Read an Excerpt
By Cannon, Molly
Forever Copyright © 2012 Cannon, Molly
All right reserved.
Stop it, Donny Joe.”
“Come on, Marla Jean. I thought you wanted to.”
An hour earlier she would have agreed with him. An hour earlier she wiggled into her tight red dress, tugged on her favorite cowboy boots, and headed out to the local watering hole sure of exactly what she wanted. An hour earlier she’d left her house with every intention of finding a willing man and having her way with him.
Lately she’d felt dried up, dustier than a ghost town in an old Western movie. The swinging saloon doors of her nether portal were rusted shut from lack of use. In other words, Miss Kitty hadn’t seen any action in a long, long time.
And now, because she’d decided to rectify the situation, she, Marla Jean Bandy, found herself sitting in the front seat of a Ford pick-up truck with Donny Joe Ledbetter’s hand stuck halfway up her skirt.
But it didn’t feel right somehow, and that really pissed her off.
Sex had always been something she’d embraced enthusiastically right up until the moment her husband dumped her for another woman. If he’d dumped her for some young bimbo, it would have been embarrassing and humiliating. She would have been mad, outraged even, but no—Bradley left her for Libby Comstock, the fifty-four-year-old, never-been-married librarian who drove the Bookmobile. She’d started to wonder why he ran out the door like a kid who’d just heard the ice cream truck whenever it turned the corner onto their street. But she’d always told him he should read more, and this was the one time in their six-year marriage he decided to listen to her.
Libby seduced him with the Russian classics, challenging him to stretch his mind and feed his soul. He tackled Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Brodsky, Pushkin, and eventually he tackled Ms. Comstock, too. The fact that he’d left her for someone twenty years older, frumpier, smarter, and fluent in five languages was something she’d never forgive him for.
But back to Donny Joe. He was a stud. A big fish in a small pond. A lover of all things female, and his ability to make the earth move was heralded far and wide by most every woman in and around Everson, Texas.
So when she decided it was time to get back on the horse, he was the natural choice for her to throw a rope around. He would have no problem with a quickie in the front seat of his truck. A quickie, and then they’d never speak of it again. No complications, no angst, no wounded emotional fallout. So why was she getting cold feet? This was the ideal setup, the perfect no-attachment sex she’d been looking for.
She sighed, a petulant, frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry, Donny Joe, but I think I’ve changed my mind.”
“You’re just a little skittish, sugar. We’ll take it slow. Why don’t we go back inside and slide around the dance floor a few times while I coax you back into the right mood?”
He was placing little nibbles on her neck while he whispered his encouragement. His hand took up a neutral position at the edge of her dress, not moving up, but not giving up all the territory he’d gained, either. She tried closing her eyes, tried to let herself be coaxed, but it wasn’t working. She was about to agree to a few dances just to ease her way out of an uncomfortable situation when the door on her side of the truck flew open so abruptly that if Donny Joe hadn’t had a good grip on her she would’ve fallen out on her head.
A dark silhouette loomed at her side, and a deep voice commanded, “Take your hands off her, Donny Joe.”
If her life followed any kind of normal, predictable pattern, she would have turned to confront her ex-husband, maybe, or her overprotective big brother, but that was not the case. Abel Jacobson—known by everyone around town as Jake—stood just inside the open door, filling up the space with his broad shoulders, glowering like some avenging angel in a cowboy hat. He reached inside and grabbed her arm. “Come on, Marla Jean, get out of the truck.”
Donny Joe tightened his grip around her waist. “Get your own woman, Jake.”
“That’s what I’m doing, Donny Joe.”
They were pulling her in two different directions, fighting over her like a prize piece of salt water taffy. She managed to squirm away from Donny Joe, and then shoved at the hard, stubborn wall of muscle that made up Jake’s chest until she could slide past him and get out of the truck. “I’m not anyone’s woman. What’s wrong with you two?”
Her too-tight skirt had ridden halfway up her ass, and she struggled to pull it back down to a level that wouldn’t get her arrested for indecent exposure. She was fuming while they watched. Donny Joe had a cocky grin on his face, and Jake stood with his arms crossed over his chest, glaring like he wanted to put her over his knee and spank her.
That thought sprang into her head from out of nowhere, accompanied by a vivid image of Jake’s big, wide hand on her bare bottom. The restless itch that had driven her out of her house dressed like a hoochie mama—only to desert her before she could find the nerve to scratch it—was suddenly back, stronger than ever. She gave her skirt another tug and glared back at him. If anyone could scratch her itch, it was Jake. But she wanted simple and uncomplicated, and there was nothing simple or uncomplicated about Abel Jacobson.
Donny Joe climbed out of his truck and ambled her way. “I’ll be inside Lu Lu’s if you change your mind, sugar.”
“She won’t,” Jake called after him pleasantly as he watched Donny Joe head back inside the bar. And then before she could blast him for his caveman act, he rounded on her. “Donny Joe? What the hell were you thinking, Marla Jean?”
“I was thinking I might get lucky, not that it’s any of your business, Abel Jacobson.” She stuck her nose in the air, and stomped off toward the bar.
“You’ve never had the sense God gave a goose when it comes to men,” he muttered as he followed her across the parking lot.
“Excuse me?” She rounded on him this time, not believing the nerve of the man. “When’s the last time you dated a woman who had an IQ higher than her bra size?”
“Why, Marla, I didn’t think you cared.”
“I don’t give two figs about your love life, but I’d love to know what brought on this sudden interest in mine.”
She was still scowling at him, but she was also more than a little curious about his answer. Growing up, Jake had been her older brother Lincoln’s best friend, but as adults she rarely spoke to him. Of course they exchanged greetings whenever they ran across each other in town, but asking “Hey, how are you?” just to be polite was a long way from dragging her out of another man’s truck as if he had every right to do it.
