Excerpt: At Last

At Last by Julie Ortolon

Texas Heat Wave

Chapter One

A thrill of happiness bubbled up inside Riley Stone as her hands flew over the piano keyboard. The new song that had popped into her head that morning bounced from her fingertips, filling the tiny living room with its fast bluesy beat. Sunlight poured through the lacy curtain, slanting over the battered upright. Her whole body moved to the rapid rhythm, her head nodding and her bare feet tapping on the scarred wood floor. She sang the last line of lyrics, which had just come to her, then ran one finger all the way up the keyboard to strike a high chord of victory.

Feeling triumphant, she turned to her cat, B.B., who sat on the bench beside her where he could watch the movement of her hands. “Don’t ya just adore a song about fools in love?”

The long-haired, black cat blinked up at her with coppery eyes and let loose one of his loud, long yowls, either in complaint that her hands had gone still or in disagreement about how she’d ended the song.

“No, no, you can’t change my mind.” She leaned forward and scribbled down the last line while the words still played in her head. “Even foolish lovers deserve a happy ending.” Then her gaze landed on the carriage clock and she cringed. “Except, dang it, now I’m late for work.”

Not that being late would matter much. The manager at the restaurant bar where she sang rarely came in on time and the happy hour crowds had been much smaller than she’d expected when she’d accepted the job. Still, the last thing she wanted to do was mess up the best-paying, long-term singing gig she’d ever landed. The job, the house, everything in her life was darn near perfect right now-a surprising twist of fate she still couldn’t get over.

Standing, she stretched the kinks out of her back and went to the bedroom with B.B. trotting along behind her. She swapped her cutoffs and tank top for a black cocktail dress that hugged her slender body and generous curves. The hem barely came to mid thigh, leaving miles of shapely leg bare. A decent tan allowed her to skip panty hose, thank God. Bending before the mirror over the antique vanity, she finger-combed her short, platinum blond curls back from her face then swiped on mascara and bright red lipstick.

“Now where are my shoes?” she asked B.B.

He meowed up at her, his fluffy tail standing straight up from his body swishing back and forth like an animated question mark.

“That’s no help at all.” Another glance about revealed the black stiletto-heeled sandals peeking out from under the tattered quilt that had slid partially off the iron-frame bed. She grabbed the sandals and a pair of white sneakers. The walk to the restaurant might only be two blocks, but she saw no reason to tetter the whole way there.

Back in the living room, she plucked the new song from the piano and stuffed it into the backpack she used in lieu of a purse then let herself out the front door. The screen snapped shut behind her with a bright bang as she dropped to the top porch step to put on her sneakers.

Yep, all things considered, life was pretty dang good, she thought as she took a deep breath of fresh air. White clouds rode across a vivid blue sky while a soft breeze kissed her cheeks. On Fridays, she might have to sing for six long hours, starting with happy hour and going straight through to closing time, but leaving for work so early allowed her to enjoy some late afternoon sunshine. The schedule sure beat the upside down lifestyle she’d had back in Austin where she’d lived like most musicians, sleeping all day and working all night. That had been fun at age twenty, but now that thirty was peeking over the not-so-distant horizon, she welcomed the unexpected change that had fallen in her lap.

Unexpected being the operative word.

Eleven years ago, she’d left Hope, Texas vowing, with all the passion of an angst-ridden teenager, never to return. She’d had a head full of dreams and a heart broken by unrequited love. Since then, she’d developed some common sense about those dreams and a sense of humor about her long-ago infatuation with nerdy Jackson Hope. Otherwise, she never could have been so happy about her decision to move back.

Sitting on the porch of what had always been the rattiest house in Hope she realized it wasn’t the town she’d hated growing up. It had been the situation. Who wouldn’t hate being dropped off by a drug-addict mother who couldn’t take care of herself much less an eleven-year-old? She’d been left behind to live with a Bible-thumping grandmother who saw Riley’s illegitimate existence as proof of the devil’s handy work. Her new school hadn’t been much better since the other kids had never accepted her, thanks to Jackson’s snooty sister, Cecilia. The only people in the tiny tourist town who’d made her feel good about herself had been Dolly Dugan, the tough-talking big-hearted woman who ran the old dance hall, and the musicians who’d played there. They had been her saviors and her sanctuary.

Was it any wonder music had became her greatest joy?

