When Cole and Piper arrived at the truck stop, Cole flagged down the owner, Norma Stitts. She waved them in. He took Piper’s elbow and led her to a booth.
Piper inspected the bookshelf by the door, then gazed around the room, taking it all in. Cole tried not to stare, but it proved hard not to watch her first encounter with a Texas truck stop.
“There are three men reading romance novels,” she said in awe. Packed with men, but also a few women and children, Stitts’ was hopping.
“I’m surprised it’s not more,” Cole said, rubbing his chin.
“Really?” Piper’s eyes widened.
“You’ll have to ask Miss Jessie about how it started,” Cole explained.
“Mrs. Barnes, my boss?”
“Yes. Sorry, I’ve called her Miss Jessie for years.”
A man entered the restaurant, placed two books on the shelf, then ran his finger down the spines in the line and pulled out another. He paused, reading the back.
“Do you see that man?” Cole asked, and she nodded. “He’s a farmer. Owns a couple hundred acres, a modest spread, and he loves romances.”
The farmer pocketed the book. He picked out two more before leaving.
“Ah, romance books. This is what you meant yesterday?” Her cheeks pinked.
“Yes.” He cleared his throat, which had suddenly gone dry. “It started with a personal challenge to one man, a dare. He didn’t back down. He liked the books and dared others. Then it spread like wildfire on dry prairie grass.”
They ordered and sipped the rich dark coffee. “This is good.” Inhaling deeply, she gripped the ceramic mug as if it held ambrosia.
He leaned back and relaxed. Warmth spread through his body, happy to have pleased her.
“So who dared you?” she asked.
He nearly spit coffee.
“I mean, why do you read them?”
“I like the stories.”
“You mean you like the sex.” She tilted her head and grinned.
Sure, he liked the steamy scenes, but that wasn’t the whole reason he read them. “I like happy endings,” he offered with a shrug. She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Okay, I like the hot scenes, but only because of the love.” He swallowed.
The waitress placed food on the table, saving him. They ate in silence except for an occasional comment about the flavor of the food. After Piper pushed an empty plate away, she asked, “Are all cowboys like you?”
Uh oh. “Like, how?”
“You know, crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside?”
Cole laughed. “Most likely,” he answered, as another man took more books.
“I don’t like romance stories,” she admitted in a quiet voice. Before he could ask, she explained, “The heroines are too soft. I don’t like to read about weak women. Plus, those men always have movie star looks, amazing careers and are billionaires. You can’t find your soulmate in a romance book.”
“But you might find personality traits you like,” he offered. She shrugged, not buying it. “I don’t see the women as weak—only flawed, with obstacles to overcome.”
“I suppose everyone has flaws.”
“What’s yours?” he asked with a smirk.
“Liking the wrong type of men,” she muttered.
His stomach clenched. “That’s a cop-out answer.” He’d unfairly asked, so he offered his shortcoming. “I’m self-conscious about my looks.”
She inspected him critically and sweat broke out across his forehead. “Most people are.”
He leaned close and whispered, “It keeps me from talking and interacting with people. I get nervous and won’t go places if there’s a crowd.” It had been years since the operation and it still affected him.
“You’re fine, Cole. You’re more than fine.” Piper shifted in her seat and leaned forward. “Look, you’re out talking to me and I’m a stranger and a woman.”
He nodded. “Normally, I’d be a basket case of nerves.”
“Looks are all personal taste. Someone might think you’re ugly or someone might think you’re the sexiest man alive. The thing you have to ask yourself is: does their opinion matter to me?” She smiled sweetly over the rim of her mug.
“What’s your opinion?” he blurted, needing to know.
“Does it matter to you what I think?”
“Yes. It matters greatly.” It was true, but he didn’t want to ask himself why. The smile that lit her face made his heart hitch. She set her coffee down.
“Well, Cole, I like the crunchy-gooey combo. It’s very appealing.” She blushed, long eyelashes hiding her eyes as she looked at the table. “I find you…” she paused, drumming her fingers against the side of her mug.
“Pretty, right?” A short, old woman said as she slid into the booth next to Cole and pinched his cheek. “This one’s a hot tamale.”
“Hello, Ms. Hardmann.” Cole’s face felt like the temperature of the sun. He rubbed his cheek. “This is Piper McCracken. Piper this is Desire Hardmann.”
“Hello, young lady.” Desire took Piper’s hand and squeezed. With a wink, she yelled over her shoulder to a man in a white apron, “Hey, Hugh Stitts! Come over here and meet Cole’s Russian mail-order bride.”