Authors: Carolyn Brown
Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Brown
Cover and internal design © 2010 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Randee Ladden
Cover illustration by Aleta Rafton
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Thank you to all the women who have served or who are serving in any branch of the United States Armed Forces.
The whirring of the helicopter blades cut through the hot Iraqi desert wind. It was late summer and the Shamal wind was throwing enough sand around to limit visibility. But she could make out the target in her crosshairs and the sand kept the choppers from getting a direct bead on her and Jonah. They’d already made four passes. She had sand in her mouth, sand in her boots and in her ears. She’d been trained to ignore everything and take out the target, but that damned buzzing noise reminded her of a bunch of swarming bees—and she hated bees.
“Keep focused on the target,” she whispered so low that Jonah couldn’t hear the words.
She set the crosshairs on the terrorist behind the machine gun mounted on the hood of a military jeep. She’d never missed yet and didn’t want to spoil her record.
“Convoy is less than a mile from the ambush,” her commander’s voice said on the radio. “Fire when ready.”
“Yes sir,” she said. “Adjustments, Jonah?”
Her spotter ran his finger down a column of numbers and called out the wind velocity. She made adjustments in the blistering heat. She took a deep breath and blinked twice for good luck. If she took out the ambush, the convoy took her friends back to base. If she didn’t, there’d be widows and orphans crying that night in the States.
Sweat trickled down between her breasts to puddle at the bottom of her bra where a sand trap waited. Evidently God knew what he was doing when he gave breasts to women and not men. Boy soldiers wouldn’t last ten minutes out in the heat with bras biting their ribs and shoulders. They’d scratch and fidget until the enemy blew their weak little asses all over the sand. She wiped moisture from her brow, inhaled, and blinked twice again for good luck. Then she pulled the trigger and the target dropped graveyard dead.
“Mission complete. Convoy can proceed. Send in rescue,” she said.
Gunfire started and the sand kicked up all around her. She looked over at Jonah to tell him to keep his head down and get ready to run when their rescue team lit. His chin rested on his chest and blood was everywhere.
“Jonah’s down!” she screamed into the radio. “Send me some help now. Jonah is shot.”
“Hello, anybody home?” a deep Texas drawl yelled and light from the open door filled the Honky Tonk.
She jerked her head up and scanned the area. It was dark and cool. Where had the desert gone? Where was her rifle and why was she wearing cowboy boots? She looked to her right and Jonah Black was gone. She drew her eyebrows down. He’d been there the last time she blinked. Then the past faded into the dark corners of the beer joint and the present brought a cowboy across the hardwood dance floor.
“Back here.” Her voice was hoarse and her mouth dry. She’d fallen asleep on the table when she sat down for a rest. Her arms tingled as the feeling returned and her heart pounded. It was the same thing every time she went to sleep. Recurring dreams of Iraq, of the job that women did not do and were not trained to do in the Army. But Sharlene had done the job and when she was discharged she’d brought it home with her in the form of nightmares.
The sound of cowboy boot heels on hardwood floors coming toward her sounded like gunfire. She covered her ears and shook her head. She needed another second or two to bury the visions and pull herself away from the sight of Jonah and his dark brown dead eyes.
“I’m looking for Sharlene Waverly. I was supposed to meet her here at one o’clock,” the Texas voice grew closer.
She stood up and extended her hand. “I’m Sharlene. You must be Holt Jackson. Have a seat. Can I get you a beer?”
Holt’s big hand swallowed hers. He noticed that her hand trembled when he shook it.
“No, I’m fine.
are Sharlene Waverly?” He frowned as he let go of her hand.
She had kinky red hair and green eyes. She didn’t look old enough to work behind the bar much less own one. She barely came to his shoulder and would have to produce an ID to get out of a convenience store with a six-pack.
“Yes, I am. Sit and we’ll talk.” She motioned toward the table with four chairs around it and an empty beer bottle on the top. “I was just about to start cleaning up the place from last night’s business. I fell asleep with my arms under my head and they’re still tingling.” She shook her arms to restore feeling.
He pulled out a chair and sat across the table from her. He was tall with thick dark hair that tickled his shirt collar. His mossy green eyes scanned the beer joint, finally coming to rest on her.
“So where do you want to build an addition to this place?”
