The teaser for Rocky Start that’s going in the back of Vermillion is three chapters, so here’s the third. Not that you asked.
I’d tried to make a plan as I’d followed Poppy and the new guy. First, I had to get a grip on my anger and outrage at getting hit. Anger and outrage are not attractive or charming, which is what I needed to be to get through life. My daughter called me Cheery Boost because I smile at everybody and make them feel better as a survival trait while I fix their problems so they’ll love me and not rat me out if the cops show up looking for me. Poppy said she did not intend to become Cheery Boost Two, which I agreed with. She didn’t understand that I was Cheery Boost One to keep her safe and fed so that she could leave town and be whatever she wanted to be. She was heading to college in eleven months with enough college loans lined up to bankrupt a small city, and once she was gone, I intended to become Resting Bitch Face and probably starve to death, but at least I wouldn’t have to be fucking cheerful while I starved.
The good guy and Stanley Ferrell were having a stare down when I walked in the post office, which wasn’t good, I didn’t need this guy annoyed. Poppy was kneeling next to the dog.
Stanley said to the good guy, “So you planning on staying long?”
The good guy shook his head. “I’ll be gone before dinner. Once I get my boots. Sooner I get the boots, the sooner I can be on my way. Not staying. Don’t want to stay.”
“And after I take care of your dog,” Poppy said. “Please?”
“No, thank you,” he said, so I put my hand on his sleeve and smiled up at him. Cheery Boost at work.
“Poppy will take good care of her,” I told him, upping the wattage on the Cheery.
It didn’t do a thing for him. “Maggs stays with me.”
Poppy started to protest, and I said, “Go home, Poppy, the man wants his dog with him.”
Poppy huffed and went out the door, and I held out my hand to the good guy, smiling, of course, and said, “Hello. I’m Rose Malone. And you are?”
He looked at my hand as if having an internal debate, then sighed and took it. “Max Reddy,” he said and dropped it and then turned back to Stanley. “About my boots?”
Stanley looked at Max. “I told you; I can’t get your package because it’s in North Carolina.”
“You mean across the road.” Max closed his eyes for a moment, and that’s when I saw my chance to get close enough to lift his wallet to see if he and Junior were in this thing together.
Yes, I have trust issues.
“Stanley.” I leaned on the counter beside Max, brushing his sleeve. If men didn’t like it when you moved in close, they moved away.
Max did not move away.
Stanley frowned at me.
I smiled up at him, not easy when you’re 5’9” and the guy you’re smiling up at is 5’8”, but I have skills. “This man just saved me from somebody who hit me. I mean, look at my cheek! Max Reddy is a hero.” I leaned closer which made me shorter. “The government should reward heroes. You’re the government here, Stanley. You have the power to get him his boots. C’mon, be a hero, too. All he wants is the package that is legally his.” I smiled up at him again, just between us, a secret we could share. It’s a trick so old it has whiskers, but it always works.
“You know how Dottie gets,” Stanley said to me, but I could see a smile breaking through. He was a cheating husband; they always respond to flirting with women who aren’t their wives. Dottie was going to kill him for invading her space, of course, but that was his problem. My problem was getting Max’s boots for him so he’d trust me so I could steal his wallet.
“Stanley.” I leaned a little closer to Max, a little farther across the counter, too, tilted my head, and hit Stanley with my smile and my dimples. Those dimples are worth their weight in moisturizer. “You’re not afraid of Dottie. I don’t believe that for a second. A tough veteran like you? You’ve faced down much worse. And this hero needs his package. I bet anything he’s ex-military, all you guys have that devastating confidence. He’s your fellow soldier, Stanley. Esprit de corps. And he really needs his package. C’mon. Be a hero. Get the guy his boots.”
Stanley looked at me and sighed, probably knowing I wasn’t going to quit, and turned to Max. “You wanted some boots?”
“Yes,” Max said. “I wanted some boots.”
Stanley took off the napkin, grabbed a big key ring, lifted the countertop and headed across the street at a pretty good clip, probably trying to get there and back before Dottie caught him.
When he was out the door, Max looked at me, grim as ever. “Don’t bother trying that on me, it’s not going to work.”
I gave him my best smile. “Of course not, I can tell you don’t charm that easily.” I watched him relax a little. Compliments often did that for men. “That was a big ask, for Stanley to invade Dottie’s territory.” I looked across the street where Stanley was at the door, unlocking it. “I lied, he couldn’t take Dottie in a fight. Actually, I think he thought that was a plus in the beginning. Stanley likes strong women.”
Max frowned, looking confused. “In the beginning?”
I nodded. “They’re divorcing. It’s played merry hell with the mail. Some days, nothing gets delivered if they’re really feuding and don’t even do the coin flip.” I took a deep breath and moved a little closer. “So anyway, thank you very much for defenestrating Junior. Or whatever throwing somebody into a street is. I was rude back there and you were helpful. So it was my pleasure to charm Stanley for your boots, don’t mention it.” Then I stopped. “But I really did have that.”
“He had a gun and he was going for it. And you weren’t armed.” He looked at Lian’s taser in my hand. “Then.”
Junior had a gun? Maybe I hadn’t had that. Stop arguing, Rose, you had a Maltese Falcon. “I just needed to thank you.” I smiled and flashed the dimples again.
He was frowning at me now, negating all my dimple power, which was just wrong. I mean, I’m not young anymore, and I never was a beauty, but when I put my back into it, I can be cute as all hell.
“That guy who hit you said he was coming back,” Max said finally, after a few moments of silence. “Why was he going to shoot you?”
“I hit him with the Maltese Falcon. It’s a movie prop—”
He shook his head “I know what it is, why were you hitting him with it?”
