Want a sneak peek of A Cry in the Dark, the first book of the Carly Moore Series?
Available November 12, 2019!
“No, no, no, no, NO!” I shouted, banging the heel of my hand on the steering wheel of my Honda.
This could not be happening again.
I popped the hood of my car, got out, and circled around the front. It took me three tries to get the hood propped on its stand, but I wasn’t sure why I was even bothering. I hadn’t learned anything about car engines since my last car had broken down in southern Arkansas. There, I’d met people who’d helped me, strangers who had become friends. That kind of luck didn’t happen twice.
Leaning over the engine, I looked over all the hoses—intact—and the radiator—not steaming—which meant I had no idea what was wrong with it.
I was in a parking lot off Highway 25 at a scenic pull-off overlooking the Smoky Mountains and what
I presumed was the Tennessee-North Carolina state border. It was an off-the-beaten-path road, which meant I was basically in the middle of nowhere. I’d crisscrossed the state lines a couple of times since I’d left Gatlinburg, but I was fairly sure I was currently in Tennessee. Only fairly sure, because I’d lost cell service a couple of hours ago.
I was in big trouble.
Pissed, I swiped my hair out of my face and turned to face the view, suddenly overcome with rage.
The fact that it was beautiful almost made me madder. I’d pulled over to the lookout on a whim less than five minutes ago, wanting to get one last look at the Smokies. I’d spent a few minutes staring at them, soaking in the sight and trying to feel something, only to return to the car and find it wouldn’t start.
I pulled the burner phone I was using out of my jeans pocket, not surprised to still see the no-service symbol in the upper corner. Which meant I couldn’t call a roadside service. Besides, where would I have them tow it? The last town I remembered passing through was in North Carolina, but that had been a good hour or so ago, minus this stop. The tow bill was going to be astronomical.
What in the hell was I going to do?
The hum of an approaching car caught my attention and I wasn’t sure whether to hide or try to flag the driver down. Ideally, I’d check out who was in the car before making the decision. A family with kids was a safe enough bet. A solitary guy in a beat-up truck—maybe not. The problem was that the lookout was at the edge of a curve in the road, so I wouldn’t have much opportunity to make the call.
The car breezed by, a small, older hatchback. I couldn’t make out who was inside, but from the way they zoomed past and kept on going, it was obvious they weren’t going to stop.
Which meant I had no choice but to wait for the next car.
The next vehicle didn’t show up for another twenty minutes. The eighteen-wheeler was struggling to handle the downgrade, its brakes announcing its appearance a good thirty seconds before it drove right on past, but I’d already decided I was okay with that. I’d heard plenty of stories about over-the-road truckers, although I suspected most had been embellished.
I was still standing outside, my butt leaning against the driver’s door so I could get a good view of the approaching vehicles. The early November mountain air was chilly—probably in the 40s—and I briefly considered sitting inside the car, but I’d take the cold over the stench of smoke ingrained in the interior. The phantom stench implied the previous owner had been a smoker—likely a heavy one—and I wasn’t sure how much more of it I could take.
My plan, inasmuch as I had one, was to head to Wilmington and look for a job. It would be suitably far from the people who were looking for me, plus I’d always liked the ocean. But en route to the coast, the sign for Gatlinburg had grabbed at me. My mother’s grandparents had brought her there when she was a kid, and she’d told me about the trip. She’d been dead for over two decades, and they’d been gone for even longer, but I still missed her. Fiercely.
So I’d taken the exit to Gatlinburg hoping I’d feel closer to her if I did all the things she’d told me about. Hoping it might…inspire me in some way. But it turned out that Dollywood was closed the first week of November, and I didn’t have the right shoes or clothes to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So in the end, I’d mostly just laid in bed for four days and watched TV, with a splurge at The Pancake House for breakfast a couple of mornings, and rode up the gondola. My mother hadn’t mentioned the gondola trip, but I’d felt the need to do something. When I finally felt ready to move on, having spent several hundred dollars I couldn’t afford on a pity party that had somehow made me feel worse, the clerk had suggested I take the back roads to enjoy the last of the fall foliage.
