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Saturday, 11 October 2014

10/11/2014 Posted by Cherise Sinclair No comments
Posted by Cherise Sinclair on 10/11/2014 with No comments
Lauren Grahame has spent her whole life thinking something special was going to happen. She didn’t know what it was, she just knew it would one day be hers. But she learned the hard way that special wasn’t on offer.
So, after divorcing her cheating husband, Lauren searched for nothing special and she thought she found it when she landed a job as a waitress in a biker bar in Carnal. It was perfect: a nothing job in a nowhere bar in Nowheresville.


Chapter One
Bubba’s
   I sat in my parked car outside the bar.
   It looked like a bar. It could be any bar anywhere, small town, big city, it didn’t matter. It was just a
bar. Bubba’s bar, apparently, for it said “Bubba’s” in blue lettering on a black background in a huge sign
at the top.
   I looked out the window to my left. There were two Harley Davidson motorcycles parked there.
   I looked back at the bar which it would seem might be a bit of a biker bar.
   I looked out my window to the right. There was a beat up, old, blue Chevy pickup parked at the edge of
the parking lot.
   I looked back at the bar which would seem was not high-class and not high-brow. They probably didn’t
even have martini glasses.
   I looked at the window of the bar. In it there was a sign that said “Help Wanted”. In the little white
space at the bottom of the sign was written, “Waitress”.
   I pulled breath in through my nose. Then I exhaled, got out of the car and walked right to the door,
through the door and into the bar.
   I was right. Nothing special. Nothing high-class or high-brow. It could be any bar anywhere.
   There was a man sitting on a corner stool at the long bar at the back of the room. He had a ball cap on.
There were two other men playing pool at one of four pool tables (two to the left, two to the right, the men
were at one of the tables to the left). Evidently, bikers played pool. There was a woman behind the bar.
She had a lot of platinum blonde hair. She also had a lot of flesh at her cleavage. I could see this because
it was bursting out the top of her Harley tank as well as straining the material.
   Her eyes came to the door the minute I walked in and didn’t leave me as I walked to the bar.
   “Hi,” I started.
   “Chantelle’s about twenty miles down the road. Straight on,” the blonde interrupted me. “Just turn right
out the parking lot and keep goin’.”
   “Sorry?” I asked and felt the man with the ball cap turn to look at me.
   “You lookin’ for Chantelle?” the blonde asked.
   “No, I’m –”
   “Gnaw Bone?” she asked.
   “Gnaw bone?” I repeated.
   “Gnaw Bone. Not too far away from Chantelle,” she told me. “That what you lookin’ for?”
   I didn’t know what to say. Then I asked, “You mean Gnaw Bone is the name of a town?”
   She didn’t answer. She looked at the man with the ball cap. I looked too. When I did, I saw firstly that
his ball cap had definitely seen better days and those days were about four hundred years ago. Secondly, I
saw that he was staring at my breasts.
   I looked back at the blonde.
   “I’m here about the waitress position.”
   For a second there was loaded silence. Then the man with the ball cap burst into a loud guffaw.
   The blonde’s eyes narrowed.
   “Did Bubba put you up to this?” she asked.
   “Bubba?” I asked back, at this point confused.
   “Bubba,” she bit out then glanced around before looking at me. “This ain’t funny. I got things to do.”
   I glanced around too and saw that she actually didn’t have much to do. The two guys were playing pool
and didn’t seem all that thirsty. The ball cap guy had nearly a full draft in front of him.
   I looked again at the blonde.
   “I’m not kidding,” I told her.
   “Bullshit,” she replied irately, already at the end of her patience.
   This was shocking. It wasn’t like I’d never heard a curse word before, or used them myself, just that I
didn’t tend to blurt them out to strangers looking for jobs. Or strangers on the whole. And also I’d been
there for about three minutes and hadn’t done anything to strain anyone’s patience, much less push them to
the end of it.
   “No, seriously. I’d like to apply for the position,” I explained.
   She didn’t answer for awhile and took the time she was silent to study me. I decided to do the same.
   She’d be pretty, if she didn’t tease her hair out so much and wear that much makeup and look clearly
like she was in bad mood and anyone could set her off. Though she really pulled off that tank top. I had
serious cleavage too but it didn’t come with a petite, slim but rounded body. It came with a big ass and a
mini-Buddha belly and a hint of back fat. Not to mention somewhat flabby arms.
   I decided to break the silence and announce, “I’m Lauren Grahame.”
   I stuck out my hand. She stared at my hand and didn’t get the chance to speak because the ball cap man
spoke.
   “Jim-Billy,” he said and I turned to him.
   “Sorry?”
   His hand was out to me, he was smiling and this time looking into my eyes. On the left side he’d lost the
second tooth in and hadn’t bothered to replace it. For some reason, instead of this making him look like a
hillbilly with bad dental hygiene, it made him look a little goofy and a little sweet.
   “Jim-Billy,” he repeated. “That’s my name.”
   I took his hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you, Jim-Billy.”
   I repeated his name because I learned a long time ago at a training seminar to do that when you met
someone. It solidified their name in your mind so you wouldn’t forget it. I was terrible with names and I
found this worked and I figured a waitress in a small town needed to remember the names of the regulars
at the bar. And Jim-Billy definitely looked like a regular.
   It also worked that I chanted, Jim-Billy, Jim-Billy, Jim-Billy in my head.
   Then again, who’d forget the name “Jim-Billy”?
   He gave me a squeeze, released my hand and his gaze swung to the blonde.
   “Tate’ll like her. Big time,” he declared. “Bubba’ll like her even better.”
   “Shut up, Jim-Billy,” the blonde muttered.
   “About the job…” I stated, bringing the matter back to hand and the blonde looked at me.
   Then she leaned into me. “Girl, take this as me doin’ you a favor. Boys around here…” she threw out a
hand, “they’d eat you alive. Go to Chantelle. Gnaw Bone. Woman like you has got no business in Carnal.”
   Carnal.
   That was one of the reasons I picked that town. Its name was “Carnal”. I thought that was funny and
interesting but that was as interesting as I wanted to get.
   I wanted to live in a Nowheresville town called Carnal. I wanted to work in an anywhere bar called
Bubba’s. There was nothing to either, except the names. Nothing memorable. Nothing special. Nothing.
   “You don’t understand,” I told her, “I –”
   She leaned back and stated, “Oh girl, I understand.” Her eyes moved from the top of my head to my
midriff (which was all she could see with the bar in her way) then they came back to mine. “You’re
lookin’ for a thrill. You’re lookin’ for adventure.”
   “I’m not. I’m –”
   She threw her hands up. “You think I don’t know it when I see it? Do I look like a woman who ain’t
been around? Do I look like a woman who feels like hirin’ and trainin’ and learnin’ to put up with the
new shit a new waitress is gonna feed me and then when she realizes that she wants her old life back she
ups and leaves and then I have to hire and train and learn to put up with new shit again?”
   “I wouldn’t give you… um…”
   “Everyone shovels shit and I don’t like the taste of it from my kind. I already know I really don’t like
the taste of it from yours.”
   I again didn’t know what to say because it was dawning that she was discriminating against me.
   “Not to be rude or anything,” I said softly, “but you don’t really know me. You don’t know what kind I
am.”
   “Right,” she replied and there was derision heavy in her word.
   “You don’t,” I asserted.
   “Girl –” she started but I leaned forward and I did it for a reason.
   I leaned forward because I needed her to hear me. I leaned forward because I’d been searching for
Carnal a long time. I’d been searching for Bubba’s a long time. I needed to be there and to be there I
needed that job.
   “Right,” I repeated. “You think I’m some kind of lost woman like out of a book, travelling the globe on
some idiot journey to find myself?” I asked and before she could answer, I continued, “Thinking I can go
out there and find good food and experience interesting places while soul searching, wearing fabulous
clothes and being gorgeous and making everyone I run into love me and, in the end, find a fantastic man
who’s really good at sex and adores me beyond reason?” I shook my head. “Well, I’m not. I know who I
am and I know what I want and I know that isn’t it because that doesn’t exist. I also know what I’m
looking for and I know I found it right here.”
   “Listen –” she began.
   “No, you listen to me,” I interrupted her. “All my life, or as long as I can remember, I thought something
special was going to happen to me. I just had this feeling, deep in my bones. I didn’t know what it was but
it was going to be beautiful, spectacular, huge.” I leaned in further. “All… my… life.” I shook my head
again and put my hand on the bar. “It didn’t. I waited and it didn’t happen. I waited more and it didn’t
happen. I waited more and it still didn’t happen. I tried to make it happen and it still didn’t happen. Now I
know it isn’t going to. It’s never going to happen because there isn’t anything special out there to happen.”
   I sucked in breath, she opened her mouth but I kept talking.
   “I had a husband. I had a home. I had a job. I had friends. Then I found out my husband was sleeping
with my best friend. Not an affair, they’d been doing it for five years. When the cat was out of the bag,
they decided to be together for real. He divorced me and I couldn’t afford the house on my own so we
sold it. Then, all of a sudden, after ten years of being with someone, I was alone. They got the friends who
always thought behind my back they were perfect together. They all knew. For five years. And no one told
me.”
   “Fuckin’ shit, woman,” Jim-Billy muttered.
   “Yeah,” I said to Jim-Billy and looked back at the blonde. “But, you know, after the shock of it wore
off, I didn’t care. I swear. I didn’t. Because all of a sudden I realized that I had a shit marriage to a shit
guy and I had a shit best friend and all sorts of other shit friends besides. And all that time I was living in
a house I didn’t want, it was too darned big and it was too darned everything. A house should be a home,
not a house. And that house was in a town I didn’t like because every house looked the same and every
woman dressed the same and every man played around the same and every car was shiny and new and
there was no personality anywhere. And in that town I had a job I didn’t much care about even though it
paid me good money.” My voice dropped and I told her, “I realized I didn’t have anything special. All of
a sudden I realized that life didn’t have anything special in store for me.” I took in a breath and finished,
“And I’m okay with that. I don’t want special anymore. I waited and I tried to make it happen and it
didn’t. So be it. Now, I want to live someplace that is just a place. I want a job where I can do a good job
while I’m doing it and then I can go home to a place that’s a home and just be home. I don’t want anything.
I’m done wanting. I’ve been wanting and yearning for forty-two years. The only thing I want is peace.”
   “You think you’ll find peace in a Harley bar?” Jim-Billy asked what was possibly a pertinent question
and I looked at him.
   “I think I can get to work on time, do a good job, feel good about myself because I worked hard and did
my best and go home and not think about a Harley bar. I can think about myself or what I have a taste to
eat for dinner or what might be good on TV Then I’ll go to sleep not thinking about anything and get up.
and get to work on time again.” I turned to the blonde. “That’s what I think. I’m not looking for a thrill.
I’m not looking for adventure. I’m looking for nothing special because I can be content with that. That’s
what I’m looking for. Can you give me that?”
   The blonde said nothing just looked me in the eyes. Her face was blank and no less hard and it stayed
blank and hard for a long time.
   Then she said, “I’m Krystal. I’ll get you an application.”
                                                   *****
   I stood at the window of my hotel room holding the curtains back with a hand and staring at the pool.
   Carnal Hotel wasn’t much to write home about. A long block of building, two stories, all the doors
facing the front, fourteen on top, fourteen on bottom. I was on the bottom in number thirteen. The rooms
were clean, mine had a king-sized bed and a TV that had to have been purchased fifteen years ago was
suspended from the wall. The low four-drawer dresser and nightstands stuck out of the wall and had no
legs. The closet had two extra pillows and an extra blanket. The bathtub and kitchen sink had rust stains
but even so, they were clean too. The whole of it was below average but it would do.
   That pool, though, that was something else. It wasn’t big but it was pristine clean. The lounge chairs
around it weren’t top of the line but they were okay, in great repair and obviously taken care of.
   I looked from the pool to reception. It wasn’t so much reception as a tiny house. I tiny well-kept house
with a little upstairs. It also had big half barrels full of newly planted flowers out front. It wasn’t quite
summer but it was the end of spring so the flowers hadn’t come close to filling out.
   Carnal was in the Rocky Mountains, a small valley surrounded by hills which were surrounded by
mountains. It was closing on May, there was a nip in the air and I wondered if those flowers were
hopeful.
   If they were, whoever planted them had the capacity for a lot of hope. There were more flowers in
window boxes in the front windows of the reception-slash-house. There were also more flowers in half
barrels intermittently placed by the poles on the walk in front of the hotel rooms with more window boxes
on the railing of the balcony in front of the rooms upstairs. And lastly there were more half barrels dotted
around the pool area.
   The parking lot was tidy and well-kept and the hotel and reception-slash-house both had a good paint
job.
   All of this indicated that Carnal Hotel might be below average but the people who owned it cared
about it.
   I had checked in with a nice lady at the front desk who said anything I needed, change for the vending
machines or laundry room, Wi-Fi access, menus for restaurants and takeout in town, “just holler”.
   Then I’d unpacked my car. All of it. I unpacked it for the first time in four and a half months. Then I
cleaned it out. All the junk food wrappers, discarded pop cans, fallen mints, lost pieces of candy, bits of
paper. The flotsam and jetsam of a killer road trip. I lugged my suitcases (there were five) and boxes
(there were two) into the hotel room and took a plastic bag I’d found and filled full of trash to the big
outdoor bin tucked close to the side of the hotel not facing any streets.
   Then I unpacked my clothes.
   Over the past four and a half months, I’d been in tons of hotel rooms but I’d never unpacked. I’d never
stayed beyond three days. I’d only stayed long enough to do laundry, take a breather and decide where I’d
head next in my search, zigzagging across so many states I’d lost count in my search for Nowheresville.
   After I unpacked, I’d walked into town which amounted to me walking by room number fourteen and
turning the corner. Carnal Hotel was on the edge of town right before the road opened up to nothing again.
I’d found a deli, bought a pastrami on rye and ate it on the sidewalk, chasing it with a diet pop. Then I’d
walked the town up one side and down the other.
   Bubba’s was in the middle, five blocks from the hotel and it was definitely a biker bar because Carnal
was a biker town. There were two bike shops and one bike mechanic at the opposite end from Carnal
Hotel and it had a sign that said “We take cars too”. There were also three motorcycle paraphernalia
shops that I could see looking in the windows sold a lot of leather bike accessories and more leather
biker clothing.
   There was also the deli, a diner, an Italian restaurant, a pizza delivery place and a coffee house which
was strangely called “La-La Land Coffee”. Again looking in the windows of La-La Land, I saw it was not
run by bikers but hippies that were so hippie they wore tie-dyed shirts with peace signs on front and had
long hair. One of the two behind the counter had on round, blue-tinted sunglasses even though he was
inside and the other had a thin braided headband wrapped around her forehead. They looked in danger of
dropping cross-legged on the floor and singing Kumbayah.
   This all was intermingled with a discount tobacco store that sold all types of smoker delights for all
types of things you could smoke; two discount liquor stores; a drug store; a tailor who seemed to
specialize in stitching biker patches into leather (or at least that was what the sign in the window said);
two convenience stores, one opposite the hotel, one at the other end of town opposite the mechanic; a busy
grocery store about a quarter the size of the mega-grocery stores that every other town in the nation
seemed to have and it looked like it’d been there since 1967; a bakery; a hardware store; a flower shop; a
gas station and a variety of other Nowheresville places to fill a Nowheresville town.
   There were people on the street and I knew they were friendly because most of them smiled at me.
   After I checked out the Main Street (called Main Street and it was also the only street with businesses,
the rest was residential) of my new home, I went back to reception at the hotel. I bought a week’s worth of
Wi-Fi from the nice lady who took that opportunity to share with me that her name was Betty. I shared my
name too and decided to go ahead and pay a week in advance on my room when I got the Wi-Fi. This
decision overjoyed Betty and I knew that because she told me.
   “Sweetie! A week! I’m overjoyed!” she’d shouted.
   She would be. Mine was the only car in the lot and she had a flower and pool habit and those weren’t
exactly cheap.
   Nevertheless, she was friendly and open and I decided I liked Betty.
   After telling her I was glad I’d brought her joy, I went back to number thirteen and dragged out my
laptop. Then I logged in. Then I ignored all my e-mail and sent a message to my parents and my baby
sister that all was well, I was fine and I’d check in with more information later. I saw that they’d sent e-
mails to me but I didn’t read them. I didn’t read them because I knew they would freak me out because I
knew my Mom and Dad and sister Caroline were freaked out. They weren’t big on me upping stakes and
roaming the country looking for nothing special. They were bigger on me moving home and sorting myself
out and finding a decent man and starting over (in that order).
   I shut down my computer, sat on the big, soft bed, stared at the wall and thought about the next day when
I was supposed to be at Bubba’s at eleven to train to be a waitress and start my new life.
   Then I smiled.
   Then I watched TV until it got dark and the pool beckoned me.
   Now I was standing and looking outside to see the pool looked clean and enticing and it was all lit up.
In fact, the parking lot was all lit up. Seeing it, I knew four things about Reception Betty. She was
friendly, she liked flowers, she was proud of her below average hotel and small but clean pool and she
wanted her guests to feel safe.
   That’s when I saw the car pull in. It was a convertible, an old model something. It looked like a
Chrysler, not great condition but also not a junker.
   It parked outside reception, the door opened and a woman folded out.
   I stared at the woman.
   She had thick, long dark hair and long legs most of which I could see coming out the bottom of her very
short, frayed-hemmed jeans skirt. She had a tight tank top and more cleavage than Krystal (but as much as
me). She wasn’t petite or slim, she was long and very rounded but it was clear she didn’t care. A mini-
Buddha belly and a hint of back fat didn’t bother her. Not in the slightest. In fact, she worked it.
   She sashayed into reception and I saw a man was there. He was Betty’s upper-middle-age. He smiled
at her like he knew her and she waved and smiled back giving the same impression. I knew this was the
truth when he handed her a key without doing any of the usual checking in business. She took the key, put
both her hands on the counter, lifted herself up, booty pointed up in the air, feet in high-heeled stiletto
sandals on tiptoe. She kicked back one foot and leaned toward him, giving him an across-the-counter air
kiss. Then she strutted back out to her convertible, got in and drove through the parking lot to park three
spots down from my Lexus. She got out, didn’t grab a suitcase and walked toward a door where I lost
sight of her.
   I had a feeling I was going to have to buy some tank tops to fit in in Carnal.
   I dropped the curtain and went to the dresser. Most of my clothes were folded and sitting on top, there
wasn’t enough room for them all in the drawers and closet. But at least they’d been released from their
suitcase captivity. In the drawers I’d put my underwear, socks and pajamas. I’d also put my bathing suit in
there.
   Seeing my clothes laid out I thought it wasn’t much but it was more home than I’d had in a good long
while and it made me feel weirdly settled.
   It had been a warm day but it couldn’t be over sixty-five degrees outside. Still, I loved pools, I loved to
be in water and for some reason I really wanted a swim so I figured it would be like any time you got in
cold water. Once you were in, you’d get used to it. At least I hoped so. If not, so what? I’d just drag my
carcass out and come back to my room.
   I changed into my swimsuit, put on a pair of track pants, a sweatshirt and some flip-flops. Before I
could chicken out, I grabbed a towel and my room key and headed to the pool.
   I slipped off my shoes and sweats and decided to dive right in. Better to get it over with all at once. I
moved to the side of the pool, braced for impact and dove.
   The pool was heated.
   Heaven.
   I swam five laps of the short pool and had to stop because I couldn’t breathe. This, I told myself, had to
do with the fact that I was in the Rocky Mountains, at altitude, and it did not have to do with the fact that I
was seriously out of shape.
   I forced out four more laps and had to stop again.
   Then I forced out one more lap and put a hand to the edge to turn back for another lap when I heard the
roar of bike pipes.
   Stopped at the edge of the pool, holding on and peering over the side, my eyes followed the black and
chrome Harley gleaming in Reception Betty’s parking lot lights as it glided along, pulled in and parked
next to the convertible. Then my eyes watched the man shove the stand down with his booted foot and
swing his leg off the bike.
   His back was to me so all I could see was that he was tall and he had a great behind. He also had on
faded jeans, a black, long-sleeved, thermal t-shirt and he had a head of thick dark hair that also shone in
the lights, just like his Harley
   One of the hotel room doors opened and the woman in the mini-jeans-skirt ran out and threw herself at
the tall man. Her arms wrapped around his neck and I couldn’t see it but I could tell her lips latched onto
his.
   He didn’t even go back on a foot when her body impacted his. He just curved his arms around her and
leaned into her kiss.
   That’s something special.
   The thought just popped into my head and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what was happening. I
didn’t know these two people. All I knew was that it looked special. So special, all I could do was stare.
   They stopped kissing and she tipped her head back and laughed with pure delight, the sound ringing
through the air, filling it with music.
   I decided I hated her and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know who she was or what was happening. I just
knew she had something special and I didn’t and never would and that sucked. It wasn’t a nice thought
which was unusual because I was normally a nice person but it was the one I had.
   She disengaged from him and came to his side, wrapping her arm around his waist and propelling him
forward.
   He looked down at her and I saw his profile in Reception Betty’s bright parking lot lights and when I
did I held my breath.
   If he was that handsome in profile, so handsome he was breathtaking; he’d be sensational full on.
   That’s when I decided I really hated her.
   They got close to the door and he moved suddenly and quickly. Swinging her up in front of him, she
wrapped her legs around his hips, her arms around his shoulders and tipped her head down to look at him.
But he seemed to be peering in the room like he expected to see something or someone, something or
someone important, something or someone he was looking forward to seeing. But before he found that
something or someone, she fisted a hand in his hair, tilting his back, her mouth went down on his and they
entered the room necking.
   He closed the door with his booted foot.
   Yes, sensational. If he could pick her up like that and carry her anywhere, he was beyond sensational.
   “Like the pool?”
   I jumped and pushed off the side with my foot, my head jerking around as I stared at the Reception Guy
who checked in Lucky as Hell Girl that I hated. He was standing at the side of the pool and looking down
at me. I was so engrossed in Handsome Harley Guy and Lucky as Hell Girl I hadn’t heard him coming.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “The pool,” he answered. “Like it?”
   “Um…” I mumbled, staring up at him. “Yes.”
   “It’s heated,” he informed me.
   “Um…” I mumbled again. “I can tell.”
   “Betty ‘n me got it relined last year. One or t’other of us clean it every day. Best pool in the county.”
   I couldn’t disagree. It was a fantastic pool, clean, heated and everything.
   Therefore I said, “It’s really nice.”
   He rocked back on his heels and took in the pool with his eyes before he looked back at me.
   “Thanks. Ned,” he said.
   “Uh, my name is Lauren,” I said back and he laughed.
   “No, pretty lady, name’s Ned.” He jerked a thumb at himself. “I’m Ned.”
   “Oh,” I replied, feeling like an idiot. “Hey Ned.”
   “Hey back at cha Lauren.” He grinned. “Betty tells me you’re stayin’ awhile.”
   “Yeah,” I told him thinking he seemed friendly enough but not certain how much to share because, well,
I didn’t know him and every girl in a pool in the parking lot of a hotel on the edge of Nowheresville
should be smart and not tell their story, current or past, to some random man who snuck up on them. In
fact, girls like that should get out of the pool, get into their room and lock the danged door.
   “That’s great.” Ned was still grinning. “We don’t get a lot of long timers. Weekenders. Nighters. Yeah.
Long timers. No.”
   “Oh,” I replied, my eyes going back to the long block of hotel, specifically to my room where I figured I
should be at that present moment.
   “That’s Neeta,” Ned said and I looked back at him.
   “Neeta?” I asked.
   Ned nodded. “Neeta and Jackson,” he shook his head, “bad news.”
   My gaze slid back in the direction of the hotel. He’d misinterpreted where I was looking. He thought I
was looking at Harley Guy and Lucky as Hell Girl’s room.
   I didn’t inform him of his mistake. Instead, I asked softly, “Bad news?”
   “Yeah,” Ned answered. “She swings into town and shoo!” My eyes went to him to see he’d put his
hands up at his sides and had taken a step back. “We brace.”
   “Brace for what?” I asked.
   He dropped his hands. “Brace for whatever Neeta’s got up her sleeve.”
   “Is that…” I stopped and motioned toward the Harley and the convertible with my head, “Neeta with
that man?”
   “Jackson, yeah. He’s great, a good man, smart, solid, salt of the earth. Loses his mind around Neeta,
though. Then again, not many men wouldn’t but I’m guessing you know all about that.”
   My eyes had wandered back to the Harley as I treaded water and Ned talked but I looked at Ned when I
heard his comment.
   “I do?”
   His grin came back and it was bigger this time, brighter, transforming his whole face making me think
he might just be a friendly innkeeper in a biker town in the Rocky Mountains, just like he seemed.
   “Sure you do. Ain’t shittin’ me, pretty lady.”
   He was right. I wasn’t shitting him mostly because I had no idea what he was talking about.
   “Figure, though,” he went on and his eyes moved toward the Harley, “you’d be worth whatever trouble
you might cause.”
   “What?” I whispered and he looked back at me.
   “I’m a good judge of people,” he informed me instead of explaining himself.
   “Yes?” I asked because I didn’t know what else to say.
   “Yeah,” he replied quietly, moved closer to the edge of the pool and squatted down. I kept treading
water and staring at him. “See,” he continued, still quiet, “any trouble you might cause I’m guessin’ would
be trouble you don’t mean to cause.”
   “I’ve never caused any trouble,” I told him.
   This was true. I hadn’t. I was a good girl. I’d always been a good girl. I’d always made the right
decisions and done the right things. I might have chosen the wrong husband and the wrong friends but they
were the jerks in those scenarios, not me. I was nice. I was thoughtful. I was considerate. I looked out for
my neighbors. I got up when old ladies needed a seat in a waiting room. I let people who had two or three
items go in front of me at the checkout in grocery stores if I had a full cart of food. I kept secrets. I bit my
lip when people I knew did stupid things I knew they would regret and then kept biting my lip when those
stupid things bit them in the ass and they came to me and whined about it.
   I didn’t wear mini-skirts, not ones with frayed hems, not any mini-skirts at all. If I did, I wouldn’t wear
them with high-heeled sandals. Maybe flip-flops or flats but not high heels. I didn’t air kiss front desk
reception guys named Ned even if I knew them. I didn’t drive a convertible. I didn’t rush out a door and
throw myself in the arms of a man.
   And I’d never laughed so loud I filled the air with music.
   “Betty’s different than me,” Ned broke into my thoughts and I focused on him.
   “She is?” I asked thinking I may have missed something.
   “I’m a good judge of people, she’s got the sight.”
   “The sight?” I repeated stupidly.
   He grinned again while straightening, it was his big grin. He had all his teeth, the eyetooth was wonky
but they were all clean and white and the rest were straight. His hair was a little thin, light brown. He
wasn’t tall, not short either. Lean and on the thin side. And, I was beginning to believe, a genuinely nice
guy, not the creepy night clerk at a hotel in Nowheresville.
   “The sight.” He nodded then looked toward the hotel before he turned to me as I moved my arms
through the water to take me back to the side so I could stop treading. I reached out and held onto the edge
as he kept going. “She told me she met you and she just knew.”
   “Knew what?”
   “Somethin’ big was gonna happen.”
   I blinked and it wasn’t to get the water out of my eyes.
   “Something big?”
   “Yep.”
   “To me?”
   “To you, through you, because of you, whatever. But whatever it is, it’ll be big and it’ll be good.”
   I didn’t know what to do with this mostly because it was a little crazy.
   “She said that?”
   He nodded and crossed his arms on his chest, rocking back on his heels again.
   “Yep. And she’s never wrong. We been married twenty-five years and she gets these feelin’s and, I’ll
repeat, she’s never wrong. My Betty’s always right. Always.”
   I didn’t know what to say to that so I stayed silent.
   “Anyhoots!” he exclaimed loudly. “Best leave you to your swim. You need anythin’ at all, you know
where to find me. I hit the hay around midnight but you just gotta ring the buzzer outside the front door and
it’ll wake me up. Yeah?”
   I nodded.
   “Anythin’ you need, pretty lady, I mean that,” he said and it sounded like he meant it.
   “Okay,” I replied.
   “Glad to have you with us, Lauren.”
   “Thanks, Ned.”
   He lifted a hand in a wave and wandered back to the reception-slash-house.
   I looked at the Harley and listened to the quiet of Carnal.
   Then I forced out ten more laps (with three more rest periods), got out of the pool, toweled off, grabbed
my stuff and ran to my room.
Chapter Two
A Job to Do
   I spent more time wondering what to wear to work than I did training at Bubba’s.
   Since Krystal was in a tank top the day before, I decided that it probably wasn’t work casual, more like
anything goes. So I put on a nice pair of jeans, a belt and a peachy-pink colored t-shirt that had a crew
neck and three ruffles made up the sleeves. I thought it was bright and cute. My ex, Brad, told me he
thought it was a little young for me but I liked it, I thought it suited my coloring. I wore flip-flops because
I usually wore flip-flops if I could but also because I figured I’d need comfortable shoes. I put in some
earrings that were little dangles of peachy-pink crystals, a half-inch choker which was a net of peachy-
pink beads and a bunch of bracelets that were elasticized bands of multi-colored crystal beads, peach,
pink, peachy-pink, creamy peach, creamy pink, clear and I threw in a couple of blue ones to go with my
jeans.
   I walked from the hotel to Bubba’s thinking that I should have planned ahead last night and maybe
stocked some provisions in my room. I left early so I could pop by the bakery to get a donut and a coffee. I
hadn’t even thought of dinner the night before and didn’t eat any so I was starving.
   My muscles also ached. It was dull but they were not used to being worked. They’d been cooped up in
a car for four and a half months for one but even before that it wasn’t like I was a regular at the gym. I
didn’t think this was good considering I’d be on my feet all day.
   Krystal was there when I got there and I knew right off she was in a bad mood. I didn’t know why but I
suspected it was because there were some dirty glasses and beer bottles left out “on the floor” as she
called it though most of them were on ledges on the walls around the pool tables and not on the floor at
all. Also, when we turned the chairs off the tables, most of them hadn’t been wiped down.
   I suspected this was why she was in a bad mood because she muttered irately, “Fuckin’ Tonia and
Jonelle. How many times do I gotta tell them? Wipe the tables, clear the floor of empties. Shit,” she
looked at me, “you got evening shift, you clear the empties off the floor and wipe down the tables real
good. It ain’t hard to do and Anita comes in in the mornin’ to sweep and mop so it ain’t like you’re part
cleanin’ lady.”
   I nodded, making a mental note to clear the empties and wipe down the tables “real good” because I
figured that Krystal was the sort of person who didn’t need a lot to tick her off and I didn’t want to do
anything to add to her seemingly perpetual bad mood.
   She showed me around the bar but there wasn’t much to it. The front which had the bar, a mess of tables
out front and the pool tables to the sides. She explained that day shift there was only one waitress and
bartender unless it was a weekend. If it was a weekend, the floor was split into two sections for two
waitresses. Weeknights there were always two waitresses and one or two bartenders. Weekend nights
there were three waitresses and at least two bartenders.
   “We don’t have no busser,” she informed me, leading me out of the bar and down one of the two
doorways that led off the back of the bar. It had a sign over it that said “Private Do Not Enter”. “Don’t
need another person on payroll when you waitresses can nab your own empties.”
   I nodded even though she wasn’t looking at me.
   She took me to an office and let us in. “You stow your purse in here and you take your breaks in here.
We don’t give keys out to everyone so you need to come back here, you find Tate, Bubba, Dalton or me to
let you in.”
   “Tate, Bubba and Dalton?” I asked.
   “Bubba’s my old man,” she answered. “Tate owns the bar with us. He ain’t around a lot. Then again,
Bubba ain’t around a lot either. Like now. He’s fishin’,” she said the word “fishin’” like it tasted bad and
she had to get it out of her mouth fast or she’d have that taste forever. “Dalton’s the other bartender,” she
finished.
   “Oh. Okay,” I said and she eyed me.
   “Gonna say this now gonna say it once, Bubba, Tate and me own this place and Bubba’s been in my
bed goin’ on a decade. That’s about as much fraternization as we need. Half the time I don’t want that
jackass in my bed, half the time he ain’t in my bed because he’s fishin’. You get an eye for Tate or Dalton,
and they all get an eye for Tate or Dalton, rethink it. You’re here to work not get laid.”
   “Oh,” I repeated, more than a little surprised at this subject matter and the way she presented it.
“Okay.”
   She didn’t move but she spoke. “Not jokin’, girl.”
   “Um…” I decided to give as good as I got in an effort to make her think I wasn’t the fancy pants she
clearly thought I was from her comments the day before though, in all honesty, I kind of was or at least I
wasn’t a biker babe like her. “I’m not exactly in the market to get laid, Krystal.”
   She kept staring at me. Then she moved out of the office muttering, “Yeah, you haven’t seen Tate or
Dalton yet.”
   I had to admit this worried me a little bit. I didn’t need to be working alongside good-looking men,
especially starting out. It’d make me anxious. Once I got used to things, got my bearings, I’d be fine
mainly because I wasn’t lying. I wasn’t in the market to get laid. That market had closed and I was okay
with that. But I didn’t want to be fumbling around learning how to be a waitress in a biker bar with
handsome biker men as my audience.
   As if she read my mind, Krystal talked as she led me down the hall. “I’m keepin’ you on day shifts for a
week, maybe two, see how you do. Cut your teeth. Get the lay of the land before you go nights.”
   “Thanks,” I said when she stopped outside a closed door.
   She turned to me. “Don’t thank me. Tips are shit on the day shift.”
   She unlocked and pushed open the door and showed me the storeroom. Then she told me that waitresses
might be called on to help stock or run back and get something if the bartenders were busy. Then she
showed me the clipboard where they kept track of stock in a complicated way that would be far easier if
put on a computer spreadsheet. Even though I probably could set that up for her in about an hour, I didn’t
inform her of this.
   “We open at noon close at three,” she went on, walking back down the hall. “Shifts run eleven to seven
with two fifteen minute breaks and half hour dinner break. Night shift is seven to three. Last call is 2:30
so you get those drinks in and you get your clean up done best you can while we got folks in the bar. You
don’t wanna be hangin’ around ‘til four clearin’ and cleanin’ and I don’t wanna be payin’ you to do it.
Yeah?”
   “Yes,” I nodded but she wasn’t looking at me, she was leading me through the bar and taking me toward
the other hall, the opening had a sign over it that said “Restrooms”.
   “Anita cleans these in the mornin’ and loads ‘em up with toilet paper. We got a customer reports a
bathroom problem with the toilets, you tell one of the boys. Toilet paper is in the storeroom. You might
need to restock and, I’m warnin’ you, you might need to do clean up. Shit happens you would not believe
in the bathroom of a bar.” She stopped in the hall between the two bathroom doors, ladies up front, gents
to the rear and she turned to me. “You got a problem with that?”
   “Are we talking vomit?” I asked because I had to admit, I was not a vomit person.
   “Vomit, piss, shit anything a body can produce, I’ve had to clean it up.”
   I felt my eyes get big and I asked, “Anything?”
   “Girl, this is a biker bar. Those boys get randy, they need to get off and they don’t care much where
they get them some. And girls who hang with bikers care even less.”
   “Wow,” I whispered.
   “So, you got a problem with that?” she repeated.
   I looked at her and straightened my spine. “You can get used to anything, right?”
   She stared at me a second then mumbled, “Right,” and she took me back front and showed me how to
use the cash register. She finished with, “You’ll have a float in your apron and you’ll figure your own
way to keep tabs on what you’re sellin’ and what’s in your apron. Me, Bubba, Dalton or Tate will cash
you out, take your float and our take and do the reconcile, leavin’ you with your tips.” She gave me a hard
look. “It’d be in your best interest to keep on top a’ that. It gets busy, you’ll be bustin’ your hump to earn
those tips. I ain’t sayin’ any of us’ll fuck you over. I’m just sayin’ you need to look out for yourself. And
you fuck up on a transaction, that’s your gig. You sell what you sell, you track it, we track it, it all don’t
jive, it comes outta your tips. You won’t use the register much but you should know your way around.”
   I nodded, she studied me as if thinking it wasn’t sinking in due to the fact that middle-class women
were incapable of selling a beer, making change and keeping track due to their middle-class nature then
she shrugged as if it was all the same to her.
   She showed me the complicated, three sink procedure of how to wash glasses, where empty bottles
went and told me that bartenders did most of the washing but if things were busy, the waitresses were
expected to pitch in where they could. She gave me a paper with a list of drinks and snacks (they sold
bags of potato chips, pork rinds and peanuts) and their prices.
   “Memorize that, soon’s you can,” she ordered then crossed her arms under her tank top covered bosoms
(another Harley tank, this one white with very cool silver, red and black lettering) and looked me in the
eye. “We get trouble, Lauren and it isn’t infrequent like. Boys come in here, get blitzed, act stupid. Some
of ‘em got knives, all of ‘em got fists. You sense trouble, you tell me, Bubba, Tate or Dalton and you stay
clear.”
   I wasn’t happy with the cleaning up of vomit and anything else a body can produce part of the job
description but men with knives was taking it to a new level.
   Though I also had to admit to some concern that she’d want me to tell her. She was four inches shorter
than me and at least fifty pounds lighter. She had no business wading into a knife fight, or any fight.
   I decided to focus on the latter.
   “Tell you?” I asked.
   “Me,” she answered.
   “But, shouldn’t I get a man –?”
   “I been around the block, girl, and this is my fuckin’ bar. It’s been my fuckin’ bar for five years. You
think I can’t sort out trouble?”
   “Um… you’re five foot five and weigh about a hundred pounds,” I informed her of a fact she likely
knew (though I was being nice about the weight consider her behind and cleavage).
   “I’m smart, fast but that don’t matter since I know where we keep our shotgun,” she replied. “Even
wasted, men stop fightin’ quick when they got a loaded shotgun aimed at ‘em.” She pointed across the
room to the wall where there were a bunch of visible pockmarks in the wood. “Buckshot. Mine. Round
these parts it’s not only known that I know where the shotgun is but that I know how to use it and someone
messes around in my bar, I will.”
   I nodded again wondering why I was undeterred by the variety of craziness she was telling me and
standing there listening to her rather than saying, “Thanks… but, um, I think I’ll just be leaving.
   Instead, I said, “Okay.”
   “All right,” she replied and the door opened.
   We both turned to look and when I saw who came in I stopped breathing.
   It was the Harley Guy from last night at the hotel. Even though I hadn’t seen his face straight on, I knew
it was him. And I was right. He was sensational straight on.
   He was tall, maybe taller than he seemed in the parking lot or maybe he just seemed bigger in the bar
since his shoulders were so broad. But his hips were lean and his legs were long, his thighs obviously
powerfully muscled and I could tell that even through his jeans. His dark brown hair gleamed even in the
dull light of the bar. It was thick and it was clear he washed it and let it fall where it lay for the part was
natural and not straight, it was swept back but some of it fell around his temples and curled a bit around
his ears and at the back of his neck. His eyes looked dark, I couldn’t tell the color but there were sun lines
emanating from the sides that were attractive. His brow was heavy; his nose wasn’t perfect but it was
straight with a slight bump at the top of the bridge that made it interesting; his cheekbones were cut and his
jaw was strong. His skin was tanned in a way where I knew he didn’t get that color lounging by a pool
and he was wearing faded jeans, black motorcycle boots and a heathered-gray-blue, long-sleeved,
skintight, thermal Henley.
   He was beautiful.
   “Hey Tate,” Krystal called and I turned woodenly to her.
   Okay, maybe Krystal was right earlier, I hadn’t seen “Tate” yet (though I had, I just didn’t know it and
thought his name was Jackson) and if this was Tate then I definitely wanted to get laid by him. Definitely.
   Though a man like that who could get a girl like Neeta wouldn’t even look at me and he could, he
already had Neeta but hell, he could get anyone.
   I turned back to Tate to find I was wrong. He was close, stopped at the side of the bar where there was
an opening. I saw his eyes were dark brown and they were on me.
   “Who’s this?” he asked, his voice deep and a bit rough. He didn’t take his eyes off me and, like
Krystal, he looked like he was in a bad mood.
   “This is Lauren, our new girl,” Krystal answered.
   I opened my mouth to say hello when he spoke.
   “Lauren?” he asked and his tone was scathing. Downright scathing. And his face had gone from making
him look like he was in a bad mood to sheer and utter contempt.
   I felt my body automatically get tight.
   “Yeah, Lauren, she’s –” Krystal started but he interrupted her.
   “Talk,” he growled and then turned down the hall.
   Krystal looked at me. “Check the fridges.” She pointed to a bunch of glass-fronted, half fridges at the
back of the bar. “See what we need to stock up and go to the storeroom. Put the new ones in the back, the
old ones in the front.” She handed me her set of keys and followed Tate down the hall.
   I waited a second because I was recovering from that strange scene and wondering why all these
people took an instant dislike to me. Krystal hired me which was good but she wasn’t exactly welcoming
even through training. And Tate, well…
   I shook this feeling off as just my inexperience of biker folk. Maybe they were a close knit group and
you had to prove yourself. I could do that. I hadn’t waitressed since I was a cocktail waitress at a dinner
theater during my summers in college but it couldn’t be difficult to pick it up again. I was a hard worker.
As far as I could remember, my entire work life I’d called in sick once when I got the ‘flu. I hated being
late and never was. In fact, usually I was early. Once they got to know me, I told myself, they’d like me.
   I walked down the hall and the door was closed to the office. I nearly made it to the storeroom when I
heard Tate’s raised voice.
   “Jesus, Krys, maybe you wanna talk to me before you hire some sorry-ass, old, fat, suburban bitch to
drag around our goddamned bar?”
   I stopped and had to put a hand to the wall to hold myself up.
   Sorry-ass, old, fat, suburban bitch.
   That beautiful man’s words ricocheted around my head causing damage that was so excruciating I knew
the way it was inflicted it would never, never heal.
   Then my body jolted and I rushed to the storeroom, found the key on the fourth try and went in, flipping
on the light switch and closing the door behind me.
   Then I leaned in and put my forehead to it.
   Okay, I was forty-two not exactly a spring chicken. Okay, I wasn’t svelte by a long shot and had a body
that just couldn’t be svelte and never would even if I tried (though I could stand to take off a few pounds,
or more than a few). But I wasn’t sorry-ass. And I’d lived in suburbia but I’d never liked it, I just told
myself for Brad, because I loved him, that I did. But it wasn’t me and the minute I got my chance, I left.
   And forty-two wasn’t eighty-five. I was over twenty years away from retirement. That was hardly old.
   Not everyone could be gorgeous, like him. Not everyone could have fantastic bone structure, like him.
Not everyone could have thick, gorgeous hair, like him. Not everyone could have a beautiful body, like
him. Most of that (maybe not the body, because that would take work) he inherited from his parents! He
was just lucky! Not everyone was that lucky, especially not me.
   What a jerk!
   “Fuck him,” I whispered and then pressed my lips together because I didn’t like to swear. Then, out of
my control, I whispered, “Fuck Krystal too.”
   I turned and stared at the shelves filled with bottles of liquor, crates of beer and wine, kegs lined up the
walls, boxes of potato chips and huge plastic wrapped rolls of toilet paper and I realized that I didn’t take
stock of what I needed before I went in there.
   Whatever.
   Whatever!
   This was my life as I wanted to lead it. This was the place I wanted to live it. I’d been on the road
driving through towns and cities looking for what I needed and after four and a half months, this was the
only place that felt right. And Bubba’s felt right too, even though it wasn’t much and the people weren’t
nice, it still felt right.
   And I didn’t care if they didn’t like me. I didn’t care if they didn’t think I was one of them. I didn’t care
that my jeans cost twice as much as theirs and my t-shirt was designer and they saw it, knew it and didn’t
like it.
   Fuck them. Both of them.
   I walked out of the storeroom and back into the bar. I found a sheet of paper, took stock of what was
needed and went back to the storeroom to search through the shelves and find it. I was on trip three and
squatted down rotating bottles of Bud and Coors Light when I heard them come back.
   I sucked in breath and looked up and when I did I looked right at Tate. When my eyes caught his, I
watched his face change sharply and it did this with a small head jerk and wince.
   He knew I’d heard him and at least that jerk had the good grace to react.
   I put in the last bottles, stood, pushed the fridge door to and walked toward them both, saying, “One
more trip and re-stock should be done. I made notes of what I took and I’ll mark it on your clipboard.
Then I’ll wipe down the tables.”
   Then I walked by them, down the hall and into the storeroom.
   Fuck them.
   Both of them.

   I had a job to do.
Chapter Three
Shake It Off
   I walked out of my hotel room and the door closed behind me.
   “Hey hon,” Betty called. “That’s a pretty top.”
   I turned to Betty to see she had a hose and was doing her morning watering of the flowers. She had on a
sundress, a light cardigan and hot pink Crocs. Her hair was dyed a very flaming red and was pulled back
in a ponytail. Her legs had a hint of tan I guessed because she was often out watering her flowers or
cleaning the pool or sweeping the walkways or cleaning the cool deck around the pool with a blast from
the hose and I noticed she was always in a sundress.
   I was on day four in Carnal just about to start day three of my job at Bubba’s.
   I hadn’t been wrong, it wasn’t hard to pick up but then again the traffic in the bar was light. During the
day it was mostly Jim-Billy and a few drifters. It started to get busier around five and by the time I left at
seven thirty (the first day because Tonia had been late coming in) and seven twenty (the second day
because Jonelle had been late) it was going on really busy. The hardest part was remembering what
everything cost and making change on the fly. I’d screwed up my float the first day and because of that
went home with fifteen dollars worth of tips. I’d learned quickly the next day and told my customers I was
new and took my time and luckily they didn’t seem to mind. I still went home with only twenty-three
dollars worth of tips. The day shift seriously wouldn’t cut it if I actually had to make a living at this.
   Luckily, I had my share of what Brad and I made off the house plus me selling everything I owned in an
“everything must go” yard sale before I got the heck out of The Horizon Summit housing development
where Brad and I had lived for five years (the five years he was screwing Hayley). We had a huge house
with four bedrooms and three and a half baths and a yard that a man named Juan-Carlos, who had seven
thousand Mexican men working for him, tended. We had Juan-Carlos because all our friends used Juan-
Carlos and we did what all our friends did. I also had a girl named Griselle who cleaned my house
because everyone used Griselle and her sister Alicia. This wasn’t my choice, it was Brad’s. He said
people like us had cleaning ladies. But I kind of liked cleaning. It was one thing I could do where I could
see the results and I used to put on music and not even think about what I was doing, just fade into the
music and move around my house and clean. Cleaning my house, weirdly, was the only time I liked to be
in it. Then Griselle came and, well, that was that.
   I wasn’t loaded but I had a significant nest egg. Then again, I might want to buy a house in Carnal
eventually and would need money to set that up with furniture and the like and the money I had wouldn’t
last forever. I couldn’t make it on twenty-three dollars a day plus the terrible hourly rate I got. I was going
to have to step things up somehow.
   I walked to Betty and smiled.
   “Thanks, I like your sundress too,” I told her.
   “Momma always put me in a skirt. Said, she had a girl, no girl of hers would wear pants and, as you
can see, she had a girl.” She grinned at the spray shooting at her flowers and kept talking. “I can count on
one hand the times I been in pants. Don’t know why. What Momma did just took and I never think about
puttin’ on pants.” Betty finished sharing a random piece of her life, looked my way then nodded to my top.
“You’re good with color. I notice you always pick the right ones. Perfect for you.”
   I looked down at myself.
   I was wearing my last pair of the three pairs of jeans I owned, these slightly more faded and beat up
than the others I’d worn the previous two days to Bubba’s. I’d had them awhile and I actually hadn’t worn
them for some time because they were getting too tight. They fit now, for some reason, were even a bit
loose so I went with them. I also had on a pale pink camisole over which I wore a nearly see-through
kelly green blouse. It had a little ruffle around the rounded collar and the cuffs of the short sleeves. It also
had tiny ruffles and pin tucks down the front of it and teeny pearl buttons, a lot of them. I paired this with
silver stud earrings in the shapes of little daisies, a bunch of silver bangles on my wrist with dangly
daisies or roses on them and a pair of kelly green, suede flats with a big flower on the rounded toe.
   “Thanks,” I said to Betty.
   “Uppin’ the class at Bubba’s, you are,” Betty smiled at me.
   I’d told her yesterday when I chatted with her before walking to the bar that I was working at Bubba’s.
   Thinking on it, her comment wasn’t exactly welcome albeit kind.
   Thankfully, Tate had left before I got back from the storeroom on day one and hadn’t been around day
two. But Krystal, who had been my bartender both days, hadn’t thawed (not even a little). Having briefly
met both Tonia and Jonelle, I noted they were worse than Krystal on the Frosty Front.
   The only people I figured liked me were Jim-Billy, Nadine (another regular who showed around four
each day so far) and Dalton who showed at five thirty both days.
   Dalton was very good-looking too, longish, dirty blonde hair that nearly hit his shoulders; lean body but
without the bulk and power of Tate’s; just a couple of inches taller than me unlike Tate who had to be four
or five inches taller than me and I was five foot nine; and Dalton wore jeans like they were invented
solely for him and thus he needed to be consulted by all and sundry for his approval before they could don
a pair. Last, Dalton had an easy smile that he flashed a lot and I could tell straight away it was genuine.
   Even with the half and half mix of those who might like Lauren and those who didn’t, I didn’t think me
wearing a blouse that cost more than two pairs of Levi’s was going to be jotted in the good column during
my job evaluation. Then again, I didn’t have many t-shirts and I figured Krystal’s Harley tanks, being
authentic Harley Davidson gear, weren’t exactly cheap.
   “I should probably go to the mall. Get some stuff to fit in with everyone else,” I suggested to Betty.
   She stopped the spray on the hose and yanked it down to the pot in front of room fourteen with me
following all while advising, “Hon, you look sweet. Be yourself. Only thing you can be.”
   I filed that away but still figured I should up my t-shirt inventory even though Tonia and Jonelle didn’t
wear t-shirts. When I met Tonia, she was wearing a tan piece of soft, triangular suede covering her
breasts held in place with nothing but a thin strap around her back and another one wrapped around her
neck. Jonelle was in a sparkly, purple tube top. No way was I going to ever be able to wear a backless,
suede halter top or a tube top. Never.
   If I wanted to fit in, t-shirts were my only way to go.
   “Maybe you’re right,” I said to Betty while she sprayed her barrel. “Gotta go get coffee and breakfast.”
   Betty nodded and looked at me. “You ever wanna come over for breakfast, you just come on over and
ring. Ned’s usually still asleep when I open at seven but I always get me a good breakfast in, the whole
shebang. Eggs, bacon, toast or pancakes and sausage. Gotta set yourself up for the day right. Even if you
ain’t a big eater in the mornin’, we always got a good pot o’ joe on and you’re always welcome to a
mug.”
   I had to admit, waiting until ten thirty to get my first hit of caffeine wasn’t working for me. I’d intended
to ask Betty or Ned if I could put an electric kettle in my room but hadn’t had the chance. The first night
after work I’d been dog tired. I wasn’t run off my feet until the end of the night when it got busy but I was
still recovering from my swim. I’d just gone to the hotel room and crashed. Didn’t even get any dinner.
The second night after work I’d walked straight to the diner and had a burger, got my second wind and
went to the hotel and had a swim. Then I’d crashed.
   “Do you mind if I buy an electric kettle for my room?” I asked. “It might take me awhile to get myself a
place and –”
   I stopped talking because she stopped the spray on the hose and turned to me.
   “Sure thing, Lauren, that’s a great idea. And we got one ‘a those little, mini fridges. We ain’t usin’ it.
I’ll get Ned to put it in your room. You’re gonna be around awhile you’ll need somewhere to store your
milk.”
   “That’s very kind of you, but –”
   She talked over me. “In fact, I’ll get Ned to go out today and get you a kettle. You’re on your feet all
day, you don’t need to be runnin’ errands at night.”
   “I really couldn’t –”
   “Maybe we’ll get two or three. Offer ‘em to customers with some of those little packets of instant. Rent
‘em out. Nice little extra.” She tipped her head to the side. “How you take your coffee?”
   “Milk and sugar,” I answered. “But, Betty –”
   “I’ll get Ned to pick some ‘a that up too.”
   “Betty –”
   She waved me quiet. “I like this idea. Kettles. Little mugs. Prolly could rent ‘em out for five dollars a
go. Could put that in the brochure. An extra amenity. I’ll get Ned to make a sign for reception.” She
wandered to the side of the hotel, preparing to roll the hose where there was a holder. “Thanks, hon.
Always lookin’ for ways to improve service.”
   Weirdly, Betty thought her and Ned doing me a favor was me doing her one.
   Yes, you could say I liked Betty.
   “I’ll give you my five dollars when I get back,” I told her.
   “You. Gratis seein’ as you’re a long timer.” She looked up from rolling the hose and grinned big at me.
“And you like our pool.”
   I decided to let her kindness go, even though it was generous and considering there were only two other
vehicles in her parking lot (one mini-van, one Harley), she and Ned weren’t exactly rolling in it. Then
again, my father always told me if someone offers a kindness, take it. Just be the sort of person who does
the same on a regular basis so you can be certain to even things out in your way.
   “Who wouldn’t like your pool?” I teased, “I hear it’s the best in the county.”
   She laughed, shook her head and muttered, “My Ned. He’s a bragger.” She threw me another grin. “Get
to work, hon.”
   “See you later, Betty.”
   “Maybe tomorrow for coffee?”
   “Yeah.”
   Her grin got even bigger. “I’d like that.”
   I smiled at her, walked into town and went right to La-La Land. I’d done the bakery and their coffee and
donuts the first day. I’d tried La-La Land the second. La-La Land’s coffee was far superior and their
banana bread was, if it could be believed, better than any donut I’d ever tasted and therefore definitely by
far the best banana bread I’d had in my life.
   I walked in and the man had purple-tinted, round framed glasses on this time. The woman had a tie-
dyed kerchief shielding some but not all of her frizzy ash blonde hair.
   “Hey!” the man cried, “You were in here yesterday!”
   He said this like it was a miracle and he was considering calling the Vatican.
   I felt my face go soft as I gave him a small smile and walked to the counter. “Yes.”
   “She had a banana and a skinny butterscotch,” the girl noted and asked me, “You like?”
   “The banana bread was fantastic and you do good coffee,” I told her.
   “I make the bread,” the guy said, “secret’s mayo.”
   “What?” I asked.
   “I put a tablespoon of mayo in it.”
   I blinked at him. “You do?”
   “He puts a tablespoon of mayo in everything,” the girl said.
   “Not pie,” the guy amended.
   “Not pie,” the girl repeated.
   “Why do you do that?” I asked.
   “Moist Factor Five Hundred, babeeeeeee,” the guy said on a big, goofy grin and I laughed.
   “Moist Factor Five Hundred?”
   “Yeah, a tablespoon of mayo ups the moist factor by five hundred. You doubt me, make your favorite
cake, brownies, whatever, just not pie. A recipe you’ve made for ages. Put in a tablespoon of mayo and
wham! You won’t know what hit you. Moist Factor Five Hundred,” he shared.
   “He makes his own mayo too,” the girl added.
   “Make my own everything,” he agreed. “Homemade… only way to go.”
   “Well, considering your banana bread is the best I’ve ever tasted, and I like banana bread so I’ve tried
a lot, then you aren’t wrong,” I informed him and his goofy grin nearly split his face. “Though, I won’t be
able to try the Mayo Moist Factor Five Hundred because I live at the hotel and don’t have a kitchen but
when I get set up, I’ll do it and let you know.”
   Both of them stared at me and then the girl asked, “Why do you live at the hotel?”
   “I just moved here,” I explained. “Just started waitressing at Bubba’s and haven’t really had time to
settle in yet.”
   “Come over for dinner,” the guy invited instantly.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Yeah, tonight,” the girl put in. “Shambala makes unbelievable veggie chili and it’s chili night.”
   “Shambala?” I asked and the guy stuck his hand over the counter.
   “I’m Shambala,” I shook his hand, he let mine go and the girl stuck her hand over the counter so I took it
and Shambala went on. “This is Sunray Goddess but I call her Sunny.”
   I shook her hand and said, “Well, um… hi Shambala and Sunny. I’m –”
   “Flower Petal,” Sunny cut in and touched her finger to her earlobe and then to her wrist. “All flowery. I
like!”
   “And call me Shambles, everyone does,” Shambala said.
   I laughed softly. “All right Shambles.”
   “So… dinner?” Shambles prompted.
   “Well, I’m working and getting used to being on my feet all day so I won’t be in any shape to socialize
tonight,” I declined but I did it gently because as I did, their faces fell and because they did, I went on.
“But I’m off tomorrow.”
   “Tomorrow it is!” Shambles exclaimed.
   “Tomorrow is Middle Eastern night and that’s way better than chili. Shambala makes all his own
everything. Even the hummus and pita,” Sunny told me.
   “Sounds great,” I smiled.
   “I’ll write down our address and directions. You can come any time after five. We close at five and go
straight on home. But we’ll eat around six thirty,” Sunny said while writing.
   “And now, you give me the go ahead, I’ll rock your world. Don’t order. I’ll give you the best that we
got,” Shambala offered.
   “Okay,” I was still smiling, “I’m up for that.”
   “Groovintude!” Shambala shouted with excitement and then jumped toward the espresso machine.
   “This is awesome,” Sunny declared. “We’re new to this burg too. Everyone thought we were nuts, us,
opening a coffee place in a Harley town. But we like it. The mountains are close and we can draw down
the sun anytime we like. Just close up, bike out and do it wherever the spirit moves us.” She leaned
toward me. “But, you know, we haven’t been exactly embraced by the populace.”
   I knew. I definitely knew therefore I nodded.
   “They’ll come,” Shambles muttered with both hope and determination in his two words.
   “You give out free bites of your banana bread for a couple of days, you’ll be beating them back with a
stick,” I told him.
   “Hey!” he yelled, his head snapping back to look at me. “Great idea!”
   Sunny turned to Shambles. “Why didn’t we think of that?”
   “Because half the time we’re stoned?” Shambles asked back.
   “Yeah,” Sunny grinned at me, “that sometimes messes with the synapses.”
   I laughed and Shambles mumbled, “Mary Jane Enlightenment comes with a price,” so I laughed even
more.
   Two minutes later I had the directions to their house in my purse, Shambles gave me a skinny, vanilla
cinnamon latte and a piece of zucchini bread loaded with pecans. I took a bite then a sip. Then I grinned at
him.
   “Rock your world?” he asked.
   “Consider me a regular,” I answered while paying.
   “Right on!” Shambles shouted.
   “See you tomorrow morning then,” Sunny said as I headed to the door. “And tomorrow night!” she
called.
   “Yeah, definitely. Nice to meet you,” I said in farewell.
   “Heck yeah, nice to meet you too!” Shambles yelled.
   “Later, Flower Petal,” Sunny said.
   “Later,” I replied and walked out eating and sipping, crossing the street and heading the one block to
Bubba’s thinking that maybe with Betty and Sunny and Shambles and great bread and coffee and a heated
pool outside my front and only door, a door in a hotel that might not be five stars but at least it had
personality, Carnal would be all right.
   I was five minutes early for my shift but there was a Harley parked outside the door and it looked
familiar. I didn’t think that boded well and I was right when I walked through carrying my cardboard cup
and the last bite of bread.
   Tate was standing behind the bar wearing another Henley, this one burgundy, not thermal but long-
sleeved and skintight. I noticed instantly that burgundy suited him.
   Dang.
   He turned, eyed me, didn’t smile and greeted in his deep voice, “You got me today, Ace.”
   Great.
   I nodded and headed to the bar asking, “Can I have the key to the office?”
   He reached into his front pocket, pulled out his keys and tossed them on the bar. I shoved the last bite of
bread into my mouth, acutely aware that he thought I was fat and I was eating in front of him, and, not
looking at him, I grabbed the keys and headed to the hall.
   “I got kegs to switch, you good with the re-stock?” I heard him ask as I kept moving.
   “Sure,” I replied still not looking at him.
   I went to the office, stowed my purse and went back to the bar. He was working under it at a keg and I
tossed his keys as close to him as I cared to get (which wasn’t very close) but I did it loudly so he’d hear
them hit the top of the bar. His head came up and his eyes hit me but I turned instantly and surveyed the
fridges.
   “Ace, you’ll need the keys to get into the storeroom,” I heard him say.
   Dang. I was so stupid. Desperate to return his keys and not have anything that was his touch my flesh,
I’d made a mistake that made me look like an idiot.
   “Right,” I muttered, turned to nab them and went back to what I was doing.
   Silently I went about my task, taking notes, sipping coffee and going back and forth to the storeroom as
Tate went about his business. If our paths crossed, I avoided his eyes and gave him as wide a berth as I
could manage. After the re-stock I took down the chairs and inspected the tables while searching for
forgotten empties. Unusually, half the tables in the bar were clean, the area devoid of empties; the other
half of the tables needed a wipe down and I found two bottles of beer and a half full mug.
   When I went behind the bar to deposit the empties and get the spray cleaner and a cloth, Tate spoke.
   “Wendy was on last night. Came in late when Tonia didn’t show.”
   Forced to look at him due to my innate politeness, I did but I didn’t speak. I lifted my brows in
question.
   “You haven’t met Wendy?” he asked.
   I shook my head.
   “Waitress, only good one we got,” he told me. “She does her clean up.”
   “Unh-hunh,” I mumbled and walked out from behind the bar wondering if Wendy wore halter tops or
tube tops or if she had another way of exposing as much flesh as possible to the mostly male customers.
Tonia had long, sleek, black hair, she was tall, slim to the point of skinny, had obviously fake boobs and
wore high heels and short-short-cutoffs with her halter top. Jonelle had wild, huge, curly-slash-wavy
auburn hair, was average height, rounded like Neeta (just a little slimmer and what I figured was a lot
younger) and wore a micro-mini with her tube top. Wendy probably rounded out the line up with blonde
hair and looked like a biker brand of supermodel.
   I was dreading the night shift and going up against one of those girls. Not only had they, so far, proved
themselves bitches, but also all the men would probably move from my station and tips would likely be
even less.
   I started toward the dirty tables when I heard Tate call, “Ace.”
   Considering this was obviously his nickname for me which I thought was weird since he’d known me
less than twenty minutes and you didn’t give a nickname to someone you’d known less than twenty minutes
(more like ten years) and I figured it was meant to be not very nice, I looked at him even though I didn’t
want to. However, I couldn’t ignore him. He couldn’t be calling to anyone else, ignoring him would be
rude and he was my boss.
   “Yes?” I asked when I caught his eyes.
   “I know you heard,” he said.
   I knew he knew I was just surprised he brought it up. I showed no response except to raise my brows
again.
   “I was in a shit mood, babe. Shake it off,” he ordered and I stared.
   He’d called me old, sorry-ass and fat and he wanted me just to shake it off?
   “Sure,” I agreed, turned and spritzed a table with the cleaner.
   “Ace,” he called again when I’d bent to wipe. I sucked in a visibly annoyed breath and twisted only my
neck so I could look at him. When my eyes hit his, he repeated, “I said, shake it off.”
   I turned fully to him. “And I said, sure.”
   “You said it but you didn’t mean it,” he returned.
   No, I didn’t.
   “I did,” I lied.
   “Babe, you didn’t,” he replied.
   “I did,” I repeated and turned back to the table and started wiping.
   “Ace, look at me,” he demanded and he sounded like he was getting impatient.
   I straightened and looked at him, again raising my brows.
   “Let it go,” he ordered.
   “I’ve let it go,” I lied again.
   “You haven’t,” he shot back.
   I inhaled deeply and on the exhale, I said. “Due respect, considering you’re my boss, but since they
don’t exist, you’re not a mind reader. I’ve let it go or I would if you’d quit talking about it.”
   “You haven’t,” he repeated. “You’re stewin’ on it.”
   This was true too. If I had a dollar for every time his words in his voice popped into my head and made
me flinch the last two days, I could move to the Riviera. They even woke me up in the middle of the night.
Then again, I had insomnia and always did, even as a kid. I regularly thought of stuff in my life, stuff that
embarrassed me or hurt me or worried me or freaked me out and I couldn’t get to sleep. Then, when I did,
I’d wake up three, four times a night sometimes tossing and turning for hours before finding sleep again.
This beautiful man saying those horrible words when talking about me was not only fresh, it was the
worst of all my nightly demons by far and it would be in a way I knew would last the rest of my life.
   But it hit me just then that since not only did he feel free to shout those things about me when he barely
knew me but also he knew I heard it and he didn’t apologize but told me to shake it off and let it go
because I should somehow accept he was in a shit mood and just deal with it, that he obviously wasn’t a
very nice person and maybe, even though I was a nice person, there were some people who deserved to
get back what they got.
   I mean really. Why did I always have to be nice? Why did I always have to do the right thing, turn the
other cheek, a blind eye? Why did I always have to be the good girl?
   So he could fire me. Whatever. I’d just see if they needed cashiers at the grocery store or move on. If I
could find one Carnal, I could find another. It might take another four and a half months but I had money
and I had time.
   Fuck it.
   “Yes,” I said softly, staring him straight in the eyes. “I’m stewing on it. I hear you say those words
again and again. So much, I can’t get to sleep at night. So much, they come to me in my sleep and wake me
up.”
   “Ace –”
   “But you said them, I heard them and those are the consequences. No taking it back, no shaking it off, no
letting it go. It happened. I deal and move on and maybe you’d do me the courtesy of shutting up about it.”
   He walked from behind the bar and toward me and I watched him do it while forcing my body to stay
where it was and not take a step back or, better yet, flee.
   He stopped a foot away and looked down at me. I saw, that close to him, he didn’t have dark brown
eyes. They were dark brown but they had tawny flecks in them that made them even more interesting.
   Great, the lucky jerk was even luckier.
   “I’m a silent partner,” he declared.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Me. I’m a silent partner,” he repeated.
   I tipped my head to the side and felt my brows draw together. “So?”
   Tate threw a hand out to indicate the bar. “I look silent to you?”
   Considering he was clearly my bartender that day and he was changing kegs, the answer to that would
be no.
   Instead I said, “And?”
   “Deal was, I put in the money because Krys and Bubba didn’t have the cake to take this on but I wasn’t
involved. I just get my piece and I do my own thing. Five years, Ace, I find more often than not I usually
gotta wade in. Bubba’s off fishin’ and Krystal’s always hirin’ folk who suck. Tonia and Jonelle both
make an art outta being the worst waitresses in history. They’re here to socialize, when they drag there
asses in that is. I got shit to do and I ain’t doin’ it ‘cause I’m here, ‘cause I gotta keep an eye on my
investment, ‘cause Bubba’s a moron and Krystal’s tryin’ her best but she can’t do it on her own. That
pisses me off. Bubba’s gone again and I got pissed again and you bore the brunt of that. It was an asshole
remark; I said it and didn’t mean it. I get pissed I say a lotta shit I don’t mean. Now you know that, you
need to shake it off.”
   Maybe for him it could be that easy. For me, it was not.
   “I appreciate that but you’re old enough to know better. You’re old enough to know words have power
and to use them wisely. You’re angry at Bubba, take potshots at him, not some woman you don’t know.”
   “Like I said, when I get pissed I say a lotta shit I don’t mean and what I said about you I didn’t mean,”
he repeated, beginning to look as impatient as he sounded.
   “And like I said, you’re old enough to learn you shouldn’t do that,” I repeated too, probably also
looking impatient.
   “That isn’t me,” he replied.
   “Well, then, this obviously is eating you and that’s your consequence because I have feelings and you
walked all over them and you can’t order me to shake it off so you can feel better. It’s there, burned in my
brain and I can’t just forget it because you tell me to. So you have to live with that. You can’t and want me
gone, say it now because I’m beginning to like Betty and I met Shambles and Sunny and I’m having dinner
with them tomorrow night and I’d rather not make ties when I’m going to need to hit the road because my
boss is going to get rid of me.”
   “Shambles and Sunny?” he asked.
   “Shambles and Sunny,” I answered but didn’t share more. “Now, can we just move on and do our best
to work together and all other times avoid each other or do you want me to go?”
   He moved forward an inch and I again fought the urge to retreat.
   “Forgiveness is divine,” he said softly and I’d never heard him talk soft. He had a very nice voice but
when it went soft, it was beautiful.
   This also sucked.
   “I’m not divine,” I returned. “I’m also not Ace and I’m not Babe. I’m Lauren. You don’t like my name,
don’t call me anything at all. Now can I clean the danged table?”
   I had my head tipped back to look him in the eye but I could tell he was expending effort to hold his
whole body still.
   Then he said in that soft voice, “I’m sorry, Ace.”
   “Me too,” I replied instantly being clear I didn’t accept his apology which wasn’t a nice thing to do but
then again, I was trying out this not being nice thing and I found that what he said hurt so much I could do
it so I was going to go with it. “Now can I get back to work?”
   He moved so he was far less than foot away and edging into my space.
   “Krys told me your story,” he said quietly and I sighed but didn’t speak. “You bust your husband’s balls
like this?”
   I felt my innards seize and it didn’t feel very nice.
   Then I asked, “Are you pissed now? Is that the reason for the latest asshole remark?”
   “Nope, just curious.”
   “Then no,” I replied and went on to share with brutal honesty, “I loved him. He meant everything to me.
I thought we were happy, mostly. We had our crap times but most of the time I thought we were happy. Or
at least I was. So I didn’t need to bust his balls because I loved him, we were good together and we had a
good life. That is, until I found out it was all a lie, every last nuance of it, and I still didn’t bust his balls. I
granted him a divorce, sold our house and stepped aside. I could have wrung him dry but it would only
prolong my sorrow and maybe build bitterness so what’s the point of that?”
   Tate watched me while I spoke, his eyes riveted to mine in a strange way that made it seem like the
words I spoke etched themselves on his soul the instant I said them and when I was done he asked, “So
you forgive him for bein’ a cheatin’ asshole and a liar and a dickhead who’s so fuckin’ dumb he throws
away a good thing but you can’t forgive me for sayin’ somethin’ stupid?”
   “I didn’t forgive him. I just didn’t bust his balls. That was your question and that was my answer. Now
can I wipe down the table?”
   He was silent for several long moments before he said, “Yeah, Ace, you can wipe the table and we can
find a way to work together but I’ll tell you straight, I ain’t puttin’ the effort in to avoid you just because
you’re holdin’ tight to somethin’ that didn’t mean shit. You can try to avoid me but it ain’t a big bar, it
ain’t a big town – you got attitude and you’re stubborn as all hell but you ain’t gonna be able to avoid me.
