She’d bought the dress six months ago. The perfect
halter-tied prom dress in candlelight blue and silver. It
had taken her four shopping trips to Midland to find it,
but when she saw it, she knew. When she walked, the flounce
billowed like a cloud . The sleek bodice accentuated her
chest before sliding smooth as silk over her hips. There
it clung just enough to show the entire senior class just
what hours of exercise could do. Lovingly her fingers had
glided over the material, imagining his face when he saw
her. She loved the hungry way he looked at her sometimes,
like a queen.
By the ripe old age of seventeen, Gillian was accustomed
to men taking a second glance, or whistling when she wore
the extra short shorts, which she did on occasion because
she liked the whistling, even though her Momma said it wasn’t
exactly proper behavior. In West Texas, the girls weren’t
supposed to be fast, like in Houston or Dallas, but boredom
and hot nights were a fertile combination, and sometimes
natured ruled with a fevered hand. Nonetheless, Gillian
had a strict code of conduct, which she’d never been
tempted to break…
The sun was long gone, the moon high in a starless night.
During the summer, when the dust kicked up beyond the heavens,
the whole Texas sky glowed pink. Like a dream. It was nights
like this that Gillian felt like she was living her dreams.
He emerged from the horizon, his shoulders slumped low,
until he saw her. Gillian leaned back on her elbows, breasts
to the sky like the pictorials in Playboy, even though she’d
never admit to studying the sultry poses.
When he saw her, he tried not to run. She could see him
make the effort to act so cool, but he picked up the pace.
Anxious, she could tell. As he strode toward her, her heart
skipped a beat, because there was no boy that was hotter,
no boy that kicked up her pulse, no boy that made her ache
between her thighs like he did -- not even Jeffrey Campbell
Maxwell III, who was the star quarterback of the Lions.
Everybody expected Gillian to go to the senior prom with
Jeff Junior -- except for Gillian. Gillian’s heart
was set in a different direction. His.
He was long and rangy, not as bulked up as some of the
jocks, but there was something different about this one.
His muscles were crafted from hard work instead of the football
field. His hands were rough from metal rather than free
“What took you so long?” she asked, wondering
if he noticed that he she wasn’t wearing a bra under
her shirt. In her mind, her tight nipples might as well
have big neon arrows attached.
When he looked at her, his eyes landed somewhere between
her shoulders and her belly, and she noticed the quick,
nervous bob in his throat.
“Got held up at the garage,” he said.
Gillian smiled and held out a hand in invitation. “I’m
glad you’re here.”
He sat down on the ground next to her, long legs outstretched
in front of him. His once-white t-shirt was stained with
dirt and automotive grease, but there were men who looked
sexy in grime, and apparently he was one. At least for tonight,
he was hers.
She shot him one hot look from beneath her lashes, and
he wiped his palms on his jeans, once, twice, and then his
mouth was on hers, devouring, and demanding a response.
He never kissed her like the others, not like Jeff Junior,
not like Roger, not like Sonny. Gillian had never truly
appreciated the art of kissing until the first time she’d
touched his lips with her own.
It had been fire.
After she finally caught her breath, his hot mouth tracked
her slim neck, following the line of her collarbone, down
to where the pulse was drumming at her throat. She wound
their hands together, her rose-tipped nails in sharp contrast
to the dirt beneath his. But she didn’t mind. She
loved the hardness of his big hands, the way they touched
her, hesitantly, reverently like she were his altar. God
would probably strike her dead for comparing the carnal
arts -- or nearly carnal arts, she corrected -- to a place
of holy worship, but Gillian knew her biology and felt like
that if God didn’t want teenagers running amuk, he
wouldn’t have juiced them with roller-coaster hormones,
Not willing to wait any longer, she pulled him on top of
her, feeling the rangy strength, the tensile bunching of
muscles that seemed poised for attack. Gillian knew she
was playing fast and loose, but tonight the iron-clad Gillian
Wanamaker will was noticeably absent. For once, she wanted
to nibble at the apple, but not just with any man. Only
“I’ve made up my mind,” she whispered
in his ear, feathering kisses along the jaw.
“About what?” he whispered back, his hand sliding
slyly down her blouse, touching her with that same nervous
intensity. “About this?” he asked, his fingers
tip-toeing across her nipples, touching them, then falling
away. She drew in a breath at the exquisite sensations,
the burst of heat, the feeling that she was about to explode.
“You shouldn’t do that,” she protested
without a lick of sincerity, pushing her breasts further
into his hand, marveling at the fit. Gillian worked very
hard at most things, being good included, but when she was
near him, it was like summer lightning. Surprising, beautiful,
and dangerous. Gillian loved herself some summer lightning.
He smiled at her then, surprising, beautiful, dangerous.
Then his hands worked the buttons on her shirt with both
speed and dexterity that indicated a boy who knew his way
around a bra. She liked that about him, that sly confidence
that he kept stored away.
At school, his shoulders were always down, his eyes somewhere
beyond the horizon. She knew he was whip-smart, but he’d
never asked to be called on in class, he never opted to
read aloud. In gym, he was fast, his movements quicker than
most, but he didn’t do sports. In fact, most people
didn’t give him the time of day -- except for “those
girls”. Those girls gave him everything he wanted…
or so everyone said.
Tramps, that was her momma said, and before you could say,
“Gillian is a tramp”, her blouse was open, her
bra was undone, and he was staring at her bare chest with
lusty-eyed awe. It was hard to be shamed in the face of
such absolute adoration, and besides, Gillian believed that
adoration was meant to be graciously acknowledged, not ignored.
The moon winked down on them, the buffalo grass tickling
the backs of her bare knees, and she watched the sharp lines
of hunger in his face. He wasn’t a boy who openly
showed need, and she loved that it was her who made him
Carefully his hands traced the circles of her nipples,
the outlines where rosy pink met baby’s-butt white.
At first, she assumed this was part of the adoration ritual,
but soon she realized the delicious truth of the matter.
These little touches were invading her from the outside
in, zipping through her skin, her nerves. In their wake,
a wave of pressure was building in her belly, growing stronger,
dropping lower until she could feel the tight heartbeat
between her thighs.
“Take me to the prom,” she whispered urgently,
not the sophisticated invitation that she’d rehearsed
in her mind, but right this second, her mind wasn’t
completely her own . Her mind was preoccupied with those
tight little circles he was drawing on her, the way he caught
his lip between his teeth in what had to be a painful manner.
As if sensing her slow-witted difficulties, his fingers
stilled over her breast, resting there possessively. “Hell,
no. Nobody’s ever going to see me in some stupid prom
duds. Not even for you, Gilly.”
The words kick-started her brain. Rejection is what some
might call them. Others, notably of Gillian’s persuasion,
considered such words a challenge to be welcomed -- before
being clobbered, of course. Pride and prudence battled it
out in her head, but prudence never stood a chance. “Go
with me,” she urged, putting her hand over his, inviting
him to prom, inviting him to more.