Which had brought me here.
The sun would be setting in a few hours and I had some decisions to make. Did I continue to wait for someone to stop? Or did I start walking? I had no idea how far I’d have to hoof it, not to mention it would be suicidal to walk on the winding, narrow two-lane road at night.
I wished I’d taken that paper map the desk clerk had offered.
Leaving the car, I perched on a rock over the lookout, tucking my knees under my chin and staring out into the scenery. Cold seeped into my butt through my jeans, but the view truly was beautiful. The bright shades of yellow, orange, and red that the mountain trees were known for had begun to fade and fall, but it was still breathtaking, making me feel a little less sorry I’d stopped to take it in.
Lost in thought, I didn’t hear a vehicle approach, so I startled when a man said, “Having car trouble?”
Heart racing, I turned to face him. How could I have been so careless?
I jumped to my feet, taking a defensive stance, which was utterly ridiculous. I was on a ledge. All he had to do was give me a hard shove to push me over. He definitely looked strong enough to do it.
I scrambled over the rock onto the sidewalk, sizing him up as I prepared to face him.
I guessed he was in his mid-thirties, and he looked like he was used to manual labor. The beat-up tow truck behind him helped back up my presumption. He was handsome in a rugged sort of way, with overgrown brown hair and eyes to match, and had on a brown work jacket, dark T-shirt, dirty jeans, and work boots. Something about the way he carried himself—full of confidence and self-assurance—made me apprehensive. Yet it also stirred something inside me, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.
Not now, Carly.
It took me a second to realize I still hadn’t answered him. “Yeah.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with it?” he asked, glancing down at the still-exposed engine.
“It won’t start,” I said, walking toward the car and trying to avoid eye contact. Hoping my previously dormant feelings would go back into hiding. “It makes a grinding noise when I turn the key.”
“You got someone comin’ for you?”
My breath caught. I didn’t know anything about this man. For all I knew, he was seeking confirmation that there wouldn’t be witnesses to my abduction. Or perhaps he was a garden-variety psychopath, someone who preyed on women out on their own. Why had I left my gun in the car?
Careless. I wouldn’t be making that mistake again. I needed to be even more guarded since I was apparently attracted to him. Just because a guy was good looking didn’t mean he was trustworthy. Indeed, the opposite was often true.
Sensing my apprehension, he held up his hands in surrender. “I only want to know if you need my help. If not, I’ll be on my way.” When I still didn’t answer him, he said, “Would you like me to turn it over and see what I think? Maybe it’s an easy fix.” He gestured to his truck. “I know what I’m doing, and I won’t charge you just to look.”
“Yeah…okay.” My heartbeat picked up again. My purse was on the passenger seat, and my gun was inside. What if he found my gun and used it against me?
He followed my gaze to the front seat, then took a step back. “All I want to do is check the engine, but if you’d prefer for me to call someone, I understand.”
I’d been out here over an hour, and now that I’d gotten up from the rock, I realized how stiff and cold I’d gotten. He was the first person to stop, not to mention he was driving a tow truck, for heaven’s sake. He was literally what I needed—a direct answer to the prayer I hadn’t made.
“No,” I finally said, running a hand through my hair. It had been short for a couple of weeks now, cut into an angled bob that wouldn’t yield to a ponytail, and I still couldn’t get used to the length. Or the auburn color. When I looked in the mirror, I sometimes had trouble recognizing myself. I tried to cover my unease with a tight smile as I lowered my hand to my side. “Sorry. I’m just a little jumpy.”
He held up his hands again. “Understandable.” Taking several more steps backward, he nodded toward my car. “How about you get your purse out before I get in. All I need is the key.”
Obviously I wasn’t doing a great job of guarding my expression, but I didn’t think he was playing me. Besides, once I had my purse and my gun, I’d feel a hell of a lot better about the whole situation. “I don’t mean to insult you…”
“I’m not insulted,” he said, taking two more steps backward. “You’re smart to be wary. You get what you need, and then I’ll check it out.”
