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Julie Ann Jones loved her career. There was something very rewarding about running the Serenity Salon. She'd always been artistic and she knew cosmetology was the perfect way to put her God-given talent to good use. Her friends had been delighted by her success, which helped make up for the fact that she hadn't gotten even the slightest inkling of support from her parents.
She usually kept her own honey-brown hair short but had decided to let it grow in order to donate it to an organization that provided wigs for juvenile cancer patients. The longer length was driving her crazy but she was determined to hold out for the sake of the charity.
Her only employee, Sherilyn Fox, was another of her community projects. A high school dropout, Sherilyn had desperately needed a job, so as soon as she'd graduated from beauty school, Julie Ann had hired her. Seeing the girl's pride and self-worth increasing daily had made Julie Ann feel as if she were looking into a mirror and watching the birth of her own hard-won independence.
Sherilyn burst through the door of the otherwise quiet beauty shop and waved a handful of mail. "You aren't going to like this, boss."
"Why? More bills? What a surprise."
"Uh-uh." She shook her blond, spiked hair and made a silly face. "Worse."
"Nothing could be worse than bills," Julie Ann said. "Trust me. I know." She grimaced, thinking of the sacrifices she'd made in order to avoid having to ask her parentsor anyone elsefor financial help. She was determined to succeed on her own, and so far, so good, despite her father's criticism.
"Then I guess you've never gotten a jury summons before, huh?"
"A what?" Julie Ann snatched the envelope fromSherilyn's hand, tore it open and unfolded the contents. Her hazel eyes widened and her shoulders sagged. "I don't believe this. How can I take time off to serve on a jury? I have a business to run."
"Hey, it's not like the courthouse is that far away." Sherilyn pointed out the beauty shop window that fronted the Serenity square. "You could hit it with a rock from here."
"I'd like to do that right about now," Julie Ann admitted, "but they'd probably arrest me." She stared at the summons in her hand. "I can't spare the time away. Do you suppose they'd excuse me if I explained my problem?"
"Maybe. I suppose it's worth a try."
"I'm sure it is." Refolding the summons, she stuffed it into the pocket of her pastel flowered smock and started for the door. "I don't have another appointment until Louella's perm. Hold down the fort for me, will you?"
"Sure. You going to beg?"
"If I have to," Julie Ann said with a quirky half-smile. "I am friends with a lot of folks over at the courthouse. Surely somebody will be able to help me get excused."
"Are you positive that's the right thing to do?" Sherilyn asked. "What if all Christians begged off? Who'd be left?"
Julie Ann was still mulling over that question when she stepped out of her shop and scanned the broad, tree-lined street that flanked the town square. In a way, the girl was right. Who would be left? Then again, the Bible also cautioned believers to be good stewards of what God had given them. If she neglected her business, wouldn't that be a sin, too?
Satisfied with that, Julie Ann hurried across the street. She could not serve on a jury. Not if she wanted to keep her business afloat, let alone flourishing. A spiky-haired assistant like Sherilyn was fine for the younger crowd but older women weren't likely to trust her to touch their hair. Julie Ann understood that. Not that she was that much older at twenty-five. She was simply more traditional.
She glanced at her watch as she started up the courthouse walkway. Hopefully she had enough spare time to see the powers that be and get this mess straightened out.
Reaching for the handle of the heavy glass door, she was almost run over by a familiar, broad-shouldered man who was exiting.
His gruff "Excuse me" was not accompanied by a smile. On the contrary, he was glaring at her through coffee-dark eyes. Smith Burnett's face looked so different from the way she usually saw it that she was taken aback.
"Smith? What's wrong?"
He paused long enough to hold the door for her. "This," he said, waving a crumpled piece of paper.
Julie Ann immediately recognized the form. "Jury duty?"
"Yes. They said only the judge himself can excuse me. How am I supposed to run a real estate business if I'm cooling my heels in a jury box?"
She nodded as she fished her own summons out of the pocket of her smock. "I know exactly how you feel. I was hoping "
"Well, don't hold your breath," he said, glancing down the empty hallway of the old, brick building. "I got nowhere. They just told me to fill out a questionnaire and leave the rest to the judge's discretion."
"In that case, if you want a haircut from me you'd best be getting it soon," Julie Ann said, assessing his thick, dark hair. She didn't want to remember how it had felt to run her fingertips over it when she'd been much younger and far too impressionable. "I'm afraid I may be tied up soon."
"Yeah. Me too."
Turning away from him and starting down the hallway, she was suddenly aware that her heart was beating fast. It was obviously because she was upset about the summons, discounting the disturbing realization that her shakiness began when she'd encountered Smith. She'd never seen him that animated, that forceful, that The only other word that came to mind was masculine.
After his stint as a Marine and subsequent return to Serenity, he'd seemed different, yes, but not this different. This was a darker, more dynamic aspect of his personality than she'd ever imagined, let alone glimpsed, and it had affected her all the way from the roots of her hair to her toes.
When she left the courthouse later, Smith was waiting for her. He could tell by her crestfallen expression that she, too, had been denied a reprieve.
All he said was "Hi."
"Hi. I thought you were headed back to work."
"I was. I decided to wait and see if you had any more success than I did."