He kicked at a piece of gravel with the toe of his boot. “I got a call from Linc before he left town. He said you hadn’t sounded like yourself lately, and he was worried. I said I’d keep an eye on you.”
“I don’t need watching. And Linc can keep his opinions and his concern to himself.”
“Aw, give him a break, Marla. He’s been worried since Bradley…” His words trailed off like he wanted to spare her from the awful truth.
“You mean since Bradley dumped me? We’ve been separated for a year, and the divorce has been final for six months. I’m not going to fall apart at the mention of his name.”
“Bradley’s an idiot.”
“Finally, something we can agree on, but I’m a big girl, and I don’t need a keeper.” She started walking away, feeling put out all over again.
“Where are you going, Marla Jean?”
“I’m going back inside. I’m going to dance with any man who asks me, and I’m going to have a good time. If that’s not okay with you and my big brother, then y’all can both kiss my rosy, pink butt.”
The smell of stale beer and the sound of country music poured out of the bar as she jerked the door open and stalked inside. She pushed her way through the crowd, but Jake stayed right on her heels. Stopping abruptly, she turned around to face him. “For the love of Pete, what is it now?”
He tipped up the brim of his hat and asked with a lazy smile, “How ’bout a dance, Marla Jean?”
Jake kept his smile in place as he watched Marla’s eyes first widen, and then narrow at his invitation. Without warning, she grabbed his arm and hauled him out onto the dance floor—not exactly the reaction he’d expected.
“Okay Jake, let’s dance. I’ll talk. You just move your feet and listen.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She wouldn’t get an argument from him. He pulled her into his arms, and they started two-stepping around the floor. She smiled at everyone like she was having the grandest of times, but Jake wasn’t fooled. The tight set of her jaw and the scary vein throbbing in her forehead gave her away.
It certainly wasn’t any of his business if Marla Jean Bandy wanted to make out with every cowboy in the place. While they were growing up, she’d been a pesky pain in the backside, always trying to tag along with him and her older brother. Since Linc had been his best friend, Jake had become an honorary big brother by default, teasing her, tolerating her when she was underfoot, and now and then, helping her out of the occasional scrape.
But that was a long time ago. They’d both grown up—gone their separate ways. She’d even gotten married. If it hadn’t been for Linc’s call he certainly wouldn’t have been sticking his nose into her affairs now.
But still, Donny Joe Ledbetter? Maybe Lincoln had good reason to worry.
And Marla Jean. If he was any judge of riled-up women, and he’d seen a few in his time, Marla Jean was mad. Mad enough to spit. But that was okay. She could be mad all she wanted. He wasn’t going to let Lincoln down.
“First of all, Jake—”
“Wait a minute, Marla Jean—let me talk first. I want to apologize.”
She looked a lot surprised and a tad mollified. “I should think so.” They made a half circle around the floor before she tilted her head back and said, “Well, I’m waiting.”
“For what?” he asked while leading her into an underarm turn.
“Your apology?” she reminded him as she followed him in a walk-around step.
“Oh, right. I shouldn’t have said you were dumber than a goose.” He winked and executed a little spin.
“That’s what you’re sorry for?”
“Yeah, that was out of line.”
“And that’s it? If you think—”
“Hold your horses, Marla Jean, I’m not done.”
“By all means, continue.”
He grew serious. “I apologize for mentioning Bradley.”
She ducked her head and studied the feet of the nearby dancers. “I told you not to worry about that.”
“I know, but since he left you for my Aunt Libby, I feel somehow responsible.” Jake never cared for Bradley Bandy. He certainly didn’t deserve a woman like Marla Jean, and now this thing with his aunt had everyone in an uproar. His Aunt Libby, on the other hand, was acting like a cat who’d just discovered heavy cream. It was kind of sweet, in a creepy sort of way. But Marla Jean didn’t deserve the pain those two had caused her.
“Jake, whatever went wrong for me and Bradley started a long time before he took up story hour with your aunt.”
“Humph,” he grunted. “My mother’s ready to disown her—says she’s disgraced the family.”
“Can we not talk about Bradley? I came out to have a good time tonight. I’ve had it up to here with sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, so I’m turning over a new leaf.”
“And if folks around here don’t like it they can—“
“I know. They can kiss your rosy, pink butt.”
“But Donny Joe?”
“Don’t start, Jake.”
“Donny Joe is exactly the kind of thing Linc was worried about.” He twirled her around and dipped her as the song came to an end. When he pulled her back upright, she stumbled against his chest. His arms tightened momentarily, and he stared down into her flashing brown eyes.
Pushing him away, she said, “Look, Jake. Leave it alone. I’ll talk to Linc and put his mind at ease. You’re off the hook. Okay?”
He knew when it was time to beat a tactical retreat. “All right, I’ve done my duty for the night.” He held up both hands and took a step back.
“Thank you. And when I talk to Linc, I’ll tell him you went above and beyond.”
“Well, thanks for the dance.” He moved back another step, somehow reluctant to walk away, but Harry Beal marched over and inserted himself between the two of them. Back in school, Harry had been in the same grade with Marla Jean and had grown up to be the high school football coach.
“Hey, Jake. How’s it going?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned to Marla. “Can I have the next dance, Marla Jean?”
Marla smiled at Harry like he’d invented butter. “Sure thing, Harry. Later, Jake.”
Before he could say “alligator,” the two of them waltzed away, leaving him alone in the middle of the dance floor. Jake wandered over to the nearest barstool and sat down. He ordered a beer and swiveled around until he faced the crowd of dancing couples. Marla was laughing at something Harry said—her head thrown back—her dark, curly hair cascading down her back.
Christ A’mighty. That dress.
It was short and tight and nothing but trouble.
