Aunt Lillian was too embarrassed to tell her friends what had truly become of her niece. They all thought Sadie had gone to the big city and become a receptionist, suitable work for a young lady looking for a husband.
Pushing thirty—hard—wasn’t young, and Sadie didn’t want a husband. Almost been there, almost done that.
Lillian grinned and winked. “Hurry up. You know how early the fishermen show up for breakfast.”
Once Sadie was sitting on the edge of the hard mattress, relatively awake, Lillian rushed from the room with a parting suggestion that her niece get crackin’.
Sadie crawled off the bed certain that she’d been tricked. Lillian wasn’t all that desperate for help. She had just needed a free waitress during the one month a year that Garth was literally jumpin’. Only three weeks to the Miranda Lake Big Bass Festival, which arrived every October complete with parade, craft fair and—of course—bass tournament.
Since Uncle Jimmy’s death four years earlier, Lillian had managed the Yellow Rose Motel, and the café across the parking lot, with the help of Jennifer and a few longtime employees. But one of those longtime employees had broken his leg last week, and another had gone and gotten herself pregnant a few months back. Lillian swore she couldn’t hire just anyone. It took time and patience to find just the right person for the job.
Patience. Something Sadie did not possess.
There were financial problems, as well as a waitress shortage. A loan had come due, and for some reason the loan officer at the bank was being particularly stubborn. Financial problems Sadie could handle, though Lillian had put her foot down where a personal loan was concerned. She just wanted Sadie to meet with Aidan Hearn and reason with him. If she didn’t know better, she’d think her staunch aunt was afraid of the man.
She’d tried to get that chore out of the way yesterday afternoon, immediately after her arrival. But Hearn’s airhead secretary had insisted that the loan officer could not possibly see her without an appointment. It would be Thursday before he could squeeze her in. Two more days!
Once the financial concerns were taken care of, would Lillian let her niece go? Or did she think this waitress job that called Sadie out of bed at an ungodly hour was—horrors—permanent? Why hire a stranger when Sadie Harlow was the biggest sucker this side of the Mississippi?
The atrocious pink uniform dropped over her head. It was two sizes too big, at least. And closer inspection showed that someone else’s name had previously been in the spot where Sadie was now embroidered in red. Not only was she wearing the ugliest uniform imaginable, it was a hand-me-down.
She opened her bedside drawer and eyed the pistol there. The sight eased her. The well-oiled weapon had a soothing kind of beauty, caught in the light of the bedside lamp. For the past five years, Sadie hadn’t gone many places without that weapon close at hand. You only had to get in a jam once to get itchy about having some sort of protection nearby. No wonder she found the small pistol beautiful.
But there was no good place to conceal the weapon in the bubble-gum-pink uniform and thigh holsters were so damn uncomfortable. Maybe she didn’t need to have her pistol within reach, for a change. There was nowhere on the planet safer than Garth, Alabama. The small town was quiet. Peaceful. Dull. Which is why Sadie had been so anxious to leave her home town eleven years ago.
She left her pistol in the bedside drawer and settled for a pocket knife, which sat heavily in a deep, very pink pocket.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Sadie muttered as she walked down the stairs, again with only one eye open. That slit between tired lids was just enough to see where she was going as she made her way down to the motel lobby where Conrad Hudson—who helped out a couple of days a week and much preferred working nights—manned the desk. He’d been there last night, when Sadie had finally gone to bed. He greeted her in an annoyingly energetic voice. She grunted a surly good morning and stepped into the parking lot.
The Banks family lived above the front office and lobby, and had for as long as Sadie could remember. Right now only Jennifer and Lillian lived there, but in the old days the apartment had been crowded. Aunt Lillian and Uncle Jimmy, cousins Jennifer and Johnny. And then Sadie had come along to make everyone uncomfortable and to crowd the conditions even more.
She’d hated coming here after her mother’s death. Orphaned, grieving and different, she had realized right away that she did not fit in well. Little Jennifer and her big brother Johnny had been blond and happy, good students who had lots of friends, while Sadie had barged in with tangled dark hair, shell-shocked by her mother’s sudden passing and filled with an anger she couldn’t explain away.
It had been just Sadie and her mother for so long, since Peter Harlow had died when his only child was a baby. To be thrust into family life was an additional shock all its own. Aunt Lillian had done everything possible to make the new member of her family feel like this place was home. And it had been, for a while.
But Sadie had left Garth as soon as possible after high school graduation. Had she been running away? Sure she had, though she hadn’t known it at the time. She had run from the family who had taken her in, certain that somewhere out there was a place for her. A place where she didn’t always feel different. A place where she fit. She’d dedicated herself to college for a few years, though she’d never found an area of study that she could fully embrace. She had about decided she’d be a career student, always at loose ends.
Then Spencer Mayfield had come along, with his slick ways and his “friendship” and his smooth seduction.
She’d come so close to actually marrying Spencer. The wedding date had been a mere two months away when she’d discovered that she wasn’t his only “friend.” Just as well. She really didn’t want to go through life as Sadie Mae Mayfield.
The only men she trusted these days were her coworkers—Santana, Mangino, Cal, Murphy…even the Major. It had taken her a long time, but she’d finally found a place where she felt as if she truly fit in. And she didn’t need anything else. The fact that she was the only female in a group of difficult men didn’t faze her.
