Cowboy Walking Away

Chapter 1

 

Rose Baldwin pushed a hair back on her face and wished she were anywhere else.

Anywhere.

Even a snake pit would be better than this.

Laughter cut into her thoughts, and she grabbed the pan of mashed potatoes, taking it to the second table on the right in the church basement in Sweet Water, North Dakota.

The second table on the right was a table that she’d been avoiding as much as she could, all evening.

Since there were only two servers, herself and her sister, for the annual Sweet Water Sweethearts Valentine’s Day banquet, she hadn’t been able to get out of serving that table even though she truly wanted to.

There were nine other people at the table other than her ex.

One of those people was the woman Harry had left her for, Leah.

Rose set the mashed potatoes down with a smile, at the opposite end of the table from where Harry and Leah were sitting, and grabbed the empty pan.

“I need a refill on my drink,” Leah called out before Rose could get away.

Rose’s smile felt like her teeth would break, but she nodded and said, “I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, honey! Take my glass,” she called out.

Since Patty’s Diner was only catering the event, not hosting it in their restaurant, they weren’t bringing new glasses but refilling the old ones.

Rose knew this. She just had a memory lapse, since she worked at Patty’s Diner and was used to bringing new glasses with each drink.

“Thank you,” she said as she took the glass from Leah, who probably wasn’t looking at her in a smug, arrogant kind of way, even though it seemed like she was.

Rose definitely didn’t look over at Harry.

Which was quite a feat, since he was sitting so close to Leah, his arm wrapped around her, and Leah was practically pasted to his side.

A person would think after three years of Harry being gone, it wouldn’t bother her at all.

The empty potato container in one hand, Leah’s glass in the other, Rose strode to the kitchen area where Patty herself was doing dishes in the sink and where the bottles of soda and gallons of water were sitting on the countertop.

“I hope we don’t run out of mashed potatoes,” Patty said with her back toward Rose. “I don’t think we have time to make any more.”

“There’s a big box of instant mashed potatoes in the cupboard. We could probably use that if we absolutely had to, as long as we replace it,” said Lavender, Rose’s sister who had volunteered to serve with her, as she brought an empty pan of meatloaf back.

“I hate to do that, because I like to make real mashed potatoes, but you’re right. Keep an eye on it and let me know when that pan on the stove is empty.”

Lavender glanced at her sister, and Rose said, “We will.”

Lavender didn’t work at the diner, but when they had needed help to serve the banquet, she’d volunteered, since anyone who had a significant other was at the banquet and help was limited.

Rose took a minute to shove back the hair that had fallen out from underneath the headband she wore along with her ponytail.

Lavender came over, putting her arm around Rose’s waist and leaning close to her ear. “The guy’s a jerk, and so is she. Don’t let them get to you.”

“Thanks. He’s really not. It’s just…this wasn’t the way these things were supposed to go.” She gave her sister a sidelong glance before she picked up Leah’s glass and poured diet soda into it.

“Whether he gets it now, or whether God deals with him in some other way. It’s coming. You know that.”

“I know. Thanks for reminding me,” Rose said as she picked up the glass and walked back out.

Harry had been married to Rose for five years. In that time, Rose had begged to have children, and Harry had put her off, saying he wanted to be more established financially and that they had plenty of time to have kids later.

That was after telling Rose before they were married that he wanted to start a family right away.

It was also before he walked out on Rose and walked into Leah’s marriage.

Rose wasn’t entirely sure the particulars, since she’d never specifically talked to Harry or Leah about it, but according to Leah’s husband Chuck, Leah and Harry were texting long before Leah left. Rose couldn’t say for sure Harry had been texting Leah before he walked out on her.

Because she had trusted him, completely, blindly, and, as it turned out, stupidly.

So now, three years later, he acted like he was madly in love with the woman he’d left her for, and they had a happy family of four children, since Leah had three, and they’d immediately had a child of their own as soon as they left their spouses.

While Rose was alone.

She set the glass down in front of Leah and murmured “you’re welcome,” even though she didn’t hear “thank you,” and moved to another table where she took an empty plate and a container that needed to be filled up with more bean casserole.

