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Then and Now


by Lois Carroll

Then and NowIn A Stew
Catrine Powell and her younger sister were forced to leave their Utah home after their overbearing sheriff father was killed. Needing to find a job, they take a stagecoach to a town near where the new railroad is being built across Arizona Territory. Though startled by her natural beauty, Sheriff Brett Barton offers her a job running a restaurant he owns that closed when the cook was shot. This would be a dream come true for Catrine, but will he leave her alone or try to run her life like her father? Could they work together with sparks flying between them? Falling in love would be as easy as eating a bowl of her yummy stew.


Secrets in the Snow
The sole owner of a wedding attire shop and budding designer of beautiful wedding dresses, Cynthia is a virgin at age 35 with romantic dreams about finding the right man to make her dreams come true. Her friend Anne is about to get married. Anne's fiance's older brother, Michael, 37, is strongly opposed to the match and will do anything to stop the marriage, including proposing to Anne himself. Mistaking Cynthia for Anne on their first meeting, Michael offers to marry her in order to save his brother from what he considers a very bad decision. Snowbound with the handsome big-city businessman for the long weekend, lonely Cynthia takes a big chance that changes everything. After that weekend, they each have secrets in the snow.


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Release Date: May 30, 2015
Genre: Contemporary / Historical Romance


Excerpt

In a Stew

Chapter One 

A harsh “End of the line. Everybody out when the coach stops!” woke Catrine Powell, Sissy, her ten-year-old sister, and the four men riding with them in the dusty stagecoach. A long day with few stops had meant a nonstop ache from the hard bench seats for them all.

“‘Bout time,” one of the men groused as he tried to stretch in the confined space.

“I’m glad we’re here. I was getting awful tired of riding on this seat,” Sissy confessed with a yawn.

Catrine smiled down at her sitting close at her side. “Me too, Sissy,” she replied. “We’ll find a place to stay so we can sleep in a real bed tonight.”

“Why’d we have to leave home anyway?” Sissy whined.

“We’ve already talked about this,” Catrine replied to close the subject. She had already answered her question several times and didn’t want to discuss it again so close to strangers. Instead, she looked out the window at the sandy desert scenery. Sissy sighed as she began fiddling with the ribbon on the front of her dress.

They both knew that they’d had to leave Utah after their father was shot. He’d been the sheriff and died trying to stop a robbery. A widower, he had lived with his daughters in a small house behind the jail. But the house went to the next man the town hired as sheriff. The late sheriff’s daughters had little time to move out beyond seeing that their father got a proper burial.

For two years before his death, Catrine had a job as a waitress at a town’s restaurant, but she didn’t command a high enough wage for the two of them to live on there if she had to pay rent. After the burial and buying the coach tickets, she had little of any savings left.

Yes, she had been offered a chance to stay in town. Widower Martin asked her to marry him at the funeral, but she couldn’t. He had five children by his first wife who died in childbirth along with the sixth. Stepping into that big family was not what she wanted. She wanted to create her own future. Her father had always told her what to do and where to go. He’d even had to approve her working at the restaurant in town before he would let her apply. He ran her life and Sissy’s down to the smallest detail like he ran the town. It took strangers trying to rob the bank to end his reign.

Wanting to leave all those unpleasant memories behind and find a better life for them both, Catrine had packed their belongings worth keeping. The very next day they climbed on the coach heading south. The railroad was laying new track across the Arizona Territory. She’d heard about the rough rail camps and the women who worked there for the pleasure of the men. But there had to be restaurants and jobs available there—even for a lady. She was counting on it.

At the stop the previous evening, the driver told them that the railroad camp was less than a mile south of B-town, their next stop. The four men riding the coach with the sisters hooted happily at the news and grinned broadly.

“They still hiring?” one man asked the driver.

“Far as I know.  They got a ways to go to finish with them tracks.”

Now that the coach had stopped at that small town closest to the railroad camp, the men climbed out with no thought that the ladies might go first. Nor did they offer to help them down from the high step. They caught their saddlebags when the driver threw them down from the top of the stagecoach and strode on down the street toward the noisy bar.

