A Knight in Cowboy Boots
Maddie had no idea how many laws she'd broken in the last week. They all paled next to kidnapping. Since she'd been advised not to leave the state, she was pretty sure having temporary custody wouldn't get her anywhere in court. Not that it mattered. She'd never get to court. She'd die before she gave Jesse up.
A soft gurgle issued from the back seat of the Lincoln. God, she hated that Jesse couldn't be beside her where she could reach over and touch his baby soft cheek, but that was one law she wouldn’t break. Not only for Jesse’s sake, but because a ticket would put them on the radar.
She reached back to stroke a chubby knee. Not finding it, she glanced over her shoulder.
Light swept across the interior of the car, followed by a blast from a car horn.
“Crap!” Maddie swung back, jerking the wheel to the right seconds before a dark sedan shot past her in the opposite lane.
She white-knuckled the wheel, heart pounding and palms sweating from the adrenaline rush of a near miss.
Where had that car come from?
She took several deep breaths. Gradually, her body caught up with the idea that the immediate danger was over.
“Time to stop for the night,” Maddie muttered. She forced a conversational tone. “What do you think, Charlie Brown? Think we can find a fleabag motel before we hit downtown Lubbock?”
Up ahead, she picked out the flash of a neon sign. It had the cheap, garish look of a million other interchangeable mom-and-pop motels. A place with no nationwide computer registry. A place where, if you paid cash, they probably wouldn’t even record the room rental, so they could beat the IRS out of its cut. Eyeing the string of ground level rooms à la The Bates Motel, Maddie guessed she wouldn't find a listing for it in the Texas Triple A Guidebook.
Just the kind of place she was looking for.
She slowed the car to a crawl. Nearly past it when she saw kitchenettes spelled out in burned-out neon, she had to swing the wheel hard to make the driveway.
There was parking a short distance from the office, in the dark, where no one would notice a child in the back seat. Her other option was a lit spot directly in front where she would see anyone who approached the Lincoln. Since it put her heart in her throat to leave her nephew unattended, even for a few minutes, she chose the light.
Pretending to be brave, she patted Jesse's knee from the front seat. “Be cool, Charlie Brown. Try to look inconspicuous while I'm gone, okay?” She locked the car, leaving Jesse cooing softly inside, and went to rent a room.
The man who answered the bell was exactly what she’d hoped for: bored with his job and uninterested in the customer. He barely even looked at her. With his skinny arms and his scrawny chest in a yellowed wife beater that hadn't been washed in far too long, she didn’t find him remotely attractive, yet when he drawled, “Ain’t no long distance service in the rooms,” her heart fluttered unexpectedly. She hadn’t anticipated hearing the East Texas drawl so far north.
“That’s f-fine,” Maddie stuttered, suddenly homesick for a place she'd never been.
With key in hand, she moved the car to the front of unit seven. Once Jesse was safely ensconced inside, she opened the trunk to retrieve the duffel bag, the only other essential she kept as close as she could. She didn't care about the layer of clothes at the top; that was just camouflage for the forty thousand dollars—less the outrageous sum she had paid for the Social Security card and the Colorado license in her purse—at the bottom of the bag.
As she dragged the bag inside, she steeled herself to face another night in a shabby motel. The worn décor, smelling faintly of mildew and bleach, didn't bother her, but the unadvertised amenities did. As long as she could remember, she’d heard how everything was bigger in Texas, but she'd never thought about it extending to the cockroaches.
A small stove and a counter-sized fridge stood in the corner, near the bathroom door. Maddie left Jesse on the worn chenille bedspread, bumpered by the duffel on one side and two flat pillows on the other before getting a dented tin sauce pan out of the cupboards. At six months, cold formula was fine, but Jesse slept better if his nighttime bottle was warm. With an eye on the pan of water, she slathered peanut butter onto white bread, then opened the bag of Fritos she’d bought that morning in Oklahoma. She layered corn chips on the peanut butter before topping it with another slice of bread, took one large bite then let the sandwich sit until the formula was warm.
“Okay, Charlie Brown. Dinner’s on.”
