Scarlett Hall followed a job and a friend to Texas, but that cost her more than she’d bargained for. Now, wounded but determined to get past one of the worst days of her life, she decides she has to pull herself together. First step: cover up the physical scars left from her ordeal. That’s easy. But the emotional scars are proving harder to handle . . .
Then she meets Ethan Calhoun. This bad boy seems ready to make his own changes and might be just what she needs to start a new chapter in her life. When he offers her a job as manager of his new bar, she decides to go for it. A change of pace and a hot guy who makes her forget her troubles while she’s in his arms are a great cure. But it soon becomes clear that danger will be in Scarlett’s life no matter how many changes she makes. As Scarlett comes face to face with her worst nightmare, it seems happiness was just an illusion. Maybe Texas is just too much trouble . .
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Scarlett Hall was sick of feeling like a victim. She'd had plenty of time to heal both her mind and her body. There was nothing to be afraid of here. It was a beautiful spring day in Austin, Texas. No knife-wielding psycho was going to jump out of a doorway and drag her into a van like ...
Stop it. Just go inside and get on with it.
Right. She'd done her research, a ton of it. This was the perfect place to wipe away the past. Scarlett took a deep breath and pushed inside. The place was clean. Good. And the woman was waiting for her. Because she'd made an appointment and she was late. Fifteen minutes of second-guessing and worrying had made that happen.
"Ms. Hall?" The woman held out her hand. "Casey Evans."
"Oh! Did you do that?" Scarlett stared at Casey's elegantly colorful arm. The scene looked like the Garden of Eden without the snake. Beautiful.
Casey laughed. "On my own right arm? I'm good, but I'm not that good." She waved at a man busy on a customer reclining in a chair who was getting a word written across his bicep. "This is Carl's work. My brother. We own Amuse Tattoos together. Isn't he amazing?"
"Yes. Can you do that art too? I want something floral like yours, only smaller. Where we discussed on the phone." Scarlett looked around the shop. There was a pair of special chairs in the open where the tattoo artists could work, and another man sat against the wall waiting his turn. He was young, probably one of the thousands of college students in town now that the huge University of Texas was in session. "You do have a private room, don't you? For situations like mine?"
"Of course. Come on back. I'm even better than Carl." That got her a grunt from her brother. Casey laughed. "He says otherwise. Anyway, let me take a look and then we'll talk." Casey had a friendly vibe. She was tall and toned, and she wore a muscle shirt to show off her body art. Her short white hair was buzzed on the sides and spiked on top. Her ears held multiple piercings, and she favored silver and turquoise jewelry Scarlett immediately coveted.
"I'm still not sure ..." Where was this wishy-washy attitude coming from? Of course Scarlett was sure. She had to get rid of the evidence from that one hellacious day and move on. She stopped and stared at the pictures on the wall. So many options for tattoos — everything from simple butterflies to an elaborate battle of the Alamo, a Texas icon. But she had a folder under her arm. More research. She knew what she wanted. Remembering Texas wasn't high on her to-do list. Her life here had been a nightmare so far.
"We can call this a fact-finding mission if you wish, Ms. Hall. Ease into this." Casey opened a door to a private room where there was a table similar to a massage table. Just like the front, everything was sparkling clean.
"Call me Scarlett." She thrust her folder at Casey. "This is what I think I want. When you see what happened to me, you can figure out if it will work. Your rÃ(c)sumÃ(c) on your website said you have extensive experience hiding scars with your art. Camouflage, I guess you could call it."
"Yes." Casey opened the folder. "Very pretty. A little similar to the sleeves on my arms. We have our love of nature in common." She smiled. "You're going to have to show me where you need the work. You said on the phone ..."
"That son of a bitch carved his initials on my butt." Every time she got out of the shower and passed a mirror, Scarlett was reminded of what had happened that horrible day. The monster was in jail now, for crimes even worse than what he'd done to her. She'd had to testify in depositions, but, thank God, she'd never had to face him after he'd been captured. She had told Casey some of this on the phone.
"Why don't you lie down on the table and pull down your jeans just enough to let me take a look? You did say you were completely healed. That's a requirement before I can do my thing." Casey waited for her to toe off her sneakers.
"I am. A plastic surgeon did what he could to repair it, but there is a permanent scar. He released me not long ago. You'll see." Scarlett unsnapped and unzipped her jeans. Her thong bared enough so her underwear wasn't in the way. Casey helped her climb onto the table. The curse of being short.
Nerves made Scarlett fumble as she pushed down her pants. Damn it, she didn't show her scars to anyone other than doctors and nurses. She hadn't even dated since the attack. Her best friend had seen her wound when it had first happened, but now Anna and her new boyfriend were off visiting her family back home in Boston. Anna was so in love, so happy, Scarlett hadn't wanted to tell her how freaked she still was or how many nights she woke up screaming.
So she held it in and pretended to be the same strong, together Scarlett she'd always been. Now she bared her ass and waited. If Casey said the wrong thing, she didn't know what she'd do. A meltdown wasn't off the table, but she might be.
But that's why she was here. She was sick of being alone and scared.
