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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Prologue: A Lucky Man

Not even the warm, plump thighs in his hands could pull his mind from the raven-haired beauty gracing the screen across Lita's shoulder. The beauty's head was thrown back in the picture, another woman's head held gently to her breast. A tiny smile curled her lips but did not reach upturned eyes. Turning the chair slowly, he adjusted Lita on his lap in favor of reaching the laptop's trackpad.

"She looks so sad," Lita said softly, touching the woman's eyes as he clicked the screen back to the raven's file. "Why would anyone want to kill something so lovely?"

Laughing while he scrolled, he located the woman's name and address, reading it several times to commit the information to memory. "Wasn't it that singer you like that says everyone hates the prettiest girl in the room? She's a criminal, maybe that's why she's sad."

Lita's weight shifted erotically across his groin as she turned to grin at him. The scars across her full lips and apple cheeks gave her the look of a china doll, dropped one too many times. "You've heard that song?" she asked in a whisper.

"I've heard everything on your iPod, Lita. It's my duty to understand the things that move you," he murmured, momentarily distracted by the strange file notations beside the usual directives. He read the notations twice more. "I think I'd like a drink, wench," he sighed.

As Lita moved quickly to comply with his command, he intended to continue working. Instead, he watched the bounce of the tiny pirate skirt reveal a black lace thong as she bounded across the library. He might never fully grasp the female need to costume themselves, whether wench or socialite, but the new spring in Lita's step, the previously unseen swing in her hips drew him from his latest contract and across the room.

"Even still," Lita was saying as she bent over the low bar to mix his drink. "How is it their right to decide she must die? Die? Really? It's kinda, old fashioned, ya know?"

"You know my position on this," he reminded her when she turned to find him waiting. He took his drink from her hand and then drew the hand to his mouth to bite her wrist gently.

"Does she have to be..." Lita's voice trailed as he turned his eyes to meet her ocean blue stare. "I'm sorry, Master."

With a gentle grip on thick blonde hair, he tilted her head back to pour half of his rum and Coke into her mouth. Despite frantic swallowing, the liquid rolled from her lips and down her throat.

"Are you drawn to this woman?" he murmured, pouring the remaining drink across her breasts slowly, thoroughly enjoying the appearance of unharnessed nipples beneath wet cloth. "Do you wish to add her to our family?"

"Oh, would you, Master?" she breathed. The throaty rasp quickened his pulse.

"I would not," he assured her. He could see the desire to speak in Lita's eyes, and full shattered-doll lips parted. "Tread softly, wench, or find yourself waiting on the racks indefinitely while I see to the object of your lust."

Lita's pale blue eyes widened at the thought of joining the others who would await his return in shackles. "I didn't mean to anger you, Master. I take it back. I don't want her. You know best."

He didn't bother to correct her assumption of his mood verbally. She was too new to understand the effect her primal desires, and the innocent way she shared them, had on him. "My sweet little Lita wench. I'm a lucky man to have you," he mused, unable to control his heart rate as the fear in her eyes rolled low to quake her spine, rocking ample, rum-soaked breasts. "You worry over a stranger's fate. So sweet. So naive."

"You're shaking," she whispered as he released his loose grip on her hair. Her eyes followed his hand to the whip dangling from a small hook on the wall. "Master, please!"

He took a long step back, allowing for the whip's length. "I will demonstrate her fate." Laughing, he watched the bouncing wench skirt race from the room, flashing intriguing glimpses of black lace against pale flesh. He pulled the whip's tip into his mouth to saturate it with moisture. Whip tip in cheek, he offered a quick glance to the computer screen, insuring he had memorized the address accurately before shouting down the hallway. "One, Mississippi. Two, Mississippi."

This is the end of:
Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview
Prologue

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Chapter 1: No Pukking Justice

The familiar sting of rage flooded her veins, trembling her hands and spine simultaneously. Railen checked her temper, sidestepping to avoid the drunkard. Jerry wasn't the first of the bar's patrons to try their hand at bullying the establishment's slight owner, nor was it his first attempt. The sidestep was one Railen had long since mastered. She avoided the large fist, spinning left to watch her attacker sprawl across his table.

"It's too early in the day for this shit, Jerry. Go home and sleep it off. Come back tonight and we can hit the dirt then, okay?" Railen turned to where Ben stood behind the bar. "How much has he had?"

"He was lit when he got here, closed the place last night." Ben offered Railen his most adorable apologetic smile as he buffed the pristine bar with a crisp white towel. "I called the kid. I'd be happy to step in..."

"Nah, it's my turn..." Railen interrupted but was cut short herself when Jerry returned for another strike at her head. Railen spun out of reach again. "Damnation, Jerry Higgins! Jesse would be so ashamed of you!"

Jerry staggered chest first against the bar, catching himself on the curved oak lip.

Railen counted her blessings that the lunch whistle had blown at the pickle plant. The bar was now mostly empty. Apart from herself and Jerry, there was only Ben and a small group of men in the farthest corner, beneath the landing of her office. The men appeared part biker, part cowboy and watched the encounter openly with raised brows. They certainly didn't appear to work at the pickle plant. Of the five men, four wore expressions of mild amusement and curiosity while the fifth peered at the altercation with narrowed eyes and drawn lips. This man sat nearest the edge of the curved corner booth, leaning on the soles of his worn biker boots as though prepared to come to her aid.

"Come on, Jerry," Railen cooed, returning her attention to where the drunk was stomping in pain or anger and cradling his left hand. "You know Billy doesn't need this shit. Sit down, have one more on me and then take your ass home where it belongs."

"You think you're something special," Jerry snarled, fishing his camouflage Velcro wallet from his pocket to drop his last twenty on the bar. "I remember what you did, bitch."

"Woof," Railen whispered as the veteran's bent back disappeared into the sunlight.

"I don't know why you let him in here," Ben chastised her for the millionth time. "He was bad before Jesse was killed but now he's just nuts! He's going to bring a gun one of these days and blow your pretty little head off."

"No, he won't. He wants Jesse back, just like the rest of us. He's got troubles, Ben," she replied, leaving the conversation to right the overturned table and fish Jerry's mug from the floor.

"We've all got troubles," Ben said, appearing beside her with the mop bucket. He inspected the boot-worn, wood floor, noting its lack of liquid. "Should've known there wouldn't be a drop left," he sighed, rolling the mop back to its closet behind the bar. "He'll just be back next month when his check comes in. And, he'll be just as furious with you when it's gone."

"Drop it. His wife is dead and half the town thinks he killed her. When he comes back you'll treat him like a king."

"Yes, ma'am," Ben sighed, scrubbing and drying his hands.

The weight of a gaze on her back rendered Railen slowly upright. She scanned the room in the mirror behind Ben, expecting to see Jerry wandering in to apologize. He did so as often as not. The bar was, as always, spotlessly clean and perfectly arranged for maximum traffic flow between dance floor, jukebox, restrooms and bar. The air was lightly scented by the simmering pot of apple peels and cinnamon Ben kept on the back of the stove. Ben was meticulous in his keeping of The Grand. As long as he didn't bring in a neon sign or a lace table cloth, Railen had very few opinions.

She scanned the shadows between the seldom used sound booth and restrooms, the double front entrance and the small cluster of pub-style tables near the billiards room. She found no one. His narrowed eyes waited nearly beyond the scope of the mirror's offerings. He wasn't a large man. Three in his company dwarfed him, in fact, but he dominated the corner booth as if it were his personal spotlight. There was something oddly familiar about the gelled brown hair and lanky confidence. Railen sighed, returning her focus to where Ben was shoving glasses through the stainless passthrough to the kitchen.

"You okay here for a while? I'd like to get a ride in before the collegians descend."

"Sure thing, boss. These guys will likely be the only ones around for hours." Ben watched Railen a little too closely, as if expecting something of her.

Railen tossed a quick look over her shoulder to find the men watching them as intently as before. "What are they drinking?"

"Red." Ben shrugged in a way that was usually accompanied by the words, 'it must be a straight thing.'

"I'll be in my office. I can ride day after tomorrow, I think."

"I'm fine, really," Ben assured her.

"I know, but I think I'll hang. No horse should be subjected to me today anyway. Shout if you need me."

Railen took the stairs leading to her office two at a time. Once inside, she poured herself a measure of Dewar's and stretched out on the plush leather couch. The first of every month brought her the same moral dilemma: to cut Jerry off, and spare Billy the pain, or to honor a tormented friend by allowing him to control his own demise. In fairness to herself, Billy had never asked that she refuse his father access to The Grand. It had always struck her as if, like her, Billy could not decide on a proper course of action. Yet seeing Jerry Higgins, stalwart of her childhood, stewing in his own vomit in the alley out back was more than her heart could bear. Had she not known him before losing Jesse she would have tossed him like day-old mop water, with which she had twice doused him.

The quick rap of Ben's knuckles on her office door jarred her from reverie to deposit her full-force into her shitty day. "Billy's here," Ben shouted.

Railen hung her head momentarily before rising. Another casualty, she thought. Pausing at the one-way mirror that served as her eye on the crowd, she watched the teen boy shift uncertainly. Billy's head turned often in the direction of the corner booth, the one table Railen could not see from the office. The boy offered the corner a slight bow, representing with surprising grace a show of civility Railen had never seen in the tiny, rural town of Pukking, Mississippi. She laughed aloud at the sight of it. Billy often delighted her with his actions. He had his mother's mind, and his father's grief.

Delight left her cold to feel without buffer the ache left behind by the loss of her dearest friend. "I wanted to do better for you, Billy," she whispered. "I wanted to do better for her." Forcing back the threatening tears, Railen jerked open the door to make her way to the bar.

"I'm so sorry, Rai," the boy gushed the moment he turned from the corner to notice her, his eyes tearful. "He sucks so bad!"

"No, he's in pain, Billy. It's a year today. You know that."

"It hurts me too!" Billy groaned. "I miss her too! I just want to be...he's supposed to take care of us!" Momentary rage faltered to curl the boy's shoulders, reducing his height by several inches.

"Stand up straight," Railen ordered. "Look at me! Think less of him and more of her. You are her son. Would she stoop? Would she falter?"

"No, ma'am," the boy admitted begrudgingly, shoving his fists inside the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt and huffing into the apple-cinnamon air.

"He'll do this again next month and next month you'll endure it, just like last month."

"I'm sick of it," the boy complained. "I'm sick of him, Rai! What happens when it's not your head he's trying to take off? What if I have to fight him?"

"You won't." Railen stepped forward to clasp the boy's shoulders firmly. "He strikes out at me because he knows I won't let him hit me. He strikes out at me because he thinks it should have been me. Grief has to go somewhere, Billy. What worries me is why he's here on the tenth when his check should have run out three days ago?"

"He found the rent money," Billy sighed. "I borrowed his suit for that interview last week and left it in the pocket. I didn't think he would wear the thing but he went to see Mama."

"Use your damned checking account, Billy!" Railen admonished but tilted her head slightly to where Ben stood a few steps away. The bartender turned immediately to pull the five hundred dollar reserve from the back of the register drawer. "Take this," Railen shoved the bills into Billy's pocket. She then caught his shaking chin in her palm.

"Dad won't like it," Billy scoffed.

"Then he shouldn't have stolen your paycheck. No arguments. Your car still running well?"

Billy nodded.

"Good. Now take your sisters to the mall in Meridian for clothes. Get them set, and yourself, too. Have a nice dinner, not the slop I serve or across the street. Do you hear me?"

Billy nodded again.

"After that, you drop the girls with Mave, she'll have your rent waiting. Call your lady. Go be a kid. But, don't be stupid. You know what I mean. I'll see to it that your Daddy isn't a problem. He's probably walked himself sensible by now. Henry can fetch him. Pick up the girls after lunch tomorrow." Her ability to speak was momentarily hindered by the tears in Billy's eyes. "Buck up, young man. You're stronger than you know."

"I love you, Rai," he sobbed, throwing his arms around her neck.

Railen rubbed his back gently. "I love you too, B-boy. Now get on out of here before Justin shows up and revokes my liquor license. Seventeen is not twenty-one."

"Yeah, okay." Billy turned and shuffled toward the door.

"Bring the girls swimming next week," Railen called after him. When she had spoken those words to him last year, the reaction had been a fierce hug and resounding woo-hoo. Now, his arm simply waved a lazy goodbye over his shoulder. "Call if you need me. Do you have your phone?"

"I've got it." Even as he grumbled, Billy tugged the earbuds from his pocket and snapped the pause button on the cord. He tilted the screen to reveal that he had accepted the upgrade to the media player phone Railen had given him for his birthday two years earlier. Jesse and Jerry had loaded it with music, frowning at their son's tastes. Jesse would disapprove of his girlfriend, as well. Billy disappeared through the door, head low and bobbing to the beat.

"Send Henry after Jerry," Railen barked to Ben across the bar. "Tell him to clean the place up while he's there. If Jerry argues, Henry has my permission to knock him out cold."

"Yes, ma'am," Ben replied.

Railen watched the doorway long after the boy departed, nursing the hole his mother had left in her soul and knowing that the boy's wounds were far deeper. Why didn't you catch him, Justin? Why did her murderer have to go unpunished? He deserves to be punished.

"They're very emotional at that age," a man's voice called from behind her, also wildly familiar. "You girls are worse."

"He's got two sisters, and every reason to be emotional." Railen turned to glance at the chortling drawl at the end of the bar.

"Head cheerleader break his heart?" The narrow-eyed man met her gaze, brows raised in curiosity to reveal his eyes as deep, smoky gray. Gray also graced the brown at his temples. Everything about the man seemed familiar.

"His reasons are far more compelling than puppy love. Have we met?"

"Nope. I'd have remembered those legs." The man leaned precariously across the corner of the bar to offer an exaggerated glance at her cut-off denim shorts and cowboy boots.

Railen frowned when Ben cackled and wandered through the swinging kitchen door. Ben had warned her not to come straight to The Grand after working in the barn. The cackle clearly meant, 'He's hot. You look like shit.'

"Did I say something funny?" the man drawled with a slanted grin.

Railen resisted the urge to return his smile, noting that within that eerie familiarity was something strikingly sensual and confident that went beyond the appearance of having just rolled out of bed. It had been a while since a man had paid her a compliment, Ben excluded. "I'm sure you've known so many legs that they're all running together by now."

The man laughed openly. "Away from me as fast as they can," he countered.

It wasn't until she repeated his response back to herself that she caught her cheesy, unintentional pun. "With good cause I'm sure. Excuse me."

Ben emerged from the back hall briefly to bring the jukebox to life, popping out only to disappear again like a toddler seeking a decent place to hide. He was the closest thing she had to a real friend these days, a tiny beacon of truth to steady her course.

Railen returned to her office to the rhythm of Aerosmith's "Crazy." Once the door was closed behind her, she simply stood to survey the room as though she had not furnished it herself. In fact, she had not furnished it herself. Jesse had helped. The leather sofa had come from a furniture show outside Los Angeles. The stereo was installed, state-of-the-art by Zach, Jesse's cousin from Hattiesburg. Hanging behind the antique-market desk were two airbrushed t-shirts; Best and Friends, respectively, purchased at The Crawfish Festival when they were still in training bras. Everywhere, everything, every Pukking memory.

Turning on her heel, Railen stormed out of the office and down the stairs, across the dance floor and through the front doors, knowing the ridiculousness of using both. She didn't care if she appeared dramatic. She wanted only to absorb as much sunlight as a person can in the least amount of time. Too many days passed without her ever seeing the sun.

