"It was an excellent meal, Verity. In your own way, you are very much a creative artist. I hope you realize it."

Verity couldn't squelch another little burst of pleasure. "Thanks, Caitlin, I'm glad you enjoyed it. How much longer will you be staying?"

"Only one more day. I had planned to stay through the weekend, but I find that's impossible now. I wanted to see you this evening because I would like to invite you to come and visit me next Monday.

You could spend the night and drive back Tuesday morning in plenty of time to open the restaurant for lunch. My home is over on the coast, about an hour and a half away from here. What do you say?"

An invitation to visit Caitlin Evanger was the last thing Verity had expected. She was so startled, she had to pause to gather her thoughts. "Caitlin, that's very nice of you. Monday?"

"The No Bull is closed on Monday, isn't it?"

"Well, yes, but I hadn't planned..."

Caitlin smiled at her, a strangely pleading smile. "I'll understand if you can't get away. But I was hoping you might make it. I will admit I don't have a great many friends. I count you as one of them, however, and I would like to get to know you better. Women such as us need our female friends, don't you think?"

Verity found herself returning the smile. "You're absolutely right, Caitlin. Women such as us need our friendships." There was absolutely no reason on earth why she couldn't take a day off and drive over to the coast to visit Caitlin. Besides, it would be interesting to see a real artist's home and studio. Why not?

Verity thought silently. Aloud, she said, "I would love to stay with you on Monday." She pulled out a chair at the table and sat down. "You'll have to give me your address and directions."

"Tavi has them for you, don't you, Tavi?"

Tavi nodded silently and reached into a small satchel she had brought with her.

Standing in the kitchen doorway, Jonas watched the small scene at Caitlin Evanger's table. He couldn't overhear the conversation, but when Verity pulled out a chair and sat down, Jonas made an exclamation of disgust and turned back to wipe down a counter.

"Trouble out in the dining room?" Emerson asked. He popped the top off a can of beer and leaned back against a counter.

"Probably," Jonas said dryly. "Verity just sat down to chat with her good pal Caitlin the Ice Lady. I don't know what Verity sees in that woman. From the look of things, Evanger is making a real effort to turn Verity into her best friend."

"Maybe they both figure they have a lot in common," Emerson mused. "They're two strong-willed, intelligent, independent women who have built careers for themselves. I can see where they might have a lot to talk about."

Jonas shot him a cold glance. "Verity is not one damn bit like that icicle of an artist. She doesn't really have anything in common with Evanger, she just thinks she does. She's got a bad case of hero-worship."

"As long as Verity believes she has something in common with Evanger, she does have something in common with her," Emerson pointed out reasonably. "The reality of a situation is never as important as the individual's perception of that reality. You know that."

"The hell with it. I'm not in the mood for a lecture on the differences between reality and perception."

Jonas tossed aside the cloth he had been using and went back to lean in the doorway. He folded his arms and broodingly watched the three women at the table. The restaurant was empty now except for Verity, Caitlin, and the quiet woman who accompanied the artist.

"What do you think they're discussing so intently?" Emerson asked, coming up behind Jonas.

"Beats me, but I don't like it. Verity looks too damn interested in whatever Evanger is saying."

"Worried?"

"I just don't like it," Jonas said stubbornly. "Evanger's a bad influence on Verity."

Emerson chuckled. "Verity's been thinking for herself for a long time. First thing I taught her was to ask critical questions. It's the first thing they should teach kids in school, but of course they don't. Don't worry.

My daughter isn't easily influenced by anyone or anything."

"You raised an interesting daughter, Emerson. She's as stubborn and independent as a Missouri mule."

"All the more reason for you to stop worrying about Caitlin Evanger's influence."

"But every little mule has its blind spot. Verity has a mind of her own, but she's also got a streak of naivete'. She's something of an innocent in spite of all those sharp thorns she's developed to protect herself. Verity's blind spot might be Caitlin Evanger. I can see the problem now. Evanger's a couple of years older than Verity; a woman who has lived up to her potential, at least in Verity's eyes. Verity's real big on living up to one's potential."

"I know." Emerson sipped his beer. "Easy to see why Verity admires Caitlin."

Jonas straightened. "I think it's time I put a stop to this."

"Good luck," Emerson murmured behind him.

Jonas strode out into the dining room and stopped at the table. All three women looked at him as if he'd just dropped in from another planet. He looked pointedly down at Verity.

"Time to close out the till," he said.

Verity smiled cheerfully. "I'll take care of it later, Jonas. Go on home with Dad if you're ready to leave."

So much for plan A, Jonas thought grimly. Time to drop back to plan B. This one required more subtlety.

It was based on the principle of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." He noticed the piece of paper in front of Verity.

"What's the map for?" he asked.

"I'm going to visit Caitlin on Monday. Tavi just finished drawing me a little map so I can find the house."

Jonas felt something clench in his stomach. He shot a glance at Evanger, who just looked back at him with her cold, expressionless eyes. "Is that right?" he asked softly. "How are you going to manage the time away from the No Bull?"

"It won't be a problem," Verity assured him. "I'll be back in plenty of time on Tuesday to open for lunch."

Jonas tried a last ditch effort. "I thought you and I might drive up into the wine country next Monday."

Verity raised her eyebrows, clearly surprised. Jonas couldn't blame her. He was a little surprised himself.

He hadn't planned anything at all for next Monday until approximately sixty seconds ago.

"Maybe next week," Verity temporized politely.

It was Caitlin Evanger who stepped in to resolve the situation. "Why don't you come with Verity, Mr. Quarrel?" she suggested smoothly. "You could drive over to the coast with her and see some of the wine country en route. I have plenty of room at my home for both of you."

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