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Sultry with a Twist

 

 Chapter 1

 

June Augustine pursed her lips and glanced at the cashier’s check in her hand. It didn’t feel as heavy as it should. Heavenly beams didn’t part the clouds and shine upon it. The shimmering watermark didn’t sprout lungs and burst into the “Hallelujah” chorus. In short, there was no magical quality to this paper, nothing to reflect all the sacrifices she’d made in earning this money.

For eight years, she’d pulled double shifts, choked down ramen noodles, and haggled over two-dollar yard-sale dresses while her friends planned destination weddings and delivered blue-eyed newborns that smelled of sweet talcum powder. Instead of a husband and a cuddly baby, June had an incontinent three-legged cat, a ten-year-old purple hatchback she’d nicknamed Bruiser, and this check. She held her whole life right here in her fingers, including every penny of the profits from her condo, which she’d sold earlier that morning.

Bonita,” Esteban said, tugging gently at the other end of the check. “Let go.”

“Oh, sorry.” June bit her lip and released payment to her old friend and new business partner. Now she was officially half owner of Luquos, soon-to-be the hottest martini bar in Austin. Hopefully. No, definitely. Custom orders for her signature drink recipes poured in so quickly she could barely keep up, and with Esteban’s connections and experience, they couldn’t fail.

Esteban tipped her chin with his index finger. “You don’t have to put in this much. I can get other investors.”

“Which means more people telling me how to run my bar.” June shook her head and took a deep breath. Who needed money? She might not have a place to sleep that night, but she was officially her own boss, a dream nearly a decade in the making. No more mixing sticky blender drinks for glassy-eyed drunks who didn’t tip. No more taking turns cleaning up vomit in the restrooms. Luquos was her baby—her creative vision—and her heart beat faster in anticipation of opening night in six weeks.

Esteban admired the check. “I see closing went well. Where’re you staying now?”

“I paid a college kid twenty bucks to deliver his old futon to Luquos. I’ll crash in the office until I find a new place.” Which shouldn’t take long.

“And your things?”

“Sold most of them. The rest’s in the trunk of my car.”

“You can stay with me any time.” He dipped his head and whispered, “Amigos con derechos. Business partners with benefits.”

“Ah, nice try,” she said with a laugh. Sex ruined friendships—she knew firsthand. Esteban was attractive in a successful-older-man kind of way, but she’d never risk losing him as a mentor just for a sweaty good time.

Fierce, early September sunbeams pierced the clouds, and she moved into the shade of a cedar tree before her fair skin baked. After checking her watch again, she straightened her black pencil skirt and picked an errant cat hair from the shoulder of her green silk blouse.

“Stop fidgeting. You look perfect. This is the easy part.”

“Tony’s late.” She took a deep breath of cedar-perfumed morning air and ran down a mental to-do list. First, the liquor license interview. Esteban was right, easy-peasy. Then bar- and wait-staff interviews, furniture delivery, the marine biology consultation—

“There he is.”

Tony bounded up the steps from his car and smoothed the wiry strands of his graying beard. “Hey, boss. Got held up with the contractor. You might have to redesign that back wall.”

“Son of a biscuit-eater,” June muttered. There wasn’t time to redesign it. Three hundred Atlantic jellyfish would arrive next week to take up residency inside that back wall—the largest private aquarium in the city. “Let’s hurry and get this finished.” She led the way into the—thankfully air-conditioned—Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission office and waved two fingers at the receptionist. “June Augustine, Esteban Morales, and Anthony Grimes to see Agent Perneras.”

She popped a stick of sweet cinnamon gum into her mouth and inspiration for a new recipe struck: the redhot martini. Which ingredients to use? Top-shelf vodka, of course, like vanilla Grey Goose, then a dash of Goldschlager, perhaps garnished with a candy swizzle. Mmm. She added it to her mental list while making her way to the conference room. A single curly, brown strand of hair escaped her twist, and she tucked it back in place before taking a seat at the head of the long mahogany table.

“Hot enough for ya?” An elderly, balding man with a bushy white handlebar mustache extended his hand and grinned. He reminded June of Yosemite Sam after a few too many decades bushwhacking those pesky varmints. “Barty Perneras.”

