“Molly, sweetie, don’t you get those scissors near me with your eyes all glazed over like that.”
Molly blinked. She glanced at the scissors in her hand and then into the mirror, where she met the wary eyes of Betty Stoops. Red-haired and stick-skinny, Betty sat caped and shampooed in Molly’s styling chair, ready for her monthly cut. “Sorry, Betty. Just thinking…”
About Tate Bravo, of course. Molly was feeling a tad guilty over the way she’d handled things the night before.
Okay, so maybe sneaking in his bedroom window, delivering the big news, and then jumping back out the window again hadn’t been the most tactful approach to the problem. But she had said what needed saying. Discussion of the whole mess could wait.
Molly began snipping at Betty’s thinning hair. “So now, how has Titus been doing?”
Betty made a low, fretful sound. “Molly hon, I cannot tell you. I cannot describe…” Betty launched into a blow-by-blow of her husband’s various medical conditions.
I was right to get out when I did last night, Molly silently reassured herself as Betty chattered away. Once Tate got over the shock, there was just no telling what kinds of things he might have said to her—from questioning whether the baby was really his to calling her ugly names to accusing her of trying to trap him into marriage.
Uh-uh. Getting the news out had been about all she could manage for one night. Later for the part with the hollering, the accusations and the recriminations. Later still for working out how much of a role—if any—he’d be playing in her baby’s life.
“I was thinking not quite so much off the sides this time,” Betty suggested, eyeing her own reflection appraisingly, turning her head this way and that.
Molly stepped back and assessed the situation. “Sure,” she said after a moment. “We can do that.”
Molly trimmed and shaped and wondered for about the millionth time what could be the matter with her? How in the world could she have slept with that man—repeatedly? And beyond that, how could she have liked it so much?
Worst of all, why couldn’t she stop dreaming of sleeping with him some more?
Especially now, when she knew for certain that those secret nights in Tate Bravo’s bed had produced the typical result.
Pregnant, she thought, in utter disgust. Knocked up. In Trouble.
It was the one thing Molly had always sworn was never going to happen to her. And for so long, it hadn’t. The past few years, she’d dared to start letting herself believe that she was safe from ending up like her mom—and her Granny Dusty—before her.
She only had one weakness, after all, and that was the fatheaded, far too handsome man’s man, Tate Bravo. She’d had a hopeless secret crush on Tate for most of her life. But her weakness wasn’t supposed to be a problem, as Tate never seemed to know she existed.
But then she got it in her mind to improve a few things in town. She ran for mayor. Once she got elected, Tate knew she existed, all right.
Molly had been sworn in as mayor six months ago, at the first of the year. She and Tate fought tooth and nail through three town council meetings: January, February and March. Then he asked her to dinner—just the two of them, in the massive formal dining room out at the big house on his family’s ranch, the Double T. Tate said they would discuss ways to “work together to get things done for our town.”
There hadn’t been much discussing that night. They barely make it past the appetizer. He was on her like paint and she didn’t complain. She fell right into his bed. Heck. Fell? She jumped in, and dragged him in after her. All the years without anything remotely resembling a sex life, all those years of forbidden fantasies featuring Tate, had caught up with her.
And now she was pregnant.
A woman like Molly knew she had to face facts. She was thirty years old. Until Tate, there’d been no one. She had no reason to assume there would be someone after Tate. This was probably going to end up being her only chance to be a mom.
So she was stuck. She refused to throw her one chance at motherhood away, no matter what Tate Bravo might imagine he had to say about it. And she wasn’t leaving her salon, Prime Cut—or the small Texas town that she loved.
So there she was, just like her mom and her Granny before her. Pregnant with no husband in the town where she grew up. Once she started showing, tongues would get to wagging. Like grandmother, like mother, like daughter, they’d all say.
Well, too bad. She’d deal with the gossip when the time came. She was keeping her baby and that was that.
“Molly, did you hear a single word I said?” Betty demanded.
Molly met Betty’s eyes again. “I certainly did. That poor Titus. How does he bear up?”
