The Cowboy Earns a Bride (Page 33)

The Cowboy Earns a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek #8)(33)
Author: Cora Seton

Mia wiped an imaginary spot with a rag, and couldn’t meet her eye. “I don’t think so. I’m sorry, Inez,” she rushed on when the other woman began to speak. “I know it’s the right thing to do. I know I should do it, but I don’t think I can. I’m not brave like you.”

“Sure you are.” Inez chuckled grimly. “It was your bravery in speaking out in the first place that’s stuck with me all these years. It’s what made me brave enough to finally speak up.”

Mia turned aside. “What if they don’t listen to us?”

“I think they will. If they don’t, at least we tried.”

“I don’t want to see him again.” She finally put her worst fear into words.

“I know.” Inez touched her arm. “The thing is, I think we might have to.”

Mia closed her eyes. She thought Inez would keep trying to convince her, but instead the other woman waited patiently. Mia thought again of all the girls who were in the pageants Warner was judging. She thought about him leading them into small rooms, backing them into corners, pawing them. Forcing himself on them.

Damn it, couldn’t she ever get away from the past?

No. Not until she faced it down.

“Okay,” she said reluctantly. “I’ll do it. I don’t want to, but I will.”

Inez let out a breath. “Thank you, Mia. We can stop him. I know it.”

The door opened behind them and Tracey Richards walked into the restaurant. “Hi, Mia. Hi, Inez.”

Mia straightened her shoulders and smiled. “Hi, Tracey. We’re not open for a few more days. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes,” Tracey said, rushing forward and holding out her left hand. “You can help plan my wedding. I just got engaged!”

When Luke walked into the restaurant an hour later, he hoped to find Mia alone. He didn’t know yet what he’d say to her. He wasn’t sure how she’d react when she found out he’d pried into her past. He wasn’t sure if he should ask about Warner, either. Would she want to talk about it if the man had—

Luke couldn’t even finish the thought. Every time he thought about what Warner had done, how he’d taken advantage of young girls, how Luke still didn’t even know the extent of it, he had to choke back the bile that rose in his throat. If that animal hurt Mia—

He forced himself to take a deep breath. First things first. He needed to show Mia he was on her side—that he supported her desire to be respected. He spotted Tracey Richards deep in conversation with Mia in one of the booths, talking quietly but excitedly. When she saw him, Mia exclaimed, “Look, Luke. Tracey’s engaged! And I’m going to plan her wedding!”

A lock of Mia’s hair had slipped from the loose, artful bun she wore at the nape of her neck. Luke longed to slip the errant strand behind her ear and to draw her into a deep kiss, but he suspected that wouldn’t go down too well, so he only said, “Congratulations, Tracey. Who’s the lucky guy?”

“Bart Lawton, from Butte. We’ve been dating for months and decided to make it official. Look at my ring!”

It was a pretty, graceful ring, not unlike the one Mia had preferred to the flashy piece he’d forced upon her finger. A stab of regret pierced Luke and he wondered if things would have been different if he’d simply gone along with Mia’s choice that day at Thayer’s.

But no—it wasn’t the ring that caused the problems between them. It was the way he’d told her she didn’t have a head for business. The truth was he had no idea if she did or not. He was afraid of the consequences of finding out, too. He was afraid they’d dig themselves deeper into debt. That wasn’t his call, though. Not his alone, at least. He was here to support Mia. If she wanted to be a businesswoman, he’d do all he could to help.

“That’s real nice, Tracey. I hope you two will be very happy,” he made himself say.

“I’ve got to run. See you Friday for our first consultation,” Tracey said to Mia. “Bye!”

“Bye.” Mia turned to Luke. “That’s two weddings in May! And Lila White asked me to help with her family reunion, too. Three events in one month—two of them paid!”

Luke blinked. She’d already racked up three events? Maybe she would make a go of it after all. Except…

“That’s a lot going on in one month. You’ll still work at the restaurant full-time, too, right? When’s Tracey’s wedding?” Mia was going to be as exhausted as he was these days if she took all of that on.

A worry line creased Mia’s forehead. “I forgot to ask. But I know she knows about Rose’s wedding, so there’s no way it’s on the same day.”

“When’s the reunion?”

Mia looked away. “It’s the day after Rose’s wedding, which isn’t perfect timing, but I’m sure I can handle it.”

“The day after? Won’t the wedding go until late?”

Mia shrugged.

“Sounds to me like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You should carry a calendar around so you don’t double-book yourself like that.”

She pulled back. “Like you know anything about it.”

“I know that much.” He tried to take her hand. She yanked it away. “Come on, Mia. That’s just good business.”

“If it’s such good business, why don’t you get yourself a calendar? Maybe then you’d remember to come over when you say you’re going to!”

Luke bristled. “The only time I’ve ever stood you up was because there was an emergency on the ranch. If you haven’t noticed, I’m the one running it these days. Everyone else is too busy. But it’s still all getting done.”

“I pity those cows,” Mia said.

“Well, I pity those brides. You’re going to be so tired from running around trying to handle all those events you won’t get anything right. By May you’ll be as big as a house, too.”

Mia pulled back, hurt written all over her face. Luke swore. He’d screwed up again—he hadn’t meant to hurt her, just to make her see sense. “Mia, that’s not what I meant to say. I just want…”

“Go home, Luke.” Mia pushed out of the booth and brushed past him. He caught her arm. Swung her around.

“I don’t want to go home because you’re not there.” He bent down and stole a kiss, knowing he wouldn’t get one any other way. When Mia didn’t pull away, he stole another one, and another. She stayed rigid in his arms, but she let him kiss her. When he pulled away, she leaned toward him, as if she couldn’t bear to part, either. He knew she wanted him as much as he wanted her and he pressed his point home. “You’re driving me crazy. I just want to be with you; that’s all I ever wanted. Look, I brought you something.” He pulled the small, wrapped box out of his pocket.