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"I'm giving up sex for good." The declaration came from Shay Briggs, beauty consultant and owner of Skin Deep, the one and only full-service spa in Skull Creek, Texas. "Out of the game, on the wagon, end of story," she vowed as she smoothed the cucumber facial onto the woman stretched out on the table in front of her.
Sue Ann Peters licked at the green glob near the corner of her mouth. "Yum. What's in this?"
"Cucumbers, aloe and my secret ingredient."
"Only if you want chest hair and an Adam's apple." Sue Ann sputtered and floundered for a nearby water bottle, and Shay smiled. "It has a special testosterone supplement that stimulates pheromones which are rumored to help shrink pores."
The young woman sucked down several long sips. "Testosterone can do that?"
"Not all by itself. But mixed with cucumbers, aloe and a few other ingredients, it's a definite maybe. I'm featuring it in next week's column." In addition to running Skin Deep, Shay contributed beauty tidbits for the Skull Creek Gazette.
It was a far cry from the stories she'd written as a kidwild, fantastic stories of love and romance and adventureand not half as interesting, but at least she was still writing. It was her only consolation during those rare moments when she became convinced that her life totally sucked.
Shay fought down a sudden surge of self-pity and tried to focus on the positive. "I do still have a column, don't I?" she went on. "You're not handing me a pink slip because of the Bobby Barnes incident."
"Of course not." Sue Ann was Shay's best friend and editor at the Gazette. "Our readers love Beauty Bites. It's one of our prime features.Second only to Lazarus Buckner's column. No one beats Buckner in the numbers." Lazarus was a retired gastrointestinal specialist who did a weekly report called "People Pipes." "The retirement home ordered an extra fifty papers last week just for the 'Our Friend, Flatulence' piece."
"Any extras sold because of my 'Trick that Trunk' article?"
"No, but I'm sure every woman in town is slathering on the Crisco for a smoother, softer tush."
After the past two days, Shay seriously doubted that the women of Skull Creek would ever take her beauty advice again. She'd lost their faith, and all because of Bobby.
The low-down, dirty, son of a snake.
Shay gave herself a great big mental kick in the butt and blinked away the sudden burning in her eyes. What the hell was wrong with her? She didn't cry over a man. She didn't cry, period. Her mother had taught her that a long time ago.
"Never let 'em see you weep, dear. Smile and bat your eyes and make them regret ever walking away."
Which is exactly what her mother had done. Five times now, to be exact, and all because she'd fallen for the wrong men. Bad boy types who'd oozed sex appeal and charm. Men who'd been more interested in the night rather than the morning after.
Men like Bobby Dean Barnes.
Bobby was tall, dark and handsome and the latest on Shay's evergrowing list of failed relationships. Instead of sticking around for breakfast the next morning, he'd written a cryptic We 're done, gotta run in red lipstick on the bedroom mirror.
"My life is a total train wreck."
"I'll give you train wreck. Erwin and Eunice Mcclusky are getting a divorce."
"But they've been married over sixty years."
"Sixty-three, to be exact. It seems Eunice decided that she's tired of faking it. She wants a man who can satisfy her, at least that's what she told Maudette Cranberry. Ever since Erwin had his hip replacement, he just hasn't been able to hit the spot like he used to. So she's dumping him. Which means that my front page article featuring Skull Creek's oldest lovebirds is a crock. I have exactly six days to come up with a new piece for the Valentine's Day issue. Something sweet and sexy and romantic." Sue Ann sighed. "Now that's a train wreck. You're just experiencing some minor derailment."
Shay stiffened and gathered her determination. "You're right. Sure, my bank account is empty and my appointment book is empty, and my favorite shirt has a tomato sauce stain the size of Texas But it isn't the end of the world. Things could be worse." Much worse, she reminded herself. She could be starving in a third world country or enslaved by some Colombian drug lord or trapped in a freezer full of Ben & Jerry's.
"Did you try the club soda and lemon juice?" Sue Ann's voice killed her rampant imagination.
"I've tried everything. It won't budge. Next time I'll save my meltdown for the monthly weenie roast instead of the VFW's annual spaghetti dinner."