Jesse had never needed to be coaxed to eat. He sucked at the bottle with machine-like precision, reminding her how, even as a newborn, he'd suckled as though he’d been born with an instruction manual in his head.
She changed his diaper and put his jammies on while he ate. When she was done, he smelled reassuringly of warm baby. She breathed deep and smiled. The smile felt strange. And more than a little disloyal, even though she knew, for Jesse’s sake, she had to put the last four months behind her, as much as she safely could. The least of that meant learning to smile again. For Jesse's sake.
Half a bottle of formula later, his mouth action slowed and his eyes dropped to half mast.
She craned her neck to peer at the visible sliver of his blue eyes. His eyes rarely closed completely when he first fell asleep. Maddie found it endearing. She laid him gently on the bed then put the half-full bottle in the fridge for the middle-of-the-night feeding. Finally, she changed into her baggy sweats.
There was one more thing to do before she went to sleep herself. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she dialed the disposable phone with its untraceable number that she’d bought for this sole purpose.
“It’s me,” Maddie said.
“Thank God.” Her Great-Aunt Pru’s voice sounded heavy with relief. “I was starting to worry.”
“I know. I should have called last night, but it took me too long to find a place to stay. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Just as long as you’re okay. Next time, don’t worry about waking me.” Pru paused. “You made the right decision.”
Maddie's heart skipped a beat. “Why? What’s happened?”
“He came around yesterday.” They never referred to Derek by name any more, at least not out loud.
“He came there?” Maddie’s heart dropped another beat.
“He figures you’ve taken Jesse, but he can’t find anyone to tell him where.”
Maddie wiped her suddenly damp palm on her sweats then shifted the phone to her other ear. “He’s a snake, but he’s got a way of getting things out of people.”
“They can’t tell what they don’t know,” Aunt Pru said, repeating the advice she'd given when they'd first talked about Maddie taking Jesse and running. Back when it had started to look as though the state wasn’t going to prosecute Derek for murder. When it began to look like he’d not only walk away scot-free but get custody of his son too. Maddie had followed her aunt’s advice to the letter. Not even Pru knew where she was or where she was going.
“You be careful, girl. I couldn’t stop him from poking around. He saw Lloyd's Lincoln was gone. I told him I sold it.”
“Did he believe you?”
“He pretended to, but he’s a suspicious bastard. You get rid of that behemoth as soon as you can.”
Maddie had grown fond of her late great-uncle’s car. She felt safe in it, but Pru was right. “I’ll get rid of it as soon as I’m planted someplace.”
“I wish you’d do it sooner,” Pru said.
“I’m being careful. I’m not speeding. I’m not even parking illegally. No one has any cause to run the plates,” Maddie said. She had a bill of sale from Pru safely in her purse. As soon as she landed someplace long enough to find a buyer, she could transfer the title without ever having her name attached to it.
“I wouldn’t worry so much if it was just him,” Pru said, “but his father’s just as determined to get Jesse back, and he can pull strings.”
Sadly, they both knew too well about the strings Derek's father could pull. It was why Maddie was sitting in a lonely, roach-infested motel room on the outskirts of Lubbock. "He can pull ropes if he wants to," Maddie said, bitterness and determination tingeing her voice. "It doesn't make any difference if they can't find me."
“You got what you needed in Colorado then?”
“I got it. They hiked the price on me at the last minute. Thought I was being too fussy.”
Maddie felt a spurt of anger, though at the time, she had wondered if they were right. Now she was glad she'd stuck to her guns and insisted her new identity have a middle initial that let her use her own name.
“They can afford to think that; you can’t,” Pru said, expressing her conviction, not for the first time, that if Maddie forgot to answer to a new name, folks around her would take note. Small things like that worried Pru. Privately, it had worried Maddie as well.
“I know I can’t make you stop fretting, but we’re fine,” Maddie said, trying to ease her aunt’s fears, as well as her own, with bravado. “The door’s locked, Jesse’s asleep on the bed, and no one knows where we are. We’re going to be okay.”
“You just keep checking in.”
“I will.” Maddie paused. “But I don’t think it’ll be as often. Once a month maybe.”
