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"I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love."
— Marilyn Monroe
The crisp, clear sunlight was not her friend. Dayna Dalton winced at the bright light that squeezed in through the slats of the venetian blind. She reached over and gave the cord a hard tug, sending the pint-sized bathroom into near darkness. Behind her, the shower head dripped with a steady plop, plop that reminded her of the exposé she did on water torture in Guantanamo Bay that never got published. It was deemed too harsh to print.
The Bulwark Advance preferred her to write ... fluffy pieces. She sneered thinking of the crap on her computer, the half-written article about the elusive Easter Bunny that awaited its final edit. She hung her head in shame, thinking of what her sorority sisters from Georgetown would feel if they knew where Dangerous Dayna Dalton had ended up. There'd be hell to pay in the form of eternal humiliation.
Dayna twisted the faucet, her freckled knuckle turning bone white from the effort. It was no use; the leak continued relentlessly, driving a hole in her throbbing head. Oh, that last round of shots was totally not necessary.
No matter how hard she wrenched the faucet, the dribble continued. She thought she should ask her guest to fix it before he left. He was a plumber, after all. She was sick of this place. Dayna peered at her reflection in the mirror. She was sick of her life.
Skip Benson's bearlike yawn turned into a growl from the bedroom. "Dayna." His voice grated on her nerves.
Dayna rolled her kohl-smeared eyes.
"Dayna, come on back to bed."
Dayna took a steadying breath and used both hands to grip the sink as if it were holding her up. What was she thinking last night? Skip Benson? How low could she go? A shudder ran through her lithe frame. That left only Trout Parker, and she could now report she had officially and irrevocably scraped the bottom of the barrel of Bulwark, Georgia.
She rubbed her forehead where a hammer banged against the inside of herskull.
Skip wailed for her to return to the warmth of the bed. Dayna wrinkled her nose, thinking about Skip's performance, or rather what she remembered about it. Oh yeah, too many tequila shots will make anyone desirable, even stupid Skippy Benson.
She ran her fuzzy tongue over her dry teeth, fighting the urge to gag.
Skip Benson had never been on the football team, the basketball team ... Hell, he'd never even made the chess team. He had been the school screw-up, and now he could brag that he and Dayna had ...
Dayna turned away from the mirror with disgust, her cheeks flushing. She staggered to the doorway of the bedroom. Using the frame to hold herself erect, she shouted, "Get up!"
"Wha–?" Skip rose, the comforter bunched at his flabby waist, his chest bare and the pathetic tattoo of a red devil across the front of his right bicep.
Vague memories of kissing that image flitted through her foggy brain. Dayna picked up a pillow discarded on the floor during their frenzied arrival and threw it at his head.
"I said, get up and get out of here!"
Skip ducked, then slid off the bed, his behind exposed, another image of a werewolf on his left butt cheek. Dayna convulsed at a hazy memory of talking to that tattoo.
"You weren't so eager to get rid of me last night." Skip stood in all his naked glory, which wasn't much.
"Ugh. I'm never drinking again," Dayna muttered under her breath. "I said get dressed and get out of here." A shoe sailed past Skip's head.
Her unwanted guest scrambled to find his clothes. "Hey, cut it out, Dayna!" Skip was living up to his namesake as he struggled into his work pants, bouncing toward the door.
Dayna's face split into a demonic smile that was known to strike fear in the hearts of single men everywhere. Here, she thought, was the elusive Easter Bunny. She watched Skip hop toward his escape as though he were in the Fourth of July potato sack race.
Dayna picked up a shirt that had been discarded on the floor and threw it at him. The garment appeared to have a life of its own and engulfed his head. Skip's muffled cries were nearly smothered by the material. His hands tore at the shirt to no avail.
His fingers — Dayna looked closer, grimacing at the dirt under his nails, and watched his wrestling match with the clothing. She pushed him into her shabby living room, then out the door of her condo. Mrs. Sweetpea, an antonym for sure, watched in revulsion as Dayna shoved her guest out of herapartment.
Dayna lived in Shady Oaks, a rundown condominium community, where she reluctantly shared a front porch with her neighbor. The building was a connected row of apartments that bordered undeveloped land, as though a builder had left the project unfinished halfway through. It was hot real estate when they released the first phase, and half the town bought investment properties. Then the real estate bubble burst, and the whole thing came tumbling down.
Dayna had an inside scoop about what was really going on, but once again, the paper wouldn't print it. The mayor had sold the land and gotten a back-end deal for it. He made a ton of dough and then skipped off to Colombia — the country, not Columbia, South Carolina. The builder had used inferior products, and once he went to jail for money laundering, the whole place went to seed. There was no one to call when things broke.
Dayna cast Mrs. Sweetpea a jaundiced eye, daring the nosy neighbor to say something about her guest. While the old crone might have appeared to be like the proverbial sweet grandmotherly type, Dayna knew her to be an ornery bitch with a sting as sharp as an angry wasp.
