BEAU WALKER stood outside Parnell’s Pantry, studying the diner that provided the biggest competition to Walker’s Barbecue Shack; outwardly, it looked the same, but he knew everything had changed behind the scenes. He and Josh Parnell had maintained a friendly rivalry they’d often played up in public, but he had respected Josh’s business acumen and skill in the kitchen. His feelings about Josh’s twin brother Jake weren’t quite so straightforward.

His rivalry with the Parnell twins went beyond barbecue, stretching all the way back to high school football, when they’d played on opposing teams. While he and Josh had established a truce, he wasn’t sure he and Jake could manage to do the same. Still, this wasn’t a visit he could put off, so he entered the diner, waving to the servers as he headed to the kitchen.

Pausing in the doorway, he knocked on the frame once he spotted Jake at the grill. “We need to talk,” he said without preamble.

Jake looked up, his blue eyes flying wide in surprise before narrowing in annoyance. “Now isn’t a good time, as you can see.” He waved at the pots on the stove. “I can’t imagine what you might want to talk to me about, anyway, Walker.”

The flash of Jake’s unearthly blue eyes made Beau’s stomach clench, and all the attraction he’d felt as a teenager came flooding back, intensified by the fact that Jake had grown up into an even better-looking man, tall and lean with angular features, his thick, wavy blond hair and tanned skin making him look like a model from a men’s magazine.

“I wanna say I’m sorry for your loss, for one thing,” he said, forcing himself to stop thinking about how good Jake Parnell looked. “Josh was well-respected and well-liked in Buffalo Lick.”

Jake swallowed hard and focused on stirring a pot of gravy. Beau knew the twins had been close, even though Jake lived a thousand miles away. “Thanks,” Jake said, his voice rough. He cleared his throat and glanced at Beau again. “And thanks for the flowers and the card to Lexy. It was appreciated.”

Beau tucked his hands in his back pockets and glanced away, a little awkward and embarrassed. “It was the least I could do. Josh and I were rivals, but there wasn’t no bad blood.”

“Not between the two of you, no.” Jake moved the gravy off the burner, then picked up a towel and wiped his hands as he turned to face Beau directly. “All right, what else do you think we need to discuss? If it’s about buying this place, I’ll need to get Lex. I only own half, so she will have to agree.”

“What?” Beau stared at him, shocked that he would make the offer, considering Parnell’s Pantry had been a family-owned restaurant for a couple of generations, just like the Shack. “No, I don’t wanna buy you out.”

Admittedly, he was tempted, but only for about two seconds. He didn’t enjoy the business end of running one restaurant, and he couldn’t imagine taking on a second. “I wanted to know if you’re willing to go ahead with the competition on the Gourmet Network,” he explained.

Jake leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms across his chest and frowning. “What competition? This is the first I’m hearing of it.”

Well, damn. Beau was dismayed by that news, and he hoped Jake wouldn’t turn down the offer Josh had accepted just because it involved him.

“The network approached me and Josh about having a barbecue cook-off, playing up the local rivalry. We both said yes, and they wanna start filming during the rodeo.”

Jake’s jaw dropped, and then he closed his mouth with a snap and ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “During the rodeo? You have got to be kidding! That’s the most insane time of the year, and—” He stopped, a pained expression crossing his face. “I don’t see how it could work.”

“If you think you’ll be short-handed, don’t worry.” Beau tried to sound reassuring, because he desperately wanted the competition to move forward. No, he needed it to move forward. Just getting the Shack some exposure on national television would give the restaurant some much-needed publicity and draw in customers even during the off-season. If business picked up enough, he might be able to hire someone to handle the bookkeeping and other elements of running a business so he could focus on the kitchen. “You can get people to help out for the competition. I’m sure there’s plenty of folks who’d love to be on TV.”

Jake bit his lip. “I suppose,” he said slowly, then grimaced again. “It’s not just the help, though. There’s Lexy and the kids, and we’re still trying to catch up on the paperwork. The bank hasn’t released the accounts yet, and God knows what I’m going to have to deal with as far as the IRS and licensing and inspections go. I’m having to make payroll out of my own money until everything gets straightened out.”

Beau felt a sinking sense of dismay, because he had no idea how to respond to that, and he cast around for something that might convince Jake to get on board. “It’ll be good publicity for the restaurants, which could get both of us more business on top of what they’re paying us to be on the show,” he said, hoping the prospect of more money would help make his case.

Suddenly Jake looked interested. “Payment for the show?” he asked. “Damn. I suppose I’m going to have to think about it.”

“There’s probably a copy of the contract in Josh’s papers somewhere.” Beau tried to sound more casual than he felt. Looking too eager would probably be the best way to get Jake to turn him down flat. “Look it over and see what you think.”

