Venus in Blue Jeans, page 19
“Guide dog, Ingstrom.” Cal smiled reassuringly. “I’m training him.”
Wonder snorted. “I didn’t know elves needed guide dogs.”
“Oh, knock it off,” Docia growled. “The dog’s been adopted. Live with it.”
Janie grinned at Cal. “So he’s yours now?”
Cal shrugged, feeling Pep shift against his side. “At least until Margaret comes back.” Pep whimpered, and Cal rubbed his ears again.
Janie’s smile faded, her jaw tightening. “Right. When she’s okay again.”
Pep moved restlessly in his pocket. It was just about time to leave. He really didn’t want dog pee on his lab coat. A distant rumble echoed outside, and Pep shuddered against his hip. “What was that?”
Wonder raised his head, listening. “Sounds like thunder. Maybe that storm is finally going to hit.”
Cal had a sudden vision of paper napkins, plates, bread crumbs and cheese bits all turning to muck in Docia’s backyard.
Docia buried her face in her hands. “Well, shit.”
Clete Morris peered at the bookstore backyard from the seat in his truck. The side street where he’d parked gave him a clear view. Store by store, Main turned dark as the last scattering of customers scurried away to escape the storm. As soon as the final store closed down, he’d be ready to go.
Clete hoped the rain would hold off until after he was inside the shop. He didn’t want to track in mud and then have to clean it up later. He was always careful to check before he left, to take care of any signs he’d been there.
People thought he was stupid, although not as stupid as Ham Linklatter. Clete considered that thought useful.
Nobody watched stupid people.
But Clete judged he was smart enough to get by. At least, he knew not to drive the police cruiser when he went to break into the bookstore.
Well, all right, he’d been told not to drive it, but he understood the reasoning well enough. The cruiser drew attention, but nobody looked at a pickup in Konigsburg. Likely they wouldn’t even notice the license plate was smeared with mud to cover up the letters.
Clete grinned to himself. “Nice touch,” he murmured. Particularly since he’d thought of it himself.
When the lights finally went out at the souvenir store up the street, he slipped out of his truck and moved to the back gate behind the bookstore, where he’d been careful to leave the lock open when he checked the crime scene tape. Clete frowned. The place was still full of trash, even though those two Mexican girls had been picking stuff up all day. The rain would make a real mess.
He skirted along the edge of the lawn, trying not to step in anything. On TV, they always caught people if they stepped in something.
But then Clete was supposed to be the one doing the catching, and he wasn’t going to catch himself. He would have laughed at his own cleverness, but he was supposed to be quiet when he broke in.
Not that it would make much difference this time. “Ms. Docia High-and-Mighty Kent’s off screwing the vet,” he muttered, “so she won’t be around anyhow.”
Clete wouldn’t have minded having a try at Docia Kent himself, but he knew what the chances of that were. At least he wasn’t sniffing around after that bitch Margaret Hastings, like Ham Linklatter.
As he worked his way along the side of the yard, he thought about just who might have clobbered Margaret Hastings. It probably didn’t have anything to do with his reason for breaking into the shop tonight. After all, he hadn’t been the one who’d hit her. And it might have happened in the alley instead of the backyard. That’s what the chief said.
All he’d done was shoot the damn cat. Served it right for hopping up on the windowsill, startling him when he was in the storeroom. He hated cats anyway, particularly black ones. He figured shooting it was sort of like shooting a rabbit or a squirrel—target practice, more or less.
At the back door he took out his key and slid it quietly into the lock. Lucky Ms. Stuck-Up hadn’t changed the locks when she took over.
And lucky one key opened both doors in the building. Maybe it worked on Ms. Stuck-Up’s apartment too.
That might come in handy someday. Clete filed the idea away for future reference.
The rain cut loose five minutes after Cal and Docia got into the barn. It had already begun dripping as Cal pulled the truck into the drive.
