Date Published: Dec 2012
Henhouse Rule #1: Always give a man the kind of welcome he won’t forget.
Branston William Cates was lost.
He had been traveling the same dirt road for a solid hour and had yet to see any signs of civilization. Just miles of mesquite and sagebrush, the occasional lizard that streaked in front of his half-ton pickup, and the large black vulture that had been circling overhead since he’d entered west Texas.
Who in their right mind would want to live here? Of course, who in their right mind would take off on a road trip when there was plenty of work to be done back at his office in Dogwood? Time was money, and five hours spent on a highway a foolish waste of both. There was just one thing that trumped the almighty dollar in Brant’s book, and the only reason he was driving on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
He glanced down at the navigational system, but it seemed to be as lost as he was. The green arrow sat in the middle of an empty screen inching toward nothing. Patience not exactly his strong suit, Brant had just decided to turn around when a house took shape on the flat horizon. It grew larger and larger until it became a huge monstrosity of a building with two stories and a red, steeply pitched roof that, with its missing shingles, resembled a checkerboard on the tablecloth of the bright blue sky.
As he got closer to the house, he realized that the roof wasn’t the only thing that needed repair. White paint bubbled and peeled on the siding. Half the shutters hung by only one hinge. And the front porch drooped worse than his grandmother’s gardening hat.
To the left of the house sat a faded red barn, bookended by two gnarled-trunked cottonwoods. Another cottonwood shaded the front yard—a yard filled with waist-high weeds and a large wooden sign.
Trespassers Will Be Prostituted.
Brant had never been much of a smiler. His daddy claimed he came out of the womb frowning, and Doc Connelly got a real kick out of confirming the fact. But as Brant stared at the sign with the faded green letters, the corners of his mouth curved up—briefly.
So this was Miss Hattie’s Henhouse, the infamous Texas bordello that had brought politicians to their knees and outlaws to their deaths. It seemed inconceivable. Brant hadn’t expected to find the grand mansion he’d read about, but he certainly hadn’t expected to find a pile of sticks that looked as if a stiff wind would topple it like a house of cards.
He was surprised by the disappointment that settled deep inside him. He had never been a dreamer. He preferred to deal with hard, cold facts. But the legends and stories about Miss Hattie’s had seeped into his subconscious, filling his mind with images of the legendary whorehouse and the ladies who worked there. Ladies with names like Sassy Kate, Sweet Starlet, Daring Delilah, and the pièce de résistance, Hattie Ladue—the larger than life madam who had started the house of ill repute over a hundred years earlier.
It was Miss Hattie who had occupied most of Brant’s thoughts in the last month. Miss Hattie who had spawned sensual dreams that had him waking up in a sweaty state of arousal. Maybe that was why he felt so disappointed. The dreams had replaced the nightmares that had plagued him since the tornado. If the dreams stopped, there would be no reprieve from the memories that lurked in the corner of his mind waiting to consume him when he least expected it.
He drove up a deeply rutted road and parked in what was left of a brick, circular drive. After the humidity of east Texas, the late September air felt hot and dry. He tugged his cowboy hat lower as he got out of the truck, then maneuvered through the weeds that almost obscured the pathway.
A flash of black pulled his attention up to the sky. The vulture still circled directly overhead, its long-feathered wings spread wide, its beady eyes searching for death. Some would take it as a bad omen. But Brant didn’t believe in omens, just curses and revenge.
“You here on business or pleasure?” A raspy, feminine voice stopped him in his tracks.
His gaze narrowed in on the shadowy form in one corner of the porch. After seeing the condition of the house, he had assumed that Miss Hattie’s was vacant, so it took him a moment to get over his surprise and pull off his hat.
“Is there a difference?”
A husky cackle was followed by a soft hum as a battery-operated wheelchair rolled out of the shadows. Brant had learned the importance of a poker face a long time ago, but it took real effort to keep his shock in check. The pictures in the history books of a blond temptress were nothing like the nightmarish creature who squinted back at him. A huge magenta wig surrounded a face with more makeup than a circus performer. If the wig and makeup weren’t scary enough, the scanty negligee was downright terrifying. Or maybe it was the bits of wrinkled skin displayed.
Or possibly the gun that was pointed at Brant’s heart.
“I’ve always liked my men with a smart mouth,” the old woman said. The lit cigarette that was stuck to her upper lip waggled with each word. “You lost, honey?”
Brant kept his gaze locked on the bony hand that shook more than a leaf in a hailstorm. “I guess that would depend on whether or not this is Miss Hattie’s?”
