Authors: Joleen James
She looked up, into his eyes. "Okay."
Rick nodded. He leaned forward slightly.
Was he going to kiss her? No, no, no. Tawney backstepped. "It's late."
"Yeah," he said, and she could hear the regret in his voice. "Put that gun away and lock this door after me."
"I will. Thanks again." She closed the door, throwing the deadbolt. Still spooked, she lowered all the blinds before she got ready for bed.
She didn't put her gun away. Instead, she slid the weapon under the pillow. Only then could she sleep.
"Big night tonight," Rick said from his now familiar place behind the bar. "Isn't it girls' night out?"
Tawney smiled. "It is. Star wants to keep the bachelorette party low-key. Aren't you guys going to Cade's to play cards or something?"
"Texas Hold'em." Rick grinned. "Looking forward to it. Time for me to make a little extra cash."
"You're pretty confident." Tawney wiped down the bar, tossing the now dirty rag in the washtub.
Rick's smile widened.
They'd settled into a pattern while working together this week. They made small talk, they did their jobs. They did not talk about the past.
"Did you get a phone today?" Rick asked. "We could exchange numbers."
"No," she said. "No time."
The two men from the other night came into the bar. Mel and Harry. Mel, the man with one tooth, had a way of looking at Tawney that made her skin crawl. Both men walked straight to the bar.
"Hey, Tawney," Mel said, giving her a wide view of his missing tooth. "We'll take a couple of drafts."
"You got it," she said. "Menus?"
"Sure," Harry said.
Harry was a bit older than Mel, maybe mid-fifties to Mel's mid-forties. Harry's skin had a permanent redness to it, whether from the cold or too much booze, she didn't know. He wore a hat made of beaver, the long tail hanging down his neck. As far as she could tell, he never took the hat off, even in the bar where it was warm. And she'd noticed that he smelled ripe, like he was overdue for a shower. She did her best not to get too close to Harry, the smell turning her stomach.
"Wish you were on the menu," Mel said. His tongue came out and he licked his lips.
"Well, Mel," Tawney said. "I'm most definitely not on the menu, but we have a great beef stew tonight."
Mel's eyes narrowed. "That's a shame, darlin'. I think the two of us could have a real good time."
Was he kidding? Mel also looked like he hadn't had a hot shower in weeks. Stringy, greasy hair poked out from under his camouflage baseball cap. He had at least a week's worth of beard on his face. But worst of all, he had mean eyes—hard, dark brown pellets, beady, feral.
"I'm spoken for," she lied. "Sorry. How about that beef stew instead?" She smiled at him. She didn't want to kill her tip.
"You talked me into it." Mel's eyes roved over her breasts.
Yuck. "How about you?" she asked Harry.
"I'll have the same, Tawney. Thank you."
Tawney delivered their order to the kitchen. She didn't look at Rick, but she could feel his stare on her. He'd stayed out of the conversation, like she'd asked him to the other night.
The rest of her shift passed without significant event. At seven, she left The Junebug. Back at her place she showered and changed into a pretty ruby-colored top and slim fitting black jeans. She tucked the jeans into her black suede boots. It had been a while since she'd felt stylish. Living here meant dressing for warmth, comfort. She liked looking girly again. Tawney was ready to go on her girls' night out when Brandi pulled up out front. Making sure her pistol was secure in her purse, Tawney left the cottage.
"Hi, sis," she said to Brandi.
"Hi." Brandi put the car into reverse. "Ready to party?"
"Yes! I'm in the mood to let off a little steam."
They drove the short distance to Finnegan's Restaurant where Brandi worked. They'd rented the back room for Star's party. Earlier, Tawney had helped Brandi decorate the room using Star's wedding colors, blue and taupe. The restaurant was catering the party, leaving the sisters free to enjoy themselves.
"It looks great," Tawney said. "We really classed the place up."
Brandi smiled. "We did. Oh, look at the cake."
A beautiful two-tiered cake sat on the far table. The cake had a poured ivory icing, and each tier had a cluster of three blue flowers with wide, flat petals.
