Welcome To My Cluttered Mind
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CRYSTAL MOON IS LIVE! So excited for you to meet foul-mouthed Sawyer and feisty Kelli!
As a special thank you for all the people who have been asking "How's the book coming? Finished yet?" I'm sharing the Prologue and first five chapters with you. Hey, if you see a typo shoot me a line. You're getting to see it before the professional editor because that's just the way I roll.
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Enjoy the Prologue and first five chapters on me!
“What the hell’s the matter with you? You’re squirming around like a kid about to piss his pants. You got something better to do than explain what the fuck’s been going on with you lately? When did you decide it was okay to piddle ass around on a job instead of finishing it?” I gave the mechanic, Grady Wilks, my don’t screw with me stare. I didn’t waste time on deadbeats, but Grady had always been a friend worth spending time on.
“Hell, Sawyer, you know how it gets sometimes. More bills comin’ in than money. I’m running a little short this month. It’s got me scrambling. Picked up too many jobs trying to cover my ass and they’ve put me behind schedule.”
Grady was putting a lot of attention into scrubbing his hands with a red shop rag. The restless hands, avoiding eye contact, all signs something serious had him twisted up.
“If it’s just money why didn’t you come to me? Wouldn’t be the first time I offered to float you a loan.” And it wouldn’t be the first time his stubborn ass refused my help. I took a guess at what he was trying to not tell me. “I thought you had all those hospital and doctor bills caught up?”
Grady’s dad had passed well over a year ago from lung cancer. It hadn’t been a long drawn out thing only because he’d not gone to see a doctor until it was too late to do anything for him. Short or long, the hospital and doctor bills had been a staggering load for Grady to take on. Plenty of people told him it wasn’t his responsibility to pay his dad’s bills. That’s all good and well, except he would have lost his home and the garage if he didn’t pay up. Both were in his dad’s and his name jointly. He’d taken on his father’s debts and been killing himself ever since paying them off. I sent as much work his way as possible and that was all the help he accepted. A few months back he looked happy as hell when he told me he’d managed to pay off the last debt on his dad. Not many days after that he was more closed off and pinched looking than before.
“Yeah, I’ve got the medical shit handled. Just got screwed up juggling things. Did a few quick jobs for the fast money and it messed with the scheduling.” Grady still wouldn’t look me in the eye.
Something had been going on with Grady ever since he’d told me the medical bills had been taken care of. Whatever he was hiding made him unwilling to ask for help. The rope was dangling right there in front of him, all he had to do was reach out and grab the line. I’d be the first to say a man had a right to his secrets. But I also believed that when a friend lied to my face it was time to figure out what was going on.
“If you’d gotten your head out of your ass and finished the new traps in Colin’s truck on time your money problems would’ve already been solved. When I send work your way, I sure as hell don’t want them coming back to me bitching because the job is running behind.”
“One more day and I’ll have the job wrapped up. Already have the box installed and the hydraulics that control the back panel are kickass. When that seat slides forward it barely makes a whisper and the compartment behind it is the biggest one I’ve ever put in the cab of a truck before. Once the trim’s replaced ain’t nobody gonna find that bitch. Already finished the false bed in the back, it’s seamless and watertight.” Grady’s enthusiasm over the new hides carried the first honest reaction I’d gotten out of him since dropping by and asking questions.
When it came to mechanics they didn’t come any better than Grady. He also had a real talent when it came to custom paint and body work, but his true genius lay in building hidden compartments called traps. There wasn’t a big demand for them. They were too expensive and not a lot of legitimate reasons to have one installed. Usually when he picked up a job for one he’d be so damn stoked that’d be all he worked on. Not this time, though. He was running two weeks behind on Colin’s truck.
“I don’t want to hear how close you are just finish the damn thing. And you can cut the bullshit and tell me the real reason you’ve been dickin’ around so long with it. You never could lie worth a damn.” I should let it go but we went way back. All the dumbass had to do was come clean, then I’d lend him the money or kick someone’s ass. Problem solved. Money or an ass-kicking solved every problem out there.
The animation in Grady’s face reverted to the pinched mouth and brow he’d been walking around with for weeks. “I ain’t lying. There’s some personal shit been gettin’ in the way. Said I’d take care of it and I will.”
“That personal shit have anything to do with Andrew Webber?” I watched him for a reaction.
Andrew’s old man owned the Chevy dealership on the east side of town and the Ford lot on the west side. He also owned a number of other dealerships in larger cities located both here in Arkansas and across Missouri. Andrew ran the two car lots in Copper Ridge, meaning he had his own mechanics and body guys. Word had gotten back to me he’d been showing up at Grady’s. Since Andrew was a rat bastard, and him and Grady had never been chummy, I couldn’t think of one good reason for the man to be popping up over here. That left only bad reasons that were probably going to screw Grady up.
“What the hell, Sawyer? You spying on me?” Grady’s glare told me all I needed to know about the who. Now I just needed the why.
“Did you forget this is Copper Ridge? Everyone’s so fuckin’ eager to stick their nose up everyone else’s ass, I’d have to have the whole damn town on my payroll if you want to call it spying. That prick Andrew’s been seen dropping off company trucks out here and everyone’s wondering what that shits about. So, tell me, why in the hell would he do that when he has all those mechanics in those high dollar shops of his daddy’s?” This bit of info wasn’t as well-known as I’d let on to Grady. Sure, Andrew had been seen coming out this way during the day but those trucks of his had all been delivered at night. Just like they were being picked up at night when Grady finished whatever he was doing to them. Not that it was hard to guess what that was. The why was the real mystery.
“What I do in my shop is nobody’s business but mine. You want me to start asking you shit about the bars you own? Or how about I stick my nose in those gambling houses you make a killing off of?”
“You want me to stay the hell out of your business, fine. You know where to find me when you decide to get real with me.” Turning my back on Grady, I headed out the open bay door. You can’t help people until they ask for it. They’re not ready before then. Until that moment they’re willing to look you in the eye and say, “I need help” anything you do for them can come back to bite you in the ass.
After I climbed on my Harley, I speared Grady with a last look. “Call Colin. Tell him what the hell’s going on with his truck. I ain’t your fuckin’ secretary.”
I pulled to a stop in the gravel parking lot and stared at the building that had starred in some of the most important moments of my life. Funny thing about that, I didn’t even know of its existence until six months ago.
Needing a minute, I took in the mishmash of wood and cement block that made up the structure known as Skeeter’s. The afternoon sunlight spilling across the front of the weathered building didn’t exactly do it any favors. There were no signs attached to the top of the backwoods bar boasting the establishment’s name. Apparently, if you were a local you knew what it was called and if you weren’t, nobody cared if you knew the name or not.
What signs the bar did boast were mostly old rusty metal ones scattered in no particular order across the front of the building. They advertised everything from auto parts to liquor; snuff to pop. An especially classy one next to the entrance proclaimed Get Your Woody Serviced Here. A picture of an old wood panel station wagon was centered in the middle of the words. No doubt that was a laugh that never got old with the drinking crowd.
Skeeter’s definitely wasn’t any kind of place I’d ever pictured working at. Six months ago, my privileged hinny wouldn’t have stepped through the doors of this kind of dive. Funny how at twenty-seven I’d begun to figure out life didn’t necessarily turn out the way you planned.
Shrugging off the what-could-have-beens, I swung the car door open and climbed out. The gravel in the parking lot had me tottering worse than a drunk on my three-inch heels as I crossed to the entrance. Judging solely on the building’s exterior, shoes weren’t the only wrong fashion choice made. Then again, I didn’t own a single pair of Daisy Dukes, or have a stash of halter tops to pull from.
I’d struggled over what to wear before coming out here. Finally settled on something I would have felt comfortable wearing to the boutique I used to manage back home. If the classic black pencil skirt showed off curves and the emerald-green silk shell reflected my eye color, well, those were just bonuses that might help me land a job. Sure, this was a bar, no need for a power suit, but still, I’d wanted to wear something nice. Basic 101 when applying for a job, dress to impress. Okay, the Louboutins might have been going too far, but it was doubtful the red soles would mean anything to anyone in this kind of place. Bitchy? I preferred to call it being realistic.
It was a relief when I reached the covered porch without a twisted ankle. Happily, there weren’t any spectators loitering around the front of the building to witness my less than graceful approach. Seeing only one other vehicle in the front lot, and it was a monster motorcycle, I guessed there wouldn’t be too many patrons inside. Pausing on the wooden planks, I straightened my skirt and made sure my blouse was still neatly tucked. Satisfied all was in order, I took a deep breath, gripped the door handle and strolled through, owning the place.
The thunderous slam of the door closing had me jumping as if a bomb had just exploded in my panties. I landed with a wild wobble on the heels I was seriously beginning to hate. Apparently, the door didn’t have one of those pneumatic thingys that kept it from waking the dead when it closed. Then again, I might have been a tad too enthusiastic flinging it open. I’d wanted to make a statement with my entrance. Unfortunately, the impression was less Confident Woman and more along the lines of The Clown Has Arrived. Hopefully the room was dark enough it hid the pink tide of embarrassment crawling up my neck.
Having already put on a floor show, I stalled just inside the doorway. Not a bad thing. No sense adding to the spectacle of my entrance by tripping over something and doing a face plant. Taking a moment to allow my eyes to adjust to the dimmer interior had the added benefit of giving me time to check out what I’d slammed my way into.
Back at the motel earlier, I’d asked the elderly manager, Mrs. Whatley, if she’d ever heard of Skeeter’s. The manager had been more than happy to launch into a litany of the shameful shenanigans people got up to in that place. By the time she was through, I’d conjured up a graphic picture of something that was a cross between an old time saloon and a biker’s hangout, with a side of cat-house thrown in for good measure. It was a regular Walmart of manly vices. When I’d asked for directions Mrs. Whatley’s self-righteous sniff was a clear indication my moral compass had dropped a few degrees in value with the woman.
Scanning the room, I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or feel cheated. After preparing for a Den of Iniquity, the place turned out to be more of what I pictured a typical lower-class bar would be. Not as polished as a club you’d find in the city, but neither were there any diseased hookers or drunken bikers littering the floor.
There was nothing sinister about the polished bar that lined the right side of the room. The space between it and a quartet of pool tables was furnished with mismatched four and six-top tables surrounded by equally mismatched chairs. Located in the very back was a raised platform where a band could set up and next to it was a jukebox. They had the music options covered. An open area in front of the low stage provided plenty of room for anyone wanting to show off their footwork. In the back corner was the entrance to a shadowed hallway. Maybe that hallway was the road to damnation? The one Mrs. Whatley claimed everyone was on that entered Skeeter’s.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
The gruff question drew my attention back to the bar and came from a giant of a man owning the space behind it. Inked up arms were attached to massive shoulders, and his thick neck was topped by a face that appeared to have been shaped by more than one fist throughout the years. It would be charitable to call his features “unique”. It was a safe bet he wasn’t one of those slick bartenders who impressed patrons by tossing bottles and glasses in the air while mixing drinks.
He wasn’t alone at the counter. I shifted my attention to a petite brunette standing across the wooden barrier from him. The faint sneer on her lips made me think she wasn’t exactly impressed with me. Customer or employee? If she worked here, she wasn’t the stereotypical waitress I expected to find. Too young was the first thought that pop into my head. But there was something about her eyes that made me think she’d seen some hard truths in her life. Maybe she was older than she looked?
My plan to take a quick peek at the third member of this little gathering stalled out when my eyes landed on the large frame of the man leaning against the bar. He was everything mommas warned their daughters to stay away from, and the very thing those same daughters wanted more than their next breath. I could almost smell the aroma of wild sex and broken hearts rolling off him. If Skeeter’s was the road to damnation, this man was driving the bus.
There was nothing flashy about his appearance that screamed look at me. Everything he had on said comfort and not style. It was the body encased in the scuffed boots, relaxed jeans, and weathered shirt that snagged my attention. It was eyegasmic pleasure to let my gaze travel the long-sculpted length of him. Corded biceps were exposed by the bunched sleeves of a faded gray Henley. That square jaw of his hadn’t seen the sharp edge of a razor in a day or two and all that stubble surrounded well-formed lips.
Lips were kind of a thing with me. Didn’t you just hate when a guy had lips that were barely there? I mean come on. With thin lips you went in for the kiss and ended up with nothing but the skin between nose and chin. Gross. But these lips were a perfect blend of substance without being puffy. A hint of harshness around the edges teased a woman into wanting to try and soften them. I’d never been a long hair loving kind of gal. While his was too long to be businessman trendy—my personal favorite—the dark waves that brushed the back of his neck were enough to make me a convert to the needing a trim, unruly look.
When I finally got around to looking into his cobalt eyes, an overwhelming urge to slowly back away from his level gaze hit me. With his hip cocked against the wooden counter and an arm resting on the polished surface, he should have come across as relaxed. Should have. Instead there was a sense of coiled readiness about him. I had this crazy Stranger Danger warning screaming in my head. Not a creepy guy vibe, more of a this is not a man you want to cross.
Dragging my eyes back to the bartender took a conscious effort. He was the one who should have come across as the biggest threat in the room, but he was substantially less threatening than the other male. I sincerely hoped Mr. Bartender was the person I needed to convince to give me a job. While I hadn’t figured out whether the brunette worked here or not I discounted her as being unimportant. As for the one truly formidable presence dominating the room? It’d be a cold day in the corner of hell he ruled before anyone talked him into anything he didn’t want to do.
“Miss, iffin’ you’re lost just say so and I’ll point you in the right direction. But you’re gonna have to speak up, I don’t read minds.” The bartender crossed his muscular arms and rested them on top of his rounded belly. Cocking his bald head and raising an eyebrow, he tacked on, “Ain’t nobody gonna bite.”
The tiny brunette gave an inelegant snort, “Least wise not this early in the day.”
Squaring tense shoulders, I moved closer to the trio and plastered an upbeat, confident smile on my face.
“Please, forgive my rudeness. My name is Kelli Radcliff, Mr. … ?” Taking the necessary step to get close enough to stick out a hand in greeting to the bartender, I held my breath. The wait to see if he would blow me off or actually take the offering, stretched and stretched.
The pause seemed to last forever, but he unwound his arms and completely engulfed my fingers in his huge paw. He carefully gave my hand a gentle shake before releasing it. “No mister. Just Charlie.”
While I’d dismissed the girl as not being useful, it was never a good idea to ignore someone who might end up being a co-worker. Flashing a smile in her direction, I again extended my hand for another shake. After half a beat the girl offered up a hand and name, “Zanie Mae. Most just call me Zane unless they’re pissed at me or want me pissed at them.”
The tinkly little laugh I trotted out, as if Zane was the cutest thing ever, had me cringing inside at its falseness. These people weren’t the type to practice social niceties, much less appreciate them. The eye-roll the brunette flashed at Charlie was a good indicator I wasn’t scoring any points.
