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Authors: Mia Kay

Soft Target (4 page)

BOOK: Soft Target
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Across town, Maggie peered over the Scrabble board at her cagey opponent.

Faye Coleman, her grandmother’s best friend, had stepped into the void created by her grandmother’s death to become Maggie’s surrogate aunt. In a house full of men, Faye had been her refuge and her final teacher, continuing the lessons Grandma had started. Now her face was lined with age and pain, and her red hair was fading to pink. Her walker sat perpendicular to her chair.

“What’s the gossip around here?” Maggie asked.

“They found Si Hiller’s teeth in Flo Downing’s room,” Faye confided.

“Si gets around.”

“At least his teeth do. How are things on the outside?”

“You aren’t in jail,” Maggie chided.

“It feels like it.”

She made a private vow to get Faye out into the sunshine and fresh air this summer. They could have lunch at the house. Maybe she could have Carl build a ramp to Orrin’s back door so Faye could hold court at the bar like she used to. The guys would love it.

“We’re planning the hospital auxiliary fund-raiser.”

“How’s it going?” Faye asked.

Maggie ignored the question and played her word. “Thirty points,” she smirked. “Beat that.”

Faye wouldn’t be distracted. The older woman took the bag and held it, stopping play as she arched an eyebrow.

“Another bachelorette auction.” Maggie rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe I’m doing it again.”

“So stop. After ten years, I think they’d let you.” Faye finally surrendered the bag.

“One more year.” Next year she’d go somewhere, maybe Hawaii. She’d always wanted to go there.

“Uh-huh, sure,” Faye muttered as she stared at the board.

The conversation faded into laughter over stories of shared friends. Faye won the first game. It was an easy feat when the house rules changed based on the letters in her tray.

As Maggie refilled their coffee, Faye stared at the daffodils. “I can’t wait until you come see me empty-handed.”

“Me too.” Maggie sighed.

Turning her back on the flowers, she shuffled the tiles. The second game was more serious. Even without Faye’s shifting rules, it was like playing chess with a master. Maggie shook her head as she totaled a word.

“You’re kicking my butt—again.”

The older woman laughed like someone half her age. “You’d be doing better if you’d quit looking at your watch. Am I keeping you from something? And does it have anything to do with your new business manager?”

“How on earth—no, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know your sources.” For years, behind the bar at Orrin’s, Faye had known everything in town before anyone else. Assisted living had only improved the flow of information.

“I’ve heard he’s good-looking, too.”

Maggie avoided her friend’s eyes. “He’s tall with dark hair and blue eyes, but he’s too pale and too thin. He has a great smile though, with a deep voice and a nice laugh. You’d like him.”

“Really?”

Her skin heated as she recognized the scheming tone in Faye’s voice. “Don’t do that. You know that can’t happen.”

“It’s been ten years, dear. No one should be alone.”

“I’m not alone,” Maggie lied. Keeping an eye on her tiles, she searched for a way to change the subject. “Is
yow
a word?”

“Do you want the dictionary? While you’re researching, you can look up
hermit
.”

“I’m not a hermit.”
I’m working. All. The. Time.

“Recluse, then.”

Maggie rolled her eyes at the oft-repeated argument. “I’m not—”

“You are.” Faye slapped the table, jiggling the tiles across the board and ending the game. “Just because you’re surrounded by people doesn’t mean you’re not shut off. I worry about you.”

Maggie shoved everything into the box. “Well, don’t. I hate to lose and run, but I’ve got to get back to work.” She leaned across the table and kissed Faye’s weathered cheek. “I’ll come visit in a few days.”

She didn’t rush back to the bar. It was just another day. She had a meeting. Just like all her other meetings. She couldn’t help it if there was no traffic.

Walking down the hall, she glanced into the office. Gray had his feet on the desk and his attention riveted to a file. And he was humming. Okay. Faith might not want in the family business, but at least
he
was a good fit.

She got a bottle of water and came back. He was still in the same spot.

“Fitz, our accountant, handles everything from paying bills to taxes.”

He jerked his gaze from the paperwork to the door, his eyes wide.

“We get reports on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis, and we meet with him once a month,” she continued, trying not to laugh. “He’ll be here in two days for the next one.”

Gray stood and stretched, only to crumple in on himself. “Fuck.” The curse was strangled by clenched teeth and tight lips.

The guys hated for her to see them weak. She turned to leave, pulling the door in her wake.

