Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Shuffle Chapter One

In the eighth grade I wore a size 34D. With a big bra full of chest and a given name of Tana Rose, I realized I could have a career stripping at the Dirty Sock south of town. Trying to avoid that fate, I told my friends and family to call me T.R.

According to my folks, stripping would have been a wiser choice of vocation than what I’m doing now. I deal Texas Hold’em in an underground (as in illegal) card room. Not to brag, but I run one of the most popular poker tables in Central Texas. And Texas has a lot of underground poker tables.

My family thinks I’m going to hell ─ or to jail, whichever comes first ─ and glow red with embarrassment whenever someone asks them what little T.R.’s doing since she stupidly (implied but not stated) left that great CPA firm she started working for right out of college.

I’m just surprised anyone needs to ask that question since everyone in my town seems to know everything about each other’s business.

In my defense, I tried hard to fit into the facts and figures career I went to college for but the job just wasn’t a good flop for me. The hours made me miserable. There just aren’t many accounting jobs out there that match my body’s sleep cycle. I’m wide awake all night, tossing, turning, reading, pacing; but daylight finds me with my head on my desk, eyes closed, mouth drooling.

So when I heard about this poker gig from a buddy, who had a friend, who knew someone, who was acquainted with a guy who had put the word out that he wanted a big-boobied dealer for friendly games of Texas Hold‘em, I knew I qualified.

Big boobs I got. Texas Hold‘em I love. The fact that gambling is illegal in Texas I’m not so keen about but great tips kind of put unlawful way in the back of my mind. Three nights in a poker room more than equal a really good paycheck of a fifty-hour workweek.

I’m thirty-four now, living the life my sleep rem was designed for, but I'm still touchy about what folks call me. So when some guy called me the ‘C’ word and tried to open the passenger door of my truck, I kinda freaked.

“Cunt!” he yelled. “HEY, CUNT! Open the door!”

I let out a startled squeal and almost wet my pants. My eyes jerked to the door locks, making sure they were safely in the locked position. When I looked up again, the drenched would-be intruder wasn’t even looking at me. He was staring down the street. The brim of his cowboy hat drooped under the weight of rainwater, making it impossible for me to see his face.

Whoever he was, he stopped pulling my door handle and rushed away. That’s when I stomped on the gas pedal.

It was my own fault the dripping dude had surprised me. I had pulled my current read from my purse at a long red light in the downtown warehouse district and was digesting a couple of paragraphs from the blistering bestseller. The rain on the roof and the sluggish thud, thud, thud of the wiper blades provided a perfect background rhythm to read by, although for the steamy parts I would have preferred a rapid, more deliberate pulsing.

Between the book and the blades, I didn’t even care that the light had cycled through green several times. It helped, of course, that all the traffic in town was coagulating around the university at this time of day, leaving my intersection as empty as a steer’s scrotum.

Attempted panhandling, robbery, or truckjacking, whatever the cowboy’s goal, it was a first for me. On the upside, I guess I should have been thankful. The soaked saddlebum made me realize I could have been home reading in my own comfy bed instead of sitting at an intersection in my brother’s borrowed truck.

He didn’t have to call me names, though.

The back end of the truck slipped sideways on the wet street when I hit the gas and I felt rather than heard a thump on the passenger side of the pickup.

OhmygodIranoverhim, I thought as I slammed on the brakes and jammed the transmission into park. Jumping down out of the big one-ton rig, I ran around the front of the pickup, fully expecting to find an injured man pinned under the tires.

But nobody lay dead or dying. Nobody was even there.

“Quit playin’ around, Runt!” I heard from the driver’s side door. “Get in! I need your truck now.”

Runt? Not Cunt?

Oh. Handle puller knew my brother Runt, apparently well enough to call him by his nickname. It was also obvious my brother’s friend hadn’t looked below my neck yet. Even though Runt and I look alike we do have our differences.

Whoever he was, he now stood between me and the steering wheel. Leaping from the duelie definitely didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

The cowboy’s eyes widened as he turned and focused on my cleavage. He didn’t even glance at my face.

“Tana? Tana Rose? DamnitTanaRose! Getinthetruck!”

