“Tucker’s signing the papers, and I’m not even ready to see Reuben walk down the sidewalk. So, with a free half an hour, I thought I’d check in to see if you’ve got the tax forms ready for me to sign,” she said.

Dotty pulled a couple of sheets from under the bar. “Got them right here. Take about two minutes to fill out, and then we’re good to go. We’ll be busy tonight. You know, if I’d had a dozen girls with your looks and pretty eyes, I could’ve gone into the escort business and retired ten years ago.”

Jolene cracked up. “Yeah, right. Aunt Sugar would have sent you away to a convent if you’d even let the idea float through your mind.”

“Ain’t it the truth? I’m glad you’re goin’ to help me tonight so I don’t have to wear my little short legs out runnin’ up and down this bar,” Dotty laughed with her.

“So we’re going to be really busy, huh?” Jolene filled out the papers and gave them back.

“Oh, honey.” Dotty smiled. “To start with it’s the first weekend of the month. And then folks have had all the family stuff they can stand from the holidays. Everyone is ready to get out and kick up their heels a little. I don’t mind busy. I just hope we have happy drunks and not mean ones.”

“The happy ones tip better, so I’m with you. I should be going. Just wanted to stop by and check in with you,” Jolene said.

“So how’s the work coming along out at the inn?” Dotty asked before Jolene could slide off the barstool.

“Great, but it looks like crap. We’ve got the furniture stacked up in the hallway. The carpet is torn out, and we’re going to the lumberyard in a little while to get stuff to start building walls for a bathroom and closet.” Jolene started toward the door. “You should come out and see it before and after.”

“I’ll be there Sunday, remember.” Dotty put the paperwork away and hopped up to sit on the counter. “You are welcome here at the Gator anytime. You don’t have to wait until the nights that you’re scheduled to work to stop by here. It gets kind of lonely sometimes during the days. That’s why I spend time at the antique shops with Flossie and Lucy pretty often. If I’m not here, you can find me there.”

“Thank you, and the same goes for you coming out to the inn. See you later.” Jolene waved over her shoulder as she left.

She got into her truck and listened to the local country music station as she drove to town. She kept the engine running when she parked in front of the lawyer’s office. Expecting Tucker to slide into the passenger seat, she was surprised to see Flossie.

Jolene turned the radio off. “Well, good mornin’.”

“Tucker is in there right now finalizin’ the deal,” Flossie said. “I been watchin’ from the window of my shop. Reuben got here first. I thought you might wait in the shop. Where’d you go?”

“Down to fill out tax papers and talk to Dotty about bar stuff. Tonight is my first night. I don’t expect it’ll be much different than the Twisted Rope,” Jolene answered.

“I owe you an apology,” Flossie said.

“About what?”

“I should’ve bought half of the Magnolia Inn. I put in a bid, but I was too late. Belinda had already given Tucker twenty-four hours to make up his mind. I should’ve upped his bid by a few thousand. If I hadn’t been so stubborn, we could be partners and my money would be invested in something pretty nice,” Flossie sighed.

Jolene was pretty sure that if Flossie had purchased half the property, she’d still be working with Tucker, since he was the best carpenter in the area, so there didn’t seem to be much difference in the situation.

Flossie went on, “I never did like Reuben. He was rude to Sugar more times than I can count on my fingers and toes. And then for him to sell out as soon as the papers were signed last week made me furious. Not that I wanted you to have to deal with him every day. Hell, no! But I didn’t want him to make a penny more on the sale than Tucker offered.”

Jolene reached across the console and patted Flossie on the shoulder. “No hard feelin’s here. Who would you have hired to do the remodeling?”

“Tucker, if I could get him. He’s the best,” Flossie answered.

“So I’d still deal with him every day. It is what it is, Flossie. Don’t punish yourself.” Jolene smiled.

Flossie laid a hand on Jolene’s arm and squeezed it gently. “You’re so much like Sugar that you should’ve been her daughter instead of her niece. Got to go now. There’s a customer goin’ into the store, and I’m runnin’ it alone today.”

“Why?” Jolene asked.

“Janie, my part-time help, has that stomach bug that’s goin’ around. She’ll be back tomorrow,” Flossie replied as she got out of the truck.

Tucker was behind her before Flossie could slam the door. “It’s not often that a pretty lady opens the door for a ragged old cowboy like me, so I thank you for making my day.”