There was a moment when his fingers tightened on her own
aching skin, when his eyes darkened with the secrets she
wanted to know, but then his hand fell away.
“No way, Gillian. Let’s drive to Austin. Find
a hotel. Stay all weekend. Maybe longer. Maybe forever.”
He didn’t look at her as he spoke, his face turned
to the line of mesquite trees, not appreciating anything,
the lurid nakedness of her breasts, the genius of her plans,
and if Gillian hadn’t put so much time and effort
into both, she probably would have been a little more reasonable.
“Austin? I don’t know anybody there. I want
to be here. Home. At my senior prom. It’ll be fun
watching all the faces when we walk in.”
He pulled away, leaving her barren on the ground. “I
can tell you about the faces,” he told her, his voice
sounding almost angry. “The boys will be drooling,
their dicks in their eyes. The girl will pretend they don’t
care, but they do.” Still not looking at her, He plucked
a blade of grass, and put it to his lips and blew. The breathy
whistle cut through the silence, as if he didn’t care
what anyone thought, but Gillian knew better. Everybody
cared, some just buried it deeper than others.
“You think the girls won’t be jealous of me?”
she asked, in her best girlfriend’s voice. “You
don’t ever notice the crowd that gathers at Dot’s
when you’re working at the shop with your shirt off?”
A dark flush rose on his cheeks. “Maybe.”
Pleased with his reaction, she drew closer, until the strong
tendons of his arm were hard against her breast, until the
warmth of his body filled her with electricity, like she
was touching the live wire and feeling the shock. She liked
that touch. She needed that touch. “Come with me.”
He sat motionless, unmoved by her plea, and silently she
swore. There was a very precise list of things that Gillian
wanted with a white-hot passion: a summer job at the bank,
class salutatorian, the gold tiara at the senior prom, and
So what price was the willing to pay? It was an age-old
question that women had battled since the dawn of time.
Never one to hesitate, she closed her eyes, and threw caution
to the wind, although technically there was no wind, not
even a courage-bolstering breeze. Slowly she pulled her
blouse from her shoulders, untangling her bra and letting
it fall to the ground. His gaze lifted to her bare chest
and stayed there. The dangerous hunger returned and somewhere
in her mind, summer lightning flashed, dazzling her. Just
like magic, the breeze began to blow, tossing her caution
even further afield.
“You trying to bribe me?” he asked in an unsteady
She smiled, slow and a little unsteady herself. “Is
Gently he lowered her to the ground, and his mouth took
her own. It was a long and hungry kiss that involved grinding
tongues and grinding hips, and when his hands touched her
brazen nipples, they weren’t so gentle, weren’t
so tender. This was pain, the most beautiful sort of pain.
Desire. She caught her lip between her teeth, silencing
her cries, silencing her moans.
He was heavy on top of her, and she could feel him, all
of him, thick and throbbing and full of baby-making sperm.
Before she could contemplate the consequences even further,
he put his mouth to her breast and suckled, pulling hard.
Wickedly hard. Her eyes drifted closed, trying not to be
too slutty and give away the entire farm, but Gillian was
no tease, neither. “Take me.”
His fingers moved lower, resting at the zip of her shorts,
waiting. “Here?” he said, and there was a dark
sin in his eyes that boiled her insides, made her thighs
weep. There were girls who got pregnant, girls who weren’t
smart, girls who threw away everything for the thrill. Not
She laid her hand over his, not in invitation this time.
“Take me to prom,” she clarified, not exactly
denying the other, but not committing herself to it, either.
At least not yet.
Furiously he rolled off her, scrubbing his lean face with
his hands. “Goddamnit, Gillian. You don’t know
jack-shit about men. I could die from this sort of pain.”
He looked so miserable, so furious… so breath-catching
Unable to help herself, she started to laugh, embarrassed,
awkward, because this was all new to her. Then he started
to laugh, and then, thankfully, all the hard anger fell
away. Mission accomplished. She wanted to be the temptress.
There were few things she couldn’t master, but a whole
lifetime of lectures were ringing in her ears, and there
were too many dreams she wanted to live. He made her feel
a little crazy, a little wild, and while she loved being
like that, she knew it wasn’t smart.
Feeling better, a little more in control, Gillian pulled
on her shirt, and she noticed that he looked relived as
well. Relived and much more cooperative, which was a plus
since there were immediate dreams she wanted to score, and
she wasn’t ready to give it up yet.
“You’ll take me to the prom? We’re seniors
and after this, we gotta be mature with checking accounts
and crappy jobs.”
At her words, his eyes cooled a bit, because while her
great life would be over, his was great life about to start.
Maybe after graduation wouldn’t be great for him,
but it had to be better than life with his father, Frank
Hart. She knew he was capable of more than working on cars,
and tonight, when the clock was ticking, she wanted to know
about his dreams.
“What are you going to do after graduation?”
she asked, keeping her tone casual.
When he looked at her, she saw something that was a lot
more than a car mechanic. Ambition, determination, dreams,
and she was glad his father hadn’t ruined everything
for him. “I’m going to go to Austin and then
build myself the world’s fastest Mustang.”
His answer made her smile. ‘It’s the perfect
spot for you.”
But while she was smiling, he didn't and slowly it dawned
on her that he was leaving. Not that she shouldn’t
be surprised, not that she shouldn’t be expecting
it. Still, she wasn’t. “Oh.”
He moved closer, reaching out and pushing the hair from
her eyes. “Come with me. I’m serious. We can
leave this dump and go someplace where there’s more
excitement than Two-For-One Chicken Fried Steak Night.”
Gillian felt a hard rock in her gut. The same sort she
got when got a B-plus on a test. Or when she flubbed her
jump during the State cheerleading competition. Exactly
the same sort as when a boy told her (as she was sitting
there, only moments before trying to be a temptress), that
she wasn’t exciting. “Glad to know where I rate.”
“This isn’t about you, Gilly,” he told
her and she reminded herself that his world wasn’t
hers. His nights at home weren’t about watching the
Cowboys play on Sunday or baking pies for the food pantry.
No, his nights weren’t nearly so nice.
Everybody knew about the house way back in the empty fields
behind town. The beaten down shack with its peeling gray
paint and empty beer cans cluttering up the yard. The oak
in the front was more filled with bullet holes than life,
and on most nights, angry voices bellowed through the knee-high
grass. Angry words from the foul-mouth, foul-tempered trash
that lived there.