In the best of circumstances Marla Jean Bandy, being newly divorced and out on the town, was enough to make most red-blooded men sit up and take notice. Especially in a small town like Everson where available women were few and far between. But Marla Jean Bandy poured into that skimpy getup was like waving a red flag in front of every horny bastard in the joint. No wonder Linc was worried. Telling himself he owed it to Linc to keep an eye on her, he took a long draw on his beer and settled his elbows on the bar behind him. It promised to be a real long night.
Marla tried to pay attention to Harry and ignore the disturbing fact that Abel Jacobson, of all people, was parked on a bar stool across the way watching her. Harry wasn’t much of a dancer, mainly shuffling his feet from side to side, but she made an effort to listen as he rambled on about the football team. “I hate to admit it,” she said, “but I haven’t been to a game this year, Coach.”
“You oughta come this Friday, Marla Jean. If we beat Crossville, we’ll make it to play-offs.”
That was no secret. The whole town was buzzing about the upcoming game. In Everson, like almost every other town in Texas, Friday night during the fall was football night. While they were married, she and Bradley had never missed a game. But that was then. These days she spent Friday nights alone at home watching her mom’s old JAG DVDs and painting her toenails. But tonight was supposed to be about taking control of her life back, so she smiled and said, “You’re absolutely right, Harry. I’ll be there with bells on.”
“Great! Maybe after the game we could grab some pizza?”
She wasn’t really ready to start dating. At least not nice guys like Harry Beal. She’d known him since junior high. They’d been in the same homeroom from seventh grade on, and he had always been sweet and shy until you got him on the football field. Then he turned into a monster. Harry had gone on to play college ball and even had one season in the NFL before a knee injury ended his pro career. After that he moved back to town and no one was surprised when he’d been hired as Everson High’s head coach as soon as there was an opening.
But the idea of getting involved with someone she could come to care for scared the blue dickens out of her. Everyone in town would be at the pizza place after the game though, so it wouldn’t really count as a date. “Sounds like fun. We can celebrate your victory with pepperoni and extra cheese.”
He grinned like he’d landed a three-foot bass. When the music stopped, she thanked him for the dance, but before she could make it back to her table Greg Tucker asked if he could have the honor.
After that she danced with Johnny Dean, Fergus Barnes, and Tommy Lee Stewart. They flirted, and she flirted back. No big deal. A bunch of small town wannabe Romeos checking out the lay of the land. She was smart enough to know her sudden popularity was born of a burning curiosity about her divorce. They all asked basically the same thing, “How ya holding up, darlin’?” and let her know with a wink and a sashay around the dance floor, they’d be more than happy to help her out if she needed anything at all.
She smiled, said “thanks,” and kept on dancing.
That is until she saw Donny Joe headed her way, and she made a beeline for the ladies’ room. She wasn’t ready to go another round with him, or for that matter, to be reminded of her miserable attempt at playing the loose woman.
She splashed cool water on her flushed face and used her fingers to fluff up her hair. Smiling at her reflection, she realized that despite everything, she was having fun—even if she hadn’t managed to get laid.
Even before Jake’s interference she’d known she couldn’t go through with her plan. Damn it all. It had sounded so simple in theory, but in practice she’d run smack dab into reality. For her, sex was tied up with love, and love wasn’t something she was likely to find at Lu Lu’s on a Saturday night. Not that she was looking. “Love” was a dirty word as far as she was concerned. So while on one hand, she was right back where she’d started—all alone and frustrated—on the other hand, she’d had a blast dancing her fanny off with every man in the joint, and now she had plans that included football and pizza next Friday night. All in all, it hadn’t been a complete waste of time.
Wandering back out into the bar, she decided she was ready to call it a night. Jake still lounged on his barstool, but now Wanda Lee Mabry sat by him on one side and Rhoda Foster sat on the other. Both women seemed to be vying for his attention, making it much easier for her to slip out unnoticed.
Walking over to the corner table she’d claimed earlier in the evening, she searched the area for her purse. It wasn’t on the table, and it wasn’t on the floor, and if somebody was dumb enough to steal it they wouldn’t have gotten anything but her driver’s license, a twenty-dollar bill, a tube of Ripe Cherry Red lipstick, a just-in-case condom, and her car keys. At the moment, all she cared about were her car keys.
Then it dawned on her. She remembered touching up her lipstick right before she’d gone outside with Donny Joe and having her purse when she got in his truck. Dag-nab-it, she’d bet all the beans in Boston she’d left it on the floorboard of his pick-up. Jake’s high-handed meddling had ticked her off so much she hadn’t given her purse a second thought when she’d scrambled out of that truck. She looked around the room for Donny Joe but didn’t see him. The dance floor was still packed with people, so she stood on her tiptoes to see if she could see his head above the crowd.
Lana and Warren Sanders danced by. “Hey, Marla Jean,” they said in unison.
“Hey guys. Have y’all seen Donny Joe?”
“Donny Joe Ledbetter?” Lana asked, not hiding her surprise. “Not lately. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Thanks, anyway.” She moved on around the room asking if anybody had seen him, but she finally gave up and walked over to the far end of the bar, the end farthest away from where Jake still sat surrounded by women. The bartender spotted her and moved down to her end.
“What’ll it be, Marla Jean?” An older man with gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and an eye patch over one eye, Mike Benson was as much a part of Lu Lu’s as the gravel parking lot and the odor of stale beer.
“Mike, have you seen Donny Joe? I know he was here a minute ago.”
He picked up a bar towel and started polishing glasses. “Yeah, he was dancing with Irene Cornwell, and I saw them leave together.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A few minutes, maybe.”
“Damn it, I’ve got to catch him.” Hitching up her skirt she took off toward the front door. She burst outside, skidding to a stop on the gravel, and scanned the parking lot for his truck. If she was lucky Donny Joe and Irene would just be going at it like squirrels in his front seat. It wouldn’t even bother her to catch them in flagrante delicto. She’d ask them to forgive the intrusion, grab her purse, and tell them to carry on. They probably wouldn’t even notice.
