She refused to descend into self-pity. That’s what Grace Henry insisted as she slipped off her navy suit jacket and hurled the garment on the bed. After tugging off her pencil skirt, she slipped on yoga pants and a cotton tee, sank onto her bed, and grabbed her cell phone from the nightstand to return her mother’s call. Or rather, her mother’s two calls.
“I hope this interview was better than the last,” her mother said when she answered.
Her mother meant well. Grace knew that, but so many things she said to comfort, left Grace bruised instead. “It went well. Now I wait to hear from them.”
Grace resisted the urge to run to the bathroom and peer into the mirror to see if her nose had grown. What she’d said couldn’t be farther from the truth. How ironic when she’d been hopeful for this interview at the company of a casual friend. But she’d no sooner sat down across the desk from her supposed friend when the woman blasted Grace.
I only agreed to see you so you’d quit wasting your time. No one in this city will hire you. Word is you cut a deal to get yourself out of trouble. Those who don’t think that are scared if anything is the least bit suspicious in their company, you’ll bring the FBI down on them, too.
Numb, and wanting to run as far and as fast as possible, Grace thanked the woman for her honesty, snatched up her briefcase, and scooted out of the office. Never once had she considered defending herself. What was the point? Not a shred of evidence pointed at her involvement in the embezzlement at her former employer, but none of that appeared to matter.
How could this happen when she’d done the right thing? When the authorities swooped down, zeroing in on her ex, Derek, she’d been questioned because of their past relationship. At first the FBI suspected her of being involved, but when they failed to find evidence, they changed tactics. The interrogations stopped, and instead they approached her to gather evidence against Derek.
She’d agreed. How could anyone whose moral compass pointed close to north do otherwise? Unfortunately the information she turned over uncovered other financial irregularities, including massive overbilling of clients. That, combined with the embezzlement, toppled the company.
And people blamed her.
“I hope you’re right about this job,” her mom said, pulling Grace back to their conversation.
“I’ll keep you posted. Since I just got home—”
“Asking about your interview wasn’t the only reason I called,” her mom said, cutting her off.
Grace sighed. She shouldn’t be surprised her mother had an ulterior motive. That was their pattern, but today the fact stung. Just once she wanted a call to be solely motivated by her mother’s concern for her.
“I was supposed to see Brianna tonight,” her mother said referring to her only grandchild. “But Leslie called yesterday to say she has a virus. I know it’s not true. They made that up because they’re mad about what happened last weekend.”
Yet another family debacle. The last of many. Looking back on her childhood, Grace couldn’t remember a time when her parents got along or appeared to share genuine affection for each other, certainly nothing resembling love. Her father’s job as a New York City cop, and the fact he preferred to blow off steam drinking with his buddies rather than spend time at home, served as a constant problem between them. Her mother’s eventual coping strategy had been to have an affair. A fact Grace discovered one day in high school when she came home sick from school.
Despite their divorce when Grace left for college and despite both remarrying, her parents couldn’t let go of their anger and move on. If anything, their bickering had grown worse, as evidenced by Brianna’s baptism last weekend. To eliminate potential problems, her brother assigned each parent a specific time to attend the celebration at his house. But that hadn’t worked, because the pair got into a shouting match in the driveway in full view of the neighbors, loud enough for the guests inside to hear.
Grace wouldn’t blame Grant if he was mad, but instead she said, “It could be Brianna is sick.”
“If that’s the case, then why doesn’t your brother answer his cell? Why hasn’t he returned my calls?”
Poor Grant. His voice mail had probably reached capacity hours ago, and because he hadn’t dropped everything to call her back, their mother’s imagination shifted into overdrive. See, things could be worse. “I don’t think Grant and Leslie would lie about Brianna being sick to keep you from seeing her.”
“Oh, yes they would,” her mother insisted, her tone bordering on whiny. “They know nothing would hurt me more than keeping my granddaughter from me. They’re punishing me. Brianna’s already changed so much, and babies forget people quickly. I don’t want to miss out on her life, especially when what happened wasn’t my fault. It was your father’s.”
Grace rolled her eyes, hating her mother’s the-devil-incarnate tone when she referred to Grace’s father. Didn’t she realize half of who her children were came from their father, and in criticizing him, she criticized her children, too?
