Clay looked at the small blue plate placed in front of him, his usual scowl growing deeper. "I didn't order this."
"It's a gift."
Clay's gaze snapped to the new waitress. He eyed the attractive blonde in surprise. "For what?"
She gave him a broad smile that made her green eyes glow bright and vibrant beneath her black-rimmed glasses. "For Thanksgiving," she said, her voice soft and musical to his ears. "I saw you were eating alone, and I thought, that man needs a piece of pumpkin pie."
He glanced back at the plate, resisting the urge to gag. He swallowed hard, choosing instead to focus on the warm feeling in his chest. He was oddly touched by the gift, simple though it might be. With the exception of his best friends, Wyatt and Jules, this waitress was the first person in a very long time that bothered to do something nice for him without expecting him to sweat or bleed in return.
She turned to leave, but he didn't want her to. He liked the pretty waitress with her sparkling eyes and thick hair wrapped up in a bun on top of her head that showed every color of blonde imaginable. He thought her glasses were charming and her figure was lush. Full hips, even fuller breasts, she looked sort of like a very huggable angel. The fluorescent lights framed her beautiful, round face with deep dimples that magically appeared when she smiled. Everything about her was soft and innocent in a way most of the women he knew would never be.
Without thinking, he reached out with lightning-fast reflexes. He grabbed her wrist before she could get too far, making her jump in shock.
Clay winced at her sharp reaction, knowing he was intimidating whether he wanted to be or not. "I'm sorry."
"'S okay," she said, her smile back, bright and happy once more. "I'm jumpy sometimes, but that's not your fault."
"I wanted to say thank you," he said, trying very hard to put emotion in his usually gruff voice. "No one's ever done this for me."
"Bought you a piece of pie?"
"No." He felt his cheeks heat, and he looked to the pie in an effort to hide. "Nobody's just nice to me, for free, without, you know, expecting something for it."
"Sweetie, you keep being sweet and I'm gonna have to buy your dinner, and between you and me, I can barely afford my own dinner, let alone feeding a big guy like you." She squeezed his hand, making him realize he was still holding on to her wrist. "So you enjoy your pie. Happy Thanksgiving."
Clay nodded his agreement and reluctantly let go. He bit his lip against doing something stupid like asking her on one of those dates real people had with flowers and candlelit dinners, or just simply blurting out he thought she looked like an honest to God angel in that waitress uniform.
Rather than gawk at the waitress, which was what he really felt like doing, he focused his attention on the pie, trying to decide if big bites would make it easier to choke down or small ones would lessen the impact.
He tried a small bite first as the chime of a bell signaled someone entering Hal's Diner, one of the few places to eat in the small town of Garnet and the only one currently open on Thanksgiving. Despite the lack of choices for the holiday, Hal's was still empty save a few bachelors.
Clay knew what lost soul had walked in without looking, and turned his focus back to the dreaded pie.
"Happy Thanksgiving, Sheriff."
"Happy Thanksgiving, Judy," came the upbeat, typically charismatic reply. "What does a hardworking sheriff have to do for a cup of coffee? Damn, but it's cold out there. Where's summer when ya need it?"
"Gonna be a nasty winter," Judy agreed, sounding equally disheartened. "Take a seat. I'll bring it to you. Are ya gonna catch a quick bite?"
"Sure, bring me whatever turkey special Hal's dishing up. You know I can't stay away from ya, darling. Having you serve me is always the highlight of my night."
"Hush." Judy laughed, sounding pleased. "You know I'm taken."
"Tell Jerry he better spoil you rotten or I'm gonna steal you right out from under him."
Clay rolled his eyes, deciding he'd rather eat pumpkin pie than listen to this shit. He was poking at it with his fork when a large, ominous shadow darkened his table. "Wyatt."
"Is that pumpkin pie?" Wyatt asked, scooting into the booth seat across from Clay and tossing his hat on the table.
"So what if it is?" Clay frowned at his best friend, who was running a hand through his blond hair, forcing away the unnatural wave caused from his hat.