“Don’t. Please.” The strain in his voice was matched by the panic slackening his features.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he mumbled as he crammed a handful of aspirin into his mouth and washed them down with the rest of his water. “I’ve been sitting too long, and it’s hot in here. I like the air.”

“Uh-huh.” She pushed away from the door. “How about burgers for lunch instead of aspirin? We can pick them up on the way out of town.” She declined when he offered the keys. “You drive. It’ll help you get your bearings.”

Once outside, she retrieved her purse from her car.

“You don’t lock it?”

“I just got back, and we were leaving right away. It’s not Chicago.”

“But what about—”

She straightened her spine. “No one in Fiddler would hurt me.”

Chapter Four

They picked up their burgers at Herb’s and got on the road, balancing their lunches on their laps and fumbling for drinks in adjoining cup holders. With the windows down, the wind whipped through the cab, drowning out the stereo and making conversation impossible. Instead, Maggie stared out the window. It was a beautiful day.

Gray slowed on the bridge. “Isn’t that where we camped on the sandbar the summer we graduated?”

Maggie turned and looked past him and down at the lake. “Yeah. I remember that. It poured.”

“And the lake rose.”

“And we had to pack in the dark,” Maggie recalled, smiling. Charlene had invented compound curses, stringing them together while they’d pulled up stakes and rolled everything into a pile. The wet sand had sucked at their toes and the rain had plastered their clothes to their skin as they’d shoved everything into random canoes. They’d shivered until almost noon the next day. “Nate was more upset that he’d lost his beer.”

“And then the cooler washed up practically at his feet.” Gray laughed.

The wind caught his hair, tossing it in every direction, and while his sunglasses shaded his eyes, his smile was bright and his laughter rumbled from deep in his chest. Its rich tones conflicted with his thin frame. “Have you been sick?”

“Flu,” he mumbled, his smile fading. “Tell me about Carl.”

Carl? He wanted to know about Carl? Maggie shoved her pride aside. No matter how handsome he was—and he was undeniably appealing—this was work. If he wanted to know about the town handyman, she’d tell him.

“Well,” she yelled over the wind, “he moved to town with his mother when he was twelve. His father had already died by then.”

Her last word rang though the cab as he rolled up the windows. Now the music was deafening, so she decreased the volume.

“How?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Illness maybe? Anyway, she waited tables at the truck stop until she retired. She died a few years back.”

“Of?” Gray turned the stereo off altogether.

Damn, had he always been this fascinated by how people died? “Alzheimer’s. She was older than most mothers. I remember thinking that in high school. She must’ve gotten pregnant late.”

“Has he always been—”

“Slower?” Maggie asked. “Yes. I’m not sure if it’s from birth or if there was an accident, but yeah. He’s smart, just delayed a bit. So we’ve always taken care of him.”

“We?”

“Fiddler. He works at the truck stop diner, just like his mom did. Rick hired him in high school to work the night shift in the kitchen, because he can’t keep up on the day shift. The rest of the time he does landscaping and odd jobs. He’s got a soft spot for animals, and he hoarded strays but he couldn’t afford to keep them, so the Humane Society hired him as an animal control officer. Abby keeps an eye on him there.”

“How much of his career plan was your doing?” Gray glanced across the cab. “How much did you nudge?”

“Me?”

“C’mon.” He sighed, looking down his nose at her. “‘This is Amber, a pretty single schoolteacher, and the diner’s a great first date spot.’ You nudged
me
. How much did you nudge
them
?”

“Fine,” she grumbled. “There’s an endowment at the Humane Society, and I
might
have talked Mayor Randall into hiring him to keep the city landscaping neat.” She sneaked a glance at him. “And Amber
is
pretty, and the diner
does
have great coffee.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Well, I guess I’ll find out. She called me this morning and we’re meeting there after work this afternoon.”

“Oh,” Maggie said, even as a pit opened in her stomach, hollowing her out and making the day a little colder. “Great. Their coconut cream pie is—”

“Stop,” Gray said. “I can pick my own pie. And, while we’re on the subject, I prefer to pick my own dates. Amber caught me flat-footed, and I couldn’t think of a way to say no without being rude. But don’t nudge me. I’m not your employee.”

“Well, yeah,” she said, teasing him. “You kinda are.”

He blinked, and his lips twitched. “I guess I am. So that’s it then? Date the second grade teacher and eat the coconut cream pie, because the chairman of the board said so?”