OK. He knew who I was just by looking at my boobs. And since he knew my full name, he had to be somebody I knew before high school.

“Tanarose! Now!” Runt’s buddy said as he grabbed the open driver’s door and swung up into the vehicle. Before the door closed on his blue-jeaned butt, I heard him say, “Yeah, I need to report a stolen truck.”

I stood in the rain wondering what I should do and why he was reporting a stolen truck to me, especially since it was my truck he was stealing. Then it dawned on me. I knew that rear end. That tight tush belonged to Shade Saunders, or he had a rump double.

“Hey, girlie,” a deep voice behind me said. “Come over here.”

I turned around just in time to see a scummy bum make a grab at my arm.

Whoa. This downtown area was getting scary. I slapped his hand away and took a step backwards.

“You bitch,” the damp derelict said, making another grab at me.What is it with the name calling today, I thought, but I didn’t hesitate. I turned and ran the couple of steps to the duelie’s passenger door. I heard a thunk as it electronically unlocked and I hustled myself into the truck.

“Hey, you’re suppose to come with me!” the man behind me yelled. Yeah, right. Like I’m gonna do that.

I glanced back just as the grubby guy stuck his hand down his pants. Wrinkling my nose in disgust, I settled myself into the passenger seat. It was either go with Shade or stay to see what the bum was digging into his britches for. Going with Shade seemed the wiser choice, but not by much.

As I slammed the door shut, I gave the bum one more quick look. Was that a pistol he was pointing at me? He had a gun in his briefs? I had completely missed that bulge, not that I’d given him that close a gander.

“That man has a…,” I started to say but the duelie leaped into action, slamming the back of my skull into the headrest and sending the lava novel I was reading skidding to the floorboards.

“Yes, that’s right,’ Shade said. “Downtown Bryan. Corner of Main and Sims.”

Now what’s Shade talking about, I thought as I tried to clear my head. First he tells me he stole my truck. Now he’s telling me where he stole it. He must have been bucked on his head one too many since the last time I saw him.

“Shade…,” I started to say but he waved me quiet and forced the truck into a tight right turn, followed by a hard, shuddering left. Empty beer cans in the bed of the pickup clattered back and forth, and suddenly I felt Tilt-a-Whirl queasy. “Dammit, Shade! Stop before you kill us!” I said. As an afterthought, I added, “That man back there pointed a gun at me!”

Shade’s driving improved slightly, and he looked my way, shaking his head. “I doubt it,” he said, “on both of those statements.” His eyes swept from my chest back to the road ahead. That’s when I noticed a phone earbud on the other side of his head. “My name is Shade Saunders,” he said, looking at my face this time but talking to someone on the other end of his phone. He winked and smiled the Shade-smile that’s made hundreds of Texas women fall in love with him…or want to make love to him.

Not me, of course. After dating Shade in high school and then again in college, I’m as immune to his smile as if I’d swallowed a dollop of live vaccine on a sugar cube, although the threat of an outbreak is always present when you mix together his matured assets and package them under a straw cowboy hat.

Like the old song says, don’t call him a cowboy ‘til you see ‘m ride. And lord knows, Shade could ride anything. Any horse. Any bull. Any truck, apparently, too. And it goes without saying, any woman he wanted.

Shade with his taut buns, broad shoulders, and cowboy ways. Who always smelled like leather, newly-mown hay, and manly-man sweat. I shook my head again.

Several blocks ahead a squad car with flashing lights turned onto the street. I thought I saw Shade’s old primer gray pickup fishtailing in front of the cops. I was on the edge the truck seat, one hand gripping the dash and the other trying to grab the skittering book before it lodged itself under the brake pedal.

Shade was still talking. “…just a minute…yes, down North Parker Street near John’s Transmission…you’re in my way…yes, north…no, not there.”

He spoke calmly as he concentrated on the evolving car chase. With his eyes focused forward and a phone headset in his ear, his conversation was very disconcerting. I couldn’t tell when he was talking to me, talking on the phone, or talking to himself.