“It was the first thing to hand—”
“No, I meant—”
Stanley came back into the office and handed a large Amazon box to Max. “You owe me, stranger. Good thing you’re just passing through.” He held out an electronic handheld device. “Sign here. You can use your finger.”
“Right.” Max slashed his forefinger across the screen while awkwardly holding the box.
“Have a nice day,” Stanley said in his usual, flat voice, indicating his being nice was over and we could leave.
“You’re a sweetheart, Stanley,” I told him. “Dottie is a lucky woman.”
Stanley cheered up a little at the first part, but the mention of his wife’s name put the dour back.
Max opened the door for me and stepped back so I could go out first. What Coral would call A Real Gentleman. So I tripped and fell into him, and he caught me with his free hand, jamming his foot against the door to keep it from closing, and I looked up and met his eyes and he really was grimly attractive, and for half a second I forgot why I’d fallen. I mean, I came to my senses, we needed to know more about this guy, but there for a moment, it was just nice to have somebody’s hands on me. Especially his. You know that chemistry thing people are always going on about? Turns out it’s real.
I said, “Sorry,” and patted his chest while I pinched his wallet between two fingers, and he moved away from me to call Maggs as I straightened, which pulled it from his jacket as I turned my back to him to drop it into my apron pocket. I went outside, and he and Maggs came out, too, and he closed the door behind us. “I didn’t know about the gun,” I told him. “So. Thank you.”
“You know, Poppy would take good care of Maggs,” I told him. “Comb her out and clean her up. She’d feel so much better. You know where we are, right?” I pointed down the street to the shop, back the way I’d come. “The blue line runs down State Street and ends right at the shop. Through the shop, actually. You can’t miss it. It’s the least we can do for your help.”
If he took Maggs to Poppy, I could give him back his wallet after I checked it out. I’m not a thief.
He shook his head and sat down on the curb just as Pike’s truck rolled to a stop next to him, missing his feet by inches. He didn’t flinch.
We don’t know if Pike is officially the law. He supposedly has a badge, but I understand you can buy those online. He’s one of those guys who’s not so much elderly as seasoned, as if the years have worn away all the weakness and just left this teak-tough ancient force of nature that nobody messes with. He and Ozzie definitely ran Rocky Start together, so whether or not Pike is official law enforcement is kind of moot. It’s his law and he enforces it.
Pike looked down at Max now. “This the guy who helped you, Rose?”
“Hey, Pike,” I said, moving to the window. “This is the good guy. He helped me. Do not maim him.”
Pike shook his head. “Go home, Rose. I need to talk to him.”
“Do not hurt him,” I said. “I mean it, Pike. He helped me. That guy who hit me had a gun.”
Pike frowned. “He did?”
I nodded. “He drove off in a big SUV with some woman after telling me he was Ozzie’s son. Did Ozzie have a son?”
Pike ignored that. “What kind of gun?”
Like I’d know. I am personally anti-gun. I looked down at Max, who was reaching inside his own coat to pull out a very sharp knife. So that was two people carrying concealed knives in less than an hour. Plus, Junior with a gun. Of course, I was carrying a taser.
Welcome to Rocky Start.
“It was a Browning Hi-Power in a hip holster on the right side,” he told Pike.
Pike stared at him for a minute. Max started to cut the tapes on his box, ignoring him, which isn’t easy. Pike has a very sharp stare.
Max added: “They were in a black Mercedes G63. A classic. Ballistic protection, heavy suspension, souped up engine, probably run-flat tires.”
“You know this how?” Pike asked.
“I have eyes.”
“That so?” Pike said.
“That’s so,” Max said.
“Rose?” Pike said to me, his voice flat.
Right. Okay. I leaned over Max as he slit open the box. “Really sorry about this,” I whispered.
I started back down the street at a good clip as Pike said to Max, “You got a name? Any ID?” I wanted to make it back to the shop before the guy noticed his wallet was missing, him being the observant sort—there was a gun?—but he called, “Wait a minute, Rose,” and it was nice to hear him say my name until he walked over to join me, looking stern. Grimly stern. Didn’t this guy ever smile?
“My wallet,” he said.
I immediately moved into this-is-my-innocent-face. “Hmmm?”
“Cute. Give me my wallet, or I will take it.”
“I don’t know—” I started and then I stopped because he was patting me down. Everywhere. He hit the apron pocket just as he was getting to my good parts, so that was a let down, plus I’d somehow screwed up the lift, and that never happened, and—
“If you wanted to see the wallet, all you had to do was ask,” Max said as he took his wallet back.
“Really?” I said.
“That’s what I thought.” I put my hands on my hips, trying for the spunky little woman this time since innocence wasn’t working. Well, the spunky little woman who was 5’9,” but still such a cute archetype; you’d have to forgive a spunky little woman—
“Don’t do that again,” he said and I gave up on the spunky little woman, too.
“I wasn’t after your money,” I said, trying for outraged virtue.
“I know,” Max said.
“I just wanted to know more about you.”
He leaned forward then, almost nose to nose with me and said, “You don’t need to know more about me.”
That’s when I began to think seriously about sleeping with him. Because men will tell you anything if you’re naked, not because I wanted him, I’d given that up a long time ago when I’d realized that I have a genius for finding the only cheating alcoholic in a room full of good men, and when that happens to you two or three or four times, you just say, “The hell with this” and concentrate on being a single mother and selling very odd secondhand—
He narrowed his eyes at me, and I realized that being naked might not work with Max, either, him being the suspicious type, so I put my hands on his chest to hold him off and when he moved away, I lifted his wallet again.
Maybe I could get him to pat me down again, too. That was fun.
“Whatever you’re planning, the answer is no,” Max said.
“That’s really mean,” I said, and walked away with his wallet.