He strode into the assessor’s office with confidence that was no doubt born of experience. He was a big man who didn’t look like he had an ounce of fat on him. His boots were dusty and worn down at the heel and his clothes were threadbare. Yet something about him suggested culture. He meticulously placed the stack of papers on the counter in front of Jena.
“If you’ll check, I think everything is there this time.” He spoke in normal volume, but his voice carried well. Several pair of idle eyes turned to him with interest, surveying his dusty garb. His words and tone promised entertainment.
Jena pushed her chair back as she stood, assuming a professional attitude as she took her place at the counter. “Can I help you, sir?”
Amber-colored eyes surveyed her critically from an angular face. One bushy brow arched a question that never reached his vocal cords.
She brushed aside the feeling that she was no more important to him than a new piece of furniture.
“Yes, I started yesterday. What can I do for you?”
He pushed the stack of papers toward her. “I was here last week...and the week before. I’m trying to file a claim, but I can’t seem to find anyone who takes this job seriously.”
She carefully sorted through the papers. A hasty response to his belligerence wasn’t going to do either of them any good.
“This is a gold mine, Mr. Grant?” she asked, keeping her tone friendly, but professional. Someone snickered, and she glanced up at Grant’s face.
“It is,” he responded in a controlled tone. Those strange eyes challenged her to crack a smile.
He needn’t worry. She found nothing even slightly amusing about the situation.
“It looks like you have everything that is required,” she responded, maintaining the professional facade. She reached under the table. “If you would just fill out this form....”
“Again?” he interrupted sharply. “How many forms do you need?”
She gently placed a form in front of him. “I didn’t see one like this in your stack of papers. Have you already filled one out?”
His jaw worked as he read the form, and then he glanced up at her. “No, I haven’t. No one mentioned this one.” He plucked at a pen in his shirt pocket. “Can’t you people give me all the forms I need in one trip? It gets expensive driving back and forth.”
She met his gaze, choking a cool response. Of course he was upset, and had every right to be. The fact that she wasn’t responsible for creating the situation made no difference. At this moment she represented the entire office. “I’m sorry,” she said with genuine feeling. “You should be able to fill this one out in a few minutes. Here’s a clip board. This paper should be the last.”
He gathered his papers and took the clip board to a chair. There he quickly completed the form. Within fifteen minutes, she had completed the process, and he walked out of the office with a successfully filed claim. She took a deep breath and breathed a sigh of relief as she turned to her chair.
Barbara turned from her desk and grinned. “Welcome to small town USA. We have easterners coming in here all the time, thinking they’re going to find gold in the Colorado mountains. I wish they’d get a real job and stop pestering us.” She stopped abruptly at Jena’s surprised expression. “No offense,” Barbara said hastily. “You’re not here trying to make an easy buck and then go home.” She shrugged a plump shoulder. “I hated to sit over here and do nothing, but you are the boss now.”
Jena picked up a stack of papers and began sorting through them. Did Barbara resent being outranked by a newcomer? Apparently Barbara had misread her expression. Benderville had already initiated her, and she was now accustomed to being considered an outsider. What troubled her was Barbara’s unprofessional attitude. Grant might be a financially challenged grouch, but he was still a customer.
Her hands paused as she considered the man. There was something about him. Something faintly familiar...and attractive? The idea repulsed her. It wasn’t as though she was accustomed to brushing elbows with the elite, but Grant was a bath-and-a-half less than anyone she cared to know. And yet, there was something in those strange eyes of his that intrigued her. Something about the way he walked made her think of a tiger - strong, fearless, and yet stealthy.
She shook her head. Her imagination was running away with her mind again. Barbara probably had him pegged. Still, it might be something she should talk to Barbara about.
She glanced around at the other girls, who were busy with their work. Maybe it wasn’t Barbara who had spoken to Grant. After all, what did she know about the others?
At noon, Jena walked three blocks to a cafe so that she could be alone with her thoughts before the scheduled meeting with the girls after lunch. She smiled to herself. It was going to be nice working in a small office for once.