The stark intensity of the Mississippi sun warmed her nearly black hair, soothing her scalp and soul as she crossed to the sidewalk, toasting her skin until she moved beneath the boughs of the oak and pecan trees lining North Street. The thud of her boot heels on concrete echoed loudly and were soon joined by another set, moving rapidly in her direction. Turning, she watched the narrow-eyed man approach. He scanned the street as though wildcats might jump from behind Earl's van and attack him.

"Wait up, legs," he called out when he made it to the middle of the deserted street between Railen's bar and Earl's diner.

Railen dropped her hands from shielding her eyes to her hips. "What do you want, cowboy? I've got things to do."

"Liar," he laughed, coming to a stop in front of her. "Your boy told me you were taking a walk."

"My boy is fired," Railen quipped.

"Take it easy. I came to this shit-hole town to talk to you. You're Railen Vost, aren't you?"

"So far, you've insulted my friend and my town. Why in the hell should I want to talk to you?"

The man stood straighter, to appear momentarily stunned silent, and then grinned sheepishly. "I thought from your chastising comment on my sex life you know who I am. But, you don't have a clue, do you?"

Railen considered his profile as he scanned the street in both directions. "You seem familiar. Beyond that, no, not a clue. You didn't answer my question."

"Why you should wish to talk to me? Now we're getting somewhere. I can pack Madison Square Garden to the rafters, so your little show...where was it? The Pukking County Amphitheater? Seats what? Five thousand...tops?" The man took a dramatic bow, accompanied by a satisfied grin. "Denny Mac, at your service, should you want me."

Railen berated herself for her own stupidity. Of course he was familiar. He had spent an October evening mastering the airtight lip-lock with Jesse, just three months before she married Jerry. Training bras might have been involved then as well. Denny Mac had been playing a show in Biloxi. Railen and Jesse had spent the day at the beach. He wandered into Two Mile Grill after the show and spotted Jesse within seconds.

Another casualty, conquest. Yes, Railen thought, we've met. The boy within the man before her had not paid any mind at all to her legs. Jesse had often wondered about the country music sex symbol and what might have happened had she not refused his drunken, halfhearted offer to 'hang' on the road for a while. "You're here about the concert?" Railen decided speaking on the topic was not in her best interest even if he did remember Jesse. He had no reason at all to remember Railen.

"Hell yeah," he grinned. "You're staging a southern rock shindig on my old stomping grounds! I want in."

"Not southern rock," she corrected. "Just music...blues, rock, country, jazz..."

"I still want in."

"You realize this is garage bands and a handful of up-and-comers? A couple of old-timers from The Quarter. Their time is donated. You're out of even my price range."

"Even your range? Not modest, are you?" he accused playfully, stepping uncomfortably near in search of shade.

"Says the rockstar who sees women legs first?"

"Technically, I'm a country star," he clarified, too-sexy grin widening.

"This is for charity, rockstar. I'm trying to open a free-of-charge music hall and dance studio for the locals, a learning center for all ages. And full-on arts programs of any kind I can staff, eventually. This isn't going to do a damned thing for your image. Entertainment Tonight will not be present."

Denny Mac covered his heart as though reeling from an arrow. "Ouch. Guess what, Little Miss Quick-to-Judge...I've got kids...and...a soul. Tom Downes told me about your vision for the county and here I am. Like me or not, my fans will show. And...a good many of them have kids and souls as well. I'll leave my information with your boy at the bar. Call me or don't."

Railen watched him sprint back to The Grand before exhaling the breath she held. "Well, fuck. I earned that one," she muttered and was about to return to her walk when his voice called out loudly.

"Hey!"

Railen faced him across the street, hands on hips. "What?"

Denny Mac pointed up to the sign hanging over the saloon style porch of the repurposed hotel. Scrawled deeply in aged boards were the words 'Pukking Grand.' The Boys had buffed out 'The' and 'Hotel' as a joke. Railen had loved it on sight and kept it as the bar's only signage. She couldn't resist smiling at the youthful look on Denny Mac's face.

"That's Pukking awesome!" he shouted and then continued his course with one more glance the length of the deserted street. Most of the vendors hid from the heat, most of the patrons were working. She wondered if he thrived on the attention he would receive otherwise.

Railen walked away, around the corner and down the side street that ran behind Earl's Diner. What do you think of that, Jesse? Think he would have remembered you? Of course, boys always remember you. Jerry damned sure can't forget. Who did it, girl? Who took you from us? Railen felt the familiar stirrings of grief and rage. Who fucking did it?

"I remember you!" Denny Mac shouted from behind her, boots falling silent in the dirt alley. "You told me that Denny was no name for a rockstar. You called me Mac all night."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, you smiled every time you said it. I'd have remembered you sooner if you smiled more."

"I like that sign."

"But you don't like me?" he challenged, finally devoid of a grin.

"I like you fine. Your music is fine. Can you go away now?" Railen insisted. She wanted only five minutes alone with her heartbreak and worry. "I'm sort of not working today."

"Sure, as soon as you tell me how I insulted your friend."

Railen glared at him.

"You said I insulted your friend. You're adorable when you do that, by the way."

"Shut up!" Railen shouted, immeasurably annoyed by his confident leer. "Shut. Up! You arrogant shit-head. That boy you accused of being overly emotional is the son of my best friend. You met her. Hell, you were all over her in front of fifty people!"

"Yeah, about that..."

"Shut up! She's dead! How's that for putting an ass in its seat? One year ago today she was murdered right here!" Railen pointed at the ground, at the precise location where she had found Jesse's battered body, face down with a caved-in skull. "That boy lives in hell eighty percent of his life, trying to keep sane two sisters and a drunkard father, while going to school and working! All of this I could fix with a single phone call, if Jerry would just let me! So, arrogant shit-head, the last thing I need today is you in my face reminding me of a time when Jess was alive and the world waited from the seats of her hatchback!"

Denny Mac opened his mouth as though to speak but turned instead to leave Railen alone with Jesse's memory.

"Now, Rai," whispered a voice behind her. "You didn't have to be so mean. Take off the armor, girl. You don't have to be a warrior."

Railen dropped her head to her hands. "The pain grows worse every day, Jess. You left a hole in us. All of us."

These moments, the times when it felt as if Jesse spoke to her, were her torment and her drug. The alley was empty. In pure spite of Earl's efforts, the blood stain remained, darkened black on the tiny patio at the base of the steps. Railen tilted her head up and allowed her anguish to pour through her throat. One year and still she wept, at least once, every day. She screamed with abandon now, again and again. Her final lead had turned to ash only this morning. There wasn't a single thread left to follow. Railen screeched in fury, dropping to the ground to splay her hands across all that remained of Jesse.

"Who?" she shouted at the ground. "Who did it, damn it? Who did it?"

"About that..."

Railen was on her feet and advancing immediately. "You're pushing your fucking luck!" she shouted through her tears. It took all of her will not to wipe them away. Defiance strengthened her. She would not show shame to a man like Denny Mac.

"And, here again, I'm trying to help. It's not like you were keeping quiet, half the block is around that corner. All five of them. Do you always curse so much?" Denny Mac didn't pause for an answer as he stepped slowly backward. "A buddy of mine is a detective in Macon, Georgia. He's not local but maybe he could take a look at the file. Another pair of eyes and all. Worth a shot, right?"

Railen stopped advancing when she realized he would soon retreat them into view of half the block. All six of them. "You're not going to leave me alone, are you?"

"Afraid not. This pesky soul won't let me leave you alone like this."

"Why not?" Railen nearly whined. Alone was exactly what she needed.

"Now who doesn't remember?" he challenged, wicked grin joined by one raised brow. "You don't remember how that night ended, do you?"

Of her two choices, strike him or humor him, Railen decided on the latter. She didn't need to fall further from the graces of the local law. Dropping onto Earl's smoking bucket, she sighed up at Denny Mac. "Jesse passed out. We went home. It gets a little foggy after the Dr Pepper shooters."

"Flaming Pepper shooters, and I can imagine. You won quite a bit of cash off my drummer."

"None of which made it out with me," she reminded him.

"You gave it back to him to keep him from taking off his pants."

Railen nearly laughed at the memory. "And then Jesse passed out."

"And where was I?" he asked stepping closer one hesitant step.

"I went looking for the bathroom and found your friend...the bassist, wasn't it?" Railen allowed the foggy memory to continue. "I don't know where you were but you called us a car, a stretch. Jesse slept on the hump. That's all I remember."

"She passed out, so I went to bed. Shitty, yes, since you girls were still there but I was young and drunkenly stupid. Anyway, it's unlikely that Cori would have been found until well into the following day. Had that been the case he would have been dead. He OD'ed. You helped me, and my former bandmate, so..."

"Former? What happened to him?" Railen interrupted, clearly recalling now the state of the overdosing boy slumped on Spanish tile. It amazed her that she could have forgotten this part of the night, but forgotten she had. The boy had a needle stuck in one arm, a pill bottle in his lap and bloody foam dripping from his mouth.

"He OD'ed again three years later. Heroin. He was alone that time. He wanted to die. Now, he's dead."

"Feels like yesterday sometimes," Railen whispered. It wasn't the night that stood out. What she remembered most was the way Denny Mac's music could send Jesse dancing through the yard like a schoolgirl from the following morning until the night she was taken. She had simply adored him.

"Speak for yourself," he laughed. "I've had a lot of Flaming Peppers since then."

"I've never had another." Railen pulled the bandana from her pocket to blow her nose. Damn if the man wasn't cheering her up. "I singed every hair in my nose with those things. Took almost a month to convalesce."

"Convalesce? Good word." Denny Mac stepped forward, leaning low to catch her downcast gaze. "I find myself wondering now the exact same thing I wondered the night we first met. Who is this girl and is she too young for me?"

"Ha!" She turned to ensure her laugh wasn't directly in his face. Jesse had adored the man. Railen considered him a hound dog. "Is there such a thing as too young for you, cowboy? I've seen some of your celebutants. How many of them still did homework?"

"Not many ever did, I'd wager," he chuckled in mockery of his own tastes. "I do have my limits. Such as a sixteen year old, tops, hanging out with the older crowd and claiming to be twenty."

Railen couldn't keep the lingering smile from her lips, though she did make the attempt. "I didn't?"

"You did."

"Rai!" Ben shouted from the direction of The Grand. "Rai! Tash is on her way with your fancy duds! Time is up! Car is here in twenty, Rai! You hear me? You need a shower!"

"I hear you!" Railen shouted back.

Denny Mac plugged his ears with two fingertips briefly.

"Son of a monkey tick," she grumbled Earl's favorite exclamation.

"Does the car carry you to execution?"

Railen rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. "May as well. I'm supposed to accept an award from The Pukking County Women's Society for my contributions to the community. I wrote it down for tomorrow. Any other night of the year I could handle it but not tonight. I can't pop in at the bar without crying today. And, I can't not go..."

"Sounds like a fancy event for a woman who keeps a snotty bandana in her pocket. Come on, quick, the crowd is thinning."

"Leave it to you to notice such a thing." Railen followed him around the corner to find no one waiting. "Liar."

Denny Mac chuckled softly, a rolling amusement that boasted his trademark growl. "Yeah, about that. You're a little scary. I wanted you to think there would be witnesses to my murd...oh shit, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Stupid joke."

"Forget it, rockstar. I don't spend all my time on a soap box."

"You a'ight?" Earl shouted from the diner steps as they emerged onto the street. "Figured you was alone back there."

"Do you always scream when you're alone?" Denny Mac whispered.

"Depends on the company I've been keeping." Railen waved at the old man, stooped over his broom with a battered straw hat protecting his dark chocolate skin. "I'm fine, Earl. Just a nosey city boy. He's harmless."

"You're just not starstruck at all, are you?" Denny asked when they reached the door, which was now closed so Ben could crank up Steven Tyler without pissing off Earl. Denny Mac moved to open it.

Railen had thought to step through the door so her short stop ended uncomfortably deep in his personal space. She met his gaze and momentarily forgot the question at hand. "Not in the least," she replied finally.

"No disrespect to your friend, but, if you had been twenty, it would have been you."

Railen rocked back on her heel to add to the distance between them. "Just keep telling yourself that, cowboy. Either open the door or move. Please."

Denny Mac sniffed the air around her head. "You really do need a shower."

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview
Chapter 1

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Chapter 2: A Gift for Giving

The twenty minutes that followed her return to The Grand were a whirlwind of cloth, make-up and mousse Railen could hardly follow. Tash's insistent hands had seen to make-up application. Ben's assault on her hair left her with a headache the size of Denny Mac's ego. Now, seated in the car that would carry her to execution, she refused to look at the man across from her.

"I swear this wasn't my intention," Denny said earnestly for the fifth time since leaving The Grand. "Your boy asked if I had a tux. I said yes. That crazy girl..."

"Tash," Railen offered.

"Yeah, Tash. She practically dressed me! You've some pushy people in your employ." Despite the scathing comment, he did not seem at all perturbed. In fact, he seemed immensely pleased.

"We can stop here if you'd like to get out."

The grin barely faltered. "Now, damn it, woman. Stop that. I can't help if I had a monkey suit on the bus. You're the one with no date."

Railen turned to him suddenly. "Why do you still travel by bus? Surely you can afford the flights."

"Or a jet," Denny Mac chuckled as he pushed the button to open the sunroof. "No, thanks. I'm not going out in a plane crash. Too much time spent knowing you're going to die. I fly when I have to cross water and for no other reason. Besides, bus ride or plane ride and hotel room, what's the difference?"

"Your own pillows," Railen guessed distractedly. Her attention was suddenly drawn to the potential outcome of her impromptu date with Denny Mac. Entertainment Tonight would not be in attendance at the awards banquet but The Pukking County Herald would be present. Denny Mac was the Pukking County equivalent to Superman, despite the fact that he had only lived in the area for two years as a teenager. That had been before Railen stumbled into Pukking. She and Jesse were the only two people, that Railen knew of, who had actually met him. "They're going to put our picture in the paper," she groaned. "My pushy people didn't think about that."

"Actually, they did. Ben and Tash were discussing you being a shoo-in for this year's Hawking Lox Gala, whatever that is. Said you'd been wanting to attend for a few years."

"Oh, dear God." Railen accompanied her groan with palms over her eyes this time, mindful of her makeup. "I'm going to kill them both, the meddlesome snots! I have no interest at all in attending the Hawking Lox Gala. They're dead, both of them. She's likely already got the two of us halfway down the aisle!"

"Easy, now." Denny raised a hand and Railen slapped it down.

"I said 'she'. I have no illusions about marriage, Mr. Mac."

"Why is it that my names sound so distasteful on your lips? Try this. Sam. My real name is Samuel Dennis Macky. Do you think you could call me Sam without sounding like my mother?"

Railen met his lit eyes evenly but couldn't discern for certain if he was angry, frustrated, or preparing to ravish her. "I'm sorry, Sam. Had you appeared in my orbit any other day, we'd have likely shared a laugh and a beer, a couple of sad stories and a couple of Flaming Peppers. I'm not myself today."

Samuel Dennis Macky's smile returned. "You be not yourself as long as you need, baby, and I'll be right here. Beyond striking distance. How far a drive to wherever this event is happening?"

"An hour or so," Railen responded.

"In that case, you're going to need to close the slit of your dress, before I start acting a little more like me."

Railen struggled with the material. It was a lovely dress, long and black, slit up the side to mid-thigh where it was adorned simply with an embroidered emerald vine that wound up the bodice to end as the clasp at her neck. Railen had loved the dress while standing. Now seated, the gaping fabric refused to be closed. "Where in the hell is the rest of this dress?" she complained but was secretly thankful that it lacked material at the thighs and not above the waist. No low-cut had been her only instruction on dress purchases.

