First: if you want to enter to win a paperback of Heaven to Betsy, there’s a giveaway running on Amazon: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/ccc5a81765adbd7e.
Second, as part of my new blogging practice, on any month with a fifth week, I share a preview from an upcoming book. This is chapter one of Hell to Pay (Emily #3), but BEFORE it went to copyedit. Please excuse the errors—this is about giving you an exclusive preview, not about providing you with a finished product, okay? So don’t be a hater; Rhonda’s going to erase those boo-boos like they were never there.
I think I love this book, which is rare for me. Let me know what you think, pre-order HERE, and enjoy!
Disco lights whirled around me, or was it the room? My inner party animal had atrophied, not that I’d ever been a real heavyweight. If it wasn’t for the great people watching—and the fact that this was the celebration party for the burglary acquittal of our firm’s client Phil Escalante the day before, and his engagement to Nadine, one of my best friends here in Amarillo—I’d’ve bagged this shindig. Instead, here I was with tendrils of fake smoke floating past my face, ten feet from a DJ dressed in a black latex fetish costume and spiked dog collar and spinning 70s tunes.
A tall woman maybe ten years older than me appeared out of the low lights and sidled up to me, engulfing me in the odor of cigarettes. Her vanilla hair sported a generous dollop of dark chocolate roots, which was pretty funny to me since she had a body shaped like a cone. A waffle cone. A waffle cone with sparkly sprinkles from the spinning ball overhead. Behind her trailed a paunchy man of roughly her height. His eyes had locked on me in a way that made my skin crawl with leaches that weren’t there.
Rick James’s “Super Freak” ended. The silence in the cavernous L-shaped room was immediate and complete, but short-lived. A clamor of voices from the one-hundred-or-so guests resumed, their voices echoing off the bare walls and drop ceiling.
“Hey, Foxy Loxy,” the man mouthed at me. Or did he? Surely not. It was hard to tell with the light playing tricks on my eyes.
The woman spoke past me. “You and your wife got any plans later?” Her bellow seemed to fill the room to its farthest corners, even with all the other voices. I winced and shrank under the eyes that shifted our way.
Not Jack, though. The horse rancher cum criminal attorney was nothing if not unflappable. His topaz eyes twinkled. “Emily’s not my wife.”
The man surged toward Jack. “You’re not together?”
“I’m his fiancée,” I said through my recently tightened braces and painfully rubber-banded teeth, leaving out “and he’s my boss.” I waved my big, fat teardrop-shaped diamond at him to accentuate my point, then I pinched Jack’s arm where my hand was looped through its crook. I’d capitulated to the mouthwear when my childhood orthodontist saw the gap between my front teeth and insisted I needed Invisalign, then filled my mouth with metal instead. Payback for never wearing my retainer, I guess.
The man and woman looked at each other and nodded. She asked, “Care to join us? We’ve got a room at a No-tell hotel nearby.”
Jack’s whole body shook and I didn’t dare look at him. I was a sucker for his laugh. That wasn’t exactly true. I was a sucker for everything about him, from his lived-in boots to his permanent tan to his Apache cheekbones. Before either of us could think of an appropriate response, Phil interrupted.
“Millie, Pete, leave my poor friends alone.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me aside to clap his other onto Jack’s. “They’re not swingers. And this isn’t a swingers’ social. I’m out of the business.”
The space between Millie’s eyebrows narrowed and puckered as drops of light rained down on her face. “It’s a free country, ain’t it?”
“We’re not intewested.” Ugh. I sounded like a toddler with a lisp, between my braces and the booze. “But thank you.”
The man shrugged. “Didn’t know you blew spit bubbles when we made the invite. I think I’ll pass.”
My lower jaw unhinged. I straightened my powder blue spring-weight top. I sputtered but nothing came out. This time Jack’s laugh was audible, and he squeezed me past Phil and over to him.
Millie leaned toward Phil, her voice derisive. “Those Mighty is His Word folks got you running scared.”
