Tucker never would’ve figured Jolene for a bartender. Maybe an elementary school teacher or even a bank teller. She wasn’t big enough to be a bartender, for one thing, and she was way too cute. The drunks would have her in tears in minutes.

Surely she worked somewhere like the Southern Comfort, a bar at the country club over in Tyler. He could visualize her in a place like that. Melanie’s dad had a membership there, and Tucker had gone with him to that place one time after a game of golf. That night a tall redhead had been working the bar, and she’d been flirting with a man in a three-piece suit. He remembered it well because the man had taken off his wedding ring and shoved it into his pocket.

He looked down at his own ring and felt yet another wave of guilt. Every time he and Jolene were in the same room, something warmed his cold heart. He wouldn’t betray Melanie by letting another woman take her place. Melanie had always told him to remove his own ring when he was working with tools, but he just couldn’t do it. He looked down at his ring now and felt another wave of guilt.

“You sure are quiet,” Jolene said.

“Thinkin’.” He finished his milk and carried the glass to the dishwasher. “That was a crazy bunch of old ladies. One’s religious. One’s kind of fussy, and the other one owns the local bar.”

“They were Aunt Sugar’s best friends from the time she was a little girl, way back before they bought antique stores and inherited a bar.” Jolene poured two cups of coffee and handed one to him. “Dotty’s husband, Bruce, died years ago. None of the four, including Aunt Sugar, ever had children. I think that’s why they were so close, and why Aunt Sugar’s going off on this long, extended trip has left a hole in their lives. She kind of held the group together, especially after Dotty kept running the bar even after her husband died. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lucy isn’t on her religion kick from missing Aunt Sugar as much as the fact her latest boyfriend died not long ago.”

Tucker’s brow wrinkled in a frown. “She’s still dating at her age?”

“Lucy likes men”—Jolene’s shoulders raised in a shrug—“but Aunt Sugar going away can’t be easy. They are all in their late sixties, so this is a drastic life change.”

“Did your aunt live right here her whole married life?” he asked.

“Not just her married life. Her whole life—period. Her grandparents owned this property. When they passed on, they left it to her father. He’d just gotten married, and he and his wife had Aunt Sugar that next year. They opened the inn up for business right after she was born. Grandpa nicknamed her Sugar when she was a baby, and it stuck. When he died he gave this place to Sugar and the equivalent of its worth to my mother.”

Jolene’s soft, lilting voice soothed Tucker, so he kept asking questions. He wasn’t really interested so much in her past. For all he cared, she could read the Bible or even the phone book to him. “How’d your mama feel about that?”

“She never liked this place, so it didn’t bother her one bit. She and Aunt Sugar had always kept in touch even if they weren’t good friends, mainly because of me—or at least that’s what Mama said,” Jolene answered. “You ready to go back to work? I’ve got enough energy to help you get that last piece of furniture out of the room and then we can pull up the carpet.”

He put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher. “You got brothers or sisters?”

She shook her head. “Nope, and my folks are both gone. All that’s left of my family is me and Aunt Sugar. Daddy went with a heart attack when I was sixteen, and Mama . . .” She hesitated for several seconds. “Mama got addicted to pills and alcohol. She overdosed when I was twenty.” She headed out of the kitchen.

The pain in her voice mirrored what he felt when he thought about his precious Melanie. He could hear the hurt and pain in Jolene’s tone, and a fresh wave of guilt washed over him, but at least he wasn’t hurting anyone by his weekend binges.

“By blood, this place should be all yours.” Tucker followed her as they climbed the stairs.

“But by hard work and working as a fishing guide on the bayou in the lean years, Uncle Jasper should have the right to give half of it to his kin—even if I never did like Reuben and I’d still like to shoot him, it’s only fair.”

“Why didn’t you like Reuben?” Tucker picked up one end of the washstand.

“He always was arrogant, and he’s a sissy. He wouldn’t even bait his own hook when we went fishing. Besides, he pulled my ponytail every chance he got, blamed me if something got broken”—she hesitated—“and when I was twelve, he cornered me in the utility room and shoved his hand up under my skirt.”

“You didn’t kill him?” Tucker asked.

“Aunt Sugar took care of it, and we came to visit at different times from then on. Look, I think he’s insecure and angry because he can’t find his place in the world, but I still don’t like him.”

Should’ve offered him ten thousand less than I did, Tucker thought.

