Lori's Little Secret
What are the odds? Lori Lee Billingsworth Taylor couldn’t help wondering, feeling guilty and miserable and knowing herself to be a yellow-bellied coward.
What are the odds she would keep running into a certain man? Given that the town—Tate’s Junction, Texas—where this certain man constantly turned up had a population of almost two thousand. Given that Lori was not—oh, no, definitely not—trying to run into this particular guy. At least not yet.
The odds couldn’t be all that great, could they?
But still, it kept happening. Lori Lee kept running into Tucker Bravo.
And she did know. Oh, yes, she knew very well, thank you very much, that Tucker Bravo was exactly the man she needed to run into. Unfortunately, he was also the man she couldn’t bear to face.
But she would. She truly would.
Right after her twin sister’s wedding.
It happened first at the Gas ‘n Go.
Lori and her ten-year-old son, Brody, had just arrived in Tate’s Junction from San Antonio for a three-week stay. Not five minutes in the town she’d left behind—and there he was.
What, she asked herself later, had made her stop for gas? She might just as well have kept going straight to her parents’ big two-story brick house on Pecan Street.
She had over a quarter of a tank and could have filled up later. But she turned off the highway and there was that bright red cube of a convenience store and the eight gas pumps and it just seemed so simple, so easy and efficient, to go ahead and gas up right then.
Brody, busy on his Gameboy in the back seat, spoke up as she stopped the Lexus at the pump. “I bet they have Icees in there.”
She turned and gave him a fond smile. “That would be no.”
She grabbed her purse. “We’ll be at Gramma Enid’s in ten minutes tops.”
“Gramma Enid doesn’t have Icees.”
“Sit tight.” She unhooked her seatbelt and reached for the door.
“Aw, Mom…” But another glance over the seat showed her he was already focused on the Gameboy again, thumbs flying over the miniature keyboard.
Lori paused, her fingers hooked in the door handle, staring back over the seat at her son’s bent head, thinking that they were doing okay, just the two of them, without Henry…
A wave of sadness washed through her. Henry had died a little over a year before. Lori missed him and so did Brody. But time was doing its work. Lori had made it through the worst: the clutching desperation, the gaping, ragged hole of emptiness at the center of her world. Increasingly, thoughts of Henry brought only a fond sort of sorrow. They’d shared six wonderful years, she and Henry—seven, if you counted the year before their marriage. Lori would always have her warm and comforting memories of those years. She was a fortunate woman; she had a smart, healthy son and she’d known the quiet joy of a good man’s sure and steady love.
Lori tugged on the door handle and swung her feet to the pavement. She shut the car door behind her and was fiddling in her purse for her wallet when she heard the urgent whining sound.
She glanced up. The ugliest, most adorable dog she’d ever seen sat near the rear wheel, big brown eyes begging her, long wiry-haired body quivering.
The dog captured her gaze and held it, whimpering louder, lifting up to all four stumpy legs and wiggling all over in barely contained excitement, as if it had been waiting all its life to run into someone like her.
Lori couldn’t help herself. She laughed. “Where did you come from?”
It was all the encouragement the funny-looking dog needed. Panting in sheer doggy bliss, it quivered on over to her and rolled to its back.
“Okay, okay.” Lori crouched to scratch the spotted, wiry-haired pink belly. Transported, the dog whimpered and wriggled, pink tongue lolling. “Yes, you are about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” she declared as she went on scratching. “But no, I can’t take you home.”
“You wouldn’t believe it to look at him now, but he already has a home.” The voice, from behind her, was male: deep and sure, threaded with amusement.
She turned her head—and there he was, standing in the sun beyond the shadow of the roof that protected the pumps, big arms folded over his deep, hard chest, strong legs braced slightly apart, spiked brown hair catching golden lights from the bright Texas sun overhead.
He was…bigger, somehow, than she remembered. That formerly whipcord-lean body spoke of muscular power now. The hungry, wild-eyed yearning look was gone from his dark eyes.
Lori felt her stomach heave. She swallowed, hard, and pasted on a wide smile. Ordering her suddenly-numb legs to straighten, she stood to face him.
That killer smile of his widened. “Lori Lee,” he said, without having to hesitate to place her—and also without confusing her with her twin, Lena Lou. “I knew it was you the minute you got out of that gorgeous car.”