Jack and I looked at each other, and his raised brows mirrored mine. The Mighty is His Word congregation was the self-appointed sin police in these parts, and they had harassed Phil’s swingers club and its patrons relentlessly. Phil swore the group had a mole, since the dates of the events and identities of the members weren’t public information. He’d decided to find out, so he let himself into the pastor’s personal quarters to investigate. That would have gotten him two to twenty if the jury hadn’t latched onto his excuse that he’d entered the unlocked rooms thinking he was still in the church and only looking for a restroom. That, and if he hadn’t picked Jack as his attorney. Jack was good in the courtroom. Very, very, good.
Nadine appeared beside Phil, a combo of Amazon warrior and Macbethian witch. Her long black hair was pulled back in a jet scarf, kohl liner rimmed her eyes, and a long-sleeved jet dress held her in place, somewhat. A shiny pair of black biker boots completed her ensemble, and it looked like she’d dressed Phil to match. He put both his arms around her ample waist and grinned into her even more ample cleavage, conveniently at his eye level. The music restarted: Rod Stewart crooning “Hot Legs.”
Phil chuckled. “The Mighty is His Word fuckers? Nah. They don’t scare me. I’ve just gone straight. Love’s made a changed man of me.”
Not that Phil had changed much. He and Nadine had recently opened Get Your Kicks, an adult novelty store, in this same downtown building we were now in that used to house his swingers club. Not here like in the same room we were standing in now, but in the corner of the L where they had carved off and re-created retail space. But sexual mores aside, I didn’t know a kinder, more generous soul than Phil. In the four months they’d been dating, he’d become the father Nadine’s sons had never had and the defender of her honor from every lech that assumed she was slinging more than drinks at the Polo Club.
“My hero,” Nadine said. Her voice teased, but her eyes shone like she meant it, which I knew she did.
Phil released Nadine and pulled his cell from a belt loop holster. With it out, I could just barely hear it ringing. Staring at the screen, he held up a finger. “Business calls, my sweet.” He turned slightly away from the three of us and starting talking into his phone.
From where I stood, I couldn’t hear Phil, but I saw the tightness in Nadine’s face and the hunch of her shoulders. Just as things were getting awkward with all of us standing around staring at each other while Phil yakked, his call ended.
He turned back to us, his face dark. Then he grinned so fast I wondered if I’d even seen the unhappy expression. He tilted his face to kiss Nadine. “I’ve gotta hit the head. Bring you a drink when I come back?”
“Crown and coke.” She watched his retreating figure with a look on her face I hadn’t seen her direct at Phil before. Distrust? Concern? Doubt?
My eyes shifted to Phil, too. What struck me as odd about him was that he didn’t have an empty drink in his hand. Phil never went drink-less. I’d never seen him sloshed, but he was always well lubed, as my Dad liked to call it.
Millie whispered to her friend and they left without further comment, heading in the same direction as Phil.
I leaned in to Nadine. “Everything okay?”
She nodded, still watching Phil, but the look on her face didn’t agree. Then she turned to me and smiled. “I can’t believe you got those braces. You look fourteen. Hardly old enough to be the mother of a six-year old.”
Thirty-one was closing in on me, fast. “If Betsy’s adoption gets approved.” Which wasn’t a sure thing, even though it was one of the most important things in my life. I looked for wood to knock on, but there was none. I rapped lightly with my knuckles on Jack’s noggin instead.
“Hey, what’s that for?” He rubbed his head.
His left eyebrow shot up.
I’d applied to adopt Betsy months ago. We’d overcome her kidnapping and the death of her parents. We’d found her missing Mexican birth certificate and applied for a special juvenile immigrant status visa, which would give her permanent resident status, if granted. We hoped to hear back on approval in the next two months. I’d endured the home study and done pretty well, I thought. Still, the state of Texas, in its infinite wisdom, hadn’t approved me yet, and I was getting anxious. Meanwhile, Betsy languished in a foster family with eleven other kids. A Mighty is His Word family at that. I believe in God, and I go to church, but there’s religion and then there’s full-on-Daffy, and the Mighty is His Word group struck me as the latter.
Nadine turned to my fiancé. “What do you think of her braces, Jack?”
