The Magnolia Inn

Chapter 9


Even though he couldn’t see Melanie’s face clearly in the dark, he held her picture to his chest. “Talk to me. I’ve got a couple of days to back out of this deal. I can always drag this trailer back to Marshall and go on with my life.”

The whiskey warmed his insides, but it didn’t do much for the outside, which continued to get colder by the minute. “Are you tellin’ me to go back to the house?” he asked. “I don’t know if I can. You’re here with me in the trailer.”

You got a choice. You can get up off your butt and go get into a warm bed or freeze to death. Her voice sounded so real that he looked over his shoulder.

He tossed back the last sip of whiskey and threw the bedspread on the sofa. It only took a minute to pack a small duffel bag with a change of clothing and his toiletries. He hoped that the two socks he’d found matched, but if they didn’t, he could always come back for more when it was light.

The house was dark when he opened the door and slipped inside. Stumbling over furniture, he tried to find the light switch, but no amount of running his hands across the walls turned one up. Finally, he decided to make his way to the kitchen, and that’s when a spiderweb hit him smack in the face. Tucker Malone would do battle with a burglar hopped up on drugs quicker than a spider, so he did some fancy footwork trying to brush it away.

It wasn’t until a string got tangled in his fingers that he realized it wasn’t a spiderweb after all. With a nervous chuckle he gave it a jerk, and presto, the foyer lit up. Glaring at the wooden thread spool hanging from the end of the string, he said, “Enjoy this, because you will be rewired to a switch by the end of next week.”

It took a moment for his eyes to focus when he looked away from the light bulb, but when he did, both of his hands went up in surrender. Jolene stood in her bedroom door with a small pistol pointed at him.

“That cord is part of the old-time feeling, and something Aunt Sugar would never change. And neither will I,” she said.

“Whoa, girl! It’s just me,” Tucker said. “I didn’t know about the light, and I thought I’d run into a spiderweb.”

She lowered the gun. “Scared of spiders, are you?”

“Terrified,” he answered and wished he could cram the words back into his mouth. Melanie was the only one who knew about his phobia.

“Well, you’d better be more afraid of me mistaking you for a burglar and shooting your sorry butt. Turn out the light before you go to bed. No need in jacking the electric bill up—unless a big, brave cowboy like you is afraid of the dark, too,” she said.

“No, ma’am, just spiders. You afraid of anything?”

“Not one thing long as I have this little friend close by.” She kissed the barrel of the pistol and disappeared back into her bedroom.

He’d checked out the whole house earlier and knew that the other bedroom on the ground floor opened right across the foyer from her room. He felt around on the wall just inside the door and breathed a sigh of relief when he found the switch. One flick of the wrist and the room was lit up. Before he did anything else, he went back to the foyer, got his bag, and pulled the string to turn out the light.

“Save on the electric bill.” Melanie had said that too many times to count. He eased the door to his room shut and scanned the place, as much for spiders as for furniture placement. Antique lamps were centered on a couple of nightstands flanking the queen-size four-poster bed. A rocking chair snugged against a pole lamp, and a dresser provided four drawers and a mirror. No closet, so his clothing would have to be stored in the dresser drawers. Not that he had that much—one drawer would hold his work clothes, and one would take care of his two pairs of Saturday-night jeans and pearl-snap shirts.

Evidently, he and Jolene would share the tiny downstairs bathroom. He shook his head. “That ain’t goin’ to work. I’ll take one of the bathrooms upstairs. Maybe the one with HIS painted on the door. That way I’ll stay out of her way, and she can stay out of mine.”

He picked up his bag, left the light on in his bedroom, and made his way up the stairs. Even if the bathroom dated back several decades, he was grateful to find a light switch right inside the door. But no shower. He groaned. “I bet the guys who got dragged in here by their wives just loved that.”

He turned off the light and went back downstairs to the little bathroom that had a shower, a wall-hung sink, and a toilet crammed into what appeared to be the original linen closet. He bumped his shoulder twice in the process of getting his shoes and clothing off. By then the water had warmed up enough that he could at least get inside the smallest shower on the planet. Thank God there was soap, because he hadn’t thought to bring his from the trailer. When he had to bend just to rinse the soap from his hair, he swore that the first thing he would do was get a decent bathroom ready upstairs—one with a nice big walk-in shower. Besides, it would be good for any handicapped folks who stayed at the inn.