Lori supposed it wasn’t surprising, that he remembered her on sight. He’d once been in love with Lena Lou. Lena was the sparkly one, the popular one. All the boys went nuts for her. Lori had been quieter, a better student, and a little bit shy. Though they were identicals, no one in town had ever had any trouble telling them apart.
Except for on that one special, magical, life-changing night—which she was not going to think about, at least not right now.
Tucker said, “It’s been a long time.”
Lori nodded and gulped to clear her clutching throat. “How are you, Tucker?” It came out sounding pleasant. Cordial in a distant sort of way. Most important, her tone betrayed no hint of the turmoil within.
Before he could answer, the dog at her feet let out a long, impatient whine—a clear demand for more attention.
Tucker commanded, “Fargo, you shameless mutt, get over here.” One last whimper for good measure, and the dog waddled over to its master. It plunked itself down next to Tucker’s booted feet as he answered her question of a moment before. “I’m good. Real good.”
She kept her pleasant smile in place, though it took superhuman effort to do it. She felt giddy, disoriented—and terrified. Nothing seemed real, suddenly, as if when she’d turned to see him standing there, she’d spun into the midst of a strange dream, a dream that hovered on the verge of nightmare. She thought her smile would crack, her lunch rise up and come spewing out her grinning mouth.
Talk, she thought. Say something. Now. “I, um, heard you did just what you’d always dreamed of doing. Traveled all over the country. And even Europe—Spain and Italy and England…”
“You heard right.” He bent to give the dog a scratch behind a floppy ear and she thought of all those times, in the early years, that she’d tried to reach him.
Every time she’d drummed up the courage to make contact, she found he’d moved on. In Austin, a stranger answered his door. The tortured letters she’d written him explaining everything came back with no forwarding address.
Tucker straightened to his height again. “And look at me now. Right here in Tate’s Junction where I swore I’d never end up.” He grinned wider. “Believe it or not, I did manage to get myself a law degree during my wandering years.”
“Ah,” she said, as if that meant anything.
He went on, “Got me the whole South Wing out at my mean old granddaddy’s house and an office on Center Street with a sign out front that says, Hogan and
Bravo, Attorneys at Law. And, last but no way least, I’ve got Fargo here.” He grinned down at his goofy-looking dog, then back up at her. “And you know what?”
She did know. She could tell just by looking at him. “You’re happy.”
“You bet I am.”
Behind Lori, the left rear door of the Lexus clicked open. Oh, no, she thought. God. Please. No. Her heart leapt into her throat and got stuck there.
“Mom?” Brody spotted the mutt. “Aw, sweet. A dog.” He was all the way across the seat and out of the car before she could find her voice to tell him to stay put.
The dog, spotting another sucker, gave Brody one of those pleading, hopeful whines.
Lori cleared her throat. “Brody…”
But he was already sliding past her, making a beeline for Tucker’s ugly dog. “Hey boy, hey buddy…” The dog whined in joy and Brody dropped to his haunches, right there at Tucker’s feet. The dog licked his face and Brody hugged him and patted him and scratched him behind both ears.
Lori looked up and found Tucker watching her. A shiver went slicing through her, so cold it burned. “My son,” she said, and she could hardly believe that her voice didn’t so much as waver. “Brody Taylor.”
“Hey, Brody,” said Tucker.
“Hey,” Brody replied, hardly glancing up, his whole being focused on petting the dog. “What’s his name?”
“Fargo,” Tucker said.
Lori looked from her son to Tucker and back to her son again. Oh, sweet Lord, she could see it. See Tucker in Brody—in the way he tilted his head. In the shape of his jaw.
In that distinctive cleft in his chin…
She shut her eyes and dragged in a hard breath. When she opened them again, Tucker was looking right at her.
He frowned. “You okay, Lori?”
“Oh, uh, fine. I’m just fine.”
“Oh, yeah. So. You like it here, in Tate’s Junction, after all.”
“Yes, I do—you’re in town for the wedding?”
And to tell you, about Brody. Before I leave, I will tell you. “That’s right. For the wedding.”
Lena Lou had finally found the man she wanted to marry. His name was Dirk Davison. Like Heck Billingsworth, Lori and Lena’s father, Dirk sold cars. He owned two big dealerships on the outskirts of nearby Abilene. Dirk had proposed to Lena a year before.
“Going to be quite an event, that wedding,” Tucker said.