At one time, there had been two boys who lived there, but
then the eldest went away. Some said he was buried out back,
some said he was incarcerated at the State Pen, but nobody
knew for sure. And no one ever got a straight answer from
either the boy or his father. All that misery made Gillian's
heart ache for him. Hell was supposed to come after death,
not before. But he never complained, never talked about
it, never showed that it mattered at all.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, apologizing
for more than her thoughtless words, wishing she could make
He touched her forehead, her cheek, cupped her chin in
his hand until she had to look at him, had to meet the full-on
intensity in his eyes. He had such beautiful eyes. Quicksilver
eyes that changed on a dime. Brown and gold melting together,
and on a rare occasion, such as this, he would look at you
with the full potency of his eyes, his heart, his very soul.
A mere woman couldn’t help but fall in love.
“Come with me,” he said, touching his lips
He didn’t wait for an answer, but kept kissing her,
putting a lifetime of kissing into the effort, this boy
who never tried too hard at anything, this boy who had failed
more than most. Gillian felt a prick of tears at her eyes,
because a kiss wasn’t supposed to last for an entire
lifetime. A kiss was supposed to last until the next minute,
the next hour, the next day when she saw him again. A kiss
like this meant goodbye.
There would be no making love, there would be no Prom King
and Queen, there would be no more Austen in her life at
The trusting heart was the easiest to break, the hardest
to heal, and Gillian was surprised by the pain of it.
“Stay with me,” she pleaded, but he lifted
his head and she could see him disappearing before her eyes.
The boy was no more. She was looking at the man. Slowly,
he shook his head, his mind already made up.
She used her shirt to wipe at the tears on her face, because
before tonight, she had been so sure of him, so full of
her plans, her dreams. So cock-sure of herself. “I
told Mindy you were going to be my date,” she confessed,
because she told Mindy everything.
“What the hell, Gillian?” His eyes were hot
with anger and then something else. She followed his gaze
to where her shirt hung open, and she realized that maybe
her dreams weren’t shot to hell after all.
There was a heaviness in the night air and she could feel
the stickiness on her skin. The dark thoughts in her mind
should have scared her, but they excited her instead. What
did it matter now? He was the only one she wanted. She wanted
him to be her first.
Nervously she pushed back the hair from her face -- as
a woman would, not like a girl.
“Please stay,” she whispered.
“God, woman.” The words were anguished. Defeated.
Sometimes Gillian knew she pressed too hard to get her way,
but he wouldn’t regret this. She’d make sure
“Is that a yes?” she asked, excitement bubbling
“It’s a yes.”
With that, she threw herself at him in a shameless fashion,
because at least now, they had one more week. A whole seven
days that would have to last a lifetime. She didn’t
want to wait. Not any longer.
Virginity was for fools who thought there would always
“I love you,” she whispered quietly, and he
drew back, looking at her with surprise.
“You don’t have to say that.”
“I know, but I want to do this right.”
He grew still. “Do what right?”
She spread her hands wide, gesturing to the field, the
night, the moon. “My first time.”
“I thought you and Jeff….”
She shook her head.
Once more she shook her head.
For the last time, she shook her head no. She had thought
he’d be pleased, but he didn’t look happy about
the situation at all.
The wicked light in his eyes dimmed to something more respectable,
more honorable. His perfect mouth curled into a heart-stopping
grin and she knew that her first time would be exactly like
what she dreamed.
“Then we should do this right. Not in a field. Obviously
you can’t have an up close and personal experience
with chiggers in places that chiggers don’t belong.”
At that, Gillian stared into the tall grass, seriously
considering the ramifications of her virginity-losing-decision.
Pregnancy, she had considered often enough. Chiggers were
something entirely different.
Just the thought of it had her itching behind her knee.
Discreetly she scratched.
“We need a humongous bed,” he continued on,
“because an a physically demanding woman like you,
well, a man needs room to work, you know? And privacy, no
kids, no parents, someplace where nobody can interrupt.
And you’ll need something better to drink than beer,
maybe champagne. And you deserve a whole bucket of flowers.
Dreamily she smiled up at him because of all the boys she
knew, he was the first one to understand the frilly secrets
of Gillian’s heart.
She’d never seen him like this, so full of big plans
and dreams, his eyes glittering with excitement. And it
was the idea of loving her that brought this big change
about. Love truly was a miraculous thing. It could move
mountains, it could touch stars, and just the thought of
it could turn him into the dream lover she knew he could
She brushed at the grass, realizing that his ideas sounded
a lot more fun than a quick roll in the chiggers. “You
want to wait for prom night?”
He nodded, reaching for her shirt and firmly buttoning
it closed. “I do.”
“Then we wait,” she said, feeling a little
disappointed, and a little relieved.
That decided, he took out the old pocket watch from his
jeans and looked at the time. “I have to head home.”
“I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said, kissing her first on the nose,
and then more urgently on the lips. Then he pulled the watch
from his pocket once again. “Here,” he told
her, handing it to her, his face solemn.
“Why are you giving me this?” she asked, nervous
at the seriousness in his voice. “You’re going
to stay, right?”
He laughed. “For a week. This is for you to count
down the time. I can’t give you much.” He pressed
it into her hands. “Take it.”
She looked at the worn metal, the scratched glass, and
beamed up at him, touched by the gesture. “Really?”
“Sure. Be good.”
“Aren’t I always?” she asked, not quite
as happy about that as she should be. “You’re
going to rent a tux?”
He glanced over, eyes unblinking. “Sure.”
“You’ll look nice in a tux. Nearly as good
as you’ll look without it,” she teased.
“You have a very dirty mind,” he teased in
return. So normal, so happy, so perfect.
“Thank you for noticing.”
As he started over the hill, Gillian took out the watch,
held it close to her heart, and then fell back on the grass,
not caring too much about the chiggers at the moment.
Five more days, and then they’d be making love. She
should buy some sexy lingerie. Sexy, but not trampy. Maybe
white. A soft ecru that matched her skin.
Maybe after that, she could get him to change his mind
about staying. A little white lace, some dramatic cleavage.
A man’s biological urges were a powerful force. She
pulled her shirt away from her chest and checked. Feeling
more confident, she silently thanked God for giving her
perky tits and a curvy ass that would never go fat.
Prom night. Five days to paradise. Since he saw hell every
night at his house, she wanted to make their night together
just as perfect for him as it was going to be for her.
Looking back, she should have read the signs, but Gillian
had never been skilled at reading tea-leaves that didn’t
point in her own fortuitous direction. Five days later,
all that changed, but at least then she had someone to blame.
Easy-loving, easy-lying, easy-leaving Austen Hart.
Broken hearts were a familiar cause of mayhem in Tin Cup,
Texas. Arnold Cervantes had broadsided his girlfriend’s
F-150 with his riding lawnmower after he learned she’d
been stepping out on him with the landscaper. When Doc Emerson
filed for divorce, Mrs. Emerson had laced her husband’s
tapioca pudding with a laxative, a charge that was ultimately
overturned by Judge Lansdale, who was the second cousin
to the defendant. Oscar Ramirez had flown his wife’s
plus-sized unmentionables in the Memorial Day parade after
she refused him certain sexual favors which Harley considered
his right, but which were also illegal according to Texas
In the three years since Gillian Wanamaker had been sworn
in as Sheriff of Tin Cup, she’d seen a lifetime’s
worth of passion, foolishness, and general human stupidity.