After a round of introductions, he settled beside her, leaving one empty seat between them, and opened a manila file folder. He thumbed through page after page while humming an indistinct tune. “Here we are…Mae-June Augustine.” A soft snicker puffed out the tips of his moustache. “Mae-June?”

“My parents thought they were funny.” She elbowed Esteban in the ribs before he had a chance to announce her middle name: July. Actually, her mama and daddy had been the wildest, most lovable, booze-swilling fools in Sultry Springs, Texas. God rest their pickled souls. It was a miracle they hadn’t named her Jägermeister. “I go by June.”

“Right.” Perneras returned his attention to the paperwork. “So you and Mr. Morales are co-owners and Mr. Grimes is…”

“Our bar manager,” June said.

“Mmm-hmm.” A trio of deep wrinkles zigzagged across his forehead. “It looks like all the applications are complete except for yours.” He raised his gaze to hers. “It’s been flagged.”

“What does that mean?” Had she forgotten to mail the fee? With everything going on, it could have easily slipped her mind. Wait, no—she remembered paying online with her new business MasterCard. It must not have gone through.

“We can’t approve it until you resolve that warrant.”

June tipped her head back and laughed into the air. Warrant? In all her twenty-seven years, she’d never even been pulled over for a traffic ticket.

Barty Perneras wasn’t smiling. He read from the page, “Bench warrant issued by Judge Arnold Bea of Sultry County, Texas, for indecent exposure, lewd conduct, and trespassing at Gallagher pond. It’s dated nine years ago.”

June gasped like a free-diver surfacing for air after five minutes of submersion. The spicy cinnamon gum lodged in her airway, and she clutched her throat while Esteban and Tony took turns pounding her back until she coughed the rubbery pink wad onto the table. Sweet mother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, she hadn’t thought about that hellish afternoon at Gallagher pond in ages! Heat rushed into her cheeks, and the musky-sweet scents of algae and coconut tanning lotion seemed to clog her nostrils.

Barty Perneras used a tissue to dispose of her gum. “I take it that jogged your memory?”

“It’s not what it sounds like!” She turned to Esteban and Tony, who seemed to appreciate her in a whole new way.

Tony let out a low whistle. “Lewd conduct, Miss June?”

And indecent exposure,” Esteban said with a saucy grin. “Sounds like there’s someone fun hiding inside the workaholic. Can she come out and play?”

She whipped back around to Barty, who casually scribbled notes in her file as if this sort of thing happened every day. “But I was never arrested! I had no idea about any of this. How could I have a warrant for nine years without knowing?”

Barty shrugged. “If they didn’t have your address, the only way you’d find out is if an officer stopped you and ran your license number.” He glanced back down at her paperwork. “Looks like we didn’t catch it when you got your bartending certification.”

She pulled a deep breath through her nose and held it. How or why Judge Bea issued the warrant didn’t matter. A bar without a liquor license was about as useful as a concrete parachute, and every day they delayed opening was another day in the red. She exhaled and glanced at her watch. “It’s six hours to Sultry Springs. If I get on the road now, I can be there by four. I’ll ask the judge to fax you confirmation when the warrant’s rescinded.”

Esteban tapped his cell phone screen. “I’ll have my attorney meet you there.”

“No.” She pushed her chair away from the table. “Judge Bea’s practically family. I spent my last three summers in Sultry Springs watching his grandbabies. This whole thing’s probably a mistake, and it’ll tick him off if I bring a lawyer.” Worst-case scenario, she’d offer the judge some of her Grammy Pru’s pumpkin butter and all would be forgiven. Of course, she’d have to get Grammy to speak to her first…

She gave Esteban and Tony a quick hug and walked to the door, calling over her shoulder, “Be right back.”

***

Waves of pure heat rippled up and distorted the air above the hood on Luke Gallagher’s dusty black Ford F-250. He grabbed his paperwork and used his steel-toed boot to push open the door, feeling a nearly solid block of humidity on the other side. Days like this, he could almost wring water straight from the air. Shoving his baseball cap into his back pocket, Luke ran a hand through his damp hair before making his way inside the Sultry County courthouse.

The dim lobby always smelled a little dank, and the scent reminded him of old Mr. Jenkins’s drywall after last year’s flash flood. Now six months later, he and the ragtag crew from Helping Hands, his nonprofit group, had almost finished repairing the place. All he needed was a permit to add a deck off the back stoop and he could finally wash his hands of this project. He checked the clock and hurried to the county clerk’s office before they closed.

