“There’s that bar talk comin’ out again. You used to be a fine Christian woman before you owned the Tipsy Gator,” Lucy said.

“I’m still a Christian. I believe in God and Jesus, even though I run a bar. And I go to church almost every Sunday, so don’t fuss at me.” Dotty shook her head.

“We didn’t come here to argue and fight about religion or the Gator.” Flossie picked up a cookie. “And I doubt that Ezra made it past the Pearly Gates anyway, so I don’t know why you’re all up in religion, Lucy. That old scoundrel never went to church in his life. If he went to heaven, he’d be miserable up there.”

Dotty reached for a cookie. “Flossie’s right. We didn’t come here to fight. We came to check on Jolene and tell her about the Easter Tour of Homes.”

Jolene busied herself making coffee, but not a word of what they said escaped her. “Why is Tucker a tortured soul? And I’d love to be included in the tour.”

Dotty lowered her voice. “I can still hear him upstairs. Come on over here so we can talk about him. He lost his wife, Melanie, a couple of years ago. She was from down in Marshall, but her daddy was raised here in Jefferson, so they came to church with Sugar and us.” She paused. “Anyway, she went away to college and made a teacher out of herself. She met Tucker once she went to work in Dallas. He was a cop there.”

“She was his whole life,” Lucy whispered. “Then she died in a car wreck, and bless his heart, he’s never got over it.” She clucked like an old hen gathering in her baby chickens. “I just can’t believe he bought half interest in this place. It takes a people person to operate a B&B, and from what I hear, Tucker is almost a hermit.”

“I guess we’ve all got our own emotional baggage,” Jolene said.

“Wait until he hauls his damn sorry ass home drunk and you’ve got guests in the place,” Lucy declared.

“She loves Jesus, but she still cusses a little,” Dotty said with a wicked grin.

“He’s a fantastic carpenter. He’s got money to put into the inn. And I’ll cross the drinkin’ bridge when it happens. And . . .” She glanced over at Dotty, who shrugged and winked.

“And just so y’all know.” Jolene took a deep breath. “I’ll be working at the Gator starting Friday night.”

“Lord have mercy,” Lucy groaned. “Have you talked to Sugar about this?”

“Visited with her last night and was going to tell her, but . . .” She went on to tell them how disappointed Jasper was with Reuben’s choice.

“I was afraid that would hit him hard,” Dotty said.

“Of course it did, but we’re not through talkin’ about this horrible idea of you working in a bar.” Lucy threw a hand over her forehead in a dramatic gesture and then shook a fist at Dotty. “You’re leading our sweet girl down the path of unrighteousness. Jolene, I’ll give you a job in my place of business. Full-time with benefits if you’ll quit the Gator right now.”

“I know bartending, and I can only handle part-time work with the inn, but thank you,” Jolene said and tried to change the subject. “Do I have the recipe for these cookies in Aunt Sugar’s files?”

“I’m sure you do, chère,” Dotty said. “But now let’s talk about this tour of homes. Surely Sugar mentioned it?”

“Oh, that.” Jolene was glad Dotty had changed the subject. “She always wanted to be included in it but figured the Magnolia was too far out of town.”

“It might be, but we want to add it this year,” Lucy said.

Dotty went on. “The three of us are on the Chamber of Commerce committee together for the first time. We carry the majority, and we’ve decided to vote for the Magnolia Inn to be on the tour. It would be a big thing if you could have it all spruced up by then. The chamber puts lots of advertising and promotion into the tour. Folks come for miles and miles to get a peek inside the bed-and-breakfast places. It could really help you out.”

“That’s, what, like three months from now?” Jolene asked.

“The tour itself is the Saturday before Easter, so that makes it April 20,” Flossie answered. “That’ll give you a few months to get things up and running. And if you’ll come to work for me instead of”—she shot a dirty look toward Dotty—“working as a bartender, you can choose your hours.”

“You’ll want to start booking rooms pretty soon for the summer and fall.” Dotty ignored Flossie’s comment. “The tour would be a wonderful opportunity for folks to see what you’ve done and get their reservations made. I always wanted to include the Magnolia, but I kept getting voted down since only Lucy and I were on the committee. But this year we’ve got Flossie, so we’ll see to it. Sugar will be so tickled. She always wanted to get to show it off.”

“Yes,” Tucker said from the doorway. “We’ll have it ready by then.”

