Venus in Blue Jeans, page 10
“Customers?” Cal frowned. For some reason he’d always assumed Biedermeier lived on his bar stool.
“Yep. I’m one of his customers, too.” Wonder sipped Spaten and smiled in appreciation. “But I’m much easier to get along with. Aren’t I, Terrell?”
Biedermeier subsided grumpily. “Yeah. Whatever.”
Cal took a swallow of Dos Equis. “I didn’t know you had your own business, Terrell. What do you do?”
“Pest control,” Biedermeier muttered. “Easy Kill Pest Control.”
There was a long pause in the conversation.
Cal turned to Wonder, eyes narrowing. “Whatever joke you’re thinking of making, forget it. Margaret Hastings goes way beyond being a pest.”
Wonder frowned. “I gather our Margaret was in rare form.”
“You could say that. That woman put out more venom in fifteen minutes than most cobras do in a lifetime.”
“Ah.” Wonder nodded. “That would be old Greg’s legacy.”
“Greg?” Cal let some Dos Equis trickle down his throat.
“Margaret’s father. Gregory Hastings.” Wonder hunched over his bar stool again. “Rumored to be one of the meaner drunks in the town’s history before he kicked the sauce. And he got even nastier after he straightened himself out, as I recollect. A real peach. I would guess he’s also the reason Margaret is the town’s most vehement teetotaler.”
“Nasty SOB.” Biedermeier snorted.
Wonder nodded. “He was that. Thank God, he and his wife moved to McAllen. Greg’s the source of Margaret’s legendary temper. But the candy-coated tarantula effect is entirely her own.” He tipped back his Spaten.
“Candy-coated tarantula.” Biedermeier nodded. “Got that right.”
Cal frowned. “So why does everybody do what she says to do? There are times when I think she runs this town.”
Wonder shrugged. “She may be a bitch on wheels, but she’s a talented bitch on wheels. She was responsible for a sizeable bump in tourist revenue when she was president of the Merchants Association. Plus we have her to thank for the Liddy Brenner Festival. That still buys her a lot of influence around here.”
Cal heard the door open behind him and saw Wonder’s eyes grow wide a moment before he heard Docia murmur, “Evening, gents.”
He turned and felt like he’d been struck by a bullet train, not to mention the usual blood-to-the-groin reaction. Docia wore soft black trousers that pooled around her feet and a white silk shirt open to her sternum. She had a gold chain looped around her hips. Crystal-studded gold hoops hung at her ears. He wasn’t sure exactly how high the heels on her open-toed sandals were, but she was close to standing eye-to-eye with him.
Cal glanced down at his khaki slacks and dark green polo shirt. How much trouble was he in?
Wonder slid over to the next barstool without saying a word.
“Don’t mind me,” Docia murmured as she glided onto the barstool beside him. “I’m just overcompensating, as usual. Ingstrom?”
Ingstrom placed a margarita on the rocks in front of her.
Docia took a long sip. “You’re a magician.”
Cal swallowed, watching the line of her throat. “You know Wonder, of course.”
Docia slid a quick glance toward the end of the bar where Wonder sat blinking. “Hi.”
Wonder swallowed hard and nodded. “Nice to meet you.”
“What exactly are you overcompensating for?” Cal took another pull of his Dos Equis, trying not to look at the curve of breast he could see through the opening of her blouse.
“My father’s idea of femininity. Do you think I made it?”
“The temperature in the Dew Drop has gone up around five degrees just since you walked in.” Cal sighed. “If that’s a measure of femininity, I’d say you were off the charts.”
Docia gave him a faint smile. “Too much, do you think?” She brushed her fingers lightly along the side of her glass, caressing the slight curves in a way that made his groin ache.
Cal cleared his throat and fought back an urge to slide a finger beneath his collar. “You look terrific.”
The door swung open and Allie walked in, wiping her hands on her blue-checked chef’s pants and smiling serenely. She caught sight of Docia and shook her head, climbing onto the stool on the far side of Wonder. “What’s going on? You look like something out of Sex and the City.”