Turning to the one person left to be introduced, I suppressed a shiver of awareness. Down girl. I reminded myself I was here to find a missing piece of my past, not to become sidetracked by some macho piece of manliness. Still, I had this crazy desire to hear him speak. I will admit to being curious whether his voice would do justice to the image he projected. What a crime against nature if a nasally lisp came out of those sinful lips.
Cranking up the wattage on my smile, I extended a hand to Mister Badass. He ignored my hand. Instead, he let his hooded eyes travel the length of my body in a parody of my earlier scrutiny of him. He just reversed the order, starting at my blonde hair and let his eyes scorch a path to my feet. When he got to my heels he lingered on them before returning to his detached role of observer. I got the feeling I’d been a lot more affected by his eyes traveling over my body than he’d been.
Yep, his callous rejection stung. I was used to men being a little more excited to meet me. That was the only excuse I had to offer for what I did next.
Pulling my hand back, I examined it with a tiny frown, making it clear I was checking to see what was wrong with it. After a thorough examination, I spit in the palm then proceeded to give it a vigorous scrubbing against my hip. After examining it one more time, I nodded as if satisfied and again offered it with a brilliant smile. Momma would have been horrified by such an unladylike action, which only made the performance that much sweeter.
A moment of silence, so complete it had me worried I’d gone too far, was broken when Charlie and Zane busted out laughing. Zane belted out her amusement, making no attempt to sound cutesy or girlie. Charlie had the deep chested, booming laughter a man his size was bound to have. While there was satisfaction in having achieved my goal of breaking the ice with at least two of the three, I never took my eyes off the beautiful stranger. The one who’d initiated my less than delicate approach to getting him to introduce himself.
I didn’t have to wait long this time for a response. His body didn’t so much straighten from where he leaned against the bar as uncoiled its long form in a sensuous bunching and flexing of muscle. A hint of interest flashed in his eyes, where before they’d been cold, and those beautiful lips had the barest lift to one corner. I was determined to remain rock steady. My hand never wavered, although, I was starting to worry my toothy smile was beginning to appear maniacal. But momma dogs would have kittens before I dropped either the smile or the hand.
One word and it was worth all the effort put into dragging it out of him. The deep huskiness of his voice sent a shiver of appreciation down my spine, goosebumps skittered across my arms. He took a firm hold of my hand, but instead of shaking it he did the oddest thing. Turning it over he examined the palm as carefully as I had done. Thankfully, he didn’t spit in it. He ran the roughened pad of his index finger over the unblemished smoothness. Realizing I was holding my breath, I gracelessly snatched my hand back from him. The burn left behind couldn’t have been any hotter than if he’d traced across my palm using hot coal instead of his finger. A low rumbling chuckle made me think he’d accomplished his goal, also.
Wanting to maintain a pretense of control, I acted as though nothing unusual had taken place. I backed up resisting the urge to again scrub my hand against my skirt. The need to erase the stain of awareness left by his touch was difficult to ignore. I could have kissed Charlie’s ugly mug when he started talking and broke the staring contest between Sawyer and me.
“Miss, iffin’ you’re here for something to eat or drink, we ain’t open yet. And iffin’ you’re here tryin’ to sell something we ain’t buying.” He crossed his arms back across his chest.
“Oh, I don’t know, Charlie. Someone here might be lookin’ to buy whatever she’s sellin’,” Zane popped in with a smirk. She tipped her head in Sawyer’s direction. “Or at least rent it for a while.”
Sawyer drawled, “Shut the hell up, Zanie,” in an offhand manner that carried no heat, then returned to leaning against the bar. If there’d been a spark of interest in him a moment ago it was gone now.
“Zane, ain’t you got something you need to be doin’ ‘sides embarrassing the hell out of folks?” Charlie’s complaint sounded more resigned than angry.
I ignored her less than subtle remarks. Crude as they were, they weren’t going to derail me from doing what I’d come here for. Raising my chin the tiniest fraction, I addressed Charlie, “Actually, I’m hoping you might be in need of help.”
“Help doing what?” Charlie managed to sound both puzzled and suspicious.
“I would like to put in an application.”
He continued to look puzzled.
“A job. I want a job working here.”
You’d have thought I was speaking some kind of foreign language from all the blank stares. Zane was the first to react and it wasn’t exactly positive. She doubled over laughing. Charlie dropped the confused look and started his own rounds of chuckles while he eyeballed me like, yeah, right. Sawyer reacted the least but managed to convey the most by simply narrowing his eyes. He was the only one taking me serious.
Before anyone could deliver a no, I launched into the speech I’d rehearsed over and over on the drive here. “I have wonderful assets to share, Mr. Charlie. I have several years of experience working with the public as a general manager of a very popular upscale boutique in Little Rock. Close contact on a daily basis with the most demanding of customers has taught me the necessary skills to satisfy the most difficult clients. But please don’t think I’m just some white-collar snob because when it comes to getting dirty, I’m not squeamish. I’ll preform quite enthusiastically no matter what position I’m placed in.”
My verbal resume set off another peal of laughter from Zane. And Charlie? He no longer looked amused but appeared stunned. I couldn’t resist glancing at Sawyer. Oh yeah, the bored detachment was definitely gone.
“Charlie, you gotta hire her after that speech.” Zane didn’t even try to control her giggles. “You ain’t never gonna find another one like her around these parts.”
One word from Sawyer and we all turned in his direction. He had eyes for no one but me. It wasn’t difficult to read the finality of that no in the steeliness of his gaze. I turned to Charlie hoping he might be more favorable to the idea, but he just shrugged his shoulders.
“Aww, come on Sawyer. Give her a chance. You know Sue Ann’s boyfriend is making her quit now he’s got her knocked up.” Help arrived from the one person I’d written off as being of no importance. Zane was pleading my case.
“Besides, she’s worth having around for a good laugh now and then.”
If any of them thought it was going to be easy to dismiss me, then disappointment was about to rear its ugly head. “This is not a joke, and neither am I. I need a job. Miss Zane stated you’re in need of a new employee. I demand to be taken seriously.”
“Don’t go gettin’ your panties in a twist. I’m just funnin’ with you, but I’m serious as a heart-attack, too.” Zane might have been talking to me, but she stared down both men while doing it. “Sawyer needs to stop being so damn paranoid about strangers and let Charlie hire you.”
I wasn’t sure whether to trust Zane or not. I wanted to. Desperately. But I was having a hard time believing she wasn’t setting me up for another round of funnin’.
“Zane.” Sawyer shot her a warning glare. “The fuckin’ men will eat her alive and the women around here will rip her to shreds. Nobody’s got time to babysit a fuckin’ debutante.”
“I’m saying she won’t be a problem and she’ll solve one of ours. By the time she’s had her fill of working here we can have somebody else lined up.” Zane directed an assessing eye at me. “You ain’t planning on tryin’ to make a little side money, are you?”
Asking her to clarify her question felt wrong. I had a sneaky suspicion it had something to do with me joining the ranks of the diseased whores I’d expected to find thanks to Mrs. Whatley. Shaking my head hard enough to give myself a headache I strangled out a, “No.”
Maybe it was wrong to let this strange girl do the fighting to gain me a job, but she had Sawyer listening. Something I chalked up to a minor miracle. It made me wonder if they were more intimate than simply boss and employee.
“See? She ain’t gonna want in on no side action. That’ll keep the regulars happy and out of her face. You know how bitchy they get when they have to compete with someone new. Besides, even if we did find someone from around here to replace Sue Ann, ain’t none of them gonna have her classy ass… ets.” Zane grinned and did this big hand swoop, showcasing my body in a classic Vanna White move.
As far as resumes went, I wouldn’t be asking Zane to write me one anytime soon, but what she said seemed to carry more weight than the speech I’d prepared. Charlie was nodding his head. He appeared to be warming to the idea, which left Sawyer to convince. He was impossible to read.
What the hell was Zane up to? She’d normally be first in line to give some socialite a kick in the ass to help them out the door. But right now she was doing her damnedest to talk me into hiring this one. There were damn good reasons not to bring in some stranger who didn’t have connections with anyone local. She knew what every one of them were. This Kelli person didn’t realize it, but Zane had taken a liking to her.
From the moment the woman exploded through the doors my inner radar had been firing off all sorts of warnings. Course, those alarms were more to remind me it would be stupid as hell to get tangled up with a female who would be nothing but a pain in the ass. It wasn’t until she started talking shit about wanting a job that I looked at her as a serious threat.
Everything about the woman screamed she didn’t belong in a country honky-tonk. From the way she talked to the way she dressed. She might as well have a neon sign hung around her neck flashing the words High Class. There was no denying she was southern with every soft word that rolled from her tongue, but she sure as hell wasn’t country.
I’d been surprised as hell at how she’d stood up to me when I ignored her obvious maneuvers to find out my name. It’d been hard to keep from laughing when she’d spit in her hand then scrubbed it on that sexy as hell skirt of hers. For me, that bit of sassiness added to the appeal of a beautiful face and a body made for sin. If she worked at the bar she’d be a temptation hard to ignore. I’d never been big on resisting temptation.
I’d learned my lesson that women from her level weren’t worth the trouble. They started out thinking they wanted some nasty from a bad boy but it was only a matter of time before they went to work trying to smooth away all those hard edges that had attracted them in the first place. I stuck to women who were hard in their own ways.
To have a princess show up asking for a job didn’t make a lot of sense. I wasn’t a big fan of mysteries involving a stranger hanging around one of my businesses. Thanks to Zane’s big mouth this woman knew we needed to hire someone. Gotta hand it to her, she had balls to use that knowledge to her advantage despite being halfway afraid of me. I’d seen the heat in those fuckin’ green eyes when she was checking me out. But I’d also seen the distrust. I gave her points for having enough sense to be leery of me. She had good reason to be. But, she didn’t let fear rule her and demanded she be given a job. Damn. I liked that about her.
Like her or not, the lady had an agenda. I would guaran-damn-tee it had nothing to do with a lifelong, burning ambition to work in a rough ass bar. When a woman as classy as her showed up in a roughneck bar it was a safe bet she was either hiding from someone or searching for something. The big question? If she was on the hunt, was she hunting for herself or someone else? Might be interesting to keep her around until I figured out what the hell she was up to. And when the hell did I start lying to myself and making excuses to keep a woman around? Especially one that was going to end up being a damn nightmare.
She wanted to insert herself into my world? Fine. But nothing said I had to make it easy.
“You ever wait a fuckin’ table in your life?”
“As a matter of fact I have.” I couldn’t help feeling smug after his question. Obviously, he was searching for a legitimate reason not to hire me. I couldn’t wait to knock that particular prop out from under him. “I’ll admit it’s been a while, but in high school I was a cheerleader and worked the Sport’s Banquet every year. Then in college my sorority hosted countless social mixers and charity events. I served at each and every one of them.” When I completed my list of experiences I might as well have added “so there.” It was certainly implied in my tone.
“We don’t host fuckin’ tea parties around here.” Sawyer’s derisive drawl made it plain he wasn’t impressed.
A groan erupted from Zane. “Hon, not helping. Maybe you should zip-it and let me do the talking.”
What had I said that was so bad? I’d simply pointed out I wasn’t a complete stranger to delivering food and drink. Granted, it’d been a few years ago but being a waitress wasn’t exactly brain surgery.
Zane jumped in like she was afraid of what might come out of my mouth next. “Bottom line, guys, we need someone and she’s here. I’ll teach her everything she needs to know and keep an eye on her. You gotta admit, she’s got nice tits and don’t forget her ass… ets.” She cracked up again. Good to see she was getting so much mileage out of that word. “That right there’s enough to keep the male customers so distracted they won’t even notice when she screws up. How bad can it be?”
That was it? My biggest recommendations were body parts and a, “how bad can it be?”
“She’s got a point, Sawyer. Sue Ann’s already told me she ain’t coming back no more. The woman’s here and iffin’ Zane’s willing to work with her, how bad can it be?” Charlie chimed in with his support, sounding more stoic than enthusiastic. “Between the two of us, we’ll keep her nose out of places it don’t belong. She probably won’t last long but it’ll give us a little breathing room and time to find someone else.”
“Sorry help beats no help.” Zane summed up her pitch with a triumphant flourish.
I gritted my teeth and smiled as if Zane’s and in the end Charlie’s less than rousing words of support were the highest of praise.
Sawyer took turns leveling a stare at each of them. His harsh gaze lingered on me the longest. Not going to lie; sweat was running down the middle of my back. When he started walking in my direction my smile faltered. When he passed by without a word my shoulders drop in defeat.
Convinced it was all over I was shocked when, without turning around, he announced before walking out, “Hire her if you want. But if she becomes a problem, I’ll be the one taking care of it.”
I had no illusions. What I heard in his voice was not an idle threat but a promise.
Silence dominated the room after Sawyer walked out, leaving me to wonder if I had the job or not. I turned to Charlie, his expression wasn’t encouraging.
Zane was the first to break the silence. “He can be such an ass.” She sounded a lot more cheerful than I felt at the moment. Popping hands on hips, she grinned and said, “Hope you have something with you other than what you’ve got on. Those shoes are gonna be killers after the first thirty minutes. Lucky for you it’s Monday and everyone gets kicked out at eleven on weekdays. Weekends are a different story. We don’t close ‘til one but there’ll be a lot more help. If they’re not too busy working the back rooms. And just like the good lord you get to rest on Sundays. For the next few days you’ll be working same schedule as me so I can keep an eye on you. That means you work six days this week and four next one. Any questions?”
Her barrage of information flew over my head. I was still trying to figure out what had just happened. “Does this mean I’m hired, and you want me to start right now?” Again, I looked to Charlie.
“Of course you’re hired. Ain’t that right, Charlie? Sawyer gave the okay even if he had a piss-poor way of doing it.” Zane appealed to him to back her up.
He rubbed a slab of a hand back and forth across his bald dome before huffing out a sigh. “Yeah, I reckon so. We need someone and she’s here. Just remember, she causes any headaches it ain’t just gonna be her ass on the line.”
After giving his grudging agreement he made for the swinging doors set in the wall at the end of the bar. Sounds of pans clattering and a greeting called out could be heard when he pushed through them. I imagined he was already complaining about the new girl to whoever was working back there.
“See? You’re in. Now, about those shoes, any options?” Again Zane sounded way more cheerful than she should after Charlie’s dire warning.
“No, not with me. I didn’t expect everything to happen so fast. Is there time for me to drive back to the motel and change?” I crossed my fingers that the answer would be yes. The drive there and back would allow time for what just happened to sink in. It felt as if I’d been caught in an undertow and was being dragged out of safe harbor into dangerous waters. Yes, this is what I wanted but I’d been so focused on finding a way to work at Skeeter’s I hadn’t planned beyond getting hired.
