Date Published: Mar 2023
“Love Potion Pie? Now that’s a pie I’ll have to try.” The truck driver in the grease-stained ball cap winked flirtatiously. “Of course, I’m already half in love, sweetheart.”
It took every speck of willpower Paisley Grayson Stanford had not to snort in disgust. She wasn’t disgusted with the flirting trucker as much as the entire concept of love. At one time, she’d believed in fairytales and happy endings, but not anymore. Love was for naïve fools and Paisley was through being a fool.
Completely ignoring the trucker’s comment, she pasted on a smile and repeated the order. “That’s two Coors beers and two slices of Love Potion Pie. I’ll have that right out.”
She turned and headed toward the bar that covered one entire wall of Nasty Jack’s. Multicolored Christmas lights hung above it year round, but tonight, there was also a long banner of pink paper hearts and red cupids. Below the banner, cuddling couples whispered sweet nothings to each other completely unaware of the pitfalls looming on their love horizon.
At the end of the bar, a group of cowboys had congregated around the redheaded bartender, hoping to gain her attention. They had it, but they would learn that Everly’s attention wasn’t always a good thing.
Stepping up to the bar, Paisley watched as her sister efficiently filled beer glasses . . . while putting the cowboys in their place. Unlike Paisley, Everly had no problem stating her mind.
“Don’t complain to me about not having sweethearts on Valentine’s Day when there are plenty of women in this bar who would love to spend the night two-stepping with a handsome cowboy. Now stop standing here wasting your time with a happily married woman and get to asking or I’m going to start serving you gutless wienies Shirley Temples instead of beer.”
All three cowboys looked thoroughly chastised. As soon as they got their beers, they slunk away.
Everly walked over to Paisley and rolled her eyes. “Men. They complain about not being able to get a woman when they’re not willing to make the effort it takes to get one. Even your son has more guts.” A smile spread over her face. “I guess Henry told you about Brooklyn Ann ‘the prettiest girl eber.’”
Paisley laughed at her sister’s impersonation of her son. Henry had just turned five and still struggled to pronounce his v’s. But that certainly didn’t stop him from talking.
Although lately he hadn’t been talking to Paisley.
“Who’s Brooklyn Ann?” she asked.
“I guess she’s a pretty little blonde he met in his preschool class. He sweet-talked me into buying him the biggest Valentine card at Cursed Market to give to her.”
Henry hadn’t said a word about the card or the little girl. While Paisley greatly appreciated everything Everly had done for her and Henry—taking them in when they first arrived in Cursed, finding them a place to live, giving Paisley a job, and watching Henry while Paisley was dealing with the train wreck of her life—she couldn’t help feeling a little jealous of how close her sister and son had become.
Of course, she couldn’t blame Henry. Everly was vivacious and fun and strong. She would have never put up with a man abusing her. She would have left Jonathan the first time he’d hit her. Unlike Paisley, who had allowed the abuse to go on for years. It had taken Jonathan threatening Henry to finally get her to leave. Otherwise, she would probably still be with him.
Which was just weak and pathetic.
“Okay, what’s that frown all about, Paise?” Everly cut into her thoughts. “It’s not a big deal Henry didn’t tell you about his girlfriend. What kid wants to talk to their mother about girls?”
Paisley set her tray on the bar. “Lately, he doesn’t seem to want to talk to me about anything.”
“Now I find that hard to believe.” Everly took jars of maraschino cherries and green olives out of the mini fridge and started refilling the garnish tray. “Your son is the biggest chatterbox this side of the Pecos.”
“With everyone but me. He doesn’t even like being around me anymore.”
“That’s not true. He adores you.” Everly sent her a stern look. “Probably because you spoil him rotten. Just because he throws a tantrum doesn’t mean you should give him what he wants, Paise.”
“I don’t always give him what he wants.” When Everly lifted an eyebrow, she conceded, “Okay, so I have spoiled him lately. But only because he’s been through so much.”