Pep wasn’t happy about the thunder. He ducked down in Cal’s pocket, sort of like a reluctant baby kangaroo. Every time another clap sounded, he shuddered. On the way inside, Cal lifted the dog gingerly to the front lawn, hoping he’d be willing to pee before it really started raining. A bolt of lightning crackled through the air and Pep whimpered, relieving himself on Cal’s boot.
Well, at least that was taken care of.
Inside, Nico curled resentfully in a corner. “It’s not my fault.” Docia shook her head at the cat. “I honestly did not make it rain, and I honestly cannot make it stop.” Nico gave her a look that reeked of disapproval. Clearly, they’d had this discussion before.
After he’d wiped off his boots, Cal pulled out his wok and began to rifle through the vegetables in the hydrator. Maybe some stir-fried noodles with a little extra chili sauce. He piled some celery on the cutting board and started to chop.
Docia opened a bottle of wine. “You’re very good at that.”
“As the only vegetarian in Lander, Iowa, I learned to cook at an early age.” Cal tried to keep his voice light. Irony. We’re going for irony here.
“When I was a teenager I lived on hamburgers. I would have starved.” Docia frowned. “What did your parents think?”
“My dad said if I was willing to cook for myself, fine with him. My mom thought—thinks—it’s just a phase. Whenever I go home she barbecues for me. I think she’s convinced the smell will win me over.” He poured a good-sized dollop of peanut oil into the wok. “Actually, the smell nauseates me, but I’m pretty good at not letting it show.” Along with some other things he didn’t share with his mother.
“So.” Docia paused, then raised her chin. “Her primary purpose in life is to drive you crazy?”
Cal sighed. He should have known Docia would remember what he’d said earlier.
“My mother has very specific ideas about how her sons are supposed to carry on their lives. Mainly we’re supposed to live in Lander. Pete and Lars made it as far as Des Moines, but that’s still only an hour or so away. My going to Kansas City wasn’t popular, but at least it’s within three hours of Lander, so she kept the nagging to a minimum.”
Docia’s brow furrowed. “Why do I have the feeling that Texas was not something your family was ecstatic about?”
“It wasn’t.” Cal shook his head. “Not for Mom, anyway. My dad didn’t have any problem with it, or at least nothing he ever mentioned to me, and Lars and Pete wouldn’t care if I moved to Uzbekistan. Mom, on the other hand, sees it as a major betrayal of everything good, pure and Midwestern.
Docia frowned. “Has she ever been to Texas?”
“No, and she’s not likely to unless Satan opens an ice-skating rink.” Cal dropped a handful of celery into the fragrant peanut oil and listened to it sizzle. “She thinks warm climates lead to moral laxness. Plus there’s the money thing.”
“What money thing?” Docia picked up a bag of baby carrots from the counter.
“My dad loaned me a sizeable chunk of cash as an initial payment for the clinic partnership. I’m likely to be paying it all off for the foreseeable future, along with my student loans, unless I win the lottery.” Cal flopped a bunch of scallions onto the board. “Or marry Paris Hilton.”
Docia stared at him, eyes widening.
“Not that I’m likely to do that,” Cal added quickly, “given my low tolerance for anorexic blondes with limited vocabularies.” He tossed a handful of scallions into the oil.
Docia gave him a slightly guarded smile, wispy curls floating around her cheeks. Another quick shot of heat hit his g
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to pry into your family. Lord knows, my family is no prize when it comes to honoring my decisions. I’m still getting flack for moving up here.” She paused for a moment, staring down at the carrots she was chopping. “That and some other stuff.”
“Nothing to be sorry for—it’s not a big dark secret.” Cal took a deep breath. “I’m glad I came down here. Sooner or later I figure the rest of the family will come down to check it out, and then they’ll be okay with it.”
Docia raised an eyebrow. “Your father didn’t look over the clinic before he gave you the money?”
“He figured I knew what I was doing.” Cal crushed a garlic clove with his knife. “I had Lars check the deal over, too, since he’s an accountant. He said it was a good investment. Even if it does mean I’m sort of an indentured servant to Horace for a few years. I can think of a lot worse people to be indentured to.”