The silence was almost worse than if Casey had said something like "Holy shit!" Finally, Scarlett couldn't stand it anymore.
"What do you think?"
"Do you mind if I touch it? The texture could make a difference in what I do." Casey's voice was gentle but entirely professional.
"Uh, sure. I guess." Scarlett kept her cheek on her arm, her fists clenched, as Casey touched the slight ridges where Leroy Thomas Simms had carved his initials.
"I hope he's dead or in prison."
"Facing life without parole." Scarlett was surprised her voice hadn't trembled with her hatred.
"Good." Casey walked around so she could see Scarlett's face. "I can do a very pretty floral over it, and you won't be able to see a bit of what that bastard did to you. It might take a couple of sessions. And I want to offer you a discount. Covering scars is something I do to satisfy myself. I have one of my own." She pulled up her tank and showed Scarlett a tree climbing up from her navel. Bright red flowers bloomed from it. There was no sign of a scar. "Abusive first husband knifed me. There won't be a second husband unless I lose my mind."
"I'm sorry. You can't tell you were ever hurt." Scarlett lifted her head and clasped Casey's hand.
"Not on the outside." Casey smiled sadly.
"That's what I want. The outside to be pretty. I'm still working on the inside." Scarlett wasn't about to cry. Not in front of this strong woman. God, she admired her. "When can we start?"
"Right now. Let me get set up. I like what you chose — pretty colors, tasteful. I'll be back in a few minutes. Relax. It won't be painless, but I'll do what I can to make it easy for you." She nodded at a music system and headphones. "See if I have some tunes you like. Listening helps you zone out while I work." She helped Scarlett climb down.
Then she left the room.
Scarlett went through the tall stack of CDs and loaded the changer there with a variety of music she hoped would help her chill. By the time Casey came back with a toolbox and gear, she was lying on her stomach again, headphones on, and trying to relax to some slow tunes with a mellow vibe.
"Ready? I'm going to draw the design first. This is permanent marker so it won't wash off in the shower unless you scrub the hell out of it." She picked up a thin-tipped marker. "Once I'm satisfied with the design, I'll start with the ink. We can make another appointment to finish when we see how much I get done."
"Fine." Scarlett closed her eyes. Casey was still gentle, careful. No worries. She almost drifted off to sleep as the artist went to work outlining the pretty design of flowers. When the whirr penetrated through the music, at first it didn't bother her. Like she was at the dentist. A minor cavity, no big deal. Then the needle touched her, and she was back in that van. The man loomed over her. He gripped her breast, pushed against her and breathed in her ear all the things he wanted to do to her. He'd violate her. What a pretty little ass she had. He would like to come inside it and make her scream. He sliced into her, hurting her ...
"No!" She threw off the earphones and fell off the table. Jerking up her jeans, she had to get out of there. Scarlett didn't see anyone or anything. All she knew was that she had to breathe fresh air. Run and get that hand off her butt. No one was going to hurt her, ever again.
"Scarlett!" Someone reached for her.
Blindly she slapped at them, pushing out one door, then another, until she almost fell on the sidewalk. Where could she go, where could she hide that he couldn't find her? She heard him coming. A woman stood in her way, staring at her. Hell, no. Can't trust anyone. Footsteps behind her. A door. Closed sign. He'd never look there. The knob turned, and she was in. She leaned against it.
Breathe. Turn the lock. She flipped the dead bolt and waited. Someone jiggled the knob, but it held. God. God. She sagged to the floor. Safe. Please let her be safe.
"Are you all right?" A man's voice came from across the dark room.
No, she was not all right. What had she done? Locked herself in with him. Scarlett searched for a weapon. Shit. She didn't even have her shoes.
"Calm down. I'm not going to hurt you." He was coming closer.
"That's what they all say." Scarlett jerked her cell out of her bra. She'd started keeping it there after the attack. "Don't come any closer. I'm calling 9-1-1."
"And say what? That you broke into my bar?" He was too close. He hunkered down in front of her. "Ethan Calhoun. How can I help you?"
"You own this bar?" Scarlett hit reality. Hard. He was right. What was she doing here? She tried to catch her breath, her heart stuttering as she looked around. She stared at the long wooden bar across the room as she tried to regulate her breathing. The room was empty except for the man who just sat there, still too close. She wanted to shove him away. Common sense finally returned as she gripped her phone and realized he wasn't making a move, just staring. Of course, she was acting crazy.
"Yeah, I do. Something scared you. Do I need to go outside and kick some butt?" He still hadn't moved.
Scarlett checked him out. Tall, good-looking, a little young, but not too young. He looked like he could enjoy some butt kicking but would prefer something more civilized in his vintage rock band tee and jeans. She waited, still breathing in and out, her heart finally settling down. If he tried anything that screamed danger, she had her fingers on her phone. But he just sat there, patient and, damn it, kind. She finally made a decision.
"You can buy me a drink."
"That I can do." He stood and held out his hand. "Usually, it's no shoes, no service, but I'll make an exception if you tell me your name."
"Scarlett Hall." Scarlett took his hand and let him pull her to her feet. "I have to warn you, I'm a head case right now."