“…OK, I’ll back off from following…,” he finally said. “But my competition saddle’s on the rear seat of that pickup and I’ll need it this weekend, whether you have to impound the truck or not…Thanks, Case…No, I don’t need a ride. I’m with T.R….Yeah, Tana Rose, the stripper, herself…No, we’re not dating again. Not yet anyway. But I’ll say this for her, she could enter and win any wet t-shirt contest in the area…Very funny. No, that was after my truck was stolen…OK, I’ll have her call you.”

He poked a finger at his ear and finally turned his full attention to me. “Your friend Casey wants you to call her with details,” he said, lifting both hands from the steering wheel to make those annoying quote gestures. “Leave that damn book alone, Tana Rose. What are you doing in Runt’s truck?”

Shade made a u-turn and started driving away from his old clunker of a truck and the squad car chasing it. He gave a quick, concerned glance into the rearview mirror.

“Oh. You talking to me now?” I said. “Then don’t call me Tana Rose. And what I drive is my business.”

Shade cut his eyes to me, then focused back on the street ahead. “That wet t-shirt almost makes you my business, Tana Rose. In that, you could be my only business. How’d you get so wet? You been dancin’ in this rain?”

Oh, yeah, dancing in the rain with some bum using his Fruit of the Looms as a gun holster.

Shade didn’t give me a chance to reply. “Where can I drop you?” he asked.

“Drop me? I’ll drop YOU!” I said through tight lips. “You’re not taking my ride!”

“Tana Rose, weren’t you listening?”

No, I wasn’t. When conversation comes around to Shade Saunders, I block it out automatically. Rainy days are no exception. And anyway, I was too busy worrying over the gun in the bum’s britches.

Shade kept right on talking. He always did like the sound of his own voice. “My truck was just stolen. I’m on my way to pick up a horse and I need wheels that can pull a horse trailer. This duelie is perfect. I’ll square it with Runt later.”

I furrowed my eyebrows in doubt. Shade wasn’t Runt’s buddy. They’re friendly whenever they meet by chance, but I don’t see them calling each other to shoot the bull. They’re just not that close. Certainly not close enough to ‘square’ this little hijacking. As far as I was concerned, Shade had stolen Runt’s truck and kidnapped his sister.

OK, maybe even I didn’t really buy the kidnapping part. I went along with Shade somewhat willingly, not only to protect my interest in Runt’s vehicle but to get away from the pants-digging, possible pistol-waving bum. But the truck stealing part was true, and you’ve got to be pretty good friends to square that in this state. We used to hang horse thieves here, and truck stealing isn’t that far down the road. We just don’t take that in Texas.

“One more time, Tana Rose. Where’s your car?”

“I borrowed this truck….” I pushed the words through clamped teeth, then remembered Runt didn’t know I had scrounged his beat-up old duelie yet. Well, he might know by now. It’d been a couple of hours since the mechanic had dropped me by my brother’s place to get it. Thankfully, Runt had the bad habit of leaving his keys in the ignition of his vehicles.

“…because my Mustang’s in the shop. And don’t call me Tana Rose.”

“Whatever you say, Stripper. Anyway, I hear you don’t start dealin’ until nine tonight. What else you got to do besides sleep? I’ll come back and get you to the poker room on time.”

Ca-rap. There it is again. The only secret in this town is the fact everyone knows your secrets. Next thing I know I’ll read it in the local paper under the headline “Known Hold‘em Dealer Kidnapped by Local Loco.”

Shade took off his water-deformed hat and slapped it over my chest. “Hang on to this here hat, Tana Rose. A guy can hardly concentrate on driving with those two wet things pointin’ his way.”

I purposely let the hat fall into my lap and let out a menacing murmur at the continued use of my full name. “You must be making another saddle, Shade. You stink! Like leather and sweat and…and horse.” I needed to say something nasty in retaliation for the full name thing. He knows I hate my given name.

We were pretty close to the little two-bedroom bungalow I’d bought last year when I had what the mortgage company calls employment.

“Where’re we going?” I asked.

“Your house.”

Oh? So how does Shade Saunders know where I live? For an old boyfriend he certainly seemed to know a little too much about me.

