Date Published: Jun 2020
She despised him.
She despised the superior tone of his voice when he instructed her on when she could clean his room, what foods she could make him to eat, and what hours he did NOT want to be disturbed. She despised the way he walked around her garden as if he owned it and how his mahogany brown hair defied the strong Texas winds and always fell neatly back into its styled perfection. She despised his tall, lean body without an ounce of fat on it and the black he always wore that made him look like a villainous gunslinger in an old Western. Even his underwear was black—something she knew because she washed and folded them every week.
But mostly, she despised the way his golden gaze seemed to sizzle right through her and make her feel like the most inept person on the face of the planet.
And inept was not a word anyone in Simple, Texas, had ever used to describe Reba Dixon. She might not be pretty. She sure wasn’t skinny. But she was smart, determined, and competent. Her daddy always said she was the definition of a multitasker. She wasn’t about to let some arrogant writer of psychological thriller novels make her feel like she was beneath him. She might not have a lot of money or a big fancy job, but she was a savvy businesswoman who ran a successful hotel.
Or maybe not successful, but one that was getting by.
Which was the main reason she hadn’t already told Valentine Sterling where he could shove his constant complaints. Every time she carried up his breakfast or supper tray, he had a new one.
“Good morning, Ms. Dixon. I hope my poached egg isn’t as overcooked as yesterday.”
“Good evening, Ms. Dixon. Do you understand what lightly starched means?”
“Good morning, Ms. Dixon. Do you always sing while you garden? Perhaps you could save it for the shower. It’s extremely distracting while I’m trying to write.”
“Good evening, Ms. Dixon. You’re three minutes late.”
After he’d complained about one thing or another, he would pause as if waiting for her to reply. Almost as if daring her to tell him off and kick his arrogant butt out of her boardinghouse. Oh, how she wanted to. The best day of her life would be when Valentine Sterling’s behind headed down the steps of the front porch for the last time. Reba planned to pop open the bottle of champagne she always kept on hand for boarders’ special occasions and celebrate.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t do anything to prompt Mr. Sterling to leave. Not when he had a huge following on social media and all it would take was one tweet saying how poorly he’d been treated at the Dixon Boardinghouse for Reba to lose much needed business. She had worked too damn hard the last two years since her parents gave her their share in the boardinghouse to let it all go down the drain because she couldn’t control her half-Irish, half-Cherokee temper.
The boardinghouse wasn’t just a hotel. It was her life.
She had grown up in the big, sprawling plantation-style house. She had broken her arm sliding down the polished mahogany bannister. Played Gone with the Wind with her best friend, Evie Gardener, on the wide wraparound porch. Learned how to cook all the family recipes from her grandmother in the homey kitchen. And hunted for the ghost of her great-great-great-great grandmother in the wildflower garden. All while trying not to tick off her great-aunt Gertie.
Something Reba seemed to do anyway.
Aunt Gertie owned the other half of the boardinghouse. While Reba lived in the caretaker’s cottage behind the house, Aunt Gertie lived in the same room of the boardinghouse where she’d been born. And she intended to die in that room. Something that wasn’t far off. While Aunt Gertie refused to give the exact date of her birth, the family estimated that she was at least ninety. Watching out for her ninety-something-year-old aunt was just one more thing on Reba’s long list of responsibilities.
“Reba!” Her crotchety aunt’s voice rang out from the direction of the dining room.
Leaving the egg she’d been poaching in the water, she hurried out of the kitchen and almost plowed right over her frail aunt. Reba quickly sidestepped, but her hip bumped Gertie’s hot pink walker, sending it clattering to the floor. Luckily, the hairless Sphynx cat sitting in the attached basket jumped clear.
“How many times do I have to tell you to slow down, Reba Gertrude Dixon?” Aunt Gertie snapped.
“Sorry.” Reba righted the walker, and then tried to give Rhett Butler an apologetic head scratch. But the cat didn’t “give a damn” about anyone but his owner and hissed at Reba before jumping back in his basket. “Why you ornery thing.” She glared at the cat. “That’s the last time I give you tuna.”
“Now don’t be gettin’ mad at Butler. You were the one who was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
“Because you were hollering to beat the band and I was worried you’d fallen again.”
Aunt Gertie stroked Butler’s head. “I haven’t fallen for months and that was only because someone kicked the edge of that rug in the hallway and tripped me up.”
“If you’d had your walker, you wouldn’t have fallen.”
Aunt Gertie scowled. “You’re just like your mama. The woman loves to remind people of their mistakes. She still hasn’t shut up about your daddy investing in those lamps that turn on when you whistle. Or you not marrying that country boy who worked here that one summer.”