"It was a joke. Do you ever relax? Or is this more of the not you portion of the evening?" Sam Macky crouched in the floor of the stretch limousine, another of Tash's liberties of post, and popped the cork on one of the three bottles of champagne provided by the car service. He offered her a glass.

"I've never won an award before but I'm pretty sure you drink the champagne after you're awarded?" Still, she accepted the glass and allowed him to fill it.

"I've won twenty-three awards, big and small, and I can tell you that there is no bad time to start drinking."

"Doesn't seem proper," Railen insisted while he returned to his seat.

The grin he offered left no wondering at the source of his lit eyes. Railen watched him sip long from his glass and then lower it slowly to speak. "It's the most proper thing I can think of to do with a beautiful woman in the back of a limo. And a whole hour to kill."

"You're unbearable!" Railen chastised.

"Hold that thought." He interrupted her intended rant to fish his phone from the breast pocket of his monkey suit. "Hello?" he said after sliding his thumb across the screen. "Hey, hey, man. Too long. Get my message? Yeah, Jesse Stone..."

"Higgins," Railen offered Jesse's married name automatically, surprised that he had remembered her born name at all.

"Higgins. Stone is the maiden name. Middle name? Hang on," he stopped talking to look at Railen.

"Rebecca."

"Jesse Rebecca Stone Higgins. Yeah, happened in the township of Pukking, in Pukking County, Mississippi. Of course it's a real place. Yeah? And how is that worse than Cumming, Georgia?" Sam nodded, staring out the window as he listened to the muffled male voice on the other end of the line. "Uh huh, yeah, I hear you. Just see what you can do. So what? No, man, this is definitely not for a girl. Ha ha! You know it. Seriously, though, I knew Jesse, kind of. I'd like to know what happened to her. Sure, man. Thanks."

"He'll look into it?" Railen said when Sam had stowed his phone.

"He says a year-old case is a long shot but he'll see if anything jumps out at him. That is, if the Pukking detectives will let him look around. You want to tell me what happened?"

Railen sighed heavily. "Detective. There's just the one. And, there's not much to tell. She was beaten to death with a wooden slat pulled off the picket fence around Earl's trailer. No prints, no witnesses, no DNA. They tried to pin it on Jerry, even took it to trial, but there was no evidence. When he was acquitted, they stopped looking. He could be in my bar for lunch. Could work with her son at the paper factory. I see a man over five-nine and I wonder if I'm looking at the person who killed her." Railen stared out the window, watching the world fly by in a haze. "From the angle of wounds they determined that he had to have been at least five-nine. That's it. That's all we know."

"Wow," he breathed. "That sucks. And three kids."

Railen and Sam rode in silence that grew increasingly comfortable with each passing moment. He sat with elbow on the door handle, chin on fist, to stare through the window, leaving Railen to wonder at the simple peace he projected. He seemed as happy and comfortable in a tuxedo as he did in jeans and biker boots. Only the slow and steady narrowing of his eyes belied his tumultuous thoughts.

"How can it be that the girl in my head could end up like that?" he asked as they left the interstate. "I think I want this guy as badly as you do now."

"You would think with our combined resources it would be easy but I've had private eyes all over it. I do appreciate your friend looking but he won't find anything. There's nothing. No trace of him."

"What about Earl? You said it was his fence," Sam offered.

Railen laughed with genuine amusement, instantly shamed by her capacity for humor. Laughter would not bring Jesse back. Laughing with Samuel Dennis Macky seemed like a mockery of their friendship in total. He was Jesse's star. The one who would ride in one day and attempt to sweep her off her feet. Jesse would have refused politely of course, being settled as she was, but she had so wanted to believe he pined for her. Jesse had always known it was fantasy, a few moments of whimsy between friends. And Railen would laugh, say Jesse was a fool and suggest she watch a few less Lifetime movies while Billy napped. That had been fifteen years ago.

Railen forced back grief by swallowing the familiar apple in her throat and found the voice to answer Sam's question. "Earl is the dearest thing on feet. He loves us like his own girls. This happening in his alley is responsible for the stooping of his back. His guilt is that heavy. He tore down that fence with his bare hands when the police told him he was free to do so. The pieces lay there still, rotting into the earth. He wants to burn them but is too afraid they may need them someday for the investigation. He can't begin to imagine that they stopped looking six weeks in."

Sam leaned forward, drawing her gaze from the darkening sky. "Was she robbed?"

"No. Not a single trinket missing and she was heavily adorned. Jesse liked diamonds. We had just hit it big." Railen shrugged.

Sam sipped slowly from his glass, sighing softly before speaking. "You care for her son. I thought he was yours the way you handled him. I couldn't hear you, so I wasn't eavesdropping. It was just the way he changed the moment he saw you."

"Perceptive of you. He's as close as I'll get to my own so, yes, I do what I'm allowed. Jerry forbids me to give one dime more than Jesse earned before her death. Her share of The Grand, basically. Which is ridiculous because, if she were alive, Jesse would make five times that now if she never worked another day. I'm only offering her rightful share. Explain royalties to a redneck."

"What are you?" Sam asked suddenly. "You don't operate that little pub and make the kind of bucks you imply possessing. Royalties? What are you?"

Railen stared at him a moment. "You don't know who I am?"

The grin that followed was all Denny Mac. "I know you're the friend of a girl I once knew. Beyond that, no, not a clue," he echoed her answer to the same question.

"By suggestion of my work spread across your chest all day, I thought you were aware of my primary occupation."

"On my chest?"

"Your Breaking Bread t-shirt? The movie? I wrote it."

"No Pukking way. You wrote a western? Wait, you wrote that western?"

"Indeed, I did." Railen wished instantly she hadn't said anything. He didn't appear starstruck so much as dumbfounded.

"That was a brutal film," he said slowly.

"Most men are surprised that it was written by a woman."

Sam shook his head, chuckling softly. "A woman who owns a bar, makes her living writing westerns for the big screen, gets awarded for her charitable contributions, calls me a shit-head and seeks justice for a fallen ally while carrying a snotty bandana in her pocket. If you have a motorcycle, I've got us halfway down the aisle." He held up a hand quickly. "Kidding."

"Oh, good grief, shit-head. Stop with the matrimony crap. I'm not going dress shopping because you crack a joke. Take your own advice, relax."

"I can't relax now. You have the advantage." Sam sounded genuinely distraught, shifting noisily.

Railen pulled her gaze back from the window once again. Damn if he wasn't the hardest man in the world to look upon. "I see no advantage to my position."

"Pity. I'd have thought you more clever than that." His instantly humored eyes sent her gaze back to the scenery beyond the window, darkness. "All right, I'll tell you," he said as though she had inquired. "You know that I'm a fan of your movie but I have no idea if you like or dislike my music. I assume you've heard at least one of my songs. Admittedly, it's a geographical assumption."

Railen considered the passing silhouette of trees and the crisp white moon beyond. "Fuck it. I don't have the energy to spar." Fishing her phone from her handbag, she opened the music player and handed it to Denny Mac. "Go ahead, look for yourself."

Sam took the phone but their arrival at a mansion, belonging to someone Railen had never met, interrupted his search. The car slid to a stop in the arch of a turn, two hundred handsomely adorned yards from the house.

"I didn't see my name on the list," he whispered as they joined the gathering crowd on the walkway.

"Did you look for your name?"

One by one, couples and groups flooded across the gold carpet to ascend the jagged stone stairs leading to the house. Sam studied her phone intently, taking the stairs with barely a glance.

"Can you believe they have us get out all the way down here? I miss my boots," Railen complained.

"You're kind of a hard ass for a diva," Sam commented absently. He snapped his fingers near the side of her head. "Ha! I am on here. You have me under Sam. You knew my name all along. If you'd correct my name, you'd have album art and...man, you don't just like me..."

"Your music. I like your music. You're kind of annoying."

"You've got over half my collection on here," he grinned down at her, appearing immensely pleased with himself.

"And he gloats."

Sam's grin widened. "I'm relieved. If the art appreciation was one-sided I was going to leave with the car."

"The car is mine. You're stranded."

"Can I see it?" he whispered against Railen's head when she turned to greet the approaching young woman. "The script, can I see it?"

"No." Railen couldn't resist smiling as she turned her back to him completely. It once required threat of death to get her scripts read by famous people.

"This way Ms. Vost, and who is your guest this evening?" a jittery little woman asked without actually looking at Sam as they approached the midway point of the hillside gardens.

"Mr. Samuel Macky," Railen replied smoothly.

"Ouch," Sam said to her back. "Score one for you. Expect hate email from my publicist."

Railen followed the woman up the stairs and across the landing, up another flight of stairs, and across a perfectly good driveway. The three of them tread golden carpet through massive rosewood doors and then quickly another set, and then another. Railen would have liked to have seen the home empty, imagining it as breathtaking, but all she could see were people and lights.

Arriving at a final door, the girl stopped suddenly and spun to speak in a rush, startling Railen from gaping at the chandelier. "I'm told you have a package at the bar. You'll find the bar along the wall to your left. Enjoy your evening and congratulations, ma'am." In a blink, the slight black-clad woman vanished into the sea of tuxedo backs and their scantily-sequined women of society.

Railen shrank in her modestly slitted drape. The vine was suddenly choking her. "I don't want to do this," she said to the chandelier as she turned sharply on her heels. She ran headlong into Sam.

"Whoa, filly. The party is that way. Close your mouth and stop looking up."

"I don't want to be here," Railen whispered as low as she could manage. "I can't stand these people. Do you know not one of them has forked over more than a grand? They don't give a shit. The champagne is half that per bottle, at least."

"I know," Sam laughed in response. "I tried to get you to drink more. Would you like one now?"

"Yes, please."

"Follow me, filly, water is this way."

Railen glared at the back of his head. "I might kick you."

A freckled young man in a wine-stained tuxedo pushed through the crowd to stop their advance on the bar. "Denny Mac? Mr. Mac! Can I get a shot of you and your date? It'll only take a second, for The Pukking County Herald Society page."

"Get one of just my date. Her name is Maggie, she's a waitress at Earl's," Sam laughed.

"Come on, man, please? They kicked me out, like, two minutes ago and I haven't gotten anyone good. Please?"

Railen stepped forward to hook her arm through Sam's and smile at the young photographer. Damn it. "Of course, Fred. How'd you like orientation?"

"Oh, hey, Ms. Vost. Didn't realize that was you. Pretty dress. So, can I get the shot? And, oh yeah, I liked it just fine. I can't wait to see it all finished."

"From your lips, son. How's your mom?"

"She's fine, around here somewhere with...I don't remember his name." Fred Williams perched his camera, glancing over his shoulder at the young woman who had led them in from the car. Railen and Sam offered their best smiles and heard the camera click furiously. Then, Fred was gone. The woman smiled politely at Railen and then spun to storm away.

"She's an intense little thing, isn't she?" Sam commented with a chuckle. "So, you know the kid?"

Railen nodded, too aware of his hand on her back, steering her toward the bar. "He's one of my mentors."

The look Sam offered her was laughably confused.

"For the arts center. He's going to direct a photography class three times a week. He met with my staff today to go over the needs for his course. They were taking him through the plans so he could get a scope of his prospects within the program. The arts building will be on the same property as the music hall and dance studio."

"This is a big project, isn't it?"

"Mhm," Railen assured him. "Tash does most of the hard work, as always. The woman is a machine."

Their arrival at the bar was once again interrupted, this time by a swarm of sequined society women, Bethian Thomas-Quency in the lead. Railen had known the girl when she was Bethany Ann Thomas, snaggletoothed and spoiled rotten.

"Railen Vost, by the stars!" she exclaimed, veneers gleaming. "Did you ever think we'd see the day? Girls, Railen here used to babysit me. She was the sweetest thing, always let me have chocolate cake for dinner."

"That was your father, actually," Railen said, matching the woman's insincere smile. She couldn't recall the last time Bethian had spoken well of anyone. "I'd have fed you bread and water, and not a smidgen more."

Bethian laughed shrilly and clapped her hands like a seal. "You kidder! She was funny as a whip, too. Oh, congrats, darlin'! I'm just so proud of you, to do something like this at your age. Gives us youngin's hope for life after saggy tits, ya know?"

"I really don't," Railen replied, knowing that the girl wouldn't listen to a word she spoke. She clearly recalled the time when thirty-six seemed ancient.

"Oh my God!" Bethian exclaimed suddenly. "Denny Mac! Oh my God, girls, look!"

Sam waved slightly. "Evening, ladies," he said.

Railen's spiteful side derived immense pleasure from the dumbfounded glances skittering from her face to the musician's and back again. "Mr. Mac is considering aiding my cause," Railen explained and then wished she hadn't derailed their assumptions. Relief flooded their overdone faces.

"That's what you think," Sam said just loud enough for the women to hear. "It's part of my master plan."

"Plans!" Bethian threw up a hand. "Oh, hey, look, like, there was a last minute change in plans and they've added a silent auction to tonight's agenda. We all just kinda threw some things together. Mine is the custom Lady Gaga costume, if you want to bid. A portion of the proceeds go to our favorite charity, of course. Maybe Denny Mac would step on the block? We'd rake in the cash!"

"Sorry. I'll have to pass," Sam said immediately, pulling Railen closer with a hand on her waist. Damn him for handsy.

"The other portion of proceeds goes where?" Railen demanded.

Bethian stared at Sam as she spoke. "To the Women's Society, for our wing at the club. We want to add another tennis court, and another smoking-hot instructor. I keep that one tidbit from Daddy though! Ha!" In a flurry of fake breasts in poorly worn Vera Wang, Bethian and faceless company fled.

"Please tell me she's speaking of her actual father," Sam whispered.

Railen shook her head. "Her husband, Edward Blain Quency, III. He lost his second wife to cancer last year, married Bethian five months later." Railen pointed at the large man hunkered over a table to speak to a woman clearly attempting to leave his company. "There he is. His daddy's people were, or are, in oil out in Texas. She's in it for the cash."

Sam shook his head slowly. "So should we find this auction thing? I'll throw some money your way."

"If you want your money to further my cause, don't spend it here. My portion of proceeds for five benefits in three months won't buy a dozen easels. Meanwhile, we've barely broken ground."

"So, why are you here?"

"Because a dozen easels is better than no easels at all. I do what I can but I have salaries to pay, healthcare to secure for families. I can handle the land, the buildings and the roads, if Tash keeps my personal spending low. I need the little they'll offer. Even if it comes with enduring their sniping."

"Sniping?" he asked. "She seemed pleasant enough. Overzealous maybe."

"What you heard and what she said are two completely different things."

"She did make that crack about your age," Sam grinned down at her. "I bet your, ahems, are fine."

"I couldn't care less if that girl thinks my breasts sag. I care about the auction. They put the auction together at the last minute to reduce my input on the process, otherwise known as the proceeds. Who has an auction at an awards banquet? Not telling me was the latest in a long line of them putting me in my place. No one here wants to see a Red Dirt Girl hit it big."

"And then they give you an award for it to save face." Sam laughed. "Sounds about right."

"Exactly," Railen said, watching his eyes process her circumstance.

"Any other day you could have handled it but not today," Sam sighed now, rubbing her back absently as he scanned the crowd.

"Exactly." Railen heard the tears in the word but couldn't hold them back. She turned her face into his shoulder to hide them from everyone else. Jesse had been her gateway to the world, a constant buffer between Railen's crazy and the average Joe. Today the world seemed rather hopeless. "I can't do it today."

