“You got this girl. You’re the best chef on either side of the Mason-Dixon and if that cowboy doesn’t know it, he’s dumber than a box of rocks.”
I had to laugh at my cousin Boone’s pep talk because no one could calm my nerves the way he could.
“Thanks Cuz, I appreciate that. But now I need to go. I’ll call you again in a few days.” I blew out a long breath and stepped from the car, climbing yellow painted wooden steps that lead to a giant farm-style home.
“Where the hell is the new girl anyway?” A deep, annoyed voice sounded from the other side of the door.
If the long drive up to the Hawkeye Ranch in Rogue, Texas hadn’t been intimidating enough for me, the gruff voice of the man inside—inquiring about me—left me shaking like a leaf. Not that I was scared of him, not really, because I didn’t know him, but working for someone like that could make life difficult. I’d already accepted the job and made the move to Texas, and by move, I mean that all of my worldly possessions worth carting from Atlanta to Texas, were in my beat up old VW van.
Still, I was here and ready to work. But the words announcing my arrival wouldn’t come. You’ve got this. Usually giving myself a pep talk helped but this time, not so much.
“She was supposed to be here at ten,” he bellowed to someone inside with him.
I glanced at my phone screen. Nine fifty-seven. I knocked again. “She’s out here knockin’ and wonderin’ if it’s alright to come in without an invitation,” I called through the screen door because I still had no clue if it was cool to enter without an invite.
At first, all I saw was a giant of a man lumbering my way, his cowboy boots the only sound between us. Then he pushed the door open, forcing me to step back. Despite the scowl on his gorgeous face and the annoyance radiating from his broad shoulders, hands fisted at his hips just to punctuate his bad mood, the man was still the best-looking thing I had seen in a while.
“You’re late,” he barked unnecessarily.
It’s only for six months, I told myself as I kept my smile fixed in place. By the time September comes, I’d be just a distant memory to this man. But today, I needed this job, even though it was temporary. I figured if I did a good job, maybe Mr. Hawthorne might recommend me to another ranch once his regular cook returns.
“I’m not actually late, and I have been here. Knocking.” And listening to him rant, but I thought it best to keep that to myself.
He stepped in close and I took another step back before I could think better of it. He frowned. “I won’t hurt you.”
I swallowed, hit with the power of a stunning pair of baby blue eyes looking at me like I was a warm stew on a cold night.
“I know that but goodness you’re a big one, aren’t you?” The man was large and beautiful and when that small smile played around his lips I knew I might be in danger of crushing on my boss. Considering what happened in Atlanta and the reason I’m in Texas, that would be bad.
“Right well, don’t just stand there. Come on in.” He held the door open for me but he didn’t look happy about it. Come to think of it he didn’t seem happy in general.
But I followed him in and, hand to heart, looked at his scrumptious backside the whole way to the kitchen. I barely noticed the house except for a lot of pine. I could see the house anytime, who knew how many chances I’d get to stare at that booty without getting caught?
“How many people are living here?”
He ignored my question and just started talking.
“Breakfast is at seven after me and the hands have finished morning chores. Lunch is at one but usually it’s something simple sandwich with sides, or stew with bread because we often eat out on the spread. Supper is at four but the hands usually eat in the bunkhouse. There’s a kitchenette they use.” He exhaled as though he were completely exhausted from talking.
I took a seat at the butcher block table and he finally took the one across from me.
“Clean and do the laundry between cooking or while you’re cooking, I’m sure you’ll figure it out but food is top priority. My men work hard and they need sustenance so make enough. It’s better to have leftovers than not enough for everyone, including you.”
I won’t lie, I totally bristled at the way he said that, like I would actually eat all the food. I mean it’s a common misperception that because I’m a big girl—size 20 to be exact—I must eat everything in sight. I don’t, but I do have a healthy appetite. And an unhealthy amount of disrespect for proper exercise.
Mr. Hawthorne held up his hands, in surrender at my glare I suppose, shaking his head.
“Hell, that’s not what I meant. My point is you’ll be eating with us, so make sure there’s enough for everyone to be satisfied when their done, alright?”
All I could do was nod. Even when he was scowlin’ at me like a mean old alley cat he was still a handsome devil. Too handsome so I had to shake it off. Act like an adult.
“Alright that all sounds good. I’ll familiarize myself with things. Do you have a female bunkhouse where I can settle in?”
He laughed at the question. “How many ranches have you been on before this one,” he asked.
“None.” I tilt my head and frown. “Is it that obvious?”
I didn’t like the worried look that crossed his face one bit and so I did what any Georgia woman would. I kept talking.
“I can cook and clean like nobody’s business, which is exactly what you need. I’ll stay out of your way as much as possible and you’ll only know I’m here because your belly is full and your clothes are clean.”
The look he gave me was odd but he nodded, probably because I widened my green eyes, pleading with him like the fool I was.
“Alright, come on then,” he grumbled. “Let me show you to your room. Spend today getting settled in and tomorrow you can start with breakfast.”
I groaned inside at the early hour I’d have to wake in the morning, but gave him a polite nod and a smile.
Six o’clock came way too early even though I went to bed at ten just to make sure I didn’t oversleep. It didn’t seem like Mr. Hawthorne wanted me around all that much, so I didn’t want to do anything that might make him regret hiring me. Like not show up to feed a tribe of hungry men.
I rolled out of bed, thankful for the en suite bathroom in my skimpy sleep attire. Texas is as hot as the dickens even in spring.
I was dressed in no time, wearing a thin blue t-shirt dress and matching sneakers, with my hair in a ponytail. Six was too early in the morning to worry about looking cute. It was time for me to earn my paycheck.
