“That ought to be fun.” Dotty grinned. “Lucy will have you and Tucker both saved, sanctified, and dehorned before we finish eating. Dammit! I wish she’d showed up here tonight so I didn’t have to go to early-morning Mass on Sunday.”

“Why don’t you just tell her you aren’t goin’?” Jolene asked.

“Only way she’ll come to the inn is if we go to church first, so she can ward off that devil Tucker Malone. She thinks he might seduce her.” Flossie laughed so hard that black mascara streaks rolled down her cheeks.

Jolene laughed with her as she handed her a fistful of napkins to wipe her tears away. “I can’t believe you said that.”

“Well, it’s the truth.” Flossie dabbed at her cheeks. “I’m leaving on that note. They say to always leave the crowd laughin’.”

“Well, you drive careful, and I’ll have the table set when you arrive,” Jolene said.

Flossie put on her coat and waved. “It’s been fun. See y’all Sunday.”

A lady staggered up to the bar. Her jet-black hair was styled even higher than Dotty’s, and what was left of her lipstick had settled into the wrinkles around her mouth. “Give me two Jack and Cokes, and would you please bring them to the table? See that stud over there? He’s goin’ to dance with me and take me home.” She slurred every word. “And then the real party starts.”

Jolene poured a couple of drinks and whispered to Dotty, “Should we take her keys and call someone to take her home?”

“No, she didn’t drive here. She came with a friend and she’ll leave with that man.” Dotty nodded toward the gray-haired cowboy at the table with the woman. “This happens about once a month. Same friend, but a different guy takes her home every time.”

“I wonder if she’s got a daughter at home waiting for her,” Jolene whispered.

“Reminding you of your mother?” Dotty asked.

Jolene nodded and headed down the bar to wait on another customer. She’d never followed her mother to a bar, because she had to work every night. And her mother had never dyed her hair black or worn it styled like that, but the story was the same. There had been a few times that she’d brought the same man home, but not often. When she did get involved for more than one night, it was because the man promised her the moon.

Staring between two men at the bar, she kept an eye on the woman. Jolene had been working a bar not so very different from the Gator for ten years, and she’d seen lots of women make complete fools out of themselves. So why did the memories of her mother surface that night? Maybe it was being back in the area where her mama was born. Or perhaps it was because Jolene needed to get closure.

Dotty touched her on the shoulder. “You okay, kiddo?”

“Fine, just old memories came haunting me,” Jolene admitted.

“It happens.” Dotty gave her another pat and went back to her end of the bar.

Tucker brought the picture of Melanie in from the trailer and set it on his bedside table. The antique lamp didn’t throw enough light to use for reading, but it lit the framed photograph up very well. He stared at it, remembering the day that it had been taken. They’d met at a Fourth of July party given by mutual friends, and the picture had been taken the next year when he proposed to her in that same spot. His eyes grew heavy, and finally he fell asleep, but she didn’t sneak into his dreams.

At three o’clock he sat straight up in bed, every nerve on high alert. Someone was in the trailer—no, the house. He was in his bedroom at the Magnolia Inn, not in the trailer. He eased off the bed, slipped into his jeans, and removed his pistol from the drawer of the nightstand. Holding it to his side, he opened his bedroom door just enough to peek out. A shadow moved toward the center of the foyer. He brought the gun up, and a flash of light almost blinded him.

“What the hell?” he said.

Jolene whipped around. “Sorry I woke you. I tried to be quiet.”

He slung the door all the way open. “I can’t make the same promise when I come home late, but I’ll do my best. How’d the first night at work go?”

“Busy. Made two hundred in tips. That’ll pay the electric bill and put some food in the pantry.” She sat down on a chair at the end of the foyer table and pulled off her boots. “I’m hungry. You want some cereal? There’s the chocolate kind and the fruity one.”

“Sure,” he said. “Give me a minute.”

“To put the gun away or get a shirt on?” she asked.

“I can go as I am,” he offered.

“I might spill the milk.” She headed toward the kitchen in mismatched socks.

“Why?” he asked.