She supposed she didn’t have to be alone. She’d been asked out more than once, but…it was just hard to trust anyone after what she’d been through. She really didn’t want to, except… Her eyes went to Harry and Leah again. Except they looked so happy together, and that burned her.

That her ex had lied. That he’d cheated, that he’d kept her from having children.

He’d done all of those things, and now he was the one with the big happy family, and she was the one who was alone, even though she was the one who had done right.

God? It’s not fair!

She didn’t need the Good Lord to remind her that life wasn’t fair.

She also didn’t need Lavender to remind her that eventually Harry would have to face the Lord where his works would be judged.

She appreciated those reminders though, because sometimes, like now, it was hard not to be bitter.

“Rose!” Charlene called out from beside her sweetheart, Charlie. They were also sitting at the second table on the right.

Rose walked over to the table, reluctantly, unable to turn down a direct request and also unwilling to ignore Charlene, who had been extremely supportive of her and probably knew just as much as her mother did about what had gone on.

Charlene headed out the Sweet Water quilting club and had been instrumental in getting the club to take Rose under their wings for those first few months when she’d been devastated beyond words at Harry’s betrayal.

“You look like you’re having a great time, Miss Charlene,” Rose said, standing so her shoulder was toward Harry and Leah, directly across from Miss Charlene.

“The food is excellent, as always. Miss Patty is a magician in the kitchen,” Charlene said, pausing for a moment to wait for Leah’s laugh to fade away.

It was probably just Rose’s imagination that she had a laugh that could grate on anyone’s nerves.

Really, Leah was probably an extremely nice lady. Rose’s opinion was biased.

“Can I get you anything?” Rose asked, just wanting to get away. There were eleven other tables, and most of them were packed full. Lavender had been doing a great job of making sure that this table had been taken care of without Rose having to spend much time at it.

“No. Palmer and Ames were just saying that Derek Fields had moved back into town, and I was wondering if you had heard the news. You and he were in the same class in school, weren’t you?”

“We were,” Rose said, remembering Derek well. And also having heard bits and pieces of the gossip that had been going on in his life.

“His grandparents weren’t doing very well,” Charlene said, her face showing her concern.

“I was disappointed to hear that. Their spread isn’t far from ours, and I think his grandparents were thinking about selling. Now he’s back, hopefully to help them and keep the farm from being sold,” Palmer said, leaning casually back in his chair, one arm around his wife, Ames, whose rosy cheeks and athletic build suited someone who worked at the Olympic training center that had been built several years ago just outside of Sweet Water. “Although I suppose I would have been interested in buying.”

“I don’t think we have time for more land anyway, Palmer,” Ames said, smiling at her husband, her eyes twinkling. Like she knew exactly what he was going to say.

“A farmer always has time for more ground,” he said, and Ames’s smile just got bigger, like that was exactly what she had been expecting.

They didn’t get out without their four children too much, but they still acted like a young couple in love, not like they were approaching middle age. They must be in their forties since they had both been older than her in school.

“He might not be interested, but he was when he was younger,” Charlene said, and Rose nodded, remembering that Derek had wanted to settle down on his grandparents’ farm, but he’d ended up moving to The Cities because the girl he was with didn’t want to marry a farmer.

“If you’re trying to match Rose up, I know for a fact that Derek and Rose would be terrible together. Derek’s been living in The Cities for over ten years, and he’s very debonair. He might have grown up here in Sweet Water, but he’s not a hick anymore. I’ve actually spoken to him several times, since our parents are good friends.” Leah joined the conversation from across the table, and Rose shifted her body just a little so that she wasn’t being completely rude by blocking her out.

Even though she wanted to.

“Rose is quite a catch, and any man would be crazy not to be interested in her,” Charlene said, despite the fact that Harry had obviously been not interested in her.

Leah picked up on that right away. “I think that’s a false statement. After all, Harry has excellent taste.”

“Might be the other way around,” Harry muttered, maybe referring to the fact that he thought any man who was interested in Rose would be crazy.

Rose wasn’t sure, and she didn’t ask for clarification.