Boiled down like that, it sounded cold. She’d never been cold. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t intended that way, honestly.” Taking a deep breath, she changed the subject to something safer. “So you read the corporate record books?

Gray nodded. “Best place to start, and they’re generally an easy read. However, I can’t believe your granddad’s attorney let him put you on the board at thirteen.”

“Tom always did whatever Grandpa wanted, within reason. Once he was assured it was largely ceremonial, he didn’t care.”

“And was it ceremonial?”

Maggie thought back to all those meetings after her grandmother had died. “No. Grandma’s death left a hole in the operations, and her job came with her stock.”

“Human Resources. At thirteen?”

“Not the legal stuff, but the community ambassador functions, yes. At least until I finished college and stepped in formally. Then Dad and Granddad died, and Nate became president. It just made sense for him to be in charge of daily operations.”

“And you’re the chairman...to keep him in check.”

“He’s lousy at details, at cause and effect, but he’s a great idea man.” That wasn’t anything new. Nate had always been more interested in being outside, building things, dreaming big. “We’ve always been unorthodox, and we’re lucky it’s gone well, but too many people depend on us now. I’m glad you’re here to help.” They passed the Hastings city limit sign. “This deal with Maxwell Limestone would let us make cement.”

“Doesn’t Faith already make cement?”

“Nate met Rhett first, so Faith’s company was a bonus. It makes cement more cost-effective and bids lower. More jobs.”
More people to worry about and listen to.
“And now we can keep it all in the family.” She smiled at his frown. “Rhett’s her cousin. Oh, and he’s worse than Nate.”

As they pulled into the quarry parking lot, Rhett emerged from the trailer that served as his office and bounded down the stairs like a Labrador puppy. He yanked open her door and scooped her into a hug.

“Heya, Mags! Sorry I missed yesterday.”

Reaching across the cab, he pumped Gray’s hand like he was priming a well. “Hi, Gray. Nice to meet you. Faith said Tiffany gave you guys a hard time trying to play matchmaker. Don’t worry. Hold to your guns and she’ll get over it. She tried for months to set me up with Maggie before she finally got the hint.”

When he stopped to draw breath, Maggie wriggled away from him. Great. Now she sounded like a leper. A pushy, undateable old maid. The chairman of the board—not girlfriend material.

Gray’s not your date. No matter how much fun it is to talk to him.
She cleared her throat. “Rhett, why don’t you show Gray the operation? And do you have those personnel files for me?”

“I do have questions,” Gray said. “I’ve been going over the merger, and I need someone to clear up a few terms I’m not familiar with.”

“We can talk while I show you around,” Rhett offered. “Maggie, you want to come with us?”

She should stay in the office reviewing the files, but Gray came to her side and looked down at her, grinning as if they shared an incredibly funny secret. He held his clipboard in one large, elegant hand. The combination of his shiny, new hard hat and his long, denim-clad legs was too much to resist.

“I’ll go,” she said. After all, she needed to make sure he asked the right questions.

Rhett took the whole afternoon to show them his family business and then sat and answered all of Gray’s questions. Maggie ignored the personnel files in favor of listening to them talk, watching Gray keep Rhett on task while he made notes. After a few hours, he began to fidget, trying to get comfortable. The shadows under his eyes were darker.

She stepped in. “Rhett, we need to get back. I’ve got to open the bar.”

“Sure thing.” He stood. “Let’s load those files.”

Gray winced as he straightened. Still, he grabbed a box and walked out of the office. Once everything was loaded and Rhett was out of earshot, Maggie plucked the keys from Gray’s hand. He could think she was pushy if he wanted.

“I’ll drive. You rest.”

His eyes flashed, but after a slight hesitation his body sagged in relief. “Thank you.”

In the passenger seat, Gray retrieved a bottle of aspirin and shook several into his hand. He paused when he saw her staring. “Headache.” Reaching between them, he grabbed a cup, flipped the plastic lid off and used the contents to wash down the painkillers.

Maggie backed the truck from the parking space. “Are you sure that was yours?”

“Doesn’t matter. There are worse things than germs.”

She left the windows up and the radio off as she pulled back to the main road. In minutes, his ragged breathing evened out. A quick glance reassured her. He was asleep with his head balanced against the rolled edge of the backseat, his hands on his stomach and his knees propped against the dash.

They were halfway back when he jolted awake, sitting bolt upright.

“Shit! What!” She gasped as she fought to get the truck off the shoulder and back to the smoother pavement.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Nothing.”