“Best not. It’s already three-thirty and we open at four. Don’t want to give Charlie a chance to start second guessing hiring you. He might change his mind. Don’t worry, I always keep extra clothes here. Never know when somebody’s gonna spill something, or worse, some light weight can’t hold his liquor and you end up wearing whatever he’d stuffed in his stomach that day.” Zane shrugged off my fish-eyed grimace of disgust with, “Hey, it happens. Not often, but a girl’s gotta be prepared.”
Oh, lordy. What had I gotten myself into?
“I’d say we’re about the same size.” Zane narrowed her eyes. I could feel her mentally measuring me. “My jeans might be a little loose in the ass. I’ve got more ham in the hocks than you.” She slapped herself on the butt. They’ll be short in the leg, too, but ain’t nobody gonna notice once you put the boots on. That is, if you can manage get them on. What size do you wear?”
“Do they run the same as shoe sizes?” The thought of wearing some stranger’s clothes wasn’t exactly thrilling. I was especially doubtfully about the cowboy boots after studying the rather flamboyant blue ones Zane had on.
“You have got to be shittin’ me, girl! You ain’t never worn a pair of boots before?”
“Of course I’ve worn boots. Just not the type you have on.” That came out way more defensive than I’d planned. But for the first time in my life I understood how it felt to be the only kid on the block that didn’t have the cool stuff everyone else sported. Which was ridiculous. My heels alone cost more than a closet filled to bursting with the type of no-name clothes Zane had on. There I went being bitchy again. Years of judging everyone through the eyes of my momma was going to be a hard habit to break.
“Never mind, I’ll just run and get my backups. I’ve got an old pair of flip flops out in my car that for sure you can wear if the boots don’t fit. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t.” Zane didn’t wait for a yay or nay, just took off in the same direction Charlie had gone. Indecision glued my feet to the floor and left me wondering if I was supposed to follow or wait for Zane to return with the clothes.
As Zane walked away she started rattling off something about introducing me to the cook but stopped when she noticed she was talking to empty air. Looking back, she called out, “Well, come on. We ain’t got a lot of time to get you fixed up and run through some of the basics around here. Good thing we’ve got a few days to get you geared up before the weekend.”
That answered my question and motivated me into a fast walk to catch up. For someone as young as Zane appeared to be she certainly had no problem ordering people around. I followed her into the kitchen where a wiry, older man was slicing tomatoes. He quit what he was doing when we stopped beside him.
“Lonnie, meet our new waitress. This here is Kelli.” Waving a hand at the cook, Zane said, “Lonnie’s been here longer than anybody. He can fill you in on a few things while I run out to my car and grab those clothes.” She took off for the back door not giving either one of us a chance to protest.
There was a moment of awkward silence as Lonnie took his time checking me out. There wasn’t anything that screamed dirty old man in his scrutiny, though. More of a well, I’ll be damned glint of amusement flickered in his eyes.
“So, you’re what’s got Charlie mumbling to himself as he shot through here.” Lonnie chuckled. “Don’t pay him no mind. He’s a hell of a lot more bark than he is bite.”
I decided it was going to be easy to like Skeeter’s cook. The jury was still out on Charlie. He’d seemed nice enough, despite his scary size, until I’d asked for a job. Once Sawyer had made it clear he didn’t want me working here Charlie’s whole demeanor had changed. He’d made it plain it didn’t sit well with him, going against Sawyer’s wishes, despite having sided with Zane in the end.
Flashing a grin at Lonnie, I said, “Bark or bite, he’s got me now.”
Lonnie returned my grin, “You’re gonna get on just fine here. Charlie might’a been fooled by them fancy duds you’re suited up in, but you’ve got grit, girlie. You just remember that.”
Lonnie’s vote of confidence had me swallowing a lump in my throat. Funny how a few words of praise from a stranger meant more than anything I’d heard in a long time from people who were supposed to love me. Pushing memories to the back of my mind, I thought now was as good a time as any to start asking a few of the questions that had brought me to Skeeter’s in the first place.
“How long have you been working here, Mr. Lonnie?”
“Now, none of that mister nonsense, girlie. It’s Lonnie to a pretty little thang like you.” He winked. “I’ve been here goin’ on thirty-two years. Started out workin’ for the original owner, Skeeter Louis. Course he’d opened this here place years ‘fore I ever showed up. When Louis decided to retire a few years back Sawyer bought him out, and I stayed on.”
A buzz of excitement shot through me. The old cook had been working here during the time-period I was interested in.
“You must have seen a lot of changes over the years.”
“Not as many as you’d think. The people that work here come and go. Most of the customers that have been coming here for years are being replaced by their kids now. Lot more strangers around since they paved the county road.” He frowned as if he didn’t much care for the idea of the strangers coming around. “Been a few upgrades in entertainment since Sawyer bought it, but we still have the same food now we had when I first started. Folks around here reckon it’s the best burger you can sink your teeth into. Sawyer had enough sense to know you don’t go fixin’ something that ain’t broke.” A lot of pride was evident in his words.
“You mean Skeeter’s has had the same menu for the last thirty-two years?”
“No menu ever been necessary, girlie, and that was true long before I ever started working in the kitchen. People have two choices, hamburger or cheeseburger. They want something to go with it they can have chips or fries. Kitchen closes at ten. Can’t get much simpler than that.” Lonnie nodded at me.
“See here, girlie. This is mainly a bar, pure and simple. But we make a damn fine burger, always have, so we get a lot of folk in for supper. Families who show up with kids in tow generally clear out well before nine. Much later than that and it can get excitin’ around here.”
From the stories Mrs. Whatley had been eager to share, pure and simple were the last words I would’ve used to describe Skeeter’s. That it got excitin’ around the place was easier to believe. Still, it was a relief to find out there wasn’t an extensive dinner menu to memorize. Before I could steer Lonnie back around to the topic that really interested me Zane was heading back in our direction.
She showed up holding a pair of boots with flip flops sticking out of the top of one of the boot shafts. In her other hand was a pair of jeans and a neon tee. I did my best to control a grimace at the screaming pink color of the shirt.
“Lonnie, I gotta steal your new friend and get her ready for tonight.” Zane didn’t even slow down as she walked past us.
Before hurrying after her, I flashed a smile at Lonnie. “I’d love to hear some of your stories about Skeeter’s. Maybe if I get a break later tonight we can talk?”
“Girlie, once them doors open for the night I ain’t gonna have a minute to call my own. Mondays and Tuesdays I man the kitchen by my lonesome. You’re gonna have to catch me earlier in the day and later in the week iffin’ you’re wantin’ any stories. Now git. I’ve got work to do. You’re gonna have your hands full keeping up with that one.” He jerked a thumb in Zane’s direction. Then he gave me another wink before turning back to the prep table.
The scene was one I’d stood in the middle of before. It might be on the other side of the county but it shared the same destruction we’d found at Luther Hinks’ operation last month, only on a much smaller scale. It was the fourth busted up site I’d been to over the last year and followed the same pattern as the others. Every bit of copper that had gone into the making of the moonshine still was missing. Only difference between this one and the Hinks’ site had been the number of kettles being cooked off. Harlen only had one large pot cooking compared to Hinks’ half dozen.
There was nothing left of the main kettle but the cooked mash that’d been splattered across the dirt. Beer from the busted thumper barrel soaked the ground, leaving a sour smell in the air that stung the nose. What couldn’t be absorbed by the soil lay on top of the dirt like something someone had spewed after a hard night of drinking.
“How’d they manage to get the drop on you, Harlen?” I shifted eyes from what was left of the still to the less than steady moonshiner, the owner of the mangled mess. Harlen was as tough an old codger as I’d ever laid eyes on. That was the problem. The man was old. Took a special kind of asshole to beat up on someone in their seventies. I’d known one such cocksucker who’d had no problems pounding on old men. I knew for a fact that bastard was dead and couldn’t have been part of this.
“Ain’t never had no trouble in all the years been settin’ up out here. Most thieving bastards ain’t willing to work this hard for the amount of copper only one still will get ‘em. Ain’t rightly sure what time of night it was when I heard a noise outside the tent. Sum’bitches knocked me upside the head while I was crawling out to see what kind of varmint was prowling around. Next thing I knew I’m waking up hog-tied with a sack over my head and listenin’ to them tear shit to hell and back.” Harlen leaned over and spit a long stream of brown tobacco juice on the ruined mash. Joey, the grandson who’d found Harlen, made a grab for his grandpa, afraid the old man would follow the spit to the ground. Harlen shook him off with a peevish, “Git your hands offa me! I ain’t worm meal yet, boy.”
Joey threw his hands up and took a step back. Far enough away to appease the elder shiner, close enough to be in grabbing range.
“Ain’t many of us old shiners left here abouts. This right here hammers the nail in the coffin for me.” Wagging his head back and forth Harlen resembled an old hound with his saggy jowls and sorrowful eyes. “I’m gettin’ too old for this. Ain’t a single one of my kids or grandkids care nothin’ ‘bout carrying on the shine business.” Harlen sent a resentful glare his grandson’s way. “I’m gettin’ out before I find myself on the wrong side of the grass same as my ol’ friend Donley went and did.”
Wade had made the trip out with me to check on the damage. He kicked a clump of dirt over the nasty mix on the ground before opening his mouth and complaining, “Well, hell, Harlen. If you’re getting out of the shine business why’d you bother to call us out here? There ain’t any money in tracking your stolen copper.”
Harlen puffed his thin chest out and pointed a finger, twisted with arthritis, at Wade. “I don’t rightly recall you being the one I got a hold of. Sawyer’s the one I made the deal with for the shine. He damn shor’ had a right to know there weren’t no way I could keep up my end of the bargain. Seems to me you dragged your sorry ass out here without me asking.”
One look from me had Wade rethinking the sarcastic words he was about to fire back. I’d become his boss right out of high school. There were times he could speak his mind and get away with it, then there were times it was healthier to put a sock in it. This was a prime example of when to keep his trap shut.
Turning back to the old man, I told him, “I appreciate the call, Harlen. Figure you’ve heard you’re not the only supplier I buy from who’s been hit hard this last year. Wanted to check what happened here for myself.”
Wade was angry about losing another source for shine and being a dick because of it. My next words were as much for him as Harlen. “This is my problem same as yours. It’d be a fuckin’ insult if you offered to pay me to find the bastards behind this.”
Harlen snagged the waistband of his pants and tugged them higher up his skinny frame. He spit another stream of ropy tobacco juice, barely missing the toe of Wade’s boot, causing him to jerk his foot back. “Reckon you’re better suited to figure out what the hell’s goin’ on than anybody else around these parts. Ain’t none of us shiners gonna call the Sheriff to track down the sum’bitches doing this.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be handled.” After making the promise, I made my way to the faint trail that would take Wade and me back to where we’d left the truck.
It was a long hike through woods snarled with tangled vines and a short climb up a limestone bluff before reaching anything that resembled a dirt track you might be able to drive a truck down. Exactly as Harlen said, it wasn’t the sort of place metal scrappers came looking to steal copper. It damn sure wasn’t the kind of place you just happened to stumble on.
Harlen made quality shine in small batches that went for big money. He wasn’t a major player in the world of moonshiners, which added to the mystery of why anyone would want to put him out of business. For the last five years I’d been his only buyer. Others that sold to me had been hit, but I hadn’t been their only buyer. This latest had the feel of a personal attack against my operation. If someone was aiming to hurt me by taking out my suppliers, they were shooting up the wrong tree.
Losing another source for moonshine wasn’t as crippling as they might be aiming for. In the last few years, I’d started to make adjustments to the line of services provided to men and women who didn’t mind dipping their toes in the grayer areas of having a good time. Illegal gambling houses were way more profitable than illegal whiskey. It was almost a joke to call them illegal with the number of loop holes in the laws governing the playing of cards in private homes. Having the Sheriff show up every Sunday after church to join in a high stakes cash game of Texas Hold’em was a damn good insurance policy to boot.
I’d also been channeling money into one hundred percent legal businesses. Not as much fun but the country was changing. I could either change with it or go down trying to preserve a way of life that simply wasn’t possible anymore.
Hell, even the old moonshiner, Donley, had been smart enough to realize those days of making a living by working stills hidden in the woods were over. According to Char, Donley’s granddaughter, he’d been on the last liquor run he ever planned to deliver when he’d been killed. Only stupid dickheads like the one who’d murdered Donley were too ignorant to figure out that way of life was ancient history. Not to say there wouldn’t always be a handful of men willing to work their asses off trying to keep the tradition of illegal shine alive. Because there would. For those few, I’d always provide them with an outlet to sell their liquor.
It was the sort of gray area that a stranger working in any of my bars or gambling houses could easily stumble across and report to the authorities. As long as it was the local Sheriff, it wouldn’t be a problem. Bill Cantrell was more than happy to take the money I paid to make sure he turned a blind eye when needed. We both profited, but money wasn’t the only glue keeping our arrangement from shattering. A secret that involved murder and Cantrell’s family kept the Sheriff on my payroll as surely as his gambling debts did.
The death of large moonshine operations had been coming for a while. For it to happen this way didn’t make a lot of sense. I’d warned Donley’s granddaughter, Char, over a year ago that there was going to be a major shift in the shine business. It wasn’t going to be shiner against shiner, or even shiner against the law. There was a new breed of bootlegger out there. One who had nothing to do with moonshine. One who provided a cheaper, deadlier high for those that the high was all they cared about.
Meth was sounding the death knell to a way of life that had been handed down with pride through generations of families. Now-a-days any halfwit with a list of ingredients and YouTube could cook a batch of Crystal. A high that could be produced a hell of a lot quicker than moonshine could ever be brewed with none of the hard labor involved. Hardest part to making Meth was coming up with a couple of the ingredients. But just like anything illegal that made people rich there was always a way to get the materials needed.
There was no reason for a war between the people who cooked meth and the men who cooked mash. Meth was winning. Old traditions and the men who kept them were dying out. The running and distribution of moonshine had made my family rich. I had no interest in expanding into drugs to make us richer.
“What the hell got you so jacked back there? Didn’t think it was a big deal tellin’ ol’ man Harlen the truth.”
I counted it a minor miracle Wade had waited to start bitching until after we’d put some distance between us and the still site.
“You have a fuckin’ problem when it comes to thinking. All those thoughts spill out your damn mouth.”
“Shit, Sawyer, losing another still sucks ass. That old man closing up shop is damn sure gonna cut into profits.” Wade slapped a branch out of his way. He was rewarded by the backswing knocking him across the back of the head as he passed. I was enough of an asshole to enjoy listening to him cuss as he rubbed the sore spot. Having grown up running wild in the woods, I was managing to move through them silently with none of the flailing and stumbling Wade had going on. He may have grown up in Arkansas, but he was a Copper Ridge towny.
“You missed any paydays lately? Been shorted any money that was supposed to come your way?” I asked the questions when he finally stopped swearing at the branch.
“Hell, no. I’m just saying, that with your connections you could— ”
“Then shut up. I don’t wanna listen to a whiny pussy.” Time to cut Wade off before he got started with his big ideas.