Our paths will cross.”
   I looked to the ceiling. “Great, more reasons to lose sleep.”
   “Babe,” he called and I rolled my eyes back to him.
   “Stop calling me babe,” I demanded.
   Tate ignored me. “You want sweet dreams, lose the attitude and you might find I’ll give you reason to
have them.”
   I felt my body seize at his words but he was done. I knew this because he turned and walked away,
going straight down the hall until the murky darkness enveloped him and I lost sight of him.
   My body stayed frozen while new words in Tate’s deep, rough voice ricocheted around in my brain.
   And a dickhead who’s so fuckin’ dumb he throws away a good thing...
   And if that wasn’t enough…
   You want sweet dreams, lose the attitude and you might find I’ll give you reason to have them.
   The first one was undeniably nice. The second one I didn’t get at all.
   “Hey there, Lauren,” I heard, jumped at the sound and whirled to see Jim-Billy entering. “I’m early but
could I have a draft?”
   I looked at my watch then at Jim-Billy. “It’s just past eleven thirty.”
   “I had a tough mornin’,” Jim-Billy replied, heading to his stool.
   “What happened?” I asked, abandoning the still dirty table and going to Jim-Billy.
   “I woke up,” Jim-Billy answered and then stopped talking.
   “You woke up…” I prompted.
   “Yep,” he said. “Now can I have a draft?”
   I couldn’t help it, after that scene with Tate, what he said, what it might mean, the fact that I really
didn’t like him and not only had to work with him but he was my boss, what Jim-Billy said made me laugh
so hard I had to throw my head back to do it. Maybe it wasn’t that funny but I really needed the release of
a laugh so I took it.
   I put down my cloth and the spray and headed behind the bar.
   “Don’t know if I’m allowed but seeing as you had to wake up and all, you deserve a draft.” I grabbed a
mug and went to the taps. “And anyway, maybe me serving you will get me fired.”
   “You wanna get fired?” Jim-Billy asked.
   “Right now I do,” I replied.
   “You been here two days, woman,” Jim-Billy reminded me. “And three days ago you practically
begged Krystal to take you on.”
   “Yes, but I got to work with Krystal those two days, Tate’s in today,” I told him, filling the mug with
beer.
   “Darlin’, every other waitress in this bar and most the women in this town would think it the other way
around,” Jim-Billy returned.
   “I’m not them,” I retorted, pushed back the tap and took the beer to Jim-Billy seeing his eyebrows up
and his forehead scrunched together in long lines.
   “You got a problem with Tate?” he asked in disbelief.
   Seeing that even though Tate wasn’t nice enough to know better but I was, I didn’t share by saying
words I shouldn’t say.
   I threw a beer mat in front of Jim-Billy and put his mug on it. “We just don’t see eye-to-eye.”
   “Shit,” Jim-Billy muttered and I saw he looked like he was fighting a smile.
   “Shit what?” I asked.
   “Nothin’,” Jim-Billy mumbled into the beer mug that was at his lips.
   “Shit what?” I repeated and Jim-Billy took a sip then grinned at me.
   “’Nother time, Lauren, when you aren’t on and you and me are shootin’ the shit, drinkin’ a brew, I’ll
tell you shit what.”
   “Jesus, Billy, we aren’t open for twenty minutes.” I heard Tate say and I jumped a mile as he walked up
behind me and then stopped at my back, just to the side but then leaned a hand into the bar so he was
totally in my space. So totally in my space, I felt the heat from his body and if I moved, I knew my
shoulder would brush his chest.
   I was forcing my body to stay still again while Jim-Billy was surveying Tate and me and continuing to
fight his smile.
   “You know how it is, Jackson,” Jim-Billy replied and that was the second time I heard someone refer
to Tate as Jackson and I wondered why. Was that his last name?
   “I know how it is, Billy,” Tate said in that soft voice of his. Then he said, “Ace, you gonna wipe down
those tables or what?”
   I twisted my neck to look at him to see he was staring down at me and he was closer than I expected
and I expected him to be pretty danged close. He was also back to looking impatient and I resisted the
urge to give him a sharp elbow to the ribs.
   “Right away, oh Captain, my Captain,” I mumbled and moved away, nabbing the spray and cloth.
                                                    *****
   “Two Miller Lites, a vodka rocks and a Jack and Coke,” I ordered from Tate, my eyes bent to my pad
of paper where I kept my notes as to what I ordered.
   I learned about two hours into my shift that this was a perfect way of avoiding eye contact and
pretending he didn’t exist at all. If I tried hard enough, I could almost believe my drinks appeared by
magic.
   Now it was ten minutes from the end of my shift and I was nearly home free.
   This tactic had worked beautifully and I’d been able to do it nearly my entire shift seeing as we were
busy nearly all day. Ten bikers roared in at one thirty and hadn’t left and with the drifters and the regulars
I’d been pretty much on the go which was an excuse to be away from Tate.
   I was also attempting to ignore Tate’s very existence by sliding into research mode, trying out strategies
in an effort to up my tips. I was keeping track and I figured what I was doing was working.
   My first strategy was to be a little more friendly and talkative, take a little more time and hang out and
it appeared the boys liked that. So, since that worked, my next strategy was to find out names, memorize
them and use them. Even if you weren’t at your regular bar, anyone liked to be made to feel at home, and
nothing felt like home more than someone knowing you, or acting like they did, or at least that’s what I
guessed and, from keeping tabs on by my escalating tips, I was right.
   In no time at all, I found when I was in my approach to see if anyone needed a fresh one, eyes slid to
me, smiles lit faces and the witty rapport would ensue, sometimes even before I made it to them they’d
call out a joke or a silly compliment I knew they didn’t mean.
   And sometimes they’d order drinks even though their last ones weren’t close to empty.
   And my tips went up and up.
   Because of this, I was pretty pleased with myself and my efforts for the day even though they came on a
day I had to share with Tate.
   “Babe,” Tate called, taking me from my end of shift pleasant thoughts.
   “Yeah?” I answered, pulling a pencil from behind my ear to make my additions to my pad.
   “Ace,” he called.
   “Yeah?” I answered again, scratching on my pad.
   “For fuck’s sake, Lauren, look at me,” Tate demanded and my head came up because he used my name
for the first time ever and also because he sounded slightly angry.
   “Yes?” I asked.
   He was leaning into the bar with both fists on the top but out to his sides. This could be a casual stance
for some but for him it seemed both aggressive and dominant.
   “What’s your game here?” he asked.
   “Sorry?” I asked back, confused at his question and his apparent irritation.
   “Your game,” he repeated then went on, shaking his head. “Fuck it, I don’t care. Just stop playin’ it.”
   My head tipped a bit to the side when I asked, “What are you talking about?”
   “Don’t be stupid,” he answered and at his words, I edged closer to the bar as I felt my temper snag.
   “Stupid?” I whispered.
   “Gettin’ friendly with those guys to make your point.” He jerked his head to the pool tables to his right
where my most generous customers, and my new best buds, the bikers from one thirty had been camped
out.
   “What point?” I asked.
   “And don’t think I’m stupid,” he told me.
   Now I was really confused.
   “I don’t think you’re stupid.”
   “You do if you think I don’t get your game.”
   I changed tactics. “Why’s it stupid to be friendly? I thought it was my job.”
   “Your job is to turn drinks, not flirt and get yourself into trouble.”
   Now I wasn’t confused and my temper wasn’t snagged, it was frayed.
   I leaned into the bar too, put a hand on it and my voice got quiet as I hissed, “I’m not flirting!”
   “Babe, shit, seriously? Do I look dumb?”
   “No, but you are if you think I’m flirting,” I replied and I watched his face grow hard.
   Then he leaned in further too, taking his fists from the bar and leaning onto both of his forearms, one
resting on either side of my hand so he was in my face.
   “Knock it off,” he ordered and the way he said those three words, I knew he wasn’t irritated, he was,
for some reason, angry.
   “I’m not going to knock it off,” I said. “My tips are awesome!”
   “You think we had problems before, you keep playin’ those boys, you’ll see what a problem with me
means.”
   I stared at him.
   How could he have problem? He said half his waitresses were terrible, one would think he’d leap for
joy to get a friendly one who sold a lot of booze.
   “Have you been sampling your wares?” I asked only half sarcastically, the other half was seriously but
he didn’t take this very well for he leaned in even further so he wasn’t only in my face, he was an inch
away from it.
   “Don’t try me,” he bit out.
   “Don’t threaten me,” I shot back.
   “Hey! Cool!” We heard shouted, Tate’s eyes went over my shoulder and I twisted to see a very petite
woman running at me. She had dark hair cut in a short pixie that looked great on her, a friendly open face
with big, doe eyes, she was wearing a t-shirt that said “McLeod’s Gym, Burn It!”, a pair of jeans and flip-
flops and her face was devoid of makeup.
   And she was also cut, as in, cut. So in shape I could see all the muscles in her arms.
   She skidded to a halt in front of me, this perfect stranger, and then she wrapped her toned arms around
me and gave me a hug. Stiff in her arms, because of my nature, I still couldn’t stop myself hugging her
back.
   “Hey!” she shouted, head tipped back to look at me when she let me go and backed up a half a step.
“I’m Wendy. You’re Lauren! So cool!”
   “Hey,” I replied, deciding automatically that I liked Wendy. Back in the day, with my family especially
and early on with Brad, I was a cuddler. I liked to touch. I liked to hug. I liked to snuggle and hold hands.
With my Mom, my Dad, Caroline, Brad – anyone really, if we were close.
   Those days were gone, I hadn’t had a hug in a long time and it didn’t matter that it came from a perfect
stranger who, even petite, looked like she could snap me like a twig. I still liked it and I liked her.
   “I heard about you. Jim-Billy and Nadine said you were neat and I can’t wait to work with you! Won’t
that be fun?”
   She was rolling up and down on her toes, filled with such energy and enthusiasm it was unnatural. It felt
like she needed so much she was sucking it from the very atmosphere, including me.
   “Yeah, fun,” I said on a smile.
   She leaned to the side and waved. “Hey Tate.”
   “Wendy,” Tate returned.
   “I’m gonna go dump my purse. Why don’t you hang out during my shift so we can chat?” she asked.
   “Um…” I said, preparing to answer (and that answer, due to Tate’s presence and weird behavior,
would sadly be no) but before I could speak, she rounded on a foot and dashed around the bar.
   “You got any tabs runnin’?” I heard Tate ask and I turned back to him.
   “Yeah,” I answered.
   “Cash ‘em out. You’re off,” he declared and my eyes went to the big Coors Light clock over the bar.
   “I’ve got ten minutes before Wendy’s on,” I reminded him. “And Jonelle’s not here yet.”
   Nor, if yesterday was any indication, would she be for at least half an hour.
   “Serve your drinks,” his head nodded to my tray, “and fuckin’ cash out.”
   “But –”
   “Not big on repeatin’ myself, babe.”
   “Not big on being called babe, babe.”
   Honestly!
   I didn’t know I had it in me but I must have because Tate sure drew it right out.
   “You hand Krys this attitude?” he asked me.
   “I like Krystal,” I lied. “And she’s never threatened me and she’s never called me old, fat or a sorry-
ass!” I snapped, grabbed my tray and stomped away.
   I didn’t know both Jim-Billy and Nadine heard every word we’d said. I also didn’t know why Tate got
under my skin and made me act like a bitchy raving lunatic. I also didn’t dwell since I decided early he
was a jerk and had given myself permission to be a bitch. So, he kept acting like a jerk then he’d keep
getting the bitch.
   I served my drinks, calculated my tab and luckily could cash it out from my apron and I called hello to
Dalton when he walked in. I also dragged my heels until Wendy hit the floor at a couple minutes to seven.
Then I went behind the bar and slapped my apron down close to Dalton.
   “Hey, Dalton, can you cash me out? I’m going to go freshen up,” I said to him.
   “Sure, Lauren, can you give me ten?” Dalton answered.
   “Not a problem,” I answered and turned to go to the restrooms but found my upper arm suddenly had
five strong fingers wrapped around it and my body didn’t move of its own accord to the restroom, it was
propelled by Tate to the office.
   What now?
   “Take your hand off me,” I hissed.
   “Shut your trap,” he clipped back, opened the door and pulled me in. Then he shut the door and
maneuvered me so my back was to it and he was close to my front.
   “Move away,” I demanded, half shocked that there I was, in the office, a place I didn’t want to be,
dragged there by a man I didn’t like and half scared because I didn’t know him very well and most of my
experience with him he was angry but now he looked really mad.
   “I hurt your feelings, I get it. I apologized,” he returned. “You don’t have to accept it, that’s your
choice. But you do gotta fuckin’ listen to me when I’m givin’ you good advice. Those boys out there are in
a biker gang, not a bad one but not one that shies away from trouble. You wanna be friendly enough to sell
drinks and distant enough to fly under their radar. They clocked your tits, your ass, your legs, your hair
and your attitude the minute they walked in and, trust me, Ace, you want them to admire you from afar.
What you don’t want to do is give them the in you’ve been givin’ them the past four hours.”
   “I haven’t been giving them an in,” I retorted.
   “Babe, you crawled into one of their laps, I wouldn’t have been surprised.”
   “That’s crazy!” I snapped.
   “It is? You get I’m a man?” he asked bizarrely and I stared at him a second because pretty much no one
on earth could miss that.
   “Yes, I get you’re a man,” I answered.
   “So, I get that impression from you just watchin’ your shit, what do you think they’re gettin’ bein’ on
the receivin’ end?”
   Uh-oh. As much as it killed me to admit, he had a point.
   “Um…” I mumbled.
   “Um,” he mimicked and I felt my eyes narrow on him. “Damn straight, Ace. How’d you get here?”
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “To the bar, you got your car?”
   “I walked,” I told him.
   “You’re on my Harley once Dalton cashes you out.”
   Oh no I was not.
   “What?” I shouted, yes, shouted.
   “I’m takin’ you home,” he answered.
   “No you aren’t.”
   “Babe, I am.”
   “No. You. Aren’t!” I tried to slide to the side but his hand came up and he planted his palm in the door
so I stopped. “I’m staying at the hotel until I can find a place. It’s only five blocks away.”
   “Least two of those boys been waitin’ ‘til you’re off. You think they won’t make their move now that
you are?”
   This surprised me. They were bikers in a gang but there were a couple of good-looking ones and all of
them, I thought, were nice. I thought they were having fun with me, enjoying their beer and pool and male
camaraderie with a somewhat sassy, older, fat-assed waitress breaking in on their bonding with some
witty one-liners and a cheeky grin (though some of them I guessed were my age, others a bit older and
amongst that lot were the good-looking ones).
   I didn’t think any of them might like me.
   My eyes slid to the wall which was the direction of the bar and I said quietly, “Really?”
   “Jesus,” he muttered. “You want that attention?” he asked and my eyes shot back to him.
   “Of course not!” But I had to admit, just being a breathing female; it was nice to have it all the same.
   “Then you’re on my bike.”
   “No.”
   “You get on it or I drag you to it.”
   It was my turn to get in his face. “Why are you such a jerk?”
   “I can live with you thinkin’ that, even though I’m protectin’ your ass,” he returned.
   “You missed a word. You meant to say my fat ass!”
   Then I slid the opposite direction from his arm, went to the filing cabinet where I stowed my purse and
snatched it out. When I turned to stomp back to him, he was standing in front of the door with his arms
crossed on his chest and watching me.
   I walked directly to the door, put my hand on the knob and stared at it when I demanded, “Out of my
way.”
   I felt rather than saw him move, threw open the door and stomped out.
   Dalton had my tips ready by the time I got out and he handed them to me with one of his easy smiles and
then turned to a customer.
   “Sit awhile, have a beer?” Jim-Billy asked while I shoved my tips in my purse and I looked at him to
see he was smiling at me.
   “Thanks, Jim-Billy, no,” I replied as I felt Tate enter my vicinity. “I skipped lunch and need some
dinner.”
   “Take you out to dinner then,” Jim-Billy suggested and I felt Tate stop at the end of the bar close to me
but I was looking at Jim-Billy.
   “You leave that barstool?” I asked and his smile got wider.
   “To take a pretty woman to dinner, yeah,” he answered.
   “You’re on,” I said to him.
   “You’re going?” Wendy called, practically skipping up to us before coming to a sliding halt.
   “Yeah, Wendy, I need dinner,” I told her.
   “That’s cool,” she replied and looked at Tate. “Hey Tate, can you be sure Lauren and I get a shift
together soon?”
   “She’s off tomorrow and she’s days for awhile,” Tate answered.
   Wendy looked at me. “Then I’ll call Tonia and ask her to switch shifts with me on Saturday. She’ll be
thrilled. She hates days. She’s a night owl.”
   “Wendy, babe, you know we need you on nights,” Tate put in.
   Her head tilted down so far to the side her ear nearly touched her shoulder.
   “Aw, Tate, come on. I want a shift with Lauren. Just one, please. Don’t sentence me to full on Jonelle
and Tonia for weeks,” Wendy begged and I turned to look at Tate thinking that perhaps Jonelle and Tonia
didn’t just treat me to their frosty demeanor, maybe that was just who they were and having to work with
that day in and day out (or, in this case, night in and night out) would suck.
   Tate’s eyes stayed on Wendy. “Tonia shifts, you can have Saturday.” Then his eyes moved to Jim-Billy.
“You take Ace to dinner, you walk her to the hotel.”
   “Jackson, man, why you think I’m takin’ her to dinner?” Jim-Billy asked and I felt my eyes widen.
   “I thought it was because I was a pretty woman,” I said to him and he grinned at me.
   “It is, darlin’. It’s also because there’s four boys at the pool table lookin’ hungry like a wolf and their
eyes are pinned on you,” Jim-Billy replied.
   I didn’t look at the pool tables and I didn’t want to admit Tate was right so I said to Jim-Billy, “Did
you just quote Duran Duran?”
   “Duran who?” he asked and Tate chuckled so I bit back my laughter because I didn’t intend to share
even that with him.
   Instead, I walked to Jim-Billy and pulled him off his stool by his arm.
   “Feed me, handsome,” I urged, linking my arm through his and leaning into his side.
   “Okay, now it’s just me and a pretty woman,” Jim-Billy returned and that’s when I allowed myself to
laugh at him.
   “See you Saturday, Lauren!” Wendy yelled.
   “Yeah, Wendy, Saturday,” I yelled back.
   “Hotel,” Tate called after us as we walked to the door.
   Jim-Billy lifted a hand in a wave but didn’t turn and I didn’t respond at all. I wasn’t on shift anymore,
Tate Jackson or whatever-his-last-name-was had ceased to exist.
   I turned to my buds at the pool table and shouted, “I’m off to dinner with my sugar daddy! See you guys
later!”
   “Bye Laurie!”
   “Bye darlin’!”
   “Bye babe!”
   “Bye gorgeous!”
   “Later!”
   And so on.
   I walked out smiling because all those farewells were nice and no one tried to jump me and Jim-Billy
in order to wrest me from him and drag me by the hair to their cave.
   So take that Tate Whatever-His-Last-Name-Was.
   Okay, so he hadn’t exactly ceased to exist… whatever.
Chapter Four
Nighttime Swimming
   “Later!” Wendy called, hanging out the window of her blue Honda CR-V.
   “Later!” I called back and then inserted the key into the lock of my hotel room, twisted it, opened the
door, walked in, heard the door close behind me and fell face first onto my bed.
   I’d just been to McLeod’s Gym, owned by Wendy’s boyfriend, Tyler, who was a six foot, blond
powerhouse with biceps so huge I couldn’t wrap both my hands around one (and, at Wendy’s invitation
and Tyler’s smiling agreement, I’d tried). Tyler did boot camps three times a week where fifteen insane
Carnalites showed up at seven in the morning to be tortured.
   On Saturday, Wendy had talked me into trying a session and I told her I probably shouldn’t unless I had
a day off. Luckily (to Wendy’s way of thinking) one of the boot camps was on Tuesday.
   Today. My day off.
   I thought during the session I was going to throw up. Then later during the session I thought I was going
to die. I didn’t do either and I’d survived and kept myself standing and breathing all through Wendy taking
me to her and Tyler’s condo to make me a protein shake which consisted of organic Greek yogurt, a
banana, a tablespoon of peanut butter, a squeeze of honey, a dash of milk, a bunch of ice cubes and a
scoop of protein powder.
   The protein shake was delicious and the best part of my morning.
   But at that moment lying facedown on my bed, I was pretty sure I was going to die.
   Regardless, I was on Day Eight in Carnal and, notwithstanding boot camp torture, I knew I’d made the
right decision.
                                                      *****
   After my first day working with Tate at Bubba’s, Jim-Billy took me to dinner at the diner where he
spent an hour entertaining me. I hadn’t laughed so much or so hard in so long I forgot how good the pain
felt when your belly hurt deep down just from laughing. Jim-Billy’s eyes often strayed to my chest area
but I could forgive that because all the rest of the time he was darned funny and definitely sweet.
   After he walked me to the hotel, I entered to find my room had undergone a mini-transformation. There
was a six drawer dresser on the wall by the door and my clothes that had been folded and stacked on the
built-in dresser were gone and I found they’d been moved into the new dresser. On top of the standing
dresser was a vase of fresh flowers. On top of the built-in there was an electric kettle, two huge coffee
mugs with colorful swirls on them sitting next to a matching sugar bowl and a creamer with a jar of instant
coffee next to that and two teaspoons. There were also two, brightly striped tea towels in colors that
matched the cups and the sugar bowl was filled. A mini fridge sat beside the mug paraphernalia on the
built-in and when I looked inside I saw there was a jug of milk, a bottle of cheap champagne and a note
that read:
   Welcome home, Betty and Ned.
   PS: We already had the dresser and we weren’t using it.
   Reading it, I walked backwards, clutching the note in my hand, until my knees hit the bed.
   I sat down and burst into tears.
                                                      *****
   The next day I got up early, got ready to face the day and went to have coffee with Betty.
   By the time I made it to her, she’d had her breakfast and opened up so I sat in reception with her while
we sipped and chatted. Then I went to my car and drove it to the mechanics at the other end of town and
learned very quickly what Tate was talking about the day before.
   Carnal was definitely a small town and because of that, it would make it hard to avoid him.
   I learned this because Tate was in the massive forecourt of the mechanics, standing by his Harley and
talking to a man that was nearly as tall as him but older and softer with long gray hair pulled back in a
ponytail and he sported a beer belly. The gray-haired man was wearing jeans, a black t-shirt and a black
leather vest with a bunch of patches on it. Tate was wearing jeans, his boots and another tight, long-
sleeved t-shirt, not a Henley this time and it was navy blue.
   I ignored Tate, parked, got out and started walking to the door with a sign over it that said “Office”.
   I had long since had a strict personal edict that there was never a time when you were allowed to look
bad. Of course, when I was in denial that my marriage was collapsing and I was ignoring the signs, I
started to put on weight but I never quit doing my hair and putting on at least light makeup and a decent
outfit before going out anywhere, even if it was a quick stop at the grocery store. Then I overheard two
friends talking, I confronted Brad with what I heard them say, he came clean about Hayley and that he
wanted out and I spent two months eating everything that was edible and dragging around town like the
sorry-ass Tate thought I was.
   One morning, I’d found I was out of coffeecake and since I ate half of one most mornings for breakfast,
I got in my car in my pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt and went to the grocery store. I was on a mission
for coffeecake but the minute I walked into the store I saw Brad, dressed in a suit and ready to go to the
office, and Hayley, slim and perfect and wearing a fashionable, figure-skimming dress and high heels, all
of this flashing toned legs and arms and her pert bottom. They were standing and waiting for drinks at the
chain coffee booth at the front of the store. They looked perfect together and they were smiling at each
other about something, clearly in their own little happy world bubble.
   And I was in my pajamas, I hadn’t washed my hair in three days and I knew I intended to go to work
without doing my hair, putting on makeup or ironing my clothes.
   I didn’t get the coffeecake. I rushed back to my car, went home and took a shower, shaved my legs for
the first time in forever, did my hair, ironed my clothes and made it to work with just seconds to spare.
   I also vowed never to let myself sink that low again. Not for losing my beautiful Brad to the perfect
Hayley, not for anything.
   Unfortunately, I didn’t stop eating but at least it was something.
   That day, in Carnal, at the mechanics, even though it was my day off, I still put on a to-the-knee jeans
skirt that was a muted shade of red, a red that was just a bit off rust and my mushroom-colored, knit top
that was one of the few articles of clothing that I’d bought in semi-recent times (which was to say, over a
year ago) that Brad commented on, telling me I looked good in it (before he led me to our bed and took it
off). It fit well, even a bit tight, had an empire seam under my breasts, a shelf bra that worked wonders
against gravity, a deep vee that exposed just above a hint of cleavage and it was sleeveless. I’d parted my
hair to the side, plaited it in soft French braids down both sides and secured it at the back with a big, oval
tortoiseshell clip. I’d put in medium-hoop silver earrings that had a row of red beads dangling from the
bottom and a wide, stretchy bracelet that was also beaded in different shades of red and brown. I’d also
put on my brown sandals that had a short, but cute, heel that I thought did wonders for my calves,
crisscross thin straps at the toe and a matching wraparound strap at the ankle.
   I was lucky in one respect, I might be carrying extra weight but my legs and calves were impervious.
Even slightly heavy, they were so well formed, they always looked good – this I got from my mother’s
side of the family, bless her.
   I started toward the office and didn’t make it when three men emerged from one of the two big, double
bays in which there were a bunch of cars and bikes being worked on.
   I stopped, waited and two of the three men glanced at the front runner, a close-cropped-black-haired
man who had a thick goatee with a hint of gray in it and a solid body (great arms with lots of interesting-
looking tattoos). He looked to be a few inches taller than me even in my mini-heels. He was wearing a
white t-shirt, faded jeans and motorcycle boots and all (but the boots, but what did I know, they were
black, they could be) were stained with black smears of grease.
   “Hey,” he said when he was several feet away, his hands held a cloth that was also white with black
smears and he was adding to the stains as he twisted it around his fingers. “Can I help you?”
   I started toward him and met him halfway with a smile.
   “Hi, that’s my car.” I twisted and pointed at my black Lexus, seeing across the forecourt that both Tate
and the man he was talking to had their eyes on me. Therefore I twisted back to the black-haired man. “I
need some work done.”
   “What’s wrong?” he asked
   “Nothing, I’ve just been on the road awhile. I need an oil change, maybe a tune up, the tires rotated and
it’d be cool to get it detailed. Do you do that?”
   He grinned at me and I noticed he had nice white teeth that seemed whiter against his goatee and tan
face.
   “Yep,” he answered and I smiled back at him.
   “Great, how long will it take?”
   “We’re covered,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the mess of vehicles in the bays and then back
at me. “Shop’s closed on Sunday. It’ll probably be late Monday.”
   I bit my lip since I needed my car to go to Sunny and Shambles’s house that night.
   He saw me biting my lip and asked, “You need a loaner?”
   “You do that?”
   “No,” he replied and I couldn’t help it, I blinked.
   “Then, um…”
   He interrupted my mumbling. “Find one for you, though.”
   I blinked again, surprised.
   “Really?”
   He grinned again. “Yep.”
   “Okay, that’d be nice. I’ll, uh… pay extra if you like.”
   “Not necessary,” he said. “You draw down the tank, just fill it up before you return it. That good?”
   I smiled at him. “Yeah, that’s great. Very nice of you.”
   “Not nice,” he replied.
   “Sorry?”
   “I’m not nice,” he repeated.
   I tipped my head to the side. “You seem nice to me.”
   “It’d be nice, I was doin’ this just to do it. I’m not doin’ it just to do it. I’m doin’ it so you’ll owe me.”
   I blinked again and righted my head.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Like the idea that you’d owe me.”
   “Oh,” I whispered because I really didn’t know what else to say to that odd and vaguely scary (but also
vaguely exciting) remark.
   He stuck out a big, strong, attractive hand that had black grease stains edging his fingernails. “I’m
Wood.”
   I took his hand and his fingers closed around mine, not shaking it, just holding it strong and tight and not
letting go.
   “I’m Lauren,” I said softly because he was kind of freaking me out.
   “Pretty name,” he muttered, his black eyes not leaving mine, “suits you.”
   “Thanks.” I was still talking soft.
   “You new to town?” he asked, not dropping my hand.
   “Yes,” I answered, wondering if I should but not stopping myself or pulling my hand away.
   “Where you from?” he asked.
   “Um… Phoenix, kind of. I grew up in Indiana though.”
   “What’re you doin’ in Carnal?”
   I shrugged even though he still had hold of my hand and I kept talking even though I didn’t know if I
should. “Found myself roaming, roamed here, liked it and stayed.”
   He threw his head back and laughed, at the same time giving my hand a gentle tug so I had to take a half
a step toward him.
   When he stopped laughing he dipped his chin and looked in my eyes again.
   “Roamed to Carnal, liked it and stayed. You crazy?”
   “No,” I replied.
   “Think you are, you just don’t know it.”
   “Um… can you let go of my hand?” I whispered.
   “No,” he whispered back and I felt my heartbeat speed up.
   “Ace,” I heard Tate call and I twisted my head to see him striding up to us, his long legs eating the
distance, the gray-haired man he was with struggling to keep up.
   “Tate, hey,” I said to him, tugged at my hand and luckily Wood let it go.
   “Ace?” Wood asked and I turned back to him.
   “Um… Tate’s nickname for me,” I said and Wood’s face got a little scary.
   “Tate’s nickname?” he asked as Tate stopped somewhat close to my side.
   “She’s mine,” Tate announced, my body gave a little jerk at his curiously proprietary words and my
head twisted fast to look up at him.
   “Yours?” Wood asked and his voice was now a little scary.
   “I work for him,” I explained and watched Wood’s face and body relax.
   “Ah,” he murmured, crossed his arms on his chest and his mouth twitched.
   “You got car troubles?” Tate asked me, ignoring Wood.
   “She needs an oil change and a detail,” Wood answered for me, not ignoring Tate, then he looked at the
gray-haired man. “I’m givin’ her the ‘Stang as a loaner.”
   The gray-haired man’s bushy eyebrows went straight to his hairline and I felt Tate go tense at my side.
   “You’re givin’ her the ‘Stang as a loaner for an oil change?” the gray-haired man asked, clearly
surprised.
   “Yep,” Wood answered casually.
   “Shee-it,” the gray-haired man muttered.
   “Um… I can walk, mostly,” I informed them. “But I have to go to Shambles and Sunny’s tonight so I
need a car, just for tonight.”
   “I’ll give you a ride on my bike,” Tate offered and my head twisted again, and again it was fast, and I
did this just so I could stare at him.
   Then I said, “That isn’t necessary.”
   “When you gotta be there?” Tate asked.
   Before I could decline, Wood spoke. “She’s gettin’ the ‘Stang.”
   Tate’s eyes sliced to Wood and he returned, “I got her.”
   “We already made the deal,” Wood replied.
   “I got her,” Tate repeated.
   “Um…” I mumbled, Tate’s gaze sliced to me and at the look in his eyes I clamped my mouth shut.
   “You’re on my bike,” he growled.
   “She’s in the ‘Stang,” Wood growled back and Tate looked back at him and I could swear, for some
reason, if anyone moved it would set them off and they’d jump and rip each other’s throats’ out.
   “Flower Petal!” I heard, I braced for mayhem but turned to see Shambles, his long hair flying out
behind him, his blue-tinted, round glasses on his nose, he was carrying a plate with a napkin on it and
what looked like pieces of bread and he was running toward us.
   “Hey Shambles,” I called.
   He skidded to a halt at our grouping and smiled at me, oblivious to the bizarre tension that was curling
insidiously through the air.
   “You didn’t come for coffee today,” Shambles accused good-naturedly.
   “That’s my next stop,” I told him.
   “Groovintude!” he shouted.
   “Is that your banana bread?” I motioned to the plate with my head.
   “Yeah!” he yelled. “Been wanderin’ the sidewalk all mornin’ handin’ it out. Like, five people took a
bite and then walked right to the shop to get themselves a slice. You… are… genius!” Shambles
answered on another yell.
   “Great,” I smiled at him then pulled in breath, turned to the boys and declared, “That banana bread is
the best you’ll ever eat and you can get it right down the street.”
   I saw all the men were staring at Shambles like they didn’t know what to make of him but what they
were coming up with they didn’t like all that much.
   Then Shambles looked around the forecourt and his eyes came to me.
   “You got car troubles?” he asked.
   “No,” I answered quickly before anyone else could say anything. “Just need an oil change and stuff.
Though, my car’ll be here for awhile.”
   “Okay, that’s groovy, Sunny and I’ll swing by the hotel and pick you up before we go home. You come
up early, you can help me smush chick peas for the hummus.”
   Thank God for Shambles, unexpected but welcome problem-solver.
   “That’s perfect,” I told him.
   “Awesome!” he cried. “Be at your place at five-ish.”
   “See you then,” I said and he looked at the guys and stuck his plate to them.
   “Bread?” he asked.
   “Pass,” Tate growled, glaring at Shambles.
   “No,” Wood growled, also glaring at Shambles.
   “I’ll take a piece,” the gray-haired man said and then took a piece, popped it in his mouth and chewed
while Shambles watched.
   “Well?” Shambles asked.
   The gray-haired man looked at me and stated, “You’re right, sweetheart, that shit’s great.”
   “Right on!” Shambles yelled.
   “You should taste his coffee,” I said to the gray-haired man, “heaven.”
   “May do that,” he mumbled as Tate and Wood remained staunchly silent.
   “Speakin’ a’ that, Flower Petal, you haven’t had your fix,” Shambles put in.
   “Oh, right, yeah,” I muttered then turned to Wood and held out my keys. “I’ll be back on Monday?”
   “Need your number,” Wood replied, taking my keys and Tate got tense at my side again.
   “My number?” I asked, forcing my eyes to stay on Wood.
   “Yeah, baby, need it if we find somethin’ you need to know about,” Wood replied, he wasn’t tense and
his voice had gone gentle and him calling me baby in that gentle voice, I had to admit, I liked.
   “I don’t have a number,” I told him. “I’m at the hotel.”
   “Ace,” Tate bit off quietly and I looked at him to see, for some reason, he was shaking his head.
   “You don’t have a cell?” Wood asked and I looked at him.
   “Well, I do, it just isn’t charged and has a Phoenix number. I haven’t charged it in four months.”
   All the men stared at me, including Shambles, but it was Tate who spoke.
   “Babe, what in the fuck are you thinking?”
    I looked up at him and saw that, just like anytime I was around Tate, I’d done something to piss him off.
    “Sorry?” I asked.
    “Jesus, honest to God, are you insane?” Tate asked.
    “Why?” I snapped, because, just like anytime I was around Tate, he did something to piss me off.
    “A woman alone without a goddamned phone?” Tate went on.
    “Yes, so?”
    Tate turned fully to me and got closer. “So?”
    “So?” I repeated.
    He looked over my head and muttered, “Christ almighty.” Then his eyes came back to mine. “You got a
death wish?”
    I put my hand to my hip and asked acidly, “Captain, tell me, how does me not having a cell phone
translate into me having a death wish?”
    “It ain’t safe,” he answered.
    “I’m standing here breathing, aren’t I?” I shot back.
    “Way you’re goin’, Ace, I give you a month,” he returned.
    “I can take care of myself,” I snapped.
    “You aren’t in suburbia anymore, babe,” he informed me.
    “Yeah, I’m not,” I retorted and leaned into him. “Duh!”
    Tate’s face turned to stone.
    It would seem, considering I continued to speak regardless of Tate’s stony expression, that I might have
a death wish.
    “Jeez, Captain, it’s a town filled with bikers, not Viking marauders!”
    That’s when I watched Tate’s face turn to granite.
    “Uh… Flower Petal,” Shambles edged close and took my hand, “maybe we should get you some
coffee.”
    I didn’t pry my eyes away from Tate’s furious ones as I spoke to Shambles. “That sounds great.”
    Shambles tugged at my hand and I continued glaring at Tate and he continued scowling at me as I
walked two steps away. Then I looked to Wood and said, “Thanks, Wood. Lovely to meet you.”
    Wood was looking at Tate but when I spoke to him his eyes came to mine, he smiled slow and he
muttered, “Yeah, Lauren.”
    “Bye,” I said to the gray-haired guy I hadn’t been introduced to.
    “Later, sweetheart,” he replied.
    Then I turned away and walked with Shambles out of the forecourt and turned with him on the
sidewalk.
    It didn’t occur to me until way later that Shambles and I held hands all the way to his shop.
                                                     *****
    Sunny and Shambles drove an old VW van and lived in a log cabin that was powered by two
windmills. Every piece of land surrounding their cabin either had newly planted flowers or vegetables
planted in it and they had a fledgling grape arbor. They told me they turned on the hot water heater half an
hour before they needed hot water and turned it off when they were done. And we ate on the floor because
most of their furniture was big pillows or bean bags.
    They were also immensely kind, extraordinarily generous and Shambles had a gift in the kitchen – and
not just with baked goods.
    When I told them about my journey to Carnal, they both nodded as if in complete understanding.
    Then Sunny said, “We so get that, Petal. That’s how we both felt the minute we drove into town.”
    “It wasn’t anything,” Shambles went on. “It was just this feeling, this strong feeling, we both had it and
it just screamed, here!”
   “So we stayed here,” Sunny finished on a sweet smile, leaned forward, took my hand and squeezed.
   They drove me home and, full of their good food and the homemade wine they brought from Austin,
Texas where they used to live, I fell right to sleep.
   But I woke up in the middle of night, as usual, but it wasn’t because I heard Tate saying I was fat and
old. It was hearing his deep voice saying, “She’s mine.”
   Tossing and turning and not able to get to sleep, I got up, booted up my laptop and sent my parents and
sister another e-mail, telling them I thought I’d found my new home and telling them a little bit about Ned
and Betty, Jim-Billy and Sunny and Shambles.
   Still not sleepy after I sent my e-mail, I got up and looked out my window to the parking lot. There
were two Harleys, an SUV and an old station wagon in the lot.
   It was after three in the morning but I figured most people didn’t sleep light like me and swimming
wasn’t loud so they wouldn’t hear me. I changed into my suit and went to the pool, slid in quietly and did
my laps. I was getting better mostly because I was pushing myself not to take breaks, just to go slower and
keep on going. I eeked out fifty laps with only two rest periods and then pulled myself out of the pool.
   When I did, I heard a Harley idling somewhat close but that wasn’t unusual in Carnal so I didn’t even
look. I just toweled off, pulled on my sweatpants, wrapped the towel around my hair, grabbed my flip-
flops and sweatshirt and ran-walked to my room.
   After my shower, I fell straight to sleep.
                                                    *****
   The Saturday shift with Wendy was a revelation.
   Her energy didn’t come from sucking it out of the atmosphere. Instead, there was so much of it, it filled
the air and jazzed Dalton (our bartender that day) and me right up with her.
   The three of us had a blast. I found Dalton had a dry wit and didn’t mind leaving the bar to help us
collect empties. Wendy was hilarious and didn’t mind shouting across the bar any thought that came into
her head and she did this often (thus her having the idea I join her at a boot camp from which ensued our
shouting back and forth and her finally talking me into it). Usually, though, these were just wild ideas that
made Dalton, me and all the patrons laugh (not that me doing a boot camp wasn’t a wild idea, I just didn’t
know it at the time). She also didn’t have an issue with full on making fun of Tonia and Jonelle and even
did an impersonation of both of them, each lasting at least ten minutes, which again had Dalton, me and all
the customers in stitches.
   Krystal showed up at four thirty looking her usual angry that the earth was still rotating but Wendy
didn’t change her behavior one bit and the great vibe continued regardless of Krystal imitating a wet
blanket.
   Jonelle showed at a quarter after seven and Wendy agreed to stay on until Tonia waltzed in so I
gratefully took off. Saturdays were very different than normal days and this included there being five
times as many people in the bar. I was run off my feet and, as much fun as I had, I wanted to get home.
   I was walking back from the grocery store where I bought some deli meat, bread, diet pop and fruit
when I saw Tate pull his Harley into Bubba’s.
   His head turned my way as he rode in so my head tipped down and I studiously examined my feet as I
kept going.
   Thankfully, he was in the building by the time I walked passed Bubba’s (I peeked).
   I went to the hotel, made myself a sandwich, ate an apple and then took the champagne to the reception
desk where Ned was sitting.
   “Betty still up?” I asked when I walked in, holding up the champagne and I saw his big grin light his
face.
   “I’ll go get her,” he said.
   “And glasses!” I called after him as he walked away.
   “Glasses!” he called back.
   Then Betty, Ned and I sat in reception, drinking champagne and playing Harry Potter Clue. They were
both big Harry Potter fans, each had read the books and seen the movies so many times they lost count
(their words) and, being a fan myself, the Clue game was fabulous.
   Betty eventually had to hit the sack so I chatted with Ned for awhile, said my goodnight on a smile and
then headed back to my room.
                                                    *****
   I woke in the middle of the night and since the swimming thing worked so well the night before, I did it
again and pushed myself harder, doing fifty laps with only one rest.
   I was thinking about how pleased I was with my effort as I toweled off and went to my room.
Therefore, I didn’t notice the silent man watching me on his silent Harley that was parked on the side
street butting the hotel and couldn’t have known he’d been doing it for fifteen minutes.
                                                    *****
   Working with Tonia on Sunday was a lot less fun than working with Wendy. Krystal was on and Tonia
was an hour and a half late. When she showed, Krystal surprised me by not saying a word, just giving her
a glare that should have burned two precise laser holes through her head. Tonia ignored this totally and I
soon noticed she was good at ignoring a lot of things, including me, who she didn’t say so much as “boo”
to, and her customers, unless they were good-looking.
   The good-looking ones she spent a lot of time with but not bringing them drinks. No, standing by their
tables flipping her hair around or leaning into her hands and pressing her breasts together and swinging
her booty this way and that (I’d seen Wendy do that the day before and now that I saw it, live and in
person, I thought Wendy’s impersonation was spot on and even more hilarious).
   Fortunately, Tonia ignoring her customers worked for me because all the rest of them eventually got fed
up with it and moved to my section and since I wasn’t a crap waitress, I was very busy but I also got great
tips.
   Wendy showed at ten to seven and I would have stayed until Jonelle showed at twenty past but when
Tonia and I were both at the bar and Tonia said, “I’ll just cash out,” Krystal replied, “Yeah, you’ll cash
out in an hour and a half, the time you owe me.” Then Krystal skewered her with a look, Tonia’s mouth
got tight and Krystal finished, “Ass back out on the floor and, while you’re out there, do me a favor and
sell some fuckin’ booze.”
   Wendy came back out while this was going on, she gave me a wide-eyed look and grabbed her apron.
   After my shift, I decided to stay in order to give Wendy moral support and have a beer with Jim-Billy
who, I found, showed on weekends much later.
   “Like the quiet of the days,” he told me as we drank beer.
   “It isn’t quiet now,” I told him and it wasn’t. The bar was jammed.
   Jim-Billy grinned at me. “Also like the crazy nights,” he took a sip, swallowed then finished,
“balance.”
   “Right,” I grinned back.
   Tate showed at eight thirty and I figured that was my cue to go, though I didn’t want him to think I was
leaving because of him so I hung out for long enough to make that statement. This lasted a full twenty-five
minutes all of which I avoided even looking at him.
   Then I slid a bill on the bar, kissed Jim-Billy’s cheek, called good-bye to Wendy and Krystal and
headed out.
                                                    *****
   Monday I was on days and would be for that week but, Krystal told me, I’d graduate to nights the week
after.
   Upon arrival at Bubba’s with my La-La Land coffee in one hand and carrot cinnamon muffin in the
other, I saw Tate was also on.
    His eyes came to me the minute I walked through the door.
    Before he could say a word, I asked, “You want me to re-stock?”
    I watched his jaw clench as I walked to the bar, sipping my coffee.
    When I hit the bar, Tate asked, “You ever say hello?”
    “Hello,” I replied. “Now, do you want me to re-stock?”
    He shook his head a couple of times, his eyes not leaving me and he said, “Yeah, Ace, re-stock.”
    He tossed me his keys and I waited until I was through the mouth of the hall to mutter, “Don’t call me
Ace.”
                                                       *****
    Considering ten bikers didn’t come in that day, I found it harder to avoid Tate because I didn’t have
much to do.
    Therefore, I avoided him at lunch by running to the deli and buying him, Jim-Billy and myself a
sandwich and taking a detour to La-La Land on the way back to get all of us a huge oatmeal cinnamon
cookie, even Tate.
    “I’m in a cinnamon mood!” Shambles had yelled when I questioned him on his cinnamon theme.
    The sandwiches were good, the cookies orgasmic and even Tate said so (though he didn’t use the word
“orgasmic” he used the words “the shit” as in, “These cookies are…”).
    After we ate, I took the spritz cleaner and wiped down all the tables and the chairs. That done, I braved
going behind the bar with Tate and cleaning all the glass shelves the liquor sat on and the mirror behind
it, moving bottles down and putting them back when I was done. Part of it was too high for me so I moved
the bottles down, then I climbed up on the back bar and, on my knees, kept going.
    As I was reaching in and wiping, I heard Tate ask, “You want me to get closed down?”
    “No,” I answered the shelves.
    “Then you wanna not commit a health and safety violation while the bar’s open for business?”
    “I’m perfectly fine,” I told the shelves then I let out a little scream. I did this because two hands curled
around my hips and I suddenly found my body in motion for two seconds before I found myself on my feet
in front of Tate.
    “You wanna pretend I don’t exist, Ace, do it without breaking your neck. Yeah?” he asked but didn’t
wait for me to answer. He turned and started moving the bottles back to the high shelves (something,
considering his height that was no problem for him).
    Jim-Billy chuckled. I glared at him.
    Jim-Billy audibly and visibly swallowed his chuckle but didn’t stop smiling.
    The door opened and Nadine walked in.
    “Hey Nadine,” I shouted so enthusiastically, her body jolted with surprise at my exuberant greeting.
    Jim-Billy burst out laughing.
    Nadine approached the bar. “Uh, hey there, Lauren.”
    Jim-Billy turned to her and announced, “Sam and Diane here are having a tiff.”
    Nadine’s face registered understanding and she grinned.
    “I’m not Diane,” I snapped at Jim-Billy and then poked a thumb at Tate. “And he’s not Sam.”
    “Got more hair,” Tate muttered and that was funny but I didn’t laugh even though both Nadine and Jim-
Billy did.
    I was also out of things to do to avoid Tate because Nadine sat on a barstool and Tate was already
done with the liquor and pulling out her usual bottle of Bud Light. Once he popped off the cap, threw a
mat in front of her and put it there, he moved to lean beside me where I was leaning against the back bar.
    I couldn’t move because I’d been made with my avoidance tactics so I had to pretend Tate’s existence
didn’t annoy me.
   Everyone was silent.
   Finally, Tate spoke. To me.
   “You get a cell phone yet?” he asked.
   “No,” I answered.
   “You gonna get one on your day off tomorrow?” he asked.
   “No,” I answered.
   “Mm,” he murmured.
   This was a mysterious response and I didn’t like the idea of a mysterious Tate so I asked, “What?”
   “Nothin’, babe.”
   I turned to him. “Please, can you stop calling me babe?”
   “No,” he answered.
   I rolled my eyes and lifted a hand, palm up, to him. “Can I have your keys?”
   “Why?”
   “I’m going to go do a stock take in the back.”
   His eyebrows went up even as he blinked. “You’re gonna do what?”
   “A stock take. Count what you have and see if it’s the same as what’s on the stock sheet.”
   “Bubba and Krystal do that,” Tate told me.
   “Well, I’m saving them the trouble,” I told him back.
   “Why?” he asked.
   I swung my arm out to the bar. “No one’s here. There’s nothing to do.”
   “So get a soda, take a break,” Tate suggested.
   “I can’t not be busy,” I replied.
   “Why not?” he asked.
   “I’m working, you’re paying me. I can’t drink a soda and chitchat. That’s not right. I need to be doing
something.”
   “Maybe you should get her to do a trainin’ course for Tonia and Jonelle,” Nadine put in and Tate’s
head swung in her direction in order to grin at her.
   We were close but even when we weren’t close I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen him smile.
   He looked good smiling.
   I straightened my spine and lifted my hand up again.
   “Captain, can you just give me your keys?” I asked, sounding as exasperated as I was.
   He looked down at me, still grinning, I did my best to ignore how good that looked pointed in my
direction and he dug in his front jeans pocket, came out with the keys and dropped them in my hand.
   “Knock yourself out,” he said.
   “Thanks,” I returned and hightailed it to the hall.
                                                     *****
   My stock take took awhile because it was a big job and I kept going out to check if there were more
customers. Around five thirty, I made note of where I stopped and headed out as the after work crowd
was rolling in.
   At six thirty, the after work crowd suddenly included Wood.
   As I was waiting for Dalton, who’d showed a half an hour earlier, to fill my order, Wood slid onto the
stool beside me. I looked at him and smiled.
   “Hey there,” I said.
   “Hey Lauren,” he smiled back. “Car’s done.”
   “Find anything I need to know about?” I asked.
   He shook his head. “All good.”
   That would be the case. Brad had been obsessive about taking care of our cars even though I thought
this was nuts considering he got rid of them to upgrade every two years. On a stringent schedule, he had
the oil checks done, the tires rotated, the engine tuned and both our cars regularly detailed. Not cleaned,
detailed. He spent a fortune on it. Crazy.
   “Wanna drink, Wood?” Dalton asked him.
   “Yeah,” Wood said on a chin lift, “Coors.”
   “Gotcha,” Dalton replied and turned to the fridges.
   “When’re you off?” Wood asked.
   “Sorry?” I was hefting up the tray that Dalton loaded and concentrating on balancing it on my hand.
   “Tonight, baby, when’re you off?” he repeated and his voice had gone gentle and he’d called me baby
so my eyes shot to his just as my heart started beating faster.
   “Seven, depending on when one of the girls shows.”
   “Ridin’ out tonight,” he told me then went on. “You wanna be on the back of my bike?”
   “Sorry?” I repeated, a thrill going through my belly at the thought of riding on a bike. I’d never done it
but always wanted to, always. I figured that thrill was a bit more thrilling because Wood would be the
one in front of me on that bike.
   “You get done, I’ll take you to your car, follow you to the hotel and you and me can ride out.”
   “I need to get dinner,” I said to him and he smiled.
   “Then you and me’ll ride out and get dinner,” he amended.
   “I’d like –” I started to accept but suddenly Tate was there and he had Wood’s Coors.
   “Need you to stay tonight,” Tate said, planting the Coors in front of Wood and not looking at him
because he was looking at me.
   “What?” I asked Tate.
   “Place is packed, babe, you need to stay until both Wendy and Tonia show,” Tate answered and I
looked around the bar seeing he was right. It was even more packed than it usually was with after work
drinkers.
   Still, hopeful, I suggested, “Wendy can handle this crowd with two of you behind the bar.”
   “I’m leavin’ soon, got somethin’ to see to,” Tate replied.
   “But –”
   He interrupted me. “Need you to stay.”
   “Um…” I started but he walked away.
   I turned to Wood and saw he was watching Tate and he didn’t look very happy.
   “I’m sorry Wood, I’ve got to stay,” I said softly and his head turned to me and he still didn’t look very
happy.
   “Yeah,” he replied.
   “Tonia can be pretty late. On Sunday, she was an hour and a half late. I don’t know –”
   I stopped speaking because I watched Wood’s face gentle and it looked so good, I had to concentrate
on keeping my tray aloft and not swooning.
   “’Nother time, baby,” Wood said softly.
   “Okay,” I whispered and didn’t move.
   When I didn’t move for awhile, Wood smiled at me and tipped his head to my tray. “You might wanna
serve your drinks, Lauren.”
   “Oh!” I cried. “Right. I’ll come and get my car tomorrow.”
   He nodded his head.
   “Later,” he said as I turned away.
   “Later, Wood,” I called over my shoulder.
                                                     *****
   Tonia was forty-five minutes late and by the time she showed, Wood was gone.
   She sauntered in wearing a tank top cut off just below her breasts and a mini-skirt that was almost non-
existent hanging on her hips and it was hanging in a way that it looked like it was valiantly trying not to
give up the ghost but was about to fall off. She also had on sky-high stilettos that had crisscross straps that
crissed and crossed all the way up her calves.
   When she came in, I breathed a sigh of relief because I’d been on awhile and it might have been a slow
day but it was a hectic night.
   “Hey Tate,” she breathed, her eyes dewy as she hit the bar right next to me without even glancing in my
direction.
   “You’re forty-five minutes late,” Tate replied.
   “Yeah, I –”
   “You’re also dressed like a whore,” Tate went on and I sucked in breath and my eyes shot to Dalton
who was close but edging back.
   “What?” Tonia asked.
   “You’re forty-five minutes late, you’re dressed like a whore and when you start workin’, you don’t sell
shit. Tell me, Tonia, why do I pay you?”
   “Um…” she flipped her hair because she always flipped her hair but this time I noticed it was also to
hide the fact that she was nervous, “to serve drinks.”
   “Your shift started nearly an hour ago. You serve any of those drinks in that hour?”
   “I wasn’t here, Tate, I had a situ –” Tonia began.
   “Woman, you always got a situation and I don’t give a fuck,” Tate cut her off. “Strut your ass right back
out that door. I’m done.”
   Wendy slid in beside me and stayed but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the scene in front of me.
   “Are you firing me?” Tonia whispered, her eyes growing big and her body getting tight.
   “Yeah,” Tate replied.
   “But Krystal –”
   “Bubba’s back, he never liked you, Krystal never liked you and I sure as fuck never liked you. You’re
always late and when you’re here you act like you’re in a singles club. Don’t need that shit. Go.”
   “But –”
   Tate leaned in and clipped, “Bitch, go.”
   She stared at him frozen like a deer in headlights for a second then she turned and hurried out the door.
   Tate’s eyes sliced to me and I braced.
   “You’re off. I’ll delay my shit a-fuckin’-gain and stay on.”
   “I’m fine to stay on, help Wendy,” I offered.
   He leaned in and he looked beyond his usual angry, so far beyond it I had to force my body to stay
where it was rather than take a step back.
   “Babe –” he started.
   I threw up my hands. “Right, Captain, I’m off.”
   He extended a hand to me. “Give me your apron, I’ll cash you out.”
   “I can get it on Wednesday,” I offered and his eyes hit mine again and my hands immediately went
behind my back to pull at the apron strings. “I’ll let you cash me out.”
   “Good thinkin’,” he muttered.
   I gave him my apron, he moved to the back of the bar and I turned to Wendy who gave me wide eyes but
those eyes were dancing and she was biting her lips.
   “Don’t laugh, that wasn’t funny,” I whispered.
   “Sistah, you haven’t worked with Tonia enough,” she whispered back. “Trust me, that was hi… larry…
us.”
   “Definitely,” Dalton muttered and Wendy let a giggle escape, Tate turned to us, Wendy scampered and
Dalton sauntered down the bar.
   I waited and when Tate handed me my tips, I didn’t even count them, I just mumbled, “Thanks, see you
later,” shoved my tips in my purse and got the heck out of there.
                                                       *****
   I’d had another moonlight swim that night which, right then, lying facedown on my bed, I realized was a
really stupid idea. I should have conserved my energy or maybe broke into the Italian restaurant, fixed
myself a mess of spaghetti and carbed up.
   I dragged myself out of the bed, took a shower, did the most minimal toilette preparations I would
allow (blow dried hair, face powder, swipe of blush and mascara), put on a pair of white shorts (that
were strangely hanging way loose on me) and a spaghetti-strapped top made out of gauzy material that
was a random pattern of muted pastels, had a thin ruffle at the material that crossed at the bodice and
another tiny ruffle adorned the hem. I slid on flip-flops, grabbed my sunglasses (because it wasn’t only
warm, it was super sunny as only Colorado seemed to be able to be), made myself a huge coffee in one of
Betty’s big mugs and shuffled out to the lounge chairs by the pool.
   I waved to Betty as I went, she waved back, I hit the closest lounge chair and collapsed in it.
   I took two sips of coffee while staring at the twinkling water of the pool, set my mug on the cool deck
and promptly passed out.
                                                       *****
   “Ace,” I heard.
   I thought that was weird. When I was asleep I heard a lot of things that Tate had said to me (though,
lately, it wasn’t the first comment about me being old and fat, it was the stuff he’d said since, about Brad
throwing away a good thing, about Tate giving me sweet dreams, about him calling me his, and the like).
But I never heard him calling me Ace.
   “Babe,” I heard.
   There it was again. Strange.
   I shifted slightly, doing a little arched back stretch and then settled back into sleep.
   “Laurie, baby, wake up.” I heard Tate say gently as I felt fingers close around mine and squeeze.
“You’re gonna fry out here.”
   I opened my eyes to see Tate leaning over me and my body lurched.
   “Holy crap,” I breathed, “what on…” I stopped talking, looked around and saw I was lying on a lounge
chair by Betty and Ned’s pool. “Darn,” I whispered, “I fell asleep.”
   “Yeah,” Tate said and my eyes went to him to see he was moving and I watched in shock as he slid a
hip onto the side of the lounge chair, pushing my hips out of the way to accommodate his. “You got
sunscreen on?” he asked.
   I was staring at his hip pressed to mine so I wasn’t following.
   “Sorry?”
   “Sunscreen, babe, you’re closer to the sun up here, there aren’t any clouds and, you don’t have
sunscreen, you’re gonna fry.”
   My eyes went to his face. “I don’t have sunscreen.”
   “Then you’re gonna fry. Let’s go to your room.”
   My body froze.
   “My room?”
   He stood and stretched his hand to me. “Up, Ace.”
   “What?”
   He didn’t repeat himself. He bent, grabbed hold of my hand and hauled me out of the lounge. Then he
bent again and nabbed my nearly full coffee mug. Then, his hand still in mine, he dragged me across the
parking lot.
    I was still kind of asleep so I didn’t protest but I looked toward reception and saw Betty was watching
us. When my sunglass covered-eyes caught hers, she started waving enthusiastically and I wasn’t sure but
it looked like she was bouncing up and down on her chair.
    Tate stopped me outside room thirteen, taking me directly to my door, the location of which there was
no way for him to know, something I was also still too drowsy to notice.
    “You got your key?” he asked when I just stood there with him.
    I fished it out of my pocket, he took it from me, opened the door, used my hand to maneuver me in front
of him and push me in and he followed.
    Then he dropped my hand, the door closed and he went straight to the curtains, throwing them wide and
bright sunlight hit the room. I shoved my sunglasses up my face taking my hair with them until they were
on my head but I thought better of it when all that sunshine hit me.
    He turned to me, tossed the key on the bed and declared, “Quick Way probably carries aloe vera.”
    I blinked.
    “You burn,” he explained, walking toward me then beyond me to the bathroom saying, “You’ll need
aloe vera.” Then he called from the bathroom, “Quick Way across the street.”
    “I know where it is,” I called back, coming to myself and wondering how I allowed Tate to be in my
room.
    I heard the faucet and then he came out and went right to the kettle. He lifted it up, swished it around to
check if there was water in it, put it back in its base and flipped the on switch.
    “You need coffee,” he announced when he’d set the mug down and straightened.
    “What are you doing here?” I asked.
    “Right,” he said and walked the four steps to me, his hand at his back pocket. When he arrived, his hand
came round, his other one grabbed mine, lifted it, palm up and then he planted an expensive-looking
cellular phone in my hand. “Cell,” he said unnecessarily, his one hand still holding mine as his other hand
went back to his pocket. It swung around again to put an envelope on top of the phone in my hand. “Your
info, your number. It’s charged. Got the charger and box in my bag on the Harley. Saw you fryin’ and left
it to wake you up.”
    I was still staring at the cell.
    Then I looked up at him. “You bought me a cell phone?”
    “You were sleepin’ in the sun, babe, not goin’ to the mall to get a phone. So I got you a phone.”
    “Why?” I asked.
    “You need a phone,” he answered.
    “But –”
    “It ain’t safe, not having a phone.”
    “I –”
    “And I’m not fuckin’ squabblin’ about it.”
    It was then I realized his fingers were still holding my hand palm up so I tugged my hand from his and
took a step away.
    “I’ll pay you back,” I said.
    “Did already, did most of a stock take. Not your job. That’s your bonus.”
    “But –”
    He cut me off and he didn’t do it angry, he did it sounding part frustrated but also part tired. “Lauren,
seriously, just shut up, all right?”
    I stared at him. He’d worked a double shift and it was busy last night. He’d had a long day working a
job he wasn’t supposed to be working in the first place. He’d fired someone and even though he was
really a jerk about it, with the way Wendy and Dalton reacted and the way I saw Tonia be myself, it was
likely a long time coming. Someone had to do it and it probably wasn’t pleasant. Now, we were a
waitress down and they’d still been on the market after they hired me because, in reality, before they got
me, they were two waitresses down. He was, as ever, stuck.
   “You had a long day yesterday,” I blurted.
   His brows drew together. “Come again?”
   “Nothing,” I muttered. “Do you want coffee?” I asked and his eyes focused on me so intently, I could
swear he was looking at me like he didn’t know who I was.
   Then he said, “No, Ace, need to get to Bubba’s and make sure its fuckin’ namesake has his ass behind
the bar.”
   “So Bubba is back?”
   “Yeah, though he’s not much better than Tonia, at least it doesn’t cost us money for him to take up
space.”
   “Oh,” I said softly and then jumped when a knock sounded on the door.
   “Expecting company?” Tate asked and I looked at the door then to him.
   “It’s probably Betty,” I muttered, turning back to the door and I saw her head peek around the window
to look in and then it disappeared so I smiled. “Betty,” I confirmed then I saw a uniformed policeman
move to stand full in the window and look in and the smile froze on my face. “What on –?”
   But Tate was on the move. He was across the room and had the door open before I could blink.
   “Frank,” Tate greeted, opening the door wide and the officer walked in as did Betty.
   “Been lookin’ for you, saw your bike,” the policeman said to Tate then his gaze came to me.
   “Hope you don’t mind, Laurie, but he said he needed Tate,” Betty put in.
   “What’s goin’ on?” Tate asked and he hadn’t taken his eyes off the officer.
   “Tonia Payne was raped last night,” the officer announced.
   I gasped, tossed the stuff in my hand on the bed and rushed to Tate’s side at the same time I whispered,
“Oh my God.”
   The officer looked at me and stated, “You got that right.”
   “What the fuck happened?” Tate growled and I belatedly noticed he was holding himself perfectly still
and his face was rock hard but there was a lethal energy emanating from him. It was so forceful, so strong,
it was quickly filling the room and if Betty wasn’t standing in the door holding it open and letting some of
Tate’s energy out, I fancied it would choke us all.
   “Bad, man, and when I say that I mean bad,” Frank told Tate. “She’s messed up, in the hospital. Did her
with a knife.”
   Betty cried out and, without thinking, my hand shot up and I grabbed onto Tate’s bicep and leaned my
weight into it because if I didn’t, I might faint.
   Tate shifted so my hand disengaged but I didn’t drop to the floor because he shifted so his arm was
around my waist and he hauled me deep into his side.
   “Jesus Christ, Frank, you got an audience,” Tate ground out.
   Frank glanced at Betty and me and mumbled, “Shit. Right. Sorry.”
   “Right, sorry,” Tate repeated on an infuriated clip. “You can’t say that at three in the mornin’ when
these women won’t be able to sleep because that shit you just shared is poundin’ into their brains.”
   “Sorry,” Frank mumbled again.
   “Tell me you got this guy,” Tate demanded.
   “Why you think I’m here?” Frank asked.
   “Because you don’t fuckin’ got this guy,” Tate bit out.
   “We need you, Tate,” Frank stated and there was the thin, but desperate, thread of a plea in his four
words.
   But I was surprised. Why would they need Tate?
   I looked up at him to see a muscle leap in his jaw.
   Then he clipped, “Outside.”
   Betty moved from the door and Frank moved out of it but Tate gave my waist a squeeze before he
curled me into his front. Right into his front, our hips and bellies were touching and everything!
   Looking down at me, he ordered, “Close that door, make your coffee and don’t fuckin’ listen. I’ll be
back.”
   Then he let me go and followed Frank.
   “Oh dear,” Betty said and I looked at her.
   “Tonia,” I whispered and my eyes filled with tears.
   I mean, I didn’t know her very well and I didn’t like her but to be raped with a knife?
   Betty nodded, grabbed my hand and led me to the bed. Once there, she put her hands to my shoulders
and pressed down.
   “I’ll make coffee,” she whispered after I was seated and then turned to the kettle.
   Betty was silent while she made coffee and I got myself together. Then she brought two mugs to the bed,
sat down beside me and handed me mine.
   That’s when I asked, “Why would the cops come to Tate?”
   “Well, he used to be one of ‘em,” she answered and I stared at her.
   “Really?”
   “Yeppo… and a good one.”
   “Why isn’t he now?” I asked.
   “Neeta,” she answered.
   “Sorry?”
   “Neeta.” She saw my face then patted my knee. “Long story and a sorry mess it was. I’ll tell you later.
But now isn’t the time with Tate outside. Okay?”
   I wanted to know then but she was right so I said, “Okay.”
   “Anyway, it’s good they came to him,” she said. “Tate’ll find him.”
   “But, how can the cops ask him to help if he’s a bartender?” I asked and she smiled.
   “He isn’t a bartender, sweetie, he’s a bounty hunter.”
   “What?” I breathed.
   “Good one ‘a those too, I hear. When Bubba isn’t playin’ hooky and Krystal’s got a full staff, Tate gets
called all over the country to find fugitives from the law.”
   “Really?” I was still only talking in breaths.
   “Yeah, Laurie. Tatum Jackson’s not the kind of man to spend his life behind a bar.”
   My eyes moved to the door.
   “Wow,” I whispered.
   “Drink your coffee,” Betty urged and I looked back at her and just sat there so she prompted, “Coffee,
sweetie.”
   “Right,” I whispered and I drank my coffee.
                                                      *****
   Five minutes later there was a knock on the door.
   Betty ran to get it because I was sitting cross-legged on the bed taking a sip of coffee.
   Tate nodded at Betty when he walked in but he came right to me, stopped, tossed a phone charger and a
shiny box on the bed and looked down at me.
   “Night swims are done, Ace,” he declared in a hard voice.
   I stared up at him and whispered a shocked, “Sorry?”
   He bent at the waist, put a fist in the bed on either side of my hips, got in my face and I was too stunned
to move.
   “No more swimmin’ unless its daylight and Ned or Betty are around,” he ordered.
  “But, how do you –?”
  “You get in your room, you put the chain on and you stay in it, got me?”
  “But –”
  “You don’t open the door unless you know for a fact who it is and that they’re alone,” Tate went on.
  “I –”
  “I programmed my numbers into your phone. You need to go somewhere and it’s night, you call me, I’ll
come down and you’re on the back of my bike.”
  I swallowed but the tears still filled my eyes.
  “She’s bad,” I whispered.
  “She’ll be lucky to survive,” he whispered back.
  “Tate,” I kept whispering, calling him by his name for the first time ever.
  I watched with some fascination as his eyes closed and something weird rushed into his features. It was
weird because it appeared both warm and painful.
  He opened them and said quietly, “I cut her loose last night.”
  My hand moved to wrap my fingers around his forearm. “It wasn’t your fault.”
  “I cut her loose,” he repeated.
  “Tate, don’t,” I whispered.
  “I wasn’t nice about it,” he went on.
  “Don’t –”
  “Last thing she heard from my mouth was me callin’ her a bitch.”
  “Tate –”
  “She was on shift –”
  My fingers squeezed and I leaned closer, “Honey, don’t.”
  He was silent and we stared into each other’s eyes for awhile.
  Then he ordered, “No more nighttime swimmin’, babe.”
  “Okay,” I replied softly.
  He pushed away and walked to the door, saying to Betty, “She may need some aloe vera.”
  “Right, Tate,” Betty replied to no one because he was out the door.
  Betty turned to me and grinned in a way that, if I wasn’t strung out on a variety of emotions, I would
have thought, especially considering the circumstances, was bizarrely, happily hopeful.
  But all I could say or think was, “How did he know about me swimming?”
  “Why he was a good cop, why he’s a good bounty hunter, Tate Jackson knows all,” Betty answered.
  I didn’t think that was good news, not for me.
  I just hoped it was equally bad news for the man who hurt Tonia.
Chapter Five
Exhausted You
   The next day, it was just passed two in the afternoon and it was another slow day at Bubba’s when he
came in.
   I was on and Dalton was behind the bar.
   My body ached from boot camp, all over, and I spent some time that morning trying to figure out if it
was my leg muscles, arm muscles, ab muscles or butt muscles that hurt the most but I couldn’t decide
since they all hurt equally bad.
   When Jim-Billy came in, Dalton and Jim-Billy spent time discussing Tonia. Dalton looked slightly
strung out, like he had no sleep, looking this way probably because he was freaked about Tonia. They
talked about Tonia until they saw it was distressing me, Jim-Billy gave Dalton a look and they’d both shut
up about it.
   I ran out to get Dalton, Jim-Billy and myself sandwiches from the deli, popping by La-La Land to buy
us all brownies with peanut butter morsels in them.
   “Peanut butter’s the theme this week, babeeee,” Shambles had shouted upon my entry that morning to
get my coffee and breakfast so I had to go back for treats for the boys if peanut butter was the theme. I
loved peanut butter.
   I was spending the day finishing up the stock take I hadn’t quite finished two days before, running back
and forth to the front to make sure Dalton was good. I had just finished my task and was mentally
designing the spreadsheet I was going to create on my laptop that night and present to Krystal. I was
walking up the hall when I saw the front door open and Tate walked in.
   I took one look at his face and tripped over my feet.
   “Hey Tate, got news?” I heard Dalton ask almost the instant Tate arrived.
   “Ace,” Tate called, his eyes on me, not answering Dalton’s question. “Turn around. Office,” he
ordered.
   I didn’t protest. I nodded, turned, hurried down the hall and waited for him outside the office door.
When he arrived, he unlocked it with his keys and pushed it open, holding it so I could precede him. I
flipped on the light switch as I entered, took several steps in and turned. Tate closed the door and put his
back to it.
   I opened my mouth to speak.
   “She died this mornin’,” Tate announced.
   I closed my eyes and mouth then opened my eyes and started to him.
   “Don’t,” he gritted and I jerked to a halt. “Don’t come near me, babe.”
   “Captain –”
   He cut me off. “Called me my name yesterday, Ace.”
   I swallowed then mumbled, “Um… Tate –”
   “Talked to Betty and Ned,” he interrupted again. “They’re movin’ you to a room closer to their place.