Handsome and cocky as ever, Wyatt gave him a bemused smile. "But you hate pumpkin pie."
"Yeah, I know that." Clay scowled. "You think I don't know I hate it?"
Wyatt gave him a look. "Then why are you eating it?"
"That new waitress brought it," Clay explained, the reminder compelling him to take another bite. He choked, forcing himself to swallow it. "Christ."
"You've officially taken one hit too many," Wyatt said in exasperation, turning to Judy when she showed up with his cup of coffee. "Darling, dontcha have something else back there besides pumpkin pie?"
"We got praline," Judy offered, her cheeks still flushed beneath her freckles. The redhead was always pink-cheeked when Wyatt was around. "You want it before your dinner?"
"Nah, it ain't for me." Wyatt gestured to Clay. "He hates pumpkin pie. I dunno why he let her serve it to him. Get him a piece of praline."
"No, it's all right," Clay said quickly, not wanting the new waitress to know he'd sent it back. He'd rather choke down the whole thing. "I like it."
"Bullshit." Wyatt reached across the table and pulled the plate away when Clay took another stubborn bite of the pie, only to gag on it a second time. "Look at that. He can't even swallow it to prove a point."
"I'll get you a different piece, Powerhouse." Judy grabbed the plate off the table and turned away before he could complain.
"You're an asshole," Clay snapped at his best friend when Judy was out of earshot. "I was eating the damn pie. I ain't bothering you. Why the fuck do you always have to run that big mouth of yours?"
"You were gonna puke on my dinner," Wyatt said by way of explanation. "You need to tell the doc you're losing touch."
Clay huffed in response and looked across the diner to see Judy walk behind the counter. She handed the plate to Hal through the window. Clay was hoping to God they didn't tell the new waitress he hated pumpkin pie so intensely he couldn't eat it even when he attempted to swallow it down using steel will, which was something he usually had in spades.
He cringed when the pretty blonde walked behind the counter just as Hal put a fresh piece of praline pie through the window that separated the front of the diner from the kitchen. Judy said something to the new waitress, who looked at Clay and Wyatt before she turned back and grabbed the new plate instead of Judy.
"I hate you," Clay growled at Wyatt.
"Shoot." Wyatt laughed, stirring his coffee as he worked at adding several packs of sugar to it. "If I had a dollar for every time you said that, I wouldn't be spending Thanksgiving breaking up the Henleys' annual domestic disturbance. Every damn holiday, they get into it. You'd think the lot of 'em would figure out they hate each other and stop planning get-togethers. Frank had to take Derrick up to Mercy General. I think Greg broke his damn ribs."
"There's worse bones to break." Clay's eyes were on the waitress as she walked up to them. Forgetting Wyatt's whining, he smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry."
"You should've told me you hated it," she said, putting the praline pie in front of him. "I wanted you to enjoy it, not gag on it."
"I'll pay for the pie," he said, entertaining the thought of breaking Wyatt's ribs. "I didn't wanna put you out."
"You're not putting me out." She smiled, those dimples carving their places in her rosy cheeks. "It's not like you're asking me to shovel your driveway and take out your garbage. A new piece of pie's easy."
"Still, I appreciate it," Clay said, his cheeks hot once more. "Thank you again."
"Sure." She looked to Wyatt quickly, her smile faltering. "Glad you've got company now. Hey, Sheriff."
"Miss Dylan," Wyatt said in response. Coffee abandoned, a knowing blue gaze darted from Clay to the new waitress. "How's life treating ya?"
She smoothed out her apron, fiddling with her pad and pencil rather than look at Wyatt. "Nothing exciting to report."
Giving her one of his winning grins, Wyatt asked, "You getting settled in okay?"
"Settled in fine."
Her easy smile was gone as she turned to leave, seeming unmoved by Wyatt's natural charm, which was as unique as everything else about her. Most women were susceptible to Wyatt. Then she did something truly shocking: she reached out, squeezing Clay's large bicep through his long-sleeved cotton shirt as she walked past him to go check on recently divorced Jay Walker, sitting a few booths behind them.
