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Broslin Bride (Broslin Creek series Book 5)

The worst time to be charged with murder is:

  1. When you have no alibi for the night in question.
  2. When you have no memory of the night in question.
  3. When you told people you hated the victim.
  4. When the detective is the 1st guy you ever slept with--which didn't end well.

Check all of the above for Luanne Mayfair. If it wasn't for bad luck, she wouldn't have any luck at all. Okay, maybe a little luck. As it turns out, Detective Chase Merritt doesn't hold grudges.

He still looks at Luanne just as he did in high school, except he's grown some serious 'hot cop' muscles--very distracting when Luanne is trying to avoid the very law Chase represents.

Is she the killer? Is she being framed? Is she the next victim? As Chase and Luanne race to find some answers, danger and heat ratchet up in this fast-paced, romantic mystery that will stop your heart one second, then steal it in the next.

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Chapter One

Luanne Mayfair might have killed her boss a little. Fine, a lot. Pretty much all the way. God, that sounded bad. But he was a sleazebag. Honest. The maids at the Mushroom Mile Motel that Earl Cosgrove managed often prayed for lightning to strike the lecherous bastard. Alas, God had seen fit to send Luanne instead.

Now you’ve gone and done it, she thought the morning after as she stood on the sidewalk in front of the fifties ranch home she rented in her hometown of Broslin, PA. She squinted against the early summer sun. Her red 1989 Mustang sitting by the curb had come from the used-car lot with its share of nicks and dents. But the damage to the front was new.

Gone and done it.

She’d done a horrible, terrible, despicable thing. Guilt and regret made her knees wobble. Whatever the punishment was, she deserved it.

Except, she couldn’t go to prison. She had her four-year-old twin sisters to take care of. She was Mia and Daisy’s sole guardian.

Luanne drew air in big, gulping breaths to wrestle down the shock and nausea. Get moving. One foot in front of the other. She couldn’t stand there and stare all morning. She had to find a way to get away with murder.

* * *

Twelve hours earlier, Mushroom Mile Motel, Broslin, Pennsylvania

Luanne Mayfair stopped her cleaning cart in front of room #44 and glanced at her list. One occupant, not checking out today. Only a quick cleanup then; she wouldn’t have to change the sheets. On the other hand, no tips. Most guests only tipped on their last day.

She knocked on the door, hoping the room was empty so she wouldn’t have to come back later. She was almost done, ready to get off work. Finish the last two rooms. Catch Earl. Pick up check. Then she was free. “Housekeeping.”

After some rustling inside, the door opened, a blurry-eyed man filling the gap. He looked her over, then stepped back to open the door wider. His wrinkled wife-beater shirt was stained under the arms, his blond mullet dangling to the middle of his back, his wide face covered in stubble. “Come on in, darlin’.”

Luanne flashed an apologetic look. “I’ll come back later.”

“I’m stayin’ in all day. Catchin’ up on sleep. My rig’s gettin’ fixed. Now’s as good a time as any.” His smile showed cigarette-stained teeth.

He’d better not smoke in here.

Scents clung to wallpaper, heavy drapery, carpet, and the comforter that wasn’t changed from guest to guest. More work for her. More trouble too. If she took too long in a room, she’d be blamed for being too slow, be accused of stretching her hours for extra pay, would likely be docked some time as discipline.

And if the smell of smoke lingered, the next guest would complain and wouldn’t leave a tip.

Not all the guests were truckers, although the Mushroom Mile Motel had its fair share. The small town of Broslin—the mushroom capital of the US—shipped fungi to the four corners of the country. The truckers mostly slept in their rigs if they were in town overnight. Except if their rigs had problems, or if the air conditioner quit on them in the middle of summer, or if they hooked up with someone and wanted room to entertain.

“Who’s fixing the rig?” Luanne watched the guy’s eyes and measured him up. Being in a room alone with a male guest could turn into trouble in a hurry, but she had to at least give him fresh towels.

“Company sent a guy.” He blinked slowly. Yawned. Looked half-asleep still.

In and out in a minute. She grabbed a set of towels from the cart, added a small soap, her spray bottle of universal cleaner, and hurried in by him, holding her breath against the smell of sweat and beer.

She stepped into the bathroom and set out the fresh supplies, even though he hadn’t used anything yet. Didn’t look—or smell—like he’d taken a shower when he’d gotten in.