Sam shook her slightly by the shoulders to gain her focus. "Like hell. Listen to me. You're going to walk up there when they call your name and say this...are you listening?"

Railen nodded, unable to turn from his steel gray eyes.

"This is some kind of honor. You all hold a special place in my heart and my feelings leave me speechless." He squeezed her shoulder gently. "Did you get it?"

"I got it. Clever," Railen admitted. "Clever enough for most of them anyway."

"Gee, thanks. And, until then, we're going to drink." Sam concluded their walk to the bar and this time his hand on her back was welcome.

By the time they had the bartender's attention, Railen had forgotten about the package. The vested and toweled barman made short work of producing the small parcel, wrapped artfully in plain brown paper and tied with a bright pink bow.

"Who is this from?" she called out to the bartender's retreating vest and blonde ponytail. He didn't seem to hear her.

Railen pulled the ribbon loose and the paper opened of its own accord. Taped to the inside of the wrapping, in cut out magazine letters was the warm message, Happy Anniversary. Against every scream in her head, Railen pushed open the lid of the tiny ring box. Nestled in blue velvet was another note, folded neatly. She opened the paper to find that it wasn't a note at all but a picture of Railen and Sam. She stood in front of Earl's Diner, hands on hips, smiling. Sam was across the street, pointing up at the sign atop her building. A red circle was drawn around her head in the image and lines of blood were inked in all over her body.

"Holy shit," Sam breathed over her shoulder.

"Are you okay, Ms. Vost?" the bartender asked, sliding two glasses of champagne across the bar.

"I'm fine," she replied when she could speak. "I need a plastic bag or wrap. Do you think you might have some?"

"I'll find some, ma'am."

"I'm in that picture, Ms. Vost," Sam said low when they were almost alone.

"I am aware, Mr. Macky."

"It's from him, isn't it? Do you know anyone sadistic enough to do this as a joke?"

"Nope. It's from him." Railen processed her calm as shock and decided she was thankful for the gift. It was evidence, something they could use to find Jesse's killer.

"I'm officially freaked out." Sam gripped her wrist firmly to punctuate his statement. "Do you think he's here?"

"I'm not the one to ask. I think he's everywhere." Railen scanned the nearest faces, finding a killer in them all.

"What do we do?" Sam spoke into her hair, arms working their way around her protectively. "Should we leave?"

"I made up my mind a long time ago that I couldn't flee every building he may be in. Take the car if you want. Nothing ties you to my side but bad timing and pushy people. Leave, cowboy. This isn't your fight."

"Fight?" he said, turning her chin up roughly. "You do intend to fight him, don't you? If you ever find him."

"I intend to see him brought to justice." Railen swatted his hand, pulling away, only to have him haul her back to his side. His intense stare, as angry as confused, stilled her instant rebellion. The sudden vibration of her phone against their ribs startled them both. She pulled the bag from the crook of her arm and tried to find her phone with shaky hands. Swiping the screen quickly, she pressed it to her ear. "Hello?"

"Rai?" Billy said hesitantly. "Rai, you there?"

"I'm here, Billy. What's wrong?"

"We had a wreck, Rai! Britney is hurt, it looks bad!"

"Did you call 911?"

"Yeah. They just got here. They're trying to get her out of the car. Rai, I don't know what to do."

"Where is Emily?"

"She's with the ambulance. They said she's all right." Billy's voice was shrill, panicked.

"Okay, Billy, listen to me. Stay with Emily for now. When they get Brit out of the car, you're going to need to make sure that Em doesn't see her. Do you understand? She's too young. Remember how she freaked when she skinned her knee on the driveway?"

"Okay, I'm with her now," Billy replied.

"Block her view, kiddo. Don't let her see!"

"Rai, Brit's out!" the boy screeched into the phone.

"See to Em, Billy! " Railen pleaded, moving with the pull of Sam's hand on her elbow, "I'll meet you at St. Mike's."

"Oh God, Rai!"

"Whatever you saw, boy, don't you let Em hear it. Let them worry about Brit now. What would Mama have said?"

"She'd have said Brit is in God's hands," Billy wept. "Oh God, Rai."

"That's right, B-boy, but Em is in yours. You can do this."

"They're ready to go."

"You go, Billy. I'll meet you at the hospital. I love you, kid."

"Love you, too, Rai Rai." The boy ended the call.

Stabbing at her phone quickly, Railen sent Henry a text message. She lowered the phone and looked up to find herself in the driveway. Sam was turned away to speak to a uniformed man near an old speaker box.

"Right away, sir," the man bowed slightly and spoke into the headset hanging from his ear. "Vost car, around front."

"Her kids?" Sam asked quietly.

"Yes," she whispered, though she had intended to speak clearly.

"Was it him?"

"Car wreck, who knows? You should go. You're on his radar."

"And I have no way of knowing if my leaving would solve that problem." Sam pulled her close to rub circles into her bare shoulders with his fingertips. "This isn't my first time dealing with a stalker. If I've learned anything, it's that they're unpredictable."

"I'm an hour away," Railen whimpered against Sam's chest. "Oh God, protect them. I'm an hour away. Why in the hell didn't I let Tash get me a chopper?"

Sam squeezed her closer. "Because that would have meant fewer easels," he whispered. "Damn, woman, I did not see you coming."

This is the end of:
Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview
Chapter 2

If you like what you've read, you can read more by clicking Next Chapter or you can buy the complete novel at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, or Apple's iBookstore

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Chapter 3: Aw, Hell

"Are you smoking?" Jenny demanded with gentle reproach.

Detective Justin Thomas ran a thumb across his badge, pulling deeply from his Marlboro. "Yep," he confessed, clipping his badge to his belt.

"Why?" Jenny pressed, the sounds of breakfast being made clattering in the background.

Flicking his cigarette through the open window, Justin disconnected his handsfree and stepped out of the car. He glared at massive rosewood doors.

"Justin?" Jenny asked hesitantly. "Did I lose you?"

"I'm at Audrey Wilhelm's mansion," Justin informed his wife. "There's been an incident."

"Of course," Jenny snapped. "The good stuff alway happens on my day off."

Justin laughed. She wasn't wrong. In three years at the emergency switchboard, Jenny had become known as a good luck charm. Justin often joked that the local thugs feared her wrath; she always got a kick out of that. "Bethian is here," he sighed.

"Ah," Jenny said. "That's why you're smoking."

"Yep."

"What now?" she asked, sighing sympathetically.

Justin sighed as well. "Now, I try to figure out what really happened. I'll call you back, babe. Love you."

"Love you. Stay alive."

"Always, and back at ya." Justin closed and stowed his phone.

A round, blurry face peered through the door's side window and promptly disappeared. The right side door swung open before Justin had a chance to knock.

"Hello again, Mr. Thomas. Apologies, Detective Thomas. May I help you?"

Justin recalled the young woman's name as Rachel. Her last name was somewhere in his notes. "Has my sister left?" he inquired.

Rachel shook her head. "She's helping the Missis to...should I get her?"

"Please," Justin confirmed. "No need to worry Mrs. Wilhelm. I just have a few more questions."

"Very well, wait here." Rachel started to close the door but paused to point at Justin's car. "They don't really park there. If that clunker leaks, your department will be getting a bill for the cleaning."

Justin grinned when Rachel rolled her eyes.

"Fucking rich people," Railen laughed from the recesses of Justin's memory.

The gentle click of the door left Justin to his own devices. He lit another cigarette and considered where his day would inevitably lead him. About the time his mind had carried him to her curb, an entirely different woman opened rosewood doors.

"What's up, bro?" Bethian smiled, stepping out to close the doors behind her, as if using both weren't odd.

Justin glared at his sister while she patted flawless curls, dragging closed a swaddling that likely cost more than the wardrobes of Justin's entire household. "Tell me the truth, Bethie, right now."

Bethian feigned precise indignation. "I did tell you the truth! You would believe me if..."

Justin stopped her words with a finger pointed at her nose. "Don't you dare."

Bethian's mouth closed and her eyes narrowed with temper. "I don't have to say it. You already know it. I know it. She knows it. Your wife knows it!"

"Always nice to see you, sis." Justin couldn't get into his car fast enough. Unfortunately, the window was still down.

"Do yourself a favor!" Bethian shouted. "Go home and fuck your wife!"

Justin turned the car into the morning sun, stabbing the buttons on his cell phone. He forced himself to pull back on the accelerator until his hands were, once again, free.

"Sup, boss?" Yankee answered on the first ring.

"Where do we stand?" he demanded of his assistant.

"Just got here," she replied, yawning. "Here's Simmons."

"Hey, boss," Little Bobby Simmons chirped. "We just got back with the kid. He's wasted."

"How long?"

"We're shoving food and coffee in him but I'm guessing he's going to need to sleep it off. It'll be at least a couple of hours before we get a thing out of him. Unless you're looking for puke, 'cause I'm thinking that'll be in the cards."

"The warrant?"

"No one there yet, sir. I called Lou. He'll move as quick as he can."

"Keep me posted."

"Yes, sir."

Justin closed his phone and tossed it onto the passenger seat. A tractor hauling hay rolled at a snail's pace for two miles before an aged hand waved a hat out of the cab window, indicating he could pass. Justin pulled his hat off and returned the gesture and then hit his flashers. Seeing the old man and his hay safely to their destination could mark his good deed for the day.

The farmer eventually turned his load into a small pasture drive. Justin whipped in after, rushing to open the gate and prevent the old man's climb from the air-conditioned cab. He was rewarded with a cigar tossed from the window as he returned to his car. Once inside and buckled, Justin glanced back to find the tractor being met by an aged woman at the small gates between a hilltop garden and the grazing land. His sweat to her sustenance. The life he had always thought they'd have together.

Justin snatched up his phone to press and hold the one key briefly.

"Hello, husband," Jenny cooed over the sounds of clanking dishes.

"Where are the boys?" he asked.

"Playdate at Margie's by the time you get here," Jenny breathed.

"I'm still out in Wilhelm. We need to talk, Jen."

"Tell Daddy bye bye, boys," Jenny urged.

"Bye, Daddy!" came out of sync squealing.

Justin listened to his wife deposit his sons in Miss Margie's capable care.

"Just talk?" she asked an instant after the front door slammed. "Are you upset?"

Justin grinned as he pictured his wife in her robe with hot curlers in her hair. "Maybe not just talk."

"You saw her didn't you?" Jenny accused.

Justin groaned. "No, I did not see her. And, if I had, what would that have to do with us?"

"Stop lying to yourself, Justin. Maybe then you can stop lying to me." Jenny ended their call.

Justin waited until he reached the Pukking town limits sign to decide to redial his wife.

The phone rang as he reached for it. "Bad timing, Bobby," he snapped upon answering.

"We got the warrant, boss," Bobby said hesitantly. "Lou got his move on. Meet me at the ranch?"

"No. We'll head over there this afternoon. She's likely just gone to bed."

Bobby cleared his throat. "Since when does a suspect's sleep schedule determine when we question them?" The accusation in Bobby's tone was clear.

"I've got a personal errand to run. We've gotten squat from the kid. You go on and head over there, Bobby. Get started questioning Railen, on an hour's sleep and no coffee. Let me know how that goes."

Little Bobby didn't say anything for a moment. Finally, he conceded. "Yeah, okay. I hear you. She won't say a damned thing pissed off, 'cept to tell you where to shove it and call some big shot L.A. attorney."

Justin whipped the car onto the gravel drive to find Jenny standing between the gates. "Shit!" he screeched, laying into the brake.

"What is it?" Bobby yelled.

Justin covered his heart with his hands briefly when the car came to a stop. "Nothing. Everything is fine. Got to go."

Jenny slapped him the moment he stepped out of the car. "You almost killed me!" she wailed.

Pulling her against his chest, Justin tried to soothe her shaking body. "Sh. You're okay. Why in the hell were you in the middle of the driveway?"

"You always stop to check the mail!"

Justin glanced at the mailbox, which stood in plain view of where Jenny had been walking. "Not when we're fighting," he groaned, squeezing her closer. For that split second of sliding gravel, he had thought he might not stop in time.

Jenny pulled back to look at him. There was no robe and curlers. Jenny had pulled her hair down and thrown on her favorite dress. She smelled like syrup. "We're fighting?" she asked.

Before Justin could respond, his phone began to ring. Leaning through the open window of his cruiser, he snatched it from the seat and flipped it open with his thumb without checking the call's source.

"Thomas," he barked.

"Hey, boss," Yankee said. "Just checking to see if there is anything we can do."

"Has anything changed?" he asked.

"Don't think so."

"Call me when something changes," Justin tried not to sound annoyed, but failed. "Sorry, Yank. Do call if something comes up."

"Sure thing, boss."

Justin tossed the phone back into the car. Jenny's small fist collided with his jaw the moment he turned. Either she hadn't intended for it to hurt or his wife was far weaker than he imagined.

"You want to fight," she drawled. "Let's fight!" The moment Justin stood fully upright, Jenny ran.

"I'm not chasing you!" he informed her back as it disappeared into the woods bordering their property.

Jenny's white sundress sailed from the tree line to land in a heap in the gravel.

"I'm still not chasing you," Justin said at a volume only his penis would hear.

A tiny wisp of pink lace joined white cotton. Jenny's boots began snapping twigs, moving quickly away from him. For a moment, all he could do was stare and wonder what on earth had gotten into his wife.

Justin took two involuntary steps toward the tree line. "I'm not...Jen! Aw, hell."

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview
Chapter 3

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Chapter 4: Devil on the Line

Railen had no memory of sleep. She simply found herself standing on the wool rug in her bedroom trying to recall what had awakened her. Then it sounded again, her phone vibrating in the bottom of her purse. A moment later, the phone was in her hand.

"Hello?" she whispered, plugging the opposite ear as though the room were noisy. "Hello?"

"Good afternoon, Ms. Vost." The male voice was one she had never heard before.

"Good afternoon, sir. Who's speaking?"

"You can call me Master, my sweet little djinni."

"Who the fuck is this?" Railen was instantly alert.

"Mm, that dirty little tongue. I think I'll take it first." His laugh was a low rumbling humor, warm and rich, and not the sinister cackle appropriate to his actions.

Her hands began to tremble with rage and for once she had the proper target. "Come out of hiding, coward!"

"Soon, little djinni, but you must grant my first wish."

"I'll grant you a quick death. If you're lucky."

"I will break you slowly." The man's tone was calm and controlled. "For my first wish, you will rid yourself of the handsome Mr. Macky. He does not get to play."

"I'll do nothing for you. You don't like my actions, coward? Come on out and change them!"

"Silly twit. It's you or them. Mave, Earl, the kids, Jerry, the cop and now the singer. The list goes on, as you well know. You're so easy to hurt."

"Who are you?" she demanded.

For the briefest moment, Railen sensed hesitation on his end of the line. "You'll find out. When I'm ready for you to know. Until then, little djinni, I'll be watching you."

There was a loud thud and the click of a landline disconnecting. Pay phone? Possibly an old, heavy phone?

"He called me," Railen called out, turning to face the empty bed. "That means there are phone records."

She stuck her head through the open bathroom door. This room was empty as well. Returning to the bedroom, Railen found Sam's clothes missing from the arm of the chair, bathed in the late afternoon glow through open drapes. In their place was the Bart Simpson Christmas pajama bottoms he had worn to sleep. Railen sighed, deciding to call Justin after a shower and toothbrush.