“I will. I’ll discuss it with Lexy too and find out what she thinks. She and the kids have had enough upheaval in their lives, and I don’t want to add to their stress by having some TV crew prying into everything.” Jake shrugged. “That’s the best I can do for the moment. But I’ll let you know.”

Beau nodded, knowing that was about all he could hope for right now. “Okay. You know where to find me.”

Jake’s gaze met his, and there was something in it he couldn’t quite read. Something that looked almost like regret. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

When he was younger, Beau would have bristled at those words, particularly coming from Jake, taking them as a reminder that he was destined for a small-town life. But Beau wasn’t an angry young man anymore, and instead of getting mad, he shrugged and gave a small, wry smile. “’Least I don’t live out in the sticks anymore. Got me an apartment here in town. Anyway, I need to get on over to the Shack. See you around.”

“See you around.” Jake retrieved the neglected gravy and put it back over the burner.

Beau was surprised but relieved that his meeting with Jake hadn’t escalated into a confrontation like their last conversation had. Then again, they’d been eighteen at the time, and they had both done a lot of growing up since then. Jake probably didn’t remember calling Beau ignorant and a bully in the heat of anger, but Beau doubted Jake saw him any differently now than he had then. Nothing had changed in Buffalo Lick after all.

But it didn’t matter what Jake thought of Beau as long as he agreed to participate in the competition. Unfortunately Beau had done all he could to make his case. He could only hope Jake made up his mind soon and that his decision worked in Beau’s favor.

 

 

JAKE WAS exhausted by the time he got home, but a shower helped restore him enough that he could face going through Josh’s desk to find the television contract. Josh and Lexy had moved into his parents’ home when the elder Parnells retired, and the office Josh had used was the same small cubbyhole behind the kitchen where their father had kept the diner’s books for the last forty years.

It gave him a pang to sit in the straight-backed chair in front of the battered desk, as though he were an interloper prying into things that were none of his business, but he knew it was part of missing Josh. Pushing back his damp hair with a sigh—he had to make time for a haircut before the locals started calling him a hippie—he started going through the pile of papers.

Halfway through the stack was a thick manila envelope with a Gourmet Network return address label, and he opened it and removed a thick sheaf of papers. He scanned them, his eyes widening at the amount of money the network was offering for Josh to participate in the competition. It wasn’t enough to set Lexy and the kids up for the rest of their lives, but when added to Josh’s small life insurance policy, it would be enough for a nest egg to see them through lean times.

Sitting back in the chair, Jake stared at nothing as he mulled it over. He was finally starting to get into the swing of running the diner, of being on his feet for hours every day, of dealing with the noise and the often frantic pace of the restaurant as opposed to the calmer pace of his teaching job. He thought longingly of the peace of his apartment, the attentive interest of his students, the joy of teaching a subject he loved, but he quickly squelched the feeling. He’d never run out on a responsibility in his life, and he wasn’t about to start now, not when his family needed him. He couldn’t really take Josh’s place—not that he wanted to—but he had to make certain he did right by Lexy and the kids. It looked like participating in the competition would go a long way toward that end.

Even if it meant being in close proximity to Beau Walker for the duration.

Biting his lip, Jake forced himself to consider his ambiguous feelings about his old rival, although rival was far too simple a word for what Beau was to him. The fact they’d gone to different high schools and played football on rival teams had set up the initial competitiveness between them, but it had developed into something different, at least on Jake’s part. Beau had been the object of Jake’s unrequited lust, which had been difficult and horrifying for Jake on many different levels. Even if Beau had reciprocated his interest—and Beau definitely had not—they were too different. Beau was more outgoing, more sure of himself than Jake had ever been. Beau was the quintessential cowboy with sun-bleached hair and dark blue eyes, and his rugged good looks were enhanced whenever he flashed his slow, sexy smile. Not that he’d smiled at Jake. For some reason, Beau seemed to hate his guts, and Jake had never understood why.

There had been one time, though, when Jake had wondered if he might have a chance. They’d gotten into a shoving match when he’d come home for spring break during his freshman year in college, and the confrontation had led to Beau discovering Jake was gay. To Jake’s shock, Beau had admitted he was gay as well. Jake had reached out to Beau, feeling a kinship for him in addition to the attraction that had always been there, but Beau had pushed him away.

No matter what they had in common, Beau had never been, and never would be, interested in him, which shouldn’t bother Jake more than ten years later. He’d moved on and made a life for himself far away from Beau and Buffalo Lick, and he’d been happy. But now he was back, and he’d discovered that it did still bother him. A lot.

Nothing had changed about Beau, at least not from what Jake could see. He still spoke in a slow Texas drawl. He still dressed in cowboy boots and jeans that emphasized the length of his legs. He was still tall and rangy and utterly masculine, and he still disliked Jake Parnell. And he could still make Jake’s mouth go dry just by looking at him. There was nothing Jake wanted less than to deal with Beau, but it looked like he had no choice.