The kitchen was massive, decorated in butter yellow with lavender accents. Definitely designed by a woman. I had no time to navel gaze, there were hungry cowboys to feed. Throwing open the windows to enjoy the crisp early morning breeze, I wrapped the apron around my waist and got to work on a breakfast fit for working men. An hour later, the dishwasher was loaded and gurgling while I enjoyed another cup of coffee.
I heard the boots first and then the laughter. Then one after one, each one bigger than the one before and every single one of them hotter than a fireman’s calendar. I’m pretty sure my mouth gaped open like a fish but sweet mercy, a girl needed a warning before setting eyes upon all that good-looking flesh. And the boss, hotter than the rest combined, lumbered in last. “Morning,” he gritted out, prompting the other hands to greet me with warm smiles, waves and curious looks.
“Morning everyone. I’m Clara and I’ll be cooking for ya’ll for the next little while.”
“Sure smells good, ma’am.” A young dimpled cowboy flashed a killer smile my way and grabbed a seat. “I’m Colin and I am starved.”
“Dig in,” I told them, bringing coffee and more milk to the table. They all stared at me for a second, for what I have no idea, so I just gave them my best scowl and told them, “Eat before it gets cold. I made those biscuits myself.”
“You heard the lady Bob Lee, she made those biscuits.”
Colin looked to Bob Lee, and then up at me.
“He’s gonna propose to you now. Everyone knows how Bob Lee loves his biscuits,” he joked, flashing me a charming smile I was sure brought young women to their knees.
I couldn’t help but laugh as Bob Lee’s face turned hot pink. “Take a few for later,” I told him, drawing even more laughs from Jerry, Colin and Ralph. I listened to them banter back and forth, like overgrown kids, a smile creeping across my face but I couldn’t help it. Watching them like that reminded me of watching my brothers of the heart fight on the farm back home in Cranberry, Georgia. The farm started as a place for a bunch of foster care rejects to recover from abuse and become productive members of society. I was the only girl in the bunch and the boys never treated me any differently.
Dolly, Mr. Hawthorne’s housekeeper currently on leave, had trained these boys well. Whatever they took with them was wrapped in a napkin and they all set their plates in the sink, thanking me heartily for a delicious breakfast.
“Thank you, Miss Clara, those biscuits are in my top five.”
“High praise,” I joked. “You’re welcome, Bob Lee.”
I handed him a plastic container filled with the five leftover biscuits. He blushed and left with another muttered thanks as the other men joined him. All but one.
“Seems like you’ve made a good impression on the boys.”
I shrugged because it wasn’t all that hard. “Feed men and they are mostly happy. Feed young boys like you have here and they are eternally grateful.” I smiled, trying to let him see that I was an okay girl. Not flighty and not likely to disrupt his routine or get in the way.
Instead of smiling in return he grunted, grabbed a few more slices of bacon and the last of the eggs piling them high on his plate and stomped out. I watched through the window as he walked to one of the buildings on the property. Could be a barn or a stable, I didn’t really know. And the way I felt after he’d grunted at me, I didn’t particularly care. It was clear he didn’t like me.
What wasn’t clear was the why of the matter, but I had no right to ask, did I? As long as I did my job and he didn’t mistreat me, I couldn’t complain. I wouldn’t. So, I didn’t. Instead I got to work cleaning the kitchen and getting a load of laundry started. In between dusting and polishing I put together sandwiches, fruit and chips for lunch and stored them in the fridge until later when I expected them to make their way back.
The first day was exhausting. I cooked and cleaned, laundered, dusted and polished…everywhere. But the house was clean and homey. It was nice. It was exactly the kind of place I’d like to have as my own someday. With a husband and maybe a few kids. That was a pretty big maybe, considering my longest relationship lasted three months and it ended for the same reason they always do. Sex. Or lack of sex would be more accurate I guess.
Another thing to work on. Another day.
For now, the sun had set and I’d taken a pot of chili and fixings to the bunkhouse while another pot simmered on the stove. Mr. Hawthorne hadn’t come in yet, and I didn’t think he’d really want me to wait for him anyway, so I didn’t. I dug in, savoring the smoky spiciness of my prize-winning chili. About half my bowl was finished when he walked in looking like he’d just come from a cowboy romance cover photo, dirt smudged on razor sharp jaws, shirt streaked with something I didn’t want to think too hard about, and those jeans—hallelujah!—they were a work of art.
While I drooled over him, he, again, scowled at me. Then he stalked off, only to return ten minutes later looking even more delicious with his wet hair slicked back, blue eyes bright and clear. Fresh from the shower.
“You’re an excellent cook Clara. You should be doing more than cooking for ranch hands.”
I was so shocked by the compliment I spoke without thinking.
“Yeah well I tried that out, and it didn’t work so well. Your good luck.”
I hadn’t meant to sound so defeated or be so truthful to my boss, but talking about my brief time in New York trying to become a real chef still stung. “I’m happy I get paid to cook, and your guys are more grateful than any customer I’ve ever had.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Why do you want to live on a ranch with no other women around for miles?”
I shrugged, unsure how to answer that question.
“First of all, it’s not like you or your boys will be so overcome with passion that you’ll attack me, and second, women don’t care for me all that much.”
Why was I explaining myself like I’d done something wrong? I let out a weary sigh and looked up at him.
“I know you’re not fully sold on me Mr. Hawthorne, but I can do this job and I promise you I have no desire to seduce you or your other employees.”
I stood up and rinsed my plate before shoving it into the fancy silver dishwasher and turned to go upstairs. “I’ll come down later to finish the kitchen. Enjoy your meal.” I ran up the stairs to seek out the refuge of my room.
Sleep couldn’t come soon enough.