Don’t want you on the end. Too far away.”
   “Okay,” I agreed.
   “You walk to work today?” he asked.
   “Yes,” I replied.
   “I’ll be here at seven, take you home,” he told me.
   “I’ll ask Jim-Billy –”
   “I’ll be here, Lauren.”
   “Okay,” I whispered.
   He stopped speaking and we stared at each other.
  Finally, I got brave enough to say, “You aren’t responsible, Tate.”
  He didn’t answer.
  I took a step toward him and stopped when his hard face got harder.
  “You aren’t,” I whispered.
  “Why do you swim at night?” he asked and my head tilted to the side at his change in topic.
  “Why do I swim at night?”
  “Yeah.”
  “I have insomnia,” I answered. “Always have, even when I was a kid.”
  “You can’t sleep?”
  I shook my head. “Sometimes I can’t drop off. Sometimes I wake up, two, three times a night.
Sometimes when I wake up, I can’t get back to sleep.”
  “So you swim,” he stated.
  “Well, not normally, though at home I had a pool, I just never used it for some reason. But here…” I
didn’t finish because I didn’t know why I rarely ever used Brad and my pool or why I so often used Ned
and Betty’s.
  “Your man, he didn’t help you sleep?” Tate asked and I drew in breath.
  This wasn’t any of his business, none at all.
  Still, I answered, “I’m not sure he could do much about it. It kind of…” I paused then finished,
“annoyed him so in the end if I knew I was going to have a rough night, I’d move to the guest bedroom.”
  “He let you do that?”
  “Let?” I was confused. “He asked me to.”
  “He asked you to leave the bed he shared with you,” Tate stated like Brad asking me to move to another
bed so he could get a good night’s sleep was like asking me to give up our life, pack a few belongings in a
big bandana, tie it to a stick and become hobos.
  “Why are we talking about this?” I asked quietly.
  “You sleep after you swam?” Tate asked back, not quietly, still shooting questions at me like this was
an interrogation.
  “Sorry?”
  “Those nights you swam, when you got in, did you nod off?”
  “Yes.”
  “Did you wake up again?”
  “No.”
  “Exhausted yourself,” he surmised.
  “Maybe, listen –”
  “So, maybe, if he exhausted you, you wouldn’t have had trouble sleeping.”
  “Exhausted me?”
  “Yeah, Ace, fucked you so hard you couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but sleep. Exhausted you.”
  I couldn’t move at that moment, couldn’t do anything but stare.
  “You were in my bed, couldn’t sleep, that’s what I’d do,” he told me.
  “Tate,” I breathed.
  “Wanna come to me now?” he asked like it was a dare.
  “I…” I swallowed, “I don’t think so.”
  “That’s probably a good call.”
  “You’re angry,” I said softly, deciding that was it. That was why he was acting in this alarming way,
saying these insane things. He told me he said a lot of stuff he didn’t mean when he was angry, that had to
be it.
  “Yeah, babe, I’m angry. I was angry when I fired her ass and said shit I shouldn’t say. She left, got
nabbed by a goddamned psycho who tied her up and cut her up, inside and out. She was alive while he
was doin’ it, all the time he was doin’ it. He cut all her hair off at the scalp, he even cut into her scalp and
it didn’t bleed all that much because she didn’t have all that much blood left to give. Then he left her,
naked, exposed to the elements and covered in blood, to be found by an old lady walkin’ her fuckin’ dog.
So now I’m angry about that.”
   I hated what he just told me, hated knowing it, hated the images it invoked, hated that it happened to
Tonia and her beautiful body and her gorgeous hair. I hated everything about it.
   But I knew he had to let it go. I didn’t know why he trusted me to let it go with but he did so I also knew
I had to take it.
   “You aren’t responsible,” I repeated.
   “I kicked her ass out and she was as good as dead not an hour later.”
   “Tate, you aren’t responsible. It wasn’t Tonia, it would be someone else.”
   “But it was Tonia.”
   We stared at each other awhile longer.
   Then I whispered, “Can I come to you now?”
   “You ready for that?”
   “I don’t know.”
   “You gotta cross the room, Ace, I ain’t movin’.”
   I didn’t think. I just crossed the room.
   When I made it to him, I fitted myself to his long body, wrapping my arms around his waist and
pressing my cheek against his chest. When I was done, his arms came around me so tight, he squeezed the
breath out of me.
   I felt him rest his cheek against the top of my head.
   “Now, how’d I know you’d do that?” he asked a question he didn’t expect an answer to which was
good because he might have known but, until I did it, I didn’t know.
   “You aren’t responsible, honey,” I whispered to his chest.
   “Keep sayin’ it, baby, maybe it’ll sink in.”
   “You aren’t responsible.”
   He gave me a squeeze.
   “Betty told me what you do,” I said quietly.
   Tate didn’t reply.
   “Are you gonna find him?” I asked.
   “Yeah, I’m gonna find him, though they think they want me to but they sure as fuck don’t.”
   I tipped my head back to look at him and his head went up when I did.
   “Why not?”
   “I find him, Ace, I’m gonna rip his dick off and shove it down his throat.”
   I couldn’t stop my face from scrunching together and my mouth muttering, “Gross.”
   He smiled at me, my face unscrunched and I stared at his mouth.
   He released me with one of his arms so his hand could come up to my cup jaw.
   “Laurie, I’ll find him,” he promised.
   “Okay,” I whispered.
   “So you don’t worry,” he said.
   I nodded and my nod didn’t disengage his hand. “Okay.”
   “You believe me?” he asked.
   “Yes,” I answered and I did.
   “So you’ll have sweet dreams?”
   Oh.
   My.
   God.
   My body melted into his of its own accord.
   “Tate,” was all I could say.
   I watched and held my breath as his face dipped close to mine, he used his hand at my jaw to tip mine
further up toward his and I closed my eyes at the last second, thinking, even hoping he was going to kiss
me but I felt the side of his nose brush the side of mine then I felt his lips against my forehead.
   “Seven o’clock, babe, on my bike,” he muttered there then kissed me, let me go, set me away, turned
and disappeared out the door.
   I stared at the empty hall for very long moments.
   Then I stared at it for more.
   Then I asked the empty hall, “What just happened?”
   There was no reply.
                                                     *****
   At a quarter to four, the door opened, Krystal walked in and I stared.
   Her hair was no longer platinum blonde but ebony. The change was startling and it looked good on her.
   When I could unglue my eyes from The New Krystal, I saw there was a man at her heels and then I
stared at him.
   He was huge, as in mammoth. He had to be nearly seven foot tall; he had light brown hair and a full,
thick beard. His shoulders were broad, his legs like tree trunks, his arms like stout branches and he had a
big belly that worked on him because it, too, looked solid and it fit in with the rest of his massive
physique. He was wearing a loose-fitting white t-shirt, faded jeans and Carnal’s requisite motorcycle
boots.
   His eyes hit me and got big then he boomed, “Right on!” and came right at me.
   I didn’t have time for an evasive maneuver before his fingers curled around my shoulder, giving it a
rough jerk and my body collided with his. His arms wrapped around me and he swung me side to side.
   “Lauren, Super Waitress!” he shouted over my head and I tipped it back to look at him when he stopped
rocking me.
   “Um… hi,” I said.
   He looked down at me and introduced himself, “Bubba.”
   “I guessed that,” I told him and he smiled and his smile was as huge and overwhelming as everything
else about him.
   “Krys told me about you. Told me you were the shit,” he informed me and my eyes slid to Krystal who
was standing by Jim-Billy at his end of the bar and she was watching us with an expressionless face
(outside of looking mildly annoyed).
   I was pretty shocked by this compliment. Krystal seemed a hard nut to crack. I couldn’t imagine she
was at home telling Bubba I was good at my job. I imagined when she was at home she spent her time
contemplating the numerous things that annoyed her, why they did and how they’d never stop or, if Bubba
was home, she’d spend her time giving him stick. Not praising me.
   “Thanks, that’s nice,” I said to Bubba and he let me go.
   “Finally, a decent waitress,” he declared, lumbering behind the bar and going straight to a fridge to pull
out a beer. He turned around and twisted off the top. “Uh… not to speak ill of the dead.”
   I looked at Jim-Billy and saw him wince. Then I looked back at Bubba to see Krystal, fast as lightning,
was at his side and reaching up to curl her fingers around the wrist he had raised to down some brew and
she yanked on it. Beer sloshed out and got in Bubba’s beard and down his shirt.
   “Woman!” he shouted, swiping at his beard.
   “You’re here to work, Bub, not tie one on,” she snapped.
   “What’s the point of ownin’ a bar if you can’t have a freakin’ beer?” he shot back.
   “I don’t know. Maybe to sell them so we can pay our mortgage?” she suggested sarcastically.
   Bubba scowled at her then asked, “Again, darlin’, you wanna know why I fish so goddamned much?”
   “Bub –”
   He looked at Jim-Billy. “Bustin’ my balls in front of an audience. Shit.”
   “I did the stock take,” I put in in an effort to defuse the situation and Bubba and Krystal looked at me.
“It’s finished, I finished it this morning. I wrote a report and put it on the clipboard. Everything was good,
a few things here and there, nothing big except there seems to be a case of Jack Daniels missing. I figured
there was a mistake in the entry and I tried to track it but…”
   I trailed off because the atmosphere got thick and I was watching Krystal’s head slowly turn and tip
back to look at Bubba.
   Uh-oh.
   “You take that case?” Krystal asked.
   “Darlin’ –” Bubba started.
   “You take it?” she snapped.
   “I’m not goin’ fishin’ without my Jack,” he declared.
   “Fuck me,” she muttered, turned and stomped from behind the bar and down the hall.
   I looked at Bubba to see he was watching her go. Then his eyes came to me.
   “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, “I didn’t –”
   He shook his head. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, gorgeous. She’d eventually find out. She’s already pissed as
hell at me. Might as well get it over with all in one go rather than her gettin’ over her ‘tude then gettin’
somethin’ new to have ‘tude about it. Figure you did me a favor.”
   “Well, I’m glad you can look at it like that,” I said.
   “Bright side of life, Lauren. You live with a storm cloud, you learn to find the bright side,” he replied
then followed Krystal.
   I looked at Dalton then at Jim-Billy.
   “Um… eek!” I said to Jim-Billy.
   “You said it,” Jim-Billy muttered.
   “Is it like that all the time?” I asked, moving closer to him.
   “Chalk and cheese,” Jim-Billy answered. “Bubba’s a good ole boy, laid-back, mellow, all about havin’
fun, not about havin’ responsibility. Krystal’s had it rough, she’s worked all her life, it’s made her hard
and she wanted her piece of something that was just hers. Thought she’d get it with the bar, bein’ the boss,
not havin’ to eat shit for a livin’. As you can see, she’s still workin’ hard and Bubba’s fishin’. He sees
nothin’ wrong with that, not one thing. She does double shifts a lot. I don’t see good things.”
   “Didn’t she know –?” I started.
   “’Bout Bubba?”
   I nodded.
   He nodded back. “She knew, Laurie. But he made promises to her, to Tate, he’d tow the line, he’d do
his bit, he’d grow up.” Jim-Billy shook his head. “Tate gets in his face, Bubba goes on the wagon but he
always falls off.”
   I got closer and asked quietly, “Does he like fishing that much?”
   Jim-Billy stared at me.
   Then he leaned in and whispered, “Honey, he ain’t fishin’.” I didn’t reply and must have looked
confused because Jim-Billy went on whispering. “Why you think you broke through that stone around
Krystal’s heart and made her take a chance on you?”
   “I don’t –”
   “He fucks around, Laurie, with anything that moves, anything that breathes. Off here there and
everywhere, partyin’ and gettin’ himself laid. Folks around town call him Bender Bubba. He’s on a
bender and anything goes.”
  I looked to the doorway of the hall, asking, “Why does she put up with it?”
  I looked back to Jim-Billy to see him shrug. “She loves ‘im.”
  I could understand that. Many women who hadn’t been cheated on didn’t understand other women who
put up with it. When Brad came clean, told me about Hayley, my very first thought was I forgive you. I
couldn’t see a life alone. I couldn’t abide a life without him in it. I wanted him so bad and loved him so
much, I would have taken him any way I could have him.
  He just didn’t want me.
  “Poor Krystal,” I whispered.
  “Don’t let her hear you sayin’ that,” Jim-Billy whispered back.
  I looked at him, bit my lip and nodded.
  The door opened and customers came in. I knew them, they’d been in before.
  I grabbed my tray, headed their way and smiled, calling, “Hey Steg, Bob, what’s up?”
                                                    *****
  “Need two Bud drafts,” I said to Krystal as I hit the bar.
  “Gotcha,” she replied, turning to nab some mugs and turning back, her hand going to the tap.
  I studied her.
  There was a lot on my mind, primarily Tate, who was coming to put me on the back of his bike so he
could drive me the five blocks to my hotel. Also on my mind was his rampant desire for my safety and
willingness to secure it.
  His words in the office, though, were flipping me out, scaring me and other, very different things
besides. I didn’t get it. I wasn’t certain what happened in there or why it happened. All I knew was that it
did.
  But now, I was thinking about Krystal.
  She put a mug on my tray and went for the other one.
  “You okay?” I asked.
  She didn’t look at me when she answered, “Yeah, why?”
  “Tonia,” I said softly and her eyes slid to me then back to the mug she was filling.
  “Girl was a waste of space,” she muttered and I felt my face flinch. Then she went on, “Still, Christ.”
  “Yeah,” I said and she put the other mug on my tray.
  Then she surprised me by asking, “You okay?”
  “About Tonia?” I asked back and she nodded. “No,” I answered.
  “No one deserves that,” she stated.
  “No,” I agreed. “No one deserves that.”
  “Folk sayin’, way she dressed, way she acted, brought it on herself,” Krystal told me.
  “Really? People are saying that already?”
  “Yep,” she nodded.
  “Do they know all that happened to her?” I asked.
  “All that happened to her?”
  “The, um… thing with her hair,” I explained.
  “What thing with her hair?”
  I looked at her a second and then muttered, “Nothing.”
  She examined me. Then her face changed in a way I couldn’t read.
  Then she said, “Tate.”
  “What?”
  “Tate tell you what happened to her?”
   “Um… yeah, he popped by earlier and –”
   She cut me off. “No, folk don’t know all that happened to her.” Then she mumbled, “Fuckers.”
   “Got that right,” I replied.
   She caught my eyes and surprised me again. “Thanks for doin’ the stock take, Lauren.”
   “Um… you’re welcome.”
   “And Tate says you wiped down most of the bar,” she went on.
   “It was a slow day,” I told her.
   She nodded. “Speakin’ ‘a that, with Tonia gone and Tate on the hunt, we’re losin’ the waitress durin’
the day. I’ve redone the schedule, copies of it are on the desk in the office. All the girls are nights now,
even you.”
   I nodded back again. “Okay, that’s fine with me.”
   “You can handle it,” she said and I smiled at her.
   She didn’t smile back.
   Instead, she informed me, “Got ads in papers all over the county and then some. Gnaw Bone, Chantelle,
everywhere. Hopin’ we’ll get a couple of girls in soon.”
   “Okay,” I replied.
   “It’ll be tough for awhile –”
   I interrupted her. “We’ll cope.”
   She held my gaze a long moment.
   Then I said, “Better serve these.”
   She turned away, muttering, “Yeah.”
                                                     *****
   I was in the bathroom studying myself in the mirror.
   I was still in research mode in order to find ways to be the best waitress I could be in an effort to make
a living when the time came when I actually had to make a living. Day tips weren’t great, as Krystal had
warned. On Saturday and Sunday, when the bar was busy, tips were fantastic. Even fantastic, they didn’t
make up for the weekdays. It would be good to work nights.
   In my efforts at research, I was experimenting with makeup. Today, it was slightly heavier. Not Krystal,
Jonelle and, rest her, Tonia heavy but not my normal subtle either.
   I was also experimenting with footwear.
   I’d dug into my clothes and pulled out a top that I bought a few years ago but it hadn’t fit in awhile.
Seeing as I was constantly missing meals, on my feet and swimming regularly, my clothes were fitting
loose. So I’d tried it and found it fit though it was just a smidge snug at the cleavage. A cream blouse, a
bit see-through (so I wore an off white, stretchy camisole under it), it also fit snug up my midriff but it
was supposed to because it had two darts at both sides under my breasts and the same at both sides in the
back. It had a collar and such short sleeves they couldn’t really be called sleeves as they were just an inch
of material. I’d also added a layering of a bunch of silver necklaces that I usually only wore one at a time,
all of them having daisies or flowers dangling from them or pendants with daisies and flowers stamped on
them. I’d put on my daisy stud earrings and my flower-dangling bracelets. I’d paired this with jeans, a tan
belt and, the new tactic of the day, high-stiletto-heeled sandals. They were tan leather that almost matched
the belt and they had five thin straps that led into a big rose at the toe and a wraparound ankle strap you
couldn’t see under the bootcut of my jeans (which was too bad because I always thought it was sassy and
Brad had agreed, he’d loved those sandals and he especially loved the sassy ankle strap).
   Being on them all day, my feet were killing me which I decided to take Bubba’s advice about and look
on the bright side. Focusing on my feet, I could stop thinking about my whole body aching. Also, when I
walked up to a patron, I found they were giving me a head-to-toe and an easy smile, even if I didn’t know
them.
   I couldn’t be sure as I hadn’t counted them but I thought my tips might have taken a turn for the better.
Maybe not a massive one that would allow me to add a manicure to my schedule every week once I
settled in, bought a house and furnished it but I could at least maybe buy groceries.
   At that moment, however, I was wondering about wearing high-heeled sandals on the back of a bike.
   Was that okay?
   I was also wondering if I should put on lip gloss.
   I was wondering this because it was passed seven and I was waiting for Tate to come and get me.
   And I was wondering all of this while wondering about me wearing a little cream blouse, jeans that
were not tight but a bit loose and a pair of sandals that cost over two hundred dollars. Neeta’s whole
outfit probably cost half that and Tate had carried her into a hotel room, kissing her.
   I was not Neeta by any stretch of the imagination. I was not the kind of woman who was bad news, who
made a man change careers because of whatever, who met him at a hotel at night.
   I was the kind of woman who wore cream blouses, not tank tops, and needed a ride home because her
boss, who might be a jerk on occasion but he’d certainly demonstrated a fair degree of assuming
responsibility, knew she was a woman alone with no one to look after her.
   So he was looking after me. That was it.
   Thus, I decided, no lip gloss.
   But that didn’t stop me from being incredibly nervous but I was nervous in a belly-fluttering, excited
way – like I’d just made it to the top of a roller coaster and was about to take the plunge.
   This, I told myself, was not because Tate informed me the way he’d cure my insomnia was by fucking
me until I couldn’t move – a comment, I decided, he made because he was upset about Tonia and was
trying to put his mind to other things.
   This, I told myself, was because I was going to ride on his bike.
   The door opened and one of the female clientele walked in, dressed and made up a lot like Krystal. I
hadn’t seen her before so I just smiled and moved to the door.
   The minute I hit the bar, I saw Tate standing at the other end by Jim-Billy. That belly flutter escalated
and I thought I might either pass out or vomit.
   Then I was rocked back on a foot when a strong force hit me.
   I looked down to see Wendy had her arms wrapped around me.
   “Oh Lauren,” she whispered.
   I put one arm around her and I slid my other hand along her short hair as I tipped my head so my mouth
was at her ear.
   “Baby,” I whispered.
   “I didn’t like her but this sucks,” she whispered back, not letting go of me.
   “I know.”
   She released me, stepped back and looked up. “Feel like a bitch, laughed when she got fired.”
   “Take your mind off that, Wendy,” I advised.
   “Right, how?” she asked.
   “I don’t know, honey, just… if your mind wanders there, visualize a stop sign and don’t go down that
path. You didn’t know what would happen to her.”
   Her eyes slid slightly to the side before coming back to me. “I bet Tate’s feelin’ like an asshole.”
   She would win that bet.
   “He’ll be okay,” I assured her with more confidence than I actually felt.
   “Yeah, he’s a tough guy. They shoulda fired her ages ago. Only could do it, really, if they had you…
which they did so he did it. Still, shit timing.”
   “Yes,” I agreed then my eyes moved to him to see he was openly watching Wendy and me. I looked
back at Wendy. “I have to go, honey, he’s here now because he’s my ride.”
   Wendy blinked what could only be called a Kapow! blink. Her eyes squeezed together tight and quick,
taking her eyebrows with them, then opening wide.
   “He’s your ride?”
   “I walked in today and he doesn’t want me walking back by myself,” I explained.
   “Jim-Billy, Dalton or Bubba could take you home. Hell, half the guys here would do it,” she replied.
   “Um… well, tonight Tate’s doing it.”
   She grinned. “He likes you.”
   “He doesn’t like me.”
   “He likes you,” she repeated.
   “I’m a good waitress,” I stated.
   She shook her head. “Un-unh, that isn’t why he likes you.” She leaned forward. “He likes you, likes
you.”
   “I’m not his type,” I replied and she burst out laughing so hard she had to lean forward and shove her
hands between her knees.
   “What’s so funny?” I asked when she straightened and swiped under her eye.
   “Sistah, you need to hang around bikers more,” she told me.
   “Sorry?”
   “They like ass,” she stated and I stared at her. “And tits. Real bikers, born and bred, like their women
to look like women. They go for curves, for hair, for attitude. You are the queen of all of that. That’s why
all the guys in here can’t tear their eyes off you.”
   “All the guys in here can tear their eyes off me,” I retorted.
   “Girlfriend, wake up. We can get busy but we been a heckuva lot more busy weeknights and it isn’t
because Jonelle’s testing the boundaries of indecent exposure and Tonia…” she trailed off.
   “Wendy, it’s coming on summer. People come out of hibernation when –”
   “They like your ass.”
   “They don’t.”
   “And your tits.”
   “Wendy.”
   “And your long-ass legs. Your legs go on for-eh-ver. Even Tyler said you had great pegs, the best.”
   This surprised me. “He did?”
   She smiled. “Yeah. And he’s not a tits and ass man, he likes lean and cut but he sure likes your legs.”
   “Shut up.”
   “He does!”
   “Shut up!”
   “Ace!” Tate shouted, both Wendy and I jumped and twisted our necks to look his way. “You cashed out
or what?” Tate asked still in a shout.
   “I’m cashed out,” I shouted back.
   “You wanna socialize for the next hour or are we gonna go?” He was still shouting and I was acutely
aware, due to the fact that the noise level declined significantly, that the entire bar was listening.
   “Keep your pants on!” I yelled.
   The noise level disappeared.
   “Babe, get your ass over here,” Tate ordered.
   “Patience, Captain, I’m talking to Wendy,” I shot back.
   “Ass. Over. Here!” Tate commanded.
   I looked at Wendy and snapped loudly, “He’s so darned bossy!”
   Two men and a woman sitting at the bar close to us burst out laughing.
   “You better get your ass over there,” Wendy advised, I rolled my eyes and stomped across the bar.
   Tate watched me stomp and turned his body to face me as I rounded the corner.
   “I need to get my purse,” I told him irritably.
   “Don’t take a year,” he returned.
   “I won’t take a year!” I snapped and stomped down the hall, stopped and stomped back to Tate. I lifted
a hand and demanded, “Keys.”
   He dug into his pocket muttering, “Shit you’re a pain in my ass.”
   “I will repeat, Jim-Billy can walk me home,” I informed him and looked over at Jim-Billy while I
jerked a thumb at him.
   Jim-Billy’s neck sunk into his shoulders, his eyes stayed fixed to the back of the bar and he took a sip of
his draft.
   “Get your purse, Ace,” was all Tate said, depositing his keys in my hand.
   “Whatever,” I muttered, stomped down the hall and got my purse.
   When I arrived back in the bar I ignored the avid eyes of an audience that included nearly all of the
patrons and I could do this because Tate snatched his keys away, grabbed my hand and dragged me to the
door so I had to concentrate on walking.
   “Later guys!” I shouted over my shoulder, waving at the crew.
   “See ya, Lauren!” Wendy shouted back.
   “Later, gorgeous!” Bubba boomed.
   Dalton lifted his chin and Krystal didn’t utter a peep.
   Then we were outside and Tate was dragging me toward his bike where he pulled me to a halt but
didn’t drop my hand.
   “You know, Ace, I could do without havin’ a scene with you every time I enter that fuckin’ bar,” he
stated.
   Well, at least this was familiar territory and not the confusing territory we’d been camped out in the last
couple of times we were together. I’d pissed him off.
   “You started it,” I returned.
   His brows went up. “Seriously?”
   “Seriously what?”
   “That’s all you got?” he asked.
   “Well you did!”
   “Christ,” he muttered, pushed me slightly away from the bike using my hand then he swung his leg over
and started fiddling with the console. The bike roared to life and I could swear I felt wetness surge
between my legs.
   I was concentrating on this and biting my lip in an effort to stop a moan from escaping my throat when
Tate looked at me.
   “Climb on,” he ordered.
   I looked behind him. Then I looked at him.
   “How?” I asked.
   “What?” he asked back.
   “How do I get on?”
   He stared at me. Then he asked, “You never been on a bike?”
   I shook my head.
   He stared at me some more.
   Then it was my turn to stare at him because a slow, sexy smile spread across his face and that wetness
between my legs wasn’t uncertain anymore.
   “Don’t got a lotta time but you’re gonna get a ride,” he stated.
   “I know, you’re taking me home.”
   He was still smiling when he instructed, “See that foot hold?” and he jerked his head toward the back
of the bike.
   I looked, saw it and nodded.
   “Put your right foot on it, grab onto me and swing your left leg over.”
   “Okay,” I said and did as he instructed.
   It was easy and I did it without incident, something I was proud of. I didn’t want to topple over or make
him topple over or the bike topple over. None of that happened and I settled in behind him.
   “A natural,” he muttered as he started walking the bike backward out of the spot.
   “Sorry?” I called over the pipes.
   He didn’t answer. Instead he said, “Hold on.”
   “To what?”
   He twisted his neck to catch my eyes, “To me, babe.”
   “Oh,” I whispered, feeling like an idiot, and put my hands to his waist.
   “Ace,” he called and I looked to see his neck was still twisted, “hold on.”
   “I am.” And I was!
   He leaned up, I reared back a bit but he grabbed my wrists and pulled them around in such a firm way
that I had no choice but to plaster my front against his back. He let my wrists go when he had them
wrapped around his flat stomach and before I could utter a noise we rocketed through the parking lot.
   I was lucky his bike was so loud because I was pretty sure the moan I felt in my throat was audible.
   He pulled into the street and he didn’t take me to my hotel.
   He drove out of Carnal.
   “Where are we going?” I shouted over the wind and the pipes.
   “Ride,” was his response.
   “Sorry?” I shouted.
   “Relax, Ace, just feel it,” he shouted back.
   I didn’t relax and just feel it. Not until he turned into the hills and then I couldn’t help but relax and just
feel it.
   And “it” was beautiful. The bike, the wind, the noise, the dark vistas, Tate’s solid body, my hair
whipping around my face and neck.
   It was phenomenal.
   So phenomenal, I forgot everything but what I could see, what I could feel, and I relaxed into his back,
putting my cheek to his shoulder and watching the world roar by.
   I’d never been so out of mind but rooted to my body. I’d never let go that much and just let myself feel.
There was something freeing about it, peaceful yet exciting. A weird combination that shouldn’t work
together but it really, fucking did.
   And I loved every second of it, so much, my mind so clear, I didn’t notice we were back until Tate
pulled into Carnal Hotel’s parking lot. He drove straight to reception, parked out front and turned off the
bike.
   I sat behind him, still holding on like we were riding and I was staring at Ned who was staring at us.
   “Babe,” Tate called and my body jolted.
   I swung my leg off and had both feet on the ground when Tate swung off behind me.
   “I’ll get your new key,” he said and started to reception.
   I followed him.
   “Jackson, hey son, Laurie,” Ned greeted as we walked in.
   “Ned,” Tate returned.
   “Hey Ned,” I smiled.
   “You’re in three,” Ned told me, opening a drawer and taking out a key attached to a ring that also had a
big, red triangular piece of plastic connected to it. Ned slid the key across the counter, Tate nabbed it and
Ned’s eyes came to me. “We moved your stuff, hon, hope you don’t mind. Betty used your suitcases and
did the personal stuff. I just lugged suitcases and did the dresser and fridge,” he said.
   “Thanks, Ned, that’s sweet of you both,” I replied.
   “Didn’t figure you’d wanna work all day and then schlep your stuff to a new room,” he explained.
   “I owe you a bottle of champagne and another round of Clue,” I told him.
   “Lookin’ forward to that, Laurie,” Ned said and Tate grabbed my hand, Ned’s eyes dropped to it and he
quickly finished with, “’Night you two,” but he said it while grinning huge.
   “Later, Ned,” Tate murmured as he pulled me to the door.
   “’Night, Ned,” I called as the door swung closed behind us.
   Tate kept my hand in his as we walked to room three which was way closer to Ned and Betty’s. I had
to walk double time to keep up with his long strides. He didn’t release my hand when he made it to the
door; he just unlocked it, opened it and pushed me inside.
   I walked four steps in while Tate flipped the light switch.
   It as an exact copy of my other room, to the letter.
   I threw my purse on the bed, turned to Tate and remarked, “Weird, it’s like I didn’t even move. It’s the
same room.”
   “Enjoy the ride?” Tate asked and I blinked at him.
   “Sorry?”
   “Did you enjoy the ride, Lauren?” he repeated and I smiled.
   “Yes, Tate it was –”
   I didn’t finish but I made another sound. It was a gasp because one second he was standing inside the
closed door, the next he was standing right in front of me, one of his hands was sliding up my neck into my
hair, the other arm was wrapped around my waist pulling my body into his.
   “What are you –?” I got out before his fingers in my hair fisted, pulled down just a tad less than gentle
and his mouth was on mine.
   And he kissed me.
   No. He kissed me.
   Brad was a good kisser and he was great in bed. He wasn’t my first kiss though, or my first lover. I’d
had a better kisser than Brad, but not a better lover.
   But Tate’s kiss…
   There was no describing it.
   It didn’t start slow, it started hard and wet and so demanding I had no choice but to give back what I
got. And I did. Our tongues sparred then our teeth bit at each other’s lips and our heads twisted this way
and that, all of it a mindless, sexy dance that was all-consuming. There was nothing but his mouth and my
mouth, what they were doing and what they were making me feel. Nothing. Not in the whole universe.
   When he lifted his head a fraction of an inch I found one of my hands was up his shirt in the back and
one of them was cupping the back of his head. His hand was still fisted in my hair but his other arm had
moved up to curve tight just under my shoulder blades, the pads of his fingers pressed into the side of my
breast.
   We both were breathing deep, our breaths mingling between us, I could feel his on my sensitized lips
and he had to feel mine.
   Finally, he spoke. “Shit, Ace.”
   “Shit what?” I whispered, staring into his eyes, so close, I could count the tawny flecks.
   “This isn’t good,” he whispered back and I swallowed and felt a sour pit forming in my belly.
   “It isn’t?”
   “I gotta focus,” he went on whispering.
  “On what?” I asked also whispering.
  “On shit that doesn’t include what that mouth and tongue of yours could do to my cock.”
  My hand at his back fisted. “Tate –”
  “And if your pussy is as sweet as your mouth.”
  “Tate –”
  “Shit,” he muttered.
  “Tate –”
  “I gotta find this guy,” he told me.
  “I know.”
  “I get back, Lauren, you’re on the back of my bike.”
  I blinked at what he said, mostly because I didn’t understand it, then I swayed because he let me go and
without a word or looking back, the door to my room closed behind him.
  Several moments later, when I could speak, I asked the door, “Get back from where?”
  Like the hall earlier that day, the door didn’t have an answer.
Chapter Six
Trash
   I was sitting, cross-legged in the middle of my bed at the hotel and staring at my laptop in front of me.
   It had been a month since Tate’s kiss, a month where a lot had happened, a month since he’d walked out
of my room and I hadn’t seen or heard from him again.
   I’d spent the last however-many-hours finally going through over six months of e-mails.
   I should have checked sooner.
   My mother, father and sister all had my new location and the number to the cell phone Tate had bought
me. I’d given up that information weeks ago. They had been in constant contact since then, first freaked
way the heck out then settling in because they heard I was settling in. My folks were planning to come out
and visit me at the end of the summer and Caroline and her partner Mack were thinking of coming with
them. I liked this idea. They’d like Carnal and Betty and Ned could always do with the business.
   That was all good, the rest of my e-mails were all bad.
   First were the ones from my so-called friends sending so-called concerned e-mails about my quick exit
from town, selling off all my stuff and cutting off my ties to my old life. Invitations to dinner and drinks
abounded, they said so they could talk to me, find out if I was okay, make sure I was doing the right thing.
   What they meant was so they could find out where my head was at and then inform Hayley. She knew I
had the goods on Brad and I could make the divorce uncomfortable. She knew all I had to do was tell my
attorneys to nail his ass (and they were practically begging me to do it) and I could wipe the floor with
him.
   But I didn’t. I signed the papers, took my half of our life, sold it within days of signing the papers and
got the heck out of there.
   But then the e-mails changed. Instead of seeming fake concerned, they seemed more concerned. Then
they seemed contrite. Then they begged me to call, check in, touch base.
   Something was happening, my old, fake, two-faced friend Audrey told me, something I needed to know.
   She’d sent that e-mail just two weeks before.
   Which was one week before Brad sent his one and only e-mail.
   Ree, it began and just seeing his nickname for me typed on the screen sent a knife through my heart that
hurt so much I almost couldn’t read on. Conversely, it also pissed me off so much I almost couldn’t read
on.
   I wished I didn’t. But I did.
   The rest of it said:
   Where are you? I’ve been calling your cell and it says I can’t leave a message. Your parents won’t
tell me. I’ve called Caroline a dozen times and Mack won’t let me speak to her.
   I can’t believe you left like that. Honey, you didn’t even say good-bye. We didn’t get to talk. There
are things that needed to be said, things that were happening you needed to know, things that had
changed. We needed to talk. Didn’t you get my messages before you left?
   I need to speak to you, Ree, urgently, honey. When you get this, call me or tell me where you are.
   I made a mistake, darling and I need to explain.
   All my love,
   B
   He made a mistake? What mistake?
   He needed to explain? Explain what?
   Things had changed? What things?
   All my love? What the fuck was that about?
   I stared at the e-mail.
   I got his messages before I left, I just ignored them. He had his nose so far up my ass in an effort to
make our split amicable and not do anything to make me get angry that it’d take surgery to extricate him. I
didn’t need his fake concern when he was not only fucking my best friend but had been for years and had
left me to move in with her and had already started his new happy bubble life.
   I needed to get out. So I got out.
   Where in the Divorce Rulebook did it say I had to say good-bye? All the good-byes that needed to be
said were said that night he told me he didn’t love me anymore but he loved the woman who I’d spent two
years confiding in that I was worried something was wrong in my marriage and I would rather die than
lose my husband.
   I hit the cross at the top of the screen and closed the e-mail. Then I hit the cross on the viewing panel
and closed the program. Then I shut down the machine and slapped the laptop closed.
   Then my cell rang.
   I picked it up and looked at the display. It said “Wood Calling”.
   I hit the button to take the call and put it to my ear.
   “Hey,” I said.
   “Hey baby,” he greeted in his gentle voice and my toes curled. “What chance I got that you’ll finish
work tonight and drive to my place?”
   I smiled into the phone. “I’m not done until after three in the morning, Wood.”
   “Know that, Laurie.”
   “I’ll be dead on my feet and only want to sleep.”
   “I got a bed.”
   “Yes, and you have a job where you go to work at seven. I have a job that I sleep until noon.”
   “You’re tellin’ me this because…”
   “I’ll crash and three hours later you’ll be gone.”
   “And?”
   “And Ned and Betty’ll worry about me.”
   I listened to him laugh. He had a great laugh.
   “I’ll swing by while you’re at work. Explain to Momma Betty and Poppa Ned that Baby Laurie’ll be
safe with Uncle Wood.”
   I asked through a light giggle, “Will I be safe?”
   “Fuck no,” he answered and my giggle was no longer light.
   Then I whispered, “I’ll come over.”
   “That’s what I wanna hear, baby,” he said in his gentle voice.
   I didn’t know why I did this dance. For the past week, nearly every night I ended my shift in Wood’s
bed. I was not lying, all I wanted to do by the time I got there was crash which was all I did. And he got
up and went to work before seven, half the time I didn’t know he left me.
   He didn’t seem to mind about any of this. Then again, Krystal had hired two new girls and my constant
work would end very soon since they both were starting the next couple of days. I figured Wood was
hanging around, waiting for his reward.
   “I’ll leave the door open,” he said and he would, he always did.
   “I’ll see you later,” I replied.
   “Later.”
   Then he hung up.
   I hit the button on my phone, threw it on the bed, looked at my alarm clock and swung my tanned legs
off the bed.
   It was time to get ready for work.
                                                       *****
   My life took another veer the day after Tate’s kiss.
   I was on nights so I had all day which wasn’t a good thing because having all day meant having all day
to think about Tate’s ride and then Tate’s kiss and, when there was time left over, to think of all the other
things about Tate.
   So I went about the business of filling up my day so I wouldn’t think of Tate. After coffee and a chat
with Betty, I swung by La-La Land for a different kind of coffee drink, another slightly weirder chat (since
I suspected both Sunny and Shambles were a wee bit high) and a sampling of more of Shambles and
Sunny’s wares (blueberry muffin with those crunchy bits on the top, divine, Shambles might be stoned but
he still could bake). Then I walked down to the mechanics to belatedly get my car.
   Wood wasn’t around so I paid an older but definitely still cool and sexy lady in the office who had
obviously given half of the female population of Carnal their style training. She was biker babe times a
thousand and I loved her look so much I told her so.
   “Dominic, darlin’,” she replied. “Carnal Spa. It ain’t no spa, he just does hair and manis and pedis,
none of that facial or massage shit, but he’s gay, as in flamin’, so he does great hair.”
   She was right. Her hair, dark with fabulous blonde highlights and a wicked-cool cut, was perfect on
her.
   “Tell him Stella sent you,” she finished.
   “Thanks,” I replied, smiled and waved my good-bye.
   I was walking to my car when Wood pulled in on his Harley. His wasn’t black, though it looked to be
the same model as Tate’s, it was silver.
   He rounded my car and parked by it, swinging off the bike and standing there waiting for me in the
space between his bike and my car.
   “Hey,” I smiled but he didn’t smile back.
   I knew why when I got close.
   “Saw you ride out with Tate last night.”
   I pulled in a quiet breath then said, “Wood.”
   He looked away, running his hand along his hair, muttering, “Jesus, Lauren.”
   “I –”
   He looked back and cut me off. “He’s fuckin’ my sister.”
   I felt my body still.
   But he wasn’t done. “And she’s married and not to Tate.”
   I went back on a foot like he’d struck a blow.
   He took two steps toward me, claiming my space.
   “You’re new in town but you’ll hear about it. Everybody knows. It’s better you hear about it now rather
than later when he plays you and makes you look like a fuckin’ moron.”
   “Wood –”
   “Those two, fuck, it’s been so long, feels like forever those two been wound up, doin’ stupid shit,
causin’ trouble, walkin’ all over people, breakin’ hearts while they went their merry fuckin’ way.”
   It hit me.
   “Neeta,” I whispered.
   He stared at me, his face hard. “You already heard.”
   “I saw them together at the hotel before –”
   “Bet with you there, he don’t meet her there anymore.”
   I felt my throat close.
   He got closer and wrapped his hand around my neck. “For your own good, not fuckin’ mine ‘cause
what I’m gonna tell you ain’t gonna make me your favorite person and I think you get this, baby, I want
you on the back of my bike. But I want more not to see your face lookin’ like I slapped you, like it does
right now, so you gotta know it all.”
   “Wood –”
   His face dipped close and his other hand curled into my waist. “Her name was Bethany, Chief of
Police’s daughter. Caught Tate’s eye when he and Neeta were supposedly through, one of the many times
they were off. Bethany, though, even though she knew it, lived it like the rest of us, she hoped. It was
stupid, everyone knew it was. Tate hooked up with Bethany, they got tight and Neeta blew back into town.
She wasn’t back a day, not even an hour, Laurie, before they were at each other. Bethany found out and
slit her fuckin’ wrists.”
   I sucked in a harsh breath and pulled back against his hand but it just tightened so I stopped.
   “No,” I whispered.
   “Yes,” he returned. “Her Dad found her and she survived. Moved to Colorado Springs. Neeta got a
wild hair and quit Tate. Tate quit The Force, started hunting. Neeta comes back, though, regular and not to
see Pop. And everyone knows it ‘cause you can see her car and his bike at Carnal Hotel when she does.
She’s livin’ in Crested Butte but she comes to get her Tate fix, regular and often, and even though he
knows she’s legally bound to a man in CB, he gives it to her.”
   “I don’t –” I started but stopped when both his hands gave me a squeeze.
   “This is my sister I’m talkin’ ‘bout, baby,” he said in his gentle voice. “And she’s trash. I’m sayin’ it,
my Pop’ll say it. Neeta’s trash. The thing you gotta know before you climb back on the back of his bike is
that Tate Jackson is trash too.”
   After delivering that line, he let me go and stepped away. I remained silent and we stared at each other.
   “Now you know,” he was still talking gentle. “You let that sink in and you make up your mind. You
know where I am.”
   With that, he walked away and I watched him do it until he disappeared in the office. I stayed where I
was until I saw Stella leave the office and stand outside, her hand lifted to her forehead to shield her eyes
from the sun. I knew she was looking at me and when she looked ready to make her approach, I got in my
car and drove away.
                                                     *****
   It took two days of no Tate and no word to ask Krystal where he was.
   We were at the bar and it was raining, a lot, a downpour that followed thunder and lightning, so much
rain that no one wanted to be out and business at the bar was slow.
   I was on with Jonelle and Jonelle had obviously heard what Tate did to Tonia because she came in on
time, she wasn’t dressed one step up from streetwalker and she was actually waiting tables.
   While she was busy but Krystal wasn’t, I stood beside Jim-Billy and called, “Hey Krystal, where’s
Tate?”
   I felt Jim-Billy straighten by my side and I saw Bubba, who was at the other end of the bar shooting the
breeze with some patrons, turn to face us. Krystal looked at Jim-Billy then she looked at me.
   Then she came to me as Bubba ambled our way.
   “Didn’t he tell you, Lauren?” Krystal asked cautiously, her gaze sharp on my face.
   “Um…” I mumbled. “No.”
   “He’s huntin’, gorgeous,” Bubba entered the conversation.
   “Yes, I know. Tonia’s killer,” I said.
   Krystal looked up at Bubba but Bubba didn’t take his eyes off me.
   Then he asked, “Coupla nights ago, weren’t you on the back of his bike?”
   “Yes,” I answered and Bubba looked down at Krystal but I saw his brows go up.
   “Shit,” Krystal muttered.
   “What?” I asked and Bubba looked back at me and they all got closer. I even fancied Jim-Billy scooted
nearer.
   “Guy who did Tonia is serial,” Bubba said quietly so only our huddle could hear.
   “Cereal?” I asked, perplexed.
   “Serial, gorgeous. A serial killer. Tonia’s one of seven,” Bubba explained and my hand shot out so my
fingers could wrap around the edge of the bar.
   “Seven?” I whispered.
   “Seven,” Bubba said. “Seven in four years. Pisses the Feds off since they don’t like nicknames but
cops’re callin’ him the May-December Murderer. He kills in May then he kills in December.”
   “Oh my God,” I breathed.
   “They ain’t all in Colorado either,” Bubba went on. “But they’re all in the Rockies and Colorado is a
hot spot. One in Utah, one in Wyoming, two in Nevada, the rest in Colorado.”
   “Tonia,” I whispered thinking, for some asinine reason, this made her death all the more worse and it
was bad enough already.
   “They don’t got shit,” Bubba informed me. “Tonia was the one who lasted the longest. Dumped her
alive, found her alive, that’s a first. She never regained consciousness so they couldn’t ask her questions.
She was dumped away from where he hurt her, left no evidence at the scene. They don’t have any
witnesses, have no idea where he picked her up, her car was outside her apartment, keys on the kitchen
counter, no forced entry, no fingerprints, last anyone saw of her she was in here. They haven’t found her
clothes, her hair. They don’t have nothin’.”
   My eyes stayed glued to him and I didn’t look at Krystal. “You know about her hair?”
   “Tate came to us before he left, Lauren,” Krystal said in a voice that wasn’t very Krystal. There was a
soft edge to it and my eyes finally went to her. “Explained things.”
   He didn’t explain things to me.
   “So Tate’s got a lot of ground to cover, he’s trackin’ this guy, puttin’ pieces together. Four years, four
states and seven murders worth of ground to cover,” Bubba finished.
   This made sense.
   He still didn’t explain things to me.
   I changed the subject and I did it after looking Bubba right in the eye.
   “Do you know Neeta?”
   Bubba’s upper body moved back, it was almost imperceptible but I saw it.
   “Laurie,” Jim-Billy said quietly and put his hand on mine on the bar.
   “Don’t you think about Neeta, Lauren,” Krystal ordered and I looked at her.
   “Why would you say that?” I asked.
   “People talk, don’t listen,” she replied.
   “That’s history,” Bubba said, “way back, not worth thinkin’ about.”
   “It wasn’t history two weeks ago when I was swimming in Ned and Betty’s pool and I watched Tate
carry her into a room,” I returned.
   I watched as Bubba closed his eyes and he did this slow. Then I felt a lump form to block my throat.
   “Lauren,” Krystal said and her voice was full on soft now so I looked at her.
   She looked sad and hard as nails Krystal looking at me like that said it all.
   “Right,” I whispered around the lump, my word sounded strangled and I walked away.
                                                        *****
   It was closing that same night and Jim-Billy and I were getting ready to walk to the hotel when I went to
get my purse.
   I pulled it out of the filing cabinet, turned to the office door and saw Krystal there.
   I walked toward her saying, “Good night,” but I had to stop because, when I arrived at the door, she
didn’t move out of my way.
   I looked into her eyes.
   Then she shocked me by lifting a hand and brushing the hair off one of my shoulders.
   “Told you not to get an eye for Tate,” she whispered.
   “He got an eye for me,” I whispered back.
   “Same thing, honey.”
   I looked away and bit my lip.
   “There’s nothin’ special in this world, we girls know that.” She was still whispering and I looked back
at her. “You were right, Laurie, hold tight to that peace you found. Don’t look for somethin’ special. It
ain’t out there. We know that. Just hold tight to that peace. Yeah?”
   “Yeah,” I said softly.
   “’Night, darlin’,” she replied and stepped aside.
   I walked out the door.
                                                     *****
   It was tough, three waitresses working a biker bar that was in a town in Colorado that was shaking off a
spring that, I was told, could last deep into summer. But the days were longer, almost always bright and
consistently warm, then hot so the bikes were out and the bar was buzzing, especially on the weekends.
   Carnal was a hotspot for Harleys and even Ned and Betty’s business picked up. There were four or
more bikes in the parking lot every night. Come Friday and Saturday, there’d be far more and SUVs and
mini-vans besides.
   Unless there were kids, though, the pool was all mine. And I used it to swim and lounge nearly every
day but only in the day. It wouldn’t be December until Tonia’s madman struck again but I wasn’t taking
any chances.
                                                     *****
   Tyler was trying out a new boot camp schedule, doing his seven o’clock one but he started a one
o’clock one that I thought he started just so Wendy could go to it. It wasn’t easy for her to crawl into bed
at three thirty in the morning and be ready for high intensity interval training three and a half hours later.
   I went with her three times a week mainly because I liked spending time with her and Tyler was a great
trainer, very positive and upbeat and he made the whole thing seem like we were all a team getting
prepared to compete in the Olympics, but we had to do it together. United we’d stand, divided we’d fall,
so we all gave it all for Tyler and each other.
   I kept going to the camps mainly because in two weeks I felt my muscles make themselves known under
my flesh and not only because they ached.
   And in two more weeks they made themselves known visibly and I no longer had back fat.
   Tyler had started his one o’clock classes with five of us. With me and Wendy talking them up, and
Wendy saying I was Tyler’s success story, in a month there were twenty of us.
   I still thought all of us were nuts because it was still torture.
                                                     *****
   On the Monday after Tate left, I went into town to hang with Sunny and Shambles and then I wandered
town just because I had time on my hands.
   I walked by the florist, then walked back, went in and ordered some flowers for Betty. I waited while
the florist made them up, paid for them and walked out.
   I stopped on the sidewalk and walked back in.
   “Everything all right?” she asked.
   “Could you make up a bouquet every Monday morning? Thirty dollars worth. I’ll be in late morning to
get them. If I’m not in by noon, could you deliver them to Betty at the hotel? I’ll set up an account.”
   “Standing order?” she asked, her brows going up.
   “Yes,” I answered, smiling.
   “Sure thing, precious.”
   I stuck out my hand to her. “I’m Lauren.”
   She shook it. “Holly.”
   “Nice to meet you,” I said and left the shop.
   From then on, Betty got a thirty dollar bouquet for her reception desk every Monday.
   Every Monday I walked up carrying the flowers, she’d watch me through the windows and I’d watch
her face light up.
   Sometimes, payback wasn’t a bitch.
                                                     *****
   On the second Monday, after La-La Land and before picking up the flowers from Holly, I walked the
length of Carnal.
   I’d been careful getting ready that morning, a bit more makeup, a few more pieces of jewelry, a nice
skirt (that hung nicer when I had more meat on my bones but was clinging on my hips now). Nice sandals,
flats but not flip flips. And I went all out on my hair.
   I turned the corner at the end of Carnal and walked into the forecourt of the mechanics.
   The gray-haired man was standing in the forecourt talking to a man in coveralls. He looked at me, said
something to the guy he was talking to, the man walked away and the gray-haired man walked to me.
   “Hi,” I said and stopped at him.
   “Hey, sweetheart,” he said back.
   “We never met,” I stuck out my hand and saw it was kind of shaking so I was relieved when his fingers
wrapped around it. “I’m Lauren.”
   “Pop,” he replied and gave my fingers a squeeze before he let them go.
   “Pop?” I asked and he grinned.
   “Pop, Wood and Neeta’s Dad. They called me Pop and since every kid and then every kid who had
kids raced through my house, wreckin’ it in one way or another, I got to be known as Pop. It stuck.”
   Neeta’s Dad. Also Wood’s.
   “Is Wood here?” I asked and I thought it sounded like my voice was trembling, I just hoped he didn’t
think so too.
   He examined me a minute, his eyes kind but his face blank then he grinned and shouted, “Wood!”
   I looked beyond him to see that Wood was already halfway to us. I forced my feet to stay planted and
not turn and take flight.
   Pop turned and announced, “Lauren’s here to see you.”
   Wood hit us, his eyes didn’t leave me as he replied, “Take a hike, Pop.”
   “No respect,” Pop muttered good-naturedly but walked away.
   I was too busy freaking out to react to their exchange.
   “Hey,” Wood said.
   “Um…” I replied.
   His eyes narrowed. “You okay?”
   “Um…” I repeated.
   His eyes stayed narrowed. Then they un-narrowed and he grinned at me. He did it slow and I watched
his mouth while he did it.
   My heart started racing and I bit my lip.
   “You work tonight?” he asked.
   I found my voice. “These days it seems I work every night.”
   He got close, wrapped his hand around the back of my neck and then he pulled me close. I put a hand on
his chest.
   “Then Bubba’s just got itself a new regular.”
   I smiled up at him.
*****
   Wood didn’t lie.
   For the next week he was a regular and he always sat in my station. I took my breaks with him and we
walked to the diner to have a quick bite during my dinner break.
   I didn’t know he worked so early because at three o’clock at night I was on his bike and he took me
home.
   He kissed me the first night, right outside my hotel room door. It wasn’t a Tate kiss but it was a great
kiss, far better than any of Brad’s so I felt I was still coming out on top.
   He also kissed me the next night.
   And the next.
   I was off the night after that, Wood took me for a ride where he took me for a steak dinner at a nowhere
joint which was a nowhere joint because it was in the middle of nowhere.
   The steaks were fabulous.
   I told him why I was in Carnal which meant I told him about Brad.
   He told me about Maggie who got custody of their two kids and moved to Gnaw Bone. He had them
every other weekend, alternating Christmas and Spring Breaks and four weeks in the summer. He also
told me it sucked his kids were growing up essentially without him. But he said it sucked more, living
with Maggie, because she was a bitch. Further, he told me she was a shit wife but a good Mom and his
kids needed her to be a full-time good Mom and not see her being a most-of-the time shit wife and all-of-
the-time bitch.
   When he took me to my hotel, I let him in and the kissing turned to fooling around.
   The same the next night.
   The night after that, I was wiped and so was he. He spent the night but we both slept in our clothes on
top of the covers. That was when I found out he worked as early as he did and that was when the spending
the night at his house verbal dance began.
   I was able to resist twice.
   Then he had me.
                                                      *****
   Now it was now, Carnal had become home, I was in Wood’s bed more than my own (even though we
had yet to do the deed) and Tate was still gone.
   But for me, he’d always be gone. I used to pretend he didn’t exist; now he simply had.
   Any man who slept with a married woman he knew was married and didn’t care didn’t exist.
   And any man who could take me for a ride like that, kiss me like that, in less than an hour changing my
world, then walk away without looking back and not even call, not for days that turned to weeks that
turned to a month definitely didn’t exist.
   I peeled off the new bathing suit I bought with Wendy in the shop-a-thon we had the day Dominic, the
gay stylist to all Carnal biker babes, gave me a new look. Wendy had gone with me and had been so
overawed by my transformation she forced me to go to the mall with her.
   “I gotta admit,” Dominic had said at the time, standing behind me and fluffing my hair while looking at
me in the mirror. “I’m thinkin’ you’re my masterpiece.”
   I was looking at me in the mirror too and thinking he wasn’t wrong.
   He’d taken my dark blonde hair which I hadn’t had cut in over six months and given it bright highlights
around my face, some in the back. The effect was dazzling, especially against my tan. I’d always worn my
hair just passed my shoulders but it was now down my back, nearly to my bra strap. He cut it to frame my
face with a deep, heavy bang and the rest of it in chunky layers that flipped here and there in a glamorous
and saucy way that, coupled with the highlights, made even Stella, the Premier Biker Babe’s hair look
dowdy.
   “You’re a miracle worker,” I breathed as I stared into my hazel eyes that suddenly looked startling
green.
   “You aren’t the first person who’s said that, darlin’,” Dominic told me without the least hint of
humility.
   Wendy barely let me pay him (and give him an enormous tip) before she had me out the door and in her
CR-V and we headed two towns over to the only mall in the vicinity. Luckily it was a big one and it was a
good one because Wendy was determined to get me “out of those clothes that just do not fit you, sistah!”
   And she did. We filled her little SUV with bags – skirts, jeans, shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, camisoles,
blouses, shoes, boots, underwear and pajamas.
   A whole new wardrobe except two sizes smaller.
   It was good I was working nights, Bubba’s was busy and I was getting great tips or that shop-a-thon
would have bit huge into my nest egg.
   But I had to admit, it wasn’t just Wendy. It was me being tan, having fabulous hair, being a biker babe
with a biker who liked me on the back of his bike and, most of all, being two sizes smaller.
   It had been over five years since I was that size. Before Brad started fucking Hayley and my life
disintegrated. It felt like a rebirth mainly because it was.
   I tossed my new bathing suit into my new laundry hamper (wicker, I bought it at a cute little country
shop that had opened in town the week before). I had five new suits, two tankinis and the only bikini I’d
ever owned – it wasn’t a teeny weeny bikini, but it was still sexy (at least I thought so) and therefore it
worked for me – for laying out by the pool and two suits for swimming. Then I jumped in the shower. I got
out, toweled off, lotioned, spritzed perfume and put on a pair of my new matching undies. They were deep
purple with lots of black lace.
   I did my makeup (I’d settled on halfway between Krystal and the Old Me and it was working for me),
blow dried my hair with a roller brush like Dominic showed me, pulled on a dusty lilac tank that was half
tank, half camisole because the straps were thinner than tank but not spaghetti and if I wasn’t careful, my
bra straps showed. The tank looked great with my tan, not being conceited or anything but even I had to
admit that. I yanked on a new pair of jeans, a wide, thick dark brown belt and my new purple strappy,
stiletto-heeled sandals. It took nearly the whole month to get used to traipsing around in high heels for
hours – but I didn’t even feel it anymore and the effect on my tips was astounding.
   I threw some fresh underwear in my purse, my deodorant, put the guard on my toothbrush and tossed
that in as well as a ponytail holder, slung my purse over my shoulder and left my room.
   I waved to Ned, he waved back, I got in my car since I was driving to Wood’s later (and Ned would
know the sign, he had to be getting used to it by now) and headed to Bubba’s.
Chapter Seven
All the Rest
   “Jack and Coke, three Coors bottles and a Tanqueray and tonic,” I ordered from Bubba, looking down
at my pad but, even with head bowed and not looking at him, I still teased (as I usually did with Bubba).
“And get the lead out, big man. The last order you filled my grandma could fill faster and she’s in a
wheelchair.”
   “Fuck,” Bubba muttered, my head came up because this wasn’t his usual witty reply to my teasing and I
saw he was pale and looking over my shoulder.
   I started to turn to see what he was staring at that made him look like he’d seen a ghost but I didn’t get
to do so because suddenly my hair was swept from my neck, a pair of abrasive lips were there and an arm
had snaked around my belly, pulling me back into a tall, hard body.
   “What –?” I started to say as my body went solid but a hand came up and yanked the pad out of mine
and tossed it on the bar.
   I felt the pencil yanked out of my other hand when I twisted my neck to see Tate had hold of me. Tate
with a beard, a full beard. It looked a little straggly but it also looked hot.
   His eyes were aimed at Bubba. “Get Wendy to serve her drinks, Bub, Laurie’s on break,” he ordered
then he had my hand and he was dragging me down the hall.
   “Hey!” I snapped, trying to tug at my hand but he held true and kept dragging me. “Tate!” I cried but he
kept going, right by the office, right by the storeroom to the dark, poorly lit, very back of the hall.
   Then his hands were at my hips and he was pushing me against the wall.
   “Tate,” I snapped but he was concentrating on studying my body, his eyes at my chest as his hands slid
up my sides to stop with his thumbs right below my breasts, his fingers splayed at my sides.
   “Jesus,” his eyes came to mine and then scanned my hair, “what’d you do to yourself, baby?”
   “Tate,” I repeated but said no more because his head bent and he kissed me.
   His lips and tongue worked wonders against my mind, as in clearing it of all thoughts of him being a
cheater and not calling for a month and me being with Wood and filling it with only thoughts of kissing
him back as hard as I could. The beard helped, I’d never been kissed by a man with a beard – it was
scratchy but in a very sexy way.
   When his lips broke from mine, they didn’t actually break, they just stopped kissing me but stayed
where they were so our breath mixed.
   “Sweet as I remembered,” he muttered against my lips.
   “Tate,” I whispered.
   His hand left my side and came to the side of my neck and his head lifted two inches.
   “I couldn’t find him, babe,” he said as his thumb trailed my jaw.
   “Sorry?”
   “That fucker who killed Tonia. Been everywhere. Asshole left nothin’. He’s a ghost.”
   “Oh no,” I breathed.
   “Cops, Feds, everyone’s fuckin’ baffled. Includin’ me.”
   “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
   “Now I gotta tell her folks that I got nothin’,” he went on.
   “Tate.”
   “That’s gonna suck,” he finished.
   I pulled in breath and in pulling it in, life as I’d come to know it re-established its place in my brain.
   “Tate –” I began and his thumb slid across my lips.
   “Sucks, but fuck Laurie, it’s good to be home,” he whispered, his thumb disappeared and his head
started to come down.
   “Tate!” I cried and pulled back against the wall.
   His head went up.
   “What?” he asked.
   “Can you please step back?” I requested.
   His eyes scanned my face in the dim light.
   Then he answered, “No.”
   “We need to talk,” I stated. During his kiss my hands had slid around his neck. Now they were pressing
lightly against his shoulders.
   “All right,” he replied.
   “Later. I’m working. Tomorrow, we’ll, um… go to the um –”
   He cut me off. “You’re right here,” his hand beside my breast slid around my back, “I’m right here,” his
hand at my neck slid up into my hair, “talk.”
   “I need you to step back,” I said to him.
   “And I been gone a long time, Ace, I need you where you are.”
   My head tilted to the side. “You mean you didn’t swing by Neeta’s any time this past month?”
   It was more than a little scary feeling his body go rock solid against mine.
   “What the fuck?” he asked in an even scarier voice.
   “You might want to let me go,” I suggested.
   “And I might not,” he shot back.
   “I know about Neeta,” I told him, trying not to make it sound like an accusation but pretty certain it did.
   “Yeah? What do you know?”
   “I know enough that that’s the last kiss you’ll get from me.”
   “Maybe you’ll explain,” he bit off, his voice even scarier.
   “Okay, I’ll explain this.” I pressed on his shoulders but nothing came of it so I gave up. “My husband
left me for my best friend and he’d been fucking her for five years.”
   “I already knew that, Ace.”
   “So let’s just say that I’m not fired up to get involved with a man who doesn’t care that he’s carrying on
a long term affair with a married woman.”
   He let me go then, faster than I’d ever seen anyone move. So fast I wasn’t ready for it and both my
hands had to slam back in the wall to hold myself upright so I wouldn’t tumble over.
   He’d taken a step back but other than that he didn’t move and he didn’t speak.
   So I did. “I see I’ve made my point.”
   “And I see we’re back at square fuckin’ one,” he returned.
   “What?”
   He leaned in, his face all I could see and I realized the aggressive way he did it that I’d vastly
misjudged the situation and the atmosphere. I’d seen him very angry, scary angry.
   Now, I realized he was enraged.
   “Did you think,” he growled, “for one fuckin’ second, Ace, to maybe ask me about Neeta?”
   But two could be enraged.
   Because he showed me the promise of something special that night on his bike and through his kiss.
   Then he walked away and didn’t even fucking call!
   “Wood explained things pretty clearly,” I replied acidly.
   “Wood,” he whispered.
   “Wood,” I repeated.
   “He fuck you yet?” Tate asked coarsely and I tried to step back forgetting I was already against the
wall.
  “That’s none of your business!” I snapped.
   “He hasn’t fucked you but he will,” he stated. “Too bad for you there’s no one helpful around like
Wood to tell you a few things about Wood.”
   “Yes? Like what things?”
   “Too bad, babe, with this scene, you lost out. You’ll have to find out on your own.” And with that he
turned on his boot, walked away and I watched him, realizing I was breathing heavily until I stopped
breathing because he stopped and turned back to me. “So all that’s for Wood?” he asked bizarrely.
   “All what?” I asked back.
   His hand did an annoyed flick that encompassed the whole of me.
   “No,” I snapped.
   “You looked better before, Ace. Now you just look like all the rest.”
   And with that highly successful parting line, he disappeared down the hall.
Chapter Eight
Martinis and Manicures
   It was the day after Tate came home and the day after I drove to Wood’s after work, pulled off my
clothes, pulled on one of his t-shirts, crawled into his bed waking him just enough for him to roll me into
his arms before he fell back asleep (but I didn’t).
   In Wood’s arms, I didn’t toss and turn because I didn’t want to wake him but I couldn’t get that scene
with Tate out of my mind.
   Or his kiss.
   Or him saying, But fuck Laurie, it’s good to be home.
   Or him saying, You looked better before, Ace. Now you just look like all the rest.
   Eventually I fell asleep and as usual Wood was gone by the time I got up.
   I was lying out in the sun wearing my periwinkle blue tankini with a top that was made of netting that
had royal blue embroidery at the hem and the top of the bodice. The shelf bra covered my breasts but the
netting at my midriff hinted at the skin underneath. I had the royal blue sarong on the bottom of my lounge
chair, a diet pop on the cool deck by my side next to my cell phone, sunglasses on my nose, sunscreen oil
that made my body glisten and a trashy magazine in my hands.
   I was also waiting for the last load of my laundry to dry. Ned and Betty had a laundry room at the top
end of the building by their house, across from the room with all the vending machines in it. The washer
and dryer cost a whack, much more than the Laundromat in town (I’d checked), but I paid it because it
was convenient, just two doors away, so close, I could pretend it was just inside my garage instead of
two hotel rooms away.
   I was reading about celebrities going to jail and viewing pictures of them in orange jumpsuits when I
heard the pipes of a Harley. It was summer. It was Carnal. Harley pipes were de rigueur so I ignored it
totally.
   That was, I ignored it totally until I heard the beat of motorcycle boots on the cool deck.
   I looked around and up to see Tate heading my way. He was walking toward me but his head was
turned to look into the parking lot so I twisted around to look over my shoulder.
   Four Harley guys were outside looking like they were working on their bikes but two of them, one
standing, one crouched, were looking in my direction.
   My eyes moved back to Tate to find he was towering over me.
   “Great show, Ace,” his rough voice growled. “Word gets out you live here, Ned and Betty’ll have a
full house.”
   Why had I ever even considered the option that this man, as beautiful as he was, was not a jerk?
   “Can I help you?” I snapped.
   “Yeah, baby,” he replied, his voice an insinuation and I knew that because his eyes were moving down
my body. He had mirrored sunglasses on (and they looked good on him, which sucked) but I could tell his
eyes were moving the length of me.
   “Well?” I prompted irately, trying not to squirm under his stare. Tyler was a fantastic trainer but he
wasn’t a miracle worker.
   His shaded eyes came to mine.
   “Krys needs you to train the two new girls. You’re on days for awhile.”
   “And Krys couldn’t tell me this because…?”
   “Because she’s at the bar on her own. We got some boys who rolled in and she’s busy ‘cause the
minute Bubba saw me back, he took off. He was gone this mornin’.”
   I stared at him. Then I thought about Krystal.
   Then I whispered, “Darn.”
   “So, you’re on days,” he finished and he looked like he was done and ready to leave.
   “Tips during day shifts suck,” I muttered as my phone rang. I said this not to stop him, just to whine.
   “You’ll survive,” he muttered back as I reached for my phone, his phone really as he’d paid for it, saw
my sister’s name on the display and hit the button to take the call. This surprised me, she should be at
work and she never called when she was at work.
   “Carrie, honey, what’s up?” I asked.
   “Laurie.” Her voice broke saying my name and my body darted up, my legs separating so both my feet
were on the cool deck.
   She didn’t say more.
   “Carrie, talk to me, what?” I prompted urgently, too focused to note that Tate had stopped walking
away and was moving back toward me. “Carrie!”
   “It’s Daddy,” she whispered and then burst into tears.
   I curled into a ball, it was automatic. My knees came up, my heels went in the lounge and my torso
pressed to my thighs.
   I did this because I loved my Dad and the tone of my sister’s voice made me lose my tenuous hold on
my new biker babe and regress straight to an eight year old Daddy’s Little Girl.
   This was a bad trait I had. It must be said I was not good in a crisis. It was all Dad’s fault, he had three
women in his house and he was the kind of male who was all about being the man of the house so he was.
He was the one who took care of everything most of my life and made me into a Daddy’s Little Girl.
   “What’s Dad?” I whispered but she didn’t respond. “Carrie, baby, what happened to Dad?”
   Tate crouched down by my side but I was still focused on the phone.
   “Heart…” she hiccoughed, “heart attack.”
   I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead into my knee. “Talk to me,” I croaked because my throat had
closed. When she didn’t, I begged, “Please, honey, talk to me.”
   “He’s… he’s alive, Laurie, but they… they’re worried.”
   My body bucked with the sob and I barely felt my cell slide out of my hand. Though my hand knew it
was freed because both my arms curled around my legs as I listened vaguely to Tate speaking while I
wept.
   “This is Tate Jackson, who’s this?” He paused. “I’m a friend of Laurie’s, you’re her sister?” Another
pause. “All right, is there someone there with you?” Another pause. “Give him the phone.” Pause. “This
Mack? Tate Jackson, friend of Laurie’s. What’s happened?”
   I felt strong fingers wrap around my hand and then it firmly, but gently, guided me up and forced me out
of the lounge and to my feet.
   “Hang on a second,” Tate said into the phone. “Baby, put your wrap on and grab your stuff,” he ordered
softly.
   Automatically, I did as I was told. Once I had my stuff and slid my feet into my flip flops, he took my
hand and guided me out of the pool area toward my room.
   “Back,” he said into the phone. “I’ll get her sorted out and on a plane.” Another pause. “Yeah.” Another
one. “Right, call back in an hour.”
   We were at the door, he touched the phone and then slid my key out of my hand which I had held against
my chest because most of my stuff was cradled in my arm.
   “What’d Mack say?” I asked.
   “Inside, baby,” he replied gently and opened the door.
   I walked in and tossed everything but the can of pop on the bed. I put the pop on the nightstand and
turned to Tate.
   “What’d he say?”
   “He’s in surgery,” Tate answered and I closed my eyes. “Babe, you need to get on a plane.” I opened
my eyes.
   “Right,” I whispered.
   “Get in the shower,” he ordered.
   “Okay,” I whispered, dutifully starting toward the bathroom.
   Tate headed to the door but I stopped him when I called his name.
   “Tate?”
   He turned and looked at me.
   “Did Mack say…” I swallowed. “How’s Mom?”
   “Hangin’ in there,” he lied.
   “Tate,” I whispered, wrapped my arms around my middle and Tate’s long legs had him in front of me in
what seemed less than a second.
   His hands settled on my neck right where it hit my shoulders. “She’s not good.”
   I fell forward so the top of my head was against his chest.
   “He’s the strong one,” I whispered to the floor.
   His hands gave me a squeeze. “Laurie, get in the shower.”
   My head tipped back and I looked at him, holding myself up with hands planted in his abs.
   “Of all of us,” I was still whispering.
   “What?”
   “He’s the strong one of all of us,” I explained and the tears started to fall in such great waves I didn’t
know where one stopped and the next began. “We… we… girls. His girls. We fall apart,” I finished, a
loud sob tore up my throat and it sounded only slightly less painful than it felt.
   Then I was in Tate’s arms.
                                                    *****
   “Laurie, baby, wake up,” I heard Tate call and my eyes opened.
   We were on a plane and I was snuggled into him, head on his chest, my arm wrapped around his
stomach.
   I tilted my head back and looked up at him.
   “We’re landing, we need to put the seatbacks up,” he told me quietly.
   “Right,” I whispered and pulled away, pulled my hair out of my face and sat up.