Towels done. Countertop neat. She grabbed the extra washcloth and wiped off a few errant water drops.

“Would you like me to clean?” she asked on her way out, glancing into the room.

Judging by the dent in the middle of the comforter, the guy had been sleeping on top of the covers. Nothing else seemed out of place.

“I’m good.” He leaned forward, crowding her in the doorway. His grin widened, his small, watery green eyes focused on her body.

She moved around him, swinging abruptly to the left when she felt his meaty hand on her butt. Oh, for heaven’s sake.

“What if I’m hungry?” His voice dripped with innuendo as he tried to cop another feel.

She laughed off the attempt, shifting away. “We’re not that kind of a motel.”

She wouldn’t let the smile slide off her face. Tips were more important than smacking grabby men over the head with her spray bottle. Although, someday, when she was ready to quit—she didn’t plan to scrub toilets for the rest of her life—one of the jerks was going to get it.

Or probably not. With her luck, she’d probably be booked for assault. As satisfying as fighting back against a slimy guest would have been, even just once, the grief she’d get wouldn’t be worth it. The twins needed her, had nobody but her. So Luanne kept a tight rein over her violent fantasies.

She kept right on smiling as she said, “Broslin Diner on Main Street is having a free dessert special.”

A disappointed, semiannoyed look crossed the man’s face. No doubt he’d expected a different kind of answer. Tough tooties.

He grunted, giving up for the moment. “What’s the nearest place I can get some smokes?”

“Gas station on Main Street. It’s just a few blocks from here,” she said. “All our rooms are nonsmoking, but we have a nice spot out on the back patio of the main building to sit.” He’d better not smoke in the room. Not cigarettes, and nothing else either.

The motel had a certain…history. Until recently, the locals had been calling it the Magic Mushroom Motel. Before the current owners, the place had been pothead heaven. The previous night clerk had been a dealer. But all that was in the past now, and the motel did good business with tourists who came for the Mushroom Festival, the Chadds Ford Days, the Hot Air Balloon Festival, or Longwood Gardens.

Convenient and inexpensive for the guests, steady employment for Luanne. She just had to keep the occasional jerk from getting under her skin.

“Will that be all?” Her cheeks were beginning to hurt, but she kept her smile in place. She was going to have a good day. A great day. She had a date tonight, for the first time in ages. She had to keep focused on that. Friday night, baby.

“Maybe you can bring me the paper later.” The trucker stared at her breasts, an oily grin spreading on his face. His mouth opened to say something she knew she was going to hate, so she turned on her heels and walked away.

“No problem,” she called over her shoulder. She could bring the paper and leave it outside the door for him.

She skipped room #45—unoccupied, according to her list—stopped in front of room #46. Two occupants, checking out. She knocked on the door. “Housekeeping.”

No response.

She opened the door with her master key, called “Housekeeping” again before she stepped in. She didn’t want to catch anyone in the middle of anything. She’d seen enough on this job to sometimes wish she could wash her eyeballs with bleach.

No guests. The room stood empty.

She hurried to the dresser first and could have cried when she looked at the tip, a dollar and change. For cleaning after two people for nearly a week.

Luanne did her best to work herself into a grateful spirit as she changed the sheets. She had her health. She had the twins. She had a place to live. She had food to eat. She had a job. She was so much better off than a great many people in the country. She was grateful, truly grateful for everything.

But another truth was that deep down she was bone tired. She was exhausted from dancing on the sharp edge of barely making it. No security net. Nothing to catch her if she fell. Making rent was a monthly challenge. If she lost the rental, social services would take Mia and Daisy away.

She had no close family left save her twin sisters. She swore she was going to raise them if she had to eat broken glass and walk through fire. So she worked hard and worked fast, and never complained about the guests. She desperately needed the job; that was the truth of it.

When she finished with the room, she moved on to the bathroom. All the toiletries were gone, even the toilet paper and the box of tissue. She grabbed the garbage and went out to her cart. No more tissue boxes. She pulled the door of the room closed and hurried down the hallway back to the supply room, pushing her cart. She was in the main building, so she didn’t have to go outside.

Four separate buildings made up the motel, nothing fancy, but all clean and trim. The smallest building housed the main office, its roof crafted by Amish carpenters to resemble a mushroom cap. The giant round cap was visible from the highway, free advertisement. Good location too, on the Mushroom Mile—over a dozen mushroom producers lined up on Route 1, one after the other, along with specialty stores that sold fresh local mushrooms and other produce.