I sneaked another peek at him while I fumbled for my house keys in my purse. I hadn’t heard of any rumors floating around town about Shade. But then again, how would I know. I work with a bunch of men concentrating on their cards, not a group of women in office jobs, bored with work and dying to share the latest gossip of the day. At least gossip was the highlight of my day when I had a real job.

I assumed Shade was still unattached. No ring had been rolled onto his finger. No notices placed in the newspaper. And anyway, Shade hooking up permanently with a girl would have been major news, traveling from woman to woman with the speed of a spring storm. My phone would have rung on that one.

And I presumed Shade still worked alone. After all, he was a saddle maker and how many Aggies does it take to do that? I also assumed he still attended every rodeo and roping in the state, unless, of course, there was a national rodeo somewhere and then Shade would be there.

He and I may have both graduated high school and college here in town, but he was a working country cowboy, and I was a rodeo hanger-on city cowgirl. That meant I opened and closed the arena gates at the local rodeos for the real cowboys and cowgirls. I had to do something other than dance the two-step to earn the right to wear cowboy boots.

Even though I was over him, Shade was still the best looking man in town. I couldn’t take that away from him if I tried. He’s tan and tall ─ a lot taller than I am and, at five-foot nine, I’m not exactly short. He has the type of arms you’d expect from someone who makes a living by hard work. Biceps and triceps bulge under his shirt sleeves. A dark mustache rips clear across his face and his long brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail. He walks with that knees-bent, lanky cowboy gait that makes a gal wish every floor was a dance floor. I’m not even going to the starched jeans and white shirts. If I went there, I might want to stay.

As I compared my memory of the guy I had dated against the current version of the man driving Runt’s truck, I did a double take. Shade Saunders had a bald spot on top of his head!

“You’re going bald,” I blurted out before my brain could take control of my tongue. I hate it when what I’m thinking flops out of my mouth, bounces off the floor, and smacks me in the forehead before I even realized I’d thought it. It’s a trait prone to get a girl into trouble.

“You’re gettin’ too old to still be single.” His mustache quivered as he talked. “And your tits are sagging.”

Shade stopped the truck at my front walk. “Get out,” he said, looking straight ahead.

That bald spot must be a sensitive subject. I instantly felt bad that I had said anything and thought of apologizing. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. He turned my way and reached towards me.

This could get interesting, I thought, but he stretched right past me, grabbed the door handle, and pushed the door open.

“Time to part ways,” he said.

“I’m taking your hat as collateral,” I said as I jumped out into the rain, slamming the car door behind me.

“And my tits aren’t sagging!”

“Stripper!” I barely heard the insult but the laughter floating back to me as he roared away down the street was loud enough to make me cuss.

“Damn you, Shade Saunders,” I said to nobody. “I hope you never get your truck back.”

I stood in the rain, watching Runt’s duelie get smaller and smaller, and tried to figure out what had just happened. I’d lost two rides in the same amount of hours. One would cost only money to get back in running condition but something told me I’d pay a lot more for the other one, not in coin but with my reputation and my pride.

Damn, damn, damn. And damn again. I’d just traded my only wheels for Shade Saunders’s wet, beat-up cowboy hat! Worse yet, I realized as I walked into my house, the crotch novel I was reading was still in the duelie! To hell with the truck, just give a girl her book back.

SHUFFLE, Chapter Two

My cell phone lit up when I punched the speed dial button reserved for Runt’s number but he didn’t answer his phone. I knew better than to leave a message. Runt must have at least fifty unanswered messages from frantic people trying to get a hold of him, including Mom and Dad.

I didn’t know Shade’s number. I could call Casey at the police station for it but somehow that seemed a lot of effort just to retrieve a naughty novel. I always know how those kind of books end anyway.

I realized I wouldn’t be getting Runt’s truck back until Shade was done hauling whatever horse he needed to haul. A horse’s ass in the trailer and a horse’s ass driving the truck. What a visual. I just couldn’t decide if I wanted the ass driving the truck to be fully clothed or not.

Anyway, the way I figured it, I’d be getting my chance to get Shade’s number in about twenty minutes. That’s how long it would take before I got a call from Casey wanting to know the details about Shade and me. She’s never been known for her patience, especially when gossip was involved.