His gaze heated my cheeks. As my oh-so classy, tactful mother had said to me the week before, Jack had me hot to trot. Smiling, he put a palm to my flaming cheek then tapped my lips with his index finger. “I’m kind of partial to her gap, second only to her bangs.” I opened my mouth to object—he gave me unending heck about the volume of my bangs—then closed it. “But I like Emily no matter what she has on.” He put his lips to my ear and his words were a nibble. “Or not on.” I inhaled him slow and deep. Leather, sunshine, furniture polish and the lingering scent of our afternoon romp brought back his words from earlier: “Now that I’ve moved out of the office into a real house, this Murphy bed isn’t getting any use,” he’d said as he opened the cabinet and put his hand on the mattress. “Poor neglected Murphy bed,” I’d purred and untucked his shirt. The memory of it coupled with his ear nibbles did yummy, squirmy things to me now.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, get a room,” a voice gayer than Ru Paul’s broke in. I didn’t have to turn to know it was Wallace Gray. Wallace downplayed his sexual orientation by day, but vamped it up off hours. I didn’t blame him for his daytime subterfuge. Amarillo was not a blue city, and Texas was not a blue state.
I blinked away my bedroom eyes as Nadine exchanged cheek kisses with Wallace. Jack and I got to pay our homage.
“Something’s different with you.” Wallace took me by the shoulders and cocked his head. “Did you have a stroke?”
I said, “Orthodontia isn’t a laughing matter.” Or tried to. I shook my head and spat out, “Chihuahua,” accentuating the first syllable with an sh- instead of a ch- sound.
“Say it, don’t spray it, Bugs Bunny.” He cocked his head at me. “Hey, wait. Was that a new non-curse word? SHE-wah-wah. Like SHE-yutt?”
“I like it. Way to liven up your game there, wild thing.”
I socked his wiry bicep. “Kiss my grits, Wallace.”
He winced and rubbed it even though I’d barely tapped him. “Hey, Nadine, where’s the man of the hour?”
A shadow crossed Nadine’s face. She peered around the open space, through the revelers who had come out in force for the Thursday night celebration. “Bathroom? Bar?” She pursed her lips sideways like a semi colon. “He should be back by now.”
“I’m gonna head that way myself. I’ll let you know if I see him.” Jack patted my behind twice and set off toward the bathrooms.
“Have you guys set a date?” Wallace asked.
Nadine and I said, “No,” both at once. I smiled and shrugged at her.
“We were waiting for the verdict.” Nadine looked toward the bar, then the bathrooms, again. “I know Jack was confident all along, but that bitchy ADA was so aggressive and sure of herself, I didn’t want to take any chances.” The ADA in question—Melinda Stafford—had been my mortal enemy since childhood, and I thought Nadine was being too charitable about her.
“Sounds reasonable. And what’s your excuse, rodeo queen?” Wallace said, referring to my cowgirl and pageant past. “Because we know Jack’s not the hold-up.” He crossed his arms over his chest.
The music had stopped again, and the background hum of conversation seemed to halt with it, as if the whole room was waiting on my answer. The disco ball shot beams that danced on Wallace’s head like spotlights. Two sets of eyes bored into me, shifting from foot to foot. Wallace was right. Jack would have married me months ago if I’d agreed, but I’d been dragging my feet. It was hard to explain why, especially since he was successful, handsome, kind, and great in the sack. My cheeks heated again. Yeah, really great in the sack. It was just that he’d lost his wife and kids a few years ago. Then he’d proposed marriage to me to help me adopt Betsy, so I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me or just wanted to help me or even just wanted to replace his family. Especially because the L-word hadn’t been part of the deal. And I wanted the L-word. I wanted him to want me for me. I hadn’t admitted that to anyone, though, and now didn’t seem the time or place.
I pointed to my mouth. “I’m waiting to get these ugly braces—”
A hand tugged my wrist. I wheeled toward the pressure to find a pale, wiry man I’d never seen before. He stepped into me, into my space and eyeball-to-eyeball, his deep socketed ones black and intense. “Tell Jack I didn’t do it.”