She hated her; had for years. Thelma Sweetpea had been her babysitter back in the day when she was a small child. Dayna's mother had dropped her off at the old lady's house for the first nine years of her life.
Dayna looked at Mrs. Sweetpea and shivered. The old woman had moved into the complex a year and a half ago, cutting up Dayna's peace. What were the odds they'd end up living next door to each other? She was a mean old woman, and Dayna felt judged every time those beady eyes settled on her.
Dayna considered moving but was so underwater with her mortgage, she couldn't think of selling. She was stuck at Shady Oaks, and she was stuck with the prying eyes of Thelma Sweetpea.
Mrs. Thelma Sweetpea took out her aggression with a broom and started to sweep as though the hounds of hell had just taken a shit there. Dayna fought the urge to say something. Speaking with Mrs. Sweetpea usually ended up in a hissing contest. Dayna's compressed lips turned up just a bit with a smile at the result of this morning meeting. Mrs. Sweetpea was in a frenzy of spring cleaning, as if she could wipe the interlopers from reality.
The sky was overcast, and even though it was springtime, the air was decidedly chilly. A wave of cold air stole under Dayna's shirt, making it billow out. She tried not to shiver. Her bare feet felt the shock of the freezing concrete. She'd be damned if she would show that old biddy any weakness, even if it was unseasonably cold.
Dayna looked up at the watery sky, searching for a glimpse of the sun. Global warming was playing havoc with Georgia's weather. Either it was extremely hot when it was supposed to be cold or freezing when the time of year dictated heat. It didn't rain anymore; it stormed with funnel clouds that touched down, ripping homes and trailers from their moorings.
Mrs. Sweetpea stopped her sweeping to look at Dayna, her lips pursed as if she'd eaten something sour. Dayna returned the stare, her eyes observing the wrinkled face, watching the older woman judge her half-naked form.
Dayna's freckled shoulder peeked out from an oversized tee shirt. It was paired with her long, bare, coltish legs underneath. Dayna looked down and cursed when she realized she was wearing Skip's tee. Glancing up, she realized he was struggling with her shirt from last night.
Watching her neighbor's shocked face, Dayna ripped Skip's shirt over her head and tossed it to him. He paused in his scuffle with her clothing to admire her perfect breasts.
"I don't have to leave," Skip said with a broad smile.
"Oh yes you do, and don't come back here." Dayna turned around, her shoulders straight. She paused to look at the older woman, who stood with her jaw hanging in shock.
"Have you no shame?" Thelma Sweetpea sputtered.
Dayna looked back at the gawking plumber, then her scandalized neighbor. She shrugged indifferently. "Apparently I have no shame at all."
"I could care less about what people think. I'm a Devil Without aCause."
— Kid Rock
After a fortifying cup of black coffee, a hot shower, and change into fresh clothes, Dayna took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she tried to blot out the mistake of the evening before.
Why did she keep doing this to herself? It was like a punishment. What the hell was she thinking to take Skip Benson home with her last night? She prayed it was so late that everybody had left the Pig's Whistle and missed her latest conquest.
Sitting at the counter, she knew that was a slim possibility when her cell's shrill ring announced her mother calling. Dayna pressed the button on the side, letting it go straight to voicemail, but her mother was nothing if not persistent.
Dayna's finger slid across her mother's bloated face on the surface of the phone. Her boozy voice filled the kitchen.
"Skip Benson? Dayna!" She laughed then, a smoky, wet chuckle that Dayna hated. "I heard Bobby Ray Parker was looking for a date for Saturday night."
"That's enough, Ma," Dayna interrupted, her head in her hands. If her mother knew, then the whole town knew.
"I hope you was careful. Don't want no little Skip Bensons runnin' around." She laughed again.
Dayna felt her cheeks tighten. "What can I say? Like mother, like daughter," Dayna ground out.
"I think I showed a bit more discretion than you!" her mother spat back.
Dayna stood. For a woman who couldn't even identify her daughter's father, it was a bit much being lectured on modesty. "Y'all screwed half of Bulwark!"
"Yeah, so, y'all doing a pretty good job of screwin' the other half!" her mother retorted with a laugh.
Dayna took a deep breath, trying hard to control her damnable tongue and the horrid accent. "Look, I don't want to do this with you."
Her mother simmered for a while, then responded, her voice gravelly, "I thought when you went to that fancy school up north, things would change."
"Washington, DC, is not quite up north."
"Anything past the Georgia state line is north enough for me," her mother stated.
They stayed on the phone silently. Dayna's throat was too thick to speak. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, and she hastily wiped it away. She fought the urge to sniff.
Her mother must have had some sort of radar because she said, "It's all because of that damn sheriff. He's not the right one for you. He don't —"
"Okay, Ma, I got ... I mean ..." she paused, taking a steadying breath. "I have a deadline. I can't be late today."