"It looks so elegant," Brandi said. "Perfect. I want everything to be perfect for Star."
"Me, too," Tawney agreed. "She deserves it."
Soon the room filled with women, pretty much every woman in town. Champagne flowed. They ate. Star opened gifts. The cake was cut.
Tawney soaked it all in. She loved being with her sisters. Loved how happy both Star and Brandi were. But inside her own heart ached a little and she wondered how she could find the same kind of happiness for herself. She was a strong, independent woman, but she was also a woman who didn't have a lot of respect or trust for the male sex.
"You okay?" Star asked, taking the seat next to Tawney.
"Of course," Tawney said. "Just enjoying the party."
"Me, too," Star said, smiling. "It means so much to me that you are here. I've missed you. If Ruby were here, I'd be complete."
"I know," Tawney said. "I miss Ruby, too, but she can't bear to be in this town."
"I know," Star said. She squeezed Tawney's fingers. "Love you."
"I love you, too."
"Hey, what about me?" Brandi said as she flopped into the chair beside Star. "I want in on this love fest."
Star laughed. "Love you, too, Bran."
"I love you guys," Brandi said. "And I really hope you'll forgive what I'm about to do."
Tawney smiled. She knew the night's agenda. She also knew that Star wasn't going to like what was coming.
"What?" Star asked, not understanding.
The music cranked up.
"Turn around," Brandi said.
Star swiveled in her chair. A handsome young guy dressed like a cowboy stood behind Star.
"Oh, no," Star said as realization dawned. "You didn't."
"Saddle up, gorgeous," the handsome young guy said, "it's time to ride a cowboy."
Star's mouth dropped open, and Tawney didn't think she'd ever seen Star speechless before.
"Oh, this is going to be fun." Brandi clapped her hands together.
Tawney laughed. Fun indeed.
* * *
Rick cruised past Tawney's place. The lights were out. Was she already home, in bed? Or were the ladies still partying like rock stars?
He continued on to his place, pulled into his garage and cut the engine. Exiting the Jeep, he felt the wad of bills in his front pocket. He smiled—three hundred dollars richer than he'd been before the poker party.
They'd given Cade a decent send off from single dad, complete with stripper. The girl had done nothing to rev Rick's motor and the reason why bothered him. Compared to Tawney, the girl had looked cheap, her body a bit on the boyish side. He hated that he'd compared the stripper to Tawney, but there was something about Tawney he'd never been able to shake, even after he'd left her at the altar. Maybe it was the wounded way she'd looked at him that night so long ago, or maybe it was the pride he saw in her now. Either way, the woman got under his skin.
Rick was on his way to the house when a car drove by. The horn honked twice. The car pulled into Tawney's driveway.
The girls were home.
Tawney got out of the car. Female laughter reached his ears and God help him, he started walking toward Tawney's place.
"Bye," he heard her call out. "Drive safe!"
Brandi pulled away.
Tawney had already let herself inside when he reached the cottage. The lights were on now.
For a second he just stared at her door. What was he doing, following her like a stalker? If he knocked on the door now he'd scare her to death. She might even shoot him. She already seemed jumpy.
Yeah, she'd probably shoot him. In her mind he deserved to be shot.
It was enough to know she was safe.
Rick went home. He'd just removed his jacket when a second car passed outside. A glance out the window showed brake lights. The car idled in front of Tawney's cottage.
Rick waited for the car to move on. When it didn't, he let himself out and approached the vehicle. The back plate was smeared with dirt and he couldn’t get a read.
"Hey," he called out when he got close the car.
The car sped off, the tires screeching in the still night.
What the heck? Who had been in the car? Why had they stopped in front of Tawney's place? Had she drawn the attention of some random guy who'd been unable to take no for an answer, or was he reading too much into nothing?
Tawney stood in the open doorway.
"What's going on?" she asked. "Why are you out here?"
How much should he tell her? Would he come off looking like a lunatic if he told her he thought someone was watching her? Or would he succeed in spooking her even more?
"Just taking a walk."
"I heard a car." She held the front of her robe together with one hand.
