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Mistletoe Daddy (Cowboy Country)

By Deb Kastner

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“Texas men are built like bricks and so good lookin’, don’t you think? Especially these here McKenna boys,” elderly Jo Spencer crowed. The cheerful crowd gathered on the community green for the first annual Bachelors and Baskets auction clapped their agreement.
Jo swept her arm, gesturing from the top of Nick’s black cowboy hat down to the toes of his boots. “Just feast your eyes on this handsome guy.”
Vivian Grainger was definitely looking, though feasting wouldn’t have been the word she would have used.
Critically assessing would be more accurate. She was trying to decide if Nick McKenna was the right man for the construction contractor job she had to fill. After all, that’s what made this auction different from most of the ones she’d heard of before. The organizers weren’t auctioning off dates with the men who had volunteered. Even the married men were auctioning themselves off for charity. Instead, the men agreed to perform some task or chore for the women who “bought” them. One of Nick’s brothers, Slade, had been the first man auctioned off, and when his wife, Laney, won him, she’d announced that he’d be doing dishes and laundry for a month. In turn, the ladies offered a picnic lunch for their winning bid—hence the Bachelors and Baskets theme.
Vivian could handle her own dishes and laundry, but building construction was out of her skill set. Was Nick up for the job? She knew he was a rancher by trade, but from what she’d heard around town, he had major skills in carpentry and remodeling. Vivian needed to shave costs wherever she could but didn’t want to sacrifice on quality, since her shop would be her main career focus for the rest of her working life.
“You think his brothers Slade and Jax have muscles?” Jo asked with a delighted cackle. The auction had been Jo’s brainchild in the first place, a way to help raise funds for a new long-term care facility and senior center for Serendipity, so naturally she was emceeing the event. And she was clearly taking great delight in parading all these handsome men across her platform.
Jo prodded Nick’s biceps with an appreciative whistle that made a dash of color rise to the poor man’s face—or at least as much of his face as Vivian could see under his dark layer of scruffy whiskers. Viv’s fingers itched to grab a pair of shears and a straight razor and clean him up a bit, if nothing else so she could see what she was really buying. She smothered a chuckle.
“Nick here is the biggest, brawniest of the three McKennas, and let me tell you, that’s really saying something.”
Indeed, it was, Viv thought with a smirk. All three McKenna brothers stood head and shoulders over most of the other men in Serendipity, and with Nick’s deeply tanned, unshaven face and thick black hair long enough to brush the collar of his blue-checked Western shirt, he looked more like a mountain man than a rancher. What really made him stand out were his blue eyes, a pop of color against a background of darkness.
Not that she noticed.
Vivian flipped open her notepad and yanked out the pencil that was holding her bun together, causing a waterfall of straight, bleached-blond hair to cascade down her shoulders. If a person looked close enough they might see the thinnest stripe of bright pink on a strand of hair on the right, Vivian’s little gift to herself to make her stand out from her identical twin sister, Alexis. Viv had always been the wilder of the two, and even now Alexis was settled down with a husband while Vivian—
Wasn’t. And she wasn’t going to acknowledge the twinge in her gut whenever she thought about it, either.
She threw her head to the side to brush her hair off of her face and eyed the list she’d made in anticipation of the auction. She immediately checked off several items, just as she’d known she would. She’d narrowed down the list of potential candidates from the list of eligible bachelors that had been posted at Cup O’ Jo’s Café a week before the auction. Nick was currently at the top of her inventory list.
Strong?
Yes, Nick McKenna was pure, lean, unadulterated muscle. There was not an inch of flab on his whole body. She scratched through that requirement. Nick didn’t even need to flex his powerful biceps for them to ripple underneath the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. Tall and broad-shouldered, Vivian guessed that he stood around six foot four and weighed a good 220 pounds at least. Those beefy arms of his were practically bigger than her waist—or at least, her prepregnancy midsection. At three months along, her once-tiny tummy was now starting to swell with new life.
She laid a protective hand over her abdomen. She wouldn’t be able to hide her secret from the public much longer, which was exactly why she needed help to get her business up and running, and the sooner, the better. In this day and age a single mother didn’t stand out as much as she once would have, but even if no one else judged her, it made a difference to her. She had betrayed everything she had once believed in, even when she knew it was wrong. She was ashamed to return to her hometown unmarried and pregnant, but with no way to provide for her baby, she’d had no other choice.
