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The newspaper Paxton Jones held over her head was no match for the fat raindrops being pelted from the storm clouds hovering in the gray skies. She tossed the useless shield onto the backseat, cursing her bad habit of forgetting to put her umbrella back in the car after she used it.
"Girl, get out of that rain before you catch a cold!"
Paxton looked over her shoulder to find her mother standing on the narrow porch that surrounded what, up until this weekend, was known to the people of Gauthier, Louisiana, as Harlon's Bar. Over the past three days, the fifty-five-year-old clapboard structure had undergone a massive overhaul, complete with a new owner and a brand-new name: the River Road Bar and Grille.
At least that was the official name on the new deed, but Paxton had never been one to kid herself. She knew it would take an act of Congress to convince the longtime residents in Landreauxwhich was technically still part of Gauthier but was divided from the rest of the town by Landreaux Creekto call this place anything but Harlon's. If they were lucky, maybe she and her mother could eventually cajole them into calling it Belinda's, but Paxton wasn't holding her breath.
"You're going to get sick," her mother called again. "Get in here!"
"Give me just a minute," Paxton called back to her.
Scooping up the bags of cleaning supplies she'd just purchased from the Gauthier Pharmacy and Feed Store, she dashed from her Lincoln MKX to the bar's newly installed wooden steps. As she made her way up to the small landing, Paxton slipped on the second to last step, nearly dumping the bags.
"Watch it," Belinda Jones said, reaching out for her.
"I've got it." Paxton righted herself. "But maybe you should add installing nonskid protectors to the list of things that need to be done before the bar's grand reopening."
"You're probably right," Belinda said. She gestured for Paxton to go ahead of her as they walked through the gaping hole where the new door would be hung as soon as Rickey Price finished constructing it at his cabinetry shop. "I'll call Nathan Robottom at the hardware store. I'm sure he'll have something we can use."
"Good," Paxton said. "Because after the blood, sweat and tears that you've put into this place, I won't allow a slip-and-fall lawsuit to ruin it all."
"We'll take care of the steps. I'm more concerned about you catching your death out here in this rain."
Just as Paxton opened her mouth to remind her mother for the seven thousandth time that being caught in the rain did not automatically give you a cold, she coughed. Perfect timing.
The I-told-you-so lift to Belinda's brow was a well-practiced, well-executed blast from Paxton's childhood. Make that her adulthood, too. Because at thirty-seven years old, she found it as effective as it had been when she was seven. It made her want to cringe.
"No need to break out the warm socks and hot tea," Paxton said. "I was clearing my throat. I don't have a cold."
"Not yet," her mother said with a lift to her chin.
Paxton released an overly exasperated sigh as she laughed at her mother's haughty expression.
"I'll take some cough syrup before I go to sleep tonight," she said. "Will that do, or do you have to take my temperature before you're satisfied?"
"So do they teach classes on how to sass your mama up there in Little Rock, or did you learn how to do that on your own?"
She barked out another sharp laugh. "If anyone taught me how to sass, it's the woman standing right in front of me."
Belinda winked. "You got that right." She reached for the plastic bags, but Paxton twisted them out of her reach.
"I've got this," she said as she started emptying the supplies she'd picked up during her quick trip to downtown Gauthieritems that would have cost about half of what she'd paid if she'd driven over to the new Target in neighboring Maplesville. Paxton prided herself on being a strong, independent woman who made her own decisions, but even she wasn't brave enough to walk into this bar carrying a red-and-white Target shopping bag. Her mother was firmly on the boycott-big-business bandwagon.
Paxton had not been in town for more than an hour before she had been presented with a pledge sheet that was being circulated by the Gauthier Civic Association to boycott the big-box store, along with several other establishments. Tensions between Gauthier and Maplesville had been simmering back when Paxton relocated to Arkansas a year ago, and the opening of yet another large national chain store that could take business away from Gauthier's mom-and-pop shops had only elevated the friction.
Paxton had been happy to sign the pledge. She felt it her duty to support the local businesses in her small hometown. Even more so now that her mother owned one.