Catrine and Sissy climbed down holding on to the doorframe and waited until the driver jumped down with their smaller cases. He stood on the step then and reached for the larger ones still on top. They were glad he hadn’t thrown them down. That might have smashed them open and they had no money to use to buy replacements.

Looking at the position of the sun, Catrine remembered it was late afternoon already. She’d have to find them a place where they could afford to stay without delay. 

“Here you are, ladies,” the driver said politely as he set the last case on the ground.

“How can we get to the rail town from here in the morning?” Catrine asked.

The driver scratched at his scrawny beard. “You sure you want to go there? I mean, ah…you seem like real ladies and not the type who should go down there.”

She smiled. “Thank you for your concern, but I’m looking for a job as a waitress like I had in Utah. I figure they must have places where the men eat. I’m hoping I can find a decent job there to my liking.”

“And she’s a good cook too,” Sissy offered brightly. “The restaurant where she worked sure liked her beef stew.”

But the driver shook his head. “Well, if you was my daughter, I’d want you to find a job here in B-town. If you go down to the rail camp, it’s all men and…well, just be careful, will ya?” He frowned at Sissy. “And you stay close to your sister. Young girls ain’t safe down there at all so don’t go wandering off alone, ya hear?”

Before Sissy could reply, a man came up behind Catrine and slowly circled her. His dark eyes rudely examined nearly every inch of her person. A tall man dressed like most cowboys in dirty work clothes, he pushed the sweat-soaked hat back on his head so he could lean even closer for a better look. She nearly gagged from his whiskey breath when he stood facing her with his head inches from her face. Strands of his dirty dark hair fell over his forehead. Long strands in the back rested on his shoulders. Seeing enough to repulse her, Catrine stepped back.

“Well, well, what do we have here?” He turned from his inspection of Catrine and noticed Sissy. He straightened and frowned. “Ain’t you too young to be here?”

Sissy moved closer to Catrine and grabbed a handful of her skirt. Catrine put her arm around her shoulder to reassure her.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Catrine dared before the driver interrupted her.

“You’d better back off, Sheriff,” he said. “These ladies ain’t what you’re thinking they is.” He cackled a laugh and continued his duties with the stagecoach.

The rude man confronting Catrine frowned but stepped back a bit, much to the sisters’ relief. “And then just what might you be?”

Catrine noticed the star then, hanging crooked from his vest. A sheriff? A disgusting performance for a sheriff, she thought. She remembered that her father was domineering, but he was always dressed neatly in clean clothes that she had kept laundered for him. His star always hung straight on his vest. And what’s more, she had never heard that he had been rude to a lady, though she had to admit that was probably because no lady ever challenged him.

Facing this sheriff, Catrine was in no position to be meek.

“Not that it’s any of your business, Sheriff, but I’m here looking for a job and a place where my sister and I can live,” she got in using a quickly drawn breath. She dragged in another and straightened her spine. She could do this. She had to do this. “If you really are the sheriff here, perhaps you can tell me where to inquire.”

His eyes widened with a shocked expression. “Are you crazy, lady?” the man asked. “Hell, you come here to a town near a railroad camp with a young girl tagging along and you expect to find work that doesn’t involve being on your back?”

Catrine gasped as heat rose up her neck to fill her cheeks. With her hand still on Sissy’s shoulder, she pulled her sister closer and hoped she wouldn’t ask later what the sheriff had meant. “How dare you be so rude to ladies? Have you no respect?” Her anger made her voice firm. “If you can’t help me, then please get out of our way. I’ll find someone in town who can.”

She turned her back on him and reached to pick up their valises, but his words stopped her.

“Just hold on, sister. Don’t get your petticoat all in a damn tangle.”

She spun around to give him another talking to for his behavior, but she didn’t get the chance. The driver, who had checked that nothing had been left in the coach by a passenger, stepped down and slammed the door. “What about the Chinaman’s place?” he asked the sheriff. “She’d be safe now working there.”

“She can’t get a job there. The restaurant closed when he was shot last month,” the sheriff reminded him with no patience in his slurred tone.

The driver shrugged. “Her little sister said she could cook. Let her open it again. You sure need a restaurant in this town. I’m tired of not getting a good meal at this stop.”

