Naked Cowboys, Book 5
Cynthia Dellinger doesn’t have much after a divorce that almost broke her, but she does have her grandfather’s secret barbecue-spice-rub recipe, and she is going to make the most of it. New in Saddle Wells, she’s determined to start over with the help of her new friends—starting with a new business. But she’s totally unprepared for her reaction to the artisan carpenter they recommend she hire.
Jesse Orosco is more than happy to renovate Cyn’s storefront, but what he’d really love to do is tackle that self-doubt he sees lurking in her eyes. The red-head calls to Jess on every level, but first he has to convince her to give them a chance despite their age difference, jealous exes, and what the townsfolk may say.
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I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.
Cynthia “Cyn” Dellinger kept repeating the sentence like a mantra, one she desperately needed. Standing in the middle of the empty retail space, one that appeared would take more work than she wanted to think about at the moment, she tried to slow the rising tide of uncertainty. But the place was perfect. How could she not snap it up?
“I think this will work absolutely fine, don’t you?” Nida Beloit, the real estate agent, gave her a bright smile and waved her arm, gesturing at the emptiness.
“Fine.” Cyn swallowed. “Yes, I think it will do. Absolutely.”
It will. If I can figure out how to get myself unstuck here. I must be crazy. Whatever made me think I could do this, anyway?
She had been in Saddle Wells two weeks, embarking on a new phase in her life with a great deal of anxiety. Until this moment, nothing had seemed quite real. But she would shortly sign her name to a piece of paper and her new life would officially begin.
“When you explained what you were looking for,” Nida went on, “I thought of this spot immediately. You can do all kinds of things with it.”
Again, Cyn thought how lucky for her that Alfredo Hyland, the small manufacturer who would produce her barbecue rub and hopefully her sauce too was located right outside this small Texas town of Saddle Wells. Alone for hours in her Memphis motel room, she had done intensive research looking for a small company to handle her product. How lucky for her that the company she’d settled on was located in a place so welcoming. Where she’d found the first real friends she could recall having in ages. Friends even now waiting for a report on this meeting.
Handing over the recipe to Alfredo and signing the contract with him had been her first really scary moment since leaving Memphis behind. This would be her second.
I can do it. I know I can do it.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Cyn visualized the sign she wanted over the door—Cyn’s Cyn-Sational Barbecue Rub and Sauce. It was amazing how that took the edge off her panic.
“I’m so excited about your project.” Nida was gushing now. “I can’t wait to tell all my friends. You should have this place fixed up and ready for business in no time.”
Right. Assuming she could find a carpenter who wouldn’t cost her every bit of her financial reserves. And unexpected problems didn’t crop up. And she didn’t suddenly wilt and lose the backbone she’d forced herself to find sitting in that damn Memphis motel room.
What am I doing? Am I out of my mind?
“Cyn?” Nida’s Texas drawl pierced her mental fog.
“Oh. Sorry.” Cyn gave herself a mental shake. “Yes, I think this place is exactly what I’m looking for. And the rent you quoted is within my budget.”
“I promise you, when word of your product gets out, you’ll be taking money in by the fistful.”
Cyn gave her an unsteady laugh. “From your lips.”
“So shall we go over to my office and get the paperwork signed, give you the keys and you can get started?”
I’m doing it. I can really do this. All I have to do is keep telling myself.
“Yes. I’m ready.”
She nearly faltered in her determination walking the two blocks to the realty office. In the dark of the night, when she’d lain sleepless in that Memphis motel, and then on the long drive from Memphis to Saddle Wells, Texas, and all morning as Nida showed her available places, she’d kept hearing the nasty voice of Frank, her ex-husband, in her head.
“Take your damn recipe. What do you think you can do with it anyway? You’re nothing without me and you never will be. Nothing but a dumb broad who happened to have something I needed.”
That had hurt perhaps more than anything else. More than the neglect. More than the women she learned about. More than his growingly dismissive attitude. Yes, discovering that he had only married her to get his hands on her great-grandfather’s barbecue-rub recipe had made the past fifteen years a huge waste of her life. At first, she’d been proud that the rub had put the restaurant on the map and been responsible for the success of the continued growth and expansion. But to learn that even the best years of their marriage had been nothing more than a sham had almost destroyed her self-esteem.
Almost. But not quite.