Chapter Six

Tucker arrived ten minutes early for the appointment that Friday, and Belinda motioned him on inside her office. She sat behind her desk with a stack of papers in front of her and nodded toward a guy who was already seated. “Tucker Malone, this is Reuben McKay. Reuben, this is Tucker. Are you both ready to get this deal finalized? Either one of you decide to back out?”

Reuben stood to his feet and stuck out his hand. “I’m ready to close this.”

“Same here.” Tucker had shaken hands with six-year-old boys who had a firmer grip.

Reuben sat back down, took off his glasses, and cleaned them with a fancy cloth he pulled out of his pocket. His eyes shifted all around the office as if he was afraid to look right at anyone. Tucker’s cop training kicked in, and he’d bet dollars to stale doughnuts that Reuben had been bullied when he was a kid. That would explain why he was so mean to Jolene—he’d been looking for someone that he could bully so he’d feel strong.

Tucker wanted to kick Reuben’s chair out from under him for being mean to Jolene. No one deserved to be bullied, but especially not Jolene. Tucker was a good judge of character, and that woman was kind, sweet, hardworking, easy to get along with, and a whole list of other accolades, including cute, kissable—

Whoa! Melanie’s my wife. Jolene’s a partner.

Belinda flipped open a folder and scanned through the pages. Tucker eased into a chair at the end of her desk where he could study Reuben to get his mind off Jolene. The man crossed his legs and kept a constant foot movement going. He was so nervous that he looked like he might bolt at any minute. Tucker had dealt with lots of men like that in interrogation, and the majority of the time, they were guilty of something—usually more than pestering a girl.

“Everything is in order,” Belinda said. “Reuben can go first. Sign beside the yellow tabs.” She shoved the set of papers over to him and turned to face Tucker. “I understand that you’ve moved your trailer out to the property, and you and Jolene have started some remodeling.”

Reuben chuckled and gave each of them a smug look.

Tucker’s hands knotted into fists. “What’s so funny?”

“Be careful of starting anything with that woman,” Reuben said.

Tucker’s hands relaxed. He leaned back in the chair and crossed an ankle over his knee. “Oh, really? Why?”

“She never has amounted to anything. Went to work in a bar soon as she was old enough, and her mama was a junkie with an alcohol problem, don’t you know?” Reuben spit out the words like they tasted nasty in his mouth. “The apple never falls far from the tree.”

It was Tucker’s turn to laugh.

Reuben stopped writing and glared at him. “That funny to you?”

“It don’t take much in the way of detective work to see what kind of tree you fell out of,” Tucker answered.

“Okay, boys”—Belinda raised her voice a little—“you can have a pissin’ contest if you want, but not in my office. You’re here to sign papers, transfer deeds and money, and then leave. After that, if you want to bloody the streets with your fightin’, then that’s your business.”

Reuben set his jaw, finished signing the papers, and shoved them across the desk to Belinda.

“Tucker, you sign where the red tabs are located while I tally up my commission so Reuben can write me a check,” she said.

Tucker hoped that she tacked on a few extra dollars for stupidity. He signed all the places and then handed her the check he’d brought—already filled out with the amount they had agreed on. He stood up and settled his cowboy hat on his head. “Am I done?”

“Yes, you are. I’ll take it all to the courthouse and file it for you. You can pick up copies of everything next week,” she answered.

Tucker turned toward Reuben. “I want to thank you for selling me your half of the Magnolia Inn. Jolene and I intend to make a booming business out of it, and I’m glad to be half owner. Maybe someday you’ll book a room with us for a weekend so you can see what you missed out on.” He flashed his brightest fake smile.

“Don’t hold your breath. I hate that place. Always did and always will. The only good thing is now I’ve got payment for all those miserable weeks my mother made me spend in that mosquito-infested swamp,” Reuben said.

“To each his own.” Tucker tipped his hat at Belinda. “Be seein’ you around.” Then he looked down at Reuben, who was still seated. “But the truth is, I imagine Jolene will be glad not to see you around, after the way you treated her when she was a child.”

“That was rude,” Reuben muttered as Tucker left the room.

Tucker chuckled and kept going.

Jolene poked her head in the door of the Tipsy Gator. “You busy?”

Dotty looked up and waved from behind the cash register. “Not as much as I will be tonight. What brings you out today?”