She hurried toward the place where he’d been parked earlier, but she could see before she got there the spot was empty. Son of a bitch. She couldn’t believe this. The sound of a racing engine caught her attention, and she spotted his truck at the far exit getting ready to pull out onto the highway.
“Wait, Donny Joe, come back,” she yelled, waving her arms about wildly. Hitching her skirt even higher, she took off at a sprint. If she could just get his attention it would save her a world of trouble in the long run. “Donny Joe, hey, Donny Joe, don’t leave yet,” she hollered at the top of her lungs, but it was no use. She stumbled to a stop and watched his red taillights recede into the dark night. “Crap, horse feathers, and double doo-doo.” Cursing her luck and panting, she stood bent over with her hands braced on her knees, trying to catch her breath.
“For God’s sake, Marla Jean, don’t chase after the guy. Have some pride.”
She whirled around at the sound of Jake’s voice. He’d followed her out of the bar, obviously, and now he thought she’d lost her mind.
“You!” She pointed a finger and started marching toward him. A smart man would have shown some concern, but he stood his ground until her finger was poking him in the chest. “This is all your fault, mister.”
“My fault?” The idea seemed to amuse him.
“Entirely, altogether, and completely your fault.” She crossed her arms and stomped her foot like a bratty kid.
He moved closer and leaned down until they were nose to nose. “You should be down on your knees thanking me, missy. I kept you from making a God-awful mistake with Donny Joe earlier this evening. And now this? You go racing across the parking lot screaming like a banshee when he’s got another woman in the truck with him? Come on, Marla Jean. You’re obviously not yourself.”
For the second time that night she marched across the parking lot with Jake hot on her heels. “At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll make all the God-awful mistakes I want. And what I am, you big dolt, is stuck.”
“Hold up, Marla Jean—”
“I was chasing after Donny Joe, because thanks to you,” she turned to glare at him for emphasis, “I left my purse and my car keys in his truck. If I don’t seem properly grateful, you can bite me.”
“Does that offer involve your rosy, pink butt?”
She marched on, trying for the umpteenth time that evening to yank her skirt back down where it belonged. “Go to hell.”
“Before or after I offer you a ride home?” He stopped by his little yellow Porsche Boxster. “Hop in.”
“Yeah, right. I’ll go ask Harry Beal for a ride.”
“That should make his night. He’ll think he’s hit the jackpot.”
She hesitated. She didn’t want to give Harry the wrong impression. “I’ll call a cab.”
“That’d be a waste of good money, if you had any on you. Just get in the car.”
She stopped and let out a strangled groan. “Maybe I’ll walk. It’s not that far.”
“Were you always this stubborn? Let me explain something to you, Marla Jean. I don’t care if you call a cab, hitchhike, or crawl on your hands and knees—but I’ll be driving right behind you, no matter what.”
“Now who’s being stubborn?”
He shrugged. “I’m not about to tell Linc that because of me, you walked home from Lu Lu’s at eleven-thirty at night.”
“Linc’s got you on a pretty short leash, doesn’t he?”
“I owe Linc a lot, and he never asks for much, so for everyone’s sake, please get in the car.”
She sighed for what seemed like the millionth time that evening, a world-weary, put-upon sigh, and then stalked over to the car. He opened the door for her and didn’t even try to pretend that he wasn’t looking at her legs when her skirt rode back up to mid-thigh. She was going to go home and burn the stupid dress in the fireplace. After closing her door, Jake loped around the car, and she watched while he managed to fold his big frame into the compact driver’s seat. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a bigger car?”
“This isn’t a car. She’s a beloved member of the family, and she handles like a woman in love.” He started the engine and turned to face her. “Marla Jean, meet Lucinda.”
“You name your cars?”
“Don’t you?” He backed out of the space and headed for the nearest exit.
“Of course not. Well, I did have that clunker in high school we called ‘Buck’—for bucket of bolts—but these days I try not to get personally involved with my vehicles.”
“Hmm.” He looked at her as if her answer gave him some important insight into her character before returning his attention to the road.
After the divorce she’d moved into her parents’ old house on Sunnyvale Street. They’d retired a few years back and moved to Padre Island. After that, her brother Lincoln lived there until his recent marriage, and then he moved into his bride’s place since it was newer and bigger.
The last thing Marla wanted to do was stay in the house she’d shared with Bradley, and her folks’ house was empty, so it seemed like the perfect solution until she could find a place of her own. Sometimes, though, moving back to the house she’d grown up in made her feel like she’d failed her first attempt at being an adult.
It was a short drive home, and since Jake grew up on the same street, he knew the way without being told. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the man sitting by her side. Even when they were kids, he’d always been able to throw her off balance with a look or a word. Apparently, that hadn’t changed.
He pulled into her driveway, and she let him walk her to the door. She figured he’d insist anyway, and she was too tired to argue. On the way up the walkway, she remembered her keys, and the fact that they were spending the night in the floorboard of Donny Joe’s truck. Jake seemed to realize the problem at the same time. Without missing a beat, he reached into the third hanging basket from the left and pulled out the spare key—the same place the spare key had been hidden the entire time they’d been growing up.
“It’s nice to know some things never change.” He unlocked the front door and pushed it open. “If you need any help picking up your car tomorrow, let me know.”
“Thanks, but I’ll manage.” It suddenly felt so familiar to be standing in the dark talking with him on the front porch. He was bigger and taller now, but he was still Jake. “Good night, Jake.”
“Good night, Marla Jean.” He reached for her hand and pressed the spare key into her palm. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
She pulled her hand out of his and resisted the urge to stick out her tongue. “Try to mind your own business.”
He laughed and brushed his thumb across her cheek. “You haven’t changed, either, Marla Jean.”
Before she could ask what that was supposed to mean, he bounded off the porch and was gone.
Thank heavens it was Sunday morning, and she didn’t have to get up and go to work for two whole days. Marla Jean drew the covers up to her chin and nestled deeper into her goose down pillow. MJ’s Barber Shop still observed the traditional Sunday/Monday weekend, so she could sleep all day if she felt like it.
