Tina Leonard, New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

Hotter Than Texas

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Chapter One

Sugar Cassevechia stared at the rental house that had been advertised in Pecan Creek, Texas, as a four-bedroom, four-bath, creek-side tranquil setting with three acres of prolific pecan trees.

The house was, in a word, desolate. Ramshackle might be a better description. Thanks to the hot August sun, the creek near the enclosed backyard seemed lazy, spilling from point to point without energy.

Sugar whipped out the picture that had been on the Internet. “Doesn’t look anything like it, does it?” her sister, Lucy, observed as she looked over Sugar’s shoulder, but since her sister had also said, “Beam me up, Scotty. There’s no intelligent life here,” when they’d pulled into Pecan Creek, Sugar was feeling fairly annoyed.

“Paris is thirsty, and the faucet’s running brown water,” their mother, Maggie, called from the side of the house.

They’d picked Paris up in Opelousas, Louisiana, as they’d driven through on their way to Texas from Florida. Paris had been nosing around a roadside picnic table, clearly down on her luck. Sugar had instantly fallen in love with the golden retriever, though it was hungry and probably laden with critters. But she couldn’t bear to leave it behind, and what good family home didn’t want a great dog?

“Go deal with that,” Sugar told Lucy to keep her occupied. Lucy complied, and Sugar went back to considering what was turning out not to be her dream house.

It might have once been a picturesque two-story antebellum amongst the stubby-branched native live oak trees. Now the red tile patio showed its age with cracks and bare spots where the tiles had worn loose and never been replaced. An elaborate screen protected the front door, but the screen itself wore a foot- long gash that no longer kept out insects. Once-white shutters bore the patina of neglect, and the ebony composition roof reminded Sugar of an old woman’s gap- toothed smile, its missing shingles scattered randomly over the roofline.

I dragged my recently-in-remission mother, my wounded-soul sister and a stray here for this?

The sound of a truck rumbling up the gravel drive refocused her irritation. The roughly handsome man who parked the truck and ambled over to meet her had attitude written all over him with a capital A—and life in the military had taught her to meet attitude with more attitude. “You’re the owner, I presume? The J.T. Bentley who leased me this property?”

He stuck out his hand. Sugar ignored it, and he took the hint. He might be tall, rugged and have bedroom eyes, but he was also a swindler.

“Call me Jake,” he said. “I hope I didn’t fail to mention that this house has a reputation for being haunted. It’s not, of course, but I wanted you to be apprised of its reputation in the name of fairness.”

“You failed to mention that, and also the fact that it’s uninhabitable.” Sugar’s glare had no discernible effect on him. “I’m not afraid of ghosts, but rain pouring in on us in the middle of the night is a problem. I’m not signing off on these lease papers.”

He gave her a “c’mon, let’s be friends” smile. “I’m willing to hear your concerns. Hopefully we can work something out.”

His demeanor was confident, touched with you-know-you-want-it, all-the- ladies-do, and Sugar instinctively knew Jake Bentley was a man with whom women usually “worked something out” because of the charm and the bedroom eyes. She stiffened her resistance to the overture and shook her head. “First of all, you can call me Ms. Cassevechia.”

He was checking out her legs, and she was pretty certain he hadn’t heard a word she’d said. She knew his type, met too many of them not to know exactly what he was thinking.

It was all about sex.

Unfortunately, she had to admit that under different circumstances—like if she weren’t boiling mad at him for being a grifter—she’d probably give him a chance to soothe her newly divorced ire toward men. But Ramon had been dark and hot-eyed like this hunk—and she knew exactly what good-in-bed temptation had gotten her.

Nothing but pain.
“Maybe the house is better inside,” Lucy said.
“It definitely is,” Jake said. “Want a tour?”
“The water from that faucet is brown,” Sugar snapped. “There are shingles

missing all over the roof. And when’s the last time you mowed the lawn?” She handed him the papers. “We’ll find a house in town and just pay you for the pecans we need for our business.” She’d seen a few smaller houses near the tiny square, which served as the hub of Pecan Creek. Surely someone would be willing to rent out rooms.

Jake shook his head. “It’s a package deal.”

She stared at him. The pecan trees were beautiful, the branches heavy with fat, oval pecans getting ready to burst from their dark hulls. It felt safe here, like a refuge, which her family desperately needed right now. This was why they’d left their lives in Florida behind, for a dreamy whim she’d named hotterthanhellnuts.com.

Her gaze went to the man she’d made the mistake of trusting sight unseen.

“I can fix the roof,” Jake said. “The water just needs to be run out of the septic system. And the barn is my pride and joy, just right for the business you’re planning to open. You’ll have lots of room to work, if your business takes off.” He gave her a slow, winning smile. “I’m an easy man to work with.”

“I bet.” Sugar glanced at Maggie. Her mother was petting Paris and smoking a cigarette, seemingly not too worried about the outcome of their dilemma. Lucy was studying the grove of pecan trees. Only I’m upset, Sugar realized, but that was nothing new. She was the decision-maker in their family, always had been. She let her gaze sweep the worn house one more time before returning to Jake Bentley’s arrogant, chiseled face, fighting the potent allure of a man who made her think of long nights shaded by a canopy of fecund pecan trees.

She was here for business. “If the inside is as bad as the outside, we won’t be interested.”

“Come on,” Jake said, clearly unbothered by her threat, “you’re going to love the kitchen. Mom had it remodeled a couple of years ago, and it’s a cook’s dream. She lives in town now, but she loved living out here.”

Maybe he wasn’t bragging. Maybe the inside matched the image in her mind she’d been carrying for years of the place they could call home. She felt like she was succumbing to illogical wistfulness as she said, “Stay outside, Paris,” and followed Jake. He had a great body, tall and lean, with a butt made for squeezing, naked and strong—

Whoa. That was random.

It was the August heat. She forced her gaze away from Jake’s stellar backside and walked inside the kitchen, Lucy and Maggie following. Copper pots and pans hung from a ceiling rack, gleaming with polish. The kitchen itself was huge, with new silver appliances and a six-burner Viking stove. Sunny and well-spaced, the kitchen was perfect for their new business venture. “You’re right,” Sugar said. “This is great.”

