The Magnolia Inn Page 3

“That would require a miracle, but same to you, sir.” The veteran couldn’t know that happiness hadn’t been in Tucker’s world in a very long time.

“Amen to that.” The man disappeared into the darkness.

Tucker picked up a six-pack of beer and a small bottle of whiskey. Tomorrow was a holiday. That meant no one would be purchasing liquor that day, and he damn sure didn’t want to run out. The lady behind the counter tallied up the price. He wasn’t surprised that she didn’t ask for his ID. With the crow’s-feet around his blue eyes, he looked every bit of his thirty-seven years and felt twenty years older. Tucker stuck his credit card into the chip reader and waited for the beep telling him to remove it. The gold wedding band on his left hand caught his eye as he put the card back in his wallet. If Melanie were still with him, they’d be celebrating the coming of a new year in a totally different way.

“Happy New Year.” The lady looked over his shoulder to the next customer.

“You, too.” He picked up his purchases and carried them to his truck. He was tempted to get out a beer right then and drink it warm. But drinking while driving was what had gotten him thrown off the Dallas police force. The very next day he’d visited Melanie’s graveside and given her his word that he’d never do such a stupid thing again.

He caught the highway headed north and had only a couple of bouts of road rage on the way to the RV park that he’d called home for almost two years. He eased his truck into the narrow space between his trailer and the one next to it. Getting out without hitting the side of his neighbor’s trailer took a stone-cold-sober man. Maybe Melanie was watching out from her place in heaven for that, too.

He set his beer and whiskey on the concrete slab that served as a porch and unlocked the door. Sassy, his big, fluffy white cat, darted out from under the trailer and beat him inside.

“Hello, honey, I’m home.” He set his packages on the cabinet and picked up a picture from the top of the television. “How was your day?” He kissed Melanie’s face and put it back. “I worked late so the job would be finished and I wouldn’t feel guilty about taking tomorrow off.”

Sassy hopped up on the cabinet and gave him a dirty look while he removed his paint-stained coveralls and tossed them out of the way.

“Okay, you.” He shifted his focus to the cat. “I’m sorry I’m late. Your fancy food is comin’ right up.” He washed and dried a floral china saucer before he dumped a can of food onto it. “I’m sure there’s a mouse or two up under this trailer that you could have nibbled on while you waited for me to get home.”

She meowed in disagreement.

“Melanie spoiled you. Now you only eat off your own bone china, and you wouldn’t get your paws dirty on a mouse.” He put the food on the cabinet, and she started eating.

“Now my turn.” He got out a package of bologna and made himself a sandwich. He didn’t bother with a plate but carried it to the sofa, laid it on the end table, and took off his work boots. He picked up the remote control, found an old western movie, and then wolfed down the sandwich.

Sassy finished her food and hopped up on the sofa arm.

“Don’t look at me like that. I only drink on weekends and holidays to fix the loneliness. I’m not an alcoholic.”

She stuck her nose in the air, hopped from the sofa to the floor, and with her fluffy tail held high, headed toward the bedroom.

Four beers later and sometime around midnight, he blew Melanie’s picture a kiss. “Happy New Year’s, darlin’. I miss you so much.” Then he fell into an exhausted sleep and didn’t even wake up when the park residents set off fireworks.

Chapter Two

If looks could kill, there would have been nothing left of Reuben but a big greasy spot and a pile of bones on the tile floor of the IHOP restaurant. Jolene had hoped that age had changed him into a decent person, but that idea was shattered soon after she’d walked into the restaurant. He still had that eager grin he’d worn as a child just before he bullied her.

A child jackass only grew into a bigger one. But how could he not see the value in her plan, and why had he let her go through the whole spiel before he said no? Did he attach sentimental value to nothing?

Aunt Sugar had told her repeatedly that there was good in every evil person and a little evil in every good person. Jolene glared at Reuben sitting there with a smug look on his face and tried to find a tiny little bit of good. The only thing she could come up with was that he had finished college and held down a job.

“Why won’t you invest in this? How can you just throw away what Uncle Jasper entrusted you with?” she asked.

He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses and squared up his scrawny shoulders. “You’ll turn out like your low-class mama. When the going gets tough, you’ll turn to drugs and alcohol. And I’m not partnerin’ up with you.”

“But I’m—”

He held up a hand to stop her. “I never did like you, Jolene.”

“What’s that got to do with anything? You were the bully. That doesn’t mean we can’t be business partners,” she said.

“I never intended to keep my half of the inn. Not from the minute Uncle Jasper called me. He always favored you over me, and I’m his blood kin. I only agreed to listen to your stupid plan as payback for all the trouble you got me into when we were kids. Aunt Sugar spoiled you, and Uncle Jasper took up for you every time we argued.”

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