Five o'clock a Friday and Hogan Guthrie found himself smiling in anticipation as he closed the books on his work and powered down his computer. He could work from home, and sometimes did, but the scope of the new client meant some coordinating with other employees. For a week now he’d spent hours at the desk for his usual nine-to-five shift, poring over past records and updating them to a better, more cohesive platform. Popping his head to the side, he released tension gathered in his neck. A glance at the clock showed he’d have time to run home, shower and change into more casual and comfortable clothes before heading to the diner.
Friday nights at the diner usually ran late, but he didn’t mind. Hell, he was actually looking forward to it.
Of course he knew why.
Violet with that sexy Southern drawl, her rich red hair and vivid blue eyes. And that pale, creamy skin—
He jumped when a small, warm hand settled on his shoulder and he looked up to see his boss, Joni Jeffers, smiling down at him.
“You look tense,” she said, and her fingers dug into his muscles in an impromptu and very inappropriate massage. “It was a grueling week, wasn’t it?”
Wondering, with facetious cynicism, if he should file a sexual harassment suit, Hogan said only, “Too much time reformatting numbers. I should have remembered to stretch more.”
“I can tell you stay in shape.” Her other hand settled on him, too, and she leaned close as she kneaded his shoulders. “How’s that feel?”
Like a blatant come-on. Not that long ago, he’d have jumped on Joni’s unspoken offers. After having his life turned upside down, he’d spent damn near a year belatedly sowing his wild oats with a single-minded vengeance.
He’d been a miserable bastard, too, and had probably made others around him miserable.
He hadn’t known Joni then. Probably a good thing since he now worked for her. He’d done a lot of stupid things lately, but he wasn’t an idiot.
Joni was cute with her bubbly personality, curly brown hair and topheavyfigure. At the moment, he felt not only her warm breath on his ear, but her lush boobs on his back.
Yet he wasn’t even tempted. Again, he knew why.
These days, along with feeling more content in general, he had a preoccupation with his two jobs, his seventeen-year-old son—and unrequited lust for Violet.
Standing—and dislodging Joni’s hands—he asked, “Ready to head out?”
“I was thinking about grabbing a drink.” Her tongue slicked over her bottom lip in blatant suggestion. “Interested?”
Hell no. “Sorry, I can’t. I have to get home in time to see my son before he leaves on a date.” He assumed Colt would have a date, so that wasn’t a lie.
Her eyes, sultry a moment before, flared. “Your son?”
“Yeah.” The mention of a kid had often proved to be effective discouragement with a certain type of woman. Apparently, Joni was that type. “Colt’s seventeen, almost eighteen now,” he added, hopefully putting the nail in the coffin of her interest.
Straightening, Joni looked him over with suspicion. “You’re not old enough for that.”
“I’m thirty-five and I had Colt young.” One of the few things he didn’t regret from his youth.
“Your wife?” she asked bluntly.
Just as blunt, he answered, “Dead.” And he wasn’t explaining beyond that. “I have to run, but it looks like Derrick is hanging around. Given the way he smiles at you, I’m betting he’d love to get a drink.”
She wrinkled her nose, but sighed as if resigned. Proving she wasn’t yet entirely dissuaded, she gave him a long look and said, “I’ll catch you next time.” Turning, she headed for Derrick, who perked up at her approach.
Colt wasn’t there when Hogan got home. Neither was Diesel, their dog, but then, the dog often hung next door when he and Colt were away.
He checked his phone but didn’t see a message from his son. At almost eighteen, he understood that Colt wanted his independence, but one of his few rules was that he needed to give his father a call when he’d be late.
It wasn’t until Hogan stepped out of the shower that he heard Colt coming in, Diesel with him. Drying off, Hogan opened the bathroom door and asked, “Where’ve you been?”
“I was at Uncle Jason’s. You didn’t see my truck?”
Relaxing, Hogan shook his head. It wasn’t only the dog that liked to visit next door. He’d bought the small house next to his brother, Jason, when Jason married the woman who’d previously owned it.
Diesel hurried in to get some pats and show some love, then went back to sit next to Colt. Hogan should have realized where Colt would be but he’d been in such a rush, he hadn’t been aware of anything except his anticipation.
Insane—yet he seemed to have found his calling, and it wasn’t accounting.
While Hogan pulled on jeans, Colt leaned in the doorway, Diesel sitting beside him. At six-three, Colt was taller than both his father and his uncle.
Broad-shouldered. Lean and muscular. Both Colt and Jason had dark brown eyes, whereas Hogan’s were a much lighter blue.
Colt hadn’t inherited much from him. Diesel, a shepherd mix they’d rescued that had first belonged to Honor but now adored Colt. He was fond of many people, but he was clearly Colt’s dog.
