Her relationship with Rhett was never supposed to turn sexual.
The two had met when she moved to town and opened up her little restaurant. Rhett blew in one Wednesday afternoon, proclaiming that he’d heard she had good food and had to test it out himself. He was brusque and a little more than intimidating. After Sally’s past with men, she was wary of the older gentleman. True, he was never rude and she’d heard lovely things about him from the other people in town. There was something dangerous about him, however, and it made her feel like she had to stay away. She didn’t mean that in the typical romance novel sense. He was dangerous in an attractive way. He was dangerous because of his knowing eyes that followed her as she flew around the restaurant, the way he spoke to her as if he’d known her for years, the hints that he wanted to get to know her better ... as a person. And he was a cowboy, which added to the horror. He lived and breathed the west, and was of the old school variety of cowboys, which completely disgusted Sally.
He came to her restaurant constantly. He visited for dinner every Wednesday and lunch every Saturday, always inspecting the menu as if Sally’s tiny place had suddenly altered its offerings.
Sometimes he’d try to chat with her a little. His version of chatting, anyway. He’d talk about his favorite horse, Sapphire, or how he couldn’t stand his sister. He’d tell her facts about things she really didn’t want to know.
“Sal, did you know that four popes died having sex?”
“No, Rhett, but I could have done with not knowing.”
“Sally, Sally ... in Georgia, it is against the law to slap a man on the back or front. Did you know that?”
“Nope. Luckily it’s not illegal here. Did you want your dessert?
“Hey, Sally! I know you’re busy dangling a bunch of plates but come listen to this. Crocodile poop used to be used as contraception.”
Then one night it rained. Poured. Most people stayed away and over half of her waitstaff called out, leaving Sally and her cousin, Elvis, all alone. There weren’t many tables so it was no big deal, but when Elvis had to leave because his girlfriend’s car broke down, Sally became uncomfortable.
Especially when Rhett walked in.
There was only one table occupied by an older couple who was nearly finished with their meal. Panic crept its miserable way up her spine when Sally realized she had no choice but to serve him. He tipped his hat in her direction and then made himself comfortable at the bar.
He scowled at the menu while she stood waiting to take his order. He was in a particularly cranky mood. She studied his face—softly lined and tanned, handsome but too harsh for her liking—and thought that in another life, maybe Rhett had been good-looking. Dashing, even. The forty-five year old was fit and roguish, according to all of the women in town, and Sally thought he had an interesting vibe about him. If she’d encountered him before whatever had made him into the ragged cowboy she saw before her, maybe she’d have been interested. But she was done with men, and even more done with cowboys.
Eventually his dark piercing eyes met hers. “You only have small cuts of steak. I like mine big.”
“Sorry,” she replied automatically.
Rhett’s lips quickly turned up into a small incredulous smile. “You afraid of me, Sally?” He asked it as if the idea was the most absurd one ever.
“No,” she said much too quickly. His smile grew.
He placed his hat on the bar and looked around. “And you’re all by your lonesome, too.” He laughed at her expression. “Sally, I ain’t going to do anything to you. You have my word of honor. I just want some steak. I won’t even try to talk to you tonight. No factoids or me trying to lure you out to my land.”
She cleared her throat and picked up her pad. “Fries or baked potato?”
She heard the grin in his voice when he said, “Baked potato, ma’am.”
Sally tried to avoid him for the rest of the night but he kept calling her over for things.
“Got any extra butter?”
“I might have a side order of fries, too, sweetheart.”
“Do you have any more of that fancy beer Elvis dragged in with him last week?”
Suddenly it was nearly closing time and Rhett made no show of getting ready to leave. The last couple stood and went back into the cold rain.
“Could I have a glass of vodka with just a hint of cranberry and orange, please?”
She was puzzled over the order but said nothing as she mixed the drink.
“Another whiskey, too, please.”
Great. He was planning on getting hammered and there was nothing she could do about it. She could try to call the cops and get them to force him out, but she decided that would be too embarrassing. And Elvis was busy ... and besides, he was amused she was so scared of Rhett.
“He’s nothing, honey,” he always said. “A nice guy who means no harm. If you talked to him, you’d see. And you could probably do with a little of his attention.”