As she stepped into the dim cafe, the cool air met her with a scent of fresh strawberries. She slid into a booth and gave her order to a friendly waitress. Then she glanced around the cafe. Not many people yet. Good. Western paintings hung from the wall, one of a miner with long hair and a bushy beard. The smile faded from her lips as she thought about the miner’s plight. Had it been an isolated incident, or was it something she needed to address immediately? She hated to start off on the wrong foot.
She was sipping a glass of ice water and absently gazing at the painting when someone stopped beside her. She glanced up with idle interest, until she met the amber gaze. Instantly her face grew hot.
Grant’s smile was wry. Dressed in a pale yellow golf shirt and kaki slacks, he looked cool and surprisingly sophisticated. “We meet again,” he said in an amused tone.
She forced a smile. “Good morning Mr. Grant.” Surely pure coincidence had placed them both in the cafe at the same time.
“Latham,” he corrected mildly. “Would you mind if I joined you?”
“Not at all,” she lied as she indicated the seat opposite her. Let him get it off his chest...as long as he didn’t get loud or violent.
He slid into the seat and rested his arms on the table, cradling one big hand in the other. He met her eyes with a gaze that seemed to search her soul. As warmth crawled up her neck, he cleared his throat and spoke.
“I want to apologize for the way I acted this morning.”
Her face grew even warmer. “It isn’t necessary. Someone should have made sure you had all the paperwork on your first trip.”
He nodded. “That’s true, but getting my nose out of joint didn’t solve anything, either.”
For a few moments they sat in uncomfortable silence while he glanced around the cafe. Dishes clattered in the kitchen and someone coughed. Unless they were going to sit here like this all during lunch, she’d better break the ice. She glanced out the window.
“It looks like it’s going to get hot out there.”
He followed her gaze and nodded. “And it’s only June. I thought I’d have one last day of comfort before I rode out to the claim. It’s going to be a miserable three months, I’m afraid.”
She glanced back at him sharply. Maybe Barbara was right about him. Once again, she had the nagging feeling that she had met him someplace before. Yet surely she would have remembered him. She frowned. “Do you expect to turn a profit in only three months?” Was he that naive, or did he have previous knowledge of the claim?
Grant laughed without humor. “Not a dime, but I figure I’ll have gleaned everything I need for my story by then.”
“Your story?” she echoed. The ghost of a memory passed through her consciousness - then faded into the back of her mind. Did he know who she was? The thought sent a chill up her spine. Who was he?
He nodded and paused while the waitress delivered her order. The waitress then took his order and left again. All the while Jena studied him, and that nagging feeling that they had met somewhere before persisted. Finally his attention returned to her.
“I’m writing a western about a miner. I figured it would be nice to have some first-hand experience.” He shrugged, and that wry smile twisted his lips again. “Little did I know that the hardest part might be filing the claim.”
She stared at him, realization growing in her mind like water being sucked up by a paper towel. Grant...Latham Grant...of course. She happened to be one of those outcasts who loved westerns - especially his kind. Clean and full of interesting facts about the west. He was no best selling author, but he had gained a certain amount of notoriety. No, she had never met him, but she had seen his picture on the back of his books.
She shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “I’ve read some of your books,” she began hesitantly. “I didn’t connect the name with….” she blushed and stammered. “I mean, I didn’t recognize you this morning in western garb.”
A smile warmed the amber gaze. “Ah, so a few of you westerners do read my novels.”
She met his gaze seriously. “I’m not a westerner, Mr. Grant. Not yet, anyway. I hate to disappoint you, but I came from New York City.”
“Latham,” he corrected, “and I’m not at all disappointed.” His eyes sparkled with a glint of humor. “In fact, I figured you for a Yankee.”
A smile forced itself on her lips. “You and everyone else in this town.”
He chuckled. “Well, don’t feel lonely. I can’t convince them I belong out here even when I have half the desert on my clothes.”
They talked through lunch, not of the east, but of ghost towns and other historical spots in Colorado. The hour slipped away, leaving them facing each other at the end of the meal.
He rose and offered a hand. “Well, it’s been interesting talking to you. Maybe we can do this again some time.”
She stood and accepted his hand. “Sure. Let me know how you come out with that claim - and your book.”
It was a week before she saw him again. She was entering data in her computer when Barbara tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the counter. “Your miner is back again,” she said dryly, “and he actually took a bath and shaved.” She gave Jena a wizened look. “Gee, I wonder what he wants.”
