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First pages

~1~

Blaze

As Blaze Bledsoe waited for the curling iron to heat, she read her escape list again. Watching every episode of Perfect Crime, had helped with the plan. Silly. It had been three years, and no one had come, but she couldn’t help herself. If she’d overlooked even the smallest detail, they’d find her. 

Destroy credit and debit cards.

Buy fake ID.

Transfer files to flash drive, throw computer and cell in lake.

Take the bus to Oklahoma. Pick up the black metallic Chevy Cruze stored there, then double back to Texas.

Stashing the notebook, she stared at Winifred Allen, lying on the mortuary’s stainless steel dressing table. “Did you know Dessie Bishop?” Blaze lifted the hot iron and wrapped a thin, silver strand around the barrel. “I’m still living in her house.” She fluffed the wisp and moved to the next one. “I kept her cats, but I have to close them up in the laundry room when I’m not there because they aren’t healthy and make a mess.”

The lifeless woman barely had enough hair to style, so Blaze dusted it with talcum, worked it into her scalp, then tousled it again. “I gave you soft curls, added a bit of gray eye shadow, pink lipstick, and a hint of blush. That’s what your daughter wanted. Gave me strict orders. I don’t like her much. I think she was nervous because of my appearance. But no chopped hair, piercings, or black fingernails for you.”

Down the hall, the click of a woman’s heels announced Blaze was about to have company. Within moments, Mrs. Walters leaned around the door jamb. “Excuse me. Are you done with Mrs. Allen?” Blaze marveled at the secretary’s perfection. Honest to goodness, she was so powdered and polished, she could drop dead, and Blaze wouldn’t have to do a thing.

“Almost.”

“Great. Ms. Elliott is waiting in Room Three. Be sure and do her next. They’ve moved the visitation up by an hour.” She retreated down the hallway.

Blaze peered back at her client. “Did you notice the euphonious quality of her voice? That’s another word for melodious. Or song-like.” Not even noon, and she’d already used her word of the day. Didn’t always work out that way, but lately she’d been on a roll. She marked it off the list and pulled a bottle of nail polish from her kit.

She’d barely finished two nails when Cameron Foster, heir to Over the Rainbow Funeral Chapel shuffled into the room. “Hey, there. Church is having a hamburger supper tomorrow night, wanna go?”

Cam was nice, but she wasn’t interested. Not in him, hamburgers, or the Methodists. The boy was a high school senior, and two months ago, Blaze celebrated her twentieth birthday. She lifted her head, looked him in the eye, and smiled. “No, thank you.”

His weak chin dropped, and she guessed what would come next. Mind racing, she searched for a response. Dad’s numerous instructions flashed in her brain. Keep your head up. Make eye contact. Think before you speak. Remember not to be rude. Smile. Say thank you. How could the truth be bad manners? But he’d claimed most people didn’t want honesty for personal questions.

The lanky boy propped a bony shoulder against the wall. “Why not? Got something else to do?”

“I don’t like crowds or church.” That sounded reasonable. She shouldn’t have to tell him why.

“What you got against God?”

This was the trouble with Dad’s advice. It didn’t work. She should have said she didn’t find Cam attractive. But she had to play this ridiculous game. “Nothing against God. Just organized religion. Besides, I remember. I do have plans.” That should do it, and not a total lie.

“Like what?”

She wanted to order the gangly, feeble-chinned, soon-to-be-graduate out of the room because of his persistence. “I don’t date.”

He blinked as if she’d spoken a foreign language. “Not at all? Or just guys?”

That did it. If he only knew the hours she’d spent conditioning herself. The constant tutoring on how to handle social interaction. How hard it was for her not to blurt out her true thoughts. I don’t like skinny guys. She sucked in air, then spit the words out like they tasted bad. “I do not. Want. To go.”

He stepped back. “Okay, okay. I get it.” He didn’t give her time to say anything else, which was fine. He spun on his heels and disappeared into the corridor.

With a flourish, Blaze removed Mrs. Allen’s protective cape. “Sorry about that. At your age, if you were still alive, I’m sure you’d have lots of relationship advice.” Palming her notebook once more, she scribbled on a sheet of paper, tore it out, and folded it. “When you get to Heaven, find Grant Montgomery and give him this.” She tucked the note inside the woman’s bra. “You can’t miss him. Big man. Handsome. Once word spreads you’re from Bluebird, he’ll probably look you up.”