Creating a successful business, proving she could make a good life for her and her child, would hopefully show the folks she knew and loved that she meant to make her life right with God. From this point forward, there was no way to go but up.
But was Nick the right one to help her?
She’d been told he was good with a hammer. His ability to remodel was the most important qualification she required and it was the reason Nick was at the top of her list. She’d asked around town and had discovered he’d not only overseen the remodeling of his mother’s house but had built from the ground up two adjacent cabins on his ranch land for himself and one of his brothers.
He knew construction and carpentry, which was just what she needed.
It was not one of her conditions that he be handsome…
Jo seemed to think that was the most important prerequisite in a man—any man. Vivian chuckled under her breath and tapped the eraser against her bottom lip thoughtfully as she evaluated the man standing square-shouldered on the auction block, his expression grim but confident.
No, Nick wasn’t handsome. Not in the classic sense of the word, anyway. Still, Vivian had to wonder why Serendipity’s single ladies weren’t bidding up a storm on him right now. He wasn’t Vivian’s type, by any means, but if a woman liked the rugged cowboy look, and she knew that many in Serendipity did, he fit the bill perfectly.
Granted, he could do with a haircut and a shave, which was both amusing and ironic, given the project she had in mind for him to help her build.
A beauty salon and spa. She couldn’t help but smile to herself.
She knew that many of the single women in the crowd intended to bid on attractive, unattached bachelors not for help with projects, but for love’s sake, or at least the possibility of it. But dating and falling in love was the farthest thing from Vivian’s mind.
It didn’t matter to her at all that Nick wasn’t classically handsome. His attractiveness, or lack of, wasn’t even on her list, and with good reason.
She wanted nothing—nothing—to do with men, handsome or otherwise. She’d been burned to a crisp in her last relationship. Her ex-boyfriend, Derrick, wouldn’t even acknowledge that the baby she now carried was his, rejecting both her and their precious offspring.
It was no wonder she didn’t trust men as far as she could throw them. Hopefully Nick wasn’t looking for a relationship through participating in the auction, because if her bid won he would be sadly disappointed if he was. Viv’s thoughts were purely business oriented. That her money was going to fund a good cause—the town senior center made her investment all the more worthwhile.
Her intention was to try and save a few dollars by not having to hire a professional contractor. Instead, she would use a skillful amateur who knew what he was doing and could get the job done as quickly and easily as possible.
“Which of you lovely young ladies out there is going to open their purses for this fine fellow?” Jo urged when no one jumped forward to bid on Nick. “Shame on you. What’s taking you so long?”
Viv paused and swallowed hard, wondering if she really wanted to do this. She only knew Nick in passing—but that was enough to know he had a reputation for being as surly as the grizzly bear he resembled if you caught him in a bad mood. And based on that scowl on his face, he was in a lousy mood right now. Did she really want to inflict that on herself?
She could turn around and walk away from this auction right now and hire a professional to do the work on her salon—someone from out of town who wouldn’t know or judge her—but with all the extra expenses of having a newborn, she needed to save money every way she could. She squeezed her eyes shut and raised her hand.
“Three hundred dollars.” She grimaced when her voice came out high and squeaky.
She’d planned to bid low to start, expecting there to be other ladies throwing their hats into the loop. She wasn’t sure what a bachelor like Nick would go for, but three hundred seemed a reasonable guess. She had five hundred dollars in her pocket and was prepared to bid higher, but she was still having second thoughts about bidding for Nick at all. Maybe she needed to rethink this and select someone less intimidating. There was something about Nick that unnerved her.
Deciding she wouldn’t bid any higher, she waited for another woman to raise the stakes and let her off the hook. Surely Nick was worth more than she’d offered. Someone truly interested in him would be sure to bid more. She held her breath.
And waited.
It was so silent she could have heard a barrette drop. She slowly counted to ten, but no one else spoke up.
Which meant she was stuck with Nick, whether she wanted to be or not.
Vivian briefly considered backing out of her bid, but she didn’t want to make a big production out of this. The last thing she wanted was to call extra attention to herself, and she didn’t want to embarrass Nick. It wasn’t his fault she was feeling wishy-washy.
She’d made her choice and, for better or for worse, she was going to stick with it. She shouldn’t second-guess herself. This was a better option than hiring a professional. And while there were other men on the docket she could have bid for instead, Nick had the best credentials for what she needed, so Nick it would be.