“What does that mean?” she asked him one night, ignoring Rhett’s stare from across the room.
Elvis had snorted a little and shook his head. “You two just have a chemistry. And you’re twenty-eight, Sal. You resign yourself to never getting laid again?”
“Fuck off,” she’d said, but she wondered if he didn’t have a point. It had been so long, and the cowboy was the first man she’d noticed in a while.
Sally placed the whiskey next to the vodka and then ran off into the kitchen, giving the last order of the day to her impatient cook, David.
“Fuck, Sally, really?”
“Last one,” she promised. “Then you can go home.”
She returned to the bar and regarded her last guest with apprehension.
“Sit,” Rhett ordered. He gestured to the stool next to him. “You need to relax.”
“I don’t think...”
“Sit,” he said again.
“I don’t really like being ordered around,” she heard herself mutter. Part of her couldn’t believe she was standing up to Rhett; the other was pissed at his bossiness ... and more than a little fascinated.
He picked up his glass of whiskey and studied her. “Damn, you’re like a cat.”
“All pretty and groomed, but you don’t like people. You want to be left alone.”
“Of course I like people,” she said, more than a little offended. She tried to ignore that he’d called her pretty. “I opened a restaurant.”
“Hmm, well you’re particular about who you like. Just like a cat.”
“Rhett, I think you’ve had too much to drink. Maybe I should call you a cab and you can go home.”
“Don’t get your back up, Kitty. And that’s the very first time you’ve said my name. We bonding now?”
“No,” she hissed. “God, you’re exactly what I thought you’d be like. Bossy and chauvinistic. And all drawling like some ridiculous cowboy.”
Rhett had the nerve to chuckle. “You been talking to my ex-wife?”
“You’re making me uncomfortable,” Sally confessed.
“Bad uncomfortable or good uncomfortable?”
Sally snorted but Rhett seemed serious. This was by far the strangest conversation she’d ever had.
“There is a difference?”
“Sure. There is the bad uncomfortable where you really don’t like the way something or someone makes you feel. And you want to be free. Then there is the good uncomfortable that you winds you up and makes you feel nervous but alive. And you just seek an outlet to deal with that discomfort.”
Sally shook her head. “I don’t get it.”
He leaned over the bar so close that she could see the tiny specks of gold in his eyes. “You really want me to leave?”
She thought past her knee-jerk reaction and decided that no, no she didn’t. She knew he wasn’t a threat, at least not in the way she’d experienced in the past, and she was strangely curious about him. She’d have a drink with him. That’s it. No harm there. She took a deep, steadying breath and smoothed down her honey-blonde hair.
He didn’t smile but she could sense his pleasure. “Then sit down and tell me about yourself. I’ve been curious for weeks.”
She walked around the bar and took a seat. She looked dubiously at the drink she’d unknowingly prepared for herself. Normally she didn’t like sweet drinks, and she was still annoyed he was so presumptuous. Still, she took a sip and surprised herself by liking it. She didn’t want Rhett to know that, though, so she forced her expression to remain still. She ignored his amused stare.
“There really isn’t much to tell. I moved to Colorado from New York about five years ago. I like it here. Moved to this town because of Elvis. We grew up together.”
The two were interrupted when David stalked out of the kitchen and forcibly plopped Rhett’s meal in front of him. The chef dramatically pulled off his apron and cast a dirty look over his shoulder at Sally. “I’m out, boss.”
He disappeared before she could respond, and when she glanced over at Rhett, all thoughts of David and his attitude dissipated.
The strange man beside her grinned as he buttered his potato. “Did you? Now, that’s fascinating. He must’ve been an interesting fucker as a kid.”
Sally laughed. “You have no idea. My mom couldn’t stand him.” She took another sip. “But his mom and mine were stepsisters. Very close. So she put up with his antics to spend time with her. Of course she loved him, but she had a low tolerance for him. She got to hang with his mom whenever Elvis came out here to see his dad.”
“Where is your mama now?”
She could sense that Rhett thought she was dead because he was tensely watching her. She spun a little on the stool so that her body was facing him. She didn’t miss the quick once-over he gave her. It didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would have ... or should have. “Oh, back in New York somewhere. I think she’s still married to her fifth husband.”