"Did you just smile at the new waitress?"
Wyatt's voice broke through Clay's hazed thoughts, making him realize he'd actually watched her walk off and was craning his neck to see her talking and smiling at Jay. Feeling a bit like walking over there and punching poor Jay in the face, Clay decided to eat his pie and ignore Wyatt.
Problem was, Wyatt was hard to ignore. Especially when he was sitting across from him grinning like a fool and kicking his feet back against his seat, making a thump, thump, thump noise he knew would irritate the hell out of Clay.
He couldn't help but lift his head and bark at Wyatt, "What?"
"Nothing," Wyatt said with a laugh of disbelief. "Just seemed like you were mighty sweet and cozy with Hal's new waitress."
Clay scowled. "I ain't sweet."
"I heard you say both thank you and sorry in less than a minute. Not to mention those pearly whites you were flashing," Wyatt argued, grin still wide and shrewd. "Forget praline, I think ya wanna bite of Miss Dylan's pie."
Clay turned around, eyeing the waitress as she walked away from Jay's table, making sure she hadn't heard Wyatt. His head whipped back around to glare at the powerfully built cop. Broad shoulders, massive arms, Wyatt was one of the biggest, toughest men in Garnet, and that was saying something. The only guy who'd probably get better betting odds in a fight just happened to be sitting across from him.
"How 'bout I take a bite outta you," Clay shot back in a low and vicious voice.
"Nah, I don't swing that way." Wyatt took a long drink of his coffee, seeming undisturbed by the fury directed at him. "Thanks for asking, though."
Sometimes having a friend nearly as big and tough as him was a major annoyance. Clay was used to people bowing to his anger. "You keep grinning like that and Frank's gonna be taking you to Mercy General."
"If I fight back, do I get a locker room bonus?" Wyatt asked as if considering it.
"Fuck off," Clay growled, going back to his pie because intimidation wouldn't work on Wyatt.
"Clay, listen." Wyatt sighed, leaning forward to set his coffee cup on the table. His gaze became softer as he lowered his voice. "That sweet little waitress ain't for you. Stick to the groupies. They love you."
Clay cringed at the mention of groupies, biting his tongue against pointing out he had never liked those harsh, demanding women. Especially when he thought of the soft and kind Miss Dylan. He turned around, watching her talk to Judy, admiring the way the white apron hugged her hips.
"She doesn't like fighters."
Wyatt's voice cut through his fantasies, and Clay turned back to him. "What?"
"She came into the station when she first got here last week. Wanted us to know she'd filed a restraining order against her ex-husband before she left Cleveland. He used to beat on her. She moved to Garnet because she figured it was about as Bumfuck and hidden as you can get," Wyatt said in a concerned voice, casting sideway glances to the back of the diner where the waitresses were still talking. "Dumb-ass Harvey made the mistake of telling her I used to fight in the UFC. You know, so she'd see we had it handled, and she ain't said more than a few words to me since."
"Someone used to beat on her?" Clay growled. "And he's still after her?"
"I dunno the details. She seemed to feel like he was a real danger, enough to move here of all places." Wyatt took another sip of his coffee, his tall frame still hunched low over the booth as he spoke to Clay. "You get why it wouldn't work out, dontcha? Why a UFC Hall of Fame heavyweight might not be her ideal man?"
Yeah, Clay got it, and he knew Wyatt was right. It wasn't even a shock to his system. He was too rough around the edges, too mean, too big and intimidating. Nice girls didn't fuck guys like him--groupies did.
He tried not to dwell on it. After all, he didn't even know her first name, and it wasn't like him to get sentimental. Instead he ate his pie while Wyatt quickly changed the subject. He ran his mouth about work, about Clay's odds in the upcoming fight, talking about training and the Cuthouse Cellar Training Center Clay co-owned with Wyatt and his sister, Jules. Wyatt was a real chatterbox, just rattling on like he did when he felt it was his place to fill an uncomfortable void. Clay listened, grunting when he thought it was appropriate, all the while ignoring the feeling of loss that settled in his stomach.