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Tyler has sworn off women, especially redheads with killer curves who poke their noses into his clients’ private lives. Still, he can’t deny the attraction any more than he can deny that some of Zoe’s crazy story makes sense. But when she becomes a hit man’s target, this cold case starts heating up. Suddenly, Tyler will do anything to protect Zoe-even risk his heart.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Texas Hold 'Em
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"WHY ARE YOU SO SAD, Tio?"
Tyler Lopez looked down at his six-year-old niece. Her brown eyes were so warm they could… They could persuade a grown man to make a complete idiot out of himself.
Pinching the red ball rubber-banded to his face, Tyler dropped his clown-suited ass on the picnic bench beside the birthday girl. When the real clown canceled late last night, his twin sister, Samantha, had called him in desperation. Anna will be so disappointed. Tyler adored all his nieces and nephews, but there was something about Anna—quiet and a bookworm like himself—that made her his favorite. And that made the thought of disappointing her impossible.
"I'm a clown. Clowns aren't sad." He looked out at the twenty or so family members mingling together at the other picnic tables in his sister's backyard. Two of his brothers were pointing and laughing at him. If Anna wasn't sitting right in front of him, he'd have shot them the bird. The Texas humidity, almost unbearable even in September, made the clown suit cling to his skin. The sudden pain in his right leg didn't help his disposition.
"Da… dang it!" he muttered, and scooped up the little orange kitten who had mistaken his leg for a climbing post. Bringing the spirited, blood-drawing feline on top of the table, he knew he couldn't complain too loudly or Anna's mother would be over here to give him hell. Especially since he'd given the kitten to his niece last month as an early birthday present. And according to his sister, the animal was a reincarnated demon. Hence the kitten's name, Damien.
"Some clowns are sad," Anna said. She closed the book she'd been reading and gave Damien a purr-inducing scratch behind the ear.
"Not this clown." He told himself it wasn't a lie. Tyler gave the cat an under-chin rub. That led to the kitten jumping into Tyler's lap and curling up. No doubt the feline remembered who'd snatched him up from the middle of I-10 before he got smeared on the freeway. And he'd better remember it—Tyler had almost become an oil spot in the road himself in the process.
"You remember my friend, Austin?" Tyler asked Anna. "Well, this is his suit, and he specifically told me it was a happy clown." Austin, one of the partners at their private detective agency, had purchased the costume to do an undercover gig. As fate would have it, he hadn't gotten around to tossing it out yet.
"But when you walked in, Mama told Tia Lola, 'Here comes the sad man behind the clown face.' "
Tyler inwardly flinched but continued to smile. It was something he'd gotten good at doing—putting up a front. A skill he'd mastered during his year and a half in prison.
"Do you believe everything your mama says?" he asked in a teasing voice to hide his frustration. He loved his seven siblings, but a big family came with a big price. Having them poke around in his personal business was part of that price.
"I do." Anna's dark brown pigtails, tied with bright red ribbons, bounced around her face as she bobbed her head up and down. "Mama doesn't lie. She says it's a sin."
Okay, that hadn't been the right thing to say. "I think she was just joking."
"She wasn't laughing. Then Tia Lola said you were sad because you missed Lisa."
Tyler's chest tightened. He didn't miss Lisa. How could he miss someone who turned her back on him when he needed her the most? Someone who—
"And then," Anna continued, "Leo walked into the room and said it was probably because you picked up a bar of soap in prison." Her tiny brows pulled in confusion at the same time Tyler's gut pulled with fury. "I don't understand that, Tio."
"Leo's full of…" Tyler caught himself just in time.
"Full of what?" Anna asked, a half smile pulling at her lips.
Tyler's gaze shot to the piñata hanging above the tree. "Full of candy."
Anna snickered. "Mama said he was full of shit."
Tyler grinned. "Well, like you just said, your mama doesn't lie. But… we all have… excrement in our insides."
"Excrement?" He could see the child figuring out the word's meaning and filing it away in her knowledge-hungry brain. "That's gross."