“Are you serious?” Nick asked the crowd when no one piped up with a higher amount. He gestured with his fingers, encouraging further bids. “Somebody? Anybody?”
Clearly he expected the women in the crowd to be clamoring for his time and attention. How conceited was that? And what was so wrong with her that he wanted to get bids from anybody else? Viv didn’t know whether or not she should be offended, but frankly, the way he was acting hurt her feelings. He was practically begging for anyone else besides her to bid on him.
Was she really that bad?
Then again, it could be that he was just trying to make more money for the senior center. She considered that notion for a moment and then tossed it aside, going back to her conclusion that he had a big ego to go along with that big head of his. He probably thought the ladies ought to be crawling all over themselves with the opportunity to win him in an auction.
Vivian scoffed. If that was what he was waiting for, it looked as if it was going to be a long time in coming. She almost felt sorry for him.
Almost.
“Do I hear three-fifty?” Jo asked. This time she didn’t wait long for someone else to chime in, not that it seemed like anyone would. “No? Your loss, ladies, and a big win for Miss Vivian Grainger. Welcome back to town, Viv, by the way.”
Vivian smiled and waved her thanks. For the welcome. Not for the win.
Jo raised her gavel.
Nick frowned.
“Going once. Going twice.” The gavel swept down and landed solidly on the podium. “Sold to Vivian Grainger for three hundred dollars.”
The crowd clapped politely but Vivian noticed they were more subdued than they had been with previous entries, especially when it came to the single ladies in town who Vivian had expected to be her biggest competition. Either she hadn’t bid high enough or Nick had ticked off a lot of women. Another thought occurred to her. Could the lack of enthusiasm be because of him? Her bid wasn’t any less than others had made, but she hadn’t overextended, either. She could have easily been outbid, if Nick were the trophy he seemed to think he was.
She’d been in middle school when he'd attended high school. He was five years older than she, so it wasn’t as if they ran in the same circles. She remembered him being popular, especially with the girls, but he’d never put much effort into his social relationships. He’d always appeared more interested in working his ranch and spending time with his family than in participating in school and community activities.
Apparently some things hadn’t changed.
Viv met the gaze of her twin sister, one of the few who knew of Viv's pregnancy. Alexis twirled her hand in the air as if holding a lasso, reminding Vivian that her part in this crazy town event wasn’t going to be finished when she handed over her money. Alexis, seated in front of the platform with a fishing tackle box for a cash register, was collecting the money from the winning bids, so Viv inched her way forward through the thick crowd to reach her sister.
Vivian wasn’t thrilled about what was expected of her next. Jo Spencer and her crazy ideas. Roping the cowboy was a silly gesture concocted to amuse the crowd. Alexis handed her a rope with which she was supposed to lasso her win.
Nick did nothing to encourage her, standing stock-still, his hands jammed into the front pockets of his blue jeans and his square, dimpled chin jaunting upward. His expression was frozen into a frown, his dark brow lowered over icy blue eyes that Vivian refused to meet.
If he was trying to intimidate her, it wasn’t working, because she wasn’t about to let him get under her skin. If, however, he was trying to be as immobile as a fence post to make it easier for her to lasso him, he was doing a very good job of it.
The problem was, Vivian didn’t know how to lasso a post—or anything else, for that matter. Other than playing with a toy nylon rope with Alexis when they were children, she’d never even thrown a lasso.
The fact that Nick wasn’t moving might be considerate on his part—although she had serious doubts about that, since he was practically glowering at her—but for all the good it did her, he might as well have been tearing around the stage, trying to dodge her every effort.
She glanced down at the rope in her fist and then back at Nick. The cheering crowd was getting impatient, throwing friendly taunts and barbs about pretty ladies and stubborn cowboys as they waited for her to act.
Well, there was more than one way to skin a fish. Based on what she’d observed so far, there weren’t really any ground rules on the roping-the-cowboy part of the equation. She figured she could do it any way she wanted.
Intent on her actions, Viv loosened the loop on the rope and marched up to Nick with a nervous smile. He seemed even bigger up close, his blue-checked Western shirt rippling in the breeze against the black T-shirt that covered his expansive chest. His poor mother, raising three boys this size. She would hate to have seen the grocery bill when they were all under the same roof. It was a good thing he was a rancher. The man must eat an entire cow every week.
With two hands on the lasso, she reached up to ring it over his head, but even on tiptoe she couldn’t quite reach high enough to flip the coil over, and his stupid hat was getting in the way.