Jena glanced up to see Grant lounging against the counter, watching her. Those strange amber eyes were now accentuated by a sun-darkened face. Jena glanced up at Barbara, who made no move to assist Grant. In the short time since her arrival, Jena had never observed Barbara being rude to a customer. In fact, quite the contrary. And yet, there was apparently something about Grant that rubbed her the wrong way.
Jena stood. “I’ll talk to him.” She stepped up to the counter. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Grant?”
He grimaced. “Latham. Sure, you can let me buy you lunch.”
In the past week, she had thought many times about him, and yet she hesitated. Though she was in no position to see the girls, she could feel their eyes on her back. She had been trying to fit into their world, with little success. Consorting with another outsider might make the process more difficult. She glanced at her watch. Noon.
Grant cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe I spoke out of turn. I enjoyed talking with you last time, and I thought you felt the same.”
“Oh, I did,” she answered quickly. She hesitated. Opportunities like this didn’t come along every day. Besides, she could use some interesting conversation about now. Barbara might be proud of her town, but she knew little about the history - and couldn’t care less. “Sure, why not?” she concluded. “Let me shut down my computer.
Jena had barely reached her desk before Barbara was hovering over it. “Well, what did he want?”
Jena ignored her question. “I’m going to lunch at twelve today. Would you mind covering for me?”¶
Barbara nodded, giving her a strange look. “You’re going to lunch with the miner?”
“Latham Grant,” Jena interjected. “And he’s a writer, not a miner.”
Barbara shrugged. “Whatever.” She eyed Jena doubtfully. “I don’t know what you see in him.”
Jena pulled her purse from a drawer. “Actually, he’s pretty interesting.”
Barbara laughed without humor. “Well, maybe to you. He came in here about three weeks ago talking to me like I was some little kid - wanted to talk to one of the older girls.”
Jena suppressed a smile. “Twenty years from now you’ll consider that a complement.” She paused a moment. “So who finally helped him?”
Barbara opened her mouth to speak and then obviously thought better of her response. “I don’t remember,” she finally said. Her gaze unconsciously darted to Sarah, and then she quickly looked away.
So Barbara hadn’t been the one who had kept Grant coming back. Sarah was definitely older, by about 30 years. But Sarah lacked the experience that Barbara had. No doubt, Sarah simply didn’t realize there were more papers. And Barbara wasn’t about to uncover her co-worker’s shortcomings in the presence of her boss. Not much help, but certainly commendable.
As Grant opened the door for Jena, she glanced up at him. “Sometime I’d like to see that mine of yours.”
He chuckled. “It’s just a hole in the ground. Living in a tent with no facilities for bathing or cooking isn’t as attractive as it sounds. I’d like to take you up to see one of those ghost towns. Now that would be interesting.”
She smiled. “I’d like that.”
Strange, how people perceived one another. No matter how he dressed or what she heard about him, Barbara saw Grant as a grouchy miner. First impressions were important, that was for sure. Barbara didn’t know what she was missing. But then, hadn’t she done the same thing. If Grant hadn’t made the first move, would she be going to lunch with him right now? Who was she to talk? Barbara wasn’t the only one who had misjudged him. Why was it so easy to see what others were doing wrong?
She glanced over her shoulder as they left the building. All the girls were watching. Maybe she had been trying too hard to make a first impression. Had she made herself an outsider?
A warm hand cupped her elbow and guided her down the sidewalk. She relaxed as she fell into stride with Grant. With him, she felt comfortable. It wasn’t because of who he was or where he came from - it was because of what he was. He was simply Grant - nothing more, nothing less. It was part of his charm, and more than likely, a good part of his success.
He paused at the cafe entrance and held the door for her. “You know,” he said with a smile, “You seem different today. Are you beginning to adjust to the new job?”
She returned his smile. “I suppose anything new is a little frightening at first, but if you keep your eyes and mind open, you can always learn something from it.”
He grimaced and rubbed his lower back. “Yeah, too bad some of us have to learn from physical experience. And to think I could have read all this in a book.”
Of course they both knew it wouldn’t be the same. You can read about the Rockies, but you can’t bring it all into perspective until you are confronted with them. And such is life.