"I agree." Tyler's smile came easier.
"Almost as gross as how babies are made," she said.
That little announcement came out of left field, and Tyler's jaw fell open.
Anna stared at him with the same face she'd made at dinner a few weeks ago when her mom made her eat a bite of broccoli. "I read a book about it."
"What book?" he managed to ask.
"The one Mama bought me after I told her I didn't believe the stork brought my baby brother."
"Oh," he said, not sure what else to say. But his smile lingered as he thought about his sister dealing with her inquisitive daughter. He smiled until he saw Anna's full-of-shit stepfather walk out of the patio door and snag a beer from one of the coolers.
Leo Medina, his twin sister's second husband, was a jerkwad, right up there with Anna's deadbeat daddy. While Tyler tried to overlook his sister's ghastly taste in husbands, ignoring Leo was hard. And for damn good reasons, too. First and foremost, Tyler didn't like the way Leo treated his sister and ignored Anna. Then there were the other reasons, or suspected reasons.
"Did you and Lisa want to have a baby?" Anna asked.
Tyler swallowed, searching for words. "We… we weren't married."
She made another funny face. "I'm not getting married."
"Me, either," he told her honestly. After living with the result of his parents' dysfunctional relationship, he'd always had reservations. Lisa had made him throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately, that wind blew up a hell of a lot of heartache. Thankfully, he was smart enough to avoid that mistake again.
"I liked Lisa," Anna said. "She was pretty. She told me I was going to get to be the flower girl in her wedding. Why are you and her not getting married anymore? Is it because you think making babies is gross, too?"
He nearly swallowed his tongue. "Lisa married someone else."
"Maybe if you told her you were sorry, she would get a divorce like Mama did with my daddy. Then Lisa could marry you."
Sorry for what? For being framed for a crime he didn't commit? "I don't think so."
"Saying you're sorry works. It worked on Mom when Leo hit her. And she was mad."
"What?" Tyler felt like his blood pressure shot up a good twenty points. He hadn't needed another reason to dislike Leo, but damn if he didn't have one. "Leo hit your mom? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, but he said he was sorry. So if you apologize to Lisa—"
"Excuse me, Anna, but I need to… I have to do something." He passed Anna her cat and gave the girl's pigtail a teasing yank, hoping his rage didn't show through his painted clown face.
"Okay." The innocence on her face was the opposite of everything Tyler felt.
He stood up and looked around for Samantha. When he spotted his twin sister setting food out on a table, he realized her large sunglasses meant something other than protection from the glare. It meant protecting her son-of-a-bitch husband.
Moving in, Tyler gently caught her by the arm. "We need to talk."
"I'm getting the food out," she protested. Her long black hair shifted around her shoulders. While they shared their light olive skin and dark hair—both inherited from their Hispanic mother—Anna had also taken her mom's petite build. Tyler's six-foot frame came directly from his father. He hoped to God it was the only trait he'd inherited from the SOB.
"Food can wait." He pulled off his multicolored wig and his red ball nose, and he walked her inside the house and guided her past the kitchen, not stopping until they stood in the enclosed laundry room, which smelled like clean clothes.
"What the hell is up with you?" She snapped her hands on her hips. Her movement reminded him of their mom so much. His chest tightened. While his mother had been dead for four years, he still missed her—and it always made family get-togethers bittersweet.
"Take your sunglasses off, Sis."
"You heard me."
She frowned. Carefully, he removed the shades. He held his breath, afraid of how bad it was. Thankfully, it wasn't as bad as he feared. As an ex-cop, he'd seen women so battered that he'd puked. But it was his childhood memories that were the worst. Sam hadn't just inherited their mother's build and coloring; she'd inherited their mother's knack for choosing losers. Staring into his twin's face, there was no mistaking the light bruise under her left eye. Then he remembered she'd missed the family's mandatory Sunday breakfast last week. The bruise had had time to fade, which meant it must have been nasty when it was fresh.
