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By´╝ÜLeigh Greenwood

Rose hesitated.

“My name is George Randolph. I just got into town this morning, but I’d appreciate your company.”

How could Rose tell him her hesitation had nothing to do with his being a stranger? After her dramatic rescue, she had difficulty thinking of him as an ordinary human being.

“I can’t…I shouldn’t,” Rose stumbled, finding her tongue at last. She looked at the litter of broken furniture. “I have to pick this up. People will be coming in soon.”

“Don’t worry about that,” George said. “Luke’s friends will get it.”

Jeb and Charlie looked up from their food, their expressions impossible to decipher.

“No!” Rose protested. She heard the fear in her voice. “They didn’t do anything.”

“I know,” George said. “And now they want to make amends.”

No one could misunderstand his meaning. The gun stuffed in his waist didn’t seem necessary to back up his words. But it wasn’t unimportant either.

Wordlessly, Jeb and Charlie went back to eating.

George still held the chair. Dottie lunged out of the kitchen and slapped two cups of coffee on the table. “You’ve got ten minutes,” she said to Rose. “You meaning to eat, or you just here to cause trouble?” she asked George.

“I’d like some beef and potatoes. Hot. And some scrambled eggs if you have them.”

“Fresh laid this morning. Anything else?”

George turned to Rose. “Have you eaten yet?”

“She don’t have time to eat,” Dottie snapped.

With one hand, George lifted a chair over his head.

“I’ll bring her some eggs,” Dottie offered, giving ground, “but that’ll have to do. I’ve got dinners to cook. I don’t pay her to dilly-dally with the customers.”

“That’ll be fine,” George said before Rose could answer. He put the chair down. “The sooner it gets here, the sooner she can go back to work.”

Dottie turned red in the face, but she rolled from the room like the outgoing tide.

“You’d better sit down,” George said, an apologetic smile softening the lines of his face. “I have a feeling your employer will time your ten minutes to the second.”

His voice—calm, confident, comforting—convinced her to sit.

“Dottie isn’t bad,” Rose explained as she stepped up to the table. “She’s really good to me, but she’s got to feed these men fast if she doesn’t want them to go to the place down the street.”

As she sat down, George’s hand brushed her shoulder. Rose would never have believed anything so slight could cause such an intense reaction. He hadn’t actually touched her, just the folds of her dress, but she felt as if he’d given her an intimate caress. Her body responded by becoming ramrod stiff. Her mind reacted by losing the thread of the conversation.

“Is their food better?”

“It’s not easy for Dottie to make a go of this place,” Rose replied.

“Do the other restaurants have better food than the Bon Ton?” George asked again.

“No,” Rose said, her mind suddenly grasping the meaning of George’s words. “Dottie’s the best cook in town.”

“Then what’s the attraction?”

“The girls.”

“Am I to judge from Luke’s behavior that they…”

Rose nodded her head.

“And they expect you to…”

“Dottie doesn’t. She knows I won’t.”

“Then why doesn’t she make sure her customers know it?”

“She doesn’t have time, not with all the cooking. Besides, I can take care of myself.”

George raised his eyebrows.

“I know it didn’t look like it, but Luke’s the only one who won’t take no for an answer. Jeb and Charlie would help if I needed it.”

Rose followed George’s gaze as it turned to the two men eating with their heads just inches from their plates, their eyes turning neither right nor left. “I’d hate to have to depend on them,” George observed.

Dottie emerged from the kitchen, two plates of scrambled eggs in her hands. “The steak will be ready when you’re done with this,” she informed George. She slapped the plates down and flowed out again.

“You’d better start,” George said. “Four of your ten minutes are gone already.”

For a few moments they ate in silence.

“How long have you lived in Austin?” George asked.

“Most of my life.”

“Why doesn’t someone in your family take care of men like Luke?”

Rose lowered her gaze. “I don’t have any family.”