Keeping an eye on him as I opened the passenger door, I grabbed my purse and slung it over my right shoulder, clutching it to my side. “The key’s still in the ignition.”
He’d been watching me with guarded curiosity, but now his mouth tipped into a hint of a grin. “You left the keys in the ignition?”
I was acting so cautious—as though I feared he’d rob me blind—that I could see why he was amused. “It won’t start so it’s not like someone could steal it.” I shrugged. “Unless you have a magic touch.”
His grin spread.
Blood rushed to my cheeks, stinging my windblown skin. “With cars.”
Amusement filled his eyes. “I’ve been told that too.”
Just when I thought my face might actually combust, he got into the car. The grinding sound followed a few seconds later. He climbed out and walked around to the engine for a few moments, then said, “When was the last time you had the oil changed?”
“I haven’t,” I admitted. “I just got this thing a couple of weeks ago.”
His brow shot up. “You didn’t ask for the maintenance record?”
My friends in Arkansas had given me the car, just like they’d arranged for the documents in my purse. I hadn’t been in position to haggle or ask for details. “No.”
He scowled as though I’d committed a cardinal sin against car ownership, which I supposed I had. “I think the engine’s seized.”
My heart sank. “I take it that’s not something you can fix?”
“I can…but not here,” he said, but he didn’t sound sure. He closed the hood. “I’d need to tow it to my garage.”
Studying him, I worried my bottom lip between my teeth. “How much is that going to cost?”
“This far up the mountain?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “The tow will run you seventy-five, then
I can dig into it tomorrow and give you an estimate on the repair.”
That wasn’t as bad as I’d thought, but the rest of his statement gave me pause. “Tomorrow?”
“It’s gonna take some time to tear it apart, and after I figure out what’s wrong, I’ll need to get parts. I suspect we’re lookin’ at a couple of days.”
A couple of days? Which meant at least two more nights in a motel, plus meals, not to mention the cost of the repairs. “What do you think it’s going to cost?”
“I won’t know until I get in and look around.”
This felt an awful lot like déjà vu. Borrowed car, seized engine. This is exactly what had happened to me in Arkansas, where I’d spend the last few months. In some ways, it felt like fate had brought me there, to the very people who could help me with my…unique situation. Rose Gardner and Neely Kate Rivers had found me by the side of the road. They’d offered me shelter and kindness, and eventually I had spilled my secrets to them. When it had come time for me to leave, they had known exactly how to help me. How to hide me. Except I’d made a mistake and landed myself back in the same situation. Borrowed car, seized engine. Depending on the kindness of strangers. But this time the breakdown felt a lot more like carelessness than fate.
Why hadn’t I thought to check the oil? It would likely cost more money to repair the car than I had in my shiny new bank account. My stomach twisted into a knot.
“I understand if you don’t trust me to work on your car, what with you being a captive audience and all,” he said. “If you prefer, I can tow it into Greeneville, but I can’t do it until tomorrow.”
“How much?” I blurted out.
He hesitated. “It’s a haul down there,” he said with a frown. “An hour from my shop. I’d have to make it worth my time, which would include the trip back.”
“I understand,” I said, then repeated, “How much?”
Shit. But he didn’t seem like he was trying to screw me over, and I didn’t see the point in having the car towed to a bigger city, where everything was likely to be more expensive.
“Or I could tow it to Ewing.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “That would only be about an hour and a half round trip for me, so let’s make it two hundred.”
That wasn’t much better.
“Maybe you’d rather call someone to come get you,” he said. “You can use my radio since your phone probably doesn’t work up here.”
He could have been asking to make sure I was really alone, but I didn’t think so. Although I certainly wouldn’t call myself the best judge of people—I’d gotten myself into this situation by trusting the wrong people—I admired his sense of integrity. It made me want to trust him. Or maybe it was my desperation influencing me. “No. There’s no one close enough to call.”
He nodded. “I saw the Georgia plates, so I didn’t think so, but didn’t want to presume.” He turned to look out at the view, soaking it in for a moment, and shifted his weight. “There’s another option.” He turned back to face me. “I can call a deputy sheriff to pick you up and take you to Ewing. Then you can figure out what to do about your car later.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “That’s your cheapest option at the moment. You’ll still have to tow the car, but it will give you time to figure everything out.”