A nap before work seemed a priority, even if I knew it would be interrupted by Casey. I stripped out of my wet clothes and slipped into dry ones. Heavy-eyed and bookless, I scrunched down into the couch cushions but sleeping didn’t come real easy without my read. Worrying did, though. I’d borrowed/stolen a vehicle that had been borrowed/stolen from me and I hadn’t even had the dang thing two hours.

Shade’s stealing that truck had screwed up my main plan for the afternoon. I hadn’t mentioned it to anybody because I was too embarrassed but last month I’d stupidly accepted a check for poker chips from Dante Castaneda. A fifteen hundred dollar check! That’s so totally against the rules ─ my rules, house rules, gambling rules, any rules. Pick one.

I couldn’t exchange the check for cash money that night because Dante promptly went on tilt and galloped to broke. The check, of course, turned out to be hot. That’s just so wrong in so many ways.

I admit the situation was partly my fault. I knew better than to cover a player’s chips by taking checks. The owner of the card room sure wouldn’t do it. But Dante and I had a dating history and I’d taken checks from him before. Both the dating and the checks had been good in the past, one of them real good.

Funny how a hot check cooled a sizzling romance. I hadn’t heard from Dante since he wrote the thing. Trying to track him down, I called his little sister Sonja, but she didn’t know where he was either.

Sonja’s a dealer in a card room across town, another reason why I thought the check would be OK. I was counting on the sisterhood of female dealers or some such nonsense. I should have thought again because dealing poker is only Sonja’s sideline job. She’s not a good cowgirl.

A good cowgirl keeps her calves together. Sonja’s real moneymaker was doing a little sum’pin sum’pin with the gamblers after hours. I don’t know of any other poker room that allowed that sort of thing. Everywhere else a gambler strictly got poker ─ not poke her. Girls like Sonja put card rooms in a bad light.

But Sonja, with her bold blue eye shadow, brightly blushed cheeks, and deep red lipstick, had nothing to do with the fact I personally screwed myself out of fifteen hundred dollars. I took the check. I’m out the money. Not Sonja. Not the poker room. Me.

I shouldn’t have taken a check that large from anybody, let alone Dante. Fifteen hundred bucks cut pretty deep into my budget. I made good money, but it’s not my objective to support someone else’s bad habits. I’ve got my own to support. That was just one of the things I was going to tell Dante when I saw him again.

I fluffed a couch pillow and punched it a couple of times, wishing it was Dante’s face. If he didn’t pay up willingly, I didn’t have much leverage. I couldn’t go to the district attorney and press charges against Dante for giving me a hot check for the purpose of gambling in an illegal poker room. And if I bugged Dante too much about the money, I risked getting him mad and he knows where I work.

Not that I thought he would, seeing how much he likes to gamble, but he could sic the cops on us at anytime. Of course, he’d never be welcome in any card room across the state again. Dante had too much fun playing Hold ‘em to let that happen.

No, I was pretty much at his mercy. I’m sure he knew that the minute he wrote the dang thing. I guess that’s one way to get a girl to chase after you. Worse yet, I hadn’t had a date except him in ages and now even that was insufficient funds.

I sure wasn’t going to let go of that cash without warfare, though.

My phone started vibrating and I realized I’d finally dozed off. When I finally dug it out of my jean pocket, I was surprised to see it had rung ─ well, vibrated ─ four times during my nap. No wonder I’d had such great dreams.

I played my messages, knowing one was from Runt and one from Casey, but I was only half right. My brother hadn’t called. According to the verbal timestamp on Casey’s message, it’d taken her two and a half hours to get around to vibrating me up. The police department must be pretty busy. Her message was simple. It just said, “Call me.”

A senator from the Great State of Texas had also left a message. He wanted to know if there was a super-high-stakes game anywhere in the area. To impress a lady friend, he added. I could hear the wink in his voice over the phone.

Men! I knew what he meant, all right, but I didn’t know of any game like he wanted. Not tonight, anyway, so I called him back and told him so.

Two other players wanted to know what time I’d get to the poker room so I text messaged them and two hundred other regulars and semi-regulars with my starting time and the night’s menu. If the poker and free drinks don’t bring them in, the homemade free meal at midnight does.