That was one nice thing about being single. No one could bug her about getting up and doing something productive. Bradley used to have their Sundays planned to the minute. He’d bribe her with doughnuts and fancy coffee to get her out of bed, and then they’d tackle some project around the house until it was time to watch football.
There was a certain comfort in the routine, but now she could be as lazy as she wanted and not have to answer to anybody. She turned over and spread out, taking up the whole bed. Another advantage to being single—the bed was never crowded, and after last night, that wasn’t likely to change any time soon. A downright depressing thought if there ever was one.
She pulled the sheet over her head and shut her eyes. Maybe she’d stitch up a sampler. The ABCs of singlehood. Alone time, bored time, crying time…
She could admit she missed her ex-husband Bradley, or at least she missed the idea of him. They’d been high school sweethearts, and when they got married after college it seemed like the next logical step. They’d made a nice life together. Nothing earthshaking, but nice. At least she’d thought so. It turned out Bradley wanted more than nice.
But even if he had a change of heart and begged her to let him come back—a fantasy she tried not to indulge in more than once a week—she knew down deep in her heart the marriage was over.
The sound of someone pounding loudly on her front door interrupted her woe-is-me ruminations. She threw off the covers, shoved her feet into furry kitty-cat slippers, and made sure the Dallas Stars hockey jersey she’d slept in was pulled down far enough to cover all her important parts. Then she stumbled out of her bedroom, ready to kill whoever was disturbing her peaceful morning. She peeped out the peephole and groaned. She must have conjured him up, because Bradley stood on her front porch holding a big box of doughnuts.
As soon as she opened the door he barreled his way inside. Shoving the box at her like a battering ram, he demanded, “What the hell’s going on, Marla Jean?”
“Excuse me?” She shoved the box back at him and tried pushing him back out the open door. “I don’t remember inviting you over, Bradley, so if you don’t mind—”
“I’m not leaving until you explain why Donny Joe Ledbetter answered your cell phone this morning.” His chin did that jutting out thing it did whenever he decided to dig his heels in about something.
“Why do you care who answers my cell phone?”
“I was worried—”
“It’s not your job to worry about me anymore, in case you’ve forgotten.” A few months ago she would have been touched by his concern—a signal that he still cared. Now it seemed more like an unwelcome intrusion.
“I realize that, Marla Jean, but I was on my way over to the Hole-In-The-Dough to get doughnuts for Libby this morning when I saw your car sitting there big as life in Lu Lu’s parking lot.”
“You mean these aren’t even for me?” She slapped at the box in his hands. He had a lot of nerve. “Isn’t Libby going to wonder what’s taking you so long?”
“Now don’t go trying to change the subject. I was worried half to death, and then, when Donny Joe answered your phone, I didn’t know what to think.”
“Think whatever you like. I don’t owe you or anyone else in this town an explanation. Sheesh.” She gave him a harder push and this time managed to get him back out onto the front porch.
He sighed, and his shoulders sagged. “You know I still care about you, Marly Jay.”
Marly Jay had always been his pet name for her, and she couldn’t believe he had the nerve to invoke it now. Dull pain washed through her insides, leaving a raw ache where her heart used to be. She wanted to scream, or maybe kick him in the balls. Neither seemed like a good option, so she counted to ten and studied the man she’d loved off and on since high school. He’d always been nice looking in that friendly, puppy-dog kind of way, and the years hadn’t changed that. His blond hair ruffled in the breeze, his cheeks were slightly pink from the cool autumn morning, and his blue eyes fairly dripped with sincere concern. She’d always felt secure with Bradley, and his devotion was the one thing she’d thought she could depend on. That had been a big mistake. One she wouldn’t make again.
She knew he still cared about her, but right now his concern felt more like pity, and she wanted to take his Hole-In-The-Dough doughnuts and cram them down his two-timing gullet.
“Go home, Bradley.” Before she could shut the door, the object of their conversation roared up the street and parked in front of her house.
“What’s Donny Joe doing here, Marla Jean?” Bradley’s face and neck had taken on the color of a medium rare T-bone steak.
She ignored his question and walked outside, waiting on the porch while Donny Joe climbed out of his truck holding her purse. Even carrying her red-sequined clutch, he still looked like God’s gift to women as he strutted up the walkway toward the house. He wore a tan cowboy hat at a cocky angle, tight jeans, and a red plaid flannel shirt open over a white T-shirt. Dark shades covered his spring-green eyes, but his entire face broke out into a dazzling grin when he caught sight of them on the porch. Marla Jean heaved a sigh and wondered again what was wrong with her. Everything about the man said, “Use me and abuse me,” but she just hadn’t been able to do it.
Donny took off his sunglasses, bouncing up the steps two at a time. “Hey, Brad, old buddy! Read any good books lately?” He slapped Bradley on the back and winked at Marla Jean. Then in a voice that probably peeled the clothes right off most women, he said, “Mornin’, sugar. I thought you might need this.”
He held out her purse, and she snatched it away. It was downright silly, but her cheeks flamed like he’d just handed her a pair of crotchless panties.
“Thanks, Donny Joe. I’m awfully sorry you had to drive all the way over here for this.” After all, nothing that happened at Lu Lu’s had been his fault.
“Anything for you, Marla Jean. Last night things got kind of wild, and I figured your purse was the last thing on your mind.” He spotted the Hole-In-The-Dough box Brad was holding, and his eyes lit up. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have a spare cruller in there, would ya, buddy? I worked up quite an appetite last night.”
Bradley snarled, crushing the doughnut box against his chest. Little pieces of glazed sugar escaped from the box and drifted down to settle on his navy blue running shoes. His nostrils pinched together like he’d suddenly caught a whiff of the foul odor inside a goalie’s glove, and when he spoke his voice sounded like it was being forced through a tea strainer. “Could I speak to you for a moment, Marla Jean? Alone?”