He released me and jogged off, punching the front door open. He stepped aside to let Phil in, then dashed out. Phil’s voice boomed over every other sound in the room. “Help! We need a doctor outside. And an ambulance!” I caught a flash of wild eyes under dark hair, and then he was gone.
Despite the fact that it was statistically unlikely that everyone in the room was a doctor, the crowd moved as one toward the door and Phil’s voice, with me in it. My mind reeled from the double whammy of the disquieting interruption by the pale man and Phil’s frantic announcement. Nadine broke to the front of the pack, with Wallace and me right behind her. We burst out into the parking lot. Cool air and the stink of cattle feed lots hit me. The smell wasn’t surprising as Amarillo is the cattle feeding capital of the world, or at least Texas. The parking lot was unlit, except for a street lamp on the corner and the sparkling stars in the clear April sky, not unlike the lights from the disco ball inside. I stopped, searching for Phil, and so did Wallace, but Nadine kept running.
Wallace pointed past her. “There’s Phil.”
“What’s going on?” Jack asked, appearing out of nowhere and catching up to us.
We took off running again, Jack with us this time, in Nadine’s wake.
“Phil came in yelling for a doctor and ambulance,” I said, but I was starting to huff and puff so it didn’t come out all in one piece. “That’s all we know.”
We wove through the parked cars to the farthest, darkest edge of the lot, where it bordered an abandoned-looking building. Phil was kneeling over someone or something, his body blocking our view. Sirens wailed in the distance, moving closer. Nadine crouched beside her fiancé. We came to a stop behind them.
A tall woman in fishnet hose, garters, satin panties, and a pink satin baby doll top lay facedown on the pavement, a pair of bunny ears on a headband askew. For a moment I thought, “Ah, like Playboy,” but then I realized there was no bustier or tail, it was almost Easter, and the ears were white, at least where they weren’t splashed with an explosion of something mushy and red. My stomach bucked. Phil and Nadine gently rolled the woman to her back. As they did, I realized that the mushy mess was an enormous sheet cake decorated with what looked like . . . I stared harder, not believing what I was seeing at first. The entire intact left side was covered by a red icing penis. Above the penis were the words, “Congrats Phil &—” but I couldn’t read the rest, because the right hand side of the cake had been obliterated by the woman’s face.
Phil wiped cake from the woman’s nose and mouth and leaned down to begin CPR breaths. Nadine’s hand clutched at the black shirt across Phil’s back. I stepped closer. Now I could see blood dripping across the woman’s gashed temple and onto the pavement. I re-examined the cake and shuddered. Its top edge abutted a concrete parking stanchion, covered in dripping red liquid that couldn’t be icing. I shuddered, and Jack slipped an arm around my waist. The wiry man’s words echoed in my head: “Tell Jack I didn’t do it”.
The scream of the sirens was very near, growing louder. When it held steady, I peered down the street. A police car had parked ten yards away. Two cops approached, hands on their guns.
“Amarillo Police Department,” one of them shouted. “Put down your weapons.” I knew the voice. Officer John Burrows, a good cop and a good friend.
I held up my hands, waving one, then pointing. “John, it’s Emily and Jack. There’s a woman over there hurt bad.”
John’s red head drew closer until I could see his face. He nodded at me and said something to the short, muscular female cop striding beside him. An ambulance drew to a stop at the curb behind the cruiser, and paramedics hopped out.
“Over here. Bring the gurney,” John yelled back to them.
A throng had gathered behind us. I glanced at them, faces blurring together. Jack pulled me closer. John and the female officer started moving people back from the woman on the ground. The paramedics rushed over with their rolling stretcher through the space the officers had cleared. Phil stopped CPR to make room for them. He turned toward us, and my hand covered my mouth.
Phil’s face was covered in blood and icing. Red, cornflower blue, yellow, and black smeared together in a macabre mask. He sat on his haunches, unmoving, seemingly oblivious to it. Nadine lifted the corner of her skirt and wiped at his face, but he pushed her hand away. He lowered his head into his hands and rolled forward on his feet until his forehead rested on the pavement.