This early in the evening everybody would read my message. In the middle of the night only a handful would bother reading it. And, if it’s Sunday, my TM would reach zip. Sunday was family day. There might be a game ─ there’s always a game somewhere ─ but it wouldn’t include the guys with families.

My phone vibrated again. Casey. She was making up for lost time by calling again so soon.

Casey, Weeba (Reba, really, but we’d called her Weeba since we were little), and I sometimes couldn’t go an hour without talking to each other. Then there were times we didn’t talk for weeks. It never mattered. We always picked up right where we left off. The weirdest thing was that sometimes all one of us had to do was think about the other and the phone rang.

The three of us go clear back to grade school. Casey and I went to college together, but Weeba couldn’t afford it. She should have borrowed the money because she’s the smart one. Looks-wise, she’s pretty in a different way, with short red hair and lots of freckles, but she’s shy to such an extreme that you forget she’s a nice looking girl. She just fades away into the background. Her boss at the dry cleaners where she clerks was always after her to look customers in the eye when she talked to them.

Casey’s the main act all the way. She’s beautiful, with a tiny body, long curly dark hair, and a porcelain complexion. She’s so outgoing it was a major problem in high school and college since she was the biggest flirt, attracting guys like bugs to a fly strip. She married a cop right after we graduated college.

“Don’t ask!” I said as I answered my cell. I groaned and struggled to untangle myself from the sofa throw.

“No way are you getting off that easy,” Casey said. “I want all the details!”

“Jeez, let me see.” I sighed, pausing just to pull her tail. “Mustang broke, took Runt’s truck, great book, add Shade, man with an alleged gun in his tighty-whiteys, me soaking wet, phone call to you, lost truck, lost book. Hmmm, that’s about all.”

“What?” she said, her voice going up an extra notch. “Girl, if I was talking to anyone but you I’d think English was your second language and you were delusional. I said details. Like what do you mean 'man with an alleged gun?' Did you report that to the police? And are you and Shade together again? That’s really what I want to hear more about. How come you didn’t mention Shade when we met Weeba at the coffee shop this morning? You holdin’ out on us?”

“Well, I’m not for sure about the gun part, that’s why I said alleged,” I replied. “And no, I didn’t report it. The answer to Shade and me being together again is a very big NO. I hadn’t seen, talked to, or thought about him in months. Then this afternoon I almost ran him over.”

My other line beeped. The caller ID read Rob. “Hey, let me call you later. My brother’s on the other line. I’ve got to tell him Shade stole his duelie.” I clicked over without giving her a chance to reply, but I swear smoke drifted out of the tiny little speaker.

“I didn’t loan Shade nothing! He took,” I said defensively when I transferred over. “And do you know he’s going bald?”

“This isn’t Runt, Stripper. It’s ol’ Baldy himself on Runt’s phone, apparently. You seen him?”

I sat straight up. Damn, he must have got to Runt while I was sleeping. I jumped up from the couch and carried the conversation to the bathroom.

“No-o-o. But you obviously have since you’re on his phone,” I sarcastically cooed.

“No-o-o. But I found a dog on the side of the road with this cell phone clipped to the collar.”

“Very funny. Let me talk to Runt,” I said, half distracted by the mirror. Rain and sleep had smudged my makeup. I swiped at it with a tissue.

“Funny, but not like in ha ha. More like in odd. As I said, Runt’s not with me.”

“You’re the odd one,” I said. “Have you been drinking?" I struggled one-handed with my jeans, my thoughts snapped together as my pants unsnapped. No wonder Runt hadn’t answered his phone all day. One of Runt’s dogs had his cell phone? That made no sense.

“No, Pokerface, I haven’t been drinking. This dog was just sitting by the side of the road until he saw me, then he started jumping around like it was feedin’ time. I pulled off the road and when I opened the door, the damn thing jumped up on my lap and bounced over to the passenger seat. I saw the cell phone and speed dialed the first number and got you. Do I take the dog with me? Kick him to the side of the road? Shoot him? What?”

“I don’t know. You found him.”

“He’s your Ridgeback fur nephew. What’s his name?”

“He’s the Ridgeback? Sloppy.”