   Tate was on that plane with me for reasons known only to Tate. All I knew was, he managed to get me
into the bathroom at the hotel and then he disappeared. By the time I was out of the shower, Betty was in
my room, my clean clothes from the laundry folded on my bed. She coaxed me through my makeup and
blow drying my hair drill and I dressed in an outfit she chose for me. She packed for me while I was
doing this, grabbing my makeup and hair brush when I was done.
   Then there came a knock on the door and, like I was a celebrity, Betty shoved my sunglasses on my
nose and I was whisked from my room by Ned who guided me into a big, black Ford Explorer that had
Tate at the wheel.
   “What’re you doing here?” I asked Tate after Ned tossed my bag in the backseat.
   “I’m your ride,” he replied and then we were off and I barely got a chance to wave at Ned and Betty
who were both standing outside my room.
   “Whose SUV is this?” I asked once we were out of Carnal.
   “Mine,” he answered.
   I looked at him. “You drive a Harley.”
   “Not big on puttin’ bad guys on the back of my bike when I hunt them down, Ace. Fucks with my street
cred.”
   “Oh,” I mumbled, turned to face the road, black thoughts assailed my brain and I fell silent.
   I found out after the silent ride but somewhat hair raising drive to Denver International Airport (I would
understand much later that this was because my plane was leaving and Tate didn’t have a lot of time to get
me to it) he wasn’t just my ride. This was because he didn’t drop me off. He parked in short term parking,
guided me to the ticket counter, we checked my bag and got two tickets (though I didn’t know that) and we
both got in line to go through security and throughout almost all this Tate had two bags, mine in one hand
(my hand mostly held in his other), an overnight bag slung over his shoulder but I was too out of it to
notice it was his.
   “You can’t go through if you don’t have a ticket,” I informed him.
   “I’ve got a ticket,” he replied, looking over my head and down the line.
   “To where?” I asked stupidly and his head tipped to look down at me.
   “Indianapolis,” he answered.
   I felt my brows shoot into my hairline. “You’re coming with me?”
   “Gettin’ you there, comin’ home tomorrow.”
   “What?”
   “Ace, you’re a fuckin’ mess. I’m gettin’ you to your family and I fly home tomorrow.”
   “That’s insane,” I whispered.
   “It’s what I’m doin’,” he returned.
   “But –”
   “Shut up, Ace.”
   I stared at him.
   Then I said, “Okay.”
   Then I went through security with Tate and got on a plane with Tate.
   Now I was landing in Indianapolis with Tate.
   We landed. We taxied. We were let loose from our seatbelts.
   Tate got up and was so big, still had his beard, his hair had grown longer and was not only curling
around his ears but also his neck, he was wearing a skintight black tee, very faded jeans, motorcycle
boots and had a very cool tattoo slithering down his bicep I’d never noticed before because he was
always in long-sleeved shirts, and therefore he looked exactly like what you’d expect a bounty hunter to
look like (but even cooler, scarier and more handsome) so the other passengers let him have his space as
he pulled his black, leather overnight bag out of the overhead compartment. Then he grabbed my hand,
pulled me out of the seats and pushed me in front of him with his hand in the small of my back.
   We walked through the airport and I started running when I saw my sister’s partner Mack’s tall, dark
blond head peering over the crowd at the end of the terminal.
   I hit him straight on so hard he went back on a foot.
   “Laurie, honey,” he whispered as his arms went around me.
   I just started crying again.
   He let me cry and had a man-style nominally syllabic conversation with Tate while he held me tight.
   “You Jackson?”
   “Yeah. Tate.”
   “Mack.”
   “News?”
   Silence.
   “Right.”
   Mack pushed me to his side, slid his arm around my shoulders and he guided me to the escalator that
would take us down to baggage claim.
   “Got another situation,” Mack said when we’d exited the escalator and when he said it his arm gave me
a squeeze.
   “Yeah?” Tate asked and my head tilted back to look at Mack.
   “What?” I whispered.
   “Your Dad’s out of surgery, he’s in ICU. Only your Mom’s been able to see him. They’re keepin’ a
close eye and they want him to rest,” Mack told me.
   “Okay,” I replied.
   Mack was silent and we stopped by our baggage claim.
   Then he pulled in a breath. “Brad’s at the hospital.”
   I tore out of his arm and took a step back, shouting, “What?”
   “Laurie…” Mack said.
   “Ace…” Tate said.
   I looked at Tate and informed him, “That’s my ex.”
   He got close to me and took my hand. “Okay, baby.”
   “My ex as in my ex-husband who spent five years of our marriage fucking my best friend,” I shouted,
oblivious of the other travelers turning to stare.
   “Yeah, babe, I know,” Tate had pulled my hand up and placed it palm down on his chest with his hand
over it.
   “He’s at the hospital,” I screeched, “where my father is in I…C…U!”
   Tate’s head bent so his face was close to mine. “Calm down, Laurie.”
   “No!” I shouted in his face. “What a jerk!”
   “Do you want me to beat the shit outta him when we get there?” Tate asked, sounding serious and I
blinked at him.
   “What?”
   “I will,” Tate stated.
   “You… you’ll… beat the shit out of him?”
   “Say the word, babe.”
   “Would… wouldn’t you get arrested for something like that?” I asked.
   “Probably,” he answered.
   “Then maybe you shouldn’t,” I decided.
   “Your call,” he muttered and turned to the baggage claim, moving my hand so it became my arm
wrapped around his waist and sliding his arm along my shoulders.
   “You’ll yell you see the case,” Mack instructed but he sounded like he found something funny.
   “Yep,” Tate said, his eyes on the now moving carousel.
   “You’re good, by the way,” Mack went on.
   “What?” Tate asked.
   “Took me five years with Carrie to figure out how to talk her down from a drama. Laurie’s been in your
town for what? A month? Shit, man, you’re the master.”
   Tate chuckled.
   This conversation didn’t penetrate me. I was post-shouting at the Indianapolis Airport, pre-visit to the
hospital where my father who I adored but had left worrying about me for six months (or longer) was in
ICU and my ex-husband was hanging out for reasons that could only mean he’d gone insane.
   Therefore, I collapsed into Tate’s side, resting my head on his shoulder.
   His arm around my shoulders got tighter.
   It wouldn’t be until much, much later that I would remember that I hadn’t called Wood.
                                                     *****
   Apparently the tear reservoir had run dry by the time we made it to St. Vincent’s Hospital because
when I hit the waiting room and Mom and Caroline fell on me, all I could do was hold onto both of them
in our mini-huddle.
   “I’m so glad you’re here,” Mom whispered in my ear, “missed you so much, hon.”
   I just held her tighter.
   After a long time, we disengaged and they stepped back. Carrie looked toward Tate first. Then her
mouth dropped right open.
   Then she muttered, “Holy cow.”
   Mom heard Carrie and she stopped smiling sadly at me, looked up at Tate and then she blinked and her
head reared back.
   “Um… Mom, Carrie, this is Tate Jackson his my bo –”
   “Boyfriend,” Tate stated firmly, his deep, rough voice filling the waiting room and I could swear
Carrie looked like she was going to faint and I could swear this because her upper body started teetering
in a random pattern all the while Mom blinked again, repeatedly.
   I looked up at Tate in shock but he was looking over my sister’s head.
   “Can I help you?” he asked and I turned to see who he was looking at.
   Brad was standing there, looking pale, somewhat haggard even though he also looked like Brad but
after all these months, all that had gone on before, more than a month in Carnal with the likes of Tate and
Wood, he didn’t seem like my glorious, beautiful Brad anymore.
   He had light brown hair he used product on to sweep back from his face and, like always, even in a
hospital waiting room, his hair looked perfect. He didn’t wash it and let it fall as it lay. He styled it and
sometimes he took longer fiddling with his hair than I did blow drying mine and this was saying something
because I had a lot of hair. He was only three inches taller than me so he’d never liked me to wear very
high heels. He had blue eyes that I’d used to think were piercing. Now they just seemed blue. And he had
an absolutely great body but he honed this by going to the gym five times a week, never missing a
scheduled visit. He even went in when he was sick, such was his aversion to the thought of losing his
carefully crafted physique.
   His eyes were on me.
   “Ree?” he asked, staring at me like he’d never seen me before.
   “What are you doing here, Brad?” I asked back.
   When he heard my voice he breathed, “Ree.”
   “We couldn’t get him to go away,” Carrie informed me.
   Brad jerked as if pulling himself together and then his eyes moved to Tate briefly before they came
back to me.
   “This is my family,” he explained.
   “Sorry?” I whispered, feeling my body get tight.
   “He’s been sayin’ that a lot,” Mack muttered to Tate.
   “I’m guessin’ you’re Brad,” Tate said to Brad.
   “Yes, Ree’s husband,” Brad said to Tate.
   Tate looked down at me. “Thought you signed papers?” I nodded to him and he looked to Brad. “I think
in the eyes of the law that makes you not her husband anymore.”
   I looked at Mom and Carrie. “Tate would probably know; he used to be a cop.”
   “What’s he now, hon?” Mom asked.
   “A bounty hunter,” I answered.
   Caroline’s eyes shot to Tate and she repeated, “Holy cow.”
   Brad got even paler.
   Mack chuckled.
   Mom’s round eyes hit Tate and she whispered, “Oh my.”
   Tate ignored all of us and told Brad, “So I’m thinkin’ Ace’s question is still pertinent.”
   “Ace?” Brad asked.
   “Lauren,” Tate answered.
   Brad’s eyes narrowed on me. “He calls you Ace?”
   I threw my hands up. “What are you doing here, Brad?”
   Brad started toward me but stopped abruptly. He stopped abruptly because Tate moved in between him
and me and planted a hand in Brad’s chest.
   “That’s about as close as I want you to her,” Tate said low.
   Brad took a step back and glared at Tate. “I get that you’re a big guy but I’d like to talk to my wife.”
   “Then you shouldn’t have thrown her away when she was your wife. Now she ain’t. Now she’s
somethin’ to me and I don’t let men I don’t like get close to her and I gotta tell you, man, I do not like
you.”
   Brad’s eyes came to me and he snapped, “Ree!”
   I moved forward two feet until I was standing behind and beside Tate and I leaned beyond him to Brad.
   “Are you telling me that you flew all the way from Phoenix to cause this drama when my father is in
ICU just because you feel like a schmuck because you totally screwed me over and you didn’t get to make
yourself feel like a good guy and say good-bye when I left town?”
   “No, I’m telling you when I heard about your Dad I knew you’d be here and I flew all the way from
Phoenix so I could tell you I want you back!” Brad returned and everyone in the room got very still except
Tate and me.
   Tate didn’t get still, as such. Instead, he got the definition of still. His body completely turned to stone
which was good because my bones turned to water and I had to grab onto Tate to remain standing.
   “What?” I whispered.
   Brad took a step forward, Tate moved a millimeter and Brad stopped but his eyes stayed pinned to me.
   “I want you back, Ree,” he said softly. “I made a huge mistake.”
   “Yeah, man, you did,” Tate cut in and Brad’s neck twisted so fast he probably gave himself a hitch
when he looked up at Tate.
   “Will you stay out of it?” he clipped.
   “She’s holdin’ onto me, bud. I’d say I’m in it,” Tate returned.
   “Ree,” Brad said when his eyes came to me.
   And when they did, it hit me, like taking a bullet that ripped through me, changing my life, altering my
perceptions in a way I knew there was no going back.
   “Go away,” I whispered.
   “Him or me?” Brad asked, jerking a thumb at Tate.
   “Not Tate, you,” I was still whispering.
   “Ree,” Brad repeated.
   “Honest to God?” I asked quietly and Brad opened his mouth to speak but I kept talking. “Do you know
how beautiful my life is now, Brad? Can you even understand what a beautiful life is? It isn’t about the
perfect house and a keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s new car every two years and having the right landscaper
and bragging at parties that you have a house cleaner. Not when all that stuff is shit. It’s surface. There’s
nothing underneath.”
   I didn’t know where these words were coming from, I just knew it was someplace buried deep,
someplace that had been longing to see the light of day, someplace that had finally broken through when
that bullet tore through me.
   “Ree –”
   “You lied to me and all my friends lied to me for five years. You can’t do that and have a soul.”
   “Ree –”
   “Do you know what happened to me today?” I asked and didn’t wait for an answer, I just gave it to him.
“I got a phone call from my sister that tore my world apart and I didn’t have to lift a finger. Betty got me
dressed and packed my bag and even got my laundry from the laundry room. Ned put me and my bag in the
truck. Tate got the tickets and got me on a plane and dropped everything to come with me. These people
have things to do, they have lives. At work Krys and Wendy will cover for me even though Tate and I are
gone just because that’s what you do when you’re a good person. That’s what you do when you have a
soul. That’s where I am now, that’s where I live, that’s my life. Do you think, for one second, I’d leave
something that beautiful and come back to you?”
   He didn’t answer so I kept going.
   “Even now, you’re not thinking about me. My father’s fighting for his life somewhere in this hospital
and my family is scared out of their minds and you don’t care. You don’t give a fuck. All you care about
is you and what you want. I’m standing by a man who dropped everything, and he’s been on the trail of a
murderer for a month, and he did it just to get me to my family. Have you ever done anything like that in
your life?”
   “You love me, Ree, you told me you did even after I explained about Hayley,” Brad reminded me.
“You said we’d find our way back, make it work.”
   “I did,” I agreed, “because I was scared and I was blind. Blinded by hope. I’d waited for something
special and convinced myself you were that. Then you proved you weren’t and taught me the valuable
lesson that special isn’t out there. Special doesn’t exist. So the best you can do is find real. I found real,
Brad, and I like it.” I let Tate go, straightened and moved to his side. “I guess I should thank you for being
here so I can thank you to your face for teaching me that lesson. I wasted a lot of my life hoping for
something special. Now I’ve realized I’m good with what I’ve got.”
   I watched Brad open his mouth to speak but I didn’t get a chance to hear what he had to say. I didn’t get
that chance because Tate tagged me with an arm hooked around my neck, he yanked me into him so I
collided with his body and his head came down, his mouth on mine, and he kissed me hard and deep, with
tongues.
   Right in front of my Mom!
   This, at the time, didn’t register on me because it was Tate and he was good with his mouth therefore
that was the only thing that registered.
   Then he lifted his head half an inch and stated, “You’re gonna find special, Ace.”
   I shook my head in the minimal space allowed partially in a negative, mostly to recover from his kiss.
   “Special doesn’t exist, Tate,” I told him. “And I’m okay with that.”
   His lips came back to mine and when he spoke, he did it gently. “It will for you, baby.”
   “I like him,” Mom declared loudly.
   I watched Tate’s eyes smile.
   “Maybe we shouldn’t neck in front of my Mom while my Dad’s in ICU,” I suggested and then watched
the smile in Tate’s eyes deepen.
   “Don’t mind us,” Mack called. “They probably don’t get a lot of foreplay in hospital waiting rooms.
You’re breakin’ the monotony of tears and tantrums.”
   “Mack!” Carrie hissed. “Tate just kissed her, that’s hardly foreplay.”
   “You weren’t watchin’ close enough, honey. That was definitely foreplay.”
   By this time Tate’s head had gone up about three inches so I could see his mouth struggling against his
smile, or, perhaps, out and out laughter.
   “My family is a little crazy,” I whispered.
   “I get that,” Tate replied.
   “Perhaps I should go,” Brad noted and Tate didn’t release me but his head turned toward Brad.
   “You think?” he asked.
   I started giggling and seeing as my hands were clutching Tate’s t-shirt at his waist, I just slid them along
so they were loosely wrapped around his back and I could rest my weight into his body.
   But Brad wasn’t done. He got close and I turned my head to look at him too.
   “I get this,” he said, “this guy.” He jerked his head at Tate. “Wild oats. But I know you Ree. You’ll
want your manicures and martinis. You’ll be back.”
   I looked at Tate and noted, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Can we buy some martini
glasses for the bar?”
   “No,” Tate replied.
   “All right,” I muttered.
   “Can we go to the hotel?” Mom asked. “I need to rest, I want to be back to check on your father first
thing in the morning.”
   “You girls’ll have to scrunch in the back. Tate and my legs are too long,” Mack declared.
   “It’s your car, hon,” Mom said and she sounded tired.
   “Mom sounds tired,” I whispered to Tate and he let my neck go but didn’t step out of my space.
   “Be with her,” he whispered back.
   “Okay,” I agreed then called, “Captain?”
   “Yeah, Ace.”
   “Thanks.”
   His hand lifted and he trailed the backs of his fingers along my jaw.
   My mind automatically committed the feel of his touch to memory right along with the look on his face
when he did it.
   Then I went to my Mom.
                                                     *****
   “I’m sorry about this,” I said to Tate as we entered the hotel room my Mom insisted on getting us.
   Us!
   Our farm was only a thirty minute drive away from Indianapolis and Carrie and Mack lived in the city
but they lived on the other side and Mom didn’t want to drive back and forth so we’d all checked in and
would be in (at least Mom and me) until she felt Dad was okay to leave for awhile.
   After having a very late dinner, we’d gone to the hotel and Mom had insisted that she pay for Tate and
my room.
   Tate tried to protest, Mom was losing so she looked at me, pulled out the big guns, and said, “It’s what
your father would do if he was here.”
   Tate’s eyes sliced to me, his jaw clenched then he sighed and then I let Mom get us a room.
   Now we were stuck together in a room with a king-sized bed.
   Tate dumped our luggage on the built-in luggage rack and I looked around the room that was in a
Marriott which was about as far away from Ned and Betty’s below average (but now it was home) room
as you could get.
   “Don’t worry about it,” Tate muttered.
   “I’ll run down and get another room, try to get it on the same floor or something so they won’t know and
I’ll sleep there.”
   “It’s all good, Ace,” Tate said. He’d sat in a chair and was pulling off his boots.
   “There’s only one bed,” I informed him of a fact he knew.
   “It’s a big bed,” he replied.
   “Tate –” I started and his head came up.
   “Babe, it’s all good. Quit yappin’.”
   “Okay,” I whispered and then just stood there not knowing what to do.
   Tate knew what to do. He went to the bed, yanked the pillows out from under the coverlet and stacked
them on one side. Then he emptied his pockets, lay on the covers, back to the pillows, grabbed the remote
and switched on the TV.
   I stepped further into the room.
   “That was nice of you,” I said to him.
   “What?” he asked the TV.
   “To pretend you were my boyfriend in front of Brad,” I replied.
   “Your ex is an asshole, babe.” He was still talking to the TV.
   He was right about that.
   So I said, “It was also nice for you to pretend in front of my family at dinner.”
   “Your family’s the shit, Ace.” He was still watching TV.
   He was right about that too.
   “Mm,” I mumbled and looked at the TV.
   It didn’t take long for the images on the screen mesmerize me. This was because I was drained,
emotionally and physically. Travelling wore me out. Brad wore me out. And I was terrified the last time
I’d communicate with my Dad was through an e-mail.
   “Babe,” Tate called.
   “Mm?” I asked, eyes glued to the screen.
   “Laurie, take your shoes off and lie down.”
   I didn’t move.
   “Lauren,” Tate called.
   I stared at the screen.
   “Fuck me,” Tate muttered, I heard a zip then my body was moving.
   My heard jerked and I looked up at Tate as he pushed me into the bathroom.
   “What?”
   “Change and come to bed before you collapse on your feet,” he ordered and shoved some material in
my hand.
   I looked at the material. “This isn’t mine.”
   “It’s mine. Not gonna waste time sortin’ through your shit.”
   “But –”
   “Put it on, Ace.”
   “But –”
   He put a hand to my belly, shoved me fully into the bathroom, flipped on the light switch and demanded,
“Put it on.” Then he closed the door.
   Without any fight left in me (at all) I put it on then I shuffled out wearing his huge, navy blue t-shirt. I
collapsed on the covers on the bed and I did this on a diagonal.
   Tate was right, the bed was huge. I was diagonal, he was in the bed and we weren’t close to touching.
   That was until his hands came to my armpits and he hauled me across the bed until my head was on his
belly.
   I started to lift up. “Tate –”
   He pushed me back down. “Relax, watch TV.”
   “But Tate, this is –”
   He cut me off. “I’m usin’ all the pillows.”
   I twisted my head to look at him. “Tate!”
   His fingers slid in my hair and sifted through. “Jesus, you’re wound up tight. Just fuckin’ relax.”
   I couldn’t not relax with his fingers sifting through my hair like that.
   I sighed deeply, trying to sound annoyed. Then I twisted my head back and rested it on his stomach.
   Tate kept sifting his fingers through my hair.
   I rested my hand on his stomach just below my face, part of it tucked under my cheek.
   I looked down the long length of his legs, passed his bare feet crossed at the ankles and Tate and I
watched TV.
Tate kept sifting his fingers through my hair.
I fell asleep.
*****
   But fuck Laurie, it’s good to be home.
   The words hit my brain, my eyes opened and I saw the room was dark.
   There was a warm body pressed in behind me, its arm around me and it wasn’t Wood’s.
   I was in a hotel room in Indianapolis with Tate.
   I shut my eyes tight.
   So much for the big bed. We were only using about a quarter of it.
   I knew with the way I was awake that I wasn’t going to get back to sleep. So, as carefully as I could, I
slipped out from under Tate’s arm and out of the bed. I went to my bag, picked it up as silently as I could
and took it to the bathroom. I didn’t turn on the light until the door was closed. Then I opened my bag,
rummaged through it, found my stuff and belatedly washed the makeup off my face, moisturized then
brushed my teeth. Then I shoved my bag under the sink, turned out the light and carefully made my way to
the chair by the window.
   If I curled up and eventually fell asleep there, I’d be okay and I wouldn’t wake Tate.
   So I curled up and looked out at the lights from our window thankful Tate didn’t close the curtains and I
tried to clear my mind and find tired.
   “Ace?” Tate called.
   Darn.
   “I’m so sorry, did I wake you?” I whispered.
   “Come back to bed,” he ordered.
   “No, Captain, I can’t sleep. I’m okay, this happens a lot. Just ignore me.”
   “Come back to bed,” he repeated.
   “Really, I’m…” I trailed off because I saw the covers get thrown back, then I saw his naked chest in the
city lights coming in from the window and the sight put me into a deeper mesmerization than the TV had.
So deep, I didn’t know what he was doing until I was in his arms and he was walking back to the bed. He
dumped me there somewhat unceremoniously (as in he dropped me and I bounced) and then he effectively
shoved me deeper into the bed because I scooted away from his knee as he got in with me.
   He was settling the covers over us when he repeated, “Like I said, come to bed.”
   “You don’t want me here,” I advised.
   He ignored my comment and asked, “What woke you up?”
   “Sorry?”
   “Why do you wake up?”
   “Stuff drifts through my brain, wakes me up.”
   “What?”
   “Lots of stuff.”
   “What was it tonight?”
   Good God, I couldn’t tell him that.
   “Just… I want Dad to be okay. I was pretty incommunicado while I was roaming, sorting through my
head, needing to be alone and find what I was looking for. I knew Mom and him and Caroline were
worried. Really worried. I’d reconnected lately but the last time I talked to Dad was via e-mail,” I lied.
“I want to hear his voice.” This was not a lie
   He honed into exactly what most concerned me.
   “You aren’t responsible for your father’s heart attack, babe.”
   “And you aren’t responsible for Tonia’s death, babe.”
   That shut him up.
  We were face to face but his face was shadowed, only his shoulder and arm that was on top of the
covers were visible in the lights coming from windows.
  “Go back to sleep, Tate, I’ll be okay,” I whispered.
  He ignored me again. “What keeps you up?”
  “What keeps me up?”
  “Yeah, if shit sifts through your brain waking you up, what keeps you up?”
  “It keeps sifting through my brain.”
  “You can’t shut it down?”
  “No.”
  He fell silent.
  “Tate,” I said, “I’ve tried everything. Sleep aids. Counting sheep. Relaxation techniques. Nothing
works but I’m used to it.”
  “The mind’s a powerful thing.”
  “Yes,” I said softly.
  “Your Dad’s gonna be okay, Ace.”
  “I hope so,” I whispered.
  We both fell silent and this lasted awhile.
  Then, quietly, just in case he fell back to sleep, I said, “Everything you did today was nice.”
  “Babe,” he muttered.
  “Did I wake you again?”
  “No.”
  Well thank goodness for that.
  I kept talking. “Thank you for coming all the way out here with me.”
  “It’s just a day.”
  “Still,” I said, “you didn’t have to do it.”
  “State you were in, you’d end up in Alaska.”
  That startled a giggle out of me.
  Then I protested, “I would not.”
  “Babe, seriously, you were a robot without any programming.”
  I had to admit I kind of was.
  “Told you Dad was the strong one,” I reminded him.
  He had no response.
  “I’ll pay you back for the tickets,” I whispered.
  “We’ll talk about it later.”
  I ignored him this time. “Yours too.”
  “Lauren, we’ll talk about it later.”
  “They had to cost a whack.”
  “You speak English, you just don’t hear it,” he stated.
  “All right, we’ll talk about it later,” I yielded.
  We fell silent again. This lasted a long time, so long, I heard Tate’s breathing go even and I knew from
experience with listening to Brad sleep he was out.
  I rolled to my other side and the instant I did, Tate’s arm came out and hooked me at the waist, pulling
me back into his body.
  “Tate?” I called, super quiet.
  “Mm?” he replied.
  “You asleep?” I was still being quiet.
  “No,” he replied.
   If he wasn’t asleep then why did he pull me into him?
   “Um…” I mumbled.
   “Your hair smells good.”
   “It does?”
   “Yeah.”
   Wow. He thought my hair smelled good. That was nice.
   I decided to ignore that and how nice it was.
   “Why aren’t you asleep?” I asked.
   “’Cause I got a woman in bed with me who won’t shut up,” he answered.
   “Oh,” I whispered then pointed out, “I was quiet awhile ago.”
   “This is true,” he murmured.
   “So why aren’t you asleep?”
   He was silent.
   “Tate?”
   He sighed then he said, “You smell good, babe.”
   “I do?”
   “You feel good too.”
   Uh-oh.
   “Tate –”
   “Just be quiet, Lauren.”
   I decided to go with that.
   “Okay,” I whispered.
   We were both quiet a long time and I was about to fall back asleep in the curve of his arm with his
warm body at my back when he called my name.
   “Laurie?”
   “Yes,” I muttered, my voice sleepy.
   “I was pissed last night.”
   “I know.”
   “You look good.”
   “Sorry?”
   “No way you can look like all the rest.”
   My eyes shot open.
   His arm curled me deeper into his body and I felt his face burrow into my hair.
   “You’d always shine through,” he muttered and now he sounded sleepy but I was again wide awake.
“Somethin’ special,” he finished.
   Oh.
   My.
   God.
   He fell asleep moments later, I knew this when I took his weight into my back, his breath evened and
his strong arm curved deeper around me in a way that I’d never be able to slide out from under it, I’d
never be able to move away. I’d have to stay right there, tucked tight to Tate.
   I didn’t sleep for a long time but I didn’t care. I just laid there thinking if Brad had held me like this all
those years, maybe I wouldn’t have tossed and turned and driven him nuts. Maybe I would have been
perfectly fine with my insomnia.
   If Brad had held me like this, every night, I’d look forward to it.
Chapter Nine
Damn Baby
   The phone rang and my eyes opened.
   I was in Tate and my hotel room, alone in our bed.
   I knew I was alone (even though the bed was huge) because I couldn’t feel him, hear him or sense him.
In fact, I couldn’t sense him anywhere, the shower wasn’t running, he was gone.
   I turned toward Tate’s side where the phone was and saw the note. I sat up, grabbed the receiver and
the note, putting the receiver to my ear as the words on the note registered in my brain.
   Ace,
   Running. Be back.
   Man of few words.
   “Hello?” I said into the phone.
   “Hi hon,” Mom said back.
   “Hi Mom.”
   “I wake you?”
   “That’s all right.”
   “You sleep okay?”
   “Not really, you?”
   “No,” she replied. “Listen, hon, we’re meeting for breakfast then going over. Mack says he’ll come
back and get you if –”
   I looked at the clock. It was six thirty. I knew two things from this. Mom didn’t sleep a wink and Tate
was a seriously early riser.
   “Tate’s running but I’ll be down,” I told her.
   “He’s running?” she asked.
   “Yeah,” I answered.
   “In a town he doesn’t know?”
   “Um, he’s a bounty hunter, he gets around,” I guessed. “New places don’t faze him,” I guessed again.
“He’ll be okay.” That wasn’t a guess. I figured Tate could run through the fires of hell and emerge
unscathed.
   “We’ll wait until he gets back. They aren’t letting us in for long visits and visiting hours don’t start until
ten,” Mom told me. “I already called the hospital and they say his status hasn’t changed but it’s…”
   She stopped and I listened to her breathing heavily, trying to control emotion.
   “Take your time, Momma,” I whispered.
   I listened to her inhale then she said, “They said it’s good he made it through the night.”
   Darn but this sucked.
   “That’s good,” I said softly.
   “Yeah,” she replied.
   “I’ll get a shower in, go down and leave Tate a note. He’s going back to Carnal today anyway, maybe
his flight is early and he’ll need to skip breakfast and get a taxi.”
   “He’s going back today?” Mom asked, sounding surprised.
   “Um… yes.”
   “Why?”
   “Well…”
   “He should stay, at least a day, see the farm.”
   “He’s got things to do,” I told her.
   “It’s just a day,” she replied.
    I’d heard that before.
    “Listen, Mom –”
    “I’ll talk to him,” she decided.
    “No! Mom, really –”
    “At a time like this, you need him with you. He’ll understand.”
    “But…” I searched desperately for something then stated, “He’s got fugitives from justice to hunt down.
It isn’t like his job isn’t important.”
    I didn’t like lying to my mother. It was likely Tate would go home and help out at the bar and get pissed
about doing it all because Bubba liked to fish. Still, maybe there’d be some fugitive Tate had to go round
up.
    “There’s lots of bounty hunters, Laurie, there’s even one on TV He can delegate,” she said like Tate.
worked in an office with a bunch of bounty hunters who got a call then said, “I’ll go,” or “You go,” or
“No, you go,” or “Butch is up next, he’ll go.”
    “Mom –”
    “We’ll talk at breakfast.”
    “Mom –” I repeated but there was a knock at the door and my eyes fell to Tate’s nightstand. I saw his
cell, wallet and the Marriott keycard so I figured Tate went out without the keycard and he needed me to
let him in. “Listen, there’s a knock at the door, Tate’s back. I’ll talk to him. If he has to go home then he
has to go home.”
    “Maybe, if he has to go home, he’ll come back,” she suggested hopefully.
    There it was. My Mom thinking my life could begin again now that I found a man. Then again, she’d
married my Dad when he was twenty-one, she was nineteen. She’d never known a life without a good
man in it so she would think that.
    Another knock came at the door, this one louder. Tate was getting impatient or perhaps thought he
needed to wake me.
    “I’ve got to go,” I said to Mom. “See you at breakfast.”
    “Yes, say eight, or whenever you’re ready,” Mom replied. “I just want to get there before visiting
hours. See if we can talk to the doctors.”
    “Okay,” I threw off the covers and swung my legs off the bed. “See you at eight. Love you.”
    “Love you too, Laurie, and glad you’re here.”
    “Me too.”
    “Glad Tate’s here too.”
    I sighed.
    “Me too.”
    “Bye hon.”
    I stood up and bent over the phone saying, “Bye Momma.”
    I hung up and rushed across the room to the door.
    Not looking because it could be no one but Tate, I pulled it open while talking, “You forgot the –”
    I stopped talking because Brad stood there.
    I couldn’t believe my eyes so all I could do was stand there and stare, which was a bad thing. It was
bad because Brad took that opportunity to move into the room and he might not have been as big as Tate
but he was bigger than me and I had no choice but to move back with him and I did, walking backwards
staring up at him.
    “What are you doing here?” I asked when we stopped.
    “I saw him running,” he told me.
    “Tate?”
    “I knew you’d be alone.”
   Oh for goodness sake.
   I heaved a sigh then said, “Brad –”
   “We need to talk, without him here.”
   “No we don’t.”
   He looked at me from top to toe then smiled his killer Bradford Whitaker smile. “You look great,
darling.”
   I was just awake, my Dad was in ICU and I was not in the mood for Bradford Whitaker’s killer smile
or to contemplate the fact that it had, for the first time since I’d seen it, not even the slightest effect on me.
Instead, I focused on forcing myself not to roll my eyes.
   I hated it when he called me darling and just then I remembered that I hated it even before he screwed
me over. He was from Indiana too. We’d moved to Phoenix for his work. People in Indiana didn’t call
people “darling”. They might call them “darlin’” but not with the “g”. I always thought that was totally
fake. Even people in Phoenix didn’t say that. He wasn’t an English lord of the manor for goodness sakes,
even though he wanted to be or, at least, acted like he was.
   Thinking this moved me to thinking about Phoenix, a place I liked, it had great shopping and excellent
restaurants and out of this world Mexican food. It was also close to Sedona and Flagstaff, both of which
were amazing. And the desert in bloom was not to be believed. But, even so, I never settled there. It was
too hot. I never got used to the heat. I hated the summers, they were torture.
   Brad loved it. He detested cold and adored golf. No matter how often I talked to him about it, he never
even entertained the idea of moving anywhere else, not even when his work offered jobs in DC (where I
really wanted to live, it was beautiful, historical and exciting) and Seattle (where I’d been before and I
thought it was great, so much so that was the first place I headed after I left my old life – but it didn’t hit
me like Carnal did when I got there, too big, too wet, so I didn’t stay).
   Thinking these things made me straighten my spine, look Brad in the eye and say, “Please go.”
   He didn’t go. He got close and put his hands to my waist.
   “You look great tan, always did.”
   I put my hands to his and tried to remove them, repeating, “Go.”
   His hands slid around to my back. “And your hair… I like it like that, sun-streaked.”
   “It’s fake Brad. It isn’t sun streaks. It’s highlights delivered from a plastic brush wielded by Dominic,
the gay stylist to all biker babes.” I was still pushing at his hands.
   He put pressure on my back so our hips touched. “Whatever,” he muttered then went on. “The length of
it suits you. I wouldn’t normally say a woman of your age should have long hair –”
   “Brad!” I snapped, interrupting him because he was annoying me in a variety of ways. “Go!”
   He ignored me, leaned a bit back without letting me go as I still struggled with my hands now at his
wrists behind my back trying to push them away. “How much weight have you lost?”
   “I don’t know. Who cares? Let me go.” I pushed harder.
   He pulled me closer.
   “What you were wearing yesterday,” he murmured and I tried to remember what I was wearing
yesterday. It was another tank top, this one salmon, ribbed and fitted, with jeans and a belt and flip flops.
Not exactly haute couture but even I knew they fit really well. “God, Ree.” That came out as almost a
groan. I noticed his eyes were locked on my mouth, I knew what that meant and I belatedly realized the
situation was quickly deteriorating.
   I jerked back but his arms only got tighter.
   “Brad! Let! Go!”
   His eyes came back to mine. “We were good together.”
   I stopped struggling and glared at him. “Yeah, we were. Then we weren’t.”
   His head bent and he shoved his face in my neck. “I missed you,” he whispered against my skin.
   I started struggling again, squirming against his body but his arms only wrapped tighter around me and I
felt his lips slide up to my ear.
   “She cheated on me,” he whispered and I went still.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   His head came up. “Hayley. Traded up for a new model.”
   Oh my God.
   He continued. “I made more money than Scott. Her new guy is a doctor. A surgeon. Obviously he
makes more money than me.”
   I didn’t know what to make of this, though I’d always suspected Hayley was with Brad because Scott,
her husband, wasn’t as successful as Brad, my house was bigger than hers and she could only afford
Griselle to come once every two weeks, not once a week. I also knew by things she said she wanted
more. I didn’t want to think ill of my best friend so I’d let her little comments slide, dozens of times, but
they always made me feel weird.
   Now, I knew.
   I had the inappropriate desire to giggle.
   Instead, I started, “Brad –”
   “She’s been fucking him for two years. Even while we were going through what we went through,
Hayley knowing I was doing it for her, she was working her next move. He finally left his wife for her.
Hayley’s gone, Ree. Been gone awhile. Turned her back on me, Audrey, Janet, Colleen, all of them. She
hasn’t spoken to them in ages… or me. She’s on hospital charity committees now. Thinks she’s high-
brow. Hobnobbing with society.”
   Well that explained the e-mails. Now they all knew just exactly what Hayley was. All of them. Even
Brad.
   That desire to giggle got harder to bite back.
   “This isn’t my problem,” I reminded him.
   “Honey –”
   “Brad, let me go, it isn’t my problem,” I repeated.
   He pulled me even closer and his face dipped down. “I’m here because you were right. We can work
on this. We can go back to what we had.”
   I started struggling again. “No we can’t.”
   “We were good together once. Then you started to let yourself go…”
   I jerked back but not successfully out of his arms and my eyes narrowed on him. “I started to let myself
go?”
   “You know I don’t like a woman to carry extra weight,” he explained.
   He could not be believed!
   “I started eating because I sensed you were fucking around on me!” I shouted.
   “Darling –”
   “Stop calling me that!”
   “You’re back,” he replied, his eyes going over my hair and down to my chest before coming back to
mine, “better than ever.”
   I stopped pushing against his wrists and pressed my hands against his chest. “Get out!”
   He ignored me. “And we can be back and better than ever.”
   “Seriously, this is not cool.”
   His face got in my face. “I know what you’re doing with that guy. I get it. It hurts, honey, you got yours
back. We both struck our blows, learned our lessons, now we can move on.”
   “I wasn’t striking a blow, you jerk, we’re divorced,” I shouted, losing it. “You fucked Hayley, carrying
on with her for five years while we were committed to each other and bound legally! You wanted out
and I let you out and moved on. Tate has not one thing to do with you!”
   “Honey, you know you want me back. You practically begged to take me back even knowing what
happened. You fell apart when I left.”
   I started pushing, squirming in earnest, rearing back and shrieking, “Fuck you!”
   Finally, I was getting somewhere. He was struggling to control me.
   “Ree –”
   “Let me…!”
   I didn’t get out the word “go” because I was suddenly released but Brad wasn’t the one who released
me. Tate was there, drenched in sweat wearing a white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, black sweatpants
which were cut off at mid-thigh and running shoes. We’d been so entrenched in our drama that we didn’t
hear him come in.
   Tate had hold of the back of Brad’s golf shirt, he pulled him back then let fly and Brad staggered five
paces before he righted himself.
   He planted his feet and scowled up at Tate. “Put your hand on me again and I’ll sue!” Brad shouted.
   Tate advanced, not saying a word. Then he put his hand on Brad, scrunching the material of his shiny,
blue golf shirt in one big fist and shoving him backwards to the door. Once there, he jerked him forward
making Brad lurch like a ragdoll. Brad’s hands went to Tate’s wrist to pull it free, Tate leaned beyond
Brad, yanked open the door and then shoved him through.
   Brad reeled back and righted himself halfway across the wide hall.
   “You asshole!” Brad shouted.
   “I see you again, it won’t be pretty. I find out she sees you again, you’ll be breathin’ through a fuckin’
tube. You get me?” Tate growled.
   “Fuck you!” Brad yelled.
   Tate shut the door. I stared at it, frozen to the spot.
   Tate turned to me.
   “How’d he get in here?” Tate asked.
   I was still staring at the door but at his question my head jerked and I looked at him. “I opened it.”
   “You opened it?” Tate asked and I was too overwrought by the latest scene to let his tone penetrate.
   “You…” I swung an arm out indicating in its wide sweep the nightstand, “left your keycard. I thought it
was you.”
   Tate lifted up a hand and between two fingers was a keycard. Then he flicked his hand and the keycard
went sailing. I watched it slice through the air and then flutter to the floor.
   “Two of us in this room, Ace, two keycards,” he said and my eyes went to him. When they did, he
jerked his hand, finger extended to the door. “Know what this is?”
   “A door?” I asked stupidly.
   “A peephole,” he bit back then moved his hand to flick the security latch closed. “Know what that is?”
   “Captain –”
   He advanced and the aggressive way he did it made me retreat. It was dawning on me he was pissed
and he wasn’t pissed at Brad. He was pissed at me.
   I stopped when my legs hit the chair to the desk. He stopped when he was in my space. I tilted my head
way back to look at him.
   “You got great hair, babe.”
   “Tate –”
   “Thick.”
   “Tate –”
   “Soft.”
   “Tate,” I whispered.
   “Shame it gets hacked off with a knife after some guy rapes you with that knife!” He finished on a roar.
   My body jolted.
   “Tate!”
   “There’s bad guys out there, Ace. Bad. Do things to you that’ll make you glad you end up dead. You
don’t open a goddamned door not knowin’ who’s behind it.”
   “I thought it was you.”
   “Well it wasn’t.”
   “Tate –”
   “He fuck you?” Tate asked suddenly and my head jerked again.
   “Brad?” I asked back, confused.
   Tate leaned in and bellowed, “Wood!”
   “No!” I shouted back.
   Then I was flying through the air. Literally flying through the air. I bounced once on the bed and then
Tate was on top of me. He was wet, he was sweaty and his weight felt great. His mouth on mine, his
tongue in my mouth felt even better.
   I didn’t know what got into me. I simply ignited, all thoughts left my mind and I kissed him back,
wanting, desperate, wild.
   I put my hands in his shirt, shoving it up and his arms lifted, his hands going between his shoulder
blades and he yanked his shirt over his head and tossed it away. I pushed off on a foot and rolled him,
getting on top. I kissed him then my mouth slid through his beard, down his jaw, his neck, all the while my
hands moved on him, discovering. I saw the tattoo that painted his shoulder, going up and over, down his
arm and slithering down his chest. I was too into what I was doing to see what it was but I followed it and
kept going until my mouth hit his nipple. Once there, I flicked it with my tongue then I sucked it between
my lips.
   Half a second later I was on my back and my t-shirt was going up. I lifted my arms and it was gone.
Then Tate’s hand slid into my panties, right in, and I felt one of his long fingers fill me as his mouth
latched onto my nipple and pulled it deep.
   That felt so good, my back left the bed, arching straight into the air. My fingers slid into his damp hair
and I moaned, “Tate.”
   His finger slid out of me and hit the spot. His mouth sucked deeper and his finger moved and it hit me, it
was coming, I knew it.
   “Tate.” It was a whimper.
   I lost both his mouth and hand and my eyes flew open.
   “Not without me,” he growled and he was moving.
   His hands grasped my panties at either side of my hips and tugged down. When they were gone and I
felt Tate leave the bed, I got up on my elbows to see him standing at its foot. He pulled down his shorts
and I saw all of him and all of it was equally beautiful in a way that knocked my ragged breath right out of
me.
   And all of him was hard.
   He grabbed my calves and yanked them apart, then pushed them up so my knees were bent. He put a
knee to the bed and moved forward, releasing one of my calves, his hand wrapped around his cock and I
felt his weight begin to hit me.
   “You come with me inside you, Ace,” he gritted and then he was inside me, filling me, beautiful.
   At the feel of him, so hard, making me so full, my back left the bed again. “Tate.”
   He moved, driving deep, fast, hard. Our mouths attached, our tongues clashed. His hand went between
us and he touched me and that was it. It hit me like a rocket and I combusted, my world exploding, taking
me with it and I loved every nanosecond.
   I tore my mouth from his and moaned, “Tate.”
   “That’s my girl,” he murmured, still moving inside me.
   I came down from the orgasm he gave me to feel his hands had spanned my hips, pulling them up to
meet his thrusts and I still needed him. My legs wrapped around his hips and my hands roamed, my mouth
trailed, my tongue tasted. Everywhere I could touch, everything I could reach. His sweat tasted great to
me, his skin even better, the muscles under his sleek, slick skin felt amazing.
   His hand left my hip, came between us again and my hips jerked.
   “Honey –” I whispered against his lips.
   “Hurry, baby, I’m close.”
   “I don’t think I can –”
   His finger rolled. “Hurry, Laurie.”
   I didn’t have to hurry, he rushed me and that was that. His hips started thrusting harder, going deeper,
his grunts mingling with my whimpers and then I came again. I wrapped him tight in my limbs and moaned
into his mouth.
   He drove deep once, twice, three times then four and five all the while he groaned into mine.
   After, it felt like being with him on his bike. Out of mind but completely tuned into my body and I didn’t
want to be anywhere but there, in my body, attuned to every inch of my skin and every inch of Tate that
was on me and in me.
   His face was in my neck when he murmured an intense, “Damn baby.”
   I came back to my mind.
   Oh my God. What had I just done?
   I turned my head away and moved my hands from his hair to his shoulders, giving a feeble push.
   I felt his head come up. “You light up like that all the time?”
   “Get off,” I whispered.
   “Or just for me?”
   “Please,” I was still whispering.
   “Babe,” he called and I shut my eyes tight because he sounded like he was laughing. “I’m not
complainin’ but, later, I might wanna take things slow and, you ignite like that…”
   “It’s been a long time,” I said quietly and with deep humiliation.
   “How long? A decade?”
   My head righted and I glared at him because of his joke and because I didn’t think this was funny but
also because when I looked at him he was smiling. “No,” I snapped.
   “Longer?” he teased.
   “Over a year,” I shared but I did it angrily and with a push on his shoulders.
   He pressed his hips into mine and I quit pushing.
   His brows were up and his tone was incredulous. “Not even self-induced?”
   My glare turned molten.
   His head dropped but I caught his smile getting bigger before it did. I felt his nose flick my ear and then
he muttered there, “You’ve touched yourself.”
   “It’s not the same,” I informed him irritably.
   His head came up, he looked at me and he whispered, “No, baby, it’s not.”
   I decided to go on the offense. “I’ll remind you that you threw me on the bed.”
   His smile got even bigger. “Yeah, Ace, a day of you cryin’ in my arms, sleepin’ in my arms, kissin’
you, feelin’ your body, smellin’ your hair, your perfume, only so much a man can take. I ran for an hour,
hard, didn’t even fuckin’ warm up, it didn’t touch it. Come back, deal with that fuckwad, and you’re
standin’ there, all legs and hair, wearin’ my shirt. Seriously. Only so much a man can take.”
   I had to admit, all of what he said made me feel like I was sliding back out of my brain and tuning into
my body, a body that felt warm and happy.
   I didn’t allow myself to go there.
   “Will you get up? I have to take a shower and have breakfast with my family.”
   He didn’t get up at first. Instead, his eyes moved over my face and hair.
   Then he murmured, “Shower,” and all of a sudden he slid out of me and we were both up. We were on
our feet and Tate had my hand. I searched the floor frantically to find his t-shirt in order to snatch it up,
put it on and hide my nudity but he dragged me toward the bathroom.
   “Tate!” I snapped, yanking at his hand to no avail.
   He flipped on the switch and pulled me straight to the shower, reaching in and turning it on.
   I tried to yank my hand away again but Tate responded by giving it a sharp tug so I fell forward, nearly
into him.
   “What are you doing?” I asked, watching him reach in to put a hand under the shower spray.
   He turned to me. “In,” he ordered.
   “Sorry?” I breathed then his hands were at my hips and he was shoving me in so I had no choice but to
climb over the side of the tub and into the shower.
   Tate came in after me and slid the curtain closed.
   “Um…” I mumbled, my heart beating fast.
   He had a great body, every inch of it. I didn’t know how old he was but I knew how old I was and I
might not have back fat anymore and my arms and shoulders were moving straight toward killer because
Tyler was Mr. Decline Push Up but the rest of me…
   “Tate,” I said turning to face him, my forearms covering my breasts but he was examining the little
bottles of stuff the hotel left for you in the shower.
   He picked a bottle and moved forward so I had to step back and was fully under the spray.
   Then I felt his fingers slide through my hair.
   “Can we –?” I started.
   “Do you first,” Tate muttered. “Then you can get out and finish gettin’ ready.”
   “Do me?”
   He pulled me forward, so far forward my wet body was plastered against his.
   I blinked up at him through the residual water sliding down my face and by the time I could focus his
fingers were in my hair. They were strong, working at my hair and scalp.
   Heaven.
   I’d always loved that, someone playing with my hair which was why, when Tate did it the night before,
I could relax and fall asleep watching TV with my head on his stomach. In Phoenix, I went to a particular
salon and paid extra just because they gave fifteen minute head massages when they shampooed your hair.
   I melted into him and tilted my head forward.
   “That feels nice,” I whispered.
   He didn’t reply, just kept washing my hair then he gently moved me under the spray, using his big hands
on either side of my head to tip it back, his fingers gliding through my hair to get the soap out.
   Then he moved me back out of the spray.
   Not even thinking, I tipped my head back and informed him, “I wash twice, then condition.”
   He dipped his bearded chin, grinned at me, dipped it further, touched his mouth to mine then he washed
my hair again and, after, massaged in conditioner.
   I was deep in a mellow zone, again out of mind, when Tate turned me to face the spray and I felt his
soapy hands moving on me. They were everywhere and I just stood there, his front pressed to my back,
and gloried in his slick, wet, soapy hands gliding along my skin.
   Then one glided between my legs and stayed there while the other glided to my breast and cupped it.
   My eyes opened and I blinked against the spray hitting my face.
    “Tate,” I whispered.
    He didn’t respond except his finger and thumb rolled my nipple.
    My conditioner covered head fell back and hit his shoulder.
    “Tate,” I breathed.
    The fingers of both his hands moved and he took me there again, this time it took longer but it was no
less fabulous. When I came, my hips bucked, my body jolted, my legs went weak and Tate’s hand at my
breast became an arm wrapped around my ribs to hold me up.
    As I came down, I did it with Tate holding me close to his body, arm still wrapped around my ribs, his
other hand cupping my sex and when I was steady on my legs again, he turned me and his fingers went
back into my hair to rinse out the conditioner.
    When done, he pulled me out of the spray, switched our positions so his back was to it and I was out of
it and his arms went around me, bringing me close.
    I tipped my head back to look at him.
    “Get out, finish gettin’ ready,” he ordered softly.
    I could do nothing but agree. “Okay,” I whispered.
    He grinned, touched his mouth to mine again, let me go and turned to the spray.
    I got out but stilled with my hand on the curtain when I saw the gigantic black ink eagle, its wingspan
covering Tate’s back from the bottom of his right lateral muscle sweeping up his left lat and over his
shoulder with the body of the bird painted on a slant across his back, lat and even curling around his side.
The other wing, I knew, curled over his shoulder, going down his arm and partly down his chest to his
pectoral. His left shoulder was covered in glorious ink, his right was naked.
    It was extraordinary and somehow sexy and I felt my legs get weak at the sight.
    His hands were lifted to press the water through his hair then he reached for the dregs of the little
shampoo bottle.
    I resolutely shoved the curtain closed.
    I grabbed a towel and ran into the bedroom. I quickly toweled off, rubbed the wet out of my hair and
wrapped the towel around me. I eschewed lotioning. Indiana was a moist climate, I could get away
without lotion. Colorado, even in a freak out to get dressed before Tate got out of the shower, I’d consider
it.
    I went to my suitcase which Tate had clearly moved back to the luggage rack this morning because,
thankfully, it was there. I pawed through it lamenting Wendy and my shop-a-thon where, in throes of
ecstasy that I was two sizes smaller, I bought nothing but sexy undies and threw away every piece of
underwear I’d owned.
    My choices were baby pink with ecru lace; fire engine red with black lace, full on black; sage green
with taupe lace; it went on – but nothing unsexy.
    Darn!
    I grabbed the sage green, tugged the panties on under the towel and then whipped off the towel and
frantically put on the bra because I heard the shower go off. I was wrapping the towel back around me
when Tate walked out of the bathroom with another one wrapped around his waist.
    My eyes went to him and I marveled at the fact that he looked fantastic with wet hair. Then again that
wet hair came with a full on view of his bare chest and broad shoulders and that chest and those shoulders
would look good with a head on top of it that had wet hair, dry hair or no hair.
    His eyes came to me and slid down the towel.
    He looked back at my face. “That as far as you got?”
    “I had an underwear selection to make,” I explained and my voice sounded weirdly breathy.
    He grinned again and before I knew what he was about, he gripped the edge of my towel and whipped
it off.
   I gasped and made a grab for the towel.
   Tate tossed the towel on the bed, captured me with hands at my waist, tilted me back and took a long
look.
   Then his eyes came to mine. “Good choice, Ace.”
   I tried to be cool even though, with his eyes on me, I was freaking out. “I’m glad you approve, now can
I have my towel?”
   His hands at my waist slid around, one arm wrapped around my waist, the fingers of the other hand
sliding up into my wet and dripping hair.
   I put my hands on his shoulders and exerted pressure.
   “We need to get breakfast,” I whispered.
   His head was coming toward me. “After I kiss you.”
   “Tate,” I was still whispering.
   He kissed me, I slid out of my mind and into my body. By the time he was done I was all about my
body.
   So was Tate. “Don’t cover up, baby,” he muttered against my mouth. “I like the view.”
   “I’m –”
   “I like it.”
   “But –”
   His hand slid over one cheek of my bottom and he pulled my hips deeper into his.
   “Babe, spent a month thinkin’ about this moment, when you’d be mine and this was what I could look
forward to. Don’t hide it from me.”
   In complete shock at his words, I stared into his eyes. “You spent a month thinking about this moment?”
I repeated.
   “Actually, no,” he answered. “Spent a month thinkin’ about what I did to you in bed,” he smiled, “and
the shower.” His smile got so sexy my fingers curled into his shoulders. “And what I’m gonna do to you
later. Seein’ you in sexy underwear was just bonus footage.”
   I had no reply to this. I couldn’t even process this. All I could do was stand in his arms, my body
pressed to his, and gaze in his eyes.
   “You gonna stand there lookin’ at me, kiss me or get ready?” he asked.
   “Get ready,” I answered softly but didn’t move and I didn’t move mainly because I was thinking I
preferred option two (but option one of just staring at him had its merits).
   He grinned. “Babe.”
   “What?”
   He let me go but his hand didn’t leave my ass. It stayed there so it could push me toward the bathroom.
   I grabbed my stuff as I went and camped out in the bathroom, wiping the mirror and starting to get
ready. I’d pulled a comb through my hair, put on a white headband, washed my face, brushed and flossed
my teeth, moisturized and I was preparing for minimal makeup when Tate walked in, still in his towel,
and he brushed his teeth standing next to me.
   This was when I came fully back into my mind, in fact, I came speeding into it at Mach Three.
   How on earth was I standing in my new sage green satin and taupe lace underwear in a bathroom in a
Marriott in Indianapolis with Tatum Jackson?
   My blush brush arrested in mid-air and I turned woodenly to him.
   “How did this happen?” I asked.
   He took his toothbrush out of his mouth and with a mouth full of white foam, he asked, “What?” then
kept brushing.
   I swirled my blush brush in the air indicating the entirety of our situation with a flourish.
   He turned to the sink, put a palm in the counter, bent his neck and spit. Then he rinsed. Then he twisted,
reached across the counter in front of me, grabbed a hand towel and wiped, throwing it on the counter
when he was done.
   “You jumped me,” he answered.
   “I didn’t jump you! You threw me on the bed!”
   “Right,” he grinned. “Then you jumped me.”
   “I didn’t jump you, I was on my back!”
   He moved so he was behind me, his hands came to my upper hips and his head bent so he could kiss my
neck, which he did. I watched him do it in the mirror and watching it made me lose my hold on my mind
again.
   Then his head came up and he looked at me in the mirror.
   “Thanks for remindin’ me of that,” he muttered. “So, I guess I shouldn’t say you jumped. It was more
like you… attacked.”
   “This isn’t funny,” I told his reflection.
   He grinned yet again and said, “Babe.”
   “It isn’t!”
   “We’ll talk about it later,” he declared.
   “Tate –” I started.
   “Get ready.”
   “Tate! We need to talk. This is insane.”
   “We’ll talk.”
   “When?”
   “Later.”
   “When, later?” I asked.
   “Later, later,” he answered with a non-answer.
   I pulled in breath. Then with his hands still on my nearly naked hips, me in my underwear, in a
bathroom, in a hotel with Tatum Jackson, I started swiping my cheeks with blush while said Tatum
Jackson watched.
   “That reminds me. Mom called this morning and she’s going to try to talk you out of going today. She
wants you to see our farm,” I told him.
   “She won’t have to try too hard.”
   My blush brush arrested on the apple of my cheek and I stared into his eyes in the mirror.
   His eyes moved to the brush. “Ace, you keep fuckin’ around, we’ll never have breakfast.”
   “You’re staying?” I whispered.
   He dropped his bearded chin to my shoulder and his arms wrapped around my belly.
   “Baby, you just came three times,” he said softly, his mouth close to my ear. “You think I’m flyin’
across four states when you’re topped up and tonight I get a chance to play?”
   I felt my knees wobble.
   “Tate,” I breathed.
   “And your ex is a fuckwad and until I know he’s on a fuckin’ plane on his way back to suburbia, I ain’t
goin’ anywhere.”
   Oh.
   My.
   God.
   “Tate,” I whispered.
   “And we don’t know about your Dad yet and until he’s stable, I’m here.”
   I stared at him in the mirror.
   Who was this man and what did I do with him?
   “What about the bar?” I asked.
   “I’ll call Bubba, reem his ass, tell him about your situation and he’ll dry out and go back.”
   I asked the all important question, “What about Wood?”
   His chin came up but his arms didn’t leave me.
   “That’s later.”
   “I need to call him,” I whispered.
   “No, you don’t need to call him. I need to call him. Wood and I need to have words. He’s got more
words for you afterwards, we’ll see.”
   “We’ll see?”
   He nodded. “We’ll see.”
   “I should –”
   “Later.”
   “But –”
   His arms gave a squeeze. “Jesus, Lauren. Later.”
   We held each other’s eyes in the mirror.
   Then he said, “Breakfast, babe.”
   “Right,” I whispered.
   He dropped his head, kissed my shoulder, his beard tickling my skin and he left the bathroom.
   I looked in the mirror at myself wearing my sexy undies. If I was honest, I didn’t look half bad. It was
all Tyler’s “working the core”. Weeks of my abs aching like crazy was paying off, there was even some
definition at my midriff and the mini-Buddha belly was more like a soft pooch. I hadn’t noticed. It was
even kind of cute.
   My eyes went from my pooch to my makeup bag; I dropped the blush brush in and pulled out some eye
shadow.
Chapter Ten
Grape Kool-Aid
   I was lying in the rope hammock between the two elm trees that butted the front edge of my Mom and
Dad’s big, square, cement front porch, my eyes on Tate and Mack who were both standing at the raised
bottom end of the huge pond that took up the side of our long front yard.
   Mom was at the hospital with her best friend Norma.
   We’d had breakfast. Tate had let Mom talk him into staying. Mom had let Tate pay for breakfast but not
without a fight. She’d pulled the Dad card again, Tate’s eyes had sliced to me and I knew he was about to
blow so I’d pulled the my-boyfriend-is-a-macho-man-bounty-hunter-and-if-you-don’t-let-him-pay-my-
life-will-be-a-living-hell card and Mom had spent a full minute assessing Tate’s big, bearded badassness
and what that might mean to me should he get miffed and wisely relented.
   We’d gone to the hospital. I’d visited Dad for ten minutes, all of that time he was sleeping and I was
thinking that he looked exactly like he’d had his chest cracked open and how that was the way wrong look
for my big, tall, strong, farmer Dad. Carrie had her visit and Mom had hers and then my Mom’s best
friend Norma showed up and Mom talked Mack into taking us to the farm and out to lunch at The Station
before we came back. Mack drove with Tate in the passenger seat and Carrie and I in the back. Mack
talked. Tate didn’t. Carrie and I looked out our windows, both of us, I was sure, not seeing the landscape
and instead seeing our Dad in a hospital bed.
   Now, Carrie was inside the house, Mack and Tate were inspecting the land and I was freaking out and
not just about my Dad.
   I heard Carrie approach and I looked up at her.
   “Skooch over,” she ordered and handed me one of Mom’s Tupperware tumblers filled with purple
liquid.
   “No, is that –?” I started as I skooched.
   “Grape Kool-Aid,” she affirmed.
   It was official, I was home.
   With grace borne of years of practice because Mom stretched that hammock out at the beginning of
every May and rolled it up and took it in at the end of every September for as long as I could remember,
Caroline got in the hammock while holding her tumbler.
   Then, as if drawn by an invisible force, both of our eyes went to the men.
   “Tate’s hot,” she whispered.
   She had no idea.
   I took a sip of ice cold Kool-Aid. Delicious, refreshing and Tyler and Wendy’s heads would explode if
they knew I was drinking it which made it perfect.
   “Laurie, you look awesome,” Carrie said to me and I looked from Tate to her.
   “Thanks, honey.”
   “And more than just being tan and having cool hair. You look…” she studied me, “happy.”
   This surprised me. “I do?”
   “Well, outside of looking sad about Dad but, you know, deep down. Content-like.”
   I looked toward Tate.
   “Is it him?” she asked quietly and my eyes went back to her.
   “Sorry?”
   “Tate.”
   “Um…”
   “See, ‘cause, when you were with Brad…” she hesitated then shook her head, “I don’t know. You were
never yourself. You weren’t our Laurie. Not when he was around. When you were alone, you were great,
you were you. When he was around, there was something off. Like you were on eggshells, like you had to
be perfect and spent all your time in an effort to be that way.”
   I stared at her, both surprised at this and not surprised because her saying those words made me realize
I did try to be perfect for Brad because I thought he was perfect and to keep him I had to match that.
   Boy was I wrong about that.
   Then I asked, “Really?”
   “Yeah,” she nodded. “Mom and I talked about it…” she paused, “a lot.”
   I was already surprised at what she said but this surprised me even more.
   “You talked about it?”
   She turned to me. “He wasn’t all that and I’m glad you know that now. I’m sorry you went through what
you did to find out, that totally sucks and I wish you hadn’t had to go through that, but still, I’m glad you
know. He was just a guy and not a very nice one. Brad’s cute and all but he knows it. But you, it was like
you didn’t know how pretty you were. It was like you thought you were luckier to be with him than he was
to be with you when that was the wrong way around. With Tate…” she trailed off and her eyes slid away.
   “With Tate what?” I prompted.
   Her eyes slid back. “You just seem… I don’t know… you. Like you can be Laurie, you can be yourself
and it’s so cool that he’s into that, into you just as you are because, well, he is all that.”
   I looked back at Tate. She was right; he was pretty much all that.
   He was also other things.
   “I have another man back at Carnal,” I blurted and heard my sister gasp.
   Then she asked on a whisper, “What?”
   I shook my head and turned toward her. “Carrie, it’s all messed up.”
   “What’s messed up?”
   I kept shaking my head while talking. “I don’t know, Tate and me, we met and we did not get along.
Well, mostly, I didn’t get along with him. He said some things about me and I overheard him and they hurt
and, even though he apologized, I didn’t accept and we bickered all the time and then, suddenly, poof.” I
threw out my hand with the tumbler and grape Kool-Aid almost sloshed on my jeans shorts. “Tonia gets
raped and murdered and we find out about it together and we aren’t bickering anymore, we’re like, so far
away from bickering it isn’t funny. We’re something else completely.”
   “Tonia gets raped and murdered?” she repeated, her eyes huge.
   “Tonia,” I told her, nodding. “She worked for Tate and he fired her the night she got raped. And he
wasn’t nice about it. He gets pissed and watch out. Stuff comes out of his mouth, that’s why he said I was
fat and sorry-ass, because he was pissed.”
   Her head jerked back and her eyes narrowed. “He said you were fat and sorry-ass?”
   I nodded again. “He didn’t mean it. He has a bad temper. He says a lot of things he doesn’t mean when
he’s pissed. I’ve seen it happen three times and he’s regretted it three times. He said those things to Tonia,
right in front of everyone and she left the bar and that’s the last anyone saw of her conscious. Then she
was dead. Tate was a mess… I mean, in a badass, biker, bounty hunter kind of way. He freaked out and
took off after her murderer and he was gone for a month. That’s when Wood told me Tate was fucking his
sister.”
   “Tate is fucking Wood’s sister?” Caroline asked and I nodded.
   “That’s what Wood said.”
   “Wood?”
   “The other guy I’m sleeping with,” I informed her and her eyebrows shot up.
   “You’re sleeping with him?” she whispered, getting closer so, when she did, I got closer too.
   “Not sleeping sleeping just, you know, sleeping and maybe fooling around a bit. He gets up early and I
get home late –”
   “Laurie!” she hissed. “How could you –?”
   “I don’t know!” I hissed back. “Tate went out of town and he took me for a ride on his bike and he
kissed me before he left. But he didn’t tell me he was going. He just said he wanted me on the back of his
bike when he got back. But then he was gone. For a month. He didn’t call. Nothing. He just vanished.
Then I got my car from Wood and he said he’d seen me on Tate’s bike and he didn’t want to tell me what
he had to tell me because he wanted me to be on the back of his bike but then he told me Tate was with
Neeta, Wood’s sister, and she’s married.”
   “The back of his bike?” she asked, looking confused.
   I shook my head. “I don’t know, I don’t get it. I think it’s biker slang for they want a date or something.”
   “What did Tate say about what Wood said?”
   This was the tricky part therefore I mumbled, “Um…”
   “What?” she asked.
   “I didn’t ask him,” I admitted. “When he got back…” I moved even closer, “Carrie, when he got back I
think he came straight to me, straight to the bar, he grabbed my hand and pulled me into the hall and kissed
me and told me he didn’t find Tonia’s killer but it was good to be home then I threw the whole Neeta thing
in his face, he got pissed, said some nasty stuff and stormed off.”
   “You threw the whole Neeta thing in his face, a big, badass man with a bad temper?”
   “Yes.”
   “Why on earth would you do that?” she whispered loudly.
   “I don’t know!” I whispered loudly right back, “I’m me, he’s Tate, we haven’t known each other for
very long but that’s what we do.”
   “When was that?” she asked.
   “Two days ago.”
   My sister stared at me.
   Then she said, “I don’t get it, did you make up?”
   “No, he was just there when you called me. We’d just finished trading barbs and you phoned and…
and…” I took in a breath then took a sip of Kool-Aid then finished, “now he’s here.”
   “Now he’s here,” she repeated, staring at me intently.
   “Yeah,” I said.
   She kept staring at me.
   Then she shook her head and muttered, “Some things never change.”
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Honey,” she whispered and that one word seemed to have grave meaning but she said no more.
   “What?”
   She lifted up several inches and looked down at me. “Let me get this straight. You and Tate don’t get on
then you do, more than likely because you really got on just one or the other of you didn’t get that, and I’m
guessing the one who didn’t get that is you. Then he says he wants you on the back of his bike, which I
think you don’t get means more than a date. Then he takes off and doesn’t call and some other guy talks
trash about him to you behind his back. You listen to this trash and believe this guy. You don’t call Tate.
When he comes back you don’t ask him what’s up. You just listen to some guy with an ulterior motive
talking trash. Tate gets home, you throw it in his face, he gets pissed like you know he’s going to do,
storms off but ends up a day later flying halfway across the country just to hold your hand because your
Dad is sick? Do I have that right?”
   Uh-oh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
   My eyes slid to Tate again to see he and Mack were walking up the yard toward us.
   “So where is it now?” Carrie asked.
   “We had sex for the first time this morning,” I answered and I heard my sister gasp again.
   I closed my eyes.
   “Laurie,” Carrie called and I didn’t look at her, I just opened my eyes and stared at Tate getting closer.
   “Mm?” I muttered.
   “Big Sister, I love you but you’ve always held a mean grudge and you’ve always, but always, leaped
before you looked.”
   My eyes moved to hers. “What?” I whispered.
   “Brad was a dick and you thought he was something special and he gave you attention so you grabbed
hold, never seeing he was a dick. That wasn’t good, not for years, and you followed him to Phoenix and
lived a life you hated and did whatever you could to keep hold. That didn’t work out and you sold
everything you owned and took off in your car and wandered the country. Now you’ve set up a life in the
middle of nowhere and you got a man who’s into you and you listen to another man who’s into you and
you don’t set the story straight, you just believe, shut down and, I’m guessing, intentionally piss him off to
shut him out. A day later, he’s at your side during an intense time in your life, what I’m guessing again is
pretending to be your boyfriend to get in the face of your dickhead ex-husband and then you leap into bed
with him. Laurie,” she moved so her face was close to mine, “you’re smart in a lot of ways but that
doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn how to think.”
   Okay, I had to admit I’d heard that before, not only from Carrie but from Dad and Mom.
   Still, I said, “Carrie –”
   “Talk to him,” she whispered as we heard the men approach. “Give him a chance to set the story
straight.”
   “Right,” I whispered back because the men were almost there, we needed to stop talking and because
she was right, she usually was. She was my baby sister and I knew I should be the smart and responsible
one but I never was. I was always a good girl and I was always a nice person but I wasn’t always smart
and responsible. That had always been Caroline’s role.
   She got to within an inch of my face. “And listen,” she finished.
   “Right,” I repeated still whispering.
   “This doesn’t look good,” Mack remarked from close and Carrie moved back so we saw them both
standing four feet from the hammock. Mack had his arms crossed on his chest. Tate had his hands resting
on his hips. Mack’s eyes were assessing and they were on Carrie. Tate’s face was carefully blank and his
eyes were on me.
   Carrie ignored Mack’s comment and asked, “You guys want grape Kool-Aid?”
   “Jesus, is that what you’re drinking?” Mack asked.
   “Yes,” Caroline answered.
   “Little kids drink that,” Mack noted.
   “Laurie and me are always kids when we’re home,” Carrie replied. “You know that.”
   “God’s honest truth,” Mack muttered in a way that stated plainly this was not a good thing as he shook
his head while glancing at Tate then he looked back at Carrie.
   “You have a grape Kool-Aid mustache,” he told Carrie and Carrie swiped the back of her wrist along
her mouth at the same time she cried, “I do not!”
   And she didn’t, Mack was just teasing which was why he grinned.
   She stuck her purple tongue out at him and looked at Tate. “You want a Coke?”
   “Yeah,” Tate replied.
   “I’ll have a Coke too,” Mack put in as Carrie and I swung the hammock back so she could get out.
   “You can get it yourself,” she muttered as she rolled out of the hammock to her feet. Then she rounded
the hammock, jumped up on the patio and headed toward the door.
   “I see the Grahame sisters have matching attitude,” Tate murmured to Mack and my eyes narrowed on
him but Mack chuckled.
   “It’s in the genes. Jeannie’s shell-shocked ‘cause Gavin’s in ICU. Just wait until he’s fit. He’ll be
fakin’ a heart attack to get some rest from the drama,” Mack returned.
   “Mack!” I snapped. “Mom’s sweet as pie.”