In Gillian’s humble opinion, people needed to practice
more self-control and show a little concern for their own
reputation within the community. As a card-carrying member
of the Broken Hearts Club herself, Gillian had never been
tempted to spray-paint a human being, nor set fire to items
of clothing. Or at least, not in a really long time.
Usually Gillian avoided dwelling on past unpleasantries,
or those fleeting moments when she had wanted to rip out
a fellow human being’s heart with a dull nail file,
but this morning was different. First she’d stopped
at Harley’s Five & Dime to sneak a look at the
Austin newspaper, just as she did every day. While glancing
over the Thursday’s style section, she’d seen
the watchful worry in Harley’s eyes. Like he expected
Gillian to bust out into great heartbroken sobs. Ha. Maybe
when she’d been a gauche seventeen, but now? At twenty-seven?
Two doors down, at Dot’s Good Eats, Dot had been
extra nice, giving her an extra sausage biscuit for free.
Free sausage was a soft-hearted act of pity by even the
most liberal definition of the word. As if Gillian was someone
people felt sorry for. Sorry! She had been crowned Miss
Tin Cup four times running. She had been All-State in softball,
with a fastball that could kill a man if he wasn’t
looking. Gillian Wanamaker of the San Angelo Wanamaker’s
was a force to be reckoned with, not a pity case. She was
an icon, a role model. She was a goddamned institution,
much like Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie O, Lady Di, and Barbie.
Needing to escape all the sympathy looks, but without looking
like she needed to escape, Gillian left the restaurant and
headed for the sanctity of the courthouse, where she could
cower in peace. Nearly two hundred years ago, they were
driving cattle down this street, instead of pick-ups. There
was a permanence in Tin Cup, a consistency that Gillian
appreciated more than most. As she passed, the red-bricked
storefronts on Main Street were just opening the doors,
some of the oldtimers doing the shopping before the heat
of the day set in. In Texas, if you weren’t practical,
you didn’t survive.
She could see Rita Talleyrand approaching with that, “Let’s
chat” look in her eye, so Gillian took the last hundred
feet at a fast sprint, cutting across the well-tended lawn,
ticking off the landscapers in the process. She waved an
apology then darted inside, and up the marble steps. The
Sheriff’s office was located on the second floor of
the courthouse, and it wasn’t fancy or frilly, but
it was more than enough. The old wooden desk had served
the Tin Cup Sheriff since the first world war. The chair
creaked when you moved, and had a drunken tilt to the right,
but there was a history here, and Gillian was now a part
of it. The walls were lined with photos of the dignitaries
who had passed through Tin Cup -- but never stayed.
Soon all that was going to change with the upcoming Trans-Texas
Light Rail line, a four-hour direct route from Austin to
Midland via, yes, you heard it here first -- Tin Cup.
There were plans for the new station, along with a few
extra improvements. A nip and tuck to make Tin Cup, Texas
a travel destination all its own.
After one extra cup of coffee, Gillian settled in her chair,
but the mindless paperwork only gave her more time to stew.
As she hammered away on the old computer’s keyboard,
she reminded herself that her days were too busy to be filled
with ideas of revenge, or physical assault. The Enter Key
stuck, and she pounded it twice, accidentally cancelling
the state’s processing form for last month, and she
damned every vile participant in the technological conspiracy,
along with one non-participant: Austen Hart.
Austen was lumped in merely because he was still living,
breathing, and now his personal space was a little closer
to Tin Cup and already she could see the little prickles
breaking out along her skin. Hives, she told herself. Nothing
more. Not excitement. No siree, bob.
Gillian leaned back in her chair and inhaled deeply, mainlining
oxygen and calm, and finding her happy place.
She had it all. Great job, solid, stable, reliable almost-a-boyfriend,
loving family. In fact, she would be a really difficult
person to feel unsatisfied. Picky, even. And Gillian was
not picky. Particular, yes. Picky, no.
A loud knocking at her office door interrupted the train-wreck
of her thoughts, and Joelle appeared before Gillian had
a chance to answer.
“Gillian, your Momma is here to see you. She brought
the refreshments for the Council’s lunch meeting,
but I don’t think the snicker-doodles are going to
last until noon. It’s the extra chocolate that gets
me every single time.” Joelle slid her hands over
well-padded hips and then gave a resigned shrug. “Why
aren’t you fat? Back in high school, I swore you took
up smoking. It was the only logical explanation.”
After one blissful sniff, Gillian pushed aside the decadent
smell of coconut, chocolate, and nuts. “Joelle, how
many sit-ups do you see me doing every morning?”
“How many miles do I run every afternoon, even when
the sidewalks are steaming?”
“Two-point-seven. Twice that, if you get a double-dip
“And how many snicker-doodles do you think I will
Joelle held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
Gillian gave a curt nod. “And do I subject myself
to these tortures because I want to?”
“Not unless you have some sort of death wish. Speaking
of death wish, the man who shall not be named has got a
meeting at the lawyer’s in the morning, and a reservation
at the Spotlight Inn for tonight. Late arrival guaranteed
by credit card, sometime between six and seven. Delores
called first thing this morning. She wanted to know how
you were taking the news.”
Gillian smiled evenly, calmly, because this news did not
phase her. Not at all.
“I’m taking the news fine. Maybe I’ll
call up Jeff for a date. Maybe we’ll rent a room at
the Spotlight Inn and moan extra loud.”
Joelle wiggled her brows. “I bet he’d like
Yeah, Gillian wished that Jeff would like that, but no.
“Jeff’s too much a gentleman to get a room in
town.” And that was a good thing, a respectable quality
in a man. Definitely a good thing. Definitely.
“I was talking about Austen,” Joelle replied,
a disgustingly knowing look in her eyes.
“Can we not?”
“You want an extra snickerdoodle before I tell your
Mom you’re available?”
Gillian looked at the While You Were Out Messages piled
neatly on her desk. Mindy had called. Five times. Mindy
– who used to be Mindy Lansdale and now was Mrs. Mindy
Shuck – would have heard the news and required an
update. Mindy had been Gillian’s best friend since
second grade and knew all of her secrets. Mindy would know
the misery that Gillian was going through and would want
Gillian to discuss it in tortuous detail. Gillian couldn’t
call. Not yet. Did Jackie O whine about the miseries of
her love life? No siree, bob.
As she pondered how best to avoid her best friend without
looking like she was avoiding her best friend, the decadent
aroma of chocolate and coconut lingered in the air, a siren’s
call that would give her the sugar-high that she was going
to need to get through this day. Realizing that wasn’t
enough sugar on the planet to get her through this day,
Gillian sighed. “Bring two cookies.”