He touched his sister's cheek under the evidence. "Leo do this?"
"No," she snapped, proving her daughter wrong. Sam did lie. She just wasn't good at it.
But holy hell, why did she put up with this crap? The answer rolled over him like an overloaded concrete truck. Because their no-good father had treated their mom the same way. Tyler had studied it in college.
Statistically, the odds of her choosing men just like dear ol' Dad were great. The odds of him becoming his dad were greater. And considering the rage he felt now for Leo, the odds might be right.
He turned to leave, and Sam caught his arm. "Don't do it, Tyler. I beg you."
He gently cupped her face in his palm. "If you knew someone was hurting me, would you stand by and let it happen?"
"No, but…" Tears filled her eyes, and seeing those watery eyes did something to his gut.
"He was drunk," she continued.
"Isn't that what they said about dear ol' Dad?" That crowd of emotion in his gut shifted up into his chest and formed a knot—a knot of anger, hurt, and an unrelenting need to protect his sister the way he'd needed to protect his mom all those times.
"Please," she muttered.
"I love you, Sam. I know you're going to be pissed at me, but he needs to know he can't do this."
He didn't stay around long enough to hear her pleas or to see the tears slip from her lashes onto her cheeks. That would have broken his heart, and Tyler wasn't sure his heart could take any more breaking. So, he plopped his wig and rubber nose back on, and shuffled his clown ass out to teach his brother-in-law a lesson about hitting girls.
Hesitating in the kitchen for a minute to collect himself, Tyler stepped outside. He went to the cooler, figuring Leo wouldn't be too far from the alcohol. He pulled out two beers, uncapped one and drank half of it in one swig, then looked around for Leo. He spotted him chatting with Tyler's oldest brother's wife. And damn if he didn't see the man eye his sister-in-law's breasts when she wasn't looking.
"Leo?" Tyler held up the two beers as if to say, "Come join me." When Tyler saw the man coming, he stepped through the backyard gate and moved between Sam's house and the neighbor's. He heard the gate shift behind him.
"What's up?" Leo asked.
Setting the two beers on top of an air conditioner that hummed as it cooled his sister's house, Tyler faced Leo, who stood so close that the man's beer-laden breath filled Tyler's airspace. He didn't waste any time getting to the point. "You hit her."
Leo stepped back, or he started to. "It was just a tap." But before his foot hit the ground, Tyler's fist punched the man's nose and knocked him flat on his ass.
"Christ!" Leo reached for his nose.
"It was just a tap," Tyler growled, but he knew Leo's nose had to be hurting like hell because Tyler's fist did. And he saw his knuckles bleeding where he'd obviously loosened a couple of teeth.
"You fucking jailbird clown! You broke my nose!"
Jailbird was the word that almost did Tyler in.
Leo started to get up, no doubt to give what he'd gotten, and Tyler almost let him. Almost chose to let go and enjoy this. But taking a deep breath, he pulled his emotions back and moved in to tower over his slimeball of a brother-in-law.
"Don't do it, Leo. If you get up, I'm going to hit you again. I know you think you want to hit me back. It's only fair, right? But it wasn't fair when you hit Sam. And I'm not planning on fighting fair now."
He rubbed his fist in his other hand and continued, "If you get up, and if you even get one punch in, I'm going to yell for my four brothers, and when I tell them what you did, every one of them will help me beat your ass to a pulp. Consider yourself lucky you faced only me this time."
Leo wiped his bloody nose and stared up with hatred in his eyes. But the man was smarter than Tyler gave him credit for. He didn't get up.
A damn shame, too. "Oh," he added, "if I see one bruise, one little bruise, on my sister, I won't come alone next time." Pulling off the red rubber nose, he tossed it at Leo. "Since I broke yours, have this one."
"Spiders. Definitely spiders."
"Don't forget snakes."
