Man of the mountain, p.6

MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN, page 6

 

MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN
 


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  He was still looking at her, so she ventured, "Jared?"

  "Yeah?"

  "I'm really sorry. About your eye."

  He shrugged. "I'll live."

  She realized she'd been standing there, gaping down at him for an inordinate amount of time. So she shook herself and took the coffeepot back to the warming plate. Then she returned to her chair.

  For a while, since he volunteered nothing, she managed to sip her coffee and finish her breakfast and be quiet. But soon enough, the silence was too much for her.

  "Did Oggie tell you about my plans for the restaurant?"

  Jared was just mopping up the last of his pancakes. He looked up. "No."

  "Well, it's pretty exciting, actually. Next spring, we're opening a restaurant next door to the tavern. In The Mercantile building? It'll be called The Mercantile Grill, and we'll knock out the walls between the tavern and the restaurant, make them a joint venture, if you know what I mean. Oh, and you don't have to worry about Patrick being cheated out of his inheritance, because he's going in with Oggie and me on this particular project."

  Jared actually said something of his own accord then. "Patrick, opening a restaurant?"

  Eden understood his disbelief. Patrick, Oggie's second son, had worked on the county roads, done a stint in construction and was an excellent mechanic. Though he could tend bar when forced to, he was not the kind of man one pictured as a restaurateur. Still, Eden was sure it would work out, because she intended to see that it did.

  "I know, it sounds incredible. But don't worry. Patrick won't be doing it alone. In fact, I'm the one who'll really be running things."

  "I'll bet."

  "Do I detect a note of sarcasm there?"

  Jared rolled his eyes a little, but said nothing more.

  Eden babbled on. "Well, Mr. Jones. You just wait and see. You come for dinner on the house at The Mercantile Grill. Say, the Fourth of July next year."

  Jared stood up. "Fair enough, Miss Parker." He picked up his plate and flatware and carried it to the counter by the sink. Then he stuck in the drain stopper and filled up the sink, adding dishwashing liquid as the water ran.

  Eden watched him for a moment before she realized that he intended to do the dishes. She almost told him not to bother, she'd take care of them. But then she decided that his cleaning up after she cooked was a nice gesture. No reason for her to spoil it.

  So instead of objecting, she helped him a little, carrying her own dishes over, clearing the table and wiping down the counters. She kept up a pretty steady stream of chatter as the work was done. He said little, only replying when she asked him something directly.

  Eden knew she should probably just be quiet. But as the minutes ticked by and the time for him to leave loomed ever closer, she found she felt sadder and sadder. Talking helped her deny the sadness somewhat.

  After the dishes were put away, he insisted she write up a short addendum to the rental agreement. It said she was to make out the rent checks to Heather from now on. They both signed it.

  Then Jared went upstairs to collect his things. He was back in nothing flat, his sleeping bag slung over his shoulder and his pack in his fist.

  Eden was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. "Have you got everything?"

  "Yeah." His voice was gruff. "This is it."

  She stood back. He walked past her, into the kitchen and over to the kitchen door. She trailed after him, feeling absurdly bereft.

  And then, before she knew it, they were standing at the door facing each other. It was time to say goodbye.

  Eden swallowed and started talking. "Well, then. I … suppose I'll see you again, before you leave. I mean, it's a small town. And I'm sure you'll be back, now and then, since your family's here and all…" He was standing very close. She was smelling him again—soap and shaving cream and man. She kept talking. "You'll want to visit Oggie. And Heather and Jason Lee, not to mention all of—"

  "Miss Parker—"

  "—your friends. You know. I heard you and Delilah's husband, Sam, used to be real drinking buddies. But, of course, as we discussed yesterday, you don't drink anymore, though. I heard you gave it up after, well, after your first divorce, because you loved your wife, Sally, and you wanted to get back with her. And then, you two did work things out, and you got married for the second time, to each other and everything was fine. But then poor Sally got squashed flat by that runaway logging truck and—"

  "Miss Parker?"

  "Um. Yes?"

  "Do you ever shut up?"