“If he hadn’t arrived early, we wouldn’t have run into each other. Then everything would’ve been fine, but I’m the one who’s suffering the consequences.” Her mother’s sigh radiated over the phone. “Please, Grace. Talk to Grant. He’ll listen to you if you explain it wasn’t my fault.”
Yeah, but then Dad will hear what I did, and he’ll be mad at me.
No matter what she did, how hard she tried to play peacemaker, she ended up with someone upset with her, and she was tired of it. With her life in shambles, she didn’t have the energy for these battles anymore. She thought about telling her mom no, but that would only result in more pleading, guilt, and delay the inevitable. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, dear,” her mom said, her tone much brighter since her daughter had acquiesced. “Phil wanted me to remind you you’re welcome to stay with us until you find a job in order to save money.”
Phil was a nice guy, and loved her mother, but knowing they’d had an affair before her mother’s divorce made the situation awkward. That, and the fact that she knew too much about their relationship thanks to her mom using her as a confidant. “I’ll think about it, Mom.”
“You should cut expenses, because who knows how long it’ll take to find a job.”
Grace winced. She could’ve done without that reminder today.
“Plus, moving in with us would be a great chance for you to get to know Phil better. I know how uncomfortable you still are with him. It would mean a lot to me, Grace.”
Her chest felt as if someone had reached inside and squeezed her heart. This wasn’t what she needed right now. Why couldn’t her mother put her first, instead of asking for help when Grace had nothing left to give?
Grace mumbled another she’d think about the offer, ended the conversation, and then feeling an overwhelming need to vent, she called her best friend, Cassie.
“I need the best-friend-this-too-will-pass-and-life-will-get-better speech,” Grace said when Cassie answered. “Tell me I’ll find a job, and won’t be forced to move in with my mother and Phil, because that is so not part of the plan I have for my life. Can you think of anything scarier?”
“I take it today’s interview was another rough one?”
“Same song, thirty-first verse, but this one was really bad. To qualify as rough, it would’ve had to go much better.”
She couldn’t bring herself to tell Cassie what had happened. People said the truth hurt, and boy, did it, especially when she hadn’t been ready to move on from denial. But now she’d been forced to.
“You’re a smart, competent woman with great business skills, and someone’s going to realize that.”
“The question is will it happen before I’m eligible to join AARP?”
Cassie chuckled. “At least you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
Some days it felt as if that was all Grace had left.
“I don’t know if it’ll be comforting or not,” Cassie said, “but trying to hire a manager for the inn is teaching me interviewing isn’t any fun from the other side, either.”
“At least we can gripe about the process together. You know the old misery loves company thing.”
Cassie had moved to Wishing, Texas, four months ago to raise her niece, Ella, when her sister and brother-in-law died in a plane crash. Along with that responsibility came running a bed and breakfast. However since then, Cassie’s art career had taken off, and she spent time helping her fiancé, Ty, run the “cowboy experience” tourism business on his ranch, leaving her little time for the B&B.
“I either get applicants who have food service management skills, but no idea how to handle the marketing, or I get people with marketing skills who don’t want to do the cooking and cleaning side of the job. But what’s worse is they lack personality and people skills, which is probably the most important qualification for the job. Whoever I hire has to make people feel at home.”
“You can teach someone a lot of things, but you can’t do a personality transplant.”
Cassie giggled. “I’d hoped to have someone hired by now. With Ella, working with Ty on the ranch tours, the wedding coming up, and my next sculpture due ASAP, I’m running on fumes and out of time. Trying to keep two careers running is a disaster.”
“I’m tired just listening to all you have to do. I wish I could help.”
“Grace, you’re brilliant, and someone is going to hire you sooner than you think.” Cassie’s excitement bubbled through the phone.
“Have you suddenly become psychic?”
“I want to hire you to manage The Bluebonnet Inn.”
Grace laughed, the emotional release easing some of her bottled-up tension. “Thanks, I needed a good laugh.”
“The interview process has fried your brain. What do I know about running a B&B?”
“Don’t worry. Chloe had notes and to-do lists detailing everything from preparing for guests to cleaning after they leave. You shouldn’t have any problem, considering you’re smart, organized, and have an eye for details.”
“Flattery won’t help. I still think you’re crazy.”
“No, I’m not. She had the process outlined so well I could do the job, and you’re way more qualified to run the inn than I was when I started. You’ve got the business, marketing, and management expertise. You’re great with people, and a good cook.”
“That means a lot coming from a woman who set the stove on fire the first time she used it.”
