Inheriting the most notorious house of ill repute in Texas can spell trouble for a girl's reputation . . . especially when she's Elizabeth Murphy, Bramble's prim and proper librarian. Yet when she discovers a buck-naked cowboy handcuffed to a four-poster bed, she forgets all about the town gossips. Elizabeth has sworn off men, but the stranger's kisses melt her resolve faster than ice cream on a hot summer day.
Waking up in Miss Hattie's Henhouse isn't how Brant Cates reckoned on getting to the bottom of his great-granddaddy's murder. The plan was to solve the centuries-old crime, then get the heck out of Dodge. But after meeting Elizabeth and discovering that the buttoned-up beauty is a sexy siren in disguise, he just can't pull himself away.
Now Brant needs Elizabeth to finally put his past to rest, but is she willing to risk her future on Bramble's newest bad boy?
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Trouble in Texas
By Katie Lane
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Katie Lane
All right reserved.
THE GLOW FROM THE WINDOWS beckoned like a campfire on a cold wintry night, rivaling even the brilliant canopy of stars that hung overhead. With his journey almost at its end, William Frances Cates nudged his horse into a gallop. It had been a long, hard ride, and he was cold, tired, and hungry. However, it wasn’t these needs that spurred him on as much as the need for a woman.
And not just any woman.
The stable boy was there to take the reins as soon as William swung down from the saddle. He took the porch steps in two strides, completely ignoring the couple that sat on the swing, giggling. The uppity English butler greeted him at the door.
“Good evening, sir,” he said as he took William’s hat and duster. “She’s been waiting for you.”
The news almost had William smiling. Instead, he nodded at the man and followed him to a room just off the foyer. A wall of smoke rolled out as the door was opened, and William squinted in at the group of people who sat at the poker table. The men paid him little attention, their gazes riveted on their cards and the woman who dealt them. The dealer glanced up, and her ruby red lips tipped in a seductive smile.
“Game’s over, boys,” she said in a husky voice that warmed William more than the fire that burned in the hearth.
One man started to argue, but all it took was a delicate arch of an eyebrow to get his mouth to snap shut. The room cleared, and William was left with the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life.
He had never been the type of man to let his emotions run wild. In fact, he had been described as cold and aloof. But there was something about this woman that broke through his wall of restraint. Something that had him ignoring the rules he’d lived by all of his life. Something that had him crossing the room and sweeping her into his arms.
He kissed her, and all the loneliness of a lifetime melted away. This was what he’d come for. This was what he needed. More than food, water, or air. Just this woman. Forever this woman.
The kiss was more than just lips touching. It was the anthem of love reunited. The merging of two halves into a whole. The confirmation that there was hope for all lost souls.
William was so consumed with the kiss that he didn’t even glance up when the door opened. It took the resounding gunshot to pull him away. He whirled around just in time for the second bullet to hit him square in the chest. The impact threw him back against the wall, and he placed a hand over the wound as he slid down to the floor.
His assailant stood in the doorway with the gun still smoking. William should’ve been shocked. But as his life bled out between his fingers, all he cared about was the woman who knelt down beside him. The woman whose soft sobs hurt more than the hole in his heart.
“I love you,” she whispered. She cradled him close, surrounding him in the scent of lilacs. “I’ll always love you.”
Suddenly, death had no power. And he smiled.
Henhouse Rule #1: Always give a man the kind of welcome he won’t forget.
BRANSTON WILLIAM CATES WAS LOST.
He had been traveling the same dirt road for a solid hour and had yet to see any signs of civilization. Just miles of mesquite and sagebrush, the occasional lizard that streaked in front of his half-ton pickup, and the large black vulture that had been circling overhead since he’d entered west Texas.
Who in their right mind would want to live here? Of course, who in their right mind would take off on a road trip when there was plenty of work to be done back at his office in Dogwood? Time was money, and five hours spent on a highway a foolish waste of both. There was just one thing that trumped the almighty dollar in Brant’s book, and the only reason he was driving on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
He glanced down at the navigational system, but it seemed to be as lost as he was. The green arrow sat in the middle of an empty screen inching toward nothing. Patience not exactly his strong suit, Brant had just decided to turn around when a house took shape on the flat horizon. It grew larger and larger until it became a huge monstrosity of a building with two stories and a red, steeply pitched roof that, with its missing shingles, resembled a checkerboard on the tablecloth of the bright blue sky.
As he got closer to the house, he realized that the roof wasn’t the only thing that needed repair. White paint bubbled and peeled on the siding. Half the shutters hung by only one hinge. And the front porch drooped worse than his grandmother’s gardening hat.
To the left of the house sat a faded red barn, bookended by two gnarled-trunked cottonwoods. Another cottonwood shaded the front yard—a yard filled with waist-high weeds and a large wooden sign.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSTITUTED.
Brant had never been much of a smiler. His daddy claimed he came out of the womb frowning, and Doc Connelly got a real kick out of confirming the fact. But as Brant stared at the sign with the faded green letters, the corners of his mouth curved up—briefly.
So this was Miss Hattie’s Henhouse, the infamous Texas bordello that had brought politicians to their knees and outlaws to their deaths. It seemed inconceivable. Brant hadn’t expected to find the grand mansion he’d read about, but he certainly hadn’t expected to find a pile of sticks that looked as if a stiff wind would topple it like a house of cards.
He was surprised by the disappointment that settled deep inside him. He had never been a dreamer. He preferred to deal with hard, cold facts. But the legends and stories about Miss Hattie’s had seeped into his subconscious, filling his mind with images of the legendary whorehouse and the ladies who worked there. Ladies with names like Sassy Kate, Sweet Starlet, Daring Delilah, and the pièce de résistance, Hattie Ladue—the larger than life madam who had started the house of ill repute over a hundred years earlier.
It was Miss Hattie who had occupied most of Brant’s thoughts in the last month. Miss Hattie who had spawned sensual dreams that had him waking up in a sweaty state of arousal. Maybe that was why he felt so disappointed. The dreams had replaced the nightmares that had plagued him since the tornado. If the dreams stopped, there would be no reprieve from the memories that lurked in the corner of his mind waiting to consume him when he least expected it.