Rollers squeaked as she shoved her chair away. Yep. Ten years younger. No doubt about it. Mrs. A didn’t look a day over eighty. Her daughter would be happy.

She reached Room Three and referred to the next list: Blue eye shadow. Black mascara. Mauve lip gloss. Enhance beauty mark at corner of mouth.

Only thirty-nine years old, Ginny Elliott had met her demise when her biker boyfriend failed to negotiate a turn. Thank goodness she’d worn a helmet. Camouflaging a mangled face presented a challenge. But being tossed ten feet into the air before landing on hard pavement proved too much for the rest of her bones.

Dressed in a leather jacket and low cut tank, Ginny’s voluptuous breasts swelled over the top. Nothing like formaldehyde to pump up a woman’s upper thorax. Blaze tugged at her own tee-shirt, conscious of the small boobs she’d been blessed with. Removing the pencil from behind her ear, she scratched out part of the note, and made changes.

Proper shading and contouring made women appear pounds lighter and years younger. Once she finished, Ginny looked like a Harley Harlot. Blaze always regretted the client couldn’t witness the magic. She jotted another message, tucked it into Motorcycle Momma’s pocket, and zipped it. “Give this to Larkin Montgomery. You’ll recognize her because we look alike.” With only a few pictures for comparison, she wasn’t sure about that. The older she got, the less she remembered about her mother.

With her supplies back in place, she peeked into the hallway. The coast appeared clear. No Cam waiting to walk her out. Maybe she’d finally been rude enough for him to get the message.

Outside, a sharp February breeze cut at her face, but spring hid right around the corner. Almost time to break up the garden spot. Even though she liked living alone, she missed Dessie. The sweet woman left the place to her only grandson, but Blaze would never meet him.

Since he was serving a fifteen year prison sentence. She’d be long gone by the time he showed up.

Rance

Rance Keller’s biggest regret would always be that Jack Fletcher died before he had a chance to kill him. Son of a bitch had to go and get cancer, and right along with it, he’d gotten religion and admitted to framing Rance. Small consolation. At least in prison, with no distractions, Rancegraduated college summa cum laude.

Still, what major corporation wanted to hire an almost thirty-year-old with no work experience except summer construction jobs and bussing tables at Backstreet Willie’s Bar and Grill? Especially after being convicted for burning the place down. Didn’t matter he’d been exonerated. Statistics proved twenty percent of people would always think he did it.

Bad thing about lies; once folks made up their minds, nothing could change them. Not even the truth.

He hoped God hadn’t forgiven Jack because the thought of him burning in hell made Rance happy. Maybe the Lord was busy working a terrorist attack or a ten car pile-up when the scumbag begged for mercy. Even the Almighty couldn’t give back six years. The state had done their part with the annuity and cash settlement, but money didn’t replace Rance’s lost youth.

Downing his second shot of whiskey, he eyed a duo of leggy blondes at the end of the bar. The one in the tight black skirt dangled a red stiletto from her toes and bounced it in time with the country tune blaring from the jukebox. The other wore leather pants and twirled a pink umbrella in her drink.

Funny how he paid attention to details. When his sentence started, he realized there’d be plenty of things he’d miss. Women—how they looked and smelled and felt. Driving—freedom to go anywhere he wanted. That’s why he’d spent the last year on the open road riding his Harley, letting the wind, rain, and sun restore life to his body.

Never imagined missing something as insignificant as color though. But when everything was taken, he realized so many things he’d taken for granted.

Both babes sported hot pink fingernails—probably fake, and their skin sparkled. Noticed them the minute they came in. Skirt definitely had the better ass. Leather Pants, mm mm, killer tits. If he didn’t make a move, he’d have to add a missed opportunity to his misery.

 Laying one chick a week turned out to be harder than he thought. He could have pulled it off, but some nights—well—he’d been too drunk to care. In two more days, his year of sin would end, and he’d be at the farm his grandmother left him.

His long-term goal was to get the place in shape with enough square footage to appeal to buyers. Didn’t want to keep it. Wouldn’t be the same without Gran. Missing her funeral, and saying a proper goodbye, still galled him. Of course, the damn state lost the paperwork.

