JUST LET GO…
Harlequin Blaze
July 2011
ISBN: 0373796293


available at

Amazon or Barnes & Noble

As town sheriff and all around go-to girl, Gillian Wanamaker has always gotten everything she's ever wanted—except Austen Hart on prom night ten years ago. She's never forgiven or forgotten his disappearing act, and now the super-sexy bad boy of Tin Cup, Texas, is back! And Gilly's getting even! Austen's not the only one who can love 'em and leave 'em. And she's gonna love him, sugar.

All. Night. Long.

The leaving part is tougher. Especially when important Tin Cup business keeps throwing them together. But if she ever hopes for more, will Austen leave her again?

 

coming soon

coming soon


 
   

Prologue

May, 2001

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…

..until now.

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 weights.

“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.

Good.

“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, like hers.

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 him.

“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 want.

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 this boy.

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 voice.

She smiled, slow and a little unsteady herself. “Is it working?”

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 Gillian.

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 cute.

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 it better.

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 to hers.

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.

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 all.

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 of it.

“Is that a yes?” she asked, excitement bubbling through her.

“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 be tomorrow.

“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.

“Roger?”

Once more she shook her head.

“Sonny?”

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.”

Chiggers?

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. Roses.”

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 be.

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.

Chapter One

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 state law.

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? Ha. Ha.

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?”

“Three hundred.”

“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 at Dot’s.”

“And how many snicker-doodles do you think I will eat?”

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 that.”

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 of them.

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 deserved.

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 pretty.

“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 building.

“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?

You didn’t.

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 find.”

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 Facebook.”

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 bag.

“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 the night.”

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 the call.”

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.

Chapter Two

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. Confident.

“Didi! Look at you,” she purred in her best-friends-forever voice. “I love what you did with your hair. Something new?”

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 friendship.

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 pesky kids.”

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.

Two.

One.

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 perfection.

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 in hell’.

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….

Um-um.

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, Frank.

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 it all.

Yeah, right.

“When are you checking out?” Delores asked, nodding to the small bag he had packed, her eyes still a little flirty.

“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 in.”

“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 field.

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 speed traps.”

“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 it.”

"Maggie Patterson called looking for you. Said she was hoping to catch you before you left. Did she call your cell?”

“No.”

“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 your boss…"

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 again.

“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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