She pointed toward the north end of the Honky Tonk. “I want to knock out half of that wall and make a room as big as the original Honky Tonk. I’ll put the pool tables and jukeboxes back there and that will leave more room in here for a bigger dance floor. Hardwood floors, paneling on the walls. The good stuff, not that stuff that looks as cheap as it is.”
“Why not go to the south?” he asked.
“Because I’m barely over the county line as it is. Erath County is dry. Palo Pinto is wet. If I get over into Erath County I couldn’t have a beer joint,” she explained.
He stood up and reached for a steel tape fastened to his belt. A vision of someone grabbing a gun made her flinch but she covered it well by throwing her hand over her mouth to cover a fake cough.
He pulled a small spiral-topped notebook from the pocket of his chambray work shirt and began measuring and making calculations. “Twice as big? That’s a hell of a big addition.”
“I need a big addition. Folks are waiting in the parking lot now because my max says three hundred or less. I want to be able to bring in more customers.”
Holt made notations and measured some more. “Windows?”
“No. Solid walls. No windows and no frilly curtains. I run a beer joint here, not a boarding house for proper little girls.”
“Why?” Holt asked.
“Because I like running a beer joint and I would not like a bunch of whiny little girls fussing all day long about having to learn the proper way to set a table,” she said.
“Why no windows? It’s your business what you do for a living, lady, not mine. I’m just here to build an addition.” Holt grinned.
“Sorry that I bit at you. I’m grouchy today. It’s not your fault. Drunks aren’t real good with windows. If they get into a fight before Luther can break it up, the walls don’t break. I’m going to clean while you figure, then we’ll talk when you get the estimate worked up,” Sharlene answered.
Holt worked for half an hour then slipped the tape back on his belt and hiked a hip onto a bar stool. “I’ll take that beer now, Miz Waverly. If you like my estimate and can find me a rental house with a yard in Mingus, I can do this job for you.”
“Call me Sharlene. Miz Waverly makes me look behind me to see if my momma is in the place. Let’s see, it’s mid-August. I’d like to have it finished and ready by Christmas…” She hesitated because it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that she’d give him her apartment if he could have it done by Thanksgiving.
“You don’t know much about building, do you?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Not really. Is that not doable?”
“I can get this done by Halloween if we have good weather. Probably within eight weeks, which would finish it by mid-to-late October,” he said.
“I’m figuring we can have it done in eight weeks, maximum,” he said.
“How big is your crew?”
“I’ve got three men who work for me. If it’s a long distance from home we live in our travel trailers. If it’s close by we commute. I see you’ve got some spaces over there. Interested in renting two of them?”
“Two? Why only two if you’ve got three men who work for you?”
“Two are from up close to Wichita Falls. That’d be a pretty long commute and they are both single so they don’t mind staying on the site. The other is from Palo Pinto. I reckon he’d rather commute since he’s married and has kids.”
She nodded. “I’ve got plenty of spaces back there. Plumbing, water, and electricity go with the rent.”
He glanced at the bar. “Pretty nice location for Kent and Chad. They’re brothers, by the way, and they’ll love the idea of being close to a beer joint so they can get a brew after working all day.”
She set a beer in front of him. “Estimate?”
He handed her the paper and tipped up the bottle.
It was twenty percent higher than she’d figured but less than Merle had thought it could be. She could afford it. “I can live with these numbers. When can you start?”
“Monday morning. I’ll call Chad, Kent, and Bennie and tell them. They’ll be here sometime over the weekend to get the trailers hooked up. We’ll get our equipment set up, the materials ordered, and hopefully get it stringed up and leveled on Monday. Then Bennie will begin the concrete work Monday morning. I figured you’d wrangle with me on the price. I allowed ten percent for some haggling room.”
“Then take ten percent off. But I don’t want concrete floors.”
He held up his palm. “I know what you want. The concrete is for the foundation. I know what I’m doing Miz… Sharlene.”
“Then yes, we have a deal and you can start the job.”
He set the bottle down. “Not so fast. I’ll need a place to live. I was renting a trailer up in Palo Pinto and I could commute, but the hot water tank blew a gasket and flooded the whole thing. Owner doesn’t want to fix it so we’ve got to find a place to live. Find me a rental house by tomorrow and then we’ll have a deal.”