My heart skipped a beat. “No. No sheriff,” I said a little too quickly. A deputy might ask for ID, and while I’d been assured my new identity was solid, I wasn’t ready to test it quite yet.
Some of the warmth faded from his eyes, but he nodded. “Okay. That option’s off the table. Do you need a minute to consider the others?”
“No,” I said, feeling nauseated at the amount of money I was about to hemorrhage, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. “Just tow it to your garage.”
“I’ll do my best to keep the cost of the repairs as cheap as possible.”
Call me stupid, but I believed him.
He gestured toward the car. “It’s going to take me a few minutes to get it loaded. If you have anything you need to get out, you’d best do it now.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, my nervousness returning. “I have a suitcase in the trunk.”
He grabbed the keys out of the ignition, then walked around and opened the trunk, barely exerting himself to heave out my suitcase.
I’d lifted that bag. I knew how heavy it was, which meant his jacket was covering up some impressive biceps.
I shivered, partially from cold but also from the realization that this man could easily overpower me. I held my purse tighter. I had a gun, but could I bring myself to use it? It was one thing to shoot cans off fence posts, and a whole other thing to shoot a man. If I needed to pull it out, I hoped the threat would be enough to get my point across.
He must have seen something on my face—again—because he cast me a wary look as he walked to the truck, holding the nearly fifty-pound bag as though it were a roll of toilet paper.
Yep. He definitely worked out.
“It’s a good thing we’re getting you out of here now,” he said, glancing up at the sky before lowering his gaze to mine. “They’re saying it might snow.”
“Snow?” I hadn’t paid any attention to the weather. Smart, Carly. Drive into the mountains with the possibility of snow, though to be fair, if my car hadn’t broken down, I suspected I wouldn’t be in the mountains anymore.
“Yep.” He opened the passenger door of the truck and tossed the bag into the cab, easily maneuvering it into the space behind the seat. When he stepped down, he held the door open.
“Why don’t you wait in the truck while I get this hooked up?”
I glanced inside, surprised by its tidiness. Based on the peeling paint and extensive rust spots, the truck had to be a couple of decades old, so I’d expected the interior to be in similar condition. While the black vinyl seat was ripped in multiple places, for the most part it was clean.
“Uh…” I said, glancing up at him. “I’m about to get into your truck, and I don’t even know who you are.”
“Wyatt Drummond, owner of Drummond Auto Repair and Towing.” To my surprise, he held out his hand to shake.
His callused hand was grease-stained, but it looked clean. I shook it, surprised it felt so warm wrapped around my cold one. I wasn’t prepared for the shiver that ran through my body at his touch, but I tried to convince myself it was because of the frigid temperature. “Carly Moore,” I said, proud that I’d remembered my new last name. I’d spent a week and a half practicing in front of a mirror while I waited for my documents to come through in Little Rock. I’d had little else to do, given I’d left my new friends behind in Henryetta.
His handshake was firm, but he quickly released it. “Now that you know who I am, get inside and I’ll start the truck so you can warm up.” Without waiting to see if I’d listen, he walked around the front of the truck and climbed behind the wheel to start the engine.
I almost insisted I’d wait outside, but the wind had picked up, bringing a cold bite that stung my cheeks. I’d already agreed to let him tow my car into town. No sense being stubborn for the sake of it.
The cab heated up quickly, so I reached over and turned the heat down. A few minutes later, Wyatt climbed back inside and backed the truck up to the front of my car. Somehow he’d managed to back my car out of its space and get it angled correctly. It didn’t take him long to get the car hooked up and hoisted onto the winch.
By the time he returned to the cab, the sky was turning a light pink with the approaching sunset. He didn’t say anything, and for some reason I felt compelled to fill the silence. “It gets dark early out here,” I said as he pulled onto the road. Since the dashboard was old and didn’t have a digital display, I took out my phone to check the time. It was nearly five. How long had I been out here?