“Yeah. You could heat nuts to your heart’s content in here, Sugar.” Lucy ran a hand over the long chopping block in the center of the kitchen. “Your mom must have loved to cook,” she said to Jake.

“Nope. This is all for looks. Mom remodeled to sell the house. She gave up on that when the bottom fell out of the real estate market.” He looked around the room almost regretfully, Sugar thought. “It was a great place to grow up.”

Sugar pulled her gaze away from Jake. She inspected the oversized concealed refrigerator and then turned on the sink faucet. Clear water ran out freely. If he’d fix the roof and the screen door, they were home. Home. “It might work for us,” she said.

Jake laughed. “You haven’t seen the bedrooms. And I don’t want you complaining that I deceived you in any way, Ms. Cassevechia.”

“I’m interested in the bedrooms,” Lucy said. “Where I sleep is important. Let’s make sure there are no cracks or rats, Sugar.” She gave Jake a benign gaze.

Jake’s gaze lit on Lucy for just a second; then he nodded. They followed him out into a small dining room, then up a bi-level staircase that overlooked the front-door entryway. The house had been cared for well on the inside, which relieved Sugar a little.

“Wow,” Lucy said as they followed Jake into the first bedroom. “Look at the bed.”

Maggie giggled. “That’s some setup.”

Crouched in the middle of the room, the bed looked like something out of Victorian England. It was so large that if the burgundy velvet curtains hanging around it were pulled shut, it would seem like another world, a private getaway for lovers.

Sugar wondered if Jake had ever slept in this bed, and felt herself growing warm where she didn’t want to. I’ve got the hots for him. Which is really dumb, because I don’t need trouble, and he’s got Trouble written all over him in big letters.

Jake looked out one of the room’s windows. “You can see the grove from here,” he said, “and when the autumn leaves fall, you can see the creek from the kitchen windows.”

“Look at this, Sugar!” Lucy called. “This bathroom is awesome!”

Sugar followed Lucy into the bathroom. A huge claw-foot tub took up most of the free space near the window, and a long marble vanity held gold-topped glass jars for everything a woman wanted to keep handy. She could picture Jake shaving at the pedestal sink—not that he appeared to shave frequently. He had a few days’ worth of stubble on his cheeks, carving his face into strong lines.

“All the bedrooms and lavatories are themed,” Jake said when they walked back into the bedroom. “Mom kept this part of the house for boarding.”

Themed for King Henry VIII? Sugar thought the room, though expansive, was somehow over-decadent and old-fashioned, and not necessarily in a good way .

“It reminds me of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Lucy said.

Sugar jumped, embarrassed for her sister’s typically unfiltered comment. Jake laughed. “You guessed it. All the bedrooms are decorated like movies or television-show sets. Next door is the Southfork room. Think J.R., not Miss Ellie. And the Gone with the Wind Belle Watling room is on the other side, opposite the American Gigolo room. Mom and I argued about that one for a week.”

Certainly not kid-friendly thematics throughout the house. Sugar looked at Jake. “So were you for or against the American Gigolo idea?”

His grin was for Sugar alone. “I’ll tell you when I know you better.”

Lucy and Maggie laughed, but Sugar frowned, not charmed at all by his easygoing flirtation. Well, maybe a little. But not charmed to the point that all the good ol’ boy stuff would work on her.

“Everybody’s got an angle,” Jake said, and Sugar raised a brow. “Keeping the customers entertained is Mom’s.”

Since the Cassevechia women had enough angles of their own, Sugar followed silently as he continued the tour, wondering why J.T. Bentley wasn’t wearing a wedding ring or living in his house with bedrooms apparently custom-designed for mind-blowing sex.

She would never fantasize about mind-blowing sex with him.

Jake Bentley paid a call on his mother as she finished presiding over the town council, which consisted of four people, all women, and all determined to make him the next president. Pecan Creek was short on men, and the ladies running the town had decided it would take a man to lure businesses, and therefore more men, to their spot on the map.

It was dumb, and he wasn’t interested. Mainly because he knew what they really wanted, which was to step up their own “secret” businesses, which had been booming in the past year. The four women, the Entrepreneurs of Pecan Creek, sat looking at him innocently right now, as if he weren’t on to them.

He was.

“Jake,” his mother, Vivian, said, and Jake automatically said, “No.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he told her, and the three other ladies staring at him with apprehensive smiles beamed.

Charlotte Dawson, vice president of Pecan Creek’s town council, said, “How are your new renters?” She gazed at him with interest through her spectacles.

Dodie Myers, the treasurer, and Minda Hernandez, the secretary, stared at him too, eager for gossip.

He didn’t want to go into details. Sugar Cassevechia’s effect on his libido had him a bit confused. He shouldn’t have been lusting after those long, slender legs, that bouncy rack and sweetly curved ass when she’d been ragging him about the house. The legs especially had been delightful, and the rack, well, what red- blooded male didn’t love a great set of breasts? Jake was sideswiped by a wave of heat and had to force himself to focus on the four pairs of bright eyes watching him as if he were a renowned magician.

Sugar would be a perfect foil for his plan. He had every intention of putting her name in the hat for president of Pecan Creek’s town council, once she’d been here a bit longer.

Say, maybe in about three weeks.

That would give him time to launch her on the Four E’s, pitting her squarely against his mother, of course, but he could back Sugar up. He was pretty certain Sugar could hold her own. She was determined, forthright, opinionated— everything Vivian would hate in a younger woman, and just what Pecan Creek really needed.

If they wanted to bring in men, they needed man magnets—babes who didn’t mind living two hours from the nearest city—hot babes like Lucy Cassevechia. Where Sugar was passion under wraps—at least that was what he was hoping—it was clear that Lucy had a more opportunistic eye for the male sex. Sugar had barely given him the time of day, raking him businesslike over the coals, but Lucy, like their mother, Maggie, had given him a very feminine once-over.

Naturally, he had to go for the hard-to-get, you’ll-really-work-your-ass-off- for-this types, and Sugar was his age, besides. He’d glanced at her driver’s license as she’d filled out the paperwork on the lease and saw that she was an organ donor, fibbed slightly about her hair color (it was chestnut, not blonde, not even in the strawberry family), and maybe her height. He placed her about five- five and no more, though she had pegged herself at five-seven. He’d run her credit, and she was clean as a whistle. As far as he could tell, she had a lot of the qualifications Pecan Creek could use, and if he could shove this job off on Sugar, he planned to spend his days fishing, drinking beer and playing pool on the secret pool table in the Pecan Creek Bait and Burgers basement.