Docia moved to the counter beside him, dumping her carrots into the mix. Cal picked up a bell pepper and began to slice. The smell of hot peanut oil and garlic began to spread through the kitchen.
“Why did you become a vet?” Docia kept her eyes on the cutting board.
“I guess because I always wanted to be one.” He found a bag of washed spinach in the refrigerator and added a couple of handfuls to the pile of vegetables, then dumped them into the wok to sizzle in the hot oil. “We lived out on the edge of town with cats and dogs and the occasional injured bird. I did a lot of patching them up. What about you?”
Docia suddenly looked wary. “What about me?”
“How did you get into the bookstore business?”
“Double major at SMU— marketing and history. Somehow books were just a logical next step.”
Cal dug around in the pantry for soy sauce. “How’d your folks feel about it?”
Docia looked away. “How did yours feel about you being a vet?”
Cal watched her, trying to see her expression. “My dad thought I’d love it. My mom thought I’d never make any money. They were both right. Now you.”
Docia reached for a scallion. “They don’t seem to have any trouble with it, now that I’ve made the move and settled in. Except my dad is annoyed that I didn’t ask him for help with getting the store set up. Since he’s in real estate.”
Cal dumped a couple more handfuls of vegetables into the wok. “What about your mom?”
“Mama doesn’t do business much. She’s more into clubs.” Docia apparently found chopping the scallion fascinating. At any rate, she didn’t look at him.
Cal raised an eyebrow. “Clubs? You mean like nightclubs?”
Docia chuckled. “No. Charities. You know—Junior League, that kind of thing.”
“Sounds like you’ve got more social connections than the Toleffsons.” Cal turned down the burner.
Docia put down her knife and turned to look at him finally. He could see the copper flecks deep in the green of her eyes. “That’s my parents, not me. I live in Konigsburg and I run a bookstore.”
Cal tossed the vegetables and oil with his wooden spoon, then sprinkled on soy sauce and rice vinegar. “Why do I have the feeling there’s more to it than that?”
“There probably is, but it’s nothing important.” Docia pointed to the wok. “Okay, enough about screwed-up families for the evening. Tell me how we’re going to finish up this vegetarian masterpiece.”
Cal lay in bed next to Docia, wondering whether to say anything or not. Lightning still occasionally flashed through the windows, throwing the bed into shadow. Docia’s head was pillowed against his chest, her glorious hair spread against his skin.
They’d made love once, and he wouldn’t mind doing it again later. But right now he was happy just to lie there with her. He felt warm, satisfied, content.
In love. Having never been there before, he wasn’t entirely sure he was reading it right. But it was mighty pretty country.
The question was, did he tell Docia?
He could come up with a lot of reasons not to, mostly involved with saving his ass by not putting himself on the line. Plus he came from a long line of people who didn’t believe in talking about feelings. The times when his parents said they loved him had been relatively few, even though he’d never doubted it for a minute. But there was one overwhelming argument in favor of telling Docia how he felt.
He loved the woman. And he wanted her to know it.
He looked down at her. “Hey?”
Docia opened her eyes. Her beautiful emerald and copper eyes. Gemstones and precious metal. Priceless like the rest of her. “What’s up, Calthorpe?”
Right. Of course deciding he was going to tell her and figuring out how he was going to tell her were two different animals.
“I like having you here. With me.”
Docia smiled lazily. “I like being with you too. And I really like your barn.”
“Good.” Cal took a breath, steeling himself for the plunge. “You’re a fantastic woman, you know that?”
Docia rubbed her nose against his chest. “You’re not so bad yourself, Calthorpe.”
“The thing is…” Another deep breath. Just do it. “I think I’m in love with you, Docia.”
Docia’s eyes widened. She licked her lips.
Cal felt his shoulders tense. Not exactly the reaction he’d been hoping for.
“I…care for you a lot too, Cal.” She licked her lips again. “This is moving really fast, isn’t it?”