A woman’s voice shrieked, “Oh my God, that’s a man.”
My eyes shot back toward the woman on the ground. Her panties were askew, revealing indisputable evidence that she was in fact genetically a he.
Jack and I stood beside Phil in the open doorway of Get Your Kicks as John and the female cop—who had introduced herself as Alicia Nurse—questioned him. We’d already given our statements, so they allowed us to be present as his counsel, on the condition that I meet with a sketch artist later to capture my memory of the strange man that had appeared and disappeared so quickly, with a suspicious message at a suspicious time.
John said, “Do you know the deceased?”
“His name’s Dennis Welch.” Phil pointed to a black F-250. “That’s his truck.”
The cops shared a look. “How do you know him?” John asked.
Phil shook his head, his eyes closed. “We’ve been best friends since middle school.” He flicked on the light to the room, and I squinted as my eyes adjusted.
This was my first time in Get Your Kicks. I’d expected something tres trashy, given the merchandise they planned to carry, the reference to Route 66 in the name, and the customer base I’d imagined for them, since Nadine worked in a strip bar and Phil had run a swingers club. But it was actually sexy more than tacky. The light was soft and rosy. The walls were painted a boudoir red with curtains of dark lace draped over black lights, casting moody shadows on the ceiling. They had a big space to work with, and they’d partitioned the center of the room with standing screens. One section featured an iron four-poster bed on which bondage merchandise was displayed in leather, metal spikes, synthetic rubber, and latex. Another one contained an old dance cage from an 80s club. One made me shudder, given what I’d just seen in the parking lot. It held a female mannequin in a sexy red and black bunny costume, holding an Easter basket full of fake green grass topped off with a dildo and flavored lubricating oil. The display I liked best had a swing hanging from the ceiling by colorful silk scarves tied one to another.
The gently divided sections faced different types of toys on shelves and racks. Men’s wear. Women’s wear. Bondage. Media. Intimate items to enhance, ahem, pleasure. My mouth grew moist and I itched to slide my hands over some of the silky goodies in the women’s section, to slither them onto my body, and to try the swing. I looked back at Jack, and his amber eyes were as hazy as mine felt.
He cocked his sexy left brow, and my stomach tightened as his dimple sunk into his left cheek. A lopsided half smile. “Later,” he mouthed at me, and the rest of me suddenly felt moist as well. Yes, Mother was right. He had me hot to trot.
While I was lusting after my fiancée, John kept talking. “Where did you meet him?”
That got my attention. I hadn’t realized Phil was a Boys Rancher. I was pretty sure I’d heard Nadine complain about his mother, so I hadn’t thought he was an orphan, but I knew that Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch for many years had taken in boys—and girls these days—who were in trouble, either themselves or because of their family situation. I’d been out to their facilities northwest of Amarillo for one of their rodeos. You wouldn’t realize Boys Ranch was anything but a small Texas town from looking at it. Modest but normal homes with house parents and kids living in them, a church, a medical facility, a school. It was completely self-contained, and everyone that lived there pitched in. They had a fantastic track record for saving kids, and Wallace had once told me that CPS referred as many kids their way as they could.
“Did he, uh, always dress like that?” John asked.
“No. It was a joke. He told me he couldn’t afford a stripper. For my engagement. That’s what the party was for. My engagement, and some, uh, recent good news.”
“Did you know he was going to be here?”
“Yeah. I invited him.” He held his phone aloft. It was smudged with blood and icing. “He called me from a few blocks away. I came outside to meet him.”
“Meet him for what?”
Phil looked at Jack. Not the look, I thought. Nothing good came after a client looked at his attorney like that. Jack kept his face impassive.
Phil finally answered. “He asked me to help him carry stuff in.”
This time it was Officer Nurse who spoke. “Did you talk to him in the parking lot?”
“No. I found him. Like that.” Phil’s voice broke.
“Did you see anyone else?”
He shook his head. “No.” He scrubbed his eyes and then his head angled forward into his hands and his back shook.