He drove up a deeply rutted road and parked in what was left of a brick, circular drive. After the humidity of east Texas, the late September air felt hot and dry. He tugged his cowboy hat lower as he got out of the truck, then maneuvered through the weeds that almost obscured the pathway.
A flash of black pulled his attention up to the sky. The vulture still circled directly overhead, its long-feathered wings spread wide, its beady eyes searching for death. Some would take it as a bad omen. But Brant didn’t believe in omens, just curses and revenge.
“You here on business or pleasure?” A raspy, feminine voice stopped him in his tracks.
His gaze narrowed in on the shadowy form in one corner of the porch. After seeing the condition of the house, he had assumed that Miss Hattie’s was vacant, so it took him a moment to get over his surprise and pull off his hat.
“Is there a difference?”
A husky cackle was followed by a soft hum as a battery-operated wheelchair rolled out of the shadows. Brant had learned the importance of a poker face a long time ago, but it took real effort to keep his shock in check. The pictures in the history books of a blond temptress were nothing like the nightmarish creature who squinted back at him. A huge magenta wig surrounded a face with more makeup than a circus performer. If the wig and makeup weren’t scary enough, the scanty negligee was downright terrifying. Or maybe it was the bits of wrinkled skin displayed.
Or possibly the gun that was pointed at Brant’s heart.
“I’ve always liked my men with a smart mouth,” the old woman said. The lit cigarette that was stuck to her upper lip waggled with each word. “You lost, honey?”
Brant kept his gaze locked on the bony hand that shook more than a leaf in a hailstorm. “I guess that would depend on whether or not this is Miss Hattie’s?”
Her eyes narrowed. “And who wants to know?”
Given the events of the last few months, he figured his name wasn’t exactly on the list of most beloved men in west Texas. Still, Brant wasn’t one to hide behind an alias. He was who he was and rarely regretted a decision.
The woman started to cough, not a delicate cough covered with a hand, but a deep, chesty cough that sent the cigarette flying into the weeds and shook her entire frail body—including the hand that held the gun. Brant barely had time to duck before a bullet whizzed over his head. The next one didn’t miss. A blaze of fire streaked across his arm, causing him to drop his hat and grab the wound just below his shoulder.
It was funny. As much as he wouldn’t have minded dying in the last couple years, now that he had the opportunity, some unknown will to live kicked in. He took the steps in one leap and pulled the gun from the woman’s hand.
It wasn’t difficult. Her coughing had stopped, and she stared at the blood that seeped through his fingers. She took the sight better than Brant did. He could stare down the fiercest business competitors and three headstrong little brothers, but blood had always made him a little lightheaded. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and he reached out and steadied himself on one of the porch posts.
“Minnie!” A woman’s voice filtered out of the screen door only seconds before it was shoved open by a petite bleach-blonde who could’ve won a Marilyn Monroe lookalike contest if not for the wrinkled skin and glasses so thick her eyes looked like they were staring through a goldfish bowl. When she saw Brant, she stumbled to a stop, her high-heeled shoes clicking against the cement of the porch.
“Goodness, Minnie,” she said in a breathy, Monroe voice. “You didn’t tell me we had company.” She jerked off her glasses and batted her long, fake eyelashes.
“For the love of Pete, Baby,” Minnie said, “we don’t have time for your shenanigans.” She waved a crooked red nail at Brant. “Can’t you see that the man is bleedin’?”
Baby placed her glasses back on and sucked in a breath. “Oh no, Minnie, not again. Last time you shot someone we got in loads of trouble with Sheriff Hicks.”
Last time? Brant had just started to process this new piece of information when the front door opened and a tall, slender woman stepped out on the porch.
She was as old as the other two, but not as blatantly painted or dressed. This woman wore no makeup and looked like a throwback from the sixties in her bell bottom jeans, floral blouse, and leather sandals. Her hair was long and gray and held back with a chain of dandelions that she took off, then walked over and placed on Brant’s head.
A wistful smile slipped over her face. “Can I have him, Minnie? After all, you got the last one.”
“Jesus, Sunshine,” Minnie huffed, “that was over thirty years ago.”
Sunshine looked confused for only a second, and then she laughed. “Oh, Minnie, you’re such a tease.”
“For the love of Pete, will you two quit fawning over him and get him a chair before he passes out.” Minnie pressed her fingertips to her temples. “I need to think.”
“I’m not going to pass out,” Brant said. “All I need is a towel and the cell phone from my truck so I can call the sheriff.” He wasn’t planning on pressing charges, but he did think the sheriff needed to confiscate any guns Minnie might still have. Next time the crazy old broad could very easily blow a hole in herself.
“But you can’t do that,” Baby said. “We can’t have the sheriff coming out here. Not when we’re just getting the business started back—”
“Of course we need to call the sheriff,” Minnie cut Baby off. “But first we need to get Branston’s wound cleaned up. Sunshine, go get the stuff Doc Mathers gave us when you cut your finger. And Baby, why don’t you make us a drink? I’ll take a double, and fix our guest here a Wild Rooster.”
If possible, Baby’s eyes got even bigger. “A Wild Rooster?”
Minnie’s eyes hardened. “You heard me. After being shot, I think that’s exactly what a man needs.”
“I-if you say so, Minnie.”
Baby hurried back inside with a staccato click of heels while Sunshine offered him one more airy smile before she followed. When they were gone, Brant walked over and sat down in one of the wicker chairs.
Why he had stopped by the house on the way to his brother’s wedding was beyond him. He should’ve known that he wouldn’t find any answers here. Of course, if he was truthful with himself, he would admit that his desire to stop by Miss Hattie’s didn’t have as much to do with his family’s history as it did with the vivid dreams he’d been having. Dreams of sultry eyes that held a promise no man could refuse.