“Now’s not a good time, Bradley.” She realized her ex-husband believed some kind of hanky-panky was going on between her and Donny Joe. Part of her wanted to set him straight, but most of her wanted to rub his face in the fact that just because he didn’t want her anymore, didn’t mean plenty of other men weren’t lined up to take his place.
Of course, Donny Joe might not be the best example of the other men who wanted her, since he pretty much wanted anything that qualified as female.
Acting like he owned the joint, Donny Joe threw his arm around Marla’s shoulder and pulled her close to his side. “Yeah Brad, now’s not a good time.”
Bradley threw the mangled box of doughnuts down onto the porch and snarled, “Take your hands off her, Donny Joe.”
Jake pulled into his parents’ old driveway and studied the place. Ever since he’d moved his mother into one of the new condos on the lake, he’d considered selling the house but always ended up renting it out instead. For some reason he just couldn’t let it go. It sat empty now, and he had a list of fix-it jobs he’d been putting off for way too long.
That was the reason he dragged himself out of bed on a Sunday morning and loaded his toolbox into the back of his work truck. It had nothing to do with the fact that Marla Jean Bandy was back living across the street, two doors down.
A man with any brains would avoid her like a second helping of prune pit pie. She was a handful—always had been. Good-looking, smart-mouthed, clever, and now, fresh from a divorce, she was vulnerable as well. Man. That was a dangerous combination.
She probably hadn’t had time to pick her car up yet, and he’d thought about renewing his offer to give her a hand with that, but decided on the drive over he was probably the last person she wanted to see. He got out of the truck and glanced across the street at her house. A big white Chevy Suburban was sitting in her driveway. It wasn’t hers, but he knew who it belonged to. It belonged to her ex. Bradley.
Jake knew Marla and Bradley most likely had some unfinished business, and it was probably normal for them to spend time in each other’s company, but whenever he thought about how that man had treated her, he wanted to pound something. Never mind that his Aunt Libby was waltzing around like a giddy teenager. He hadn’t come to terms with how he felt about Bradley Bandy being responsible for that, either.
He had work to do, and it wasn’t going to get done if he stood around thinking about Marla Jean and her problems. He put purpose into his stride as he found the keys to his old house and unlocked the front door. Then he stole another glance across the street. He couldn’t help himself. Now he could see Bradley standing out on the porch talking to someone inside the house. Most likely, Marla Jean. Good. That meant he was leaving. The sooner, the better. Not that it was any of his concern.
As he walked back out to his truck and grabbed his toolbox, a silver pick-up came flying down the street and screeched to a stop at Marla Jean’s curb. Son of a bitch. It was Donny Joe Ledbetter. Jake watched him climb out of the truck and head toward her house. Marla Jean came outside and stood on the porch by Bradley as Donny Joe approached. Jake couldn’t hear what anyone was saying, but he didn’t need to be a lip reader to see the steam coming out of Bradley’s ears. He told himself to mind his own business.
Turning his back on the scene unfolding across the street, he walked back up the driveway toward his parents’ house. Not his problem, he thought. Live and let live. That was his motto, and last night reminded him of why it had always been a good one. Marla Jean was all grown up, and she could handle herself just fine.
He reached the front steps before allowing himself one final peek. From across the way he could see Donny Joe standing on one side of Marla Jean and Bradley standing on the other. Things looked to be getting heated. Bradley shoved Donny Joe and Marla Jean scrambled to keep the men separated. Neither of them seemed to pay a bit of attention to her.
Jake set his toolbox down on the porch, scrubbed a hand over his face, and let out a frustrated growl. He hurried across the yard, stopping long enough to grab a ball-peen hammer from the bed of his truck, and then took off at a run toward her house. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do with the hammer. Maybe threaten to bash in a couple of windshields just to get their attention. As he got closer he could hear the squabbling.
“Let her go, Donny Joe.”
“Why don’t you go on home to your little librarian, Brad?”
Marla aimed a fuzzy slipper at Donny Joe’s kneecap and then turned to stomp on Bradley’s foot with the other. “Cut it out, both of you.” Neither man seemed to think she got a vote in the matter.
“Hey!” Jake yelled as he crossed the street, waving the hammer above his head like a crazy man.
They all looked up at the interruption, and Marla took the opportunity to extricate herself from the situation. Lunging off the porch, she ran down the sidewalk and grabbed Jake’s arm.
“Oh good, Jake, you’re here,” she babbled brightly, “and you brought your hammer. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about promising to look at that sink in the guest bathroom.”
She looked at him with wide eyes begging him to play along, so he said, “I didn’t forget, Marla Jean. I just figured you might like to sleep late.” He took in her wild bed-head of curly hair and gave her Dallas Stars jersey and kitty-cat slippers the once over. “But here I am. At your service.”
She hooked her arm through his, dragging him up the front steps past the other two men.
Brad eyed Jake suspiciously. “Jake isn’t a plumber, Marla Jean. If you’ve got a plumbing problem, call the Rooter Doctor. I don’t mind if you charge it to our old account.”
Donny Joe lounged against the porch railing with a shit-eating grin on his face. “He’s gonna fix your sink with a hammer?”
“You’d be surprised what I can fix with a hammer,” Jake advised him casually.
Marla Jean piped up, “It’s not plumbing. It’s remodeling. He’s going to knock out the whole thing and start over. So, you boys should run along now.” Without waiting for a good-bye or see-you-later, she pushed Jake inside the house and slammed the door in their faces.
She slumped against the closed door. “Thank God you showed up when you did, Jake. What in the world is wrong with men? Twice now in two days I’ve been subjected to men acting like Neanderthals. Oh wait, I forgot. You’re as guilty as they are.”
Jake shrugged. “Most men are animals.”
“Does that include you?”
