Meet Grace!

Because we can use a lot of kick ass women in this world right now…Meet Grace!

I so enjoyed writing this heroine. And I so hope you like her as much as I do. Without further ado, here it is! The opening of my next book, Close Enough To Touch, out with HQN in September, 2012!

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   This made it official: Grace Barrett’s life was over. Or, at the very least, it was so irrevocably screwed up that a quick death would be a blessing at this point.

She was twenty-eight, in debt to an angry ex-boyfriend, she had exactly thirty-seven dollars and forty cents in cash, and she was here.

   In Wyoming.              

   Well, she’d been in Wyoming for hours, actually. Hours of endless beige hills and barren mountains. Hours of cows. And sheep. And some strange creature she’d thought was a deer until she’d gotten a better look. Deer didn’t look like they had exotic black masks painted on their little faces. What the heck were those things?

   Grace shuddered a little as she stepped out of the bus. Her feet touched the ground and there was no taking it back now. She was really in Wyoming. She was touching it.

   “Damn,” she muttered.

   The elderly man in front of her turned with a concerned smile. “Sorry, ma’am?”

   Grace crossed her arms in defense. “Nothing. Sorry about that. I was just…”

   He smiled and put a hand to his balding head as if he meant to tip a hat. “Beg pardon.”  

   No one had ever begged her pardon before. Grace crossed her arms more tightly, unsure how to handle this situation. Thankfully, the man moved away before she was forced to respond.

   Grace glanced warily around, on guard against any other kind, polite people who might approach. Nobody did, so she edged toward the driver as he unlocked the luggage compartments of the bus. She was used to being alone, but she’d been surrounded by people on this bus for nearly two days. She felt almost panicked with the need to get free.

The driver began unloading the bags, laying them out in neat rows. Grace kept a sharp eye on his hands, waiting for her ancient camouflage duffel bag to appear.

   No one else seemed to be watching so closely. The other passengers were hugging friends and family or idly chatting with each other as their eyes traveled along the horizon. She spared only the barest of glances toward the view of the mountains. Someone could walk up and grab a bag and be gone before anybody even noticed.

   These folks were obviously not from L.A. Or…maybe their bags didn’t contain every ridiculous, precious thing in the world that belonged to them. Maybe their bags were just filled with dirty clothes and cheap souvenirs from a beach vacation. But when Grace’s bag appeared and was set on the ground, she jumped forward and dragged it away like a feral animal with a piece of precious meat. It was nearly too heavy for her to lift, but she’d have to find a way. She had no car, no money for a taxi—if they had such things here—and she hadn’t told her great-aunt when she’d be arriving. So she was hoofing it.

   “Hoofing it,” she breathed, managing a laugh as she glanced around to see if there were any cows standing next to her. Unlike the rest of Wyoming, the town of Jackson seemed to be blessedly cow-free. It was also slightly larger than she’d expected, dashing her hopes that she could simply wander down the main street until she spotted the address she was looking for. She’d have to ask for help. The idea made her grimace as she took a deep breath and looked around. Maybe she could just find a free map.

   “Bingo,” she said as her eye fell on a big sign that spelled out “Jackson Hole Information!” in old-timey wooden letters. Grace had lived in Hollywood a long time. If there was one thing she knew, it was how to work a tourist trap.

She dragged her bag across the asphalt and onto the wooden…sidewalk? Grace blinked and looked down the street, then turned to look in the other direction. Yes, as far as the eye could see, the sidewalks were wooden, like an Old West town.

   “Wow,” she muttered. These people were really trying hard,  but she had to admit that it was cute. Shaking her head, she pulled her bag down the sidewalk until she got to the brochure stand.

   “Do you have a free map of the area?” she asked the matronly woman who’d turned away to straighten papers.

   “Oh, hello!” the woman called as she spun around. “Good afternoon!”

   “Hi. Um. I just need a map of the town. Something simple.”

   The woman’s eyes flicked up to Grace’s hair for a moment, and Grace wondered what she must think of a purple-haired girl in combat boots asking about Jackson, but the woman’s smile didn’t waver. “Well, I won’t lie. There are a lot of choices. Here’s the official town map.” She laid a folded brochure out. “But—and don’t tell anyone I said this—I actually like the one the restaurant association puts out a little better.” “Thanks.” Grace took both of the brochures and opened the one the woman had recommended.

   “What are you looking for, sweetheart?”

   Sweetheart? Grace glanced down at her T-shirt. Yep. It still advertised an old LA burlesque club. “Just a street,” she said softly, hoping not to invite more questions.