"Nope. They told me a computer makes the selections and everyone has to take a turn. Now, it's mine. And yours."
He nodded. "I apologize for snapping at you earlier. You caught me at a bad time."
Hoping she truly did forgive him, he watched her expression closely as he asked, "So, do you have time to cut my hair now?"
"Not really. How about first thing tomorrow?"
"We won't all be picked to serve, you know," Julie Ann said, shading her eyes from the sun to look up at him. "The county clerk assured me that most cases are settled by a plea bargain."
"I know. But since we both have very good reasons for not wanting to be chosen, what do you want to bet we are?"
"I never bet," she said with a soft laugh, "but I know exactly what you mean. Maybe I should plan on bringing my scissors to the jury waiting room and working there. I could use the extra business."
He was surprised by her upbeat attitude in the face of such trying circumstances. She had not always been that easygoing. Far from it. Perhaps maturity had mellowed her even more than he'd realized. The stubborn, rebellious teen he recalled from years ago would have pitched a royal fit.
"Well, as long as you're not mad, I'm satisfied," Smith said. "Wouldn't want a woman who stands behind me wielding sharp scissors to be holding a grudge."
Julie Ann really had become more appealing, Smith mused, especially since she'd let her hair grow. Although she now kept that dark-honey-colored hair pulled back, there were always a few silky tendrils that escaped, falling across her cheeks and making her look even more attractive. The funny thing was, every time he saw her, his personal interest increased.
Now that Smith had reached his early thirties, the difference in their ages had become less important than it had seemed seven or eight years ago when he'd escorted her to her senior prom. That one evening had caused him nothing but grief. If he hadn't been deployed overseas shortly thereafter, there would have been no painless way to avoid Julie Ann. The dozens of mushy letters she'd written to him had been bad enough. Nothing had discouraged her. Not even his attempts to let her down easy.
But things were very different now, weren't they?
His current dilemma was deciding whether or not to deepen the casual friendship they had finally developed and see if they might actually be right for each other.
The last thing Smith wanted to do was explain to her brother, Ben, why she had developed another ridiculous crush on him. The first time had been bad enough. And since he'd promised he'd look after her while Ben and his unit remained abroad, Smith had no intention of going back on his word, even if that meant he had to protect her from himself.
"See you tomorrow morning then," she said, backing away. "Gotta run."
Pensive, Smith watched her safely cross the street and enter her shop before he turned to scan the rest of the square. The recently reelected sheriff, Harlan All-good, was helping a handcuffed, shackled man clad in a bright orange jumpsuit out of a patrol car. Harlan was a good man, if a bit naive. Chances were, the skinny kid he had arrested was not nearly as nefarious as those cuffs and leg irons made him appear.
Dismissing the sight, Smith thought about Julie Ann again and smiled. He'd get his hair cut first thing tomorrow morning, mostly as an excuse to see her.
His smile grew into a lopsided grin. Everything would be fine as long as she didn't notice that he really wasn't in need of a trim.
"They've arrested Lester's stupid nephew and they're lookin' for Lester," Denny dutifully reported, climbing into the familiar limo for the third Thursday night in a row.
"Got'em for making moonshine, just like we planned."
"I know that, too."
"Word is, the Feds want Lester real bad and as soon as they catch him, he's gonna be sent off to Little Rock for trial."
"I think not," his well-dressed companion said. "I'm arranging to have him tried right here, first, for something else. The federal government can have whatever's left of him when we're done."
"No matter. It shouldn't take long. I mean, what else can he be guilty of that matters around here?"
"A crime that will definitely take precedence over running an illegal still."
"Like murder," Evans said quietly, menacingly.
"Lester? He's quiet as a mouse. He'd never kill nobody."
"I didn't say he did it, you fool. I said he was going to be tried for it."
"But who's dead?"
The smooth-talking businessman merely smiled. "That's none of your concern, Denny. You've done your job and it's over." He reached a gloved hand into his suit coat's inside pocket and withdrew a bulging envelope. "Here's your fee. Now get out and get lost."
"Yes, sir." The younger man did as he was instructed, slammed the car door, then leaned down to cup his hands around his mouth and shout through the closed window. "You never did tell me. Who's Lester gonna be blamed for killin'?"
On a simple hand signal from his boss, the limo driver dropped the car into gear and drove away from the scene.
Evans was laughing to himself as he settled against the plush leather of the car's rear seat and murmured softly, "You."
By the time Smith arrived at her shop the next morning, Julie Ann was already upset by the rumors she'd heard. Forcing a smile, she shook out a plastic cape as she said, "Good morning."
"Morning." He plopped into her chair and sighed while she wrapped the cape around his neck and prepared him for his haircut. His gaze was somber when it met hers in the mirror. "I take it you've heard."
"About Denny Hanford? Yes. It's all over town. It's hard to believe he was actually murdered."
Smith was nodding. "I didn't believe it either, at first. They found him last night, by the storage yard out on Highway 9."
"Poor Denny. Who would do such a thing?"
"Lester Taney was seen in the area. Denny apparently tipped the law to the location of Lester's bootlegging operation and Lester shot him for it."
"That's unbelievable." Her lips pressed into a thin line as she recalled her high school years. "Denny never was the sharpest pencil in the box but he always seemed to have a pretty good heart."