How Lane met Chandler...
BORN IN TEXAS #10: Jilted Hero
Lane Westfield was tired of people telling her what she could and could not do. She was tired of the stereotypes, and tired of hearing how badly she was going to turn out if she didn’t go to college.
Their warnings rang ominously in her ears:
Cheerleaders are dumb blondes.
Cheerleaders are all snobs.
Cheerleaders aren’t intelligent.
Well, she was living proof that none of this was true. Number one, she wasn’t blonde. Number two, there was nothing snobby about the home-cooked fare she’d been serving the entire town from her food truck for the past two years. And, by some miracle, she’d managed to save up enough money to shoulder the down payment on her own diner.
Arms crossed and cowgirl boots planted on the gravel parking lot, she studied the dusty storefront stretching two-stories over her. It didn’t look like much, but it was now hers — every inch of peeling paint and weathered siding. It was going to take a bazillion hours, plus tons of elbow grease, to scrape and sand it. Then it would take another several days to give in a fresh coat of paint. As for all the glue residue clinging to the windows — from countless old sales stickers that had been left baking in the sun — she would probably be scrubbing at those until the end of time.
However, the place had good bones, according to her real estate agent, which she’d taken to mean it was structurally sound. It also had an upstairs apartment with a kitchenette and a full bathroom, a huge selling point since she would be able to move in right away and save on rent.
Maybe none of this would earn her an entry in the Book of Who’s Who, but she was feeling pretty stinking brilliant at the moment for pulling it off.
A vehicle on the two-lane highway behind her backfired, making her jump. It was followed by a skid of tires and a cloud of gravel dust as the driver turned into her parking lot and jammed on his brakes.
Waving a hand irritably in front of her face, she spun around to see her long-time friend, Murphy Stanton, push open the door of his rusty red pickup truck and leap to the ground.
“Howdy, Lane!” He ambled in her direction, hitching up his jeans with one hand and kicking up yet more gravel dust with his boots. “I drove straight here the moment I found out.”
“About?” She scanned his animated features behind his bushy auburn beard. It was impossible to tell his age, though she'd always assumed his beard made him look older than he actually was.
He waved his hands excitedly. “About you buying the old neighborhood grocery store, of course. Congratulations!”
“Thanks.” Her heart sank, already knowing what he was going to say next.
“I want to apply for a job.” He came to a halt in front of her, his faded plaid shirt flapping open over his t-shirt. His sausage-like thumbs were hooked through his belt loops.
“Murph,” she protested softly. “I just signed for a bank loan the size of Montana. You know I can’t afford to hire any help.” She could really use the help, but it wasn’t financially feasible. Not yet, anyway.
“Fine.” He looked mildly disappointed, but far from discouraged. It was kind of the story of his life, since he’d been crushing on her for years. “So long as I’m the first in line when you’re finally ready to acquire some extra employees.”
“Um…sure! I don’t know when that’ll be. But if you’re still available when the time comes, consider yourself at the front of the line.” She shrugged, hoping he wasn’t still harboring dreams of dating her. He was a super nice guy, and she really appreciated all the times he'd covered for her in the food truck when she’d been sick or out of town. But that was the extent of their relationship. She wasn’t looking to turn it into anything more.
“I’ll always be available for you.” Though his words were tender, his expression was all-business as he stepped closer to pound his fist against one of her porch columns. “Sturdy as a bull. Wanna give me the grand tour?”
“Happy to.” Relieved to have their conversation back on safer ground, she jogged past him up the porch steps and threw open the front door. “This will be the main dining area.” She stepped inside the wide, empty room and gave a little twirl — already able to picture the tables and chairs that would soon fill it, along with the booths that would line the outer walls.
There was a long cabinet against the far wall with a narrow walkway behind it. The previous store owners had placed their cash register there. She intended to do the same, with one exception. She would have bar stools pushed up to the cabinet on either side of her register, giving her the perfect place to seat her solo guests.
Murphy stepped around the cabinet to push open a silver swing door marked Authorized Personnel Only.
“Holy smokes!” His exclamation echoed off the walls and ceiling of the empty room. “You already have a kitchen. A real one!”
“It’s a long story.” The discovery had astounded her, too. “Short version is the guy’s wife was planning on filming her own cooking show, featuring all their farm-fresh produce, and…” Her voice dwindled on a sad note. Hereford was a small Texas town where everybody knew everybody else’s business, so he probably already knew the rest of the story.