Now she had the joy of music and some control over her life. What could be better than that? As for the house, she hadn’t exactly inherited it, but, as a direct descendant to one of the original immigrant sharecropper, she had inherited a lease with the rent set so low, it was almost like owning. Especially since the agreement gave the tenants the freedom, but also the responsible, to paint and make changes. Unfortunately, the Stone family hadn’t done either in decades.

With her shoes tied, she swung the backpack over one shoulder and headed down Mill Street with a spring in her step, admiring the handful of houses that had been built to house cotton farmers. Except for hers, they’d all been turned into gift shops and artisan studios with colorful merchandise displayed on the porches. Equally colorful were the houses themselves, like little jewel boxes.

As she passed one of them, Cory Davis, a potter, stepped out onto the porch to fuss with a display of humming bird feeders. Like many of the current residents, who didn’t quite number two dozen, Cory lived in the back of her house with her shop in front. Her hippie clothes and long gray hair gave her away as a holdout from the love generation who felt perfectly at home in the eclectic little town. “Hey, Riley,” she called with a wave. “Off to work?”

“Yep.” Riley waved back. The shop owners had greeted her as a welcomed switch from her grouchy grandmother, especially when she sought out their advice about gardening and paint colors. She hadn’t had a chance to start sprucing up, but at least they knew she intended to.

“Gorgeous weather, isn’t it?” she said.

“Can’t complain,” Cory answered. “Wish I could say the same about business.”

“Slow day?”

“Slow month.” Cory sighed.

“Well, it’s early in the year,” Riley assured her, feeling wise since she’d grown up in Hope and Cory was a relative newcomer. “Things will pick up when the summer vacation season gets here.”

“That’s what we said last year.” Cory’s shoulders slumped as she went back inside.

Riley’s cheerful mood dimmed a little at hearing that. She’d heard similar predictions of doom from the other residents, but surely things weren’t that bad.

Although, if they were, it wouldn’t be the first time. Hope had fallen on hard times before. Really hard times. Days so bleak the place had almost turned into a ghost town back in the 1950s when bole weevils destroyed the Central Texas cotton industry. The Hope family, who had built the houses and handful of building on their land, were left with empty streets and fallow fields. The only businesses that had remained open were the general store and the dance hall.

While the Hope family literally owned the town–such as it was–and all the land surrounding it, they had political power and wealth to spare, and had easily lived off their other investments. Until, Dolly Dugan had stepped up Preston Hope, the town’s owner at the time, and pointed out Hope’s hidden potential. Even before the cotton crash, Hope hadn’t changed one iota since the Roaring Twenties. By the mid ’70s, Sunday drivers from Austin and San Antonio were coming out to admire the old houses and cluster of buildings that made up downtown. A trip to Hope was touted as a trip back through time, to an age when men drank bootleg liquor, women swooned over Rudolph Valentino, and the scratchy sound of Pennies from Heaven played on Victrolas.

Why not capitalize on that? Dolly suggested. Why not turn Hope into a tourist destination? Offer gift shop owners and artists the same low rents as the sharecroppers, and rather than receive a percentage of their crops, get a percentage of their sales–like a shopping mall. Dolly had never had a problem speaking her mind to the vaulted Preston Hope, a long-time state representative who made lesser mortals quake in their boots. He took to the idea, and gave her free rein to turn the town around. Which she did.

The one thing Dolly hadn’t done in promoting Hope was play up the town’s biggest claim to fame: the Hope Bank robbery. The bank–which was now a bookstore–was the last bank ever robbed by female gangster Molly McPherson. Molly had been shot during that robbery and rumor had it she’d buried the loot nearby in order to make her escape. As far as anyone knew, the loot had never been found.

While the story would have attracted a lot of visitors, Dolly had grumbled to her dying day that the last thing they needed was a lot of hair-brained treasure hunters digging holes all over the place.

Riley stopped at the corner where Mill Street ended at Main, the only two paved streets to admire what Dolly had set into motion. The tiny community was a prettied-up version of what it would have looked like eighty years ago. Flowers grew in whiskey barrels; the feed store now sold antiques; and the General Store sold everything from kitschy souvenirs to ice cream at the soda fountain. At the end of Mill Street sat the dance hall with the grist mill rising up behind it. The Ol’ Mill Restaurant served as Hope’s main attraction. Sadly, though, both the foot traffic and vehicle traffic was barely above a trickle.