“I’m coming to the diner tonight, okay?”
“Sure.” Hogan glanced up after pulling on a polo. “A date?”
“Maybe.” Colt smiled crookedly. “It’s a group of us, but…”
While he stroked the dog’s head, he said, “A new girl joined my chemistry class today.”
“Ah.” Hogan guessed, “Pretty?” Maybe his son had inherited something after all. Not entirely a good thing.
“Very.” Colt grinned. “I’m hoping to win her over before anyone else does.”
Probably wouldn’t take much effort. Once Colt had settled in after the move from Columbus to the much-smaller, quaint town of Clearbrook in Ohio, the girls had been flocking after him.
“So,” Hogan said, “is this a request that your old dad stays away, or can I meet her?”
Looking far too serious, Colt said, “You don’t need to hide away, ever.”
Hogan sat to pull on his boots. “If it becomes an issue—”
“It won’t be.”
Unsure when he’d become philosophical on the issue, Hogan said, “You know, if the girl is new around here, she might need a friend more than a hot date.”
“I’ll be both.” Colt straightened off the wall. “Gotta go. I’ve got grasscutting jobs this weekend, so I want to finish my homework now. C’mon, Diesel.” The dog was already on his heels.
“Be sure to cut our grass, too, before you take off.”
With a wave, Colt headed to his incredibly messy room, so messy, in fact, that it kept him from being too perfect. Not that Diesel minded. He tended to sprawl on the piles of discarded clothes.
Smiling, Hogan wondered how he’d gotten so damn lucky. Lucky, at least when it came to his son.
He grabbed his keys and helmet, yelled a goodbye to Colt and headed out the door to his bike. The late-August evening hit his face like an open oven.
As he rode, the sweltering air tore across his face and he loved it. Sure, he’d first gotten the bike to indulge some idea of being a rebel with a “fuck you” attitude, as if that could make up for the past year of hell. He was over that now, mostly anyway, but he still loved the bike.
A few minutes later he pulled into the already-crowded lot of Screwy Louie’s, the town’s most popular diner. Accountant by day, Hogan thought as he strode in, barbecue master by night.
He stored his helmet and keys in a locker, found a stiff white apron and greeted the others who worked the evening weekend shift with him.
When he didn’t see Violet bustling about as was her usual preference, he stopped one of the waitresses. “Where is she?”
Knowing exactly whom he meant, the girl said, sotto voce, “Back office,” and added, “I think she’s sick.”
Frowning, Hogan started his massive grills so they could heat, took the racks of previously prepared ribs from the industrial refrigerators and then headed for the tiny office at the back of the building.
He and Violet had an understanding of sorts. He wanted her; she resisted.
He didn’t make it easy on her, and she didn’t give him any leeway. So far, the cat and mouse game had been fun. He was still patient.
And still very determined.
It didn’t matter that he also worked for Violet; since this was a part-time job, not his career, the usual issue of mixing work with pleasure didn’t apply.
Grinning, he rapped his knuckles against the door and opened it.
With her rich red hair fanned out around her on the surface of the cluttered desk, Violet rested her head on her folded arms. Without looking up, she asked, “What do you want, Hogan?”
“How’d you know it was me?”
She tipped her face and one vivid blue eye peeked up at him through that fall of incredible hair. “Honey,” she drawled, “I know the sound of your walk, the way that you knock, and I know your scent.”
His brows lifted. “My scent?”
Sitting back with a grumpy sigh, she asked again, “What’d you want?”
Ignoring her mean mood, he said, “Besides you?” He heard her growl and his grin widened. “Why are you in here moping? Late night yesterday?”
Before he could get jealous over that, she gestured at the scattered papers.
“I fired my accountant, the miserable bastard.”
“None of your business. But now the accounts have piled up. I despise paperwork—you know that. I worked on it off and on all day yesterday and a big chunk of today, but I’m still not done.”
God, he loved her twangy voice, the way she drawled her words.
She gathered the papers together into a file and closed it, then stood to tuck it into an old metal file cabinet.
Her office was ancient and Hogan suspected her accountant’s ideas might have been, as well. Hesitating to overstep, or to take on more work, he asked, “Anything I can help with?”
“You already are, darlin’. Your ribs are a huge hit.” Using both hands, she finger-combed her hair into a high ponytail, then secured it with a clothcovered rubber band that she pulled from her wrist. “I’m even looking into buying a special oven so you can keep it going through the winter months.”
Standing in the doorway, blocking her exit, he asked, “Who said I want to be here in the winter months?”
“You’re not stupid. You know you were born to do this.”
Since he’d recently thought the same thing, he said, “I don’t mind grilling in the snow.”
