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Authors: Pamela Fagan Hutchins

Heaven to Betsy (Emily #1)

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Heaven to Betsy (Emily #1)
Pamela Fagan Hutchins
SkipJack Publishing
Houston

Heaven to Betsy (Emily #1) Copyright © 2015 by Pamela Fagan Hutchins.

Contents
1
Accolades

2014 USA Best Book Award Finalist

2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-finalist

2013 USA Best Book Award Finalist

2012 Winner of the Houston Writers Guild Ghost Story Contest

2012 USA Best Book Award Winner

2011 Winner of the Houston Writers Guild Novel Contest

2010 Winner of the Writers League of Texas Romance Contest

The Emily Series

“Grabs you by the throat from the get-go for a suspenseful, rollicking ride.” — Ken Oder, author of 
The Closing

“Full of heart, humor, vivid characters, and suspense. Hutchins has done it again!” — Gay Yellen, author of 
The Body Business

“Hutchins is a master of tension.” — R.L. Nolen
,
 author of
 Deadly Thyme

“Intriguing mystery . . . captivating romance.” — Patricia Flaherty Pagan, author of 
Trail Ways Pilgrims

“In my book . . . the makings of a great novel: cheating husbands, murder, and hot cowboys.” — Melissa Algood, contributing author, 
Eclectically Criminal

 

The Michele Series

“Immediately hooked.” — Terry Sykes-Bradshaw, author of 
Sibling Revelry 


Spellbinding.” — Jo Bryan, Dry Creek Book Club

“Fast-paced mystery.” –—Deb Krenzer, Book Reviewer

“Can’t put it down.” — Cathy Bader, Reader

“Full of real characters and powerful emotions.” — Rhonda Erb, Editor

 

The Katie & Annalise Series

“An exciting tale . . . twisting investigative and legal subplots . . . a character seeking redemption . . . an exhilarating mystery with a touch of voodoo.” — Midwest Book Review Bookwatch

“A lively romantic mystery.” — Kirkus Reviews

“A riveting drama . . . exciting read, highly recommended.” — Small Press Bookwatch

“Katie is the first character I have absolutely fallen in love with since Stephanie Plum!” — Stephanie Swindell, Bookstore Owner

“Engaging storyline . . . taut suspense.” — MBR Bookwatch

2
Dedication

To Eric, who I wish I knew then but am glad I know now.

3
Foreword

Heaven to Betsy
 is a work of fiction. Period. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, things, or events is just a lucky coincidence.

Heaven to Betsy

I wedged myself up to the bar between an urban cowboy and a sequined octogenarian with a cigarette dangling from her lips
. Is that a gun in your holster or are you just glad to see me?
I shied away from Little Joe Cartwright or Brett Maverick or whoever the heck he thought he was while also trying to avoid the business end of Grandma’s cancer stick. I looked up at myself in the mirror behind the premium liquor bottles, a head shorter than the cowboy and a head taller than the little old lady—and a damn sight more harried looking than either of them.

Why did everything have to be so hard? All I wanted was one teensy-tiny little drink. Well, that wasn’t completely true. I also wanted as far away from my mother as I could get. Siberia-far, or maybe even Pluto-far. Oklahoma City-far would do in a pinch. Across the lobby from her in a hotel—which now called itself a Wyndham but which everyone in Amarillo would forever know as the Ambassador—wasn’t nearly far enough. Especially since we were there for the wedding reception of my high school boyfriend, Scott, to his third wife—who was nineteen and pregnant.

I raised a finger and leaned across the wooden bar, trying to catch the attention of the bartender. Too late, I felt the wetness. I looked down. I’d plopped my breasts into someone else’s spilled drink. Great. Just then, the bartender’s blue-shadowed eyes swept over me.

“Virgin mojito, please,” I said.

All I got was the back of her orange hair, teased so high it looked like cotton candy, Halloween-style. I grabbed a fistful of napkins from a dispenser and mopped up Lake Titicaca—the bar top and the underside of my rack. At least I’d worn a simple black dress tonight, so it wouldn’t show. Much.

“Need some help, Blondie?” Little Joe asked. His voice had a rumbly drawl to it—not quite Texan but close—which I might have found pleasant if he hadn’t called me by my hair color.

I studied him. He was tall, well over six feet—at least with his boots on—and a good ten years older than me, judging by his crow’s feet. Age, or was it weathering? My eyes slipped down to his boots. The leather was worn, but cared-for, with a few dark lines of oil tracking scratch marks and scuffs. I flicked my eyes quickly back up, but not so fast that they didn’t take in his narrow hips circled by a brown leather belt and his flat stomach behind the silver and turquoise buckle, the deep chest, and the wide set of his shoulders. His upper lip looked lighter than the rest of his face, like he normally wore a mustache and had just recently shaved it off, and whatever had weathered his face didn’t hide his great cheekbones or the lone dimple to the left of his half-smiling mouth. Maybe Little Joe wasn’t a city slicker after all.