Earl Cosgrove, the manager, stood behind the check-in counter, avoiding her eyes, mumbling something under his breath as if calculating something important, completely absorbed in the task. Do not disturb, his body language transmitted.

He didn’t normally spend a lot of time out in the open on paydays. She’d expected to have to track him down in some distant corner of the place to receive her money.

She parked her cart by the wall and waited. Then she waited some more. Then she finally said, in a voice as undemanding as possible, “Any chance I could pick up my check? If it’s ready.”

Better grab him now, before he hid.

“Are you done?” He looked at her at last, pushing his glasses up his nose, his face without humor, his beady brown eyes narrowing with displeasure.

“Almost. I just ran back to grab some supplies.”

He scowled. “You should have a fully stocked cart. Walking back and forth is a waste of time.”

He stepped away from the computer and shuffled down the short hallway that led to his office in the back, mumbling something about ungrateful employees who cared only about money.

She followed his uneven gait into his rat’s nest of an office, stuffed to the ceiling with paperwork and supplies, and stayed standing while Earl dropped onto the ripped leather chair behind his desk that had seen better days. His hemorrhoid pillow lifted him up a few inches, making him look like an aging rooster on his perch.

“If it can’t wait…” Thinning hair in a comb-over, cheap black tie in a disorderly knot, he scowled at the schedule and counted up her hours. From the top of the hour, even though the maids were required to show up fifteen minutes early to stock their carts. The end of their workday too was usually rounded back to the nearest hour.

Luanne shifted on her feet. “I appreciate it.”

She figured she, and the other girls, could take home at least a hundred extra bucks per month if they were paid for all their time, money they all desperately needed, but Earl wouldn’t hear about that, so she tried for what she might actually receive. “I worked those five hours for Jackie.”

Jackie moonlighted as a cashier at Arnie’s gas station and she got stuck there Tuesday when the second-shift girl didn’t come in.

Earl looked up. Frowned. Patted his hair into place. “I don’t remember.”

“You can ask her.”

He made some noncommittal noises. Then he wrote a check for her regular hours with a half-mumbled promise to check into the extra time later.

The Pennsylvania minimum wage for tipped employees like waiters, hotel maids, and bartenders was $2.83 per hour. The law also required that tips and wages added up to the real minimum wage, $7.25 in PA. Since the maids at the Mushroom Mile Motel made roughly $3.50 in tips, Earl had to pay them $3.75, about which he griped, moaned, and groaned regularly.

He owed Luanne $18.75 for the five hours. A small windfall. Which he wasn’t going to pay today, or ever, if he could help it.

She stood there, disappointment washing over her.

The twins were turning four tomorrow. The real bakery in town had always been out of her reach, but she could have sprung for a grocery store cake. The girls had been begging for weeks for the ladybug cake from the grocery store’s bakery. For the first time, she planned on them having something fancy, something better than the boxed cake mix she made every year, the cake flat and square and frosted in the pan. This year, she’d planned on real candles, not the old tea lights she’d been reusing. With an extra $18.75 in her pocket, she could afford all that and ice cream.

All of which she’d stupidly promised already.

She put on her nicest smile. “Are you sure I couldn’t have the extra hours now? I wouldn’t ask.” She swallowed. “I’m sorry if I sound pushy. It’s just that I kind of promised something for the kids.”

Earl shot her a black look of disapproval. “Now’s the time to save on them. No sense wasting your money. They won’t even remember these years.”

He had five kids with three ex-wives, decades of dubious experience he doled out freely to his employees, usually to convince them that they didn’t need to get paid.

He pushed to his feet and shuffled around the table. Stopped too close to Luanne, his coffee breath hitting her face. “If you’re looking to pick up some extra, I still need someone to clean the house.” He put a hand on her arm and rubbed the inside of her elbow with his thumb.

Cold dread crawled up her spine as she held still.

Some of the more desperate maids had fallen for Earl’s trap over the years. Work at Earl’s house included hours on their knees, scrubbing floors, tub, toilet—all of which Luanne could handle—then more time on their knees in front of Earl—which she couldn’t.

She stepped back. “I wish I could. But I already clean at the library. Two jobs are all I can handle for now. I have to take care of the twins too.” She hoped she sounded appreciative of the offer and full of regret that she couldn’t take advantage of Earl’s “generosity.”

He watched her with a calculating look. “I might have to cut hours here for some of the staff. You could pick up those hours at my place.”