“My father’s taking us to dinner at the Silver Spur, so I had to channel Sarah Jessica. Do I look okay?” Her eyes widened slightly so that she looked a little like an anxious fifteen-year-old. Who had unaccountably developed the body of Charlize Theron.
Allie grinned. “Oh, honey, okay doesn’t begin to cover it!”
“Thanks.” Docia sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. She gave Cal a resigned smile. “Okay, let’s go.”
As he stood in the restaurant doorway, Cal decided the Silver Spur had a serious split-personality problem. The long, dark room had knotty pine paneling and Frederic Remington reproductions on the walls. The chandeliers were wagon wheels with lights shaped like candles.
But the wait staff was dressed in tuxedo shirts with black bowties and dark pants. Elevator music played in the background. Cal recognized a violin-heavy version of “Lonesome Me”.
Docia shook her head. “They used to wear cowboy hats and cap pistols, but that was when I was five. This place has really gone to the dogs since then.”
A man with silver sideburns rose from a back table. He was wearing a suit whose retail price could probably have fed a large contingent of suffering orphans for a couple of weeks with enough left over to buy them all iPods. Docia’s father was clearly a player. Cal wondered if he charged the outfits off as business expenses.
He was smiling. Sort of. One corner of his mouth edged up slightly, giving him a faintly off-balance look. As they got nearer, Cal revised his opinion.
Not a smile. More like a grimace.
Docia leaned forward, putting her hand on her father’s arm, and touched her lips to his cheek. She had to bend down to do it. Cal suddenly understood the ultra-high heels.
“Evening, Daddy.” Docia gave him her own small, tight smile.
Her father’s smile-grimace disappeared as he gave her a quick once over, shaking his head. “Don’t you own a dress? Or do you just not wear them when I’m around.”
For a moment, Docia looked as if she’d been slapped. Cal wondered if it would put a serious dent in their relationship if he rapped her father upside the head. Her lips compressed slightly, but then her eyes sparked. That’s my girl.
“I prefer pants,” she said in a husky voice. “They’re easier to maneuver in. Daddy, this is my friend, Dr. Cal Toleffson. Cal, this is my father, Billy Kent.”
Docia turned to give him a ravishing smile that had nothing to do with her eyes. Apparently, a family trait.
“What kind of doctor?” Kent slid back into his seat as they joined him at the table. ”Specialist or general practice?”
“Neither. I’m a vet.” Cal tried out the Kent family smile-that-wasn’t-a-smile. It worked for him too.
“A vet.” Kent’s eyes narrowed as the corner of his mouth edged up again. “I guess you don’t mean you were in the service.”
“Cal’s a partner in the town veterinary clinic.” Docia’s voice was crisp. She wasn’t bothering to smile at all anymore.
Kent glanced around the room, only half paying attention. He gestured at the waiter. “Bring us some of that venison sausage to start off with.” He nodded in Cal’s general direction. “Specialty of the house. You’ll like it.”
Cal sighed. No, I won’t.
Docia brushed her fingers across his hand. “I hate the venison sausage.” She turned to the waiter. “Just bring me a salad. Cal?”
“Salad sounds good.”
Docia smiled at him. Billy Kent, on the other hand, looked as if he was already suffering from indigestion.
It got worse.
“Salmon?” Billy gave Docia a glance that made Cal wonder if he had an ulcer kicking in. “You don’t eat beef anymore? You becoming a vegetarian now, like all those tree huggers in Austin?”
“There are a lot of trees I’d rather hug than some of the people I know,” Docia snapped. “Anyway, can’t a person eat fish once in a while without it being a philosophical decision?”
Cal kept his gaze on the wine list and pretended he knew what he was looking for.
Billy had a series of whiskey sours. Cal and Docia split a bottle of decent primitivo that cost twice as much as they would have paid at Brenner’s and didn’t come with Ken waggling his eyebrows at Docia.
Cal figured they were in for a long evening. Correction—a longer evening. After thirty minutes, it already felt like a couple of months.
