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It was a lovely spring day, the sort of day that makes gentle, green, budding trees and white blossoms look like a spring fantasy has been painted. Sara Dobbs stared out the book-store's side window wistfully, wishing she could get to the tiny flower bed full of jonquils and buttercups to pick a bouquet for the counter. The flowers were blooming on the street that ran beside the Jacobsville Book Nook, where she worked as assistant manager to Dee Harrison, the owner.
Dee was middle-aged, a small, thin, witty woman who made friends wherever she went. She'd been looking for someone to help her manage the store, and Sara had just lost her bookkeeping position at the small print shop that was going out of business. It was a match made in heaven. Sara spent a good portion of her meager salary on books. She loved to read. Living with her grandfather, a retired college professor, had predisposed her to education. She'd had plenty of time to read when she was with her parents, in one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Sara's father, with her maternal grandfather's assistance, had talked her mother into the overseas work. Her father had died violently. Her mother changed, lost her faith, turned to alcohol. She brought Sara to Jacobsville and moved in with her father. She then launched herself into one scandal after another, using her behavior to punish her father without caring about the cost to her only child. Sara and Grandad had suffered for her blatant immorality. It wasn't until Sara had come home in tears, with bruises all over her, that her mother faced the consequences of what she'd done. The children of one of her mother's lovers had caught her alone in the gym and beaten her bloody. Their father had divorced their mother, who was now facing eviction from their home and the loss of every penny they had; their father had spent it on jewels for Sara's mother.
That had led to worse tragedy. Her mother stopped drinking and seemed to reform. She even went back to church. She seemed very happy, until Sara found her one morning, a few days later
The sound of a vehicle pulling up in the parking lot just in front of the bookstore stopped her painful reveries. At least, she thought, she had a good job and made enough to keep a roof over her head.
Her grandfather's little two-bedroom house outside of town had been left to Sara, along with a small savings account. But there was a mortgage on the house.
She missed the old man. Despite his age, he was young in mind and heart, and adventurous. It was lonely without him, especially since she had no other living family. She had no siblings, no aunts or uncles, or even cousins that she knew about. She had nobody.
The ringing of the electronic bell over the door caught her attention. A tall, grim-looking man came into the small bookstore. He glowered at Sara. He was dressed in an expensive-looking three-piece gray suit and wore hand-tooled black boots and a creamy Stetson. Under the hat was straight, thick, conventionally cut black hair. He had the sort of physique that usually was only seen in motion pictures. But he was no movie star. He looked like a businessman. She glanced out the door and saw a big, black pickup truck with a white horse in a white circle on the truck's door. She knew about the White Horse Ranch outside town. This newcomer, Jared Cameron, had bought it from its previous owner, lock, stock, manager and resident cowboys. Someone said he'd been in town several months earlier for a funeral of some sort, but nobody knew who he was related to that had died. So many old people had out-of-town relatives these days, even in Jacobsville, Texas, a town of less than two thousand inhabitants.
Standing outside next to the driver's side of the black pickup was a tall, husky man with wavy black hair in a ponytail and an olive complexion, wearing a dark suit and sunglasses. He looked like a professional wrestler. He was probably a sort of bodyguard. Maybe his employer had enemies. She wondered why.
The man in the gray suit was glaring at the magazine counter with both hands deep in his pockets, muttering to himself.
Sara wondered what he was looking for. He hadn't asked for assistance, or even looked her way. But the muttering was getting darker by the minute. She couldn't afford to turn away a potential customer. No small town business was that secure.
"May I help you?" she asked with a smile.
He gave her a cold look from pale green eyes in a tanned face that seemed to be all hard lines and angles. His eyes narrowed on her short, straight blond hair, moved over her wide forehead, down over her own green eyes and straight nose and high cheekbones, to her pretty mouth and rounded chin. He made a sound, as if she didn't live up to his specifications. She didn't dare make a comment, but she was really tempted to tell him that if he was shopping for pretty women, a designer boutique in a big city would be a better place to look than a small bookstore.
"You don't carry financial magazines." He made it sound like a hanging offense.
"Nobody around here reads them much," she defended.
His eyes narrowed. "I read them."
She did occasionally have to bite her tongue to save her job. This looked like one of those times. "I'm very sorry. We could order them for you, if you like."
"Forget it. I can subscribe." He glanced toward the mystery paperbacks and scowled again. "I hate paperbacks. Why don't you carry hardcover novels?"
Her tongue was stinging. She cleared her throat. "Well, most of our clientele are working people and they can't afford them."
Both thick black eyebrows arched. "I don't buy paperbacks."
"We can special order any sort of hardcover you want," she said. The smile was wavering, and she was trying hard not to offend him.
He glanced toward the counter at the computer. "Do you have Internet access?"
"Of course." He must think he'd landed in Borneo. She frowned. They probably even had computers in the jungles these days. He seemed to consider Jacobsville, Texas, a holdover from the last century.
"I like mystery novels," he said. "Biographies. I like first-person adventure novels and anything factual on the North African campaign of World War II."
Her heart jumped at the subject he'd mentioned. She cleared her throat. "Would you like all of them at once, then?"
One eyebrow went up. "The customer is always right," he said shortly, as if he thought she was making fun of him.
"Of course he is," she agreed. Her teeth hurt from being clenched in that smile.
"Get me a sheet of paper and a pen. I'll make you a list." She wouldn't kick him, she wouldn't kick him, she wouldn't kick him She found paper and pencil and handed them to him, still smiling.