“Hey, not the wisest thing to say to someone who offered you a job, and thanks for bringing that up because Ty, Ella, and half the town still giving me a hard time about it isn’t enough,” Cassie fired back. “No matter how many times I say it was more smoke than anything, and barely qualified as a fire, I can’t live the incident down.”
“Girl, if it had flames, it was a fire,” Grace said in all seriousness, but two seconds later burst out laughing.
“I’m glad I can provide comic relief.”
“I appreciate the sacrifice since I haven’t had much to laugh about lately.” Grace sobered. Only Cassie had stuck by her, helping to pick up the pieces. “I’ve missed you, and us talking like this.”
While she had other friends and acquaintances, or rather believed she had, no one ever understood her like Cassie. No one made her laugh when she felt like crying.
“What do you say? Will you take the job?”
Maybe the idea wasn’t as harebrained as Grace first imagined. Her business and marketing background would be an asset running the inn. The thought of a new challenge sent tingles racing up her spine. Could this be fate’s way of saying she needed to move in a completely new direction? Make a fresh start?
She considered her life in New York. Friends she’d believed would be there for her during hard times had avoided her as if she had a contagious disease. Then there was her family. The people who should put her first, ones she should be able to count on, drained her with their squabbles and insistence she play peacemaker. Escaping the family drama was a powerful lure.
Starting over with a clean slate, where no one other than her best friend knew what she’d gone through, sounded tempting. And Texas might be far enough for her family to leave her alone. She could catch her breath, sort out her life, and piece herself back together. “Cass, I’d love to manage The Bluebonnet Inn for you.”
The day AJ met Ty when they moved into Utay Hall at Texas A&M University in Squadron Twenty-One of the Corps of Cadets, he knew they’d be friends, but they’d become much more. Ty was the brother AJ never had.
Over the years, Ty’s family ranch, the Bar 7, became AJ’s second home. He loved visiting, especially in the summers. Fishing, riding horses, shooting targets and tin cans, swimming in the lake. What wasn’t there to love? But living, or rather working, in Wishing? He’d found that to be a horse of a completely different color, but then taking the chief of police job hadn’t been his idea.
When his friend, Jack Mitchell, suspected someone in or around Wishing was forging Social Security and Green Cards, drivers’ licenses, and other government documents he contacted the Bureau. Considering Jack’s experience with the Chicago PD, the FBI felt comfortable leaving the town’s chief to investigate the case. After Jack’s death, the FBI wanted to place an agent in Wishing to finish what Jack had started.
Working a two-bit forgery case in the middle of nowhere, east Texas, wasn’t exactly what AJ had in mind for an assignment, and he told Masters that. His boss responded with a lecture on taking one for the team because AJ was the best man for the job considering his familiarity with and contacts in Wishing. Then he added AJ was free to refuse the assignment, however, if he chose to do so there would be ramifications.
Faced with that information, AJ packed his bags, and headed for Wishing, figuring he’d be there a couple weeks tops. But gaining information had been harder than he expected.
Now two months had passed, and he was no closer to breaking the case. Which meant he was no closer to returning to Houston and work that mattered.
As AJ drove on the narrow, pot-hole-ridden, two lane farm highway toward Ty’s place, he wondered how to kick his investigation into high gear. If he didn’t, his duties as chief would drive him insane.
Instead of spending every minute ferreting out the forger, he spent his days mediating petty squabbles between neighbors, writing enough jaywalking tickets to stretch to Dallas, and fighting to bring a staff into the twenty-first century.
He parked his truck in the driveway near the barn, staring out at the land he loved. Perched on Lake Hope, the Bar 7 couldn’t be in a better spot. All a body had to do was walk a few feet and he was set for fishing, boating, or sitting on the dock staring at the water. Added to that was plenty of open fields for horseback riding and raising cattle. AJ envied his friend’s stability, something solid to hand down through the generations.
AJ headed for the corral where Ty stood brushing Lulabelle, and smiled seeing his favorite girl. The mare trotted over, and shoved her muzzle under his hand. Scratching the horse’s forehead, he said, “Hey, Lu. Thanks for the help last night. My ass would be in a sling if you hadn’t gone exploring.”
The first time AJ had shown up here as a wide-eyed college freshman, he and Lu hit it off, with her latching onto him like a lost foal. They’d been fast friends since. “How’d she get out this time?”
