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Cal Toleffson saw the love of his life for the first time at 5:47 p.m. in the Dew Drop Inn, downtown Konigsburg, Texas.
He wasn't exactly dressed for the event.
He'd spent the forty-five minutes preceding Happy Hour tending to a sick goat. "Tending to" was the polite way of describing it. The goat was large, sturdy and attractive from a goat's point of view. From a human's point of view, even a vet like Cal, it smelled like, well, a goat. And so did he, after about ten minutes in the goat's company.
He'd cleaned up, sort of. Washed his hands and face, dropped the jeans and T-shirt he'd been wearing into his clothes hamper (his housekeeper would probably be asking for a raise by the end of the month), and put on his last clean denim shirt.
His desire for a Dos Equis outweighed his need for a shower. And the Konigsburg male population wasn't too fastidious anyway. He doubted somebody like Terrell Biedermeier would even notice a little eau d'goat, given Terrell's personal ripeness.
Terrell, a lump on a barstool, didn't notice. But Steve Kleinschmidt, also known as "Wonder Dentist" for reasons Cal wasn't clear on, moved a few inches down the bar after Cal took his seat on the stool beside him.
"Trying to make a point there, Idaho?"
Cal grinned. "Nah, just thirsty. And it's Iowa."
"Idaho, Iowa, same thing." Wonder had spent most of his life in Texas, and he wasn't interested in moving. "You do realize what you smell like, right, Toleffson?"
"Might be goat, might be sweat. What's your opinion, Wonder?" Cal rubbed a hand through his beard, scratching. Dried beard sweat was a bitch.
Wonder snorted. "If I had to guess, I'd saybullshit. But then I'm a dentist, not a vet."
Hank Ingstrom, the bartender and owner of the Dew Drop, pushed a bottle of Spaten in Wonder's general direction and made a half-hearted sweep at the bar with a grubby rag.
"Dos Equis, Ingstrom." Cal leaned against the bar, ignoring the slightly sticky surface under his elbow, and scraped his boot sole against the brass rail.
Ingstrom frowned as he headed back down the bar, tucking his rag in his back pocket. "That'd better not be goat crap."
"See?" Cal grinned at Wonder, nodding in Ingstrom's direction. "Ingstrom knows his animals."
"Not surprising. Ingstrom is an animal." Wonder sucked down a quick swallow of beer, wiping the foam from his upper lip with his index finger.
Cal glanced down the length of the bar. The usual series of gray, lumpish shapes--Konigsburg males, all knocking back brews. He sighed. He'd never figured out why the customers who lined up along the Dew Drop bar were always male, while those at the tables were always female. Made fraternizing that much more difficult.
Not that he'd had much time to fraternize lately, to say nothing of the necessary money. But fraternizing was a definite future goal, what with his currently bleak social life. He needed to start making some moves if he didn't want to end up just another barstool lump.
On the other hand, given the general gloom in the Dew Drop, it might be difficult to figure out the gender of somebody at the other end of the room, let alone make any moves.
Beside him, Wonder sat back on his stool. "So you spent the afternoon with your hand up a goat's ass?"
Cal grimaced. "Pretty much."
"Ah, the glamorous life of a Hill Country vet." Wonder took another pull from his Spaten. "They have goats in Idaho?"
"Probably. Being from Iowa, I wouldn't know." Cal rubbed a hand across the back of his itching neck, then scratched his chin again. He really should have taken a shower.
Wonder leaned his elbows on the bar, squinting into the dim depths of the Dew Drop. "No tourists in here today, just locals. With my luck any tourists would all be over fifty anyway."
"You mean tourists actually come in here?" Cal glanced around the cluster of tables in the middle of the floor. "I've never seen one in the Dew Drop."
"Boy, there is no place in Konigsburg tourists don't come into. You'll understand that once you've lived here a while." Wonder sighed, letting his chin sink toward the bar. "The trick is to find some that aren't on Social Security yet."