The last time he’d visited, the house needed repairs. Sitting vacant two years, it would be more run-down than ever. No problem. He had plenty of experience and time. 

But right now, he needed to focus on the prospect at hand. He motioned to the bartender, swallowed another shot, and went back to the math problem. Two days. Six lays. He laughed out loud. Rhyme sounded like the beginning of a rap song.

Tight Skirt sent him a smile. If he doubled up, he’d make his quota. Hell, might as well get started. He rose from the bar stool and ambled over to the ladies. During the past year, he’d learned females evolved while he’d been out of circulation, didn’t even need a pickup line. The best approach—get to the point.

“Got a room across the street. You girls want to take the party there?”

Tight Skirt fiddled with a gold arrow pendant pointing to her breasts and other southern regions. “You’re a big guy. Are you big all over?”

“Nothing like a game of Show and Tell to find out.”

She licked her lips. “In that case, I’m Mia, and this is Mya.”

He doubted that, but hell, me-oh, my-oh, I’ll fuck you both-o. “Rance.” He stuck out his hand and when Mia took it, she stroked his palm with her finger. His cock twitched.

Once inside his room, the duo didn’t hesitate. No small talk. No games. Just got down to business. Mia started with his shirt, and Mya with his pants.

 

The next morning, Ranceopened his eyes but didn’t move. Either from last night’s activities—or sleeping three in a bed, made every bone in his body ache. He’d gotten a workout as strenuous as football two-a-days. Correction. Two-a-night. One player. Two cheerleaders. Harder. Faster. And damn if he’d not nearly thrown his back out trying to keep up.

As insatiable as Mia and Mya were, he half expected them to join him in the shower. But that didn’t happen. Shutting the water off, he wrapped himself in a towel. If the babes still slept, he wouldn’t wake them. They had until two o’clock to check out.

When he returned to the bedroom though, the girls were gone. Humph. Thought they’d at least say goodbye. His eyes drifted to the dresser and his wallet. Picking it up, he laughed. Fifty-six bucks was all they got. No reason to get angry. The dynamic duo was worth a hell of a lot more.

He finished dressing, then ran his hand beneath the mattress and recovered his stash. Silly girls. Ex-cons trust no one.

Stepping outside, he followed the aroma of bacon to Bubba’s Diner. Just what he needed after going heels to Jesus all night. He removed his last cigarette and tossed the package into the blue trash barrel at the corner of the building. Really should give up the bad habit, and he would. Later.

It occurred to him, the tag-team event with the BFF’s, had fulfilled his goal. No more pressure. With an early start and few stops, he could make it to Bluebird in one day. Grab a quick breakfast. Crank up the Harley. Hit the road. Couldn’t wait to see the place again. Enjoy the seclusion and relax in his grandmother’s old claw-foot tub. That’s what he loved about the little country town.

Everything remained the same. Never any surprises.

~2~

Hanna

From her workshop window, Hanna saw dust billowing before the car came into view. Usually, her friend walked through the woods, but today, Blaze had to pick up groceries. As always, she tried to look the part of a rebel, but couldn’t pull it off. More like a pubescent teenager playing dress-up. Even the stud in the Cherub’s Bow of her upper lip, and the ring dangling from her small straight nose, didn’t offset the big, innocent, green eyes that dominated her face.

She revealed nothing, but when she’d arrived three years ago with no prior connection to Bluebird or Dessie, Hanna figured she was on the run from something or someone. She’d decided once their friendship grew, Blaze would be more forthcoming. But that didn’t happen.

Once Hanna had discovered the gifted girl’s artistic ability, she’d asked for help with packaging her soaps and lotions. All she needed was a break to get attention from a major chain, and the right presentation could be the key.

Out of the corner of her eye Hanna caught sight of her son as he burst through the trees, stick sword in hand, towel cape pinned around his neck, fighting an imaginary foe. Noah was the center of her life and she was thankful he was happy playing with common things, but he wouldn’t always be six. As he got older, he’d want what other kids had, and no way she could afford them, unless she got her business off the ground—or accepted the marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love.

There was nothing wrong with Dylan. He’d been interested in her since high school, but they’d never dated until six months ago, and he’d proposed on the first date. Wasn’t fair to keep putting him off, but she couldn’t bring herself to accept.