But Miss Hattie was long gone. The only thing left was a dilapidated mansion and a bunch of crazy old ladies. Which Minnie only confirmed when she rolled over to him, hooked her long nails into the hole that she’d blasted into his shirt, and almost ripped his sleeve in two.
She leaned closer. “Well, I think you’ll live. I have bunions that are bigger than that.”
Brant examined the wound and had to agree. Despite the blood, the gash was no more than a couple inches long and not very deep. Although the loony old gal had ruined his favorite tailored shirt.
“You should consider yourself lucky.” She sat back in the wheelchair and took a long drag of her cigarette, then released the smoke through her mouth and nose.
“Luck isn’t something I count on,” Brant said.
Minnie studied him through the smoke. “Then I guess we’re two peas in a pod because I don’t put much store in it, either.”
Baby came hustling back out with two glasses of amber liquid that sloshed over the rims and onto the porch. She gave one to Minnie and then offered one to him. He went to take it and realized he still held the gun. Being a bit of an antique buff, Brant had no problems recognizing it. It was a Remington derringer, more than likely made in the late eighteen hundreds. Since the gun only had twin barrels and both shots had been used on him, he felt comfortable setting it on the table before accepting the drink.
“Bottoms up,” Minnie said. She downed her drink in one gulp.
Brant took his time. A Wild Rooster turned out to be nothing more than an expensive brandy that slid easily down his throat and took the tension from his shoulders and the sting from his arm. While he sipped the drink, Baby stood over him looking anxious. Figuring it had to do with him calling the sheriff, he started to tell her that he had no intention of pressing charges when Sunshine came back out with an armload of bottles, tape, and bandages. For being a little loopy, she seemed to know a lot about first aid. While she expertly cleaned his wound and bandaged it, he set the empty glass down and got to the point of his visit.
“Have you ever heard of a man named William Cates?”
Minnie lifted one penciled-in eyebrow. “Name sounds familiar. Who is he?”
After Sunshine secured the last piece of tape, Brant leaned forward. “My great-grandfather. Supposedly he was shot here.”
Baby sucked in her breath. “You shot his grandfather, Minnie?”
Minnie held up her hands, the cigarette dangling from her lip. “Don’t look at me. I’ve only shot three men in my life—that sneaky bastard who took off with our best silver, that writer who stole our stories and never gave us a cent, and Branston here.” She looked at Brant. “When did this shootin’ take place?”
She snorted. “Lots of folks got shot back then—thus the name the Wild West.” She took another drag of her cigarette. “Is that what you’re doing here? Searching for a bit of family history?” Her eyes narrowed. “Or is it revenge that you’re after?”
The woman was perceptive. He’d give her that. Brant wanted revenge. He wanted someone or something to blame for the death that followed him like the vulture that still circled the sky. Except looking at the three old women, he realized that he wouldn’t find it here.
And maybe he wouldn’t find it at all. But that didn’t mean he would stop trying. Looking for answers about the Cates Curse was the only thing that kept him from insanity.
That and his family.
The thought of his family reminded him about his brother’s wedding. He started to get to his feet, but a wave of dizziness had him falling back in the chair.
“Feelin’ a little light-headed, are you, honey?” Minnie asked. At least, he thought it was Minnie. He was having trouble focusing. In fact, everything suddenly seemed a little fuzzy and surreal.
A hand slipped over his pectoral muscle. “So are we going to keep him, Minnie?”
Keep him? Brant pushed himself up from the chair. The ground rocked more than the deck of the fishing boat he and his brothers had rented earlier that summer.
There was a husky chuckle. “It looks like it, Sunshine. Now quit mauling him and help Baby get him upstairs.”
Brant started to say that he wasn’t staying, but his mouth wouldn’t form the words. He took a step forward and stumbled. Two arms slipped around his waist and steadied him before he was guided through the front door. From that point on, everything became a jumbled blur. A ride in an elevator. A long hallway. A soft bed with slick sheets that smelled of lilacs.
When he hit the bed, he rolled to his back and tried to focus. A woman appeared. A woman with amber eyes and piles of wavy blond hair. She floated above him, the hint of a smile on her lips.
Brant recognized her immediately, and his eyes closed.
“We shouldn’t have drugged him,” Baby whispered as she leaned closer and studied the man, who was out cold. “I bet he wouldn’t have pressed charges if we had asked real nice.”
“We couldn’t chance it,” Minnie said. “Besides, this man ain’t just here for information. He’s after something. I just haven’t figured out what yet.”
Sunshine reached out and smoothed the dark strands of hair from his forehead. “Maybe he’s like everyone else and just wants a little love.”
“He doesn’t look like he wants love to me,” Baby said. “He looks mean. And I bet he’s going to be real mad when he wakes up.”
Minnie chuckled and took a puff of her cigarette. “Now, I doubt that, Baby. There isn’t a man alive who walks out of Miss Hattie’s without a smile on his face.”
Henhouse Rule #14: When unexpected things arise… rejoice.
THE SECOND HAND OF THE WALL CLOCK ticked past the ten, then on to the eleven. Elizabeth Murphy waited until its slender arm was perfectly aligned with the black minute hand, between the one and the two of the twelve, before she got up from her chair.
“The library is now closed,” she stated in the same no-nonsense voice she’d used since first accepting the job as librarian over fifteen years earlier. It was irrelevant that not a soul was in the library to hear her. Her mother had taught her that rules and routine were what kept a person’s life on the straight and narrow.
And no one’s life was more straight and narrow than Elizabeth’s.
Without the slightest hesitation, she pushed open the gate in the circular counter and proceeded to walk down each long aisle. As she went, she tucked in protruding spines and checked for any misplaced titles.
Books were her babies.
She loved the woody, earthy smell of them. Loved the smooth, crisp feel of their pages. Loved the colorful book jackets and their straight, even spines. To a shy, awkward girl, they had been her teachers, her storytellers, her friends. To a single woman, they were her life.