   “Yeah, to you. You got balls, she’ll bust ‘em,” Mack retorted and my eyes cut to Tate firstly because
he’d accused me of busting his balls and secondly because he’d burst out laughing.
   “Shit man, you’re gonna catch it,” Mack warned a still chuckling Tate as he watched me glare at the
still chuckling Tate. “I’m gonna get a Coke.”
   Then Mack walked to the patio, jumped up on it and headed to the house.
   Tate walked to me and then smoothly entered the hammock to lie at my side like he slept in one nightly
since he could walk.
   Regardless of the fact that I was in no danger of spillage, I snapped, “Watch my Kool-Aid!”
   “Babe,” was his reply.
   I glared at him.
   He reached across his abs, wrapped an arm around my waist and curled me so I was on my side and
resting the length of him. He also did this without endangering my Kool-Aid.
   I decided to ignore him and take a sip.
   Tate watched me doing this and remarked, “You grew up in heaven.”
   I swallowed, dropped my tumbler hand to rest on his chest, glanced at him, lifted up and looked. I saw
sun dazzling lights on the pond; the long, green front yard Dad kept neat and trimmed; the lush, dense trees
at the foot; the farmland beyond that; and Mom’s tidy, flourishing garden on the opposite side of the pond
where she planted strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, regular corn and popcorn every year.
   I looked back at Tate and whispered, “Yeah.”
   “The first time I met you, you told me you grew up here, I’d call you a liar,” Tate informed me.
   I tipped my head to the side and asked, “Really?”
   “Really.”
   “Why?”
   “High-class,” he replied.
   “Sorry?”
   “You looked high-class,” he semi-repeated.
   “I’m not,” I stated.
   “No, Ace, you’re not. You’re a different kind of class.”
   “Farmer class.”
   “Pure class.”
   That was so nice, and so unexpected, before I could stop myself, I melted into him, my face getting
closer to his.
   “Tate,” I whispered.
   His hand slid from my waist partly up my back.
   “You get grape Kool-Aid on my tee, babe, it’s gonna piss me off,” he lied and I knew it was a lie from
the look on his face which was sweet and soft and more handsome than he ever looked.
   “I’m not going to get Kool-Aid on your tee,” I returned quietly.
   He rolled into me and I had no choice but to lift the tumbler and hold it behind his back.
   “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,” he said, his face in my neck, his beard tickling my throat. “You could
lick it off.”
   “Captain, we can’t fool around in the hammock at the front of my Mom and Dad’s house with Mack and
Carrie in the house,” I informed him as his lips and beard slid up the underside of my chin.
   When they reached my mouth, he whispered, “Yeah, sucks.”
   He was not wrong.
   Suddenly his head came up and he looked over his shoulder.
   I looked too, in time to see a police cruiser followed closely by a silver sedan coming around the bend
and up my parent’s curving, gravel lane.
   “What the fuck?” Tate murmured then I knew he saw what I saw and that was Brad driving the silver
sedan. I knew this because he bit out a repeated, “What the fuck?”
   Before I knew it we were both rolling out of the hammock and, with Tate firmly guiding our actions, I
had a task of keeping my grape Kool-Aid safe. Tate grabbed my hand and dragged me around the tree and
we both jumped up the two foot high side of the patio. Caroline and Mack came out of the house, Carrie
still holding her tumbler, Mack had two cans of Coke in his hands. They both looked at Tate and me then
they looked to the side of the house where the cruiser and the sedan were parking. We all met up and
walked toward the side together but stopped when a uniformed policeman entered view and on his heels
Brad followed.
   Wonderful. Brad.
   Again.
   The policeman’s eyes scanned us all but they jerked back to Tate, got wide, he stutter stepped and then
halted, staring bug-eyed at Tate like he would stare at a movie star he just happened to bump into on a
farm in middle Indiana.
   “You’re Tatum Jackson,” he whispered and I stared at him then swung my head to look at Tate thinking
he must be a really good bounty hunter if a policeman four states away knew who he was.
   “I know you?” Tate asked.
   “Tatum…” Mack started, trailing off and my eyes moved to him to see he was looking at Tate like he
hadn’t seen him before. “Shit,” Mack muttered, “I knew there was something familiar…” he trailed off
again as Brad spoke up.
   “Yes, that’s him!” he was pointing at Tate. “That’s the man who assaulted me in the Marriott!”
   My head twisted around and it did it fast so I could glare at Brad.
   “He did not assault you!” I snapped.
   “He put his hands on me,” Brad leaned forward, “twice!”
   I leaned forward too. “That’s because you forced your way into our room and put your hands on me and
wouldn’t let me go even though I asked a million times!” I looked to the policeman and informed him,
“And Tate didn’t put his hands on Brad. He only needed to use one hand.”
   Caroline emitted a strangled giggle and Tate used one finger on one hand to hook one of my belt loops
and pull me into his side.
   I felt his lips at my ear when he ordered softly, “Quiet, Ace.”
   The policeman was still staring at Tate.
   Then he spoke. “Dude, when I was a kid, me and my Dad, shit, we were your biggest fans.”
   Tate’s lips left my ear as he straightened and asked, “Come again?”
   “My Dad’s Penn State alumni and he still says you were the best linebacker in the history of collegiate
football,” the policeman stated. “He was so devastated he didn’t talk for a week when you blew out your
knee that second game in for the Eagles.” He shook his head. “Seriously. That sucked, man.”
   I felt my body go still.
   “What’s this?” Caroline asked the question in my head.
   “Holy fuck, Jesus, shit, you’re Tatum Jackson,” Mack whispered, definitely now looking at Tate like
he’d never seen him before.
   “What’s this about?” Brad clipped. “Why aren’t you taking him to the station or something?”
   “Can I have your autograph?” the policeman asked Tate.
   “What?” I whispered.
   “What?” Brad shouted.
   “No,” Tate said.
   “It’s not for me, it’s for my Dad,” the policeman continued.
   Brad threw up his hands. “This is ridiculous!”
   Tate ignored Brad and spoke to the policeman. “Your Dad live in town?”
   “Yeah,” the policeman answered.
   “We’re havin’ lunch at The Station. Call him, tell him to come by, we’ll have a beer,” Tate offered.
   “That would be awesome,” the policeman breathed then said louder, “Dad’ll freakin’ flip!”
   “Excuse me, would you mind if we talk about the assault charge?” Brad asked sarcastically and the
policeman’s body jerked and he looked at Brad.
   Then he looked at me. “You Jackson’s woman?”
   “Um…” I mumbled, uncertain of the appropriate response to that query.
   “Yes,” Tate answered, not sounding uncertain in the slightest.
   “You married to this guy?” the policeman jerked a thumb at Brad.
   “They’re divorced,” Tate shared.
   The policeman looked at Brad. “Statement said she was your wife.”
   “Ex-wife, same thing,” Brad muttered.
   “No,” Tate’s rough voice put in and Brad scowled at him, “it ain’t.”
   “She says you forced entry into her and Jackson’s room, you do that?” the policeman asked Brad.
   “She let me in,” Brad replied.
   “I did not!” I snapped. “I thought it was Tate back from running and he forgot his keycard so I opened
the door. You just came right on in, I didn’t invite you and you’d surprised me considering at the hospital
the day before I told you to go away. Not to mention I could not believe you were at my hotel room door
at six thirty in the morning, knowing Tate was running because you saw him and you were taking
advantage because he was gone.”
   I felt that scary energy start to emanate from Tate but before I could react or even process the even
scarier look I saw Tate directing at Brad, Caroline spoke.
   “She did say that, at the hospital,” Carrie backed me up and then helpfully shared more information.
“Dad had a heart attack and Brad just showed. We all tried to get rid of him seeing as he cheated on
Lauren with her best friend then divorced her now he wants her back but she doesn’t want him back
because she’s got a bounty hunter hot guy and Brad’s a dick, he just wouldn’t go.”
   The policeman looked at Tate with wide eyes. “You’re a bounty hunter now?”
   Tate didn’t get to reply because something occurred to me and I spoke to Brad.
   “How did you know about Dad?” I asked and Brad started to look uncomfortable. “Brad,” I prompted.
   “Tina heard from somewhere and she called me,” Brad told me.
   “Tina?” I asked softly knowing he meant Tina Blackstone, a woman I grew up with in that ‘burg. She
was a girl I didn’t like and she grew up to be a woman I didn’t like. She had her eyes on Brad from the
minute I brought him to town on a visit and we’d bumped into her at a party. Then again, she always had
her eyes on every guy she encountered if they were good-looking. Brad struck up a friendship with her
that he said was totally innocent but it always made me uncomfortable. I had no idea they still talked.
We’d been out of Indiana for years. Why would he stay in contact with Tina?
   “Tina?” the policeman asked Brad. “You mean Tina Blackstone?”
   Brad’s back went straight and he looked at the policeman. “Yes, she’s a friend.”
   “I bet,” the policeman muttered, obviously knowing all about Tina Blackstone and I knew then too.
   Tina wasn’t just a friend and my ex wasn’t just a dick, he was a screaming asshole dick.
   Tate brought the matter back to hand by asking the cop, “He tell you he was accosting Lauren in our
room?”
   “Nope, didn’t mention that,” the policeman replied.
   “I was hardly accosting her,” Brad spat.
   “Heard her shoutin’ in the hall,” Tate returned. “Got into the room and you had your hands on her, she
was strugglin’ and shoutin’ for you to let her go. If that ain’t accostin’, what is it?”
   “We were talking,” Brad declared.
   “Bud, a woman’s strugglin’ in your arms and shouting ‘fuck you’, that ain’t talkin’,” Tate educated.
   Brad gave up on Tate and looked at the cop. “He still put his hands on me, shoved me out of the room.”
   “He strike you?” the cop asked.
   “Not exactly,” Brad answered.
   “Did he strike you?” the cop repeated.
   “No,” Brad snapped.
   “You get injured?” the policeman went on.
   “No, but that doesn’t matter! He –”
   “When I was a cop,” Tate cut in, “we frowned on folks givin’ false statements. Now that was in
Colorado.” Tate crossed his arms on his chest and leveled his eyes on the cop. “You might do things
different here in Indiana.”
   The policeman looked at Tate. “You were a cop?”
   “Jesus!” Brad shouted. “Stop acting like he’s some kind of God! This is a serious situation! I was
assaulted!”
   The cop turned to Brad and he must have looked at him in a particular way because Brad clamped his
mouth shut. Then the cop turned to me.
   “You wanna make a deal outta him harassin’ you?” he asked.
   “This is insane!” Brad cried.
   “No, I just want him to go away,” I said to the cop.
   “I can do that,” the cop replied and turned to Brad.
   “Are you serious?” Brad asked the cop.
   “Deadly,” the cop replied. “Jackson’s right. I’m a cop in a small town but I got things to do. The IMPD
got things to do. We don’t got time to run around doin’ errands for some guy who got his pride stung.”
   “I –” Brad started but the cop leaned in.
   “You’d be advised to keep your trap shut,” the policeman interrupted him. “They make a big deal outta
this,” he jerked a thumb at Tate and me, “trust me, way it sounds, you’re not gonna come out on top.”
   Brad glared at the policeman then he glared at Tate. His angry eyes swept through Caroline, Mack,
back to the policeman and then rested on me.
   “You said we could work it out,” he accused.
   “Yeah, Brad, I said that over a year ago,” I reminded him.
   “Bud, move on,” Tate advised. “And clue in, Laurie already has. You’re history.”
   “Piss off,” Brad hissed.
   Tate sighed.
   Brad looked back to me and his eyes were squinty. “Be warned, Lauren, after this, you want back,
you’ll have to work hard for me to take you.”
   “Seriously?” Tate muttered.
   “Jeez Brad!” Carrie cried, “How far up your own butt are you? Look at her! Look at him!” She
motioned to Tate and me with her arm. “You don’t stand a chance. She’s so far out of your league she
can’t even see you,” she turned to me, “and, Big Sister, you always were.”
   “I’m uncertain why you’re even talking,” Brad snapped at Caroline. “You always had a mouth on you
and it was always a mouth I did not like.”
   “Would I get arrested, say, if I assaulted him now, right in front of you?” Mack asked the cop but his
eyes were on Brad.
   “Probably,” the policeman answered.
   “Probably?” Brad shouted.
   “That’s too bad,” Mack murmured.
   Tate chuckled and Brad turned squinty eyes to him.
   “This isn’t over Jackson,” he warned.
   Tate stopped chuckling and informed Brad in a dangerous voice, “Friendly head’s up, I don’t respond
well to threats.”
   “All right,” the policeman got between the two of them, “let’s not make this into a situation where I
gotta do paperwork.” He turned to Brad. “Best you go.”
   Brad skewered us all with a look, declaring, “You haven’t seen the last of me.”
   “Might be wrong but that sounded like another threat,” Tate noted.
   “Fuck you!” Brad shouted and Tate looked down at me.
   “He always need the last word?”
   I considered this, realized it was true as I realized it always kind of annoyed me and nodded.
   Tate grinned. “I get you naked in my bed and in the shower, he gets the last word,” Tate’s eyes sliced to
Brad, “works for me.”
   Brad lunged. “You son of a –”
   Tate’s finger, still in my belt loop, pulled me back, he stepped in front of me and the cop stepped in
front of Brad, put a hand flat on his chest and cautiously pushed back.
   “You don’t wanna do that,” the policeman warned.
   Brad glared at Tate then he looked at me.
   “Mistake, Ree,” he put a hand up, palm out in my direction, “big fucking mistake.”
   Then he turned and stormed off the patio.
   We all watched him as he tore down the lane, gravel spitting out from his tires of his rental car, then the
policeman turned back to us.
   He stuck a hand out to Tate and said, “Marty Fink.”
   Tate took his hand, they shook and Tate muttered, “Marty.”
   They dropped hands and the cop glanced around us all. “Sorry about that, had to follow up.”
   “Your job. Not a problem,” Tate said.
   “Is it really cool Dad meets you for a beer at The Station?” Marty asked hopefully as Mack handed
Tate a Coke and they both popped the tabs.
   “Yeah, man, but we ain’t hangin’ out. We gotta get back to the hospital,” Tate answered then took a pull
on his Coke.
   “When you goin’?” Marty asked.
   “Leavin’ in fifteen, twenty,” Mack answered.
   “All call Dad,” Marty muttered and then his eyes went to Tate. “You’ll make his year.”
   Tate didn’t reply; he just lifted his chin.
   Marty raised his hand in a half wave. “Again, sorry folks.” He looked at me. “Hope he burns out and
realizes he’s actin’ like an ass and you can just keep on…” he paused and glanced at Tate before
finishing, “keepin’ on.”
   “Thanks,” I smiled at him.
   Marty’s eyes got serious and he stated, “Jackson was a cop, now a bounty hunter, I think he gets this but
if you don’t… that guy gets in your face again, you go to the police.”
   “It won’t be an issue,” Tate put in.
   Marty nodded to Tate but repeated, “He gets in her face again, you get her to go to the police.”
   “Right,” Tate replied, Marty nodded again, looked at us all, gave another half wave, turned and walked
away.
   “Tatum fuckin’ Jackson,” Mack said and everyone turned to look at Tate who was studying Mack.
   “What was that all about?” Caroline asked, getting close.
   “First round draft pick, Philadelphia Eagles, do I remember right?” Mack asked Tate and I felt my eyes
get wide as I stared at Tate.
   “Yeah,” Tate answered.
   “Star at Penn State, Eagles traded picks to get you, the whole fuckin’ state adopted you as a native son,”
Mack went on.
   Tate sighed then said, “Yeah.”
   “Holy cow,” Carrie breathed.
   Mack seemed not to hear Carrie, put a big hand on Tate’s shoulder and gave him a squeeze. “Bad shit,
man. Remember it. Saw the game. Sucked.”
   “Long time ago,” Tate muttered as Mack’s hand dropped.
   “What sucked?” I asked and Tate’s eyes came to me but Mack spoke.
   “End of his second game, pro ball, he got crushed after recovering a fumble he forced and ran back for
a TD, got nailed in the endzone, late hit. Guy blew out his knee.”
   “Pro ball?” I whispered.
   “Long time ago,” Tate repeated.
   “Pro ball?” I repeated back.
   Tate turned to me. “Ace –”
   I interrupted him. “You played professional football?”
   “For two games,” Tate replied.
   I was unable to process this therefore kept repeating myself. “You played professional football?”
   Tate’s hand came to my waist and slid around to my back, guiding me closer to him as he did. “For two
games a long time ago,” he repeated quietly.
   I was thinking I really did not know Tatum Jackson when I focused on his face and it hit my fogged
brain I knew one thing about him. That one thing was how to read his face and his face said he didn’t want
to talk about this.
   Then again, you’re a first round draft pick professional football player and your career is cut way short
when some guy blows out your knee, you end up back in a nowhere town like Carnal working in a bar
part-time, as a bounty hunter the rest of it, that wasn’t a particular glory day you wished to spend a great
deal of time reflecting upon.
   I got closer and pressed my front to the side to Tate’s long body.
   Then I looked at Caroline and Mack and declared on a total lie, “I’m starved.”
                                                     *****
   I was sitting cross-legged on the bed in our hotel room wearing one of my new pairs of pajamas. Little
peach, knit short shorts and a matching, tight, shelf-bra cami. The neckline of the cami had the same color
lace threaded through with a thin, darker peach satin ribbon that tied in a tiny, little bow at my cleavage.
   I was also staring at my cell phone that Tate had given me before going into the bathroom. I’d totally
forgotten about it. He’d had it all this time, turning it off to get on the plane and I’d just turned it back on
for the first time since yesterday.
   It was after we had lunch at The Station where Carrie and Mack spent some of the time happily reliving
Tate getting in Brad’s face yesterday, some of it interrogating us about the incident that morning and then
the rest of it regaling Tate with all the reasons Brad was an asshole. It was after Tate (and the rest of us)
shared a beer with John Fink, Officer Marty Fink’s father and a man who seriously liked his Nittany Lions
football but seemed to like Tate even better. It was after we went back to the hospital and got second ten
minute visits while Dad was awake and could talk a bit but was still scary weak. It was after we went out
to dinner with Mom and Norma where this time Mom and Norma got in a fight with each other as to who
would pay and, as they did, Mack excused himself on the fake errand of going to the bathroom and paid
while they weren’t paying attention which meant, when they found out, both Mom and Norma busted his
balls while Caroline and I rolled our eyes at each other and Tate grinned. It was after Norma went home
and after we got to the hotel. It was after Mom went to her room to hit the hay and catch up on sleep
seeing as they told her they were moving Dad out of ICU tomorrow and it was all looking good. Not to
mention, she was consistently tussling with the men in her daughters’ lives about who was going to pay
for what and she unrepentantly pulled the guilt card by explaining to both Tate and Mack it was flat
tuckering her out. And it was after Mack, Carrie, Tate and I had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar.
   We’d come up to our room, I’d changed in the bathroom, washed my face, brushed my teeth and
moisturized and, when I walked out, Tate was heading in and he handed me my phone.
   “Forgot, babe,” he muttered then went into the bathroom and closed the door.
   I sat on the bed and turned on my phone. Then I scrolled through missed calls. Then I froze and stared at
my phone.
   Tate came out of the bathroom with two buttons of his jeans undone, his belt hanging loose. Before I
went into the bathroom, he’d taken off his boots and socks. Now he stood by the built-in luggage rack and
lifted his arms, putting his hands between his shoulder blades, and tugged off his shirt.
   I stared at the eagle. He dropped his shirt on the bag and turned.
   “I got a bunch of calls,” I informed him as he walked to me.
   He stopped at the foot of the bed and leaned down, placing one fist on either side of my hips and also
his face within two inches of mine.
   “Yeah?” he asked quietly.
   I ignored his face being that close, his lips being that close and his chest being bare (and that close).
   “Two from Wendy, two from Betty, one from Sunny, one from Krys and…” my voice dropped to a
whisper and I swallowed before finishing, “five from Wood.”
   Instantly Tate straightened and slid the phone from my fingers. Surprised at his quick movements,
mutely I watched as his thumb slid across the screen then he put the phone to his ear. Still silent I watched
as he stood there with a fist to his hip and waited.
   Then he said, “No. Jackson.” Pause then, “Yeah, I’m on her phone. I’m also in a hotel room in Indy
with her sittin’ on the bed and I’m callin’ you on her phone. You get why that is?” I blinked and started to
come unstuck, mainly because Tate’s aggressive tone was penetrating the exhausted, confused at life,
freaked out haze that had enshrouded me. “No,” I heard Tate say, “you can’t talk to her but you can listen
to me. That shit you pulled while I was away, not… fuckin’… cool. We got a problem. We had a worse
problem yesterday but lucky for you, since then, I’ve had her, she’s moaned sweet for me three times so
I’m feelin’ in a better mood.”
   At these words, the haze disintegrated, I came fully alert and I launched myself from the bed at him,
exclaiming, “Tate!”
   He caught me on the fly with an arm around my waist and held my front tight against his side, leaning
his torso and head back to escape me reaching out to the phone, something he could do with his height
which ticked me right off.
   “Oh yeah, Wood, when I get back, we’re havin’ words and you better fuckin’ believe it’s gonna be
face-to-face,” Tate growled, pulled the phone from his ear, hit a button with his thumb and tossed it on the
bed.
   I watched it land then yanked free of his arm and squared off.
   “I cannot believe you just did that,” I snapped.
   Tate’s eyes stayed locked to mine. “Believe it, Ace.”
   “I was seeing him!” I retorted. “You think maybe I should have been the one to talk to him?”
   “No, I fuckin’ don’t.”
   “Well I do!” My voice was rising. “You just told him –”
   “I fucked you,” Tate cut me off. “Yeah, I did. I wasn’t so pissed, I’d have gone into detail at how you lit
up for me, how hungry you get, how slick and tight your pussy is and how fuckin’ hot you sound when you
come. He ain’t ever gonna have that but I know he has a good imagination, I’d be sure to give him enough
to see him through.”
   I stared at him, mouth agape.
   Then I breathed, “You didn’t just say that.”
   “I did and I wasn’t lyin’,” Tate returned.
   I leaned toward him and snapped, “What’s your problem?”
   “I was on the hunt and back home a man moved on what was mine. That’s my problem,” Tate declared.
   “I wasn’t yours!” I shot back.
   Tate’s eyes narrowed on me and he looked like he was getting even more pissed. “You were, babe, I
told you, I got home, you were on the back of my bike.”
   There it was, Carrie was right, that back of his bike business obviously meant more than a date.
   “I don’t speak biker, Tate!” I snapped. “I had no idea what you were talking about.”
   He took a step toward me and whispered, “Bullshit, Ace, after that kiss you knew exactly what I was
talkin’ about and Wood knew exactly where I was at which brings us to why the fuck I come home and
you two are tight.”
   “I didn’t know what you were talking about,” I asserted. “What I did know is that you left, you didn’t
tell me you were going and you didn’t call me once while you were gone.”
   “Call you?” he asked as if the concept of telephones was foreign to him.
   “Yes, Tate,” I replied then went on sarcastically, “ring ring, hello, I’m alive!”
   I could tell right away that Tate wasn’t a big fan of sarcasm.
   “Tone it down, babe,” he advised softly but dangerously. “You aren’t the injured party in this
scenario.”
   “I’m afraid I disagree seeing as you took off without a word, stayed gone for a month, again without a
word and thought you could come back and I’d be waiting for you even with all that.”
   “I remember that night pretty clearly, Lauren, and I remember I told you I had to focus,” Tate reminded
me.
   “I remember that too but I still don’t know what it means,” I shot back.
   “I got shit goin’ down in my life,” he bit out. “I needed to be in my truck, on the trail of a murderer at
the same time not seein’ to that shit and hemorrhaging more money seein’ as I was workin’ that on my
own time and my own fuckin’ dime like I needed a fuckin’ hole in my head. You,” he jerked a finger in my
face, “were a distraction.”
   “A distraction?” I whispered, not feeling happy about that word and really not feeling happy about his
finger in my face.
   “Life is choices, Ace. I went with the choice I wanted, I wouldn’t have been on the road tryin’ to hunt
down a killer. I’d have been home explorin’ shit with you. I call you, I lose focus, I forget what’s the right
thing to do and do what I wanna do,” he told me and I felt a shiver slide through me and it was
contradictory to the not feeling happy feeling I had moments before. “I told you I needed to focus. I told
you I got back, you were on my bike. I made myself clear. In the end, it was all a fuckin’ waste of time, I
get home after a month of findin’ a lot of nothin’ that cost a lot of cake to find and you’re mouthin’ off to
me about what fuckin’ Wood told you.”
   “Maybe we should talk about that,” I whispered but I did it hesitantly because he was making sense
(though in my defense, I really didn’t speak biker, so he actually didn’t make himself clear but neither of
us knew that at the time). I was realizing I might have made a big mistake and I wasn’t eager to discover
I’d made more mistakes but I felt perhaps the air should be cleared. That said, it should be noted that I
didn’t relish the idea of clearing that air because I had the distinct feeling I’d made more mistakes and it
was more than a feeling that Tate was angry.
   “Neeta,” he growled and I knew the way he did it Tate wasn’t getting any happy shivers.
   “Yes,” I was still whispering.
   “Neeta and I are history,” he stated.
   “That’s what Bubba said,” I told him quietly.
   “Yeah? So why did you listen to Wood and you didn’t listen to Bub?”
   “Um…” I bit my lip and took a step back. “I was swimming. I saw you… with her… at the hotel.”
   “Yeah?”
   “Tate…” I said softly and didn’t carry on.
   Tate stared at me and then asked bitingly, “Am I supposed to read your mind?”
   “You were kissing her… you went into a hotel room.”
   “So?”
   “Tate,” I whispered. “That wasn’t two weeks before we…”
   “No, you’re right, it wasn’t,” Tate confirmed. “Your point?”
   “How can you be history if you were with her not even two months ago?” I asked. “That isn’t exactly
history.”
   “An hour after I walked into that hotel room, Lauren, we were history.”
   “You were… you both were… you seemed…” I stammered.
   “We were then an hour later we were not,” Tate clipped.
   “How can that be?” I asked, my voice pitching higher.
   “The same way it can be that not two months ago you were talkin’ about how you loved that jackass of
an ex of yours, how you stepped aside so you wouldn’t prolong your sorrow at losin’ him and yesterday
and this mornin’ you could barely stomach lookin’ at him.”
   “That isn’t the same,” I whispered.
   “Yeah, Wood tell you all about Neeta and me? You an expert now?” Tate asked scornfully.
   “He told me about Bethany,” I shared and took another step back as Tate’s expression turned stormy.
   “Good call, Ace, but you might wanna take another step back,” Tate warned.
   “Tate –”
   “He tell you he had Bethany before me?” Tate bit out and my body jerked at discovering this news,
news Wood had not shared.
   “No,” I whispered.
   “He tell you she was nuts?” Tate asked.
   I shook my head. “Nuts?”
   “Fuckin’ ‘round the bend. Christ almighty, the bitch made Neeta look adjusted,” his eyes swept me and
he finished, “seems I got a fuckin’ type.”
   That made me take another step back but this time I did it like he landed a blow.
   “Tate,” I whispered.
   “She was whacked, pure and simple. Didn’t know it until I started it with her. Her Dad knew it, lazy
fuck, didn’t do shit about it. Coulda got her help. Didn’t. Didn’t listen to Wood when he talked to him.
Didn’t listen to me talkin’ to him after Wood. Total denial. She was high-strung, he said, but he knew
better. She wasn’t high-strung. She was fuckin’ cracked.”
   I swallowed and stayed silent as Tate kept talking.
   “I had Neeta jackin’ up most of my life and then I had Bethany jackin’ up the rest of it. I couldn’t handle
her, I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t have any help from her family. I couldn’t do it so I had to scrape
her off. She slit her wrists and almost bought it. Ten minutes later, Arnie showed ten minutes later, she’d
be gone,” Tate informed me. “She’s in C Springs now, a live-in unit. Last time I visited her she was doin’
a lot better. Half zombie on all the shit they gotta feed her but it’s better than the strung out way she used
to be.”
   That was sad.
   It was also not exactly how Wood described it. He’d given me the bones of the story but he left out all
of the meat.
   I took in a breath and asked, “Is Neeta married?”
   Tate answered immediately, “Yeah.”
   I closed my eyes and turned my face away, licking my lips.
   “Look at me, Lauren,” Tate demanded and I shook my head. “Babe, fuckin’ look at me.”
   I looked at him.
   “You hear other shit about Neeta?” he asked astutely and I nodded.
   “Nothing much,” I whispered. “People mention her name and yours. They sound… funny.”
   “Yeah,” he agreed. “Fuckin’ hilarious.”
   “Not funny like that,” I told him softly.
   “I know Lauren,” he replied.
   “Betty said she’s the reason you’re not a cop,” I said.
   “That ain’t true though I bet she believes it like gospel. Neeta’s bigger than life, likes it that way, works
hard for that reputation. You ask about Neeta, people’ll talk and you can believe about five percent of
what they say and she likes it like that, it’s exactly how she wants it. They mention me with her, you can
believe about point five percent of what they say.”
   “Tate –”
   He cut me off. “It’s shit.”
   “But –”
   “It’s shit, Lauren,” he clipped. “I quit The Force because Arnie is a lazy fuck. Most of his officers were
lazy fucks too. Shit happenin’ in that town, you wouldn’t believe. Still does ‘cause he’s still Chief.
Whacked. I didn’t like the way he ran his station, I didn’t like the way he played favorites with his boys, I
didn’t like the way he turned a blind eye when shit went down and I knew he did it because he’d had his
palm greased and I didn’t like the way he didn’t have the spine to admit his daughter was sick and get her
help. I made detective because I worked fuckin’ hard for it and I did it despite him because he never
fuckin’ liked me mostly because I didn’t like him. That shit went down with Bethany, it was his gig. I
knew I couldn’t come to work and see his fuckin’ face every day. So I quit and started huntin’. Make
triple what I made then and don’t have to deal with any fuckin’ shit.”
   “Except Bubba,” I reminded him, perhaps stupidly.
   “Yeah, except Bubba,” he agreed, luckily not getting even angrier being reminded of Bubba.
   We stared at each other and I watched as Tate seemed prepared to hang onto his anger.
   Therefore I told him, “Carrie says I leap before I look.”
   Tate didn’t respond.
   “And that I hold a mean grudge,” I went on.
   “Lived that nightmare,” Tate muttered.
   “I should have talked to you,” I whispered.
   “Yeah, Ace, you should have talked to me.”
   I watched some more as he continued to seem prepared to hang onto his anger.
   “I’m sorry, honey,” I kept whispering.
   His brows went up and he crossed his arms on his chest.
   “Should I forgive you?” he asked and I swallowed.
   The tables were turned and now I knew what he felt like all those weeks ago and it really wasn’t nice.
   “Um…”
   “I got home, Lauren, went straight to you. After a month of wantin’ nothin’ but that, to be home and have
you on the back of my bike, I go straight to you and you throw attitude at me and shit in my face. I said
somethin’ that hurt your feelings and you busted my balls for two weeks. You treat me to that, what do you
expect me to do?”
   I gazed around in confusion, considering he’d been sweet to me for nearly two days, he got me safe to
my family, got in Brad’s face for me on more than one occasion and gave me three orgasms. I’d already
thought he’d forgiven me.
   Perhaps I was wrong.
   “Um…” I mumbled, not looking at him.
   “Baby, get your ass over here,” he ordered and my eyes flew to him.
   “Sorry?” I whispered.
   “Get your ass over here,” he repeated.
   “Are you going to throttle me?” I said it partially in jest, feeling the waters, partially seriously.
   He moved fast, stepping toward me in a lunge, he caught my hand and stepped back, taking me with him
and yanking my hand at the same time so I crashed into his body.
   His arms curved around me and he looked down at my face. “Lucky you’re wearin’ those shorts and
that top, Ace, all that skin, those tits, those legs, can’t stay pissed for long.”
   “Maybe I should go shopping again,” I muttered.
   “You plannin’ on pissin’ me off again?” he asked.
   “Not intentionally,” I answered.
   “Not exactly what I wanted to hear,” he murmured and started walking me backwards toward the bed,
“but it’ll do.”
   “Tate?”
   “What?”
   “If Neeta’s married –?” The back of my legs hit the bed and we both went down.
   When we landed and Tate settled on top of me, his fingers slid into the hair at the side of my head but
his eyes never left mine.
   “It’s over,” he whispered.
   “But –”
   His lips touched mine and then he pulled back. “It’s over, baby.” He kept whispering. “It shoulda been
over years ago but it’s definitely over now.”
   “How could you –?”
   “Because she’s Neeta,” he answered my not exactly asked question.
   I shook my head and put my hands on his shoulders, not to push him away but also not to hold him to
me. “I don’t understand.”
   His hand left my hair and slid down to cup my jaw, his thumb moving out, the pad of it drifting across
my lower lip as he watched and talked. “Years, she’s been under my skin. Took me that long to work her
out.”
   This was not the news any woman wanted to hear about another woman and I felt my body get stiff
under his.
   His eyes came to mine. “Laurie, it wouldn’t be for a few days that I’d feel the difference.”
   “What difference?” I asked, my mouth moving under his thumb.
   “Didn’t know it then, know it now.”
   “What?”
   “Two kinds of women get under your skin. The ones who do damage, they don’t feel good there but
once you’re fuckin’ stupid enough to let them in you got no choice but to take the time it takes to work
them out. Then there are the ones who don’t do damage, who feel good there, feed the muscle, the bone,
the soul, not rip it or break it or burn it. The ones you don’t wanna work out.”
   Was he saying what I thought he was saying?
   “Tate –”
   “You get me?” he asked.
   “I don’t know,” I answered honestly but even I heard the hint of hope in those three words, probably
because it was me who felt that hope.
   “You will,” he promised.
   Wow.
   “Tate –” I breathed.
   “Quiet, Ace, done talkin’.” And it appeared he was as his head was descending and his hand slid into
my hair again.
   “But –”
   “Quiet,” he muttered against my lips.
   “I –”
   He kissed me and my hands at his shoulders slid around his neck, definitely to hold him to me as he
tuned me right out of my mind and right into the vibrations he was creating in my body.
   His lips slid down my jaw to my ear as his hands slid down my sides to my hips and around, to my
behind where he pulled them up, fitting my soft ones into his hard ones.
   The thin thread I was holding onto my mind with twinged.
   We had a lot to talk about. I didn’t know him, hardly at all. He’d played professional football, for two
games but still, that was huge and the fact that he played only that short time was heartbreaking. He had a
bad knee and he didn’t act like he had a bad knee so I wondered if he still did. And if he did, I wondered
if he should be running. He had an eagle tattooed on his back and I wondered if that had something to do
with the football team for whom he played only two games. He had shit going on in his life but he didn’t
tell me what that was and I figured, since it seemed we were starting something, I should probably know.
He’d just worked a woman out from under his skin and I needed to discuss that a bit further. Was she
entirely gone? Was there a little bit of her left? What happened to make them history? Was I there now?
How deep was I?
   Not to mention, I needed a very long, thorough lesson in biker slang so I didn’t accidently mess anything
up again.
   I held tight to that thin thread and I turned my lips to his ear.
   “We should finish talking,” I whispered.
   “Fuckin’ you now, baby,” he whispered back, his tongue touched my earlobe and his hand slid from my
bottom to between my legs were his fingers slid into the inside leg of my pajama shorts and drifted
feather-light across my panties. “We’ll finish talkin’ later.”
   “Okay,” I breathed which was a lucky thing, since his tongue and fingers snapped that thin thread that
attached me to my mind and it was a miracle I could speak at all.
                                                       *****
   Laurie, it wouldn’t be for a few days that I’d feel the difference.
   My eyes opened and I saw the room was dark. We hadn’t pulled the curtains again and I saw the
outside lights shining in, illuminating Tate’s painted shoulder in front of me. I was curled into his back,
my arm resting on his waist.
   I stayed where I was awhile, hoping sleep would come.
   Seems I got a fuckin’ type.
   I closed my eyes tight in a flinch.
   Boy, Tate could land a verbal blow.
   Carefully, I rolled to my back and stared at the ceiling thinking of all Tate said, all Wood said, all
Wood didn’t say and all I didn’t know about Tate.
   Then I thought about my Dad, who still worked the farm even though he had a couple boys he’d hired to
help him do it. Then I thought about if he could, or should, continue doing that and if he couldn’t, or
shouldn’t, what would happen to our farm.
   Then I thought about Tate more.
   This took awhile and included me attempting to get comfortable and find sleep in three different
positions. After I tried the third, I knew sleep wasn’t going to come.
   Moving cautiously so as not to wake Tate, I slid the covers back and started toward the opposite side
of the bed, trying to remember where Tate threw my pajamas.
   I didn’t even get close to the edge of the bed before an arm hooked around my belly and I was on my
back in the bed.
   “Where you goin’?” Tate muttered, his voice drowsy.
   “Can’t sleep or get comfortable,” I whispered. “You go back to sleep, I’ll –”
   I stopped talking because Tate rolled me to face him then his hand slid over my bottom.
   “Happen every night?” he murmured, still sounding sleepy.
   “No, honey,” I answered, pushing lightly against his chest. “Go back to sleep.”
   He lifted his head and then his face was in my neck.
   “On the road,” he said there, his hands moving on me, “at night, I’d lie awake wonderin’ if you were
sleepin’ okay.”
   “That doesn’t sound very focused,” I whispered as his hand slid down my hip, my leg and then lifted
my leg at the knee to hook it around his hip.
   It didn’t sound very focused but it sure sounded sweet.
   “It wasn’t,” he whispered back and I felt his teeth nip my ear, his beard tickling my jaw and neck, his
hand slid between my legs and his fingers moved whisper-soft against me.
   “Tate,” I breathed as I moved my hips to press into his hand.
   “Like that, Laurie,” he murmured.
   “What?” I breathed again as his hand kept moving, still soft, so light.
   God, such a beautiful tease.
   He’d done that a lot earlier. It wasn’t fast and hard like the first time. Tate was a man who knew how to
take his time and make a woman’s body sing.
   “Those little hitches,” he answered, lips still at my ear.
   “Hitches?”
   “In your breath,” he explained. “You gettin’ excited, like to hear that, baby.”
   His finger suddenly slid inside and my neck arched back as my back arced forward.
   “Yes,” I whispered, my arms moving around him to hold on tight as his finger moved in and out.
   “Christ,” he whispered, “like that too.”
   “Not as much as me.”
   I felt his lips form a smile against my neck. His thumb trailed soft, teasing my clit.
   My breath hitched again and my hips pressed into his hand.
   “You like that too,” he noted.
   I didn’t answer.
   After more of his sweet torture, I called, “Tate, honey?”
   “Yeah, baby,” he answered.
   “Am I under your skin?” I whispered as my hips moved with his hand.
   He replied instantly, “Oh yeah.” His thumb tweaked my clit harder, my hips jerked and a low mew slid
out of my throat as the fingers of one of my hands slid into his hair and the other arm held on tighter. “Fuck
yeah,” he growled and his lips left my ear, his mouth found mine and he kissed me, wet and deep.
  Then he stopped playing and started playing which led to Tate fucking me so hard, when he was done, I
couldn’t move.
  Luckily Tate could move. He rolled me so my back was pressed to his front, his arms both went around
me tight, his knee bent, taking mine with it and his weight settled into me, pressing my front into the bed.
  “Sleep, Ace,” he muttered into my hair and I heard him but I heard him a nanosecond before I was out.
Chapter Eleven
I Ain’t Fifteen
   I woke before Tate and laid in bed listening to him breathe. I was again tucked to his back with my arm
resting on his waist and I could see the eagle close up.
   I stared at that eagle inked into Tate’s skin and it hit me.
   I was under that skin.
   Me.
   This beautiful man in front of me had me under his skin.
   I smiled and lightly kissed the eagle’s wing at his shoulder blade then carefully left the bed. I went to
the bathroom, brushed and flossed my teeth, washed my face and grabbed my shampoo, conditioner, bath
wash, shave gel and razor. I got in the shower, did my business, got out, toweled off and wrung out my
hair. Then I wrapped the towel around me, quietly left the bathroom and went to my suitcase.
   I was pawing through it, thinking I’d go with the baby pink and ecru lace underwear when I heard
movement in the bed.
   I started to turn but didn’t finish when a strong arm was locked around my belly, my feet were off the
floor and my body was turned sharply toward the bed.
   Automatically my knees came up, my hands went to his forearm and I shrieked a girlie, “Tate!”
   He made no response because we were at the bed, he twisted and we were falling, Tate on his back,
me on top of him. He let me go and I rolled off his body but didn’t get very far when he tagged me and
dragged me back so I was under his big, heavy frame.
   “Took a shower without me, Ace,” he growled, his deep voice rougher with lingering sleep, his
handsome face soft with it but his eyes were intense in a way that was too sexy for words.
   “You were asleep,” I told him.
   “Consequences,” he muttered and before I could respond to that bizarre reply, his body shifted, he
yanked the towel off me and my whole body jerked with the force he used.
   “Tate!” I girlie shrieked again but his body rolled back over mine and then he captured my mouth with
his.
   Then I found out that consequences for not waking Tate to take a shower with me were so divine, after
he was done meting them out and I was lying face down in bed unable to move while I listened to him
shower, I decided I’d sneak a shower without him at any given chance.
   The problem was, the shower I had with him was just as divine.
   Lucky for me, these were my problems.
                                                      *****
   I walked into the hospital waiting room where Tate and Mack were sitting, Mack in a chair with his
feet propped up on a low table, his eyes glued to a TV that had the sound down low, Tate in the same
position but on a couch.
   When I walked in, Tate’s eyes moved to me.
   “He’s settled,” I announced and then lifted a knee high to maneuver over Tate’s outstretched legs. I got
to the other side and collapsed onto the couch beside him.
   “He good?” Tate asked as his arm slid around my shoulders and he pulled me into his side.
   I lifted my feet and put them on the table close to Tate’s, nodding and relaxing into his heat.
   “It okay for me to go in?” Mack asked, I looked over my shoulder at him and nodded again. Mack
pulled his feet off the table, put his hands to the armrests and shoved up. “I won’t tire him out,” he
muttered and strolled out of the room.
   Dad had been moved out of ICU. He was conscious a lot more that day and talking. This was all good.
   He still was an alarming color and weak in a way that both freaked me out and made me so sad I didn’t
know what to do with the feeling. So I just let it happen and decided to process it later since there was
nothing else I could do.
   Tate’s arm gave me a squeeze and I lifted my head from his shoulder where I’d rested it to look at him.
   “You need to get outta here,” he declared when my eyes caught his.
   I shook my head and his arm curled me toward him so my front was pressed to his side and, to be
comfortable, I was forced to uncross my feet and lift a knee until it was resting on his thighs. This was, by
the way, very comfortable because I was wearing white shorts and the feel against my bare skin of his
soft, faded denim and the hard muscle under it was really nice.
   “Laurie, can’t stay here all day, your Mom either. She’s barely left. We’ll get her, check out of the
hotel, take her back to the farm. She doesn’t have to be this close anymore. He’s good, she needs a break,
she needs to connect with home and he needs to rest,” Tate stated.
   I nodded because he was right but said, “In a little while, maybe for lunch.”
   “Mack says he and Carrie need to get back to work,” Tate told me and I knew this to be true. Mack
owned his own construction firm, he was probably good but he also couldn’t be away forever. Carrie was
a paralegal and her boss was a jerk. From what I knew of him, he’d lay into her the minute she got back.
   “I know,” I said softly and then dropped my cheek and rested it on his pectoral while my arm slid
around his abs. “When they come out, we’ll arrange things,” I finished, settling into him.
   Tate kept his arm tight around my shoulders and we fell silent.
   I contemplated his boots thinking they were hot. I had no idea what he contemplated.
   Then he told me.
   “What’d you do?” he asked.
   “Do?” I asked his boots.
   “Before Carnal, where’d you work?”
   I lifted my head, twisting my neck to look up at him, fear slithering through me because I was thinking
this was dangerous ground with ex-football player, ex-cop, current bartender-slash-bounty hunter Tatum
Jackson.
   “Where’d I work?” I asked in an effort to stall.
   “Yeah,” he answered.
   I looked at his chest and mumbled, “Um…”
   “Ace,” he called and my eyes reluctantly went to his.
   “Yes?” I asked and he stared at me for several long moments.
   Four tawny flecks in his left eye, three in his right.
   “Did you forget?” he asked and I focused on him and not the tawny flecks in his eyes. When I focused I
noted he looked impatient.
   “Forget?” I parroted.
   “Jesus, babe, where’d you work before you left suburbia?”
   I bit my lip. Then I realized this was it, us starting out, getting along, learning about each other.
   Therefore, I said on a rush, “I was an executive.”
   “An executive,” he repeated slowly.
   “For an airline,” I told him.
   “What airline?” he asked.
   “Um…” his arm gave me a squeeze, “Kites?” I said it like a question as if he could confirm its validity.
   “Kites,” he repeated.
   “You heard of it?” I asked like it was a small airline that had a fleet of about twelve planes when it
wasn’t small. It wasn’t international but it was national, based in Phoenix, flew mostly west of the
Mississippi but also had flights all over the country and had so many planes sometimes Dean, the man in
charge of keeping track of them, lost track (though he only told me this but they figured it out, I knew that
because one of the e-mails I read three days ago was from him telling me he got fired).
   “Yeah, Ace, I’ve heard of it,” Tate drawled. “Executive of what?”
   “Um…”
   “Babe.”
   “Senior Vice President of Labor Relations,” I said swiftly then downplayed it, “kind of the HR Guru.”
   Tate stared at me.
   Then he looked to the TV and muttered, “Jesus.”
   That fear started taking hold.
   “Tate,” I called and his eyes came to me.
   “You make a lotta cake?” he asked.
   “I did,” I whispered.
   “Now you’re a waitress,” he said.
   “Now I’m a waitress,” I confirmed.
   “Livin’ in a hotel,” he remarked.
   I bit my lip.
   “Where’d you live before?” he asked.
   “Horizon Summit,”
   “Suburb of Phoenix?”
   “A housing development in Scottsdale.”
   “Scottsdale,” he murmured.
   “Um…”
   “What’s your ex do?” he asked.
   “Executive Vice President of Sheer Aeronauticals,” I whispered.
   Tate stared at me.
   “He makes a lot of cake too,” I was still whispering.
   “Martinis and manicures,” Tate mumbled.
   “I don’t miss it,” I told him quickly but Tate didn’t respond, didn’t speak, didn’t move, his face didn’t
even change. “I promise, I don’t.”
   “Right,” Tate muttered and his eyes went back to the TV.
   I pulled up his chest so my face was in his line of vision.
   “We lived in a gated community, our backyard butted a golf course,” I said. “Every time I drove
through that gate I wondered if it was there to keep people out or lock me in. I hated that gate. I hated
living behind a gate and what that said. I hated golf and I still do. I had a girl who cleaned my house and I
liked cleaning my house. It was a big house but I didn’t do anything in my life where I saw the results
unless they were on a graph in some report and what does that really mean?” I planted a hand in his chest
and kept going. “I didn’t even paint my own nails. I rarely cooked because Brad was never home and both
our hours were crazed, not to mention he was carrying on an affair. If I wasn’t cleaning my house, I didn’t
like it. It was too big, too shiny, too new. I didn’t drink grape Kool-Aid there because Brad’s not a Kool-
Aid type of guy but I was scared I’d spill it on the furniture. Everything was so perfect. Nothing had
personality.” I took a deep breath and kept babbling. “I didn’t like my job, I liked the people I worked
with but I didn’t like my job. It was all about rules, about policy. I’m all for rules and policy, I just don’t
want to be the one pushing them down people’s throats. I don’t know why I did it. I was lost after college
and I got into human resources on a fluke. I liked it. It fascinated me, people fascinate me. And it just took
off from there. My Dad taught me to be a good employee, work hard and smart, be loyal. It just ballooned
and there I was, where I didn’t want to be, at work and at home. Sometimes I’d sit in my office and look
at my computer and wonder how I got there and then I’d wonder why I stayed. But Brad liked the life we
could live on our salaries and I loved him so I –”
   “Ace.”
   I was so on a roll, I blinked when Tate spoke and asked, “What?”
   “You can shut up now.”
   I studied his face and saw he was fighting a grin.
   “What’s funny?” I asked.
   “I ain’t a grape Kool-Aid type of guy either,” he answered.
   “That’s funny?” I asked.
   “But you want it, you shouldn’t stop yourself from havin’ it just because I ain’t.”
   “Okay,” I said softly.
   “You spill it on my couch, babe, just sayin’…” he stopped.
   “What?”
   His neck bent and his face got close to mine. “I really don’t give a fuck. My couch is shit.”
   It took me by surprise, starting in my belly then my body shook with it and finally I dropped my
forehead to his chest and let the laughter escape my lips.
   As I laughed I felt his arm give me a squeeze and his lips kiss the crown of my head.
   I stopped laughing and turned my cheek to rest on his chest and my eyes to rest on the TV We both.
watched the muted TV for awhile and then Tate’s arm dropped from my shoulders so his hand could pull
my shirt up at the back and then his fingers trailed random patterns against the skin at its small. This felt
nice and I relaxed deeper into him.
   That was, I relaxed deeper into him until his legs and hips shifted and he muttered, “Fuck.”
   My head came up and I looked at him to see his eyes were beyond me, staring in the vicinity of our legs
and there was an expression on his face I couldn’t read.
   “What?” I asked, pulling slightly away only to have his hand flatten on the skin of my back and hold me
still. “Are you uncomfortable?”
   His eyes went from our legs to my face.
   “Yeah and no,” he answered.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Babe, sittin’ here lookin’ at your legs thinkin’ of this mornin’ and just lookin’ at your legs, thinkin’ of
this mornin’, them wrapped tight around my back, I started gettin’ hard. Just lookin’ at your fuckin’ legs.
Christ,” he bit off the last word.
   That fear that went away came back, it was different and it was mostly about not understanding why he
looked suddenly annoyed. To me, this was all good, really good, happy good. To him, it seemed the
opposite.
   “Um… isn’t that kind of…” I hesitated. “Good?”
   He stared at me then stated, “I ain’t fifteen.”
   “No,” I agreed because he wasn’t. I still didn’t know how old he was but he wasn’t fifteen, I was sure
of that.
   “Fifteen year old kids get hard like that. Men…” He shook his head.
   I tipped mine to the side, suddenly finding this conversation very interesting.
   “They don’t?” I asked.
   “Nope,” he answered.
   “Really?” I asked and his eyes grew intense on my face.
   “Okay, I’ve no fuckin’ clue so let me rephrase, I don’t.”
   He didn’t.
   So this meant Neeta who could work her body and blow kisses to hotel clerks and laugh so loud it rang
in the air didn’t make him start to get hard just looking at her legs.
   But I did.
   I dipped my chin but obviously didn’t hide my smile because my face was captured with his hand at my
jaw and forced back up.
   He didn’t speak when his eyes locked on my mouth but his face changed again and I couldn’t read it but
his eyes got dark in a way that was both sinister and exciting.
   “Tate?” I called and his gaze lifted to my eyes.
   “Now your fuckin’ sexy little smile is makin’ me hard,” he growled, sounding more than slightly
perturbed.
   I felt my smile deepen, decided to change the subject and leaned my face close to his. “How old are
you?”
   “Forty-four.”
   I leaned back.
   “What?” I asked.
   “Forty-four,” he answered.
   “You are not,” I stated and his head gave a small jerk.
   “Babe, I am.”
   “Aren’t.”
   His brows drew together. “You swipin’ your Dad’s meds? What’s the deal?”
   “No forty-four year old man has your body,” I informed him.
   “Well, I do.”
   Light dawned. “You know how old I am,” I stated.
   “Yeah, Ace, read your application. Though, I’ll point out, Kites wasn’t on it.”
   I decided to ignore the fact that I fibbed by omission on my application so Krystal wouldn’t eject me
bodily from Bubba’s and stayed on my chosen subject.
   “So you’re saying you’re forty-four so you won’t make me feel badly for being older than you.”
   “Lauren, I am older than you.”
   “You aren’t.”
   He stared at me.
   Then he burst out laughing, his head going back with it and his arms both came around me and pulled
me to him, then up his chest and very close.
   “I’m not seeing anything funny,” I muttered into his neck.
   “How old do you think I am?” he asked my ear.
   I pulled my head back, examined his face and guessed, “Thirty-six?”
   He grinned. “You want, you can go with that. I don’t mind.”
   “Tate –”
   He cut me off. “But I’m forty-four.”
   “Tate –”
   “Though, it’s okay with me my old lady looks older than me.”
   “Tate!” I snapped.
   “Or thinks she does,” he continued.
   I glared at him. He kept grinning.
   Mack, Caroline and Mom entered the room; I heard them and slid off Tate’s chest to look their way.
   “Hey,” I greeted when I saw them all looking at us, Mack’s lips twitching, Mom out and out smiling and
Carrie giving me a look that said she thought I was in the middle of full on leaping without checking first
where I might land.
   “Hey,” Carrie replied as I felt Tate’s body get tight against mine.
   “Mack, turn that up,” he ordered, straightening and taking his feet from the table, effectively taking my
feet and body with his.
   “What?” Mack asked.
   “TV, turn it up,” Tate reiterated and he was pulling us both to our feet.
   When I gained my feet, my head tipped back and I saw his eyes were glued to the television screen so
my head turned and my eyes went there as well.
   There was a male newsreader on the TV and I could barely hear him talking but I could see the words
“May December Murderer” in a graphic behind him.
   “Oh my God,” I breathed and Mack turned the TV volume up.
   “…victim yesterday,” the newsreader said. “The police of Chantelle, Colorado think this latest murder
is the victim of what is known in police circles as the ‘May December Murderer’.”
   “Chantelle,” I whispered.
   “Our fuckin’ backyard,” Tate growled and I felt that dark energy radiating from him but I couldn’t tear
my eyes away from the TV.
   The newsreader kept talking. “However, this incident is outside the perpetrator’s usual schedule and
police and FBI are concerned these murders, now eight in total with the same modus operandi, are
escalating.” The newsreader turned to another camera. “We’ll be back with more…”
   I stopped listening because Tate’s body moved and I turned to him to see he was digging his cell out of
his back pocket.
   “Tate,” I whispered.
   “A minute, Ace,” he muttered.
   “What?” Carrie asked as she, Mom and Mack got closer.
   I turned to them uncertain what to say. They wouldn’t exactly want me flying back home when a serial
killer was on the loose.
   Tate moved away and he had his cell to his ear.
   “What?” Carrie asked again as my family made it to me.
   “That’s um…” I started, bit my lip then finished, “the murderer Tate was hunting the last month.”
   “Oh my,” Mom breathed, Mack looked over his shoulder at the TV but Carrie’s eyes stayed locked on
me.
   “Tonia?” she asked and I nodded. “Holy cow,” she finished on a breathy whisper.
   I licked my lips.
   Tate returned, got in my space and his hand came to my neck where it met my shoulder. His face was
serious but his eyes were conflicted.
   “Babe –” he began.
   I interrupted him. “You have to go.”
   He used his hand at my neck to pull me closer and I put mine to his waist.
   “Ace –” he said softly.
   I leaned closer. “It’s okay, Tate.”
   “Your Dad –”
   “We’re okay.”
   “I wouldn’t –”
   I pressed against him, my hands sliding up so my fingers could curl around his shoulders.
   “Honey, it’s okay,” I said quietly. “Go.”
   He closed his eyes and when he opened them what I saw in them made my body automatically move
closer.
   “Baby,” he muttered as his head dipped then his mouth was on mine.
   It wasn’t a Tate kiss that took me out of mind and into my body but it was long and it was definitely
sweet (and there was tongue which made it sweeter).
   He lifted his head but stayed in my space.
  “Text me when you get up, when you get ready to go somewhere tellin’ me where you’re goin’, when
you get there, when you leave and when you go to sleep,” he ordered.
  “Okay,” I whispered.
  “Be smart, Laurie.” He kept ordering.
  “Okay.” I kept whispering.
  “Locked doors, in cars, houses –”
  “Okay.”
  “Be aware of where you are, who you’re with –”
  “Tate –”
  “Don’t open any fuckin’ doors unless you’re sure who’s behind them.”
  “I won’t.”
  “Promise, Ace.”
  “I promise, Captain. I’ll be safe.”
  Tate stared at me.
  Then he whispered, “Fucker was in my backyard.”
  “Go, baby,” I urged softly.
  He touched his mouth to mine, his hand at my neck gave me a squeeze then he let me go and turned to
Mack.
  “Give me a ride to the hotel?” he asked.
  “Absolutely, Tate,” Mack replied.
  I saw Carrie and Mom looking at me. Mom was smiling still, it was softer, knowing, with a hint of
happiness mixed with the anxiety she’d worn the last few days and some confusion too.
  Carrie was also smiling but it was in a way I figured she thought maybe me taking the plunge with Tate
might not be such a bad thing.
  Tate turned to Mom and kissed her cheek.
  When he did she patted him on the back and breathed, “Oh my.”
  Tate did the same to Carrie and she gave him a hug.
  He left the waiting room and Mack followed.
  He didn’t turn and look at me. I wanted to see his face but I got it this time.
  He was focused.
Chapter Twelve
Sweet Dreams, Baby
   I was in bed in my old room which was now the guest bedroom at my family’s farm.
   I had my phone in my hand and I was punching out the words on the little keyboard.
   Hey honey, going to bed.
   I hit send but didn’t put down the phone. I twisted, turned out the light and settled in, all the while I kept
the phone in my hand.
   Over the past five days I learned Tate wasn’t a big texter. At first, as ordered, I texted him as he asked
me to, telling him my every move – to the hotel, farm, hospital, when I woke up, when I went to bed. He
rarely texted back and when he did they were one of two words.
   Good.
   And.
   OK.
   So on day three I stopped telling him my every move because, in all honesty, he didn’t seem all that
interested.
   This earned me a phone call to which, when I answered while pushing a cart through the grocery store
at approximately ten thirty in the morning, Tate did not greet me.
   Instead he said, “What the fuck?”
   I was surprised at this opening so I non-greeted back, “What the fuck what?”
   “Babe,” was his reply.
   I was silent because that wasn’t much of a reply, he sounded slightly put out and I wasn’t certain why.
   “Is everything okay?” I asked.
   “Where are you?” he asked back.
   “The grocery store,” I answered.
   “You forget something?”
   I looked in the cart. “No, it’s just that Mom and I are at the farm and she hasn’t had a home cooked meal
for awhile and I haven’t cooked at all for awhile so tonight I’m going to cook…”
   “Ace,” he growled and realized he did that a lot. Growl. He could, with that rough voice he could
definitely growl, but he didn’t have to do it so often and especially for reasons unknown.
   “What?”
   “Last I knew, you were goin’ to sleep,” he informed me.
   He might not text but every night, from that first night, minutes after I texted him with the information
that I was going to bed, he’d call. Our conversations weren’t long, heartfelt and soul-baring. They were
short and informational but I thought they were sweet mainly because they were with Tate.
   “Well, I’m awake,” I pointed out the obvious.
   “I’m gettin’ that,” he ground out. “We had a deal.”
   “A deal?”
   “You text,” he clipped.
   Well there it was, I was wrong, he was interested.
   “Oh,” I said.
   “Oh,” he repeated.
   “I won’t forget again,” I promised.
   “Yeah, Ace, don’t forget again,” he warned and it was definitely a warning.
   I felt my back straighten as I stood in the grocery store aisle. I turned and stared at the shelves, feeling
myself getting angry.
   “Well, it’s not like your King Text,” I snapped.
   “Come again?”
   “You don’t reply,” I told him. “I text and you don’t reply. I mean –”
   He interrupted me. “Deal wasn’t that I was texting you.”
   “Yes, but –”
   “I don’t text,” he informed me.
   “But you expect me to?” I shot back.
   “Yeah, Ace. Newsflash, I’m huntin’ a raping serial killer. I think you get that he’s tweaked me, that sick
fuck takin’ out Tonia. My old lady is four states away, not close, not in my control. You get that?”
   “Um…” I mumbled because I partly did and the part I got felt nice. I also partly didn’t because he
referred to me as not in his control and I not only didn’t get that I wasn’t sure how to take it.
   He kept talking. “And last time I left you on your own, you ended up with another guy.”
   Oh no he didn’t. We’d talked about that. He didn’t get to throw that in my face.
   “I’m hardly going to pick up a man in Indiana,” I snapped.
   “Babe, you don’t pick ‘em up, those fuckin’ legs of yours, they pick you.”
   “Tate –”
   “Text.”
   “Tate!”
   “Askin’ you to give me peace of mind here,” he clipped, “text.”
   “Oh all right,” I relented because we were talking about peace of mind. We’d talk about me being in his
“control” later.
   “We done?” he asked.
   “You called me,” I reminded him.
   “We’re done,” he muttered and then disconnected.
   God, if he wasn’t so handsome, strong, sometimes sweet, didn’t have a Harley, that beard, a tendency
to play with my hair, didn’t look so good in jeans and wasn’t so danged good in bed, he would seriously
not be worth it.
   Of course he was, or had, all those things. Therefore unfortunately he was worth it.
   I barely settled my head on the pillow when my phone rang.
   Quickly, hoping it didn’t wake up my mother, I touched the button under the screen that said “Captain
Calling” and put it to my ear.
   “Hey,” I whispered.
   “Your Mom asleep?” he asked.
   “Yeah,” I answered.
   “Your Dad?”
   “Color’s back, moving around, got more energy, it’s all good.”
   “Good,” he said softly.
   “You?” I asked.
 I had learned over the last several nights’ conversations that due to Tate’s past as a police officer and
his present as a bounty hunter, he had relationships on Chantelle’s Police Force. One of the FBI agents
working the case was also, luckily for Tate, a huge football fan and the icing on the cake was he was an
alumnus of Penn State and remembered Tate. Because of these two, unusually, they were letting Tate in on
the investigation in a “consultative capacity”. In other words, they were sharing information just as he
was sharing what he knew with them.
   The problem was neither side had much. In fact, nothing at all.
   “Wind,” Tate answered my question.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “He’s in the wind. We got nothin’. No leads, no ideas and he’s off script, could strike at any time.”
   “Yes, but you said all the victims were like Tonia,” I reminded him and he did say that. He’d told me
that all the women were Tonia’s age and reportedly dressed like her and acted like her prior to their
deaths. Four, including Tonia and the woman just murdered, were waitresses in bars. Three were
strippers. One was a prostitute.
   “Yeah, they got people camped everywhere, got more people warnin’ folks. But he wants the kill, he’ll
find it.”
   “Right,” I whispered because this was creepy and scary and both in equal measure.
   “What’re your plans?” he asked and I sighed.
   I was at a crossroads with my plans. I’d talked to Krystal and she said I could take all the time I
needed.
   This would have been very kind except she ended our conversation with, “No skin off my nose, not
payin’ you to be home.” Thus informing me I was on unpaid leave.
   This was okay. I needed to be here, see to things, weed Mom’s garden, mow the yard (it took me a
whole day to do the front yard, the side yard across the lane by the grape arbor and weed whack
everything including around the pond – Tyler should take his boot camp out on a field trip to Indiana and
force them to do that, it was killer), clean the house, ferry Mom around, visit with Dad.
   But Dad was getting better which meant he was getting antsy. He wanted out. He wasn’t a staying
confined type of person. In a day or two he’d be up the wall.
   And I also felt the need to be home in Carnal. I’d started a life, I liked it and I missed it. Betty and Ned,
the pool, Bubba’s, Jim-Billy, my visits to Sunny and Shambles, their treats, Wendy, Holly at the flower
shop – I even missed Tyler’s boot camps.
   Then there was Tate.
   I wanted to go home.
   Mom wanted me to go home too.
   “Need to get on with life, hon,” Mom had said. “So do you.”
   “I can stay for awhile,” I’d told her.
   “I know you can but that isn’t my life and it isn’t yours,” she’d replied.
   “But, you need –”
   “To learn how to cope with what I got and what’s happening next. You can’t stay here forever.”
   This was true. I couldn’t. I loved Mom and Dad, Caroline and Mack, Indiana and our farm and I’d spent
ten years missing them and wishing I was back.
   But my life was now in Carnal.
   Mom had taken my hand and given it a squeeze. “We’ll be fine, hon and you can go home to Tate and
bring him back when we can have a good visit. At Christmas. I can make Tate my chicken ‘n’ noodles and
you all can go ice skating on the pond.”
   I tried to imagine Tate on ice skates. This vision didn’t form in my brain likely because Tate’s
badassness reached across four states and halted such activity.
   “Mom thinks I should go home,” I told Tate.
   “She’d be right, Ace,” Tate told me.
   “But I could stay awhile. I think they need –”
   “To get on with their life, babe, and it’s a life you don’t share with them. They need to learn to lead it
without you there mowin’ their lawn.”
   “These are my parents,” I reminded him.
   “You movin’ home?”
   “No.”
   “Then what good’s it gonna do them gettin’ used to you dealin’ with all their shit only for you to up and
leave? Then they’ll have to learn to deal with all their shit. They might as well learn now.”
   “My Dad just had a heart attack, Tate,” I said softly.
   “Yeah, and he survived it, Laurie,” he said softly back. “And he’s gonna recover and you won’t be
doin’ him favors by fussin’ over him. He needs to get back to life as it’s gonna be, your Mom too.”
   I considered this.
   My father didn’t like idle children and we had chores. We worked in Mom’s garden, we cleaned the
house, we helped him with his many “projects”. But I’d never mowed the lawn that was man’s work
(according to Dad). His head would explode if I tried to mow the lawn when he was in the house. Or do
anything else that would even give a semblance of “fussin’ over him”. He’d rather the grass get hip high
than one of his girls mowing it (of course he would never allow the grass to get hip high, he’d call one of
his buddies to do it, of which there were a million).
   Instead of telling Tate he was right, I remained silent.
   Tate knew my ploy. I knew he did when he asked, “So when you comin’ home?”
   “I’ll talk to Mom tomorrow.”
   He was silent a moment then he said gently, “Good.”
   It was good. Home meant Tate and me being in his vicinity when he talked like that.
   Tate kept speaking. “Though, I’m gonna be gone for awhile.”
   All thoughts of home meaning Tate fled my head.
   “Gone?”
   “Had two files come in. High bond skips, both of ‘em. I been bleedin’ money too long. I need to take
‘em.”
   “Where are you going to be?” I asked.
   “Wherever they lead me,” he answered.
   “How long are you going to be gone?”
   “No tellin’.”
   Well this sucked!
   “So I might as well stay here for awhile,” I decided.
   “Babe, you ain’t comin’ back for me. You’re comin’ back because this is your life. Right?”
   It was mostly that.
   Okay, well, partly that.
   “Though,” he went on and his voice got a hint growly but the good kind, “good to know you wanna get
back to your old man.”
   “Mostly I need to get back because I don’t want Krystal to scare all my high tipping customers away
with her bad moods.”
   “Right,” he said through a smile. I obviously couldn’t see he was smiling, I just knew it.
   “Are we done talking?” I asked because it freaked me out a little that he knew I liked him. Though he
couldn’t miss it, what with me snuggling up to him when he was awake and asleep, texting him constantly
at his order and there was also the way I showed I liked him during our last night together and I did it with
my mouth. Then again, he’d liked that too, a lot more than me and he’d proved it by using the part of him I
was showing I liked and using it on me in a way that I loved.
   “You tired?” he asked.
   “Yes,” and it wasn’t a lie.
   “Then sweet dreams, baby,” he whispered.
   I felt my stomach pitch.
   I got that every night too. Tate telling me to have sweet dreams proving he liked me too.
   “You too, Captain,” I whispered back.
   He waited to hear the words and then he disconnected. He didn’t say good-bye, he never said good-
bye. He just said “sweet dreams, baby” then he waited for me to say “you too” and then he disconnected.
  I touched a button, the screen went blank, I put the phone on my nightstand and stared at it in the
shadows.
  His voice came to me in my head.
  Sweet dreams, baby.
  I closed my eyes and, within minutes, I was asleep.
Chapter Thirteen
Buster
   “What? Your brain in your boots? I said seven-fifty,” Twyla said to a customer.
   Twyla was one of our two new waitresses. She was fifty-three, had the body of a pit bull, short,
graying, very curly salt and pepper hair that was cut into a female mullet and she made Krystal look like
she had the disposition of a happy fairy.
   I heard her. Heck, everyone heard her and my eyes flew to Bubba behind the bar.
   He was biting his lip and, being Bubba, this was because he was trying not to laugh out loud.
   If it was Krystal, she’d be doing the same thing but only to stop herself from firing Twyla’s ass.
   “I gave you eight dollars,” the tough guy, leather wearing, Harley boy customer returned.
   Twyla’s eyes narrowed and she leaned into him so she was leaning over him as he sat in his chair.
“You’re tellin’ me you’re givin’ me a fifty cent tip?”
   He fidgeted in that chair. “Well, yeah.”
   Her loud voice got louder. “You think I bust my hump schleppin’ drinks for fifty cents?”
   “No, I think I’m givin’ you a dollar and then movin’ my ass to a table that other one waits on. The one
who’s got a great ass and smiles when she brings out a fuckin’ beer ,” the Harley guy shot back, ceasing
his fidgeting and jerking his thumb at me.
   “Uh… gorgeous,” Bubba stage-whispered to me where I was standing in front of him at the bar, “I think
that’s your cue.”
   I sighed.
   I’d been home in Carnal for two weeks. After my conversation with Tate, I’d stayed in Indiana the three
further days that it took to get Dad home and a nurse visiting morning and night.
   Now I was back at the hotel with Ned and Betty. Back to my boot camps and the other camps I did,
namely camping out by the pool or with a latte at La-La Land. And back at Bubba’s.
   Amber, one of our new waitresses, was twenty-two, five foot two with lots of wavy blonde hair and
she was a baby biker babe in the making. She confided to me that she was saving for a boob job, this and
her scant wardrobe in the face of a crazed serial killer who targeted scantily-clad waitresses were my
evidence Amber was a biker babe in the making but maybe not a very smart one.
   Twyla, our other new waitress, was an ex-marine and the antithesis of Amber, of Wendy, of me and of
most every female I knew.
   I was on day shifts a lot considering that was what Twyla worked and both Bubba and Krystal were
hoping I’d rub off on her.
   So far, this hadn’t worked.
   I gave Bubba a look and moseyed hesitantly toward Twyla’s table.
   “Hey Twyla,” I called as I got close, she turned to me and her scowl was so ferocious it took a lot not
to stop moving forward and start running backward.
   “You gonna tell me that my tips’ll be more if I smile at ‘em and call ‘em by name again?” she snapped.