With a seductive smile teasing her lips, she sidled closer and patted his face. “If you ever decide to give up that stuffy shirt and tie during the week, I’d hire you full-time in a hot minute.” Her warm fingertips trailed down his neck, his chest and away. “Customers would love it, and I bet you’d make more in tips than you do sitting in an office.”
Paying no attention to the job offer, Hogan caught her wrist. “You just love playing with fire, don’t you?”
With her gaze on his mouth, she whispered, “You got those ribs ready yet?”
“I just got here.”
“Best get a move on, then.” She ducked past him.
Sometimes, Hogan thought as he watched her sashay away, Violet deliberately distracted him. Why? If she truly didn’t want to get physical, why taunt him?
He glanced back at that file cabinet and wondered again about her accounting.
An hour later he didn’t have time to think about anything except cooking.
The orders were pouring in. Since they weren’t served during the week, it seemed that come Friday night and through the weekend, everyone wanted barbecued ribs. Standing just outside the restaurant, near the side of the building where Violet had added more outdoor seating, Hogan whistled and slathered on more of his special sauce. The heat of the day waned as the sun fell lower in the sky, bleeding over the horizon in shades of crimson, purple and sunflower yellow.
Until coming to Clearbrook, he couldn’t remember ever paying much attention to the sunset. He breathed deep of cooking meat, freshly mowed grass and humid air.
All around him, customers chatted and laughed, some sitting on picnic tables under shade trees, others using the metal tables and chairs under the overhang. After lifting three more racks onto a platter, Hogan rang a bell.
It was Violet, this time, who came to collect them.
Damp tendrils of her fiery hair escaped her ponytail and clung to her temples. Her flushed cheeks made the blue of her eyes even brighter. He’d already noticed the T-shirt she wore with Screwy Louie’s scrawled across her breasts and a pair of khaki shorts with tennis shoes. Now the shirt stuck to her in select places. Eyeing her toned and shapely legs, he couldn’t help thinking—
“We’ve got a real crowd tonight,” she crowed, sounding a little breathless but pleased with the action. “Keep cooking, sugar!”
What did she think he would do? Abandon his station? Giving a theatrical sigh, he said, “Chained to my grill. A man’s work is never done.”
She crossed her arms and cocked a shapely hip against the wall. “There are ladies out front, gossiping about you.”
Hogan quirked a brow while basting sauce over a slab of meat. “All compliments,
“These ladies want to see you grilling…shirtless.”
The smile came easily. Had her voice sounded a bit hoarse? No doubt from speaking over the rambunctious crowd. “Not sure that’s allowed, is it? There has to be a code or something?”
Her eyes flared. “You would consider it otherwise?”
Shrugging, he said, “I’m not selfish. I’ll do what I can to help your business thrive.”
Violet snorted. “Not selfish, not modest…” Her nose wrinkled. “You have a hairy chest.”
“True enough.” Slanting her a look, he added, “Hairy thighs, too. And on my stomach, there’s this line of—”
“It’s enough that you don’t wear a net on your head. I don’t want to have to worry about chest hair in the sauce.”
She definitely sounded hoarse. “I don’t exactly shed, you know.” He frowned at her and saw she appeared distracted, leaning a hand against a table and drawing a slow breath.
“You okay?” he asked, wondering if the waitress was right about her being ill.
“Exhilarated.” Quickly she straightened, patted his shoulder and took off again, her hands loaded with platters of meat.
For a little while, Hogan wondered about her. But they were too busy for him to dwell on anything but his job. The night droned on, and during small respites, Hogan prepared more ribs for the following day. His process required hours of precooking before the meat ever touched the grill. He worked alone, guarding his secret recipe—what a joke—which required him to hustle back and forth between the rear kitchen area and where the grills were set up.
Colt and his friends sat at a picnic table nearby, drinking tea and devouring burgers. The new girl was indeed cute, and if Hogan was a judge, his son had already won her over.
When Colt introduced him, Hogan felt a familiar, unmistakable pride.
Despite the not-too-distant-past turmoil of their lives, Colt was a remarkable young man, and not just physically. He did well in school and he enjoyed helping others. Hogan knew he couldn’t take all the credit for that, but he didn’t want to think about his wife.
Before long, he saw that Colt had his arm around the girl and she rested her head on his shoulder. Hiding his smile, Hogan repeatedly glanced their way.
The move had been tough on Colt, but things were looking up for both of them.
The lingering crowds grew mellow as they neared the midnight hour.
It was a few minutes to closing time when Kristy, a waitress, found him cleaning the grills.
“Hey, Hogan, got a minute?”
He glanced at her. She was young, cute and exceptionally friendly. Tonight, though, she looked worried. Aware of Colt watching him, Hogan said, “What’s up?”
“I wasn’t sure who to talk to.”