She flashed one last smile, then fled the office, bumping into Jackie in the hallway.

The other maid took one look at her face and raised an eyebrow.

Luanne shook her head: You don’t want to know.

“Weatherman’s calling for a storm later this week,” Jackie, a hardworking black woman in her forties with a heart of gold, announced cheerfully.

Luanne grinned. The maids had a running joke about their hopes for lightning to strike the general manager. “Cars drive off the road every day,” she countered with her own favorite revenge fantasy. Earl lived nearby and walked to work and back since sitting—in an office chair or in his car—was hard on his hemorrhoids. He’d rather walk, even in bad weather. Plenty of chances for an inattentive driver to skip the curb.

Jackie grinned back at her. “That’s the spirit.” Then they went their separate ways.

Veronica, Earl’s third ex-wife, was back in her place by the front desk. She must have been on a break earlier. She was a Jersey girl, with Jersey girl hair from the eighties. The big hair went with her electric blue eye shadow.

Earl came out of his office and passed by Veronica, looked her over, winked. “Hey, I think I need to put my mouth where my money is.”

His standard joke for his ex. He was referring to the breast implants he’d paid for when they’d been married.

Veronica narrowed her eyes and puckered her lips in a confused-blonde look. “Are you talking about that expensive hemorrhoid surgery of yours? Honey, you ain’t that bendy.”

Luanne choked, holding back laughter.

Earl focused his displeasure on her, his eyes narrowed to threatening slits. “Are you still wasting time here? I’m not paying you to hang out in the hallways. People are waiting for their rooms to be cleaned. I’m the one who has to listen to them complain.”

“You’re right. I’m really sorry,” she said as Earl marched outside in a huff.

“Guests will gripe, no matter what. Everything’s not your fault,” Veronica said. “You know, you don’t have to apologize to Earl for everything.”

Veronica could get away with saying whatever she wanted since she was the mother of two of Earl’s boys. But Luanne knew that the rest of the staff better toe the line. “I should be getting back to work.”

Veronica rolled her eyes after her ex-husband. “Can’t tell you how many nights I spent lying awake, thinking about holding a pillow over his head.” She sighed. “I still can’t believe he cheated on me with Stacy Lucado. Couldn’t resist all the sweet innocence, he said.” Veronica snorted. “She had more truckers in and out of her than this motel.”

She shook her head, waving the words away with fingers tipped with the fanciest gel nails Luanne had ever seen, white and red flowers on pink. “Oh, forget I said that. Let’s just pretend I’ve been gracious and ladylike. He is paying child support. He’s terrible with women. But he’s pretty good with his kids.”

Earl Cosgrove, a complex human being. One of the mysteries of the universe, Luanne thought. She grabbed a newspaper from the counter. “Room #44,” she said, and Veronica added the charge on the computer.

Luanne dropped off the paper in front of the trucker’s door, then she finished room #46 and moved on to #47, her last one for the day. Thoroughly trashed, that one, pizza boxes on the bed, garbage everywhere, the furniture moved around, mud ground into the carpet, shampoo bottles floating in the toilet.

She had a fishnet she’d picked up at a garage sale for twenty-five cents for things like that. Live and learn was the name of the game in the hospitality industry.

She decided to leave the toilet-fishing expedition for last and headed over to the dresser, keeping fingers crossed. With a nice tip, she could still salvage some of the birthday celebration. She could at least spring for a boxed mix for the cake. Otherwise, she was going to have to frost her half box of graham crackers.

She cleared off the dresser. But under all the garbage, she found absolutely nothing.

Okay. No big deal. She closed her eyes for a second and swallowed the lump in her throat. People had more serious problems than not being able to buy a cake.

Friday. Date. Good things ahead.

She finished the room, doing the best damn job she could, then put the biggest smile on her face and went to pick up the kids from Jen.

Jen O’Brian had been her best friend in high school. They went their own ways for a while when Jen shipped off to college and Luanne stayed home to work and help her mom pay the bills. Even when Jen came home, she got married and had a baby, too busy to hang out. But Luanne and she became friends again once Luanne took guardianship of the twins after her mother’s death, and Jen began watching the girls.

Jen was on the phone when she opened the door. Doctor, she mouthed, then said into the phone, “Okay, yes. We can try that.”