   No, I wasn’t going to do that. I’d tried that one hundred and twelve times and it hadn’t sunk in.
   I actually didn’t know what I was going to do, except try to stop her challenging the biker to an arm
wrestling match, the winner gets fifty dollars, a tactic Twyla had utilized on more than one occasion. I
was guessing this was because she normally walked away with the fifty dollars and the biker walked out
because a woman beat him at arm wrestling. Still this meant she didn’t have to wait on them anymore and
she had fifty dollars which meant it wasn’t exactly stupid. Then again, they didn’t come back which was
bad for business.
   “Um…” I replied.
   “Common decency to give twenty percent,” she went on. “Fifty cents on seven-fifty ain’t no twenty
percent.” Her eyes swung to the biker. “A buck fifty is twenty percent.”
   The biker’s eyes came to me. “Can you wait our table?”
   Twyla’s back straightened so fast it looked like a steel rod had been jammed into it.
   “You got a problem with the way I wait tables?” she asked the biker loudly.
   “Well, yeah,” he answered.
   “What’s your problem?” she demanded to know.
   “Woman,” he replied, “you’re in my face. She don’t get in a man’s face. She serves the drink, takes her
tip and walks away, an added bonus because it’s a damn good view comin’ and goin’.”
   Even though this was all unfolding in front of me, automatically I turned my head when the door opened.
It was what I did in case someone I knew was coming in. I liked to greet them and they liked it too.
   In this instance, I would have warned them.
   Instead, when I saw who walked in I froze.
   It was Tate, wearing a tight, wine-colored t-shirt, belt, jeans and boots. His hair was even longer and
he still had his beard.
   He looked beautiful.
   I’d been doing the texting business for over three weeks. I’d been getting my sweet dreams phone calls
every night for that same period of time. I got one last night and he didn’t tell me he was heading home. I
was surprised to see him.
   Surprised and ecstatic.
   So ecstatic I didn’t even think. I just moved.
   I darted across the bar, running full-tilt, my eyes locked to his. He had been moving into the bar but
when he saw me running he stopped and, luckily, braced because I launched myself at him. Arms around
his shoulders, I hopped up as he went back on a foot on impact and my legs went around his hips. I felt his
hands move to hold me at my behind.
   I stuffed my face in his neck and held on tight with all four of my limbs.
   “You’re home,” I whispered.
   “Yeah baby,” he whispered back.
   I lifted my head and smiled down at him.
   His eyes touched mine briefly before they dropped to my mouth. Then one of his hands left my bottom,
went up my back and into my hair. He tipped my head down and then he was kissing me, a Tate out-of-
mind, all-about-body kiss that tore straight through me in a good way.
   I heard the catcalls and wolf whistles about two seconds after Tate released my mouth and started
walking through the bar, holding me to him.
   His head turned toward the bar as we got to its side.
   “Laurie’s on break,” he said to a grinning Bubba.
   “Guessed that,” Bubba replied as the catcalls and wolf whistles reached zenith and were joined by
some very raunchy words of encouragement.
   “I’d pay a five hundred percent tip for that,” I heard Twyla’s biker nemesis shout.
   Tate and I ignored him. Tate was busy carrying me down the hall. I was busy kissing his neck and
feeling his beard rough on my cheek. One of his hands left me as he unlocked the door and I lifted my head
to flip the light switch on when we entered. The door closed behind us as I noticed Tate’s head tip back
and then my mouth found his. We necked all the way across the office and my legs automatically
accommodated a seating position, straddling him when he sat on the old, beat up couch that was situated
diagonal across the middle of the big office, my lips never leaving his.
   We kept making out for awhile stopping only when Tate pulled the string of my apron and we separated
when he tugged it from between us and then we went back at it.
   Finally, when his hands were roaming my skin under my t-shirt at the back and my hands were in his
hair, his mouth disengaged from mine and his lips and beard trailed down my jaw to my neck as I
shivered.
   “Now that’s a welcome home,” he growled into my ear and I shivered again as I smiled against his
hair. “Lot better than the last one, babe.”
   That didn’t make me shiver. My head came up and my eyes went squinty when his head tipped back.
   “How many times are you going to throw that in my face?” I asked when my squinty eyes caught his.
   He grinned. “You strung out your grudge against me for nearly two weeks and I just said somethin’
stupid, so I figure I get at least a month of throwin’ that in your face since how you fucked up meant
somethin’.”
   I put my hands to his shoulders and tilted my head to the side. “And how long are you going to throw my
grudge in my face?”
   “Until I get that you get that it was stupid and don’t do it again.”
   I pressed against his shoulders and leaned back. “Would you like me to perform an altogether different
kind of welcome home? The kind where the ‘welcome’ part doesn’t factor into it?”
   His grin turned into a smile, his hands flattened on my back and put pressure on, bringing me closer.
   “No baby,” he murmured, one of his hands coming out of my t-shirt to slide into my hair and bring my
face closer to his too. “I like the ‘welcome’ part the best.”
   “Then maybe you’ll let that stuff go so we can move on,” I suggested but I didn’t mean it as a
suggestion. I meant it as a delicately worded warning.
   He was smiling again when his face disappeared in my neck. “I’ll let it go,” he agreed, “since Deke
told me you kept yourself out of trouble.”
   It was unfortunate he mentioned Deke.
   Deke was kind of a new addition to my life, the “kind of” being that I didn’t know much about him,
didn’t talk much to him, he rarely talked to me but he was around a lot.
   Deke was a mountain of a man. Six foot eight and big. He made Bubba look like a slouch because Deke
didn’t have a belly; Deke was solid from head to toe, solid as in solid.
   Deke was also Tate’s friend. Deke also met me at the airport even though I’d arranged it with Wendy
that she would meet me. When I walked out of the terminal, Deke came straight up to me and I knew he
was of my new people just looking at him (the hint was the motorcycle boots and the leather vest with
patches on it but the jeans, black t-shirt and multitude of tattoos helped).
   His hazel eyes in his big, blond, ponytailed head looked right into mine as I stared up at him, mouth
agape, and he asked, “You Tate’s old lady?”
   I nodded.
   “I’m Deke. Tate and me are tight. I’m also your ride,” he informed me then took my arm and marched
me to the luggage carousel. Then, when I went for my bag, he thrust me aside, hefted up my bag, took my
arm again and marched me to a dirty truck where he dumped my bag in the back and shoved me in the cab.
Then off we went to Carnal.
   Deke wasn’t much of a talker and as I was marathon texting everyone in two states informing them of
the fact that I was home (as well as texting Tate, ascertaining that he was, indeed “tight” with a mountain
of man called Deke) I was busy.
   The next night, my first night back at the bar, Deke was there. He was also there the minute Wood
walked in, his eyes on me (my eyes were on him too and I was pretty sure they were wide and a little
panicked). Deke also planted a hand in Wood’s chest and shoved him straight back out the door.
   That was the last I saw of Wood but not the last I saw of Deke. He was a regular when I was on at night
and he was a regular when normal day working hours were done for the rest of Carnal. He wasn’t just my
ride from the airport, he was my ride home too. This I found out when I left the bar that first night only to
discover Deke leaning against his bike just outside the front door. The minute I exited, he came to me,
grabbed my arm and marched me to his bike where he ordered simply, “On.”
   I got on. I might be able to trade words with Badass Tate but there was no way I was taking on
Powerhouse Deke.
   In other words, Deke was a regular when Wood wasn’t working and also Deke was my bodyguard.
   My hands slid to Tate’s chest and I tried to push back. Tate’s hand in my t-shirt became an arm
wrapped tight around my back.
   I gave up pushing and stated, “Let’s talk about Deke.”
   “Ace –”
   “That was unnecessary,” I declared and watched the soft humor leave his face as it got deadly serious.
   “All right, babe, I’ll give this a minute. A, you talk to Wood after I talk to Wood and not before. And B,
I’m not here, you’re safe and I do what I gotta do to make that happen. Pull favors from friends and keep
you outta Wood’s path.”
   “It’ll likely be uncomfortable for me but I will eventually need to talk to Wood to explain things.”
   “He doesn’t need explanations.”
   “Tate –”
   “Or, I should say, the only ones he’s gonna get are gonna come from me.”
   “Tate!”
   “Babe.”
   “It’s rude for me to…” I hesitated, uncertain what word to use then I settled on, “be with someone and
then the next day be with someone else without explaining to that first someone what happened. I owe him
that.”
   Tate’s arm tightened around my back and his hand cupping my head brought my face even closer.
   “You don’t get this because you don’t know Wood. I know Wood. Trust me, you knew Wood, you’d get
it and you’d know you don’t owe him shit. I’ll explain to you about Wood later. I ain’t gonna do it when
you’re astride me, you’re on a fuckin’ break and I just got home.”
   I stared at him and he held my stare.
   Then he sighed before he muttered, “After bein’ gone weeks at least I got your tongue down my throat
and your legs wrapped around me before you showed me the edge of that tongue.”
   Although there were more than a few things we needed to discuss, he did just get home, we had been
separated for weeks and since the beginning with him I’d been mostly shrew and partly stupid. He told me
he “just got home” which meant, again, he’d come straight to me.
   I decided I should probably stop being a shrew and I should definitely stop being stupid.
   “We’ll talk later,” I said softly.
   “Yeah,” he said softly back, his hand left my hair and I lifted up a bit but kept my hands flat on his
chest. “Gotta get home, clear out the truck. I’ll be back to pick you up when you get off. We’ll have dinner
at my place.”
   I felt another shiver, this one internal, at the thought of having dinner at his place. I had no idea where
he lived but I wanted to see it. I also wanted to have dinner with him. We’d never had dinner just the two
of us. That would be nice.
   “Okay,” I agreed.
   “We’ll swing by the hotel first,” he told me.
   “Why?”
   His brows drew together. “Get your shit.”
   “My shit?”
   “Yeah.”
   “What shit?”
   “Whatever shit you need.”
   I stared at him.
   “Babe, your shit. You’re spendin’ the night.”
   “Oh,” I breathed and the internal shiver went external. “Okay,” I finished.
   Tate’s eyes roamed my face then he noted. “Figure you got about five minutes left on your break.”
   “Yes?”
   He lifted up, his head slanted slightly to the side and his mouth got close to mine.
   “What you gonna do with it?” he muttered, his eyes looking into mine, his words a dare.
   My hands slid up his chest to curl around both sides of his neck, my head tilted the opposite way to his
and, like any good employee, I used my five minutes with my boss wisely.
                                                      *****
   I was on the back of Tate’s bike, my arms wrapped around him, my chin on his shoulder, the wind
whipping through my hair.
   It was after my shift, after we’d popped by the hotel to get my “shit”, after I’d waved to Ned and Betty.
We were heading into the hills, we were surrounded by pine and aspen and we were going to Tate’s
place.
   After he left the bar, I had spent the rest of my shift contemplating my actions from the moment Tate
arrived.
   I wondered, this early in our relationship, if I should be running across the bar in front of our customers
(and Bubba and Twyla), throwing myself in his arms and necking with him. That said a lot, maybe more
than I wanted it to say. Granted Tate seemed to appreciate it but I wondered if I should be playing it
cooler. Running through a bar and launching yourself at your new boyfriend like he’d just returned from
war, not like you’d been separated a few weeks, was far from cool.
   I also wondered, since Tate brought that out in me, the desire to throw myself at him in front of an
audience and the ability to do it without thinking, why, minutes later, I was, as Tate put it, showing him the
edge of my tongue. Tate seemed to draw that out of me too.
   This was, I decided, because he was not like any other man I’d met.
   Brad got his way nearly all the time but he didn’t do it like Tate did it. Brad controlled my emotions.
I’d realized of late that Brad had insidiously planted that seed that I was less than him and lucky to have
him and, for some fool reason, I nourished that seed. Brad had done what he wanted when he wanted and I
fell in line because I was terrified of losing him or not living up to the false gloriousness that I had thought
was him.
   Tate did anything he wanted too and expected me to put up with it or give into it. This was annoying. I
was all for Tate being a macho man, badass, bounty hunting biker because all that was immensely
attractive but I’d spent more than ten years being in the control of a man. I wasn’t looking for that kind of
thing again no matter what form it came in.
   That said, as Caroline noted, Brad thought he was all that and wasn’t but Tate was. No man liked a
bitchy, nagging, argumentative shrew and, I would guess, definitely not a man like Tate. If I didn’t cool
that too, maybe I’d turn him off and lose him.
   So I was at a loss, thinking I should be both harder to get and easier to deal with. I needed to sort
myself out, I just didn’t know how. What I knew was Tate was who he was and that was unlikely to
change and most of it I liked so I didn’t want to do anything to mess it up.
   I stopped chewing on this in my head when Tate turned into a long drive. This drive ran the length of a
long house that was built into a hill, it’s first floor raised and it’s ground floor tucked into the hill, the
windows only two or three feet from the ground. It fit cozy in a clearing of trees. It ended in a two car
garage and had a deck that ran high the length of its front at the first floor but it jutted out to a kind of
balcony on the end.
   Tate drove around the side and parked the bike. I hopped off and he swung his leg off, alighting in front
of me. He opened the leather bag on the side of his bike where he’d stowed my stuff, tagged my small bag,
grabbed my hand and led me to the side door of the garage. He dropped my hand to unlock the door then
took it again to lead me through the garage, where his dusty Explorer was parked in the middle of the big
space, to the side door of the house.
   He pushed open the door and led me into a mudroom that was so big, you could fit a couch and TV in
there. There was a window through which I could see a patio out back and the hill had been terraced.
There were wildflowers, some perennials but those had been planted haphazard, they obviously weren’t
tended and I doubted Tate planted them (and wondered who did). In the mudroom there were two big
alcoves with hooks that were full of stuff. Jeans jackets, leather jackets, canvas weatherproof parkas. On
the floor I saw that Tate not only owned one pair of black motorcycle boots but around fifty. There were
also muddy work boots, a pair of dusty cowboy boots shoved in a corner and there was a mess of running
shoes in different states of newness from totally battered and falling apart to brand spanking.
   Tate didn’t give me much of a chance to look around before he was pulling me through the room. I saw
a doorway that led down some stairs and about three feet beside that we went through another opening.
This one led to a hall. As we walked through, to the left I saw a utility room that was the utility room to
end all utility rooms. It was awesome. It was better than Brad and my utility room in Horizon Summit
which I thought was a danged fine utility room. I might not have liked my house but my utility room was
the bomb. Tate’s had a big washer and dryer, side by side. A long, deep counter opposite it. Hooks on the
walls. Doors to a big built-in cupboard. A deep bowled utility sink.
   Tate tugged me further down the hall and the space opened up into a kitchen and beyond that was even
more open space, a dining area feeding to the side into a living room.
   He dropped my hand when we entered a big, u-shaped kitchen with a middle island and I stopped but
he kept moving into the dining area.
   I looked around.
   He needed new appliances. His range, fridge and the front of his dishwasher were almond colored and
probably worked fine but they were far from new. His cabinets were great, a glossy, lovely, warm,
honey-colored wood that I couldn’t place and there were tons of them. The countertops, I noticed, were
battered and needed to be replaced. But there was a big, wide, rectangular island in the middle that was
covered with well-used butcher block top and it was phenomenal.
   I stopped looking around when I heard a soft “mew” and I looked toward Tate to see he was crouched.
He straightened and turned to me.
   I froze and stared.
   Tatum Jackson, ex-pro football player, ex-cop, now bartender/bounty hunter, tall, beautiful and more
man than I’d ever experienced in my life was standing on the edge of his kitchen holding a cat.
   And it wasn’t just any cat and he wasn’t just holding it. He was cradling it. It was white with big
splotches of tiger-striped ginger. Its hair wasn’t long or short but in between and it looked thick and soft.
It was not small but not large, kind of petite and, no other word for it, dainty. What struck me most were
the cat’s eyes, which were just as ginger as its tiger splotches and downright striking.
   Tatum Jackson owned a beautiful, dainty cat. He did not own a German Shepherd or a Rottweiler. He
owned a dainty cat.
   And he cradled it, the cat’s lower body resting on his forearm, the cat’s tail gliding across his bicep,
the cat’s front paws straddling Tate’s wrist and the cat’s head resting in Tate’s big hand. It was purring
loudly because Tate’s fingers were giving it scratches and I understood that, I purred in my way too when
Tate’s fingers were in my hair.
   My eyes went from the cat to Tate as he walked back into the kitchen, still holding the animal.
   “You own a cat?” I asked.
   “Yep,” he answered and I moved further into the room because he went to the fridge and I had to get out
of the way. He opened it and looked inside. “You like BLTs?” he asked.
   “Sorry?” I asked back, still processing the fact that Tate owned a cat.
   He turned to look at me, the cat contentedly purring in his arm, the fridge door still open.
   “Bacon, lettuce and tomato,” he said.
   I pulled myself together and answered, “Yes,” then pulled myself together more and amended, “without
the L and the T and with ketchup.” I stopped then remembered something and finished, “And the bread has
to be toasted.”
   Tate grinned at me. “So, you’re sayin’ you like bacon and ketchup sandwiches.”
   “Um… yes,” I affirmed.
   “Right,” he muttered, bent, dropped the dainty cat, straightened and reached into the fridge. The cat kept
purring and started winding its way around Tate’s ankles as Tate closed the fridge door and moved to the
counter by the stove.
   I dropped my purse on the top, leaned a hip against the island and watched the cat follow Tate, staying
close and still winding and rubbing against his ankles. This was obviously a practiced dance because
Tate moved naturally and the cat avoided his boots but remained close.
   “What’s your cat’s name?” I asked.
   “Buster,” Tate answered, opening a drawer and pulling out a knife.
   I looked at Buster. Buster was no Buster. He looked like a girl.
   “He looks like a girl,” I informed Tate.
   “That’s ‘cause she is a girl,” Tate informed me and my eyes went to his back.
   “You named a girl cat Buster?”
   He glanced over his shoulder at me as he slid the knife through the plastic on the bacon.
   “Yeah,” he answered.
   I looked back at the cat who was now sitting by Tate’s feet, sweeping her tail along the tiles of the
kitchen floor and staring up at me with intelligent curiosity in her ginger eyes. She’d obviously just
noticed my existence. Definitely female. Tate was around and showing you attention, all else in the world
ceased to exist.
   The cat and I stared at each other and I decided she was no Buster. She looked more like a Princess
Fancy Pants.
   “She doesn’t look like a Buster,” I declared, “more like a Princess Fancy Pants.”
   Tate was bent and pulling a skillet out of a cupboard.
   His head tipped back and his eyes locked on mine. “You call my cat Princess Fancy Pants, Ace, we got
problems.”
   Oh dear. Seemed Tate had bonded with his cat even more than it appeared he’d bonded with his cat and
it was pretty clear he’d seriously bonded.
   “Okay,” I whispered.
   Tate straightened with skillet in hand and his mouth moved while he did it. I noticed this and knew it
was him fighting a smile. He turned to the stove and put the skillet on it. I crouched down and cooed to
Buster. Without hesitation, she pranced to my outstretched hand, gave it the barest sniff then rubbed her
head against it.
   “She’s friendly,” I noted.
   “Yeah,” Tate agreed.
   “Where’d you get her?” I asked.
   Tate was yanking open the bacon packet and dumping its entire contents in the skillet without separating
the strips. I bit my lip at witnessing these actions and rubbed Buster who was still rubbing back.
   “Someone put a box with Buster’s entire litter at the front door of Bubba’s. Fuck knows why. Krystal
brought them in and was gonna take them to the Shelter. I got to the bar, Buster fought her way outta that
big box, ran toward me and put her claws in my jeans. I was claimed. Nothin’ I could do,” Tate told the
bacon.
    He was wrong. There was something he could do. He could have put Buster back in the box. He could
have let Krystal take Buster to the shelter. He wasn’t claimed. You didn’t claim a man like Tate. A man
like Tate did the claiming.
    Something about this story struck me and I really wanted to ignore the silken feeling of the blow. I
didn’t get it but I liked it and I didn’t want to like it and I didn’t get why I didn’t want to. It said something
about Tate that was unexpected and even astonishing. But it gave me a warm, sweet feeling knowing it.
And that warm, sweet feeling terrified me.
    To take my mind off this feeling, I scooped up Buster, doing it carefully just in case she only liked Tate
cradling her. She relaxed instantly in my arms and I turned her to her back, holding her close to my chest
as I gave her scratches and wandered further into Tate’s house.
    There were lots of wide windows showing views of the trees surrounding his house. He had a six-
seater dining room table which sat by a sliding glass door that led to the deck, the door flanked by
windows. The table was oval, u-shaped backs to the chairs and somewhat beat up. I moved to the right
into the huge living room. It had a long opening but was delineated from the kitchen by a counter of about
four floor cabinets you could see over. More beat up furniture, a couch, some comfortable looking chairs,
a TV coffee table, end tables, all of it looking like it had been there for awhile or been somewhere for,
awhile.
    I surveyed his couch. Tate was right. It was shit. It was beat up to the point of tatty and needed to be
replaced. You wouldn’t think twice if you spilled grape Kool-Aid on it. Even so, it still looked
comfortable in a cozy, sit down, stay awhile kind of way.
    There was no décor, no candles, no knick knacks, no toss pillows, no pictures on the walls. The dining
room table was covered with what looked like mail. Some envelopes open, their contents in disarray,
some not, magazines, catalogues. There was a blanket on the couch, part of it scrunched up on the seat, a
wide drape over the back. Someone had been resting under it and threw it wide when they got up and left
it there.
    I spied some frames on a wall, the only ones in the room, in the area tucked back behind the kitchen
where the counters fed into a wall that on one side held the fridge and a big pantry unit, on the other side
was Tate’s living room. There were three of them, all the same size, stacked.
    I walked to them, stopped and Buster and I studied them (well, perhaps Buster didn’t – she’d probably
seen them before and she was again purring loudly so I didn’t think she was experiencing much but my
cuddle).
    When I saw what they contained, I stopped studying and started staring.
    The top one had two boys, probably fifteen or so, standing next to dirt bikes – a younger, perhaps
twelve, thirteen year-old girl standing between them. They were all smiling. No, the boys were smiling,
the girl was caught in mid-laugh.
    Tate, Wood and Neeta.
    Tate, Wood and Neeta.
    I looked down to the next one and saw the three kids, the two dirt bikes and a man I didn’t know. His
arm was slung around Tate’s shoulders and he resembled the man Tate was now. Tall, handsome but in a
different way, less edgy, his face more open, his smile so warm I felt it coming from the picture.
    The next one down again had the three kids and the dirt bikes but a younger Pop was standing between
the boys, his arm wrapped around Neeta’s chest, holding her back to his front. His smile was open and
warm too.
    Happy times.
    Happy times with Tate, Wood and Neeta.
   What was that all about?
   I heard and smelled bacon frying and dazedly meandered back to the kitchen.
   There was a loaf of bread by the range and the toaster had been pulled out. Tate was at the skillet.
Buster and I surveyed him.
   “There’s pictures of you and Wood on the wall in your living room,” I stated, Tate turned toward me,
his gaze swept down to Buster, upside down in my arms, her feet dangling in the air, my fingers scratching
her ruff, she was still purring but otherwise motionless in my arms. His gaze lifted and he caught my eyes.
   “Yeah,” he replied.
   “You were young,” I went on.
   “Yeah,” he repeated and turned back to the stove.
   I saw there were low stools on the opposite end to the island from him and I walked to one, pulled it
out and sat on it.
   “Um… Captain,” I started, “you didn’t mention –”
   He twisted to me again. “Wood mention it?”
   I shook my head.
   He went back to the skillet and said no more.
   “Tate –”
   He sighed and the toast popped up in the toaster. He reached up, opened a cupboard and brought down
a plate.
   “We grew up together,” he said while he was doing this.
   “Yeah?” I prompted when he said no more.
   He put the toast on the plate and put more bread in the toaster, saying only, “Yeah.”
   “Were you friends?” I asked.
   His eyes cut to me then he went back to the skillet.
   “Yeah,” he repeated.
   “You aren’t friends now,” I noted.
   “Nope,” he agreed.
   “Neeta?” I asked softly as to the reason they weren’t friends now and Tate turned fully to me.
   “Neeta, Bethany and Wood bein’ an asshole,” Tate answered.
   “Maybe you should explain about Wood,” I suggested hesitantly, feeling some disquiet because he
wasn’t being very forthcoming.
   He turned away from the skillet again and his eyes locked on mine. We both stayed that way for awhile
before he spoke.
   “I get that you’re curious, baby,” he said quietly. “And I get why. But I just got back from bein’ on the
road, you been on your feet all day, shit has been intense and we’ve never had this.” He lifted a hand to
indicate “this” being us in his house doing normal stuff like having dinner and spending the night together.
“Let’s have this and not fuck it up. We’ll talk about Wood later. Yeah?”
   I wasn’t certain if he was actually asking for my opinion, if he wanted me to agree that we shouldn’t
talk about it now or he was telling me and expecting me to agree we shouldn’t talk about it now.
   On the one hand, he was right. Since the minute we met it had been a rocky road and not just your
normal, average rocky road but it included rape, murder and parental heart attacks. We should have
“this”.
   On the other hand, I just got out of a relationship where my husband lied to me, not only about Hayley
but, I suspected, well before Hayley he lied about Tina Blackstone which made me wonder how many
Hayleys and Tinas there were for Brad. Tate wasn’t being open, it seemed like he was guarding
something, something he even said would fuck this up and after I went through what I went through with
Brad I shouldn’t put up with guarded. I should demand openness.
   But I was sitting in the kitchen of Tate’s house in the hills, a house which was kind of a mess but could
be fabulous, snuggling and stroking his beautiful, dainty cat and staring into eyes that were in the most
handsome face I’d ever seen, the face of the most exciting man I’d ever met. I figured demanding openness
at that juncture might be me messing things up. And I really didn’t want to do that. As in, really.
   So even though I wanted to know, had this niggling, somewhat alarming feeling that whatever it was I
needed to know, I pushed that down and agreed with a soft, “Yeah.”
   My agreement was rewarded with a smile and an equally soft, “Come here, Laurie.”
   I got up, stooped, dropped Buster to her feet and made my way to him.
   He still had the bacon fork in his hand but, when I got close, he nabbed me with an arm curled around
my neck and pulled me to him. I tipped my head back and the second I did I felt his lips brush mine which
was an even better reward.
   He lifted away a scant inch and whispered, “Get your ketchup.”
                                                      *****
   “Tate.”
   “Stay on your belly, baby.”
   “Please.”
   It was a whimper. I couldn’t help it. I was naked, on my belly, in his big bed. I’d been this way awhile.
Tate was at my side. His bearded lips were lazily travelling the skin of my back and his fingers were
lazily whispering through the wet folds between my legs. Just when I thought I could take no more, they’d
disappear and glide across the skin of my bottom, a worse tease because that felt nice, all the skin of my
back from shoulders to behind was sensitized by what felt like years of his gentle play, but I wanted his
hand back between my legs.
   Where it was now.
   I lifted my behind an inch and repeated, “Tate.”
   His thumb tweaked my clit, sheer, blissful sensations ripped through me, my breath audibly hitched, my
hips jerked and I felt his body move up.
   “That’s it, Laurie,” he murmured into my ear. My head was turned away from him, my cheek to the
pillow, my fingers clutching the case. “Lift your ass and spread your legs more for me.”
   I did as I was told. I thought I’d get rewarded but his touch stayed feather light and it was driving me
mad.
   “Honey,” I begged.
   One of his fingers entered me and I held my breath but it didn’t go very far before it moved out again.
Another tease.
   I squirmed. “Tate.”
   “Stay still,” he ordered.
   I stayed still, it was killing me, I thought I’d explode, but I stayed still.
   Tate teased then his thumb flicked my clit again and my hips again jerked.
   “Baby,” I whispered my plea, nearly at my end but staying put.
   “That’s my good girl,” he growled in my ear.
   And there it was.
   His good girl? Why did I always have to be the good girl?
   Fuck that.
   I whipped my head around, turned my body, dislodging his hand and I attacked. I got him on his back,
my hand pushing him down to the bed, my mouth in his neck, my tongue tasting his skin and my other hand
wrapped around his hard cock as I moved astride him. I guided the tip inside and then I ground down,
impaling myself. When I was filled with Tate, my upper body shot up, my back arched and my head flew
back.
   “Yes,” I breathed as I ground down further then started to move, riding him hard.
   He knifed up and one of his arms wound around me, his other hand slid into my hair, fisted and forced
my head down.
   I was still riding him and loving every stroke, so caught up in the feeling I didn’t notice he was smiling
huge before he forced my mouth to his and kissed me deep.
   I was close, pounding down harder, faster and losing my breath. His lips let mine go when my breath
started coming in deep hitches but he didn’t take his fist out of my hair or his mouth from mine.
   “Fuck me, baby,” he muttered as his arm came from around me and his hand went between us.
   “Unh-hunh,” I mumbled, incapable of speech, entirely focused on something else.
   I felt his lips move under mine and didn’t process his grin because his finger hit the spot. My hips
bucked and I went faster, both my hands fisting in his hair as I breathed and whimpered in his mouth.
   “Christ, Laurie, you’re fuckin’ magnificent,” he growled and it started.
   “I’m coming, baby,” I whispered.
   “I feel it,” he muttered. “Let go, Ace.”
   I let go, grinding down, my back arching but I couldn’t escape his fist in my hair and he forced my
mouth back to his and absorbed my moan.
   Mid-orgasm I found myself on my back and he was pounding into me, harder than I could ever manage
while riding him and it felt brilliant. His hands behind my knees yanked them up high then swung my
calves in to curve around his back. I tightened and held on with all my limbs as his hand slid down to my
hips, lifted them up and he thrust harder and faster, his grunts vibrating against my mouth.
   “Fuck me, baby,” I whispered his words in the waning throes of my orgasm and as my teeth bit his
bottom lip, he slammed into me and groaned low.
   It took us both awhile to recover and when Tate did, his head lifted and he took some of his weight on a
forearm but he stayed rooted inside me. His hand came up and his fingers sifted into the hair at the side of
my head while he watched. His fingers came out and glided aimlessly along my hairline as his eyes came
to mine.
   “It’ll be interesting…” he said softly.
   “What?” I asked when he didn’t continue.
   His lips twitched. “How you’ll be after I give it to you regular.”
   “Tate,” I warned. I was feeling supremely mellow, since he made bacon and ketchup sandwiches
stuffed full of crisp bacon and loaded with ketchup, not to mention the after dinner orgasm. I didn’t need
him to be annoying.
   His mouth moved to touch mine where he spoke. “I find out you ignite like that normally, Laurie…
damn. Gonna chain you to the bed, babe.”
   I felt his mouth smile against mine.
   Arrogance.
   “Tate.”
   “Can’t blame it on a long abstinence this time.”
   “Tate –”
   “You attacked me again,” he informed me, his head moving away half an inch.
   “Well you instigated it!” I shot back. “All that…” I hesitated, “before stuff.”
   “All that before stuff?” he repeated and I saw close up his eyes were dancing.
   My eyes narrowed.
   “You’re a tease, Tatum Jackson,” I accused.
   He threw back his head and laughed at the same time he rolled us, his arms going around me, his shaft
sliding out of me and he settled on his back, me at his side.
   I got up on an elbow, put a hand to his chest and glared down at him.
   “I think you just might be arrogant,” I declared and he focused on me through his fading laughter, his
hand coming up to sift in my hair, fingers curling around and putting pressure there to pull me closer to
him.
   “You light up like that for your asshole ex?” he asked.
   “I don’t wish to discuss my sex life with Brad while I’m naked in bed with you,” I snapped.
   He grinned. “You didn’t.”
   “Arrogant.” I was still snapping but he started chuckling.
   “Hard not to be when my old lady keeps attacking me. Jesus, Ace, no woman has ever fucked me that
hard.”
   Oh God. I was not doing well with being cool and harder to get. I was also not doing well with not
acting like a shrew.
   I pulled away from his hand at my head and dropped to my back, reaching out to yank the sheet over my
body.
   Tate rolled into me and got up on an elbow, his hand sliding to become an arm wrapped around my be-
sheeted belly.
   I stared at the ceiling and tried to get my wits about me.
   I heard his voice even though I was ignoring his presence (kind of, it was hard to ignore, I was really
just not looking at him).
   “I like it, baby.”
   “Unh-hunh,” I said to the ceiling.
   I felt his beard against my jaw, his nose flicking my ear. “It’s hot.”
   “Mm,” I mumbled.
   “Never had better,” he muttered in my ear, my head jerked from his and twisted so I could look at him.
   “Never?” I whispered.
   “Nope,” he answered, his arm curving more fully around me, he pulled me to my side and into his body.
“Woman detonates like that for man, fuck, Ace.” His mouth touched mine before he pulled away. “That’s
how I know you didn’t give it to that asshole the way you give it me. You did, no way in hell he’d
ever…”
   He stopped speaking, his head came up and it tilted.
   “No way he’d ever what?” I prompted.
   Tate’s chin jerked and his eyes narrowed.
   I wasn’t paying much attention to what Tate was doing. I was intent. I wanted an answer because that
answer was important. Almost as important as me finding out he’d never had better, not with Neeta, not
with anyone.
   “Tate, no way he’d ever what?”
   “Shit,” he clipped suddenly and rolled off the bed. “Stay there,” he ordered as he grabbed his jeans and
started dragging them on and I sat up, holding the sheet to my chest. “Don’t move, I’ll be back.”
   “What?” I asked, looking around the room. “Tate –”
   But he was exiting the room still buttoning his jeans.
   “What on earth?” I asked the door he’d shut behind him.
   I sat there, staring at the door and wondering what just happened.
   Then I heard the voices. Tate had company. He must have heard them approach the house. I’d only been
to his house once, I didn’t know the noises and I was focused on what he was saying. I hadn’t heard a
thing.
   Then I heard the voices get louder, they were male, one Tate’s and one…
   Then I heard Wood shout, “You are fuckin’ shitting me!”
   Then I heard a loud crash.
   Without thinking, I threw the sheet back and jumped from the bed. As alarming noises came from the
living room, I searched frantically for anything to cover me. I grabbed Tate’s t-shirt and pulled it on. I
found my undies and stepped into them, hopping, skipping and running while I tugged them up on my way
to the door.
   I ran down the hall (three bedrooms, one bath, Tate’s room had a master bath, none of which I’d had
time to explore) and hit the living room to see Tate and Wood locked in mortal combat and the living
room had been turned into a warzone.
   Until that moment, I had never in my life seen two men fighting, not even pansy-assed ones.
   But neither Tate nor Wood were pansy-assed and neither of them, from my unpracticed eye, were
holding back.
   There were grunts of effort and there was blood.
   “Stop it!” I shrieked, Tate connected with Wood’s jaw and blood flew from his cut lip, turning my
stomach with nausea at the same time my lungs froze. I sucked in oxygen and repeated a screeched,
“Stop!” when Wood connected with Tate’s bared ribs, Tate’s body jerking from the blow.
   Again without thinking, I ran into the fray just as Wood swung wide, Tate ducked and Wood’s blow
landed on my temple.
   I saw stars, the pain radiated throughout my skull and I fell straight to my hands and knees on the floor.
My head was swimming so much, I had to go down to my forearms and I rested my head on the back of my
hands which were palms down on the floor.
   “Laurie,” I heard Wood say from far away, his voice barely penetrating the fog which formed around
the acute pain.
   “Get her ice,” Tate ordered.
   “Baby –” Wood said gently.
   “Ice!” Tate bit out.
   Then there was a hand on my back and I felt fingers pulling my hair away from my face, sweeping it
across my neck.
   “Ace,” Tate called.
   I didn’t answer, I was busy blinking.
   “Babe, sit up,” Tate demanded quietly.
   “Um…” I mumbled just to be nice and let him know I was alive.
   “Laurie, baby, do me a favor and sit up,” Tate insisted.
   I pulled in breath and sat up, settling my behind on my calves as my left hand went up to cradle my
temple.
   I saw Tate’s face in mine.
   “Take your hand away.”
   “Um…” I mumbled again, confused even though the fog was lifting and the pain was dulling.
   “Laurie, I gotta see.”
   I dropped my hand. His came to my cheek and carefully tilted my head to the side. His hand slid up and
his thumb probed my temple gently.
   I winced at his touch because it darn well hurt. Outside of the pain, all I could think was that those two
taking repeated blows with that kind of power behind them and staying standing was a fucking miracle.
   “Ice,” I heard Wood say and I tilted my head back and blinked at him.
   He looked both concerned and pissed. His lip was cut and still bleeding. There was redness around his
cheekbone. He’d have a shiner the next day.
   “Can you get to your feet?” Tate asked and my eyes turned to him.
   He was crouched beside me. There were droplets of blood leaking from his nose into his beard. Other
than that, he looked okay.
   “Yeah,” I whispered and got to my feet with Tate’s hand at my arm and hip supporting me.
   I got up and stood steady. Then I took in a deep breath.
   Tate turned to Wood, tagged the ice from his hand and then came back to me, lifting it and pressing it
gently to my temple.
   “Laurie,” Wood called, my eyes went to him and my mind snapped to sharp focus.
   “You didn’t tell me she was sick,” I whispered, my hand going up to take over the ice from Tate. His
hand let mine hold the ice, he moved to my side and slid an arm around my waist.
   “Lauren, I –” Wood started.
   “You what?” I interrupted, still whispering. “You didn’t give me the full story, Wood.”
   “Baby, there’s a reason.”
   “Really?” I asked. “I spent ten years with a man who kept things from me, Wood. I’m not going to start
something with another man who’d do the same.”
   Wood’s arms crossed on his chest, the gentleness went out of his face and he jerked his head to Tate.
“He tell you everything?”
   “We haven’t had time,” I reminded him. “My father being sick, Tate needing to work. You haven’t told
me everything either and you and me, Wood, we had time.”
   And we did. Me having dinner with him, sharing my breaks with him including my dinner breaks,
necking on my bed. We’d had time.
   I’d felt like a heel the last three weeks because I was a nice person and I found it hard to live with what
I did to Wood. It hadn’t occurred to me that what he did, with him knowing what it meant for me to be on
the back of Tate’s bike, wasn’t nice either.
   “I’m sorry it happened this way,” I told him, still being nice. “I wish it didn’t.”
   “I do too,” he agreed instantly and walked straight away as I blinked at him, shocked by his sudden
departure. I thought he’d get angry or at least have something to say like “Sorry I acted like a Neanderthal,
fighting with Tate in his living room, and punched you in the head.”
   My body moved to watch him and Tate’s moved with mine.
   Wood stopped at the still open sliding glass door and turned, his eyes leveling on me.
   “You don’t burden a good woman with that shit, baby. You find out, you’ll know. You get a shot at her,
you hook her deep, then you lay that shit on her,” Wood stated and I felt my lungs freeze again but he
wasn’t done. He jerked his head at Tate and went on, “He’ll tell you shit about me, if he hasn’t already.
And all of it’s true. But none of it was true with you.”
   Then he disappeared into the night not even bothering to close the door.
   I stood staring into the darkness even as I heard his bike roar. Tate let me go and walked to the door,
sliding it closed.
   When he turned and started back to me, my eyes went to his.
   “What was he talking about?” I asked.
   “Let’s get you to bed,” Tate replied.
   “Tate,” I said when he stopped in front of me.
   “Bed, babe,” he repeated. “You need to lie down and I need to clean up.”
   I didn’t know what to do in this situation. I was losing patience with Tate being so cagey. He’d just had
a no-holds-barred fight in his living room with my kind of ex-boyfriend, a man whose picture was on the
wall in Tate’s house, a man who used to be his friend, a man whose sister used to be under his skin. Now
neither was true and Tate wasn’t talking about it, wasn’t sharing with me. And I’d told myself not to be a
shrew, I’d made the decision I didn’t want to fuck this up.
   How on earth did I proceed?
   “You just fought with Wood in your living room,” I told him cautiously.
   He came to my side and slid an arm along my waist, propelling me forward.
  “Long time comin’,” he muttered.
  “That wasn’t about me,” I stated and Tate stopped us both at the mouth to the hall.
  I looked up at him and held my breath at the fury I saw stamped into his features.
  “Yeah, Lauren,” he said and it sounded like a snarl, “it’s all about you.”
  I braved the snarl and asked quietly, “How can that be? I haven’t been around long enough for
something like that to be a long time coming.”
  “You need to lie down,” Tate reiterated and I could tell it was straining his patience to do so.
  “Tate –”
  Tate pulled in breath on a hiss and I stopped speaking.
  “Put it together, Lauren, at least part of it,” he demanded, definitely with strained patience.
  “Sorry?” I asked, definitely with confusion.
  “In my life, three women have been on the back of my bike. One was his sister, who fucked up my life.
One was his ex, who fucked up my life. Now it’s you, who’s been in his bed.”
  All of that didn’t pull together for me in any way mostly because, just like with Wood, I had the bones
but none of the meat.
  “Tate –”
  “Babe, Christ,” he clipped. “You just took a power punch to the fuckin’ temple. I got blood leakin’
outta my nose. Can we talk about this goddamned later?”
  No strained patience now, he’d lost it. I could read it in the line of his body and in his face.
  Even so, even though this was frightening, that scary energy emanating from Tate directed at me, I
wanted to tell him we couldn’t talk about it later. I wanted to tell him we were definitely going to talk
about it now.
  But something stopped me and instead I whispered, “Okay, Captain.”
Chapter Fourteen
Your Own Brand of Trouble
   “And all of it’s true. But none of it was true with you.”
   My eyes opened and I stared at the dark pillowcase.
   I was in Tate’s bed with Tate but he was far away. I could feel Buster’s little body weighing the covers
down between us.
   We hadn’t slept together very often but every time we’d done it either Tate held me close or I snuggled
into his back.
   Not that night.
   After our exchange, he’d led me to the bed, made me get in it and ordered me to keep the ice on as long
as I could. This was difficult since it was getting really cold but also I was uncomfortable because Tate
still seemed really angry.
   I’d lain there, holding the ice to my head while Tate cleaned up in the bathroom. Buster kept Tate
company in the bathroom until he came out and then he left the bedroom without a word, Buster prancing
after him. I heard Tate righting furniture and Buster came back, obviously not a big fan of hanging around
while Tate was righting furniture. Buster leaped on the bed and curled up with me, I gave her scratches,
saw the lights go out in the hall and Tate came back.
   He took off his jeans and climbed into his side of the bed. He turned out the light and didn’t move to
me, touch me or speak to me. He settled on his back with one arm behind his head, Buster abandoned me,
walked over my belly and curled up against Tate.
   He took his hand from behind his head and started rubbing Buster.
   Then he said in a low, menacing voice, “I tell you to stay where you are and not to move, Ace, next
time, do what I fuckin’ say.”
   I blinked in the dark, my eyelids the only things that moved. The rest of my body was statue still.
   There was a lot there I didn’t like. Firstly, Tate again telling me what to do and expecting me to do it,
even when he was in a fistfight in his living room! Secondly, the intimation that my getting hit was my
fault because I didn’t do what he told me to do when I was breaking up a fistfight in his living room!
Lastly, Tate was again telling me what to do and he was clearly infuriated I didn’t do it.
   If I had my car, I would have gotten up, gotten dressed and gone right to it.
   Fuck that and fuck him!
   I was better off at the hotel. It was below average but Ned and Betty never told me what to do and they
had a pool.
   But I was stuck in a house in the hills. It was night, it was dark and I had no way home.
   So instead, I got out of bed and walked to his bathroom, dumped the dripping ice into his sink, rinsed
and wrung out the kitchen towel Wood had put the ice in and hung it on a towel rail. Then I went back to
bed and got in on my side, turned so my back was to Tate and closed my eyes.
   He didn’t say another word and neither did I. He fell asleep way before me and still didn’t roll into me
or reach out to me.
   Apparently Tatum Jackson could be angry even in his sleep.
   I eventually fell asleep and woke twice while words he’d said drifted through my head. I was able to
get to sleep both times but this time, with Wood’s words floating through, words I didn’t understand but
words I knew somewhere deep meant something huge, I knew I wouldn’t.
   I tried, adjusting my position to my back, then my belly, then my other side and finally a combo of side
and belly.
   Nothing doing.
   Instead of waking Tate with my fidgeting, I carefully got out of the bed and just as carefully walked
through his bedroom, down the hall and into the living room. I went straight to the couch, stretched my
legs out, pulled the blanket there over me but I twisted my upper body toward the window. I crossed my
arms on the back of the couch, put my chin on them and looked out the window.
   The moonlight made the trees and terraced plants silver.
   “You don’t burden a good woman with that shit, baby. You find out, you’ll know. You get a shot at
her, you hook her deep, then you lay that shit on her.”
   I closed my eyes and the silver hillside turned to black.
   “Let’s have this and not fuck it up. We’ll talk about Wood later. Yeah?”
   I opened my eyes and stared at the plants and flowers, unruly, unkempt, but I knew not planted by Tate’s
hands.
   “You don’t get this because you don’t know Wood. I know Wood. Trust me, you knew Wood, you’d
get it and you’d know you don’t owe him shit.”
   I felt my lip tremble.
   “The thing you gotta know before you climb back on the back of his bike is that Tate Jackson is
trash too.”
   I turned my head and looked at the six-seater dining room table.
   Did a bachelor own a six-seater dining room table? I didn’t think so. Tate didn’t exactly strike me as a
man who held dinner parties.
   Maybe he played poker. Tate struck me as a man who might throw poker parties.
   My eyes went back to the plants.
   “In my life, three women have been on the back of my bike. One was his sister, who fucked up my
life. One was his ex, who fucked up my life. Now it’s you, who’s been in his bed.”
   I stared at the plants knowing it just by looking at them.
   Neeta had lived there, or Bethany or, if not lived, then one of them was around long enough to put their
stamp on it. Two women who fucked up his life.
   Now, me.
   His “type”.
   The type to fuck up his life?
   Really, what was a man like Tatum Jackson doing with me? Mini-skirt wearing, hotel assignation-
exciting Neeta, yes. Crazy Bethany, I didn’t know. Me, I didn’t get.
   In fact, what was handsome, gentle-talking Wood doing with me?
   My mind moved to that morning in the forecourt of the garage.
   “You’re on my bike,” Tate had growled to me.
   “She’s in the ‘Stang,” Wood had growled at Tate.
   They were fighting over me because that was what they did. No matter what Tate said, it was not
because of me.
   I considered this.
   Not being mean or anything but there wasn’t a lot of female talent in Carnal. The best of the lot was
Krystal and she was with Bubba, and also Wendy, but she was with Tyler and too young for Wood or
Tate.
   I’d been around awhile, I’d seen what was available in Carnal and for men like that, I was pretty much
it unless they wanted to go the Jonelle somewhat-skanky route and there was a lot of that, even though
some of them were very nice, they were still somewhat-skanky which was probably why they weren’t
taken like, say, Krystal or Wendy or the rest of the cool-as-heck biker babes I’d met at the bar or in town
and I knew were taken. And, clearly, neither of those men went for that.
   I moved fully into the seat of the couch and curled up under the blanket, tugging it high over my shoulder
and pulling my knees in my chest. Without any toss pillows, I used the armrest for my head. My temple
throbbed but I ignored it as searched for it, trying to call it up, to hear the whisper because I needed it.
   “Sweet dreams, baby.”
   The memory of Tate saying that to me came, my eyelids drooped and I fell asleep.
                                                      *****
   I woke up when the blanket disappeared and my body was moved. My eyes opened as my body kept
moving.
   The sun was up but it was low, very early dawn, barely enough light to see.
   I was cradled in Tate’s arms.
   “Tate?” I whispered, my hand moving to his chest, my arm that was dangling curling around his
shoulders.
   “Quiet,” he growled.
   Uh-oh.
   “Tate,” I whispered again.
   “Shut it, Ace,” he growled again.
   I lifted my head to look at his angry, set profile and decided to stay silent at least until my brain fully
came awake.
   He took me to his bed and put me in it, following me in, yanking up the covers in an annoyed way and
then pulling me under his body. Or, I should say, he pinned me under his body. I was on my back, he was
mostly on me, his heavy thigh thrown over both of mine, his arm holding me tight about the waist, his face
against my hair at the side of my head, his weight weighing me into the bed.
   “Um…” I started.
   He cut me off. “You curl into me.”
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “My back,” he replied.
   “Um…” I paused then repeated, “Sorry?”
   “You curl into my goddamned back, Lauren,” he ground out and his arm around my waist gave me a
rough squeeze.
   “I was… uh…”
   “Pissed,” he finished for me. “You can go to bed pissed just as long as you don’t wake up that way,” he
informed me like this was a rule written in blood somewhere that all men and women must abide by under
threat of certain torture although he seemed to have done just that. “You do not get up in the middle of the
fuckin’ night and crawl outta my bed to go be pissed somewhere else.”
   “I… um…” I took in a breath, “didn’t actually do that. I couldn’t sleep and I was restless, so –”
   “You don’t do that either,” he declared.
   “What?”
   “You can’t sleep, you can’t sleep here. You don’t go somewhere else.”
   “But I don’t want to wake you.”
   “You wake me, I fuck you or we talk until you get back to sleep. You don’t sneak outta the goddamned
bed –”
   “I didn’t sneak,” I interrupted him quietly.
   He ignored me. “You sleep here or you lie here not sleepin’.”
   “Are you…” I hesitated and started again, “are you angry I didn’t want to disturb you?”
   “You’re quick, babe,” he muttered sarcastically and gave my waist another rough squeeze.
   “Tate –”
   “Three weeks, after fuckin’ you, knowin’ what you taste like, what you feel like, the sounds you make
when you come, three weeks I’m on the road and all I got is a couple minutes of your voice on the phone
every night. Fuckin’ you, that’s all I can think about, like a teenager, at night in the dark, it’s the only thing
in my goddamned head. So I jack off, hopin’ to cut through it, but nothin’ compares to you.” I stopped
breathing at this admission and he kept talking, “Then I know you can’t sleep so I can’t fuckin’ sleep
wonderin’ if you’re sleepin’. That shit’s whacked and I come home, fuckin’ beside myself it’s over. First
night you’re in my house, you sneak outta my bed and sleep on the couch. What the fuck is that?”
   “I was trying to be nice,” I informed him.
   “You failed, Ace,” he informed me.
   I felt a chill seep into my bloodstream.
   “Which one are you?” I whispered.
   “What?” he asked.
   “Are you the good guy, the sweet guy who takes care of me or are you this guy who’s kind of a jerk?”
   His answer was instantaneous. “I’m both those guys, babe. Your job is to get used to it.”
   There it was, another order. Not even an ultimatum. Just, “get used to it”.
   “Tate –” I started.
   “It’s simple, Lauren. You’re in my bed or any fuckin’ bed with me in it, you don’t leave it.”
   “But –”
   “That can’t be hard to sink in.”
   “Tate –”
   “Now can I get some goddamned sleep?” he asked on another squeeze and I could tell he was done
with this conversation.
   Therefore the conversation was done.
   “Yes,” I whispered.
   And he could because he did. It was just me who couldn’t.
   Or, at least it would take awhile.
                                                       *****
   I woke up to an empty bed.
   I turned to my back, lifted up to sitting and pulled my hair out of my face. I saw movement at the
window and sleepily watched Tate walk along the deck toward the balcony area.
   Once he disappeared from sight, I stared out at the bright sunshine. Then I threw the covers back, got
out of bed and wandered to the window. I looked out and to the right to see Tate dressed in jeans and a
tight, army green t-shirt, no belt, no shoes, sitting in a lawn chair pulled up to the railing. He was slouched
in the chair, his feet up high resting on the railing, crossed at the ankles. He was staring out to the woods
and drinking coffee.
   His hair was wet but curling and drying fast in Colorado’s arid climate.
   Apparently I couldn’t take a shower without Tate but he could take one without me.
   Figures.
   I walked as quietly as I could to the dining area and retrieved my bag where Tate dropped it, taking it
with me back to Tate’s bathroom. Buster came with me and glided around my ankles as I pulled my hair in
a ponytail and surveyed my face in the mirror.
   There was some purplish-blue bruising but hardly any swelling at my temple. There was a dull ache too
but only when I thought about it. I brushed and flossed my teeth and washed my face. Then I bent and
picked up Buster and put her on the vanity counter so she could keep me company while I put on
moisturizer, powder, blusher and mascara. She watched me do this, her tail hanging off the edge of the
counter and flicking, her eyes blinking but curious. This was new to Buster. Tate obviously didn’t
moisturize or apply makeup.
   Then I got dressed in jeans and a girlfit, faded aubergine colored t-shirt that on the back had a set of
black wings. It wasn’t really me but Wendy found it, made me try it on and it fit really well, I liked the
wings at the back, they screamed Biker Babe! so I bought it. Under this I wore my purple underwear with
black lace.
   I packed everything up, an activity Buster wanted nothing to do with and I knew that because she
pranced out of the bathroom.
   I went back into the bedroom and gathered my clothes from the floor and shoved those in my bag too.
Normally I would make the bed but there was no point in Tate’s room. The floor was littered with clothes
and the surfaces of his nightstands and dresser were covered with the flotsam and jetsam from his life
(likely from his pockets) – change, receipts, slips of paper. There was no point tidying.
   I walked out of the room, down the hall and all the way to the mudroom where I dropped my bag by the
door to the garage. Then I went into the kitchen and searched the cupboards for mugs. We hadn’t done the
dishes last night. The bacon fat was still in the skillet. The plates in the sink.
   I didn’t tidy those either, mostly because I heard the sliding glass door open.
   I didn’t turn. I went to the coffeepot and started pouring.
   My mug was mostly full when I felt bearded lips at my neck and an arm slid around my ribs.
   “Mornin’, babe,” Tate muttered against my skin as he pulled my back into his front.
   “Morning,” I said to the coffee and put the pot back under the filter.
   “Come out and sit with me on the deck,” he ordered, his lips just under my ear, his soft words vibrating
on the sensitive skin there in a way that would be delicious if I wasn’t heartbroken (okay, maybe it was an
invitation voiced as an order but I was in no mood mainly because I was heartbroken).
   “Thanks but I need you to take me home,” I told him. “Go for a swim.”
   I felt Tate’s body go still.
   He didn’t speak so I asked the coffeemaker, “Can you let me go? I need milk.”
   He let me go but only so his hand could curl around my mug, pull the handle out of my fingers and put
the mug on the counter. His mug joined it then his hands came to my hips and turned me around. He
stepped in and I had no choice but to press my hips into the counter because of the limited space he
allowed.
   He put his hands on the counter on either side of me. I tilted my head back to look at him and saw he
was studying me.
   He did this for long moments so I repeated, “Tate, milk.”
   “What’s up your ass, babe?”
   Okay, now I was thinking maybe I was hallucinating during all those times Tate was supposedly sweet.
He was most definitely a jerk.
   “Nothing,” I lied. “I just need caffeine.”
   His eyes moved over my face.
   Then his voice changed to gentle when he asked, “You nap?”
   “Sorry?” I asked back, confused at his tone and his question.
   His hands on the counter came to my sides and slid around to my back, pulling me to him so he was
holding me against his body. Because of this, I had no choice but to put my hands on his biceps.
   “You don’t get enough sleep, baby.” His voice was still soft. “When do you catch up?”
   “I don’t,” I told him and looked toward the fridge. “Now, if I can get some –”
   “Ace,” he cut me off and I looked back at him.
   “Tate, I’d like some coffee.”
   He ignored me. “Everyone needs sleep.”
   “Like I keep telling you, I’m used to it.”
   “Yeah?” he asked as if he didn’t believe me.
   “Yes,” I answered like I was getting impatient which I was.
   His eyes moved to my temple as his hand slid up my back and then wound my ponytail around it,
coming to rest with fingers curled around the back of my head.
   “Your head hurt?” he asked.
   “Only if I think about it,” I answered.
   “Bruised,” he muttered, his eyes still on my temple.
   “It’s not that bad,” I pointed out and it wasn’t. This was surprising, considering how much it hurt when
it happened, but it was true.
   His gaze moved to mine.
   “What’s wrong, Laurie?”
   “Nothing will be wrong once I get my coffee.”
   “Why do you wanna go back to the hotel?”
   “To swim before I have to go to work.”
   “Deck time now. I’ll take you to the hotel and hang while you swim after work, before we come up
here.”
   I shook my head.
   “I’m not coming up here after work,” I told him.
   His fingers at my head tensed and his arm around my body tightened.
   “Come again?” he asked.
   “I’m not coming here after work,” I repeated and his face changed from searching and gentle to a little
bit scary.
   “Why not?”
   “I’ll need to call Mom, Dad, Carrie, check in. Make sure everything is still okay. I haven’t called for a
couple of days.”
   “You can do that here.”
   “It’s long distance.”
   “So?”
   “We talk a long time. It might be expensive.”
   “Been leakin’ money awhile, babe, but just got two big paychecks and I wasn’t destitute before that.
Think I can cover a long distance phone call.”
   I tried a different strategy. “I don’t want you to watch me while I swim. It’ll put me off.”
   “Then I’ll hang with Ned while you swim.” His faced dipped closer and his tone dipped lower. “And
then hang with you when you shower after you swim.”
   I pulled my head back.
   “Tate, what I’m saying is, I need some alone time.”
   His head pulled back too but his arm grew tighter.
   “What the fuck?” he whispered.
   “Alone time,” I reiterated.
   “Just had three weeks of alone time, Ace,” he reminded me, his voice back to a little bit scary.
   “Tate –”
   “Laurie, I’ll repeat my earlier question. What’s up your goddamned ass?”
   At his words and tone, my hands reflexively clenched his biceps and I stared at him.
   Then I told him. “This isn’t working for me.”
   With a hint of alarm I watched his eyes narrow and I felt that dark, bad vibe energy start to spark from
him.
   “What isn’t working?” he asked.
   I took a hand from his bicep and motioned between him and me before putting it back and putting
pressure on both.
   “Us,” I answered.
   My hips went back into the counter because he pressed them there.
   “Seemed to be workin’ last night when you were fuckin’ me so hard you couldn’t breathe,” he reminded
me.
   “Yes, well…”
   “Yes, well what?”
   “Um…”
   His hand left my hair and became an arm wrapped around my upper back, jerking me tighter to his
body.
   “Jesus, Lauren, I’ll ask one more fuckin’ time. What’s up your goddamned ass?”
   At that, I lost hold of my temper which was my only choice since the only other thing I could do was
lose hold on the tears I’d been ignoring since my couch contemplations last night and our scene in the bed
early that morning.
   “You’re a jerk!” I snapped.
   “Yeah, I get pissed, I am. So?”
   I felt my eyes get wide. “So?” I repeated.
   “Not somethin’ you don’t know about me, Ace.”
   “I don’t like it!”
   “Yeah?” he asked and went on before I could answer. “And I don’t like it when you lose hold of your
attitude and turn into a bitch. But since most of the time you’re sweet or hilarious or you make my dick get
hard, I can put up with that.”
   “There it is,” I pointed out, trying to slide away at the same time pushing against his biceps but his arms
got super tight and I stopped.
   “What?”
   “You just called me a bitch!”
   “Babe, honest to God?” he asked, his voice impatient.
   “Honest to God!” I snapped, my voice rising.
   “You don’t know you can be a bitch?”
   “No, I don’t. Normally I’m not. You draw it out in me.”
   “So I’m not only a jerk, it’s me who makes you a bitch,” he stated.
   “Yes,” I replied.
   His arms didn’t loosen even as he tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling.
   “Jesus,” he muttered.
   “Let me go,” I demanded and his head tipped forward again.
   “No,” he replied.
   “And there it is again!” I declared instantly.
   “What?” he clipped, his arms giving me a mini-shake.
   “I get that you’re an alpha male, Captain, but bossing me around, making me do stuff I don’t want to do?
Not… liking… that.”
   His face dipped close. “All right, Ace, get it all out. What else?”
   I’d had enough, more than enough, so I got up on my toes and got close to his face too. “Okay, Captain,
here goes,” I started. “Neeta, Wood, Neeta, Wood and maybe a little bit more of Neeta and Wood!”
   “You wanna expand on that?” he growled.
   “Not me not expanding, Tate,” I snapped.
   Tate head twitched then, immediately, he started his story.
   “Knew her for as long as I can remember. Hooked up with her in high school. Partly ‘cause she was
gorgeous, mostly ‘cause she put out. I was seventeen, she was fifteen and I wasn’t her first.”
   I gasped at the knowledge that Neeta put out (and he wasn’t her first) at the age of fifteen. I lost my
virginity at the age of twenty-one to my college sweetheart after his pre-graduation fraternity dance. We’d
been going together for two years and he’d taken me to a posh hotel and bought me roses and told me he’d
love me until the day he died after we did it. We were still friends and he called me on my birthday every
year and each time he did we laughed together about the good old days for at least an hour.
   It was doubtful at fifteen Neeta held out for posh hotels and roses and equally doubtful her first still
remembered her birthday, if he ever knew it at all.
   Tate continued. “She was wild but I knew that about her and it was a fuckin’ blast, always. She could
have fun, Neeta. Always smilin’, laughin’, dancin’. She’d get up from watchin’ TV and dance into the
fuckin’ kitchen to get a drink. The world was a dance for her. A party all in her head. But when I hooked
up with her, spent that much time with her, something struck me, somethin’ not right about it. It wasn’t
until later I realized she wasn’t wild. She was desperate. For what, I still don’t fuckin’ know, spent years
tryin’ to figure it out same time I spent those years tryin’ to give it to her. All I know is, back then, I was
too young and too addicted to her mouth wrapped around my cock to think of much else.”
   This was way too much information.
   “I –” I broke in but he shook his head.
   “You wanted to know, babe, here it is,” he told me. “I think you get I was a good football player. And I
was good. So good, I had scouts comin’ to games my junior year. Senior year I had six offers before I
took the seventh and two came in the day after that. Neeta, she liked that, bein’ with me, lookin’ into our
future, plannin’ it all out. It wasn’t about me, what I could do, what I earned. It was about what Neeta
could get outta it.”
   I bit my lip, Tate held my eyes and kept speaking.
   “But Neeta, she’s not like you. She isn’t smart. She doesn’t work hard. She thinks of the future with her
head in the clouds. And she doesn’t work for shit. Always, even when she was a little kid, expected
everything to be handed to her on a silver platter. So she wants to party, have fun and she wants me with
her. And I’m with her because I’ll get laid or get a blowjob but also because I’m not, there’s no fuckin’
tellin’ what she’ll get herself into. And, fuck me, I love her. Not just her mouth or her cunt, but her. The
way she is, the way she dances through life.”
   “Tate –”
   “So I gotta look after her. Problem with that is, she gets bored, she wants somethin’ new, new faces,
new adventures, new ways to have fun. And there I am, at her side one night when she finds that shit and
the party we’re at gets busted. I know in my bones it ain’t where we’re supposed to be, these people are
older than us, rough, no good. But she wouldn’t go, she was havin’ fun. I could go, she told me, but she
was stayin’ and I knew no way I could leave her there on her own. And I was right, they were no good. So
Neeta and I are there and we get busted along with them. Drugs, not pot, not coke, not a little bit of it, they
had crack and they had lots of it because they dealt it. When I made the papers, local football star busted
at a party hangin’ with drug dealers, Ace, let’s just say the football program at Penn State, they didn’t like
that much.”
   “My God,” I whispered, horrified at what he was telling me.
   “They almost pulled the scholarship. Dad and Pop didn’t talk to them, explain things, they would have.
They were puttin’ their money down on a future All-American. Not some asshole who gets his shit in the
papers.”
   “Tate –”
   He cut me off with a dare. “That’s the first time she fucked up my life, you wanna hear more?”
   “But you went to Penn State,” I reminded him quietly.
   “Yeah, thanks to Dad and Pop,” he returned. “I quit Neeta and went to school.”
   “So, um… later you took her back?” I asked cautiously.
   “More times than you got fingers, Ace. Each time, she fucked up my life.” His arms gave me a powerful
squeeze that made my breath catch and his voice got so low, I could feel it vibrating in my chest. “So I
find this woman, see. High-class, great fuckin’ hair, legs that go forever but I see her when I’m pissed.
I’m pissed at Bubba and I’m pissed at Krystal but most of all, I’m pissed at Neeta ‘cause I let the bitch
play me again. Next day after Neeta plays me, the next fuckin’ day, that’s when I find this woman. She’s
workin’ in my goddamned bar, ” he growled and my heart stopped. “And I do not need that shit. Had
years of that shit. I need that woman and the trouble that’s written all over her in my bar like I need a hole
in my head. So I get pissed, say shit I don’t mean and what happens? I walk out after sayin’ that shit and
she looks at me and I know she heard. Part of me, gotta tell you Laurie, is glad. Part of me can’t take it.
Which part wins?”
   “Tate –”
   I got another squeeze. “Which part?” he demanded to know.
   “I don’t –”
   “You’re right here, Ace.”
   “But I don’t understand.”
   “What’s that say about me?”
   “Sorry?”
   “What’s that say about me?” he repeated.
   “Honey, I don’t understand the question,” I whispered.
   “Babe, honestly?” he asked.
   “Yes.” I was still whispering.
   “You’re standin’ there wonderin’ what the fuck you got yourself into after gettin’ yourself outta that
jacked up situation with your asshole ex. After makin’ two piss poor choices in the women I let in my life,
what do you think I’m thinkin’?”
   I couldn’t be sure but I thought I knew what he was thinking.
   “I’m not Neeta,” I said quietly.
   “You’re your own brand of trouble, I know that and you’re still right here,” he told me and I felt my
heart start beating faster.
   “But I’m a good girl,” I whispered. “I’ve always been a good girl.”
   “Laurie, you strut up to a fuckin’ garage, all tits, ass and legs. Jesus, if you had a fishin’ pole, you
couldn’t’ve hooked those boys faster.”
   “I needed my oil changed,” I reminded him.
   “Wood didn’t come out first, babe, no fuckin’ joke, the rest of those boys woulda fought to change your
oil and bring you margaritas while they were doin’ it.”
   “That’s crazy,” I breathed.
   “Ace, hello?” he called. “I was fuckin’ there.”
   “Tate,” my voice was stronger, “I needed an oil change.”
   “Yeah, there it is,” he shot back, “your own brand of trouble.”
   “I don’t understand what you mean!” My voice was definitely stronger since I was semi-shouting.
   “What I mean is, two months ago I scraped off the bitch who’s been ruinin’ my goddamned life for over
twenty years. The next day, the next fuckin’ day, you’re in it. You’re totally clueless, wanderin’ through a
biker town like you’re in Disneyland. And, I’ll repeat, the day before I met you, I scraped off the woman
who I spent two decades with, a different kinda clueless woman who lived in her own head.”
   I felt my head twitch.
   “I’m not clueless,” I whispered.
   “You’re clueless and you’re lost,” he returned.
   “I’m not lost either,” I told him.
   “Lauren, you live in a hotel.”
   “So? It’s home!”
  “You can tell yourself that, babe, but a hotel is not home.”
  I switched topics because he kind of had me there.
  “And I don’t live in my own head.”
  His face changed, his voice changed, everything changed when he spoke again.
  Everything.
  The whole of Tate.
  I watched it and it was so dazzling all I could do was stare.
  “Honey,” he whispered, using an endearment he’d never used on me in a voice he’d never used either,
a voice that was quiet and sweet and the expression on his face was so tender it made my heart turn over,
“you’re so deep in your head you can’t even sleep.”
  I felt my lips part and I kept staring at him.
  Darn it all, he had me there too.
  His arm left my back so his hand could curl around the side of my neck.
  “This is what we got. You got burned by that asshole ex of yours and I got played by Neeta. We hooked
up after that, for me right after that, and here we are. So what’re we gonna do?” he asked.
  “I…” I cleared my throat, “I don’t know.”
  The pad of his thumb pressed my jaw up as his head tilted down and his face got close.
  “I ain’t Brad and you aren’t Neeta,” he said softly. “I also ain’t perfect and neither are you.”
  He was right about that too.
  “No,” I agreed quietly.
  “So we find out about each other and who we are together.” His forehead dropped to touch mine. “I’m
gonna piss you off ‘cause I can be a dick. That’s who I am. And you’re gonna piss me off ‘cause, babe,
you got attitude. That’s who you are. And that’s who we’re comin’ out to be together. And I’m all right
with that because, with what I had before, even when you’re a bitch, I like it. But when you’re not, it’s a
sweetness the like I’ve never tasted.”
  Oh.
  My.
  God.
  I felt tears sting my eyes and my fingers curled around his biceps to hold on.
  “Tate,” I whispered.
  “So, I’m not takin’ you to the hotel. We’re sittin’ out on the deck and havin’ coffee. Then I’ll make you
breakfast. Then we’ll fuck in bed, then fuck again in the shower, then we’ll go to work. Then I’ll take you
for your swim. Then we’ll fuck in the shower at the hotel. Then I’ll feed you and we’ll probably fuck in
my bed again.”
  “That’s a lot of, um…”
  “Maybe I should rephrase, some of it’ll be fuckin’, some of it’ll be me makin’ you come.”
  I felt and heard my breath snag as my hands moved of their own volition. They uncurled from his biceps
and started to press under his arms to wrap around his back.
  “I usually eat before I swim,” I found my mouth informing him.
  I watched his face relax and his fingers slid into my ponytail and twisted gently. “Works for me.”
  Then his mouth came to a hairsbreadth away from mine.
  “Okay,” I breathed as my eyes started closing.
  “You over your snit?”
  My eyes slowly opened and that disquiet I felt last night reminded me of its existence.
  Then I whispered, “We should talk about Wood.”
  His lips touched mine. “You got Neeta today, baby, Wood can wait until later.”
  “But –”
  His arms pulled me deep into his body. “Only so much of those two I can stomach in a day.”
  “Tate –”
  “You gonna finally kiss me good mornin’ or do I have to kiss you?”
  I felt a flurry in my belly.
  “I should probably kiss you,” I said softly because I probably should. I’d been a bitch again and I
needed to make it up to him.
  “You got a second, Ace, then I’m takin’ over.”
  “Tate –”
  “Time’s up,” he said, his head slanted and Tate kissed me good morning.
Chapter Fifteen
Peace of Mind
   The phone rang and my eyes opened.
   Tate’s painted shoulder and back were all I could see. I was curled into him and it was dark but the
moonlight was shining in through the windows.
   I felt his fingers wrap around my wrist that was dangling at his stomach, holding firm keeping my arm
where it was as he lifted up. Once up, he let my hand go and reached for his cell on the nightstand.
   I left my arm draped around his waist and snuggled closer. Lifting up a bit to rest on my elbow, I
pressed my nose against his back then turned my head so my cheek was there as my arm around his waist
tightened and he answered the phone.