Ames and Palmer were whispering at the other end, and Ty and Louise hadn’t even looked up from where their heads were bent together. They were taking the whole sweethearts’ banquet thing literally. Maybe because they’d spent so much time apart before they’d finally gotten together and gotten married, or maybe that’s just the way their relationship was, but they always seemed to be deeply involved with each other. Almost to the point of shutting the world out like they didn’t even realize there was a world.

Rose wouldn’t mind a relationship like that. Where some man wanted her so much that he didn’t care about the rest of the world.

He was only interested in her.

It was a nice daydream but probably something that would never happen. She’d have to get past the idea that all men were cheaters.

Even though she knew it wasn’t so, she really didn’t want to go back down that road. As much as she wanted to be cherished and loved by someone, longed to be, she also did not want to be the laughingstock of everyone ever again in her life.

“It’s okay, Rose. After all, we need people to serve the sweethearts’ banquet, and you can hardly do that if you’re with someone,” Harry said, and maybe there was a slight smirk on his face, or maybe that was just Rose’s imagination.

“Actually, I am with someone,” she said.

She wanted to slap her hand over her mouth. That wasn’t the slightest bit true. Why had she said it?

And why wasn’t she correcting herself immediately?

But she didn’t and allowed herself a bit of a smug look at the astonishment on Harry’s and Leah’s faces.

Why was she doing this? She was just going to have to confess the truth and be embarrassed.

“Oh? That’s interesting,” Leah said, rolling her eyes a little, and Rose turned away. Already ashamed of her lie.

Knowing she should just admit that the words had popped out, almost in self-defense, maybe because her heart was just so tired of being painfully beaten up all the time. So it threw those words up and out they came.

Yeah. If only. It just showed a lack of character on her part. That she would prefer to lie rather than graciously accept the truth.

“I heard rumors of you with someone. It’s getting pretty serious now?” Charlene said, and Rose managed to not fall on her neck and kiss her, but it was hard.

“It is. He’s a great guy. He’s so honest. And he doesn’t lie.” Like those were two separate things. Yeah. She hadn’t realized she could be so catty.

“You want a good man with character. Don’t settle for anything less,” Charlie said from the other side of Charlene. He didn’t typically talk much, but when he did, Rose always listened. Usually what he said was wise and laced thoroughly with common sense.

“Yeah. Some of us have learned that the hard way,” Rose said, wanting to back away from the table and leave before any of the other couples heard what they were saying and asked her about it. Right now, it was just Leah and Harry, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

“What’s his name?” Leah asked, of course. Of course she would ask what his name was.

“Would you mind filling up my glass, please?” Charlene said immediately, holding up her mostly full glass of water. “I’m not sure how all the ice melted. I don’t like it when it gets to room temperature.”

Charlene had specifically requested no ice in her glass when they’d been pouring it earlier.

Grateful for the reprieve, Rose took it immediately. “Of course.”

“So there’s no name to this mystery boyfriend?” Leah said, like that’s exactly what she was expecting.

“Of course not. There is no name, there’s no man, and there won’t ever be. For reasons that are obvious to everyone,” Harry said, and there was no question that he was being a jerk. Rose couldn’t even try to find a way to sugarcoat that.

“Oh, there is one all right,” Miss Charlene said. “They’re all signed up for the Dating Game fun night we’re having next month. In fact, they’re probably the couple most likely to win.” Maybe Miss Charlene’s voice was slightly higher than normal, since it seemed to carry over all of their table, and several people at the next table looked over.

As much as Rose wanted to hug Miss Charlene, she also wanted to shake her. How was she going to get out of this lie now? She’d have to have a major breakup with a mystery man she didn’t even know the name of.

“Interesting,” Leah said, acting like she knew for a fact that everyone around her was lying.

Funny, because they had just been talking about people with character and how honesty was a trait to look for.

Apparently Rose didn’t even qualify to date herself.

“I’m definitely looking forward to that. You can sign Harry and me up.” Leah smiled at Harry, and they shared a romantic kiss. “I’m sure that true love will win the day, and Harry and I will come out on top,” she said, not even trying to be subtle anymore.

Rose held up Miss Charlene’s glass. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

She walked away, wondering how she got herself into these kinds of things.

No. She knew.