Their eyes met and she gasped softly. Eyes the color of dark-wash blue jeans completely captured her awareness. She was so taken by his gaze that for several blinks of an eye she forgot what she was doing, forgot the clamoring crowd watching them, forgot even to breathe.
“Get along, little doggy,” someone called from the anxiously waiting audience.
Laughter jolted Vivian back to life and she huffed in exasperation. Was Nick ever going to help her here?
Stubborn man. He just stood there hulking over her, unmoving, his massive chest and broad shoulders like a brick wall in front of her and no less giving.
“Give me a break,” she muttered loud enough for his ears only. “Can you not just—” She gestured for him to bow his head. A little effort on his part would be nice.
He lifted a brow and one corner of his mouth, and after a long pause, removed his black cowboy hat and crouched low enough for her to reach over the top of him.
“Moo,” he said, and grinned wholeheartedly.
The crowd erupted into laughter.
He waved his hat and acknowledged the townspeople as if he hadn’t just spent the last who-knows-how-long thwarting her efforts to rope him.
“Don’t push it, buster.” She sniffed, indignant, and arranged the lasso around his shoulders, tightening it so she could finally lead him off the platform. The delighted assembly whistled and applauded.
Two could play at that game. She turned to the crowd and curtsied, letting the enormous sway of her emotions go with the cool Texas breeze. It wasn’t in her nature to take herself too seriously or hold a grudge for more than a moment.
Nick, on the other hand, grunted and practically jerked the rope from her hand so he could pull the lasso off himself as they exited the stage. Whatever smile he’d put on had apparently only been for the benefit of the assembly.
“Come on, Cinderella. The ball’s over and the clock is about to strike midnight.”
“Oh, loosen up a little bit, why don’t you?” she retorted. She’d been about to end her statement by calling him Prince Charming, but the guy was as far from charming at that moment as anyone could get. He was more like the clock tower, ticking away the minutes in anticipation of ruining the fun. Or maybe one of those carriage attendants who turned back into a mouse at the end of the night.
A big, plump gray mouse with a cowboy hat, enormous pink ears too large for his head and a big black wiggly nose. She chuckled at the thought.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded, tossing the rope back to Alexis as he took the steps off the platform two at a time. He threaded his fingers through his thick black hair before replacing his Stetson.
She followed him down the stairs. She imagined he wouldn’t appreciate being compared to a mouse, even one in a cowboy hat, so she made a different observation out loud.
“You could use a haircut. Did you know I’m a certified cosmetologist?”
“A cosmo-what?” His gaze widened on her, looking as appalled as if she’d just threatened to shave his head. He yanked the rim of his hat down lower over his eyes. “No, ma’am. Not gonna happen. I don’t care how much money you paid out for me back there. I’m drawing the line.”
Something in the way he said it stirred a challenge in Viv’s chest. He had no idea how nice he’d look if he’d give her the opportunity, and she was certain he would.
If he wanted a challenge, she would give him a challenge. She had her ways.
But she pushed the thought away. Cleaning him up wasn’t her goal, now that she’d won him. He could look like a bear all he wanted as long as he helped her build her salon. But she doubted that would be any comfort to him. Based on his reaction to even the suggestion of a haircut, she had a feeling he wasn’t much of a fan of beauty salons. And that meant he wasn’t going to like the project she was about to lay out for him one bit.
*
If Vivian Grainger thought for one second she was getting anywhere near him with a pair of shears, she was sadly mistaken. Nick liked his hair just the way it was, thank you very much. And even if he did decide to get a trim, he’d see a male barber, not a ditzy, beautiful blonde with a sharp pair of scissors.
Of course the old barbershop in town had closed two years ago when Old Man Baranski kicked the bucket. No one had stepped in to take his place, and the building had eventually been used by Emerson’s Hardware for their overstock. Now he had to drive for an hour just to get his hair cut—which is why he didn’t bother.
One of the reasons, anyway. If he had a special lady in his life, he might care more about how he looked. But that wasn’t the case right now—and it looked like it wouldn’t be for a good long while.
He supposed he ought to be grateful to Vivian for bidding on him. After his last—and very public—painful breakup, most of the town’s single ladies were avoiding him like the plague, as evidenced by the auction today. He supposed he wasn’t really all that surprised no one else bid on him.
Vivian hadn’t been back in Serendipity long enough to hear the latest rumors. She’d spent the last few years in Houston and wore Big City like a neon sign around her neck. He wasn’t sure getting picked up by a woman like her was going to do his reputation any good, but it couldn’t get any worse.