She’d walked away from the big house, the fancy cars and clothes, the lavish lifestyle with nothing but a tiny settlement and the recipe in her hot little hands. And a determination to make a success of herself and tell good old Frank Dellinger to stick it up his ass.
So here she was, hoofing it down a typical Texas main street, parking spaces filled with as many pickups as SUVs and other vehicles. Limestone and wood seemed to be the building materials of choice, the design and combination giving the heart of the town its charm. Old-fashioned light posts dotted the streets, sporting signs that said Historic Saddle Wells. Benches were placed in front of strategic locations such as Sundaes and Coffee Café and Bit and Bite where people could pause to enjoy their treats and chat with each other. Huge terra-cotta pots sported profusions of colorful flowers, blooms cascading over the sides. People she didn’t even know nodded and smiled at her as if she’d lived there forever.
What’s not to love about this place?
It was as far from her previous life as she could get, which was a big plus as far as she was concerned. In the short time since she arrived, she had completely fallen in love with the place.
The realty office had as much character as every other place. The door was heavy carved wood, the walls inside were hung with Frederick Russell prints and pens and pencils poked out of a leather cup holder on Nida’s desk.
”I can’t wait for you to get going on this,” the woman gushed as they finished the last of the paperwork. “Barbecue rub in Texas? And sauce? Mmm-mmm. A recipe for success.”
“I hope so.” Cyn took her copies of the contract and the ring of keys Nida handed to her. Apprehension and anticipation bubbled inside her in equal amounts. “Now all I need to do is get the place whipped into shape, advertise and get some customers.” The shaky laugh popped out of her mouth again. “Easy peasy, right?”
“This town will give you all the help you need. We like new businesses.”
“Even from outsiders?” Cyn asked.
“You’re only an outsider until you move here.” Nida winked.
“I hope you’re right.” Cyn picked up her purse and stood. “Listen, thank you very much. You’ve been great and you found me the absolutely perfect place.”
“Keep me in the loop. I can pass the word when you’re ready to open.” Nida closed her desk drawer. “You got anyone in mind to do the renovations?”
“No.” Cyn sighed. “But Georgie Hannigan said she might have some names for me. You know I’m staying at the B&B she and her husband own.”
“Yes.” Nida grinned. “I’ll tell you, Cade Hannigan’s story is one to talk about. If people had told me that when he lost everything he’d figure out how to be a human being and end up with a winner like Georgie, I’d have called them a liar to their face. So you see?” She grinned. “Good things do happen.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Well, I’d better get going. I’m meeting some new friends for lunch at the Bit and Bite.”
“Don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything,” Nida called as Cyn headed out the door.
“Thanks. For everything.”
I need someone to tell me I’m not crazy.
“I need someone to tell me I’m not crazy,” she said aloud to her friends when she slid into her chair at their table at the Bit and Bite.
“You’re not crazy.” Amy Montgomery grinned. “And you’re going to do great. I know it.”
“All of a sudden, I have the feeling I’m getting in over my head.” Cyn rubbed her forehead. “I stood in that store and looked around and thought, am I crazy? I’ve never been in business before.”
“But you’re smart and savvy,” Reenie protested. “Don’t let yourself fall into the trap that douchebag Frank set for you. Don’t let what he did or said make you doubt yourself. Not when you’re on the verge of something so liberating.”
“And successful,” Amy added.
“Take a look at me,” Georgie told her. “I came here out of desperation, bought a rundown old inn and turned it into a successful B&B.” She wrinkled her forehead. “At least I like to think it’s successful.”
“Of course it is. Aren’t you pretty much booked out for weekends the rest of the year?” Reenie Stark, Amy’s sister-in-law, leaned across the table. “Cyn, all of us have had challenges and some of us have had to make new starts here. We’ve all managed to achieve our goals. Or at least the beginning of them.”
They paused in their discussion while the waitress took their orders.
Cyn looked around the table at the four women sitting there and thought how very lucky she was that they’d taken her in to their close-knit group. She had Georgie to thank for that. The woman had refused to let Cyn keep hiding in her room when she’d checked in to the B&B and had dragged her to the Lone Star Bar for girls’ night out. Despite the fact they were all younger than her in varying degrees of age, instant bonding had occurred. The situation gave Cyn much needed emotional support.
Since then, the women had functioned as her personal cheering section. She wondered if she’d ever get back to the point where she felt comfortable in her own skin the way they all seemed to be.
