Cowboy Angel in Disguise for Christmas
Swapping cars with a handsome cowboy...
A VERY COUNTRY CHRISTMAS WISH #1
It had been a miserable week of gray skies, scattered sleet storms, and high winds. But that wasn’t why Tess Cardwell was so miserable.
And hopeless about the future.
She scrubbed furiously at a nonexistent spot on one of the tables at the diner, mainly because it was the only thing in sight to take her frustration out on.
Her dear friend, Willa Morgan, had just texted her that she was extending her visit in Pinetop, Arizona. Again. This time, however, she was sending a driver to come swap vehicles back. On the surface, her reason had been sweet.
I know the weather is bad in Phoenix this time of year. I feel AWFUL that I’ve left you stranded in my Porsche for so long!
Just beneath the surface, though, Tess had read a very different message — one in which her friend wasn’t anxious to leave Pinetop now that she was home again. Possibly ever.
I should’ve never encouraged her to go home! I should’ve never made it so easy, either, by car swapping and house sitting and... The moment Tess allowed such bitterness to swirl through her brain, she felt guilty. But of course, I should have! Willa had been falling apart in Phoenix after the death of her favorite songwriter, Billy Rivers. The two of them had been close. Really close. Like everyone-expected-them-to-get-engaged-and-marry kind of close. He'd owned the recording studio where she did most of her work, too, a place his youngest brother was busy running into the ground. Or so Tess had heard…
What do I know? She scrubbed the table harder. I’m just a waitress. She overheard stuff, though. Every day. Enough to wonder if there was much of anything for Willa to come back to Phoenix for, professionally speaking.
“You keep that up, and they’re going to have to replace the table.”
She abruptly straightened to face the owner of the voice. “Wes! You’re here!” Her mechanic friend was early. She hadn’t been expecting him for another hour — closer to the end of her shift.
“Yeah, sorry about being early.” He was a cowboy through-and through, from his jeans to his plaid shirt. Both were spattered liberally with car grease. So were his boots. He stood there, dangling a set of keys in the air, not the least apologetic for looking like he’d just crawled out from underneath the last car he’d been working on. “Got another customer who rolled in without an appointment. Figured it only made sense to bring you the Porsche before I got back to work.”
“Thanks.” She accepted the keys and stuffed them in the back pocket of her jeans. “Did you have time to detail the inside?” She glanced anxiously at the sky through the front window of the diner.
“Yep. It looks and smells like a new car,” he promised. “And the skies are clear this evening. I checked before driving over here.”
She reached for her black waitress book and started counting out dollar bills from her tip money.
“I’ll add it to your tab,” Wes assured, reaching over to close her black book.
“Wes,” she sighed, wrinkling her nose at him. “You have to let me pay for something.”
“I don’t, actually.” He winked at her.
“Yes, you do. It’s not like we’re—” She was about to say dating, but he cut her off before she could.
“I know.” He tipped his hat at her and backed toward the door. “Drive safe, Tess. It’s supposed to get windy again later on.”
“Don’t forget your dinner.” She pointed at the stack of white Styrofoam containers she’d carefully stacked inside of a tall white bag with handles. Knowing he’d refuse payment for the detail job, she’d ordered enough country-fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy for him and both of the junior mechanics who helped him out part time. If they weren’t working today, then Wes could throw the leftovers in the fridge of his apartment over the shop.
His tanned features lit with pleasure. “Now you’re talking.” Striding to the counter in the front of the diner, he snatched up the bag. Then he was gone.
She stared after him, perplexed, wishing she didn’t always end their exchanges by feeling like she was taking advantage of him. She adored Wes Wakefield to pieces and appreciated him more than words could express — all his protectiveness and the way he was always looking after her. She simply wasn’t in love with him.
If she could make herself fall in love, he was exactly the kind of guy she would want to fall for, though. She wasn’t sure why she’d never felt that kind of spark around him. He was tall, dark, and handsome. He was kind and generous. And he certainly was hopeful that their friendship would turn into something more someday.
Maybe driving a Porsche for a few months has made me too big for my britches or something. It was a depressing thought, one Tess tried to push away the closer the clock ticked toward closing time. She had no idea who was coming to pick up Willa’s Porsche. Willa had simply referred to him as the driver she’d paid to return Tess’s truck and make the swap.
Glancing through the windows again, Tess frowned critically at the skies. Though they were clear right now, that didn’t mean they’d stay clear for the next four or five hours. Whoever Willa’s driver was would be taking a real risk, driving her Porsche all the way into the mountains in February.
I guess that’s not my problem. However, she continued to watch anxiously for Willa’s mysterious driver. She hoped he’d dressed warm in case he got stranded out there in bad weather. Just to be safe, she placed another order to go — this time for a man she’d never met. The least she could do as a diner waitress was send him home with some food. It might put a dent in the Porsche’s “new car smell” Wes had restored, but it would be better than going hungry after getting stuck in a snowdrift.
The minutes of her shift ticked all the way down to zero. Tess glanced at her watch and wondered if she should ask to work a little overtime. Heaven knew she could use the money.
The front door jingled with an incoming customer. She glanced up expectantly and found a lone cowboy standing there. His Stetson was pulled too low for her to read his expression. No doubt it was a hungry one. “I’ll be right with you.”
“No, you won’t, because you’re off duty. I’ve got this.” Her co-worker, Maggie, breezed past her in too tight jeans in a cloud of too much perfume. She returned to her side only seconds later. “He’s asking for you,” she notified Tess in dismissive tones.