“You’re going to do five miles?” Joelle
asked in her sweetest, most polite voice.
In answer, Gillian massaged her temple with her middle
finger. Joelle, never dumb, left four snickerdoodles on
the desk. Gillian would have to run six miles, but it was
worth it. Two seconds later, her mother muscled in.
“I came as soon as Vernelle told me. How are you
feeling?” Modine Wanamaker put a warm hand on her
daughter’s forehead. “You look a little flushed,
but no fever.”
Gently Gillian moved her mother’s hand and tried
to look relaxed. “I’m fine, Momma.”
Gillian's mother was a short dumpling of a woman, with
a perpetual smile, which never wavered except for a small
flash of disapproval when she looked at her only daughter,
dressed in a regulation uniform and boots.
It was a sad fact of life that Gillian's law enforcement
career conflicted with Modine's life goals. Gillian's mother
respected the law and admired it, but like many other things
in her world, she didn't want her only daughter doing it
in case it interfered with Gillian’s grandkid-making
ability. Three cross-stitched birth announcements sat near
the top of Modine's needlework bag, almost ready for framing.
All that was missing were the names and birth dates.
Gillian pretended she'd never seen them. Modine knew she
had. But they smiled and loved each other anyway, because
that was what mothers and daughters did.
Now Modine took a step back and gave her daughter the once-over.
“I told Vernelle there was nothing to worry about
from that Hart boy. I told her you'd forgiven him.
"I haven't forgiven him, Momma. He ditched me at prom
with no phone call, no letter. I had a new dress. I was
elected Prom Queen."
He was supposed to be my first.
"And in the end, look at how much better your life
is without him,” her mother reminded her. “Frank
Hart, bless his black heart, raised two misbegotten boys,
and those sorts of doings put a dark shadow on the soul.
The life of crime, the drugs. Certainly we have to provide
for the unfortunate, but there's nowhere in the good book
that says you have to marry them. Besides, you have Jeff,
who was raised good and proper with the right sorts of values
and respect for his fellow man. Vernelle let it slip that
he was looking at diamonds. Anything I should know?"
Her brows shot up, silently demanding confirmation in that
way of mothers who suspect their daughters are keeping secrets.
Sure, Gillian had her secrets, but this wasn’t one
Gillian shook her head. “Nothing to say,” she
said aloud, but inwardly she frowned at the thought of diamonds.
She liked Jeff, he was fun and thoughtful, the salt of the
earth. A vet. The man who healed all of God’s smallest
and most helpless creatures, but…
Why did their have to be buts? There shouldn’t be
buts. But there were buts.
No doubt, she was too picky. Frankly, if she ever found
happiness, it would be more than such a persnickety McFickle
No, that was negative thinking, and Gillian did not believe
in negative thinking. Not ever. Not feeling the need to
continue the conversation, Gillian huddled over the office
printer. While she printed out the last of the state’s
processing forms, her mother pulled at the container of
paper clips on her desk, bending each one this way and that
before twisting them into a flower. Gillian sighed, but
her mother, accustomed to Gillian’s particular nature,
ignored her. “There’s a rummage sale at the
church on Saturday and I’m putting together some boxes.
You have any clothes you want to get rid of?”
There was one slinky white nightgown, never used, still
sitting at the back of her closet. It would be perfect for
some deserving female who couldn’t afford something
“I got nothing, Momma.” Not only picky, but
selfish, too. She started to restore her paper clips to
their proper place, but then thought better of it, removing
her hand from the magnetic container. Metal conducted electricity,
and who knew when lightning might strike within a brick-enclosed
“Surely you have something to give, Gilly.”
Modine Wanamaker firmly believed that the road to heaven
was paved with dramatic acts of Christian charity. It was
a doctrine not without its problems. Six years ago, Gillian’s
mother had given away the farm. Technically, it hadn’t
been a farm, but a two-story Colonial on two acres, which
Modine had donated to the poor unfortunate Taylor family
when they lost their house to the bank. The next morning,
Gillian’s parents had shown up on her doorstep, her
father’s pick-up loaded with all their earthly belongings.
And how did you kick out your own parents?
Yes, Gillian was picky and selfish, but nothing trumped
blood-relations in her mind. The way Gillian saw it, shacking
up with her parents was penance for not only everything
she’d done prior, but an insurance policy against
future bad acts as well. Seeing her mother’s worried
expression, Gillian felt the tug all the way to her heart.
No, nothing could trump blood-relations in the cardiac region,
either. She blew out a dramatic sigh, just like any unworthy
daughter would. “I’ll look and see what I can
Relieved that her only daughter was no longer going to
hell, Modine began to poke through Gillian’s phone
messages, until Gillian stopped her with a firm hand.
Her mother’s serene expression never wavered, and
sometimes Gillian wished that her own nature was a little
more… forgiving. “I’m cooking King Ranch
Chicken for supper. Your favorite.”
“I’ve got a meeting with Wayne over at the
Chamber of Commerce. He’s wasn’t happy with
the security for the Fourth of July last year. A twenty-five
percent drop in business because the sidewalks were locked
down. I’ve got constituents, Momma. I’m an elected
official who lives and dies by the voters of this town.
The chicken will have to wait.”
Gillian made a mental note to call Wayne as soon as her
mother left. If she did that, then it wasn’t exactly
lying, more anticipating what she should have done anyway.
"Can't you leave that sort of business to the mayor?"
Gillian stared silently. Leroy Parson was the mayor of
Tin Cup, a ninety-three year old war hero from WWII. On
Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and the Fourth of July, Leroy
led the annual parade, but that was pretty much the only
days that Leroy showed up for work. Nobody in the town was
willing to oust a War hero, so instead they were all waiting
for him to kick the bucket, leaving Gillian pretty much
the lead bureaucrat in charge, which her mother considered
one more roadblock in the way of her baby-making days.
In the end, Modine knew she was beat. “I’ll
leave you a plate in the frig,” she said. “Don’t
be home too late. You know the grapevine in this town. They’ll
have you pregnant and on a nine-month trip to Europe before
you can say Hester… Hester… Well, never you
mind what the name is. You know it’s that woman from
the Scarlet Letter.”
“This is the twenty-first century, Momma. We’re
not all living in medieval times.”
Her mother clucked her tongue. “Never underestimate
the power of reputation. It can shame a woman; it can make
a woman. In the dark ages, they had stonings. Now they have
Gillian shot her mother an innocent look. “I thought
the internet was the work of the devil.”
“Not all it. I found the best recipe site…,”
she stopped the moment she caught on to Gillian’s
tricks. “I will not be sidetracked. It’s time
Jeff Junior made an honest woman out of you Gillian. I was
married when I was seventeen, your grandmother married when
she was fourteen.”
“Good thing I wasn’t sheriff then, or I’d
have to arrest Grandpa Charlie for it. Thank you for the
snickerdoodles, Momma. The Council always loves it when
you feed them.”
