At least he knew where she was—at the restaurant with Camila and Fila most of the time now that Fila was back from her honeymoon and opening day was looming large. Luke made it a point to drop by every few days on one pretext or another, but while Mia was perfectly polite she always kept the counter between them. Luke was beginning to think he’d never get to touch her again, and he ached to touch her. One night with Mia was definitely not enough.
It had become clear to him, however, that his attraction to Mia had clouded his judgment. He’d been too busy missing her sexy, come-hither attire to stop and wonder why she’d changed her image and pulled away from him. After talking to Cab and Rose her intentions were more clear. While he liked Mia dressed up sexy, she probably attracted a lot of attention that wasn’t positive—like the unwanted attention she’d received at the beauty contest years ago, and Ellis Scranton’s, too.
She’d changed her look because she wanted a different kind of regard. She wanted respect. He could understand that. Too bad instead of showing her any he’d tried to undercut her self-confidence and belittled her dreams. He hadn’t been swift to correct his mistake either. Somehow the restaurant felt too public to have a heart to heart, and the Cruz ranch guesthouse tended to be full of Ethan and Autumn’s friends in the evenings. Mia wouldn’t invite him upstairs these days. His pride had kept him from making amends in front of an audience and with each passing day it became harder to admit he was wrong.
Today he meant to make amends for that. He touched the small package in his coat pocket as he drove the tractor he’d used to haul feed out to the cattle back to its shed. It contained two jeweled hairpins he’d bought for Mia. He hoped she’d use them for those new hairstyles of hers and understand he thought her new look was beautiful. He hoped she’d understand he wanted another chance. Without him having to say as much in words.
He parked the tractor, shut it off and hopped down.
“There you are.”
Luke nearly jumped out of his skin when his father moved into the shed. Now he was in for it. Holt had never kept his opinions bottled up this long. Luke could only imagine what he wanted to say.
“Let’s talk about your bank account.”
Bank account? Luke frowned. “What about it?’
“I see a fancy truck in your driveway. I hear that you purchased a ring that cost more than my house.”
“It didn’t cost more than your house, and Mia gave it back anyway.”
“Smart girl. But I have a feeling those aren’t your only outstanding expenses. I’ve heard about the way you’re throwing your money around.”
That damned truck salesman. Luke should have known better than to trade on his name to secure financing when he didn’t have the money in the bank for a real down payment. The man probably hinted about it to Holt down at Rafters—a watering hole favored by older cowboys who didn’t care for the loud music and crowds at the Dancing Boot. Holt wouldn’t have liked that.
“It’s under control.” Luke tried to push past Holt, but Holt grabbed his arm.
“Don’t get into debt. It ain’t worth it.”
Too late, Luke thought. “I said it’s under control.”
Holt stopped him again. “You’ve chosen a hard road, son. Don’t make it harder.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
His father hesitated, then shook his head. “No, I ain’t having that conversation. You know damned well what I mean. I will say this. That girl of yours is a fighter. Don’t underestimate her.”
Luke stilled. A fighter. What did Holt know about Mia? Something told Luke he wasn’t referencing Ellis, or the fact that she was about to be a single mother. He was talking about something else. “What do you know about beauty pageants?” he blurted out.
Holt turned away. “Pageants? What about them?”
“Something shady was going on—about seven years ago. Did you hear about that? About one of the judges?”
Luke thought his father wasn’t going to answer, he hesitated so long. “I did hear something about that. Something I didn’t like at all.”
“What did you hear?”
“Fred Warner. Biggest ass I ever met. Hung out at Rafters for a time, until the rest of us let him know he wasn’t welcome anymore.”
“Why? What did he do?”
“Ran off his mouth a lot when he’d had a few too many—which was all the time. Most of it was bullshit. Bragging. That kind of thing. This was different.”
Dread crept into Luke’s gut. He’d been tamping down a thought that kept creeping up—an idea of what might have happened to Mia. He didn’t think he could bear to hear it out loud. “Spill it.”
“Let’s just say he made it clear he sometimes used his status as a judge to get special treatment from the contestants. That’s how he put it—special treatment.” Holt’s expression was hard. “Said they were all too willing to give it to him, most of the time. Said when they weren’t he knew how to persuade them. That’s what got to me. He knew how to persuade them.”
He shook his head. “I didn’t understand it all at first. Thought it was ugly but didn’t realize how ugly. I didn’t have daughters—I didn’t know the first thing about pageants. I figured those girls he was talking about were twenty, twenty-one. Old enough to know better.” Luke heard the regret in his father’s voice. “Should have shot that man, that’s what we should have done.” He turned to Luke. Held his gaze. “Few weeks later a friend of mine was bragging about his girl—how she won a pageant. I was surprised. ‘But Inez is just a little thing,’ I said. My pal nodded.” Holt swallowed. “‘That’s right,’ he says. ‘Just turned fifteen and won regionals.’ I thought my ticker would give out right then and there when I put it together. Regionals. The pageant Warner was judging. Well.” He nodded. “I had a word with Warner. Should have had more than a word. Regret now that’s all I did.”
“What did Warner do?” Luke’s hands were icy cold and not just from the weather.
“Left town not long after. Moved west, I think.” He slid another look Luke’s way. “Your girl was in those pageants. Mia.”
“Yeah. Yeah, she was.”
“I just stopped by to make sure you hadn’t changed your mind,” Inez said, leaning on the counter.