“Happy New Year’s,” a bunch of kids yelled at him.

“Not until after midnight, and I bet you got whatever is in that brown bag with a fake ID,” Tucker grumbled.

An older man, wearing a well-worn cap with Army emblazoned on it, held the door for him as he started into the store. Tucker nodded. “Thank you, sir, and thank you for your service.”

“Been a long time since anyone called me sir,” the old guy said, hoisting his brown paper bag. “May the new year bring you happiness.”

“That would require a miracle, but same to you, sir.” The veteran couldn’t know that happiness hadn’t been in Tucker’s world in a very long time.

“Amen to that.” The man disappeared into the darkness.

Tucker picked up a six-pack of beer and a small bottle of whiskey. Tomorrow was a holiday. That meant no one would be purchasing liquor that day, and he damn sure didn’t want to run out. The lady behind the counter tallied up the price. He wasn’t surprised that she didn’t ask for his ID. With the crow’s-feet around his blue eyes, he looked every bit of his thirty-seven years and felt twenty years older. Tucker stuck his credit card into the chip reader and waited for the beep telling him to remove it. The gold wedding band on his left hand caught his eye as he put the card back in his wallet. If Melanie were still with him, they’d be celebrating the coming of a new year in a totally different way.

“Happy New Year.” The lady looked over his shoulder to the next customer.

“You, too.” He picked up his purchases and carried them to his truck. He was tempted to get out a beer right then and drink it warm. But drinking while driving was what had gotten him thrown off the Dallas police force. The very next day he’d visited Melanie’s graveside and given her his word that he’d never do such a stupid thing again.

He caught the highway headed north and had only a couple of bouts of road rage on the way to the RV park that he’d called home for almost two years. He eased his truck into the narrow space between his trailer and the one next to it. Getting out without hitting the side of his neighbor’s trailer took a stone-cold-sober man. Maybe Melanie was watching out from her place in heaven for that, too.

He set his beer and whiskey on the concrete slab that served as a porch and unlocked the door. Sassy, his big, fluffy white cat, darted out from under the trailer and beat him inside.

“Hello, honey, I’m home.” He set his packages on the cabinet and picked up a picture from the top of the television. “How was your day?” He kissed Melanie’s face and put it back. “I worked late so the job would be finished and I wouldn’t feel guilty about taking tomorrow off.”

Sassy hopped up on the cabinet and gave him a dirty look while he removed his paint-stained coveralls and tossed them out of the way.

“Okay, you.” He shifted his focus to the cat. “I’m sorry I’m late. Your fancy food is comin’ right up.” He washed and dried a floral china saucer before he dumped a can of food onto it. “I’m sure there’s a mouse or two up under this trailer that you could have nibbled on while you waited for me to get home.”

She meowed in disagreement.

“Melanie spoiled you. Now you only eat off your own bone china, and you wouldn’t get your paws dirty on a mouse.” He put the food on the cabinet, and she started eating.

“Now my turn.” He got out a package of bologna and made himself a sandwich. He didn’t bother with a plate but carried it to the sofa, laid it on the end table, and took off his work boots. He picked up the remote control, found an old western movie, and then wolfed down the sandwich.

Sassy finished her food and hopped up on the sofa arm.

“Don’t look at me like that. I only drink on weekends and holidays to fix the loneliness. I’m not an alcoholic.”

She stuck her nose in the air, hopped from the sofa to the floor, and with her fluffy tail held high, headed toward the bedroom.

Four beers later and sometime around midnight, he blew Melanie’s picture a kiss. “Happy New Year’s, darlin’. I miss you so much.” Then he fell into an exhausted sleep and didn’t even wake up when the park residents set off fireworks.

Chapter Two

If looks could kill, there would have been nothing left of Reuben but a big greasy spot and a pile of bones on the tile floor of the IHOP restaurant. Jolene had hoped that age had changed him into a decent person, but that idea was shattered soon after she’d walked into the restaurant. He still had that eager grin he’d worn as a child just before he bullied her.

A child jackass only grew into a bigger one. But how could he not see the value in her plan, and why had he let her go through the whole spiel before he said no? Did he attach sentimental value to nothing?

Aunt Sugar had told her repeatedly that there was good in every evil person and a little evil in every good person. Jolene glared at Reuben sitting there with a smug look on his face and tried to find a tiny little bit of good. The only thing she could come up with was that he had finished college and held down a job.

“Why won’t you invest in this? How can you just throw away what Uncle Jasper entrusted you with?” she asked.