“There’s a plate without nuts for Martin. See
you at the house. And don’t stay out too late.”
With that, her mother was gone, and peace and sanity were
once more restored.
Fortunately, the rest of the day passed quietly. One arrest
for shoplifting, one hour spent promising Wayne that in
lieu of barricades, the town would provide two extra officers
for this year’s holiday celebration. In the afternoon,
they’d retrieved one would-be runaway, twelve year
old Aaron Metzger who was found two hours later hiding in
their neighbors garage. The last item on her calendar, the
town council meeting, had ended on a sour note, because
nobody wanted to hire the mayor’s good-for-nothing
great-grand-nephew to build the new train station. All in
all, an ordinary day in town, and not a word about Austen
Hart, not that she was bothered by it. Not at all.
She hadn’t expected a big to-do. She hadn’t
expected a phone call from the man. Not at all.
Frowning at herself, she looked at the clock, and decided
that half past seven was late enough. Time to go home, spend
some quality time with her Mom and Dad and convince her
parents that her insides weren’t twisted in nervous
knots because the perpetrator of Gillian’s Worst Day
Ever was in town.
She had almost finished organizing a few reports in her
messenger bag, when Joelle burst through the door, cheeks
flushed, eyes sparkling with criminal intent. “Got
a 911 call from Delores. Kids are throwing eggs at passing
cars on Interstate 78, right outside the Spotlight Inn.”
Gillian frowned because there were no egg-throwers in Tin
Cup. There were paint-sprayers, there were turkey-tossers,
there were Silly-Stringers, but not eggs-throwers. Everybody
knew that the Texas heat fried the eggs before they could
do any damage. “Sounds vaguely suspicious,”
she murmured, continuing to organize the contents of her
“I only take the calls,” shrugged Joelle, not
bothering to dispute the suspicious part.
Gillian drummed her nails on the desk. “Can you get
a patrolman out there?”
“You want Martin to take it? You know it’s
their anniversary. They’re headed for San Angelo for
Gillian frown deepened. “And I bet Delores knew that.”
“Everybody knew that, Gilly.”
“She hates me.”
“She wanted head cheerleader. You’re going
to pay for that for the rest of your life.”
“Fine,” snapped Gillian, quelling the flicker
of excitement in her gut. “Can you put out a call
from dispatch, saying that I’ll be on patrol?”
“You got it. Five-oh on the scene.”
“This isn’t Baltimore, Jo.”
“Sorry. Sometimes I get caught up in the drama,”
muttered Joelle as she fussed with her curls, now having
been put in her place, and making Gillian feel like a heel
in the process. Life had been a lot easier when Gillian
didn’t have to worry about whether other people thought
she was a bitch or not. High school had been all about being
the alpha girl, the top-dog, the queen bee. When Austen
had left town, everyone snickered, because then she was
only the alpha girl who’d been ingloriously dumped.
That was one trend that nobody wanted to follow. Jackie
O had never been dumped.
Gillian gave Joelle an uneasy smile. “Dano, put out
Joelle grinned, good spirits back in place. “That’s
a big ten-four, boss.”
Pushing back from her desk, Gillian slipped on the mirrored
sunglasses and checked herself in the mirror. Khaki wasn’t
her best color, it washed out the blonde of her hair, but
the tiny handcuff pin at the collar was a nice touch.
These days she carried a Glock 19 instead of pom-poms,
a sheriff’s-star-studded uniform instead of the blue
and white mini-skirt of the Tin Cup Lionetts. Her hair was
a foot shorter than before, a nice sensible bob that fell
a few inches below her shoulders. No way that Austen would
recognize her in a regulation brown, cotton-polyester blend.
No, the princessy Gillian Wanamaker had disappeared forever.
She patted the revolver at her hip. Hot, armed, and dangerous.
Just the way God had intended women to be.
The Spotlight Inn was on Interstate 78, just behind the
orange and white stripes of WhataBurger. The hotel was far
enough from town that cars would not be spotted in the parking
lot. It was close enough to town that those that weren’t
smart enough to park their cars behind the hotel would most
likely get noticed by the UPS man, who was close friends
with the receptionist at the Tin Cup Gazette, who also served
as a deacon at First Baptist on Sundays. People joked about
six degrees of separation, but in Tin Cup, one degree of
separation was usually overstating the truth.
As Gillian pulled into the front drive, the sun was disappearing
beneath the horizon, casting a red tint to the sky. The
dusky heat was still a killer, waves of it rising from the
concrete and making everything look hazy and surreal. In
the movies, when the world shimmered, it signaled a trip
to the past, but when the summer hit Tin Cup, the world
was in permanent shimmer, a town not ready to give up its
past, while simultaneously trying to grab hold of the future.
It was a dilemma that Gillian understood well.
It wasn’t exactly that she wanted to see Austen,
she told herself, as she poked around outside, looking for
egg-shells, egg-streaked road signs, or any other indication
that somebody was egg-spressly messing with her town. It
was more that she wanted to see Austen in order to finally
write him out of her life.
For ten sweat-poring minutes, she wandered outside the
hotel, searching for evidence, but now all she had was frizzy
hair, dusty boots, and the sure knowledge that something
was rotten in Tin Cup, and it wasn’t the mysteriously
disappearing eggs. Feeling cranky, she chose to blame Austen
Hart because if he wasn’t in town, nobody would be
messing with her.
Maybe the myth of the man was bigger than the reality,
she thought optimistically, as she headed toward the covered
entrance. If there was a lick of justice in the world, he
would have a spare tire around his middle, and his hairline
would be four inches behind the crown of his head.
A trucker roared by and sat on his horn and Gillian waved
in response, before pushing her sunglasses on top of her
hair. At the very least, the man could have written her
a note to explain his actions. Another memento that she
could have kept buried back in her closet. It was that sort
of what-if thinking that made it hard to forget him. Hard
to forget the too short nights they spent together on Peterson’s
Ridge. Hard to forget the way he would twist her hair around
his finger and then pull her close for a kiss.
Even Jeff, perfect, golden-boy Jeff, couldn’t affect
her the way a mere boy had. The prickles on her arm were
back, and furiously she rubbed at them until they disappeared
because she was too smart to get stupid again.
Before she confronted Delores, she double-checked her reflection
in the glass doors, making sure the hair was in place, making
sure the mascara looked fabulous, making sure that Gillian
was still the most well-put-together female in three counties.
When she was satisfied with the face looking back at her,
she pulled open the doors and strolled inside. Casual. Easy.
“Didi! Look at you,” she purred in her best-friends-forever
voice. “I love what you did with your hair. Something
Delores Hancock was twenty-seven, the same age as Gillian,
and had a husband of ten years, two kids, and had presided
over the front desk at the Spotlight Inn since her great-uncle
Hadley had died near eight years back. Her hair was glossy
black coordinating nicely with the snapping dark eyes that
looked pretty when she wore a little extra liner.
