“Ma, my diary’s missing. Again.” Maisie Blanton stormed into the kitchen, hands fisted. “How many times do I have to tell Charlotte to leave my things alone?”
“When did you last have it, dear?” Ma remained focused on the noon meal preparation, rather than turning to face her.
“I wrote in it after breakfast, then hid it under my pillow. Now it’s nowhere to be found.”
Ma glanced over her shoulder. “Since breakfast?” She shook her head. “Your sister couldn’t have taken it, honey. She went to see Patricia right after her morning chores. Perhaps you left it somewhere else?”
“I’ve checked my whole room.”
“I thought you were supposed to be at the café by now.” For some reason, Ma’s voice sounded just like Charlotte’s.
“What? Ma, you’re not making sense. Why would I need to be at the café?”
“Maisie, wake up!” Someone jostled her from her dream. “You’re late for work!”
Maisie snapped her eyes open and glanced to the window across the room.
Sunlight. Very bright sunlight.
She bolted from the desk where she’d fallen asleep reading the previous night, the chair tipping over in her haste. Her neck and shoulders protested the sudden movements, particularly given the strange sleeping position. “Charlotte! Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”
Before the girl could answer, Maisie flew into action. She brushed and arranged her hair, then splashed water on her face. Thankfully, she’d slept in her clothes so she wouldn’t lose time donning umpteen layers of underpinnings.
Charlotte helped change to a clean dress, then gave her a shove toward the door. “Go.”
“Tell Ma and Simeon I love ‘em.”
Maisie darted out the front door, but stopped at the sight of a beautiful blue, hand-painted vase, filled to overflowing with Texas bluebonnets, which sat in the center of their porch. She stared a moment, then glanced up and down the street. Surely someone was playing a prank. Sighting a rolled paper protruding from the vase, she unfurled the message.
FOR THE PRETTIEST GAL IN TOWN, MAISIE BLANTON
She stared at the writing, noting the little flourishes on the M and the B of her name. Heart pounding, she gingerly lifted the vase. It was breathtaking.
“Maisie, go!” Charlotte hissed from behind her. “You’re gonna get fired.”
Oh no! Vase in hand, she sprinted the block to The Blackwater Café, paused an instant to catch her breath, and, trying to seem collected, stepped through the back door.
Heat greeted her as she barged through the kitchen and plucked an apron from atop a nearby crate. Whether from the already-cranking woodstove or the glare from the café owner’s wife as she cooked, Maisie wasn’t quite sure.
“So glad you decided to grace us with your presence,” the other woman sneered.
Mute, Maisie swept into the dining area, vase still in hand, and slinked toward the café owner.
“I’m so sorry I’m late.” She set the heavy vase on the counter, then wound the apron around her waist. “It won’t happen again.”
The man glared. “I’d believe you, but this is the fourth time you’ve said those very words to me.”
Heat warmed Maisie’s cheeks as if the truth slapped her. “Yes, sir. I’m very sorry.” She couldn’t afford to lose her job. It was hard enough to get her position, given the circumstances. “I beg you, sir. Please…one more chance.”
The tendon near his jaw popped repeatedly. “I haven’t gotten the orders yet. Get to it. But this conversation isn’t over.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
She retrieved a pad and a stubby pencil, her heart still pounding.
“And…what is this?” He waved at the vase.
Her cheeks warmed. She dared not say she’d found them on her doorstep with a cryptic, yet flattering, note. “I thought they might brighten the place up.”
He shook his head and stalked toward the kitchen. “Get to work.”
At the sight of her father’s old friend, Rocking D Ranch owner Robert Dempsey, seated near the window, her heart rate slowed. At least there was one friendly face in the bunch.
“I’ll be right with you, Mr. Dempsey.” She shot the balding gentleman a lopsided grin and hurried toward the only other occupied table. As she neared, her steps faltered.
“Thomas?” The name dribbled from her lips in a breathy whisper.
Sporting his most charming grin—the one that used to turn her belly to mush—Thomas Eddings stared back at her. Suit-clad, hair slicked neatly. Looking like a fine eastern gentleman. “Howdy, Maisie. It’s been a while.”
Her belly knotted. A while? Almost two years to be exact. “What are you doing here? I thought you were studying in New York.” He’d nearly crushed her when he’d left to pursue medical training.
The bell on the front door jingled, and Lucky Tolliver entered. The mere sight of the roguishly handsome cowhand set her stomach to quivering, though why was a mystery. He rarely said more than hello and gave her his order. Not much different than most other townsfolk, though at least he was polite.
“Perhaps you’ve heard about my pa?” Thomas’s words jarred her from her thoughts.
“Your pa?” On occasion, she’d overhear conversations in the café, but she was hardly included in the latest town gossip. More often, she and her family were the gossip.
“It’s his heart. Ma called me back to run the ranch until he improves.”
After the way Mr. and Mrs. Eddings had turned against her family, perhaps this was God’s judg—.
She cut off the uncharitable thought. The Eddings family had been like an extension of her own for many years. “I’m sorry, Thomas. I hadn’t heard.”
His expression turned grim. “Maisie, I came today to say I’m sorry. For the way I left so suddenly without a word, for not writing. My folks still haven’t come around, but I’ve done a lot of thinking while I was gone, and I needed to apologize to you. I never intended to hurt you.”
She cleared her throat to rid herself of the knot threatening to choke her.
When the door to the kitchen jostled, Maisie shot a panicked glance toward it, then back to him. “I’m sorry, Thomas. I need to get to work. Can I get you something? Coffee? Some eggs?”
He shook his head and rose. “No. I only stopped by to see you for a moment. I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”
Tears threatened to overrun her lower lashes.
“I’ll see you soon.” He hesitated, pecked her on the cheek, and headed toward the door.
Thoughts and emotions swirling, Maisie stared after him.
On his way out the door, he glanced at the flowers. “That’s a real pretty arrangement, by the way.” He grinned at her. “Suits a pretty girl like you.”