Luanne gathered up the girls and left her friend to take care of business, simply whispering a “See you later,” as she headed out the door with the kids. Jen was desperate for another child, currently in the throes of her sixth round of fertility treatments.

“Bobby cut Daisy’s hair with the play scissor,” Mia tattled on their way home.

Luanne whipped back to look. Okay. No chestnut curls were missing. Thank God for plastic scissors.

“I pushed him down,” Mia said proudly, her brown eyes glinting. “We’re family, and we protect each other.”

Luanne winced. “When I said that, I meant that I’ll protect you two chipmunks, because I’m the big sister.”

“I’m the big sister too,” Mia argued.

“No fair. One minute,” Daisy mumbled. “I’m not a baby.”

“No, you’re not.” Luanne smiled at them in the rearview mirror. “You’re both big girls. You’ll be four tomorrow. You’ll be going to preschool soon.” Her throat tightened. She wasn’t ready for the girls to head out into the world.

She drew a deep breath and took the opportunity to add a teachable moment into their day as they got out of the car in front of the tiny two-bedroom ranch home she rented. “You shouldn’t push anyone, Mia. Okay? If you do that at school, you’ll get in trouble with the teacher.”

“I don’t want to go to school.”

Daisy looked doubtful too, but she didn’t say anything. For the most part, she let Mia do the talking. Luanne worried about how that would work at school if the two got separated, put in different groups. Something she’d have to ask about when they went in to register. A problem for another day.

For the next couple of hours, she focused on nothing but Mia and Daisy. She wanted them to feel loved and wanted, not a problem she’d inherited that she had to shuffle around in between her chores and work. She played with them, read to them, fed them, bathed them, got them into their pj’s. Only when they were settled in front of the TV for their favorite cartoon did she get ready for her date.

She began by showering the spray-cleaner smell out of her hair. Next, she dragged on her best jeans, topped it off with a cute silk top that she’d found at Goodwill, fitted to her curves but with a decent neckline, not too slutty, not too nunsy, just right for a first date.

She had no money for drinks, but Tayron, the bartender, had promised her a drink on the house the other day when she’d given him a ride. She could nurse that one drink all night, no problem. She wasn’t a big drinker. She’d picked Finnegan’s because it was public, and because if they went to a restaurant and her date wanted to split the bill, she wouldn’t be able to pay for her half.

She put on fresh makeup, tried for smoky eyes, ended up looking like a raccoon on drugs, wiped it off, tried again. Her eyes were a lighter shade of brown than the twins’, not exactly pretty, but maybe interesting.

You always emphasized your best feature to draw attention from the worst. If you emphasized everything, you came off overdone and slutty, which she wasn’t. And she didn’t like her lips anyway; she had a stupid crease in the middle of her bottom lip.

Okay, clothes, check; makeup, check. She sprayed perfume in the air, then walked through the cloud of scent so it’d cling equally to her shirt, skin, and hair. She never sprayed perfume directly on her clothes. No sense in staining a perfectly good top.

After she finished, she drove the girls back to Jen’s for a prebirthday sleepover.

“Ready for the party tomorrow?” Jen asked Luanne after hugging and kissing the girls silly. She loved them as if they were her own.

“Almost.” Luanne bent to take the girls’ shoes off.

“How about for tonight?” Jen grinned, offering her a cola. “You look sexy.”

“I wish.” Luanne tugged at a stray lock of hair as she accepted the drink.

Without a curling iron to give her blond locks body, her hair was seriously limp and way too fine for any kind of volume, unlike Jen’s thick reddish-brown waves that could have starred in a shampoo commercial. Where Luanne was too thin from running around and being on her feet almost constantly, Jen actually had curves, especially since Bobby had been born—the kind of curves men noticed.

Luanne looked at her own chest. “Do you think this top is too low-cut?” she asked, hit by a sudden wave of insecurity. “What if Brett thinks I’m a total hussy?”

“Yeah, because that’s what guys think when they get a glimpse of boobs.” Jen rolled her eyes.

Then she glanced at the girls giggling on the couch, her gaze distant, an odd look coming over her face as she turned back to Luanne. She blinked, then a smile replaced her strange expression. “Oh, to be single and going on hot dates.”

“You don’t want to be single and going out on hot dates.”

Jen was a family gal through and through. She wanted a second child badly to give Bobby a little brother or sister, so her son could have what the twins did.

“Fine. I want to be home with a bushel of kids.” She smiled a little wider. “I do. But you deserve a hot date.”