Blaze pushed open the door and strolled inside. Black was the only color she wore, a harsh contrast to her delicate features. Despite being puny, she was pretty, but didn’t seem to care about her appearance, which was another incongruity since she worked at making others look good.

“What’s up?”

Head bowed, Blaze slid a folder forward. “Here are the drawings.”

Hanna thumbed through them and wanted to cry.

Blaze’s shoulders drooped. “If you don’t like them, I can do more.”

Hanna rushed from behind the table and gave the artist a quick hug. “You’re a genius. This is exactly what I had in mind.”

Blaze stiffened. “Oh. Okay.”

“I love the goat in the bubble bath—and how you’ve put the bluebird inside the outline of Texas is perfect.”

The door swung wide, and Hanna’s lifelong friend, Tiffany, flew in like she was on her way to a shoe sale at Dillard’s.

“I’m glad you’re both here. I have something to show y’all.” She stuck out her hand to display a bracelet. Hanna reached for it, but Tiffany launched into an animated conversation as she spoke. “Your soap line got me to thinking I should get my creative juices flowing. I thought about a calendar. They never go out of style and everybody needs one. You know, get hunks to pose in the buff, but that’s been done a hundred times ten. Besides, I made a list and only came up with two hot guys in all of Bluebird.”

Early evening light streaming through the window glinted off the fake gems in Tiffany’s creation. She shook her head. Butterscotch curls bounced around her face. “And Daddy would have a heart attack. Probably do a whole series of sermons about my sinful ways.”

Hanna opened her mouth to speak, but Tiffany waved her off. She was on a roll and there was no stopping her. “I know what you’re going to say. There’s a calendar app.” She flapped the air as if swatting mosquitos. “Sure there is, but I could get my own made and still make a ton of money. But I decided, heck, I should connect to my roots. Texas and Bluebird, so this is my original design.”

She thrust her arm out again and dangled her wrist. Hanna and Blaze inspected it.

“How do y’all like it? It’s a beer bling bracelet, and it’s just the beginning.” She counted off as she recited. “I’ll do rings, necklaces, belts, cuff links, key chains, bottle openers, the list is endless.” She lowered her voice as if sharing a secret. “I can get the caps for free. I’ve already talked to Jessie at The Roost. He said he’d be glad for me to have them.”

Tiffany’s excitement was contagious, but Hanna wasn’t sure how big a market was out there for bottle caps and rhinestones.

The perky blonde widened her eyes and raised her voice an octave. “Oh! This is the best part. I have the perfect name for my jewelry line. Are you ready for it?” She allotted a dramatic pause for their response. They both nodded.

Palms out, fingers spread, she announced it as if on a marquee. “‘Texas Tiffany’s!’ Can you believe it? Oh. My. Lord. It’s like my momma envisioned my destiny when she named me.”

Blaze pulled her brows together. “I thought your fate was to teach second graders.”

“Well, that’s what I went to school for, because they didn’t offer a degree in entrepreneurship. Hanna can tell you, I don’t make much more than she does substituting. This jewelry idea could be big. Really big. I might end up on the Today Show. Just imagine, I, Tiffany Ambrosia Scott, could single-handedly put Bluebird, Texas, population 1,202, on the map.”

The way she punctuated the air with her finger as she talked, proved she’d picked up some of her father’s pulpit skills. The only thing missing was a Bible to drive her point home.

Tiffany smiled at Hanna. “Well, me and your Nanny Goat Soap line, of course.”

Her exuberance always made Hanna feel better. “Thanks for including me. It’s a great idea. Maybe you can convince Blaze to design your packaging. Look what she did for me.”

Tiffany studied the sketches. “Holy crapoly, these are fantastic.” She gave Blaze her puppy dog eyes. “Would you?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll dance at your wedding.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t have a clue, it’s just something my granny says when you do something nice for her. I gotta get going. While I was checking for hunks, Jacob Mason asked me out. We’re driving over to Danvers to eat at that new Mexican place.”

The jewelry tycoon left with as much gusto as when she arrived.

Reaching into her apron pocket, Hanna removed papers, and handed them to Blaze. “I got your shopping and banking done. Here are the receipts.”