Just thinking those words caused an excited tingle to rush through her. It was like a human-interest story worthy of one of those cheesy but sweet headlines.
Belinda Jones: From Bartender to Bar Owner.
Followed by Paxton Jones: Daughter of the Year.
Pretentious? Possibly, but she knew her mother would agree with her, and not just because Paxton had taken a sledgehammer to her 401(k) in order to purchase this bar. Belinda had placed the Daughter of the Year crown on Pax's head ever since she'd won third place in the fourth-grade spelling bee.
"You can check the final building inspection off your list," her mother, who had resumed her sweeping, said. "Josh Howard came over while you were out. He gave the place a clean bill."
"Without a front door?"
Belinda waved that off. "I told him it would be installed later today. Rickey is his second cousin on his mama's sidehe knows he's good for it."
Paxton shook her head. "Gotta love a small town," she said as she stacked the sponges, all-purpose disinfecting spray and grout cleaner on one of the new pub tables that had been delivered that morning.
A loud whistle drew her attention to the left side of the bar.
"I knew I smelled trouble in the air."
Paxton grinned as Harlon Lewis, the bar's previous owner, entered through the side door entrance. He shucked off his raincoat, leaving it just inside the door. He was accompanied by his grandson, Donovan, who carried two large fleur-de-lis wall decor pieces crafted out of dented sheet metal and spray painted a shimmering metallic gold.
Paxton balled up the plastic shopping bags and tossed them in the blue recycle bin as she made her way over to Harlon. She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a loud kiss.
"It's so good to see you," she said. She leaned back and smiled up at the man who had been the only father figure she'd ever known. "I've missed you, old man. You weren't at the house when I dropped by yesterday."
"You gotta get there early to catch me, girlie. I've got places to be."
"Thanks for picking these up for me," she said, gesturing to the fleur-de-lis. She'd commissioned Gauthier's own metalworks artist and restoration specialist, Phyli-cia Phillips, to start making them as soon as the sale of the bar went through.
"It was no problem," Harlon said. "Phil's new shop ain't too far from the house."
"Still, you saved me a trip," Paxton said, plopping another peck on his cheek.
"Hey, where's my kiss?" His grandson Donovan asked, leaning toward her.
"Boy, get out of here with that mess." Harlon swatted him with the dusty Vietnam War vet baseball cap he'd been wearing for the better part of the three decades Paxton had known him.
Donovan frowned at his grandfather, then winked at Paxton.
"You can put those over there," Paxton pointed toward the bar, which had been freshly waxed earlier that day. "I have an X marked with electrical tape on the wall. You'll find a nail right above it that you can hang them on."
"Fine, but it'll cost you a kiss," Donovan said with another wink.
Paxton rolled her eyes and released a heavy sigh. This one would be a problem.
When she'd driven over to Harlon's house on the lake yesterday, she'd been informed by the twenty-two-year-oldwhom she used to babysit for extra money back when she was in high schoolthat his grandfather was on a hunting trip. Donovan invited her to join him inside for a beer, an invitation Paxton had instantly turned down. It only made him more eager.
The little scrub had the nerve to tell her that he was going to make her his cougar. Paxton was so stunned by his boldness that she'd laughed in his face. She'd hoped her remarks about eating little tiger cubs like him for breakfast would have put an end to his pursuit, but apparently not.
While his grandson hung the artwork, Paxton threaded her arm through Harlon's and took him on a tour. A ribbon of pride curled around her as he remarked on all the changes that had been done in the past couple of days.
"Girl, you are amazing. You turned this old dump into a palace."
"This bar has never been a dump. You always took good care of it. We just spruced it up a bit."
"Spruced it up, my foot. This place looks a hundred times better than it did before. A thousand. You did good by your mama, girl. I'm proud of you. She deserves this."
Paxton barely managed to swallow the lump of emotion wedged in her throat. She coughed, ready to lay claim to the cold her mother had accused her of catching. Sentimental public displays had never been her style, and the sincerity in Harlon's voice brought her close to the brink.