Catrine was reaching the end of her patience. “Will you two please stop discussing me as if I’m not here and tell me what you’re talking about?” Catrine requested firmly, looking from the driver back to the sheriff.

The sheriff stared at her a few moments. Suddenly he grinned and took his hat in hand as he bowed like an actor at the end of his performance. “I beg your pardon, Ma’am. Won’t you please follow me?” he said in a mocking tone before he straightened and put one hand on a hip. “I’ll show you what the hell we’re talking about.”

He turned and walked around the back of the stagecoach and headed across the dusty road. Cat and Sissy looked at the driver for assurances that they would be safe.

He waved them on and said, “Go on. Follow him. He’s rough around the edges and a little drunk tonight, but he’s been good for this town. No one dares make trouble now. B-town never could have gotten as big as it did without his help to keep them railroad men in line.” He shrugged. “He’s determined to keep the town safe for the rest of the folks coming to live here now.”

Needing no more encouragement than his words and the possibility of finding a job, Catrine and Sissy picked up their bags with some difficulty and hurried after the sheriff as quickly as they could manage.

It was all Sheriff Brett Barton could do to turn his back to her. But if he hadn’t, he would have wrapped his arms around her and kissed the living daylights out of her. Damn. He’d had too much to drink tonight. He snorted a laugh. But then he did most nights. There wasn’t much else that he wanted to do in B-town.

Hell, a good long kiss from him might be just what the proper lady needed to loosen her up a bit. Her spine was so straight that he thought she might break it if she leaned over.

But he had to admit that after seeing nothing but painted faces and dyed hair on most of the women since he’d both created and filled the position as sheriff in this town, seeing her golden blonde hair and pale face with no more adornment than a few freckles from the sun was nearly shocking. The woman was beautiful—beautiful like an angel. Her sister was going to be a beauty too.

Not hearing them following behind him, he stopped and turned around to see them several yards behind, struggling with their cases. He swore under his breath and strode back to them. Trying not to look at the woman’s face, he took the larger two cases from her and resumed his walk. He left them to manage the smaller ones.

“It’s just at the end of this block,” he said over his shoulder.

Catrine and her sister picked up the remaining cases and hurried to keep up with his long-legged stride. He certainly didn’t walk at any pace that would accommodate their slower speed.

A wood-frame building with a sign saying “Restaurant” sat at the corner that they were approaching. It had many small windows like a checkerboard across the front like some of the other stores as well as the bar down the street. Because it was on the corner, there were more windows like them on the side too. Cat thought all the glass would make a nice bright dining room in the Territory sunlight.

The front door was padlocked with three locks. Catrine frowned and wondered what was so valuable inside that it required three. Or was this town so rough that any business needed that many? Judging by the appearance of the sheriff, it might be.

The sheriff dropped the cases he was carrying at the door and unlocked the locks with keys from a ring of several from his pocket. After opening the door, he left the locks hanging from the rings on the doorframe. He grabbed the large cases before he stepped inside and dropped them again just inside the door.

Catrine winced and hoped the cases would hold together with his treatment of them. She had packed them full to the point that they were ready to burst. She and her sister followed him inside a few steps and stopped in order to much more gently set down the cases they had carried before they looked around.

“All these tables are probably all right, but some of the chairs got smashed in the fight,” he told them. “Don’t worry. The guy who runs the funeral parlor just down the street also sells furniture that he makes. He can sell you more chairs to match ’cause he made these.”

“There was a fight in here?” Catrine asked. That might explain the two frying pans she saw lying on the floor against one wall, but it did not bode well for working here. She wanted to feel safe without feeling the kind of danger that killed her father or the former cook here. Hadn’t the stage driver said the sheriff kept the town safe?

“Yeah, there was a big fight on the night the Chinaman was killed,” he said with a grin. “A hell of a fight, but I don’t know exactly what started it. Maybe somebody didn’t like his food or thought he charged too much. Hell, the railroad men who come to town every night don’t need a reason to start a fight. They just do it.” He shook his head. “You see, I work as sheriff just in the afternoons and evenings. I was late getting to town that day so I only got here in time to end the fight.” He met her gaze and added, “And I did—for good. If anyone wants to fight now, they take it to the street and keep it there.”