   “Jackson,” he growled, this growl due to sleep.
   I listened to the silence. Tate listened to the phone.
   “Who?” he asked his voice no longer holding even a hint of sleep. “Right. Where?” he went on and then
listened. “Right. Fax or e-mail?” he listened again. “Right,” he repeated then said, “Next time, Thyne, do
me a favor and let me in on this shit before it gets to this. Yeah?”
   Hmm. He didn’t sound sleepy anymore but he also really didn’t sound happy.
   “Yeah, I’ll be there,” Tate confirmed then flipped the phone closed.
   He tossed it on the nightstand and turned toward me. I moved back to accommodate him and his arms
slid around me, pulling me close again when he was facing me.
   “Got a situation, Laurie,” he muttered.
   “Is everything okay?” I asked.
   “Fugitive, probably armed, definitely dangerous. Why the fuck they let this guy out on bail is anyone’s
guess. He’s serious shit.”
   For the first time it struck me that he hunted fugitives that could be armed and definitely were
dangerous. But then again, fugitives by definition of being fugitive were probably pretty dangerous,
especially to the person who was hunting them in order to halt their fugitive status. I had no idea why this
didn’t sink in before but I figured it did it then because he received a middle of the night phone call where
they called him in during “a situation” thus giving his occupation a reality it never had before.
   My arms around him got tight.
   “Who’s Thyne?” I asked.
   “Bail bondsmen in Denver. He’s got two local guys he uses for the small time shit, calls me in when he
has problems. He tried to find this guy usin’ local talent which was a mistake. Those boys take less of
percentage because they’re part moron but not moron enough to know no one’ll pay them for bein’ part
moron. Thyne is cheap and part moron too so he pays ‘em. This guy is probably in Mexico by now.”
   My arms got tighter.
   “Do you have to go to Mexico?”
   “Fuck, I hope not,” he muttered and I hoped not too. Mexico was a long way away and I had enough
trouble thinking of Tate hunting a dangerous fugitive, I didn’t want to think of him doing it a long way
away. “He’s faxin’ me the particulars. I gotta get on the road.”
   My arms got even tighter though I whispered, “Okay.”
   His hand slid up my back and his fingers sifted into my hair to cup the back of my head.
   “Kiss me, baby.”
   I used the moonlight on the angles of his face to aim and found his mouth. The minute my lips hit his, he
rolled partially into me, forcing me to my back in the bed, and my mouth opened as did his. My tongue
slid inside, he growled against it and when I absorbed that in my mouth, a small moan escaped my throat.
His head slanted one way, mine tilted the other and my kiss turned into a kiss.
   I was breathing heavily and holding on tight when his mouth disengaged and his tongue slid along my
lower lip.
   Then he stated, “I want you to stay here. Look after Buster.”
   I blinked in the dark at his close up, shadowed face.
   Then I asked, “Sorry?”
   “I’ll leave the keys to the Explorer and the house on the kitchen counter. Garage door opener is in the
truck. Take the Explorer into town, I’ll call Deke to bring it back. The alarm code is three five six one. To
set it, you punch in the number and hit the red button and you got a minute to get into the garage. To
disable it, hit three five six one and hit the green button. Once you enter, you got a minute to do that too.
When you’re goin’ to sleep for the night, doors secured, windows stay closed and you hit three five six
one and then the blue button.”
   “Um…” I mumbled, not keeping up with him. “Sorry?”
   His arms tightened and he rolled to his back, pulling me with him so my torso was resting mostly on his
chest.
   “I want you stayin’ here,” he repeated.
   “To watch your cat?”
   “Yeah, to watch Buster. And ‘cause I have an alarm.”
   This belatedly penetrated.
   “You have an alarm?”
   “Don’t use it when I’m home. You’ll use it when you’re home without me.”
   I felt something silken slither through me.
   “When I’m home?” I whispered.
   “Yeah,” he replied.
   “But, my room at the hotel –”
   “Want you stayin’ here.”
   “But, the hotel –”
   “Want you in my bed.”
   That slithered through me too.
   “Tate –”
   His fingers sifted in my hair, cupping my head again and bringing my face close to his.
   “Could be gone a day, could be gone two weeks. I want you texting again and when I get my phone
calls at night, I wanna know I’m talking to you while you’re lyin’ in my bed.”
   That silken thing started to wrap tight around me and it didn’t feel bad at all.
   Even so, I whispered, “Tate, I don’t know.”
   “I do. You’ll be safer here.”
   “The hotel’s safe,” I told him.
   “Carnal Hotel ain’t safe,” he told me.
   “Ned and Betty are right across the way.”
   “Ace, first, to find this place, you gotta know where it is. Second, to get to work from here, you gotta be
in your car, a fact I like since it’s a fuckuva lot safer than you walkin’ to the hotel after your shift. Last, my
alarm goes straight to dispatch. Boys’ll know I’m gone, they’ll also know you’re stayin’ here. They get the
warnin’, they won’t fuck around. Carnal PD is mostly shit but I got some friends there that are good men.
They know my woman is here and the alarm tells them you’ve been breached, they won’t fuck around and
they got trainin’ and guns. Ned don’t have that.”
   This was true. Still.
   “Um…”
   “And Buster likes you.”
   “She’s friendly,” I reminded him. “I think she’d probably like anyone.”
   “She is and she does and that’s why I don’t like leavin’ her alone. She prefers company.”
   “You’re out of town a lot, who looked after her before?”
   “Krystal.”
   This surprised me so much I had to take a moment to let the thought of Krystal coming up and taking
care of a dainty cat as a favor to a friend sink in. She didn’t seem like a friendly-favor-doing type of
person or a taking-care-of-a-dainty-cat type of person either.
   “Babe, I gotta get the fax, get packed and get on the road. You stayin’ here or what?”
   “I think –” I started hesitantly and he rolled me to my back again and pinned me to the bed with his big
body.
   Then he pulled out the big guns.
   He did this by murmuring, “Peace of mind.”
   “I’ll stay,” I agreed instantly
   His head dropped but moved to the side and he flicked my ear with his nose.
   Then he said in my ear, “That’s my good girl.”
   And I was. I was his good girl. Even though this seemed like a big step, a step that was too big and too
soon, a step that was too big that also didn’t say “I’m a cool and hard to get biker babe” but said “I’m
your good girl and you’ve already got me”.
   I was such an idiot.
   His head came up and his mouth touched mine. Then he exited the bed.
   I curled into myself and watched his shadow as he moved around. Then I listened as he took a shower.
Then he came back, got dressed and I lifted up to sitting cross-legged in the bed. Buster joined me, sitting
on her booty in my lap and since she was there, I gave her scratches. In that position, Buster and I watched
as he packed mostly in the dark (he turned the light on in the walk-in closet and it partially shone in the
bedroom). Buster knew the packing drill and I got the impression she wasn’t a big fan. Then again, neither
was I. Tate was going away for an unspecified period of time again and I was back to texts.
   He turned the closet light out and came back into the bedroom. I heard the zip go on his bag that was
sitting on the bed and watched his hand curl around the handle. My hand shot out and my fingers curled
around his wrist.
   “Tate,” I called.
   “Yeah, baby,” he answered.
   “Does this happen a lot?”
   “It’s my job, Laurie.”
   “No, I mean, phone calls in the middle of the night.”
   He paused. Then he answered, “A lot, no. Sometimes, yeah.”
   Without my mind willing my body to do it, I pulled on his arm as Buster daintily hopped off my lap. I
was wearing a shelf bra camisole and undies. I’d replaced these after cleaning up in the bathroom after
we’d made love before going to sleep.
   When I got to my knees in front of him, my other hand flattened on his abs as my hand around his wrist
tugged harder to bring him down to me. My hand at his abs slid up his chest to curl around his neck when
he bent at the waist to get close. My hold at his wrist disengaged when both his arms wrapped around me.
   I tilted my head back and his face got close.
   “Please be careful, honey,” I whispered and before he could answer my arms tightened around his neck,
I flattened by body against his and I kissed him hard.
   He crushed me to him with one arm, the other hand going into my hair, fisting and holding my mouth to
his far longer than I’d intended.
   He broke the kiss but didn’t let me go nor did his mouth move very far away.
“I’ll take care of Buster,” I promised.
“Thanks, Ace,” he murmured. “Don’t get into trouble when I’m gone,” he warned.
“I’m a good girl,” I reminded him.
When his mouth hit mine I could tell it was smiling.
“Yeah,” he said and that one word also held his smile.
Then his fist in my hair tipped my head down, he kissed the hair at the top, let me go and he was gone.
Chapter Sixteen
Once We Were Brothers
   It was three days after Tate left to hunt a possibly armed, definitely dangerous fugitive.
   Which was five days after the incident with Wood in Tate’s living room.
   It was mid-morning and I was sitting out on his deck drinking coffee, my feet up on a lower railing,
taking a break from what had become an ongoing three day job of doing laundry and cleaning Tate’s
house.
   I’d struggled with this decision. Cleaning his house was an intimacy he had not invited. Then again,
he’d asked me to stay in it and I could (somewhat) ignore the state of it when Tate was there and most of
the time we were eating or having sex. I couldn’t ignore the state of it when I was staying there.
   I was contemplating the trees that surrounded the house as my mind considered the fact that I might have
taken things a bit too far. I hadn’t only picked up his bedroom, done his laundry and thoroughly cleaned
out his kitchen including a complete clear out and wipe down of the fridge and a full scouring of his baked
on, burnt on oven that clearly hadn’t been cleaned since the dawn of time. I’d also vacuumed and dusted
the entire house, cleaned all the bathrooms, carried his boots in the mudroom to the closet in his bedroom,
tidied his coats in the mudroom, organized his clothes in the walk-in closet and cleared the dining room
table, stacking his mail (without looking too much at it) on the kitchen counter (magazine piles, opened
mail piles, unopened mail piles).
   I’d also stripped his bed and noticed his sheets were old and, if not threadbare, they were getting there.
   There were also no other sheets to replace them that I could find but I didn’t look hard. The two
bedrooms upstairs had their doors closed and I kept them like that. I found, on the ground level, the
backstairs led into a big open space with a bunch of weight equipment in it and then there was a hall off
which there were three rooms and a bathroom. The bathroom door was open (so I cleaned it) and another
room was open. This was obviously Tate’s office with desk, computer, printer, fax machine, three filing
cabinets and a variety of files and paperwork (not in the filing cabinets) that were not only unorganized
but looked in danger of forming a paper avalanche. I didn’t tidy his office because he probably knew
where everything was and I didn’t know what anything was so I couldn’t organize it properly not
knowing. The other two doors downstairs were not opened.
   I didn’t open the unopened doors because I didn’t want him to think I was snooping. Though I found it
slightly odd, with the upstairs and the down, that Tate Jackson had such a huge house. Essentially six
bedrooms, three full baths, living room, dining room, family room. It was long and it was also large. Too
large for one man and a dainty cat.
   Unable to find sheets, I called Wendy, swung by to pick her up and we headed to the mall in order to
buy some.
   This was where I thought that perhaps I was stepping over the line.
   Because I didn’t only buy sheets, I bought Indian cotton, high thread count sheets and because Tate’s
comforter had seen better days, I bought a down one, a comforter cover, six new down pillows and
shams.
   I thought nothing of this until the clerk returned my credit card and Wendy giggled. Her giggle started
slow and then gained in volume and hilarity.
   Finally she shouted, “Love this!”
   I turned to her. “Love what?”
   “You and Tate buying sheets together.” Then she laughed outright and grabbed me, giving me a big hug.
   I hugged her back and looked over her shoulder at the clerk who was smiling at me like she knew what
was going on. I didn’t smile at her because I didn’t.
   “Tate and I aren’t buying sheets together,” I told Wendy, she let me go and leaned back.
   “You so are!”
   I looked around to see if Tate was hiding somewhere and about to saunter out and surprise me. When I
saw no Tate, I looked back at Wendy.
   “It’s just that he needs new sheets. His are old and he only has one set,” I explained.
   “He need a new comforter?” she returned.
   “Yes, that’s old too.”
   “A comforter cover?” she went on.
   “You have a down comforter, Wendy, you have to have a cover,” I explained patiently.
   “Shams?” she asked.
   Hmm. I could see her point on the shams. Tate wasn’t exactly a man who needed two extra pillows
which were only there to sport decorative shams.
   I bit my lip and looked at the huge plastic bags holding my purchases.
   “And you’re gonna sleep on those sheets,” she reminded me. “You already are! And he isn’t even
home!”
   “Um…” I mumbled.
   “Love this!” Wendy shouted again then turned to clerk and shared, “She’s got a new man, he’s a good
man and he’s hot, he’s totally into her and they’ve known each other, like, two months and they’re already
playing house!”
   “We’re not playing house,” I whispered.
   “You so are,” Wendy didn’t whisper, she spoke so loud other people were staring (and smiling).
   “Girlfriend, let me just say,” the clerk butted in, “don’t look so scared. He’s a good man, he’s hot, he’s
into you, go with the flow. He’s used to bad sheets and an old comforter, you go girl and you buy him
good sheets. A man appreciates good sheets. He ain’t gonna say it but he’s gonna think it and every time
he slides between those sheets he’s gonna be glad you gave that to him. We girls, we gotta look after our
men. You tell him early on you’re the type of woman who finds all sorts of ways to look after her man,
it’s gonna suck him in deep and he ain’t even gonna know it.”
   “Unh-hunh,” a woman in line behind us muttered. “You got that right.”
   I looked between the clerk and the nodding, smiling woman behind us in line and I wondered how a trip
to the mall to purchase sheets had turned into a lecture from a clerk at a home wares store telling me how
to suck Tate in deep. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Tate was such a badass he could probably
sleep on a bed of nails. I didn’t think he would even notice new sheets.
   Or, at that point, I was kind of hoping he didn’t.
   Even though I thought what I thought, to be nice, I said to her, “Thanks for the advice.”
   “My pleasure,” she said as Wendy shoved my purchases into the cart and started motoring toward the
exit.
   Even with my misgivings, I put the new sheets and the comforter (and the shams) on the bed. Standing at
the foot surveying it, I had to admit, with the bedroom floor cleared and vacuumed, the dresser and
nightstands cleaned off, the entire place dusted, it didn’t look bad. The room was painted a utilitarian
cream. Considering Tate was a man and a biker, I bought a dark denim comforter cover and shams and
sheets in what I thought was an awesome light clay that contrasted great with the indigo blue denim. They
gave the room some color and made it look homier. Tate’s house wasn’t a bachelor pad, it was a crash
pad. This meant it also wasn’t a home. Those sheets gave it a stamp of “home”, a little one but a definite
one.
   Studying my handiwork, I decided on the one hand it freaked me out; on the other hand, I liked it. Tate
needed a home, everyone did.
   Buster sashayed in, jumped up on the bed and stopped dead. She gave the bed a look then gave me a
look over her shoulder then she delicately dropped to her side, curled into a ball and went to sleep.
   Well, at least I had Buster’s approval.
   I let the sun shine down on me and sipped my coffee thinking about the sheets and the amount of stuff I
brought up from the hotel, in other words, all of it. I’d checked out mainly because it was stupid to pay for
a hotel room I wasn’t using but also because Ned and Betty were at the height of the summer biker season
and could use the room and lastly because I liked to have choice and variability of wardrobe and I didn’t
know how long Tate would be gone. It would be annoying to have to keep carting stuff back and forth and
it wasn’t like I had a houseful of stuff. I had a car full of stuff. I left my unused clothes in suitcases and my
boxes in Tate’s garage, the rest of it I lugged to his walk-in closet. I didn’t go so far as unpacking (except
bathroom stuff). I knew that was definitely crossing a line, a line I wasn’t ready for and a line I didn’t
want to know if Tate didn’t want me to cross.
   I sighed and tipped my head back to the sun.
   Weirdly enough, outside of fretting about cleaning Tate’s house, buying him sheets and semi-moving in,
life felt normal. I hadn’t felt normal, not in a long time. Not during my wandering, not during the
separation and divorce from Brad, not even before that, when I knew something was not right.
   But now I had work that I liked. I had friends I could trust who I could go to the mall with. I came home
to a house ensconced in the quiet, wooded hills sandwiched amongst Colorado’s mountains. I ate home-
cooked dinners if I was working days. I made lunch in Tate’s kitchen if I was working nights. Every
morning, I made myself breakfast and a cup of coffee in a real coffeemaker that sat on a kitchen counter.
   Normal, all of it… normal.
   I was back in a rhythm of life.
   Unfortunately that rhythm seemed surrounded by Tate but held no Tate.
   That wasn’t true. The two days we had together before Tate left obviously held Tate. He took me to
work and worked my shifts with me, giving Bubba and Krystal a break. Surprisingly, nothing dramatic
happened during these days except for the fact that Tate took an instant dislike to Twyla; then again Twyla
was instantly dislikeable and didn’t mind that one bit considering she honed her instantly dislikeable
personality to a razor sharp edge. I’d had to run interference but this wasn’t difficult because Tate seemed
in a good mood so, unusually, outside of scowling at her a couple of times, he didn’t let Twyla’s antics
get to him.
   And Tate and I working together was different when I wasn’t holding a grudge. I had fun with him and
he seemed to have fun with me. He liked being with me in the bar and I knew this because he laughed a lot
and he smiled a lot too. In fact, I’d never seen him do either so much as in those two days after the Wood
Incident.
   As for me, I liked going to the bar and saying, “Need two Bud drafts,” and hearing him say softly,
“Right, baby,” or, also softly, “You got it, Ace.”
   Because of these responses, I found myself hanging at the bar more often, Tate across from me, both of
us leaning in and chatting, me trying to be funny just to make him laugh or smile. Me getting a little curl of
excitement when I succeeded.
   I also found myself ending my orders with “honey”. “A Jack and Coke and a Dewar’s, honey,” or “Four
Coors bottles and a Keystone Light, honey.” I found myself doing this because, when I did, I’d always get
the smile so I went searching for it.
   That smile didn’t give me a curl of excitement. It made me feel something else, something comfortable
and settled but very sweet. Even though, if Twyla heard me call Tate “honey”, she’d give me a hard look
or roll her eyes – I was guessing Twyla wasn’t a big fan of a waitress sleeping with the boss, that said, as
far as I could tell, Twyla wasn’t a big fan of much.
   After my shifts, Tate and I left work together and went to the hotel together where Tate would drop me
off so I could have a swim and he’d go do stuff, like pick up groceries for dinner while I swam. Then he’d
come back to get me. I’d pack more stuff and go to his house with him where he’d make me dinner and
then we’d go to bed and make love and then we’d sleep somehow nuzzled together, him holding me or me
curled into his back or, as the night progressed, both.
   This felt good too. Comfortable. Settled. And definitely sweet.
   On my day off, the day Tate had to go hunting, Tate had planned to take me for a ride. We were going to
go out and stay out all day on the bike.
   It was a bummer he’d been called away because I wanted to do that with him, have a day with him with
nothing to do but ride. To be on the back of his bike and feel that freedom only Tate had given me, a
freedom I’d only ever felt sitting on the back of his bike, letting go and thinking absolutely nothing at the
same time feeling absolutely everything.
   And I wanted to go back to work with him behind the bar.
   I wanted him to come home.
   I wanted him.
   I heard the roar of pipes and my head righted and whipped to the end of the lane. A bike was coming up
and I felt that curl of a thrill in my belly because Tate hadn’t said he was coming home last night when we
talked but he’d surprised me before.
   Then I stared because it wasn’t Tate, it was Wood.
   “Damn,” I whispered under my breath and watched Wood ride up the drive and stop at the front of the
garage.
   I got up and walked down the deck as he got off the bike. We met five feet into the deck from the stairs
that led to it from the side of the garage.
   “Wood,” I greeted hesitantly.
   “Laurie,” he greeted back, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses so I couldn’t read them.
   “Um…” I mumbled, unsure what to say because I was unsure of why he was there.
   Wood wasn’t unsure.
   “Neeta’s in town.”
   I felt my body get tight.
   “Sorry?”
   He didn’t repeat himself. Instead he asked, “Deke still playin’ bodyguard?”
   “No,” I answered, finding this an odd question. “Why?”
   Wood looked at the house then looked at me. “When’s Tate due back?”
   “Wood –”
   He took a step toward me and, with effort, I held my ground.
   He pulled his sunglasses off and shoved an arm in the collar of his t-shirt. When I saw them, I noticed
his eyes, as they normally were, were gentle on me.
   “Know that ship has sailed, baby,” he assured in his gentle voice. “Now, when’s Tate due back?”
   “It’s uncertain,” I replied. “Why?” I repeated.
   “She’s heard about you.”
   “What?”
   “Neeta. That’s why she’s back. She’s heard about you.” He looked at the house again then at me. “You
here alone?”
   “Wood –”
   His hand came up and curled around my neck. “Laurie, I asked, you here alone?”
   “Yes, but why –?”
   I stopped talking when he quickly dropped his hand from my neck and with somewhat urgent
movements dug his phone out of his back pocket. He flipped it open, hit some buttons and then put it to his
ear. His eyes locked on mine as he listened to it ring.
   Then he said, “Wood,” and he paused. “Don’t be an ass and listen. I’m at your house with Laurie.”
Another pause then, “Fuck, Tate, goddamned relax. If you’d listen you’d know I’m doin’ you a fuckin’
favor here. Neeta’s in town.” Silence while Wood’s face got hard then, “Yeah, she knows about Laurie,
man, why you think she’s in town? She heard and hightailed it up from CB like a fuckin’ rocket.” He was
quiet then, “Yeah, Tate, that’s the gig. Same MO. She heard rumors, held tight, then heard Laurie was out
of the hotel and in your house. Now she’s here, same as always.” More silence then quietly, “No, man,
Jonas isn’t with her.”
   Jonas? Who was Jonas?
   Same as always?
   And what was with all the drama?
   “What’s with all the drama, Wood?” I asked, he lifted a hand, one finger up and then dropped his hand
and bent his neck, listening to Tate on the phone.
   This went on for several moments before he said, “Deke’s out?” Then a whispered, “Fuck.”
   I watched his mouth get tight as I watched him lift his hand to the back of his neck and squeeze.
   Then he said into the phone in a way that sounded like the words were dragged out of him, “Seems like
all you got is me.” His neck straightened, his hand dropped and his body got as tight as his mouth before
he went on, “Bubba’s useless and you and I know it. Deke’s out. Neeta is what Neeta is because of Pop
so I’m not fuckin’ askin’ him and you’d be a fuckin’ fool to do it. So, way I see it, all you got is me.” He
listened a moment then bit his lip in a scary way before he spoke again. “Unlike you, brother, your
woman’s sleepin’ in your bed, I ain’t gonna make a move. I also ain’t gonna stand aside ‘cause you’re in
fuckin’ Texas, Neeta’s in town and Laurie’s un-fuckin’-protected. You don’t like that, fuckin’ tough. You
know her, Christ, Tate, you know her better ‘n anyone. You shoulda planned for this eventuality. She’s got
that fuckin’ posse here who keep tabs on you and always have so you knew this was gonna happen. Now,
tables are turned, man, and I’m takin’ care of your shit.”
   He flipped the phone shut and turned to me and all I could think to say was, “Unprotected?”
   I heard my cell phone ring in the house but I was too busy staring at Wood and hearing his conversation
replay in my head to move.
   “Neeta’s unpredictable,” Wood stated and looked at the house again before his eyes came back to me.
“Baby, that’ll be Tate on the phone.”
   I ignored him and repeated on a prompt, “Unpredictable?”
   “Tate explain about Neeta?” he asked.
   “Um… a little bit,” I answered as my phone stopped ringing.
   “He explain about how she makes it clear he’s her property?”
   I licked my lips.
   Then I said, “No.”
   “Well, she thinks he’s her property.”
   “What does that mean?” I asked as my phone started ringing again.
   Wood’s eyes went to the house again then to me and he urged gently, “Baby, get your phone.”
   I turned on a foot and ran to the house. Tugging open the sliding glass door one-handed, I ran to the
kitchen counter where my phone was. I put down my mug, touched the screen that said “Captain Calling”
and put it to my ear.
   “Tate?” I asked into the phone.
   “Wood still there?” he asked back without saying hello.
   “Yes, but he says –”
   “Put him on the phone,” Tate ordered.
   “But, honey –”
   “Lauren, put him on the goddamned phone.”
   Someone was not happy.
   That was okay because I was not happy either.
   “Maybe you might want to talk to me about what’s happening?” I suggested acidly.
   Tate replied instantly, “What’s happening, Ace, is Neeta’s a fuckin’ nut. I may have only had three
women on the back of my bike, that doesn’t mean I’ve only had three women. And one of the reasons I’ve
only had three women that I put on my bike is because Neeta hears I got someone in my bed, and she hears
I take them there more than once, she moves to stake her claim. She’s been married to a man for seven
years but, make no mistake, the bitch claims me. She might be forty-two years old but she never stopped
actin’ like a teenager. Not a lotta women like havin’ threatening letters shoved in their mailboxes, crazy,
screamin’ women showin’ up at their work shouting obscenities or gettin’ in hair-pulling catfights at the
diner. She’s in town it means she’s in town for a showdown with you.”
   Oh my God!
   “Tate –”
   “And you grew up on a fuckin’ farm in Indiana and spent the rest of your life in suburbia. You and your
sister might know all about attitude but even your considerable attitude, babe, ain’t gonna mean dick when
you’re up against Neeta. I like your face just like it is, I don’t need her clawin’ it with her fingernails.
Firstly because, like I said, I like your face as it is. Secondly because, that bitch lays a fuckin’ hand on
you, I’m gonna take her ass down and I’m not big on takin’ out a woman. Now give the phone to Wood.”
   I took the phone from my ear and held it out to Wood.
   “He wants to talk to you,” I whispered and wondered if Wood could hear me over the beating of my
heart.
   Wood gave me a look, took the phone and put it to his ear.
   “You got me,” he said into it then listened then said, “Yeah.” A pause. “Yeah man.” And finally, “No
shit? Remember who you’re talkin’ to, yeah?” He listened again and finished with, “Right.” Then he held
the phone to me.
   Hesitantly, I took it and put it to my ear.
   “Tate?”
   “Wood takes you to work, he brings you home and he sleeps on the couch. You with me?”
   “Tate –”
   “Yes or no, Lauren.”
   “Yes,” I replied.
   “I’m in Lubbock, sittin’ outside a titty bar where my boy is havin’ himself a good time. He’s about to
get a lap dance that isn’t gonna end too good for him. Even though I’m takin’ him down, time I get to
Denver, get him processed, return Thyne’s SUV I had to borrow and get home, Neeta could wreak havoc.
Deke’s in South Dakota. Wood needs to cover you. I’ll be home early tomorrow, latest.”
   “Okay,” I said quietly then asked curiously, “He’s in a titty bar at 10:30 a.m.?”
   “Ace, he ain’t a member of the Rotary,” Tate answered and I gave a short giggle.
   Then I asked, “Titty bars are open at ten thirty?”
   “This one is,” Tate replied.
   “Wow,” I whispered.
   “Question, babe,” he stated.
   “Yeah?”
   “When I’m pissed as shit at Neeta, why am I sittin’ in a borrowed SUV smilin’ every time I hear you
say the words ‘titty bar’?”
   “I don’t know,” I answered.
   I listened to a moment of silence.
   “Shoulda never started it with you,” he muttered and I felt my breath stop coming.
   I still managed to force out a, “What?”
   “Not feelin’ happy vibes that my good girl is usin’ the words ‘titty bar’ ‘cause I’m sittin’ outside one
and that she’s gotta count on Wood to keep her safe from my fuckin’ ex when I’m not there. High-class
good girl like you should live a life untouched by that kinda shit and a man like me should know better
than to bring it on her.”
   “I lived a life untouched by that kinda shit, Tate, and I’d never been unhappier because there was worse
shit in it and it had nothing to do with talking about titty bars,” I whispered.
   He was silent a moment as if contemplating this.
   Then he demanded, “You sleep in one of my tees.”
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Wood’s in the house while you’re in my bed. Only claim I can stake since I’m fuckin’ three states
away and I’m stakin’ it. You sleep in one of my tees.”
   “Tate, that’s unnecessary.”
   “Babe. Sleep. In. One. Of. My. Tees,” he said slowly and with waning patience.
   “Oh all right,” I muttered.
   More silence then a soft and sweet, “There’s my good girl.”
   My breath caught and I opened my mouth to say something but he’d disconnected.
   I touched the button and put my cell on the counter.
   Then I turned to Wood and asked, “You want coffee?”
   Wood crossed his arms on his chest and his eyes dropped to my bare, tan legs exposed by my cutoff
jeans shorts. I’d cut off the legs of some of my old, fat jeans so the shorts hung on my hips but even I
thought they looked kind of sweet, however, now, I was considering changing them.
   Wood’s gaze came back to mine, he grinned slow, it was no less sexy than the times I’d seen it before
and he answered, “Yeah.”
   I went to get him coffee and I decided I was definitely wearing Tate’s tee to bed.
                                                     *****
   At 3:30 a.m. in the morning, I stood uncertainly in Tate’s living room watching Wood nab the remote.
   “Do you need more pillows?” I asked.
   “I’m all right, Laurie,” Wood answered, moving his body to lounge on the couch where I’d put the two
sham covered pillows from Tate’s bed with the blanket from the couch.
   “Um… I need to –” I started.
   Wood flicked on the TV, turned the volume low and his eyes came to me.
   “Baby, go to bed,” he said gently.
   I nodded and his phone on the end table by the couch rang. He reached for it, looked at the display,
grinned huge, flipped it open and put it to his ear.
   “Tate,” he said, his voice vibrating with the chuckle he was suffocating and I bit my lip and decided to
listen to the conversation.
   “Yeah, she’s home safe and sound. No Neeta. Though, some guy named Brad turned up at Bubba’s.”
   I could swear I heard Tate roar, “What the fuck?”
   Or maybe that was in my head.
   Wood burst out laughing.
   Nope. It wasn’t in my head.
   I closed my eyes but opened them again when Wood started talking.
   “Yeah man, you meet this fuckin’ guy?” he asked, his voice amused. “I know. Total dick,” Wood
agreed. “Bar was jammed. Saturday night but more. Word was out Neeta was in town. Half the folks
came to see the faceoff; other half came to take Laurie’s back. Ned and Betty were there, both of ‘em. All
the waitresses were there, even the ones who weren’t on including fuckin’ Jonelle. Krystal, Bubba and
Dalton were all mannin’ the bar. Stella, Holly, Tyler that trainer and that gay guy who owns the salon
showed. Even those two fuckin’ hippies were there, the guy still wearin’ those fuckin’ glasses even
though it was night, purple this time.”
   This was true. Everyone I knew or even spoke to in Carnal was at the bar. Twyla even turned up.
Apparently Neeta was a big draw. Also apparently I’d made some good friends.
   At first Krystal, Bubba, Jim-Billy, Wendy (who was on with me) and Wood seemed a little stunned at
this show of support. Then they all thought it was hilarious. Then they all talked about it, loudly,
sometimes yelling about it across the bar. My “posse” as Wood started to refer to them, joined in the
yelling conversation and everyone thought this was the height of comedy, especially the more liquor they
got down them. Even Krystal joined in the fun, not only making acid comments about Neeta (who it didn’t
take a psychologist to read she did not like) but also ending the night doing shots with Twyla. I’d stood at
the bar waiting for Dalton to fill an order and stared at her like I’d never met her. Dalton was right there
with me. Then he turned to me, smiled and put my drinks on my tray.
   My mind came back into Tate’s living room when Wood started talking again. He was warming to his
story and enjoying telling it if the massive grin on his face was anything to go by.
   “Then this fuckin’ guy walks in… to Bubba’s…” Wood started choking because he was laughing so
hard he was having trouble speaking but he forced out, “in a fuckin’ golf shirt. Man, I think he had girl
shit in his hair.”
   Wood lost his battle with his hilarity and burst out laughing.
   I wondered if Tate was laughing or if he was looking for something to throw.
   Wood controlled his mirth and, still chuckling, stated, “No wonder Laurie got in a car and fled
suburbia. The prospect of that guy the rest of her life… Christ.”
   I sighed and crossed my arms on my chest.
   Wood kept talking. “Trouble? No man, he came in ready to bring it on but Laurie’s posse saw him walk
in, eyes on her, they clocked him immediately and he didn’t make it within five feet of her. The whole lot
of them closed in, except the hippies but they kept goin’ outside to their van so I think they were stoned
outta their minds by this time. They were in their own world, they missed the whole thing. Anyway, he
started to throw ‘tude and fuckin’ Jim-Billy, of all people, sucker punched him in the gut. Then that butch
chick, the new waitress, she got him by the scruff and frog marched him out the door.” Wood shook his
head. “Wish I had that shit on tape.
   I didn’t. Experiencing it once was enough.
   Though seeing Twyla frog march Brad out the door was kind of funny and Carrie and Mack would get a
kick out of seeing it on tape.
   “No, Tate, not a problem. Bubba jumped on his bike and followed him to the town line. The guy got
frog marched out the door by a chick. She’s solid and her chick status is questionable but I’m pretty
certain she’s still a chick. That kinda hit to his manhood? He ain’t comin’ back.”
   Wood was wrong. Tate, Wood, Bubba, Jim-Billy, Dalton, they took that kind of hit to their manhood,
they wouldn’t come back.
   Brad was another story. Brad got something in his head, even Twyla delivering a hit to his manhood
wouldn’t get it out.
   Which meant I had the unpredictable Neeta and the stupid, stubborn, idiot Brad to worry about. Not to
mention a night with me in Tate’s bed and Wood on Tate’s couch.
   I was beginning to wish I was back in Horizon Summit, locked behind the gates.
   Though I was wishing for the time when Brad was gone and I was there alone. I could have made it. I
made good money. I’d have to fire Griselle, the cleaner and Juan-Carlos, the gardener and maybe forego
my monthly pedicure and bi-monthly manicures but I could have eeked by.
   “Yeah?” Wood asked. “Okay, I’ll hang until you get here.”
   I stared at Wood and wondered if my luck was changing and realized it was when his eyes came to me
and he said into the phone, “Yeah, she’s awake,” and then held it to me, “wants to talk to you, baby.”
   I walked to him, took the phone and put it to my ear.
   “Hi,” I said.
   “You okay?” Tate asked and I heard in his tone that he wasn’t looking for something to throw but had
found the whole story amusing.
   “Yes,” I said shortly, not finding anything amusing.
   “Goin’ to bed?”
   “Yes.”
   “Wearin’ my tee?”
   “I haven’t changed yet.”
   “Right, then change of plans. I’m in Denver. I’ll be home in less than two hours. Wear nothin’ to bed.”
   I blinked at Wood’s feet on the couch.
   Then I turned with a jerk and walked toward the kitchen.
   “Tate –”
   “Naked, babe.”
   “Tate, I can’t –”
   He cut me off. “Buck.”
   I stopped in the kitchen.
   “Sorry?”
   “Buck naked.”
   “Wood’s here,” I whispered.
   “He’ll be gone in two hours and I’ll be there.”
   “I just got done working the night shift,” I reminded him.
   “And I just got done apprehending a man out on bail on a murder charge and drivin’ over six hundred
miles.”
   “So you’ll be tired and I’ll be tired –”
   “You’re naked, I’ll find a way to revive you.”
   “Captain –” I whispered.
   “You’re not naked, I’ll still find a way to revive you.”
   “Tate, it’s three thirty in the morning, you’ve had a long day. You shouldn’t even make that drive.”
   “Baby, you’re naked in my bed, no way I’m not.”
   “Tate,” I said to dead air, he was gone.
   I took the phone from my ear and stared at it. It slid from my fingers, my head came up and I watched
Wood flip it closed.
   “Go to bed, Laurie,” he said quietly, his eyes soft on me.
   I swallowed. He was really handsome, almost as beautiful as Tate but in a different way. There was an
edge to both men but I got the sense that Tate’s was sharper and closer to the surface. Wood’s was just a
sharp but it ran deeper.
   “Okay,” I replied then I pulled in breath. “You… today… what you did, looking out for me.” I paused.
“It was really kind, Wood,” I finished on a whisper.
   His body moved slightly toward me but he locked it down and I saw his jaw tense.
   Then he repeated, “Go to bed, baby.”
   I nodded, thinking exiting his presence immediately was probably a good idea. I walked by him and
headed down the hall.
   “Lauren,” he called and I stopped and turned back to him. He was leaning into a fist on the kitchen
counter and his eyes were on me. “Once we were brothers,” he told me and I held my breath. “I’d do
anything for him.”
   I didn’t know what this meant and I stayed frozen, staring at him, waiting for him to go on.
   When he didn’t, I chanced my guess on a whisper. “You miss him.”
   Wood held my eyes and didn’t speak. Then he turned away, walked across the kitchen and hit the light
switch. The kitchen went dark but I watched Wood in the light coming from the living room walk back to
the couch. He dropped down to lounge there, his eyes on the TV, his face blank.
   I had known whatever had happened, the history and bad blood between Tate and Wood was big.
   Now I knew it wasn’t big. Whatever it was was colossal.
   I wanted to go to him, stretch out beside him, hold him close in my arms and watch television, not in a
loverly way, in a way I sensed he needed.
   But that would be bad.
   So I turned and walked to Tate’s room.
Chapter Seventeen
What Do You See?
   My body jolted awake when I heard the loud bang on the window, a sound like the strong, angry crack
of knuckles.
   “Bitch! Get out here!”
   After the shrieking female’s words, the bang came again and I sat up in Tate’s bed, holding the covers
to my naked chest, looking toward the window and staring in shock at a ghostly face framed with a mass
of dark hair staring into the window.
   She lifted a fist and banged again, so hard it was a wonder her hand didn’t go through the glass. My
body jumped with the sound.
   “I said, get the fuck out here!” she screeched.
   The outside light went on and she was illuminated.
   I’d never seen her up close and her face was twisted with fury, making her not at all attractive. Even so,
I knew when it untwisted, she’d be a knockout.
   “Yeah,” she shouted, “I see you, bitch!”
   It dawned on me Tate needed curtains. Badly.
   “Jesus Christ, Neeta, what the fuck?” I heard Wood’s angry clip.
   Neeta’s head twisted to the side, it jolted with surprise and then she glared.
   Then she screamed, “Traitor!”
   “Get away from Laurie’s goddamned window,” Wood ordered.
   “Fuck you!” Neeta shouted back.
   I sat there immobile, shocked at what was happening and unable to move considering she could see me
and, as Tate had demanded, I was buck naked between his new, high thread count sheets.
   “What’s the matter with you?” Wood asked loudly, with anger and frustration clear in his tone. “Honest
to God, Neeta, I wanna know.”
   “And what’s the matter with you?” she shot back. “Honest to God, Wood, I wanna know,” she mocked,
threw out an arm and her knuckles cracked alarmingly against the window also making equally alarming
clinking noises because she was wearing rings. “I thought she was yours.”
   “Get away from her goddamned window!” Wood shouted.
   “Just like you,” she snarled. “got no fuckin’ balls. Never had any fuckin’ balls. Word is, Tate nailed
her right under your nose.”
   This wasn’t exactly true. This also pissed me off.
   Not thinking, I left the bed, dragging the sheet with me. I wrapped it around me, rushed to the dresser,
pulled open the second drawer down, grabbed the first t-shirt of Tate’s on top (one I’d laundered, folded
and replaced just that day), yanked it out and then pulled it over my head at the same time I clutched the
sheet to me. Once I got it on, I dropped the sheet, hurried to the closet, pawed through my open suitcase on
the floor, grabbed some panties and yanked them on. Then I dashed out of the room.
   Buster was close at my heels. She’d been sleeping with me and now she was sticking with me. This
was probably because there was more shouting, more hurling of abuse and a fair amount of obscenities
coming from outside and I guessed Buster probably had met Neeta but I figured Buster wasn’t a big fan of
shouting and obscenities and I knew she wasn’t a big fan of having her sleep disturbed.
   I hit the sliding glass door, which was open, slid through it and tugged it closed, using my foot gentle on
Buster to keep her back so she wouldn’t get out. I turned to the left and saw Wood was dragging a
fighting, hissing Neeta by her upper arm down the deck toward the end where her convertible was parked,
top down.
   Of course. Neeta drove through the night with the top down.
   Neeta saw me, jerked free of Wood and came at me, launching herself my way with such velocity, she
nearly bent double when Wood’s arm wrapped around her stomach, halting her progress.
   She yanked up her torso, her eyes slashed the length of me and she threatened, “I’ll rip that shirt off you,
you fuckin’ bitch.”
   My eyes went the length of her too. Another very short mini-skirt. Another tight tank. A pair of flip
flops. Full makeup even though it was the wee hours of the morning, dawn only a promise.
   Taking her in, standing on Tate’s deck, facing off against the Dread Neeta, for some reason I was
completely composed. I’d never been in a catfight and would have been glad never to get in one in my
life. But at that moment I didn’t care. It was likely she could kick my ass but maybe I could get a few licks
in and I was kind of looking forward to it.
   “What did I do to you?” I asked her.
   She struggled against her brother’s hold, eyes fixed to me. “Take it off right now or I’ll rip it off,” she
hissed.
   “I don’t even know you,” I informed her.
   “Laurie, get inside,” Wood ordered, his other arm wrapping around Neeta’s chest and he was dragging
her back.
   Neeta threw out a hand and grabbed the railing, successfully stopping Wood from retreating.
   “You know me,” she snapped.
   “I’ve never met you,” I pointed out the obvious.
   “You live in Carnal, you know me,” she repeated. “You also know you’re tryin’ to take what’s mine.”
   “He isn’t yours,” I stated calmly.
   “He’s mine,” she shot back and threw out an arm indicating the house. “This house is mine.” She
jabbed a finger at me. “That shirt is mine.” She strained against Wood’s hold and her eyes got squinty.
“His cock is mine. He’s… fuckin’… mine.”
   I looked to Wood and told him, “She needs medication.”
   “Fuck you!” she shrieked, let go of the railing and struggled against Wood’s grip.
   “You can’t really believe you can behave like this and think you’re going to scare me away. I know
about you and I also know Tate wants not one thing to do with you,” I declared.
   She stopped struggling and looked me straight in the eye.
   “Yeah?” she asked. “He tell you that?”
   “Yes, he did,” I answered.
   “That’s what he says, bitch, then I whisper in his ear and open my legs and he likes the smell, the taste,
and he’s right back in there.”
   “Maybe so,” I replied. “But that was before me and he told me I was the best he ever had. He also told
me, after two decades of you leaving nothing but bitter in his mouth, I was a sweet the like he never
tasted.”
   I was making some of that up but I thought the situation merited it.
   At my words, she quieted in her brother’s arms. I watched her stare at me for a second then, when she
had no response, I kept going.
   “He admitted you were under his skin. He admitted he loved you. But he told me I’m under his skin
now, he’s worked you out. Or, the way it sounds, you treated him so poorly you worked your own way
out.” I shook my head and said quietly, “Stupid, honey, you should have done everything to stay where you
were. I’m there now and, you have to know, it’s a good place to be.”
   “Shut your fuckin’ mouth,” she whispered, the words shaking with fury.
   I ignored her.
   “So, this house isn’t mine and this shirt isn’t mine, they’re Tate’s, but he’s mine.”
   “Shut your fuckin’ mouth, ” she screeched and started struggling against Wood’s hold again but we all
heard the roar of the pipes and saw the headlight shine on the house.
   I turned and watched Tate ride up the drive and park beside the convertible. There were lots of outside
lights shining on the deck, the drive, the area around the garage and he was illuminated fully but he moved
so quickly I didn’t see him swing off the bike and walk to the deck. It was just that he was suddenly there.
   Wood and Neeta had separated but Wood had only moved a few feet away from her. They were facing
each other but both of their heads were turned to Tate.
   Tate stood there and he wasn’t that close to me but I still felt that scary energy sparking as his angry
eyes took in the scene.
   “Familiar,” I heard him mutter, “you two standin’ between me and somethin’ I want.”
   I felt a chill enter my bloodstream.
   “Send her away,” Neeta demanded in a way that it sounded like all she had to do was make the demand
and it would be hers.
   Tate shook his head. “I’ll ask once. Get in your car and go. You don’t, Neeta, you can stand out here
shoutin’ the house down for a month and I won’t hear you. You won’t exist. Fuck, woman, you already
don’t.”
   “I exist,” she spat.
   “Nope,” Tate replied.
   “Right,” she drawled, leaning back and crossing her arms on her chest. “Baby, I roll my tongue around
the tip of your cock, you’ll remember I exist.”
   “Oh yeah, I remember that,” Tate returned. “Though, since, I’ve had a woman who knows how to use
her mouth and doesn’t forget to check her fuckin’ teeth.”
   Quick as a flash, she leaned forward and planted her hands on her hips.
   “You love my teeth!” she hurled at him.
   “Told you once, told you a million times, Neet, no man likes a woman’s teeth scrapin’ his dick. Christ,
agony, somethin’ you’re good at dishin’ out in a variety of ways.”
   “You never complained,” she retorted.
   “I did, woman, you just never listened,” Tate fired back. “Gotta say, never knew what it’d be like to tag
a piece I didn’t have to give instruction. And, damn babe, trust me, it’s fuckin’… sweet.”
   She stopped speaking and I bit my lip, wondering how I felt about being referred to as “a piece” that
Tate had “tagged” considering I was guessing he meant me.
   Neeta changed tactics and when she did, the deck rocked under my feet.
   “You fuck with me, you never see Jonas again.”
   She barely got out the word “again” when Tate took four swift, long, angry strides, all of them right at
her.
   Her face visibly paling, she retreated on an angle at the last minute but Tate kept bearing down on her
until he had her pinned against the railing, his body in her space, the line of it outright hostile. She stared
up at him, mouth wide, eyes huge, body braced, she was staggered.
   I watched this frozen with morbid fascination.
   She’d fucked up his life but he’d never done that before.
   Never.
   He bent his neck so his face was in hers.
   “Warning,” he growled. “You use my boy against me, Neeta, I swear to God, you’ll regret it.”
   His boy?
   I felt the blood drain from my own face and my head got light.
   “And,” Tate went on, “I see you within hearing distance of Laurie, I’ll fuck with your life so much
you’ll wish you lived on the goddamned moon.”
   Neeta recovered and her back went straight.
   “I got the papers, Tate, and you can tell your lawyers to go fuck themselves. After this shit, Jonas no
longer exists for you.”
   “He’s here next weekend or I swear to Christ –”
   “You’re a joke!” she cut him off. “Do you think that any judge is gonna give custody of a ten year old
kid to a bounty hunter who’s home two days a month?”
   Oh my God.
   Tate had a son. Tate and Neeta shared a child. And Tate was going for custody of his son.
   “I got shit goin’ down in my life. I needed to be in my truck, on the trail of a murderer at the same
time not seein’ to that shit and hemorrhaging more money seein’ as I was workin’ that on my own time
and my own fuckin’ dime like I needed a fuckin’ hole in my head. You were a distraction.”
   Here it was.
   This was the shit going down in his life. This had something to do with why that night in the hotel, that
night the day before he met me, was the night it finally ended between these two.
   Jonas. Tate’s ten year old boy. A son he never, not once, mentioned.
   A son, it was likely Neeta was right, no judge would give to a bounty hunter who was home two days a
month.
   Unless he had someone in his home to help out. Say, a high-class, good girl who was smart, worked
hard and grew up on a farm. A woman he ran into the day after whatever happened, happened.
   I took a step back and noticed Wood make a slight movement. My eyes slid to him and I saw he wasn’t
watching Tate and Neeta. He was watching me and he was doing it closely.
   “Right,” Tate bit out and my gaze went back to him. “And do you think any judge is gonna think that
what I can give him here isn’t better than stayin’ with you, a woman with a record and a husband with no
fuckin’ job who drinks himself sick every night? You promised you’d leave that fuckwad and get my boy
outta that mess you call a home. You didn’t. I told you, you didn’t, I’d get him out. And, make no mistake,
Neeta,” he got closer to her face, “I’ll stop at fuckin’ nothin’ to get Jonas out.”
   “I’ll fight you ‘til I’m dead, Tate,” she retorted then her eyes slid to me as her arm lifted and she
pointed at me. “No way I’m gonna let your whore raise my kid.”
   Tate’s hand shot out and his fingers wrapped around her wrist, twisting it behind her back as she
emitted a small cry. I did too just because I was surprised at the vicious way he handled her. But Tate
didn’t hesitate. He stepped back, turned, moving her with him and pushed her off. She went back two feet
and righted herself.
   “Perfect, Tate, thanks,” she snapped acidly. “Got witnesses to that tender act from my kid’s Dad.”
   “Get in your car and go,” Tate clipped, holding his body completely still.
   “You carry on like this, with her, we’ll be free and clear for Blake to adopt the kid and you’ll never see
him again,” she threatened.
   “Get in your car and go,” Tate repeated.
   She ignored him. “I’ll parade all your trash for the court.” Her eyes came to me. “You aren’t the first,
darlin’, and, trust me, you won’t be the last.”
   “Go,” Tate growled, “now.”
   She looked at Tate and hissed, “Trash.”
   “Yeah,” he replied, still growling. “I’ve fucked trash. Gotta tell you, Neet, after all those years fuckin’
you, you cannot imagine how good it feels to thrust my cock into somethin’ sweet and clean.”
   I pulled in both my lips and bit them, my eyes going to Wood. His eyes were fastened to the show that
was happening not three feet in front of him.
   Neeta glared at Tate and Tate’s back was to me but I suspected he held her glare. Then her eyes went to
Wood.
   “He’s talkin’ to your sister, you got nothin’ to say?” she snapped.
   “Kills me,” Wood whispered and I felt my heart stutter because the tone of those two words elegantly
underlined that what he was going to say next did, in a way, kill him. “But I know, I’ve known for a long
time but with this fuckin’ mess you orchestrated tonight, Neet, I know nothin’s changed.”
   “What?” she hissed.
   “You,” Wood replied then he was whispering again, “Jonas? Neeta, seriously?”
   “I’ll not –” she started.
   “Keep custody, you keep actin’ like a goddamned lunatic,” Wood cut in. “And, I gotta say, Neet, I
fuckin’ hope you don’t. I just hope you and Blake haven’t fucked that kid up so much he ends up like one
of you.”
   “You asshole,” she whispered.
   Wood looked at Tate.
   Then he stated firmly, “Anything you need, man. Anything you fuckin’ need.”
   Then he turned, walked right to me, lifted a hand and curled it around the side of my neck. His fingers
squeezed while his eyes searched mine in a way I thought he was communicating something but I was too
stunned by what had happened, what I’d learned, to understand what it might mean. He gave my neck
another squeeze, released me and walked down the deck, right by Neeta and Tate and right to his bike. He
got on, started it up and roared down the drive.
   When he turned into the road, I heard Neeta warn, “You just bought the fight of your life.”
   My eyes went back to her to see she was glaring up at Tate. He didn’t move but I heard him sigh. It was
deep and it was heavy and I knew exactly what it communicated. He was done. He was angry. He was
over this. And he was going to take her on, no matter what she brought.
   Not getting a reaction, she tore her eyes from Tate and they cut to me.
   “Watch your back, bitch,” she snapped, turned and ran gracefully on her flip flops to her convertible.
She started it up with an alarming rev of her engine, backed out and sped down the drive so fast, gravel
flew.
   My body had turned to watch her go. I was so intent on doing this, I jumped when I felt Tate’s hand
settle on the space where my neck hit my shoulder.
   “Baby,” he whispered and my eyes moved to him.
   God, he was beautiful.
   He was also a liar, a playing, hideous liar.
   I swallowed then jerked away from his hold, turned and ran to the sliding glass door. I tugged it open,
ran inside and down the hall, straight to his room. I flipped on the light switch then ran to the closet and
flipped on the light switch there. I was on my knees, zipping one of my suitcases closed when Tate was
there.
   “What are you doing?” he asked and I looked up briefly to see him standing at the doorway, then I
looked back down at my case.
   “Leaving,” I whispered.
   “Laurie,” he said quietly and my head jerked back and I glared at him.
   “Fuck you!” I shouted, surged up and took two wide steps toward him, planted my hands in his chest
and shoved. He went back on a foot, his fingers wrapped around both of my wrists and held strong. “Fuck
you!” I repeated.
   “Ace, calm down.” He was still talking quietly.
   “Jonas?” I asked.
   “Babe –” he started but I ripped my wrists from his hold and went back to my bag, dropping to my
knees in front of it.
   “Fuck you, Tate,” I snapped, yanking the zip on my bag even though it was caught in a t-shirt I hadn’t
tucked in. “God!” I cried, shaking my head. “What is the matter with me? How do I get messed up with
this kind of shit?”
   “Lauren, calm down and come into the bedroom so we can talk,” Tate ordered.
   I shook my head, still struggling with the zip. “Oh no. No way. You’ve had your chance to talk. You’ve
had plenty of opportunity to tell me you have a son. A son with that… that…” my head whipped back and
I looked him in the eye, “that woman.”
   “Ace, listen to me –”
   I shot up to my feet and rounded on him. “I went to bed naked, Tate. I never sleep naked. I don’t like to
sleep naked. It isn’t comfortable. And I did that for you.” I stabbed a finger toward him then threw up both
my hands. “God, what a fool! I should have known. You,” I thrust a finger at him again, “want me? What
the fuck was I thinking?”
   “Lauren –”
   “An old, fat, sorry-assed bitch,” I hurled his words at him. “That’d work, Tate. Good call, honey. At
least that old, fat, sorry-assed bitch would work when paraded in front of a judge as a show you could
give a stable home to Jonas!”
   One second he was standing in the door, the next second I was pinned against the back wall of the
closet. He’d moved so fast, and I’d retreated so automatically, I didn’t even know how I got there. I just
felt the wall against my back and Tate was deep in my space. I felt that energy coming from him, so strong
it was a flood and it enveloped me so tight it felt like there was no oxygen in the air to breathe. His body
wasn’t hostile, not like he was with Neeta, but it was aggressive in a way that I had absolutely no choice
but to pay attention.
   “That’s the last time you get to throw that in my face,” he whispered and even his voice scared the shit
out of me.
   I sucked in breath and, in doing so, tried to suck in courage. “Step back, Tate. I’m leaving.”
   “You have nothin’ to do with Jonas.” He was still whispering.
   “Step back,” I demanded.
   His face came to within an inch of mine. “Not one fuckin’ thing.”
   “Right,” I shot back, my tone filled with sarcasm.
   “She promised me she was leavin’ him,” he said. “She promised me she’d come home, bring my boy
home, we’d start over, she’d get her shit together, we’d have a life, a family.” I made no response but that
didn’t matter, Tate kept talking. “But she showed and she was supposed to bring Jonas. She didn’t. She
just wanted to get off. She likes to get off. She likes to suck cock. Her man, he drinks so much, his dick is
so limp, it’s been so long since he used it for more than to take a piss it’s a wonder it hasn’t fallen off.
She came back not to make a family, she promised that shit just to get my cock. Just to get off. Christ,
Lauren, this woman is raising my son.”
   “Tate, step –”
   “I was through with her before. We’d been fightin’ this battle for ten years. Broken promises from her
which led to us bein’ in and outta court for control of Jonas. Her asshole of a husband would lose another
job or lose another game of cards and back in court we’d go, not for custody, for more support so I could
prop up her and that dickless husband of hers. Jonas can’t suffer so what do I do, Lauren? What do I do?”
   “Tate –”
   “I give more, he drinks it or gambles it, she snorts it or smokes it, Christ, who knows?” Tate bit out. “I
gotta juggle everything so I don’t miss a weekend with him. Twice a month I get to see him. That is, twice
a month until that night, when she showed up at the hotel room, I got inside and my son wasn’t there and I
knew her game. I knew, no matter how sweet she could tell her lies, she’d played me again and used my
kid to do it. So that was it and she knew it. We didn’t fight. I told her to get her shit sorted because my
attorney would be in touch. She tried to play me again but I was done. You don’t use my kid against me,
not for a fuckin’ orgasm, for fuck’s sake.”
   “Tate, I –”
   “I haven’t seen him in two months, Lauren. Your shit, Tonia’s shit, needin’ to work so I can pay my
bills and keep my kid fed because neither of those two do jack. I haven’t seen my boy.”
   “I’m sorry, but –”
   “I get home, that scene goes down and you… what? I don’t even know what the fuck you’re on about.”
   “I know why you’re with me,” I told him.
   “Yeah, babe? And why’s that?”
   “I…” I took in a breath then started again. “I don’t have any kids but that sounds awful, Tate. I’m sorry
about that, it sounds… I’m sorry about it. And I can understand why you’d do anything you could to get
Jonas but you can’t act like Neeta. You can’t play someone else to take care of your son.”
   His head tipped to the side. “Act like Neeta?”
   “To make a home for your son. Make a family. Make something a judge would look at favorably and
use me to do it.”
   His brows snapped together under narrowed eyes.
   “Use you to do it?” he repeated.
   “Yes,” I stated. “That’s why you’re with me. A man like you… a woman like me.” I shook my head and
whispered, “I didn’t get it but I get it now.”
   “Tell me you’re shittin’ me,” he demanded.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   He moved quickly and he did this to pound the side of his fist on the wall by my head.
   He got in my face and shouted, “Tell me you’re shittin’ me!”
   I jumped with the fist action and went still at his shouting in my face then I shouted back, “No Tate! I
am not shitting you! I get it! You can stop…” I got up on my toes and got into his face too, “fucking…
playing me!”
   He took a step back and then I was in the air. I blinked at his back in surprise and realized I was over
his shoulder as he turned and stalked to the door of the closet.
   “What on –?”
   “Shut it,” he growled.
   “Tate, put me down!” I shouted, putting my hands to his waist and pushing as my feet kicked and he
rounded the bed.
   I felt his palm smack my ass, it wasn’t light, it wasn’t harsh but it made a point.
   “Shut it, Lauren.”
   I shut it. I’d never been spanked before. Not in my life. My Dad wasn’t afraid of discipline but he
dished it out verbally.
   Tate carried me to the bathroom, the light went on, he bent and put me on my feet. Then he jerked my
body to facing the vanity and mirror and he moved in, pinning me to the edge of the basin counter.
   “Look,” he ordered.
   “What?” I whispered, still recovering from being hauled bodily into the bathroom and pinned to the
counter against my will.
   One of his arms locked around my ribcage, his other hand curled under my jaw and he leaned in,
forcing me forward over the basin.
   “Look,” he demanded. “What do you see?”
   “Tate –”
   “What do you see?” he repeated on a growl.
   With no choice and more than a little scared, I looked at him in the mirror and answered. “I see me.”
   “What do you see?” he reiterated.
   “Tate, I see me,” I whispered.
   “Lauren, look at you, not me. What the fuck do you see?”
   I stared at him in the mirror and then my eyes went to my reflection.
   “I see me,” I said softly and I did.
   “Who did it to you?” Tate asked, releasing my jaw and he bent further forward, his hand covering mine
on the counter.
   “Did what?” I asked.
   “Twisted what you see,” he answered. “’Cause, babe, I’m guessin’, with that shit you just fed me, what
you see ain’t what I see.”
   My breath caught and I remained silent.
   “I know it ain’t your folks, they see what I see so who did it?”
   “Tate,” I breathed but said no more. My heart was beating wildly, I could feel it in my chest, my neck,
my wrists and my legs felt like jelly. If he wasn’t pressing me into the counter and holding me up, I was
certain I’d fall.
   His hand left mine at the counter and his arm at my ribs moved us slightly back so he could pull up the
tee, exposing my panties and bunching the shirt under his arm then both of his arms locked tight around me
and he pressed me into the counter again.
   “Baby,” he whispered, “I don’t fuckin’ get it. Is it easier for you to see what he made you think was
there? And if that’s it, why? What the fuck are you protecting yourself from?”
   “I…” I swallowed, “I don’t understand.”
   “No, babe, you don’t. He twisted it in so deep, you can’t straighten it out but look, look at you.” My
eyes stayed locked to his in the mirror and he urged softly, “Laurie, baby, look at you.”
   I forced my eyes to my reflection and I took it in, all of it. Not only me, my hips, undies and belly
exposed, my breasts resting on his forearm, my hair a mess around my makeup-free face and Tate behind
me, tall, dark, broad and beautiful.
   “You said you were waitin’ for something special and he took away your chance to figure out that you
were carryin’ it with you all this time. You are special, Laurie.”
   No.
   No.
   I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth, tilting my head down and to the side, automatically trying to
block out his words.
   Tate’s mouth came to my ear. “That gay guy, those hippies, even fuckin’ Twyla showed up to have your
back tonight. They did it because they see what your folks see, what I see, they did it because somethin’
special hit Carnal two months ago and they did it because you go all out to protect beauty like that.”
   His words hit me like a silken blow and my breath hitched as I swallowed a sob.
   His mouth went to my neck and he spoke there. “You’re right, baby. I like the idea of Jonas knowin’
you, learnin’ from you, how to work hard and be smart and treat people. But you’re wrong. You’re in my
bed because I’ve never had beauty like that and I got a shot at it and you think you can twist our shit in
your head into something ugly, fuck that. I won’t stop until I set it straight.”
   My eyes opened, I looked at him in the mirror and his head came up to look at me.
   “Why didn’t you tell me you had a son?”
   “Because Wood was right,” Tate answered instantly.
   “Sorry?” I asked.
   “Because, shit like that, not Jonas but what I got in my future to beat that bitch and get him safe, you
don’t lay on a good woman when you and her are just startin’ out. Especially not when another woman’s
been brutally murdered and your old lady’s Dad had a heart attack. You stick close, you stand strong and
you work to hook her deep and then you lay it on her. I want you where you are.” His arms gave me a
squeeze. “So yeah, I played you and I’d do it again, no joke, I’d do it. And I’d do it no hesitation. I needed
to know you were what the promise of you seemed to be because I haven’t been good with that shit in the
past and, if you were, I needed to make certain you stayed where I wanted you to be.”
   “Keeping the existence of a son from me –”
   He interrupted me, “I’d do it again.”
   “Well, I don’t like that, I can’t ignore that I don’t like it and I can’t forgive it.”
   “Same old shit, Laurie,” he muttered.
   “No, it isn’t. We’re talking about you having a child with Neeta.”
   “Yeah, babe. Was that a pleasant scene? Did you like what happened outside?”
   “What?” I snapped and answered, “Of course not.”
   “Twenty years of that,” he told me, “twenty fuckin’ years. She’s got a filthy mouth and shit for brains
and she’s spoiled rotten and thinks she can do anything she wants. No man who’s had a woman like that in
his life jumps back in without testin’ the waters and no father who’s goin’ for full custody brings a woman
in his son’s life without makin’ sure she’s fit to be there. No, I didn’t tell you about Jonas because I
needed to be certain you were who you are and, since you are, I needed to keep you safe from that shit you
just experienced outside because I didn’t want you jumpin’ in your goddamned car again and findin’
yourself a new Carnal.”
   God, I hated it when he made sense especially when I was furious at him.
   “Let me go, Tate,” I demanded.
   “Not gonna happen,” he replied.
   I strained backwards. “Let… me… go.”
   “Nope, baby, you’re gonna watch in the mirror as I fuck you and I’m gonna do it until you see what I
see.”
   I stopped straining and stared into his eyes in the mirror.
   “No,” I whispered as one of his hands slid down my belly and the other one ducked under my shirt and
curled around my breast.
   “Yes,” he whispered back.
   “Tate –”
   His hand cupped me between my legs and his other thumb slid across my nipple. I bit my lip and
watched his eyes drop to his hand at my sex.
   “Wood’s a player,” he whispered bizarrely as his fingers pressed in between my legs, his middle one
hitting the spot, my hands moved to curl around the edge of the counter and his thumb did another swipe at
my nipple. “He’s hit every decent piece in three counties.”
   His middle finger pressed deeper and made a lazy circle.
   “Tate, please –”
   Tate’s head dropped and his bearded lips tickled my neck.
   “Saw him come outta the garage at you, I knew,” he muttered against my skin. “I was strugglin’ with it
but I knew then. I knew you were my girl.”
   My breath stuck in my throat as his finger did another lazy circle, his tongue touched my neck and his
finger and thumb rolled my nipple.
   Oh God, but it was beautiful.
   My hands grasped the counter and I tried to stay strong.
   “Tate –”
   His finger stopped pressing and his hand slid up and then down, this time in my panties and the pressure
came back, skin to skin, another lazy circle.
   Delicious.
   My body trembled and Tate’s mouth moved to my ear.
   “He didn’t fuck you while I was gone. A miracle. Respect. He knew what he had in his bed.”
   “Please,” I whispered and his finger and thumb gently tugged my nipple and my breath snagged.
   “Even if he fucked you, I woulda still won you back. Mad as I was when I left you that night in the hall
at the bar, I was half over it by the time I got to my bike, by the time I saw you at the pool the next day,
mostly just nursin’ it ‘cause I’m a dick.”
   “Stop,” I breathed and I meant him talking. My body was too far gone to want him to stop doing what he
was doing to it.
   His finger slid back and I opened my legs to allow it access.
   “That’s my girl,” he murmured in my ear and reached even deeper, his finger sliding inside.
   My head fell back on his shoulder. “Tate.”
   His teeth nipped my ear and his finger started moving in and out.
   “Wet, baby,” he whispered there.
   “Yes,” I whispered back and turned my head toward him.
   His came up, he knew what I wanted and, thank God, he gave it to me. He kissed me, deep and hard as
he finger fucked me, the fingers of his other hand rolling my nipple, his thumb tweaking my clit. He kept
kissing me while his hands moved on me until my breath started coming in gasps. I was so close, my hips
were moving with his hand between my legs, reaching for it.
   His head came up, my eyes fluttered open and saw his on me.
   “Look, baby,” he urged.
   I ground down on his hand and it stopped moving, his finger deep inside and his eyes went to the
mirror.
   “Jesus, Laurie, baby, look at you.”
   My eyes followed his, mainly because I wanted him to keep at me and I’d do just about anything he told
me to do to get it.
   But what I saw made my heart skip and my legs fail.
   Tate, dark, tall, behind me, his hands on me; me, blonde, my face flushed, my eyes hooded, tucked tight
against him. A perfect fit, made to be there. A perfect match, made to be together.
   Made to be there.
   Made to be together.
   We looked great.
   We looked hot.
   We looked beautiful.
   My eyes went to his in the mirror.
   “Fuck me,” I whispered, his eyes locked on mine, then he shoved his face in my neck, his arm fastened
around my ribcage again but his finger slid out of me, then my panties were yanked down passed my hips
and then I felt him working his jeans at my backside.
   “Tilt your ass for me, Laurie,” he muttered into my neck and I did as asked, I felt the tip of his cock and
then he thrust inside.
   My head flew back.
   He started moving and I watched in the mirror as Tate fucked me, one arm wrapped around my ribcage,
his torso bent over mine, his other hand between my legs, finger at my clit, his eyes on mine in the mirror.
   “Do you see it?” he demanded, his thrusts building in power, his finger circling faster.
   “I see it,” I breathed, the urge building inside me, my hips rearing back to meet his thrusts.
   He drove in, burying himself to the root and stayed planted.
   “Why do I want you here, Laurie?” he growled.
   “Don’t stop, baby,” I pleaded.
   He ground his cock deeper. “Why do I want you here?”
   “Tate –”
   “Why, baby?”
   “We’re perfect,” I whispered. “We fit,” I kept whispering and pressed back into his hips. “Honey, I’m
made to be here.”
   He pulled out so fast I gasped and then I was over his shoulder again and he walked out of the bathroom
into the bedroom. With a bump of his shoulder he tossed me on the bed, straightened and yanked his t-shirt
off. Then he reached down and tore my undies down my legs. Then he spread them wide and he was
covering me, back inside, thrusting harder, faster, pounding. God, ecstasy.
   His mouth took mine in a deep, wet kiss then I tore it away.
   “Tate,” I moaned as it hit me, my nails scored a path up his back and my spine arched, pressing my
torso into his.
   It took me awhile to ride the wave and come down and, when I did, he wasn’t done.
   “Wrap me up, Laurie,” he groaned between grunts and I folded my limbs tight around him. His mouth
came to mine. “There it is,” he muttered then growled deep and plunged deeper as he came.
   I felt it and listened and held him tight and when he was done his teeth tagged my lower lip, giving it a
gentle tug before he let it go and his tongue slid along it.
   I closed my eyes, my mind completely clear and just let myself feel the sweet path of his tongue.
   It went away and stayed away and I noticed I didn’t even feel his breath against my lips so I opened my
eyes again.
   Tate’s head was tipped back and he was staring beyond me, a hint of surprised puzzlement in his face.
   “What –?” he started, stopped, a slow, lazy smile spread on his face and his eyes moved to mine.
   I was so busy watching his lips framed by his beard smiling it took awhile to feel his body’s gentle
tremors and awhile longer to realize it was silent laughter.
   My gaze flew from his mouth to his eyes.
   “Tate?”
   “Baby,” he whispered, “you bought a new comforter.” My breath caught, his head twisted and he
looked at the head of the bed then at me, his body shuddering less gently now, it was full on quakes. “And
sheets.”
   Oh God, he noticed. He’d been on the bed for approximately two seconds after fucking me and he
noticed I bought a new comforter and sheets.
   Why was I such an idiot?
   “Um…” I mumbled.
   He burst out laughing, his hips pressing deep into mine making me gasp as his hands tagged the back of
my knees, pulled them up and tucked my legs tight to his sides.
   “You bought me sheets,” he repeated, his voice clogged with laughter.
   “Um… actually,” I started timidly, “I bought them for me, seeing as I was sleeping in them.”
   His head came up. “Yeah? And the comforter?”
   Yes, such an idiot!
   “I was sleeping under that too.”
   “And you didn’t think about me sleepin’ under it?”
   “No,” I lied.
   “So, you go back to the hotel, you take them with you?”
   “Um…” I hesitated. “No,” I whispered.
   He grinned. “Right.”
   “Yours were a little… well…”
   His head moved so he could look back at the sheets at the head of the bed then over mine at the
comforter then his eyes came back to mine.
   “Yeah, Ace, I can see these are a whole lot better than mine.”
   “Um…”
   “High-class girl, nice fancy sheets.”
   I felt my body get tense.
   “They aren’t fancy.”
   “Babe, in comparison, they are.”
   They were, darn it all.
   I made no reply. Tate’s face got closer.
   “Ace, you wanna tell me why, half the time after I finish fuckin’ you, I’m still inside you and I’m
laughing?”
   “I’ve no idea,” I replied haughtily.