"Trust me, it wouldn't have been half as interesting. Seeing that jackass Bobby Dean get his ass kicked with a handful of mega-sized meatballs was priceless. A weenie doesn't pack near the punch. He's got a black eye and a concussion. Boy, when you reared back and nailed him"
"Can we skip the details, please?" Especially when each one was already branded into Shay's memory. It was a reoccurring play-byplay sequence of the lowest moment of her life. Second only to crawling into bed with Bobby Dean in the first place. "I never should have slept with him. Everything was perfect until then." They'd dated for two months. They'd gone on picnics and caught every movie at the Paladium. They'd had romantic dinners and long walks in the park. Which had all led her to one conclusionthat Bobby Dean Barnes was more than a bad boy. He had a heart underneath his good looks and the sex appeal, and he actually liked her.
She'd given in, slept with him, and he'd broken up with her.
Because Shay Briggsonce-upon-a-time homecoming queen and prom princess, three-time winner of Skull Creek's infamous Miss Pumpkin and Miss Cattle Guard pageants, and the only contestant to ever win Travis County Rodeo Darling twicewas the absolute worst in bed.
It wouldn't have been a big deal if Bobby Dean Barnes had been interested in more than sex. If he'd been a nice guy rather than the proverbial bad boy. But he'd wanted sex and the big S had never been her strong suit. She'd spent her lifetime holding out for Mr. Right instead of an endless string of Mr. Right Nows and so she'd never really had a lot of practice.
She remembered the red lipstick note on her bathroom mirror and a lump formed in her throat. She'd been so hurt and humiliated that morning and, unfortunately, booked solid at work. Unable to lick her wounds, she'd gone in for a busy Friday filled with people primping for the annual spaghetti dinner later that night.
She'd been preoccupied. And one wax job later, her professional life had joined her personal one in the Totally Screwed category.
"I can't believe I yanked off one of Diane Hardberger's eyebrows." The moment flashed full-color in her head, along with sound effectsthe rrrrippppp of the wax strip and the horrified scream when the council woman had gotten a good look in the mirror.
"At least you weren't doing a bikini wax."
"You're not making me feel any better."
"So you slipped with the wax and then assaulted someone with several pounds of meatballs? We all have our moments."
But not everyone had their absolute worst "moment" caught on tape courtesy of old man Wintergreen. He'd been documenting the domino tournament being held simultaneously with the dinner and had quickly traded a pair of sixes in favor of a public display of humiliation, name-calling and major ass kicking.
Bobby Dean had shown up with the newly crowned Miss Pumpkin and the truth had been obvioushe'd dumped Shay for someone younger and prettier. Someone who reeked of sex. Miss Pumpkin was twenty-one, with boobs out to there and legs up to here and an ass that could crack walnuts.
Shay, herself, wasn't exactly over the hill at twenty-nine, but she was well on her way up. She'd started to find a few stray grays mixed in with her long blonde hair. Her once-toned body was getting soft in all the wrong places. And the biggee? She'd put on seventeen extra pounds (twenty if you counted the flip-flops and the sweats she'd had on at the last weigh-in). As for cracking walnuts She'd be lucky to crush a fruit loop.
She dieted and she exercised. She even wrapped herself in plastic wrap once a week. But the upscale spa treatment that had always helped her shed at least five pounds right before every pageant wasn't touching the Stubborn Seventeen.
"Your looks are all you've got, dear. Don't ever forget that."
Her mother's voice echoed in her head. Marlene Briggs had been beautiful, herself, and she'd used that beauty to get what she'd wanted in life, from an endless string of jobseverything from waitress to nail technicianto husbands one through foura bull rider, a stock car racer, a professional cowboy and a stunt man. All wild, bad boy types who'd cheated on her even though she'd been Miss Skull Creek six years in a row.
She'd finally found her happily ever after with number fivean accountant named Fred.
Shay didn't want to travel the same bumpy road as her mother, either personally or professionally. She'd gotten her cosmetician's license and a business degree from a nearby community college. Even more, she'd made up her mind at sixteen (after seeing her mother smile and bat her eyes through divorce number three) to skip the hot, unreliable men and go straight for the accountant.
Her head knew that. If only her damned hormones would stick with her mental GPS and stop making detours.
"I'm glad Bobby dumped me," Shay declared. "I'm through with temporary, sex-crazed men."
"I want a forever guy. Someone stable. Reliable. Loyal."
"You just described my blue heeler."