He walked to the back of the large room where a chair propped a door open. He went through the open doorway into a kitchen. Reaching over two metal sinks that stood against the back wall, he pulled open wooden shutters that had kept out the setting sunlight. The sisters followed him in.

Two large wood-burning stoves with ovens lined one sidewall. A large pipe to vent the smoke out exited the wall above them. A huge cast iron pot was sitting on the top of one of them. More frying pans and pots hung on the wall from nails beside the stoves. A large table filled the center of the room. Two stools sat under one end. The thick wooden top was scarred from knives hitting it many times chopping food there. Oil lamps hung all around the room that would give plenty of light after sunset.

The floor in the dining room had been of wood planks, but the floor in the kitchen was packed dirt. It would absorb spills easily and not burn if coals from the stoves were dropped on it.

The sheriff walked past the table and opened a door on the opposite wall. “This is where the former cook slept. There’s two cots and a dresser, but I can probably come up with more stuff if you want to stay here.” He walked over to one of the cots and shook his head looking at it. “Damn. I can sure come up with new mattresses. You won’t want to touch these.”

He turned and watched the women as they walked around the bedroom and then the kitchen again, looking at everything. Catrine could feel his gaze boldly locked on her, but she refused to look in his direction. When she finally had to look at him to ask a question, he didn’t look away or pretend he hadn’t been staring. She felt heat rise into her cheeks again at his constant inspection. Did he have no manners at all?

“What about water?” she asked, wanting to get more information quickly and shorten the time she had to spend with him.

“There’s a good well out back. There’s even a wood cabinet that the Chinaman set in the ground to keep his cabbages cooler, I guess. You lift a wood cover and go down a few steps into a hole. There you open wooden doors on the side of the cabinet set under the dirt. There are shelves in it to put stuff on. It’s actually a good idea ’cause it’s cooler underground. My cook has one too.”

Surprised to hear he had a cook, Catrine assumed he meant the cook in a bunkhouse where he lived somewhere for his regular job when he wasn’t in town being the part-time sheriff. She walked to the back window and looked out. He hadn’t mentioned the outhouse, but she could see that one was out there. The rest of the area that she could see was just native cactus plants and weeds. One area was full of pale-green large leaves on a group of identical plants she didn’t recognize. All the growth should keep the dust from blowing around on a windy day.

Catrine turned back to face the sheriff. “How is it that you have the key to this restaurant, Sheriff? Who owns it?”

He grinned and tucked his thumbs under his holster that supported a revolver on each hip. “I do, Ma’am. And if you open a restaurant here, you don’t have to worry about anyone gunning you down. I won’t let ’em.” He laughed at his own joke, but stopped when he noticed that neither sister was laughing.

“How come the previous cook was shot?” Sissy asked. “Seems to me that not liking his food isn’t a good reason to kill a man.”

“No, but well, folks here took a dislike to the Chinese workers coming from California and taking the railroad jobs from the rest of the men living hereabouts. You really don’t need to worry though. After the fight here, the railroad made it clear that they wouldn’t stand for trouble in B-town or in their camp. As sheriff here, I sure won’t either. It’s peaceful here ’cause everyone does what I tell ’em to do.” He grinned and looked at each of the sisters in turn.

Catrine frowned at that bit of unwelcome news. Was he another domineering man like her father? Maybe this was not the place where she could live her own life as she saw fit.

“Are there still any Chinese workers laying track then?” Sissy asked.

He grunted a laugh. “Sure are. A man might not like their cookin’, but them Chinese are the best at setting the dynamite. They hardly ever blow themselves up. Besides, none of the other men want that job. So now they all get along better.”

Catrine looked back at him with another question and saw he was watching her chest while she inhaled deep breaths to keep her courage up. To deny him the opportunity, she turned her back to him as if to look more at the ovens.

“Are you renting or selling this place?” she asked over her shoulder without looking at him. She practically held her breath until he answered. She had very little money and knew she couldn’t buy it if he was selling. She looked back at him when he didn’t reply.