He closed the grill and cleaned his hands on a dish towel. “Something’s wrong?”
“It’s Violet. I think she’s really sick.”
An unfamiliar emotion tightened in his chest. Worry, he decided. Only worry for the boss. He wouldn’t allow it to be anything else. Not since his wife…
He shook his head. “Where is she?”
“In her office. But she’s been in there awhile and it’s time to shut down.
You know Violet always oversees things.”
Colt appeared at his side. “Anything you want me to do?”
Now see? How could he not beam with pride?
“Maybe.” Often when Hogan worked at the restaurant, Colt was around.
He probably knew the routine better than the actual employees. “Where’s
Beth?” She was Violet’s assistant manager, and one of them was always around.
“She had her baby, so she’s on maternity leave. Violet’s in charge tonight.”
Well, hell. He turned to his son. “You mind giving Kristy a hand?”
The way Kristy smiled at Colt made Hogan want to growl. He said,
“You’re not eighteen yet, so don’t touch any alcohol, all right?”
Kristy laughed. “That’s his way of telling me you’re off-limits.” She patted
Hogan’s shoulder. “I’m already aware, Dad.” Then she added to Colt,
“You do look a lot older, though.”
Colt grinned, not in the least embarrassed. “Let me say ’bye to my friends, and then I’m all yours.”
Kristy watched him walk away, a hand to her heart.
Hogan rolled his eyes, hooked his arm through Kristy’s and hauled her back into the restaurant, giving directions along the way.
It never occurred to him that he might be overstepping.
Since he could still be considered relatively new with only a month under his belt, there were others at the restaurant probably more qualified, but they all seemed relieved to have him take charge.
After setting things in motion, he peeked in on Violet. She was asleep at her desk. For only a moment he looked down at her. Those damned strange feelings stirred again; this time he ignored them.
He wanted to immediately wake her and suggest she go home, but instead he slipped back out of the office without making a sound. Far as he could tell, the restaurant was Violet’s number one priority. If he woke her before everything was done, she’d probably start pitching in when clearly she needed some rest.
The employees knew their jobs, but still welcomed his reminders of how
Violet preferred things done. He, himself, did her usual duties, running the end-of-day reports, balancing the books and closing out the cash drawer. He locked the remaining money in the safe and left the register open.
After Colt and Kristy left, Hogan did a final sweep of the building, set the security alarms on all but the back door and finally went to Violet’s office.
Before he could open the door, he heard a rasping cough. Again, he opened it and stepped in.
Violet, looking messier than he’d ever seen her, leaned over the papers again scattered across her desk.
Slowly she turned her face toward him.
Her bloodshot eyes surprised him. Sick. He stepped in farther. “Hey, you okay?”
She looked from him to the paperwork. “I don’t know.” More coughs racked her.
Hogan strode forward and put a hand to her forehead. “Shit. You’re burning up.”
“What time is it?”
“A few minutes after midnight.”
“Oh.” She pushed back from the desk but didn’t make it far. “The restaurant,” she gasped in between strained breaths.
“I took care of it.” Holding her elbow, he helped to support her as she stood. His most pressing thought was getting her home and in bed. No, not the way he’d like, but definitely the way she needed. “Where are your car keys?”
Unsteady on her feet, she frowned. “What do you mean, you took care of it?”
“You have good employees—you know that. They’re aware of the routine. Colt pitched in, too. Everything is done.”
“I double-checked. I’m not incompetent, so trust me.”
Her frown darkened.
“You can thank me, Violet.”
She tried to look stern, coughed again and gave up. “Thank you.” Still she kept one hand on the desk. “I’m just so blasted tired.”
“I know.” He eased her into his side, his arm around her. “Come on. Let me drive you home.”
Giving him a lost look, she said, “I can’t be sick. I don’t have time to be sick. Beth’s gone for at least four weeks. I have to—”
“You don’t have to do anything, not right now.” Hogan remembered once when Meg, his wife, had gotten pneumonia. Her cough had sounded the same and she, too, had been tired and run a fever. “It’ll be okay. I’ll be here for the weekend. I can handle things.”
“It’s not your restaurant!” Soon as she rasped the words, she began to cough.
Worried, Hogan set her against the desk. “Stay put.” Then he found her purse and, without a qualm, dug through it for her keys.
He found them. He also found two condoms. His gaze flashed to hers, but her eyes were closed and she looked asleep on her feet, her body utterly boneless as she drew in shallow, strained breaths.
“Come on.” With an arm around her, her purse and keys held in his free hand, he led her out the back way to the employee lot, securing the door behind her. Her yellow Mustang shone bright beneath security lights.
His bike would be okay. Or at least, it better be.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Worth The Wait by Lori Foster.
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