A long silence ensued. Maddie closed her eyes. She knew exactly what her aunt was feeling, how much she would miss the reassurance the calls gave her. Maddie felt the same way.
“I understand,” Pru finally said. “Listen, when you do call, call late. Late enough to wake me. In case he drops by again.”
“I will," Maddie said. "I love you.”
“Love you, too, girl.”
After hanging up, Maddie leaned her butt against the edge of the mini-fridge and ate her sandwich. We’re going to make it. She needed to dispel the pall Derek’s visit to Pru’s had caused. We’re going to hide deep in the wilds of Texas where he’ll never find us. We’re going to be safe.
She wasn’t as convinced as she wanted to be. As if to drive that point home, a car pulled into the space in front of the neighboring room just as she turned the lights out. The thin drapes didn’t keep the headlights from sweeping the room. Maddie's heart seemed to stop in her chest before it started back up double-time. She nudged the edge of the curtain aside enough to peek out with one eye.
She itched to get the gun from her shoulder bag, but the awful fear that, if she left the car unwatched, even for a moment, she’d never see the occupant until he grabbed her out of the darkness, as though she were a disposable character in a slasher movie, held her at the window.
She had to see the driver if only to keep herself from lying awake in irrational terror. As she waited in the dark, quiet room she shared with Jesse and the Texas cockroaches, her heart pounded so hard the artery in her throat pulsed. Even after she saw that the man in the next room was a bald, non-threatening stranger, she watched to make sure his goal really was the next room.
Slowly, her heart rate returned to normal, and at last, she lay down, curling her body around her sleeping nephew. The words of a song by Kenny Rogers, one of her aunt's favorite singers, played in her head as it had so often since she'd left Wyoming. She'd heard that song since she was a child but the advice it gave about knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run had never felt more true. What the song failed to mention was how lonely running could be.
Galveston - Three weeks later
“Did I tell you my boyfriend rides the rodeo circuit?” Peggy asked from where she sat cross-legged on Maddie’s double bed. A strawberry blonde freckled on every inch of exposed skin, she tickled Jesse’s chin with the rabbit’s foot on her key chain as Maddie pawed through her lingerie drawer.
“Uh-uh.” Though she hadn’t known the young college student quite two weeks yet, Maddie had already learned it took only minimal noises on her part to keep Peggy talking.
“He’s given up bulls this year,” Peggy said, her easy rambling a comforting white noise, like the hiss of the air-conditioner.
Did she really need pantyhose? It was only May, but Galveston was so humid Maddie thought she might melt every time she stepped outside. So unlike Cheyenne where the heat was comfortably dry.
“It’s really paying off. Without the bull-riding injuries, he hasn't missed any rodeos, so he’s making better money than ever.” Peggy interrupted her commentary to ask, “Whatcha looking for?”
“A pair of pantyhose without a run. Would you mind checking the bottom of the wardrobe?" Maddie gestured behind her at the armoire that just missed being an antique. "Sometimes I stick the pair I was wearing in my shoes.”
Peggy tickled the tip of Jesse’s nose with the furry foot—getting a delicate sneeze as a reward—before she unfolded her sun-browned legs to dig through the wardrobe.
“I really appreciate you watching Jesse tonight,” Maddie said as she searched the next dresser drawer. “You’re sure I’m not keeping you from a study group or something?”
“Nope,” Peggy said, her response almost a parody of her Texan drawl. “No study group tonight. And Jesse’s such an easy baby, I’ll get more homework done here than I would in my own room.” Peggy shared the big house next door with six other college students who were always knocking on each others’ doors as they came and went.
Maddie turned in time to see Peggy tug a pair of pantyhose from the bottom of the wardrobe, followed by a flash of silver.
“What’s this?” Peggy bent to pick up the five-by-seven, silver-plated, double picture frame that had piggy-backed on the nylons.
Maddie had blocked the pictures from her mind, but seeing the frame so unexpectedly hit her like she’d been gut-punched. Blinded for a moment to her surroundings, she closed her eyes as the images it held flared in her memory. Her beautiful dark-haired sister Laurel rocking a week-old Jesse appeared in Maddie’s mind as clearly as if they’d been right in front of her.