Docia really wished she could see Ken’s waggling eyebrows. As the dinner went on, an ache crept into her shoulders and her muscles knotted up again. She knew she was being a prize bitch, being everything people like Margaret Hastings probably thought she was naturally. She hated herself like this, hated the sound of her nasty, sniping voice.
But she couldn’t seem to stop.
After his fourth whiskey sour, her father’s snarl became more pronounced. She could feel Cal tensing beside her. At least he was seeing her at her worst early in their relationship. Maybe he’d cut things short before her heart got too bruised. He couldn’t possibly want to stay with somebody who couldn’t stop snarling, could he? Maybe it would be easier that way.
On the other hand, every time she touched him, even accidentally, quick tingles of heat danced along her thighs.
Accidentally? Who are you kidding! She folded her hands on the table in front of her to keep herself from stroking his biceps.
“So what’s up with this cat of yours, Docia?” Her father’s voice penetrated the fog temporarily filling her brain. “Reba said he got shot.”
“Yes sir.” Docia took a calming breath. “He was shot in the face.”
Her father snorted. “BB gun, most likely. Maybe an air rifle. You shoot a cat in the face with a real gun, and no more cat.” He waved his hand dismissively.
Docia balled her hands into fists in her lap. “My cat was shot, Daddy,” she said through gritted teeth. “He almost died.”
Her father shook his head. “All right, he was shot. I’m just saying you shouldn’t read too much into it. Probably just a kid with a BB gun out shooting at squirrels. Cat didn’t move fast enough. That’s all it was. Don’t know why Reba said you got all worked up over it.”
Docia took another deep, calming breath. Do not scream at your father. Do not scream at your father.
“The cat was shot with a twenty-two.” Cal’s voice was low but precise. His first words in at least fifteen minutes. Both Docia and her father turned to stare in surprise. “There were bullet fragments in the wound. He was lucky. The angle of the shot went in through the muzzle and out through the lower jaw. It just missed his eye.”
He reached beneath the table and took hold of Docia’s fist, unbending her fingers somewhat so he could hold her hand.
“If Docia hadn’t gotten him to the hospital when she did, he would have bled to death.” Cal looked straight at her father until Daddy dropped his gaze.
Docia clamped her jaw shut, working to keep back the tears. Her throat felt as if it was closing up.
“You should be proud of her.” Cal’s voice was still quiet. “She kept her head, got the cat into a carrier. Docia saved the cat’s life.”
Her father exhaled, staring into her eyes. “I am proud. I’m always proud of her. Most of the time, anyway.”
Then why the hell don’t you show it sometimes? Docia took another breath, trying to loosen her throat. “Dessert anyone?”
As the three of them stood in the doorway, once the Dinner From Hell was over, her father put his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know if anything’s going on here or not, Docia. I mean your cat getting shot, this book dealer disappearing, all that. If anything else happens you let me know, all right?”
What her father could do about Nico getting shot or Dub disappearing wasn’t clear to Docia, but for once he wasn’t saying she was overreacting. It was as close to an apology as she was likely to get. “Thanks, Daddy.”
He leaned forward somewhat stiffly and kissed her cheek. “All right, then. You take care of yourself now.”
“Yes sir.” She gulped. “I always do.”
Her father clasped Cal’s hand and said something manly and noncommittal. Cal had to bend down to hear him.
God, Cal was gorgeous. Docia stood for a moment, her heart thumping, and stared. Deep bronze highlights shone in his coffee-colored hair. His beard was a shade lighter, she realized suddenly—more reddish. Laugh lines crinkled around his eyes when he smiled. His skin was faintly tanned from working out in the sun.
Oh, watch it, Docia, you are on the verge of getting in way too deep. We’re not doing this anymore, remember? You know it doesn’t work out!
He’d spent a hellish evening watching her snipe at her father, but he hadn’t gotten up and walked out. On the verge, nothing! She was already in over her head.
They left her father at the door of the Silver Spur, then headed up Main toward the bookstore. Docia limped slightly. Her arches felt like they were on fire. After half a block, she found a cast-iron bench in front of the city park and pulled off her shoes. “It always takes me a couple of hours to remember just why I stopped wearing heels,” she groaned.