I patted Phil’s back, feeling inadequate for the task, wishing Nadine was here in my place, but she was outside per police instructions. The cops didn’t let witnesses listen to each other, and they hadn’t talked to her yet.
“Is there any other way we could verify where you were at the time?”
Phil pointed toward the office. “We just installed surveillance cameras, but the farthest one out just gets the perimeter of the building, not the parking lot.”
“My guy,” I said, and four heads swiveled toward me. “The one that came up to me inside right before Phil found his friend. He’ll be on the video.”
Officer Nurse wrote something down. “We’ll need to view and take a copy of that video, Mr. Escalante.”
“Do you know anyone who would want to hurt Mr., uh—”
“Welch. Dennis Welch.”
Jack had been staring at the ground, lips compressed, but he looked up at Nurse. “Do you guys know yet whether this was foul play or an accident?”
“We’re just covering all the bases.”
I swallowed, my throat dry. A possible murder right outside the party where a strange man who knew Jack had accosted me, and they were treating us all like suspects, especially Phil. It was all sobering. Amarillo seemed like a safe place, but bad things happened here just like everywhere there were humans.
Phil was shaking his head. “He doesn’t even live here. He lives in Borger. And Denver.”
“Is this your place?”
“Any trouble with break-ins, muggings, or whatnot?”
Phil waffled his hand. “Harassment. I used to run a swingers club here, and that goddamn church, Mighty is His Word. They’d stand in the way of cars, take pictures, hold up signs. Intimidate and humiliate people.”
“Were they ever physical?”
Phil shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
The two officers shared a look and Nurse sighed.
Jack jumped in. “Officers, is that all for now? We’d like to take care of our friend. He’s had a horrible shock.”
Nurse shook her head. “We’re going to need him to show us the video first. Stick around, though, please, in case we have more questions.”
“Can we come see the video? Emily might be able to ID the man she saw.”
Nurse and John looked at each other and shook their heads. John crossed his arms. “Jack, no offense, but we only have your word on where you were when this happened, and Emily is your fiancée. Let’s set her down with the sketch artist, then we’ll show her the video.”
John shook his head.
“But it’s my client’s evidence.”
“And your client can choose whoever he wants for an attorney, even someone who hasn’t been cleared in an investigation, but we won’t compromise our investigation because of it.”
“Fine.” Jack put his hand on my back, easing me toward the exit.
I took off and he followed.
“We’ll be in the office area.” John took Phil by the arm and started walking toward the back of Get Your Kicks, to the office.
I stopped. Jack veered around me and kept going. “John?” I said.
He turned to me and cocked his head, and his partner waited beside him.
“Do you guys know how Dennis died? Was it from hitting his head on the concrete?” I stammered a little, feeling awkward with Nurse there, even though she seemed okay.
He shook his head. “We’ll have to wait on the autopsy. Could be anything. A heart attack. Drugs. Or hitting his head.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
He smiled at me, the first time his guard had lowered since he arrived. Nurse started to walk away, and he leaned toward me and spoke softly. “Stay safe, Calamity Jane. The cavalry is only a few digits away.”
I saluted him. “Good night.”
As his comment sunk in, I got a funny feeling about it. Was John flirting with me? I knew he was going through a divorce, but surely he wouldn’t flirt when he knew I was engaged to Jack, and with Jack so close by? Well, whatever he was doing, it was nice he had my back. When John and I met a few months before, he’d accused me of being reckless and too quick to pull the gun my father had given me a lifetime. He was wrong, of course. My daddy had raised me to be self-reliant. Of course, Dad had ended up in jail for killing a guy with a broken bottle—in self-defense, although that didn’t do much to lessen the way it made me feel. Or the taint on our collective reputations. But I wasn’t going down that path. Yes, I am self-reliant. I found Betsy and rescued her from kidnappers when the police hadn’t, and I saved two teen runaways from a bad cop all by myself, too.
Maybe I didn’t need John or anyone else coming to my rescue, but I’d keep him on speed dial just in case.
And that’s all you get
To pre-order your copy, click HERE.
Lastly, the winner of the signed copy of Earth to Emily will be announced next week (from last week’s contest); stay tuned.