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   COWBOY ALIBI
    .............................................Excerpt

"Tall, dark and cowboy at Table Four, you lucky dog," Angela Carlyle murmured to Jane as she passed by with the remains of Table Seven's lunch.

Jane eyed the cowboy in question, taking in his rangy build, short, dark hair and the dun-colored Stetson on the booth bench next to him. As he glanced her way, she quickly looked back to the older couple perusing their menus. "Our special today is pan-seared trout," she said. "Caught fresh. Nothing like Idaho trout."

As the couple discussed between themselves the merits of fish for lunch, Jane stole another look at Table Four. She found the cowboy's gaze fixed on her face, unflinching.

She looked away quickly, unnerved by his scrutiny. She wasn't used to being the object of someone's full attention. Most male customers focused on Angela, with her copper penny hair, creamy complexion and body even the pale pink waitress uniform couldn't conceal.

Nobody ever stared at Jane, with her face full of freckles, unruly brown hair and slim, not-so-curvy figure. Worse, she was as blank on the inside as she was dull on the outside, with only five months of experiences to call her own and a whole lot of questions she couldn't answer.

"Miss? We're ready to order."

Jane dragged her gaze away from the cowboy with a soft apology and took their order. She ripped the order from her pad, tucked it in her pocket and crossed to Table Four. 

The cowboy's gray-eyed gaze followed her all the way in. Jane's stomach knotted with vague anxiety. "What can I get you today, sir?" she asked.

"I'll have coffee."

"Sugar or cream?"

His gaze narrowed slightly, as if she'd asked a difficult question. "Just black," he answered
.
"We have a trout special, caught fresh this morning--"

"Just coffee," he interrupted, not unkindly.

She nodded. "Coffee it is."

She took his order and the order from the previous table to the kitchen. Angela was there already, cornered by Boyd Jameson, the restaurant manager.

"That's the third order you got wrong," Boyd growled.

"I gave them what they ordered," Angela countered.

"Customer says otherwise and the customer's always--"

"--right," Angela finished for him. "I know. I got them what they wanted immediately and they all gave me big tips, so what's the problem?"

Jane made eye contact with Angela, wondering if she should do something to intervene. Boyd was a piece of work, a real control freak with the wait staff, and unfortunately, he was untouchable, having worked at the River Lodge longer than most of the staff had been alive.

Angela caught her gaze and gave a tiny shake of her head. But it was enough for Boyd to take notice. Whipping his head around, he pinned Jane with his fierce gaze. She looked away, not in any position to cause trouble, and handed off the lunch order to the chef.

She returned to the lunch counter and found the cowboy sitting at the counter in front of her. His dark eyebrows arched slightly when she stumbled to a stop.

"Thought it'd be rude to take up a booth just for coffee." He smiled, but his eyes were watchful.

Unease skittered through her as she poured him a cup of coffee. Placing it in front of him, she plastered on a smile. "Sure I can't get you anything else?"

He eyed her nametag. "What's your last name, Jane?"

She looked down at her hands. "Doe," she answered flatly, wondering if he'd think she was joking.

He was silent a moment. She dared a peek and found him gazing at her through narrowed eyes, one eyebrow quirked. "Nice to meet you, Jane Doe. I'm Joe Garrison." He paused, as if waiting for her reaction. 

Was she supposed to react? 

Of course she was supposed to react. What kind of guy wouldn't comment on "Jane Doe"?

"Do I know you?" she asked.

His eyes narrowed further. "Do you?"

She shook her head, her wariness growing. "No. Sorry."

The bell over the front door rang, heralding new customers, a pair of college-age girls dressed for hiking. Grateful for the excuse to walk away, she grabbed a couple of menus and followed as they settled at the booth that Joe Garrison had recently vacated.

She took their drink orders and returned to the counter to fill them. Joe Garrison's gaze followed her as she worked. He didn't even pretend not to stare.

She was about to ask him if he'd like a refill on the coffee when Angela stalked out of the kitchen, her cheeks red with anger. She yanked the strings of her uniform apron and flung the garment onto the drink counter, stopping next to Jane. "I quit."

Jane looked at her, alarmed. "You what?"

"Quit. Q. U. I. T. Boyd Jameson is a woman-hating jerk, and life is way too short for me to put up with his bull." She started toward the employee break room, but Jane caught her arm.

"Angie, you can't--"

Angela squeezed Jane's arms. "Boyd always had it in for me anyway. There are other jobs. I'll be fine."