Unlike Gillian, who knew the value of a wide smile (fake
or otherwise), Delores could never mask her appreciation
of a compliment (fake or otherwise), and some of the sharpness
faded from her eyes.
“Thank you for noticing. I had it blown out yesterday,
but Bobby hadn’t said a word.”
Gillian’s smile relaxed a bit. “Men don’t
care about good hair, or dirty dishes. All they want is
a piece of tail and a cold beer on Sundays. You can’t
hold him responsible for something that’s not part
of his DNA.”
“God’s truth, honey,” Delores agreed,
but then shot her a smile that was a little too-sugery.
Joelle was right. Delores was going to hate her for the
rest of life.
Abandoning the token attempt at an olive branch, Gillian
leaned in on the counter, one shoulder cocked low. It was
a movement that she’d seen in a lot of old westerns,
and Gillian used it whenever she needed to act extra rugged.
“So tell me about those kids. I nosed around outside,
but didn’t see any sign of kids, broken-egg-yolks,
or splattered cars.”
“I cleaned it all up,” Delores answered quickly.
A little too quickly.
“Really? And none of the irate drivers stuck around?”
“Would you stick around this place?” Delores
asked, nodding toward the wide stretch of highway and the
exit sign that was still written over with ODESSA-PERMIAN
SUCKS, exactly as it had been since before Gillian was born.
“Got a point. Did you get a look at the kids involved?”
“No. The sun was right there in my eyes. I think
they were wearing jeans and UT ball caps.”
Which described 99.7 percent of the juveniles in most of
the state. “Sounds like we got us a mystery,”
murmured Gillian, not wanting to call Delores a liar, which
wouldn’t further what could turn into a beautiful
Delores looked to the door, a cat-and-the-canary smile
on her face, and Gillian froze because the prickles were
back. “My, my, my…,” murmured Delores.
Instantly Gillian pushed her glasses down over her eyes
and forced herself to move away from the security of the
counter. “I’ll get back with you about those
Slowly she walked toward the door, her face expressionless,
pretending to ignore the man who had just walked in, the
easy way he moved now, the knowing smile on his face, the
untamed darkness of his hair.
Three more steps and then she would be past him.
At last the doorway was directly in front of her, and she
pushed at the glass with unsteady hands. There was no one
to notice… except for him.
One steady hand beat her to it, tanned skin, long fingers,
conspicuously clean nails. “Thank you,” she
told him, eyes straight ahead, ignoring the faint whiff
of some expensive cologne.
“You shouldn’t have cut your hair,” he
answered in a low voice meant for her ears alone. The husky
sound created a long-forgotten spark, a flash of summer
lightning that she thought she’d buried for good.
Gillian didn’t bother to reply; wasn’t sure
if she could. Her heart was hammering too loud in her chest.
Head high, she walked toward the sheriff’s cruiser,
and a mere four lifetimes later she had recovered her composure.
With a hard foot on the accelerator, she gunned the engine,
and was driving away.
Away from Delores, away from the Spotlight Inn, and away
from the man who had grown up to be a long, hot mess of
temptation. But Gillian was stronger than that.
If this town wanted entertainment, then by God, they were
going to have to spring for HBO.
Austen Hart had spent the last ten years dreaming of Gillian
Wanamaker. Over that long a span, a man could create elaborate
ideals of a woman – or fantasies, if he wanted to
call a spade a spade. In his mind, her mouth had always
been wide, perfectly glossed with rosebud pink. Her blond
hair had always fallen in long, silky rolls down her back.
In his mind, everything about her had always been mouth-watering
Unfortunately, Austen had never been much of a perfectionist.
‘Good enough’ had served him well, and sometimes,
‘not a chance in hell’ seemed most appropriate.
But that didn’t stop his mind from dreaming. He stopped
staring after the glass and told himself, ‘not a chance
Today she seemed different. Harder in a lot of ways, although
that could be the gun at her hip.
Damn. That was one career he would have never expected.
Sheriff, he thought, remembering the badge. There were men
who thought a woman packing heat was sexy. Austen had a
healthy respect for the power of a gun. He’d been
on the wrong end of one way too many times to be turned
on, but Gillian….
The clerk was starting to stare, and Austen smiled automatically.
Normally, Austen didn’t mind being the object of
attention. Hell, these days, he sought it out. Life of the
party. Seeker of the limelight. Man of the hour.
Normally, he didn’t mind knowing that everyone was
watching, but not in this town. Everyone here lived and
died by their family, and Austen had always wanted that,
too. Family, connections, solidity. But for the Harts? Ha.
That was a laugh.
His older brother, Tyler, had left as soon as he could.
Their mother had disappeared – no, she had deserted
them – he corrected. He had a sister, Brooke -- a
sister he’d never known until now and wasn’t
sure he wanted to. No, the Harts should have been a family,
but somehow, it’d gotten all screwed up. Gee, thanks,
When Tyler had gotten a full scholarship to college –
a long two hundred miles away in Houston -- Austen could
still remember the cold sweat on his neck, the knowledge
that the world was watching him closely, waiting for him
to explode in a violent rage, or stash a few purloined dollars
in his pocket, or yell obscenities at every female that
walked by, six to sixties, Frank Hart hadn’t been
a discerning man.
Austen had never liked the eyes watching him, judging him.
He didn't have Tyler's brains, Tyler's ability to shut everything
out. So he'd done what he could, when that didn’t
work, he ran, possibly committing a class C felony in the
process – as rumored around Tin Cup, which seemed
to like to believe the worst of the Hart family. Once he’d
gotten the hell out of town, the air was a little clearer,
and eventually Austen had made a quasi-respectable name
for himself in the state’s capital.
The receptionist at the desk was Delores Somebody, a girl
had flirted with him in high school. Most girls did at one
time or another. It was a rite of passage: hurling spitballs
at the principal, cheating on a math exam, and screwing
Austen Hart. Most adolescent males wouldn’t mind that
part, would have actively encouraged it. Yes, Austen had
actively encouraged it, but he had minded it, too. A Hart
was late-night- material, after closing on a Friday night,
except for Gillian, who thought she had the power to change
“When are you checking out?” Delores asked,
nodding to the small bag he had packed, her eyes still a
“Tomorrow.” Nine-thirty AM, to be exact. As
soon as the papers were signed. After that, Austen would
disappear from this town once again. He ran his fingers
over the fresh daisies on the counter, simply because he
could. Simply because there was no one to look at him sideways
anymore, no one to follow him around in the stores.
“That was Gillian Wanamaker you passed on the way
“No kidding?” he said, sliding his sunglasses
into the suit pocket. “She’s changed.”
“Not so much. Still thinks she runs this town.”
Austen hid his smile. Knowing Gillian, she probably did.
“I’ll grab my stuff and be out of your hair.”
