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If life is a waste of time, and time is a waste of life, then let's all get wasted together and have the time of our lives.
from The Prairie Queen's Guide to Life, by Goddess Jacks
AT THREE IN THE AFTERNOON on her thirtieth birthday, Phoebe Jacks stood behind the bar wearing strappy sandals with four-inch heels and a black sundress printed with roses. She was polishing a beer glass. Phoebe found polishing the glassware calming, and she needed a calming activity right then. Her ex-husband, Ralphie Styles, had screwed her over royal-lyfrom the grave, no less.
Oh, yeah, she thought, blowing a coil of dark hair out of her eyes, happy birthday to me.
"And what I want to know is, who the hell is Rio Navarro?" Cimarron Rose Bertucci, one of Phoebe's two best friends since birthand Ralphie's second wifepounded the old oak bar with her fist. She did it hard enough that the jumbo margarita in front of her bounced. Luckily, Rose's drink was half-empty, so not a drop was spilled.
Phoebe set down the freshly polished glass. Ralphie had mentioned Navarro's name now and then, in passing, over the years. "Some old friend of Ralphie's," she said. "Not from Oklahoma. Lives in California, I think."
On the stool to the right of Rose, Tiffany Sweeney, Phoebe's other lifelong best friendand Ralphie's third wifewas shaking her blond head. "Not even from Oklahoma." Tiff did not approve. "Who is he? What does he do?"
"Well, I guess I'll be findin' out soon enough." Phoebe grabbed another glass and set to work bringing out the shine.
"That's Ralphie for you," muttered Tiffany. "Nevermet a heart or a promise he couldn't break."
Rose shook a finger and made a tutting sound. "You know how he was. Such a sweetheart, really. He always meant well."
Tiff's blue eyes grew suspiciously misty. "Yeah.Yeah, I know, " She blinked away the emotion and turned to Phoebe again. "And Pheeb, who says you'll ever even have to deal with your new partner? Ralphie knew a whole lot of shady types. Most likely Navarro's one of those. I wouldn't be the least surprised if that cheesy lawyer of Ralphie's hasn't got a clue how to find the guy."
Phoebe sighed. "I called the lawyer yesterday when I got my copy of the will in the mail. The lawyer told me he sent Navarro his copy by FedEx a week ago. It was delivered and Navarro signed for it."
"Doesn't mean a thing," Tiff insisted. "Take it from me. Mr. Rio Navarro is some grifter or cowhand who never stands still long enough to sign for his mail. His drunk girlfriend probably signed for it and then promptly passed out. It's probably waiting at the bottom of a tall stack of unpaid bills, totally ignored. Don't expect to meet your new partner any time soon."
Rose took another gulp of her drink. "Leave it to Ralphie," she muttered, the words both tender and exasperated.
Ralphie Styles had died broke, but he'd always had a need to leave a legacy behind. As a result, over the years he'd compiled a detailed will in which he doled out every piece of junk he owned. Rose and Tiffany had both received bequests. Rose got a wall clock shaped like a cat. Tiffany was now the proud owner of a gold-plated keychain with the finish wearing off. Both items apparently had special meaning. At lunch a little earlier that day, Rose had got a sad, faraway smile on her face when she'd mentioned that clock. Tiff's eyes had gleamed when she'd spoken of the keychain. Tiff said Ralphie always used to carry it, when she and Ralphie were in love.
To Phoebe, Ralphie had left all the old Prairie Queen publicity stills that decorated the olive-green and brick walls of the bar he and Phoebe had jointly owned since their divorce eight years ago. In those decade-old pictures, Rose, Tiff and Phoebe smiled wide for the camera. They'd been on their way then, with gigs all over town and a record contract in the works. Ralphie had been their manager.
Phoebe herself had collected those photographs, framed them and hung them on the walls. Only Ralphie would will a girl something that already belonged to her.
And oddly enough, that he'd left her own pictures to her had touched her, made her feel all soft and dewy-eyed, like Tiff with her keychain, like Rose with her clock. As if by willing her what she already owned, Ralphie was somehow reminding her of all that had beenof the passionate, wonderful, long-ago love the two of them had shared, of what a great time they'd had.
As to Ralphie's half of the bar itself, which now belonged to the mysterious Rio Navarro, well, Phoebe knew she should have got it in writing one of those dozen or so times that Ralphie had told her how it would all be hers when he was gone. Those times were mostly when Ralphie needed money. He'd hit her up for a loan and remind her of how it would all shake out in the end, that one day Ralphie's Place would be hers and hers alone. He'd died owing her over twenty thousand dollars.
Phoebe polished another glass.
Yeah, she of all people should have known better than to take Ralphie Styles at his word.
Phoebe had been nineteen when she eloped with him. He'd been forty-seven: the legendary Ralphie Styles. In love with her. At last. That he was finally seeing her as a woman had meant everything to Phoebe. She'd known him all her life, been in love with him since she was old enough to speak the word and mean it. He'd never married anyone until he'd married her. She'd thought that made her different than the rest.
It hadn't. He'd broken her heart they way he did all the othersbroken her heart and then, over time, become her true friend.