“This is you, isn’t it?” Peggy asked.
Maddie couldn’t stop the image from shifting to the other picture—the one of Vince on a park bench with Maddie behind him, her arms draped around his neck, his face in profile as he laughed up at her. She slammed a mental door on the image before it could tear her heart out. Some memories were too painful to be borne.
“Is this Jesse’s daddy?”
Maddie opened her mouth to say “of course not,” then realized Peggy thought she was the woman in both pictures.
Not waiting for an answer, Peggy said, “I figured Jesse’s daddy had red hair. Must’ve been someone else in the family.”
“Yeah,” Maddie agreed, unable to force any other words around the lump in her throat.
She didn't just miss Vince; she struggled every day with the guilt of his death. Knowing her had taken him into Derek's path and made him a target. Maddie retrieved the pantyhose from where they’d fallen. Jesse had rolled onto his tummy and was starting to crawl backward across the bed. She pulled him back to the middle, then patted his diapered rump before rucking up a leg of nylon between her thumbs.
To her relief, Peggy put the frame back in the wardrobe without further questions. At least about that. “Where you goin’ tonight?” she asked as she sat on the other side of the bed.
“I’m going to check out three or four of the hotel bars downtown. I thought I’d start with The Inn. See what kind of clientele they have, then work my way across town.”
“Hunh!” Peggy snorted her disgust. “Nothing but cattle barons and oil millionaires there.”
“Really?” Maddie had a moment of déjà vu. How many times had she listened to Laurel chatter when they were younger as she’d dressed for a date? The gut-punched feeling tried creeping back. She stood and pulled her pantyhose into place, forcing her emotions back into line.
“Yeah, Russell Maddox owns The Inn,” Peggy said. “He’s old oil money, so that’s where all the oilmen like to stay. Tips are prob’ly good though.”
“Good to know.” Maddie reluctantly scratched the hotel off her mental list. A few of the oil men she knew from running Hewitt’s oilfield office in Wyoming also had interests in Texas oilfields. If she wanted to settle in Galveston, she had to stay away from places where she might run into them.
“What about the Gull?” That was her sentimental choice. Vince once told her he always stayed there when he was in Galveston.
“That’s a nice place. Prob'ly good tips. Mostly boring business types, though.”
Maddie smiled as she smoothed her skirt. An Oceanography major at Texas A&M’s Galveston campus, Peggy was, in all likelihood, doomed to spend her life around even more boring scientific types. But then maybe boring was in the eye of the beholder. As long as Maddie could pay her bills, the customers could be as dull as they wanted.
Though she'd prefer to hole up with Jesse, she couldn't do that indefinitely. Her conscience wouldn't let her dip any further into what remained of the forty thousand dollars from Laurel’s life insurance, currently sitting in a high-security storage vault with 24-hour access. Not when Laurel had made such sacrifices to pay the premiums—because that was what a responsible parent did, no matter how much it had stretched Laurel's already transparently thin budget. Even if the policy was only twenty thousand—not enough to be confused with winning the lottery—but with a double indemnity clause if she were murdered.
No, Maddie vowed she wouldn't touch any more of it unless it was an emergency. So she had to go to work. And as much as she hated it, that meant leaving Jesse with someone.
Thank God she'd met Peggy. The girl was such a better alternative to a daycare where too many people—too many strangers—would come and go every day.
Maddie finished touching up her lipstick, ran a brush through her shoulder-length, chestnut hair one last time, then turned in front of the mirror to make sure everything was tucked in that should be.
Peggy swung her legs back onto the bed to sit Indian style. Jesse immediately crawled into the nest her crossed legs made. “You know you’re gonna sweat to death in them pantyhose.”
“You waited until now to tell me that?” It was such a kid sister thing to do, she almost asked Peggy how old her big sister was. “Do you think I could get by without them?”
“Sure. Your legs aren't all pasty white like they were when you moved in, so why not?”
She might be able to get by. Maddie sat on the edge of the bed and stripped off the pantyhose.