He’d really hoped to be bid on by some little old lady who needed help with a few odd jobs. He’d also been more than a little concerned that an ex-girlfriend with a grudge might see this as an opportunity to repay him for real or imagined wrongs.
He was the first to admit that his record with long-term relationships was less than stellar, and he knew it was his fault. He was just really, really not good at making things work in the dating department.
But circumstances being what they were, he might as well see what Vivian wanted and be done with it—as long as it didn’t involve cutting his hair. Who knew? Maybe he could mend some of those torn fences with his reputation if folks in town saw that he treated Vivian right.
Nick turned his attention to her, but he stood for a good five minutes while Vivian talked to her sister.
And talked. And talked.
His stomach growled, but he couldn’t do anything about it. This was a Bachelors and Baskets auction, with the winning bidders providing a picnic lunch for the men they’d won. Lunch wasn’t going to happen until Vivian led him to wherever she’d stashed her basket. He had to wait until she decided to grace him with her attention, which he guessed wasn’t going to happen soon, since her mind seemed to be on Alexis, the auction and anyone in speaking distance of her.
Except for him.
Vivian gave a new meaning to the words social butterfly, and she definitely had the gift of gab. With the possible exception of Jo Spencer, who owned Cup O’ Jo’s Café and was therefore the Queen of the Gossip Hive, Nick had never seen anybody flitter around as much as Vivian. Her high, tinkling giggle reminded Nick of a fairy in a cartoon.
It was downright grating on his nerves and was practically curling the hair on his chest. Nick crossed his arms and grumbled under his breath, berating the entire chain of events that had led him to this particularly annoying set of circumstances.
She was supposed to be feeding him. That was the deal. She had the picnic basket.
Somewhere.
If she ever got around to acknowledging him again, he might ask where it was. He didn’t mind eating alone and leaving her to her myriad conversations.
“Hey, Viv,” Alexis called, nudging her sister’s shoulder. When Vivian turned, Alexis gestured toward Nick. “You need to feed your man. He looks ravenous over there.”
Nick bristled. While he appreciated Alexis’s thoughtfulness, he was not Vivian’s man. Not in any way, shape or form.
Except, unfortunately, that in a way he was. She’d bought him. With money. For a purpose as yet unknown to him. Unfortunately, she was very possibly expecting a date out of this. He knew perfectly well that many of the single ladies in the crowd were bidding on men for just such a reason. It was enough to make a single man shudder.
“Oh, Nick, I am so sorry,” Viv apologized, laying a familiar hand on his forearm. “I completely forgot about you.”
“Yeah. No kidding.” His arm trembled as he fought the urge to jerk it out of her reach.
She’d forgotten about him? Ouch. He didn’t want to admit it, but her words stung his ego. Even if it was Vivian Grainger. Even if he shouldn’t really care whether she was thinking about him or not.
She ignored his attitude, if she even noticed it, apparently choosing to take the high road and stay cheerful instead of descending into bickering. Typical of what he knew of Vivian Grainger—her glass was always annoyingly half-full.
“I packed my basket with all kinds of goodies,” she informed him. “Turkey and Swiss sandwiches and BLTs. Potato chips, a couple of deli salads and one of Phoebe’s delicious cherry pies for dessert. I hope you like cherry.”
Cherry happened to be his favorite. But as hungry as he was, he would have eaten it even if he didn’t care for it.
“And I packed a special surprise.”
In general, he didn’t like surprises—but this one sounded like it was something to eat. His mouth watered at the possibilities.
“You’ll be happy to know that everything I’ve packed today is legitimately store-bought,” she continued, without letting him get a word in edgewise, were he inclined to do so.
Which he wasn’t.
“I know the whole point of this was to serve the best of Serendipity’s down-home country cooking, but trust me when I say you would definitely not want to eat my cooking. I can’t even boil soup.”
“Water,” he corrected absently, wondering when, if ever, they were going to get around to actually eating the food she was yammering about.
“What?” she asked, confused. She folded her arms over her stomach and swayed slightly, as if she was unsteady on her feet. Instinctively, he pressed a palm to the small of her back to support her.
“Water,” he clarified. “The saying is, You can’t boil water.”
“Oh.” She straightened her shoulders and waved him off, seeming to recover from the dizziness that had come over her moments before. “Whatever. But I do have bottled water.” She paused, giggling. “To drink. Not to boil.”