“Oh!” She finished shrugging on her quilted winter jacket. “It must be the driver I was waiting for.”
“Whatever.” Maggie snatched up a pitcher of sweet tea and moved back across the room to top off glasses. She’d always been jealous of the way Tess made friends with the customers. Because she remembered their names and orders, they often returned and specifically requested for her to wait on them. Fortunately, her boss loved the repeat business, which made the resentment of her coworkers more bearable. Only slightly, though.
She hurried over to the cowboy at the door. “Hi, I’m Tess Cardwell,” she announced brightly. “I heard you were asking for me.”
“Yep. Emilio Navarro here.” He pulled off a black leather glove and thrust a callused hand in her direction.
She shook it, curiously searching his features. “Have we met before?” Though accustomed to serving hardworking cowboys, she didn’t recognize his faint Hispanic accent. Or the warm dark eyes that roved her face like melted chocolate.
“Nope. I’d definitely remember if we met.” He reached inside the pocket of his blue jean jacket to withdraw a set of keys. “I’ve very much been looking forward to meeting the owner of this truck, though.” He held the keys out to her.
“My truck,” she cried joyfully, closing her fingers around them. She hadn’t realized until just now how much she’d missed driving it.
“Nice wheels.” He gave the keys a light tug for emphasis before letting them go. “Very sweet ride.”
Catching sight of her red and black Ford F-150 through the window, she nodded gratefully. “Thank you for driving all the way to Phoenix to make the swap.” She returned her attention to him, not liking how faded his jeans were and how thin they looked at the knees. His jean jacket didn’t look the warmest, either.
“My pleasure, Miss Cardwell.” The once-over he gave her made the room feel warmer.
She held his gaze worriedly. “Are you sure it’s safe to drive a Porsche in this weather?”
He pushed his Stetson back a little to get a better look at her. “It’s not ideal, but I’ve got this.”
“I ordered you some takeout.” Hoping he liked hamburgers, she reached across the cabinet to claim the bag sitting there. She’d ordered two double cheeseburgers and a whole pile of fries — food that would be easy to eat on the go. “And coffee for the road.” She reached for the tall, white insulated cup and tossed two thin black straws into the opening on the top.
“Wow, Miss Cardwell! I certainly wasn’t expecting all this.” Looking enormously grateful, he accepted the cup and bag.
“It’s Tess. Just Tess.” Her voice came out more breathless than she intended as their fingers brushed during the handoff. “Please tell Willa that I miss her and can’t wait until she returns to Phoenix.” Just the thought of how long Willa had been gone already made her eyes sting a little. I will not cry in front of a complete stranger!
“I’ll do that.” Emilio studied her features with an expression that was hard to read. “You’re always welcome to come visit her in Pinetop, you know.”
“Please don’t say that!” Her voice was low and fiercely defensive.
“I’m sorry.” He took a step back, raising his hands in apology. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I know,” she said quickly. “It’s just hard thinking of her not coming back.” She gulped and dabbed at the corners of her eyes as the first tears started to leak. “Here.”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Glancing around them, he hastily set his to-go bag and coffee cup on an empty table. Fishing in his pocket, he unearthed a tissue and stuffed it in her hand. “It’s wrinkled, but it’s clean. I promise.”
“Thanks.” His kindness made her tears flow a little harder. “I’m such a wreck. I’m sorry.” she muttered into the tissue. “It hasn’t been the same since she left.” She gave a damp sniffle.
“I bet she’ll appreciate hearing how much she’s missed,” he said gently.
“Thank you, Mr. Navarro,” she choked.
“Emilio,” he corrected quickly. “I kind of feel like I already know you after spending a few hours in your truck.”
“Oh, really?” She chuckled despite her tears. “Why’s that?”
“For one thing, there’s a spare cat collar resting on the seat.”
“Oh, good! I’ve been looking all over for that thing.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “Please assure me you’re not allergic to cats.”
“Nope.” He added with a wink, “Or their owners.”
She blushed at the admiring glint in his eyes. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Oh, and there were a few French fries between the driver’s seat and the door of your truck.”
“Oops!” She chuckled. “Sorry about that.”
“I’m not. I eat on the go, too. Kind of hoping you might be sending me home with some fries.” He retrieved the to-go bag and his cup of coffee.
“A whole pile of them,” she assured.
“You’re the best.” His voice was caressing as he nodded his goodbye to her.
“Drive safe.” She fluttered a hand at him, wishing she could think of something more to say.
“That’s the plan.” He winked at her again before pushing open the door.
She stared after him, wishing their encounter hadn’t been so short. And that he didn’t live so far away. And that there was the foggiest chance she would see him again.
His cheerful suggestion for her to come visit Pinetop someday popped back into her head. It was impossible, of course. She couldn’t afford to take vacations. However, if such a miracle ever occurred, she now had two reasons to visit her friend’s hometown in the mountains.
One of them was darkly handsome beneath the brim of his Stetson and had the most delicious accent!
With a sigh, she finished bundling up to return home alone.
At least, I have a cat.
Maybe it was just her loneliness talking, but she suddenly wished she also had an Emilio to return home to.
Just stop! She tried not to think about him on the short drive back to Willa’s townhouse that she was still house sitting, but it was difficult not to. “Please, God,” she murmured, “Take him safely back to Pinetop.” Even if I never see him again.
She suddenly and inexplicably hoped she was wrong about that last part.