Ever since I’d put Vernon in charge of a couple poker houses Wade has had a bug up his ass. He wanted a territory of his own. With Vernon not around as much, I’d been letting Wade tag along more. The idea had been to give him more responsibility but it wasn’t happening anytime in the near future. Shit, who was I kidding? He was loyal to a fault, but the more I was around the dumbass the more I realized he couldn’t run a free blow job stand in a prison.
For the next few minutes the only sounds breaking the silence were the crunching of dried leaves and the snapping of dead branches under Wade’s boots. Silence was a problem for Wade. He hated it.
“Heard Charlie hired a new waitress. Boys say she’s got a body on her that’ll knock a man to his knees. Course, I’d rather sweet talk her into dropping to hers.” Wade thought he was a real ladies man. He was always bragging about the women he screwed. And even though Wade didn’t mention her by name, Kelli was the only new waitress he could be talking about. It pissed me off that the guys were “discussing” her and it pissed me off even more that I cared.
“She’s out of your class and theirs. I told those assholes to keep an eye on her, not stand around flapping their lips, trying to figure out ways to fuck her.”
Wade threw his hands up in the air, “Whoa, if you want to call dibs just say so.”
“I’m not calling fuckin’ dibs. What are you, ten?” I could feel Wade’s overdeveloped sense of curiosity snap to attention. My overreaction to the normal bullshit tossed around by the guys was going to send the bastard straight to Skeeter’s to check her out.
“When we get back to town I want you to head out and hit the salvage yards over in Ash Flat. Nose around and see if they’ve had anyone showing up with used copper in the last few months. You don’t find anything check out that big one over by Ravenden. And don’t call the sum’bitches. I want you on site letting them know who’s asking.”
“Thought you’d already checked all the salvage and scrap places within a hundred miles of us?”
“And now I want them checked again. You got a problem with that?”
“Nope.” He gave me a shit-eatin’ grin.
Fuck. The one time I wanted him to pitch a fit, so I could throw a punch, he decides to get agreeable.
“How’d you ever find your way to Skeeter’s?” Zane set two glasses on the polished surface of the bar. She was on the working side and I plopped my butt on one of the wooden stools across from her. I watched as she reached under the counter and pulled out a dark bottle with no label on it. Tipping it, she poured a clear liquid into one of the heavy tumblers. We were the last two souls out front. Charlie was in the back tallying up the night’s take. A soft glow from a single pendant hanging above us was the only illumination in the deserted room.
The last thing I was interested in was hanging around and answering a bunch of questions. But it was a minor miracle the feisty brunette had been able to hold back this long before digging into my past. In an attempt to put off the interrogation I placed a hand over the top of the empty glass. “Thanks, but nothing for me. Really need to head back to the motel. I’m beat.”
Watching the last customer stagger out the door a few minutes after closing had been mind-numbingly beautiful. A sad observation considering it was only the fourth night on the job. A bed and oblivion were the only things I was interested in. Feet were whimpering, arms and back were screaming why are you doing this to us?
Carrying trays loaded with drinks while dodging groping hands made for one grueling workout. Turned out dropping my pricey health club membership wasn’t going to be such a big deal after all. My biceps, triceps, quadriceps, I’m talking all my ‘ceps, have never been worked this hard at a gym. Brain surgery was beginning to look easier in comparison. Over the last few days I’d developed a whole new respect for women who worked in taverns.
“Aww, come on. Share a drink with me. Consider this an atta girl for sticking it out for more than one night. You’re a freaking natural. Surprised the hell out of me, considering how prissy you looked when you first showed up.” She set the squatty, half-full tumbler in front of me and jerked the empty one out from under my hand. She flashed a smirky smile before splashing some of the liquor in the empty glass for herself.
“Girl, I about pissed my pants at the look on your face that first night. When you realized you had to wear my Salvation Army rejects your nose did this wrinkle thing and your eyes got this glazed look. But damn if you didn’t keep smiling. You made those rags look like a million bucks.” She picked up her glass and held it aloft in a toast.
I knew Zane loved to tease, and she probably really had thought my reaction was funny. Probably. Hopefully. That didn’t stop me from feeling terrible for letting her see my disgust that day. I settled back on the bar stool. If she wanted to talk, I’d stay and talk.
Picking up the heavy tumbler, I sniffed the colorless liquid. No noxious fumes burned the lining of my nose, so I figured it was safe to drink. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Zane roll hers. Afraid I might have offended my new friend I tossed back a much larger swallow than was strictly ladylike. Hell’s molten fire landed on my tongue and scorched a path down my throat. Deep racking coughs had me falling across the bar as I braced myself against the wood. Pretty sure I was about to deliver a lung.
Zane reached across and pounded on my back. “Damn girl! That ain’t water. I’d’ve givin’ you a warning to sip it if I’d known you were gonna chug it. Burns a little bit, don’t it?”
When I was able to form a sentence I wheezed out, “What is that?”
“Another one of those things you’re not supposed to ask questions about.” She gave an exaggerated wink. “It’s getting harder and harder for Sawyer to get his hands on the really good stuff. Give it a chance and don’t guzzle it next time.” She let a much smaller measure of liquid slide down her own throat then hummed in appreciation.
While I wiped tears from my cheeks with the back of my hands I nodded in silent agreement to keep mum about the mystery liquor. The list of things not to ask questions about was growing.
On the first night I’d worked, she’d mentioned the three rooms out back, whimsically called furnished apartments. They’d been number one on the list of things to turn a blind eye to. My private speculation on their use was confirmed after one night of watching couples wander over to talk to Charlie or one of the bouncers. The discussion always ended with a key being passed and the couple heading for the dimly lit hallway at the back of the building. It didn’t take a genius to figure out they weren’t going back there to play tiddlywinks.
“You were about to tell me how you ended up working here.” She ran a finger around the rim of her drink.
“It’s a long story and not much fun.”
“Give me the short version. It doesn’t have to be fun. Not all stories are.” Her voice softened.
“The short version…” the words faded as I wondered how much of the past to reveal to satisfy Zane’s curiosity. Giving a mental shrug, I decided that if she wanted a story I could give her a doozy. I hadn’t planned on keeping why I was there a secret forever. So, what if the story was humiliating? That just made it more interesting for the listener.
“You know what?” I dredged up a smile for my newest bestie then carefully sipped more of the liquid fire. Huh, didn’t burn near as bad and it was setting up nice warm fuzzies in my tummy.
“On second thought, it’s a really funny story. One big joke and it was all on me.”
“Wait.” Zane threw her hands up as if she was going to physically stop any more words from spilling out of my mouth. “Why do I get the feeling you’re about to rip a big ol’ scab off a major hurt?”
“Maybe because it’s the only way to get to the truth.” I shrugged. No bitterness this time, just a nice numb blank space.
“But you have to promise me something.” Leaning in closer I dropped my voice to a stage whisper. “You can’t tell your boyfriend or anyone else.”
She leaned towards me and in the same stage whisper said, “Not a problem. I don’t have a boyfriend—yet.”
“What about Sawyer? I got the feeling you two had something special.” I dropped the whisper and tipped my head sideways in surprise. That made me start sliding in that direction, so I jerked back to a, more or less, upright position.
“That would be a big hell no.” She rolled her eyes.
“But you talked him in to hiring me. He must have some feelings for you. Sawyer doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy that lets just anyone dictate to him.” Why was I trying to insist they had something going on? I should be relieved. Every time my thoughts drifted to him I gave myself a lecture to stop being a creeper because he belonged to Zane.
“Puh-lease!” She dragged the word out while rolling her eyes. “I may have pushed for him to hire you, but if he really didn’t want you here nothing I said would have changed his mind. He saved my ass when I was younger and gave me a job when I needed it but that’s about as special as it gets between us. Just because he let me put my two cents in doesn’t mean diddly-squat. You should have figured out by now that it’s hard to shut me up.” Zane flashed a big grin at me. “You being here has nothing to do with me other than he knows I’m a pain in the ass if I don’t get my way when I want something.”
Having seen her in action, she had a point.
“Okay, then. Guess it’s story time.” I slapped my hands on the bar and shot her a big grin.
After my big build up I just sat there and stared off into the darkest part of the room. This was going to be harder than I thought. Heaving a sigh, I twisted a loose strand of hair around my index finger. “Now I know why stories start with ‘once upon a time.’ You have to tell the juicy parts of the past so your audience can understand the now parts.”
“Hey, I’m good with however you want to start.” Zane settled into a more comfortable position as she leaned into her elbows.
Pulling my gaze back to her, I began, “I guess you could say I ended up at Skeeter’s by following in my momma’s footsteps.”
Zane cocked her head and gave me a skeptical look. “Say what? From the way you talk, to the way you dress, it’s pretty clear you come from money. I ain’t never seen a waitress make enough to afford a daughter classy as you.”
“If that waitress marries a rich man old enough to be her daddy then she can raise her daughter anyway she wants with his money.” You just had to be more interested in that money than who you hurt.
“Your momma married some old rich dude and your daddy is a millionaire? Was she able to make everyone forget where she came from?” Zane stared at me as if my answers could change her world.
“Real life isn’t quite so tidy. When you lie and cheat to get a rich husband you don’t actually deserve a fairytale ending. Unfortunately, it’s usually the ones lied to who end up paying.”
“Are you paying for your momma’s lies?”
“Me and others. Best part? I didn’t realize what a lie my life was until a few months ago.”
“What happened?” Zane reached for my glass, splashed more of the “good stuff” in then refilled her own.
The numb feeling was fading so a fortifying sip was just what I needed to help ease the story out. “Jackson Radcliff married my momma when I was around two years old. Momma not only managed to hook a very rich, very old man, but she talked him into adopting me. The adoption was never a secret and he insisted that I called him Jackson.”
In second grade, I’d desperately wanted to be like all the other boys and girls. I’d wanted a Daddy, not a Jackson. During art I’d drawn a picture of a man holding a child’s hand. Remembered how hard I’d worked to form the perfect letters in Daddy. I hadn’t had the courage to simply start calling him Daddy. I’d been positive he’d understand when I presented him with the picture. He’d taken one look, torn the paper in half and handed the pieces back to me. Lesson learned without a word being spoken.
My voice went flat. “He died a little over six months ago.”
Zane immediately launched into exclamations of sympathy, but I talked over her to drown her out. “By the time he passed the two of us didn’t share a whole lot of good feelings. Not that we ever had. I found out just how little he thought of me the day the lawyer showed up.”
I snorted thinking about that day. Snorted? Might be time to cut back on the liquor. “The reading of the will was a real show. It could have been something out of the movies with the lawyer coming to the house to inform us of Jackson’s last wishes.”
Jackson’s brother, sister-in-law, two nephews and their wives had been all smiles. Momma declared them to be horribly vulgar to me later. But they had a right to the smiles as it turned out.
“Before the lawyer got down to business with the will he handed me a file. As he passed it over he told me it was the only item left to me by Jackson. He’d been instructed to inform me that it was the last help I would ever receive from the Radcliff family.” I’d actually felt sorry for the man at the time. He’d looked uncomfortable as he carried out Jackson’s final instructions.
“He said it contained information that might help me find my biological father, should I be interested. Which was a bit confusing since I’d grown up believing that my real daddy had died before I was born.” Confused didn’t come close to covering what I’d felt sitting in that room, hearing those words. I’d turned to Momma, expecting her to somehow fix everything. But as I’d watched the blood drain from Momma’s face I’d known she wouldn’t be fixing anything.
“Son-of-a-bitch! Why would a man, that’d been your daddy for all those years, do that to you? I don’t care if you called him Daddy or Jackass. The bastard took you as his own and should have been a daddy to you.” Zane jerked to rigid attention.
I couldn’t help laughing at Zane’s outrage. It felt good to have my foul-mouthed friend so furious on my behalf.
“Sure, it hurt having the lawyer pull a skeleton out and rattle bones in front of the gathered vultures. But later, it was actually sort of… I don’t know… freeing. It felt right that I hadn’t called him daddy all those years when I had a real one out there somewhere.”
“Did your momma fess up to lying?” Zane narrowed her eyes.
“Momma was too busy throwing a hissy fit to admit anything. After the lawyer dropped the Daddy File on me, he proceeded to tear the doodles out of Momma’s plans for the future. Come to find out, she hadn’t been the only one keeping secrets. The mansion, all of the businesses, a lot of the money, shoot, just about everything she thought Jackson owned, was tied up in a Radcliff family trust. After he died the administration of the trust passed to his younger brother. She was put on a monthly allowance and it was a whole lot less than what she was used to spending.”
While Momma wailed over how she’d been cheated, I’d went through the only thing Jackson left me. There hadn’t been a lot in the Daddy File other than directions to a town called Copper Ridge and the only name in the file wasn’t my dad’s, but a bar called Skeeter’s. A short-handwritten note stated that my momma used to work at Skeeter’s and if I wanted to learn more it was up to her to tell me.
“I tried to talk to Momma a few weeks after the meeting with the lawyer and it turned ugly. She was furious Jackson told me about her working at Skeeter’s and my father being a whole lot more alive than she’d let on. She refused to tell me anything about my real father. Said if I insisted on looking for him it would be without her help. As far as she was concerned the past was dead and buried and she wanted it to stay that way. She told me to stick to the plan and I’d be better off than chasing after some broke hick mechanic just so I could call him daddy.”
“Your momma’s plan, what was it?” Zane sounded suspicious, angry, which struck me as odd, but a lot of things Zane said and did seemed odd. It was part of her charm.
“Momma had been grooming me ever since I was a teeny-tiny, little girl-child,” I hovered my hand a short distance above the floor, “to marry a rich man.”
“And you just went along with it?” Zane scrunched up her face as if she’d just gotten a whiff of a rotten egg. “I understand having a goal in life. I’ve got one. Had it for years. What I can’t understand, is letting someone else make goals and plans for you.” She then murmured, “Especially if it’s your momma.”
“Momma’s a lot like you—a force of nature. It doesn’t matter what others say or think, you get to rolling and you’re this big ol’ tsunami, nothing can stand against you.” I grinned at my new friend to lessen any sting Zane might feel.
“Besides, the plan was fun for me growing up. Cheerleading, dance classes, pageants, riding lessons. You name it, Momma put me in it. Once I went to college, it didn’t matter what classes I took as long as I made it into the right sorority.” If I came off being that spoiled rich girl, I wasn’t going to apologize. I’d enjoyed growing up the way I had.
“What about control? Didn’t you ever want to be the one in control of your life?”
“I never even knew what real control was until I quit my job, broke up with the family approved fiancé and defied Momma by moving to Copper Ridge to look for my daddy.”
“Wait?! You were engaged? How the hell are you just now mentioning that?”
Zane had a good point. How had Bradley become such a non-issue that he didn’t rate top billing in my life story. I’d thought he was perfect at one time. He was good-looking, successful, his family and the Radcliffs were old friends. Momma had been thrilled and for once Jackson had approved of something that involved me.