Cal took one shoe out of her hands, holding it up to the light. “How tall are these heels, three inches?”
“More like four.” Docia rubbed the sole of her foot. She’d have blisters to deal with tomorrow, to say nothing of sore feet for the rest of the weekend.
Cal handed back the shoe. “Was it worth it?”
“I guess I made my point. Of course, I’m not entirely sure what that point was supposed to be.” Docia shrugged.
Cal grinned. “If your goal was to look like every fifteen-year-old boy’s idea of the perfect woman, I’d say you made it.”
Docia leaned back against the bench, letting the shoes drop from her hands onto the concrete. “Why are you so nice? You’ve just been through probably the worst family dinner ever, and you didn’t even flinch. You must have the world’s sweetest family.”
Cal’s smile dimmed for a moment, and he looked away down the street. “I come from the Midwest. We’re bred to be nice. Part of the DNA. Families don’t really come into it.”
“So no family fights?”
Cal leaned back against the bench, spreading one arm behind her shoulders. Docia felt the faint reflected warmth against her back. More electricity. Stop it, Docia!
“Family fights are just more subtle. We don’t get to be as openly hostile, being so nice and all, so it takes more time. But it drives you just as crazy.” He turned to look at her again. “Want to tell me what was going on back there?”
Docia closed her eyes, leaning back against the smooth muscles of his arm. “Just sparring. My mother and dad are separated because, frankly, my dad couldn’t keep his pants zipped. Mama finally got fed up and kicked him out. But as she pointed out to me the other night, it’s not my problem. Of course, there were a few other issues besides that.” She shook her head. “We’re still a little touchy with each other.”
Cal raised an eyebrow. “No sisters or brothers?”
Docia shrugged. “Just me. Means I get to be the center of everybody’s battles.” She stood again, tucking the shoes under her arm. “Maybe I’ll drop these off in the Goodwill box over on Spicewood. What do you think?”
“I think some Goodwill customer’s going to decide Santa Claus came in June.” He grinned as they walked back up the street.
“They’d have to wear size-eleven shoes,” Docia said. “Not exactly a widespread phenomenon. On s
Docia kept her eyes on the sidewalk, pretending to watch out for bits of glass and gravel rather than meet Cal’s gaze. His gaze did far too many strange things to her equilibrium. The iron streetlamps glowed against the blue-black sky. Faint music drifted through the night from an open-air show at one of the bars.
“Did your father help you get your shop started?” Cal’s voice was soft.
Docia shook her head. “No, I did it on my own. Drew up a business plan and everything.” She grimaced. “I had to get a loan to fix the place up, though, and for operating expenses for the first year. It pretty much wiped me out at first, but we’ve done pretty well since then.”
Cal nodded. “Startups are a bitch. Believe me, I know. I’m still paying off Horace.”
They turned the corner by the bookshop and headed up the block toward the apartment door. “Your father must be proud of you for how well the bookstore has done,” Cal mused, “since he’s in business himself.”
Docia’s smile faded a little. “I don’t know. I don’t talk about business with my father.”
“I guess he’s pretty successful, though, right?”
A distant alarm sounded in her head. It was always possible Cal had never heard of Billy Kent before tonight. On the other hand… “He’s had some lucky breaks.”
Cal nodded. “Yeah, he looked like he had.”
She turned at the doorway, looking back to finally meet his gaze. Time to make a move. “Would you like to come up?”
Cal’s pulse immediately switched into jackhammer mode, while his blood made the usual quick trip to his groin. “Sure.” His voice sounded rusty. He swallowed. “That’d be great.”
He stumbled a bit on the stair behind Docia as they climbed, trying once again not to focus exclusively on her ass. Lummox! This was not going well. He could only hope his coordination came through when he needed it.
Docia turned slightly to look back over her shoulder. “I can make coffee. Or there’s some port that Ken got me to buy that’s pretty good.”
“Whatever you want,” Cal choked out. He was mesmerized by the way the fabric in her long, silky pants rippled along her calves and down to her bright pink toenails as she climbed the stairs.
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