   “Which street?”

   Grace cleared her throat and shifted, her gaze desperately boring into the map, hoping she could just find it herself. “Um. Sagebrush.”

   “Sagebrush. That’s a long one. What’s the address?” The woman’s pink fingernail pointed toward the map, but it moved before Grace could register which of the streets she was pointing to.

   “605 West Sagebrush,” she sighed.

   “Oh, that’s way over here!” The woman pointed again, and this time Grace saw it. A long line that meandered all the way through town and then followed the curve of a stream before it ended. It looked like quite a haul.

   “Thank you,” Grace said. She folded the map and hefted her bag up, biting back a grunt as she worked the strap over her shoulder. “This way?” She tilted her head in the direction she thought she needed to go. She’d always been pretty good with that sort of thing.

   “Yep!”

   Grace took a deep breath and started walking. Her boots clomped on the wood.

   “Oh, honey!”

   Grace pretended she didn’t hear.

   “Sweetie, stop! You can’t walk all that way.”

   “I’m fine,” she called.

   “But there’s a free bus!”

   Her boots stopped clomping. “Free?”

   “Totally free. In fact, it’ll stop right here in a few minutes. Comes every half hour.”

   Grace turned back and eyed the woman suspiciously. “Will I have to go tour a new condo complex or something?”

   “What? Oh, heavens no. It’s the town bus. It’ll stop just a few blocks from where you’re going. 605 Sagebrush. That’s the Stud Farm, isn’t it?”

   “The what?” She dropped the bag. She’d heard tales that her great-aunt was a crazy old lady, but… “What?”

   “Oh, never mind me,” the woman laughed. “That’s just a silly local nickname.”

   “For what?”

   “The building.”

   Just as Grace was opening her mouth to demand a real answer, a hiss of brakes sounded from the curb. The bus had arrived, and she didn’t have time to get more information. She hauled up her bag, wrestled it onto her shoulder, and jogged for the bus. As promised, there didn’t seem to be a fee. The driver glanced at her impatiently, and she felt a small jolt of comfort at that. The bus might be free, but the driver was just as jaded as every bus driver in L.A.

Slightly less suspicious, Grace took a seat close to the front so she wouldn’t have to haul the bag any farther, then dug the map back out to see which intersection she was looking for.

   A few blocks later, the wooden walkways were replaced with cement, and the two-story buildings with front porches became less common. By the time they reached the right intersection, they’d passed a strip mall and a big grocery store. She felt slightly less disoriented as she grabbed the bell pull and hauled her bag down the steps.

   She didn’t dare stop and look around as the bus pulled away. Her shoulders were already aching and the bag wasn’t getting any lighter, so she set off down the side street with her head down. Sagebrush was only four blocks down. No problem.

   By the time she reached the next street, she was gasping for air. “Good Lord,” she muttered, stopping to take a few deep breaths. It didn’t help. Altitude, she reminded herself, finally giving in and setting the bag down. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on oxygen, and without the weight of the bag, she was breathing normally within a few moments.

Had she really thought she was going to walk all the way from the bus station to the apartment? Laughing at the image of herself crawling down the street with the bag balanced on her back, Grace opened her eyes and took a deeper breath.

   “Mm,” she hummed. The air smelled…nice. Really nice. Crisp and fresh and clean. Maybe she could live with less oxygen. Just for a little while. It wasn’t like she was going to stay in this ridiculous little town.

It was cute, though. The Old West part of town had morphed into a slightly Victorian feel. Little gingerbread houses, separated by the occasional 1960’s ranch. Grace had never lived in a small town before. Maybe it would be okay, temporarily.

   As if to show her just how wrong she was, the jingle of a bike bell interrupted her thoughts. A bicycle passed by. An honest to goodness bicycle-built-for-two. Both riders waved as they rode away. Grace grimaced at what looked like an  advertisement for happiness. This town was going to rub her own misery in her face.

   Once the bike had passed, she lifted the bag and trudged on. Another bike appeared, this one with only one rider, but with an old-fashioned bike horn that the rider honked before he waved. Yeah, L.A. was bad enough with all the sunshine, but this town was just too much.

   Vancouver would be better, hopefully. There was a big enough movie industry there. She had a job waiting for her if she could get there in six weeks. And if she did a good job, maybe she could get steady work as a makeup artist up there where nobody knew she was difficult to work with. Difficult, as in, she wouldn’t put up with handsy actors or abusive bosses. That seemed totally reasonable to her, but in L.A., ass-kissing was a way of life.