Having no real answer, I just shrugged. “Guess that shows just how much not in love I was. Besides, when Bradley learned I’d been cut out of the Radcliff money his affections noticeably cooled. He had this way of looking at me as if he’d been cheated. We were both relieved when I gave the ring back. Momma took it way harder than I did.”
Zane stared into her empty glass for so long I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in her head. An awkward feeling of having over shared personal drama had me tapping my scarlet nails on the polished wood surface of the bar. “Okay then, it’s late we probably should— ”
“So, what’s the next step? How are we gonna find your daddy?” Zane cut me off and the matter of fact questions threw me. Events over the last few months had taught me that when things got rough so called friends disappeared faster than Jimmy Choos during a half-price sale at the boutique.
“It’s taken me over six months to even make the move to try and find out who my father is. I don’t really have any plans beyond asking Lonnie about the time Momma worked here. Stands to reason he’d know who my daddy is. I want to find out who he is and what’s going on in his life first. It would be wrong to just show up on his doorstep. What if he doesn’t want me messing with his life?”
Standing, I lifted my glass and tossed back the tiny amount left in the bottom. More than ready to call an end to the night, I rounded the bar to wash my glass before drying and putting it back in the stack. Zane gave a token protest, but she was as beat as me. She didn’t put up much of a fight when I grabbed her glass and gave it the same treatment.
As we made our way to the office to gather our purses, Zane slipped an arm around my waist and bumped hips with me, “You don’t have to do this alone you know?”
“No, I didn’t know, but I do now.” I gave a little hip bump of my own in a show of silent gratitude.
10 Years Earlier
My family was really good at keeping secrets, big ones, small ones, and everything in between. Today, I was going to add another one to my own personal list.
My gramps was the best. He totally got that at fourteen, I was old enough to make it to the movies by myself. It was only three streets over from where he’d be hanging out at the feed store. What could happen in three blocks? Besides, it wasn’t like Copper Ridge was a huge city or something. Sure, there were plenty of strangers in town, as summer was in full swing, but most of them would be at the lake or on one of the rivers during the day. Tourists didn’t waste sunshine hanging out at the movies, especially at the weekend. Matinees were pretty much locals only on a Saturday. Which was great, ‘cause that made it the perfect place to meet friends.
“Now Sis, you go straight to the show and don’t make no detours. As soon as it’s over, you get that skinny hinny back here. Your dad will skin the hide clean offin’ me if anything happens to you.” Gramps winked as he finished talking.
Gramps planned on sitting in the storage area of the feed store with all the other men, young and old alike, who showed up to swap stories and share the latest gossip. He said it was better than any newspaper for finding out what was going on with anyone who lived within a fifty mile radius of town. I was tickled when he volunteered to pick up the salt blocks for the cattle so I could catch a ride into town with him instead of Dad. Gramps had a million stories which made the thirty minute ride a blast.
If Dad ever found out even half the stories Gramps told me it would get ugly. Moonshine, revenuers, shootouts, and fast cars. Best. Stories. Ever! Gramps knew what he was talking about, too. He was a fifth generation moonshiner, and dang proud of it. Dad had broken with tradition and become a cattle rancher. He had taken the few cattle the family owned as a cover for the real business of moonshine and expanded the herd, until now it wasn’t just a front but an honest to goodness ranch. Gramps said that made him even prouder, ‘cause times were changing. Said making shine had always been a dangerous business, sometimes deadly, and he was glad to know his son was walking a different path to make a living.
I waved at Gramps, not sure he even saw. He was already swapping tales with a bunch of old guys, walking toward the open bay doors that gave access to the shaded interior. With a grin I turned and headed out for the theater.
Cutting through a back street to knock off some of the distance, I‘d just entered the alley that ran alongside the theater when a truck thundered past me. Music screamed out the open windows. The bright red four-by-four with monster tires made it easy to identify who the owner was—Billy Wayne, the sheriff’s boy and schoolyard bully. The truck came to a screeching halt at an angle just past me. Typical for BW and his crew. Big time showoffs. The music cut off as the doors opened and the boys spilled out, laughing and knocking into each other the way guys do. All the boys were older than me but I still knew each one. I wasn’t too worried about them, since they’d never paid any attention to me at school or anywhere else I ran across them. I kept walking; doing my best to ignore them.
As I went to pass where they were all horsing around, BW stepped in front of me, bringing me to a halt. The other two guys maneuvered to flank me on either side. I felt the first stirring of nervousness at being surrounded by the likes of BW and his buddies. They were still talking trash to each other, but I knew it would soon be me they turned on to tease. They’d probably talk some dirty crap, impressing nobody but themselves.
Boys had started paying more attention to me this summer. Grow some boobs, have the braces come off, and guys suddenly started seeing you. Whatever, I’d been learning to do a pretty good job of tuning jerks out. But this time it felt different. Uglier. Staring at BW I tried out the best mean look I had.
“Get out of my way.” My stink-eye didn’t seem to have much effect other than to set off hooting and mimicking of my words by the two on either side of me. BW just smiled. He had a better mean look than me, even when he was smiling.
“Ain’t you Moonshine’s granddaughter?”
“Don’t call him that!” Nerves fled and anger took its place. Now I knew how this was gonna go. I’d been dealing with it ever since I got old enough to have guys start trying to get me to sneak booze to them. Sometimes they just wanted to taunt me about what my grandpa did.
“What? Ain’t that what everyone calls him?” BW spread his arms wide and shrugged like he was surprised by my anger.
Trey was quick to chime in, as though he was puzzled, “Man, you mean that ain’t his name?”
Not to be left out, Robbie snickered, “Shit, I’m pretty sure that’s what my old man calls him.”
Standing as straight as possible, trying to make myself look taller and tougher, I glared at each of the morons in turn. “If you don’t let me by I’m gonna start screaming. Someone’ll hear me. Then you’ll be in big trouble.”
“Whooo, that’s scary, boys. We better back off or we’re gonna be in big trouble.” BW pitched his voice high on the last three words, mocking me. He stepped aside and waved me through. Guess I should have known he was letting me go too easy, but all I could think about was getting the heck out of there. If I made it to the end of the alley there’d be people around and these jerks would have to leave me alone.
Taking a cautious step forward, I kept a wary eye on BW. He still had both hands in the air, as though he honestly meant to let me go. I flicked a quick glance at Robbie, then over to Trey, to see if they were also gonna let me get away. They both had puzzled looks, as though wondering why the heck BW was letting me leave, but they didn’t appear to be getting ready to grab me. That was all the encouragement I needed. Gathering myself I went to dart around BW, ready to make a run for it. I moved quickly, but BW was quicker. His arm snaked out as I passed and a hand tightened painfully around my upper arm.
Jerked to a halt, BW dragged me up against his overgrown teenage body. I knew I was trapped when his other arm wrapped across my chest, pulling me in tight. I let lose a scream, which was quickly cut off by the hand that had first grabbed me. I exploded into a mass of kicking, twisting fury.
BW was spitting out the f-bomb and yelled at his two hooting and laughing partners, “Grab those damn legs.”
Eager to jump into the tussle, Trey and Robbie maneuvered into position. Trey bent to make a grab for my right leg, which gave me a perfect shot at his face with my foot. While I’d been busy trying to kick him in the head his buddy, Robbie, went for my other leg. The feel of blunt nails scraping a trail down my shins, as their hands tried to get a firm grip, ignited real fear in me for the first time in my life.
I managed to land a heel to Trey’s chin, but Robbie had gotten control of my left leg. His fingers dug in savagely. BW’s beefy hand more than smothered my screams, it cut off what little air I managed to pull into lungs squeezed tight by the arm he’d wrapped across my upper torso. All the fight in me was slowly being crushed, along with my ability to breathe. I knew it was just a matter of time before Trey would get control of my one remaining flailing limb. Fear jacked into terror as BW’s arm began to shift across my chest until he was able to grab one of my breasts and squeeze painfully. One second of frozen shock was all Trey needed to capture and give a vicious twist to my leg. Payback for the face kick.
“Carry her over behind the truck.” BW ordered, a sick excitement threading through his words. I continued to buck as best I could, but that only seemed to slide my short tee higher and expose more of my body by the second. There were no real thinking involved on of how I was going to escape what was happening. All that kept firing off in my thoughts was I had to keep fighting.
“Turn her lose you sons-a-bitches.” Barely controlled rage thrummed through the bite of those words.
Whoever was coming to my rescue scared the crap out of Robbie and Trey. They dropped my legs in their scramble to back away. My sandals had been lost in all that wild twisting, so when my legs were dropped my bare feet scraped the broken ground. BW released me so quickly there was no time to catch myself to keep from falling. Pitching forward, my knees smashed into gravel. Luckily my hands slapped the ground before my face did.
The meaty thud of a fist contacting flesh registered as background noise, my brain was fighting off terror and my lungs were dragging in huge gulps of oxygen.
My mind was screaming at me to get up. Trying to push to my feet ground small rocks even deeper into the palms of my hands and the tender flesh of my knees. Gritting my teeth, determined not to let the bastards know I was scared and hurting, I managed to get to my feet. Trying to get it together gave me time to watch Jase Rydan pull BW up off the ground. Staring at Jase, I now knew who had saved me. The blood streaming out of BW’s nose also made it pretty obvious who’d received a face full of fist.
Little chicken shit wasn’t even trying to fight back. Jase looked disgusted at the fear in BW’s eyes as he growled at him, “You, and your little fucked-up friends, need to get your puckered asses out of here before you end up having to scrape them off the ground.”
I’d no plans on sticking around to see what was going to happen next. Turning around, head up, back stiff, I started limping back in the direction I’d just come from. Praying the whole time...please, just let me get out of here. The humiliation of being caught in a situation like that, piled on top of the fear and anger, had my eyes burning from holding back tears. My throat felt like I’d eaten crushed glass but I couldn’t stop swallowing compulsively. In my desperation to flee the spot where my childish illusions of safety and invincibility had been shattered, I didn’t even stop to thank my rescuer. Though Jase called my name, I just kept on walking.
The sound of boots thudding behind me, then a hand landing gently on my shoulder had me whirling and knocking the light touch away.
* * *
Jase tried to look as non-threatening as possible. Charlotte Donley, the young girl standing in front of him, had her teeth bared and the wild look of a cornered animal. He had the feeling one wrong move would have her tearing down the street away from him.
Her ponytail was a bedraggled mess of barely contained scarlet strands. Furious blue eyes dared him to take a step closer. He had to admire the fact she was obviously still in defense mode and not quivering in terror.
Hell, she’d been fighting her three attackers with the ferocity of a feral kitten as he drove by the ally. Jase had a feeling she was damn lucky he’d noticed what those little bastards were up to. He scanned down her thin frame, trying to determine if there was any real damage.
Blood oozed sluggishly from a dozen tiny scrapes on both the palms of her hands and caps of her knees. There were four nasty looking scratches on her left shin. The sight of them had him regretting having let those three little cocksuckers run off. Her bare feet reminded him he was holding her sandals in his hand.
“Charlotte, I’m not going to hurt you. You know me and my family. We’re the closest thing you’ve got to a neighbor in our neck of the woods.” Jase tried to calm her. “All I want to do is help you get back to your parents. Are they here in town? Bet they let you walk to the movies all by yourself, right? Kid, you can’t run off without your shoes. At least hang around long enough to get your shoes and let’s see if we can clean you up a bit.” His voice was low and soothing, lips curled at the corners in a tiny smile. Hands in the air, palms up, in a non-threatening show of peace. Sandals dangled by their straps from one of his fingers.
* * *
I wasn’t an idiot. Of course he wasn’t going to hurt me; he’d just saved me. And duh, everyone knew who Jase Rydan was. It kinda surprised me that he knew who I was, since he was so much older. But right now the thought of anyone touching me was a no-go. I felt pretty desperate to get out of there before I started bawling right in front of him.
All I could focus on was getting back to the feed store, climbing into the truck without anyone seeing me, and then coming up with a believable story as to why I had shredded hands and bleeding knees. Last thing I wanted was my gramps or my parents finding out what had happened.
It was the sight of my shoes, held aloft by Jase, that had me really taking a good look at myself. Crap! No way was I going to come up with a story to cover the way I looked right now.
“Come on, Charlotte, let me help you. I’ve got some old towels and water in the truck. We can knock some of that blood off you.” Jase’s cajoling tone brought my attention back to him. “Then we’ll go find your parents.”
Taking a deep breath, I realized I was going to have to take his offer of help to clean up but that was it. Afterwards, I needed to figure out way to keep him from telling my gramps what had happened. I still had hopes of lying my way out of this.
“Thank you.” Why was it so hard to grit that out? Trying to choke back sobs I held out my hand. “Give me my shoes. Please.”
Jase handed over the sandals. “Wait here. I’ll go wet a couple rags. You’ll need to clean off those feet.” He took off for his truck parked at the entrance to the alley.
I sat down in the middle of the alley and began brushing at the bottoms of my feet. I tried to bring my jack-rabbiting heart under control, as well as slow my gulping swallows of air.
Jase was back quicker than I’d expected. Instead of handing over the wet cloth he squatted beside me and took the foot I’d been examining in one of his large, warm hands. Looking up at him warily, I reluctantly let him clean the sole of my foot. He was extremely gentle, and when he’d completed the rock and dirt removal he picked up the appropriate sandal and slid it on. Jase then turned his attention to my other foot.
While he went carefully from one blood, dirt and rock encrusted area to the next, I studied him. His dark hair was short, with not much peeking out around the edge of his sweat-stained ball cap. I couldn’t see the color of his eyes because of the way his head was lowered while he concentrated on cleaning dirt out of cuts, but figured they were the same gray color his brother’s were. His eyelashes were crazy long for a guy, but they didn’t make him look like a sissy. Looking at his lips made me feel kinda funny. To be honest I’d never really looked at a guy’s lips, or thought much about them. But Jase’s sure were interesting. Kinda full without that gross puffy look.
He wasn’t pretty, like a few guys at school, and he wasn’t handsome like my dad. Somehow he was just more and better than either pretty or handsome. I was tall for a girl my age. Even taller than a lot of guys in my class, but Jase was way taller than me.
He wore a t-shirt that hugged his arms and chest. Man, he had some big muscles in his arms, and though I couldn’t see, I’d bet my next week’s allowance he had what the kids at school called a six-pack. Heck, Jase probably had a twelve-pack, and I wasn’t even positive that was possible, but if anybody could do it, I bet he could.
I knew to him I was just a kid, what with him being twenty to my fourteen, but the way my heart had started picking up the pace sure didn’t make me feel like a kid. Where BW’s hands on me were revolting, Jase’s were having a weird effect. Goosebumps were dotting my arms and legs while a heat I’d never felt before rolled into my stomach. A flush was creeping up my neck, spreading a pink tint across my cheeks.
“There, not great but at least it doesn’t look as bad as it did.” He settled back on his heels and gave me a once over, as though checking to see if he’d missed anything. “Now, let’s go find your parents.”