He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses and squared up his scrawny shoulders. “You’ll turn out like your low-class mama. When the going gets tough, you’ll turn to drugs and alcohol. And I’m not partnerin’ up with you.”

“But I’m—”

He held up a hand to stop her. “I never did like you, Jolene.”

“What’s that got to do with anything? You were the bully. That doesn’t mean we can’t be business partners,” she said.

“I never intended to keep my half of the inn. Not from the minute Uncle Jasper called me. He always favored you over me, and I’m his blood kin. I only agreed to listen to your stupid plan as payback for all the trouble you got me into when we were kids. Aunt Sugar spoiled you, and Uncle Jasper took up for you every time we argued.”

“You got yourself in trouble by picking on me, and Uncle Jasper is the fairest man ever, so don’t blame him,” she said.

Reuben’s torment of her had gone from simply pulling her hair to breaking Aunt Sugar’s dishes and blaming it on her—and even uglier things. She remembered an incident when they were twelve and thirteen. He’d backed her up into the utility room, put a hand on her throat, and run his hand up under her skirt. He’d told her if she ever told on him, he’d catch her down by the bayou and drown her. But she’d told Aunt Sugar, and that was the last time they’d visited the inn at the same time.

“You remember it your way. I remember it mine. At least we won’t be partners in this crazy venture, so we’ll never have to see each other again.” Reuben’s smile radiated meanness.

That’s when Jolene’s touch of evil surfaced—she would have loved to strangle him right there in the IHOP or else throw him in the bayou behind the inn. How did this despicable little rat-faced son of a bitch share DNA with her kind, softhearted uncle Jasper?

Reuben leaned forward and hissed, “Sell your half or live with it. I’m not going into debt for a loan to fix up that old trash heap. I hated the time my folks made me spend there in the summer. I hate fishing, I hate mosquitoes, and most of all, I hated being bored out there in the country. Give me the city and the sounds of civilization rather than owls hooting and tree frogs makin’ noise. I contacted a Realtor the minute I signed the papers, and I pity the fool who has to work with you.” He tilted his chin up and looked down his nose at her. “But don’t worry. You’ve got a place to live until some fool comes along with enough money to buy me out.”

“You’ll regret this someday,” she said.

He slid out of the booth, getting in one last dig before he strutted out of the restaurant. “No, I won’t. Goodbye, Jolene. When my half sells, I’m taking my department on a cruise over spring break. I’m glad that I never have to see Magnolia Inn or talk to you again.”

She shot another drop-dead look toward him. If it had penetrated that ugly black overcoat, he would have been sprawled out right there in front of the cash register. She hoped that he’d get such a case of motion sickness that he couldn’t eat a single bite of food the whole time he was on the ship or, better yet, that he’d fall overboard and not one of his precious friends would miss him. She was glad that they weren’t blood kin, but she wondered how Uncle Jasper would feel when he learned that Reuben had thrown away his half of the Magnolia Inn.

When she left, she wished the restaurant doors would slam like the screen door on the back of the Magnolia, but they didn’t even make a squeak. She stomped across the parking lot to her truck, but her athletic shoes didn’t make a sound, either. So she slammed the truck door and slapped the steering wheel hard.

Her stomach growled—she always got hungry when she was angry, but she and Reuben had met only for coffee. Thank goodness they hadn’t ordered food, because he’d left her with the check as it was. A bowl of leftover beans and a chunk of corn bread back at the inn would have to do for her lunch.

“Happy New Year to me,” she grumbled. “I’ve got a bed-and-breakfast that has barely broke even for the past year because it needs remodeling. I can’t get a loan with no credit in my background, and Reuben is a jackass.”

She started the truck, and the engine purred like a kitten. She kept it maintained even if it did look like crap. It got her from point A to point B with dependability, and that’s all that mattered right then. Maybe the Magnolia would be turning a profit in a couple of years, and that money could replace the old truck.

With the dozen or more bed-and-breakfasts in Jefferson, she’d have to really bill the Magnolia as quaint and quiet since it was five miles out of town. Dozens of catchy phrases came to mind for advertisements, but that took money, and right now, Jolene was so close to broke that she had to pinch every penny twice.

When Aunt Sugar had called to tell her she was going to have half of the inn, Jolene had been so excited that she could hardly sit still. She’d given her notice at the Twisted Rope, the bar she’d worked in since she’d turned twenty-one. Now she had less than a hundred dollars in her checking account, and Aunt Sugar had left enough food in the house to last only two weeks.