Cal figured Wonder was around thirty-five, give or take. His reddish brown hair was thinning on top, and he wore hornrims. His bright green knit shirt bunched around a slight swell of love handles. Jessica Alba was not in his future.
Ingstrom reappeared with Cal's Dos Equis. "You need a haircut," he grumbled. "Look like a goddamn hippie."
Cal turned and squinted into the mirror behind the bar. His hair was over his collar again--his mother would have told him to get a haircut too. But then, his mother was back home in Lander, Iowa. Maybe some of the local barbers had poverty-stricken vet rates. "I'm going for rugged. Isn't that part of the whole cowboy mystique?"
"Maybe." Wonder grinned. "'Course with you there's a thin line between rugged and grizzly. You might want to do a little pruning."
"Getting back to women..." Cal turned to survey the room again, checking out prospects. "See anybody interesting?"
Wonder shook his head. "Nobody but locals. Most of the women in here own gift shops." He shuddered, his slightly concave shoulders pulling at his knit shirt. "Heed my warning, boy. Never date a woman who makes a living selling angel figurines."
"Nice to know." Cal went back to checking out the women at the tables, what he could see of them.
The Dew Drop had windows in the front, but the light only reached a couple of feet inside, given that Ingstrom didn't believe in wasting time on washing windows. The light fixtures had brass shades that effectively cut off at least two-thirds of their candlepower.
Cal squinted. Some of the tables were definitely occupied by women. Or bikers. Sometimes it was hard to tell. Definitely people with long hair.
"Who's the brunette in the corner booth?" He turned back to Wonder.
Wonder peered into the darkness. "Morgan Barrett. Her father owns Cedar Creek winery." He picked up his Spaten. "Nice lady. You want me to introduce you?"
Cal squinted through the gloom again. Appealing face. Bright smile. Good figure, what he could see of it in the darkness. He considered Wonder's offer, then sighed. No zing. Zing. Jesus, Toleffson, you are an idiot. "No, thanks," he mumbled.
Wonder frowned. "Jesus, Toleffson, you are an idiot. That's the third time you've turned down one of my patented introductions. Are you gay, by any chance? Because I could change my focus here if it would help. I understand Phil Malloy just broke up with Dilly Burke."
"Nope." Cal took a long pull on his Dos Equis, letting some cool brew slide down his throat. "Thanks for the thought. Why this push to get me matched up with somebody anyway?"
Wonder shrugged. "Enlightened self-interest. I figure if you're off the market, the town's female population will once again lower its expectations."
"The entire female population?" Cal grinned, rubbing his finger through the condensation on his bottle. "Careful, Wonder, you'll give me some inflated expectations of my own."
Wonder pinched the bridge of his nose. "One question, Idaho. How many cookies have arrived at Rankin's Animal Hospital over the past couple of weeks?"
"Cookies?" Cal paused to think. "Well, somebody brought in some peanut butter cookies for the staff on Tuesday. And some brownies a couple of days later." He shrugged. "People get all sentimental about their pets. They bring in thank-you gifts. It happens at all animal hospitals."
Wonder rolled his bottle between his fingers. "So patients give you cookies all the time?"
"Well, not just me. They bring them to everybody at the clinic. We put them out on the counter." Come to think of it, one of the clinic assistants had made a couple of cracks lately about the number of cookies they'd had to get rid of.
Wonder shook his head. "Lordy, Idaho, I don't know whether that statement is an example of innocence or advanced idiocy."
Cal sighed, turning back to look around the room again, and stopped cold. Standing at the other end of the bar was Botticelli's Venus.
Docia Kent had had one mother of a day. First the mailman hadn't brought the shipment that had supposedly been overnighted from Houston. Then it turned out the new CD rack didn't fit into the space at the back of the bookstore. And as if that wasn't enough, Margaret Hastings kept making those boneheaded complaints about the freakin' wine and cheese party for the Liddy Brenner Festival.
Docia swore that if Margaret, owner of a store specializing in angel replicas, gave her grief about one more thing, she'd start selling angel repellant.