“With legs like yours, why aren’t you wearin’ a shorter skirt?” Peggy asked. “I sure would.”
“Because I may end up applying for a job at one of these places. Short skirts may help waitresses rake in tips, but they usually bring a bartender nothing but trouble.” Maddie spoke from experience. Bartending was a trade she’d learned before Hewitt Oil hired her.
She watched Peggy shrug in the mirror. “Well, the top’s nice, the way it's all drapey. You could still get lucky.”
Peggy’s tone left no doubt about what she meant by “getting lucky.” With a deliberate effort not to snarl from between clenched teeth, Maddie said, “I’m not looking to get lucky.”
“You oughta be, honey. Even when we’re just sitting ‘round, havin’ a beer, you’re all tensed up. I catch myself clenching my teeth sometimes, just waitin’ for you to pop like an overfilled balloon. You need to get rid of some of that there tension. Don’t she, Jesse?” She tickled his toes with the rabbit’s foot and got a giggle out of him. “See, even he thinks so. Get out there and find you a job, but if some nice-looking fella wanders in, let him sweet talk you into kickin’ up your heels.” And then she winked. As though Maddie could miss her meaning.
She had to fight her resentment of Peggy’s innocent attempt to help her. Maddie had intended to spend the rest of her life with Vince. She didn’t want another man, especially not a one-night stand. In the mirror, she caught her lips tightening into a thin line and forced her jaw and face to relax. Crap. Peggy was right about the tension. She’d have to work on masking that better.
She reassessed her top in the mirror. The Texas nights were warm enough to justify the spaghetti straps, and the neckline revealed just a hint of cleavage, but maybe it was too much.
How many of Peggy’s not-so-subtle innuendos would she have to endure if she changed it?
Too many, Maddie decided. She spritzed herself lightly with Estée Lauder's Beautiful and looked around for her shoulder bag. “I doubt I’ll see anyone even remotely suitable to ‘kick my heels up’ with. There never is when you’re looking for it.” Not that she was, but she didn't want Peggy detailing the reason she should be.
“Well, if you do meet someone, don’t feel like you got to hurry home. I don't have a class until ten tomorrow.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Appearing to agree would end the conversation quicker than protests. “Where the hell is my purse?”
Peggy reached over the far edge of the bed, fumbled around for the strap then, grunting with the effort, swung Maddie’s bag up onto the bed. “You got the kitchen sink in there?” she asked, setting it on the bed within Maddie’s reach.
“No, I carry a cannon,” Maddie answered tartly. Peggy would never guess she was only exaggerating a little.
Maddie leaned over the bed and kissed Jesse’s plump cheek goodbye. “Be good for Peggy, okay? I love you, Charlie Brown.”
She paused at the door, the typical quiver deep in her stomach whenever she left Jesse making itself felt. “Be sure to keep the door locked and don’t open it for anyone.”
Peggy rolled on the bed until her head hung over the edge of the mattress, the ends of her hair sweeping the floor. “Before I met you, I thought only big city folk were this paranoid about their kids, but you can count on me.” Still upside-down, Peggy recited Maddie’s cardinal rule: “No strangers near Jesse.”
Maddie gave her a tight smile. It was impossible not to trust Peggy. Jesse would be fine.
More important, he would be safe. She was able to hold onto that almost to the front door of the building where she saw someone she didn't know enter without being buzzed in as one of her neighbors went out.
~* * *~
Thursday night. Maddie figured the bars would be busy enough to judge the type of crowd they attracted but not so busy she couldn’t strike up a conversation with the bartender.
At the Gull, she studied the autographed photos that lined the top of the mirror behind the bar while she waited for the bartender to get to her. She smiled when she recognized Ty Murray's face next to Mike Lee's. Both Texas boys. Both bull riding champions. Maddie took it as a good sign. She could fit in here.
Vince had liked The Gull enough to stay here when he was in Galveston, so it felt right that she should work here. He would have sat at the bar, as he always did when he was alone.
As she was doing now. Maybe he'd sat on the stool next to hers. She watched the bartender mixing drinks. Had he served Vince? If he'd worked there long enough, it was possible, but with the number of people that passed through a hotel, the odds were against him remembering someone who hadn't stayed there in over a year.