It was all he and his buddies had that the pillars of the community didn’t have dominion over, and he intended to keep it that way.

“Tell us about them,” his mother urged. “Are there men in the family? Men would be good.” She sighed. “Someone to pick up your duties once you become more involved with the council.”

He ignored the hint. Sitting on this council would never happen to him. “No men,” he said, “but the new people paid us four months’ cash up front.”

That would soothe Vivian. Four months for the Cassevechias to find out living in the old family home wasn’t going to be a picnic. Wait until they met this crowd too.

Fur was going to fly. The Cassevechias were red meat to these pros. He was going to have to help them learn the Pecan Creek ropes and creed, which was don’t talk about anything, which concisely meant religion, politics or sex. Especially not sex.

The Cassevechias had struck him as a bit free-spirited for such intolerance. He figured Lucy would be gone in less than a month. Spotty Internet, and no guys her age. Yeah, she was a short-timer, unless something drastic happened to keep her. Very little drastic came up in Pecan Creek. If it did, the Pillars put it down in a hurry.

Maggie could go either way. The Salesladies of Sex would either accept her or toss her out on her super-tanned, flower-printed, Virginia Slims-smoking butt. It was a coin flip.

“I’ve got to go,” Jake told the Pillars, and his mother said, “But are they nice? I know you’d never rent our family home out to people who aren’t quality.”

Vivian was worried about quality renters when she’d decorated the family home like a madam’s orgasm. There was irony for you. A lady didn’t talk about sex, but she certainly profited from it—quietly.

Tall, athlete-thin, no-nonsense Charlotte Dawson made willy warmers of all shapes and sizes, custom-ordered in some cases, and sold them over the Internet. Dawson’s Willy Warmers was her Internet business name, which he’d discovered only after a particularly large shipment had gone out last year (record cold temperatures in the frozen North and everywhere else). He’d done some digging around to find out what was in the boxes. He’d once heard his mother refer to Charlotte’s offerings as Charlotte’s damn peter heaters under her breath, which had shocked him, because he hadn’t known she knew anything about the Internet at the time. The willy warmers were very popular at Christmas, and the small, one-room mail office was filled with boxes labeled with Charlotte’s silvery return labels.

Still, the ding-dong covers were never mentioned by the ladies in their circle. The post office added an extra truck run, but no one mentioned that they knew exactly what was being shipped out of Pecan Creek, the Most Honest Town in Texas.

That’s what the welcome sign said, anyway.

“I only talked to them for about twenty minutes,” Jake said, “but I’m pretty sure they aren’t serial killers.”

“Jake,” Vivian said, “this is serious business.”

Charlotte, Dodie and Minda nodded. “Very serious. We want good people in Pecan Creek,” Dodie said. “We count on you to bring people of untarnished credentials to our town.”

It wasn’t just Charlotte who was contributing to Pecan Creek’s “honest” reputation. Sweet, silver-haired Dodie Myers made chocolate in her kitchen and sold that over the Internet, luscious, nude body parts she billed as Dodie’s Doodahs. He’d found this out by accident when he’d seen the DBA paperwork in the courthouse. The next time he visited Dodie’s home, he slipped into her kitchen and snagged himself a boob. He’d had to admit it was pert, smooth and tasty, though not as good as the real thing, despite the well-placed cherry on top.

Jake sighed. “Give them a week to unpack and adjust. Don’t scare them.” “Jake!” Vivian said. “Why ever would we?”
“You wouldn’t mean to,” he said in his best Jimmy Stewart tone, soothing and rational. “It’s just they’ve had a long drive, and they have a lot to do.” Like spread the word all over town that they intended to sell Hot Nuts. At first he’d thought it was heavily ironic that the new people intended to open an online business. They’d fit right in—right?

But then he realized they didn’t understand the Rule of Southern Silence. Vivian would proclaim them brassy. The others would follow her lead.

“Look,” he said, “we’re just set in our ways here. You know what I mean. And they’re from Florida. People are more free and easy there.”

“Really?” Minda’s brows rose. “Just how free and easy?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Vivian said. “Jake wouldn’t allow any free-and-easies to rent the home where I raised him. Just the two of us, I might remind you, and there was no free-and-easy going on in our home.”

Maybe there should have been something a little less rigid than your cockeyed rules, Jake thought and then shrugged. “I didn’t vet them to see if they fit some type of Stepford mold. And if you want new ideas and creativity to liven this place up, you’re going to have to understand that there’ll be changes. Not everyone is like us.”

Like you, he thought. Personally, I like the idea of someone who doesn’t try to be a holy-roller.

“But no men,” Minda lamented. “It’s men we need to scatter the seed and whatnot.”

Vivian stiffened, her entire body in its shirt-dress casing a quivering lightning rod of affront. “Minda!”

“It’s true,” Minda said. “Seeds must scatter for saplings to grow.”

“Honestly,” Vivian said. “Less literal before my morning coffee, if you please.”

Perhaps the best-kept secret was his old fourth-grade teacher Minda Hernandez’s online business, The Secret Pearl. Love elixirs guaranteed to make a man wild for a woman: potions and enhancers and tasty, slippery stuff, veritable nectar of the goddesses. He wouldn’t mind having a bottle of Secret Pearl #5 and a night alone with Sugar in the Madam’s House of Orgasm, but he was pretty certain Sugar was upright and not interested in kinky sex. But in the overall picture, though Sugar’s vision of home might not exactly square with his old family place, she was perfect for Jake’s needs. Sugar for president of Pecan Creek’s town council.

Damned perfect.

“I’ve got to go,” Jake said.

“Why? Are the fish biting?” his mother asked, and he thought he detected a certain level of acidity in her tone. Which was nothing new.

“Absolutely,” he said, kissing his mother’s cheek. “Your morning coffee and the fish biting are two things I count on to let me know the sun has risen on a new day.”

She wasn’t mollified. Dodie, Minda and Charlotte shook their heads.

“There are things still to discuss,” Charlotte said. “Like the budget for the town Christmas decorations.”

“And the parade,” Dodie said. “Tourists love the parade.”