It was amazing the difference a shower and fresh jeans made in perspective. By the time she descended the back stairs to the kitchen, Railen was running the conversation she was bound to have with Justin through her head. He would surely bitch that she hadn't called him the previous evening with news of the picture she had received. Still, now that Brit was safe, Railen felt more upbeat than she had in months.

The creature had stuck its head from the burrow, twice.

"Good afternoon, Rai Rai," Mave called to raise Railen's eyes from the toes of her boots. She rocked her silver bun toward the kitchen's center island. "You have guests."

Railen stepped into the kitchen to find two uniformed officers waiting with Justin Thomas. He glanced around her kitchen as if he had never seen it before. "You saved me a phone call," she said, offering her hand in greeting. "How have you been?"

Justin squeezed her hand gently. "I'm here in an official capacity. You want to tell me why you ran out of the banquet so quick last night?" Justin tugged his hat from the counter, placing it on the empty stool beside him to clear room for Mave's coffee tray. He placed his cell phone beside the tray, set to record their conversation.

Railen studied the rugged, and actual, cowboy closely. His hat was as dirty as his jeans. "You come in from the field to see me, Jay?"

"Yes, ma'am. Want to answer my question?"

Railen squinted at him. Ma'am? Honey, Sweets, Darlin', Sugar or Little Sparrow...sure. Maybe even stubborn and a pain-in-the-ass. But, ma'am? He was lying. And, he was angry. "Justin Thomas, you tell me what it is you think I did and I'll tell you whether or not I did it."

"I've got to do my job, Rai. Answer the question."

"Jesse's kids were in a car wreck on old fifty-three. I left the banquet and drove straight to St. Mike's to be with them until Jerry sobered up. Check with the car service."

"Did you see this man at the party?" Justin held up a picture of a man with a short blonde ponytail and glasses.

"He was our bartender," Railen answered immediately.

"Our?"

"Me and my date..." Railen stopped herself before finishing the sentence. "It wasn't a date really."

Justin slapped the picture down on the island. "Just answer the question."

Railen busied herself with pouring coffee as though Mave had not already put a cup in front of her. "I was escorted by Samuel Macky, known more commonly as Denny Mac."

Justin nodded and scribbled on a tiny notepad. It was apparent to Railen, by the set of his jaw, that he was already aware of her evening's company. Of course he was. Justin read the paper every morning. "I see. And, where is Mr. Mac now?"

"Right here," Sam said from behind Railen. He stepped forward to kiss the top of her head. "Morning, love. I used your downstairs shower. I didn't want to wake you."

Railen watched Justin rise uncomfortably and offer his hand to the man who clearly appeared to be her lover. "Detective Justin Thomas of the Pukking Police Department."

It still amazed Railen that Justin could say that with a straight face. The men shook hands briefly. Railen slid the extra cup of coffee to Sam.

"You were asking about me?" Sam prompted when Justin showed no sign of speaking on his own.

"You were with Ms. Vost the entire night?"

"Except for the last twenty minutes," Sam clarified. "And ten minutes at the hospital while I called my manager."

Railen shoved Justin's shoulder roughly across the island. "Enough. Tell me what you think I did. You've got two armed men with you, Jay! What the hell? You bring the Bobbies here to arrest me for something?"

Little Bobby Simmons and Big Bobby Milner tipped their hats in unison. "Afternoon, ma'am."

Justin knocked Railen's hand from his shoulder. "Tiddles VanHolden had a six carat diamond necklace up for auction last night. They found it missing about thirty seconds after you left."

Railen opened her mouth but her brain had no notion of filling it with words.

"You think Railen stole a necklace?" Sam laughed, holding up a thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. "You obviously didn't see her tiny little purse."

"No, we know she didn't steal it," Justin corrected, scowl wrinkling his prominent forehead. "We caught the man who did, the bartender. He no longer had the necklace on him. A witness remembers seeing the exact same man give you a package, Railen. Can I see this package?"

"As a matter of fact, you can," Railen hissed, instantly infuriated by his suspicion. She had seen that look on Justin's face many times, never once had it been directed at her. She turned on her heel to storm up the back stairs. Little Bobby stepped in her path.

"Sorry, Rai," Justin sighed. "You'll have to tell Officer Simmons where it is. I've got the warrant but I only want the package. We have no intention of tearing your place apart unless you make us."

Railen growled her frustration in Little Bobby's face. "It's in my purse from last night, wrapped in plastic, Officer Simmons. The purse is on the coffee table in my bedroom. You know where it is. You helped me paint it, remember?"

"I remember. I'm sorry, Rai. It's my job." Little Bobby took the back stairs two at a time, each heave working his heavy gun belt like a tire swing.

"My weed stash is on the nightstand!" Railen shouted after him, prompting Justin to snatch the phone from the counter to cease the recording. "That's the one fucking law I do break and you all fucking know it!"

"Damn it, Railen!" Justin chastised, stabbing at his phone. "Calm down."

"I don't see that happening," Sam commented, offering Railen an approving smile. "Are you familiar with the flavor of crow, Detective Thomas?"

"I am," Justin sighed. "And I'd chow down on a big helping at the moment. We don't like this either."

"So you know she didn't do anything?" Sam challenged through the steam of his coffee.

"I'm doing my job." The words were beginning to sound hollow. Railen was unsure who he was attempting to convince.

"Fuck your job," she growled. She wasn't sure which was more infuriating, that Justin could think she would steal from anyone, much less Tiddles VanHolden, or that Sam seemed to think the entire thing was amusing. "Tell me, Justin, does this accusation come from Bethian by any chance?"

"This is about a necklace, Railen, not twenty-year-old jealousy," he replied.

"Your sister is a bitch," Railen informed him.

"I know."

Little Bobby returned with the purse to pass it immediately to Railen.

"Over here," Justin insisted with an outstretched hand.

Railen placed the purse in his palm with exaggerated calm, two-fingered as with a gun. "Of course, Detective Kiss My Ass. It's all yours. Try not to faint at the sight of my tampons."

"I've bought your tampons, Rai," Justin reminded her as he popped the clasp on her handbag. He fished out the carefully folded plastic wrap holding the small purse wide open. "Why is it wrapped?"

"I was hoping you might find fingerprints on it. I tried to get a bag but they didn't have one."

Justin looked from Railen to Sam before pulling a pair of gloves from his pocket. He shoved his hands into them and returned to the package, opening it with nearly as much trepidation as Railen had deemed necessary. He inspected the contents, frowning, and then did the one thing Railen had not thought to do. He stuck his finger into the hole intended to hold a ring and pulled out the insert. Railen held her breath. If someone had placed the necklace beneath the insert, she would not have known. When he pushed aside the flaps of dislodged lining, the box was empty, save a tiny glued picture of Billy, Brit and Emily.

"Damn it, Railen! Why didn't you call me last night?" Justin demanded.

"It was him," Railen whispered. "He wrecked them."

"We don't know that. Have you had any other contact from him?" Justin moved to the cupboard to retrieve a plastic zipper bag. Dropping the ring box and paper inside, he passed it off to Big Bobby, called so primarily for his beer gut. "Take this in and run it, then head over to the Higgins place..."

"They're at St. Mike's," Railen interrupted, finally finding her voice. "Jerry is with them."

"Is he sober?" Justin asked skeptically.

Railen shrugged. "Henry is there also. He'll be sticking close to the family for a while."

Justin turned back to the Bobbies. "Head over there and talk to the boy. Get the scene from dispatch and send Yankee to check it out. Back track to anywhere someone might have had access to the car..."

"Billy was at The Grand just before heading to Meridian," Railen interrupted. "For less than five minutes but it was just before the picture of Sam and me was taken. That's opportunity, right?"

"Check out The Grand first," Justin instructed.

"He called me," Railen said before the Bobbies could get out the door. She flicked her phone to the recent call list and showed it to Justin. "It was a landline, pay phone or a corded phone, like the old heavy ones when push buttons were new. I could hear it clanking around. No number shows up though."

Justin nodded and handed her phone to Big Bobby, who pulled out a notepad and scribbled in it far too long.

"He taking down my entire contact list?" Railen asked.

"Just your last ten calls. We'll get your records."

As Big Bobby returned her phone, Justin's coat pocket began to call out letters and numbers that Railen couldn't hope to understand. He pulled the radio free and held down the side button.

"What do you need? I'm at the Vost ranch."

In the static that followed Railen made out only two words. The Grand. She nearly jumped when her phone began to vibrate in her hand. The number came up as the one of the bar's back lines. Stepping away from Justin and Sam, Railen turned again to avoid Mave and then accepted the call.

"Hello?" she said hesitantly.

"Rai, you've got to get down here. Now. Like in the car five minutes ago."

"Tash is that you? What are you doing at The Grand? What's wrong?"

"The ambulance just got here but you better come anyway. I was dropping off payroll..."

"Is he alive?" Railen said as her heart dropped to her toes. Ben worked alone on Thursday, from lunch to happy hour. "Tash, is he alive?"

"He was when I last saw him. They're bracing his neck. He's going to St. Mike's but you're going to want to come here first. They're calling me over."

"I'm on my way. Go with Ben and call Eddy."

"Done and done."

Justin's back was disappearing through the screen door when Railen disconnected. Sam appeared, hopping through the doorway while trying to push his foot into a boot.

"The bastard called you?" he demanded but Railen had already sprinted after Justin.

"You headed to my place?" she shouted.

Justin paused to shout back, "See you there."

"Your sister is a bitch?" Sam asked, half chuckling.

"I should have have said jealous, nosey bitch," Railen said, ushering Sam roughly toward the garage. Snatching the keys from the lockbox by the door, she unlocked her newest toy. A vintage mustang. "Get in."

"Wow, you like cars don..."

"Not the time, cowboy. Get in!"

Railen slapped the remote button for the sliding doors on the side of the garage. They opened faster than the roll-up doors in front of her, standing wide by the time she had the engine running. Turning the wheel sharply, she punched the gas, spinning the rear end left to face the door to the right. Releasing the brake sent them forward with a force that curled her body into the seat. She let off the accelerator enough to take the turn leading to the front gate but flattened it instantly when the car's frame sank into the bank. She barreled out of the turn to slide the car between Justin's unmarked cruiser and the gate. Slamming her palm into the remote above her head, she pulled back her foot, depressing the clutch to let the car decelerate on its own.

Justin's voice echoed over a scratchy PA system. "Railen Vost, do not break the speed limit!"

Railen let the car roll to a stop and waited for the crawling gate by holding gas and clutch in balance to avoid rolling back into Justin's cruiser. The resulting growl of the engine would have made Railen smile on a different day. She hadn't actually gotten to drive the car yet.

"Railen, I will arrest you!"

"You're going to jail aren't you?" Sam asked calmly while checking his seat belt.

"Last chance to get out, cowboy."

"Not happening, legs. Well, come on, the gate is open."

Railen released the clutch slowly. By the time she glanced in the rearview mirror, Justin's cruiser was breaking through the smoke.

"Can you talk and drive like a bat out of hell at the same time?" Sam asked, his worry showing only in the white of his knuckles on the dashboard.

"What do you want to know?"

"Where are we going? Is who alive? What did the bastard say to you on the phone?"

"The Grand. Ben. That he was going to kill me slowly and that he'll cut out my tongue first, or something like that. He demanded that I send you packing or he'll hurt someone I care about."

Sam turned to face her momentarily but looked ahead again when the turn onto North Street rolled his head. "Ben is hurt because I'm still here?"

"Ben is hurt because some sicko decided to hurt him. If not you, he'd find another excuse. Think about it, all the drama? Calling me his djinni, suggesting I call him master?"

"He said that?"

"He's a coward. He's going to slip up because he wants to get caught. That's my current theory but I'll admit it's lacking a solid foundation."

"Why would he want to get caught?" Sam shook his head, either in disagreement or from nausea.

"Why resurface? He got away with it."

"Seems to have something to do with you."

"I can't fathom why," Railen insisted. "I am terrible with faces, and even worse with names but I seldom forget a voice."

"You didn't know mine," he pointed out.

"I didn't hear you speak much. Your mouth was otherwise occupied. I have never once in my life spoken to that man before this morning, at least not for longer than it takes to place a take out order. How did he even know the kids would be on the highway? If he was outside he couldn't have heard my talk with Billy. My bar isn't bugged..."

"Could your bar be bugged?" Sam interrupted.

"Not a chance, I have it swept twice a week."

Sam turned to her now, fully distracted from their rate of speed. "You sweep your bar for bugs?"

"And my home, barn, and retreat. Earl and Billy's. Mave's too. Anyplace I work. And I can work just about anywhere."

Sam shook his head. "That just seems crazy. I'm sorry, but it does. That must set you back."

"My boys are well trained, multifunctional."

"Who in the fuck are you? I mean, seriously! It's like you're part Daisy Duke and part Lara Croft!"

"That's...well, oddly flattering. Calm down. I broke my right wrist after The Bread came out."

"You call your script The Bread?"

"Yes. Anyway, I dictated my next script to three different assistants before I found Tash. The script wasn't on spec, it was a small studio number. Six weeks into production a rip off of our film was announced by another studio with an all-star cast and twice the budget."

"Your office was bugged."

"Yep. My computer guy routed a back door through my web and security cams, pissed because I fired his incompetent girlfriend. He sold it on sixty pages with just enough alterations to keep from getting sued or in trouble with the guild. Basically, where I put a tree, he put a concrete pillar. Where I had a horseback shootout, he had a car chase. That didn't matter to the studio. They were two weeks ahead of us in filming since we had casting issues. A lot happens on a movie set in two weeks so they shut us down. They didn't even fight."

"You're not crazy." Sam appeared immensely relieved.

"Sweep your place. You might be surprised what you find. So, why me?"

"Why you what?" Sam asked, startled into clutching his seatbelt by the turn into The Grand's parking lot.

"Why is he now after me? What could I have done to him?"

"My go-to answer would have to be money," Sam shrugged. "Don't rule out the greater reach of your growing fame. A boy killed himself to my music once. He set my song 'Rather Die' on repeat and put a knife to his wrists. His mother blamed me. You read that on a fan page and it stings, every day. I'll never play that song again. You might have never met him. But, could you have hurt him in some way? Did I hurt that boy?"

Something in the way he said "it stings, every day" caught Railen's attention as she set the emergency brake and killed the engine. Her heart understood that truth. Jesse. But there was no time to think about it now.

Sam was out of the car and halfway to the door when Railen caught a glimpse of Earl's alley in her peripheral. Shadows that had been both salvation and damnation mocked her with their secrets. She shook off the terror, wishing suddenly that she had not left Justin in the dust. Sam's startled voice sounded from The Grand's slowly closing door. Railen sprinted to join him, surprised that only a single ambulance had come and gone. Sam staggered out quickly, catching her in a bear hug to haul her away from the building.

"Do not go in there," he shouted. "You do not want to go in there."

Railen went limp in his arms. "Let me go, Sam."

"Not a chance, legs. Trust me on this one."

"One."

"How high are you counting?"

"Two."

"Well, that's just not fair."

"Three."

Railen hooked her right leg behind Sam's knee, throwing her shoulder into his chest to knock him off balance. With a little push of her outside leg she drove her shoulder into his sternum when they hit the ground, breaking his grip around her back. Rolling out of his reach and onto her feet, Railen raced across the porch to the sound of screeching tires turning off of North Street.