“The mountains to the west make it earlier, and the time change this weekend didn’t help,” Wyatt said, shifting gears.
“Where exactly are we going?” I said. “I just realized I never asked.”
“Drum,” he said. “It’s about ten miles down the mountain. I figure I’ll drop you off at the tavern and then haul your car to the shop. My brother Max owns the place and runs the motel across the street. He’ll rent you a room for the night.”
My guard was back up. Was this some kind of scam? Tow unsuspecting tourists into town for a small fee, then charge them inflated prices for motel rooms? I knew I was being paranoid, but I was on the run and had an alias. Was there such a thing as being too paranoid in this kind of situation?
I hugged my purse tighter to my side. “Should I call ahead and reserve a room?”
“Nah,” he said, keeping his eyes on the curvy mountain road, downshifting to accommodate the grade. “You’ll be fine.”
“There’s not much traffic,” I said, realizing I hadn’t seen another car for nearly an hour. “I figured there’d be more people driving the roads to see the changing leaves. Aren’t the Smoky Mountains known for that?”
“There used to be more people in these parts about five years ago,” Wyatt said. “But things changed when the state park system moved the entrance to the hiking trail up to Balder Mountain. This road used to take hikers to the entrance, so Drum sees a whole lot less traffic now. It was a tourist town until the move, then business dried up, which is why I’m certain Max will have a room available.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He gave me a wry grin. “Probably for the best.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“What were you doin’ out this way?” he said. “If you don’t mind me asking.” It was an innocent enough question, but the friendly tone he’d had at first seemed to have dried up. Just like the look in his eyes had changed when I’d refused his suggestion about calling in a deputy.
“I guess the same as most people,” I said. “Taking in the scenery.”
He shot a pointed gaze at my purse, as if he had laser vision that allowed him to see the gun, then shifted his attention back to the road. “Not everyone.”
“Then what do you think I was doing out there?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Who knows what people do?” he said, shooting me a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I was just curious.”
Maybe so, but it felt judgey in a way that made me wonder what, exactly, this man suspected me of doing.
We rode the rest of the way in an uncomfortable silence until we reached downtown Drum. I hadn’t expected a bustling town, but it was even smaller than I’d imagined—just two short blocks with businesses on either side. About a third of them had “going out of business” signs in the windows. Max’s Tavern was halfway down the road. The front entrance boasted a small sign informing any passersby of its presence, but when we turned down the cross street, I saw a much bigger sign painted on the side of the building. There was a nearly empty gravel parking lot out back, and Wyatt parked lengthwise across it. As soon as he stopped, he hopped out of the truck and walked around to the passenger side. When I opened the door, he was already standing in front of me, waiting.
I’d had enough of his silent accusations. “What?” I snapped as I climbed out.
He held his ground, searching my face as though he was trying to see through me—not under my clothes, but into my character.
Wait. Wasn’t I supposed to be judging him?
For a moment I thought he was going to block me from getting out. Fear jolted through me. I started to reach into my purse, but his gaze followed my movements. Maybe he was seeing through me again, because he immediately backed off and offered me a hand. I ignored the gesture, turning in the seat to get my suitcase out of the back.
“You’ll never get it,” he said in an amused tone. “It’s wedged in there.”
The two seconds I spent tugging on the handle proved that to be true, but when he tried to push me to the side so he could take over, I turned my back to him and found the lever to fold the seat forward. It hit my knee hard enough that I was sure it would leave a bruise, but I felt vindicated when I pulled my suitcase free, even if it fell to the ground with an ungraceful thud.
“I’m impressed,” he said, his arms crossed over his chest.
I gave him a long hard stare. “Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something.”
Guarded amusement filled his eyes. “Point taken.” Then, as though remembering himself, his face hardened. “Let me take you inside and introduce you to Max.”
The last thing I needed was a babysitter, especially one who seemed to think I was up to no good.
“Are you going to get me a special rate or something?” I asked in a terse tone as I leaned over and grabbed the handle of my bag. “Because if not, I’m perfectly capable of renting my own hotel room.”