“And tourists bring money to our honest town,” Minda said. “We need all the tourists we can get. They buy baked goods.”

And willy warmers, and body candy, and sexual slip-n-slide potions.

Jake wondered for the hundredth time why he’d taken on the role of responsibility bearer for the Bentley name when it would be so much easier to move to Dallas. Atlanta. New York City. You didn’t drink in the open in Pecan Creek, although he knew very well that the ladies loved to share a tipple in the privacy of their little meetings. One also didn’t curse around the grand dames of Pecan Creek, though he was guilty of that sin and didn’t care. It was a bit stiff- collared in Pecan Creek, yet he loved it here, which was why he stayed in a place he knew would probably never number more than a hundred people on a good day, where women ran the show with iron fists in their lacy little gloves.

“The Cassevechias are just what we need for Pecan Creek,” he said to the ladies as he went out the door, grinning as he heard the excited babbling burst behind him. He wasn’t about to spill the beans on the Hotter than Hell Nuts nutjobs. The Entrepreneurial Pillars would launch into a frenzy of self- righteousness that such a loud and obvious thing would exist in their community, and he wanted them to meet the Cassevechias before judging. It wasn’t the fact that they were running an online business that would be unacceptable. It was that they intended to do it in the open, and with a cuss word in their business name. Not only that, Sugar had asked him about the empty billboard on the main road into town. If his mother found out that the main road to Pecan Creek might soon be marked by a Hotter than Hell Nuts advertisement, she’d probably faint. She would do it in an orderly, ladylike fashion, but she’d still hit the ground or at least sink into a soft chair.

The only thing worse than what Sugar was planning would be if Dodie advertised some candy body parts, maybe a sweet pair of white-chocolate breasts and a peppermint-chocolate penis—

“Jake! Are you listening to me?” his mother called after him.

He waved a hand to indicate that he was, though he wasn’t. When the DBA application for the Cassevechias’ business crossed the desk in the county courthouse, the tongues would start wagging. “There’ll be some hot nuts all right, and they’ll be mine,” he said, not too regretfully, and got into his truck. He planned to plead innocent. Innocent but interested. Excited, even.

The Cassavechias had no idea what they were in for, but if he was a good listening ear for Sugar when her business met the certain opposition, maybe he’d wind up with more than just a candy breast.

Since she was given first choice as the youngest, Lucy Cassevechia chose the Belle Watling room because she had a thing about red velvet drapes and gold- tasseled bedding, and the décor of a madam’s bedroom tickled her wild side. “One thing Mrs. Bentley obviously is is a lady of wicked good humor,” Lucy said, sitting cross-legged on the opulent bed. She considered the red diary she’d bought to match Sugar’s accounting journal. Somewhat excited and petrified by their new venture, she and Sugar had each gotten some sort of red book in which to chronicle their move. Knowing Maggie wouldn’t write much, they’d bought a red purse calendar for her notations of the first truly “together” moments they’d had in years. When they’d presented it to Maggie on their way out of Pensacola as a bon voyage gift, Maggie had told them to wake her when they got to Texas, and to screw the journaling.

Lucy opened her diary, the new spine making a cracking sound. My name is Lucy, she wrote,and I’m the voice of reason in the Cassevechia family. Stuck between Kate Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, my role is to be the red-haired dose of reality. Every family has a tie that binds, and if it wasn’t for me, we’d only get together at Christmas for deli turkey slices.

It’s not that our family didn’t want to be close. Sugar and I are far apart in age—five years—and Mom was always too busy working at the diner and taking in sewing to be a mom. Our father died when I was young; Sugar barely remembers him. Mom remarried, but husband #2 left for destinations unknown in the middle of the night when I was eight. I thought Mom would be upset, but she said “Tough shit”, and that was the extent of her mourning process for husband #2. I can’t even remember his name because she never speaks of him. Military brats know things can change on a dime, and we learn to accept a lot, either with therapy or without.

Sugar went into the military out of high school so she could get a college education. She wanted to be a pilot because that’s what Dad was. When I graduated from high school, I followed Sugar into the military because I had nowhere else to go. I never planned on getting past rank and file, but I wasn’t one of those women who were searching for a hot flyboy, either.

Lucy glanced around her new room, chewed her pen for a moment and continued writing. You know what I want out of life? I want to fit in somewhere. I’m not like Sugar, who can make something beautiful out of curtains a la Scarlett O’Hara, curtains being figurative. I’m not like Maggie, who’d be your garden-variety Belle in Gone with the Wind—I swear Mom’s still got the looks to grab her a Rhett if she was of a mind to do so. But we can’t even talk her into rinsing the gray out of her hair; it’s like she grew some kind of follicular armor against the world and she’s damn proud of it. Protective, even.

I wouldn’t be in the Gone with the Wind cast as someone you’d recognize, but if my character chanced to stumble into the story, I’d be slapping the hell out of Melanie Wilkes. I don’t think there was a more passive-aggressive female in all literature—even Cleopatra had the balls to just put the asp to her bosom and die already. I bet ol’ Cleo didn’t push her man into another woman’s arms with her dying breath, and I admire a woman who can choose her course in life and not drag everybody else down with her ship.

I hope we’re not going down on Sugar’s ship—a more unlikely trio of pecan bakers never existed. That’s what our business plan is: we’re going to sell seasoned pecans online. How the hell is that going to work, you ask? You’d be surprised that I don’t know myself. But Sugar always has a plan. She calls our new venture a FOB, short for female- owned-business. I call it Operation SOL, because we’re shit out of luck and probably grasping at lifelines with Sugar’s FOB.

Sugar’s recently divorced (though Ramon, her jet-pilot ex back in Pensacola, didn’t want the divorce—keep that on the QT). He called her up until the moment she left town, even as she was buying the domain name hotterthanhellnuts.com.

With a name like that, there’s a very good chance we’re SOL.

Good night, Journal.

Wait a minute—that sounds so Sugar! My closing will be…whatever. So…whatever!

Hello, Journal.

Chapter Two

My daughters think I can’t do this journaling thing. They gave me a calendar, as if that would inspire me. A calendar! Do I look like I need to be reminded of the passing of days?