“Thanks. I need to go, too. I want to clean out a few birdhouses before it gets dark. The bluebirds will start scouting soon.”

“Let me help get your bags.”

Blaze

A sensation Blaze hadn’t experienced in a while bubbled in her chest. Pride. Hanna loved the artwork. Not since Dessie died had anyone praised Blaze’s talent. A compliment and recommendation from her friend meant a lot. Along with her goat milk business, the brown-eyed beauty worked hard as a substitute teacher and convenience store clerk. All that and raising Noah.

Blaze wondered about his dad, but Hanna never mentioned him. It was as if the kid had been an immaculate conception. Any man who couldn’t fall in love with someone as beautiful as Hanna must have a problem. Her long dark hair, olive skin, and high cheekbones belonged on magazine covers.

After Blaze got home, put away the groceries, and fed the cats, it was six o’clock. Still enough daylight left to get some boxes ready. Over the years, Miss Dessie had chaired the committee to promote building and mounting bluebird houses along every county road. Because of her efforts, this hick town was the Eastern Bluebird Capital of Texas. This year, the little berg would celebrate their fiftieth festival.

She raised the lid of the first box and found the hinge screws loose. If Dad could see her working with hand tools, he’d laugh. Until she came here, she’d not held a screwdriver or pliers.

She’d always thought you could hang a birdhouse where you wanted. Turned out, bluebirds were picky. The homes needed to be mounted in sunny, open spaces, twenty-five feet apart. She dug out the old nesting straw and dumped it in her bucket, then lowered the lid.

By sunset, she had all but ten boxes clean, but decided to save them for another day. Still had plenty of chores before she could lounge in a nice hot bath.

Just before midnight, she connected her iPod to the pill speaker and cranked up the music. That was a benefit of living in a secluded area. No neighbors to complain.

Sinking low in the water, she inhaled a mixture of almond, coconut and honey, and listened to Meghan Trainor’s hit, Like I’m Gonna Lose You.

Rance

The closer Rance got to Dessie’s the faster he drove. On the road for fourteen hours, he was ready for a relaxing soak and feather bed. As he turned onto the home stretch, his heart accelerated. He barreled over the narrow bridge where he and his brothers used to catch tadpoles, then past Mr. Henderson’s hayfield.

The last few miles flew by. He’d not seen the house in over seven years. Dessie’d always said she’d leave it to him, but he’d never wanted to think about her dying.

Silhouetted by the moon, the homestead looked eerie and the hair on the back of Rance’s neck prickled. The bathroom light was on, and as he brought the motorcycle to a stop, he wondered whose car was parked in the drive. Maybe Gran had hired a caretaker, but it was after midnight. Strange hour for maintenance duties. He removed his helmet, dismounted, unstrapped his duffel, and stepped onto the porch. Finding the hidden house key, he slipped inside.

Nothing seemed disturbed. Actually, the place appeared neater than he’d ever seen. Housekeeping wasn’t one of his grandmother’s strong suits. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he noticed more changes. When did she get a big screen TV? And computer?

A sappy love song played from the other end of the house. He grabbed the baseball bat Gran kept in an antique milk can by the hutch, then edged down the short hallway to the bathroom.

A girl, no more than fifteen lay in the tub with her eyes closed. Mostly nipples and areolas, her small breasts flattened against her chest. Bubble clouds floated over her spindle-thin body.

Shame thickened in his throat. He shouldn’t be staring at her, but he couldn’t turn away. He didn’t know if it was the shock of seeing a stranger here, or that the intruder was a teenager. Whatever it was, he found his voice.

“Who the hell are you?”

~3~

Blaze

Blaze recognized Rance Keller from the stack of pictures Miss Dessie kept in a leather box on the mantle. But he looked different in the flesh. An unkempt beard and mustache surrounded full lips. Long brown hair fringed beneath the edge of a knit beanie. Menacing blue eyes stared back.

Blaze rose from the water, reached for the towel hanging on the rack, and wrapped herself, tucking in the corner to secure it.

“Did you escape?”

He blinked like it was a stupid question, but it wasn’t. Letters she’d read said he’d been denied parole twice because he wouldn’t admit guilt.

“I’m asking the questions. Who are you?”

“Blaze Bledsoe.”