“He’s okay, Paise.” Everly reached out and squeezed her arm. “So are you.”
Paisley wished that was true. She didn’t feel okay. She felt like an untethered helium balloon that was floating away. But, as always, she put on a good front.
“You’re right. We’re both fine. Just fine.” She glanced around and changed the subject. “So where is Chance? I thought for sure he’d be here tonight hanging out with his favorite valentine.”
A dopey look came over Everly’s face at just the mention of her new husband. “He’s at home making a late dinner for us . . . and I hope preparing for a naughty night of sex.” Her hazel eyes twinkled. “When I married a preacher, I never thought he would be so adventurous in bed. Did I tell you about what we did the other night? Chance got two of his silk ties and tied me to a chair and then he—”
Before she could finish, Kitty Carson yelled from where she sat at the end of the bar. Kitty delivered the mail and gossip to the townsfolk of Cursed, Texas. She had a helmet of stiff red hair and a voice that could be heard in three counties.
“Everly! Can I get another margarita? Potts says he only drinks beer, but when I came back from the ladies’ room my drink was suspiciously gone and his kisses taste like tequila and lime.” She waved at Paisley. “Hey, Paisley! I have an official-looking package for you. I’ll bring it to you first thing tomorrow.”
Paisley felt all the blood drain from her face. She knew what was inside the package. Divorce papers. While a part of her was relieved her nightmare marriage was almost over, there was another part of her that mourned the loss of all her hopes and dreams for a happily-ever-after.
“Another margarita is coming right up, Kitty,” Everly said. “I’ll make one for Potts too.” After she grabbed two margarita glasses from the shelf behind the bar, her gaze caught Paisley’s. “You okay?”
She nodded. “I’m fine.” But how could a person be fine when they had figured out that happily-ever-afters were only in fairytales? “Now I better get two bottles of Coors and two slices of Love Potion Pie back to those truckers.”
Everly set the glasses down and pulled two beers out of the cooler. Once they were opened, she placed them on the tray. But instead of hurrying back to the kitchen like she normally did and returning with the pie, she sent Paisley a sad look. “I’m not taking your food orders back to the kitchen anymore, Paise. I get that you have an aversion to men after what happened to you. But I think it’s time you got over it. I hired you as a waitress and that includes working with the cook—even if you don’t particularly like him. So stop being a wienie like those cowboys and face your fears.”
As much as Paisley wanted to argue, she couldn’t. Not only because she hated confrontation, but also because Everly was right. She shouldn’t expect her sister to run the bar and take orders back to the kitchen. It was Paisley’s job and she needed to start doing it.
Leaving her tray on the bar, she headed to the swinging door that led to the kitchen. She hesitated for only a second before she pushed her way through. The kitchen smelled like a mixture of sautéing onions, frying French fries, and spicy wings. The person responsible for those smells stood at the cooktop with his back to Paisley.
Just the sight of him had Paisley’s stomach tightening.
To say Hayden rattled her was an understatement. Everly was right. She did have an aversion to men after Jonathan’s abuse. But her reaction to Hayden wasn’t just wariness. He also made her feel . . . exposed. Like his deep cobalt-blue eyes could see right through her fake smile and calm façade to the scared, insecure woman beneath. While he joked and teased with Everly, he spoke to Paisley with formal respect like she was his Sunday school teacher.
Although she doubted he had spent much time in Sunday school.
From what Everly had told her, Hayden was an ex-bronc rider from Montana who’d started drifting around the country after his rodeo career cratered. He’d wandered into Cursed by accident and decided to stay awhile. During the day, he worked as a ranch hand for the Kingman Ranch, and four nights a week, he ran the kitchen at Nasty Jack’s. And ran it well. Paisley had tasted his cooking and he knew his way around a stove.
