Zack tensed his muscles. Something didn’t feel right. Those footsteps had been following him down this dark street for a few minutes now, and they were getting too close. Just as he was about to turn around and confront whomever it was, he felt a rush of air. A heavy blow smashed across his temple. He crashed to the ground, the left side of his face making painful contact with the pavement.
With barely a moment to think, a crushing pain slammed into his ribs and he doubled up. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out the Smith and Wesson. In some discomfort he hissed through clenched teeth. “You can stop right there, amigo.” Luckily his breath began to fill his lungs once more. He edged to a nearby wall and braced his back against it.
He eyed the dark, swarthy man warily. Caught in the process of stealing his bag, his assailant stood frozen to the spot, like some cartoon character with one arm reaching forward.
When Zack wiped his free hand across his mouth, blood stained his fingers. Yep, this asshole had damn near caved the one side of his face in.
Waving the gun at his attacker, he spoke again, “Now, we can either do this the hard way, or the easy way. Just back off and get the fuck out of here before I change my mind.”
His swarthy nemesis appeared to contemplate the situation. Beads of sweat dripped down his face as he looked first at Zack and then the bag.
“Like I said, I don’t care if I have to blow your fucking brains out. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.” Zack eased himself into a standing position. Thankfully, his ribs didn’t feel broken. “What’s it to be?” He’d reached the end of the line. It would all be over if he let him get away with it.
The man smiled. “Adios, amigo.” Slowly he retreated, holding his hands in full view. Eventually, when he’d reached far enough away, he turned and disappeared quickly down a side alley.
Zack stuffed the Smith and Wesson back into the waistband of his jeans. He’d been right to bring it with him. Tijuana was full of bandits. Reaching down, he scooped up his hat, dusted it down, and picked up his bag.
He caught his reflection in the shop window. Blood oozed down his cheek, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He hardly recognized himself anymore. Just when had he become such a mercenary bastard? Deep down he knew the exact moment he’d changed. His life had simply been blown away. Now all that remained was a hardened, empty shell.
Even Renee wouldn’t know him now. He remembered the last words he’d spoken to her. “Don’t worry, baby, everything will be fine. Just trust me.” Unfortunately, life didn’t always work out so perfectly. As bitterness consumed him once more, he turned away in disgust at his reflection.
Ash watched the tall cowboy enter the diner where she worked. Dressed in jeans, a white shirt, and a tan leather waistcoat, he found a seat and looked around for a waitress to take his order. He was too far away to see clearly, but she could already tell he had a great physique. The man could move mountains with those muscles. He removed his hat and placed it on the seat next to him then pulled a menu from the stand. As he was on one of her tables, she looked forward to getting a closer view.
Finally, she finished taking the order from a particularly obnoxious family. Their two children just wouldn’t sit still. They’d made faces at her from the moment they’d walked in.
After placing the order with Ron on the grill, she turned to Maisy, a waitress on another station. “I swear it, if they don’t start treating me with a little respect soon, I’ll drop the ice cream they’ve ordered straight into their laps.”
Her friend chuckled. “Now don’t let them get to you, darlin’. You need to concentrate on the dish that just settled into table five. I’d drop ice cream into his lap anytime, and I’d lick it off him for free.”
Ash giggled. “Me, too. Only I’d pay to do it.”
Maisy raised her eyebrows. “You’ve been single for far too long, girl.”
Ron leaned across the counter. “Are you girls gonna stop gossiping and do some work?”
“Don’t make out like you’re hard done by, Ron. I know you just love all the juicy gossip.”
“You bet. It brightens my day listening to you two.” He slapped four burgers on the grill, and they sizzled loudly.
Taking no notice of Ron, Maisy motioned to Ash with her hand. “Shoo. What are you waiting for? Go take his order. I’ll serve the The Munster Family for you.”
With pad and pencil ready, Ash walked up to table five. He was still studying the menu, so she let her gaze wander from the tip of his cowboy boots, past the tight fitting Wranglers, to his strong muscular chest.
This guy did some serious workouts. She could clearly see the six-pack abs under his tight-fitting clothes.
Girl, you need to get a grip and stop salivating.
Maisy was right. She’d been without a man for far too long. Nine months seemed an awful long time to be single, but then hadn’t she been burned badly by Rob? She hadn’t looked at another man since they’d split.
Well, not until now.
Ash noted his black, wavy collar-length hair that fell about his temples, the strong jaw line, the way his large hands held on firmly to the menu. His skin the color of warm teak appeared rugged and weather-beaten. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. When his eyes finally locked with hers, she swallowed hard. Bright blue and striking against his well-tanned skin, they simply took her breath away.
“What can I get you, cowboy?” Her voice sounded shaky even to her own ears, and she hoped he didn’t notice.
“I’ll have ham, with eggs over easy.” She assumed from his drawl he was from the South. So he wasn’t a local. Too bad, the guy was just probably passing through.
“Say, do you have any grits?”
She shook her head, pointing with her pencil. “Only what’s on the menu.”
“Hmm, then I’ll have hash browns and coffee.”
He nodded as she repeated his order back to him. He seemed to notice her for the first time, his gaze slowly travelling from her hands to her face. She had a sudden feeling that he’d ripped the clothes right off her.
“Is that an English accent?”
“Yes,” she answered. Now that he’d turned toward her, she noticed the cuts on the one side of his face. The man looked dangerous, and just a little exciting.
“Don’t tell me. You came to seek your fame and fortune in Hollywood but ended up waiting tables instead.” With an amused expression on his face, he leaned back in his seat and waited for her to answer.
If she hadn’t been so annoyed by his glib observation, her jaw would have dropped open. He had her life story to a T in just five minutes flat. She gave him a tight smile. “Yes, we’re a sad bunch. Like the song said, ‘All the stars that never were, are pumping gas and parking cars.’ Guess you now know why I work in this sleazy diner, serving dumbass customers.”
Before he could say anything, she lifted up her notepad and continued, “I’d better place your order, cowboy.” With that, she turned and walked away.
Zack chuckled to himself as the waitress went to take an order from another table. She sure had bristled at his personal remarks. He could tell them a mile off. The perfect white smile. A toned body to die for. With her chestnut-highlighted hair all cascading onto her shoulders and her perfect manicure, it hadn’t taken him long to work it out.
She’d certainly piqued his curiosity with her refined English accent. The little pocket rocket couldn’t be more than five-foot-three. Very attractive and petite, her large, green eyes had stared him down.
He shook his head and focused back on more pressing needs. Business had demanded that he leave Mexico in a hurry, so he hadn’t slept for two days. He’d rest this afternoon and then write up his report tomorrow. He checked his watch just as Little Miss Perfect brought his coffee to the table.
“Is it so obvious that I look like an out-of-work actress?” she asked.
He shrugged as his gaze wandered over her. Typically, she wore far too much makeup. “Aspiring actresses have this fake look about them.”
Her eyes narrowed on him, and her mouth firmed into a thin line. “Perhaps you should revise that comment, cowboy,” she stated sarcastically.
“What I mean is, they look manufactured and over-the-top.” Hell, now he’d gone and said something far worse. See where losing sleep had got him? Thank God she wasn’t out to kill him. “I’ll rephrase that—”
“Mister, perhaps you should just quit while you’re ahead.”
He nodded, his gaze coming to rest on the name badge pinned to her chest. “I think you should just forget that I said anything—Ashley.”
Without looking at him, she answered, “Don’t worry, cowboy, I already have.” Spinning quickly on her heels, she walked away. Now that didn’t happen very often. A haughty English woman had really put him in his place.
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