  "Well, I—"

  "I can think of much better uses for that mouth of yours than talking."

  Eden blinked at him and the mouth he was referring to dropped open. "Ex-excuse me?"

  "I said, there are other things to do with your mouth than talking."

  "Oh. I see." She was staring at his mouth, which, strangely, seemed to be almost as soft and tempting as it had been last night, during those forbidden moments when she'd spied on him in the moonlight.

  "Other things," she echoed idiotically.

  "You want me to show you?"

  Did she nod? She wasn't sure. If she did, she shouldn't have. Yet if she didn't, she wanted to.

  But whether she nodded or not, it happened anyway.

  His mouth descended and closed over hers.

  Eden gasped. And then softly sighed. She heard a pair of thuds, dimly, in the distance, as his pack and sleeping bag hit the floor. She expected him to reach out, then, and haul her hard and close against him.

  But he didn't. He just went on kissing her, his body straining toward her, and his mouth … oh, sweet heaven, his mouth…

  His mouth tasted her, and stroked her and worked gently, nudging, coaxing, until her own lips were parting, and his tongue was teasing, playing, mating with hers.

  Eden groaned. And then she was the one reaching out, twining her arms around his neck and pressing herself hungrily, shamelessly into his heat and hardness. Her breasts flattened against his chest and the cradle of her hips rubbed against his. She could feel how much he wanted her, then, and she groaned again.

  That did it. He groaned back. His arms went around her.

  Eden sighed her appreciation at being held by him, so tight and close. It was wonderful. It was heaven. It was the kind of thing that only happened in sexy novels and it was happening to her. She wanted it never to end.

  But of course, it did.

  Jared ended it. He did it very tenderly, sliding his hands to her shoulders, gripping them gently and then slowly, reluctantly, lifting his head.

  Her eyes fluttered open and she looked first at his mouth. It was swollen a little, from the kiss. Hesitantly she raised her glance. She saw that his injured lid was opened now to a slit. He watched her through that slit and she felt that his gaze set off sparks where it touched her.

  Eden lifted a hand and laid the pads of two fingers on her own lips. Were they swollen like his? They'd have to be, wouldn't they? After what they'd just been through.

  Still dazed, she watched as he bent and retrieved his gear. When their eyes met again, she could read nothing in his. The fire had been banked. She looked into cold steel.

  "That was a damn fool thing for me to do," he said. "But I've always been a damn fool. Goodbye, Miss Parker."

  "Bye…" she said in a croak.

  He pulled back the door and went out.

  Eden stood in the doorway and watched him drive off.

  * * *

  She was still standing there several minutes after his pickup had disappeared from sight.

  She was trying, befuddled as her poor mind was right then, to comprehend the enormity of what had just transpired between herself and her surly landlord. She was trying to fathom the unfathomable: the meaning of a kiss.

  She was unsuccessful in her efforts.

  All she knew was that the foundations of her reality had suddenly shifted, leaving her perched on an emotional precipice and foolishly longing to fling herself into the chas
m below. She yearned with all her heart to chase after his pickup and beg him to come back. At the same time she knew such an action would be totally foolish.

  The man was forty years old—she'd learned that last night by asking Oggie a few subtle questions. Jared had always had trouble getting along with people. He'd been married three times—though, to be fair, two of those times were to the same person—and he thought nothing of sneaking into a woman's room in the middle of the night and scaring her to death. Eden could never get anything meaningful going with a man like that. She just couldn't. No way…

  And, in the end, it didn't matter if she could or if she couldn't. Because Jared Jones wasn't going to be around for long. Within a day or two, he'd be heading out of town.

  Sighing, Eden went back inside and finished getting ready for work. When her hair was pinned up and her makeup applied, she got into her car and drove into town and parked behind The Hole in the Wall.

  Eden went inside and tackled her morning duties. For some reason, though, the mundane satisfaction she usually attained from the simple series of chores was missing today.

  She had the chairs on the floor and was proceeding to get the popcorn popping and the cocktail mix set out when Rocky Collins pressed his hangdog face against one of the front windows, in the split between the red café curtains.