“No.” That came out a lot louder than I’d intended.
Jase cocked his head sideways not saying anything, just stared at me.
“I really am glad you came along, but please, don’t tell anyone about this.” Well that certainly sounded a lot like begging. Okay, I was begging, but if that’s what it took to keep this a secret between us, that’s what I’d do. Since Jase had cleaned me up I figured I had a real shot at making my family believe I’d tripped and got skinned up. All I needed was to add back a little bit of the dirt Jase had washed off.
“Don’t you think your folks should know what BW and his buddies did?” Jase sounded curious, not like an adult trying to guilt a kid into doing the right thing.
“No. It would just make my folks mad, and Gramps might do something crazy that could get him in trouble. Besides, I don’t want everyone else knowing what happened.” Yeah, lots of pleading going on now. “This could just be our secret.”
Jase kept staring at me for a long minute. His eyes narrowed to slits as though he were thinking things through.
“If I don’t tell your parents you have to let me tell Evan, so he can watch over you for me. Make sure those kids don’t pick on you because of what happened here. That’s the only way I keep my mouth shut.” The firm words and hard look let me know there would be no compromising on this.
Him wanting to tell his brother, Evan, had me squirming. Evan was a couple years older than me. He was younger than BW and crew, but not by much. Not what I wanted to happen, but if Evan could be counted on to keep his mouth shut, how bad could it be? At the most he might check up on me for a couple weeks once school started, then he would let it slide.
“Can you promise Evan won’t tell anyone?”
“Yeah, it won’t be a problem. I’ve got enough crap on him to keep him in line.” Jase flashed a wicked smile at me. Seeing that look made me happy not to have an older brother.
“You can tell Evan, but you can bet your ass I won’t ever let those three catch me alone again.” Guess it was my cussing that had him trying to hide a grin.
I started to push myself up, but Jase got a hold of my arm and pulled me up as he stood. It was hard hiding my grimace as abused skin stretched over skinned knees. My body felt more than a little stiff from the frenzied struggle I’d put up.
Jase got a real mad look on his face when he saw my expression, and worried me that he might try to renege on the deal.
“I’ll drive you to wherever your parents are.” Yep, his voice sounded pretty darn angry.
“You can’t. I came into town with my gramps, and he’s at the feed store. If he sees you driving up with me he’s gonna ask a million questions. I’m fine now. Really. I’ll walk back to the store and wait in the truck.” There I was. Back to begging.
Jase’s lips tightened, making it obvious he didn’t like it one bit. His curt nod had me breathing out a sigh of relief, but I’d been a little hasty thinking I’d won this point.
Turning away, I once again began limping back to the feed store. Jase’s truck fired to life behind me and to my annoyance he kept a slow pace as he trailed me. At least he stopped before actually getting to the feed store. He parked about a block away, and I could feel his eyes follow me until he was satisfied I’d reached the safety of Gramps’ truck.
From that moment on, Jase was my hero. The subject of countless fantasies, where the ending turned out far differently than it actually had. As I grew older I tried to put that silly childhood crush out of my mind.
But as with all heroes, Jase proved to be a hard man to forget.
Pulling about a quarter mile into the woods, I threw my truck into park alongside an old beat-up Ford and flashed a grin over at Ruger. Tongue lolling, body wiggling, my boy was cranked and ready to go. I opened the door and it was a tussle to see whose feet were going to hit the ground first. I won, but by a small margin.
Once freed from the cab, Ruger took off, streaking down the trail, heading off into the deep woods. I followed at a much slower pace, wanting to enjoy the early morning freshness before the heat of the day burned it away. It was a short walk on down to the spring, and I wasn’t in any hurry.
My smile widened as delicious adrenaline spiked through my veins at the thought of where this path would take me. Happened every time I made a trip out to Gramps’ moonshine still. It was the knowledge of doing something not only illegal but potentially dangerous that fed my high.
I rationalized my thrill with some of Gramps’ words of wisdom: We have a long history of not playin by the rules in our family, might as well be proud of it. I’m convinced both my parents and Granny cursed the day my granddad shared that little bit of family heritage with me. Lord knows there had been a few times I’d lived up to tradition.
Stepping off the trail into the center of the still site wasn’t as dramatic as it sounded. Gramps had followed in the steps of generations of moonshiners and was a master when it came to concealing a working site, or numerous working stills as was the case here.
Several living arbors, made of live saplings growing and anchored to a crude framework, dotted the woods. They’d been constructed to house the workings of each individual still. Walking past each arbor, I noticed most of the fire boxes were cold but a few were still being fed. A clear sign this run of whiskey was about finished.
Finding my gramps was easy. All I had to do was head in the direction of Ruger’s excited barks and the quarreling voice of an aged man.
“Hey, Gramps, whatcha up to?”
“Charlotte, call your dog. He’s about to lick all this hard earned dirt clean offa’ me.” His scolding did nothing to hide the affection he felt for Ruger.
“If you’re that dirty this early in the day he’s doing you a favor.” I teased right back. “Looks like you’re about through with the latest run of whiskey. Are you going to be tearing down soon and move over to Sow’s Bed for the next setup?”
At my casual question a strange look crossed his face. He detached himself from Ruger and turned back to the still he’d been working on. The fire box was no longer being fed under this particular pot. Gramps reached down to pull the plug stick out of the slop arm. Clearly he’d completed the run from this particular still and was getting ready to do a clean out.
“Colin and a few of the boys that’s lent a hand over the years are gonna be here directly to help start the tear down on the ones gone cold. The last of the shine will be run off by tonight, and we’ll be able to start clean out on ‘em tomorrow as long as the pots and caps cool off by then. Probably take a couple days to clear everything out.” Gramps had talked while he’d continued working, but now he stood to face me.
“I figured on letting Colin have his pick of the stills for his own use. He’s young, but he’s worked me long enough to know the ins and outs. Course, he’ll have to move them over on his own land, iffin’ he even cares to work at makin’ shine anymore. I plan on keepin’ one for our own personal use. If there are any left, I aim on selling them off to some of the fellers that’s been pestering me about wantin’ one over the years.” He delivered his plans with a pinch of defiance, as if expecting a protest from me.
Okay, I’ll admit his announcement certainly painted a surprised look on my face. Don’t get me wrong, it thrilled me he was finally going to give it up. Come on, the man was eighty; tough as a pine knot, but still eighty. He should’ve quit years ago. I knew that. But it still came as a shock to hear he was going to shut down a business that had been in his family for five generations.
“So this is it, huh? No more Copper Moon made by a Donley?” There may have been a smidgen of skepticism in my tone. My dad had opted out of the family moonshine business to raise cattle. When he took a pass on following in his daddy’s footsteps it was the beginning of the end of Donley whiskey making. Right now it looked like I was staring the true end square in the eyes.
“Now, ain’t sayin’ I’ll never make shine in the future, Sis. Jest not to sell.” Gramps’ irrepressible smile was back as he winked at me.
“Lordy, Gramps, you had me worried. For a minute there I thought you were gonna start playing by the rules.” I forced a smile.
What was wrong with me? I should have been doing a happy dance instead of feeling all kinds of unsettled. Ever since I been old enough to know about the family secret, I’d known about the dangers Gramps flirted with every day.
But the dangers had never felt real to me. They were what added spice to the illicit excitement I experienced on every trip to one of the sites. More than that, those dangers went hand and foot with the forbidden stories he used to tell me whenever my parents, or Granny, weren’t around. Here he was, quitting, and now I got antsy? What was up with that?
“What can I do to help?” Best way to work through emotions, according to Gramps, was, of course, work. It was also his answer to boredom, sassin’ and tears. Work was a miracle cure-all for anything that might ail a person, according to Gramps.
“Well, Sis, iffin’ you wanna help the best thing you can do is run by the feedstore this mornin’ and pick up that mineral order I placed yesterday. I’ll probably have more help than needed here.” He let loose a derisive snort. “You know how those ole’ boys go at things. They’ll get the work done, shor’ ’nuff, but it’ll take a lot of storytelling, a lot of lying, and a lot of samplin’ the last of the runs. Colin’s gonna go with me to make the last few deliveries later tonight, so everything’s been taken care of here.”
No matter how easy he tried to make it sound, the next few days were going to be rough on him. I also knew the men would cuss, spit, tell jokes not fit for woman nor child, and generally make this easier on him than I ever could. But still...
On impulse, I blurted, “Let me go with you to make the deliveries. This is my last chance to be part of a history I’d heard stories about all my life.”
I’d never been on a delivery to meet with the different runners. It was a rare client who would show up to collect their merchandise themselves. Most of them sent runners to make the pickups. Anyone brave—or stupid—enough, depending on how you looked at it, to become a runner made big bucks for the risks they faced.
Gramps let out his big booming laugh while shaking his head. “Little girl, I’m already due a butt kickin’ when I face your daddy again someday.” He stopped laughing and looked as serious as I’d ever seen him. “My boy may not have followed in the footsteps of the men in our family. Still, he used the land that’s been the Donleys’ for as many generations as the whiskey has. And he made a shor’ ‘nuff damn good livin’. Jest as generations of Donleys before him did on this here same land. I’m jest as proud of you for makin’ your own dreams come through with that jewelry shop of yours.”
A sadness settled on him. He seemed to age before my eyes. “I’m ashamed to say you’ve been stronger than me with the deaths we’ve been cursed with over the years. I didn’t do right by you or the ones we lost.”
“Gramps, that’s not true.” I stepped up to so I could slip an arm around his shoulders to give a little squeeze. Shoulders that felt frailer than I remembered. When had he started to weaken? Had I ignored the changes in him in the hopes of slowing down the rush of time?
“Without you and Granny I’d never have gone on to college after high school. You gave me the push I needed to make something of my life after Mom and Dad died. My shop would’ve stayed a dream without your support.”
“That’s jest it, Sis. My Maggie was here to carry both of us when we needed her. When we lost her, I didn’t pull my weight. I buried myself with working the moonshine. You’re the one who tried to take care of me. Jest like Maggie, being the strong one.” Gnarled fingers gently framed my face, and faded blue eyes peered into my misty ones. “I’m too old for all this here foolishness. Time for you to stop fussing over me, and find a good man to fuss over you.” Gramps was finished with anything serious.
I did as expected and grinned back. Telling it like it was, we never talked like this. I’d been raised to believe hardships were private matters. Grief was to be shared only among family and loved ones. We were not to wallow in sorrow, or throw ourselves in the grave with those who had passed. We were to show our respect by going on with life, the way they would want us to.
“After tonight I’m officially out of the moonshine business. And, Sis, your daddy never wanted you to have nuthin’ to do with the shine. You managed to talk your way into visiting the stills, but that’s where it stopped, and where it’s gonna stay stopped.”
Squashing my disappointment at not being able to go on the delivery, I mustered up a smile in a show of understanding. “Okay, but we’re going to celebrate your retirement tomorrow. Don’t you dare sell all the Copper Moon tonight. It’s only right we commemorate the occasion of your retirement by drinking mass quantities of our family’s special recipe.” Brushing a kiss on his leathery cheek, I backed up. “I gotta get going. I’ve got a box full of commissioned pieces that need to be shipped to Brianna before the Post Office closes. I’ll run by the feed store right after and pick up those minerals.”
“I’ll walk you back to your truck. I need to bring another box of quart jars down to catch the last of the runs cookin’ off. Besides, I’d hate for you to trip over them big words you like to use on your way back up the hill and me not be there to see it.” He snorted at his own joke.
We talked as we made our way back up the hill. Gramps promised he’d have Colin come over in the morning to unload the minerals. When we reached my pickup he opened the door for me. Ruger hopped in first, and I climbed up after.
On impulse I turned to Gramps before he shut my door. “Come for breakfast in the morning, and I’ll make your favorite. Biscuits and gravy. You can tell me all the wild foolishness y’all get into today.” There was a whisper of pleading in my words.
“Sis, you got yourself a deal.” If Gramps heard any hint of concern he didn’t let on. He just closed the door, slapped my truck, and walked away with a final wave.
"Here's the plan." Ruger stared at me with the intensity only a Blue Heeler can achieve. "You stay here, guard our truck. As an extra bonus you become the perfect excuse to escape if Miss Lori corners me and starts in with one of her inquisitions."
I took his tail wag as an indication that the plan met with his approval. Giving his head a final pat, I grabbed the box from the backseat and headed for the Post Office.
Shouldering my way through the door into the lobby, I did a mental fist pump. Miss Lori and her work station were surrounded by several elderly ladies. They were all twittering excitedly. There was a pause in the lively discussion, which was most likely about someone else's business. Heads covered in every shade of old-lady-hair, from the brightest cotton white to something that closely resembled steel wool, swiveled to check me out. Giving a tiny wave, I made my way toward Ben Luther’s end of the mail counter.
Having satisfied themselves as to whether I was a crony or the next victim up for dissection—I was definitely the latter—they went back to their meddling session. Small town gossips...bless their little hearts.
“Mornin’ Char." Ben nodded in greeting as he took control of the box placed in front of him. "Biggest container you've shipped yet. Business must be good." He was politely curious but never pushy.
"Things have been going great. All caught up with my commissions, and I plan on taking a little break for a few weeks." Look at me, all friendly and sharing.
Ben shot a look of mild surprise at me. Not that I went out of my way to be unfriendly, it was just rare for me to share extra information with anyone. But I’d caught the name Jase Rydan coming from the chattering horde at the opposite end of the counter.
Pretty pitiful, when all it took was to hear the man’s name and suddenly I’m starting up a conversation as reason to linger. All in the hopes of finding out what the women were buzzing about.
It had been ten years since a twenty-year-old Jase had stepped into that alley and rescued me. From what, I wasn’t sure of, even to this day. At the time it had felt sinister on a downhill slide towards horrific. Enough to have me imagining the worst for years and fuel a few nightmares. From that point on I'd had a fascination with all things Jase Rydan.
Leaning closer to Ben across the counter, I quietly whispered, "What's up with Jase Rydan?" Then I did a tiny head jerk in the direction of the gray brigade. I couldn’t help thinking, real subtle, Char.
Ben causally looked their way, then he too leaned closer to me, like a co-conspirator. "Rumor going around has Jase moving back to Copper Ridge. Know that big house he built, down on the lake, a few years back?"
At my nod of encouragement, he continued, "That's where he's going to live. Seems his uncle, who owns that big construction company over in Rogers, has made Jase a full partner. They’re supposed to be opening a branch right here in town, and Jase is going to be the one managing it. Going to be building some big fancy houses on the lakes around here, and down on the river, from what I hear.”
“Most of the mommas and grand-mommas are in a tizzy, since he's still unattached and got enough money to burn a wet mule. They're taking his moving back home as a sign he's ready to settle down and raise a family." He nodded at me with a knowing look that said, Hey, listen up, this is information a single woman like you needs to keep up with.