He looked properly chastised. “Don’t you need help with your bag?”
“No,” I snapped. “I do not.” I started to roll my suitcase over the packed earth, most of the gravel was long gone, giving it a jerk when it got stuck on one of the few remaining stones. Of course.
“Want to give me your number?” he asked, his accusatory tone back.
I stopped and turned around to face him. “Excuse me?”
“For the car,” he nudged his head toward the tow truck. “So I can give you the estimate.”
This was what I got for being all sanctimonious. “Uh. Yeah.”
He pulled out his phone and tapped the screen. “Okay. Go ahead.”
The problem was I didn’t remember my phone number. I’d decided to use the burner until I got a job. I’d get a real phone after saving up a few paychecks. “How about I just text it to you. What’s your number?”
His face was a blank slate as he rattled off a number, which I entered into a text message and typed. I started to enter my real name, the one I needed to keep hidden, then deleted it and entered Moore. Damn, that was going to take some getting used to. I pushed send, only to get an error message. I still didn’t have service.
“I don’t have cell service in town,” I said, holding it up as though to offer proof. “So my phone number won’t be of much use.”
“I’ll just call you at the motel then,” he said, his gaze on my phone.
I stuffed it into my purse. It wasn’t like it was going to do me much good here. Besides which, I had no one to call. “Do you have cell service?”
“Nope.” Then he turned and headed for the cab of his truck.
If he didn’t have cell service and neither did I, why was he asking for my number? At least his attitude had dampened my attraction to him. The last thing I needed in my life was to be distracted by a handsome man.
I decided not to waste any more time on it and resumed lugging my suitcase toward the tavern. It continued getting stuck on pieces of gravel, so I eventually picked it up and carried it to the front of the building. It kept banging my shins, likely hard enough to leave more bruises. I almost admonished myself for packing too much, but other than my car, all my worldly possessions were either in my purse or my suitcase. When I reached concrete, I tried to roll it, but one of the wheels was wobbly, and the suitcase started going sideways.
I might as well have gotten my honeymoon luggage from Target instead of Neiman Marcus for as well as this bag was holding up.
I’d bought it for the three-week Hawaii vacation I’d planned with my fiancé, Jake. Back then, I’d thought I was happy, or happy enough. I’d thought I understood the world and my part in it. But it had all been a lie. I’d heard something after our rehearsal dinner that had opened my eyes to the truth. Instead of bringing this bag on my honeymoon, I’d brought it in my getaway car—and, thanks to my last broken-down car, to Henryetta, Arkansas. To the people who’d given me a new life.
The thought of Henryetta and the friends I’d made there brought back a fresh wave of grief, but I took a deep breath and pushed it down. I could feel sorry for myself later. Now, I needed to get a room for the night…or more likely, the next several nights.
What was I going to do if I didn’t have enough money to pay for the repairs? Because I needed to face the possibility that it might happen.
I’d deal with it when I got the estimate.
I opened the front door and walked inside. The décor was dark—wood floors and ceiling—but it felt homey rather than off-putting. A family sat in a booth to my right, and ESPN was playing on the large-screen TV mounted to the back wall.
A man with dishwater blond hair stood behind the bar, his elbow leaning on the counter as he watched me enter the establishment. He was young and good-looking, and the shit-eating grin that spread across his face when he saw my suitcase indicated he was pretty confident in his own skin. “I have a lot of people comin’ into the tavern, but I’ve never had anyone want to camp out here.”
He didn’t look anything like Wyatt, but something about his grin reminded me of the man who had just dropped me off. “You must be Max,” I said as I fought my suitcase to follow me across the floor.
He laughed. “Should I be worried that you know who I am, but I don’t remember you?”
So he was a player, not that I was surprised. He had that cocky confidence most players wore like a glove. “We haven’t met,” I assured him. “Your brother told me about your bar and your motel.”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Wyatt?”
“Drives a tow truck?” When he nodded, I said, “He towed my car here.” I gestured to the luggage. “Hence the suitcase.”
“So you need a room for the night?” he asked.