Flossie flashed a bright smile toward him. “You are definitely a charmer. Jolene would do well to keep a close eye on you. We’ll be out to check on things Sunday afternoon. We’ll bring dinner for everyone with us and be there after church.”

“Thank you. We’ll look forward to it,” Jolene said.

Flossie darted across the street.

Tucker crawled into the passenger seat and fastened his seat belt. “I guess that means I have to get over my hangover by noon on Sunday?”

“Yes, it does. And . . . like I said before, I won’t abide drunks.”

“Reason?” he asked.

“Mother and boyfriend, and we’ll leave it at that,” she said.

“I’ve never asked for help with my problem, and it won’t affect you.”

“See that it doesn’t,” she said.

She wanted to know what had happened in Dixie Realty, but after that little exchange, she kept her mouth shut.

The detective in Tucker wanted to ask more questions about her life with an addicted mother, but if she wanted to talk about her past, she would. He’d listen when and if she ever did. If not, then that was her business—just like drinking was his. Saturday night had been his and Melanie’s date night, and he’d always worked at making it special. He still had all the memories of those wonderful dates. She deserved that much and more for putting up with him and his demanding job. Drinking didn’t always erase the memories, but it did soften the edges and the pain of her being gone.

“Did you have a long wait?” he asked when the silence became uncomfortable.

“What?” She frowned.

“At the lawyer’s office. You said you had an errand to run. I’m asking if you had a long wait for me to finish up.”

She shook her head. “Sorry. My mind was miles away. No, I was only there a couple of minutes, and Flossie kept me company.”

“You don’t have to go with me. Drop me off at the inn and I’ll go on in my truck.” After seeing Reuben, he wanted to wrap Jolene up in his arms and tell her that he’d protect her.

Are you stupid? Jolene has been taking care of herself for years. She doesn’t need your protection. She needs your support and friendship. Melanie’s voice was loud and clear in his head.

“Partnership,” he muttered.

“What was that?” Jolene asked.

“Nothing. I was just thinking of my first partner,” he answered.

“Are you ashamed to be seen with a woman driving you?” she asked.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” he admitted. “My first partner on the force drove me crazy. She wouldn’t use the cruise control and she talked nonstop, using her hands to tell a story—both of them, most of the time, and driving with her knee. My next partner and I made a deal—if he’d let me drive, I’d pay for our first cup of coffee every morning. I’d as soon be behind the wheel as sitting in the passenger seat.”

She pulled off on the side of the road. “Then you drive.”

“Are you serious?”

“We’re partners, aren’t we? So you’re afraid of spiders, and you like to drive. I hate mice with a passion, a rat will send me into cardiac arrest, and I enjoy sitting in the passenger seat. It’s no big deal. Partners take care of each other,” she said.

“Sounds good to me.” Tucker got out and walked around the truck and let Jolene slide over. He adjusted the seat and pulled out onto the highway. “And I got to tell you, I got the same feeling about Reuben that you did. He was so nervous, I thought he might pass out right there. I bet he was bullied, and he did those mean things to you so he’d have some power and feel less insecure. I kind of felt sorry for him until he badmouthed you and your mother.”

Jolene nodded. “He sure knows how to ruin any sympathy, doesn’t he?”

“Oh, yeah.” Tucker pulled into the last remaining parking spot in front of the lumberyard. He would have been a gentleman and opened the door for Jolene, but she was halfway to the building before he could undo his seat belt. When he made it inside, she was nowhere to be seen.

“That cute little blonde that just asked about the bathroom fixtures with you?” Billy Joe asked. The salesman pointed toward the back of the store.

“Yep, that’s her.” Tucker nodded. “I’ve got a big list. Think y’all could make a delivery to Jefferson today? Actually, it’s pretty close to the county line, not in town.”

“Sure thing. We’ve been slow all week. What are you doin’?”

“Remodeling the old Magnolia Inn. I bought half interest,” Tucker answered.

He’d thought that he’d feel something like happiness or maybe even elation when he was the owner, but it was just another day. He wondered, as he handed the long list off to Billy Joe, what kind of emotions Jolene had that moment. Now they were bound up in this partnership until one of them got tired of it. Was she happy to have the money to bring the inn into the modern world and keep its charm at the same time? She could have said something—anything—but she hadn’t.