"I mean it. This is a good thing." She gathered her resolve and focused on the one positive aspectshe hadn't made the mistake of marrying Bobby Dean. "The best thing that ever happened to me."
"And how. That Kissmyasscupid Web site is awarding a trip to Hawaii for first place. You should at least get honorable mention and a weekend in Vegas for being the most creative." Sue Ann smiled at the memory. "You didn't just morph into a major bee-yotch and flip off men the world over. You morphed and flipped and took out two hundred pounds of spaghetti at the same time."
"He deserved it." Shay shrugged. "And there's no use crying over spilled spaghetti."
"Exactly. Besides, you barely made the front page of the Gazette, and even then, you only got a tag line."
Shay glanced at the newspaper spread open a few feet away on the front counter. Her gaze snagged on the black typeface in the bottom right-hand corner.
Shay Briggs and the deadly meatball see page 7.
"The fact that you would even print the story makes me question the quality of our friendship."
"Don't be so sensitive." Sue Ann shrugged. "News is news. At least you didn't get caught streaking through town in your birthday suit." Sue Ann motioned to the headline that blazed at the top of the front page, along with a picture of a hunky male body, the tush blurred so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of Gazette readers. "I swear, if I were Matt Keller, I'd go into permanent hiding. That or get a job as a male stripper." She let loose a whistle. "The guy is on fire."
"Matt Keller? The new guy?"
"Yeah, He just moved into the old Hinkle cabin outside of town. Rumor has it he used to be a sheriff up in Washington and now he's on the run from some criminal. He's hiding out here, keeping a low profile. At least that's what Emmaline Sugarbaker told Marty Hanson who told the waitress over at the diner who served me my morning espresso."
Shay's gaze snagged on the dark black hair that flowed well past a pair of broad shoulders. "But I thought he had short hair? In fact, I know he had short hair. I saw him Friday at the Piggly Wiggly."
Shay had been climbing out of her car while he'd been climbing into his truck. She'd seen him only a moment, but it had been long enough for all of the important points to registernew guy in town, hot guy in town, hot new guy in town.
Every alarm bell in her head had gone off because as much as she'd wanted to walk up to him and offer to show him around Skull Creek, she'd put on the brakes. Matt Keller had B-A-D written all over him, and Shay had given up the big B, along with French fries, Doritos and her beloved Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey.
She leaned closer to the picture. "When was this taken?"
"The date was on the film."
"But that's impossible."
"Not really. Maybe he's a cross-dresser and it's just a wig. At least that's what the members of the chess club are voting for." When Shay arched an eyebrow, Sue Ann added, "The newspaper decided to milk the story and take a poll. The Ladies auxiliary is convinced he's taking some really potent vitamins and the domino group over at the diner thinks he's on steroids."
"I heard it was some sort of special mineral wash that promotes hair growth," came the deep voice from the doorway. "Talk about an infomercial waiting to happen."
Shay turned to look at the man who'd pushed through the front glass doors. He was medium in height and a tiny bit overweight with short, spiky blonde hair. A silver earring dangled from one ear and a smile creased his tanned face.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"The name's Luckyday. Ulysses Randolph Luckyday. I'm the new photographer over at the Gazette"
"Ulysses took the picture of Matt Keller," Sue Ann added.
"What happened to Mel?"
"He's on vacation," Sue Ann said. "He won some sort of Valentine's trip to Palm Springs through one of those Internet travel sites and begged me to let him go. I said yes and put in for a replacement. The bigwigs at corporate office flew Ulysses down to fill in."
"I'm from Chicago," Ulysses offered. "Home sweet home when I'm not on assignment. So what about it?" He winked and motioned toward the picture of Matt Keller. "Can you hook me up with whatever he's using? I've been trying to grow my hair out forever."
Shay shook her head. "This picture can't be for real."
"Oh, it's real, all right. I snapped it myself my first day in town.
Shay arched an eyebrow at the man. "You touched it up, didn't you?"
"I never touch up my photos. Unless I'm doing tabloid work, that is. They pay big bucks for me to spray on celebrity pounds." He wiggled his blond brows. "So how much?"
"How much for what?"
"Your super sonic hair tonic."
"I haven't branched out into hair treatments." She'd never had to because her facials, body wraps and waxes had been plenty to keep her schedule full.