“Billy Bob and I only went out a few times. Neither one of us was interested in getting married.” It was a lie. Like her mama, she’d had big hopes for Billy Bob. He just hadn’t had any interest in her beyond sex. “Now I better check the chocolate chip cookies I’m baking for tonight’s book club.” And His-Royal-Pain-in-Her-Butt’s poached egg. Unfortunately, by the time she hurried back into the kitchen and pulled the egg out of the water with the slotted spoon, the yolk looked like a yellow Ping-Pong ball.
“Damn.” She glanced at the clock on the stove. She had exactly four minutes to make another egg and get the tray to his room. She quickly cracked an egg and carefully released it into the hot water.
“What in tarnation are you making?” Aunt Gertie asked.
Not realizing her aunt had followed her, she jumped and dropped the eggshell on the floor. “Geez, Aunt Gertie. I thought you had gone back to your room.”
“Why would I go back to my room when I didn’t talk to you about what I wanted to talk to you about? And answer the question. What are you doing?”
“I’m poaching an egg.” Reba picked up the eggshell and tossed it in the trash, then checked on the cookies in the oven. They were flatter than pancakes and she wondered which ingredient she’d forgotten to add this time. She was always leaving something out when baking. Baking soda. Baking powder. Eggs. Vanilla. She forgot to add ingredients while cooking too, but she could usually catch her mistake by a taste test and add them later. Baking wasn’t that forgiving. Hopefully, her friends at book club would be. She didn’t have time to make another batch. She pulled the cookies out of the oven and transferred them to a cooling rack.
“Why are you poaching eggs when breakfast was hours ago?” Aunt Gertie asked.
“I was hungry for a poached egg,” she lied.
Aunt Gertie knew nothing about the breakfast and dinner trays that Reba had been taking to the garden room. Nor did she know about Reba doing Mr. Sterling’s laundry, or taking his dress pants to be dry-cleaned, or ironing his shirts. If her aunt found out Reba had become Mr. Sterling’s own personal servant, all hell would break loose. Not because he was a demanding jerk, but because he had been one of the troubled teens who had spent a summer at the Double Diamond boy’s ranch. Aunt Gertie thought all the Double Diamond boys were nothing but trouble to the women of Simple and had warned Reba to keep her distance.
Reba only wished she could.
“I’ve never seen you eat a poached egg in your life,” Aunt Gertie said.
“Well, I love them.” To prove it, she popped the rubbery egg into her mouth. The texture was so disgusting that she gagged and hurried over to the sink to spit it out. When she turned, Aunt Gertie was giving her a squinty-eyed look. And so was Butler.
“I didn’t pay much attention to your mama when she called a few months back and told me she was worried about you working too much,” Aunt Gertie said. “But lately, I’ve started to wonder if maybe she ain’t right.”
“Please don’t tell me that mama is on her ‘Reba needs to find herself a husband’ kick again.”
“No. I think she and the rest of the family have accepted the fact that no man will have you.”
“What? I’m just statin’ a fact, girl. Very few men want a strong, intelligent woman who won’t put up with their shenanigans. They want some weak-minded ninny who spends her days dieting, doing her nails, and waiting on them hand and foot. Finding a man who values a good woman is almost impossible. Especially when that woman spends all her time working.”
She went back to putting the cookies on the cooling rack. “You’ve proven that a woman doesn’t need a man to be successful and happy, Aunt Gertie.”
Her aunt snorted. “Yep, I’ve certainly proven that, haven’t I?” She sighed. “And since I caused this, I guess I’ll have to be the one to fix it.”
“There’s nothing to fix. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine. You’ve been running yourself ragged. The boardinghouse has always needed more than one person running things. My sisters helped me until they passed and your mama and daddy came onboard. For the last two years, you’ve been doing it all by yourself. While I think you’re a strong woman, no one is that strong.”
“Then I’ll hire some help.” She finished with the cookies and picked up one to sample. She had definitely left something out. Thankfully, it wasn’t too bad.
“You’ll hire someone with what? You took the books away from me because you wanted to do them on your fancy computer, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t do some cipherin’ on my own. From my calculations, we’re barely breaking even.”
It was annoying how accurate her aunt’s calculations were. They were just breaking even, and that was with Reba not taking a salary.
“Of course, any fool can see that business has been bad,” Aunt Gertie continued. “Folks aren’t taking road trips like they used to and enjoying quaint small towns for fun and relaxation. Now everyone wants to hop on a plane to Disneyland or some foreign country.”