He looked down at his dusty boots for a few moments and then met her gaze. “I’m sure we can agree on some rent, Ma’am. Hell, this town needs a good restaurant that isn’t all about frying cabbage. You open one with good food that brings the townsfolk and workers up here to eat, and keep it neat and tidy, you’ll be a big success. Other than the hotel dining room, this is the only other restaurant in town.”

“And the rent will be...?” she asked, turning back to face him, waiting for him to finish her sentence.

Their gazes locked as he thought about it for a good minute. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll charge a percentage of what you make—whatever amount we can agree on. We can even wait to see how much you take in before deciding. Don’t worry though ’cause it won’t be much to start so you can get the place going. I can even get the places you have to order from to wait a while to get paid. I want you to succeed here, and I’ll do everything I can to see that that happens.”

He smiled proudly. To her, his promise to help had sounded more like a threat.

“Why? Why are you doing this, Sheriff? What are you not telling me?”

He barked a laugh and shook his head a few times before meeting her gaze again. “Well, Ma’am, this town expanded and grew up on my ranch land. I rent to the businesses ’cause I don’t want to sell my land. If you open a good restaurant here, the other businesses will get more customers ’cause men will be coming into town to eat. More people are moving here too. A good place to eat will make us all happy, right?”

She frowned and pressed her lips into a thin line. “I somehow suspect there is more to your reason,” she said boldly.

Grinning, he leaned against the table with one hip and folded his arms across his broad chest. “Well, there is a bit more. You see, you’ll need to buy meat, and I will supply that from my cattle ranch. I’ll even tell Butch to cut it up for ya instead of bringing you a side of beef.”

Catrine frowned as he’d started to take charge of everything already. She had to stop him. “You assume you know how I want the meat cut.”

“Now don’t worry your pretty head,” he said, frowning. “Butch can cut it any way you want it. All right? Then there’s the stagecoach that brings in a lot of the other food and things you’ll need to run the place. I’ll be happy to show you how to order it all.” He laughed. “Not many vegetables or potatoes are grown here in the desert, but they come in regular like from California.”

“Along with dishes, pans, knives and forks, and bowls, and…and everything else I’ll need? I don’t see much here,” she said looking over the shelves that lined the wall beside the bedroom door. They were pretty empty except for a few large sacks at the bottom. The labels were in what she guessed were Chinese so she had no idea what was in them.

“I guess most of the dishes got broke in the fight or stolen along with the knives and forks. That’s why I had three locks on the door.” He laughed. “Hell, that fight was a sight to see. Plates were flying in every direction. I made them sweep the mess up the next day so no one would get hurt walking in here. Oh, but I think I saw some of the frying pans still in the other room. They were cracking each other over the head with ’em, but I’d guess you could still use them. I don’t imagine they got dented.”

Catrine gasped at the thought of such a vicious fight while Sissy laughed at the idea.

The sheriff must have heard her gasp because he started to reassure her right away. “Now don’t you worry none. You’ll be safe and I can get whatever you want here in a couple of days, Ma’am. And if you want tablecloths on them tables and napkins too, like the hotel, the Chinese laundry by the river has all the ones to match from this restaurant before.”

He turned to look at Sissy. “Laundry is another job they are real good at. They even pick up and deliver.”

Catrine shook her head in wonder of it all. She’d never eaten in a restaurant with cloths covering the tables, but it sounded wonderful. The sheriff made it all seem so easy. His being so willing to show her how to get started would be helpful. “And you know someone who can clean up this place and get it ready to open. It would take the two of us a week of hard work to get it all done.”

“I can have them here tomorrow morning, and it’ll be spotless by tomorrow night. That soon enough for you?” he asked with a laugh. “Shouldn’t take more than a couple or three days to get this place all ready to open. All the stuff you order will take just two days to arrive.”

Catrine looked around with a longing that surprised her. She’d only worked as a waitress in Utah, but she’d wanted her own restaurant for years. The sheriff was describing a dream come true. Could she really open her very own restaurant in three days? She shook her head. It all didn’t seem possible. And the biggest problem could be the role he would play. Would it be her restaurant once it opened, or would he keep on taking an active role in it, telling her what to do?

