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"The devil's beatin' his wife."
Nora Jones's fingers tightened so hard around the coffeepot's handle that her knuckles paled. But she kept on pouring, she kept on smiling, and she commanded her hand to stay steady.
Bubba Gibson glanced up at her and winked. "Thank you, sweetheart, thank you, pretty thing," he said. Then, because neither his wife nor his girlfriend was around, he reached to pat Nora's bottom.
Nora dodged him nimbly and moved on to the next table, but she could still hear the conversation.
Outside, the thunder rolled ominously.
"Yessir, the devil's beatin' his wife," Bubba said again.
"Say what?" Brock Munroe's voice was puzzled.
Bubba smirked. Munroe had recently come to Crystal Creek from Wyoming, a farmer trying to turn rancher. He didn't speak fluent Texan. Bubba did, and it apparently pleased him to make Munroe feel like an outsider.
I do believe Bubba's a little drunk, Nora thought, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He must have had a fight with that trashy Billie Jo Dumont again. How can his poor wife stand it?
Bubba ran a hand over his graying hair. He was fiftyish and portly, with a belly that loomed over his hand-tooled belt. The lower part of his face was sun-baked to a weathered brown, but the color stopped abruptly at his hat line. The upper half of his forehead was as pale as if someone had whitewashed a stripe across it.
He nodded toward the door and the outside world. "I mean," he said, "it's thunder out of a clear sky. We say it's the devil, a-beatin' on his wife. What you call it where you come from?"
By the set of Munroe's mouth, he was not amused. "We call it thunder out of a clear sky."
"Well, hell," Bubba almost crowed, "where's the poetry in that?"
Munroe still didn't smile. "Don't hold with poetry. Rather have truth. Or rain. One more dry week, and my windmills be pumpin' dust."
"Then, boy, you need yourself a windmill man," Bubba said. He put his hand familiarly on Ken Slattery's shoulder. Slattery was the third man at the table. "This here's the best windmill man in seventeen counties. Ain't you, Ken?"
Slattery, the foreman of the Double C Ranch, said nothing. He merely shrugged off Bubba's touch, as if the man's hand had been a fly.
Nora stole a furtive glance at the men. Munroe and Ken Slattery had been deep in talk about bull prepotency and high gainer calvestypical cattleman talkwhen Bubba had joined them, uninvited. They both looked disgusted with him.
Bubba didn't seem to notice. He looked up to see if Nora was in sight. When he caught her eye, he winked at her again. "Say, boys, did I tell you my joke about the gal from Fort Worth?" he said to the other two men.
Nora gritted her teeth. The joke was nasty, and Bubba had told it in her hearing at least four times that week.
Thank God Dottie was in the kitchen, Nora thought. Dottie was the owner of the coffee shop. She'd said if she heard Bubba tell that awful joke once more, she would hit him spang in the face with a banana cream pie. Let him see how funny he thought that was.
Bubba reached the punch line of his joke and chortled. Brock Munroe glanced at Nora, then looked away, shifting in his chair in embarrassment. Although he was in his thirties, he struck Nora as somehow unseasoned, as if he were an awkward boy trapped in a man's body. She could have sworn he blushed.
In contrast, Ken Slattery, who was in his early forties, was anything but boyish. A long, lean man, he had blue eyes that could go as cold as polar ice. They were arctic cold now, as he trained them on Bubba. "That's no joke for mixed company," Slattery said. "There's a lady here."
Bubba laughed. "Hell, Nora, she's growed up. Had a baby, been through a D-I-V-O-R-C-E and ever'thing." He held out his coffee cup to her. "Come here and fill me up again, buttercup. We're pals, ain't we?"
Nora nodded noncommittally and went to him, refilling his half-empty cup. She hoped another jolt of black coffee would sober him up. He should go home to his wife, not sit here in public making a fool of himself.
"How old are you now, sweet thing?" he asked her. "Twenty-one? Twenty-two?"
"Twenty-four," Nora said from between her teeth.
"Twenty-four," Bubba said, feigning amazement. "Then how old's that little baby of yours? Seems you had him when you wasn't no more'n a baby yourself."
"Seven. My son is seven."
Bubba smiled suggestively, and Nora's face grew hot. She had been a bride at sixteen, a mother at seventeen, a divorcée at twenty-three. Somebody like Bubba might think she was hungry for another man. He couldn't be more wrong.
"Now, don't a pretty little thing like you need" he started to say.