Then he asked in an, oh-so-casual voice, "Don’t the east side of your land, and your granddaddy's, share a property line with the Rydan ranch? You must see a lot of that family passing on the road and all. Good neighbors to have, if a woman ever needed help for any reason.”
“Course, everyone knows you and Evan been good friends for years. People around here,” Ben paused to dart a look Miss Lori’s way, “always speculated why the two of you didn’t take the next step past friendship. Might just be it was the wrong brother." He gave another little nod of, are you listening?
Straightening, I gave Ben a brilliant smile. "Oh, hey, Ruger's waiting in the truck for me. I left it running to keep the air going, what with it being so hot already this morning. Guess I better get this finished up and get back out there." Who knew Ruger would be my excuse to escape from a conversation I’d started with Ben and not as a means of getting away from Miss Lori’s clutches.
Ben thankfully took the hint and became all business. We finished up quickly and, as I gathered up my change ready to make a break for the door, he made one last parting observation. “There’s no shame in a woman going after something she wants in life.” He threw in wink for good measure.
Mumbling, “Yes, sir,” I made good on my escape. I’m no coward but there are times when the best way to come out the winner is to run.
As I settled behind the steering wheel, I looked over at Ruger. “Buddy, you see me starting up a conversation with anyone at the feed store, do me a favor and bite me.”
“Hey, Char. Didn’t see you come in. Here for your granddad’s mineral order?” Harvey Dubois called across the store to me as I stood checking out the new birdfeeders that had been shelved since the last time I’d been in. Cute birdfeeders were hard for me to resist. Turning, I made my way back to the front of the building where he and his wife, Millie, were checking out customers.
“Yes, sir. Gramps asked me to run by and pick it up for him today.” I figured I’d better pay up while there was an opening in front of Harvey. Pulling my checkbook from the back pocket of my denim shorts, I began to do the small talk thing as I wrote. “Something special going on? Y’all seem extra busy today.” Good thing Ruger wasn’t nearby, otherwise I’d be getting a bite right about now.
“Just a normal Saturday.” A lot of satisfaction and pride came through with his answer. “You got your truck backed up to the loading dock?”
“Well, run on back and hunt up Darren, or one of the twins, and let them know you’re all set to go.” Harvey handed over my receipt and order ticket with a smile, then turned to the next customer in line.
I had always loved the open storage area known as the feed room. Earthy smells assaulted my senses as soon as I entered. The syrupy scent of molasses, in the sweet feeds, competed with the sharp bitterness of the ground-up minerals.
A fine layer of grain dust, from the cracked corn and rolled oats, coated the walls and every support beam throughout the huge space. As I hunted for one of Harvey’s boys, I caught glimpses of feline backsides with their flicking cat tails as they disappeared into the towering stacks of feed sacks. They were in search of the mice that always infested feed mills. Ruger was in here somewhere, on his own search and destroy mission against the rodents.
The closest thing we had to a country club was in full swing over in the back corner. It was the main meet-and-greet for all the men in the area, and a bigger gossip center than BettyJo’s Cut ‘n’ Curl. Elders sat on the few chairs that were grouped together, while the rest of the men either leaned against nearby stacked bags of grain or lounged against the wall. A few looked my way and did the head nod of acknowledgment. Doing my own head bob back at the group, I continued my search for one of Harvey’s three boys.
Spying the oldest, I waved at him to hold up. “Hey, Darren, your dad said to let you know I’d paid up and you could go ahead and load my truck.” I handed over the order ticket.
Darren gave it a brief glance then looked back at me and grinned. “Hope you’re not in a hurry. I already have your order stacked but it’s gonna be a little bit before I can get to this. The twins are tied up right now too. Promise to put you next in line, though.”
“Not a problem.” I smiled back then wandered over to where Darren had pointed to my fairly small pile of sacks. It was as good a place as any to wait my turn.
Doing some leaning of my own, I crossed my arms and settled against the wall. Ruger showed up to check on me, then he was off again, happily sniffing out prey to pounce on.
Questions started crowding my head, all of them centered on Jase. If the rumors were true I wondered why Evan hadn’t said anything about it the last time he’d stopped by my place.
He’d taken the whole “watch over Charlotte for me” order from Jase when we were kids much more seriously than I’d expected him to. Throughout school Evan had kept an eye out for me. He became the proverbial big brother. Since Evan lived only three miles down the road he was also my closest neighbor.
He still lived down the road with his parents, which made sense since he was now the one who ran the vast ranch the Rydan family owned. He’d become a regular visitor when I got out of college and came back home for good. Which made it doubly weird he hadn’t told me about his brother.
Maybe it was because any time Evan brought his brother up I acted like it didn’t interest me. But I was interested. Too much so. That’s why I changed the subject every time he brought Jase’s name into a conversation. I didn’t want Evan running back to Jase and telling him what an enormous crush I had on him. How embarrassing would that be?
But then again, if Jase was moving into his lake house, he would be living close enough to be called a neighbor. That made me wonder if he would start stopping by to be neighborly. Bouncing off the wall, as if stuck with a cattle prod, I decided it was time to be a little more productive than indulging in one of my Jase fantasies.
Looking around I found none of the Dubois boys were in sight yet. Since they were apparently still busy, I figured what the heck, I’d help them out by getting a head start on loading the minerals in my truck. Darren had my order in a nice little stack not too far from the loading dock. I mean, really, how hard could it be?
Hands on hips, I sized up the situation. Looked like I could easily pull the top bags off the pile without having to bend over and pick them up off the ground. Those on the ground would be the hardest to load. By the time I got to them Darren, or one of the twins, would be here to finish the job. With my truck backed right up against the dock it was going to be a simple matter of carrying the mineral bags over and dropping them in the bed. Easy-peasy.
Everything was going according to plan, right up to the point where I actually started to slide the fifty-pound sack off the top of the pile. My carefully thought out intentions went to hell, where all good intentions usually ended up.
* * *
Jase Rydan walked alongside his brother, crossing the feed room’s concrete floor on their way to the main storefront. They’d come in the back way, as most men did, so they could check who was hanging in the news corner. Evan had come to make some changes to the ranch’s standing feed orders, and Jase had come along to keep him company.
Rounding a stack of feed bags, Jase noticed a woman standing several feet away with her back to them. Her thick red hair was caught up in a high ponytail and blazed as if it had its own internal light source. His eyes traveled down her trim form with male appreciation, noting the slight indent before the swell of lush hips.
Those hips were cocked at an angle and had hands planted on them. Denim shorts hugged sweet globes of muscle, and a checkbook sticking out of one of the back pockets seemed to call added attention to the feminine curves. It was hard to move on but he continued his inspection by letting his eyes travel the length of her long tanned legs. One of her sandaled feet was slowly tapping the ground.
Evan started chuckling. “Got something stuck in your eye?”
“Don’t know who that is, do you?” He was definitely amused about something.
“No. Do you?”
“I’d say so. You’ve been having me keep an eye on her for the last ten years.” Oh, yeah, his brother was definitely laughing at him.
Jase whipped his head around to look at Evan and just as quickly jerked his eyes back to the woman. “Well, I’ll be damn. Didn’t realize it’d been that long since I’d seen her. How have you managed to keep from going crazy over her?” Jase wondered why the thought bothered him.
He’d seen Charlotte a few times over the last ten years but right now he couldn’t remember when the last time was. It had become a habit to ask Evan about her when he was home, but he’d never really thought of her as having grown up. Charlotte had certainly grown up and in all the right places.
“Because she’s never been interested. Besides, as protective as you were of her for those first few years, you’d have kicked my ass if I’d made a move.”
“You’re right. I would have.”
Jase turned back to studying Charlotte, this time paying more heed to what she was doing. Even viewing her from the back, he could tell she was concentrating on a problem. He looked beyond her to try and figure out what had her total attention. A small pile of sacks seemed to be what she was contemplating. With a decisive nod she made a move on the stack, and that’s when Jase realized she was going to try and pick up one of those fifty-pound bags.
* * *
I was well into my lift on the first bag. All right, it was more of a grab, lift and a wild swing to maintain my balance. In the middle of my turn, I heard, “Wait, I’ll take care of that.”
The one voice guaranteed to be the last I’d expected had me whirling even faster to get a look at the speaker. Jase arrived just in time for me to slam the mineral sack into his stomach. It wasn’t exactly like hitting a brick wall, but close. Guess he must have seen what was heading towards him ‘cause he was braced for impact.
I’d been doing a pretty good job handling the minerals until I lost all coordination at hearing Jase. Hammering him was the final tip to my loss of balance. In a bid to keep from following the minerals down to the concrete floor I made a grab for Jase.
There was a sudden expulsion of air from abused lungs followed by a fairly quiet “Shit.” Then a couple of muscled arms wrapped across my back. It felt like they were trying to squeeze the breath out of me by pressing me up against the type of male chest that caused night sweats in women of any age.
I might’ve held on a tad too long but those steel bands didn’t appear to be in a hurry to turn loose, either. I had a good excuse for clinging. I was stunned by what had happened. What finally penetrated my stunnedness was the explosion of laughter coming out of my savior’s companion. Embarrassment had me scrambling, trying to untangle myself from Jase’s arms. Arms that tightened for a fraction of a second before unwinding. His masculine hands slid upwards to grasp my shoulders firmly, helping to steady me as I regained my balance.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I hissed out the question in as low a whisper as I could manage and still be heard. Meanwhile my eyes did a swift recon of the feed room to see just how many people managed to catch the show. When my look settled back on Jase, those Rydan gray eyes of his held a gleam of amusement.
“Getting the crap knocked out of me would be my first guess.” Taking a step back, he released me.
“Don’t be such a princess. I had everything under control. If you’d stayed out of the way you wouldn’t have gotten hit.” I should have slapped a hand over my mouth at that point, before I had one slapped up the back of my head.
Not that Jase would ever hit a woman, but I darn sure was giving him probable cause. Unfortunately my “princess” comment not only had his eyes narrowing but had set his brother off on another round of howling laughter.
“Yeah, Jase, stop being such a princess.” Evan managed to sputter between guffaws.
Jase didn’t take his eyes off me as he flipped a finger up at his brother and told him to can it.
Evan didn’t seem too worried as he struggled to get out a, “You got it, princess. I’ll go check on that delivery and give you two some space. By the way, I’m handing guard duty back over to ya, big brother. Looks like you’re off to a great start this morning.”
I could hear him chuckling as he walked away. That made it official. It wasn’t going to matter if anyone saw what happened or not. Evan would be drinking free off this story for at least a month.
And what the heck did he think he was doing? Talking like he was going to hand me off to Jase. He made it sound like I was some kind of property the two brothers could just pass back and forth at will. Deciding to ignore Evan’s parting comment, I sucked it up and offered as sincere an apology as I was capable of at that moment. I also tried to politely convey the message that he could leave now. “Look, that was bad of me. Thanks for coming to my rescue. I promise to not attack any more innocent bystanders with feed bags. You can safely leave. I’m good.”
“I’m not so innocent, so don’t worry about it,” he said with a wink. “How about once I finish loading your truck, then you can safely leave.” Striking gray eyes continued to stare into mine, while his whiskey smooth words raised goose bumps down the middle of my back.
Wait...What? Did he just say he was sticking around? Bad idea. Really bad idea. No telling what other stupid stunts I might pull, or dumb remarks I’d make, if he hung around long enough.
Ignoring my stuttering protest, Jase plucked the sack off the ground as though it were filled with feathers and placed it back on the stack. Then, gathering two bags at a time, he headed out to start loading my truck.
I was left staring at his retreating backside. And what a beautiful backside it was to watch. Tight jeans stretched over one heck of a nice butt. The kind of butt that made my fingers twitch with the desire to reach out and grab a couple hands full of muscled gluteus maximus.
The thump of the bags hitting the bed of my truck snapped me back to attention. While I’d been off in la-la land, Jase had turned and was walking back in my direction. I was now staring dreamily at Jase’s package.
In a panic, I checked to see if he’d noticed where and what I seemed to be fixated on. Oh, yeah, he’d definitely noticed, judging by his one raised eyebrow and the crooked slant to his grin. “I think I’ve just been visually violated.”
“What? No...I wasn’t staring at your...I was just staring into space, and you happened to walk into the space with your...anyway, I was not staring at your...you know.” Yep, not only was I staring at his package, I was gesturing at it as well. Jeez, could someone please explain to me why I either needed to be saved whenever Jase was around or I ended up looking and sounding like the village idiot?
Husky laughter greeted my convoluted explanation. “Tell you what, Charlotte. You stare at anything you want on me, as long as I get to return the favor and stare at anything I want on you.” Jase didn’t wait for a response. He simply gathered up another couple of bags and headed for my truck.
Once I managed to peel my jaw off the floor—did Jase Rydan just flirt with me?—I wisely kept my mouth shut and my gaze averted.
Jase had a habit of always calling me by my full name. It sent goose bumps dancing down my arms. Whenever we’d crossed paths in the last ten years, it was always Charlotte, never Char. And the goosies always appeared.
While Jase dropped the last of the mineral bags in the bed of my truck, I looked around and whistled for Ruger. I wanted grab my dog, say a quick thank you, and make a hasty retreat. Running away was apparently how I rolled today. The feel of rough callused fingers clasping my chin stopped me mid-whistle.
Jase turned my face up to his. “Next time you pucker those lips around me I hope it’s for something better than whistling for a dog.”
Ruger’s compact body careening into my legs was a welcome distraction. He was wired from his hunt and wanted to share his enthusiasm with not only me, but apparently Jase as well. He’d wriggled his way over to him and was shamelessly begging for attention. Not how Ruger normally reacted to strangers. He was usually very picky about who he allowed to touch me. Instead he was treating Jase like his long lost pal. Even went so far as to entice Jase into give him a good back rubbing. Was it wrong to envy my dog?
“Thank you. You really shouldn’t have bothered.” Really...reeeaaalllly shouldn’t have bothered, was more like it.
“Charlotte.” Jase straightened from rubbing on Ruger and gave me a look I didn’t know how to interpret.
“Uh-huh?” When he said my name like that, I wanted to purr.
“I have a feeling I’m going to be bothered a lot by you now that I’m home to stay.” With that he turned and walked away.
“This is bullshit, old man! I've offered you damn good money for those mash recipes for the last year. Now you tell me you plan on quittin’ making shine, and still won't sell to me?” Billy Wayne’s question escalated to the shrill notes of a petulant child. He screeched at the elderly Donley, like doing so was going to impress him with the seriousness of the matter.
Problem was, not much about BW impressed Jim Donley. The old man sat on a stump in the middle of woods so eternally dark it would’ve been impossible to see if it weren’t for the row of floodlights fastened to the roll-bar of BW’s truck. They lit up the clearing like an outdoor arena.
The softer glow of the lantern sitting on the ground next to Jim gave a much more personal light to the weed-choked ground surrounding him. He looked as comfortable on that chunk of wood as he would’ve resting in his recliner at home.