She’d spent years and years and years with a lie never crossing her lips, always being honest, always doing right, always choosing the best path, and being kind no matter how unkind people were to her, and then one little slipup, one little white lie, one little defense against people who pounded constantly at her bruised and beaten heart, just once, she did something wrong, and immediately judgment fell.

God? It’s really not fair.

She knew by now that there was no point in pointing that out. No matter how true it was, it didn’t matter. Life wasn’t fair. And someone who was good all their life didn’t get credit for that if they chose to lie.

She wanted to keep walking, through the kitchen, out the door, and out into the North Dakota vastness.

To be somewhere, anywhere, other than here.

But they still had the Jell-O salad to serve, and the cake, and she couldn’t leave until everything was cleaned up, washed, dried, and put away.

“Are you engaged?” Lavender asked, rushing into the kitchen and going straight for Rose.

At the sink, Patty lifted her head and turned around, her mouth open.

“Yes?” Rose focused on pouring cold water into Charlene’s glass. Her word came out as a question, not an answer, but apparently that was enough for Lavender.

“You’re engaged!” Lavender squealed. “Why haven’t you told anyone?” She grinned. “He asked you on Valentine’s Day, didn’t he? And…wait!!! Who?!”

“I’m sorry. I know you’re excited, and I’m sorry I haven’t said anything, but I have to get this water back. We can talk in a little bit.”

Normally she would never leave her sister like that, but she had no idea of what to say.

She carried the water back to Charlene’s table, and thankfully the entire table was engaged in a rousing discussion of the price of corn, and the weather pattern they’d been in, and everyone had their own prediction for what the weather was going to be this year, so she was able to set the water down and slip away.

She went to the table at the far end, where George and Thelma were sitting with their daughter, Gracie. They were the only ones who had brought a child, and they had been seated at the table with Frank and Jean, the only couple who had brought their dog, Blondie.

Technically, neither kids nor dogs were supposed to be at the banquet, since it was a sweethearts’ banquet, but no one made anyone strictly adhere to the rules, and if they couldn’t find a sitter or didn’t want to leave their dog at home, it wasn’t a big deal.

It was Sweet Water after all, and people rolled with things.

So far Gracie and Blondie had been eyeing each other, and it seemed like Gracie wanted to pet the dog, but Blondie didn’t seem too interested in children, ignoring people in general.

“Blondie’s home all the time so we had to bring her, because she needs to be socialized. We want to get her certified to be an elderly companion, and in order to do that, Blondie needs to be socialized while she’s young with lots of people,” Jean had explained to Rose when she’d first gone over to serve them, although Rose hadn’t asked and certainly didn’t care if the dog was at the sweethearts’ banquet.

Blondie lay beside Jean, her ears flattening against her head every time Gracie looked at her.

She was young, and if Rose was any judge of dogs, she was terrified as well.

The other people at the table had been fine as well, and the dog had helped guide them into conversations that involved all the dogs everyone had ever owned with one old-timer telling a story about a blue heeler he used to have and how it went out every night and guarded their home, and with the way the man was embellishing the tale, Rose figured by the time he was done the dog would be making supper and doing rounds in the hospital as well.

Obviously, the guy had been fond of his dog.

Seeing that they were ready for the Jell-O salad, she walked back to the kitchen and grabbed a pan along with some new dessert plates.

“You are awful!” Lavender said as she hurried past, food in one hand and two glasses in the other, and Rose wanted nothing more than to tell her that it was all a big farce. Lavender would understand, even agree. And she’d probably keep up the pretense tonight and help her figure out a way to get out of it.

But she didn’t want her sister to have to lie for her. Plus, people were finishing up their meals, and they needed to clear the tables, get dessert plates out, and set out the Jell-O salad and the cake.

“I’ll tell you all about it later,” Rose said, wishing she didn’t have to say anything at all.

“Hey! Is that ours? That looks great!” a man said as she walked by his table with the Jell-O salad in one hand and the dessert plates in the other.

Noticing that his table was ready too, she set the Jell-O salad down along with the plates.

It was another ten minutes before she made it back to the back table with the child and the dog.