"No," she said, cutting him off coldly. She turned her back and left with as much dignity as possible. She wanted no truck with Bubba Gibson. Or any other man for that matter.
"What's she in such a huff about?" Bubba demanded.
"Some people," he said pompously, "think too much of themselvesconsiderin'."
"Some people talk too muchconsiderin'," Ken Slattery said in his flat voice.
Nora ignored both men and went behind the counter, glad to have a barrier between herself and Bubba. She pushed back a strand of brown hair from her eyes and wished for the thousandth time that day that the shop's air-conditioning hadn't gone out.
Today was the third of July, and so hot outside that heat waves simmered up from the sidewalks, making the very air shimmer. Dottie had opened every window that could be opened, but no breeze moved through the screens. She'd turned on the ancient overhead fan, too, but it only stirred the air sluggishly. To make things worse, no repairman could come until the middle of next week.
Nora's light blue uniform was limp, and her hair, damp with sweat, was beginning to curl rebelliously. She was a small, slender woman who was pretty in a quiet way, but she had never in her life thought of herself as pretty. She had deepset eyes of dark blue and a full, vulnerable-looking mouth. Her jaw was delicately carved, and her brown hair, when not bound up in a twist for work, hung to her shoulders, wavy and streaked with blond.
It never occurred to her that Bubba might eye her because she was attractive. She supposed she looked interesting to him because he was mad at Billie Jo, had drunk too much and thought that any divorcée was desperate for a man.
Once more she smoothed back her unruly hair and sighed at the heat. Bubba was talking about the weather again. About that, at least, he was accurate.
The eerie rumble of thunder was interspersed with the popping of firecrackers, which would punctuate the long Fourth of July weekend. The crack of their explosions made the day seem even more charged.
Dottie came out of the kitchen, carrying a fresh lemon meringue pie. "I swear," she said, blowing a graying strand of hair from her forehead, "it's too hot to live." She set the pie in the glass display case.
She put one hand on her hip and examined Nora with a critical eye. Then she reached out and patted Nora's cheek. "Honey, I don't know why both of us are here. There's not enough business to sneeze at. Why don't you go home, take a nice cool bubble bath? Treat yourself good for a change."
Nora caught Dottie's hand and squeezed it. "You go home," she said fondly. "You're the one who never rests."
Dottie laughed. Her face was both wrinkled and freckled, so when she smiled, a complicated shifting of lines and spots took place, but her smile was lovely. Nora thought Dottie had the best smile in Crystal Creek.
"Restin' makes me restless," Dottie said, retying her apron strings more tightly. "I like to work." She cast a glance at the men at the table and lowered her voice. "What's Bubba up to? I swear he looks jug-bitten."
"He is jug-bitten," Nora said. "He and Billie Jo must have had a fight."
"Humph," Dottie said. "It's because it's a holiday. He should be home with his family. Sara's supposed to be coming home from Connecticut with the kids. He should be with them. Billie Jo's nose is out of joint, sure enough."
Dottie clucked in indignant sympathy for Bubba's wife, the long-suffering Mary. Shaking her head, she picked up a perfectly clean ashtray and began to polish it with the corner of her apron.
"Oh, my," breathed Nora, looking out the front window. A car had squealed to a stop outside the coffee shop. It was a sporty red convertible that needed washing. She recognized it as her ex-husband's car. Her ex-husband, Dottie's son, Gordon.
"What?" Dottie said, catching Nora's wave of nervousness. "What is it? Lord love a duckis that Gordon? What's he doing? He was supposed to take Rory fishinghe promised."
Nora took a deep, shaky breath. Gordon had picked up Rory early this morning. What was he doing back so soon? She watched as he got out of the car and swung open the back door. He reached inside and jerked the little boy from the back seat.
"Rory." She breathed her son's name as if it were a prayer.
"Nora," said Bubba Gibson, "bring me a piece of that handsome lemon pie, would you? I do believe I'm wastin' away to nothin'."
The women ignored Bubba and focused instead on the tense interplay between father and son. "What is he doing?" Dottie demanded in a whisper. Gordon looked angry, and Rory stared up at his father with stormy sullenness.
Dottie's tone grew more worried. "Gordon's supposed to have that boy at Lake Travishas Rory been crying? He looks like he's been crying"
Gordon seized the boy by the hand and yanked him toward the coffee shop. Nora bit her lip. She could see another person sitting in Gordon's cara woman. The woman had yellow hair and bare, tanned arms.