   Grace turned onto Sagebrush and started watching the addresses.

   When she finally spotted number 605, she was pleasantly surprised. The pretty Victorian building didn’t look like it had anything to do with a farm. Or studs. It wasn’t the prettiest building on the block, but the paint was fresh and bright royal blue. The trim around the windows and the porch was vivid white. The place looked perfectly respectable.

Then her eyes slid to the building next door.

   The saloon next door.                       

   She knew it was a saloon because of the wide plank of wood over the door that screamed SALOON in big black letters. Barstools lined the ancient porch and, unlike the building Grace was standing in front of, this place looked like it hadn’t been painted since 1902. In fact, it looked like a barn that hadn’t been painted since 1902. She was pretty sure that was some sort of hayloft door near the roof.

   Grace’s shoulders were protesting the delay, so she adjusted the strap and walked up the sidewalk to the house. As soon as she stepped in, she saw two doors marked A and B. The only other possible route was a wide staircase that led to the second floor. Grace dropped the bag and dug out the letter from her great-aunt, praying that her apartment was on the ground floor. She wasn’t sure she could make it up the stairs without passing out.

   “Apartment A,” she breathed. “Thank God.”

  She was reaching for the door when she realized the mistake and paused. She didn’t have a key. And–she looked at the letter again—her aunt hadn’t given a phone number.

Feeling stupid for even trying, she reached for the knob and tested it. It didn’t budge, of course. Who would leave a vacant apartment unlocked?

   “Crap.”

   Grace stood on her tiptoes and ran her fingers above the door frame. Nothing.

   “Shit.”

   When she looked down, she saw that her black boots were planted right in the middle of a doormat that said, “Howdy!” inside a circled lasso. Her last hope was this rectangle of western kitsch. Holding her breath, she stepped off and picked it up. Nothing.

   “Damn it,” she groaned, letting her lungs empty on a growl of frustration as she glared down at the envelope in her hand. Her aunt’s return address was a PO Box. She’d only communicated via letter to the friend’s address that Grace had used for return mail. And Grandma Rose never answered her cellphone.

   On the off chance that it was the one time of day that her grandmother turned her cell on to check messages, Grace pulled out her crappy pay-as-you-go phone and dialed Grandma’s number. A few seconds later, Grace heard the beep of the voicemail message starting, and her heart dropped. However Grandma eventually went, it wasn’t going to be from “radio wave brain cancer,” at least according to her.

Grace looked back to the letter in her hand, feeling hopeless. What was she going to do? Wander around town asking everyone if they knew her aunt? She’d been on a bus for two days. She’d thought she was about to get a break. Just a few hours to rest and let her guard down.

   “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” She hauled back one boot and kicked her bag as hard as she could. It wasn’t hard enough. She pulled back her foot to do it again. The bag held everything she owned in the world, but right now, that seemed like the perfect reason to kick it. This was her life. Right here. Her whole crappy life in this beat up, dirty camouflage bag.

   “Damn it!” she screamed one more time as she kicked it hard enough to slide it six inches across the floor.

   “That bag must’ve done something really shitty to get a little thing like you all riled up.”

   Grace stomped her foot onto the floor and spun to face the low drawl, her heart slamming into a crazed beat. A man stood in the doorway of the other apartment. He leaned against the door jamb, arms crossed and mouth turned up in an amused smile.

   “Excuse me?” she snapped.

   “Just wondering why you’re kicking the tar out of that bag, darlin’.”

   “First of all, I’m not your darlin’. Second, it’s none of your business.”

   His smile widened, revealing dimples in his tanned face. His tanned, granite-jawed, handsome face. “Really? None of my business? When a crazed banshee of a woman stands on my doorstep cursing her heart out on a beautiful Friday afternoon? Tends to pique my interest.”

   “It’s my doorstep,” she corrected, hoping she was right. Hoping her aunt hadn’t decided to lease the apartment to somebody else in the week since she’d written.

   His eyebrows shot up and the man pushed up to his full height. “Your doorstep? Are you sure?”

   Grace went for bravado and snorted. “Of course I’m sure.”

   He shrugged one wide shoulder, and Grace was suddenly very aware that his plaid button-down shirt wasn’t actually buttoned down. It looked like he’d just shrugged it on to come investigate the commotion in the hall, and when he moved, a long strip of skin showed from his neck all the way down to his waist. And then there were his jeans and the affectionate way they clung to strong thighs.

   The Stud Farm, she suddenly remembered. What kind of place was this?

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