She rubbed her temples that were beginning to pound. Could this rude man really mean what he was saying? Was this town on his land? He certainly didn’t look or act at all like a big cattle ranch owner. But then she had only his word and that of the stagecoach driver to go on. Could she believe either of them?

“Sheriff, I don’t understand. How can you make me this offer? You know nothing about me except that I have a sister to take care of, and yet you would set up a restaurant and expect me to run it well? You don’t even know our names.”

He nodded his head once and barked a laugh as he often had as he walked directly to her. Her instinct was to step back, but she stayed where she was. She had to be firm and not let him think she was a pushover—not if she wanted her life to change for the better. Stopping just a couple feet from her, he took off his dirty cowboy hat and held it in both hands after pushing strands of his dirty hair back.

“Brett Barton, Ma’am. I’m the owner of the B-Bar-B Ranch. My land includes most of this town right down to the railroad right of way. I’ve set up most of the businesses here and took on the job as sheriff to make damn sure the peace is kept. I don’t mind men drinking and having fun letting off a little steam by pounding on each other, but I draw the line on shooting folks.” He wiped his right hand on the side of his dusty pants and held it out to her as if he expected her to shake it. She just looked down at it.

“Well?” he said when she didn’t move her hand toward it. “Aren’t you going to tell me who you ladies are?”

She’d never shaken a man’s hand, but she tentatively raised her hand toward his. “Um, I’m Catrine Powell and this is my sister. She prefers to be called Sissy instead of Abigail, which is her real name.”

“Pleasure to me ya, Cat,” he said with a wide grin as he shook her hand and then held on to it and rubbed the back with his thumb. She was startled to feel the waves of bumps that rose on the skin of her arm from his touch. When she tried to pull her hand free, he let it go and turned to Sissy. He leaned over and shook her hand too. “I think Sissy beats Abigail too,” he said with a laugh. Sissy laughed with him.

Suddenly he finger-combed his hair back off his face and plopped his stained hat back on his head. He turned back to Catrine. “Well, Ma’am, do we have a deal?”

“I...I...” she tried to start. She snapped her mouth shut and met his gaze squarely. She’d never get another deal like this. The fact that she thought the man looked more like a saddle bum than a sheriff or even a ranch owner couldn’t influence her decision. He was offering her a way to earn a living that would support her and her sister and also give them a place to live, not to mention food to eat. She drew in a deep breath to ask one more very important question.

“And the restaurant would be mine to run? As a partner, you wouldn’t step in and try to run it or…or try to tell me how to cook the food?”

He shook his head. “I haven’t got time to run another business, Cat. This place would be all yours once you get going. I’ll just help you get started so you’ll have a better chance for success.”

“In that case, yes, Mr. Barton. We have a deal.” She put out her hand this time and he shook it. His hand felt warm to her cool one caused by her nervousness.

“Great,” he replied with a broad grin. “But call me Sheriff or Brett, not Mr. Barton. Nobody will know who you’re talking to.”

She nodded with a smile and followed with Sissy as he suddenly walked back toward the front door leading onto the street.

“Come on. You must be tired. I’ll take you to the hotel. You can stay there a couple of nights until this place is livable.”

Catrine frowned. She was worried that she wouldn’t have enough money for a hotel room. She had hoped to find a boarding house that would be cheaper and include meals while they got the restaurant ready to open.

The sheriff glanced in her direction when she hesitated. His smile was back. “Don’t worry. I keep a room on hold there for when I need to stay in town for the night, and you can stay there for a couple of nights. Won’t cost you a thing.” Assuming without a doubt that they would agree, he picked up the large cases and stepped out the door to wait for them to follow before he locked up.

Now as Catrine and Sissy trailed him to the hotel, it seemed her dream was really coming true. Or was all he said too good to be true? She would be beholden to him for the hotel room on top of all the equipment and food she needed to buy before she could open and begin to get an income. Her heart raced at the thought of all that could go wrong. If the restaurant failed, or if she failed, how could she pay for it all? How would he collect what she owed?

Somehow, she felt as if she’d made a deal with the devil—though a very handsome devil with a very nice smile.

 

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