“Yeah, cancer is a beast,” Murphy agreed softly. The grocer’s wife hadn’t lasted more than a few weeks after her diagnosis. He'd boarded up the place and left town shortly afterward. “Man! If I’d known there was a blasted commercial kitchen hiding behind these boarded-up windows…” He gave a long, low whistle, making Lane wonder if he was implying that he’d have bought the place himself.
The phone in the back pocket of her cutoff jean shorts buzzed with an incoming call. It was her older brother. Grimacing, she muttered, “Gotta take this.”
Moving across the empty dining room, she stepped outside to the front porch. “Hey, Jude!” The last time she’d heard from her brainiac older sibling had been months ago. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” He sounded annoyed. “Can’t I just call my sister?”
Of course, but you rarely do, so what gives? “Where are you?” She was worried about him. Their parents had just this morning informed her they’d not heard from him in quite some time, either.
He ignored the question. “Congratulations on buying a restaurant. I know it’s what you’ve always wanted.”
How do you know I bought a restaurant? He’d been out of town for ages, and the ink wasn’t yet dry on the contract. Knowing he probably wouldn’t tell her, she tried a different tactic. “What? No snippy commentary about how I’m going to crash and burn without a college degree?”
He snorted. “You would’ve suffocated in a classroom.”
“Thanks to my lack of book smarts,” she teased, “I’m not 100% sure if that’s an insult or a compliment.”
“It’s the truth, Lane,” he snapped. “We are who we are, no matter how hard the rest of the world tries to change us.”
Though she appreciated the acceptance he’d always extended to her despite their many differences, it made her sad to hear the frustration in his voice. He’d never fit it anywhere — something he partially blamed on the fact that he was adopted, and otherwise blamed on the overall mean-spiritedness of the high school bullies who’d made his nerdy teen years a living hell.
“You still haven’t told me where you’re calling from,” she reminded with a sigh.
“You’re in Italy?” Her voice rose to a squeak of disbelief.
“Business meeting,” he explained in a clipped voice.
“But in Italy?” she repeated.
“I’m no longer the string bean in glasses and braces on the junior high math team,” he reminded. “Like you, I own a business now.”
“What business?” This was news to her. The last she’d heard, he was in England earning his umpteenth graduate level degree in something she couldn’t even pronounce.
“Investment banking.” He sounded vague. “An overseas venture you’ve probably never heard of.”
“Sounds cool!” They both knew he’d lost her at investment banking. She flipped burgers and mixed milkshakes for a living. “When are you coming back to town for a visit?”
“Never.” His voice was cool.
“Dad and I don’t get along,” he reminded. “It’s better this way.”
“Not for me!” She wasn’t sure she agreed with his other statement. Dad loved Jude, though she was pretty sure he’d never understood his son. How could he? He was a farmer, while Jude was a blasted genius! Seriously, what were the odds of adopting a kid whose I.Q. was more than double the norm?
She blinked in surprise as a black sports car slowed to a crawl while rolling past her parking lot. “Good golly,” she breathed. It looked out-of-place in a ridiculously expensive sort of way.
“Everything okay?” her brother asked quickly.
“Uh…not sure yet. I think the Batmobile is driving past my restaurant.”
“No, really,” she insisted. “It’s super sporty and black with a long, exotic snoot…” She was at a loss for words to continue describing it.
“Snoot, eh?” Her brother chuckled. “If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s a Bugatti La Voiture Noire.”
“Gesundheit,” she joked, pretending he’d just sneezed. “Oh, my lands! He’s pulling into my parking lot! What am I supposed to do?”
Her brother grunted in annoyance. “Does he have a gun aimed at you?”
“No, his car just looks painfully out of place in our super small cattle town. Like he just drove off a movie set or something.”
“Probably a tourist. Maybe he’s lost.”
“I don’t care. Stay on the phone with me, just in case,” she ordered, catching her breath as the driver slowly circled around to the front porch where she was standing. The gorgeous car braked in front of her, and the window rolled down.
A man in a silver suit and white dress shirt leaned out. “Hey, I’m looking for a food truck called Roper’s. Any idea where it’s parked?”
Jude snickered in her ear and disconnected the line.
“Jude,” she hissed, yanking the phone away from her ear to stare at it, aghast. Had he seriously ditched her in the middle of an encounter with a perfect stranger? Her startled gaze returned to the man in question.