"Yeah. The car just passed. Probably a kid just showing off."
He could hear the relief in that one word. "How was your party?"
"Nice," she said. "How was yours? Did you win?"
"Three hundred big ones." He smiled.
"That's great." The wind stirred her hair. "Well, it's late and it's freezing."
"Yeah." He stuffed his cold hands in his jacket pockets.
"See you tomorrow."
She closed the door.
Rick started for home, but he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling riding his gut. He'd been a cop too long to ignore his own intuition. Tawney thought someone had been following her the other night, and now, a strange car in front of her place. Were the two events related, or was his PTSD getting the best of him, making him ultra-paranoid?
All of his senses were awake now, alert, in police mode. As much as he hated the idea of Tawney toting a gun around, he was glad she had it. He hated that she didn’t own a phone.
He doubted he'd sleep much tonight. Tomorrow he'd make it his business to up the safety at Tawney's place.
* * *
Tawney had thirty minutes to kill before her shift at the bar. The sun had come out this morning, upping the temperature outside to a toasty thirty degrees. The bay sparkled, beckoned. Deciding some brisk fresh air would be good, she got dressed for work and set out for town.
This air didn't assault her face. Heaven. Overhead a seagull stretched his wings, warming them, probably as happy for the slight rise in temperature as she was. Tawney hoofed past The Junebug and started down the boardwalk.
She really hadn't paid much attention to the other local businesses here. An ice cream shop. Beauty parlor. Barber. City Information. At the end of the block she turned and walked down the other side. General store, post office, Karma Fitness. A fitness studio?
She looked up at the two story building, wondering why she'd never noticed the place before. There was no large sign, just an electric blue flyer pasted to the door advertising aerobics, Pilates, and dance classes.
Tawney tugged the door open, starting up the stairs. Music drifted down from the second story. A popular top forty song pulsed, the bass vibrating the walls. Another blue flyer was tacked up outside the second floor door. Tawney let herself in.
A group of about ten people followed an instructor, doing a cardio dance workout.
The music changed to a slower beat.
"Okay," the instructor said, "Time to cool it down, people."
Tawney watched the end of the class. The instructor was a woman, probably around sixty years old. Her faded blonde hair was pulled back into a tight bun. She wore black yoga pants and a purple athletic top. On the slender side, she appeared to be in great shape.
"Great workout," the woman said to the group. "See you next time."
The group began to talk amongst themselves.
"Can I help you?" the woman asked Tawney. She blotted her face with a purple towel.
"I saw your sign," Tawney said. "I was wondering what kind of classes you offer."
The woman smiled, sticking out her hand. "I'm Liv. I own the studio."
"Hi, Liv. I'm Tawney."
Liv smiled. "Honey, I know who you are. I'm just surprised it took you so long to find me."
"What do you mean?" Tawney asked, puzzled.
"You're a dancer. Dancing, movement, they're in the blood." Liv swept her arm wide. "This is a place to dance, to express yourself through movement, to get in shape. This is your world, honey."
"Not recently," Tawney said wistfully. "I miss it."
"Well, you've come to the right place," Liv said. She walked to a desk pushed up against the far wall and returned with a brochure. "Take a look. I'd love to have you attend. First class is on the house."
"I don't suppose you're looking for an instructor?" Tawney asked. "I've taught Jazzercise, Zumba, and stretching classes. I've taken enough ballet I can teach that, too, although I'm not certified. I can tap dance like nobody's business. I've even thought about starting a class that teaches how to dance in a chorus line. I have a lot of ideas."
Liv laughed. "I'm not looking for a partner, honey, but I like your style, and I think you'd be good for business. This is a small town. Most here know your story and are intrigued by it. I'll tell you what; I'll give you a try."
Tawney's spirit soared. She felt giddy. Happy for the first time in a long time. "Really?"
"I have another class starting soon. Why don't you come in tomorrow morning, and we'll talk about the best way to use your talents."
Tawney smiled. "You've got a deal, Liv."
* * *
Rick was waiting for Tawney when she arrived at work.