Willie Nelson crooned in the background. He was a regular artist on the soundtrack to my life—my heroes have always been cowboys. Yeah, Willie, mine too, until they weren’t. Back in another life, I’d had a weakness for Little Joe’s type. I couldn’t help it, really. I was the daughter of a steer-wrestling father. And now it wasn’t just cowboys that had let me down, but the male species in general. So, did I need some help, from
this cowboy
?

“I don’t think—”

“What’re ya drinkin’, sir?” the bartender asked.

Steam whistled from my ears like I was some fancy-schmancy espresso machine. Oh sure, ignore the woman and bring the guy another round. I wheeled toward the cowboy, ready to let fly a string of invectives about him and the barmaid and my whole miserable life in general, but I saw no drinks in front of him. Maybe it wasn’t another round. I clamped down on my ire.

He looked me in the eye for a split second—long enough for an unwelcome frisson of pure animal response to unleash itself in my lady parts—then turned back to her.

“Bourbon neat. And a virgin mojito.”

Spit in a well bucket, as my father used to say, before he left us for the circuit rodeos one year and never came back. Hell, maybe he was still saying it, somewhere else, wherever it was he’d gotten off to.

“That’s really not necessary,” I said.

Little Joe flexed his jaw and his lips twitched. “You looked like you had your hands full.”

I wanted to tell him to keep his eyes further north, but thought better of it. Instead, I ignored his words and retrieved five dollars from my clutch. Holding one end of the bill, I wafted it toward him.

“Thank you for ordering my drink,” I said in my most saccharine voice.

He nodded and took the money. As he straightened it and slid it into his battered, brown leather wallet, he said, “Name’s Jack. Jack Holden.”

“Emily Bernal.” I scrubbed the dry bar with my pile of napkins until the bartender handed me my mojito. No fresh mint, so basically just a lemonade. I sighed. “Well, thanks again, and have a nice night.”

He touched the brim of his gray felt cowboy hat.

Before I’d turned away from Jack, my mother’s voice trilled in my ear like three-inch acrylic nails scratching across a chalkboard.

“There you are, Emily.”

I tried to hide my shudder. “Yes, but I was just headed to the ladies’ room.”

She beamed at me, reflecting a vision of what I would look like in twenty-five years, if genetics trumped will: Indecently long legs made even longer by stilettos, better-than-medium height, round blue eyes, and dewy, Mary Kay-slathered skin going crepe-y at the edges. She’d fit her trim body—thicker through the middle—in a snug dress slightly less long than was proper for her age, and was wearing the best blonde that money could buy from the shelves of Walmart. Trailer park meets the Southern church lady—that was my mother.

She opened her mouth to torture me. “I was just telling Doug Munroe what a wonderful paralegal you are,” she said, “and he wants to meet you. His law firm is really the best in town, and—”

“I’m not even sure if I’m staying,” I said. “And I have a job.”
And the beginnings of a killer headache
, I thought.

“A job in
Dallas
. If Rich isn’t going to do conversion therapy, then you’ve really got to—”

I pushed back from the bar and flashed her a megawatt smile. Before I could answer, though, Jack’s voice interrupted. “Agatha Phelps, always good to see you.”

My mother took notice of Jack, tilting her head to the side, and shaking it.

“Oh my, if it isn’t the infamous Jack Holden,” she said. “What trouble are you causing tonight?”

He wiped a smile from his face. “I have a question for you.”

She twinkled. “What is it?”

Jack’s voice dropped lower, and Mother leaned in. I tried not to. “What’s the difference between erotic and kinky?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.” She raised her brows. “And I can’t think why any decent man should.” She leaned closer, twinkled brighter.

“Erotic uses a feather and kinky uses the whole chicken.” He smiled on the dimpled side of his face only. “And you know it’s only part of my job.”

My mother giggled like a tween girl. “That’s the only reason I’ll forgive your manners.”

I shook my head. “I’ll come find you later, Mother.” They both looked at me, my mother’s eyes wide like she’d forgotten I was there.

***

I studied my gap-toothed smile in the bathroom mirror, it and me in a gilded frame, and fluffed my bangs. They needed a spray of dry shampoo and blast of Aqua Net, neither of which I had with me. I turned to the side and smoothed my hand over my stomach. At least there was no baby bump, yet, and my dress was nearly dry. I lifted my chest and shoulders. “Put ’em on a shelf, ladies,” my pageant coach used to remind us before we went onstage. That was more than twelve years ago, though, and my shelf was a little lower than it used to be.

A woman’s voice from behind a stall door crowed, “Did you see Emily Phelps? I can’t believe she showed her face tonight.”

A second voice snarked from the stall next to her. “I hear she’s not woman enough to keep her man.”

They both laughed like she was Melissa-flippin’-McCarthy or something.

I picked my drink up from the counter and tossed it at the ground outside the two stalls. Overpriced lemonade splashed its target, eliciting a squeal.

“Woops,” I said. “I guess I’m not woman enough to hold my drink either.”