Her eyes narrowed. “And who wants to know?”
Given the events of the last few months, he figured his name wasn’t exactly on the list of most beloved men in west Texas. Still, Brant wasn’t one to hide behind an alias. He was who he was and rarely regretted a decision.
The woman started to cough, not a delicate cough covered with a hand, but a deep, chesty cough that sent the cigarette flying into the weeds and shook her entire frail body—including the hand that held the gun. Brant barely had time to duck before a bullet whizzed over his head. The next one didn’t miss. A blaze of fire streaked across his arm, causing him to drop his hat and grab the wound just below his shoulder.
It was funny. As much as he wouldn’t have minded dying in the last couple years, now that he had the opportunity, some unknown will to live kicked in. He took the steps in one leap and pulled the gun from the woman’s hand.
It wasn’t difficult. Her coughing had stopped, and she stared at the blood that seeped through his fingers. She took the sight better than Brant did. He could stare down the fiercest business competitors and three headstrong little brothers, but blood had always made him a little lightheaded. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and he reached out and steadied himself on one of the porch posts.
“Minnie!” A woman’s voice filtered out of the screen door only seconds before it was shoved open by a petite bleach-blonde who could’ve won a Marilyn Monroe lookalike contest if not for the wrinkled skin and glasses so thick her eyes looked like they were staring through a goldfish bowl. When she saw Brant, she stumbled to a stop, her high-heeled shoes clicking against the cement of the porch.
“Goodness, Minnie,” she said in a breathy, Monroe voice. “You didn’t tell me we had company.” She jerked off her glasses and batted her long, fake eyelashes.
“For the love of Pete, Baby,” Minnie said, “we don’t have time for your shenanigans.” She waved a crooked red nail at Brant. “Can’t you see that the man is bleedin’?”
Baby placed her glasses back on and sucked in a breath. “Oh no, Minnie, not again. Last time you shot someone we got in loads of trouble with Sheriff Hicks.”
Last time? Brant had just started to process this new piece of information when the front door opened and a tall, slender woman stepped out on the porch.
She was as old as the other two, but not as blatantly painted or dressed. This woman wore no makeup and looked like a throwback from the sixties in her bell bottom jeans, floral blouse, and leather sandals. Her hair was long and gray and held back with a chain of dandelions that she took off, then walked over and placed on Brant’s head.
A wistful smile slipped over her face. “Can I have him, Minnie? After all, you got the last one.”
“Jesus, Sunshine,” Minnie huffed, “that was over thirty years ago.”
Sunshine looked confused for only a second, and then she laughed. “Oh, Minnie, you’re such a tease.”
“For the love of Pete, will you two quit fawning over him and get him a chair before he passes out.” Minnie pressed her fingertips to her temples. “I need to think.”
“I’m not going to pass out,” Brant said. “All I need is a towel and the cell phone from my truck so I can call the sheriff.” He wasn’t planning on pressing charges, but he did think the sheriff needed to confiscate any guns Minnie might still have. Next time the crazy old broad could very easily blow a hole in herself.
“But you can’t do that,” Baby said. “We can’t have the sheriff coming out here. Not when we’re just getting the business started back—”
“Of course we need to call the sheriff,” Minnie cut Baby off. “But first we need to get Branston’s wound cleaned up. Sunshine, go get the stuff Doc Mathers gave us when you cut your finger. And Baby, why don’t you make us a drink? I’ll take a double, and fix our guest here a Wild Rooster.”
If possible, Baby’s eyes got even bigger. “A Wild Rooster?”
Minnie’s eyes hardened. “You heard me. After being shot, I think that’s exactly what a man needs.”
“I-if you say so, Minnie.”
Baby hurried back inside with a staccato click of heels while Sunshine offered him one more airy smile before she followed. When they were gone, Brant walked over and sat down in one of the wicker chairs.
Why he had stopped by the house on the way to his brother’s wedding was beyond him. He should’ve known that he wouldn’t find any answers here. Of course, if he were truthful with himself, he would admit that his desire to stop by Miss Hattie’s didn’t have as much to do with his family’s history as it did with the vivid dreams he’d been having. Dreams of sultry eyes that held a promise no man could refuse.
But Miss Hattie was long gone. The only thing left was a dilapidated mansion and a bunch of crazy old ladies. Which Minnie only confirmed when she rolled over to him, hooked her long nails into the hole that she’d blasted into his shirt, and almost ripped his sleeve in two.
She leaned closer. “Well, I think you’ll live. I have bunions that are bigger than that.”