Betty kind of squinted at her. “You know, honey, you don’t look all that well.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Molly replied, faking lightheartedness for all she was worth. “Never felt better…”
Betty wiggled her drawn-on eyebrows and scowled. “You’re not letting that Tate Bravo get you down, now are you? Heard he shouted at you last Thursday at the town council meeting…”
Molly’s heart did a forward roll and then slammed into her ribcage. Did Betty know?
As soon as she thought the question, she rejected it. No one knew—not yet, anyway. By mutual agreement, she and Tate had kept their affair strictly secret. He didn’t want the word getting out that he was sleeping with the woman who fought him tooth and nail at every turn. And she didn’t want the people who counted on her to find out she couldn’t keep her hands off the man who stood for everything that needed changing about their town.
Molly put on a totally unconcerned expression as she combed and then smoothed a section of Betty’s hair between two fingers. Neatly, she snipped it even. “Don’t you worry, Betty. I can handle Tate Bravo.” Oh, and hadn’t she just? She’d handled him in ways that would turn Betty’s face as red as her hair.
Betty harrumphed. “Well, of course you can. That’s why we voted you in as our mayor. It’s about time someone stood up to those Tates…”
Though Tate’s last name was Bravo, his mother had been the only child of the last surviving male Tate. So Tate and his younger brother, Tucker, inherited the extensive Tate holdings when their mother passed away. No one ever talked much about the mysterious man named Bravo who had—according to Tate’s mother—married her and sired both her boys. To everyone in town, Tucker and Tate were Tates in the truest sense of the word. And Tates had been running Tate’s Junction since the town was named after the first Tucker Tate, way back in 1884.
“We do admire your gumption, Molly.”
“Why, thank you, Betty.” Molly set down her scissors and grabbed the blow dryer off the rack where it waited next to a row of curling irons. “Let’s just blow you dry, now, shall we?”
Betty wasn’t the only customer to notice Molly’s distraction. All day long it was, “Molly, you look worried, girl. What’s the matter?” and, “Earth to Molly. Are you in there, doll?” or, “Molly, sweetheart, what is botherin’ you?”
She told each and every one of them that she was fine, perfect, never been better—while the whole time the hard knot in her stomach seemed to promise that any second now Tate would come storming through the shop door and start shouting at her. By six, when she closed up, she was a wreck. All she wanted was to crawl into bed with the blinds drawn and a cool cloth over her eyes.
Molly’s little bungalow on Bluebonnet Lane was her pride and joy. Sure, it was small—750 square feet, two tiny bedrooms, simple box floor plan—but it was hers and that was what mattered. It sat back from the street surrounded by sweetgums and oaks. On the South end of town, in an area not very developed yet, all tucked into the trees the way it was, the house almost gave a person the feeling she was out in the country.
Molly put her pickup under the carport east of the house. She strolled across the yard to the porch, feeling the tensions of the day drain away from between her shoulder blades. It wasn’t too hot yet—mid-eighties that afternoon—and the air had a silky feel against her skin. A cheeky squirrel squawked at her from a tree branch and she paused to grin up at it.
She was just mounting the front steps when the door swung back and there was Granny Dusty standing behind the storm door in Wranglers and rawhide boots and a tight plaid Western shirt. She shoved open the storm door, too. “Wait till I tell you. Baby doll, you are not going to believe this.”
Tate, Molly thought, her stomach knotting and the tension yanking tight between her shoulders again. Oh, God, what had he done? Had he been there, had he had it out with Granny?
Granny Dusty had a reputation, pretty much deserved, as the man-hatingest woman in Throckleford County. She had trusted one man in her life—the wrong one. A rich rancher from Montana, he’d come to town to do business with the Tates. The rancher knocked Dusty up with Molly’s mother, Dixie, and the promptly went back to his wife on his big spread outside of Bozeman. After the rancher from Montana, Dusty O’Dare had no more use for men.
“What happened?” Molly asked weakly.
“That fool mother of yours says she’s marrying Ray, that’s what.”
Not about Tate. Molly’s stomach unknotted and her heart stop trying to break out of her ribcage.