So I bought you, a nice, intelligent-looking college-ruled spiral—red, to match their red-diary fantasy—let me just start by saying you’re definitely not what I thought I’d be pouring my thoughts into at my age. Not what—who. You’re really more of a who because you’re going to be my best friend while I walk through this valley of bingo-less hell called a move with my daughters, with a drooling stray because we’re not The Family Strange enough, so we had to add a furry needbag to our drama.

It’s not that I mind moving so much. I just thought I’d be at a different point on the line called my life. You know what I want? I want to learn how to age whiskey in barrels. God, I love the smell of whiskey, so smooth and sensuous. I want to grow citrus in pots, and you may be sure that where Sugar’s moved us, there’ll be no citrus in pots, unless I’m badly mistaken. Last time I looked at the weather map on TV, it said that Pecan Creek is around one hundred six degrees farenhell. That’ll make even the hardiest lemon wither into a tight ball of yellow regret.

It’s true I could have stayed in Florida. But I love my daughters. It was clear to me that they needed a change, a kick-start in their lives. So I’m hanging in here, along for the ride. A matronly support system, doing what mothers do best, maybe the only thing I ever had to give them—support. I’m pulling for Sugar and her Hot Nuts idea. God knows I’m all out of good ideas. When Sugar found out I had breast cancer, she went into total survival mode for us all. Hence my ass here in a so-called J.R. Ewing room and the underfed stray on the floor at my feet—now we have all the components we need to be the Waltons, in Sugar’s mind, I suppose.

Oh, one more thing under the heading of what I want out of life: I want sex. Good, old-fashioned, sweaty sex. I wasn’t always fifty-three, you know. My daughters would be petrified at the thought of their mother wanting the warmth of a man lying up against her back, but I miss the fire and the passion. You’re too young in your teens and twenties to do it right, and you lose your momentum or your partner in your forties. The thirties are sort of a blur for me because I was busy with young children. I figure your fifties is about the time you’ve got your lady bits and your life figured out, so I’d like to get the juices flowing again and feel the heat. Without guilt. My God, even the wrapper on the eighty-five-percent-cocoa chocolate bar I eat for my heart warns the consumer to remember to enjoy chocolate responsibly. When chocolate bars carry prissy-ass warnings guaranteed to take the edge off your pleasure, it’s a crying sin. I reserve the right to live my life without guilt, with not one ounce of sex-and-cocoa-starved guilt.

As I say, my sex life is not in my daughters’ plans. But, dear journal, you can keep my secret. And one day, I intend to tell you a story of an unfulfilled life: a story of love and passion and forgiveness, and learning the hard way that no matter how bad you hurt the ones you love, it’s never too late to tell them you’re sorry.

And that you’re proud of them.

It’d probably be easier to grow citrus in hell.

But Pecan Creek, Texas is where we’re beginning our family Normal Rockwell card, so that’s where I’ll be hanging my lacy black bras on the clothesline from now on. Participating on the sly,


It had been only a week since the Hot Nuts had come to town, and Jake knew that the foundations of Pecan Creek were already quivering. He intended to ignore the preliminary fits and starts of the getting-to-know-you phase as long as he could. Vivian had been by with an apple pie to introduce herself to the newcomers, but no one had been home. She’d been disappointed and left it on the porch with a note.

Jake was relieved. There was plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other. He couldn’t say for certain that the ladies wouldn’t all get along, but Vivian was a force to be reckoned with, and Maggie seemed pretty well versed in don’t-give-a-shit. Those two attitudes usually lay at odds with one another.

He set the balls in a triangular-shaped rack on the pool table, squaring them with his thumbs so that no space remained. Nice and tight, a great rack, which made him think about Sugar’s rack, which was also a great rack, one more thing in Pecan Creek he intended to ignore.

“When Lucy Cassavechia flounced into church on Sunday morning with that short skirt and those high purple heels and that heart-shaped tattoo on her ankle,” Kel Underwood said, “my pecker went so stiff I was afraid it was gonna fly out of my pants like a NASA rocket.”

Jake looked at the perfect rack and sighed with regret. He owned the Bait and Burgers, unbeknownst to Vivian, along with his three best friends from high school, who were also his military brothers, and sometimes the dead weight he wore on his back. Like right now. “Shit, Kel. You made me mess up the perfect rack.” He sighed, glancing over at the two-hundred-thirty-pound, six-foot-five ex-linebacker. “You know you love Debbie, Kel, and those ugly kids of yours. There’s no reason to get all excited over a short skirt.”

Kel shrugged, his long brown ponytail shaggy and a bit dispirited. “Every guy wants to take a new car out for a drive occasionally. And Debbie doesn’t scream for me anymore. She used to come so loud the chickens would fly out of the roosts.”

“Damn it, Kel, you don’t have chickens,” Jake said.

“I think Lucy would scream. I’d put money on Lucy being a screamer.” Kel finished the bottle of homegrown. “I like ’em loud.”

“Not me.” Jake shook his head. “I’m on a mission for peace and quiet in my life. No excitement.” He kissed his pool cue and broke, watching the colored and striped balls fly with satisfaction. “There’s your hard-on. An easy run of the table. Watch and learn.”

“Lucy’s hot, but Ma ain’t bad, either,” Bobby German said, and Jake miscued on what should have been an easy put-away of the six ball. “Has anybody taken a good look at Lucy’s mother?” Brown-skinned, tankheaded “Big” Bobby took a swig of his beer. “I’d do her in a heartbeat if I was twenty years older.”

Jake leaned his pool cue against the bar and looked at the fourth member of their group. “Go ahead. Screw up my whole day. Tell us which one of the new ladies in town you want to do so I can get on with my game.”

Evert Carmichael shrugged. “All of ’em would work for me, but my girlfriend over at the coffee shop’s taking care of my plumbing just fine. I’m not messing up a good thing.”

Jake felt better, because for a second he’d been afraid someone was going to say Sugar, and then he was going to be pissed, although he didn’t know why. These were his friends. They’d played football together in high school, gone through A&M as corps turds, then went straight into the military. After basic, they’d gone right to Afghanistan, then Iraq, all of which had been shitholes of unimaginable proportions, even for officers.