And no. Phoebe couldn't say she was all that sur-prised to learn that she had a new partner. It was her new partner being some stranger from out of state that made her want to break a few glasses instead of pol-ishing them. Since three weeks ago, when Ralphie had got himself nailed in a hit-and-run, Phoebe had been more or less expecting to end up in business with his fourth wife, Darla Jo.
And speaking of Darla Jo, Back at the table in the corner that Ralphie had always called his "office," Darla Jo was nursing a plain tonic, hunched over her very pregnant stomach, sobbing her little heart out. She'd received her copy of the will yesterday, too, same as Phoebe, Rose and Tiff. Devastated to learn that some stranger was getting Ralphie's half of the bar when she was his wife and it ought to have gone to her, Darla had called Phoebe and sobbed in her ear. Phoebe hadn't been able to stop herself from inviting Darla along for her birthday lunch with the Queens.
After lunch, they'd all come on over to the bar. It was Tuesday, which was usually slow, so they'd figured they would have the place pretty much to themselves. Darla's brother, Boone, who'd been working the day shift for almost five months now, had already been there when they arrived.
Now Boone sat with Darla, his chair scooted close to her. He had his arm wrapped around her and his sandy-colored head bent close to hers. "It's okay, sweetheart." Boone tried to soothe her by rubbing her back a little. "Darla, come on, it'll be all right." But Darla Jo only wailed all the louder. She was inconsolable.
The two women at the bar glanced toward the back table and shook their heads some more.
"Sad," said Tiff. "No. Worse than sad. Downright depressing."
Softly, so the two in back wouldn't hear, Rose stated the obvious. "It's tough to lose a husband when you're twenty-one and pregnant with no job skills to speak of."
"Yeah," said Tiff. "But that girl has been cryin' every day for three weeks now. It can't be good for the baby. She needs to lighten up a little."
Phoebe spoke then, quietly, bending close to her lifelong friends. "She loved him and now she just can't deal with the fact that he's gone. It's tearing her up inside."
The other two looked at her, looks that displayed the endless wisdom acquired once a girl approaches thirty and has had plenty of opportunity to witnessand par-ticipate inwhat goes on between women and men.
At last Rose said low, "Pheeb, darlin'. She may be brokenhearted. But she's also flat broke. Ralphie left her nothing. No money, no life insurance, no bar. I'd say at least half of all this endless bawlin' is about a total lack of c-a-s-h."
Tiffany burpedbut delicately. "Oh. "Scuse me." She hunched to the bar and whispered so Ralphie's sobbing child bride wouldn't hear, "Well, she did get the double-wide, didn't she? Not that it's paid for, or anything."
"Pardon me." Rose kept her voice low and faked a snooty accent. "That is no double-wide. It is a manu-factured home." She slapped a hand on the bar.
"Music. Now." Sliding off her stool, Rose straight-ened her jean jacketcausing the rhinestone appli-qués on it to glitter wildly in the dim lightand sauntered to the jukebox. Draping her lush self over the side of it, she punched out a few tunes. First off was Creed: "My Sacrifice."
"Oh, God." Tiff whined. "Did you have to?"
But Rose only grinned and strutted back to her stool, black salsa skirt swaying. Just as she was settling in, the unmistakable roaring rumble of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rattled the wide window across from the bar.
Phoebe glanced up from polishing yet another glass as a big guy with shoulder-length crow-black hair rolled a gleaming two-wheeled hunk of chrome and steel off the street and into one of the spaces out front. The afternoon sun glinted off his black sunglasses. Phoebe had to squint against the glare.
The girls at the bar had also turned to look. "Oh, my, my," said Cimarron Rose. She pretended to fan herself.
"Nice Harley," added Tiff out of the side of her mouth. Rose loudly cleared her throat. "But back to the task at hand, " They both faced the bar again and lifted their glasses. Rose proposed the toast. "Ralphie. He was one of a kind and that is no lie." "Ralphie," Tiff echoed after her, eyes glittering with moisture again. They drank in unison as Darla sobbed all the harder and, beyond the window, the black-haired hunk, in faded denim, a black T-shirt and a black leather vest, got off the Harley. He kicked down the stand with his big black boot. And then, for a moment, he just stood there, muscular arms hanging loose at his sides, staring at the front window as if he could see Phoebe in there behind the bar, staring right back at him. He couldn't, of course. It was darker inside than out and the window was tinted. But still, a shiver like a dribble of ice water slid down her spine and a sizzle of heat flared low in her belly.
"Darlin' Phoebe, another round," said Tiffany. Phoebe set to work on two more margaritas, glanc-ing up as the big guy came strolling in.
Rose had got it right. My, my, my, The stranger in question claimed a stool at the end of the bar and took off those black sunglasses. Tossing them down by the ashtray, he sent a glance Phoebe's way.
"Be right with you." She gave him a nod and he nodded back. Phoebe served the Queens and then moved on over to stand opposite him.
"Shot of Cuervo." He had a deep, kind of velvety voice. With a little sandpaper roughness around the edges. "Beer back." He laid down a twenty and as he did that she looked at his hands. Big hands.
She glanced up and their gazes caught. My, my, my. Eyes as black as his hair. And a mouth that made her think of deep, wet kisses, .