He was having trouble following her train of thought, if there was one. Once again he thought of a butterfly, flittering from flower to flower.
Only this particular flying insect was revved up on caffeine or something.
“And your basket is—where?” he finally asked, hoping for a straight answer but not really expecting one.
To his astonishment, she grabbed his hand and tugged him across the green.
“We’re right in the middle.”
Smack in the middle of the chaos. Now why was he not surprised?
“It’s not that I’ve never cooked before,” she said earnestly, as if she thought he really wanted to know, while spreading a fuzzy purple blanket on the plush green lawn and flopping down on it. She reached into her ribbon-and-plume-decorated picnic basket, which Nick thought resembled an exotic bird, and withdrew two sandwiches. Her gaze turned distant and her lips bowed into a frown. “It’s just that I’m not very good at it. Let’s just say the whole experiment was a failure.”
She paused and her voice made a distressed hiccupping sound. In one blink of an eye her expression filled with deep sadness. Nick’s gut clenched and his natural protective male instinct started blaring five alarms.
Her response seemed a bit of an overreaction for a burned roast or whatever she’d had. What could have possibly happened to make her that upset? Had someone yelled at her? Hurt her feelings? If so, that hardly seemed fair. Cooking wasn’t everyone’s forte.
His instinct was to probe further, but then, just as quickly as the pain in her eyes had appeared, it was gone. She shook her head and cheerfully went on as if she’d never faltered.
“Would you like turkey and Swiss or BLT?” She punctuated the question with a laugh that wasn’t really a laugh.
She held out both sandwiches to him and he gratefully accepted a turkey and Swiss, which was tightly wrapped in cellophane and marked Sam’s Grocery. She unwrapped her own sandwich, shook two packets of mayonnaise and globbed it onto her BLT.
“A little sandwich with your mayo?” he teased between bites of his own meal.
She grinned. There was a lot of sunshine in that smile, so much so that it occurred to Nick that he ought to be wearing aviator shades.
“How sad the world would be without mayonnaise.” The black clouds of her past had definitely lifted and her disposition could easily have rivaled Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar.
It was hard to keep up with her.
Her eyes glowed with excitement as she reached back into the basket. “Ready to see your surprise?”
He nodded in anticipation, hoping it was food and not tickets to the opera.
He nearly cheered when she pulled out a bucket of hot wings. He was sure he was gaping. How could she possibly have known they were his favorite? What kind of a coincidence was that? The deli counter in Sam’s Grocery only carried hot wings on special occasions and they sold out fast. She would have had to put her order in early to get this batch.
“How—how did you guess?” he stammered.
She wriggled her fingers at him and spoke in a Dracula voice. “I r-r-read your mind.”
“You sure did,” he agreed, reaching for a hot wing. “Or my belly.”
“If you want the truth, after I decided you were the guy I was going to bid on, I called your mother.”
“You did what?” He choked on the hot wing and nearly spit it out. He didn’t know if he was more shocked that she’d planned in advance to bid on him or that she’d been in contact with his mom.
“To find out what your favorite food was. I figured that was the least I could do. Alice was very helpful.”
He groaned and swallowed. He could only imagine just how helpful his mother had been. Next thing he knew, his mom would be inviting Vivian over for dessert and toting out the baby pictures.
He felt a slight guilty twinge for thinking like that. Ever since his dad had died, it had been a struggle to get their mom to show enthusiasm about much of anything. He should be glad that Vivian’s call seemed to have sparked some of that old matchmaking excitement in her. Yet that didn’t make the thought of anyone pushing him and Vivian together any less off-putting. He decided to put aside his worries for now and focus on the food. Buffalo wings were too delicious to be spoiled by aggravation or dread.
“Mmm,” he groaned. “Best Buffalo wings I’ve ever had. Bar none.”
“I’ve never really understood that part,” Vivian admitted. She’d taken a piece of chicken for herself, but took little more than a nibble before putting it back on her plate. “Buffalo don’t have wings. And anyways, I don’t think I’d like to eat a buffalo.”
Nick barked out a laugh. Somehow taking a detour through Viv’s head and picturing buffalo with wings lightened his heart more than anything else in—well, ages.
He reached for another chicken wing. While he polished off several hot wings, two sandwiches and the deli salads, Viv talked. Apparently she didn’t need much feedback other than the occasional grunt or nod from him, which was a good thing, since his mouth was always full of food.