Beside her, her friend and assistant Janie Dupree was midway through her usual argument with Ingstrom.
"No Texas wine, Ingstrom?"
"By the bottle. You want a glass, it's house wine."
Janie turned quickly in Docia's direction. "Want to share a bottle? Morgan's winery just released a new one."
Docia shook her head. "Margarita, Ingstrom. Silver tequila, on the rocks."
Janie sighed. "All right, a glass of the house chardonnay. But one day you'll understand why people go to Brenner's."
Brenner's was the wine bar and restaurant where Janie and Docia usually went once they'd closed the shop. But Brenner's didn't serve margaritas, and after the day she'd just had, Docia really wanted a margarita. Now.
She massaged the back of her neck as if that could stave off the headache stirring at the base of her skull. The Dew Drop smelled of dust and stale beer, with just a smidgen of bodily fluids. It did nothing for her general attitude.
Not that Docia was ready for the Ritz just then. Maybe she should have changed her clothes before coming to the Dew Drop, grim though the place was. Maybe she should have taken a bubble bath. Maybe she should have gone to Brenner's with Janie and tried flirting with the yuppies from Houston.
On the other hand, she hadn't had all that much success finding anybody interesting at Brenner's or anywhere else in town over the past few months. She ran through a quick list of her last few dates--the accountant from Arlington, the real estate broker from Fredericksburg, the orthodontist from Marble Falls. Losers, one and all. Basically, her luck with men sucked.
And, of course, her biggest mistake of all, Donnie Branscombe. How could she forget Donnie? Not that she hadn't tried.
Docia took a deep breath and blew it out. At times, she thought her judgment with men was about as bad as her judgment with CD racks.
She glanced into the mirror behind the bar. The most gorgeous man in Texas was staring at her from the other end of the room.
Venus. Her red hair curled around her shoulders, a few tendrils wisping across her cheeks. She had to be at least six feet tall, given the way she towered over the woman next to her. Six gorgeous feet of woman. Her denim shirt was knotted beneath her breasts, showing a nice stretch of alabaster skin above the waistband of her jeans.
No visible tattoos. Always good to know.
Cal found himself looking at the knot again, and then higher. Oh sweet Jesus! Perfect. Pecos cantaloupe size. He rubbed his hands against his thighs, trying to distract himself from the series of lust-crazed visions flooding his brain.
Eyes. What color were her eyes? Hard to say in the dim light. He'd have to get closer. Yeah. Closer was definitely called for.
"What's up now?" Wonder peered beyond his shoulder. "Having revelations, are we?"
"You might say that." Cal tamped down the last of those glorious pictures his mind had conjured up. "Who is she?"
"Who?" Wonder leaned further forward, squinting toward the other end of the bar, then sat back and shook his head. "Oh, bad idea, Idaho. Definitely not a good woman to start your Konigsburg career with."
"Out of your class, bucko, definitely out of your class." Wonder sipped his Spaten again. "Much too tough for a beginner."
"And again I ask, why? Who is she?" Cal refused to look back at the man trying to dampen his enthusiasm. Not when the other end of the bar had so much to see.
"Docia Kent." Wonder nodded in Venus's direction. "Owner and sole proprietor of Kent's Hill Country Books."
"Stuck-up bitch," Terrell mumbled.
Cal contemplated "accidentally" upturning Biedermeier's barstool and dumping him beside the bar, but miscellaneous bits of Biedermeier would only further mess up Ingstrom's floor.
He frowned. "So why is she out of my class? How do you even know my class anyway, Wonder?"
Wonder hunched over the bar, staring into the mirror. "Docia Kent has lived in Konigsburg for two years now. Never dated a local, far as I know. And I know far, believe me. Many have tried. None have been chosen. She's definitely not interested in Konigsburg males. She's not what you'd call a local herself."
"And this is bad?" Cal shrugged. "I'm not a local either--not yet, anyway."