He was quiet so long she thought he’d gone back to sleep. Risking another glance, she found him looking out the window as the scenery zoomed past. His shoulders were slumped.

“What is it?” she asked, softening her question this time.

“Rhett reminds me of someone I used to work with.”

“It must be sort of jarring, making a change this big. What’s your friend like?”

“He died.”

“Would you like to—”

“No,” he said, cutting her off. “Where are we?”

“About ten minutes out,” Maggie said, searching for a new conversation thread. She knew about death, better than most, probably. She also knew about avoiding the topic way better than most. She pointed out the windshield, directing Gray’s attention to his right. “Those are the best hiking woods in the county. Nate, Kevin, Michael and I would pack a huge lunch, hitch a ride on a lumber truck and come out here to play Robin Hood all day. Dad would find us walking home at five when the whistle blew and give us a ride back to town. He always acted mad, but then he’d sit at the dining room table and listen to Nate tell stories for hours.”

“Was it difficult, being the only girl?”

“Sometimes, but when we were alone, just the four of us, they didn’t treat me like a girl. And I didn’t have anyone else. Abby didn’t move here until we were teenagers, and even then she stayed close to home. Then Charlene and Tiffany came along, and I wasn’t the only girl anymore.”

She pulled into Orrin’s back lot and parked. “You go on, it’s almost five.”

Gray got out of the truck, but he walked to the back and grabbed a box. “I’ll help you get these in. Where do you want them?”

“Just leave them in the doorway, I’ll move them later.”

He stood there, the box in his hands, and one eyebrow arched.

“Fine,” she said, rolling her eyes as she opened the door. “If you’ll take them up to my landing, I can just slide them into the apartment.” When he began to protest, she cut him off. “My door is locked, and we’re running out of time to open. Besides, the guys know it’s off-limits.’”

That seemed to make him happy. After two trips up the stairs, he took the keys from her. “I’ll be back later. I want to talk to Nate about my meeting.”

Standing on the back porch, she watched him drive away. The whistle from the gravel quarry sounded first, then the sand pit, then the shale quarry and finally the lumber yard. They grew to a whining chorus. Maggie ran upstairs, squeezing past the boxes to get into her apartment so she could change. She was down in seconds, buckling the braces of her overalls as she came around the corner. The trucks were already lining Broadway when she unlocked the front door.

Despite the steady pace of service and conversation, it took her hours to quit looking at the back door every time someone moved. Soon, however, she was caught up in the stories the guys were telling as they crowded the bar. She loved hearing them, because they weren’t about the past. These were all things in the future—their families, their plans. Sometimes they talked about themselves, about their worries, but not often. Their wives did more of that.

She was cashing out a tab when someone set a carry-out container next to the register. Pie. Her stomach fluttered as she recognized Gray’s hand.

“Coconut cream’s
your
favorite, I think.” His laughter was muffled as he stuck his head in the cooler. “You’re out of Shiner. What kind of bar do you run, anyway?”

She smacked him with her towel. “I run the best bar in town. There’s Shiner in the storeroom, but I haven’t had time to get it.
Someone
kept me out of the office all afternoon, and they’re kicking my ass tonight.”

He walked away, only to return with a case of his favorite beer. Then with a case of Budweiser. Then a case of Bud Light. “What else do you need?”

“Umm, that’ll do it. Thanks. Why don’t you go talk to Nate?”

Instead, he knelt and stacked everything in the cooler. Every clink of glass on glass reminded Maggie that an extremely good-looking, smart guy was on the floor at her feet, with his head on level with her waist, and her ass, and her... She was glad the cooler door was open. She could blame her puckered nipples on that.

“What kind of pie did you have?” she asked, grasping for something to say.

“Pecan,” he muttered as he handed a beer to a waiting customer.

Toasted pecans and syrupy sweetness. He tipped his beer and swallowed, and she gulped, too. He probably tasted amazing.

Her face hot, she wheeled around just as Jerry Mitchell arrived. Perfect distraction. She needed to talk to him anyway.

“Hi, Jerry. How are things?”

She could guess how things were based on the shadows under his eyes and his drooped shoulders. Sure enough, his tale made her forget all about Gray. It wasn’t until Jerry was done, gone to visit with friends and forget his troubles for a moment that she looked around. Gray was still there, serving her regulars at the other end of the bar and keeping them clear of her conversation. Helping her.

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