Though she'd spoken to Vince's mother several times on the phone, she'd only met one person from Vince's past—only one person in the whole state of Texas who would recognize her on sight. She wasn't worried about running into him; he lived hours north of Galveston and didn't care much for cities.
"What'll ya' have?" the bartender, a nice-looking man with a dark-chocolate complexion, asked.
She ordered a Snakebite, intending to get him talking while he made it. Instead, he asked to see her ID, jarring her back into the present and reminding her that she wasn't Maddie Wells anymore, but a stranger named Maddie Grey. She dug into her purse with shaking hands. Unlike the Colorado license she'd used to get it, the Texas drivers license was legitimately issued by the state DMV. Still, her face flushed hot. Bartenders developed an instinct about IDs. She fully expected him to know she wasn’t who the license said she was.
Her nerves clattered silently as he checked to verify her over-twenty-one status. The tension seemed to disconnect her brain from her tongue. The drink was in front of her and the bartender had moved on to the next customer before the connection was reestablished.
So instead of chatting him up, Maddie sat at the bar, picking the stir straw from her Snakebite into shreds and thinking about what Peggy had said.
The tension never really went away. Well, once in a while. When she held Jesse in her arms, watching him suck on his bottle with such determination. Or when some man spoke with exactly the same sort of Texas drawl Vince had had. Those things sometimes lulled the tension away for a few moments, but most of the time, she felt exactly the way Peggy described her—like a balloon about to burst.
If Peggy could pick up on it, so would other people, and that made her memorable. So maybe Peggy was right about how to get rid of it too.
It wasn’t that she required months of dating before she’d sleep with a man. Hell, she’d have jumped into bed with Vince the first day she met him if she’d had the opportunity. He’d come up from Texas to work for Hewitt Oil, doing his geologist thing he’d called it. When the foreman brought Vince into the office to introduce him around, she’d shaken his hand. The moment their hands touched, an electrical spark jumped the length of her spine. The look in his eyes said he felt it too.
If the company hadn’t sent him out to evaluate some land near Casper the same day, one of them would have undoubtedly invited the other out for a drink. Maddie had never doubted where that would have led. Instead, she tried talking herself out of it. What a wasted effort that had been.
Three days later, he’d walked back in, sat on the corner of her desk, and made small talk while his eyes had challenged her, invited her . . .. consumed her.
Hewitt’s nephew hadn't even slowed down as he walked past. “Hey, get a room on your own time. I need to see that report we’re presenting to the board before the end of the day.”
Vince’s lips had turned up in a secret sort of smile, his head tilting as though to say, “Shall we?”
Momentarily flustered, Maddie had pulled back, only to invite him for a drink just before quitting time. Within a month, they’d set up housekeeping together.
What mortal man could compete with that?
“Gimme two Snakebites, would’ja?”
Maddie froze as the voice broke into her thoughts. It was as if she’d conjured Vince straight out of her memories. The tone . . . the drawl . . . How many times had she heard Vince order his favorite drink for the two of them?
Her hands began to tremble. She fantasized sometimes about seeing Vince again—about hearing his voice, touching him even—but she knew the difference between reality and daydreams. To find him standing next to her in a hotel bar in Galveston would be too Twilight Zone.
Slowly, she lifted her eyes to the mirror over the backbar. She half expected to see Vince’s reflection there. Instead, the mirror gave back the image of a lean man with ragged, dark brown hair that just touched the collar of his faded blue work shirt. His eyes were downcast as he pulled a twenty dollar bill from his wallet.
When he looked up, eyes the color of melted chocolate met hers in the mirror.
Embarrassed to be caught staring, she tightened her fingers around her glass to stop her hands from shaking and turned her head, as though looking at something down the bar.
“Thanks,” the man said in a long drawl when the bartender put his drinks in front of him.
Maddie kept her eyes turned away while he waited for his change, but she watched in the mirror as he carried the drinks back to his table.
