The Fifth Angel Ridge Novel
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Excerpt No. 3
As she stepped out of the courthouse into the bright morning sunshine, Frannie slid oversized dark glasses onto her nose. She walked briskly across Town Square to a park bench near the tall, bronze angel monument standing sentinel on a brick pedestal. She sat, dropping her purse and briefcase onto the damp grass.
Anger roiled up inside her, teasing the edges of a full-on anxiety attack. She took a deep breath, in through her nose, out through her mouth on a slow eight count—just like the therapist had taught her. She gave up after losing track of how many times she’d repeated the technique. Her anger still simmered, but the panic had subsided.
She’d been in and out of town now for months and hadn’t once run into the man from the bar that night. It had been a full-on blizzard and just after her sister had gone underground. They must have been the only two people crazy enough to venture out in the weather, because it had just been the two of them there. He’d been drunk, and she’d been three whiskeys on the way there. His kiss, like the liquor, was a distraction from the pain of losing her sister. But in the sobering, bright light of the next day, she’d run into him at the town diner. Not only had she learned that he was married, but also that his wife had just been diagnosed with cancer.
She closed her eyes. Big mistake. The memory was there, raw and vivid, as if it had just happened. That night Frannie had to swipe at the tears as she drove the icy roads. Visibility had been bad enough without her blubbering. Staying at Jenny’s house, instead of feeling comforted, she’d felt closed in by her things, claustrophobic. She’d missed Jenny so much, and Frannie just wanted her sister back. How could Frannie go through life knowing Jenny was out there somewhere all alone?
Ahead, a sign glowed in the darkness through the snow. Frannie slowed and pulled over. Jimmy’s Bar. Perfect. She could use a drink. In fact, getting smashed held great appeal at the moment. Anything to not feel for a while.
The windowless metal door swung inward. The interior was dark and sparsely populated, which suited her fine. She sat at the bar.
A thin man with a face that said it had seen more than he’d care to recount asked, “What’ll you have?”
“Jack and Coke.”
The man turned away to get her drink. Frannie put her purse on the bar, and the folder the lawyer had given her slid out. The words “Last Will and Testament of Violet Jennings Thompson” glared at her. What a lie she was living. When the man had heard she was in town, he’d hiked through the snow to Jenny’s house to bring it to her, instructing her on the probate process she wouldn’t be able to begin. Another thing she’d have to discuss with the sheriff when the weather cleared. How was she supposed to deal with all this when she was still grieving for her sister?
She shoved the file back into her bag and shrugged out of her coat. Before she could unwind the long, green scarf her sister had gotten Frannie for her birthday, the last birthday they’d ever spend together, the man returned with her drink then went back to watching the basketball game on the television that sat in the corner of the long, narrow room. No conversation. That suited her, too.
She tossed the dark straw on the wooden bar and disposed of half the beverage in one long swallow. A man sitting four chairs down from her watched. She didn’t much care; let him look. The initial burn of the whiskey spread a delicious warmth through her chest and lower. She downed the rest, and her fingertips started to tingle. She set the heavy tumbler down with a satisfying thud.
“Another.” Screw the niceties. Her sister had been taken from her. There was no room for nice in her world.
The man took the glass and made her another drink.
The other lone customer was still looking at her, so she looked back intending to say, “What?” but when she met his gaze, she stopped short. From the glassy look in his clear gray eyes, she’d say he’d had a few himself. He lifted his glass, took a drink, and hunkered down, forearms on the bar, his focus returned to the liquid in his glass.
At some point during the silent exchange, the bartender had brought her drink—minus the straw—and disappeared. He’d also left a bowl of pretzels. Her gaze swung back to the man with the empty eyes, but he’d obviously forgotten about her and returned to his own personal hell. She wondered what was going on at home that prevented him from getting drunk there. Maybe he was from out of town like her. She chuckled and took another drink. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would be traveling the back roads of East Tennessee in a blizzard.
He shifted his gaze to hers.
She looked back. He was good looking, in a disheveled, dark-whiskered, shaggy-hair-that-needed-a-trim sort of way. It fell in waves around his face. He shoved a hand into the mass and pushed it back toward his crown, then stood, stumbled and found his balance before moving her way. She turned away and took another long draw on her drink, not sure she wanted company, but nevertheless intrigued by the dark stranger whose high-end, designer clothing said he didn’t fit in a dive like this. She chuckled again. She supposed she didn’t fit either, but the selection of bars in the heart of the Bible belt was not wide or varied.
He sat next to her without asking her permission. His empty glass had been abandoned at his previous spot at the bar. The bartender set another in front of him without asking, making Frannie reassess. The guy must be a regular.
He swallowed half his drink, set the tumbler down and said, “What brings you to a place like this in a snowstorm?”
Frannie took a drink as well. Her whole body was warm now. “I could ask you the same question.”
“If you were from around here, you’d know.” He had another sip of his drink and turned back to her. He took his time looking at her. “You don’t belong here.”
Emboldened by the whiskey, she looked her fill of him as well. The warmth radiating to the rest of her body from her midsection shifted lower. “Where do I belong?”
They were sitting close, too close, but she noted the fact too late.
“Is this a guessing game, then?”
“I don’t play games.”
“Everybody plays. Not everyone wins.” He swallowed the rest of his drink. “What’s your name?”
She considered for a moment, then said, “Frannie.”
He held out his hand and she stared at it, then twenty-seven years of
breeding kicked in, and she offered hers. His fingers were warm and well-shaped. This wasn’t a man who worked with his hands. He was a professional of some sort. Maybe he was a lawyer, too. He had that air about him, like he’d stripped off a jacket and tie and left them in an expensive car before coming into the bar.
“You have nice hands,” he said, still holding hers. He brushed his thumb across the ring she wore. Her college ring. She didn’t miss his glance at her other hand to see if she wore a diamond or wedding band. “What brings you here, Frannie?” he asked, his thumb now moving back and forth across her knuckles.
Her hand felt good in his; human contact felt good after so much loss and emptiness, so she traced the lines of his palm with her fingertips. “I needed a drink.”
He chuckled. “I think you had two, not that I’m counting.”
She smiled. “And I’m still not drunk, so I think I need another.”
He lifted his chin, looking at the bartender, taking care of her request. She
brought the drink to her lips and downed it in one swallow. She resisted the urge to cough and ruin the effect.
“Impressive,” he noted with a raised eyebrow. “Better?”
She smiled, but her hair fell like a curtain, separating them. He pushed it
back, leaving her face and neck exposed and vulnerable. He leaned in, his bourbon-laced breath warm on her cheek, his dark stubble not unpleasantly rough against her cheek. He sighed and nudged her ear with his nose; his warm lips caressed the lobe.
She should move away, but the whiskey and the sadness pressing on her soul interfered with her ability to act like the proper young lady her mother had raised her to be.
“Tell me to stop,” he whispered, but pressed another kiss to the vulnerable spot behind her ear. He put his arm along the bar in front of her and slid the back of his fingers along her jaw until their gazes locked again.
Raw pain had flowed between them. They’d both wanted to feel something else—needed to feel anything else. So she’d leaned in and tasted his lips.
© 2012 Deborah Grace Staley