"There's some question about how much Ms. Kent wants to be a local, Idaho, given that she hasn't shown much interest in Konigsburg's finest to date." Wonder tipped up the last of his Spaten, raising an eyebrow at Cal.
Cal squinted back down the bar. "Always a first time."
"Indeed there is." Wonder nodded, rubbing his hands together gleefully. "Oh this is going to brighten up the summer no end. I'm opening the book on this one today. What do you say, Terrell? I'll give you five to one Ms. Kent won't give Idaho the time of day."
"Stuck-up bitch won't give nobody the time of day," Biedermeier mumbled.
At the other end of the bar, Docia tried for a better look at the most gorgeous man in Texas without attracting too much attention. She leaned forward slightly, tipping back her head, and checked the mirror again.
Lordy, he was big! At least six-three, probably more, given the way he towered over the people around him. Brown hair just long enough to curl over his collar. Short beard and moustache. Shoulders that looked too big for his denim shirt. She'd bet anything he had on boots too.
Boots. Over a year since she'd had boots underneath her bed.
Docia took a deep breath, balling her hands into fists. Get a grip. Getting horny over a perfect stranger was pathetic. Besides, they never turned out to be as good as they looked, did they? Particularly not if they were interested in her. Probably just some jerk from Dallas with a cowboy complex.
"Janie," she murmured, "who's the guy at the end of the bar?"
Beside her, Janie's body shifted. "No, don't look!" Docia hissed. "Use the mirror."
Aw, hell, now she'd been magically transported to high school.
Janie peered beyond her into the mirror. "You mean Doc Kleinschmidt?"
"No--" Docia nodded toward Gorgeous, "--the one next to him. Kris Kristofferson, circa 1976."
Janie grinned. "You mean when he was in A Star is Born? Personally, I like the way he looked in Songwriter better. You know, when he had that little white streak in his beard..."
Docia gritted her teeth. "Janie, just tell me who the guy is, okay?"
Janie leaned forward again. In the mirror, Docia could see Gorgeous talking to Kleinschmidt. For a moment she could swear he looked her way. Quickly, she picked up her margarita, dropping her gaze. "Well?"
"Holy crap, he's a big one, isn't he?" Janie straightened again and sipped her wine. "I've never seen him before."
"So he's a tourist?" A jerk from Dallas just as she'd thought. Another Mr. Wrong. Not worth the trouble. Docia fought down a faint tang of disappointment. Better this way.
"No, I think I know who he is." Janie's brow furrowed in thought. "He's probably Doc Rankin's new partner. The new vet."
A vet. Well, hauling large animals around would certainly explain the body.
"You're interested, aren't you?" Janie peeked back down the bar. "Wanna go down there and introduce ourselves?"
"In front of Kleinschmidt?" Docia shook her head. "Don't think so."
"What's wrong with Wonder Dentist?"
Docia grimaced. "He reminds me of my macroeconomics professor. The one who wrote 'pathetic' across the top of my term paper."
Just another Konigsburger who found her not quite up to the town's standards.
She chanced another glance at the end of the bar. Even if he was a local, Dr. Gorgeous could still be a jerk.
Would she know what to do with him if he wasn't? Did she even remember? And, of course, there was no guarantee he'd be interested in her.
"So what do you want to do?" Janie's brow furrowed. "I could try luring Wonder away, but then I'd feel funny the next time I needed my teeth cleaned."
"Don't do anything." Docia massaged her neck again. "I'm not interested in introducing myself to a complete stranger."
Why today? Why couldn't she have been wearing that gauze shirt she bought yesterday at the Lucky Lady? Why couldn't she have washed her hair last night instead of waiting until tonight? Why couldn't they have sat at a table instead of bellying up to the end of the bar like a pair of biker chicks?
She was dirty. She'd been moving boxes all afternoon. She smelled. This was not the day to meet Mr. Right. Assuming Mr. Right existed anywhere except an alternate universe, which, given her luck, wasn't likely.
Hell, damn, stink!