Brant examined the wound and had to agree. Despite the blood, the gash was no more than a couple inches long and not very deep. Although the loony old gal had ruined his favorite tailored shirt.
“You should consider yourself lucky.” She sat back in the wheelchair and took a long drag of her cigarette, then released the smoke through her mouth and nose.
“Luck isn’t something I count on,” Brant said.
Minnie studied him through the smoke. “Then I guess we’re two peas in a pod because I don’t put much store in it, either.”
Baby came hustling back out with two glasses of amber liquid that sloshed over the rims and onto the porch. She gave one to Minnie and then offered one to him. He went to take it and realized he still held the gun. Being a bit of an antique buff, Brant had no problems recognizing it. It was a Remington derringer, more than likely made in the late eighteen hundreds. Since the gun only had twin barrels and both shots had been used on him, he felt comfortable setting it on the table before accepting the drink.
“Bottoms up,” Minnie said. She downed her drink in one gulp.
Brant took his time. A Wild Rooster turned out to be nothing more than an expensive brandy that slid easily down his throat and took the tension from his shoulders and the sting from his arm. While he sipped the drink, Baby stood over him looking anxious. Figuring it had to do with him calling the sheriff, he started to tell her that he had no intention of pressing charges when Sunshine came back out with an armload of bottles, tape, and bandages. For being a little loopy, she seemed to know a lot about first aid. While she expertly cleaned his wound and bandaged it, he set the empty glass down and got to the point of his visit.
“Have you ever heard of a man named William Cates?”
Minnie lifted one penciled-in eyebrow. “Name sounds familiar. Who is he?”
After Sunshine secured the last piece of tape, Brant leaned forward. “My great-grandfather. Supposedly he was shot here.”
Baby sucked in her breath. “You shot his grandfather, Minnie?”
Minnie held up her hands, the cigarette dangling from her lip. “Don’t look at me. I’ve only shot three men in my life—that sneaky bastard who took off with our best silver, that writer who stole our stories and never gave us a cent, and Branston here.” She looked at Brant. “When did this shootin’ take place?”
She snorted. “Lots of folks got shot back then—thus the name the Wild West.” She took another drag of her cigarette. “Is that what you’re doing here? Searching for a bit of family history?” Her eyes narrowed. “Or is it revenge that you’re after?”
The woman was perceptive. He’d give her that. Brant wanted revenge. He wanted someone or something to blame for the death that followed him like the vulture that still circled the sky. Except looking at the three old women, he realized that he wouldn’t find it here.
And maybe he wouldn’t find it at all. But that didn’t mean he would stop trying. Looking for answers about the Cates Curse was the only thing that kept him from insanity.
That and his family.
The thought of his family reminded him about his brother’s wedding. He started to get to his feet, but a wave of dizziness had him falling back in the chair.
“Feelin’ a little light-headed, are you, honey?” Minnie asked. At least, he thought it was Minnie. He was having trouble focusing. In fact, everything suddenly seemed a little fuzzy and surreal.
A hand slipped over his pectoral muscle. “So are we going to keep him, Minnie?”
Keep him? Brant pushed himself up from the chair. The ground rocked more than the deck of the fishing boat he and his brothers had rented earlier that summer.
There was a husky chuckle. “It looks like it, Sunshine. Now quit mauling him and help Baby get him upstairs.”
Brant started to say that he wasn’t staying, but his mouth wouldn’t form the words. He took a step forward and stumbled. Two arms slipped around his waist and steadied him before he was guided through the front door. From that point on, everything became a jumbled blur. A ride in an elevator. A long hallway. A soft bed with slick sheets that smelled of lilacs.
When he hit the bed, he rolled to his back and tried to focus. A woman appeared. A woman with amber eyes and piles of wavy blond hair. She floated above him, the hint of a smile on her lips.
Brant recognized her immediately, and his eyes closed.
“We shouldn’t have drugged him,” Baby whispered as she leaned closer and studied the man, who was out cold. “I bet he wouldn’t have pressed charges if we had asked real nice.”
“We couldn’t chance it,” Minnie said. “Besides, this man ain’t just here for information. He’s after something. I just haven’t figured out what yet.”
Sunshine reached out and smoothed the dark strands of hair from his forehead. “Maybe he’s like everyone else and just wants a little love.”
“He doesn’t look like he wants love to me,” Baby said. “He looks mean. And I bet he’s going to be real mad when he wakes up.”
Minnie chuckled and took a puff of her cigarette. “Now, I doubt that, Baby. There isn’t a man alive who walks out of Miss Hattie’s without a smile on his face.”