“Probably several nights. He said it would take a few days.”
“You must have done a number on it.”
Standing across from him, I leaned into the counter. “I don’t have much luck with vehicles.”
“Know your strengths and your weaknesses,” a woman said behind me with a country twang. “That’s what I always say.”
I turned to see a waitress who looked to be in her mid-thirties, carrying a platter topped with several plates of food. She was wearing jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with a scoop neckline that read Max’s Tavern. Her short blond hair was pulled into two tiny pigtails at the back of her head, and she was pretty even with little makeup.
I shot her a grin and she grinned back. “I like her, Max,” she said. “Don’t you scare her away.”
Max laughed. “She’s renting a room across the street.”
The woman shifted her attention to the family in the booth as she set down the plates one by one. When she returned to us, she propped a hand on her hip. “Like I said, don’t be runnin’ her off.”
I cringed. “That bad?”
She walked over. “Are you really stayin’ overnight?” She looked me up and down. “You’re not the Alpine Inn’s typical client.”
Oh, crap. What did that mean? Was it a rent-by-the-hour kind of place? “I’m scared to ask what the typical client is.”
“Don’t you listen to her,” Max said, picking up a rag behind the counter and rubbing the bar top. “I’ll put you on the end where there’s not much action. It’ll be quiet as a church mouse.”
The waitress leveled her gaze on him.
“What?” Max said, holding his arms out from his sides. “For what it’s worth, Ruth, I don’t have any other guests tonight besides Big Joe and Jerry, so Ms.…” He gave me an expectant look, waiting for me to offer my name.
“Carly,” I said cautiously.
“So Ms. Carly—” Max said with a grin “—will have plenty of quiet and privacy.”
“Uh-huh,” Ruth said. She turned to me with resignation in her eyes. “I’ll have Franklin bring up a set of sheets when he meets me for my break.”
“Hey, now!” Max protested. “Don’t go besmirching my establishment!”
“When was the last time you ordered new sheets for the dump you call a motel?” Ruth asked, both hands planted on her hips again.
His back straightened. “That’s neither here nor there.”
The woman turned to me with a tight grin. “And that’s why I’m havin’ my man bring you a set of sheets. Don’t you worry. I replaced all my sheets a couple of months ago when we went to Costco down in Knoxville. Four-hundred-thread-count sheets and they feel as smoooooth as silk,” she said, her drawl becoming more pronounced on the last few words. She shot Max a glare. “Damn cheapskate’s too tight to buy good quality sheets.”
“Ruth,” Max said with a sigh, “you’re gonna make her think my place isn’t good enough for her.”
“Maybe that’s because it’s not,” she snapped back.
“I’m kind of stuck here,” I admitted. “My car broke down, and Wyatt says the repair might take a few days.” Then before I could chicken out, I added, “Say, if you know of anyone needing temporary help while I’m here, I’m available.”
Ruth leaned her arm on the bar top and leveled her gaze with Max. “We’re down a waitress what with Lula running off to Chattanooga with that trucker. You should hire Carly until she comes back.”
“I ain’t decided if I’m gonna let Lula come back this time,” Max grumbled. “I’m tired of her taking off whenever she damn well feels like it and then popping back in as if nothing happened.”
“Who do you think you’re foolin’?” Ruth said with a disgusted shake of her head. “This ain’t the first time she’s run off, and it surely won’t be the last. You’ll take her back, just like you always do.”
I decided to jump in before they really started arguing. “I’m not looking for anything permanent, but I can definitely fill in until I leave or Lula comes back. I waitressed back when I was in—” I shut myself down before I could get out the word college. The old me had a master’s degree in elementary education. Charlene Moore had barely graduated high school. The thought brought another wave of unexpected grief. I loved teaching, but the credentials would have been too difficult to fake. The thought of going back to school for another five or six years to study something I already knew…
I could cry later. Right now, I had to finish the statement I’d left hanging before my new acquaintances regarded me with the same suspicion I’d seen in Wyatt’s eyes. Of course, it didn’t matter much if they thought I was strange. In a few days, this place would be in my rearview mirror.