She read all types of books, from nonfiction to fiction, from New York Times bestsellers to the reliable classics. If she had one fault, it was that she lost herself in a good story, forgoing sleep and food until she’d finished the last page. That was why she never started a book during the work week. But this was Saturday afternoon, the start of her weekend, so she took the time to pick out a number of books to take home. She had just selected a historical romance from the paperback rack when someone spoke from behind her.
“What kinda books are those, Ms. Murphy?”
The paperback slipped from Elizabeth’s hand as she whirled around. Kenny Gene stood there in his tight Wranglers and pressed western shirt, his eyes squinting at the cover of the book on the floor.
“That woman sorta looks like Shirlene Dalton,” he said. “Although if Shirlene paraded around with her bosom showin’ like that, not one man in Bramble would get any work done.”
Elizabeth held a hand to her chest. “You scared the daylights out of me, Kenny Gene. The library is closed. Didn’t you hear my announcement?”
His gaze flickered up from the book. “Uh, I must’ve been in the men’s room.”
She released a long sigh at the obvious lie. “Kenny, I thought we had this discussion before,” she said as she picked up the book. “If you don’t want to marry Twyla right now, you need to tell her, instead of avoiding her so you don’t have to set a date. Sooner or later, she’s going to figure out where you’ve been hiding.”
Kenny shook his head. “That’s doubtful, Ms. Murphy. The library is the last place on God’s green earth anyone would come lookin’ for me—although I gotta tell you that them Scooby-doo books are downright entertainin’.”
It was hard to keep a stern face. Of all the people in Bramble, Texas, Kenny was the most lovable.
“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying them. But that doesn’t change the fact that you need to talk with Twyla. Just tell her what you told me—that you were thinking more a long engagement than a short one.”
“That might work with someone like you, Ms. Murphy. Old maids are much more logical than ordinary women. Probably because their hopes for snaggin’ a man are slim to none.”
His words should’ve offended Elizabeth, especially since she was only thirty-seven, but she couldn’t blame him. Or any of the people in Bramble. Not when she had worked so hard to achieve her old-maid anonymity.
“But Twyla don’t think the same way as you do,” Kenny continued. “That girl is hell bent for leather on being hitched, and after three times, I’d say she’s pretty good at it.”
Elizabeth bit back a smile. “I guess that depends on your point of view, Kenny.”
“Well, her point of view is targeted on me, especially with Shirlene’s weddin’ tonight. If Twyla catches that bouquet, it’s all over for me. The town will have us hitched by winter.”
She couldn’t argue the point. The folks of Bramble loved weddings as much as they loved football. And everyone knew how much Texans loved their football.
Kenny’s eyes took on a speculative gleam. “ ’Course, I wouldn’t have to worry so much if some other woman caught it.”
He did an excited little hop that looked like he needed to go to the men’s room after all. “You could catch the bouquet, Ms. Murphy, and then Twyla might think it was fate and be willin’ to give me a little more time.”
“Oh, no.” Elizabeth held up a hand. “It’s bad enough that I’m forced to stand there with all the young girls. I’m certainly not going to make an effort to catch it. I have no desire to get married.”
“Well, of course you don’t,” Kenny said. “And you won’t have to. No one will expect you to find a man.”
She ignored the insult and shook her head. “I’d love to help you out, Kenny, but I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Just think about it, won’t you?” Kenny begged. “All I’m asking for is another year of freedom.”
It was hard to ignore his plea, especially when she enjoyed her own single status so much. “I’ll think about it.” She waved a hand toward the glass doors. “But for now, you need to let me close up so we can get ready for the wedding.”
Exactly fifteen minutes later, Elizabeth stood outside the double glass doors of the library. After checking them twice to be sure they were locked, she slipped the keys in the side pocket of her tote bag and headed home.
Her house was not more than a few blocks from the library, a pretty little yellow brick single-story with a picket fence and a festoon of colorful mums growing in the flowerbeds. The front gate got stuck when she tried to open it, and she made a mental note to buy some WD-40 at the hardware store on Monday. Once inside the front door, she was greeted by a soft meow as a warm, furry body pressed against her legs.
“Hello, Atticus. Did you miss me?” she asked as she leaned down to stroke the cat’s soft orange fur.
Atticus allowed her fawning for only a few seconds before he headed for the kitchen cupboard where she kept the food. At a good six pounds overweight, he had always been more interested in Meow Mix than her affection.
After feeding the cat and refilling his water dish, Elizabeth walked back into the living room to get her tote bag. The wedding was hours away. She’d have plenty of time to get in some reading before she had to get ready. Unfortunately, after deciding on a book, she made the mistake of checking her cell phone for messages. There was only one. One breathy message that completely obliterated her plans.
“Lizzie? You need to get out here. And quick.”
The drive that normally took her close to an hour took only forty-five minutes, during which Elizabeth envisioned all kinds of catastrophes. Which explained why she was so surprised when she walked into the kitchen of Miss Hattie’s Henhouse and found three women calmly going about their business. Minnie was sitting in her wheelchair playing solitaire at the table. Sunshine was sitting on the floor contorted in some kind of weird yoga pose. And Baby was standing at the stove, stirring something in a saucepan and staring up at the ceiling.
“What’s the emergency?” Elizabeth asked as she looked around for signs of fire, flooding, or robbery.
“The Realtor came by on Tuesday,” Minnie said nonchalantly.
Elizabeth released her breath and dropped her tote bag to the floor. “That’s it? The reason you had me drive all the way out here was to tell me that the Realtor came by?” She glanced over at Baby, but Baby quickly looked back up at the ceiling.
“That is an emergency.” Minnie took another drag of her cigarette, her eyes squinting through the smoke. “I told you we weren’t leaving.” She gave Elizabeth the once-over. “Where in the hell do you get those ugly suits?”
Elizabeth wasn’t the kind of person who lost her patience, but the last six months of dealing with Minnie was more than anyone should have to endure. Still, she took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.
“We can’t hold on to this house, Minnie. Your social security checks put together won’t even cover the gas bills for the winter.” She waved a hand around. “Just look at this place. It’s falling down around your ears, and it would take more money than any of us have to fix it. So, yes, I’m selling it.”