Sharlene cocked her head to one side. “How about a side bet? You get the trailer spaces and a house free of rent if you promise you can get the job done by Thanksgiving. If you fail, then I get to take your rent out of the final payment. I’ll pay you half now and half when it’s finished. That all right with you?”
He extended his hand. “Sounds pretty good to me.”
She shook with him. “Good. I’ll get the keys from my purse.”
“You own a rental house?”
“And where is this house?”
“Which way did you come into town?” she asked.
“From Palo Pinto.”
“Did you see that house by the post office? The turquoise one with hot pink trim and yellow porch posts? It’s got two orange rockers on the porch.”
He shuddered. He’d seen the house all right and wondered what drunk had painted it. “So you own that white frame house just west of it?” he asked.
Sharlene handed him the keys. “No, I own the turquoise one. It’s yours until the job is done.”
Holt groaned. “How big is it and does it have kitchen appliances?”
She nodded. “Kitchen, living room, two bedrooms. Larissa left living room furniture in there. You can move it out into the garage out back of the Tonk or use it. Stove, refrigerator, and the washer and dryer are in the kitchen. You still interested?”
“You think I’ll turn it down, don’t you,” he said.
“Lord, I hope not.”
“Are there any other houses in town?” he asked. He’d gladly pay rent to live in something that didn’t look like a human-sized Barbie doll house.
She shook her head and grinned.
“Okay, then, it’ll do until after Thanksgiving. Now there’s one more little matter we have to discuss before I actually take a check from you. I’ve got two kids. They’ll start first grade in a couple of weeks but I bring them to work with me every day. They won’t get in your way, I promise. If that’s a problem then the deal is off.”
She frowned. “Ever think of a baby-sitter?”
He shrugged. “Tried it. Didn’t work. Won’t try again.”
“If that’s the only problem, then welcome to Mingus, Holt Jackson,” Sharlene said.
Holt picked up his sweet iced tea, sipped it, and then set it back down. He reached across the table and touched Nikki’s hand. Perfectly white-tipped fingernails, a nice diamond dinner ring, and skin as smooth as silk. She wore one of those little black dresses with thin straps and a ruffle at the knees showing off her legs, browned to the right shade from daily visits to the tanning bed during her lunch break.
“So where are we, Holt Jackson?” She laid the menu to the side and looked him in the eye.
Tonight her eyes were crystal blue and matched the color on her eyelids. Holt should have thought it was sexy but it reminded him of the skin on a dead chicken’s eyelids. Three years ago in the fall he’d helped Kent and Chad’s parents kill and freeze a hundred fryers and Nikki’s eye shadow was that exact same shade.
“I like your eyes better their natural color,” he said.
“My eyes, like my hair, change with my mood. Tonight I was blue thinking about how long we’ve been going out and how you run from commitment. And this week I wanted to be a blonde,” she said. “Would you please give me a straight answer?”
“I’ve got the kids and they take a lot of my time. You knew that from our first date,” he said.
The waitress appeared at their table. “You ready to order now?”
“I’ll have the chicken parmigiana and bring a bottle of Principato Rosato wine,” Nikki said.
“And you, sir?” the waitress asked Holt.
“The lasagna, please.” He handed the waitress the menu.
“May I suggest a bottle of Rocca Delle Macie Chianti Classico Riserva with that?”
“Sweet tea is fine. I’m driving so I’d better not be drinking,” he said.
“Kids!” Nikki muttered.
“It’s against the law to shoot the little critters and I’ve taken a real likin’ to them so I don’t reckon I’d shoot ’em anyway,” he drawled.
She jerked her hand out from under his and held both of them in her lap. “This isn’t going to work for me, Holt. It’s bad enough that you run all over creation with that job of yours, but now the kids…”
He leaned back in the booth, lowered his chin, and looked at her from under thick dark brows. “You knew what I did when we started dating.”
“I guess I thought you’d change for me. I love Dallas and Fort Worth. You could do your little construction jobs in Dallas until you could find a decent office job,” she told him.
He frowned. “I don’t want a decent office job. I love my job and my business and I don’t like big cities.”
The waitress brought their salad in a big chilled bowl and set it on the table between them, along with a basket of warm garlic bread sticks. She placed chilled bowls and plates in front of Nikki and Holt.