him.
She shook her head as she made her way up to her room. Alone in the big house, she was all too aware of the many empty rooms around hers. Ethan and Autumn still made their home in the converted bunkhouse on the property. They hoped to build a family suite on the first floor of the guesthouse, but hadn’t earned enough from running it yet to justify the cost.
She was about to descend to the main floor and make use of the wide screen television there when she saw movement outside and went to the window to see who it was.
It was Luke. But instead of coming to the guesthouse, he was walking toward another cabin on the property—the one where Cab and Rose lived. As partners in the ranch, they’d moved onto the property a few months ago. Mia felt a pang of jealousy that they’d invited Luke for dinner and not her. No one in their right mind would invite both of them when they were fighting, but if the couple was going to choose one of them to cheer up, shouldn’t it be her? She was good friends with Rose.
Luke wasn’t that close with Cab, was he?
She stood on her tiptoes and watched Luke disappear among the trees that separated Cab and Rose’s cabin from the guesthouse. Through the branches, the small house blazed with light and looked cozy as could be in the dark, snowy landscape. That’s how Luke’s cabin would look if she still lived there with him. For the first time her anger diminished enough for her to wonder if she’d been wrong to leave.
No. She wasn’t wrong. He’d said horrible things to her.
She turned away from the window, wishing more than anything for someone’s company. When her phone rang a few minutes later, she grabbed it and held it to her ear.
“Have you lost your mind?”
She stifled a groan. Her mother.
“It isn’t bad enough you’re pregnant with a married man’s baby? Now you’ve thrown over Luke, too? Are you going to sleep with the entire town?”
“Only the male half.” Shoot, had she actually said that out loud? Yes, she had. And her mother was not amused.
“You get over there and beg him to take you back. He was willing to make an honest woman of you, something that Scranton man certainly wasn’t. You won’t get another chance like this, believe me. You’re used goods, Mia Start. No man’s going to want you now.”
Mia clicked the phone off, the first time she’d ever hung up on her mother. Used goods. What was this, the nineteenth century?
She paced the living room in the Cruz guesthouse, too agitated to watch television now. It all came down to gossip, didn’t it? Her mother didn’t want to be shunned at her church. Luke didn’t want to be talked about by his friends. Now she was supposed to be too embarrassed to show her face.
And she was too embarrassed to speak up about the incident with Warner. Too embarrassed to speak up and maybe stop it from happening to someone else. She sat down on the couch as painful memories from the past swirled through her mind. She remembered the way the other girls at the pageant had looked at her, the way they’d repeated the rumors that she’d tried to trade sexual favors in order to win. The way everyone had retreated from her when she walked into a room—as if she carried a fatal disease that they might catch.
She stood up and strode to the kitchen. Maybe cooking her dinner would dispel both the memories and the pain. She wasn’t ready to speak up about Warner and expose herself to that kind of treatment all over again.
She just couldn’t. Not now.
“Thanks for dinner,” Luke said as he pushed back from the table. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans. What more could a man ask from a meal? Except to have it served by his fiancée, not his friend.
“No problem.” Rose smiled at him. She and Cab had welcomed him into their house and invited him to dinner as soon as he showed up at their door. Normally he considered Cab more Rob’s friend than his own, but the sheriff was a good host and had enough stories to tell to make any social occasion an interesting one.
“How’s Mia doing?” Cab asked, finishing his own meal.
Luke shrugged. “That’s what I came to talk about. Is there something I should know about her past? About the time when she was doing those pageants?”
Rose looked surprised. “Pageants? That was a long time ago. She stopped doing them when she was about fifteen, right?”
“I don’t know. Can’t say I was paying attention back then.” He grinned, relaxed by the good meal and good company. “Would have been pretty creepy if I had been, seeing as how I was about twenty-five.” Luke went on to describe the weird note he received and didn’t miss the look that passed between Cab and Rose. “What?”