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Chapter 4

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Chapter 5: Waffles and Cartoons

From his vantage at the edge of the woods, he watched the lights come on in the small home of Detective Justin Thomas and his family. First in the tiny window of what was, most likely, an upstairs bathroom. Nearly a half hour later, the small light went out. Soon after, another light emerged from the East corner of the downstairs, most likely the kitchen. He decided then that this would be his point of entry, when the time was right.

The right time came when Detective Thomas left through the front door, climbed into his unmarked car and left his family alone. Entry to a cop's home shouldn't have been a simple task; yet, he found the flimsy 1950's lock on the kitchen window was easily pushed open with his pocket knife. He made no sound as he closed the window and turned to survey the kitchen. The Thomas' home was modest and well-used, likely serving more than one generation, if the aged furniture and pictures were any indication.

He scanned the pictures lining the stairwell as he climbed the stairs slowly. The Thomas' twins were cute little boys with hair of straw, like their father. He peered at their sleeping faces through the open door to their bedroom as he passed. He closed the door silently; there was no need to disturb them. The door at the end of the hall stood open. He could see the curve of her quilt-topped hip beyond the posts of an iron footboard. He followed the hall until he stood over her.

Her breath came soft and rhythmic until the quiet alarm beside her bed roused her. One lazy arm emerged from the quilt to tap the top of the alarm clock and then drifted as she rolled to blindly inspect Detective Thomas' side of the bed. He turned then to close the door, twisting the small knob of the lock in case her children woke. When he looked again at Mrs. Thomas, she had pulled a pillow over her head and flipped onto her stomach. As he sat down on her side of the bed, she turned to wrap her arms around his waist

"I thought you left for work," she murmured, sliding her head into his lap. Her hands inspected his back and thighs. The moment his unfamiliarity registered with the drowsy woman, she tried to sit up.

Snaring both her wrists, he stretched out across her body to pin her to the bed. "Sh," he whispered. "You wouldn't want to wake the boys, would you?"

"You shouldn't be here. Where is my husband?" she panted quietly. "Did you hurt him?"

He let the shake of his head slide his lips across her neck. "As you say, he's gone to work. It's just you, me and your sleeping sons, Jennifer Thomas."

"What do you want?" Her body had already begun to tremble, teasing him from beneath the quilt.

"Master," he ordered. "What do you want, Master."

Jennifer Thomas swallowed hard. "What do you want, Master?" she said through gritted teeth.

"Waffles," he whispered, raising up to look at the eye she didn't have buried in the pillow. It widened as he spoke. "First, I want to taste you. And then, I want waffles. Do you have a problem with that, Mrs. Thomas?"

A single tear rolled from her eye and across her nose as her head shook. The small clock on the bedside table began to complain once again. He released her hand so she could silence it.

"Turn over," he demanded, releasing her other hand. He dragged the blankets off of her as he rose, loving the way she clamored to drag down the hem of her nightgown from where it had wound around her waist. His size alone would keep the woman in line. She was weak, without will of her own. "Take it off."

Crying erupted from a small device beside the clock as one of the boys awoke. Jennifer Thomas glanced from him to the baby monitor and back again.

"Do they go to school?" he asked.

Her head shook. "They have a playdate in two hours," she breathed, hands clutching the neckline of her wispy gown. "Please don't hurt my children, Master," she pleaded quietly.

"Change it," he demanded.

She nodded as he stepped back to let her scurry past. The door closed after she exited the bedroom. He dropped onto the bed, stretching out to stare at the ceiling as her soft voice drifted through the monitor.

"Sh, baby bear," she cooed. "Mama's got you. What's wrong?"

"I wet my bed!" the child squeaked.

"Aw, now," she chuckled. "It's okay. You go and get those clothes put in the hamper and I'll run your bath. You're going to Margie's today. You don't want to be all sad, do you?"

The boy sniffled.

He listened as she moved around to run the bath and wake the second child. She returned to the bedroom while the boys played in the tub, which could also be clearly heard through the monitor.

"Put on something pretty," he ordered when she simply stood in the early dawn light, staring at him. "Pretend I'm not here."

She knelt in front of a weathered dresser and pulled something white from the bottom drawer. Once inside the adjoining bathroom, she attempted to close the door. A glance in his direction changed her mind and the door remained open as she tugged off her nighty and stepped into the shower. The shower ran for only a few minutes before she stepped out again, already hidden by a thick towel. She stuck her head out to listen to splashing through the monitor and then returned to brush her teeth and hair.

"Leave it down," he instructed when she stretched a ponytail holder across one shaking hand.

The change from towel to white sundress occurred so quickly that he couldn't keep from laughing. A moment later, she returned to the bedroom to retrieve a slip of pink lace from the dresser's top drawer. She slid her legs into the panties, dragging them up behind the concealment of her dress. The dress, she lifted when he shook his head. She turned to show him the rear-view without need of his instruction.

"Good girl," he praised, rising to run his hands over the pink she revealed.

"I have to change the playdate," she panted when his hands attempted to bypass cloth.

Pinching her flesh roughly, he growled against her ear, "You have to do what?"

"What you tell me," she whispered instantly, adding when he increased pressure. "What you tell me, Master!"

"Mommy!" one of the boys shouted. "Mommy! We're all clean now, Mommy! Mommy!"

Her eyes closed and her body went limp against him. "Please," she begged. "Please let me get my children out of this house."

"Mooooommmmy!"

"What do I get in return?" he asked, turning his pinching grip into a massage. "What are you offering me, my sweet little domestic?"

Tears began to emerge from her closed eyes, rolling quickly down both cheeks. "Anything, Master."

Releasing her quivering, mother-soft body took more willpower than he knew he possessed. She rushed from the room the moment she was free but he heard her pause on the other side of the door to collect herself.

"All right, you little mongrels," she said with impressive cheerfulness as cabinets began to open and slam in the hall bathroom. "Out, and make it quick. Get your clothes on and then head downstairs and get your shoes on. We're having waffles for breakfast."

"Yay!" the boys cheered, making him smile in spite of himself. The Thomas boys were cute, indeed. "You're the best mama ever!" one of them proclaimed.

She returned to the bedroom while the boys dressed noisily in their own room. Ignoring his presence, she went to the phone on Detective Thomas' nightstand and dialed quickly. "Margie," she said. "Did I wake you? Oh, sorry. I'm not feeling well. Do you think you could get the boys early so I can get a little medicine and some sleep?"

He chuckled as he knelt on the floor behind her. "You feel fine to me," he said after licking the back of her thigh.

"You're the best, Margie. Yeah, sure, half an hour is fine. I've already made up the waffle batter so they may as well eat."

He laughed again, wondering if Detective Thomas knew his wife was an accomplished liar. He decided the redneck detective likely wasn't that smart as he moved on to the other thigh.

"No, really, I can feed them. Sorry to wake you. No, I think I'm just getting ready to start or something. I'm just beat, ya know?"

"You're not beat yet," he chuckled, turning her to kiss the skin on her stomach.

"Okay, see you in thirty. Bye," she concluded, settling the ancient receiver into its cradle.

The boys' tromping footsteps sounded from the stairs and then a television came to life in the distance. Tilting his eyes up, he found her staring at the top of his head.

"I think I'd like to sample that batter," he informed her, reaching up to dry her wandering tears. "You're doing very well, Mrs. Thomas."

"May I go feed them now, Master?" she asked, turning her eyes to the floor.

"Continue to do well," he warned when he had risen and stepped out of her way.

He followed her out of the bedroom and down the hall but remained at the top of the stairs until she had corralled her young in the kitchen. At the base of the stairs, he turned right into the living room. He sat down in a very nice leather chair and watched digitally animated insects speak with no voices. The television was now muted.

A tiny straw-topped head popped up from beside the chair. "Hey," the kid said.

"Hello," he replied. "You're supposed to be in the kitchen."

"Coby!" Jennifer Thomas screeched. She came to a stop in the doorway, eyes frantic. "Coby...oh, my God."

"It's okay, Mama," he assured her. "Your cub was just saying hello."

"My daddy is a cowboy," the boy called Coby said. The child had a small mole on his right cheek. He wondered if the child's twin had one as well.

"My daddy is going to prison," he informed the boy.

The boy's eyes widened. "My daddy is a policeman," he said quietly.

"Maybe your daddy is going to put my daddy in prison," he commented, smiling at Jennifer who seemed delightfully devoid of breath.

"Naw," the boy said. "Mama says daddy ain't a very good cop."

He glanced up at Jennifer Thomas, who blushed instantly. "Well, that wasn't a very nice thing to say, was it?" he asked the boy.

The child shook his head.

"Maybe Mommy should be punished."

The boy laughed at this, squeaking in his delight. "Mommies don't get punished!"

Jennifer Thomas shook visibly now. Another straw-topped child emerged from the kitchen but this one was caught by its mother before reaching his brother's side. He immediately ducked behind recently licked thighs. Not for the first time, the master of those thighs thought how interesting it must be to be a mother. This child had no mole on his right cheek. This child was Kent.

"Is something burning?" he asked, returning his gaze to Jennifer's terrified face.

"Not the waffles! Mommy!" Coby whined as both boys raced for the kitchen.

"Don't make it a thing," he told the frightened mother bear, "and it won't be a thing."

Jennifer disappeared into the kitchen. She spoke on the phone for a couple of minutes, loudly for him to hear. Her performance was satisfactory. He returned his focus to the cartoon insects, locating the remote to, once again, give them voices.

"We can save Mr. Turtle!" something that resembled an ant was saying.

"With teamwork!" said a spider.

"But he's so big!" said a girl bug he couldn't identify. "How can we turn him over?"

A cartoon turtle appeared on the screen, on its back and kicking wildly. He wondered if anyone ever considered the other turtle. The turtle that fought so hard to win its mate, or territory, or whatever it was that caused turtles to fight. Now that turtle would have to win all over again and hope some good Samaritan doesn't come along and undo all his hard work. He tapped the mute button to silence voices he no longer heard. A good Samaritan. As if life were that simple.

Jennifer emerged from the kitchen as soft tapping sounded on the front door. She was on the phone again.

"Say bye bye to daddy, boys," she was saying, dangling a cell phone above their heads.

He watched while she parried children and neighbor, carefully keeping his station in the leather chair from view. He rose as child voices and heavy footsteps left the old porch. As she stepped back, he reached across her shoulder to push the door closed.

"Just talk," she said into the phone as he turned her body, pushing her back against the door. Her eyes were wide, tearful and pleading but her voice did not waver. "Are you upset?"

He let his hands find the hem of her skirt and the soft pink lace beneath.

"You saw her didn't you?" she demanded. The anger in her voice made him chuckle. "Stop lying to yourself, Justin. Maybe then you can stop lying to me."

Deciding that an appropriate end to their conversation, he reached up to close the phone in her hand. "Did you tell him I was here?" he asked, knowing that she hadn't. The woman had no faith in her man.

"No, but he is coming here," she panted.

"How long?"

"Forty-five minutes, maybe a little less."

He smiled, drawing his nose from her skin to look at her. "Well, that's plenty of time."

"What are you going to do to me?" she asked only now that her cubs were safe.

"What are you going to do to me, what?"

"Master," she whispered.

"You offered me anything. What should I have first?" He roamed his options with his hands.

"How about waffles?"

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Chapter 5

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Chapter 6: Ungrand

Light spilled through the door, which was now propped open on the little brass foot that had a tendency to fall if the door was swung too hard. It provided a spotlight on the photos spread across the floor. Railen stopped just inside to avoid disturbing the scene, bending to inspect the nearest photo. Sam and Railen, sleeping peacefully. Railen lay on her back, right arm thrown up and around Sam's neck. Sam lay atop the quilt covering her, right hand draped across her left breast, clad in Bart Simpson pajama pants.

The next picture was of her alone, reading on her bedroom balcony. She remembered the day clearly. It had to have been three years ago, at least. In the moments that followed the capture of the image, Railen had pleasured herself on that very lounge, where no one on Earth should have been able to see. For him to see. And now, he wanted her to know he had seen it. Railen moved carefully to the next picture but a silhouette blocked the light.

"About time you boys got here," she scolded the shadow of a cowboy hat.

"Damn it, Railen. You know I can't let you drive through town like that."

"He's been watching me, Jay. For a while, I mean. Hit the switch, we need light."

Justin moved forward several steps, allowing Railen to see the third image in the series. She sank to her knees at the sight of it. It was the girls' vacation to Los Angeles, she and Jesse on a mission to locate furniture. Their job was complete and it was time to celebrate. They had stumbled to the street to climb into the box truck and toast among their finds. Railen's eyes scanned the image of her head thrown back, cradling Jesse's head to her breast with one hand, balancing a champagne glass in the other. They were only partially visible through the cracked door. Railen closed her eyes as Justin knelt down behind her. She resisted the urge to cover the picture with her hands. Justin already knew about her brief affair with Jesse.

"You better go out and calm your rockstar down, Rai. He's about to get arrested."

Railen stood, glancing around to take in the bar fully as Justin rose to flip on the lights. The scream that escaped her lips was involuntary, drawing her hand to her mouth to keep it at bay. Ben's blood was everywhere; dozens more pictures were scattered across every flat surface. Hanging over the bar was the enlarged image of Jesse's corpse, just as Railen had found it. The capture was well lit and zoomed very near the crushed half of Jesse's skull.

"Let me go!" Sam shouted beyond the door.

Railen staggered toward his voice, blinded by tears. Her mind suddenly flashed the vision of her enemy crouched in the moss-draped trees to capture the image of her tortured face. Reeling in her spinning emotions, Railen dropped her hands to square her shoulders and chin. She stepped onto the porch to find Sam struggling in Little Bobby's overdeveloped arms.

"Let him go," she ordered Bobby's back harshly, though she recognized the kindness in Bobby's choice of holds. He could have easily put Sam on his face in the gravel, and justifiably. Sam's struggling was not without pain to the officer, futile as it was.

"He going to behave?" Bobby shouted over his shoulder, lifting Sam off the ground with the force of his bear hug.

"He'll behave," Railen assured the officer.

Sam was at her side the moment Bobby released him.

"Don't touch me," she whispered as he approached. "I won't give him the satisfaction of seeing my reaction."

Justin's boots echoed on the porch planks but Railen could not face him. The weekend she spent with Jesse had been the official end of her relationship with Justin, long after the flames had died. For the first time since her tearful confession, Railen was grateful she had already told him the truth.

"Railen," Justin said sternly, a tone only she would read as wounded. "We need to go over every detail of that trip. He was there, which adds a whole new scope to this investigation. We've been looking at locals, could be you picked him up in California."

"I want this son of a bitch, Jay. I want his balls on a spit. He killed Jesse. He hurt the kids. He hurt Ben!"

"We'll get him this time. You know the drill. Hit the station and give Pam your statement. I think I'll sit this one out. Do me a favor, pal? You do the driving?"

"Happily," Sam replied.

Justin's boots sounded two steps before stopping again. "Do yourself a favor, pal. When she is behind the wheel, sit back and enjoy the ride. It's about the only time you will be safe in her company."

Railen did turn to Justin now. "If you have something to say, just say it and be done."

"People have a way of dying around you, Railen. In one form or another," Justin accused, coming forward again.

Railen pushed by Sam to meet Justin halfway across the porch. "You still think she died because she was wearing my shirt?"

"And your hat, Railen. From the back she might have been you. You run around town shootin' off at the mouth like you own the place. The people here don't like you, not the ones that matter. Any one of them could be responsible. You told the most well-known pimp in Pukking County he was a red-assed baboon under the mistaken impression he's a man!"

"That girl he beat was just a kid!" Railen yelled in response.

