Lost in thought about Lila, Sam barely heard Hack.
“My hotshot sister is home from L.A., where she thinks she’s setting the world on fire with her highfalutin movie job,” Hack continued. “She’s living alone out there—or so she says—probably because no one will live with Miss Snooty. It gives me more money from the old man. My sister can just stay in California. It’s a good place for her. Royal, on the other hand, does have the hot chicks. Think so, Sam?”
“There are fine people in Royal, Texas,” Sam said, his thoughts still only partially on Hack.
“Speakin’ of hot chicks, I see Anna June Wilson. If you’ll excuse me,” Hack said, walking away.
Sam took a deep breath, glad Hack had moved on. At seventeen, the kid was spoiled rotten by Beau. Sam had seen Hack around his dad. The kid was smart enough to keep on Beau’s good side most of the time. The rest of the time, Beau bailed him out of trouble.
Sam raked his fingers through his hair and strode to the outdoor bar on the large patio. After Lila had returned to California, he’d called her. When she hadn’t taken his calls, he had stopped phoning. Was she cool because he hadn’t continued to pursue her? He should forget Lila Hacket. Trouble was, he hadn’t been able to forget Lila.
“Dammit,” he said under his breath.
“Sam Gordon, what are you doing standing by yourself?”
“Just looking for you, darlin’,” he said, smiling at Sally Dee Caine, the perfect antidote for Lila. Known by every male in Maverick County, Sally Dee was fun and Sam enjoyed her in small doses. He took in her bright pink, low-cut, clinging jersey blouse and tight faded jeans. “You look good enough, Sally Dee, to make me forget about the enticing barbecue that’s cooking. I might find what I want right here,” he said, nuzzling her neck. Giggling, she wrapped her arm in his.
“Sam, you’re usually a partying fool. C’mon, the fiddler’s wound up and there’s a barn filled with two-steppers dancing the time away.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” he said, grinning as he draped his arm across her shoulders and pulled her close against his side. While she slipped her arm around his waist, they headed toward the Hackets’ big brown barn.
“Sorry if I interrupted you if you wanted to stay and talk to Sam,” Shannon said as she walked beside Lila.
“No, you rescued me. I know you don’t care to meet the barbecue cook. Let’s head for the dining room. We can get some of Agnes’s artichoke dip.”
“Your parents’ cook is the best in Maverick County.”
“She’s good, but we have a lot of good cooks around here. Also, I saw her carrying a tray of gorgeous fruit into the dining room.”
“Yum. I won’t argue that one. It’s great to have you home. As usual, your family’s barbecue is fabulous. Each year, this barbecue seems to be bigger than the year before.”
“I think it is bigger. Nearly all the Texas Cattleman’s Club members are here. There’s an undercurrent this year, though. I hear people talking about Alex Santiago’s disappearance. That mystery has some on edge.”
“No one knows what happened to him and they’re keeping publicity about it to a minimum, I think. Or maybe they just really don’t know anything. It’s odd and it’s scary. No one, much less a member of the Texas Cattleman’s Club, just disappears.”
“Alex Santiago did.”
Shannon shivered. “I hope they find him soon. I understand that he’s a wealthy investor—who knows what he’s involved in? What about you? You said you’re on vacation for two weeks?”
“Yes. I have to be here in two weeks anyway because the studio will be shooting a picture in the area. I took two weeks off beforehand. I’m working a little, trying to select locations, but I’m taking some private time for myself.”
“Your work sounds like a dream job.”
“Sometimes it is. It can get hectic, but I’m learning and I like what I do.”
“You have two weeks’ vacation.” Shannon’s blue eyes focused on Lila. “Why don’t you think about squeezing a little time to help plan the new child center at the Texas Cattleman’s Club? We could use your professional opinion. The construction company is renovating the place, but they want the women’s input about the decor and what we’d like to have for the children.”
Lila laughed. “My dad would explode. You can’t imagine—well, yes, you can imagine—how he feels about a child center. It almost did him in when women were voted into the club, Shannon,” Lila said with a big grin.
Shannon laughed. “I love being a member of the club. I still can’t get used to women, including me, belonging to the exclusive male bastion, the sacrosanct male domain for over one hundred years, the exclusive Texas Cattleman’s Club.” She laughed again with Lila. “I better not speak loudly—all the members are here tonight.
“I know it irritates your dad and some of the others,” Shannon continued. “Your dad and a lot of the older members, but some young ones, too. The Gordon twins. Your brother has made snippy remarks.”
“I told you years ago to tune Hack out. Dad spoils him until it’s pitiful. I’m afraid Hack is going to turn out as narrow-minded as Dad. If you weren’t such a good friend, I think Hack would make worse remarks to you. He can get really crude.”
Shannon shrugged. “I do tune out your brother and the remarks are more than just snippy. He isn’t going to like the child center. Doesn’t matter. The construction company has already started renovation.”
“Lila, you’re perfect for the job because you’re a production set designer. C’mon. Help us while you have some time.”
Thinking over the request, Lila looked into Shannon’s bright blue eyes beneath short, sassy blond hair. Lila had come home to rest, to talk confidentially with her mother, not to take on another job. If she accepted, though, it might keep her mind off her problems and it would be an interesting project. She would be with Shannon, a hard worker who was always fun. “You know, I’d enjoy collaborating with you and the idea is exciting. Besides, sometimes I like to shake up my dad. I’ll do it, but if it gets to be too much, Shannon, I’m out.”
“Fantastic and fair enough. I don’t want you to participate if it’s too much, but it won’t be. I’d like your input.”
“That sounds easy.”
“It should be fun to do. Any chance you can meet me at the club Monday morning?”
“Sure. My schedule is open. As long as it’s not early Monday morning.”
“No, we won’t meet early, because I have my ranch chores,” Shannon said as they walked down a wide hall into the big dining room that had a table holding silver trays and crystal dishes of hors d’oeuvres.
“Hi, Amanda, Nathan,” Lila said while Shannon echoed her greeting to the couple, who stood holding hands and had been gazing at each other until they were interrupted. Amanda and Nathan Battle, Royal’s sheriff, turned to look at them. Lila felt an invisible punch in her middle when she saw them holding hands, clearly in love.
“The newlyweds,” Lila said, smiling at them. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” they said in unison, then looked at each other and laughed.
“We were just taking a moment away from the crowd to talk. The party is fantastic, Lila. Your folks know how to throw a party,” Amanda said. Amanda’s glow and obvious joy continued to give Lila a pang. What would it be like to be deeply in love, to have it returned? From the way Amanda looked, it seemed it would be bliss.