He made a list while she answered a phone call. She hung up, and he handed her the list.
She frowned as she read it.
"Now what's wrong?" he asked impatiently.
"I don't read Sanskrit," she began.
He muttered something, took the list back and made minor modifications before handing it back. "It's the twenty-first century. Nobody handwrites anything," he said defensively. "I've got two computers and a PDA and an MP3 player." He gave her a curious look. "Do you know what an MP3 player is?" he asked, just to irritate her.
She reached in her jeans pocket, produced a small iPod Shuffle and earphones. The look that accompanied the action could kill.
"How soon can you get those books here?" he asked.
She could, at least, make out most of the titles with his so-called handwriting corrections. "We order on Mondays," she said. "You'll have as many of these as are in stock at the distributors by next Thursday or Friday."
"The mail doesn't come by horse anymore," he began.
She took a deep breath. "If you don't like small towns, maybe you could go back to wherever you came from. If you can get there by conventional means, that is," with an edge to the smile that accompanied the words.
The insinuation wasn't lost on him. "I'm not the devil."
"Are you sure?" she queried, all wide-eyed.
One eye narrowed. "I'd like these books delivered. I'm usually too busy to make a special trip into town."
"You could send your bodyguard."
He glanced out the door at the big man who was leaning back against the driver's door of the pickup with his arms folded. "Tony the Dancer doesn't run errands."
Her eyes widened more. "Tony the Dancer? Are you in the mob?"
"No, I'm not in the mob!" he growled. "Tony's last name is Danzetta. Tony the Dancer. Get it?"
"Well, he looks like a hit man to me," she returned.
"Known a few of them, have you?" he asked sarcastically.
"If I did, you'd be double-checking your locks tonight," she said under her breath.
"Can you deliver the books?"
"Yes, but it will cost you ten dollars. Gas is expensive."
"What do you drive?" he asked. "A Greyhound bus?"
"I have a VW, thank you very much, but your place is six miles out of town."
"You can tell me the amount when you call to say the books are here. I'll have my accountant cut the check. You can pick it up when you deliver the books."
"I'd better give you the number. It's unlisted."
She turned over the sheet of paper with his list of titles on it and copied down the number he gave her.
"I'd also like to get two financial magazines," he added, naming them. "I'll see if our distributor carries them. He might not."
"Serves me right for moving to Outer Cowpasture," he muttered aloud.
"Well, excuse us for not having malls on every street!" she shot back.
He glowered. "You're the rudest clerk I've seen yet."
"Get your bodyguard to loan you his shades and you won't have to see me at all."
He pursed his lips. "You might get yourself a book on manners."
She smiled sarcastically. "I'll see if I can find one on ogres for you."
His pale eyes swept over her with calculation. "Just the ones I listed, if you please. I'll expect to hear from you late next week."
He cocked his head. "Your boss must have been pretty desperate to leave you in charge of his sole means of support."
"It's a she, not a he. And my boss likes me very much."
"Good thing someone does, I guess." He turned to leave, pausing at the door. "You're wearing two different shades of hose under those slacks, and your earrings don't match."
She had problems with symmetry. Most people knew her background and were kind enough not to mention her lapses. "I'm no slave to popular fashion," she informed him with mock hauteur.
"Yes. I noticed."
He left before she came up with a suitable reply. Lucky for him there wasn't anything expendable that she could have thrown after him.
Dee Harrison rolled in the aisles laughing when she heard Sara's biting description of their new customer. "It wasn't funny," Sara protested. "He called Jacobsville 'Outer Cowpasture,'" she grumbled.
"Obviously the man has no taste." Dee grinned. "But he did want us to order a lot of books for him, so your sacrifice wasn't in vain, dear."
"But I have to deliver the books to him," she wailed. "He's probably got people-eating dogs and machine guns out there. You should have seen the guy driving him! He looked like a hit man!"
"He's probably just eccentric," Dee said calmingly. "Like old man Dorsey."
She gave her employer a narrow glance. "Old man Dorsey lets his German shepherd sit at the table and eat with him. This guy would probably eat the dog!"
Dee just smiled. A new customer was just what she needed, especially one with expensive tastes in reading. "If he orders a lot of books, you might get a raise," Dee ventured.
Sara just shook her head. Dee didn't understand the situation. If Sara had to be around that particular customer very often, she'd probably end up doing time for assault and battery.
She went home to her small house. Morris met her at the door. He was an old, battle-scarred yellow tabby cat. Part of his tail was missing, and he had slits in his ears from fights. He'd been a stray who came crying to Sara's back door in a thunderstorm. She'd let him in. That had been eight years ago. Her grandfather had commented that he looked like trouble. Sara defended him.
She never agreed with her grandfather, even after she had to replace a chair and a throw rug that Morris had ripped to shreds. She bought the old cat a scratching post and herself a water pistol. Morris hated water. When he did something he wasn't supposed to, she let him have it. Over the years, he'd calmed down and stopped clawing furniture. Now, he just ate and sprawled in the sun. Occasionally he sat in Sara's lap while she watched her small color television. But he wasn't a cuddling cat, and you couldn't pick him up. He bit.
She stroked him while they watched the latest episode of her favorite forensic show. "I guess it's just as well that we're not overrun with visitors, Morris," she mused softly. "You're definitely an antisocial personality." She pursed her lips as she looked down at him. "I know a guy you'd like," she added on a chuckle. "I must attract animals and people with bad attitudes."