Damn, that felt good. I tucked my five-pound clutch under my arm, pushed out the door, and headed for the pool area as fast as I could wobble on my heels. I’d look for my mother later. For now, I just wanted to stand outside the fence around the little pool at the center of the atrium and imagine myself 3000 miles away from all of this pettiness. I wouldn’t have a care in the world, and I’d gaze peacefully into the aquamarine ocean off of St. Marcos, the island home of my best friend, Katie. She used to be an attorney at Hailey & Hart, the law firm I probably still worked for in Dallas. Thinking of her in the same breath as I thought of my woes made me feel guilty, though. She’d emailed that morning asking if I’d heard from her husband, Nick, who hadn’t come home last night. I hoped Nick was only a big douchebag like my husband, Rich, and not truly missing. I needed to call her. Well, why not now? Or when I got to the pool, anyway. It’s not like I wanted to talk to anyone else.

But I had to make it past the happy couple’s receiving line—which I’d already been through, thank you very much—before I could stare at the swimming pool. That is, I had to get through the throng of people who probably thought that I regretted giving Scott back his promise ring when I left for Texas Tech—a throng of very familiar faces, all of them reacting visibly at the sight of mine. A former neighbor, from back when we lived in town. A classmate I hadn’t seen since graduation from AHS. Some kid I’d babysat when I was twelve. I fended off each greeting as I braved the gauntlet to the pool, repeating myself into a mantra.

“Oh my goodness!” Lean in, hug without touching bodies. One-handed shoulder-pat three times. “So great to see you. I’m meeting someone, can we catch up later?” Air kiss. “You, too. Bye-bye now!” Keep walking.

Was I as conspicuous as I felt? I tried not to imagine the inevitable whispers in my wake, because, sure as shooting, everyone here knew my business as well as if it had been front-page headline news—above the fold. I tested my face for the confident half-smile I was determined to wear and adjusted the corners of my mouth up ever so slightly.

The chlorine smell of the pool cut through to my cerebral cortex and I sharpened—in a good way. I placed my hands on the black metal top rail of the fence and looked over at the people gathered around the pool at patio tables. It wasn’t as crowded as the bar area, but that wasn’t saying much. My ex had married another local
and
they’d sprung for an open bar, so almost everyone in town had shown up. But I didn’t care if I was alone in the crowd. I didn’t care if I was standing in the stripper heels that I’d been forced to borrow from my mother who thought they were high-class. I didn’t care if my life was in shambles and my marriage was history. I only cared about the next few good breaths. My eyes found the water, and I sucked in the chemically poisoned air like it was a magic potion. If I could just have about two minutes of this to shock my senses, I might survive the night.

Still breathing deeply, I pulled out my phone, scrolled through my favorites page, and pressed Katie’s name. As it rang, I worried about the time difference. I could never remember which time of the year she was two hours later, versus the regular one hour later than me in Texas. Either way, it was only eight thirty here. It would be okay. After three rings, she picked up.

“Emily?”

“Katie! Has Nick shown up? I haven’t heard from him at all.”

“No, and his plane is missing and the police are no help.” Her voice sounded brittle and shrill.

“Are you, um, holding up okay?” She used to have a problem with alcohol. I’d nearly added “sober,” but she didn’t sound drunk. Just scared.

“I’m not sure. But my in-laws are here—you remember Kurt and Julie?—and our nanny, Ruth. Kurt and I think Nick headed to the Dominican Republic on a case he’s working. We’re headed there in the morning.”

Nick worked as a private investigator, so this didn’t sound totally implausible. “I’m praying for you guys.”

“Thank you. I was about to try to sleep, not that I’ll be able to. How are things with you? Everything good?”

Now was not the time to weigh her down with my problems. I crossed my fingers. “Fine. I’m great, other than worried about you.”

“Yeah, you and me both. Thanks for calling.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

We hung up, and I stood staring at the water, my phone still in my hand. It sounded serious. Nick and Katie had twin baby girls and a preschool-age boy. I closed my eyes and said a short, silent prayer for Nick’s safe return, then added,
And help me maintain just a little dignity as I go through all my . . . stuff. Amen.

A throat cleared beside me, and I jumped.

“So, you’re looking for a job?” a man’s voice asked.

My eyes, the traitorous little magnets, tracked to the right, following the pull of the sound that I already knew was the voice of Jack, the man formerly known as Little Joe.

“You following me?” I asked.

The dimple twitched. “I do believe I staked my claim here first.”

Oh
. I didn’t have a response to that. I just tried another breath of bleachy air.

“Agatha Phelps is your mother.”

I pursed my lips, then answered. “I take it the two of you know each other.”

“She roped me into teaching a class on Apache religion and its Mountain Spirits a few weeks ago in an ‘Understanding our Neighbor’ series on different religions at her church.”

I snorted. “I didn’t think the Panhandle Believers congregation was into comparative religions.”

“Let’s just say it felt more like they were gathering information to convert the last of the heathens.”

“So why do you go there?”

“I don’t.” Jack raised an eyebrow at me—the one on the dimple side. “Your mother practically runs the place.”

“Tell me about it.”

“She talks about you.”

The muscles around my eyes and across my forehead tightened up. Someday, I’d owe half my wrinkles to my mother and the other half to Rich. “That’s great.”

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