  Eden glanced up at the big clock over the hall to the back door: 10:48. She really shouldn't let him in, though she knew that Oggie always used to, back when he ran the place himself.

  Right from the first, she'd made the rule that the front double doors were unlocked at eleven sharp six days a week, never earlier and never later. Eden believed that starting things off punctually every day gave people an impression that here was a place they could count on. Besides, Eden didn't like to encourage poor Rocky, who spent way too much time here as it was.

  But she was feeling just a little bit low today. And seeing Rocky looking lower than she felt, Eden's sympathies were aroused.

  Against her own better judgment, she went and let him in.

  "Gee darn, Eden. Thanks a million."

  "Have a seat." She gestured at his favorite stool. "But I'm not serving until eleven sharp."

  "Hey. I hear you. No problem, I swear." Rocky sat down and gave a luxurious sigh. He was a man who never felt quite at home if he wasn't leaning against a bar. "Hey, Eden?"

  Eden measured the oil into the popper. "What is it, Rocky?"

  "You got any aspirins?"

  "Coming right up." She poured in the correct amount of popcorn kernels, flipped the metal lid closed and then pulled her hand out of the glass enclosure. She closed the glass doors and then she found Rocky his aspirin.

  "Hey, thanks. You're okay," Rocky said.

  "You're welcome." Eden started scooping cocktail mix into wooden bowls.

  Right then, the phone beneath the bar rang.

  "I'll get it," Rocky announced.

  Before Eden could tell him she preferred to do it herself, he was standing on the rungs of his stool and hoisting the phone up onto the bar. He picked up the receiver.

  "Yeah, hullo?" he grumbled into the mouthpiece, causing Eden to cringe. Proper telephone etiquette was another thing she insisted on at the new, improved Hole in the Wall. "Hey, howzitgoin', Jared, my man?"

  Eden's heart suddenly rose and stuck somewhere near her throat. And while it was stuck there, it beat out his name.

  Jared, Jared, Jared. Jared…

  Settle down, she told her heart silently. Settle down. He's probably just looking for Oggie…

  Rocky held out the handset. "'S for you, Eden."

  Eden swallowed, to get her heart back where it belonged, and set down the bowl she was just about to fill. Then she took the phone from Rocky.

  "Yes?"

  His wonderful, low, sibilant voice hissed in her ear. "Bad news."

  "What?"

  "The old man."

  "Oggie?"

  "Yeah. He was cleaning his hunting rifle and—"

  Eden felt numb, suddenly. There was a stool right beside her. She sank onto it. "Yes? Tell me."

  "He shot himself in the foot."

  Relief, as cool and soothing as clear water, coursed through her. She had thought for a moment that Jared would say the dear old coot was dead. "Is he all right?"

  "As all right as he can be with a big hole in his foot. I'm at the hospital in Grass Valley now. They're patching him up."

  "But is he—"

  "Relax. He's going to be fine. Eventually."

  "Oh, thank God."

  "But he won't be standing up for a while."

  "Well, of course."

  "And he sure as hell won't be tending bar. In fact, he won't even be leaving the hospital for a day or two. Because of his age, they want to monitor him for a while."

  "I understand. And tell him not to worry about The Hole in the Wall. I'll manage things here."

  "Well, that's the other thing I called to tell you."

  "What?"

  "See, the gun went off just as I pulled up in front of his house."

  "Yes. And?"

  "And I ran in there, and it was—hell, it was a damn messy sight."

  "So?"

  "So I tried to pick him up, to carry him to my truck and get him here to the hospital."

  "Yes?"

  "But he wouldn't go."

  "He wouldn't?"

  "No. Not until I promised him that I'd take over for him at The Hole in the Wall until he was on his feet again."

  Eden was silent, a rare thing.

  Jared said, "So, I'm just calling to tell you. I'll be in at seven, same time as the old man always is."

  "I—"

  "We're just going to have to make the best of this, Eden."