Once there, Luke bent down and balanced a chipped brown clipboard against his thigh to complete Mr. Jenkins’s permit application, which brought him eye-level to the very round ass in front of him in line. Sweet Jesus, it was clad in one of those tight, black skirts, somehow modest and sexy-as-hell at the same time—gripping a slim waist and clinging to a pair of luscious, wide, wide hips, then stopping just below the knee. It showed very little skin, but drew his attention to everything that mattered. Nice. Fair, slender calves narrowed to a delicate set of ankles, and then down to a pair of black leather high heels tap, tap, tapping impatiently against the scuffed marble floor. He glanced down at his pen and scrawled one final signature before standing up to fully appreciate the figure before him.

Little Miss High Maintenance exhaled loudly and placed a hand on her hip, and Luke could see the outside swell of her breast straining against her silky green blouse—the kind of material that would slide right to the floor and pool around her feet when she unbuttoned it. Very nice. And no wedding ring. Maybe he’d ask her out.

Oh, hell, who was he kidding? A woman like that was more trouble than she was worth. Still, he couldn’t quit staring at one curly brown strand of hair that fell out of her bun. It hung down, practically advertising that little strawberry birthmark on the side of her neck, practically begging to be tasted—

Suddenly the air was too thick, too humid to breathe. He knew that birthmark. Knew it from a thousand summer afternoons back when she’d worn pigtails and followed him around like a Labrador. And unfortunately, he knew the skin right there on her throat tasted exactly like kettle corn, salty and sweet.

“Ho-o-ly shit,” he whispered.

She must’ve heard, because she turned her head and quirked a perfectly arched brow. It was her. June was back. The freckles that used to sprinkle her nose were gone, as was the roundness of her face, now replaced by high, distinct cheekbones. But her mouth was the same, still soft-looking with that pouty lower lip. And her eyes—the same wide, brown eyes that used to gaze up at him the way a half-starved dieter watches the last piece of chocolate cake. Those eyes regarded him now with curiosity, bordering on amusement. She didn’t realize who he was. While he stood there like a slack-jawed mute, she tipped her head and wrinkled up her forehead as if trying to solve an algebra problem. Then, slowly, recognition dawned across her face, and her cheeks flushed scarlet.

She gaped like a catfish, those red lips opening, closing, opening while the soft whirr of an air conditioner droned in the background.

They both just stood there for a full minute, too stunned to speak until she cleared her throat and said, “You broke your nose.”

That was it? You broke your nose? No apology, no explanation? He hadn’t expected her to smile and rush into his arms, but hell. She chewed the inside of her cheek the way she always did as a kid when Pru had caught her doing something naughty.

Luke dipped his chin in a tight nod. “Twice.”

The rosy flush in her cheeks drained away, and she glanced down at her black handbag, rubbing the leather like she was trying to summon a genie from its bottle. And probably wishing she were anywhere but with him. She peered up from beneath thick, dark lashes. “I didn’t think…” She swallowed and shifted her weight to the other hip. “How’ve you been?”

“Fine,” he said. But that was a lie, and she’d know if she’d bothered to read his letters all those years ago.

The clerk waved his hand and called, “Next.” June backed slowly toward the counter before turning around.

“June Augustine. I spoke with Judge Bea this morning; we have an appointment.” She used a low voice, but it carried in the open office.

“Mae-June?” the clerk asked, removing his glasses and inspecting her like she might be an impostor. He squinted and sat back in his chair. “Prudence Foster’s girl?”

“Uh, yes. Her granddaughter. Is the judge ready to see me?”

“Yep, come on back.” The clerk continued watching her through narrowed eyes.

June spun around and held up one hand in a shaky goodbye. “Nice seeing you.” She looked like a suicidal ledge jumper the way she clung to the counter and inched toward the judge’s office door. “I’d love to catch up, but I’m heading back to Austin in a few minutes.”

Right. She wanted to stay and talk as much as he wanted scorpions stuffed down his Jockeys. A tiny, hot ache writhed inside his gut, but he flashed his best I-don’t-give-a-shit grin. “Take care, Junebug.” Then he moved to the counter and thrust his paperwork at the clerk. Good thing she was leaving town. Some friendships were better off dead.

 

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