“I ah…” She had to stop and swallow hard. Holy hotness! He had to be a pro football player, or a visiting prince from some foreign island, or…
His dark wavy hair was carelessly pushed back like he’d recently run a hand through it, and his baritone voice held a rumble of curiosity laced with wry humor.
It took her a moment to gather her wits enough to continue. “You expect me to believe that a guy driving the Batmobile is on the prowl for a burger?” He looked more like the upscale steak restaurant type. Or the sushi type. Or caviar.
“Not just any burger.” He shook his head, his hard mouth quirking upward. “You should see the online reviews for this place. And the raving recommendation I just received from a pair of locals.”
“Thank you,” she said simply. It was high praise. She didn’t need a college degree to catch on to that fact.
“Wow!” His dark eyes widened in amazement and no small amount of male admiration as he swiftly scanned her braids, cutoff shorts, and bare legs that were jammed into dusty boots. “Guess that makes you the owner. Lane Westfield.” The way he said her name sounded like a caress.
She quelled a delicious shiver. “I am, and Roper’s is closed today. I’m sorry you wasted a trip into town.”
At his look of disappointment, she fluttered a hand at her newest acquisition. “I just this morning signed a contract to purchase the building behind me. This is the new Roper’s.” Glancing over her shoulder, she rolled her eyes. “That is, it will be after a few coats of paint and some fixing up.”
“Congratulations!” He looked genuinely happy for her. “And I didn’t waste a trip. I had a client meeting not too far from here.”
“No kidding!” She caught her breath at his smile. It was downright lethal on the swoon-worthy scale. “What do you do?”
“I’m an attorney from Dallas.” He watched her smile slip. “Looks like you just figured out who I am, too.”
“Chandler Coben.” She liked his name. Allowing it to roll across her tongue like a new flavor of marinade, she decided on the spot that it had a solid ring to it — one that inspired confidence.
“The one and only.” His smile no longer reached his eyes.
She slowly moved down the steps toward his car. “What are my parents’ chances in court?” She made no attempt to hide the pleading in her voice. She was desperate to know. “Please be honest with me.” He was the guy they’d hired to represent them in a completely bizarre claim that they’d been embezzling funds from her father’s employer.
Chandler angled his head at the passenger door. “Let me take you to dinner. Then we’ll talk.”
She glanced back toward the open door of her restaurant, wondering when Murphy was going to resurface. There was no telling how long he’d linger in the kitchen, examining and testing the functionality of each appliance. Knowing him, he probably wouldn’t even notice if she took off for an hour.
“Fine.” She wasn’t the least bit hungry, but she was dying for any information Chandler Coben could shed on her parents’ case.
He stepped out of his car and hurried around the front to open the passenger door for her. Frowning back at the building, he inquired, “Aren’t you going to lock up first?”
She shook her head. “My cook is playing in the kitchen.” Her future cook, anyway. Funny how she already thought of Murphy that way — as hers. He had scads of experience that would undoubtedly help take her business to the next level. “He’ll be busy for a while.” He’d also lock the door behind him if she wasn’t back by then.
Before she slid into the passenger seat, he rested his hand on the door and ducked his head to gaze directly into her eyes. “Please assure me that you understand what the term attorney-client privilege means.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth at the power that a single look from him packed. Whew! She knew without asking that he was dangerous in the courtroom. “Let me guess. It means you aren’t going to answer any of my questions.”
“Actually, it means I can only share information that your parents have expressly given me permission to share with you.”
It sounded like legal mumbo jumbo to her. Lips tightening, she debated turning around and heading right back into the restaurant.
“Which they’ve already done,” he assured softly. “They signed a document giving me blanket approval to discuss their case with you.”
“Oh.” She wrinkled her forehead at him. “Then why did you ask me if I understood attorney-client privilege?”
“Because that privilege will now extend to you. Whatever you tell me in confidence will remain in my confidence — both inside and outside the courtroom. Your secrets will be my secrets.”
His voice was husky with promise, making her wonder if they were still talking about legalities.
She tilted her chin in challenge as she rested her fingers on the door frame. “So, you want to know my secrets, Mr. Coben?”
He slid his hand along the glossy black paint toward her hand, stopping just shy of tangling his fingers with hers. “All I’m saying is I’m a good listener, Miss Westfield.”
“Professionally or personally?” She wasn’t sure that flirting with her parents’ attorney was the wisest thing she’d ever done. However, he was mysterious and exciting, and she was in the mood to celebrate the big milestone rising behind her.
“Both, I hope.” He finished inching his hand forward to touch his fingers to hers.