“Oh, yes.” Ever since she’d got Dirk’s four-carat ring on her finger, Lena had been planning the biggest, most elegant, high-dollar wedding that Tate’s Junction had ever seen. Lori reached into her purse again and came up with her wallet. “And we’d better get moving.” She flipped the wallet open and slid out a platinum card.
“Well,” said Tucker. “Great to see you again…”
“Yeah,” she answered, keeping her fake smile firmly in place. “Brody…”
Brody scratched the dog some more. “Aw, Mom…”
“Come on. Back in the car.” Lori stuck the credit card in the pump slot as Tucker clucked his tongue at the dog.
“See you later, Brody,” Tucker said, turning. The dog fell into step behind him.
“Bye, Fargo.” Brody rose and stared after the man and the dog as they headed around the convenience store, most likely on their way to the pumps on the other side. Once they disappeared, Brody looked at his mother. “Cool dog.”
Relief flooded through her. She’d made it through meeting up with Tucker again. He’d even seen Brody. And nothing terrible had happened. Her knees felt like strings of over-cooked spaghetti. She braced a hand on the gleaming hood of the car.
“Mom. You okay?”
She drew herself up. “You bet.”
“We should get a dog, Mom. I could take care of him. You wouldn’t have to do anything ’cept pay for his food.”
“Nice try,” she said wryly, though she was thinking that maybe he was right. Maybe he was ready for a puppy and all the responsibility that came with it. But she’d been a mother long enough to know that if she told him now, she’d never hear the end of it. “Want to help me pump this gas?”
As Brody unscrewed the gas cap for her, Lori told herself she didn’t need to even think about Tucker again—not until after the wedding.
Not until she made herself call him and set up a time to tell him what she should have told him years ago.
It happened again the next day. Sunday.
In church, of all places, which just made Lori feel guiltier and more cowardly than ever. Her eleven-year deception seemed all the more reprehensible when she had to confront it while sitting in the Billingsworth family pew with those two big pictures of a dewy-eyed Jesus behind the altar looking down on her reproachfully.
In church. It was the last place she’d expected she might see him. The Tucker Bravo she remembered from all those years before never went to church.
Organ music filled the high-ceilinged sanctuary as folks settled into the rows of pews. To Lori’s right, beyond Brody, Lori’s mother, Enid, and her dad, Heck, nodded and murmured hellos to the friends and neighbors who filed past on the way to their own seats.
Lena sat to Lori’s left, with Dirk on her other side. Lena’s auburn hair fell in soft waves to her shoulders and her face seemed to glow with happiness. She and Dirk were holding hands, constantly turning to look at each other, sharing secret smiles and goo-goo eyed glances of mutual adoration.
Lori probably wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it for herself. But now she had seen it. She knew it was true: for the first time in her mostly self-absorbed twenty-eight years, Lena Lou Billingsworth was in love. Not since high school, when Lena was so gone on Tucker, had she ever lavished so many bright smiles and enchanting glances on a man. And with Tucker, there had always been as many scowls and pouts as there had been smiles.
With Dirk, Lena was all shining eyes and happy grins. Dirk Davison, no doubt about it, was the man Lena had been waiting for all her life.
Lena’s fiancé was thirty-five, big and beefy and gruffly good-natured—a whole lot like Heck Billingsworth, as a matter of fact. Both men had broad, always-ready salesman smiles. They both laughed too hard and talked too loud and sometimes made you wonder if they actually heard a thing you said.
“He’s just like Daddy,” Lori had whispered to her twin the day before, after being introduced to the jovial Dirk.
“He is,” said Lena, looking pleased as a little red heifer in a field of tall alfalfa. “Exactly like Daddy.”
Lori just didn’t get it. How could her twin fall so hard for a man so much like their dad?
But then, Lena didn’t have the issues with their father that Lori had. Lena, after all, hadn’t gone and gotten herself pregnant at the age of seventeen by a mystery lover whom she staunchly refused to name.
Heck had blustered and ranted and delivered all kinds of scary threats and ultimatums when he learned that Lori was pregnant. But Lori never did tell him who her baby’s father was. She couldn’t bear to tell anyone—for a number of reasons.
And when he finally realized she would never tell him, Heck had packed her off to stay with his sister, Lori’s dear now-deceased Aunt Emma, in San Antonio—as if they were all living in the dark ages or something. As if it was the ultimate shame on a family, for a daughter to have a baby without getting herself a husband first.