Vivian, on the other hand, hardly touched the food on her plate. She’d nibble here and there on her mayonnaise-laden sandwich and then her expression would turn a little green in the gills and she’d put it down again. He wondered if maybe she wasn’t feeling well.
He was just about to ask when he stopped himself short, deciding it was none of his business. Maybe it was just his imagination and she always ate like a rabbit. She certainly had the figure for it. It would be rude of him to ask. Besides, whatever was bothering her, it wasn’t affecting her soliloquy.
She told him about attending cosmetology school in Houston, how much she loved her work and the city and how her brother-in-law, Alexis’s husband, Griff, had helped her finance her first salon and spa. Apparently it had been quite successful, to hear her tell it, at least until the economy tanked. Then everyone’s business had taken a big hit.
“So what brought you back to Serendipity?” he asked, wiping his hands on a paper towel. Clearly she liked living in the city well enough and it sounded as if the business world was finally recovering from the economic downturn. “Or are you just visiting?”
Nick was positive he saw her blanch, and then her cheeks turned as red as the cherries in the slice of pie he was about to wolf down.
“I’m here for the long tow,” she said with a sigh.
He knew what she meant.
Her blond eyebrows lowered. “I sold my spa in Houston and bought a little shop here in town.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I guess you could say that I’m downsizing.”
“Why?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it.”
Nick tried to catch her gaze but she wouldn’t quite look at him. Here was a woman who normally couldn’t stop talking. He’d clearly hit on a nerve. And she sounded so sad. It hit him right in the gut.
He rapidly backtracked out of the territory that made her uncomfortable. Anyway, he didn’t want to know the specifics. It wasn’t as if they were going to start hanging out together. Since he was stuck with her until he finished whatever task she had for him, he’d rather deal with the happy social butterfly, if given the choice, for as long as he had to be around her, even if her perky personality drove him half-crazy. These bipolar emotions of hers were creeping him out.
What he needed to do was focus on whatever she required of him. Clearly she had a reason for buying him, or she wouldn’t have approached his mother. And he suddenly realized that whatever it was she wanted from him hadn’t been addressed at all. It was the only thing she hadn’t talked about.
It probably had something to do with the shop she’d just bought. Hopefully she was just looking for a little remodeling help or something.
He hoped. That would be safe territory. And happily, nothing to do with dating. Even if his poor mother hoped otherwise.
Sorry, Mom.
“Where is the building located where you plan to build your new spa?”
For some reason he had trouble with the word spa leaving his lips. One little syllable and his tongue was tripping all over it. He supposed it was because he was picturing snowy white bathrobes and massages and people laying out in the sunshine with cucumbers over their eyes.
A spa in Serendipity?
The town had one grocery store. One café. What would it do with a spa?
“Two doors east of Emerson’s Hardware,” she answered, excitement seeping into her voice. “The red building. It used to be a barbershop, but it’s been vacant for a while, I think. I imagine it’s going to take a little work to get it back into usable condition.”
“A little work?” he asked, unable to smother an amused grin. Had she even seen the building since she’d bought it? “Lady, Emerson’s has been using the building as extra storage space for their feed. I doubt very much they worried about keeping up with internal appearances. And you’re looking to make it into some kind of fancy spa?”
“A beauty salon and spa isn’t that big of a stretch from a barbershop.”
Only night and day.
He snorted. It might have the plumbing and wiring setup she needed, but the interior was going to need a complete redesign—and that was after she cleaned out the mess that came from two years of being used as a storage facility. “It’s not going to take some work. We’re talking about a pretty major overhaul here. You’re going to have to gut the whole thing out and start from scratch.”
She tilted her chin up and smiled at him with a twinkle in her eye. His throat tightened. They might be as different as a tomcat and a spaniel, but he was a guy and she was an extraordinarily pretty woman, whether or not a man preferred blondes. And he’d always been partial to blondes.
“You mean you’re going to have to gut it,” she corrected, a giggle escaping from between her lips. Her impossibly blue eyes were alight with mischief. “That’s why I bought you. So I guess now my spa is your—challenge.” She reached over and playfully tipped his hat down over his eyes.
“And mine,” she continued, as usual not letting him get a word in edgewise, “is going to be trying to work with you every day without coming after you with a pair of scissors in order to trim that thick dark bird’s nest of yours.”
He pushed his hat back up and grinned.
“You can try."

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