"Owning her own place has been a dream of hers for a long time," Paxton said. "Thank you for selling it to us at such a reasonable price."
He waved that off. "I'm sorry I had to sell it to you at all. If I'd been better at tucking money away, I would have given it to her."
"She never would have taken it from you," Paxton said.
She and Belinda had a lot of things in common, but that stubborn streak of pride was, by far, the strongest thread tying them together. The Joneses did not accept charity. Ever. They worked hard for what they wanted, and if they couldn't get it on their own, then they weren't meant to have it.
Paxton had lived by that simple philosophy all her life. It compelled her to never settle for second-best, because there was nothing like basking in the satisfaction of seeing your hard work pay off.
Like right now. The pure joy emanating from her mother as she swept a floor she'd swept thousands of times over the past two decades warmed every part of Paxton's heart, and it made all the hard work and sacrifice it would take to pay for this bar worth it.
"Look at that smile on her face," Paxton whispered in Harlon's ear as they both stared at her mother.
"Not sure when I last saw her like this. Maybe when you walked across the stage to pick up that fancy college degree." He nudged Paxton's shoulder. "You just make sure she lets me come in and work every now and then."
"She wouldn't let you work when you owned the place," Paxton said with a laugh. "I don't know why you think things would change now."
She guided Harlon to the new kitchen that had been added onto the bar. It had been under construction for the past month. With the installation of the three-part sink this morning, it was officially operational.
Donovan walked in and braced both hands high against the doorjamb. His shirt hem lifted slightly, exposing a set of tawny, well-defined abs. For a half second Paxton was intrigued, but then she remembered she used to change this kid's diapers.
The momentary flourish of awareness was an understandable physical reaction considering the drought she'd been in over the past six months. The handheld device she brought to bed at night wasn't doing the job it used to do.
"You need some help in here?" Donovan asked, winking again.
Then again, maybe she just needed to refresh the batteries.
"You'd better get that eye checked out," Paxton told him. "All that twitching can't be healthy."
He entered the kitchen, stepping up to her. "Why are you giving me such a hard time? I'm not a little boy anymore. I can rock your world."
Harlon knocked him upside the head with his baseball cap again.
"Dude." Donovan rubbed his ear. He scowled at his grandfather. "Stop blocking my game, Grandpa. I'm trying to get something going here."
"It will never happen," Paxton told him.
"We'll see," Donovan said, a cocky smile tilting up the corner of his mouth.
Harlon shook his head. "Hormones got that one acting a damn fool. If he gets too vexing once he starts working here, just strangle him."
"Hopefully he'll be too busy helping customers to bother me with his tired pickup lines," she said.
Her mother had hired Donovan to help out at the bar while he took yet another semester off from college to "explore his options." Paxton was about 96 percent sure that she would, in fact, have to strangle the little Casanova before she returned to Little Rock.
If she returned to Little Rock.
She stifled a sigh. She had only been back in town for two days and already the should I stay, should I go back dance was getting the best of her. It happened every single time she came home to visit. But Paxton knew it was better to have some distance between herself and Gauthier, especially now that a certain someone was back in town. Permanently.
The rumble of a diesel engine and tires crunching over gravel came through the open doorway, tearing her attention away from those thoughts she had no desire to explore at the moment.
"Finally," Paxton said, making her way past Donovan and through the kitchen. "That must be the TVs."
She exited the side door and rounded the front of the building, waving at the delivery truck driver. Thankfully, the rain had lightened to a steady but weaker sprinkle.
"Over here," Paxton called, waving her hands.
A loud bark came from just behind her a second before Heinz, the huge mutt she'd nursed back to health after he'd gotten into a fight with a coyote, came barreling into her legs. Paxton's fingers automatically scratched the scruff behind his ear.
"What in the world," Belinda said as she came down the stairs, followed closely by Harlon and Donovan. The four of them stood to the side, surveying the delivery-men as they carted a fifty-five-inch LCD TV into the building.