illustration by Patty Rae Wellborn
Love on Parole:
In 1999 when features editor Carol Dromgoole tapped me to write “Chapter 4” of a romance novella for the Abilene Reporter-News, I found myself in illustrious company: Marty Gregory, Cole Thompson, Terry Pringle, and Patrick Bennett. I was the only one who didn’t have a published book under my belt.
There was no story outline. I picked up where the first three writers left off. So Happy Valentine’s Day from 1999.
Buffalo Gap. “Sin City” neighboring towns used to call the hamlet after it voted wet in 1965, back when Abilene and nearby towns were still dry. But its reputation was overrated. The worst thing Rain ever witnessed occurred in the pool room of the Bar-B-Que Barn when two good ol’ boys got in a shouting match over questions regarding John Wayne’s manliness—or lack thereof.
Rain had sworn she’d never go back. Not because of the fight, but because memories of Josh singing at the Bar-B-Que Barn flooded her with emotion. She missed him, and she missed those barbecue sandwiches. But he’d gone the way he would have wanted—choking on one of her very own, lovingly made leftover sausage-link sandwiches, refusing the Heimlich maneuver to the very end on the grounds it just wasn’t manly.
Although she usually didn’t speed, Rain roared 60 mph down Buffalo Gap Road, anxious to reach Patty’s, if only to see whether Gloria’s aunt had any rib-eyes stashed among her survivalist supplies. Deep down, though, Rain wasn’t so much interested in meat as she was in a certain hunk.
But if rib-eyes were to be had tonight, Patty’s would be the safest place to eat them. Last year, tough-talking, West-Texas-to-the-core Patty Wax had met a frightening adversary—the Y2K bug.
Though Patty knew her own computers were Y2K compliant, she was none too sure about those in the rest of the world. Just last weekend she’d spent $1,200 in Lubbock (“ground zero” for Y2K preparedness, if you believed what you read in the paper) on a 21st century survival kit. With that, plus her battery powered generator, her solar heating system, and enough bottled water to rid Abilene of its current drought, Patty planned to meet the new millennium fully prepared.
Rain stole a sideways glance at Jaxon. He winked boyishly, and her feet vibrated again, though he still stroked only her shoulder. She knew they were getting close to Patty’s when she saw the huge plastic bull that marked the entrance to the Perini Ranch.
As they approached the gate to Patty’s property, Rain suddenly quivered, noticing the northern sky turning an eerie reddish-brown. All at once, the heavens began to spit mudballs. If that weren’t bad enough, someone had taken down the lemon sign and replaced it with a computer-graphic heart shot through with a real arrow. Hearts weren’t exactly Patty Wax’s style, even if it was Valentine’s Day. It seemed a bad omen to Rain, who turned ever paler under her fake tan.
“I love a rainy night,” Jaxon sang, obviously oblivious to Rain’s changed mood. She had to admit his voice was huskier and sexier than Josh’s had ever been, but she was annoyed nonetheless.
“Bad pun,” she admonished, turning her head toward him so that a wave of her sun-streaked hair fell seductively over one eyebrow, as she raised the other for emphasis. She’d always hated anyone making fun of her name. She had to bite her tongue to keep from telling him “Jaxon” sounded like a name from a really bad romance novel.
Miffed, Rain downshifted and popped the clutch of her Volkswagen Beetle as they passed through the gate. Still sitting between them, though the space between the bucket seats must have been uncomfortable, Gloria pretended to awaken from her false slumber when the gear shift came too close to avoid notice.
Deliberately ignoring Rain, Gloria batted her short, mascara-beaded lashes and cooed to Jaxon, “Oh, great, sweetie, we’re here! This is going to be so cozy.” Then the tone of her voice changed. “That’s odd. There’s Patty’s Hummer,” she said, pointing to a camouflage-colored monster truck in front of what looked like a cellar door, “but I don’t recognize the Cadillac.” She was referring to a hoary-colored El Dorado parked at a jaunty angle under a lone mesquite. Just then Gloria’s cell phone rang shrilly. She answered.
After a series of enigmatic “uh huhs,” Gloria clicked off and said in a hushed tone, “That was Chief Rimer of the FBI. They just got word Joey ‘Knuckles’ Spugnoli was seen heading this way about an hour ago.”
The El Dorado before them suddenly seemed more ominous than the weather.
Rain checked to make sure that precious “Rosebud,” her beloved Smith & Wesson, was still strapped snugly at her slender waist, then gave her lipstick a quick nod in the rearview mirror.
“Stay here,” she ordered, cautiously opening a door and running in a Groucho-like crouch to the rear of the El Dorado. Fear shot through her heart like an arrow when she read the vanity license plate: “NUCKLES”—without the “K.”
Was Patty being held captive by Spugnoli? Was he lying in wait for the rest of them? With mudballs pelting her face and her white silk suit, Rain dashed back to her old VW to tell Gloria and Jaxon the terrifying news.
Rain was stunned when she opened the door and caught them both laughing. More suspicious was the way they suddenly quieted, the way people do when the person being talked about unexpectedly walks into the room. At that moment Rain knew in her heart her earlier eerie feeling was based on years of experience and not just a manifestation of PMS.
Something was definitely rotten in the state of Texas.
For the first time since Jaxon became such an integral part of her life, her mind was taking precedence over her heart. She’d been so star-struck, she’d overlooked the obvious. First of all, how had Gloria known so much about Jaxon and her conversation with the FBI back at the office? And why had Chief Investigator Rimer called Gloria instead of her? Did a Chief Investigator John Rimer even work for the FBI?
Rain’s face burned with anger and embarrassment. How could she have let herself be taken in by a cheap—OK, a rich—ex-con, even if he did have blue eyes, a cleft chin, broad shoulders, dark hair and a smoldering aura. She’d read enough to know that smoldering auras didn’t last past the honeymoon. She hadn’t kept her chaste treasure chaste until she was 36 years old by accident. OK, so she’d had her share of “improper relationships,” but she hadn’t had a sexual relationship with any man, even Randy Lewinsky. Not in the legal sense of the word, though she’d had a hard time convincing his wife of that fact. So what if the recent drought could also be applied to her love life? So what if she was love-starved and biologically at her sexual peak? She still couldn’t give herself to just any sweet-talking Lone Star Lothario. Besides, she had vowed to wait for marriage no matter how long it took. And if she wanted her feet to vibrate, she always had her new electric foot massager.
Humiliated she had let Jaxon take liberties with her shoulder, shame and self-loathing consumed her small, shapely frame. Granted, Jaxon qualified as a choice hunk of Texas beefcake, but any God-fearing Texas gal knew even the devil had the power to assume a pleasing shape.
Rain looked daggers at Jaxon, yet almost weakened her resolve when he returned her look with a questioning hurt expression. She would add “good actor” to his list of attributes, but he wasn’t going to fool her again. Then, before she knew what was happening, the dam broke and a flood of tears poured out of her bluebonnet-blue eyes and cascaded down her blusher-enhanced cheeks, not unlike the slide at Wet & Wild.
“Too much water hast thou, poor Rain,” said Jaxon in a convincingly sympathetic tone.
Now he was quoting Hamlet. What else would she discover they had in common before this Valentine’s Day from Hell was over?
“Suck it up,” her father used to say when she cried. She summoned all her strength and did just that, and as anger returned with West Texas tornadic force, her nostrils flared like those of the horse in The Horse Whisperer. Jaxon McCullouch might look like a young Brando, she thought, tossing her blond mane, but it would be cold, rainy day in Abilene before she’d play Stella to his Stanley.