"Trust me, it's clowns." Zoe Adams removed her waitress apron and added her two cents to the conversation the other waitresses of Cookie's Café were having about their biggest fears. She plopped down on one of the stools lining the breakfast counter and pulled out her tips to count. She hoped she had enough to pay the rent. Looking up at the other diner employees, she added, "And considering my regular gig is that of kindergarten teacher, I've had to face that fear more times than I care to admit."
"I'd take a clown over a spider any day," said Jamie. Like Zoe, she was in her mid-twenties.
"I can step on a spider," Zoe said, looking at the other waitresses she'd worked with for two weeks. Crazy how in just two weeks she'd felt a part of something. A part of Cookie's Café.
"Clowns are too big for my size sixes." She held up her foot. "I don't know what it is, but I see one and it's like I hear scary music and my mind starts flashing Friday the 13th images." In truth, clowns weren't her biggest fear. Small, dark places scared Zoe more than anything. Not that she'd share that with her co-workers, or anyone else for that matter.
Some things Zoe didn't talk about. Especially the things she didn't understand. And for the last three weeks, her life was filled with a lot of those things. Crazy how watching that episode of the TV series Unsolved Mystery Hunters had turned her life upside down, and brought her from Alabama to Texas in search of the truth.
"Flying roaches. I hate 'em," Dixie Talbot said, joining in on the conversation. In her sixties, Dixie was the matriarchal cook, waitress, and part-owner of Cookie's Café. "Years ago, I stood right over there by Booth Two, and one of those nasty creatures flew into my shirt."
Zoe stopped counting her money and laughed. "Yeah, Fred told me about the striptease you pulled, too."
"Honey, he'd better be glad that roach flew off my right boob once the top came off, or I swear to everything holy I'd have been standing there naked as a jaybird."
"Was that the day he proposed to you?" Zoe asked.
They laughed. It was the laughter, the camaraderie of Dixie and the other diner employees, that kept Zoe from looking for a higher paying gig while she was here. God knew she could use the money. Kindergarten teachers didn't rake in the big bucks.
Oh, it was enough to get by, but not enough to fund this research trip to Miller, Texas, when she had to pay for two apartments. Not to mention the entire month off from work—a month she only got because the principal had been friends with her mom. But more than money, Zoe needed companionship. When her mama died two years ago, Zoe had not only lost her last living relative, she'd lost her best companion. Then, last year when her live-in boyfriend had decided he'd rather date a stripper than a kindergarten teacher, Zoe had spent too much time alone.
Hey, maybe she should get Dixie to teach her a few moves. Not that Zoe wanted Chris back. Nope. For four years, she'd given her heart and soul to that man. She'd already had names picked out for the two kids they'd have together, thinking any day he'd pop the question. And he had popped one. It just wasn't the question she'd expected. "Do you mind if I bring home my stripper girlfriend to live here until you can find another place?"
Okay, he hadn't actually worded it like that, but he might as well have. He'd taken Zoe's heart and returned it, along with her self-esteem, in a big mangled mess. Not so much of a mess that she hadn't reminded him that she'd been the one to rent the apartment, and he could just grab his stuff and get the hell out. Oh, he'd accused her of being so unfair. Didn't she realize it wasn't his fault he'd fallen in love with someone else?
What she understood was that she'd been played for a fool—paying most of the bills, being his personal housecleaner, trying to be the perfect housewife. Even a year later, it still stung like a paper cut right across her heart.
Zoe's cell phone rang. Considering she'd gotten only two calls in the two weeks she'd been in Texas—one from her principal back in Alabama confirming she'd be at work on September 25, and the other a wrong number—a call was a big thing. Zoe checked the number. Unknown Caller.
"Hello?" Zoe answered. While she hated it, there was a part of her that hoped it would be Chris, wanting her back, telling her he'd screwed up. Not that she'd take him back, but it would be nice to know he missed her.
She heard someone breathing, but nothing else. "Hello?"
"Leave," the whispery voice said.
"WHAT?" ZOE SAID, unsure if she'd heard correctly.
"You okay?" Dixie asked.
"Yeah. Wrong number." Stashing her phone in her apron, she looked up at Dixie. "Can I use your computer?"