"And he was under arrest for it! You're missing the point. He served his eleven months. He's been out since June and I have to keep an eye on him to make sure he's not coming after your cute little ass!"

"I doubt he even remembers me," Railen grumbled.

"It's never a good idea to spit in a pimp's face, Railen! How often do you think a woman gets away with that? Trust me, he remembers you. I know you'll say no but..."

"I'm not leaving town, Jay. Where in the hell would I go? I don't give a rat's singed ass if the people that matter like me because I love the ones that don't! Where would they work if not for me and your family's plant? Either of us bites it or bails and the entire town goes down! The rich people here make, and spend, their money on the coast and you know it! They represent, combined, maybe forty year-round jobs in the entire county. I'm not putting my people out of work, ever, least of all in this econ..."

Justin slapped his thigh in frustration. "Damn it, Railen! I'm not asking you to close up shop and move. I need time to process new evidence. Give me a day, two...hell, give me a week. Just disappear. People with your kind of money do it all the time."

Railen chewed her lip. "I don't even know if Ben is alive, Jay. I can't leave."

"He's alive," Little Bobby offered the conversation, studying the tracks in gravel. "You should have parked on the street, Railen. Where was Billy parked?"

"Shit! Sorry!" Railen groaned. "He never parks up front though, my truck was there. One of the boys must have come for it last night. Billy parks on the side so he won't have to back out." Railen pointed to the far side of the building. "He goes out the alley onto Figgly Drive. What did they say about Ben?"

"They just left him at the ER. He's stable, but hasn't regained consciousness yet," Little Bobby said, frowning at the tracks turning around the building. The gravel was one week fresh and loose. The ruts were deep, Billy's eighty-something Monty Carlo was a heavy car, but they lacked detail to Railen's untrained eyes. Moving to the trunk of their patrol car on the street, Little Bobby began to pile duffle bags on the ground.

Earl emerged from the diner doorway, using his usually unseen cane for speed. Big Bobby strode to meet him in the street, ushering the old man back to the far sidewalk.

"Railen, it's time for me to work," Justin said sternly as he moved toward the pile of bags. "Ben is alive. Don't tell me where you're going, just get the hell out of town."

Sam leaned against the passenger door of Railen's car, waiting with an extended hand. Railen slid her hand into his without hesitation, stepping forward to rest her forehead on his chest. She breathed his calming scent deeply.

"I'm playing in Houston tomorrow night," he said gently. "I'm getting about twenty texts a second. We're going to have to drive all night to get set up and we still may not make it."

Railen closed her eyes. "We better get you back to your bus then."

"I can be back first thing Monday. I've got two off weeks scheduled after that. Or..." he began.

"Don't say it," Railen whispered.

"You can come with me," he said as though she hadn't spoken, "give your ex-detective the time he's asking for. It's not exactly under the radar but security is tight."

Railen turned her head to watch Justin glare down at Little Bobby, his expression one of disgust and panic. The last time Railen had seen that look on Justin's face his wife was on her way to the emergency room and carrying his twin boys. The three of them had fallen off the porch.

"Wait," Railen interrupted the stream of words Sam spoke but she could no longer discern. She stepped away from Sam. "What is it?" she shouted to Justin. "What happened?"

"Railen, for heavens sake, will you go on already?" Big Bobby complained, returning from Earl's.

Justin shushed him quickly, walking to Railen's side to draw her away from Sam by the elbow. "Do you know if your bartender engages in homosexual practices?" he asked in a hushed tone.

"You make it sound like witchcraft, Justin. Yes, Ben is gay. Make a joke and I'll slap you. He and his partner, Eddy, have been together since college. Why?"

"Never mind, then."

"Justin Thomas."

Justin sighed. "The doctors found signs that misled them into thinking Ben had been sexually assaulted."

"Be specific, Jay. Ben and I have very few secrets. He knows more about my body than you do."

"Abrasions to the rectum," Justin whispered so low Railen almost couldn't hear him.

Railen shook her head. "Ben's a top."

"Top what?" Justin inquired.

"Oh, God. Justin come out of the dark ages. A top. Look it up or something. The gist is, those abrasions were most definitely against Ben's will."

"So it was sexual assault." This did not improve Justin's temper. His face went red with rage.

"I trust, in the future, you'll think twice before discrediting evidence based on assumption and a queazy stomach." It was rare moments like this that reminded Railen she resided in Pukking, Mississippi; an often forgotten state that, like a human, drew as much character from her lessons as her perfections. Still, Railen knew Justin meant no harm. The subject matter was simply uncomfortable for a former Baptist choir boy.

Justin had the good sense to appear properly chastised behind his anger. He nodded slowly. "Yeah, okay. Point made. Get your car out of my crime scene."

Railen felt her face mimic his chagrin and pushed her hands into her hair. "Who is this monster?"

"Leave town so I can find out. Hopefully, Ben put up a fight. They're pulling samples from beneath his nails and from his clothing. I just need..."

"I get it," Railen admitted. "There's only one of you. You're hoping he'll follow me."

"The threats are shifting now, Railen, from jump-out-of-the-shadows to in-your-face. He's impossible to predict. I'm hoping you can lose him or at least string him along until we find something."

Railen shook her head. "I probably can't but I can surround myself with enough security that you can put both eyes on the investigation. I'll be back Monday morning, bright and early. You don't need my statement, Justin. You have the testimony from Jerry's trial. You know everything I can remember about that weekend."

"Remember what we taught you?" he asked, looking at the silver tips of his worn boots.

"Every single thing," Railen replied, squeezing his wrist gently. "I'll lock my place down and scatter my troops before I go."

"I'll see to it that The Grand is secured when we're done." Justin pulled free of her touch and returned to speak in hushed tones with Little Bobby.

Turning back to Sam, she found him holding open the passenger door. She slid into the seat and handed him the keys in the same motion. Justin knew her better than anyone now that Jesse was gone; either of them would have known what was coming. Railen tried to warn Sam when he dropped into the driver's seat but couldn't force the words beyond her throat. Ducking, head to knees, Railen wept for Ben. Sam's gentle hand on her back left only to change gears.

Railen sat up slowly, just as they left the commercial area and moved onto the section of North Street that served as Industrial Way, or more playfully, Pickle Plant Way. She stared at Sam, trying to think of a single reason for his continued presence in her life. "Why are you being so sweet to me? Any other man would have run screaming by now. Have I even been nice to you?"

Sam shrugged. "Not really. But, you're honest and direct. You put your money where your mouth is, just like you did twenty years ago. At first, you know, I like you...now, call it fear if you like, I can't stand the thought of you being out of my sight. Did you want me gone?"

"No, Sam, but he's hurting people because of me."

"No way," Sam insisted. "He's hurting people because he's a twisted bastard. You couldn't do anything so terrible as to warrant this."

Railen chewed her lip, trying to figure out how to elicit an answer without asking outright if he knew she had had an affair with a woman. "How much did you see?" she decided to ask instead.

"I saw enough to know that he was in your bedroom. I should never wear cartoon pajamas. And, that you haven't always walked the straight and narrow, so to speak. Which way?"

"Left," Railen answered automatically. "It was a one-time thing, that weekend. More than six years ago. I don't...I'm not...I like men."

Sam turned surprised eyes to her briefly. "He's been around for six years? That's what Detective Thomas meant by a new scope to the investigation?"

Railen stared at his profile, waiting for a repeat of Justin's third degree. "That," she spoke when he merely studied the road ahead. "And, since that image is now the oldest relating material, it's possible that he saw us in Los Angeles originally. Could be he spent the last year there. How did you know Justin was my ex?"

Sam shrugged again. "He knows your house, bought your tampons. You know his subordinates by name. Besides, you actually seem to give a shit what he thinks. You coming with me to Houston?"

"I will," Railen answered immediately. "If you can put off leaving for another hour while I see to it that the people I care about are secured."

"Think they'll be safe?"

"Justin is right. The farther from me the better off. We'll head out in opposite directions. I'm betting he'll follow me. I'm sorry I knocked you down."

"You're forgiven. He'll follow us," Sam corrected.

"Unless we go opposite directions, as well," Railen conceded.

"Didn't we just go over that?"

"You're nothing like Jesse imagined," she mused to distract herself from the chaos momentarily. She turned to the window to watch the herd graze as they passed her first plot of pasture land. "She remembered you as doped up and a little stupid."

"Ouch."

"It's hard to believe a man capable of being there for me though this is the same boy we met almost twenty years ago."

"I'm sure both distinctions still apply on occasion. This is you here, isn't it?"

"Yeah, straight ahead." Railen tapped the gate remote.

Sam stopped the car to wait for the gate to open, turning slightly to face her. "How did he get into your room? Don't you have security?"

"Yep, the whole place is covered. The boys will be done reviewing the video by now but they didn't find anything."

"How do you know?" Sam challenged.

"Because they haven't called me yet."

"There's no camera footage of the original crime?"

"The Grand's street camera caught Jesse leaving the bar at closing time," Railen sighed. "She crossed the street and turned into the alley. The bastard came in by way of the trailer park across the tracks. The camera never got a glimpse. He must have picked up the fence slat along the way. Justin always thought Jerry did it because of the affair. The gate has been open for an hour."

Sam turned from her to look at the gate as though he had forgotten he was driving. "Sorry. Your affair with Jesse, you mean? She told him?"

"Yes. That was our deal. We would have our moment but not the lies. They deserved better than that. Some girls experiment in college. Neither Jesse, nor myself, went to college. It was just this stupid thing we did."

"Was Jerry pissed?"

Railen shook her head. "Justin was pissed. Jerry, not so much. He thought it was funny. Said he knew he'd married a wildcat. He and Justin even fought over it. Justin wanted him to be pissed, revel in their misery together, but Jerry wanted a three way."

"What's with the J's? Justin, Jerry, Jesse," Sam asked as he killed the engine.

"Their mothers were all friends and pregnant at the same time. They all chose J names in hopes that their kids would be lifelong friends as well. Birdie and Ester nearly laid eggs when Jesse and Jerry got married."

"Dun na, da na," Sam broke out his best redneck riff.

"Shit-head," Railen muttered, climbing out of the car.

"So why would Justin think Jerry did it if Jerry wasn't pissed?" Sam asked, catching up to her at the door, just in time to pull it open.

"He wasn't pissed at first. He got pissed when he realized that a three way wasn't in the cards. Then, he called it cheating."

"It was cheating. You know that, right?"

Railen narrowed her eyes at Sam, sensing she had somehow touched a nerve. "Of course, and so did she. What married man doesn't want to add a little spice to his sex life? He got over it. They were in love. She'd have never done it again. It was a rough time for all of us."

Sam ceased his inquisition while they crossed the foyer and kitchen. The boys crowded the house, fully armed. They nodded greetings, wide-eyed at Sam's presence, as Railen continued their course onto the patio and around the pool house. She came to a stop at the large metal building on the back side of the house property, erected eleven months ago to appear an equipment garage. She pulled open the heavy steel door and stood aside to let Sam step in ahead of her.

"Hello again, Sam," Mave called out, bouncing into Railen's line of sight. The old woman's bun rocked as she nearly pranced with giddiness. Railen's ever-eager housekeeper had figured out that Sam was Denny Mac. "You hungry, son? You didn't get a lick of breakfast, did you?"

"Thank you, ma'am, but no. I'm not hungry at the moment." He offered Tash a nod of greeting and then turned back to Railen, now wide-eyed himself. "What is this?"

Railen let the door slide gently closed behind her back. "Our own investigation into Jesse's murder. Not that any of it is useful."

"They shut down The Grand's cameras, Rai," Tash called from around the corner. "We don't get a glimpse of him."

Railen moved around Sam to join Mave and Tash at the conference table in the center of the room. She spoke to them but kept her eyes on Sam wandering aimlessly amidst the maps and ledgers, flow charts and timelines. "Okay, ladies, as I'm sure you have discerned for yourselves, the bastard is back. I have no way to know what he may do next, only that he is targeting people close to me. He was nice enough to give me a list. We've got to scatter."

Mave and Tash nodded.

"Tash, you take two men and head northeast. I don't care where, just fly low. Mave, you take two and head west. Use cash. I want Jerry and the kids gone the moment Brit is cleared for travel. Henry should stick with them until further notice. I want two alternating at Ben's side and two more on Eddy. Eyes on them at all times. Everyone else to man and protect the property."

"I'll pick Earl up and take him with me," Mave offered.

"Perfect. Let's move. Mr. Macky is in a hurry."

Mave and Tash rushed out to set the heavily oiled wheels of Railen's household into motion. Tash's lanky frame had to sprint to keep pace with the short, plump woman at her side, giving them the appearance of the number ten, animated.

"You put guards on everyone but us?" Sam asked when the room was empty.

Railen stared at him for a moment and then shook her head. "Come on. You're in a hurry, remember?"

Sam pulled her to a stop by the arm. "I'm serious. My security is limited until we hit Houston. We're a convoy of buses."

"Hank! Dusty!" Railen shouted and two closely shaven heads appeared in the doorway. "Stay with us until Houston, boys. I'm in his hands then."

"Yes, ma'am," Dusty replied and the heads promptly disappeared.

"Getting into my room was harder than you realize, Sam. I haven't spent a single moment alone, truly alone, since the night Jesse died. I didn't believe he was coming back for me, but Mave did. I've kept them around for her peace of mind. Turns out, she was right all along."

"They've been with us the whole time?"

"Every moment, except inside the banquet and in my room. Even then, they were close."

"Then how did he get in?"

Railen shrugged, too distracted by her own stupidity to process his question. It wasn't until the words passed her lips that Railen realized she knew precisely what her pursuer was waiting for; alone was exactly what she needed.

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Chapter 6

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Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

Chapter 7: Trucking out of Pukking

The troops were packed and scattered by the time darkness fell. Those remaining, her men and Sam's alike, went about their tasks as if nothing were amiss; yet, each carried their weapon of choice and an alert, sweeping gaze. Railen stood in the driveway and watched the taillights of Tash's S.U.V fade beyond the open gates. She walked slowly the length of the second bus in the line of three filling the drive, the one pulling a small enclosed trailer containing at least one motorcycle. Turning sharply, she looped around the trailer to insure anyone watching would know precisely which vehicle she intended to occupy.

"Time to go, legs," Sam called from the lowest step. "He's seen us. You're either the bravest woman I've ever met, or the dumbest. Damned if I can tell which."

Railen nodded, accepting his hand to be pulled onto the wide step and into his arms. He hugged her close, as he had many times. The gesture was part panic, part comfort but those things barely registered with Railen. Her mind was numb, blank, battered, as she tried to be certain she had seen to everything. The bus moved beneath their feet, jarring her back to her boots. She moved them slowly to follow Sam through the living area and kitchenette. Everything about the bus reflected the man. Simple. Clean. Luxurious, or was the word luscious?

"Usually there would be a dozen guys in here harassing you," he commented as they passed the dining table.

"Drunken cat calls and congratulations on landing the star?" she commented absently but his abrupt stop and saddened glance drew her attention.

After a moment, he shrugged. "I suppose you saw it first-hand once."

Railen nodded. "I did."

Sam seemed troubled while shoving clothes around hurriedly to make room for her suitcase. He stopped, holding a leather jacket idly and staring at the empty space he had made. "Before you turned out to be who you are, this girl from the past, I never thought about how I must seem to the others."

Railen grinned halfheartedly at his back. "You mean the ones like me? Sitting on the sidelines, just waiting for you and the catch of the night to come up for air and fighting to avoid your buddies' wandering hands? Did you assume we all sat wondering why you didn't choose us?"