“Too fast for you? I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, Docia.” He lay back on his pillow, trying to ignore the sudden heaviness in his chest. So much for putting his ass on the line.
“No, Cal, don’t.” Docia cupped his face in her hands. “I’m glad you told me. It makes me happy. It’s just…this has been the strangest three days of my life. I’m not exactly operating at full speed right now.”
She dipped her head down, pressing her lips to his, tentatively, as if she wasn’t exactly sure she was welcome. Cal slid his arms around her waist, pushing her back gently, then ran his lips down the slender column of her throat.
“I’m going to shut up, now,” Docia whispered, “before I screw things up. Actions speak louder than words anyway.”
Outside, a clap of thunder rattled the windows. Docia wrapped her legs around him, pulling him closer.
Cal decided to put the whole thing on hold for now. Actions not only spoke louder, they were a lot more fun.
Docia lay in bed next to Cal that night and tried to figure out just why she hadn’t told him the truth. Why hadn’t she just said it?
She loved him.
She knew she did. She should be happy right now. Insead, she felt miserable and guilty.
But then, it wasn’t the only thing she’d lied about—just the most important. Her father was in real estate. Of course, putting it that way was sort of like saying Sam Walton was in retail. And while her mother was a member of the Junior League, she spent more time running the charitable foundation her own father had established forty years ago.
She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t told Cal everything—she probably should have. Just like she should have told him exactly how she felt about him.
Turning, she studied him as he slept. His shoulders were broader than his pillow, his skin dusky in the darkened room, his beard a shadow against his chin. The dark pelt of hair on his chest showed black above the sheet. When lightning flickered outside the window, she could see his eyelashes, absurdly thick for a man, like marks of soot against his cheeks.
Making love with him was like nothing she’d ever experienced before. Fierce and sweet at the same time. She thought of Cal’s large hand wrapped around Pep’s small body. Secure. Protected. He took care of her in almost the same way. Most men didn’t bother to try.
His hair tangled in curls against the pillow, almost like hers in the morning.
Our kids would have the
She caught her breath. Dear Lord! Where had that come from?
After all, he was a stranger, mostly. A stranger she’d gone to bed with for the last several nights. A stranger who’d helped her through the worst couple of days in her recent memory. A stranger who tasted like honey and salt and something that was essence of Cal. A stranger who loved her.
Panic squeezed her chest. No, no, no! Too soon. It was way too soon to feel this way. The last time she’d rushed into something like this she’d ended up getting her heart broken. Saying you loved somebody gave them all kinds of power over you.
But Cal wasn’t Donnie. Was he?
“Unless I win the lottery—or marry Paris Hilton.” Docia gritted her teeth. It was just a joke.
The rain pelted harder on the windowpanes—another flash of lightning, a roll of thunder, and she thought she heard hail bouncing off the roof.
Docia got up carefully, trying not to wake Cal, and headed toward the ladder to the first floor. Maybe she’d find a magazine or something to read until she felt sleepy.
Pep raised his head to stare at her as she stepped into the living room, but Nico simply turned over, ignoring the interruption.
Docia switched on the lamp next to the coffee table, the one furthest from the loft and least likely to shine in Cal’s eyes. She sorted through a pile of veterinary journals, which would probably put her to sleep but didn’t have much appeal beyond that. A piece of paper lay partly unfolded beside the stack.
Docia stared at the letterhead: BK Enterprises. Her breath was suddenly ragged in her throat. Her father had chosen the name because he thought it sounded long-established—it had been his first business, after all. Billy Kent Enterprises.
Docia unfolded the paper and stared down at the words. A set of specifications. The address was next door to Cal’s clinic. She stared at the purchase price and exhaled hard. Cal and Horace couldn’t afford that, could they? Not unless they got some kind of special deal.
She closed her eyes, hearing the pounding of her pulse over the sound of the rain.
Cal owed Horace money, a lot of money, that he wouldn’t be able to pay off for years. But what if he could offer something else, like the land next to the clinic? What if his girlfriend’s father owned the land?
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