“It doesn’t take much to bring out our beastly nature,” he confessed.
“Well, I have to say, as a woman who’s just getting back into the dating scene, it’s very unattractive.” She pushed off the door and walked toward the living room.
“I’ll try to remember that,” he said as he followed her.
“You might as well sit down.” She waved him into the olive green recliner that had always been designated as her dad’s chair and plopped down onto the rust and olive plaid sofa that had graced the living room since before they’d been teenagers. “I’d like to give Bradley and Donny Joe time to clear out before you leave. That is, if you’re not in any hurry.”
“I can spare a minute or two.”
He laid the hammer on the old wooden coffee table and settled down into the chair. Not much in the room had changed. The same framed prints hung on the paneled walls, the same floor lamp with the rust-colored shade stood in the corner. The place even smelled the same—like the vanilla candles Linc and Marla’s mother had favored for as long as he could remember.
Growing up, he’d spent almost as much time in this house as he had his own. His home life hadn’t been the best, and Linc had been a good friend, allowing him to escape his father’s bullying whenever he could. Linc’s parents treated him like one of their own, and Marla Jean treated him like another brother. He didn’t feel much like a brother anymore.
As a matter of fact, he sincerely wished Marla Jean would go put on some more clothes. His beastly side was being aroused by her fresh unmade-up face and all that long, dark, curly hair waving around it. The hockey jersey she had on didn’t hide the fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra, and the damn thing kept sliding up her long bare legs, threatening to show what lay just beyond. And those kitty-cat house shoes. They weren’t doing a damn thing to make her less sexy, either. All in all, she looked a little too appealing for his peace of mind.
“I’m really grateful for the rescue this morning, Jake. You were coming to my rescue, right?”
“Nah, just being neighborly. I was working on my mom’s old house, and all that noise was making it hard to concentrate.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not even sure what happened. Donny Joe dropped by to return my purse, and one minute we were having a civilized conversation, and the next they were both acting like idiots.”
“Well, no offense, but we are talking about Bradley and Donny Joe.”
“None taken. I guess I should choose my male companions more carefully from now on.”
“Any likely prospects on the horizon?” He didn’t know why he asked, but the question popped out before he could stop it.
“I don’t know about prospects, but I’m having pizza with Harry Beal after the football game Friday night.”
“Is that a good idea?” He frowned. That wasn’t exactly the best news he’d heard lately.
She shrugged. “He asked, and it seemed innocent enough.”
“I guess. If you’re not worried about the fact that he’s been in love with you since he sat beside you in Miss Fatheree’s math class back in junior high.”
She looked at him like she thought he was high on wacky weed. “He has not. Why would you say that?”
He held up both hands. “Forget it. I’m probably wrong.” But he wasn’t. Anybody with two eyes could see that Harry Beal turned into a mush melon whenever he came within ten feet of Marla Jean. Jake always thought women were born knowing when a man was interested. Maybe not.
“I’m not looking for anything serious right now. I just want to go out, have some fun, get used to being on my own again, you know?” She looked like she was hoping to find an understanding ear.
If she expected him to give the thumbs-up on guys like Donny Joe she could forget it. He went for a neutral response instead. “I think that’s a smart idea. Take things slow. Rebound relationships can be a bitch.”
Her eyes gleamed with curiosity. “You sound like you’re talking from experience.”
“It’s been a long time, now, but there was a woman I met in college.” He was never comfortable talking about himself.
She tucked her legs underneath her and leaned forward. “Oh, this is fascinating. What was her name?”
He tried to keep his eyes off her legs. “You always were a nosy kid.”
“Is it too painful to talk about? Poor Jake.” She reached over and patted his knee.
The leather recliner creaked as he shifted in the chair. “I told you it was years ago, and her name was Sarah.”
“Sarah.” She repeated the name wistfully like she could feel every bit of heartbreak he’d suffered at the hands of the woman. “What happened to her?”
“After college she went to law school, married a judge, and had three kids.” He hadn’t given Sarah a second thought in years.
“So, was she the rebound, or was the rebound the woman that came after her?”
He pointed a finger and said, “You ask too many questions.”
“Sorry. Sitting here talking to you in my parents’ living room feels so much like old times. It makes me wonder why we lost touch.”
“We both went off to college. You got married. Life happens.” He stood up, resisting the temptation to join her on a walk down memory lane. “I better get going. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
“Oh right.” Marla Jean jumped off the couch and followed him to the front door. “Thanks again for your help.”
He reached out and tucked an unruly strand of hair behind her ear. It was softer than he expected, and she smelled like lemons. “Don’t mention it. I figure I owed you after last night.”
“That’s true. You did, but today almost made up for it.”
“Almost?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m not ready to let you off the hook just yet. It might come in handy if I need to be rescued again. Will you be at the game Friday night?”
He walked out onto the porch stepping over the scattered doughnuts and looking around to make sure Bradley and Donny Joe were both gone. “Where else would a body be on a Friday night in Everson?”
She tugged the hem of her hockey jersey down to a barely decent length and smiled. Probably the first real smile she’d bestowed on him since he’d pulled her out of Donny Joe’s truck Saturday night. “Great. Maybe I’ll see you then.” With a wave she went back inside.
He’d made it halfway across the yard when she called his name.
He turned around. “Yeah?”
“You forgot your hammer.” She held it out in his direction.
He stuck his fingers in his back pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Keep it, Marla Jean. Next time some bozo tries to manhandle you, use it to bean him upside the head.”
She seemed to perk up at the idea. “Even if that bozo is you?”
He winked and said, “Especially if it’s me, darlin’.”
She rolled her eyes, hugged the hammer to her chest, and disappeared inside the house.
I didn’t believe it for one minute, Marla Jean.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Begley.” Marla Jean used the electric trimmers to clean up the back of Chuck Begley’s neck. He was one of her regulars, but she’d just given him a haircut the week before. Today he’d come in for the gossip and not for the grooming.