"Yeah, sure," her mother said with no small amount of sarcasm. "Gotta break a big story, Dayna-girl. This town's jus' waiting for you to bust the lid offa something real important, like who kilt Leona Parker's piglets."
"Ma?" she started. The words choked in her throat. Why can't you be a little proud? she wanted to say. Dayna swallowed her words where they lodged next to her heart. She lit up a cigarette, then sat forward, pinching the skin between her brows. "Okay, Ma, I'm going to go now. I'll call you later."
"Say hello to Thelma —"
Dayna pressed the red button, hanging up before her mother could finish, and blew out the endless breath she had been holding in.
Why can't she be like a normal mother? I just want to know what it's like to be loved unconditionally no matter what I do.
Glancing at the clock, Dayna knew it was too early for a drink, but her mouth watered for it, and that was not a good sign. Not that she really cared what people thought. She only cared what one person thought, and that didn't matter at all.
She thought for a minute about her mother. Maybe she did care about what others thought of her. She had to learn to let that go.
Grabbing her bag, Dayna threw a notebook, a pen, and her iPad inside, then walked out the door. The sunlight decided to make an appearance, assaulting her along with Mrs. Sweetpea's condemning glare.
Dayna slipped out of the leather jacket she had worn, feeling the heat of the sun on her back. "Freaky weather," she wanted to say, then decided it was better not to draw Mrs. Sweetpea into a conversation.
The old lady now sat on a creaky rocking chair outside her apartment. Dayna paused, then locked her door. She heard the furious clicking of metal against metal, and when she turned, the old lady grinned. Dayna studied the smile, knowing it had not a drop of warmth or goodwill. She couldn't resist a jab. She decided the pleasure of starting with her would be worth the pain of Mrs. Sweetpea's derision.
"Good morning, Missus Sweetpea," Dayna said in her best Georgia drawl.
Thelma Sweetpea nodded once, then held up a garish swath of yarn held together by two knitting needles. Dayna shuddered, thinking of the fates of Greek mythology knitting her future. "Pretty," Dayna lied. "What are youmaking?"
"I'm knitting a nice sweater," she replied. "Looked like you were needin' one today."
Dayna's eyes locked with the other woman's, and for a minute she almost looked away, so unnerving was the dark stare. She held the gaze, daring Mrs. Sweetpea to back down, but oddly enough, neither did. It ended mutually, and Dayna felt drained, as if she'd fought a major battle.
She turned and hurried down the stairs.
"Where you going today?" Mrs. Sweetpea asked as if she had every right in the world to this information.
Dayna didn't answer. She had to admit, though, the chuckles that followed made her spine tingle with fear.
"Whatever you do, don't go by Old Jericho. That old puddle just keep getting bigger and bigger. Someday it gonna swallow someone like you up whole," Mrs. Sweetpea advised.
Dayna watched her former nursemaid and current neighbor rocking and knitting, her face frozen in that weird grin. Dayna shrugged once. That sounded like a dare, and she decided she needed to go past that curious puddle after all, if only to spite that wicked witch.
Dayna Dalton was not afraid of anything or anybody. Nope, she was afraid of nothing at all.
"Talk of the devil, and his horns appear."
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Dayna took the long route into town despite Mrs. Sweetpea's warning. Old Jericho was dry once more. The swamp-like body of water had receded somewhere as strangely as it had appeared. All that was left was dried muck. The sun dipped behind a cluster of clouds, making the atmosphere thick as cotton and gray as dust.
Dayna took it slow. She didn't feel like rushing to the office. Her heart lay heavy in her chest. She tore at a cuticle on her ring finger with her teeth, feeling the sting as tender skin ripped away. She cursed at the tension filling her body.
Dayna scanned the road. The flood of water that covered the street was gone but for a stray, slimy puddle here and there.
She stopped the car, opened the door, and examined the oily residue left coating Old Jericho Road. She looked at it a long time, not caring that she was blocking the narrow road. Dayna sat, her legs splayed, one foot in the car, the other on the buckled blacktop. Her eyes were drawn to the spot where Clay Finnes had had his accident yesterday.
Sheriff Clay Finnes was one fine specimen of a man. Her body tingled with the thought of him. She felt safe when she was around him. The wide expanse of his solid shoulders were like a brick wall. She sighed. It was no use thinking about a man who belonged to someone else. Clay Finnes was as untouchable as the stars.
She looked down at the surface of the road, tapping the edge of the liquid with the toe of her expensive shoe. She watched silently for any change. So absorbed in her observation, she failed to notice the complete absence of sound. There was a story here, she mused. Clay Finnes was momentarily forgotten.
Dayna drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, deep in thought. She was stuck. Nobody was giving any information. She spied a change on the flat layer of mud. The depression had a definite pattern not made by nature.
Excerpted from "The Devil and Dayna Dalton"
Copyright © 2019 Chelshire.
Excerpted by permission of Brit Lunden.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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