Rhett looked mildly surprised as he worked on his steak. “Fifth husband? Good Lord.”
“She’s addicted to marriage. Not so much the husbands.” Sally picked at imaginary lint on her black dress.
Rhett finished his drink and pushed away his nearly empty plate. The man sure had an appetite. “Where’s your daddy?”
“Want another glass?”
He shook his head. “Your daddy in New York?”
“I honestly don’t know.” Sally sighed and shook her head. “He left us when I was a kid. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a cliché, Rhett.”
“Maybe you are.”
Sally’s back went straight. “Excuse me?”
Rhett laughed as he stood and tossed some money on the bar. “There you go, Kitty. I just mean to say maybe you are but then we all are. Didn’t mean no offense.”
She stood, too, and tried not to feel too intimidated by his height. “Want me to call you a cab?”
“Or you could drive me.” She met his eyes and saw something glittering in there that made her shy.
She rubbed her arms. “You’re really presumptuous, you know.”
“I’ve heard that. Stubborn and pigheaded, too. And probably a whole host of others that I get called behind my back. Doesn’t bother me. Now, will you drive me home?”
She took him home, against her better judgement. The ride was silent and uncomfortable. Sally turned up the radio as soon as they were buckled in, but one achingly intimate song after another began playing. The music was almost as awkward as the vibe between them.
“Lucille” by Kenny Rogers started playing, which prompted Rhett to snort.
Sally made a right on the street he indicated. “Not a fan of Kenny Rogers? I thought that was a prerequisite for all cowboys.”
“I have an ex named Lucille,” Rhett sighed. “Sort of fits the character of the song, as well. She never saw it that way. She’d play the damn thing constantly ... Make a left here, sweetheart.”
Sally’s heartbeat increased and she felt her cheeks flush. She turned the station and let a chill 90s song fill the car. She felt Rhett looking at her but she couldn’t bear to look back.
“You’re a lot more skittish than I pegged you for, Kitty.”
“Stop calling me that.”
“What? Kitty? What would you prefer?”
“How about my actual name?”
Rhett snickered. “No, Kitty fits.”
“Obnoxious, I know. I’m the blue house coming up on the left.”
Sally pulled up to the house; her hand hovered over the gear shift. Should she put the car in park? Or should she merely keep her foot on the brake, hoping that would urge Rhett to get out as soon as possible? She opted for putting the car in park and lowering the radio.
“You’re not like I imagined you’d be,” Rhett confessed. “I thought you’d be this neurotic city woman running from some horrible past, opening up a restaurant as some kind of front for her sufferin’.”
Sally forced a smile and tried to convince herself that her body hummed with confidence rather than self-consciousness and anxiety.
Rhett wiped at his face and then turned his body towards her to meet her gaze. “Now I know the truth. You have a damn good restaurant.”
It took her a minute before she caught the significance of his words.
He had the audacity to smile. “Why, ‘cause I’m astute?”
Sally’s cheeks flushed; she prayed the darkness wouldn’t dare reveal it to her insufferable passenger. “I’ll shove my astute boot up your ass if you don’t get out of my car. Don’t you dare presume to know anything about me!”
“I’m not presuming shit. That’s why I’m trying to get to know you.”
The man beside her startled her by taking her hand. “Because I think you need a friend.”
Sally struggled to maintain her composure, but her voice shook when she said, “Don’t you dare. I’m not sleeping with you. I’m just fine not being your friend, thank you.”
“You think I want to fuck you?” Rhett threw back his head and laughed. He kept his eyes on the ceiling as he said, “Kitty, I’d love that honor but I’m honestly just trying to help. I saw you the first day and knew. Knew that you needed a friend. And I’m a bold fucker who is just trying to do some good before I die.”
“Well, I refuse to be your fucking charity project, too. And I don’t even believe you. You’ve been hitting on me all night.”
Rhett turned his head towards her but kept it resting against the back of his seat. “Maybe I have. Maybe I do want to fuck you. I’m just telling you that ain’t my main intention.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and pushed open his door. “I got a million and one chores I have to do before I sleep tonight. I don’t have time to argue with you, although it sure is cute. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I just have to say you seem sad and lonely. Like you don’t want nobody close. You’re all shut up. I hate seeing that. That’s all.”
