Second Chances, Book 6
Her dream house is the scene of his darkest hours.
With his own hands, artist Micah Smith built every inch of the cottage for the fragile wife he cherished and the child who cost her life. His dreams gone and his heart broken, he left everything familiar behind, including the cottage he’d built with such love.
A foster child most of her life, bar owner Jezebel Hart has spent her life longing for family and home. In this abandoned, neglected cottage she sees a chance to create her dream at last.
That she cherishes what he can’t bear to be near is bad enough, but that sparks fly between them adds insult to injury—yet their attraction will not be ignored. Discovering that her bombshell exterior wraps a generous heart and her inner strength matches the power of her compassion endangers the hard exterior that has been his only protection from the grief he cannot let go.
For Jezebel, learning that his anger masks a heart in desperate need of healing only strengthens her attraction to him. Her capacity for joy draws Micah from his darkness and makes him want to hope.
But a secret could shatter their fragile bond…before it ever has a chance to grow.
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In his dreams, she was always there in the cottage he’d built for her, every stick and brick a testament to love.
Her face was a song, her smile the grace note. A waterfall of golden hair spilled halfway down her back; the soft hazel eyes had been his lodestone since he was ten and she was eight. He’d understood then that his purpose in life was to protect her.
But he hadn’t counted on needing to safeguard her from herself. From her fierce desire to bear his child, despite the danger the doctors had predicted.
Micah Smith stirred on the lumpy mattress. Whipped his head from side to side, seeking the path back to heaven. One more sight of Charlotte, ensconced in the swing on the wide porch she’d wanted. Another moment to sit with her and rock while they examined the dogwoods he’d planted as saplings. Or wander through the fragrant rose beds he’d dug around the back, now bursting with color.
“Unhh— Don’t go,” he begged her. Stay this time.
Charlotte rose, one hand tenderly pressed to the gentle mound he had cursed. The saddest eyes in the world begged his understanding. With her other hand, she blew him a kiss, just like on that last day. He’d left her only long enough to retrieve a surprise—the crib he’d made as a peace offering.
But he’d returned too late. Always too late. She lay where she’d collapsed when the clot had hit her lung, a porcelain angel, on the porch where she’d waved goodbye to him with a promise.
That she would be fine. That he should have faith.
That love would be enough.
Lies, all lies.
Charlotte was gone, leaving behind her a man, a life, a dream.
Without a heart.
Sirens crashed into his restless slumber.
“Charlotte—” Micah jerked upright and groped the mattress beside him. “Charlotte, I’m—” Sorry.
The screech of tires. The swoosh of bus air brakes. A roar of city traffic, not the lazy rustling of East Texas pines.
His head sank into his hands. He was still in New York.
He wrenched himself from the mattress, pulled on his jeans and sought escape in his work.
Three Pines, Texas
“I heard that, Louie.” Jezebel Hart paused in the act of clearing a table of beer mugs and nudged the jar she kept for fines in her favorite customer’s direction.
“You couldn’t have. The damn jukebox is so loud a body can’t hear himself think.”
Jezebel lifted one eyebrow. “That’ll be three dollars now.”
Along the bar rose a chorus of snickers and hoots. Louie slapped one hand on the darkened wood. “Bossy—” he managed to stifle the curse word, if just barely “—woman.”
“Gimme.” She picked up his mug and wiped the bar beneath it. “It’s for a good cause.” From the proceeds of her No Profanity jar, she’d been able to fund a community Christmas dinner for all those facing the meal alone. The first swear word by each person, customer or staff, was a dollar; succeeding offenses in a given night doubled the previous amount. Refuse to pay, and you were banned from the premises for a week.
Sure, they’d grumbled when she’d instituted it last October, Louie loudest of all, but he’d eaten every bite of that Christmas dinner and come back for seconds.
“No way to run a bar,” Louie muttered the whole time he was digging out his wallet.
Jezebel leaned closer, just in case she could catch one more slip of his tongue.
Louie slapped three bills on the ancient oak. “Don’t see why Skeeter had to go and leave us with a fascist.”
They grinned at each other.
With a name like Jezebel and exotic dancing in her checkered past, she figured that running a bar was about as much peril as her mortal soul could afford. She was out to balance the scales.
She resumed cleaning a table. Bobby Redstone ambled up behind her. “Jezebel, baby—”
She recoiled from the assault of whiskey fumes. “Last call for you, sugar.” She smiled. “But there’s some coffee with your name on it.”
“Baby, I’m dyin’ for love of you.” He made a sloppy grab for her long curly hair. “C’mere. You kiss me now.”