The sound of a wolf whistle drew her attention to Charlie Carter, an aging furniture maker who built rustic pieces out of tree trunks. He sat on a bench across the street admiring the sight of her standing there in a figure-hugging cocktail dress. She laughed at the wicked look he gave her as he tipped back his straw cowboy hat. Once, that kind of attention from any man would have frozen her with fear, but she’d learned to tell when it didn’t mean anything beyond good-natured teasing.

“Hello, Charlie,” she called and sent him a flirty wave. “When are you going to come hear me sing?”

“When that restaurant starts serving steaks that are actually worth eatin’ again,” he hollered back.

She plopped the fist that held her sandals onto her hip, striking a pose that showed off her curves. Sprouting breasts that would thrill a topless dancer may have horrified her at age twelve, but she’d long since stopped trying to hide, disguise, or deny how she looked. At times like this, she even enjoyed it a little. “Are you saying that seeing me isn’t enough?”

“Are you making me an offer?” He wiggled his brows.

“A man can always dream.” She tossed her head, which arched her back.

Tires squealed and a horn blared. She glanced around in time to see a near collision between two SUVs. Laughing, she turned back to Charlie.

He shook his head, sharing her amusement. “Careful there, girly. You cause any more wrecks, the sheriff will start writing you tickets.”

“For what?” she asked with exaggerated indignation.

He gave her a pointed once over, his old eyes twinkling. “Failure to show caution on dangerous curves.”

Riley waved the words away with a laugh.

A break came in traffic and she jogged across Main Street to enter the pedestrian lane that lead past the dance hall to the mill. She felt a little stab of grief that always came when she saw the sad state of the hall. Dolly had died while Riley was away and the place stood empty now, the stage silent. White paint peeled off the weathered siding and black wooden shutters were boarded shut over the screen windows.

She wondered for at least the thousandth time why the Hopes had closed it down. Like the restaurant, the family had always owned the dance hall business themselves and had simply hired Dolly to manage it. Even if the hall didn’t want the business anymore, why let the building become such an eye sore? Anyone walking from the gravel parking lot behind the general store to the restaurant had to go by the dance hall.

The hardest part of her walk to work, though, was seeing the forlorn state of Dolly’s house, which stood at the far side of a grassy field behind the dance hall. The Craftsman style bungalow desperately needed a fresh coat of woodsy-tone paint and the river rock columns flanking the steps to the porch could use a good power-washing. Considering the complaints she’d heard since returning to Hope, she supposed the hall and Dolly’s house weren’t the only things the Hopes were ignoring. She realized the current owner, Preston’s son Edward Hope, probably had his hands full with other things, since he was serving yet another term as a congressman in Washington, but what about his son, Jackson? Jackson was a lawyer in Austin, only an hour and a half way. Why wasn’t he taking care of things?

Although, considering that Jackson was the object of her oh-so-embarrassing infatuation back in high school, did she really want him around enough to manage things? She’d been relieved to learn he rarely visited Hope. The last thing she’d wanted was to be right back in constant contact with a boy who used to look at her as if she were a bug splattered on his windshield. Now, however, after watching the town struggle, his absence was starting to irritate her.

Rather than look at Dolly’s house, she hurried on to her destination: the restaurant inside the old grist mill perched on the high banks of the river. Its wooden wheel turned lazily in the slow-moving current, adding an extra layer of nostalgia to the setting. Mountain laurels and flowering sage lined the limestone walk to the entrance, which had originally been wide barn doors. They’d closed that space in with glass and a smaller door. Beside it was a playbill that read: Live Music by Jazz Singer Riley Stone Thursday through Sunday.

The sign lit her up every time she saw it. The words made her new life sound so…stable. Now that was a real dream come true: stability. Not the fame and fortune she’d thought she’d wanted, with all of the insanity that came with it, but a steady job and a house that was hers as long as she chose to live there.

Thrilled by that thought, she breezed into the restaurant–then came up short when she heard music coming from the bar. The band had started without her. A glance at her watch showed she was later than she thought.

“Hi, Riley,” the hostess, greeted her with a smile. Like most of the restaurant staff, Carly attended college in nearby San Marcos.

“Hey,” Riley said, glancing past the hostess area to get a quick feel for the crowd. Or lack thereof.

Mike, the head waiter, was serving a few early dinners as sunlight slanted down into the main room through the square windows high up on the tall stone walls. Wooden beams that had once supported upper floors remained as broken and charred reminders of the fire that had closed down the mill. In spite of the fire damage, or maybe because of it, the Ol’ Mill Restaurant provided an intriguing blend of fine dining in a rustic setting. Flowers graced every table and as night fell the glow of candlelight would add a romantic touch.