Despite his pride in his military service, it had left scars. Evert, the Pecan Creek kicker the year they’d won the football championship, had gotten his little toe shot off, which he claimed “fucked up my goddamn kick” every chance he got to tell someone—which was about once a week. Evert was proud of his kicking foot, and now he claimed his balance was off. He was a big man, good looking with blond sunny hair and a mustache that drooped like Droopy Dog’s face, and the ladies went nuts for him. Ever since he’d had the good fortune to make his way into Cat Jenkins’s bed a few weeks ago, he never mentioned his fucked-up kick, which suited Jake fine.

“I’m thinking about growing some bud,” Big Bobby said. “We don’t have any Mary Jane around here.”

“You don’t smoke pot,” Jake told the star wide receiver, “and if you grow any plants around here, I’ll kick your ass to the next county.” He glared at Bobby, who shrugged and ran a hand through black locks that rarely saw grooming tools. “You dumbass.”

“I don’t want to smoke it. It would be for medicinal purposes, like in California. I heard it’s profitable, and I could use some profitability.” Bobby got up to eye the table Jake had abandoned. “We don’t make any money at Bait and Burgers.”

“We don’t really try.” Jake frowned. “Making money takes a little bit of effort. You need money, Bobby?”

“No,” Bobby said. “But we can’t sit down here playing pool forever.”

“I can.” Jake dreamed of peace in his life. Some people needed expensive vacations to relax. He just needed a dark, quiet basement with a flashing Dos XXs sign. “We make our own brew. I farm a few acres and rent out a house. That’s plenty for me.”

“And you trade stocks like a Wall Street pro, Buffett’s kid brother,” Kel said. “You have income. We’ve got to do something with our lives. We can’t just sit here and circle jerk for the rest of our lives.”

Jake realized something of an uprising had been plotted among his lifelong comrades. He jacked himself onto a cracked vinyl barstool and waited. “Go on.”

“It’s all fine for you to hang out here, batching it,” Evert said. “You’re only responsible to you, Jake.”

And to the Pillars, who want me to save the town, but I’ve done all the saving I intend to do in life.

It was bad karma to think about saving things that could not be saved. “Do what you have to do. I understand you have families. Girlfriends. Whatever.” He shrugged. “You want me to buy you out of Bait and Burgers?”

Bobby German shook his dark lunkhead. Evert sighed and moved his big pumpkin in the negative, staring at his good foot. Kel tucked his chin before shrugging. “We need jobs. And there aren’t any here for us.”

Not unless you made peter heaters. Jake closed his eyes for a moment. A vision of Sugar, chestnut-haired, well-breasted and ballbreaking, rose to mind. She whines less than this crew, and I saddled her with a house I’d sell in a heartbeat if I could.

Still, these were his best friends. “Things should pick up around here eventually. August is a slow month.” Every month was a slow month in Pecan Creek.

He could barely stand to meet the desultory expressions on his friends’ faces. His cell phone rang, giving him something to do besides stare at gloom. “It’s Vivian,” he said. “Hang on and we’ll get back to this. I swear we’ll figure it out. Hello?”

“Jake? I’ve been thinking—”

“No,” Jake said, so on automatic that he practically bit his tongue. “What’s on your mind?”

“We need a mayor. A real live mayor of Pecan Creek.”

Jake blinked, his heart sinking as he recognized a big hook in Vivian’s pronouncement. Vivian’s plans usually had a stink bomb reserved just for him. “Why?”

“We don’t have one. All small towns have a mayor. Tourists love mayors. They love to shake a mayor’s hand, get that authentic small-town flavor only a ribbon-wearing, tall-hatted, good-ol’-boy mayor can provide. Someone to throw candy at the Christmas parade.”

They were back to the infernal parade, which Jake personally thought was a waste of effort. It was true that plenty of tourists swamped Pecan Creek to buy ornaments and trinkets and other crap that supposedly only PC could provide. But the yearly parade was also a way to purvey the other essentials PC sold. Jake was damned if he was going to be a mayor who pushed homemade lube juice. “I’m not doing it.”

A long moment of very dead silence met his statement. “But you look mayoral,” Vivian said.

And you think I’m the stuffed shirt who will toss some Tootsie Rolls, do a little glad- handing, chuck some baby chins, and then shuffle off to wherever mayors go when their magic mayor ribbon expires. Christ.

And then it hit him in Technicolor. Maggie. “I know someone who would make a great mayor.”

“Perfect,” Vivian said. “I still think you should do it, but send him to tonight’s meeting, and we’ll consider him.”

“Excellent.” Jake snapped off his phone. “This conversation will have to be continued, boys. I’ve got to go make an important assignment.”

“We’re going to clean out the fryers,” Kel said, “and then we may head over to Sheriff Goody’s office to talk about getting up a shirts ’n ’skins football game in his field.”

“Or use mine,” Jake said as he ran up the wooden stairs.

“We need a quarterback!” Kel called after him.

“I’ll be back soon,” Jake yelled, heading out the back and jumping in his

truck. The family home wasn’t five minutes away, and this was as good a time as any to see how the Hot Nuts were making out.

Maggie stared at Jake, her mop of bright red hair tamed in spots with gray. “But I don’t know the first thing about being a mayor. I was a teller at a bank in Florida. Counting money and balancing books is really all I know.”

“It sounds like a lot of responsibility,” Lucy said, “and our business is taking up a lot of our time. Mom’s time.” Lucy looked at Maggie. “She’s got the secret recipe.”

“And I have to wash the dog,” Maggie said.

“I can bathe Paris, Mom, if you want to be mayor.” Sugar smiled at Jake, the first time he thought she’d smiled at him. “Mom loves to try new things.”

“You just have to throw candy from the Christmas parade float,” Jake said. “And maybe shake some hands, tell people ‘welcome to Pecan Creek’.”

“I could do that,” Lucy said, and Jake glanced at her bare legs before looking back at Maggie’s slightly lined, comfortable face.

“You’d be the face of Pecan Creek,” he told Maggie. “A responsible, honest face.”

“Can we have an advertisement in the parade?” Sugar asked.

Jake flinched. “We don’t advertise in the parade, actually.” He could see the stir a Hotter than Hell Nuts sign plastered to the side of a float would cause in a function meant to lure families to the Most Honest Town in Texas. “Makes it too commercial. Here in Pecan Creek, we are all about the experience.”

“Damn,” Lucy said, “how does anybody ever make any dough?”