Granny continued with bitter relish, “She called here an hour ago, that mother of yours, all atwitter with the news. I ask you, sweetness, has she lost what is left of her mind? Ray Deekins is a no-count. He hasn’t had a job since the Reagan years. And your mother is forty-six. You’d think she’d have grown out of all this love-foolishness by now. Isn’t it enough that she’s let him move in on her? Can’t she just support his lazy butt and leave it at that? Does she have to go and get herself legally committed to him? What is the matter with—?”
Granny glared—but at least she stopped talking.
“You think maybe I could get in the house before you start in about Ray?”
Granny Dusty smiled then, the network of wrinkles in her leathery cheeks scoring all the deeper. “Why sure, sugar, you just come on in.” She held the storm door wider. Molly mounted the steps and entered the house. Beyond the door, the savory smell of fried meat filled the air. “Made your favorite,” said Granny. “Chicken-fried steak.”
Though as a rule Molly loved a good chicken-fried steak as much as the next person, that night her stomach clenched tight again at the thought. “Maybe later. I have a sick headache. Think I’d better lie down.”
Now Granny got worried. “Honey pie, you got a fever? Want me to—”
“No. Really. Just a little rest, that’ll do me fine.” Molly headed for the house’s one tiny hallway and her bedroom, the front one that faced the walk.
Granny followed right after her, causing Molly to have to remind herself that most of the time, she actually enjoyed having her grandmother living in her house. “I’ll keep your supper warm for you,” Granny said fondly as Molly sank to the edge of the bed and slipped off her sandals.
“Great.” She forced a wan smile and flopped back onto the pillows, stretching her legs out and settling in, letting her eyes drift shut. “Thanks…”
“Maybe a cool cloth—for your poor, tired eyes?” suggested Granny.
Molly’s smiled widened and she let out a soft chuckle. “What are you, a mind-reader?”
Be back in a flash.”
Molly heard the water running and a minute later her grandmother’s capable hands smoothed a lovely cool washcloth over her eyes. “Umm. Perfect…”
“Oh,” Granny said. “Almost forgot. That Tate Bravo called. Told him you weren’t in. Said I’d give you the message, but he shouldn’t hold his breath waitin’ for you to call back.”
Molly lay very still with the cloth hiding her eyes as Granny cackled in satisfaction at having put the rich and powerful Tate Bravo in his place. Granny reveled in the council-meeting wrangling that went on between Molly and Tate. She loved to go on about all the ways Molly had bested “that Tate.” She thought her granddaughter’s dealings with Tate were strictly about politics and the betterment of the town. As of yet Molly had failed to bring her granny up to speed on the rolling-around-in-bed, ending-up-pregnant part of her and Tate’s relationship.
“Thanks, Granny,” Molly whispered, turning her head toward the wall. At least, she thought, he’d left her alone at the shop.
“Rest now,” said Granny softly. A moment later, Molly heard the door click shut behind her.
Tate had called…
Unbidden, Molly felt the all too familiar tug of longing. It was awful. She wanted him so much—at the same time as she knew he was the absolute worst person in the world for her.
She let out a long sigh. She would have to call him back.
But not right now. Now, she was taking slow, even breaths. She was commanding her headache to pass and her stomach to stop churning. For the time being, she was resting right here in the peace of her own bedroom and she wasn’t going to think about Tate Bravo or the baby or any of that.
For a half hour or so, Molly lay there on her bed, repeating soothing words in her head, breathing in and out slowly and deeply. She hovered on the verge of dropping off to sleep at last when she heard the front door open.
“Hey. Get along, now. Go on,” Granny called, from out on the porch. There was a moment of silence and then, “Get the hell away from here, now. I have warned you and I will not be warning you again.”
A man’s voice answered from down the walk—Tate’s? Molly wasn’t sure. Whoever he was, she couldn’t make out his words. She took the wet cloth from over her eyes and set it on the nightstand.
“You remember, I warned you,” said Granny. Molly sat up.
“Listen, here, now,” the man argued. “Put that thing down.”
Molly groaned. It was Tate, all right. He was closer to the house now, coming up the drive. She swung her feet to the floor.
Granny said, “Not another damn step.”
Tate said, “I’m not leaving till I talk to—” A thunderous blast cut him off. Granny must have fired her shotgun at him.
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