The wheelchair zipped away from the table and straight toward her. But Minnie had pulled the stunt before, and Elizabeth wasn’t falling for it. She stood her ground, even when the wheels of the chair came within inches of the toes of her conservative brown lace-ups.
“Let me tell you something, girlie.” Minnie shook a gnarled finger at her. “You might’ve inherited the house, but your ancestors would be rollin’ over in their graves if they knew you were plannin’ on throwin’ out their sister hens!”
Hens. Elizabeth cringed. She had come to hate the word. So much so, that she’d sworn off chicken, eggs, and feather pillows.
“So what do you expect me to do?” she said. “You want me to just let you live here until they turn off the utilities? Until you’re forced to eat cat food—again?”
“That happened only once,” Minnie said. “And only because Sunshine mistook it for a can of tuna.”
Sunshine giggled. “Cathouse. Cat food.”
“So are you telling me that you weren’t almost starving by the time the lawyer finally located me?” Elizabeth asked.
“No.” Minnie rolled back over to the table and snuffed out her cigarette. “I’ll admit that we were pretty close to eating the mice that have taken over the attic. But the hens and I would’ve been just fine if you hadn’t showed up. In fact, we just came up with a new plan.”
“A plan?” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Is this plan similar to the one about starting your own line of lingerie?”
“That one would’ve worked,” Minnie said, “if I hadn’t let Baby come up with the slogan. ‘Nighties that will entice your man to take his choo-choo on a ride in your tunnel.’ What the hell does that mean?”
“Speaking of choo-choos…” Sunshine stretched a leg up over her head, something Elizabeth was quite certain she couldn’t do now, let alone when she turned seventy. “Can I go upstairs now, Min? You said I could do it later? It’s later. Right?”
Minnie shook her head. “In a little while, Sunshine. Right now we need to make sure Lizzie is in.”
Elizabeth heaved a sigh and sat down in a chair. As much as she wanted to sell the house and completely forget her connection to Miss Hattie’s, she also couldn’t stand the thought of kicking the three women out of a home they loved.
“So what’s this great plan, Minnie?”
Numerous cards were played and another cigarette lit before the ornery old woman finally spoke. “We’re reopening the henhouse.”
“Excuse me?” Elizabeth leaned closer, figuring she’d misunderstood. “Reopening as in selling sex?”
Minnie’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what that crazy mama of yours told you, but the hens never sold sex in their lives—that’s what prostitutes and whores do. The henhouse was a place where men could come to be pampered and loved.” She shrugged. “And if they wanted to show their appreciation with money and gifts that was their decision. Miss Hattie never spoke of money. And neither did any of the hens.”
“Which might explain why you don’t have any now,” Elizabeth couldn’t help adding.
Taking another drag of her cigarette, Minnie flipped a queen of diamonds down on the king of spades. “Did you realize that, unlike the Chicken Ranch, the henhouse was never closed down? We remained open until the last rooster flew the coop. Age is what screwed us up. Nobody wants an old hen when they can have a spring chicken.” She tapped a crooked nail on the table. “ ’Course, the spring chickens can’t just be anyone. Hen blood is either in you, or it ain’t.” Her eyes narrowed on Elizabeth. “And I’m havin’ my doubts about you, Lizzie.”
With a roll of her eyes, Elizabeth got up from the chair. “I’m selling the house, Minnie. But I give you my word that I’ll help you and the hens find a good place to live.”
“You’re not leaving.” Baby turned from the stove with a desperate look on her face. “You can’t go yet.” Her gaze wandered up to the ceiling.
“Let her go.” Minnie reshuffled the cards, the cigarette drooping from her lip. “We should’ve never contacted her in the first place.”
Elizabeth wished they hadn’t either. Unfortunately, there was no going back. Ignoring the hens would be like leaving three blind kittens in a burning building. Someone had to watch out for the insane women. Elizabeth just wished it wasn’t her.
“The Realtor will be back next week,” she said as she headed to the side kitchen door. “And stop smoking, Minnie. If you don’t kill yourself, your secondhand smoke is going to kill Sunshine and Baby.”
“It will take more than a little smoke to kill us hens,” Minnie huffed.
She probably had a point. The three would no doubt outlive most of the population of Texas.
The sun had just started to slip beneath the horizon as Elizabeth made her way around the front of the house to her car. Sunsets in west Texas were spectacular, but she didn’t take the time to enjoy the vibrant splashes of color. If she hurried, she would have just enough time to change and get to the First Baptist Church before the wedding started. She’d just as soon skip the festivities and go home and read. But if she didn’t attend, questions would arise. And all she needed was the townsfolk finding out about her connection to Miss Hattie’s.
Unfortunately, before she even got to her car, a thought struck her. Why would Sunshine want to go upstairs when the only things upstairs were mice and empty rooms? Elizabeth might’ve attributed the desire to a brain that had been fried by too many drugs in the Sixties if Minnie hadn’t acted like she knew exactly what Sunshine was talking about.
And if Baby hadn’t acted so strange, looking up at the ceiling constantly.
An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of her stomach as Elizabeth glanced up at the second story. A part of her brain told her to ignore the feeling and get out of there. But the logical part of her brain reminded her that her name was on the deed, which meant she was liable for whatever craziness the hens had come up with. Not wanting to get in another argument with Minnie, Elizabeth decided to slip in the front door and tiptoe up the long staircase.
She had never been upstairs before, partly because the hens lived downstairs and partly because of Minnie’s mice stories. It was a creepy place, filled with dark shadows and creaking floorboards. She didn’t find any mice, but she did find numerous rooms—all of which were empty.
All except for the corner room.
Elizabeth pushed open the double doors, and her breath caught. While the rest of the house had minimal furniture, this room was filled to the rafters. She didn’t know a lot about antiques, but the items in the room looked like they would send the appraisers on Antiques Roadshow into conniption fits. No wonder Sunshine had wanted to come upstairs. The room was like stepping back in time. There were plush Oriental rugs, museum-quality paintings, heavy brass lamps with stained-glass shades, and beautiful dressers and chests that gleamed in the last rays of the setting sun.