Jake took a deep breath and smiled at Satan’s best weapon for temptation. “The shops along the parade route in town are open for business. And that’s why the people come, for the exceptional Christmas experience that is quintessentially Pecan Creek.”

Lucy shrugged. “We’re an online business, though.”

“We’ll have the sign on the main road into town,” Sugar said, and Jake cleared his throat.

“That hasn’t actually passed the committee.” He wondered how he could explain to Sugar that Hot Nuts were never going to be on the main billboard. Without that sign proclaiming their wares, he figured they were pretty much without advertising, and therefore, pretty much dead in the water as a business.

It was a problem he’d deal with later.

He fastened a winning smile on Maggie. “Having you as our mayor would mean a lot to us.”Most particularly me, because you’ll be someone with little interest in a long-term role as mayor, which will suit Vivian fine—and everybody’s happy. And I go back to what I do best, which is relaxing.

He shot a fast glance at Sugar’s curved lips as she looked at Maggie. Pink and sweet, like just about everything else on her. All that don’t-mess-with-me attitude probably put his buddies off, which was fine, because he’d really be disappointed if she dated guys like Kel or Evert or Big Bobby. For the briefest of seconds, he wondered if her nipples were pink too, then realized Lucy was watching him stare at her sister’s tight white top. Jake grinned—who, me? Lust? Nah—and went back to working Maggie.

“Think about it,” he said, coaxing. “Do I have to dress up or anything?”

He pondered that. “A top hat would be perfect. We can probably find one somewhere.”

After a moment, she smiled. “Will you at least ask the committee if we can pass out business cards?”

“Sure.” No. Jake watched Sugar stir something on the stove, sending steaming puffs of sweet fragrance into the air. The whole time he’d been badgering Maggie, Sugar had been moving a whisk speedily around a skillet, making her whole body bounce. He just about had a stiff one watching her tush bob in her tight shorts and her breasts swaying in the fitted shirt. Even her shoulders danced with the stirring. Maybe it was watching a good-looking woman cook, but he was mesmerized like a wolf watching a baby chick.

“Well, then, sure.” Maggie beamed. “I guess since Pecan Creek is our new home, it’s the least I can do.”

“Great.” Jake put his hat on. “I’ll tell the council the good news. In fact, why don’t you come by tonight and let me introduce you?”

Maggie nodded. “I’ll do that.”

“I’ll pick you up just before seven.” Bobby was right. Maggie really was a beautiful woman, once a man got past the stunner Lucy put on a guy and the lure of home Sugar cast over fools who might be looking to get chained to a hearth. Sugar was sexy too, but it had a haunt to it, like she was too vulnerable, whereas Maggie seemed like she’d been run hard and put away wet. Lucy just plain scared the shit out of him. He was pretty certain Lucy had seen a lot in her young life.

He gave Sugar one last glance—peeping in her pan quickly to see what she was whipping up—and saw gently toasted pecans in a mouthwatering sweet sauce. He scented caramel and sugar and maybe a hint of spice. Cinnamon. “Is that the secret recipe?”

“If I told, would it be a secret?” Sugar asked. For a split second, her hazel eyes met his, and he felt something zap him in his chest. Jake tipped his hat, heading out to the door to his truck, before he did something stupid, like find himself attracted to Sugar.

He got in the well-worn black truck, noticing he did, in fact, have a woody of epic proportions. “Damn,” he muttered.

“About those business cards,” Lucy said in his window, and Jake bit back a vivid curse word. “Try not to let my sister down, okay?”

He stared at the full-on sexual appeal that was Lucy Cassevechia as she rapped him on the arm and then turned to sashay back inside the kitchen. Right, left, right, left—it was no wonder Kel had just about lost his mind when he looked at those smooth legs and tight butt cheeks.

Jake felt sweat under his hat band and told himself how fortunate he was that he didn’t dig hot screaming sex with radioactive babes like Lucy.

Their older sisters, maybe.

Hell, yeah.

“I don’t like him,” Lucy said, after Jake had left.

Sugar glanced at her sister as she moved the caramelized pecans to a white dish. “Why?”

Lucy eyed the hot pecans. Maggie stared at the nuts too. “He’s working an angle,” Lucy said.

“Aren’t we all?” Sugar didn’t care about angles. She had enough to worry about without Jake’s angles. Although, truth be told, his bulges would interest her more than his angles. The man was strong and muscular and big everywhere. She had a feeling he knew all the moves a woman liked.

“He stares at you every time he thinks you’re not looking.” Lucy picked at a nail, then bit it off. “If he wasn’t scared of you, he’d try to get you into bed.”

“Scared of me?” Sugar shook her head. “I don’t think Jake Bentley is afraid of me, or much of anything, probably.” He wore his hair long and unbrushed, like he didn’t care. His jeans had been nicely tight and a bit worn the couple of times she’d seen him. He had clean nails, clear skin, a do-me smile—Sugar ignored the shivers shooting over her and stirred the sauce faster.

Maggie picked up a pecan, considering it closely. “We may be getting very close to the proper texture. I just wish I could remember the recipe better.”

“This is what I find so fascinating and exhilarating.” Lucy picked up a pecan, chomping it irreverently. “We decided to move here and start a business without any idea of what we’re doing. No recipe, no backup plan. But most importantly, no recipe.”

“We have a recipe.” Sugar’s tone was reproving. “When Maggie remembers it, we will have a recipe.”

Maggie lit a cigarette, then opened up the back door. “I will remember it,” she said, going outside, “when things calm down around here a little. I don’t remember stuff well when I’m stressed. They say moving is almost as stressful as divorce, and I believe the genius who figured that out.”

Paris followed Maggie outside. Lucy sighed. “Do you really believe she’ll remember her grandmother’s recipes?”

“Does it matter?” Sugar sank onto a barstool. “Or does making her happy, getting her mind off the breast cancer, matter more than anything?” Maggie had been anxious in Pensacola. It was the cancer; it was staring down the number of days of one’s life. Sugar wanted her mom to think about anything but her cancer, which was in remission and, God willing, would stay in remission.

If there’s a God, and I know there is.

“So how long do we have, financially, if Maggie doesn’t remember?” Lucy’s blue eyes were opaque pools in her face.

Sugar sighed. “I’ve got enough money saved for a year. By Christmas, we’ll know if we can make a go of this, I think.”