She let her breath out in a long, relieved sigh when she saw his companion was another man. Not that it mattered. She had no reason to care, she assured herself, but her eyes kept returning to the two men. And still she didn’t strike up a conversation with the bartender.
Neither did she move on to the next hotel on her list.
The two men looked enough alike to be brothers. They sat slumped in their chairs, their butts on the edge of the seat, one leg bent at a perfect right angle, the ankle of the other leg crossing over at the knee. They watched the crowd, talking softly as though nothing important needed saying. Maddie wondered if they both had that wonderful, thick-as-honey, East Texas drawl.
Now that she knew she hadn’t stepped into the Twilight Zone, she wanted to hear it again. To bask in it, to close her eyes and pretend. To feed the fantasy, just a little. What was the harm in that? Probably tremendous harm, she thought, but just for a while, she didn’t want to care.
Absently, she ordered another drink, forgetting about the potency that gave Yukon Jack and Roses Lime the name Snakebite. Pure alcohol, she remembered as the glass touched her lips. She sipped the drink leisurely, savoring the sweet tang of limes on her tongue, all the while watching the two men in the mirror.
One thing growing up in the hard-drinking state of Wyoming had taught her was how sneaky alcohol could be. How easy it was to feel fully functional on a bar stool only to find herself bouncing off the walls when negotiating the hall to the restroom.
When her glass was empty, she made a trip to the ladies room. So far so good, but she still resolved to order a water back with her next drink.
Maddie reached into her bag for her lipstick, only to find a small foil packet.
She nearly choked. How in the world . . .?
She must have dropped the condom in her bag when she’d fished it up from beside the bed. Maddie almost threw it in the trash, but Peggy would think she’d used it. She'd probably want details.
Better to give it back with a stern warning. Yeah, like Peggy would listen. Still, Maddie dropped it back into her bag before applying her lipstick.
When she came out of the ladies room, two empty glasses sat on the table where the men had been. She scanned the room, her heart tightened in her chest. “Oh hell,” she muttered. Maybe another drink wasn’t such a good idea, not if she was going to get depressed over a man she hadn’t even met.
Damn Peggy for planting ideas in her head. Mooning over strange men, even ones with seductive drawls, wasn’t what she was here for.
She didn’t have to wonder what Vince would have thought of that. He would have been mad at her for hiding behind his memory. He’d been big on living life to the fullest, on grabbing the good things that came along and riding out the bad.
She wished she could live that way, but she had serious responsibilities now.
Which reminded her she still hadn't accomplished her mission. She liked the atmosphere of this hotel and the clientele was good—a mixture of tourists and out of town businessmen.
She should at least talk to the bartender before leaving.
“One more,” she said, reclaiming her barstool. "With a water back." The place had thinned out enough to talk with little interruption. If she liked what she heard, she’d ask for the manager’s name. Her lips parted to speak as the bartender set her refill in front of her, but the voice over her shoulder stopped her, setting her heart fluttering.
“Let me get that there drink for the lady, Pete.” Mr. East Texas Drawl stepped up to the bar. “That is, if the lady don’t mind?”
She turned her head cautiously, afraid moving too fast would blur her vision.
Mr. East Texas was watching her, waiting for a cue his offer was welcome.
She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”
Oh, crap. She sounded all Marilyn Monroe breathy.
He handed the bartender a ten. Maddie expected him to pull up the next barstool.
Instead, he shoved it over with his foot and leaned one elbow against the bar. “So what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
She laughed. It should have sounded old, trite, and corny, but nothing said in that drawl could sound anything but enchanting. If she narrowed her eyes, maybe she could pretend he was Vince. Her laughter lit something deep in Mr. East Texas’s dark eyes. Maddie suddenly felt warm. Sitting-in-front-of-a-raging-fire-on-a-cold-winter-night warm. The flutter in her heart moved into the pit of her stomach.
“Don’t tell the bartender, but I’m casing the place to see if I want his job,” she said.
The bartender's eyebrows rose, but he didn’t comment. He’d no doubt seen this dance often enough.
“Ah, well. Looking for employment. That’s respectable then.” Mr. East Texas nodded sagely. “Though I gotta admit, I was hoping you was here for less reputable reasons.”