Sighing, she picked up the keys to the store and jingled them at everyone. “Well, I signed the contracts for the store, so I guess I’m doing it.”
“Of course you are.” Amy grinned at her. “And we’re all going to help you.”
Cyn accepted her glass of iced tea from the waitress, took a sip and sat back.
“I wish I had half the faith in myself that you gals have in me. I swear, I keep looking over my shoulder expecting Frank to show up and lecture me on what a failure I’m going to be.”
“Cyn.” Jinx Malone, publisher of The Hill Country Herald, had a serious look on her face. “I don’t know much about your ex except the little you’ve told us, but if your doubts have anything to do with him—”
“He cheated on me for years,” she blurted out.
Four pairs of eyes stared at her.
Well, when will I learn to keep my mouth shut?
All she had told any of them was her marriage had fallen apart and she’d had no choice but to leave. She’d been stingy with the details, embarrassed at the light they’d put her in. Now she’d gone and done it. They’d want to know everything.
She swallowed a sigh. Well, they had welcomed her on Georgie’s word alone and offered her their support. They might as well know all the gory details. She took a sip of her iced tea while she pulled her thoughts together.
“You don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to,” Reenie said quickly, brushing a few strands of her sun-streaked-brown hair away from her face. Her dark-green eyes were filled with sympathy. “We’ve all got things we like to keep locked in a drawer.”
“It’s okay. You’ve all been so nice to me. I hate the fact I’m spilling all the ugly details.” She tried to smile but her mouth wouldn’t work properly. “Anyway, it’s been just me for all these past weeks and I guess I really need someone to talk to.”
“You can trust us with anything,” Amy assured her, rich-sable ponytail bouncing as she nodded her head “We like you, Cyn. We want to help you.”
Conversation stopped when the waitress arrived with their meals and distributed their plates. Cyn picked up her fork and then put it down again.
Get it out there, Cyn. Say the words.
“I guess he cheated on me almost from the day we got married,” she said. “I realize now I was too stupid to realize it. I had the recipe for this rub that was handed down in my family. My granddaddy was the last one to use it in a small rib shack he ran. Then it came to me.”
“And you used it for your restaurants,” Jinx commented.
“Yes. That is, Frank convinced me it would put our place on the map because it was so good. And it did. We ended up opening another restaurant, then another, and pretty soon we had this successful chain going. He was always busy going from one spot to the other, meeting with suppliers, whatever. I can’t believe how stupid I was.”
“So how did you find out?” Reenie wanted to know.
“One of my friends took me to lunch and told me I needed to wise up. That Frank ran after anything in a skirt and that he had been sleeping with the same woman for three years.”
“Wow!” Amy frowned. “So what did you do?”
“Hired a private detective, got the goods on him and filed for divorce.”
“He must have been really pissed,” Reenie guessed.
“You don’t know the half of it. With all the yelling and screaming, I discovered the only reason he married me was to get the damn recipe for the rub. He claimed it was community property and he planned to keep it.”
“Holy crap.” Amy fanned herself. “That’s some serious shit.”
Cyn nodded. “I had a great lawyer, but so did Frank. In the end, I gave up a lot financially but held on to the recipe.” She took a healthy swallow of her tea, soothing her suddenly dry throat. “I’ve got my seed money and made arrangements with the company I told you about to produce the rub, but I’ve got to make this work. I have no options. If I fall on my face, I’m afraid Frank will be waiting to scoop up the leftovers.”
Amy reached across the table and covered Cyn’s hand with her own. “We won’t let that happen. We’ve all had demons to fight and we hold each other up. We’ll do the same for you.”
For a moment, Cyn was afraid she’d cry. Her eyes burned with unshed tears and her throat closed up. She’d only known these women for a couple of weeks, yet they were more supportive of her than people she’d thought were her friends for years.
“You don’t know how much I appreciate that.”
“Like I said,” Amy went on, “we’re going to make sure you’re a success.”
“I want to taste that rub as soon as you have a batch ready,” Jinx told her. “I’m going to run a feature on it. Get everyone’s juices flowing.”
“You need a web site too,” Reenie pointed out. “I’ll get it up and running for you. We can have a lot of fun designing it as well as the labels.”
“And Buck and I will host a big barbecue,” Amy said, eyes sparkling. “Oh, yeah. We’ll use the rub on the meat. It will be a big coming-out party to introduce you to the people of the Hill Country.”