"You betcha. Just stay off those porn sites," Dixie teased.
"Just can't help myself." Zoe scooted her butt off the stool. "It's been a month of Sundays since I've known bliss."
"I could remedy that," offered Juan, the fry cook.
"I'll consider it as soon as you get written permission from your wife." She shot him a smile, knowing he was only kidding because she'd seen him light up when his pregnant wife stopped by earlier.
"Heck," Juan said, grinning back. "I was only offering to make you some French toast."
While all the employees snickered, Zoe grabbed her bag that held a change of clothes and went to the office.
Ten minutes later, Dixie brought two big bowls of chicken and dumplings into the office and set one in front of Zoe on the oversized and time-worn oak desk. "Eat before you go."
Zoe smiled. It had been forever since she'd had anyone looking out for her. She was going to miss Dixie when she left.
"Thanks. I've smelled these cooking all morning." She dished a spoonful into her mouth and moaned as the savory taste exploded on her tongue. "My mama used to make these."
"Mine are better," Dixie teased, and dropped into the desk chair beside Zoe and started eating. After a minute of silence, Dixie asked, "You miss her—your mama?"
"Like the dickens. She was special." But if Zoe's suspicions were true, her mama wasn't the person Zoe had always thought she was. In the pro/con list Zoe had made before she decided to actually come to Texas, uncovering any ugly secrets about her parents had been the only con.
Dixie's gaze shifted to the computer monitor.
Zoe reached for the mouse to delete the screen. Quickly realizing it would be rude, she moved her hand and spooned another dumpling into her mouth. Besides, Dixie had already gotten a peek at Zoe's research last week when she'd gone for a potty break and forgot to close the screen. When she'd returned, Dixie was reading the article Zoe had found at the library and had downloaded onto a flash drive.
"The Bradfords again?" Dixie asked. "Is there a reason you're so intrigued with that rich family?"
Zoe glanced at the screen. She couldn't divulge everything. People would think she was crazy—hell, sometimes she considered the possibility herself. But she could tell Dixie part of it. "There was a story about them on that Unsolved Mystery Hunters show three weeks ago. I guess I love a good puzzle."
"About the murder of that kid?" Dixie asked.
Zoe nodded and her chest constricted.
"I remember that. They never did find out who killed her. Sad stuff."
"Yeah." Zoe spooned another bite into her mouth and stared at the picture of Thomas Bradford. It was as if Zoe felt by staring at the man, she could discover the truth. But no such discovery came.
"I heard that old man isn't doing so well. The kids and grandkids are fighting over his inheritance. Lucky for me, all I've got is this run-down café, and neither of my kids wants it."
"It's not run-down," Zoe said. "Best food in town." She spooned a big chunk of stewed chicken into her mouth.
Dixie chuckled. "That's because you're not a citified gal like my kids. My son ran off to California to learn to talk like they do on the six o'clock news. Works for a radio station out there. Boy's ashamed of his southern roots. And my daughter—you wouldn't catch a dumpling within six feet of her lips. Says she's allergic to carbs."
Zoe frowned. "I haven't met a carb I haven't loved. Guess it shows, too. I'll bet I've gained five pounds since I started working here."
"And you're wearing it well, too, honey. You should see the guys checking out your butt." Dixie looked back at the computer screen. "If you're real curious about the Bradfords, you should ask those PIs who come in for my chili cheeseburgers on Tuesdays. They do work for the Bradfords, I think."
Zoe's interest was piqued. "What PIs?" She didn't have money to hire a private investigator, but if they had knowledge about the Bradfords, she could at least ask them some questions. How much would they charge just to talk to her? Nothing, she hoped.
"Those three hunk-a-hunk men, two dark haired and one blond. All of them drool-worthy. They own that PI agency, Only in Texas." Dixie shook her head. "Are you seriously telling me you haven't noticed them?"
Zoe tried to think. "They only come in on Tuesdays?" While she didn't recall them, she mentally stored away the agency's title.