“You mean like looking for a man to take me away from all this?” Her open-handed gesture included the entire bar.
“Even the best watering holes have a long tradition of that sorta thing. Why, my daddy met my mama in a place a lot like this.”
She fought to keep a grin from breaking out across her face. How long had it been since she’d engaged in light-hearted banter, never mind flirting? It seemed like eons. “Really?”
“Well, maybe there wasn’t as much brass and mirrors. Or the selection of beverages this fine establishment has. And there ain’t no straw on the floor nor fiddle player in the corner . . .” He looked away as though seeking a fiddle player. “And they had dancin’.” His nostrils narrowed with an indrawn breath. His eyes came back to hers. “Damn. A man oughta take a woman dancin’.”
The flutter in her stomach moved lower.
“What kind of dancing do you do to fiddle music?”
“The spirited kind.” He let a beat pass before he continued. “But I think you’re the kinda woman a man takes slow dancin’. Someplace where there ain’t much light, so’s nobody’d see when I kissed you.”
He held her eyes, waiting for her response.
Someone down the bar hollered for Pete’s attention and he moved away. Their audience gone, Maddie swiveled on her barstool to face him straight on.
“What if I didn’t want to be kissed?” she asked, knowing her body language sent a completely different message.
“Why, ma’am . . .” He leaned slowly closer as he spoke. “I don’t think I’d ask first.” His lips brushed hers lightly. Just a gentle touch, as though she’d been kissed almost in passing. He pulled back, but only a couple of inches. Neither of them had closed their eyes.
Maddie swallowed, trying to work up some moisture in her suddenly dry mouth.
“My daddy says sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”
“Does he?” she forced out.
“Oh, yeah.” His tone was heartfelt. “And I think I may need a passel of forgivin’,” he said before he kissed her again. The kiss was just as gentle, but he lingered this time, and they both closed their eyes. He pushed away from the bar, cupping her face between his hands. Her neck bent back as he rose to his full height. She vaguely realized he was standing between her knees, her not-too-short skirt bunched up high on her thighs.
She was trembling when he stopped. For a moment, she thought he was, too, but she was probably wrong. They were both a little breathless, though; of that, she was sure.
He breathed a question in her ear. “Are you staying at the hotel?”
Maddie didn’t care that he’d forgotten what she’d said about job hunting. She shook her head. “You?”
“Yeah. And I got a radio in my room.” He paused. “I could take you dancin’.”
All Maddie had wanted at first had been to hear him talk. That had quickly progressed to wanting to be kissed. Surely she wasn’t really considering going to his room? Damn Peggy’s ten o’clock class. Why didn’t she have a seven thirty class like a respectable college student?
Then Maddie’s decision would be an easy no.
Well, maybe not easy, she amended, but at least definite.
“Would’ja like to go dancin’?” Mr. East Texas’s voice was husky and the drawl thickened.
She wasn't ready to let him walk away. He lit a fire inside her that heated her blood, and she'd hadn't felt warm in far too long. She couldn't stand the thought of feeling the fire die and turn to cold ashes inside her. Not yet. “Yes.” Her response was little more than a whisper.
They left her untouched drink on the bar with the change from his ten.
Standing awkwardly in front of the elevator doors, as though they both realized complete strangers shouldn’t do what they were contemplating, she realized she didn’t even know his name. Last chance to run, but the doors opened before she could spring away. He touched the small of her back to guide her forward, and any chance of escape was gone, like a candle snuffed out.
His touch re-ignited the spark between them. He backed her up against the wall as the elevator doors closed. She expected his hands to be all over her, but again, he surprised her.
With his feet wide apart, he braced his arms on either side of her and leaned in so only their lips touched. It should have felt like he was looming over her, but instead she felt delicate and feminine. His kiss deepened, his tongue teasing into her mouth, demanding something back from her.
She didn’t hear the elevator bell ding, announcing their floor, but he released her a bare second before the doors opened.
The light was back in his eyes, as though the elevator ride had convinced him they’d made the right decision. She wasn’t sure about that, but she was pretty certain she was going to turn him every way but loose before the night was over.