But nothing compared to the huge four-poster bed that covered one entire wall. The exquisitely carved headboard was made of dark walnut, as were the thick posts that came within inches of the high ceiling. Red-and-gold brocade draped from the canopy, partially concealing a mattress that had to be a good three feet from the floor.
Regardless of all the horror stories her mother had told her over the years, Elizabeth found herself completely and utterly enthralled by the massive piece of furniture. This wasn’t just a bed. This was the bed. The same bed where the most famous prostitute in Texas history had slept—or not slept. A bed that had entertained outlaws and politicians alike. A bed that some museum curators would give their eyeteeth to have. And there Elizabeth stood not more than ten feet away from it.
Make that seven feet.
She slid a hand down the brocade curtains and stared in at the rumpled black satin sheets. What kind of wickedness had transpired here? What kind of depravity? What kind of fun?
Before Elizabeth knew it, she had pushed back the curtain and slipped inside the shadowy cocoon. The mattress was not too soft or too hard, the sheets cool to the touch. She eased down to the pillows and breathed deeply. The smell of lilacs wasn’t surprising. Being Miss Hattie’s signature scent, it had been worn by all hens, past and present. But the other scent baffled her. It was an earthy scent that she couldn’t quite place.
Attached to the canopy was a huge mirror. A mirror painted with a mural of a beautiful woman in a seductive red dressing gown. The painting completely obscured the dowdy old maid in the ugly gray suit, leaving only the other side of the bed visible. It wasn’t hard to imagine the shape of a man’s body beneath the rumpled satin sheets. Or hear his deep, steady breathing. Was he a filthy rich oil man? A lonely cowboy fresh off the trail? Or possibly a handsome hero straight from the pages of a historical romance?
As she gave her imagination full rein, a dark head separated from the black satin of the pillow and a deep voice rumbled next to her ear.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
Henhouse Rule #8: A man in the hand is worth two in the bush.
IT TOOK A HAND SETTLING OVER HER WAIST for Elizabeth to snap out of the fantasy her mind had conjured up. By that time, it was too late. The strong fingers tightened, and she was pulled toward a man who looked more like a villain than a hero. Hair as black and satiny as the sheets framed a face of hard angles and sapphire eyes that gleamed with a look that could only be described as dangerous and… hot.
Elizabeth might not pay as much attention to men as Twyla, but she knew an attractive man when she saw one. There was Slate Calhoun with his golden hair and hazel eyes. Colt Lomax with his muscular body and intriguing tattoos. And Bubba Wilkes Cates with his country boy charm. But this man beat them all out, and she couldn’t quite put her finger on the reason why.
He wasn’t handsome in the classical sense. His jaw was a little too pronounced, his lips too firm, his forehead too high, and his eyes too deeply set. Yet there was something in those sapphire eyes that unsettled her. A look that reminded her of her cat, Atticus, when he had arrived at her door soaking wet and starving.
The man dipped his head, and she realized she’d been right. He was starving. It just wasn’t for food. His mouth settled over hers in a hungry glide that sent a zap of heat zinging straight through her body to the crotch of the 99-cent panties she’d gotten on sale at J.C. Penney.
This was no sloppy, inexperienced kiss like she’d gotten from Jeffrey Hunt in high school. Or the distracted, obligatory kisses she got from Marvin Migler in college. No, this man kissed like an expert who had been doing it for a lifetime—and liked doing it. His lips were hot, skilled, and consuming. So much so, that before Elizabeth even realized it, she was kissing him back and trying to remember why she shouldn’t be.
A low growl came from the hard, naked chest pressed against her button-up blouse, vibrating through her mouth like a mating call. He pulled back, and she barely had time to suck in a deep breath before her skirt was being pushed up and her panties tugged down.
At this point, she needed to put a stop to things and take control of the situation. Except it was hard to take control when a warm hand skated up her thigh and one finger flicked across sensitive flesh. A sound came out of her mouth that was a mixture between a squawk and a moan. She tried to shove his hand away, but he only gave her another mind-fragmenting kiss that, this time, included the slick thrust of tongue. She resurfaced from the sensual onslaught to discover that he’d rolled completely on top of her. Hard, muscular thighs pressed into her soft ones. But it wasn’t the hard thighs she noticed as much as his hard-on. A hard-on that was trying to nudge its way in between her legs. The realization that she was about to have sex with a complete stranger finally penetrated her brain, and she pulled away from his scorching lips.
“Stop this instant,” she said in her most authoritative voice. But he didn’t listen as well as the students from Bramble Elementary. He continued to try to ease her tightly clamped legs apart with his knee, while he kissed a trail of fire down her chin and over to the sensitive skin behind her ear.
“Don’t deny me, Miss Hattie,” he whispered. “I need you.”
Well, that explained a lot. This man was convinced that Miss Hattie’s was open for business. And Elizabeth knew exactly who had done the convincing. Of course, she hadn’t helped matters by getting so caught up in her fantasies about Miss Hattie’s bed that she’d allowed him to take liberties. And not just allowed, but participated.
Still, it was time to bring the illusion to an end.
Realizing that it would take more than words to get the man out of his sexual trance, she waited for him to lift his head before she slapped him hard across the face. The blue eyes that stared back at her showed no signs he’d even registered the slap. In fact, now that she noticed, his eyes looked strange. Even as twilight settled over the room, his pupils remained tiny pinpricks of black.
Obviously, the man was stoned out of his mind. No doubt on alcohol the hens had given him. Since this wasn’t the first time Elizabeth had had to deal with an inebriated man, she knew just what to do. You couldn’t reason with a drunk, but you could certainly outthink them.
She ran a finger over his lips. “And I need you too, honey.” She tried to do her best impersonation of Shirlene Dalton, who everyone knew could flirt any man into submission. “But before I…” She tried to think of some naughty phrase for sex, but only one popped into her head. “Take your choo-choo on a ride through my tunnel, I need to get you some protection. You wouldn’t want to risk getting a nasty STD, now would you?”