Dixie dropped her spoon in her bowl. "Girl, you are either blind or a lesbian not to have noticed them."
"Neither. Self-preservation. Just mending a broken heart," Zoe said. "I'm not sure men are worth the risk, so I've trained myself not to notice things like sexy bedroom eyes or broad shoulders." But she was getting a little breathless just thinking about it. Maybe she should reconsider dating again. If for no other reason than to have someone call her, and make her cell phone worth its monthly charge.
"Oh, honey, those boys would be worth it. Then again, 'cause I like ya, if you noticed them too much I'd reel you in so fast you'd leave skid marks on my linoleum."
"What's wrong with them?" Zoe tried to feign only a mild curiosity while she pushed another dumpling around her bowl. But on the inside she felt her excitement growing by leaps and bounds. This might be her big break. The one that answered the questions Zoe had been looking for all her life.
God knew all of her other plans had seemed to fail these days. Phone calls to the Bradford businesses, and even a couple of drop-in visits to the mansion—not that she'd gotten past the security gate. The last time, she'd been told by one security guard that if he saw her there again, he was calling the cops.
Heck, last week, she'd even tried following the limo when they'd left the house, and got herself a nice little ticket for running a red light that she didn't run. The cop who gave her the ticket suggested she go find another old fart to seduce because Mr. Bradford wasn't in the market for an Anna Nicole.
"Nothing wrong with those three guys if you like suspected murderers." Dixie arched her painted brow.
"They're murderers?" Zoe asked.
"I said 'suspected.' They used to be cops. Supposedly, they got involved in some seedy drug deals, and then they got arrested for brutally murdering this couple. Practically decapitated the woman." She ran a finger across her neck. "Then they got convicted and went to jail."
Zoe touched her neck. "And what? They escape every Tuesday just for your chili cheeseburgers?"
Dixie laughed. "Hey, my cooking's that good. But actually, they got let go."
"So, they're not guilty?" Zoe hoped that was the case. If she was going to look them up, and you could bet she was, she'd like it if they weren't murderers.
"Well, that depends on who you talk to. You know small towns—folks around here get one thing in their mind, and changing it is about as easy as chewing glass. My neighbor has a son-in-law who works for the Glencoe Police Department where they worked. According to him, they had those three down and dirty. But then they got themselves… What do you call it when the governor lets someone go?"
"Pardoned?" Zoe asked.
"No, the other word. Exonerated. That's it."
"Dixie," someone called from out front. "Getting busy."
"Guess I'm on again." Dixie stood up and pressed a hand on Zoe's shoulder. "Don't know why, kid, but only after a couple of weeks I decided I like you. I know you said you were only here for a month to say you'd done Texas, but I really wish you'd stick around and become a full-fledged Texan."
Emotion filled Zoe's chest. Reaching back, Zoe put her hand on top of Dixie's. "I like you, too. But I've got a job and a life waiting for me in Alabama." A lonely life. The thought whispered across her heart.
"Well, if you change your mind. You got friends here." With a wink, Dixie walked out of the room.
Zoe sat there a few minutes, savoring that wonderful feeling of hearing Dixie's words. Nothing like feeling someone cared about you.
Shifting her mental gears, she wondered if she should wait until Tuesday and hope the PI threesome showed up, or if she should take matters into her own hands. Impatience stirred inside her; she had less than a month before she was expected to be back at work. She hit the Google search engine. Typing in the agency name, she whispered, "Come to Mama." Then she touched her neck again, hoping her impatience didn't lead to her losing her head. Figuratively, of course.
Less than thirty minutes later, Zoe parked in front of the Only in Texas office. The sign in the window read they were open. The fact that her Google search informed her that until recently their place of business had housed a funeral home almost seemed absurd. Convicted—albeit exonerated—murderers had bought an old funeral home to house their business. Was there not something slightly off about that? Maybe three angry ex-cops making a point to the townsfolk who'd judged them unfairly?
- On Sale
- Aug 28, 2012
- Page Count
- 464 pages