“I’ll settle for nice.” Her first date in a year, Luanne thought. Nice would have been an excellent start.

“How about hot sex with a nice guy?” Jen suggested ever so helpfully.

“Not on a first date.”

“You’ve known Brett for a while now.”

“Over the Internet.”

“He’s a dog walker. You met him in a goldendoodle online fan group. I don’t think anyone who’s into poodle–golden retriever mixes so much can be a creep.”

Luanne nodded. In their online communications, Brett had never been anything but a gentleman, kind, funny, romantic. She was more than looking forward to meeting him. She had butterflies in her stomach. “I better get going.”

“Kisses!” Mia launched into a frenzied hug immediately.

Luanne hugged her, then Daisy in turn. “You behave for Jen, okay? Go to bed without giving her trouble.”

They promised, with angelic faces that seemed impossible to doubt. If only she didn’t know better. She gave them the mother look. “I mean it.”

“Relax. They’ll be fine.” Jen walked her to the door, then dropped her voice. “I’ll want every dirty detail tomorrow. Take notes so you don’t forget anything.”

“What, no video?”

“Video will work. Hey, I’m a married woman, living vicariously through you.”

“Billy is a great guy.”

“Except when he has one too many beers and gets into a fight with one of his dumb Irish relatives.”


Jen rolled her eyes. “I’m sick of his Irish temper and his fifty Irish cousins. Well, at least he knows he’s done wrong, so he’s sweet as pie, trying to make it up to me. I’m so gonna milk that for all it’s worth.”

Okay, so that was a little messed up, but being in a relationship still seemed like an incredibly nice thing, not having to make all the decisions alone all the time, have someone to curl up against at night. Billy wasn’t perfect, but for the most part, he was one of the good guys. Luanne had high hopes for Brett in that regard.

“So what was the phone call with the doctor? Everything okay?”

Jen shrugged. “Switching me to a new drug. No big deal. I swear, some of the hormone injections make me wacky.”

“I’m keeping fingers, toes, eyes, and legs crossed for you.”

“Yeah, that’ll make you attractive for your date,” Jen deadpanned, then shook her head with a grin.

Luanne walked to her Mustang with a last wave. She was smiling too as she slipped behind the wheel. Okay. Here we go. Hot date.

Finnegan’s was just a few blocks away, within walking distance, but she wasn’t sure how late she’d stay out and as safe as the town was, she didn’t like walking in the middle of the night. She was all the twins had. If anything happened to her, they’d be all alone in the world.

She shot down the road and was at the neighborhood bar in three minutes. Honestly, so fast she didn’t even bother switching the ABC song to adult music.

Finnegan’s kept with the Irish theme, green booths, Sláinte signs all over the place. As soon as she walked in, she could smell the bacon they sprinkled on their famous baked potato soup. Guinness flowed freely at the tap at the gleaming mahogany bar, the clientele several steps above the dive bars along Route 1. The owners’ son, Harper Finnegan, was a local cop who helped out when he wasn’t working at the station. His presence kept the shady element away.

Music filled the cavernous room, a local band covering everything from old Beach Boys hits to mournful Irish ballads. The bar was a safe place for a single woman on a Friday night, or any other night of the week.

Luanne scanned the hundred or so people around the tables and on the dance floor. No sign of Brett. She’d seen dozens of pictures of him on his Facebook page. She didn’t think she’d have any trouble recognizing him.

Tayron, tall, kind-eyed, spotted her as soon as she walked up to the bar.

“Hey, girl.” He flashed a wide smile. “What are you drinking tonight? My treat.”

She thought about a beer, then decided to go wild. “Something colorful and fancy.” She raised her chin. “Something with an umbrella.”

She could have one drink, spend a couple of hours here with Brett, then be perfectly fine to drive home later. “How’s school?”

Tayron studied engineering at West Chester University by day, bartended in the evenings. He also fit a second job into his schedule, at the local lumberyard—which gave him the muscles that got him the big tips, which helped to pay tuition, everything coming together in a circle of life, according to him.

“Finals are a bitch.” But he grinned, always upbeat.

In less than a minute, he had a cocktail glass in front of her, an orange-red drink with an umbrella and a plastic thingy that looked like a burst of fireworks. “Meet Finnegan’s very own Irish Comet.”

She sipped and moaned from the sweet, tangy flavor. She cast him a look that she hoped conveyed her full gratitude. Sipped again. “Makes me feel like I’m on a cruise ship.” The fanciest place she could imagine that would serve drinks like this.