He gave her a knowing look in the mirror. “I’ve decided Bertie only runs that diner so she can spread rumors. And she was serving ’em up thick this morning, right alongside the scrambled eggs and hash browns.”
Bertie Harcourt owned the Rise-N-Shine Diner, and a lot of folks stopped by on their way to work to grab coffee and catch up on the latest juicy rumor. Apparently, Marla had made it onto this morning’s menu.
“Well, what are you gonna do, Mr. Begley? People in this town like to talk. But I appreciate the heads-up.” Marla hoped that would end the conversation, but it seemed he was just getting started.
“I mean who’s gonna believe that Abel Jacobson and Donny Joe Ledbetter were fighting over you in Lu Lu’s parking lot?” He shook his head and clicked his false teeth.
“I know, right? It’s crazy.” She brushed away the little sprinkles of loose hairs and unfastened the Velcro holding the cape in place around his neck. “I think you’re done. How does it look?”
He craned his neck this way and that, admiring himself in the mirror. “You do good work, Marla Jean. If your dad was alive, he’d be real proud.”
“Dad is alive, remember, Mr. Begley? He just retired and moved to South Padre.”
He looked momentarily confused and then stood up from the chair. “Well, that’s fine then. Tell him to send me a postcard sometime.” He handed her a twenty-dollar bill and told her to keep the change. As he walked out the door, he added, “And don’t let me hear about you getting into any more bar fights, young lady.”
“I promise, Mr. Begley.”
Grabbing the broom from the back room, she started sweeping up the hair from the floor. For a Tuesday the shop had been unusually busy, and it wasn’t because she’d been voted barber of the year, either. Tongues had been wagging, and the tales of her exploits at Lu Lu’s Saturday night would soon be the stuff of legends. Chuck Begley wasn’t the first customer who’d come in, more than happy to share what he’d heard.
Most of the stories had Jake and Donny Joe coming to blows with each other over her in the parking lot. That was bad enough, but now another version was circulating that had her getting into a catfight with Irene Cornwell, of all people.
The worst part, the part that really pissed her off? According to Melvin Krebbs, when he’d stopped by to have his sideburns trimmed earlier, Irene Cornwell had kicked her butt up one side and down the other.
She could whip Irene Cornwell’s skinny little ass with one hand tied behind her back any day of the week.
“Parcheesi!” Hooter Ferguson let out a rousing yell, announcing his victory in the board game that went on almost nonstop every day at the front of her shop.
Dooley Parker slapped the board, knocking the pawns over and scattering them onto the floor. “Hell’s bells, I can’t concentrate today with all these fools comin’ and goin’. I could go for some pie, though. How ’bout it, Hoot?”
“Pie’d be good. We’ll be across the street if you need us, Marla Jean.” The two older men stood up and stretched before heading for the front door of the shop.
“Okay, guys. Don’t forget my iced tea, please.”
Hoot pointed a finger at her on his way out the door. “With extra lemon. Will do.”
Marla walked over and picked up the game pieces from the floor and then put them back on the board. The two old men had been a fixture in the shop long before she’d taken over from her dad, and if she ever sold the place they’d be included in the inventory.
When the brewery out on the highway threatened a big layoff back in the eighties, Hoot and Dooley opted for early retirement. Their wives didn’t like having them underfoot, so they’d adopted her father’s barber shop as a home away from home. Rain or shine, they’d show up every morning at eight and stay until five, playing Parcheesi, chewing the fat, and for no extra charge, dispensing their own brand of wisdom. She couldn’t imagine the place without them. Every day around this time they’d go for pie, and every day they’d bring her back an iced tea with extra lemon.
She sat down in one of the barber chairs and spun around. When she was little, she loved to come to the shop with her dad. She’d hop up in an empty chair, and he’d spin her around and ’round. Then he’d stop the chair, and she’d climb down. Dizzy and giggling, she’d stumble around until she collapsed in a heap. “Pick a direction, Marla Jean,” he’d say with a smile. “It’s important to know where you’re going in life.”
From her vantage point on the floor she’d look up at her father, so tall, so sure of himself, so dependable. Everyone in Everson liked Milton Jones. He was hardworking, clean-living, and loved his wife and kids. Folks thought highly of her mother, Bitsy, as well. She taught music at Thornton Elementary School to several generations of Everson children, and they all still sang her praises. It made Marla proud. It made Marla feel rooted and secure.
She’d worked at the barber shop off and on as she got older, but never planned to make it her career. She always imagined herself doing something artsy, like jewelry design or illustrating children’s books. But after graduating with an art degree from the University of North Texas, she moved back home to Everson, fell into helping her father again, and before she knew it she was married to Bradley and working at the barber shop full-time.
Her course in life had seemed set, and if she hadn’t found genuine fulfillment, she’d at least found comfort in that. But now, since the divorce, the very things that brought her comfort before made her feel like she might suffocate. She’d lie awake some nights and fight the urge to pick up and move away to somewhere where nobody knew her or cared about her business.
It was tempting. But it was also the coward’s way out. Sure, she’d been blindsided by Bradley’s betrayal. Completely unprepared, and in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Libby Comstock batted her trifocal-covered eyes at Bradley, and Marla Jean had yet to recover from the repercussions.
The end of a marriage was bound to make a person question herself. When did Bradley stop loving her? And what could she have done differently? Maybe nothing, but when your husband leaves you for an older woman it’s not exactly a boost to your ego.
The split with Bradley smashed up all the ideas she’d had of who she was and what her life would be—smashed them all to smithereens. The idea of selling the barber shop and taking off for parts unknown still held a certain appeal, but so far she’d resisted. As Jake put it, life happens, and all she could do was steer her way on down the road a day at a time.
Excerpted from Ain't Misbehaving by Cannon, Molly Copyright © 2012 by Cannon, Molly. Excerpted by permission.
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