By that time, Gracie had gotten bored with no food in front of her and was off her chair, glancing at her parents and obviously trying to move around without them noticing.

She’d probably been told to sit still, but her desire to pet the dog overcame her desire to do what her parents wanted her to.

Rose smiled. She remembered being a child and wanting a dog more than anything. A dog of her own, something to cuddle up with at night, something to go places with, and something that loved her no matter what.

She supposed every child probably went through a stage where they wanted a pet.

Maybe after tonight, George and Thelma would consider doing that for Gracie, since she was an only child and probably lonely.

Setting the Jell-O salad down, she grabbed empty plates so she could pass out the dessert plates, and they’d be ready for cake.

Concentrating on her task, she barely registered that someone at the table had just said that German shepherds make better cattle dogs than blue heelers, which caused something close to a heated argument at the table, when growling and barking and a squeal interrupted everything.

Gracie had managed to move away from her chair and over to Blondie. Blondie must have backed away from her until the dog was cowering against the wall.

By the looks of things, Gracie had figured she would be able to catch Blondie and possibly pick her up, although Rose couldn’t be sure. Whatever happened, the dog had been frightened enough to snap at the little girl. Gracie squealed while the dog growled and bit her face.

Rose didn’t think twice but yelled, waving her arms and running toward the dog.

Her family owned an auction house, and she dealt with animals on a weekly basis. She helped every Wednesday and Saturday at the auction along with her job at the diner.

They’d never run a dog through the auction barn, but in her experience, any animal could be intimidated if a person looked big and scary enough.

It was also her experience that there were times where it was beneficial to try to calm a scared animal down, to soothe them with pretty words and slow movements.

But when an animal was attacking, especially when a child was involved, it was faster and safer to be big and scary, at least until everyone had been moved out of the danger area and into a safe place.

It was just natural instinct for Rose to do what she did, since it’s what she would have done at the auction barn. Sure enough, the dog backed up, and she was able to angle herself, coming in from the side and chasing the dog away from the crying little girl.

Figuring that the dog wasn’t coming back—she had only snapped because she was scared of the little creature—Rose knelt down.

Gracie’s face was bleeding, and Gracie was sobbing and scared, calling for her mom.

The dog’s teeth had yanked down on Gracie’s cheek, and there would be a scar, surely, but the wounds weren’t fatal.

Thelma took one look and started hyperventilating, fanning herself, looking petrified and anxious.

Rose glanced up, one hand holding the little girl’s hand, one hand stroking her head.

“Settle,” she said sharply, and Thelma’s eyes focused on her. “Look,” she said, shifting her voice to a soft, calming tone, hoping that Thelma could hear her over Gracie’s sobs. “You need to calm down so Gracie sees you’re not scared. She’ll be brave if you are.”

She didn’t have children of her own, but she had babysat a lot of kids through high school. Her whole dream in life had been to be a wife and mother. She knew that wasn’t what women were expected to do in the modern world, and it wasn’t something that she told a lot of people, but when she got married, it was the one thing she wanted: children.

So maybe she didn’t know them like a mother might, but she did have a good bit of knowledge, and she knew it to be true. Children had a tendency to mirror the emotions of the adults they were with.

Whether it was her words, or whether it was Thelma finally coming to her senses, Rose didn’t know, but she straightened her face, drew in a breath, and knelt down on the other side of her daughter.

George stepped in, and Rose stood up and backed away so they could kneel on either side of their child.

Her heart hurt, because she was sure the parents were upset with themselves and scared.

Looking up, she could see that Frank and Jean had grabbed a hold of Blondie and had her calmed down. It looked like they were taking her out, and Rose figured that was probably for the best.

Everything seemed to be taken care of, so she went to the kitchen, washed her hands, and went back out to do her job. She felt terrible for not just Gracie, but for her parents, and also for Blondie. Hopefully they’d understand that the dog wasn’t a terrible dog, just wasn’t ready to be handled by small children.

Regardless, she was grateful that the talk for the rest of the evening was about the dog, the attack, and debate on whose fault it was, along with stories people told about being attacked by dogs or witnessing dog attacks, and everyone seemed to forget that Rose had suddenly become engaged. For the evening anyway.