Sam tossed her suitcase into the bottom of the closet, positioning it be functional as a makeshift drawer. He then pushed by her to leave the oddly large bedroom. Railen followed him immediately.

"You're mad at me?" she accused his ass.

Sam stood from pulling two beers from the refrigerator. "No, of course not. It's just..." He tipped one bottle against the counter and dropped the heel of his hand down on the top to pop off the lid. He then passed it to her. "I guess it's no wonder you call me a shit-head."

Railen set her beer aside to grab his face in her hands. "Come on, cowboy. Don't be so hard on yourself. It was twenty fucking years ago."

Sam pulled away, seemingly in no mood to be soothed. "No, Railen. It was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. It's my entire damned life and now..." He paused to shrug. "This could be it and all I've ever been is Denny fucking Mac."

Railen glanced at the closed door leading to the driver's seat. "There are a lot of people who eat because you are Denny fucking Mac."

"Seventy-percent of the time they are the only reason I'm still doing this. Ten percent I spend alone with my guitar."

"And the other twenty?" she asked.

"I'm on stage with my boys and the world is exactly as it should be. The beat, the release, the fans." Sam flexed his hands as if he might touch the very energy. "It used to feel like that...always."

"No cure for that drug, I imagine," Railen admitted, retreating to lean against the dining table. "You realize that I don't truly judge you? I get the appeal, rockstar."

"Do you? The eye roll, the sniping? I know what I am, Railen. I don't need you to remind me. You use a name I only hear at Christmas, when I'm with my mother, and it's the only one you're capable of speaking without disdain."

Railen heaved a deep breath. "Yeah, okay, I've been hard on you. It's not your shit, it's mine. Look, I don't judge you, or the girls who throw themselves at you. I just don't intend to be one of them."

The expression on Sam's face had to be that of a man shot. He recovered quickly to glare at her. "No, ma'am. I'd be a fool to confuse you with someone who actually likes me."

Railen refrained from pointing out that many of his conquests likely never saw the man behind the guitar and platinum albums, much less liked him. He had lived this life too long to avoid learning that truth for himself. Instead, she simply said, "I don't have time to like you, Sam. There's a psycho bearing down on our heads, remember?"

"It's eight hours to light, day-sleeper. What in the fuck do you intend to do?" Sam grinned at his own cleverness with the same youthful charm shown while applauding her choice of signage.

Railen tried like hell not to laugh and utterly failed. Her laughter sounded so shrill that she clasped both hands over her mouth. She shook her head furiously. "Don't," she gasped. "Don't make me laugh."

"Wasn't actually trying to make you laugh, sweetheart," he said. The grin remained.

"Oh," Railen breathed as her amusement passed. "The truth is often funny. And the truth is, cowboy, when semi-alone in your presence, I find it impossible to focus on my potential murder. Sitting here, right now, Denny Mac looks pretty fucking good."

The single step Sam took toward her was clearly involuntary. "Why?" he demanded.

Railen caved to humility, dropping her eyes to her crossed boots for the briefest moment before regaining her nerve. "Because this could be it, and all I've ever been is the girl on the sidelines."

Sam clearly registered the suggestion in her words. Railen watched his eyes shift as he decided to let the moment pass. Now that she actually looked at him, it was startling to find the soul in his eyes. He was a man in need of something. "I've got to show my face to the guys before they storm the place. Take a nap or something, whatever. Just...try to relax." He jerked open the door, pulling it silently closed behind him, leaving his unopened beer on the counter. He spoke with the driver in hushed tones.

Railen remained leaning against the table, sipping her beer and staring at nothing until the bus rolled to a slow stop. She heard the hiss of the door release and came immediately upright.

The inner door pushed open and Hank's head poked through to greet her. "Just me, boss," he smiled as he moved in and closed the door behind him. "Mind if I hang for a while?"

Translation: do you want me to do as he asks? Railen nodded slowly. "Sure, watch some tube or something. I'm just going to rest."

"Yes, ma'am," Hank said, rubbing his hands together at the sight of the massive flat-screen television.

"Try not to let me get killed, huh?" Railen commented and let his chuckle chase her into the dressing area of the bus, which lay between the kitchenette and bedroom. She slid closed the door that would turn the bedroom, bathroom and dressing area into complete privacy. Sam had begrudgingly allowed Dusty to sweep the bus. He had, surprisingly, found nothing.

Railen was more alone now than she had been in so long that privacy was a distant memory. Almost perfect circumstance, completely wrong place. But where? Where could she go in a city she had never seen? Railen moved quickly to drag her laptop from its bag. She placed it on the small dressing table amidst his rocker jewelry. Pressing the power button on the computer, she tried to recall the last time she had charged it.

The screen came to life and Railen searched for a wireless network. Of the list of five networks, the one belonging to Sam Macky was clear; DRIFTER. Wi-fi on a bus. Railen took two stabs at guessing his password and failed to connect. The irony was not lost as she stared blankly at the flashing cursor.

Somewhere, beyond windows so black she could see nothing, a local establishment offered free wi-fi. A welcome ting accompanied the flashing green bars and open padlock icon. Railen double-clicked quickly and then launched her web browser.

"Houston," she murmured as she typed it beside the search icon. "Give me the seediest motel you've got."

The list populated half way through the first page before they rolled out of the gracious establishment's range. She would have to make due with one of her seven options. She keyed the information into her phone.

The door slid open quietly. Hank's head appeared. "Just checking on you," he smiled. "I'd have knocked but I thought you might be sleeping."

"I think I'm fine trapped in the back of a bus," she assured him.

Hank nodded and disappeared into the living area.

Railen chewed her lip for a moment, glancing around the space in hopes of locating something useful to accomplish but, of course, Sam was right. There wasn't a damn thing to do until Houston. The thought of being forcibly idle was nearly more than she could stand. She cracked the lid on the lone cologne bottle out of curiosity. It smelled nothing like the man. She moved to the closet to fish leggings and a knit tunic from her bag, looking at the row of black t-shirts hanging next to her suitcase while slipping out of her jeans.

Her clothing had never shared space with a man's. She and Justin had maintained separate households, at her insistence. One of his coats had hung in her closet for a weekend. It had taunted her to distraction until she left it hanging on the banister by the door. Justin had taken the hint. He and the jacket left before she served the cobbler. That had been the catalyst for an impromptu trip to Los Angeles for office furnishings for The, then fledgling, Grand.

"Why Los Angeles?" Jesse asked the moment the box truck doors were closed.

Railen shrugged. "Why not? It's a country from this place. I saw some great markets last time I was there but I was too broke to buy anything and your tied down ass was at home."

Jesse flicked a finger ahead of them near the windshield. "Well, we're in and stocked up on snacks. Hit the road, kid."

And so they had gone, laughing, singing and arguing their way to California.

Railen pulled her shirt off over her head, slinging it in frustration. The sleeve caught Sam's rack of t-shirts and the result was his familiar scent teasing her from within the closet. A loaf of bread peeked out from beneath her suitcase and Railen recognized the material instantly. She tugged the t-shirt free of the wheel anchoring it and held it up. An old-west Madame was sprawled provocatively across a bar, friendly cowboy bent over her upturned head and villain attempting to climb his way up her legs. A loaf of bread lay broken on the floor with a pistol propped against it.

"Fucking director never did get the point of the title," Railen sighed, resisting the urge to haul the shirt to her nose. It was the one he had been wearing while chasing her into Earl's alley. Railen folded the shirt carefully and placed it beside her suitcase. She donned her tunic, snatched a book from the tote on the floor and climbed onto the bed, willfully ignoring the pure luxury beneath her. At least it smelled clean.

The crisp cover was cracked, her eyes poised to consume the fable within its pages, but Railen didn't process a single word. She was unaware of how much time passed while she stared at nothing, and thought of nothing more than choppy scenes from a flimsy script idea.

Her attention and gaze wandered slowly to the small built-in nook on the opposite side of the bed. The side containing a clock and a cell phone charger. Railen wasn't sure of the hour when she climbed onto the bed. The small digits revealing the time as ten o'clock meant little. A thick leather folder was tucked beneath the clock with a lengthy sticky note on top. Shaking her head, Railen turned back to her book. A moment later, she found herself staring at the scrawl beyond her clear vision. She climbed onto her knees and crawled until she could read the black words written on yellow, berating herself the entire way.

 

Denny,

Don't worry about your babies. They're in good hands. I threw a few brochures in, just in case you want to spend some of your downtime in Houston. There is one for a retreat in north Texas also. Looks like just your thing. Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy it. I'm sorry for the way things ended. I know I should have told you sooner. You're in my heart, and I know I'm in yours.

V

 

Railen sat back on her heels. One of the mentioned brochures peeked out mockingly from leather. It wouldn't be snooping to learn more about him, she told herself. She needed seclusion. Retreat sounded perfect. The moment Railen decided to invade Sam's privacy in total, the bus veered right and began to slow. Hopping from the bed, she hurried out to question Hank.

"Don't worry, boss," he assured her instantly. "It's time to eat."

Railen let the sharp turn of the bus lure her into the curved bench surrounding the small dining table. The moment the bus stopped, she returned to the bedroom to throw on fresh jeans and retrieve her purse. She checked her cell phone as she exited. No calls. No texts.

"No news is good news," Hank reminded her, stretching tall over her shoulder to breathe in the night air.

"That's the policy," Railen agreed, watching the third bus of the convoy come to a hissing stop beside hers. An eighteen wheeler she had never seen before also claimed space in the parking lot between them and the brightly lit truck stop. Another followed it, both painted in the same sweeping strokes of black and silver that graced the buses.

"This is some shit," Hank whispered as drivers descended from elevated steps.

"This is his life, I suppose. When did the other trucks join us?"

"Picked them up in Biloxi. Guess some of them was gamblin'. We're into Louisiana now."

The throng of people that flooded the parking lot far surpassed Railen's imaginings. Short, tall, round, skinny, dark, pale, dressed up, dressed down, with instruments and without, people swarmed from black and silver to rush the truck stop's automatic doors. Railen could only stand watching. More people emerged from the sides of the building, suggesting that their convoy was much larger than three buses and two semis. As the crowd moved deeper in she spotted several seemingly relaxed men positioned in groups around the building and parking lot. Railen would have bet her favorite saddle that there were more around the two sides of the building not visible to her.

Dusty stood nearest the door, alone. He was the recipient of several side-cast glances from Sam's men. "Go keep Dusty company," she told Hank. "I'm heading in."

Railen took her seat at the far end of the bar, away from the others, and enjoyed the smell of gumbo in the air. The noise in the room quickly grew to deafening as more people came and frantic waitresses tried to take orders amidst the greetings.

"Wait, you wanted coffee and you wanted sweet tea, right?" a meek waitress in an ill-fitting uniform asked a booth filled with four of Sam's roadies, two young men and two young women.

The women sat on one side, hanging from their midsections across the back of the booth, chatting inaudibly with another table of women. They rolled their hips provocatively as they spoke, as if the action were absentminded and, sure enough, the one nearest Railen was rewarded. One of the young men leaned across the table to cop a feel, receiving the typical outraged response. Neither rump nor hand seemed in a hurry to part.

Railen resisted the urge to roll her eyes, cutting them back to the waitress instead. She watched the interaction with a sideways curiosity that made Railen chuckle.

"Hey, darlin'," Railen called out. "Psst."

The girl turned and, finding a woman alone, rushed to Railen's side. "Can I get you something, ma'am?"

"In a minute. Right now I want you to walk back to that table and tap that guy on the shoulder," Railen nodded toward the furthest of the two men, sitting captive on the inside of the booth. "The one who looks bored. Tell him you're going to give them a minute and you'll be back when he gets them settled down. And then walk away."

The girl stared at her blankly for a moment. "Why?"

Railen smiled. "Crowd control. You can't do it all yourself. There must be a hundred of them. Don't the older waitresses show you this stuff? Don't you watch movies?"

The girl shook her head.

"He'll get hungry in a minute and do the work for you," Railen explained.

The girl grinned as though the manipulation were naughty.

"Remember what to say?" Railen repeated the instructions slowly and then watched the girl shuffle away to carry out her bidding.

"You settle them down. I'm not getting paid," he snapped, climbing across the back of the booth to storm away.

The waitress raced back to Railen with tears in her eyes.

"You just watch," Railen assured her. "In the meantime, I'll have a vanilla shake and an order of fries, Cajun if you've got them."

The girl grinned slowly. "This is Slidell, Louisiana, ma'am. Course we got'm." She disappeared around the partition leading to the kitchen, avoiding the return of her chastiser. He stepped into the booth over the back, elbowing his friend on the outside in the head as he dropped to his butt on the seat.

"Shakes take a minute," the waitress said from the partition, drawing Railen's eyes from the man glaring at two jean-clad, upturned rumps. "I brought you some water. I'm Sophie, if you need anything else."

"Stay put a sec Sophie," Railen said, nudging her head in the rowdy booth's direction.

True to stereotypical form, Mr. Pants-in-a-Wad slapped the closest ass with unnecessary force. The recipient yelped in surprise and turned instantly teared eyes to her attacker.

"That was fucking hard," she accused. "Asshole!"

"Shut the fuck up and sit down. Den says we've got one hour. I'm fucking starved and I have to relieve Nick so he can eat!"

"Fuck you," the woman snarled but her hands wandered from her ass to her menu as she fought to keep from crying.

"See," Railen said to Sophie, stowing her guilt at having gotten the young woman struck with such force. "All yours."

The girl grinned from behind thick bangs. "I gotta remember that'n," she squeaked.

Railen laughed at the girl's look of wonderment before she could stop herself. "Use it carefully, it doesn't always go as planned. She might have easily clocked him and then your whole night changes."

The girl nodded with vigor and approached the booth hesitantly. "You folks ready to order?"

"I'll have the..."

Railen turned her back to the table, sipping water and watching over her shoulder in the parlor style mirror. Are you here? No, she thought. No, you can't get in here. Back home Dusty and Hank might know you well enough to let you walk right by but, here, you have no cover.

"What are you, stupid?" a familiar voice shouted to turn Railen on her stool. "It's not fucking hard. He wants the Loggin' Man's Platter and I want the Potato fucking Scramble."

"Yes, sir. I've got it now. Thanks." Sophie blew by Railen so quickly that her sniffles nearly went unheard.

Fucker, Railen thought. A red-assed baboon.

"Stay out of it girl," Jesse's memory said. "She won't learn if you step in. Our hard knocks are our power, kid."

The waitress appeared with Railen's fries and shake but hid behind her hair for the split second it took for her to disappear again. The shake and half the fries were gone when the girl returned, overloaded with plates. She staggered to the table as two of the plates left her arm. They skidded to a stop on the table's surface, contents in only mild disarray.

"Holy shit," Mr. Pants-in-a-Wad complained. "I want to eat it, not wear it. What the fuck, baby?"

"I ain't your baby," the young Sophie snapped as she dropped another plate in front of him.

"You're not gettin' a tip, bitch," he shouted.

"Yes, you are," Railen grinned at the girl as she passed.

The girl did not grin back. Her face was so red that she seemed about to rupture a vein.

"You got something to add?" Mr. Pants spoke, glaring directly at Railen.

"You're speaking to me?" she asked, twisting her stool to press her back into the counter.

"Doesn't it look like I'm speaking to you?" he challenged, shoving up the sleeves of his thin thermal shirt.

Railen smiled...

 

This is the end of:
Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel - Sneak Preview

This is NOT THE END of:
Devils & Dreamers: A Pukking Grand Novel
Chapter 7

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