She turned around and shrugged. “I don’t pour too hot with a gun pointed at me or if I get distracted by a man’s sexy chest, so you’d do well to put on a shirt and get rid of the gun.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

The gun went back in the drawer, and he jerked his shirt over his head. She was setting out boxes of cereal on the table when he made it to the kitchen. A memory of Melanie in the kitchen flashed through his mind. He’d loved that woman with all his heart, but the kitchen had looked like a war zone after she cooked. And the high-pitched squeal of the smoke alarm always meant that dinner must be close to ready.

He got the milk from the refrigerator. “Don’t suppose you want coffee just before bed, do you?”

She shook her head. “No, but as tired as I am, it probably wouldn’t keep me from sleeping.”

They ate in silence for the most part. She frowned a lot and cocked her head from one side to the other several times before she shook it in disagreement with whatever voices were in her head. It kind of reminded him of when Sassy needed to be treated for ear mites.

“Are you about to have a seizure or something?” he asked.

“No, there was a woman at the bar who . . .” She paused.

“Who what?” he asked.

“Mama,” she said. “She reminded me of my mother. Not in looks, but in actions. I tried to close that chapter in my life a long time ago, but it keeps risin’ to the surface.”

“Want to talk about it?” Tucker understood exactly what she was talking about.

Jolene was quiet for so long that he figured she didn’t want to say anything, but then she began to talk. “She was on a guilt trip from the time my daddy died. He probably had the heart attack because he was stressed out, working two jobs to keep her in her fancy jeans and a new car every year. And even that wasn’t enough. His insurance policy paid off the credit cards, but she lost the car and the house. We moved into a trailer and she went to work at a grocery store there in town. Her guilt sent her into a vicious merry-go-round of drugs, alcohol, and men.”

She refilled her glass and went on, “I love milk. We didn’t always have it in the house those last couple of years, but Mama had her pills. When the doctor quit giving them to her, then she got them from the street. Every Saturday night she’d go out. Before she left, she’d get all dressed up and take two or three pills. That woman tonight reminded me of all that. I hated to see her like that. She’d always been . . .”

Just thinking that he’d been looking forward to hitting the bar the next night filled Tucker with his own share of guilt. He shouldn’t put her through all that again—not even if they were just partners. She was a good woman, and she damn sure deserved better.

“How long was it until you lost her?”

“Four years after Daddy died. But truth is I lost her when the doctor gave her that first bottle of pills to help her get through the funeral. She’d always liked her liquor and usually started on cocktails long before five o’clock. Mix those with enough pain pills and—” Jolene’s shoulder rose. “I thought when I got a job as a waitress after school every day that things would be better.”

Something pinched his heart and tightened his chest. On Saturday nights when he often drank too much, he was looking for a way to make things better, to forget. And yet he hung on to every memory that he and Melanie had shared.

She went on, “The only thing that changed when I went to work was that Mama said she’d pay the bills with her paycheck, and I was responsible for bringing home the food.”

Jolene should have been enjoying her senior year of school, Tucker thought. Pep rallies. Time with her friends and a boyfriend who’d be her first love. Not working for grocery money. Jolene deserved a good life just to pay for what all she’d been through.

“Did you hold up your end of the deal?” He wanted to move closer to her, wrap her up in his arms and hug her, but he couldn’t make himself do that. It led to other things, and he’d vowed to love Melanie to death—that meant his as well as hers.

She picked up the dirty bowls and carried them to the dishwasher. “Didn’t have much choice. Pretty soon I was doing double shifts on Friday and Saturday nights and paying the utility bills, too. Her paycheck was going for pills, booze, and lottery tickets.”

“Why’d you stay?” Tucker asked.

“She was my mama, and I had a roof over my head even if I didn’t have friends or any time to call my own. I got homework done in the kitchen at the café between customers. I don’t know why it’s all coming back so strong now. But I hated for her to go out, because it meant there’d probably be a strange man in the house the next morning. And he’d be eating up the groceries I’d brought in for us.” Jolene rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “I’m sorry, Tucker. You didn’t need to hear all that in the middle of the night.”

“What’s said in the Magnolia Inn stays in the Magnolia Inn, just like what they say about Vegas.” He laid a hand on her arm and wished he could do more to take away some of the pain.

“Thank you. You’d never guess who showed up at the bar and stayed until midnight.” She dropped her hands to her lap.