Riley turned left and headed into the lounge, which was like stepping into an old blues club during the days of prohibition. Dim light gave the space a secretive feel. An elaborately carved bar dominated the wall across from her, with a solitary drinker perched on one of the stools. A couple cuddled together at one of the tables as they listened to the jazz ensemble on the stage in the far corner.

She sent Mo, the piano player, an apologetic wave as she went to stow her backpack behind the bar. Moses “Mo” Johnson was one of the few familiar faces she’d found when she’d returned to Hope, but in the old days, he’d played at the dance hall. A stand up bass player, drummer, and guitar player made up the rest of the band. Like the wait staff, they were college students. For them, though, it wasn’t potential tips that drew them, it was the chance to play with a local blues legend like Mo Johnson.

Mo shook his head at her, looking amused rather than angry at her tardiness. The bartender, Pete, gave her a teasing whistle as she slipped behind him and swapped her sneakers for the high-heeled sandals. The sandals added three inches to her already considerable height, and made her legs seem that much longer. The man at the bar nearly choked on his drink as she strode past him to the stage.

“Sorry, I’m late,” she told Mo as he continued to play.

“You lose your watch or som’um, girl?” He squinted his brown eyes at her, deepening the wrinkles in his leathery face. The salt in his hair had long since won out over the pepper but at eighty-two he claimed he was happy to still have a full head of it.

“Not my watch, just track of time.” She smiled at him, feeling the little swell in her heart she always felt around him. “I was working on a song.”

“Is it any good?”

“Well, I like it.”

He considered her beaming grin, then nodded. “Play it for me later so I can decide. If I like it, I won’t chew your ass for being late.”

“You’re all heart, Mo.”

“Maybe. But Manny ain’t,” he said, referring to the restaurant manager. The one blight on her wonderful new life–other than worrying about the drop off in tourism–was having to work for Manny. He was a sloppy manager with a bad temper and a short fuse. No one at the restaurant liked him. Unfortunately, since the band members worked directly for the restaurant as a house band, that made Manny their boss.

“You couldn’t have picked a worse day to be late,” Mo told her.

“What do you mean?” she asked absently as she adjusted the mic on its stand.

“Believe it or not, I hear the big boss man was in today.”

“Are you serious?” She went still, assuming he meant Congressman Edward Hope. “Well, my goodness, I was starting to think the family forgot they even owned the town.”

“Apparently not.” Mo’s mouth pursed as his agile fingers coaxed music from the keys. The rest of the band followed along with a soothing beat. “I hear he spent a couple hours in the office with the door closed. Word is, when Manny got here and found him in there, they had themselves a little closed-door meetin’. Manny’s been in a bitch of a mood ever since.”

“Oh really?” Riley leaned her folded arms on the baby grand piano, her weight on one hip. “I wonder what happened.”

“Don’ know. But if you ask me, he’s looking for somebody’s dog to kick.” Mo’s eyes narrowed. “Be careful it ain’t yours.”

“Lucky me, I only have a cat.” She laughed.

Mo’s gaze shifted toward the bar. “Tell him that.”

Riley glanced over her shoulder and felt her chest squeeze tight when she saw Manny holding open the swinging saloon-style doors that guarded the stairway to the offices. A heavyset bulldog of a man with dark hair and a pasty face, he wore a perpetually sour expression. Mo was right, though. He looked even angrier than usual. His mouth worked as if chewing something foul as he glared at her. Then he jerked his head in a sharp command for her to follow him upstairs.

Oh shit! The bottom fell out of her stomach. She was going to get fired.

She instantly squelched that thought. First, she wasn’t that late. Second, she wasn’t a busboy he could replace at the drop of a hat. He just wanted to chew her out a bit, she assured herself. Do a little dog-kicking, as Mo said, to make him feel big again after he got his ass chewed.

Even so, her stomach quivered as she straightened off the piano. “I assume you boys can handle things without me for a little while longer?”

“Let’s hope it’s just a little while,” Mo said. Apparently he’d seen Manny’s face and shared her first conclusion.

I am not going to get fired, she told herself as she stepped off the stage and followed Manny up the stairs.

And yet, wouldn’t that be an ironic twist? Here she lands a job that lets her change her whole life, and just when she makes those changes, she loses the job? No, she thought. Sooner or later, life had to stop knocking her down. Someday, surely, the Fates would get bored when they realized she refused to stay down.