Jolene felt heat rising from her neck to her cheeks. How much had he heard? She motioned to the coffeepot and then to the cookies. “Come on in and meet my friends.”

“Always ready for cookies and coffee. I’m Tucker Malone.” He stuck his hand out toward Lucy.

Her expression said that she’d rather be sticking her hand in a rattlesnake pit, but she put her frail hand in his. “You probably don’t remember us, but we remember you from when you used to come to church with your wife. I’m Lucy Rogers. I own Attic Treasures, an antique store in Jefferson.”

“Jolene told me that a couple of you ladies own antique shops. That’s wonderful.” Tucker brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “I’m right glad to make your acquaintance, ma’am. I hope to do some business with y’all as we work on this place. We’d like to keep the antique ambience but use modern things like tubs and showers to make things nice for our guests.”

From Lucy’s expression, Jolene could’ve sworn she’d rather have been shaking hands with the devil. “Well, I’ll be sure to give you a real good price on anything that you can use.”

He turned to settle his crystal-clear blue eyes on Flossie.

“I’m Flossie Simmons, and I own Mama’s Place in Jefferson. My antiques are better than Lucy’s.” She winked. “And since Jolene is like a daughter to all of us, I can beat any deal Lucy would give you.”

“And I’m Dotty Beauchamp.” Dotty’s southern accent thickened. “I’m a Louisiana girl from the other side of the Big Cypress Bayou, and I own the Tipsy Gator. I’ve seen you a few times in my bar. You always sit on the last stool in the shadows, right, chère?”

“Yes, ma’am, I sure do,” Tucker said.

Jolene was totally blown away. One minute they were ready to crucify her for letting Tucker live there, and the next they were flirting with him. Good glory! They had to be seventy or older, and he wasn’t a day over thirty-seven.

“We should let you two get back to work,” Dotty said with a broad wink toward Jolene. “And since you’re going to be out of pocket on Friday night, then Sunday afternoon will be our meetin’ time.”

They pushed their chairs back and paraded toward the foyer. Lucy stopped at the hall tree for her coat, and Tucker hurried over to help her into it. She frowned up at him and shook her finger under his nose.

“Get thee behind me, Satan. You almost got me with your slick ways, but I know the devil when I see him, and you won’t entice me with your slyness. Jolene, when you realize that you are doing wrong, you pack your bags and come live with me. I will lead you to Jesus and salvation,” Lucy declared.

Tucker chuckled as he stepped back and helped Flossie into her bright-red coat. “Thank you for the cookies.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck with all this remodeling.” Flossie gave Jolene a quick hug and whispered, “I hope you know what you’re doin’.”

“Y’all come back anytime,” Jolene said. “If you’ll give me an hour’s notice, I’ll even have the cookies made.”

Tucker picked up the last coat from the hall tree and held it out to Dotty. “It’s been a real pleasure to meet you ladies.”

Dotty nudged him on the arm. “Honey, don’t you pay any attention to Lucy. She’ll find a new boyfriend in a couple of weeks and fall off the religion wagon.”

Jolene sank down on the bottom step of the stairs and sighed when Tucker shut the door behind the ladies. One bedroom was torn up. The upstairs hallway was a mess. She’d never get even that much put back together if he changed his mind and didn’t buy half the inn.

Tucker sat down beside her and propped his forearms on his knees. “So you work in a bar?”

“Ever since I was twenty-one. Until then I did waitress work,” she answered. “How much did you hear?”

“I got there when Lucy was offering you a job to quit working in a bar,” he answered.

“Sounds like you heard most of it, then. I’ll be working at a bar on Friday and Saturday nights. I understand that you drink a little on weekends.”

He got to his feet. “I’m going to get a couple more cookies and another cup of coffee to take upstairs with me. And, honey, I drink a lot on Saturday nights.”

“Just so long as we understand each other.” Jolene stood up and headed toward the kitchen. “Right now we could take fifteen minutes off and call it a midmorning snack.”

“Got chocolate syrup?” He followed her into the kitchen.

“For the cookies, the coffee, or the milk?”

“Milk, and then I dip my cookies in it,” he answered.

The ladies had called him a tortured soul. Jolene stole glances at him as she got out the chocolate syrup. It was a shame that he’d lost his wife so suddenly. He might never get over it, but she sure wasn’t looking forward to dealing with another weekend drunk—like her mother or that last worthless boyfriend.