“No, that won’t work,” he grumbled as he got out and reached for a towel from the stack on the back of the toilet. “Without an elevator, we can’t say that we are equipped for handicapped folks, unless I take one of the upstairs rooms and open up the one on the ground floor for that.” The gears in his mind began to churn again, and by the time he finished drying off, he’d already redesigned the rooms.

He wrapped the towel around his waist and peeked out the door to make sure Jolene wasn’t in sight before he sprinted across the foyer. When he was safely in his room, he dropped the towel and crawled in between the soft white sheets. It had been a long time since he’d slept in a queen-size bed, and it felt like it covered an acre. He tossed and turned, wishing he had a switch to turn off his mind.

He laced his hands behind his head and decided that his plans for the private bathrooms had to change. Forget the claw-foot idea. Each bathroom would have a tub with a shower above it, giving the guests a choice. The vanity could still be an antique washstand or some kind of dresser like that—maybe with a bowl-type sink. But there was no way he was going to punish guys by not offering them a shower.

Finally, he drifted off to sleep, only to dream again of that last night he and Melanie had spent in the trailer before the accident that took her life. They’d been camping out by a lake near Dallas, and she’d wanted to make a grocery run into town. In the dream he told her they could live on love, and he’d go to get food later. When he awoke with a start, he wished for the hundredth time that he’d really done that.

He touched his phone and the screen lit up—six o’clock. The smell of coffee already brewing brought him fully awake. That’s when he remembered that he’d left his bag in the bathroom and he had nothing but a towel to wear. He pushed back the covers and shivered, picked up the damp towel, draped it around his waist, and hurried to the end of the foyer where the bathroom was located. He quickly dressed in well-worn work jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and almost shouted when his socks matched.

“Good morning.” Jolene poked her head out from her bedroom as he was headed toward the kitchen. “You can have that bathroom if you want it. I’ve got my things strung out in the ladies’ room upstairs. It’s got a tub and a lot more room. There’s a basket for your dirty clothes in the utility room.”

“Thanks,” he grumbled. “I’m not much of a morning person, but I do like a cup of strong, hot coffee.”

“Me, either, so we should get along just fine,” she said.

Tucker went through the dining room and kitchen and into the utility room, where two big front-load washers and dryers were located. At least Sugar and Jasper had kept up with the best in that area. He tossed his dirty things into the empty red basket and noticed that the white one beside it was almost full.

Jolene held a cup of coffee out toward him as he entered the kitchen. “So what’s on our agenda after breakfast?”

“Let’s move the furniture out of the bedroom we measured last night—” he started.

“And tear up that old carpet?”

He took a couple of sips of the coffee. “That’s right. What’s for breakfast?”

“You said a light breakfast. I’m used to a bowl of cereal, the kid kind that’s got lots of sugar,” she answered. “When we have guests, I’ll serve them the whole big thing, but I’ll probably still just have junk. For us, though, dinner is served at noon and supper in the evening here at the inn.”

“That’s fine.”

“And we eat leftovers,” she said.

He nodded and topped off his cup with more coffee. “I don’t mind leftovers, but quittin’ time is five o’clock. I work from eight to noon, take an hour off, and quit at five. Saturdays I stop at noon, and I don’t work on Sunday.”

“I can live with that, since you’re the one with the money,” she said as she set two boxes of cereal on the table.

“So what’s your story, Jolene? Boyfriend on the side? Ex-husband?”

“You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. You first,” she answered.

“I was married. I’m not now because she died in a car accident. And that’s all the showing I’m doing right now.” He went to the refrigerator and got out the milk.

“No boyfriend at the present or ex-husband in the past, and that’s the extent of my show-and-tell, too.”

Chapter Five

Mobile, Alabama

Darlin’, why don’t you go up to the RV store and get us a pint of ice cream?” Sugar asked as soon as they were parked in a really nice RV park that evening. Ice cream worked for her and the girls in a crisis, so just maybe it would help Jasper out of his depression.

She paced from the cabinets to the tiny bathroom and back again while the phone rang four times. She was ready to weep by the fifth ring. Just when she was expecting the call to go to voice mail, Jolene answered.

“Aunt Sugar!” she practically yelled. “I’m so glad to hear from you.”

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