Taking his time, while BW ranted, Jim reached into his hip pocket to pull out a can of Prince Albert, popped the lid and then sat it carefully on the ground beside him. As though there was all the time in the world he slid two fingers into his shirt pocket, withdrawing a pack of papers.
After carefully pulling one thin white sheet from the package he returned the rest to his pocket. Reaching down to pick up the can, he began building a cigarette with care, paying no more mind to BW than he would a flitting gnat.
“You’re not screwing me on this deal! I've got plans and they're only gonna get bigger.” Spittle was beginning to fly with each word out of BW’s mouth. Not a pretty sight.
In his agitation, BW paced back and forth in front of Donley. His shadow danced on the trees at the edge of the clearing like demented demons.
“Have your order ready to pick up, but that’s the last of it. Your plans mean less than a popcorn fart to me. You think I don't know who you've been buying and running all this shine for lately? You think jest ‘cause he has you running whiskey all over the country it makes you part of it? Hell, boy, you're only worth anything to him for as long as your daddy's sheriff. It’s the fact that cops won’t pull you over that makes you so damn popular with all them fellers you run shine for.” The old moonshiner spat off into the dark. “Only way you're ever gonna become a part of anything is if I sell you my recipes. And that, boy, ain't never gonna happen.” The deep country drawl rolled out of Donley’s mouth, slow and smooth. Even at eighty, age and hand-rolled smokes hadn’t weakened a voice that had been charming residents of the surrounding area for decades.
But to BW it was the sound of doom to plans of making a name for himself in the world of illegal moonshine. He'd been contacted a couple years ago, and the offer to buy and run Donley’s shine, for a certain person, had been too good to pass up. He'd already been a runner for a few different moonshiners. To get paid to not only run the whiskey but also buy it, now that was a sweet package deal. It gave him ideas. Big ideas.
Donley was the best when it came to making shine, and this particular buyer said Donley would never sell to him directly; that's where BW came in. Now all that money and all his huge dreams were slipping out of his hands. Worse than that, his mouth had overloaded his ass. He’d started making promises to the kind of people you don’t double cross or lie to. As he thought about what was going to happen if he couldn’t get the old man to change his mind, he went a little crazy.
Donley’s calm in the face of his screaming fit was beginning to make him feel real small and worthless. His own daddy was a master at doing that to him. He’d be damned if he was gonna let this piece of white-trash ruin his plans or treat him like he was some kind of dog shit. Something to be scraped off his boots, then walked away from.
Maybe it was time to rethink this. Come at it from a different angle. BW might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed but when it came to self-preservation he could get creative. As his mind ticked through options, his pacing slowed until he was at a complete standstill. He just needed to use the right incentive to convince the old bastard to see the wisdom in looking at things in a whole new light.
Striding up to Donley, he took a wild kick at the tobacco can, sending it flying toward the trees. BW stuck a finger in Donley’s bony chest, poking hard. His voice lowered, with a bit of a snarl to it. "I'm gonna make this simple and give you two options. First one is real easy: you smarten up, sell me what I want, walk away with some extra money, and we're both happy as shit.
“Second option is gonna be a lot harder on that pretty little granddaughter of yours. Accidents happen. Jest look at how her momma and daddy died. Now it would be a real shame if Char had her own freak accident. Might not kill her the first time, she'd just suffer...a lot. But a family as accident prone as yours, hell, wouldn't surprise me if the next freaky accident killed her.”
At the threat, Donley proceeded to do some growling of his own. “Boy, you don’t want to threaten me, or my granddaughter. I’ll see you roastin’ in hell before I let you get your hands on anything that belongs to my family."
“Fuck you! Don’t call me boy. I’ll do it...I’ll have that little bitch screaming if you don’t get me those recipes. It won’t just be me, neither. I’ve got a partner, and I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Robbie. It’s the kind of partner that don’t take no for an answer. He’s been promised a steady supply of your shine—not someone else’s—yours. And by God he’s gonna get it.” He ground his finger into Donley’s chest.
At the sound of his name, Robbie sat up straighter in the front seat of the truck. He’d been watching the show from the comfort of the cab, but when he heard his name his ears perked up. He started paying closer attention to the goings on.
What had started out as plain-ass funny, watching BW holler at the old bastard, was turning in to a shit’s about to happen moment. Everyone knew BW had a crazy temper, and the old man was just asking for it if he didn’t shut up pretty damn quick. Last thing he wanted to do tonight was help BW cover up another one of his screw-ups. Beating up on a man that old was going to be hard to hide.
Donley pushed BW’s finger off as he rose to his feet. “You ain't got shit for a partner. Now let me tell you what’s gonna happen, boy. You’re gonna walk your ass on over to your truck, climb in, and drive away. Leave the shine. I ain’t selling to ya. Then you and me, well, we’re gonna forget this here ever happened. The reason you’re leaving is because if you don’t I’m going to your daddy, our fine sheriff, who just happens to be in the middle of a hell of a race to keep his job. When I get to your daddy, I’m gonna present him with a list of dates, times, and amounts of shine you’ve bought off me over the years. Then, as an added kick in the nuts, I’m handing over time-stamped pictures that show you paying for the booze then loading it in the bed of your truck, boy.”
BW snapped. It was as though a switch had been flipped. Manic rage took possession as a beefy fist flashed making contact with a stubborn old thrust-out chin. “I said, don’t call me boy!”
Caught unawares, Jim’s head snapped back, causing him to take an awkward step to the side in an effort to stay standing. BW followed to deliver another blow to the old man’s gut. No thought processing was going on in any brain cells; just rage and an overwhelming desire to pound the old man's opposition into the ground.
Doubling over, blackness creeping in, Jim struggled to maintain some sense of awareness, determined to fight back as long as he was able. What was left of his consciousness nagged at him that there was something on the ground he could use, if he could just remember what.
There, a large branch was lying next to the stump he’d been sitting on. What was intended as a quick lunge for a weapon, in reality turned out to be more of a hand stretching slowly toward hope. Age’s degeneration of a once strong body, and the shock of two debilitating blows, took their measure, putting an end to any chance he had of saving himself.
He never saw the double-handed fist that crashed between his shoulder blades driving him towards the ground and stump. In the final moments all his brain registered was an explosion of light, a fade to darkness, then nothing.
Cussing, and a persistent pulling on BW’s arm, slowly began to penetrate the murderous fog that had overwhelmed him. Twisting his body to take a swing at whoever was jerking on him, his knuckles landed a glancing blow, sliding off a sweaty jaw. A string of “Oh shit, oh shit” was the next thing to worm its way into his consciousness.
Going perfectly still, he blinked a few times, as though coming out of a trance. Fists tightly clinched and upright, BW was ready to rain more havoc on any object that moved. It took him a minute to pull it together and focus on a freaked-out Robbie.
Slowly, looking down at his feet, he saw the too-still form of Donley. There was a widening pool of blood on top of the stump against which his head rested. The reasons for all the “oh shits” started to make sense.
“Shit, man, what are you gonna do? He’s dead! Shit, he’s dead! You killed ol’ man Donley!” Robbie's screeching was ear-shattering.
BW slowly shook his head. He blinked a few times, clearing the last of the madness out of his system. “Shut up! I can’t think with you running around screaming like a girl. Just shut the fuck up. Give me a minute to think. Besides, I didn’t kill him. Don’t say I killed him. It’s his own damn fault he’s dead. Yeah, he started it with all his ‘I ain't selling,’ and ‘no more moonshine,’ crap. All I did was give him a couple little taps. Tripping over his own feet is what killed the ol’ bastard. I didn’t kill him. He killed himself.” BW had started pacing again, while rubbing a shaky hand across a damp forehead.
Robbie stopped moaning about the dead man to stare at BW in disbelief. The word “typical” came barreling into his thoughts.
In all the time he’d known BW, which was all his life, nothing had ever been his fault. Yeah, hearing him blame Donley for his own death shouldn’t have come as such a shocker. But this time BW’s daddy wasn’t going to be able to pull his ass out of the fire like he had all of his twenty-seven years on this Earth.
Robbie had no intention of ending up the sucker who took the fall for this. Out-right murder, when it stared you in the face, wasn’t the kind of wild times he’d hung around BW for all these years.
“What’re you gonna do?” Robbie asked warily. He kept saying “you” and BW kept saying “we.” Shit!
“Nothin’. We don’t have to do nothin’. It’s an accident. He was out here messing around at night in the woods and tripped. Everyone knows Donley sells shine, and this is one of a bunch of different places he uses to move the stuff. They’ll think he was out here to meet someone, but that don’t mean they’ll think it’s us. Hell, I didn’t tell anyone about meeting Donley tonight.” BW turned narrowed eyes on Robbie. “Did you?”
“Hell no! I didn’t tell nobody, BW.” The sour smell of his own fear-induced sweat stung Robbie’s nose.
“Good, that’s good. All we gotta do is make sure we ain’t left nothing of ours around here.” BW started looking around, wanting to make sure the scene looked like nothing more than a spot where an accidental death had taken place.
Robbie stood frozen in place, not making any effort to canvas the surroundings for anything that could possibly lead back to them. A terrible thought came to him, “What about those files Donley was talking about? What if he’s got all that shit he claimed to have?”
“Fuuuuccckkk! Can you not shut up for five minutes and just do what the hell I tell you? He was lying, you know that old bastard didn’t have no way to take pictures and he sure as shit weren’t smart enough to keep records.” BW didn’t even buy his own assertion on that last point but he wasn’t letting on to Robbie. Leastways not until he was sure there was something to worry about.
“Now go find that can I kicked. I’m gonna check his truck to make sure there’s nothing in there that points to him having a meeting with me tonight.” He headed over towards the old Ford, planning on doing a thorough search. BW prayed to whatever dark god who would listen that there weren’t any files around to point to him.
Robbie slowly began a search of the ground around the stump then off in the direction he’d seen the can fly. He kept his eyes averted from the crumpled form as much as possible. A quiet litany of curses flowed between trembling lips as he scoured the clearing's floor.
When he neared the closest trees, he looked up to gage how far he was from the stump. As his head came up he noticed something in his peripheral vision. Something that looked foreign. Something that sure as hell didn’t belong on a tree in the middle of the woods.
Dread had him heading in the new direction to check it out. A sickness began to swell in his belly and slowly worked its way into his throat choking him, making it difficult to get words out around the knot. “BW, you need to come look at this.”
“Dammit, I’m busy over here. Just get the can then help me search this truck. No, wait, check Donley's pockets, see if there’s anything in them that shouldn’t be.” BW didn’t even glance up as he gave out orders. He was busy searching the glovebox.
“Man, I’m serious, you gotta see this.” A calmness had come over Robbie. A stillness not related to relief but more of an acceptance that nothing was going to be all right from this point on. His half-formed ideas to bolt, so BW couldn’t involve him any further, vanished. For better or worse—and probably a hell of a lot worse—he was trapped into doing whatever it took to cover this shit up.
Whether it was the difference in the tone of Robbie’s voice, or just pure frustration at not having orders followed, BW jerked back out of the truck to glare in Robbie’s direction. He started stomping his way over to where the other man stood, staring not at the ground, as expected, but at the tree in front of him.
“What is so damn important? We gotta get this cleaned up so we can get the hell outta...” His words trailed off as he finally got close enough to see what Robbie had his eyes locked on.
BW stared in disbelief. There, strapped to a tree, was one of the best black-flash game cameras on the market. Calm acceptance was not in BW’s checklist of emotions though, and when the explosion came it was spectacular. As the screaming, cussing, and tree kicking commenced, Robbie backed slowly out of the way.
“Guess that answers the question about whether he was bluffin' or not.” Robbie knew the minute the words left his mouth it was the wrong thing to say.
BW spun, nailing him with a glare from red-rimmed eyes. “Take that fuckin’ camera down and go search that body like you were told.” He stomped back to the old man’s truck to finish his own search.
Hurrying to the tree, Robbie began to release the straps holding the game camera. His mind was reeling with the implications of his find. Looked like old Donley wasn’t as stupid as BW thought. And if Donley had pictures, he sure as hell had written records. Robbie didn’t think his name would be on any of the files, but his face was gonna be front and center, recorded every time he’d accompanied BW to help load the shine.
After he got the camera down he decided to take a look around to see if there were any more scattered around the clearing. Eyeballing the distance from the stump to where the camera had been located, he estimated it at about forty feet. Taking a circular route around the clearing, he found two more cameras.
This was bad, real bad. No chance there weren’t some damn good shots of the two of them meeting with the ol’ moonshiner. Dread at having to tell BW about the extra cameras slowed his trek back over to the body.
Robbie had been a hunter all his life; death wasn’t anything new to him. But the dead man wasn’t some animal he’d killed and was going to brag about to the boys at the bar. This husk had been a living, breathing person thirty minutes ago. A man he’d known all his life. Donley might not have been a pillar of the community but he was a well-known figure who was going to be missed. Those staring eyes seemed to be looking straight at him with accusation as he went through the dead man’s pockets.
But if he was to tell the truth, at this point he was more scared of BW than the dead body he was pilfering. There was no telling what BW was going to be willing to do to cover this up. Friendship meant nothing if the choice whether to save his own hide or throw a friend to the wolves had to be made.
Finding nothing of significance in the old man’s pockets, Robbie gathered up the cameras with relief. He was happy to be able to get away from those accusing eyes. Hearing mumbled swear words coming from inside the old Ford was a clear tip-off to Robbie that BW wasn’t finding anything in the vehicle. BW backed out while double checking to make sure the truck didn’t look like it had just been thoroughly rifled through.
Robbie was the first thing he spotted when turning around. The bundle of cameras in his arms was the second. Lips compressed in a tight line, BW just jerked his head towards the stack of cardboard boxes containing the shine.
Silently they loaded the boxes in the concealed compartment built into the bed of the truck. When finished, they climbed in BW’s truck. Both of them were more than ready to escape from this nightmare, for the moment, at least.
As the duo drove away there was only one witness left to the crime that had been committed: a small dented can at the edge of the woods, where it had been kicked and forgotten.
Robbie maintained an uneasy silence, afraid to ask the million and one questions making his head hurt and stomach riot. He was pretty sure BW was spending the silent drive coming up with a plan.
That was a terrifying concept. BW was as deadly as a cornered copperhead right now. Whatever he came up with was going to have Robbie ass-deep, smack-dab in the middle.
When BW started chuckling, Robbie swung incredulous eyes to stare at him. What the hell could be so damn funny?
“I’ve got a plan.” BW made his announcement after a few more snickers.
Robbie didn’t reply. He was too busy wondering if this was going to be the time when BW finally got him killed or tossed in prison.
Hope you enjoyed reading the first three chapters! Char's life is about to change in a big way and Jase is determined to be part of that change.
And I promise there are going to be a twist or two by the end of the book.
So sit back. Enjoy a look at my writing partner. And I'll fuddle my way through figuring out a blog.