It was the sad truth, but Reba wasn’t about to give up. “I just need to come up with a draw. Something that will lure people here.”
“In the meantime, you’re running yourself right into the ground—and this boardinghouse right along with you. You’re so frazzled you don’t even realize some of the mistakes you’ve been making. And I’m not just talking about leaving baking soda out of those cookies. I’m talking about forgetting to put coffee in the coffeemaker and serving our guests hot water and putting a stack of pillowcases in the bathroom instead of towels.”
“Anyone can forget a few things.”
“A few?” Aunt Gertie looked down and cocked an eyebrow.
Reba followed her gaze to find her t-shirt on backwards. She sighed before she took it off and put it on right. “Fine. I obviously need some help. But there’s no need for you and Mama to worry. I’ll figure something out.”
“I gave you a chance to figure things out. Now it’s my turn.” Aunt Gertie wheeled her walker around and headed for the door, leaving Reba more than a little concerned. Her aunt’s schemes never turned out well. “And you better check that egg.”
The poached egg!
Reba quickly pulled the egg out of the water. But it was too late. She had another Ping-Pong ball. And she couldn’t serve it to Mr. Picky Sterling—especially after tasting the last one. She moved at lightning speed, but by the time she made another egg and put it on a tray with sliced tomatoes, half of an avocado, and a cup of black coffee, it was well past ten o’clock. Thankfully, Valentine Sterling’s room was on the first floor.
The garden room was her favorite room in the house. Not only because its French doors led out to the garden, but also because it had once belonged to her Grandpa Dix and Grandma Dovey.
Grandpa Dix had built the plantation-style house over a hundred years earlier as a wedding gift for his fiancée. The fiancée had loved the huge house but ended up hating the small town of Simple and left grandpa at the altar. Not wanting to disappoint the townsfolk who were expecting to enjoy a nice wedding followed by a delicious pig roast, he asked his Cherokee housekeeper to marry him. It turned out to be a love match. Grandma Gray Dove, or Dovey as she ended up being called by Grandpa Dix, wrote in her diary that she’d loved Thomas Dixon from the moment she set eyes on him and was “damned glad that prissy white woman had run back to Chicago.”
Reba wished the prissy man sleeping in her great-great-great-great-grandparents’ room would run off too. But until he did, she had to continue to appease him.
Balancing the tray in one hand, she lightly tapped on the door. When there was no answer, she knocked a little louder. A second later the door was jerked open, and Reba couldn’t help her surprised gasp.
The freshly shaved, perfectly groomed, fully dressed author who usually opened the door in the mornings had been replaced with a scruffy-jawed, mussed-haired, half-naked man in a pair of black boxer briefs that left very little to the imagination.
It had been a very long time since Reba had seen a half-naked man. Doing a quick calculation, she realized it had been eight years and two months to be exact. And Billy Bob’s body had been nothing like the body before her. Billy didn’t have six-pack abs divided by a thin line of dark hair. Or biceps the size of sweet Texas grapefruits. And he sure as hell hadn’t had a package large enough to stretch out the front seams of his underwear to eye-popping proportions.
“Did I or did I not give you express instructions that I was not to be disturbed before ten o’clock?” he said in a sleep-raspy voice.
By the time her gaze wandered back up all those well-placed muscles to his annoyed, tight-jawed face, she’d completely forgotten the question. “What?”
He released a long sigh. “Why are you knocking at my door so early?”
“It’s not early. It’s after ten.”
He squinted his eyes that were the deep golden color of her November birthstone . “After ten?” He disappeared inside the room, and a few seconds later she heard him grumble a cuss word under his breath.
Since the tray was getting heavy and the door was open, she invited herself in. He was sitting on the bed wearing a pair of tortoiseshell glasses and staring at his phone as if it had to be wrong. Obviously, writers got so caught up in their writing that they lost all track of time. She set the tray on the table by the French doors, then turned to leave. On the way past the bed, she couldn’t help noticing the open laptop sitting next to Valentine. Since snooping ran in her family, she took a quick peek at the “masterpiece” he’d been working on for the last month.
But after reading only a few sentences, she didn’t find a riveting story that held her attention. Instead, she found one word written over and over again with no punctuation or capitals. The same four-letter cuss word he’d just said.
It took a moment for the truth to dawn. Once it did, a big smile spread across her face as she lifted her gaze to Mr. Sterling. “Well, mercy me. It seems that the great Valentine Sterling has writer’s block.” (Taming a Texas Heartbreaker copyright@Katie Lane)