“Maybe Cade and I could have something at the B&B too,” Georgie suggested. “And if you have flyers printed after you open, I can put them in all the rooms.”
Now Cyn really had to struggle to hold back the tears.
“I don’t know how— I’ll never be able to thank you all. Really.”
“Well, dry your eyes,” Reenie said, “because we’re going to brighten your day even more.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to need help turning that place you rented into a store, and we’ve got just the person to help you.” She raised her voice. “Hey, Jesse. Come on over here. I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
Cyn looked to where her friend was pointing and saw what could only be described as a luscious mouthful of a man heading toward the door. A shade under six feet, the T-shirt and faded jeans he wore molded to a lean, muscular body. When he turned toward them, he moved with such a fluid grace Cyn’s pulse thumped in response.
“Wait, wait, wait,” she protested.
She had no idea who this was, but she was hardly ready to discuss business—or anything else—with a man who looked like this. How many years had it been since her body responded to the sight of a man this way? And why now, when she was so desperately trying to pick up the torn threads of her life? When she felt so vulnerable? What was wrong with her anyway?
Amy raised her eyebrows? “Wait? For what?”
“B-But I’ve barely signed the lease on the store,” she stuttered. “I have to think about what the inside should look like. I mean—”
“Cyn.” Georgie laughed. “Take a breath. This is the first day of the rest of your life. And look what you’ve got. A new business and a gorgeous man to help you do the build out. I can certainly tell you doing that turned out well for me.”
“Really well,” Amy teased.
Cyn was still trying to get her brain on track when the man arrived at their table, flashing even white teeth in a wide grin. Her brain kept trying to tell her she was a forty-two-year-old has-been but her body was saying yum.
“Nice to see you, ladies.” He bestowed a brief kiss on the cheek of everyone he knew. Then his eyes landed on Cyn. “I see you’re adding to the scenery around here.” He held out his hand. “Jesse Orosco.”
“C-Cyn Dellinger.” She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Eyes black as onyx blazed from beneath lashes any woman would kill for, and when he smiled, a dimple winked from one corner of his mouth. The touch of his warm hand sent electricity sizzling through her arm to various parts of her body. Cyn swallowed a gasp. Shockingly, between his looks and his touch, the man she was staring at stirred things in her she had been sure were dead and buried. Or maybe had never even stirred to life.
Down, Cyn. You’re here for business, not sex. If you even remember what that is. Besides, he’s way younger than you are. Maybe nine or ten years. Good. That age difference makes a good barrier. I hope.
“Nice meeting you too.” He flashed a devastating white smile.
“Jesse is the most talented craftsman around.” Amy grinned at the hunk. “He did a lot of work at our ranch when Buck first bought it.”
“For me too,” Georgie chimed in. “He did all the finish work that Cade didn’t have the experience for. When you get back there today, remind me to show it to you.”
Jesse glanced from one to the other, one eyebrow cocked, a quizzical look on his face. “Thanks for the endorsement, ladies, but what’s this all about?”
“Cyn’s new to Saddle Wells,” Reenie said. “She moved here recently and rented that last empty space on Main Street. She’s got a specialty item she’ll be sellingand she needs someone to help her turn the space into an attractive store.”
“And we think you’re the right one to take on the job,” Amy added.
Cyn felt as if she’d somehow lost control of the situation and it was running away from her.
“Hold on a sec,” she interrupted. “Please.” She let out a breath. “Ladies. Take a minute. He probably has plenty of work on his plate already.” She looked up at him. “Right? I don’t want you to feel like they’re pushing you in to something.”
His laugh was a devastating sexual weapon all by itself.
“Not to worry. I’ve known most of them a long time. Anyway, you’re actually in luck. I finished a big job last week and was taking a little breather.”
“Hmm. Well, I don’t want to intrude on your down time.”
“Not a problem.” He dragged an empty chair over from a nearby table, turned it around and straddled it, resting his forearms on the back. “So tell me about this store.”
Cyn tried to organize her thoughts but her brain seemed to have stopped functioning. Heat crept up her cheeks and she cursed herself for the uncontrollable blush. At forty-two, she found herself suddenly tongue-tied and self-conscious. You’d think she’d never talked to a good-looking man before. Well, not one like this. Frank had been handsome but in a different way. And as the marriage had crumbled, he’d become less and less appealing.
Get it together, kiddo. This is the next step in the liberation of Cyn Dellinger.