“Damned if I can figure it out,” Ty said. “I’ve never had a horse this wily before.”
“One of these times, Lu, you’re going to get in real trouble.”
Ty tossed the brush aside and joined him at the fence. “How’d the talk with the kids and their parents go?”
“I guarantee neither one will breathe a word of what they did, and they sure as hell won’t try another bonehead stunt again.” AJ scratched behind Lu’s ear. “Once I explained what they’d done, the parents lit into those boys. They’re making them pay the fine with their own money. Ethan’s parents said any more problems, and they’d sell his truck. That hit the kid hard.” AJ chuckled. “But the best part was when I laid out the A&M Code of Honor for Ethan, and added Coach Sumlin wouldn’t be pleased with a top recruit damaging a historical landmark. Man, the kid nearly started crying.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t wet himself. You know who his dad is, don’t you?”
AJ shook his head.
“He played for A&M in the Wrecking Crew’s heydays. Cason’s planned on his boy playing for the Aggies since he was born.”
“That’s why the name sounded familiar. No wonder the poor kid was scared shitless. Serves him right, though. Did you get their artwork covered up?”
“No one will know it was there,” Ty said. “I hope I didn’t take you away from someone when I called last night.”
“I wish, but I was alone.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Not mine,” AJ countered. “The pool of age-appropriate women isn’t exactly large. Hell, it’s more like kiddy wading pool size.”
Ty shrugged. “So the selection isn’t huge. There has to be someone you’re interested in.”
If he intended to live in Wishing, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Weekend getaway? Sure. Hopefully soon he could buy land here. Probably not on the lake, but around Wishing. A place he could come to on weekends or when he needed to get away. But other than that? No thanks.
As soon as he caught the forgers he’d hightail it back to Houston. Unfortunately, he couldn’t explain anything to Ty since no one other than the mayor was to know about his investigation. Instead AJ said, “I’ve been busy getting up to speed at work. Once I’ve got the job under control I’ll worry about my love life.”
“You sure that’s all it is? It’s not because you’re too picky?” Ty eyed him as if he was about to call bullshit. “You want a woman who looks like she belongs on a magazine, but has Einstein’s IQ.”
“She doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist, just smart enough to hold a decent conversation.”
And meet a few other criteria.
She should be confident enough to handle not knowing the details of his latest case, or where he was going. She had to cope with the fact every day he walked out the door might be the one he failed to return. She needed to have her own life. One separate from his. He had to know she’d be okay if she was on her own again. That took a special breed of woman. One damn hard to find.
“Then never mind what I said about your standards. Things will turn around for you and women.” Ty nodded toward the mare who’d pressed as close to AJ as the fence allowed. “You’re having good luck charming Lulabelle. She hasn’t looked this perky in a while.”
“Of course, she’s half-blind, and doesn’t hear too well.” AJ eyed the mare critically, noting her ribs appeared more pronounced. “Has she lost weight?”
“Probably, since she hasn’t eaten much lately.”
“What’s up, Lu?” AJ scratched behind the mare’s gray ears, and she titled her head, gazing at him with big brown eyes, as if remembering the long rides they’d shared over the years. “Have you talked to Coop?” AJ asked referring to their Squadron 21 buddy, Cooper Abbott, a veterinarian in College Station.
“That’s not a bad idea.”
“Let me know what he says.” No longer receiving AJ’s attention, Lu pawed the fence and bumped his shoulder with her nose. He rubbed her neck. “You’re still my best girl, Lu.”
“That’s the answer to your love life.” Ty’s voice filled with amusement. “Find a woman with the same qualities as Lulabelle.”
“You mean half blind with bad hearing?” He wasn’t that desperate for female companionship. Yet. “Very funny.” AJ glanced at his watch. “Damn. I’m late.”
“Marjorie’s going to chew you out,” Ty said, referring to AJ’s dispatcher/office manager. “Everyone in town knows she really runs the department.”
“And she has no intention of that changing.” AJ gripped the fence rail so hard his knuckles whitened. “Every time I suggest we try something new she looks over her glasses and says, if I want to waste my time go ahead, but I’ll find out it won’t work as well as what we’re doing. Damn, I’m getting damned tired of hearing that.”
“Then do something about it.”