Make the best of it, Carly. You need the money.
“I used to waitress back when I was in Michigan, before I moved to Atlanta.” Too much backstory. It makes you look desperate. “In any case,” I said, sounding a little too chipper, even to my ears. “I can fill in until you take Lula back. If you take her back.”
He groaned. “Ruth’s right. I take that fool-headed girl back every time, but one of these days enough will be enough.”
“Well, it won’t be anytime soon,” Ruth said, then looked me up and down. “The jeans’ll do, and I’ll get you a T-shirt from the back. How soon can you start?”
“I can start right now,” I said in shock. This had been way too easy.
“Then come on,” she said, gesturing for me to follow her into the back. “Let’s get you ready for the Monday night rush.”
I followed her, tugging my worthless suitcase behind me. This place was empty. Monday night rush? It looked like they didn’t need one employee, let alone two.
“Hey!” Max called after us. “I never said she was hired!”
“We all know who the real boss is around here,” Ruth said over her shoulder. “So don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” Then she snickered.
“I heard that slur against my manhood!” Max shouted at her.
“I meant you to!”
Once we were in the back, Ruth took my suitcase and wrangled it into a small office that barely had enough room for a desk. Several keys with plastic key chains hung on hooks on the wall behind it.
“Isn’t Max the owner?” I asked, trying not to worry that he might fire me any second just to remind Ruth of her place.
She waved a hand in dismissal. “Max likes to be the face of the bar, the good-time guy, but everyone knows I run it. He pays me well, so I let him pretend he’s the boss.” She winked. “Most of the time.”
“So you think he should fire Lula?”
She angled her head back and eyed me up and down. “Damn, girl. I thought you said this was temporary.”
“What?” Then I realized what she thought I was getting at. “No. I mean, yes. It is. I’m out of here as soon as Wyatt fixes my car, which will hopefully be in a few days.”
She laughed. “I was teasing you. Lula’s just wild and unreliable. But she’s sweet as sugar, so we all seem to tolerate the inconvenience.” She led me into a back storeroom lined with wire racks weighed down by huge boxes. Along the back wall was a metal cabinet above a collection of smaller lockers. A couple of them were secured with padlocks, but the rest were unlocked. Several coat hooks jutted out of the wall. Only two were in use—a navy blue woman’s coat hung from one and a man’s work jacket hung from the other. It struck me that it looked much too large for Max.
She saw my gaze and laughed. “That belongs to Tiny, the cook. I’ll introduce you in a minute.”
“Oh.” Of course there was a cook. There were likely more than one, but the size of that coat scared me. It had to be from a big and tall man’s store, which meant Tiny was someone’s idea of a cute nickname.
“Hang up your coat while I find you a shirt,” Ruth said as she tugged a plastic bin off one of the bottom shelves.
“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged my coat off one arm at a time so I didn’t need to let go of my purse.
Ruth seemed to notice my reluctance to put down my bag, but she remained silent as she sorted through the small stack of shirts in the bin. “It might be on the small side,” she said, tossing one of them to me, “but it looks like you’ve got good tits, so show ’em off, honey. I suspect you need the money for that multi-day car repair, which means you’re gonna need the tips. But it’s your lucky day because tonight is Monday night football, sugar. Cute face, nice tits, and somethin’ new and intriguin’ for the boys? They’ll tip you well as long as you’re friendly.”
“How friendly?” I asked, my voice tight.
She laughed. “Not as friendly as you’re insinuating. Max won’t tolerate that—from either side. So don’t go promising some big reward after you finish your shift because he’ll fire you lickety-split. On the flip side, he won’t tolerate any man trying to grope you, so you be sure to tell one of us immediately if that happens. Got it?”
The fiery look in her eyes promised me she meant every word. I pushed out a sigh of relief. “No worries there.”
With a sharp nod, she said, “Good.” A smile spread across her face. “I think I’m gonna like workin’ with you.”
I smiled back. “I think I’m gonna like it too.”
She laughed. “We’ll see if you’re saying the same thing at midnight.”