"Honey, I'm way too used to those." He pulled her to the bar, then walked around and put two glasses in front of her. "Name your poison."
"Tequila. I've had a rough day. Rough month, rough year." She sighed. "Told you I was messed up."
"Then you've come to the right place." Ethan smiled and poured them each a splash of top-shelf tequila. "I think I've lost my mind too. Never owned a bar before. Now here I am probably about to lose my shirt. Moved to Austin because I loved going to college here. It's a common thing with Texas exes." He picked up his glass, waited for her to pick up hers, then clinked it. "Here's to crazy."
"Crazy." Scarlett threw back the shot. She wasn't about to turn to alcohol to solve her problems, but she liked Ethan's smile and that was a start. She needed her purse and her shoes. She had to go back and apologize to Casey. And she wanted that damn tattoo. She shook her head when Ethan offered her a refill.
"No, I've got to go back next door."
"To Casey's? You getting a tattoo?" Ethan walked her to the door.
"If I can find my nerve." Scarlett looked around. The only light came from the dusty windows and a laptop on the bar. No furniture yet, so obviously he wasn't ready to open.
"Want me to hold your hand?" He grinned.
Scarlett could imagine that. For the first time since the abduction, she didn't want to throw up a stop sign as soon as a man showed interest. And Ethan was definitely interested.
"No, thanks. This is something I have to do myself." She handed him her phone. "Can I call you if I need moral support?"
"Hell, yes." He tapped in his number. "Use that so I'll have your number, Miss Scarlett. And come back. I sure need moral support. I've spent years on the customer side of the bar business, but only six months learning about the behind-the-scenes part. I'm flying pretty blind here."
"I will." Scarlett realized this had the potential to be a nice place, but it needed something to stand out. She was no stranger to bars — in front or behind. "When are you opening?"
"Next month, I hope. Obviously, the place needs work. Furniture, staff. I hired somebody to help with that, but we weren't on the same page. She wanted to make it look just like every other bar on Sixth Street. I think it needs to be different. Fresh. I fired her yesterday." He turned the dead bolt and opened the door. "I'm getting desperate enough to call one of my sisters and see if they know somebody to come help."
"What do you have in mind?" Scarlett tried to picture the place cleaned out.
"I've got a name, at least. Fuel. Fuel for the soul with live entertainment. Then there's fuel for the body — I stole the best bartender in Austin from down the street. Luckily, she wanted to bring her brother, who is a chef. She's into those new craft cocktails, and he's known for his creative way with bar food. They've always wanted to work together but never got the chance before. This opportunity, a pretty free rein, and my offer to pay them more than the going rate sealed the deal." Ethan was excited, and it was a good look for him.
"I like it." Scarlett could appreciate the idea. "Austin has a great music scene."
"Yeah. I want a stage in here so we can feature up-and-coming artists on weekends." He pointed to what had been a raised area at one end of the large room. "I can see this working. I have some connections I can use to get some fairly big names in here." He paced the length of the room. "My family thinks I'm nuts, but then Calhouns take chances. Daddy was a wildcatter."
Scarlett let that pass. She had no idea what he meant. "You've never run a business like this before? You do need support, moral and otherwise. I worked my way through college as a cocktail waitress. I can't tell you how hard it is to get and hold good help. You need a strong manager to keep things organized and to supervise your people." Scarlett realized his enthusiasm was contagious.
She'd been stuck in office work since college, thanks to her sensible business degree. Her organizational abilities had brought her to Texas with the tech company she worked for. She enjoyed what she did, but it didn't excite her. Would she be insane if she took the leave of absence her employer had offered her after her traumatic abduction and decided to help Ethan? Hey, she could do the research and then organize the hell out of him. He needed someone like her. And she did have those years of cocktail experience. The bar business in Boston and Austin couldn't be that different. Her research would let her know about that. She was about to say something more when her phone rang.
"Scarlett, are you all right?" Casey had decided to try calling her.
"Actually, I think I am. For the first time in months." Scarlett stood in the doorway. "I'm sorry I ran out like that, but I'm coming back. Let's get this party started again." She turned to Ethan, who was on his own phone. He'd lost his smile. She decided to wait until he hung up to thank him for the drink. He finally laid his phone on the bar.
"Are you okay?" Scarlett walked back toward him. Casey could wait another minute. She didn't know Ethan, but she did know worry when she saw it.
"Not really." He reached for the bottle of tequila but stopped before he poured another shot. "Oh, hell no. Not going to try to drink this one away." His laugh was bitter. "Bar owners can't afford to do that, can they?"
"Nope. I've seen it happen, and it doesn't end well. You soon learn to leave the drinking to the customers." She touched his hand. "Bad news?"
"The worst." He looked her over. "I don't suppose you want a job. I could use a woman with experience." He shook his head. "That didn't come out right. A waitress with experience."
"I have a job. Office manager at Zenon Technology." Scarlett stepped back and looked around again. She really would like to get her hands on the place. It had potential, and Ethan seemed open to new ideas.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Texas Trouble"
Copyright © 2019 Gerry Bartlett.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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