Tayron grinned at her. “So who’s the guy?”

She sipped again. “Who says I’m here on a date?”

“Your sexy shirt.”

Too sexy? Okay, no. She was not going to start obsessing over that now.

“Someone I met on Facebook a while back.” While the twins were at story hour at the library Tuesday nights, she usually hung out online. “He’s single. Dog lover.”

Which was pretty important to her. She and the girls sometimes volunteered at the local shelter. They used to have Macy, the best dog that ever lived, had lost her last year, and were waiting until money wasn’t so tight to get a new puppy.

Tayron leaned forward so he wouldn’t have to shout over the music. “From around here?”

“Philly. He has three goldendoodles. He’s a dog walker.” Apparently, you could make a living from something like that if you lived in a big city. Seemed like a dream job to Luanne. Like being a resort-spa secret shopper. “He has two sisters. Loves kids.”

Brett had told her he was usually the default babysitter for his two nieces, ages two and three. “He gets me.” She smiled. “Not the type to look down on a small-town motel maid who is raising two little girls.” One of his sisters was a single-mom waitress.

“Sounds like a good guy.” Tayron moved off to serve another customer.

Luanne stirred her drink and allowed herself a dreamy smile. Brett was great. Easy to talk to, at least online. She glanced at her watch. He was also five minutes late. Not a big deal, considering he was driving out from the city. Friday night traffic could be crazy.

She stayed at the bar, facing the door, and slowly sipped her drink as she kept an eye out for a tall blond guy with a dimple in his chin. She was looking forward to a great night. Not that she could stay out too late. Big day tomorrow. She had a lot planned for the twins’ birthday.

They were going to go to the playground in the morning. Then home to a party with friends, super simple, just games and sandwiches. Then the park had a free children’s play that afternoon, The Wizard of Oz. Broslin had its own amateur theater company that put on several plays each year.

The presents were already bought but not yet wrapped, all from garage sales. Amazing how people gave away twenty-dollar toys for a dollar when their kids got tired of them. Their loss, her gain.

Luanne considered the ladybug cake. Well, no help for that. She took another sip and thought several uncharitable thoughts about the guests who’d stiffed her on the tip.

While she was at it, she allowed herself a brief daydream where she smacked the trucker upside the head when he’d grabbed her ass. She felt the weight of the spray bottle as she swung it, heard the satisfying clunk, saw the dazed expression in the man’s eyes, then the shame as he came to his senses. He issued a hasty apology, then a ten-dollar tip to make up for his assholery.

There, that made her feel much better.

She glanced at her watch. Brett was definitely late. Didn’t matter really. She had nothing else to do. She didn’t have to work until Monday. She shuddered at the thought of another encounter with Earl.

He’d be walking home around now. He didn’t like to get up early, usually ambled into work around noon, but then he tended to stay pretty late. He lived two blocks from here. For a moment, she thought about going out back—he usually cut through the alley behind the bar—to demand her five hours of overtime money.

But since she knew it would be pointless, she stayed in her seat and slipped into another little daydream. This one involved her red Mustang in the back alley, speeding toward Earl, making him dive for the garbage containers. She lingered over the thought of him emerging coughing and cursing, covered in rotten banana peels.

She rather liked that image.

But she liked her job better, so she stayed where she was and entertained herself by watching the crowd. A couple of inebriated college kids performed some pretty interesting dancing. By the time she glanced at her watch again, Brett was forty-five minutes late.

“You look bored,” a pleasant voice came from behind her before she could admit to herself that she was seriously disappointed.

She turned to look into nondescript brown eyes, in a nondescript but pleasant face, matching brown hair. The guy was in his midthirties, a couple of inches shorter than her.

A shy smile made his face interesting. “Can I buy you another drink?”

Before she could decline, he flashed her a puppy-dog look and added, “I was stood up. Giving up and going home seems too pathetic. If I at least have a drink with a pretty woman, it’d do wonders for my self-esteem.”

She found herself smiling back at him.

“Okay,” she said, and finished her drink. “I’m Luanne.”

“I’m Gregory.” His eyes moved in a good-natured roll. “I know. Even the name is geeky, right? You’re probably thinking I’m the kind of guy who deserves to be stood up.”

“Nobody deserves to be stood up,” she told him. And when he ordered another round for her, she thanked him.