  Eden. He'd called her Eden. She was positive that was the first time she'd heard her given name on his lips. "Yes, I—"

  "And after we shut down tonight, we'll talk. If that's convenient for you."

  "Talk?"

  "We'll come to an understanding. About how it's going to be."

  "Oh."

  "What does that mean, 'Oh'?"

  "Nothing. Oh. That's all. Just oh."

  "You understand, then?"

  "About what?"

  "About us coming to an understanding."

  "Oh. Yes. I do. I understand. About an understanding."

  "Tonight, then? After we close."

  "Yes. All right."

  And then she heard the click at the other end of the line. He had hung up. She took the receiver away from her ear and looked at it.

  "Eden? You okay?"

  "Why yes, Rocky. I'm just fine." She handed him the receiver. "Here. Hang this up for me, will you?"

  "Be my pleasure. But, er, you'll have to give me the phone first."

  Eden realized she was clutching the thing against her chest. She coughed. "Certainly," she said, and shoved it at him. He took it, grinning.

  Eden turned quickly. With great purpose and dignity, she returned to the other end of the bar where she recommenced filling little wooden bowls with pretzels and nuts and small toasted squares of salty cereal.

  * * *

  Chapter 7

  « ^ »

  Jared arrived promptly at seven. He wore a new-looking pair of jeans, a tooled leather belt, a black vest and a black long-sleeved shirt. The shirt was open at the neck, the sleeves rolled neatly to below the elbows. His boots were dress boots. Eden's silly heart tried to jump out of her mouth at the sight of him.

  And even beyond her personal response to him, Eden was thoroughly impressed. From a purely business standpoint, except for his black eye, he looked just great. Casual but professional, wearing a Western costume that was almost, but not quite, a uniform. It was exactly the image she was trying to cultivate at The Hole in the Wall. An image that Oggie, in his wrinkled shirts and grimy suspenders, had never managed to achieve.

  Which was okay, she quickly told herself, feeling a little guilty for being critical of her partner,
especially now, when the poor old dear was flat on his back with a hole in his foot. Oggie, after all, was Oggie. He brought a certain color and spontaneity to the tavern that would be sorely missed in his absence.

  Everyone at the bar seemed happy to see Jared.

  "Jared. Hey, heard you were in town."

  "Goldurned, where'd you get that shiner, m'man?"

  "Hey, Jared. What's the word?"

  Jared greeted them all with a wave, as he flipped the hinged counter up and went through, joining Eden on the business side of the bar.

  "You look great," Eden told him, meaning it.

  The corners of his grim mouth twitched. She knew he was pleased. "Since you seem to be upgrading the image around here, I went through some of the stuff my father's storing at his place and came up with this." He gestured at his outfit.

  "That was—" she sought the right word "—thoughtful."

  "Yeah. I'm one damn thoughtful guy."

  They just stared at each other. Eden knew she was grinning like a borderline idiot, but somehow she couldn't in to stop herself. Here they were, forced by her partner's injury to work together very closely for the next several weeks.

  It was probably going to be sheer hell.

  So why was she so glad to see him? And why couldn't she stop smiling?

  Down the bar, one of the regulars by the name of Tim Brown groused, "Who do you have to shoot to get a drink around here?"

  Someone else piped up, "Anyone but Oggie. He's already down."

  A ripple of laughter flowed over the room. By now, of course, everyone knew about what had happened to Oggie.

  Tyler Conley, a cousin of Heather's husband, chimed in with, "Yeah, Jared. Tell us. How's Oggie doing?"

  Jared went to the wells and poured a whiskey and soda. "Oggie's in Prospector's Hospital for a day or two more. And he is hurting," Jared said, neatly setting the drink on a coaster in front of Tim Brown. "But he'll get over it. He's a Jones, after all." He told Tim the price of the drink.

  Eden watched him, amazed. He mixed a drink like a true pro. Quickly and effortlessly, with only the slightest bit of flash and dazzle when it came to squirting in the soda. Also, he'd known Tim's drink without having to ask what it was. That was pretty good, considering Jared hadn't even been in town since early May.

 
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