Sally didn’t know how to respond. She watched him get out of the car in silence and run across his property in the rain.
Rhett didn’t show up to the restaurant the following week. Sally tried to ignore his absence, but couldn’t help but look over at the door every time an older man walked through the door.
Was he embarrassed? Doubtful. Annoyed? Maybe.
Or maybe he was just trying to give her space.
Sally couldn’t decide whether or not she wanted to see him again, and she was spared wondering about it any further when he unexpectedly sauntered in one busy Friday night.
He sat at the bar and watched her. Slowly she made her way over to him and tried not to look up from her pad.
“The usual to drink. Nothing to eat,” was all he said.
He didn’t try to talk to her like usual—didn’t say much to anyone. He occasionally watched her work, but when she caught his gaze, she didn’t notice any lust or longing in his eyes. Just interest.
People were thinning out before he said another word to her.
“Need another ride tonight, if that’s alright with you.”
And there it was.
Her skin seemed to erupt in goosebumps; she felt a sudden cool but delicious chill ripple down her spine.
“Okay.” She was blushing, she knew, but he didn’t smile at it. Rhett just seemed determined. Resigned. Maybe even anxious.
She closed up, leaving a knowing Elvis cleaning up.
“Just a ride?”
“Yeah, I’m giving him a ride home,” she sighed. “You want to do it?”
“Oh,” Elvis grinned, “I don’t think Rhett wants a ride from me.”
“Give me a fucking break, El.”
Elvis cleared the glass from the bar and tipped his chin in Rhett’s direction. “No. But he’ll probably give you a fucking break.”
She gave him the middle finger as he walked away, laughing at his own stupid joke.
Rhett put his hat on, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Everything okay?”
“Yup. Let’s just go.”
Rhett’s land was more than a little out of the way. Sally’s eyes hurt from peering into the unrelenting darkness; her brights did nothing to support her.
The two people inside the car were silent except for the occasional “make a right here” and “is the heat too high for you?”
And yet there was an anticipation in the air which Sally couldn’t identify. She felt like something was going to happen, but what? She wasn’t going to just have sex with the man. For starters, he was too old. Secondly, she’d sworn off relationships and casual entanglements. Plus, they were basically strangers.
She could feel him watching her. She had the feeling that he wanted to touch her, and part of her wanted to tell him that he could, to give him permission. She could even pretend that she felt the weight of his thick, rough fingers on her thigh.
Eventually they pulled up to a somewhat overgrown piece of land with a worn-down fence. Sally parked and peered through the darkness beyond her windshield.
“The blue house,” Rhett said. He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. “My place.”
“I’d compliment it but it’s very dark. I didn’t even think to look last time. Probably too dark that night, too,” she rambled lamely.
“Ain’t nothing much to compliment,” he admitted. She saw him tapping his knee out of the corner of her eye. “Would you like to come in for a bit?”
It was Sally’s turn to clear her throat. “I think it’s far too late and too dark for that.”
“Honestly, it’s far too late and too dark for you to drive back, don’t you think? This was a selfish request of me tonight. Might as well come in for a drink.” His dark eyes met hers in the faint dashboard light.
“You planned it this way, didn’t you?”
“I won’t lay a hand on you,” he went on, ignoring her words and the stiffening of her body, “you can sleep on the couch. Hell, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
Sally wasn’t sure what she was doing. She could feel the broken, failed relationships in her past. The men who touched her too hard. The men who touched her too soft. She could remember every fight. She could recall the nice men she’d rejected, and the cruel men she’d embraced. She’d vowed when she moved to this little place that she wouldn’t repeat the same horrible mistakes. She was getting too old, and too batted. She bore the bruises of far too many fights. She needed to respect herself.
Rhett wasn’t just like a magnet. He was the freshly made bed you just wanted to sink into. He was the dessert you knew you shouldn’t have, but knew each bite would be divine. He was the extra five minutes in bed in the morning that you knew you shouldn’t take, but did all the same.