Nora looked away, not wanting to see more. She stepped to the door so that she was there for Rory as soon as his father pulled him inside.
Instinctively she reached for the boy. Gordon almost pushed him to her. Gordon was a short, powerful man with a bodybuilder's thick chest and bulging biceps, and he was every bit as strong as he looked. "Take him," Gordon snapped. "I've had it."
Dottie put her hands on her hips and scowled as Nora held out her hand to the boy. Rory went to her, but kept glaring at his father. Gordon glowered back, his dark eyes narrowed.
"Gordon Albert Jones," Dottie said in irritation, "just what do you think you're doing?"
"Mom, butt out," Gordon said. "This is between me and Nora. Nora, you let this kid be a spoiled brat. He thinks he's going to make my whole day living hellbut he ain't."
"Gordon," Dottie said, anger trembling in her voice, "you know I never interfere. It's not my style. But this time I can't help ityou're out of line. You're supposed to be fishing with that childyou promised. He looked forward to it all week."
Rory rebelliously tried to wriggle away from Nora, but she gripped his shoulders protectively. The boy looked like her, small and slim, with a sensitive mouth and wary blue eyes. He didn't look in the least like his father, and Nora knew that in the complicated way that Gordon's mind worked, he blamed both her and the boy for the lack of resemblance. It was as if he suspected they had plotted against him.
"Nora," Gordon said, shaking his finger at her, "you keep my mother out of this. I'm sick of that, too. It's one thing to come between me and my son. It's another to come between me and my own mother."
"Gordon, this is purely an embarrassment," Dottie said. "Rory, honey, come into the kitchen. Get yourself an ice-cold RC cola, darlin'. And Grandma made ginger cookies. I'm going to sit you down and give you the biggest one."
Dottie stretched her freckled hand to Rory. He took it, but not before shooting his father a final resentful look.
"Wipe that look off your face," Gordon warned the child. "Or I'll wipe it off for you."
Dottie paled, drew herself up in indignation and bustled Rory into the kitchen.
"Leave him alone," Nora ordered Gordon. "Don't talk to him like that." She settled herself squarely between him and the door to the kitchen.
"I won't take him for the day," Gordon said angrily. "You keep him. You're his mother. It's your job. You want to palm him off on me, so you can spend your day makin' moneymakin' money off my mother. While I'm bustin' my chops all week, drivin' that big rig. I got a right to my own life."
Nora hated scenes, but Gordon was forcing her into one. "Gordon," she said, clenching her fists, "you wanted to take Rory fishing. You insisted."
"Don't sass me. I got a change of plans, is what."
"Yes." Nora nodded toward the car parked outside, the blond woman sitting in the passenger seat, examining her nails. "I see your plans."
"Nora, sweetheart." Bubba Gibson's voice was louder now. "Work out your problems in private, honey. I asked you for a piece of pieabout five minutes ago. Bring it, sweet thing. I'll treat you right."
"You stay out of this," Gordon ordered Bubba, whose face immediately flushed an angry red.
"I'll get your pie," Nora said. "Gordon, if you've got plans, get on with them. I've got work to do. Somebody in this family has to work regularly."
Even though what she said was trueGordon never stayed in one place or at any job for long, and he had what Dottie euphemistically called "a little gambling problem"Nora regretted the gibe as soon as she made it. Gordon's look grew truly dangerous.
Nora reached into the display case and cut a slice of pie. Her hand shook slightly, and she prayed that Gordon would just leave, go away.
Dottie stepped back into the room, alone, her face so pale now that it frightened Nora. She looked almost faint.
Gordon was too angry to notice Dottie's presence. "Nora, I'm talkin' to you," he almost snarled.
Nora ignored him. She moved toward the table of men, carrying the plate with Bubba's slice of pie.
"I said I'm talking to you," Gordon repeated. He reached for her, wrenching her arm so hard that she dropped the plate. With a crash it hit the floor, shattering. The pie lay, ruined, in the broken glass.
Bubba Gibson rose heavily to his feet. "Ain't nobody gonna treat a lady like thatand waste my pie on top of it. I'm gonna whip you, boy. I'm gonna whip you like you was a pint of cream."
Oh, no, Nora thought. Bubba looked fat and unsteady, and she could sense Gordon's rage starting to refocus on the older man. He took a step toward Bubba, his fist clenched, his biceps flexing.