The STD part seemed to work. After only a slight hesitation, he rolled away, and Elizabeth scrambled off the bed. She made a show of opening up the nightstand drawer, which did happen to be filled with condoms. Condoms and all kinds of phallic-shaped things.
She slammed the drawer closed again. “Nope, not a condom in sight.” She backed toward the door, struggling to keep her gaze away from the miles of muscle and hard, naked male. “Let me just run downstairs, and I’ll be right back.”
The man was drunk, but he was no fool. He lunged for her. Elizabeth started to make a run for it when the distinct clink of metal chain had her turning back around. He was stretched at an awkward angle, one arm reaching out and the other held back by the metal wrapped around his wrist.
“Oh my god.” The words slipped from her mouth. “They handcuffed you?”
He looked confused for only a second before he growled and yanked his wrist, causing the sturdy headboard to shudder. Worried he was going to hurt himself, she took a few steps closer, and, for the first time, noticed the bandage on the arm that wasn’t shackled. It made her feel even more sympathetic toward him and angry at the hens for taking advantage of an injured man.
“It’s okay.” She held up a hand. “Please don’t hurt yourself anymore. I promise I’ll have you free in no time.” She was out the door and halfway down the stairs before she realized that it probably wouldn’t be smart to release an angry drunk on a houseful of women.
Then again, maybe it was exactly what the crazy old ladies needed to knock some sense into their heads.
The hens were right where she’d left them: Minnie playing solitaire, Baby nervously stirring the boiling pot, and Sunshine sitting on the floor. They all looked up when Elizabeth entered.
“I thought you’d be gone back to your boring life in Bramble by now,” Minnie said as she rearranged a column of cards.
Elizabeth tried to keep her voice steady and her patience intact. “Would someone care to explain why there is a man upstairs handcuffed to the bed?”
Minnie didn’t even look up from the cards. “About as much as you’d like to explain why you’re still a virgin.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath and slowly released it. “That’s not what we’re talking about.”
“Well, it should be,” Minnie said. “Your virginity is a topic that should’ve been addressed a long time ago. If it had been, you wouldn’t be down here discussing the handsome cowboy upstairs, but in bed enjoying him. Although from the look of your clothes and hair, I’d say you already did some enjoying.”
Sunshine jumped to her feet. “But you said I could have him, Minnie!”
“ ’Course you can have him, Sunshine. Just as soon as Virgin Lizzie is done with him. She needs him much more than you do.”
“No one is getting him!” Elizabeth said, much louder than she intended. “He is a human being, not some kind of stray animal that you found in the road.” She paused. “Where did you find him, anyway?”
Minnie shot her an exasperated look. “That’s a stupid question if ever I’ve heard one. Men have always found Hattie’s.”
She had a point, which meant the man wasn’t exactly innocent. He’d come looking to participate in illegal activities so he probably had gotten what he deserved. Still, they couldn’t keep him prisoner.
Elizabeth pointed a finger at Minnie. “You’re going to give me the key to his handcuffs so I can release him. And Baby, you’re going to make him some strong coffee so we can sober him up before we send him on his way.” She glanced over at the clock on the stove. There was no way she would make the wedding, but if she hurried she could make the reception and no one would be the wiser. She should’ve known that things wouldn’t be that easy.
“I’m afraid we can’t do that,” Minnie said.
Elizabeth slammed her hands on her hips and stared the women down like she did all the children who refused to look for their lost library books. “And just why not?”
“Because,” Baby said in her breathy voice, “if we let him go, he’ll call the sheriff for sure.”
“They aren’t going to throw Minnie into jail for handcuffing a man to the bed.”
“Not for the handcuffing,” Baby said. “For the drugging and shooting.”
There was a moment when Elizabeth felt like she might pass out. Her head got all light and airy, and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. It was Sunshine who found a brown paper bag. Sunshine who set Elizabeth down and held the bag over her mouth, telling her to take deep, even breaths. Minnie just continued to play cards while Baby looked on with wide, scared eyes.
When she finally felt less faint, Elizabeth pushed the bag away. “You drugged the man and then shot him?”
Minnie tipped her head. “Technically, I shot him and then Baby drugged him.”
“But she didn’t shoot him on purpose, Lizzie,” Baby clarified as she wrung her hands. “It was an accident. After that, we had to drug him. We can’t have him calling the police, not when the henhouse is going to reopen.”
Elizabeth grabbed the paper bag from Sunshine and breathed into it for a full five minutes until the bag was soggy and limp, then she pulled it away from her mouth and reached for the cell phone in her tote bag.
“And what do you think you’re doin’?” Minnie asked.
“I’m doing what that man upstairs will do when we let him go. I’m calling the sheriff. This craziness of yours has gone on long enough, Minnie. It’s time we put a stop to it. You can’t go around shooting and drugging men.” She’d punched two buttons on her phone by the time Minnie spoke.
“You go right ahead and do that, Lizzie. I’m sure Sheriff Hicks will come hauling butt out here lickety split. ’Course, he won’t be the only one. Once news gets out, reporters will flock here like a bunch of geese heading south for the winter. And it won’t be a shooting and drugging that interests them.” She bracketed her gnarled fingers and held them up as if reading a headline. “Extra. Extra. Read all about it. Virgin Librarian Takes Over Miss Hattie’s and Handcuffs Man to Bed!”
The phone slipped from Elizabeth’s fingers and hit the floor. “But I didn’t handcuff him.”
“No, but it won’t make any difference. You’re the one who owns Miss Hattie’s.” She smiled. “The one who has all the rights and responsibilities.”
Elizabeth slumped down in her chair as the truth of Minnie’s words sank in.
She couldn’t call the sheriff. If word got out about the shooting, it would also get out about her connection to the henhouse. And then where would she be? She’d lose her job at the library, and, without a job, she’d be forced to leave Bramble and her quiet, comfortable life. And she wouldn’t be the only one who suffered. Her mother would become the gossip of her Bunco club. Everything they’d striven to keep quiet would be out for the world to dissect.