“What if,” Lucy said, “we’d played our cards a little differently? What if you’d stayed married to Ramon, and I’d found a husband, and we’d been able to take care of Maggie? Instead of relying on her to dream up a recipe of her grandmother’s that she used to love?”

Impatience smote Sugar. “There’d been too many women for me to forgive Ramon, as much as I might have once believed that the two of us were soul mates. I learned over five years that a man may have a soul mate, but he also wants lots of bed mates, and it’s different. As for you finding a husband”—Sugar shrugged—“I wouldn’t want you to marry someone you didn’t love. Trust me, as bad as marriage was to Ramon once I caught him cheating, marriage would be worse if you weren’t in love.”

“I don’t know,” Lucy said. “I’d do it for Mom.”

“Maggie wouldn’t want you to. She’s been married twice. It’s not a path she plans to go down again.” Sugar looked at Lucy. “Besides, you haven’t figured out what you want to do with your life yet. Do that first.”

“And when do you figure it out?”

Sugar looked out the window, watching Maggie walk through the pecan grove with Paris at her side, happily content to keep Maggie company while she smoked her cigarette. “I like it here. If I can make a go of Hotter than Hell Nuts, I’ll stay here forever.”

“We’ll see.” Lucy’s tone was dark. She flipped her chin-length, wavy hair and got up. “These are good. Not perfect, but good. I’m going to go bum a cig off Maggie.”

“Don’t start smoking,” Sugar said automatically, but Lucy had already departed. She crunched on a pecan, cataloguing the flavors. Vanilla, a hint of cinnamon, a layer of caramel—

They were getting closer. The journey was the point, wasn’t it? The closeness they were supposed to gain as a family? Lucy didn’t really understand the journey. She was young; she wanted fast answers.

There was no such thing, at least not always. Not for the scars in the Cassevechia family. She went to the sink to wash out the skillet, watching her sister and mother walking under the canopy of full, leafy pecan trees, and thought that here in Pecan Creek, they were at least safe.

Idly, she wondered if Jake had been staring at her as Lucy claimed. Maybe— but probably not. He reminded her of Ramon, who had loved her in his own way but not the way she’d needed to be loved.

J.T. Bentley seemed remarkably similar. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark- humored, somewhat secretive. Lucy was right—he was working an angle—and Sugar had an idea that he was a man who liked his wall of reserve.

It was fine with her. The last thing she wanted was a man hitting on her. She planned to enjoy this time with her sister and her mother, for as long as it could possibly last.

Nothing for the Cassevechias ever seemed to last long.

At six forty-five, just like a date, Jake showed up for Maggie. Sugar appreciated him treating her mother so courteously. “She’s getting her purse,” Sugar said without inviting Jake in—when he visited, she felt like this wasn’t their house—but Maggie elbowed her out of the way.

“I’m ready. Ready to go be the new mayor of Pecan Creek!”

Jake smiled. “I’ll have her back in a few hours.”

Sugar nodded, keeping her gaze slightly averted from Jake’s dark brown eyes. The man was gorgeous, heartstoppingly so, and nothing good could come of having one’s heart stopped by gorgeous. She waved good-bye as they left, and went upstairs to the Best Little Whorehouse room.

The bedroom was an oasis of sorts. She couldn’t imagine changing a thing. At first, she’d been put off by the heavy draperies. Perhaps she’d even felt claustrophobic. The circular bed practically begged for its heavy curtains to be closed at night, but it was August, and the encircling velvet made her feel like something out of Scrooge’s bedchamber. When the hangings were open, the room felt more open and welcoming.

“Sugar!” Lucy called. “Have you seen this sweet cabinet?”

Sugar went into the hall to join Lucy, who was squatting down in front of an old walnut-stained Revere-style cabinet. “What’s so sweet about it?”

“It has family memorabilia.” Lucy held up an album. “Let’s investigate, shall we?”

Sugar blinked. “Is there a good reason to investigate?”

“There always is.” Lucy flipped the book open. “Oh, look at Jake in his little swimsuit.”

She stared at a picture of Jake on the beach with a shovel and bucket, next to a tall, dark-haired woman wearing Ava Gardner sunglasses and a Betty Grable swimsuit. “Women really did seem more glamorous back then,” she murmured.

Lucy flipped the page. “Our photos of Maggie don’t quite look like this. I think Vivian may have been raised a bit more gently, as they say.”

Sugar seated herself cross-legged on the hardwood floor next to her sister. “Where’s Jake’s father?”

“Not in this book, at least not yet.” Lucy pointed at the carefully written captions beneath each photo. “Here we have Jake in the first-grade Pecan Creek Christmas play. He was one of Santa’s elves.”

Jake’s slightly mischievous brown eyes shone with delight, even in the old color photo. “Pecan Creek loves its Christmas season.”

“Yeah, what else is there to do in a small town? You gotta love the fat man and the dead man, or you don’t have a holiday.”

Sugar drew back from her sister. “Lucy!”

“What? I’m just saying. Holidays are about fairy tales, aren’t they?”

Sugar sighed. “I’m going to bed.”

Lucy snapped the book shut. “I’m going into town to check on Maggie.” “Why?” Sugar looked at her sister as she jumped to her feet and shoved the photo album back into the cabinet. “Because I’m afraid, that’s why. I don’t trust Jake. I don’t know why he’s sticking Maggie with being mayor, but I’ve never heard of a small town electing a woman they’ve only known for a few days with the job unless there’s a problem.”

Sugar got to her feet, slightly alarmed. “Maggie can take care of herself.”

“Can she?” Lucy began clopping down the wooden stairs. “Do we want to find out?”

Sugar hesitated. Lucy didn’t trust anyone. Jake seemed nice enough to her. Maggie liked him; she’d said so.

Then again, Lucy had a point. It wouldn’t hurt to tag along so Maggie wouldn’t feel like Lucy was being overprotective. They could say that they’d simply come to meet some of the folks in the town, and thank Jake’s mom for the delicious apple pie.

It really hadn’t been that good. Sugar thought Mrs. Bentley had bought the pie at a bakery and put it on her own disposable plate with a doily before abandoning it on their doorstep with a cursory welcome note.

“I’ll go with you,” Sugar said, fast on Lucy’s heels.