He half-grinned as if her answer was a punch line, then snarled. “Blaze? I don’t think so.”

“Well, I don’t care what you think. That’s my name and I live here because Miss Dessie said I could.”

“New owner. New rules. Get your shit and get out.”

His lips barely moved, and she thought of all the villains she’d seen on Perfect Crime, but despite his demeanor, he didn’t scare her because Dessie had shared plenty of stories about him.

She dried off, folded the towel and laid it on the commode, then pushed past him into the bedroom where she took panties from the dresser and stepped into them. Next, she pulled a faded Madonna tee-shirt over her head. “No.”

“This is my house and you’re trespassing.”

His voice was low-pitched, and when she faced him, his mouth clamped into a thin line. A muscle in his jaw worked. She reminded herself this was a man just out of prison, yet she still didn’t feel threatened. Not after Dessie’s tales of how he’d cared for injured animals, and his eagerness to help with any chore. Blaze folded her arms under her breasts. “It’s almost one o’clock. I have work tomorrow. We can talk in the morning.”

At first, he said nothing, just scanned the full length of her body, and she felt more naked than she’d been minutes ago. He locked his eyes on hers, and his gaze darkened. “I’m twice your size. I can throw your scrawny ass out the front door and you can’t do anything about it.”

“I know. But you won’t.” Turning down the covers, she switched off the lamp, and crawled into bed.

Rance

Too road weary to deal with conflict, Rance cursed under his breath and slammed the bathroom door. Where did she get off telling him what to do? Stubborn as Dessie, and his grandmother didn’t take crap off anyone. Couldn’t help but admire that quality. Yet, this little wisp surprised him. He could chew her up and spit her out, but she hadn’t flinched. Hell, she wasn’t even embarrassed to be naked in front of him. She’d taken her own sweet time drying off, and when she’d pulled on those black bikinis, his cock jumped. Dammit, he was turning into a pervert.

Stripping off his clothes, he refilled the tub and spied the bottle sitting on the sink, brought it to his nose and inhaled. Not sure about the amount to use, he gave it two squirts and bubbles formed. He sank into the foam leaving nothing but head and knees above water. He was too big for the claw-foot, but it felt good to lie back and let the heat loosen his bones.

His eyelids weighed heavy and a vision of the stranger’s thin, naked body popped into his brain. He dunked his head, hoping the hot water would melt the image away. Not one damn thing sexy about the girl. Barely had tits and a non-existent ass, and a rocker name like Blaze didn’t fit. He didn’t trust her, and he didn’t need complications. She had to go. But this first encounter told him bullying wouldn’t work, so he’d have to come up with a new tactic.

Blaze

When Blaze left for work the next morning, Rance was snoring to high heaven. His arrival created a problem she’d have to face, but not yet. This was her home and she wouldn’t leave without a fight.

He should still be locked up. If he escaped, he was crazy to come here. Perfect Crime episodes 42, 63, and 86 proved cops checked with relatives first.

As she backed out of the drive, she eyed the motorcycle. Painted in gold across the saddlebag was the word Outlaw. It also had a faded bumper sticker on the side of the gas tank. She squinted to make out the words.

It only seems kinky the first time.

Something in her chest fluttered, and she recalled how Dessie described Rance. A good man. Last night, he’d not thrown her out, only threatened, so maybe that was still true. Once he saw what a helpful housemate she was, he’d want her to stay.

When she wheeled into the funeral home parking lot, Cameron’s truck wasn’t there, so that was a relief. She pulled her sweater tight to ward off the chill and rushed inside.

“Good morning, Mrs. Walters.”

“Good morning, Blaze. Here are the details for Hadley, Morrison, and Caldwell. All of their services are tomorrow with visitations this evening.”

Blaze tucked the list in her jeans pocket. Since the IRS had confiscated the only funeral home in the neighboring town of Danvers, business at Over the Rainbow had picked up. Wouldn’t complain. She liked the extra hours.

Miss Caldwell was up first. Age thirty-six. Died during surgery. Blaze blinked, then blinked again. Natalie used to be Nathan. She went back to the office and poked her head inside. “Uh, Mrs. Walters. In Room One. Female makeup?”