Which was obvious by watching him now. He was well over six feet tall with broad shoulders and biceps that stretched the sleeves of the Nasty Jack’s T-shirt he wore, and yet, he moved with graceful efficiency as he pulled wings from the fryer and placed hamburger patties on the flat top.
His hair was a deep chestnut brown, cut short in the back and on the sides with the top longer. When he wasn’t wearing his black Stetson, like now, a couple stray locks fell over his forehead. He was ruggedly handsome with his deep-set blue eyes, high cheekbones, and square jaw that was always covered in dark stubble. Not that Paisley cared about handsome men. Jonathan had taught her beauty was only skin deep.
But plenty of other women noticed Hayden. Whenever he stepped out of the kitchen, every woman in the bar stopped what she was doing to watch his copper-stitched Wrangler pockets pass.
She lifted her gaze from Hayden’s butt to find him looking over his shoulder at her. Steam rose around him from the burgers sizzling on the cooktop, causing the locks on his forehead to curl like two backward C’s. He had obviously caught her checking his butt out, but his eyes didn’t hold a twinkle of cockiness. They held the same look they always did when he looked at her.
It was that sympathy, coupled with the way he rattled her, that caused her dislike of the man. The last thing she wanted was sympathy. Especially from a saddle tramp.
She stiffened her spine, hiked her chin, and spoke in a haughty voice. “I need two slices of Love Potion Pie.” He studied her with his clear midnight eyes as if he knew she was struggling to hold his gaze and keep up her fake bravado. Just when she was about to call chicken and look away, he did.
“Yes, ma’am. Two Love Potion Pies coming right up.” After wiping his hands on the dish towel tucked into his jeans, he moved to the prep island where a cluster of pies sat. Wolfe Kingman owned Nasty Jack’s and his wife, Gretchen, made all the pies from scratch. Besides beer and margaritas, they were the bestsellers at the bar. People came from all over Texas to get a slice of Gretchen’s pies.
With an efficiency that was surprising for a man with such large hands, Hayden sliced into the tower of toasted meringue covering the top of the pie and plated a slice. Beneath the thick meringue was a layer of dark chocolate custard on top of an even darker chocolate crust.
“I think I might like this pie better than the chocolate peppermint pie Gretchen made for Christmas,” he said without looking up. “Have you tasted it?”
“I don’t like chocolate.”
He hesitated for a brief second before he sliced another piece of pie. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who didn’t like chocolate. So what is your favorite pie?”
“I don’t have a favorite. I don’t like sweets.”
His gaze finally lifted. His eyes held surprise. “No peanut butter cookies, coconut cake, apple pie, strawberry shortcake?” When she shook her head, he continued to toss out desserts. “Tiramisu, hot fudge sundae, mud pie?”
He looked at her as if she was a puzzle he couldn’t quite figure out. Or a weird anomaly that made no sense. “Not even candy as a kid?”
“We weren’t allowed to eat candy.”
Again, she read sympathy before he looked away. “Everly mentioned that your parents were strict.”
Strict was putting it mildly. Paisley and Everly’s parents had been rigid perfectionists with high expectations. Paisley had tried to meet those expectations. Everly hadn’t. It was obvious which daughter had made the right choice.
“I don’t really have time for conversation,” she said. “I just need the pie.”
He nodded before he picked up the plates and moved toward her. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself from taking a step back.
He froze. His gaze locked with hers for a long, uncomfortable moment before he turned and set the plates back on the prep island. “I’ll just let you get those. I need to check on my hamburger sliders before they get too well done.”
Relieved, Paisley quickly grabbed the plates and headed for the door. But before she could get there, Hayden stopped her.
It was the first time he had used her given name. He always called her Ms. Stanford. For some reason, hearing Paisley spoken in his husky voice made her feel even more unnerved.
She gripped the cold plates and tried to keep her voice steady and calm. “Yes?”
After a slight hesitation, he spoke. “I get why you’re leery of men, but I just want you to know that I would never hurt you.” (Charming a Cowboy King Excerpt by Katie Lane)