Eventually, Lori had found happiness in San Antonio. She’d gone to work for Henry and married him and Henry had always treated Brody as his son. Though Lori didn’t make it home to Tate’s Junction much, she and her father had pretty much made peace with each other.
But that didn’t mean she’d ever marry someone like Heck. Uh-uh. No way. Never in a hundred million years.
But Lena was doing just that and apparently couldn’t have been happier about it.
Lori found Lena’s love for her car salesman fiancé truly weird—as well as yet another example of the many ways she and her identical twin were nothing alike. She slid a glance at the two love birds to her left just as Dirk raised the hand he had twined with Lena’s and pressed his fleshy lips to it. The two gazed deep into each other’s eyes.
Just as Lori was reminding herself not to stare, Tucker appeared in the aisle, directly in her line of sight. Her stomach did a nasty roll. She blinked. Tucker spotted her—and he winked.
Why? she wondered, feeling sick and suddenly desperate. Why would he wink at her?
Oh, please, she argued with herself, as she actively resisted the powerful urge to leap to her feet and stumble along the pew away from him, not caring whose feet she stepped on as she made her escape. Why shouldn’t he wink? What does it matter? He’s just being friendly, for heaven’s sake.
“Mom.” Brody’s skinny elbow poked into her ribs. “Look,” Brody whispered. “It’s the guy with the cool dog. Tucker.”
She almost—almost—turned and snapped at her son to be quiet. But she caught herself just in time. “Yes,” she said, with marvelous calm, considering the tangled, frantic state of her emotions at that moment. “It’s Tucker.” She raised her hand and gave Tucker a wave.
He waved back—and then he moved on by.
“Sure did like that dog of his,” said Brody wistfully. “Hope I see that dog again…”
Lori stared after Tucker, though she knew she shouldn’t, admiring in spite of herself the wide set of his shoulders, the proud way he carried his tawny brown head.
He slid into a pew near the front, with his older brother, Tate, and Tate’s pretty blond wife of ten months, Molly. Molly’s family was also there: her mother, her mother’s husband, her grandmother and a tall, thin old fellow that Lori didn’t recognize.
After church, the Billingsworths went to Jim-Denny’s Diner for sandwiches. Tucker showed up there, too—with Tate and Molly. The Bravos and the Billingsworths ended up in adjoining booths.
Molly leaned over the seat and gave Lori a grin. “Hey. Good to see you, Lori Lee.”
Molly had been three years ahead of Lori and Lena in school—and one year ahead of Tucker. Molly grinned at Brody. “This your boy?”
“Yes. Molly, this is Brody.”
Tate Bravo’s wife reached right over the seat, grabbed Brody’s hand and shook it. Molly owned a hair salon. She was the mayor of Tate’s Junction and the mother of twin babies, a boy and a girl. She was also the most unlikely person ever to have married someone like Tate Bravo.
On his mother’s side, Tate—and Tucker, too, of course—came from the most important family in the area, the Tates. For generations, the first born Tate son had been given the name Tucker. Since Tate and Tucker’s mother, Penelope Tate Bravo, was the only child of the last in a long line of Tucker Tates, she’d named her first son Tate and her second, Tucker, keeping the family name alive in her children. Everything had gone to her sons when she passed on. The Bravo boys now owned at least a part of just about every business in town, not to mention a sprawling ranch called the Double T on which stood a ranch house the size of a king’s palace.
Molly had been born in a double-wide trailer. She came from two generations of single-mother O’Dare’s. She was, truly, the last person anyone every expected
Tate Bravo to marry.
But Tate had married Molly, last summer. Their romance had been rocky, to say the least. According to the stories Lori’s mother and sister had told her, Tate and
Molly had the whole town buzzing there for a while. But now they were blissfully happy together.
Lori was happy for them.
She only wished they hadn’t taken the booth next to the one her family sat in—at least not if they had to bring Tucker along.
And why did she have to end up sitting directly opposite him? She actually had to make a conscious effort to keep from looking straight at him.
Molly asked about the wedding. And Lena—with Enid chiming in now and then—launched into a long list of things that had yet to be done, from more floral consultations to final fittings of bridesmaids’ gowns to a few changes in the menu for the sit-down dinner for three hundred at the local country club. Molly would be doing the bride’s hair. Lena wouldn’t have it any other way.