While Elizabeth’s world shattered before her eyes, Minnie flipped down a card and held up her dark-veined hands.
“Ten thousand five hundred and twenty-two wins! That should get in Guinness World Records.”
Something boiled up inside of Elizabeth. Something mean and ugly and… liberating. It flooded her entire body and caused her nerves to tingle and her face to fill with blood. Just that quickly, she reached out and swiped her hand across the table, sending the cards flying.
“I don’t care about some stupid solitaire record. I care that you’ve succeeded in ruining my life, you crazy old bat!”
Baby’s, and even Sunshine’s, eyes grew as big as saucers while Minnie only cackled.
“I knew there was hot hen blood in you. All it needed was a little nudge.”
Henhouse Rule #35: Never run from the law, just seduce it.
“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, Ms. Murphy.”
Elizabeth froze as her heart moved up to her throat. She slowly turned to find Sheriff Winslow standing not more than five feet away, the colored lights over the dance floor reflecting off the shiny, silver badge pinned to his chest.
He tipped his head, and the brim of his large, tan cowboy hat dipped. “You don’t think I was gonna let you get away that easily, do ya?”
She swallowed hard and tried to speak, but it was hard when images of cold jail cells and women with tattoos and crew cuts paraded through her mind.
“You did the deed,” he continued, “and now you have to pay the piper.”
But she really hadn’t done the deed. Three crazy old women had done the deed. Three crazy old women who had talked her into returning to Bramble as if nothing had happened. But how could a person be expected to smile and act as if everything was hunky-dory when there was a naked cowboy handcuffed to Miss Hattie’s bed? It had been foolish to even think she could pull it off.
Now she would have to pay for that foolishness.
She cleared her throat. “I realize it was wrong, but I can explain.”
“Wrong?” Sheriff Winslow said. “You’re danged right it’s wrong.”
Sheriff Winslow held something out, and Elizabeth figured karma had come back to haunt her. She had allowed a man to be abducted and now she would get her turn. Except when the sheriff stepped closer, she realized that it wasn’t handcuffs he held in his hand. It was a large bouquet of ugly silk flowers.
“You can’t catch the darn thing and then just race off without takin’ it with you,” he said.
Elizabeth’s shoulders sagged as her breath escaped in one long sigh of relief. “O-Of course, I don’t want to forget these.” She took the heavy arrangement of flowers.
Sheriff Winslow removed his hat and scratched his head. “It was shore a surprise when you went after those flowers like a dog after a rib eye. No one much thought about you wantin’ to catch a man.”
Elizabeth hadn’t gone after anything. The only reason she’d been on the dance floor was because the townsfolk had shoved her out there, led by a beaming Kenny Gene, and the only thing she’d been thinking about catching was the first plane out of Texas. The bouquet hadn’t even crossed her mind until it came straight at her like a softball fast-pitch. She had no choice but to reach out and catch it. Now, standing there staring at the sheriff’s wide grin, she realized that she’d made yet another miscalculation. The first, thinking she could help out a bunch of ornery old hens.
“So what are you doin’ tomorrow?” Sheriff Winslow asked.
It was a good question. One she didn’t have the answer to. Most Sundays would find her in the fifth row of the First Baptist Church. But just the thought of staring up at the large wooden cross and listening to Pastor Robbins’s sermon while an innocent man suffered who knew what kind of “hen-trocities” was more than Elizabeth could endure.
“I might go visit my mother in Amarillo,” she said, her voice quivering only slightly. It was a lie. There was no way Elizabeth would go and visit her mother. Like most moms, Harriett Murphy had a way of ferreting out the truth. And if she ever discovered that Elizabeth had been out to Miss Hattie’s, prison would be the least of Elizabeth’s worries.
“Amarillo, huh?” Sheriff Winslow shook his head. “Well, that’s a shame. Myra was hopin’ you could come over to dinner on Monday night and meet her cousin, Jethro. He ain’t much upstairs, but I figure you got enough up there for both of you.”
Before Elizabeth could graciously decline the offer, Mayor Harley Sutter came hustling up with his handlebar mustache and big belly bouncing. “Now you aren’t leavin’ yet, are you, Ms. Murphy? I realize the bride and groom are gone, but that doesn’t mean the party’s over. Why, the band is just warmin’—”
“ ’Course she’s not leavin’,” Darla cut in. “My brother, Bud, was just gettin’ ready to ask her for a dance.”
“I don’t think so, Darla.” Kenny Gene joined the crowd that was forming around Elizabeth. “I just saw Bud drivin’ like a bat out of hell down Grover Road.” He flashed a smile and wink at Elizabeth, looking as happy as a convict on parole day.
“She don’t want Bud, anyway,” Cindy Lynn chimed in. “Not when she can have my Uncle Wilbur.” She looked around. “Where did he go, anyway? I sent him to get her a cup of punch.”
“At least Bud has a full set of his own teeth,” Darla shot back. “Wilbur hasn’t been able to eat steak for the last eight years.”
Cindy rammed her fists on her hips. “Well, you can’t expect to get Robert Pattinson when you’re Meryl Streep.”
Elizabeth stared at the group of people who surrounded her. It seemed that Kenny Gene was wrong. Once her fingers had closed around the thick, ribbon-bound stem of the artificial flowers, the townsfolk had stopped viewing her as an old maid who was content with her single life and had started viewing her as a prime candidate for their matchmaking. A few days ago, she would’ve been appalled at the idea. Now, she was more worried about spending the rest of her life making license plates.
“Meryl can have any man she wants.” Rachel Dean appeared with a young cowboy on her arm. “Now a days, younger men are goin’ for the older women.” She smiled up at the man and winked. “Ain’t they, honey?”
“Only if they’re as good-lookin’ as you, Ms. Rachel.” The cowboy flashed a smile that had all the women sighing.
Excerpted from Trouble in Texas by Katie Lane Copyright © 2012 by Katie Lane. Excerpted by permission.
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