She glanced over at Darrell Garrett, her cook, bartender and bouncer—all six-foot-five and three hundred pounds of him—and shook her head to restrain him. At five-ten, she was no pushover herself. She’d been dodging male hands since her abundant curves seemed to spring full-blown at fourteen.
She slipped an arm around Bobby’s waist. “I can’t risk Louie getting jealous—you know that. No telling what that man might do. Break my heart if he messed up your pretty face.”
Drunk as he was, even Bobby got the joke. Louie was near eighty if he was a day, about five-six and scrawny as a hen ready for the cookpot.
“No fair, Jezebel. Ever’ damn night, I got to look at the most beautiful woman in the world and can’t do nuthin’ about it. Who you savin’ it for, baby?” He tried to nuzzle her neck.
“My heart belongs to Louie. If he won’t have me, I’m done with romance.” Her dancer’s legs performed a smooth sidestep. Before he could register what had happened, she’d seated him in a booth and was on her way to procure coffee.
“You are too good, girl,” Darrell murmured. “I had moves like that, I’d be in the NFL today.”
She patted his arm and smiled. “Shirley appears to like your moves just fine. Baby managing more than two hours at a time yet?”
His shoulders slumped. “Don’t remind me.”
“Sleep in tomorrow. I’ll meet the beer truck.”
“Won’t help. The other kids have to get up for school.”
She noted the clock. “They’re already in bed, right?”
“Good Lord willin’.”
“Wish I could keep them for you, so you and Shirley could sleep. Maybe you can nap after they leave.”
His shoulder-length dreadlocks shook with his laughter. “Girl, I was sure you were crazy. I just didn’t realize how much.”
“I love your kids.”
“And they adore you. But even if you had room back there in that glorified storage space you call an apartment, exactly when do you plan to get some rest yourself? You’re already working twenty hours a day, best I can tell, between running this place and caring for Skeeter.” He frowned. “It wouldn’t kill you to let someone help you for a change.”
She’d been on her own since she was thirteen; doing for herself was a hard habit to break. “I have to make this place succeed. Skeeter’s counting on me.”
Skeeter Owens was the closest thing to a grandfather Jezebel had ever had. They’d met in Reno, where he’d gone for a busman’s holiday to gamble; she’d been a cocktail waitress. He’d discouraged a too-ardent patron, and they’d conversed through the rest of the evening as she served his table. He’d given her a tip too big for her to turn down, no matter what strings might be attached. She’d never resorted to selling her body, but there had been lean, scary days in her past when that one last step was all that was left.
But the only thing Skeeter wanted was to buy her breakfast and talk. Before she noticed, she’d spilled out more of her life story than she’d ever shared with a soul—orphaned by a fire at five, removed from her junkie aunt at eight, a chronic runaway from foster homes. He’d done the same, telling her about the kids he’d never had and the wife he’d lost a few years before. About the bar that kept him going. They parted with an agreement to write and an invitation from him if she was ever anywhere near Three Pines, Texas.
She never expected to take him up on it.
She hadn’t envisioned being a fugitive, either.
His letters had begun to worry her a couple of years later, just when she’d needed to put distance between herself and Vegas, where she’d finally landed in the chorus line. She’d been witness to a murder, but not an important enough one to merit witness protection. Still, the detective to whom she’d given her statement agreed that a disappearing act might be a great idea until crime boss Russ Bollinger was behind bars. In the process of figuring out where to relocate, she decided to pay Skeeter a visit and check on him.
Nearly a year later, she was still here and beginning to relax. After breaking a hip, Skeeter was in a nursing home until she could secure a place for him better than the ramshackle quarters he’d inhabited behind the bar. She, with not a shred of business experience, had scrambled to learn on the job, while running the enterprise that supported him.
To her surprise, she was managing to do just that.
She also had a goal, though how much she wanted it scared her to death.
Her objective was a house, but not just any house. Okay, just a cottage, but…The Perfect Cottage. One she would turn into her first real home.
If, that is, the owner would sell it.
“Last call, folks,” Darrell said.
“Who’s going to drive Bobby home?” she asked.
“I guess I could,” Louie grumbled.
“Hell, no, you won’t. You can’t hardly see the road,” Bobby complained.
“Larry, you drive him, and you—” she pointed at Bobby “—get up here and give me a dollar.”
Over the grousing, she smiled. “Keep it up, gentlemen. Christmas is looking festive this year, and here we are, only March.” A chorus of good-nights winged her way. More content than she’d ever imagined being, Jezebel set dirty glasses in the sink and began running water.
…Excerpt from DREAM HOUSE by Jean Brashear © 2019