With a polite nod, he ignored her flirty smile and picked
up his bag, ready to head for the privacy of his room.
Her laughter caught him from behind, and Austen forced
himself to slow down, walk easy. “No bother,”
she called out. “It’s been a slow day. You should
hit the night life. Get a beer at Smitty’s. There’s
a lot of people who would like to see you again.”
“Maybe later,“ he lied.
A few minutes later, he had kicked off his boots and taken
a shower, scrubbing off the dust of the road. The room was
a clean, serviceable yellow, with a king-sized bed, a wall-mounted
TV, and a wide variety of flyers that extolled the virtues
of Tin Cup, Texas: a modern recreation of Texas past. After
reading a few pages, Austen put the booklets back in their
place. In the ten years since he’d been gone, they’d
built a new bank, a library, four churches, and a new ball
Golly, gee willikers, Wally.
That had been the hardest thing about Tin Cup, the consistency.
Feeling not so much like a tourist, Austen stretched on
the bed, closing his eyes, because he didn’t care,
he didn’t have to care. It was in the middle of all
that not caring, when his cell rang.
“Hey, honey. Missing me, yet?”
Carolyn Carver was the governor’s oldest daughter,
and as such had a high opinion of her own importance. As
Austen was a state lobbyist, her opinion wasn’t too
far off. The cell connection was rotten, so Austen moved
to the window where the static cleared. "I just got
here, just walked in the door. I think I'm going to kick
up my feet, and watch the cow tipping from my window.”
West Texas wasn’t a land for the faint of heart.
It was hot and brutal and flat, an endless landscape of
scrubby oak trees, dotted with the oil pumping units, their
metallic heads bobbing up and down, feeding off the earth.
“When you coming home?” Carolyn asked. He’d
been seeing her off and on for almost a year, and managed
their relationship carefully. Austen wasn’t going
to get serious with Carolyn, and she knew that, but he wasn’t
going to make her mad, either.
“Shelby can do one-fifty when pressed, but I’d
better play it safe. You know these country cops and the
“You can tell them it’s a state emergency.
Tell them that Carolyn Carver wants to get laid.”
He laughed aloud, because he knew she expected it. “You
keep that thought, and I’ll be back before you know
"Maggie Patterson called looking for you. Said she
was hoping to catch you before you left. Did she call your
“Well, she said you couldn’t do anything from
out there, anyway.”
“What did she need?”
“Some kid in the after-school program got arrested,
and you’ve been duly appointed to bail him out, or
talk him out, or bust him out. I swear, if her husband wasn’t
Austen frowned, because there wasn’t a hell of a
lot he could do remotely, but maybe….. "I’ll
give her a call. See what she’s got on her hands."
"A hard knock in the head from a crew of gang-bangers
who know how to hot-wire a car, that’s what she’s
going to have on her hands if she’s not careful."
Austen didn't even flinch. "Your father's tough on
crime. It'll look good on his campaign posters."
Carolyn giggled, because in her world she wouldn't know
how to hotwire a battery. But Austen did.
"There's a new band playing at Antone's tonight. Jack
Haywood wants to keep me company.”
“Jack’s an okay guy, but don’t let him
make you pay for dinner. That boy doesn’t have any
class at all.”
She laughed again, and he moved toward the bed, hearing
the reception go spotty again. “Listen, Carolyn, I’m
having trouble with the lines out here. Gotta go,”
he told her, and then hung up, letting himself breathe.
Once again, he sacked out on the bed, but the curtains
were half-open, letting him see to the outside, letting
him see exactly what nothingness was putting the sweat the
on his neck. Idiot, that’s what he was. He moved to
the window, and pushed back the sheers, and gazed out on
the land. His shoulders ached from the drive, and he rolled
them back, slowing his pulse, embracing the calm.
Why did he let the ghost of Frank Hart get to him? Why
did he let this town crawl under his skin? Because it was
who he was.
He picked up his cell, called Maggie only to find out that
one of the boys in the program had gone for a joyride. Maggie’s
afterschool program was her pride and joy, but criminal
activities always put a damper on the fundraising aspects,
so Austen did what he always did and promised to clean up
the mess. Quietly, of course. , and then called Captain
Juarez of the Austin PD. After promising that LT’
would attend one weekend of Youth Corps Training, then sweetening
the deal with a few seats to the Longhorn’s home opener
for the Captain’s trouble, Austen called Maggie back
and told her that LT had been sprung.
One more delinquent back on the street. In Austen’s
expert opinion, sure, you could put lipstick on a pig, but
no matter how much you tried, it’s still a pig, and
before long, that pig is going to end up being cooked and
served up for breakfast, along with scrambled eggs and a
hot cup of coffee.
A few minutes later, he heard a discreet tap on the door.
There wasn’t room service at the spotlight Inn, and
he hoped to God it wasn’t the cops…
Unless it was Gillian.
Not a chance in hell, answer the damned door.
It was Delores, still wearing the same flirty smile, only
now it looked apologetic as well. “I know that I shouldn’t
be here, but Gillian called to check up on things, which
I know wasn’t the truth, but during the conversation,
she let it slip that she was going to Smitty’s –
not that she’s wasn’t being completely obvious
because the girl doesn’t have a subtle bone in her
body, and I almost didn’t tell you –“
Delores took a breath. “—but I decided I should,
because, even though it’s not my place to poke my
nose where it doesn’t belong, I thought, what if she’s
there, and you’re not, and everybody thinks poorly
of you because you’re not, and then I’d have
to live with the guilt of my actions. In the end, I just
couldn’t do it.”
Austen stared flatly, tempted to feign illness, maybe the
ebola virus, but no. Sure, he was being played like a cheap
violin, but he still wanted to go. He wanted to see Gillian
“I’ll think about it.”
He thought about it for a long seven and a half minutes,
before his mind was made up. He changed into something a
little nicer, washed his hands, and polished his boots,
and then left the safety of his room behind him.
Delores was still at the front desk, reading from the latest
issue of People, and Austen strolled past like a man with
no place to go, and no woman to see. “You know, I’ve
changed my mind. Smitty’s, huh? I remember that place.
Still over behind the Texaco?”
“Hadn’t moved. Landry’s still tending
bar, and she gets cranky if you don’t laugh at her
jokes. Been known to cut off more than one man for not showing
proper appreciation for the entertainment. Such as it is.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll be careful. Lots
of people there on a Thursday?”
“Everybody in town,” she promised, and as he
walked toward the glass doors, he could hear Delores picking
up the phone and starting to dial. In less than ten minutes,
everybody would know exactly where he was, including Gillian.
Austen suspected that he was putting lipstick on a pig.
In fact, considering the way he had left Tin Cup, Texas,
he suspected that he was going to end up on a plate, served
alongside scrambled eggs and a hot cup of coffee.
And yet still he walked out into the night.
Some things never changed.
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