“I like Shade better but you can call me Sloppy if you want to, Stripper. Jeez. Is that the toilet flushing?”

He heard that? Quickly, I said, “The dog’s name is Sloppy. His registered name is Sloppy Drunk. And the cell phone apparently works better than a dog tag, now doesn’t it? Are you coming to take me to work or what?”

“This big mutt is registered? I’m on my way…with Sloppy.” Click.

Great. The biggest dog in the world was going to take me to work ─ and he’s bringing Runt’s dog.

The bit about Sloppy and the cell phone was typical Runt. He was always training his dogs to do something weird. I remember when he taught Sloppy to open the frig and retrieve a beer. One day Runt was mucking out the barn, dying for a cold one. By the time he got back to his trailer house, Sloppy had taken all the beer out of the frig and placed them by Runt’s chair. Every one of them was as warm as coyote…well, I’ll just say the beer were all warm. Runt said if he hadn’t been laughing so hard, he would have been damn mad.

This phone thing was probably just another trick gone bad. The only thing I was concerned about at the moment was getting to work before the next round of rain hit. We always need rain this time of year so I really didn’t want to wish it away completely, just long enough for me to get into the poker room unsoaked.

I gave Shade and Sloppy twenty minutes then deposited myself at the same place I had been dropped off by Shade earlier. Thankfully, my wish came true for a momentary break in the rain, allowing me not to look like a wet calf when I got to work.

I was standing on the passenger side of my driveway when I spotted a green extended cab pickup leisurely headed down the street. Suddenly it speeded up and veered over to my side of the street, heading straight towards me. It hopped the curb and parked two wheels on my neighbor’s lawn.

Runt’s truck, coming from the opposite way, pulled into my driveway at the same time and blocked my view but not before I saw the driver poke a pistol out the window and aim it at me.

Holy smokes. I opened the duelie’s door, pushed the wet dog out of the way, and scrambled in. Shade barely had time to grab his jacket and chuck it onto the wet seat.

“Eager to see me, Stripper?” he asked. He had a cocky grin under his mustache so I guess he wasn’t still mad at me for the bald comment.

“That man in the pickup has a gun!”

“Jeez, Tana Rose. You see guns everywhere. You’ve got to stop reading these trashy novels.” He tossed me my book. “That’s hot stuff, Stripper. You use any of these ideas on dates?”

The green pickup roared off, tires spinning on the wet grass and tearing hunks out of the lawn.

“No, really, Shade. This time I’m sure I saw a gun.”

“Or a cell phone. Or a pipe wrench. Or who knows what. This is dull, boring Bryan, Tana Rose, not Houston or Dallas. There’s a better chance it was a jilted boyfriend than a dude with a gun.” He glanced sideways with a look that took me in from top to toes. “On second thought,” he said, “maybe it was a dude with a gun.”

Jerk. Silently I threw his cowboy hat at him. “I know what I saw,” I mumbled, but now I doubted myself. Could have been something else, I guess. I mean the odds of seeing two men pointing guns at me on the same day in this town must be lower that the odds of me ever dating Shade again. Still, it had looked like a gun to me, but Shade was probably right, although I’d never admit that to him. I’d lived in gun-toting Texas all my life and had never seen a handgun in public that shouldn’t have been there. Now I’d seen two of ‘em, or at least I thought I had.

Sloppy’s big tongue slurped my cheek, his way of showing appreciation for my outfit, I was sure. My size 12 jeans were tight and my coral shirt was cut fairly low, showing plenty of cleavage. Turquoise jewelry hung from my ears, my neck, my wrists, my fingers, and my naval, although that last one only I knew about and the way my luck was going, it would stay that way. My platinum blonde hair was cut short in jagged spikes.

Shade looked me up and down again but didn’t say a word. He was in the same clothes as when I last saw him and he smelled…well, good. A little more like deep piney woods, campfire smoke, and sweaty horse.

“You stink,” I said as I wrinkled my nose but I didn’t say anything more. Not because I was pouting over his not believing me about the gun thing. I just wanted to find out if he knew as much about where I worked as he did about where I lived. He took off in the right direction without asking directions.

To be continued Monday