Elizabeth O’Connell wasn’t sure she could tolerate another minute. This was her fifth blind date in as many weeks, and each of them had been significantly worse than the one before.
“I heard what happened with your ex-husband.” Carter Hudson, the tall, dark-haired man seated across from her at the new Dundee Inn and Steakhouse reached over to touch her hand. “It must’ve been a terrible ordeal.”
With light-brown eyes and strong, rugged features, Cater wasn’t unhandsome. But the way his thumb rested against the pulse at her wrist gave the impression he didn’t care so much about what she’d suffered as he did about pretending to commiserate with her—to make sure this night ended in as friendly a way as it could. Besides, his New York accent grated on her nerves. Almost everything about him grated on her nerves.
Looking for a distraction, she glanced around the dining room to see if she could spot someone she knew. She’d lived in Idaho for less than two years, but Dundee was a town of only fifteen hundred people, and she’d already become acquainted with many of the locals.
Unfortunately, it was a Thursday in late May, the height of the tourist season. She saw no one familiar. City slickers and yuppies drawn to the area by the Running Y Ranch, which offered visitors an authentic western vacation, filled the steakhouse.
Liz, while stubbornly keeping her smile in place, wished the waitress would arrive with their dinners and tried to focus. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it’s over now. Thank God.”
Carter didn’t take the hint. “And yet you’re on friendly terms with him. Wasn’t he on the phone a moment ago?”
Keith, her ex, was attempting to fix the wall at her new store. She knew she probably shouldn’t allow him to do her any more favors. But she’d relied on him for so long that it was still easier to accept his help than refuse it. And he was the father of her children. If the Chocolaterie proved as successful as she hoped it would, they all stood to benefit. With Keith working at the hardware store, it wasn’t as if he could provide her with much child support. “Yes.”
“You spoke to him as if you are good friends,” he marveled.
It seemed that ever many she dated either wanted to discuss his past relationships or hers. And once what had happened to her was out in the open, she faced a million questions.
She used the excuse of taking a drink of water to shift her hand. “I don’t see any reason to be the stereotypical ex-wife.”
Carter relaxed in his chair with easy grace. Judging from his build, he could move with impressive coordination and speed. But Liz doubted Carter ever really exerted himself. “That’s pretty forgiving. I’m sure it doesn’t sound very nice, but if I were you I’d make him pay—whether I was being stereotypical or not.”
Her grip tightened on her glass. Her emotions were complicated when it came to Keith, and Carter’s negativity wasn’t helping. “Why, when we have so many friends and loved ones in common? Maybe it’d be different if we lived in a big city. But in a town like this, we have to deal with each other every day.”
“You’re serious? You can take what he did as though it were nothing?”
“We have two children together,” she said, hoping he could understand the point of that, if nothing else.
Cater reacted with a snort of incredulity. “From what I’ve heard, he has three more with your brother’s wife.”
Liz told herself to count to ten. She itched to get up and walk out. Without an explanation. Without a backward glance. but she couldn’t. She loved Senator Garth Holbrook and his wife, Celeste, who’d set up this dinner date. She didn’t want her behavior to reflect poorly on them. Maybe if cater was only a casual acquaintance of the senator’s, she wouldn’t have to be so careful. But he’d just opened a field office for Garth and still worked with him. “She wasn’t my brother’s wife at the time,” she said.
“No, you were both married to Keith.”
The waitress approached, carrying two plates, and Liz sat back in relief. But the arrival of their food didn’t distract Cater. He simply dodged the waitress’s movements and continued to talk. “How long did he lead this double life–wasn’t it close to eight years?”
Liz couldn’t imagine Senator Holbrook sharing such information with someone she didn’t know. Not when his daughter Reenie had suffered because of Keith, too. “Who told you about it?”
“Everyone who gets the chance,” he responded, adjusting the napkin on his lap.
“You’re talking about Keith, aren’t you?” the waitress said.
Liz had met this woman at the salon when she was getting her hair cut, and had seen her around town several times since. Her name was Mandy something, and she always stopped Liz to marvel over what had happened as if they were good friends, when in reality, Liz barely knew her.
“What an incredible story,” she went on before Liz or Carter could respond. “That he was able to maintain two separate families without giving himself away is amazing. I still can’t believe he didn’t go to jail for what he did.”
“The state has too many violent criminals to spend money prosecuting someone like Keith. He didn’t marry me to commit fraud, and he’s always taken are of his children.”
“Still. It’s amazing.”
“Yes, it is,” Carter said dryly.
Liz ground her teeth. These people had no idea what she’d been through—or why. “Maybe if you knew Keith, you’d understand. He was gone half the time because of his job. I had no reason to suspect him of being unfaithful.”
Cater drew forward in his seat. “Unfaithful? He had a whole other family.”
“He wouldn’t strike you as the type of person to do what he did.”
“You were living with him,” he pointed out.
The waitress, who’d been struggling to light a candle on the table finally managed to succeed. “Yeah, but she and Reenie were two states apart. Otherwise, they probably would’ve found out sooner.” She put her lighter back into the pocket of her burgundy apron and smiled engagingly at Cater. “By the way, I love your accent.”
Liz had no patience left and ran over Carter’s polite acknowledgement as she tried to make her point. “Keith has a strong sense of responsibility. That’s partly what got him into trouble.”
The waitress toyed with the salt and pepper shakers in a rather obvious attempt to stick around, but when Liz leveled her with a meaningful look she finally seemed to realize she had no business there.
“I’ll check back in a few,” she said, belatedly snapping into work mode.
“Thank you,” Liz said and picked up her fork.