The secretary cupped her mouth and leaned forward. “Well, unfortunately he—she—didn’t live long enough for the change to happen. They prepped him, but before they removed the appendage, he suffered a massive heart attack. Physically, he’s still male and must be listed that way on the paperwork, but he wished to go out as a woman. Oh, and there shouldn’t be a problem with facial hair. He’d been taking hormones for months.”

“Okay.”

Blaze remembered a television interview with Billy Graham where he’d described Heaven as being whatever made us happy. For him, beautiful golf courses. Didn’t know if that was true, but he knew more about the subject than she did, so she’d take his word. Since the funeral would be Natalie’s debut for a lot of folks, Blaze planned to make her as gorgeous as possible. Figured her Heavenly happiness was to arrive at the Pearly Gates as the woman she wanted to be.

“Miss Caldwell, I want to do something special for you.” Blaze chose two bottles of nail polish and shook them. “I’m going to tessellate your nails. That’s my word of the day. It means to form or arrange in a checkered pattern.” Once she completed the manicure, Blaze lined Natalie’s full lips with Peach Petal, then filled in with Iced Tangerine. She rolled her chair away and eyed the final results. Platinum-tipped blond hair. Warm Umber blended with Golden Mink eye shadow. Coral Tango blush. As Tiffany would say, holy crapoly. The new female looked hot.

Blaze tore a page from her notebook and slipped it inside the woman’s camisole. “If you meet Miss Dessie, give her this. She’ll be happy to hear her grandson showed up last night. I think he broke out of prison, but don’t tell her that part. Anyway, you have a nice trip and I hope you like what I’ve done with your makeup.”

Rance

Rance woke to rain pounding on the tin roof. He stretched, then burrowed deep into the down mattress. Best night’s sleep he’d had in years. Even without liquor or sex, there’d been no nightmares. Then he remembered the kid and his temper flared. Swinging his feet to the floor, he grabbed his watch. First on his agenda, settle the squatter situation. He focused on the dial. Almost noon. Dammit. She’d mentioned a job, but that couldn’t be right. Must have meant school.

He hated passing through her bedroom to use to the john. Her bedroom. Hell no. Couldn’t think of it that way. When he got to the door, he stopped and peeked in. No sign of her, and the bed was made.

After he relieved himself, he searched for his clothes from last night. Nowhere to be found. She must have taken them. But why? Easy answer. From the looks of things, she was a neat-freak. Good. His messiness alone should be enough incentive for her to leave. He grabbed a clean pair of jeans and knit shirt, pulled them on, strolled to the kitchen to make coffee, and hoped he remembered how. On the counter lay a note.

Do not let the cats out of the laundry room.

Do not feed them.

Pancakes on stove. Microwave for 56 seconds. Syrup and honey on table.

Coffee ready. Push start.

Please rinse your dirty dishes and load in dishwasher.

Wipe table off, careful not to get crumbs on floor.

Drape the dishcloth over the faucet to dry.

I’ll run the dishwasher and clean the coffee pot when I get home.

You’re welcome.

Blaze

He stared at the paper. You’re welcome? He needed a cigarette. And something stronger than coffee. But first, he’d eat breakfast. No need to waste it.

The microwave dinged, he removed the steaming hotcakes, smothered them in butter, doused them in syrup, then took a second to inhale the aroma before closing his lips around the fork. Sweet Jesus. Whoever she was, she could cook. But that still wasn’t enough reason to let her stay. By the time he finished the stack, he wavered on that point.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Native Texan, Ann Everett, lives on a small pond where she writes, bakes, and fights her addiction to Diet Dr. Peppers.Ten more facts about Ann: Married her high school sweetheart. Loves shopping at thrift stores. Doesn’t remember her first kiss. Hates talking on the telephone. A really sharp pencil makes her happy. Secretly wants to get a tattoo. Still trying to figure out how she made the National Honor Society in high school. Thankful wrinkles aren’t painful. Sucks at math.

Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
As a top reviewer on an online critique site, I read mostly unpublished novels. However, for personal enjoyment, currently, I’m reading Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Faking It by Jennifer Crusie.
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
Ben Robson is definitely Rance, big and hunky, with a smidgen of dangerous. For Blaze, the current front-runner is Sarah Desjardens. She has the youthful, innocent look of the character I picture.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
All the juicy stuff can be found at: http://www.anneverett.com

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