But I won't, Jane thought, watching her go. Angela was one of the few real friends she'd made in Trinity, Idaho, since she'd turned up wandering through the Sawtooth Mountains a few months earlier, half-frozen and memory-free. She'd gotten used to having Angela around the restaurant as a buffer between herself and Boyd Jameson.

Jane finished the drink orders for Table Four and turned to Joe Garrison. "Refill?"

"No, thanks. I'm ready for my check."

She didn't know whether she felt relieved or disappointed. As unnerving as Joe's attention might be, it was the first time anyone had ever made her the object of such single-minded focus. Well, that she could remember, anyway. It was flattering, if a bit disconcerting.

She handed him the check. "Hope you enjoy the rest of your day. And come back to see us again."

She carried the drinks to Table Four. As she took their lunch orders, she caught sight of Joe crossing to the cashier's desk by the door. One of the girls at Table Four made a low whistling sound. "Look at those jeans," she murmured to her friend.

Jane dragged her gaze away from Joe Garrison's departing backside and returned to the kitchen to hand in the order. When she came back out, Angela stood by the counter, now dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. She gave Jane a quick hug. "I'm heading to the apartment to start making some calls about another job. When do you get off?"

"In an hour. I'll see you there. Maybe we can go for a walk in the park or something, get your mind off things."

"You're on. See you soon."

Jane watched her friend go with a sigh. Behind her, the door from the kitchen swung open with a soft swish. "What're you staring at, Jane? Don't you have customers waiting?" Boyd asked.

She tamped down a smart-alecky comeback that rose in her mind, well aware that she was in no position to be insubordinate. Unlike Angela, she didn't have a lot of other options or the luxury of family in town to help her out if things got tight.

She delivered the food to Table Six and stopped by one of her other tables to make sure everyone was happy with their orders, then returned to the counter to pick up a pitcher of water to offer refills. As she reached for the ice scoop, she saw that the cowboy had left her a tip. A crisp five-dollar bill--more than three times the cost of the coffee--lay folded neatly on the counter. 

Jane had picked it up and started to put it in her pocket when she realized there was something tucked inside. She unfolded the five to discover a business card from the Buena Vista Hotel. He'd written Room 225 under the hotel address on the front.

She stared at it, dismayed. Was that the point of his attention? Did he think he could swagger in and pick up the first waitress he set eyes on? Or had he chosen her because she looked particularly easy?
She started to crumple the card when she realized there was something written on the back. She flattened it out, staring at the words etched in bold, black strokes.

I know who you are.

The card fell from her suddenly nerveless hands.

The apartment was small and dingy, smelling of cheap soap and cheaper air freshener. There was only one bedroom and a worn sleeper sofa in the tiny living room. The living room was neat, so Clint guessed she was the one sleeping on the sofa. 

He'd taught her all about being neat.

He was tempted to pull the bed out, to see if the sheets tucked inside smelled like her. He refrained, moving instead to the nearest window, carefully parting the curtains and gazing outside through the age-warped panes.

The apartment was on the second floor, overlooking a small park across the narrow street. Not much to it, really, a stretch of faded grass and a couple of stubby trees providing shade from the midday sun. It was April in Idaho, still cold enough that most people avoided the shade trees and took full advantage of the sun's mild warmth.

The rattle of the doorknob made him jump. She was early. He'd seen her work schedule when he stopped at the River Lodge Diner for breakfast that morning. She was supposed to be working until one, her roommate until three.

Why was she home early?

Clint skirted the sofa and pressed himself flat against the wall near the door. He didn't want to give her a chance to run.
The door swung open, blocking his view for a moment. It swung closed and he saw that the unexpected arrival was the roommate, Angela. She'd been his waitress at the diner that morning. No longer in uniform, she wore a figure-hugging t-shirt and low-cut jeans and carried a paper bag full of groceries tucked under one arm.

She turned to engage the deadbolt and stopped short when she caught sight of him. The groceries slipped from her grasp, hit the floor and split open, spilling apples, a stalk of celery and a box of cereal onto the hardwood floor. She stared at him, recognition dawning in her blue eyes. Then she made a dive for the door.

He stopped her, clamping his hand over her mouth. "We can make this easy or we can make it hard."

She rammed her elbow into his gut and scrambled away. Wincing, he caught her at the kitchen entrance.

"Hard it is," he said, dragging her into the kitchen.

Text Copyright 2010 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.