As the women talked wedding preparations, the men discussed Cadillacs. Evidently, Tate, who owned a fleet of them, was buying a new one from Heck. Dirk was contributing his expert advice.
Tucker sat silent, as did Lori and Brody, the three of them outsiders in the two current topics of conversation—looking right at each other, but too far apart to start up a conversation of their own.
Which was just fine with Lori. What would she say to him? Talking to him, making meaningless chit-chat, seemed so evil and wrong when there was Brody right beside her, the son he didn’t even know he had.
Tucker kept sending her glances—and she kept glancing back.
Well, how could she help it? Unless she stared at the table, he sat square in her line of sight.
Every time he caught her eye, she would picture herself standing straight up in that booth and announcing, Okay. All right. The truth is, it was me, on prom night eleven years ago. Me and not Lena. You made love to me. And it’s not some stranger, like everyone thinks, who's Brody’s dad. It’s you, Tucker. Brody’s your son.
Of course, she did no such thing. But the urge to do it was there, and it was powerful. It burned beneath her skin. It was that scary, exhilarating feeling you get standing on the edge of a cliff, wondering, what would it be like?
To stretch out your arms and slowly fall forward, to let yourself soar right off the edge…
The waitress—not Molly’s mother, Dixie, who had worked at the diner since long before Lori left town, but was apparently off that day—brought the food. Though her stomach seemed tied in a series of permanent knots, Lori had never been so grateful to see a cheeseburger in her life. It gave her something to do, something to look at—other than Tucker’s velvety brown eyes and handsome face.
Brody took a couple of bites of his grilled cheese sandwich and then set the sandwich down. “So where’s Fargo?” he asked Tucker, loudly, turning in his seat, causing the parallel conversations of Cadillac’s and weddings to stop.
Heck laughed. “Fargo.” He frowned. “The boy mean that ugly mutt of yours, Tucker?”
Tucker nodded. “’Fraid so.—and Brody, Fargo’s not welcome at church, or here at the diner. I haven’t got a clue why not. He loves a good sermon as much as the next dog.”
“His table manners aren’t so hot,” suggested Tate.
“I sure liked that dog,” said Brody, sending Lori a calculating glance.
“Kid wants a dog,” Heck said to Lori, as if she hadn’t already figured that out for herself.
She looked at her father. “Got it.” It came out too sharp. Between the state of her nerves after ten minutes of sitting straight across from Tucker, and the way her father always made her feel as if she wasn’t quite the mother she ought to be…
Well, she was getting a little bit edgy.
Her dad spoke gently—and with clear reproach. “Now, Lori-girl, a boy should have a dog.”
“Yeah,” said Brody eagerly, and launched into the arguments all kids have ready when it comes to getting a pet. “I’m ten now. I’m old enough. Like I said, I could take care of everything, Mom. I’d feed him and walk him and clean up all his messes. You wouldn’t have to do anything.”
Lori set down her fork without eating the bite of potato salad at the end of it. She sent her father a narrow-eyed, not-another-word kind of glance and she told her son, “Brody. We’ll discuss it. Later.”
“But Mom, I—”
Brody got the message. At last. He picked up his sandwich and dutifully bit into it.
There was a moment or two of awkward silence. Then the men went back to their talk of fancy cars and Lena returned to the subject closest to her heart—her upcoming wedding.
“I just cannot believe that it’s almost here. All our planning and hard work, and in two weeks from yesterday, I’ll be walking down the aisle at last…”
Heck stopped talking Cadillacs long enough to remark, “’Bout damn time, too. My checkbook can’t take too much more of this.”
Lena laughed her bright, bubbly laugh. “Oh, Daddy. Just you wait. I’m gonna make you so proud.”
“You already do, baby. You always have.”
Lori looked down at her barely-touched food and knew there was no way she could eat another bite. The conversation ebbed and flowed around her—and she didn’t want to look up.
But she couldn’t stare at her plate forever.
She lifted her gaze.
And found Tucker waiting, looking right at her.
The corner of his beautifully-shaped mouth quirked up, a half-smile that was also, somehow a question.
She felt the answering smile lift the edges of her own mouth.
This couldn’t be happening.
And yet, somehow, impossibly, it was.
Tucker Bravo was flirting with her.
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