“Cyn?” Amy poked her. “Jesse asked you something.”
“What? Oh.” She blinked. “Sorry. Yes. The store. I’m, ah, going to sell barbecue rub.”
Jesse’s eyes lit up. “Yeah? No kidding? Well, you’ve come to the right place for it.”
“I hope so. Leaving Memphis was a big step for me.”
“Memphis, huh? You’ll like it here a lot better.”
“I hope so. I’ll sell bottles of the spice mixture and the barbecue sauce along with some gifty kind of things and kitchen and barbecue accessories.”
“Sounds great. I hope we all get an advance taste of the rub.”
“We absolutely should,” Jinx put in. “Maybe we could have a dinner and use the rub on the meat.” She looked at Cyn. “Get a preview, you know?”
“Oh. Of course.” Again, Cyn was startled at how quickly and easily these women picked up threads and made whole cloth out of them.
“So, Cyn.” His deep voice was like a warm blanket around her. “What are you looking for in this store?”
Cyn looked up at him. “I need a counter, of course. And shelves for display. And a little conversation area. There’s a nice-sized back room where I can keep supplies and also put in an oven.”
“You’re cooking?” Amy asked. “In the store?”
Cyn nodded. “Samples to serve with coffee when people come in. The more they relax the more they browse and buy.”
“Great idea,” Amy enthused. “In fact, why not roast some meat in there while Jesse’s working on the interior. Cut it up and offer it to people passing by. You know, give them a little taste of what’s to come.”
“What a fabulous idea.” Jinx clapped her hands. “I can do a bit about it in the paper and even get a picture of it to run.”
Cyn could do nothing but laugh at their enthusiasm. They actually made her believe this could work.
“Jesse hasn’t agreed to do the work yet,” she pointed out.
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll be able to handle things for you,” he assured her. “There isn’t much I can’t take care of. When can I get a look at it? Get an idea of what we’re dealing with?”
“Why don’t you take him over after lunch.” Reenie urged. “Jesse, have you eaten yet?”
“I have.” He smiled at Cyn. “Why don’t you finish here while I do a couple of errands. I’ll meet you in half an hour. That good for you?”
“Half an hour?” Everything was moving so fast she had to reach for the edges of her brain. “Yes. Okay. Let me write the address down for you.”
“I know where it is.” He stood and moved the chair back to its table. “We’ve all been wondering what would move in there. Nice chatting with you, ladies.” He smiled at Cyn. “See you in thirty.”
As soon as Jesse moved away, Amy grabbed Cyn’s arm. “Isn’t he gorgeous? The best eye candy around.”
Jinx laughed. “Better not let Buck hear you say that.”
“I’m not dead,” Amy protested. “Neither are you. We can still look.”
“Ladies,” Cyn protested. She felt the heat of an embarrassing blush creep up her cheeks. “Please. Have mercy. The last thing I need in my life right now is a man. Any kind of man. Any age, but especially not one younger than me. I have to give myself a pep talk just to get out of bed every day.”
“Jesse’s better than any pep talk,” Reenie teased.
Cyn shook her head. “No. I can’t do that. I-I’m not even sure I should hire him.”
“All kidding aside,” Amy said, leaning forward, “he’s the best there is around here and he’ll give you a fair bid on the job. He’ll make sure that store rocks.” She leaned back and grinned. “And if it comes with some extra side benefits, who cares?” She waved her hand around the table. “Every one of us has been in a situation that we swore wouldn’t work. Was bad for us. Would cause gossip.”
“Yeah,” Jinx added. “And look at us now. None of us would trade where we are now for anything else.”
“No buts.” Reenie took her hand. “We want to help, Cyn. If flirting with Jesse—or anything else—makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t do it. But you’re finally free of a relationship that made you doubt your self-worth. Isn’t it time to try out the new you?”
“I-I don’t know. I guess.”
“Think about it,” Amy said. “That’s all we ask. We’re your friends now. We would never encourage you in something if we thought it was all wrong or might turn out badly for you. But isn’t it time for you to have a little fun in your life?”
Cyn lifted her glass and took a long drink of her iced tea. “Maybe.”
She could still feel the place where Jesse’s hand had gripped hers, still feel the impact of the look he’d given her. Her friends were all well-meaning, but things had moved so fast. She had the strangest feeling she had fallen down the rabbit hole.