If AJ intended to stick around, he would. Then he and his dispatcher would have a long talk. He’d tell her, while he appreciated her valuable expertise, she needed to be open to new ideas, and couldn’t nix suggestions immediately. Then if her behavior didn’t change he’d place an official reprimand in her file. But he wasn’t sticking around, meaning the smart plan was finding a way to coexist. “I’m working out a strategy that won’t make the situation worse.”
“I don’t blame you. If Marjorie gets ticked, everyone in town will hear about it, and she’ll make your life hell. She ran off the first chief the town hired after Weston retired,” Ty said.
“The woman is a force to be reckoned with.”
“I don’t know if this helps, but Jack had the same problem. It took awhile and a mound of patience, but Marjorie came around to respect him, and she will you, too.”
Too bad AJ wouldn’t be around long enough to see it happen. “Thanks for the pep talk.”
“Consider it thanks for the ones you gave me with Cassie.”
AJ smiled remembering what a shit Ty had been when he’d met his fiancée. “You don’t owe me. As your best friend it was my duty to let you know you were being an ass.”
“And you enjoyed every minute.”
“Damn right.” What a difference a few months made. His friend now had it all, a new business venture, his ranch on an east Texas lake, and a damn fine woman to share it. “Why can’t I find a woman like Cassie? If I could I’d be a happy man.”
“Speaking of Cassie, she said to invite you to supper Friday. Her best friend’s arriving that day. She’s moving here to run the inn, and Cassie wants you to meet.”
“Now you’re talking. I’ve meant to ask if she could introduce me to a friend.” Before he could ask about said friend, his phone rang. Glancing at the screen, he frowned as he answered. “I’m on my way, Marjorie.”
“You’d better be,” Marjorie said in a voice disturbingly similar to ones his grade school teachers had used whenever he tried to pull a fast one. “Mason Whatley’s called twice complaining about Virgil not fixing his fence. Luke tried talking to him, but Mason wouldn’t hear it. He said he’s done dealing with anybody but the top dog. His words, not mine.”
For Mason, a man in his late sixties who’d lost his wife ten years ago, every problem was a crisis, demanded AJ’s immediate attention, and usually involved his neighbor of thirty plus years, Virgil. AJ was starting to think getting on Mason’s nerves was Virgil’s favorite sport, and he’d have to hire an officer whose sole responsibilities were managing those two troublemakers.
“You need to head over there right quick,” Marjorie continued. “Then after you deal with him, you need to get on that mound of paperwork you’ve put off.”
AJ swallowed the “yes, ma’am” perched on his tongue, mumbled a will do, and ended the call. Then he turned to Ty. “Duty calls.”
But when he headed for his truck, Lu kicked the corral fence as her high-pitched whinnies called out to him. He glanced over his shoulder, and her movements grew more frantic as she pushed harder against the fence. Then she reared up on her hind legs and kicked the boards, trying to knock down the rail. Concerned the mare would hurt herself or keel over from exertion, he turned around. He hadn’t taken two steps when the animals quieted.
When he returned to the corral, Ty glanced between him and the now calm mare. “Wait here. I want to check out something.”
A minute later Ty returned shaking a feed bucket, the sound of grain brushing against steel loud enough for even the half-deaf mare to hear. When he held the food out to Lu, she turned her head away, and shoved her muzzle under AJ’s hand.
AJ took the bucket and held it out to Lu, who shoved her nose in and snarfed down the grain. When she’d licked the bucket clean, she gazed at him with large pitiful eyes as if to say, “Please, sir, I’d like some more.”
“We can skip calling Coop because we’ve figured out the problem. Lulabelle’s not eating because she’s mooning over you.” Ty laughed. His eyes watering, he swatted AJ’s arm. “You’re renting the Wilson place, and it’s got a barn.”
“No,” AJ snapped, before Ty could finish what he’d intended to say. “I’m not taking Lu. She’s a sweet gal, but I don’t have time for a goldfish, much less a horse. Plus, if I was going to get one, I’d want an animal with energy. One I can ride.”
“You can still ride Lulabelle. Just not very far.”
“Or very fast since a trot is her top speed. But no way am I riding her. You know the ribbing I’d take if anyone ever saw me? I’d never live it down.”
“So don’t ride her, but take her to your place.” Ty nodded toward the mare pressed up against AJ. “She’s losing weight because she won’t eat. Eventually her health will suffer.”
Damn. How could he let Lu waste away? “Fine. Put her in a trailer, and take her over to my place.”
End of Excerpt