   His face changed, his eyes warmed, his hand came up, fingers sliding into the hair at the side my head
and his mouth came to mine.
   Then he whispered, “I do.”
   I fought back my more than pleasant response to all of that but I only won the fight in my head. My
traitorous body melted under his.
   “You weren’t supposed to notice them,” I informed him and he burst out laughing again, going so far as
to throw his head back to do it, such was the hilarity of my comment.
   He slid out of me, rolled off, gained his feet by the side of the bed then tugged me to standing in front of
him.
   I stood there while he shifted around me, pivoting me with him with hands at my hips and he sat down
on the bed in front of me.
   He bent and tugged off his boots and socks while asking, “How did you think I wasn’t gonna notice?”
   “You’re a man, men don’t notice sheets.”
   He dropped his second boot and went after the sock, tilting his head back to look at me as he did.
“Babe, we do.”
   “Well…” I muttered, feeling stupid standing in front of him, so I crossed my arms on my chest.
“Whatever,” I finished lamely.
   He chuckled as he stood up and his arms wrapped around me. He kissed my neck, still chuckling, then
let me go and tugged his jeans down.
   “Any other surprises? New towels? Bath mat? Did you order a new, grape Kool-Aid free zone couch?”
   “No,” I snapped, again haughty even though he was being kind of funny.
   “What happened? Not enough time?” he teased.
   “Tate, I’m not finding this funny,” I informed him, somewhat lying.
   He sat again, pulled me between his legs with an arm around my waist then fell back, taking me with
him and twisting us so we were lying right in the bed. He twitched the comforter over us then came up on
his forearm and looked across the room.
   “What’s the top sheet doin’ on the floor?”
   I got up on my elbows and looked where he was looking. Then my head turned to him.
   “Neeta was banging at the window and looking in. I was naked so I had to use the sheet to… um…” I
stopped talking because he didn’t look amused and content anymore.
   His eyes moved to the windows.
   Then he muttered, “Fuckin’ bitch.”
   “Tate,” I called and his eyes came back to me.
   “Tomorrow, you buy curtains,” he ground out.
   “Um…” I looked at the clock on his nightstand to see it was nearly six in the morning, “it is tomorrow.”
   “What shift you got?”
   “I’m off.”
   He grinned and then came off his forearm and rested his weight mostly on me so I was forced to slide
off my elbows.
   He shoved his face in my neck and stated, “Good, then we’ll buy curtains,” and he kissed my neck.
   “Tate,” I called again as he moved off me, settled on his side and pulled me into his arms, front to front,
face to face.
   “Sleep, Ace,” he ordered, his voice suddenly sounding tired, “then shoppin’.”
   “Um…” I said to him, thinking about shopping with Tate and liking those thoughts, rather than thinking
about Tate having a son, that scene with Neeta and all the other things I should be thinking about and I
noticed his eyes were closed. “Are we done talking?”
   “For now, yeah,” he answered.
   “Um…” I mumbled again. “Perhaps we should –”
   His eyes opened and with one look into them, I quit talking.
   Then I whispered, “The lights are on.”
   His head came up then he turned, rolled out of bed and, naked, he went to the bathroom, switched out
the light, went to the closet and switched out the light, went to the bedroom door and switched out the
light.
   I watched as he came back to bed, got in and rolled back to me. His arm came around me and he pulled
me close again, front to front.
   “Tate –”
   “Babe, bad guy, titty bar, lots of road, Neeta, dealin’ with you and a really sweet orgasm. Honest to
God, I don’t have a lot more in me.”
   “Okay,” I whispered instantly.
   Yes, his good girl. Always a good girl, now his.
   Such.
   An.
   Idiot.
   His head bent, he touched his mouth to mine then his hands rolled me so my back was to him. He leaned
in, hitching my leg with his knee in the back of mine, his arm curled around my belly, his face burrowed
into my hair and I took the rest of his weight which pinned me to the bed.
   “Sweet dreams, baby,” he whispered into my hair, his arm giving me a squeeze. “See you on the other
side.”
   “You too, Captain,” I whispered back and stared at the light clay colored pillowcase in front of me, the
water-colored brushstrokes of sun hitting it.
   He’d noticed the sheets.
   I felt Buster jump up on the bed, she walked up Tate’s and my legs to our hips and then back down and
her weight disappeared. She tucked herself into the crook of our knees, likely curled and ready to resume
her Crazy Neeta disturbed sleep.
   It didn’t take her or her master long; both of them were out within minutes.
   I didn’t know it but it took me precisely two minutes longer to join them.
Chapter Eighteen
Curtains
   “Ace,” I heard Tate call and my eyes fluttered open.
   My neck twisted and I saw he was sitting on the bed but was leaned down, forearm in the mattress,
other hand on my waist, his face close to mine.
   “What?” I asked, mind fogged with sleep.
   “Curtains,” he answered and I closed my eyes.
   “You can get them. That big home store, outside the mall. They have a wide variety,” I informed him
and snuggled my head into the pillow.
   “Laurie,” he called.
   “Mm?” I answered.
   “Babe, wake up,” he ordered and my eyes opened again.
   I looked at the clock. It was just after eleven. Way too early. No way I was getting up.
   I closed my eyes again.
   His hand slid from my waist, to my hip and back to my behind as I felt his presence invade the space
around me.
   “Baby, you did my laundry,” I heard him whisper in my ear.
   His words tugged forcefully at the sleep that had hold of me and my body tensed.
   “And cleaned my house,” he went on whispering.
   I turned my face partially into the pillow and pressed in as the edges of sleep started to separate with
jagged little tears that I knew, from experience, would never mend.
   “And the fridge,” he continued.
   “Quiet,” I muttered, the word muffled in the pillow.
   “Fridge is jammed, babe, more food than it’s ever seen.”
   This was true. Seeing as I had a full, clean fridge for the first time in months, not to mention a kitchen, a
couple of days before I went a little nuts at the grocery store.
   “Go away,” I mumbled.
   “We got grape Kool-Aid.”
   “Go. Away.”
   “In a new pitcher.”
   I turned my face fully into the pillow and groaned.
   His beard tickled my shoulder and then his lips kissed me there.
   “Sweet pitcher, babe. Never owned one of those.”
   In the window of the little country shop (that happened to be two doors down from the grocery store)
they had these adorable, big, old-fashioned glass pitchers with a beautiful shape, dimpled glass and they
were tinted pink. Now Tate had this pitcher.
   They also had matching glasses. Tate probably didn’t look but the glasses were in the cupboard.
   I lifted my head, his body jerked back a foot and I glared at his grinning, arrogant, beautiful face.
   “Go! Away!” I snapped and then suddenly I was on my feet by the bed and just as suddenly I was in
front of Tate, his hands at my hips, and I was moving toward the bathroom. “Tate!”
   “Seein’ as you’re up, time to shower,” he stated, shoving me into the bathroom.
   I twisted my head around and gave him a look.
   “You think you’re funny but you… are… not.”
   He whipped my body around, his arm went around my waist and held me close to his t-shirted, jeaned
front and he reached beyond me, opening the door to the shower. He turned on the taps, the water shot
down and he looked down at me.
   “Curtains,” he muttered.
   I glared up at him then muttered back, “Whatever,” turned to the shower, stuck my hand in, found it was
hot, yanked off his tee that I was wearing and stepped in, firmly closing the door behind me.
                                                     *****
   I was still nursing my grudge at all things Tate, (primarily his waking me up, being arrogant, and finding
his morning amusing after I had the worst night of my life, a night that contained Brad, Neeta and the
unexpected knowledge of ten year old Jonas) when Tate, me beside him, drove his Explorer into Carnal
on our way to the mall.
   I had been silent all morning as I got ready, something Tate found funny if the amount of times I saw him
grin, smile or heard him chuckle was any indication as he came in and out of the bedroom or stood at the
counter in the kitchen sifting through his piles of post while I was preparing for my day, making the bed,
replacing the be-shammed pillows and getting myself coffee.
   I spied the coffee shop and fairly shouted, “La-La Land!”
   Tate’s head turned to me. “Come again?”
   “Stop. Park. Coffee. Orgasmic bread. Now,” I demanded.
   “Orgasmic bread?” Tate asked.
   “Tate, you’re passing it!” I cried desperately as we went passed, my head turning to watch the shop
through the window. “Park!”
   Tate braked and swung into a parking spot three doors down from La-La Land. He barely had the
ignition switched off before I had the door open, hopped down, slammed the door and was motoring.
   I was nearly there when I was hooked with an arm across my chest and pulled back into the solidness
that was all Tate.
   “Hang on there, Ace, the shop isn’t gonna go up in a puff of smoke,” he said into my hair as I forced us
forward even though we were locked together.
   “Unh-hunh,” I said back, pushed open the door to La-La Land and entered, pulling Tate with me.
   “Flower Petal!” Shambles cried upon seeing me, his face lighting up behind his blue tinted, round
sunglasses then his eyes went to Tate and his face froze.
   Sunny’s head popped up down the counter.
   “Petal,” she smiled at me and her smile didn’t waiver when her eyes went to Tate and she watched as,
still locked together, he moved us to the counter.
   “Hey guys, what’s today’s theme?” I asked.
   “Who’s that?” Shambles asked, stealthily moving away from the front counter toward the back.
   “Ignore him, I am,” I stated audaciously, seeing as Tate still had his arm around me, and I looked in the
display case. “Let me guess, chocolate?”
   That wasn’t so much a guess as a dream.
   Tate’s other arm joined his first wrapped around my chest.
   “Lemon,” Sunny answered and came to stand in front of Tate and I at the counter. “Hey dude, I’m
Sunny,” she said to Tate.
   “Tate,” Tate replied.
   “Awesome, Tate. This is my man, Shambles.” She gestured to Shambles.
   “Dude,” Shambles muttered, eyeing up Tate and me in a way I didn’t really notice but if I had I would
have seen it was like a brother would eye up his sister’s new boyfriend. Uncertain, tentative, holding back
and ready to pass resoundingly negative judgment if the new boyfriend gave even a hint of being a jerk.
   I ignored this, focused on processing my disappointment that Shambles had yet to hit on a chocolate
theme at the same time surveying the case seeing lemon drizzle cake, lemon squares and lemon curd filled
cupcakes and wondering what I was going to order.
   I looked at Shambles. “What do you recommend?”
   “Um…” Shambles mumbled, still eyeing Tate, still not quite certain how his judgment would come
down.
   “That’s hard,” Sunny put in, “Shambles is a master with lemon.”
   After she imparted this knowledge, I stared at her. Then, knowing what it meant, I ordered, “I’ll take
one of anything with lemon in it.”
   Tate burst out laughing behind me, his arms going tight and his head moved so he could shove his face
into my neck where I felt his beard tickle me and his lips kissing me.
   Shambles looked at me then he looked at Tate’s head bent to my neck. Then he took two steps forward.
   “Dude,” he called and Tate’s head came up.
   “Yeah?”
   Shambles swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed when he did.
   “You look like you like her but Petal doesn’t look like she likes you. What gives?”
   “Petal?” Tate whispered in my ear.
   “She’s flowery,” Sunny answered him. “See? At her ears and her wrists and her neck. Flowers. Petal.
Get it?”
   Tate curved me around to face him and his eyes went from my ears to my neck to mine.
   “Flowery,” he muttered and something about his deep, rough voice saying that word slid through me in
a way that felt really nice.
   Even so, I demanded, “Do you mind letting me go so I can have something lemon chased by coffee?”
   Tate didn’t answer verbally but him not letting me go was his answer physically. His fingers came to
my neck and I felt one twist a chain there, tightening it. His eyes watched his movements then they came to
my face.
   “That dick buy you these?” he asked.
   “No,” I answered truthfully wondering, if I said yes, if Tate would rip it off which he seemed like he
was preparing to do.
   Then I realized, outside my wedding and engagement rings, Brad had never bought me jewelry. In fact,
he’d not bought me many presents. In fact, even though my college boyfriend remembered my birthday
every year, Brad normally forgot it, even though I always made a big to-do about his and spent weeks
prior dropping hints about mine. Ditto with our anniversary. At first, I used to remind him. The last two
years of our marriage, I didn’t bother.
   “You got anything he gave you?” Tate asked as his finger released the chain at my neck.
   My eyes slid to the side and I thought about it.
   Then they slid back and I answered, “No, except a lot of really bad memories and the knowledge that I
was stupid enough to put up with him for ten years.”
   “Right,” Tate said then asked, “You done bein’ pissed at me, again for no reason?”
   I felt my body get tight.
   Then I whispered, “No reason?”
   “Babe,” was his response.
   “You have a child!” I shouted, trying to pull back but both his arms went around me and he yanked me
forward.
   “Yeah and you get to meet him next weekend.”
   Oh no. I hadn’t thought of that.
   I wasn’t exactly good with children. I wasn’t bad with them, as such, I just wasn’t around them much
and, because of that, when I was, they freaked me out because I didn’t know what to do with them.
   “Oh my God,” I breathed.
   “He lives with those idiots but he’s a good kid, takes care of his Mom, puts up with that jackass.
Patient. Smart. Loyal. Funny. You’ll like him. He’ll like you.”
   “Oh my God,” I breathed, not even hearing his words, instead, thinking of a ten year old Tate and
wondering what on earth I’d do with him. I didn’t even know what to do with a forty-four year old Tate
and I was used to dealing with adults!
   “Petal, you okay?” Shambles asked and I turned woodenly in Tate’s arms.
   “Tate has a ten year old son,” I told Shambles and Shambles’s eyes shot to Tate.
   “Cool!” Sunny shouted. “I like! Kids are awesome!”
   I stared at her.
   “Kids are awesome, Sunny,” Shambles said quietly.
   “Unh-hunh,” I mumbled. “Coffee. Multiple lemon treats. Stat.”
   “I’ll get the treats, you get the coffee, Shams,” Sunny said on a grin and looked at Tate. “You?”
   “Dazzle me,” Tate invited and Sunny’s grin spread to a smile.
   “I can do that!” she cried and turned to get a bag.
   Shambles leaned toward me and, with a jerk of the thumb toward Tate, he whispered as if Tate wasn’t
right there, “Petal, dude’s into you.”
   “Coffee, Shambles,” I prompted.
   “I’m a dude and even as a dude I can see this dude is all dude. That isn’t a bad thing, especially with
the rumors I hear around town. All of them. You get what I’m sayin’?”
   “Shambles, honey, coffee,” I repeated.
   “You guys havin’ a tiff?” he asked.
   “His ex is a nightmare,” I shared.
   “I missed it last night but word on the street is your ex isn’t too groovin’ either.”
   This was true. I didn’t admit that because I heard Tate chuckle.
   I leaned into Shambles. “His ex is a nightmare’s nightmare, you know, the kind where you wake up and
you think you’re safe but then you realize you’re still asleep and you’re still in the nightmare but this one
is way worse and finally you wake up with a jolt and your skin is all tingly and you know, you just know
someone is in the room and you’re going to be brutally attacked and killed,” I leaned back. “That’s Tate’s
ex.”
   “She isn’t wrong,” Tate agreed.
   “Bummer,” Shambles muttered.
   “Unh-hunh,” I mumbled. “She visited last night at about five o’clock in the morning. She woke me up by
shouting through the window and banging on it, calling me a bitch. I’d never met her before in my life.
There was a lot of shouting and obscenities and then there was more shouting and obscenities but these
were liberally mixed with threats. The last thing she told me was to watch my back. And she told Tate she
would fight him until she died so he’d never see his son again. Now, I’ve had about five hours of sleep
and I need coffee. Can you do that for me, Shambles?”
   “Your life is pretty wild, Petal,” Shambles observed.
   “Thus my need for lemon treats and really, really good coffee, Shambles,” I replied. “You’re keeping
me standing.”
   Shambles smiled. “I better get you coffee then.”
   “That would be good.”
   Shambles shuffled to the espresso machine and Sunny filled his spot.
   “Here we go,” she announced, proffering a big bag. “Two lemon squares. Two lemon curd cupcakes.
Two slices of lemon and ginger bread with pistachios. And two pieces of lemon drizzle cake.”
   I reached forward, took the bag, opened it, yanked out the first thing my fingers touched (lemon drizzle
cake) and I took a huge bite.
   “Jesus, Ace,” Tate mumbled and I knew by his voice he was smiling.
   I twisted to him, lifted the cake to his mouth, he looked at it, looked in my eyes, leaned forward and
took a big bite.
   Then he chewed.
   Then he swallowed.
   Then he said, “Gotcha.”
   “Unh-hunh,” I muttered and turned back to Sunny, “two more of each, please.”
   Tate burst out laughing.
   Shambles cried in Tate’s direction, “Dude! Give me a chance, I’ll rock your world.”
   I twisted to Tate again, looked up and suggested, “Take him up on that.”
   Tate looked at Shambles. “Rock my world,” he invited then he looked at me, his fingers curled around
my wrist, he lifted my hand to his mouth and he took another huge bite of my cake.
   “Hey!” I exclaimed, pulling my hand back. “That’s my cake.”
   “Yeah,” Tate muttered, mouth full, his hand moved to my neck, his thumb at my jaw tilting my head
back and his head bent. He swallowed then he kissed me, a kiss that was short but included a sweep of
his lemony tongue.
   Beautiful.
   His mouth left mine and he asked, “You still pissed?”
   “I don’t think so,” I answered, still tasting lemon and Tate so, it was debatable, but it might be
physically impossible to be pissed.
   He grinned. “Give it time, somethin’ll come up.
   I turned and rolled my eyes to Sunny who was grinning at the both of us.
   Then I took another bite of cake.
   Heaven.
                                                    *****
   We were in the home store and Tate was pushing the cart as only men do. That was to say, he was bent
at the waist, his forearms crossed on the handle, his chest leaning into them, the look on his face part
glazed, part blank indicating clearly any question I could ask him would receive the answer, “Hunh?”
   I was leading the way to the curtain section while realizing Tate’s rabid need to go shopping for
curtains was because, with Neeta on the loose, he needed curtains not because he needed to shop.
Shopping was the necessary evil that came with owning curtains.
   He’d seemed game until I commandeered a cart at the entrance.
   “We’re buying curtains, babe, that activity hardly requires a cart,” he noted
   “We’re in a home store, Tate,” I replied, thinking my answer said all.
   “And?” he returned, stating plainly my answer did not say all.
   “A mega home store,” I added.
   “And?”
   “And, I came here a few days ago to buy you sheets. I ended up buying you two sets of sheets, six new
pillows, a down comforter, a comforter cover and shams. That happens in a home store,” I educated him.
“You come in needing a spatula and you go out with a spatula, new kitchen towels, candles, candle
holders, cool things to seal open chip bags, a variety of frames, a soap dispenser and a new vacuum
cleaner.”
   After I delivered this lesson was when Tate’s face went blank and, shortly after that, his eyes glazed
over. He hijacked the cart so he could lean on it in order to remain standing even as he fell asleep while
walking the aisles and we headed to curtains.
   “Tate?” We heard and I turned around to see Tate had stopped but hadn’t straightened and was looking
over his shoulder at an advancing Stella, the Queen Biker Babe from Wood’s garage. She approached and
took us both in, a grin spreading on her face. “Lauren,” she greeted when she arrived.
   “Hi Stella,” I returned, walking back to stand beside the handle of the cart Tate had straightened from.
   “You’re at a Deluxe Home Store,” she stated the obvious since we were, indeed, standing in a store
called “Deluxe Home Store”.
   “Um…” I mumbled, Tate’s arm slid around my shoulders and he hauled me into his side.
   “Yeah,” Tate replied. “How’s things, Stell?”
   “Hoppin’,” she answered and her eyes moved between the both of us and settled on me. “You okay?”
   “Um…” I repeated. “Yeah?” I answered in a question because I was uncertain of her question.
   Her eyes went to Tate. “Neeta?”
   “Visited Laurie last night,” Tate shared.
   “Shit,” Stella hissed.
   “She got the papers,” Tate kept sharing.
   “Yeah?” Stella asked.
   “She’s gonna fight it,” Tate answered.
   “Stupid bitch,” Stella muttered.
   “Um…” I put in and Tate looked down at me.
   “You ever meet Pop?” he asked and I nodded. “Stell is his little sister. I grew up with her too.”
   “Practically raised the three of ‘em,” she told me, “even though I was a kid myself.”
   “Oh,” I whispered, wondering about this but not having much time to do so.
   Stella looked at Tate. “I’ll track down Neet, see if she’s receptive to a chat.”
   “Mighta been, if I was livin’ a life where I wasn’t in a fuckin’ home store buyin’ curtains with Laurie.
Now, no way.”
   “That girl,” Stella whispered. “She never gave away any of her toys.” Her eyes came to me. “And she
never shared.”
   “I got that from her last night,” I said quietly and cautiously considering Stella might have called Neeta
a bitch but she was still Neeta’s aunt.
   She read my tone because she stated, “Darlin’, no love lost, trust me. Not a lot of bridges Neeta hasn’t
burned.”
   “Oh,” I repeated and Stella looked back at Tate.
   “Curtains?”
   “Don’t have any and Neeta called Lauren out last night through my bedroom window.”
   “Christ,” Stella muttered. “How could she be Kyle and Brenda’s?”
   Tate made no response so I asked, “Kyle and Brenda?”
   “Pop and his wife, Ace. Brenda died when Wood and I were eight, Neet was six. Diabetes,” Tate
answered.
   “That’s horrible,” I whispered.
   “Yeah, horrible normally, more horrible because Brenda was a beauty, inside and out. Pure through and
through. Pure goodness. Pure kindness. Pure love. The real deal. A good girl. Everyone loved her,” Stella
added and Tate’s arm tightened around my shoulders when she said “a good girl”.
   “I’m sorry,” I said to Stella.
   “Long time ago, darlin’. Sucks to say but one thing good about it, she didn’t live to see Neeta turn out
the way she did and she didn’t live a life like Kyle, puttin’ up with Neeta’s shit,” Stella remarked.
   Before I could stop myself, I turned to Tate and started, “But Wood said –”
   “Wood blames Pop ‘cause that’s Wood,” Tate interrupted me. “He’s gotta have someone to blame.”
   “A trait you two share,” Stella put in smoothly, Tate’s eyes cut to her and his mouth got tight.
   My whole body got tight.
   They held each other’s eyes and I stood there, supremely uncomfortable while they did it. Something
was happening there and I didn’t get it.
   Stella proved herself the Queen Biker Babe by not backing down from Tate’s dark look and instead
saying, “You two share a lot, Buck.” Her eyes slid to me and then back. “And not just taste in women.”
   “That’ll do, Stell,” Tate warned in a low voice.
   “You let it go, he finally might be able to,” she went on.
   “What’d I say?” Tate asked.
   “He took your old lady’s back, Tate,” she reminded him of a fresh memory. “Goes without sayin’ that
was big, seein’ as he was thinkin’ Lauren would be on the back of his bike.”
   “Stella,” Tate’s tone had degenerated from scary to ominous.
   In return, her voice got soft. “Cut him some slack, Buck, all I’m sayin’.”
   Tate didn’t speak but a muscle in his jaw jumped.
   Stella kept at him. “You get Jonas, and you’ll get Jonas, Tate, Neeta’ll make it a pain in your ass but
you’ll get him, what with her history, her record and that ass in her house not to mention Pop and me at
your back. Then when you get him, you’ll need all the family you can find. Wood loves that kid. He’d do
anything for him. And you’d be a fool to harbor bad blood when you can let it go and build a family for
Jonas.”
   “You done?” Tate asked.
   “Never,” Stella answered.
   “You are for now,” Tate replied and then turned us away from her, tagging the cart with a hand and
moving the cart and me unavoidably forward without saying good-bye.
   I twisted my head to look over my shoulder at Stella.
   “Um… see you later?” I called.
   “Yeah, darlin’, you take care,” she called back.
   “You too,” I replied, smiled an embarrassed smile and looked forward again. “What was that all
about?” I asked Tate under my breath.
   “Curtains, Ace,” was Tate’s non-answer.
   “Tate, honey, I think you get I’m not big on you keeping stuff from me,” I reminded him gently.
   He stopped the cart and looked down at me.
   Then he stated bluntly, “Wood killed my Dad.”
   I blinked.
   Then I whispered, “Sorry?”
   “Car wreck. Wood was drivin’. Wood walked away. Dad died at the scene. Now you know. Can we
buy curtains?”
   I didn’t hesitate even a second in my response.
   “Yes, baby,” I was still whispering but my arm had moved to slide around his waist both to support
him and also to keep myself standing.
   I had questions. Lots of them. But they weren’t for a home wares store.
   I led Tate to the curtains.
                                                     *****
   I wasn’t paying attention when we walked up to the cash registers.
   This was because they always put the good stuff around the cash registers and therefore my attention
was turned and I was wondering if Tate had a cool spoon-slash-bowl scraper in the awesome color of
teal. Then I wondered if he should have two, one teal and one purple. Anyone could easily use two
spoon-slash-bowl scrapers in their house. You could use them for everything.
   “Ace!” Tate called, I jumped, looked to see he was at the head of the line at a register and I grabbed
both the teal and purple ones because, from the look on his face he was pretty much done with Deluxe
Home Store and I obviously didn’t have time to make a considered decision about the spoon-slash-bowl
scrapers.
   I rushed to the cart and started unloading. Curtains for the bedroom (denim). New curtain rods
(awesome). New kitchen towels (bright and cheery). New bathroom towels (thick and lush). And one of
those shelf things for the shower because Tate really needed one.
   Our cart was so full because Tate had been distracted by brooding over his conversation with Stella. I
wasn’t proud of my behavior but I couldn’t deny I took advantage.
   “Girlfriend!” our cashier cried, I straightened and looked at her.
   It was my cashier from when Wendy and I were there a few days before. Her eyes were fastened on
Tate in a way it looked like it might cause bodily damage if she was forced to tear them away.
   “Hey,” I greeted, her body jolted and her eyes came to me.
   She asked with a tilt of her head to Tate, “This your hot guy?”
   Tate looked at me.
   I bit my lip. Then I said, “Yeah.”
   The clerk’s head shot around and she shouted, “Hey, Maybelline! This is the sheet chick and her hot
guy.”
   A rotund, older black lady four registers down turned to us, gave Tate a once-over and shouted, “Oo
doggies. That boy’s hot all right!”
   Wow. Conversation in the staff room at Deluxe Home Stores must be relatively limited for my sheet
purchases to make the agenda.
   “Uh… Ace,” Tate called and my head swung in his direction to see his eyebrows were up but his mouth
was twitching.
   “Don’t,” I warned.
   “What’d she get this time?” Maybelline called.
   The clerk at our register was scanning as she called out our purchases across the register lanes,
“Curtains! Kitchen towels! Bath towels! Rods! A shower shelf! Oo! And a teal and purple spoon bowl
scraper.” She looked at me. “Good choice, I got the purple first and came back for the teal. These things
are great! They don’t even melt. You can use them making cakes and cookin’ scrambled eggs. You got
two, you can do both at the same time.”
   “Great,” I muttered.
   “Sounds to me like someone’s settin’ up house,” Maybelline remarked loudly.
   “Me too,” our clerk called back.
   Tate’s hand came to my hip and slid around to my belly as he pushed the cart through to the end and
then his mouth was at my ear.
   “Uh…Lauren, you wanna tell me why –”
   I twisted my head to look at him.
   “Don’t,” I whispered.
   He grinned down at me. “Babe.”
   I looked at the clerk and asked, “What’s your name?”
   “Wanda,” she answered.
   “I’m Lauren.”
   “Hey Lauren.” Her eyes slid to Tate then back to me. “You gonna be in lots?”
   “No,” I answered.
   “Probably,” Tate answered at the same time.
   Wanda leaned toward me. “Sorry, girlfriend, but I’m gonna go with his answer, you know, just ‘cause it
gives me hope. We girls, we need hope, even if we’re hopin’ for someone else.”
   “By all means,” I invited and she smiled and looked at Tate.
   “Next week, we’re havin’ a sale,” she informed him.
   “I’ll put that in my calendar,” he replied on a grin.
   “You do that,” she muttered and gave us our total.
   I dug in my purse and came out with my wallet just in time to see Tate hand Wanda his credit card.
   “I thought I’d –” I started, Tate’s eyes came to me and I pressed my lips together and shoved my wallet
back in my purse.
   “Good call,” Wanda whispered to me and swiped Tate’s credit card.
   We’d left Wanda and Maybelline behind with fond (loud) farewells and were walking through the
parking lot to the Explorer, Tate guiding the loaded cart with one hand, his other arm around my
shoulders, my arm curled around his waist when Tate spoke.
   “You wanna explain about Wanda?”
   “No,” I replied.
   “You know her?”
   “Not exactly, except she gave me a mini-counseling session when I came here with Wendy.”
   “Come again?”
   “Doesn’t matter,” I murmured.
   Luckily, Tate let that go.
   “You wanna tell me why you know everyone every place we go?” he asked.
   “No,” I answered.
   “How long you been in Colorado?” he went on.
   “Um…”
   “Babe,” he muttered and I knew he was smiling.
   “I’m nice,” I explained and he didn’t respond so I continued. “And to be nice you have to be friendly so
even if someone you don’t know butts into your conversation and gives you advice, you stay friendly.
Wanda’s kind of nosy and somewhat inappropriate but she means well. And anyway, I’m nice and I’m
friendly and I don’t know how else to be.”
   He stopped the cart and me at the back of the Explorer and looked down at me.
   “We get home, maybe you can be friendly to me.”
   I felt a twinge in three places.
   Regardless, I informed him, “You have to install curtain rods when we get home.”
   “Right, then after I install the curtain rods, we can close the curtains and then you can be friendly to
me.”
   “No,” I replied. “I’m making a Moist Factor Five Hundred cake, I’ll be busy.”
   “A Moist Factor Five Hundred cake?”
   “Shambala told me one of his secrets. I’ve been dying to test it out.”
   “Ace, we got five pounds of lemon shit in the truck. Do we need a cake?”
   “Everyone needs a cake and I haven’t had a kitchen for months, except when I was home and then I
didn’t get to enjoy it because my Dad was in the hospital after having a serious heart attack.”
   “You a good cook?”
   I shrugged. “Passable.”
   Tate stared at me.
   “I’m a passable cook but I’m a hell on wheels baker,” I bragged truthfully.
   “So you like bakin’,” he noted.
   “Love it.”
   “Miss it?” he asked.
   I nodded.
   He stared at me again. Then he cupped my jaw with his hand, tilted my head back, bent his head and
touched his lips to mine.
   “Then you can make your cake,” he whispered.
   “Thanks,” I whispered back.
   He grinned. “After that, you can be friendly to me.”
   The twinges came back double strength, he let me go, beeped the locks and pulled up the back of the
SUV We loaded up our bags, Tate let me in the cab, returned the cart, came back, climbed behind the.
wheel and we went home.
                                                     *****
   I was in Tate’s kitchen chopping cucumbers and tossing them in the bowl with the rest of the veggies
I’d prepared for the salad we were having with dinner.
   The Moist Factor Five Hundred cake was in the oven and the bowl of my grandfather’s famous mustard
glaze I’d mixed together was fermenting in the fridge ready to put on the pork tenderloin which would go
into the oven after the cakes came out.
   I sensed movement and my head came up from chopping to see Tate walking through the dining room
toward the kitchen, a drill in one hand, the handle of a toolbox in the other. I was so busy chopping, I
hadn’t noticed I wasn’t hearing the drill anymore. His eyes came to me, I smiled at him, his face got soft
in a warm way when he caught my smile and he walked right through the kitchen to the hallway leading to
the garage.
   I stared after him long after he disappeared.
   I didn’t think I’d ever seen his face get soft like that but I figured I didn’t because it was definitely a
look I’d never forget seeing.
   I pulled myself together, dropped the knife, wiped my hands on a towel and walked to the bedroom.
   The curtains were up. They were to-the-floor, dark denim with loops at the top that were hooked over
rusty-looking thin, square rods that had killer jagged ends. Tate had two big windows in his bedroom, one
facing the front of the house, one the side, the bathroom and walk-in closet took the back of the room. The
curtains transformed it. The new sheets and comforter were one thing but the curtains offered a big slash
of color, giving the room personality, making it homier and making the big room seem almost cozy.
   All the room needed now was a paint job (the walls were a little tired and I thought a nice, warm, pale
blue would be awesome, maybe with a terracotta accent wall); blinds (because with those dark curtains
closed, it would be a blackout situation); and some pictures on the walls.
   And I knew exactly what picture would be perfect.
   I’d seen it through the window of one of the biker shops in town. A large frame around which was a
sepia photo of two bikers riding side by side into town. There was no one on the straight road for as far
as the eye could see except those bikers, they had their backs to the camera and to their side was the sign
that was still there that read “Welcome to Carnal”. Even though the bikes were older, the picture taken
probably decades ago, the long Main Street of Carnal lay in front of the bikers and it didn’t look much
different. When I’d spied it, I’d stopped and studied it through the shop window. It was awesome and it
would be perfect over Tate’s bed.
   Buster pranced in and jumped up on the bed. She stood there, blinking at me, her tail swishing then she
blinked at the curtains at the window facing the bed that had a view out the front of the house. Then she
collapsed on a flank, stretched out her other flank and delicately licked her foot.
   I decided to take that as approval.
   Tate sauntered in.
   “They look great,” I told him.
   “Yeah,” he agreed, coming to stand by me.
   I twisted my head to look up at him. “Now you need some venetian blinds,” I informed him. “Just in
case you don’t want blackout conditions but still want to mute the light.”
   He looked down at me then he curved an arm around my shoulders and began to curl my body to his.
   When my front was pressed to his, he stated, “I’ll get right on that, Ace, soon’s I pay off the million
dollar lawyer’s bills I’ll be accumulatin’ in order to get Jonas.”
   I bit my lip because I hadn’t thought of that. He’d spoken several times about his money situation. He
had a son to win; he didn’t need to be buying home wares.
   “Captain –” I started but Tate had turned me and was moving forward, pushing me backward toward
the bed. I felt my legs hit it, Buster jumped away, I went down and Tate came down on top of me.
   His face went into my neck and he declared, “Rods are up. Time for you to be friendly.” Then I felt his
tongue slide along my neck.
   My arms circled him, the fingers of one hand going into his hair as I turned my head to say in his ear,
“Cake’s in the oven, honey.”
   His head came up and he looked at me. “How long we got?”
   I shrugged, my shoulders moving on the bed. “Ten minutes?”
   His mouth came to mine. “Time enough to start bein’ friendly.”
   “Tate –”
   “Then you can finish bein’ friendly later.”
   “Tate –”
   He kissed me and I instantly got friendly, so did he. I thought he was friendlier than me but he might
have been able to argue that.
   We got so friendly, we were both shirtless by the time the buzzer on the oven interrupted our
friendliness.
   “Cake’s done,” I breathed against his mouth as I shivered when his hands slid lazily along the skin of
my sides.
   “Yeah,” he whispered then knifed up.
   I’d moved on top and therefore automatically straddled him. He lifted us both up from the bed, putting
me on my feet. I started to pull away to bend and get my shirt but his hands at my hips turned me and then
they guided me to the door.
   “Tate, my shirt,” I protested.
   “Takin’ cakes outta the oven doesn’t require you bein’ fully-clothed,” he replied and I didn’t exactly
agree but we were out the door, he was moving me down the hall and I was wearing nothing but a pair of
khaki shorts and my bra.
   I decided not to fight it. I was into being friendly and as soon as the cakes were out of the oven, I could
go back to that.
   We went to the kitchen and I opened the oven. The cakes smelled amazing, the house reeked of it and I
forgot how much I loved that smell. I stuck my hand in, did the press test, the cake bounced back so I
grabbed a kitchen towel and took them out, putting them on the burners of the stove.
   I turned the oven off and looked up at Tate to see he was staring down at the cakes.
   His eyes came to me. “Looks good, babe.”
   I grinned. “Yeah.”
   Then he moved and I was over his shoulder. I let out a little, surprised scream and grabbed onto his
waist.
   “Tate!” I shouted when we were going through the dining room.
   “Friendly,” he returned.
   He wanted to carry me to his bed? All right, well, whatever.
   He threw me on the bed, came down on top of me and we started getting friendly again.
   We were redefining friendly in a very good way when something strange happened. Something
mammothly strange. Something so strange it tilted the foundations of all that I’d come to be.
   Tate’s fingers were curled around my breast, my hand cupping his behind, his lips were trailing down
my throat and I was out of mind and in my body when I came back to my mind with a vicious snap.
   “So you forgive him for bein’ a cheatin’ asshole and a liar and a dickhead who’s so fuckin’ dumb he
throws away a good thing but you can’t forgive me for sayin’ somethin’ stupid?”
  My eyes opened and my body stilled. Tate’s mouth moved down my chest.
  “You want sweet dreams, lose the attitude and you might find I’ll give you reason to have them.”
  I closed my eyes and my arms around Tate flexed.
  “Laurie, baby, wake up. You’re gonna fry out here.”
  Tate’s lips moved along the lacy edge of my bra.
  “You were sleepin’ in the sun, babe, not goin’ to the mall to get a phone. So I got you a phone.”
  I turned my head to the side and closed my eyes tighter trying to focus on what his mouth was doing and
block out his voice in my head.
  “Yeah, Ace, fucked you so hard you couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but sleep. Exhausted you.
You were in my bed, couldn’t sleep, that’s what I’d do.”
  I bit my lip and felt the tears sting my nose.
  “I get back, Lauren, you’re on the back of my bike.”
  My hands lifted and slid into his hair.
  “Sucks, but fuck Laurie, it’s good to be home.”
  My fingers curled into his hair.
  “Then you shouldn’t have thrown her away when she was your wife. Now she ain’t. Now she’s
somethin’ to me and I don’t let men I don’t like get close to her and I gotta tell you, man, I do not like
you.”
  Tate’s head came up.
  “No way you can look like all the rest.”
  “Laurie,” Tate called.
  “Pure class.”
  “Lauren,” he called again, his body moving up, his hand coming to my jaw.
  “Two kinds of women get under your skin. The ones who do damage, they don’t feel good there but
once you’re fuckin’ stupid enough to let them in you got no choice but to take the time it takes to work
them out. Then there are the ones who don’t do damage, who feel good there, feed the muscle, the
bone, the soul, not rip it or break it or burn it. The ones you don’t wanna work out.”
  I righted my head, opened my eyes and looked in his handsome face.
  It was then my mind filled with him, with Tate, all things Tate. It filled so full, it felt like my head
would explode.
  “Never had better.”
  “That’s how I know you didn’t give it to that asshole the way you give it me. You did, no way in hell
he’d ever…”
  “Three weeks, after fuckin’ you, knowin’ what you taste like, what you feel like, the sounds you make
when you come, three weeks I’m on the road and all I got is a couple minutes of your voice on the
phone every night. Fuckin’ you, that’s all I can think about, like a teenager, at night in the dark, it’s
the only thing in my goddamned head. So I jack off, hopin’ to cut through it, but nothin’ compares to
you. Then I know you can’t sleep so I can’t fuckin’ sleep wonderin’ if you’re sleepin’. That shit’s
whacked and I come home, fuckin’ beside myself it’s over.
  “But Neeta, she’s not like you. She isn’t smart. She doesn’t work hard.”
  “So I find this woman, see. High-class, great fuckin’ hair, legs that go forever…”
  “So we find out about each other and who we are together. I’m gonna piss you off ‘cause I can be a
dick. That’s who I am. And you’re gonna piss me off ‘cause, babe, you got attitude. That’s who you
are. And that’s who we’re comin’ out to be together. And I’m all right with that because, with what I
had before, even when you’re a bitch, I like it. But when you’re not, it’s a sweetness the like I’ve never
tasted.”
   “You said you were waitin’ for something special and he took away your chance to figure out that
you were carryin’ it with you all this time. You are special, Laurie.”
   “… they did it because you go all out to protect beauty like that.”
   And last, “Sweet dreams, baby.”
   “Jesus, Lauren, baby, what the fuck?” Tate whispered and I realized tears had pooled in my eyes and
were sliding down the sides into my hair.
   “You like me,” I whispered back and his head gave a small jerk.
   “What?” he asked.
   “You were right.” I was still whispering, a sob moved up my throat, I swallowed it down but my voice
was thick when I kept whispering. “You were right.” I gulped back another sob as I felt more wet trail
from my eyes. “I… I’m lost.”
   I couldn’t hold it back any longer. I burst into tears and tried to slide out from under him but he held
strong.
   “Baby,” he muttered.
   Without any other way to escape him, I lifted my head and shoved my face into his neck as my arms
wrapped around him and I held on tight.
   “I’m l… l… lost,” I choked as my body bucked when a powerful sob tore through me.
   Suddenly Tate rolled off and I was moving. He went up the bed, pulling me with him, arranging the
pillows behind his back and he rested against them, settling me tight to his side. I wrapped an arm around
his abs, pressed my forehead into his neck and held on as my body shook with my tears.
   One of his arms was wrapped around my waist, the other came across his chest to sift through my hair
and he was quiet while he held me as I wept.
   This lasted awhile and when it subsided I tilted my head down so my temple was at his collarbone and
I saw my bare, tanned legs tangled with his long, jeans-clad ones.
   It came to me again. “You said you were waitin’ for something special and he took away your chance
to figure out that you were carryin’ it with you all this time. You are special, Laurie.”
   “Talk to me,” Tate urged gently.
   It was time, it was time to let him in but more, it was time to let me out.
   I took in a shuddering breath and my arm gave him a squeeze.
   “My first was my college boyfriend,” I whispered. “His name was Matt. He was lovely. When we did
it, he took me to a fancy hotel and he’d arranged it so there was a bouquet of red roses by the bed when
we got to the room. After he made love to me, he told me he’d love me forever. A year later, he got a job
where he had to move to Tennessee and he asked me to go with him. I was young and I couldn’t even think
of leaving Indiana, leaving my family. It scared me so I let him go. We tried the long distance thing but it
didn’t work. He’s married now to a nice woman named Ellen. They have three kids. He calls me every
year on my birthday, though. He never forgets. I call him on his. We talk forever and we laugh like crazy.”
   My breath hitched as new tears threatened but I gulped them down and held Tate tighter. In return his
arm pulled me closer but he didn’t speak.
   “He loved me,” I said softly.
   “Yeah,” Tate agreed.
   “I think, in a way, he still does,” I went on.
   “Yeah,” Tate repeated.
   “I don’t know when it happened,” I whispered.
   When I said no more, Tate prompted, “What, honey?”
   “When he took me away. How he got me. How he did it,” I answered, referring to Brad and when I did
Tate’s arm squeezed tight. I shook my head against his chest. “I didn’t even feel it happen. I didn’t know
it. I don’t know…” My voice broke, I swallowed again and Tate’s hand still sifting through my hair
dropped to my neck and his fingers curled there, giving me a squeeze and I forged on, “I don’t know why I
let him.”
   “He say shit?” Tate asked and I shook my head against his chest again.
   “No, it was just that… just that… he was so convinced he was all that, somehow he convinced me and
for him to be all that, I had to be less, not me having to be less, Brad needing to make me less and he
just… just… made me feel that way and I just… I…” I pulled in breath and finished, “I just faded away.”
   Tate didn’t respond and I lifted up, taking my arm from around his stomach and swiping at my face.
Then I turned to him and looked in his eyes.
   “I wasn’t running from him hurting me with Hayley,” I told him softly. “That’s not why I got out of
Horizon Summit, why I fled my life.” My voice dropped to a whisper. “I lied to Krystal when I asked for
that job but I didn’t know it then. I know it now. She was right. I got lost and I was trying to find me.”
   His hand slid up my neck to my jaw and his thumb glided along my lower lip.
   “You just find you, baby?” Tate asked.
   “Not exactly,” I answered.
   “Then what exactly?” he pressed.
   “I…” My teeth bit my lip, tagging the pad of his thumb which he didn’t move so I released it. “My brain
just suddenly started paying attention.”
   “To what?”
   “To you.”
   His brows went up and his thumb swept along my cheekbone. “Wanna explain that?”
   “You’re beautiful,” I whispered and watched his face change, surprise was there but it was soft, not
astonished… moved.
   “Ace,” he whispered back.
   “I saw you,” I kept whispering, “at the hotel, meeting Neeta –”
   Tate cut me off. “Know that, babe.”
   “I know,” I replied. “But you don’t know that I hated Neeta instantly when I saw her throw herself in
your arms. Pure jealousy. I didn’t know you, I didn’t know her. I just took one look at you and I…” I
stopped speaking, suddenly embarrassed and more than a little scared and my eyes slid away. I would
have moved my face but his hand tensed against my jaw.
   “Keep talkin’,” he urged.
   “I can’t,” I said softly.
   “Baby, I think you don’t get this but you’re safe here.” His hand left my jaw and both arms wrapped
tight around me, giving me a squeeze at the same time pulling me up so my face was level with his.
“You’re safe, Lauren,” he murmured and my eyes came back to his. “You weren’t safe with him but,
honey, swear to God, you’re safe with me.”
   I felt the tears smart in my eyes and my lower lip quivered so I pressed them together.
   “Keep talkin’,” he repeated, I took a breath in through my nose and nodded.
   “You were far away,” I whispered, “it was night, I could barely see you…” I hesitated. “But you still
took my breath away.”
   His eyes closed and his hand slid up my neck into my hair and he put pressure there so our foreheads
were touching.
   “Christ, Laurie,” he muttered.
   “The next day,” I went on, “I saw you walk into the bar and you were so beautiful…”
   His eyes opened and his fingers tensed against my scalp. “All right, maybe you can quit talking.”
   I ignored him.
   “That’s why it hurt so much.” My voice was so quiet it was barely audible. “What you said. You being
you, looking like you, breathtaking…”
   “Stop, Lauren.” His voice was a growl.
   “I’m not throwing it in your face, I’m just saying –”
   He interrupted me again. “I know what you’re sayin’.”
   I put my hand on his chest and told him softly, “Tate, you’re all that.”
   “Baby –”
   “And you like me.”
   “Shut it, Laurie.”
   I moved my head, sliding my cheek against his beard so my lips were at his ear, my arms went around
him and I whispered, “So maybe I’m a little bit of all that too.”
   I found myself moved suddenly, landing on my back with Tate’s body covering mine, his head up and
his hand back at my jaw.
   “You were all that before me,” he declared, his voice again a growl.
   “Tate –”
   “My guess? You been all that for awhile.”
   “Captain –”
   “Shitty luck, stupid decisions… I lost a lot in my life. My Mom left when I was a kid. Thought I’d live
life high, playin’ football and that dream was dead almost the second it began. Then my Dad died. Mixed
up with Neeta, with Bethany, havin’ Jonas and thinkin’ I finally got a hint of sweet only to have it come
along with a lot of fightin’ and headache and broken promises I was fuckin’ stupid enough to believe. I
haven’t had much of all that. All I ever had I had to fight for, pay for or do penance for because I jacked
up. Then you walk into my goddamned bar lookin’ for a job.”
   “Tate –”
   His thumb came to my lips and put pressure on.
   “Shut it,” he whispered.
   “Okay,” I said against his thumb.
   “I don’t define you,” he told me.
   “I know, but I –” I started and his thumb, still against my lips, pressed gently so I shut up.
   “You’re not found because you found me,” he went on. “You think that you’re still lost.”
   I didn’t speak.
   Tate did. “I wasn’t here, you cuttin’ ties and gettin’ out from under him, you woulda found your way.”
   He stopped talking so I chanced speaking.
   “Can I say something now?” I asked against his thumb and he moved it away, rolled to his side and
brought me to facing him.
   Then he said, “Yeah.”
   “You’re right,” I agreed. “But –”
   “No buts about it, Ace.”
   I put my fingers to his lips and asked quietly, “Can I say what I need to say, Tate?”
   He didn’t speak or nod, he just waited.
   So I spoke. “I would have come back to me, eventually. It’s just that, it so happens I found myself with
you leading the way.”
   “Laurie –”
   I moved my hand and replaced it with my lips.
   “Thank you,” I whispered and then I kissed him, doing it hard and putting feeling into it, a lot of it, as
much as I felt for him and what he’d given me. And what he’d given me was huge.
   He’d given me me.
   I pushed him to his back, slid on top and kept kissing him with Tate kissing me back.
   Eventually, I lifted my head to look at him and Tate’s hands slid into my hair, pulling it away from my
face and holding it behind my head.
   His eyes were on the fall of hair that escaped his hands and curtained my left eye then they came to
mine.
   “You got great hair, babe,” he muttered.
   I lifted a hand so my finger could slide along his hairline then all of them glided in.
   “You do too,” I replied.
   One of his hands left my hair and became an arm wrapped around my upper back, his other hand
cupping my head and both brought me back down to him.
   “I have to frost the cake,” I whispered.
   “In a little while,” he whispered back.
   “And make dinner,” I continued.
   “Later.”
   “Captain –”
   He cut me off with, “Ace.”
   I studied his beautiful face.
   “She’s mine,” he’d said to Wood.
   I was his. And he was mine.
   I smiled and my mouth went to his. “All right, honey. Later.”
   His head slanted one way, mine tilted the other and it was a lot later when I was able to get up, frost the
cake and make dinner.
                                                     *****
   We had pork tenderloin with Gramps’s famous glaze, boiled new potatoes, salad and delicious rolls
with sunflower seeds crusting the top, eating it at the wrought iron table on Tate’s back patio.
   My eyes were on his terraced yard and my mind was filled. It was filled with what it would say to Tate
if I spent a day weeding the plants and adding more. It was filled with if I cared anymore about Tate
reading what that said (and I figured I didn’t). It was filled with Tate telling me his Mom left and his Dad
was dead and how little I knew about him. It was filled with how strong the feeling was that I wanted to
know more and the fact the power behind that feeling didn’t scare me. It was filled with the knowledge
that Wood “killed” Tate’s Dad in a car accident; with Stella telling Tate to cut Wood slack; with Stella
saying, if Tate let it go, Wood would be able to; and with Wood telling me they once were brothers. It
was filled with Wood coming to take my back when Neeta was in town, for me but also for Tate, even
after what passed between the three of us. And it was filled with Wood telling Tate he’d do anything he
could to help Tate get Jonas from Wood’s sister.
   Wood missed Tate and you only hold onto anger that long if the person you’re angry at meant something
to you so I was guessing Tate missed Wood too.
   “Ace,” Tate called and I looked from his plants to him. “You lied.”
   Taken from my thoughts and surprised at his words, I felt my eyebrows draw together. “Sorry?”
   He slid his fork on his plate and his brows went up. “Passable?”
   I looked at his clean plate then back to him. “My cooking’s okay, not much to write home about. This
was good because of my grandfather’s famous mustard sauce, not me.”
   “Your grandfather come for a visit while I was puttin’ up the curtain rods?” he asked.
   “No, he’s dead,” I answered.
   “Babe,” Tate replied on a grin.
   I felt the sudden, intense need for Tate to know about me. I’d let him in, I’d let me out. I wanted this and
I wanted him and I wanted him to have me.
   Therefore, I shared, “All my grandparents are dead.”
   He sat back in his chair, his eyes never leaving mine. “Yeah?”
   “Gramps, that’s Mom’s father, he’s the mustard glaze guru,” I informed him, Tate didn’t reply so I went
on. “It was his farm that became Dad’s. He had only girls. Three of them. Dad studied agriculture at
school. His folks owned a farm too but it was smaller and he was the second of two sons. My Uncle
George got that farm.” Tate remained silent so I went on. “Dad took over Gramps’s farm. We all lived
there together, all my life, until I left and, after that, Grams and Gramps passed away. It was okay though,
us being together, because it was a big house and it made us a big family.”
   Tate still didn’t speak, didn’t start sharing his own stories so I continued.
   “Mom’s Mom, Grams, she made great chocolate chip cookies. The best,” I stated. “She used to
refrigerate the dough between making it and baking it. I don’t know what this did but it made her cookies
killer.”
   Tate watched me and made not a noise.
   “Dad’s Dad, he was a master at the grill. He could grill an amazing steak,” I continued.
   Tate’s lips twitched but he remained quiet.
   “Dad’s Mom,” I blathered on. “She was Polish and she could cook. I mean she could cook. She made
these cookies, like crescent rolls but in cookie form with lots of cinnamon and sugar and butter and the
dough was made with sour cream so they were rich and she sifted powdered sugar on them. She made
them every Christmas and I always went over to help. She let me brush the melted butter on the rolled out
dough and sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar on and she let me sift the powdered sugar on top.”
   Finally, Tate spoke.
   “All your memories come with food?” he asked.
   “Dad makes the best cocktail sauce for shrimp you ever tasted. Carrie concocted this homemade
macaroni and cheese that’s out of this world. And Mom got all the good of Grams and Gramma and put
her own spin on it. Everything she makes will knock your socks off but her chocolate pecan pie is
unbelievable.”
   “I’ll take that as a yes,” Tate mumbled.
   “Food is love,” I replied.
   “No, babe, it ain’t, but makin’ it for the ones you love so they can brag about it is,” Tate returned.
   He had a point.
   “You have a point,” I told him.
   His arm shot out, his hand tagged me at the neck and he leaned forward as he pulled me to him. Then he
touched his mouth to mine.
   When his head moved away two inches, I asked softly, “Do you want cake?”
   A smile spread on his face, a face that, at my question, grew soft and warm like earlier and since he
was so close all I could do was stare.
   Finally, he answered, “Yeah,” and let me go.
   I grabbed my plate and beer bottle, Tate grabbed his and we took them into the house going through the
backdoor into the mudroom. As we walked through the mudroom, I heard Tate’s cell phone on the kitchen
counter ring.
   When we hit the kitchen, I took his plate from him and walked to the sink while he walked to his phone.
   I heard him answer, “Pop?”
   I started to rinse the dishes.
   “Yeah?” Tate asked and then there was a long silence. So long I had the plates and cutlery rinsed and in
the dishwasher, I’d grabbed a knife and was cutting into the cake that was sitting on a plate on the island
(homemade yellow cake, homemade chocolate butter cream frosting) when Tate spoke again. “Tell her,
when I show, I don’t see that jackass.”
   My eyes went from the cake to Tate. He had a hand on his hip, the other one holding his phone to his
ear, his bottle of beer was on the counter and his head was bent, eyes studying his boots.
   “Right… and Pop?” he said then finished with a quiet but intense. “Thanks. Owe you big.”
   I stopped cutting and Tate flipped his phone closed, set it on the counter and started to me.
   “Um…” I hesitated, “what was that?”
   I held my breath for his response because his face was as intense as his voice had been and I didn’t get
it. He also was coming to me in a way that was strangely purposeful and aggressive and I didn’t get that
either. I let go of the knife still stuck in the cake and started to take a step back when he caught me and
yanked me forward so hard I collided with his body.
   I looked up at him as his arms wound around me. “Tate –”
   “Pop ran interference with Neeta. Wood told him that I told her I was gettin’ Jonas this weekend and
Pop stepped in, had a few words, calmed her ass down and I get him Friday at noon, takin’ him back
Sunday by five.”
   I still didn’t get why this made him look and act like he was.
   “That’s… good,” I said searchingly.
   “It’s fuckin’ great.” His arms around me gave me a squeeze. “Miss my kid, babe.”
   Finally, I kind of got it. My body automatically melted into his and my arms went around his neck.
   “Then that’s great,” I said quietly. “But, you haven’t seen him in awhile. I know that scene last night
was intense but don’t you have visitation rights? Was it in question that you’d get a visit?”
   “No tellin’ how they’d jack me over. Even when things are steady, I’m not on the road and need to
change a visit, she fucks with me. I get him after school on my Fridays but sometimes he’s not at home
when I come to pick him up. She’s made me wait an hour, two, once they dragged in at ten at night.”
   “You’re joking,” I whispered, stunned at this news.
   I had not come from a broken home. My parents stayed married and in love and my grandparents had
stayed married and in love. Even my aunts and uncle all stayed married and in love. None of them left
town so I grew up with all of them and all of my cousins and they were – we were – always together. A
big family in each other’s business. Thanksgiving was a madhouse and, whoever’s house we had it in, it
took hours to do the dishes because of the amount of food that needed to be cooked.
   I’d always had family, a together family. I couldn’t fathom the consequences of a broken home but I
really couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of using a child to screw with that child’s father.
   He shook his head. “Nope. And when I gotta make a change ‘cause of work, she makes me pay. She
likes her chance to fuck with me so she makes it tough, gives me shit, tells me I gotta renege and not make
up a weekend.”
   I remained silent and this was because I was expending a great deal of effort at keeping my body still
and my mouth from screeching.
   “So,” Tate continued, “goes without sayin’, us breakin’ it off permanent, me bein’ gone awhile then you
bein’ here, she’s chompin’ at the bit to fuck with me.”
   “Will Jonas be there on Friday?” I asked and he shrugged but grinned.
   “Lucky for me, I’m a bounty hunter and I’m done with her shit. He isn’t, I’ll find him.”
   “You put up with it before?” I asked and his grin turned into a smile.
   “Babe, have you not got that I’ve put up with a lot of her shit before?”
   “Why?” I blurted a very important question that I realized just then I’d wanted to ask for ages then I
snapped my mouth shut because I didn’t want my question to come out as questioning him.
   Tate didn’t have a problem with my question and I knew this because he answered it immediately.
   “She was Neet. She was close to her Mom, I knew that. Everyone did. Thick as thieves. When Brenda
died, Neeta unraveled. I was eight and I still remember it, still felt it, her pain was so absolute, it was
physical. You got anywhere near her, you felt it. We were family, my Dad and Pop best friends since they
were kids. Neeta feeling that kind of pain, losin’ Brenda myself, the only Mom I knew, Kyle losin’ her,
Wood… it marked me. We all recovered but Neeta never did. And we all spent years puttin’ up with her
shit in a variety of ways because we hoped she eventually would.” He took in a heavy breath and
finished, “I told you she was always like she is ‘cause that was most of what I remember. But when she
was a kid, before Brenda died, she wasn’t like that, Laurie. Sweet kid, the image of Brenda in every way.
All of us hoped she’d come back to her. She just never did.”
   “Brenda was the only Mom you knew?” I asked softly, cautiously, not wanting to push.
   “Yeah,” he replied instantly. “My Mom left us when I was three. She’d come back, still does. Not
often, though, and not long. Not then, not now. She doesn’t come back to stay, she comes back to visit.
Even when I was a kid, it was like she was distant family, checking in, touching base, then she was gone
again.”
   My hand slid into his hair and I whispered, “I’m so sorry, Tate.”
   His arms gave me a squeeze. “Babe, don’t be. Dad was a good dad, the best. She was no loss.”
   My body jerked in surprise at his words. “But –”
   “Flighty,” he cut me off, “fuck, she was flighty, self-absorbed. Not like Neeta. Different. She wasn’t
lookin’ right at you, swear to God, she’d forget you existed.”
   “That’s terrible.” I was still whispering.
   “That’s my Mom. She ain’t a bitch, she’s just her.”
   “So it was just you and your Dad?” I asked carefully.
   “Yeah, and Pop, Wood, Neeta, Brenda then Stella. Stella’s about ten years younger than Pop. She was a
kid but she pitched in when Brenda died. We were tight.”
   “You still tight with Pop and Stella?”
   “Yep.”
   “Just not Wood and Neeta,” I murmured.
   He moved, twisting so his hips were resting against the counter, I was in front of him and my body was
resting against his. My hands slid to his chest and he spoke.
   “Neeta, you get. Wood…” He stopped, I waited and he started again. “Wood and Dad were fishin’. Not
like Bubba, they fished. Liked it. Did it together all the time. Pop and me, we weren’t into it but Wood
and Dad would go out as often as they could. They were comin’ home, it was late, fuck knows what was
in his head ‘cause it was too late. Wood fell asleep at the wheel, veered, truck hit somethin’, it rolled. He
musta been goin’ fast, wantin’ to get home. The roll was bad. They came to rest against a tree. They were
both belted, both of them shoulda made it but they went through a barricade. Jagged edge of the barricade
cut through the truck and cut through Dad.”
   Tears instantly filled my eyes. “No,” I breathed while working to keep the tears at bay.
   Tate’s eyes held mine. “Yeah, baby,” he said quietly.
   “Oh honey.”
   He didn’t reply at first.
   Then he said, still speaking quietly, “Stell’s right. I should let it go. But I can’t. Dad was all I had and
Wood actin’ stupid took that all away. It was about a year after that tackle took out my knee. I was fit, but
the knee… it healed right but it didn’t heal right enough for me to play pro ball. My life was fucked. I had
no clue where I was goin’ because I was certain where my life was leadin’ me and it sure as fuck wasn’t
back to Carnal. I was back with Neeta and those times were good ‘cause I was on her road, I could see
the good in bein’ aimless, not givin’ a shit, we had a fuckin’ blast. Not proud of it because it was stupid
but at the time, I didn’t care. Gettin’ drunk, gettin’ laid, doin’ whatever the fuck I wanted when I wanted
and screw the consequences, that was the place I needed to be. That’s the last my Dad ever knew of me.”
   “Tate –” I murmured.
   “He didn’t see me get my shit together. Go into the Academy,” Tate said. “He didn’t see Neeta and me
do one thing good together, makin’ Jonas.”
   “Tate –”
   “He was worried about me. Died worried about me. He was thinkin’ I’d end up like Blake, Neeta’s old
man. Sittin’ in front of the TV with a beer in my hand gettin’ smashed every night and the only gumption
I’d get was to cart my ass to a poker game.”
   “Tate –”
   “He was tryin’ to get me to get my shit together. He was also failing.”
   “Captain, honey, listen to –”
   “Took him dyin’ for me to sort my shit out.”
   “Honey –”
   “Still, didn’t manage it until years after that.”
   “Tate, honey –”
   “I wanted to play ball,” he stated in a way that my body got very still and my eyes, already locked to
his, became glued there. “It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the fame. It was the game. The goddamned game. I
didn’t feel like I was breathin’ right if I wasn’t playin’ or practicin’. Felt like life was still, someone hit
pause, then I’d put on my pads and jersey and walk on the field and then everything would come alive.
Dad and I were Eagles fans since I could remember. Puttin’ that fuckin’ jersey on, Christ, Laurie…
Christ.”
   His last word seemed ripped from his throat and when he released it and it went through the air, its
razor-sharp edge cut clean through me.
   My hands went to his neck and I held on. “Baby –”
   “Can you imagine, babe, can you fuckin’ imagine what it feels like, gettin’ a taste of your dream then
losin’ it,” his hand came up and his fingers made a loud snap, “gone.”
   “The eagle on your back,” I said gently.
   “Got it my junior year at Penn State, the first year I made the All-America team. When I knew I had a
shot at it. When I knew I’d be wearin’ green.”
   I dropped my head, my forehead falling to his chest and my arms slid around, ducking under his to wrap
him tight. I turned my head, pressed my cheek in and held him even tighter.
   “Can’t absorb the pain, babe,” he whispered, his lips at the hair on top of my head, “lives in me.”
   “You haven’t let it go?” I asked.
   “Don’t know how,” he answered.
   “You had a taste of something special,” I stated. “But you lost it.”
   “No babe, that’s the problem. I haven’t lost it, even after all these years, I can still taste it.”
   Oh God.
   “I don’t know how to help,” I whispered and his body started moving.
   It took me several moments to realize that, bizarrely, he was laughing.
   I left my arms where they were and tipped my head up to look at him.
   “Are you laughing?” I asked even though I could tell by his face that he was.
   “Babe,” he said, his deep voice also trembling with laughter, “you did my laundry.”
   “Sorry?”
   “You vacuumed,” he went on.
   My head jerked and I asked, “What?”
   “You bought me sheets.”
   “I don’t –”
   His arms gave me a squeeze.
   “Ace, I never had a Mom.”
   “A Mom?” I asked, confused.
   “Neeta sure as fuck never cleaned. She made more of a mess than me, one reason, when she’d make a
promise she didn’t intend to keep, I started meetin’ her at the hotel. Not a big fan of cleanin’ up my own
shit, much less when Neeta’d tear through. And she never gave me one thing. Not a birthday gift, not a
Christmas gift, not somethin’ just because. Only thing she ever gave me was an orgasm.”
   “She gave you a son,” I told him.
   “I kinda had a hand in that, babe. Didn’t do the term or push him out but been fightin’ for him to have a
decent life ever since.”
   He was right about that.
   “What does vacuuming have to do with –?” I started.
   “My memories don’t come attached with shit like makin’ cookies with my grandma, Ace. My father
was a man and he expected his son to be a man. I’ve never worn a piece of clothing in my goddamned life
that I haven’t washed myself.”
   “Oh,” I breathed.
   Apparently Wanda at Deluxe Home Store was right. You tell a man early on you’re going to take care
of him, it’s going to suck him deep.
   Tate carried on. “Don’t even know when I learned to do laundry, just know, I wanted clean clothes, I
had to do it.”
   “Tate –”
   “Leave you in my house once, babe, come home and the whole fuckin’ place is cleaned, the fridge is
packed full, a sweet, girlie pitcher in the fridge filled with Kool-Aid and I got soft, fancy sheets on my
bed.”
   “I was worried that I –”
   His head bent and his lips touched mine, stopping my words.
   When his face moved away he replied in a very firm way to my unanswered statement, “Nope.”
   “Then who planted those plants in your yard?”
   “Mom,” he replied. “Came home, don’t know, five years ago. Stayed awhile. Got a wild hair, did some
gardening. Unlike Mom, the plants took root.”
   “Who bought your dining room table?” I asked.
   “What?” he asked back.
   “Your dining room table. It’s –”
   “It’s Dad’s. I grew up in this house, Laurie. Bought a new bed when I took over Dad’s room, made
Jonas some space. Other than that, everything here is what he left me.”
   “Oh,” I whispered, my mind turning all of this over, all he’d said and all it meant.
   “Yeah,” he grinned. “Oh.”
   “You’re stuck,” I blurted, his grin died and he blinked.
   “Come again?”
   I swallowed, sucked in breath and forged ahead.
   “I was lost but you… Tate, you got stuck,” I told him.
   He stared at me and it took a lot but I braved his stare.
   Then he asked, “You up for the job of pullin’ me out?”
   “I…” I swallowed again. “No,” I answered truthfully.
   “No?” he asked, his eyebrows lifting, his face getting dark, his arms growing tighter.
   “I…” I pulled in breath then whispered, “I kinda like it here.”
   With a sudden change that made me jump, he threw his head back and burst out laughing, pulling me
into a close hug when he did it.
   My cheek was smushed to his chest and it was going to stay where it was since his big hand was
crushing my head there so I mumbled a smothered, “Tate –”
   “Keepin’ you stuck with me,” he said over my head.
   “Okay,” I replied.
   “Okay?” he asked and his tone had changed again, now sounding slightly surprised.
   My arms gave him a squeeze and I answered, “Yeah, honey. Okay.”
   He was silent for awhile then I felt his lips against the hair at the top of my head.
   Then he stated, “Baby, you know the worst about me.”
   I tried to pull my head from his chest but he kept it pressed there so I gave up and whispered, “Tate.”
   “Keepin’ you stuck with me, Ace,” he repeated in a murmur against my hair and I shivered because his
tone had changed.
   This wasn’t just a statement. It was a vow.
   “Honey –”
   “Bet Jonas likes grape Kool-Aid,” he whispered and I shivered again.
   “He doesn’t, I’ll get him the flavor he likes,” I promised.
   He let my head go and I tilted it back as his hand slid to my cheek.
   “I know you will, baby,” he said gently.
   I felt a nervous flutter in my belly.
   “You’re sure he’ll like me?”
   “Yeah,” Tate answered immediately.
   “How can you be sure? Maybe he’ll –”
   Tate cut me off. “He’s just like his old man.”
   “How like his old man?” I asked and his hand moved to my jaw, his thumb there tipping my head
further back as his head bent.
   “Exactly like his old man,” he said softly.
   “I’m in trouble,” I whispered.
   His mouth came to mine and I felt his lips smile.
   “Oh yeah,” he muttered then he kissed me.
   The knife stayed stuck in the cake for awhile and Tate and I didn’t test out Moist Factor Five Hundred
until it was dark. Tate sat on the island wearing nothing but his jeans only half buttoned up. I stood
between his legs wearing nothing but his t-shirt. We ate a huge slice he held in his big hand, using our
fingers to feed each other. This meant frosting got all over our fingers but cleaning it up was just a bonus
to an already delicious activity.
   Shambles was right, Moist Factor Five Hundred was a hit. But it wasn’t Shambles secret cake
ingredient that made it a hit.
   It was my very own chocolate butter cream frosting.
Chapter Nineteen
Jonas
   The door to the bar opened, most of my body locked but my eyes flew to it.
   Nadine walked in.
   I heaved a sigh of relief.
   “Laurie, honey, you okay?” Jim-Billy asked and I looked at him.
   It was Friday. I was on the day shift. Tate was gone, picking up Jonas. I’d been on tenterhooks since
noon, like Tate could step on Scottie’s beaming pad and beam himself and Jonas back and right outside
the bar. But now it was nearly three and they could be here at any minute.
   I was not ready for this.
   Tate had told me before he left that morning that he’d bring Jonas by the bar to meet me then they’d go
off and do their thing then they’d pick me up and we’d all go to dinner. I’d wanted to make Jonas a
welcome home dinner and maybe buy my way into his heart through his ten-year-old boy’s stomach
because I didn’t figure Neeta was a master chef. Though, if I waited until after my shift, they wouldn’t eat
until late so going out it was. The diner could cook faster than what I had planned.
   I bought all the stuff for dinner anyway because I had Saturday off so I decided to make it then. I didn’t
find out until I got in the bar that day that Krystal and Wendy had conspired against me. It was Wendy’s
day off but she was coming in to take over for me at three thirty and Krystal had made last minute
schedule changes so I had the whole weekend off.
   I didn’t want the whole weekend off. I just wanted Saturday. I told myself that this was so I could give
Tate and Jonas time together. It was really because Jonas scared me half to death.
   The dinner I picked was a specialty of mine, my family loved it but Brad hated it, said it was over the
top, said it was so many calories and fat it was impossible to count, so I only made it when I went home
to Indiana. Pork chops stuffed with Rice-A-Roni accompanied by real bread stuffing like you make for
Thanksgiving and green bean casserole (the gooey kind with the crispy onions in it and on top). This
would be followed by red cake with that creamy, white frosting that took a powerful hold on my
willpower not to eat it all before I frosted the cake.
   I made the cake the night before using nervous energy to do it. Tate had been gone, called away for a
few days to round up a bad guy. Luckily, this only lasted a few days. Unfortunately, we’d fought when
he’d returned which was the night before, approximately three minutes after I put the final flourishes on
the frosting on the cake.
   We fought because, until that day, I&