Sadie walked across the parking lot, yawning as she went, her white tennis shoes shuffling on the asphalt. Even though her coming here years ago had been sudden and tragic, in an unexpected way Garth still felt like home. Lillian and Jennifer were family. She had put down a few delicate and deep roots in her time here, but that didn’t mean she wanted those roots to grow stronger and tie her to the place.
This afternoon she’d visit the bank without an appointment and have a word with Hearn about extending the loan. After that, she’d hire at least two new employees and see them settled in. And then, if she was very lucky, someone else would get themselves kidnapped and she’d be called away on urgent business.
Three days, tops, and she’d be outta here.
Why were so many people actually awake at five in the morning? Dressed and disgustingly cheerful, the patrons of Lillian’s Café smiled and talked and…ugh, was that guy flirting with her? Did he have something in his eye or was he winking at her? She was in no mood. Maybe that was the customer Jennifer had spilled coffee on. Sadie hoped so.
She moved from booth to booth to table, pouring coffee without spilling a drop. She scribbled breakfast orders on a notepad and quickly squelched any unwanted overtures. The place was packed. Aunt Lillian worked behind the counter, and Bowie Keegan, a thin, short-haired young man who was the latest in a long line of short-order cooks, worked the grill. Sadie was the one who ended up scurrying from one end of the room to the other, trying to take care of all the tables while Lillian handled the counter and some of the cooking. Sadie did the best she could. If someone didn’t get exactly what they ordered, well, they did get fed. At this ungodly hour, they should be grateful.
She glanced down at the customer in the booth, a man in a sharp khaki uniform, a deputy who grinned widely at her. That smile was familiar, in an odd way. Wicked and cocky and…Truman McCain. Please, not now.
“No,” she said as she poured Truman a cup of coffee. “No Sadie here.” She wore no makeup, was draped in a hideous pink waitress uniform that was two sizes too large, and she had a terrible case of bed-head. This was no way to run into the guy she’d had a crush on during her impressionable fifteenth and sixteenth years. Not that Truman, who had been her cousin Johnny’s best friend since they were five, had ever given Sadie the time of day. “You must have me confused with someone else.”
He pointed at her breast. “It says Sadie right there.”
“You look vaguely familiar,” he teased.
“I get that from a lot of people. Are you ready to order?”
Truman just smiled. Why did he have to look so good? A good three years past thirty he still had all his hair, which was a lovely warm brown that curled a little at the ends, just as she remembered. His eyes remained undulled by time. They were a fabulous shade of blue—not too dark, not too light—that seemed to see right through her. He was bigger, wider in the shoulders and maybe a little taller, though it was hard to tell with him sitting in the booth that way. He just seemed… larger than she remembered.
The man who had provided her with the most humiliating moment of her life should not have aged so well. It just wasn’t fair.
“Do you need a few more minutes to decide?” she asked.
He ordered the special and she walked away, too aware that his eyes were on her legs that needed shaving, her too-big uniform, and her tangled hair. Her ill-advised return home was not getting any better.
Truman’s smile faded as he watched Sadie walk away. He hadn’t thought much about Sadie Harlow, at least not recently. She must’ve had a rough time of it. Poor thing, she didn’t look so good. She was pale and there were circles under her eyes. And she must’ve lost weight. That dress hung on her.
The legs beneath that dress were not so bad, though, he mused as his gaze landed there.
He knew damn well she hadn’t forgotten him, even if it had been more than eleven years since he’d seen her. If nothing else, the sheer terror in her eyes when she’d recognized him had given her away.
She delivered his breakfast without looking him in the eye, letting the heavy white plate laden with eggs and grits and biscuits land on the table too hard. His check followed, slapped onto the table near the edge. He mumbled a polite thanks and let her walk away. Whatever happened to forgive and forget?
Truman took his time with his breakfast, watching the sun come up. It would be another slow day, he imagined. Most of his days as a deputy for this small Alabama county were. There was crime here, there just wasn’t much of it. And it was minor stuff, usually. Some days he felt more like an errand boy than a deputy. He changed tires, picked up prescriptions for a couple of the old folks who didn’t—or shouldn’t—drive, and kept kids out of trouble. He broke up the occasional fight, and had driven home more than his share of drunks. It wasn’t the life he’d planned for himself, but he liked it. Most days.
Breakfast finished, he slid out of the booth, taking care with his right leg as he always did. His limp had improved so it was barely noticeable. Or maybe he was just getting used to it. He dropped a bill on the table.
As he approached the counter, his check and a five-dollar bill in hand, Lillian gave him a wide smile. “’Morning, Deputy Truman,” she said brightly. “Was everything all right?”
“Wonderful as usual,” he said as he handed over his check, waiting as she opened the register and counted out his change. Behind Lillian, Sadie wiped furiously at the counter and kept her head down—and her back to him. On purpose? Surely not. While Lillian placed his change in the palm of his hand Sadie escaped, taking the long way around the counter and wiping down recently vacated tables. She put an awful lot of energy into cleaning those tables, Truman noticed as he headed for the door.
“Have a nice day, Miz Lillian.” Truman pushed against the glass door and glanced over his shoulder. “You, too, Sadie Mae,” he said, casting a grin at her back.
He was still grinning when she flew out the door, not ten seconds behind him. “What is this?” she asked.
He turned around to find Sadie waving a five-dollar bill in his face. She didn’t look so tired and worn-out anymore. There was color in her cheeks, fire in her eyes, and instead of being simply tangled, her dark hair looked sexy and wild. He liked it. It struck him at that moment that Sadie Harlow had grown up quite nicely.