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The Tough Ladies Book 2 OUT 07/27/2018

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Chapter 1


Susie Sweet never missed a morning run—even when her foot ached from the break she’d gotten at the Cozumel Ironman. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor—she touched her frizzy ponytail—early morning humidity would stay her twelve-mile run. She was just like the post office, only she didn’t have anything to deliver and she ran seven days a week. And now that she thought about it, she’d never run in the snow, mainly because Austin didn’t really have any. But she had run in the rain—although not too often, because it didn’t rain much here either. Once, she had run in a tornado, but it was only an F0 and she hadn’t seen the funnel cloud touch down. She’d thought it was just windy until she’d gotten home and turned on the news.

She loved running. It was her passion. It was better than a ganache-covered fudge brownie. Hooray, running!

As long as she kept repeating that over and over, she told herself, then her foot wouldn’t hurt. The truth was, she didn’t love running, but she did love donuts and fried chicken and ice cream. If she didn’t run, people would start confusing her butt with a billboard. On the plus side, she could always rent out advertising space on her backside.

It might be nice to have something to fall back on when she retired from teaching eighth-grade science. It would be “ass-vertising.” She would make a fortune selling “bum-per stickers.” That was an idea she could get “behind.” It was an industry “rear-ing” to go. She would get in on the “bottom” floor.

She loved puns almost as much as her eighth graders loved them.

Up ahead, tail lights flashed on the side of the road. She looked around. There was no one for miles. That was one of the reasons she loved running down this two-lane road—usually, she had it all to herself. Having watched one too many horror movies, she was hesitant to stop and help a stranger at—she checked her Apple Watch—4:24 a.m., but if she were broken down somewhere, she hoped someone would stop and help her.

She was sure that whoever was in the car was harmless. It was too early for any self-respecting serial killer to be out. The only people who were up at this time of the day were ranchers, unlucky delivery drivers who had pulled the early shift, and drunk frat boys who’d wandered off campus.

And triathletes who didn’t have time to train during the day.

Unless … the serial killer was an early bird. After all, the early bird kills the worm.

If she weren’t on the downhill stretch of her twelve miles, she could probably outrun him if he came after her with an ax. Did serial killers still use axes? It didn’t seem like a very efficient way to kill, and it would be overly messy. In any case, if he tried to murder her, she would scratch his face, getting his DNA under her fingernails, and then run away. Adrenaline was an amazing chemical. It had allowed her to run on her broken foot for five miles before she had noticed that it was hurting.

Still, she couldn’t leave a possible not-serial-killer stranded on the side of the road. There was no cell reception here, even from that company that promised ninety-nine percent coverage in the US. Apparently, the one percent was right here.

At least she got to be in the one percent of something.

As she got closer, she could hear the radio. The driver had the window rolled down and Pink was belting out “Beautiful Trauma.” Not wanting to scare the possible serial killer, she banged on the trunk. It was too dark to see the car’s make and model, but it looked new and expensive.

“Hey!” The driver sounded startled.

“Is everything okay?” Carefully she approached the window but tried to stay far enough away that she was out of ax-swinging range.

“Thank God. You’re the first person I’ve seen in hours.” The voice was male and vaguely familiar. “I have a flat tire and I can’t get ahold of roadside assistance.”

He opened the door and the dome light came on.

She looked down into the caramel-colored eyes of Dane Bennett, Hollywood’s favorite rom-com leading man.

She was about to ask, “Come here often,” but then she thought better of it. He was probably used to women throwing themselves at him and making silly jokes. It was better to just keep things professional. “Can I help in some way?”

“I hope so. My cell doesn’t have a signal and the GPS says the closest highway intersection is seven miles away.” He sounded stressed out.

“Is your car missing the spare?” She glanced in the direction of the trunk.

He stood and led her to the back of the car. “No idea. My assistant always handles the car stuff. Don’t you need a jack or something too? Would that be in the trunk?” He didn’t sound pompous or entitled to being served; he just sounded like he had no idea what was involved in changing a tire. “I tried to google how to change a tire, but I don’t have service.”

“Well, let’s see if we can figure it out.” She could more than figure it out. Growing up on a ranch, she’d changed many a tire and tinkered with many an engine.

“Really? Are you sure? Maybe we should just wait for AAA or the rental car company to send someone. Maybe my agent will send out a search party.” He made that sound like the most sensible plan ever.

“Were you able to call anyone?” She knelt down at the back of the car, looking for the spare. She felt around under the car.

There was silence while he thought about it. “Now I see the flaw in my plan.”

She turned on her watch’s flashlight app and shone the light around the undercarriage. There was nothing but undercarriage. She rolled back on her knees.

He turned his hundred-watt smile on her. If memory served, it was currently selling toothpaste and boxer shorts. He bent down and held out his hand. “I’m Dane, by the way.”

“I’m Susie.” She returned the smile and shook his hand. “Yeah, AAA doesn’t do telepathy yet. Maybe next year.”

The way she was kneeling, it felt like she was bowing to him.

He held her hand just a tad too long. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.” She glanced down at their linked hands. Should she pull her hand away? “The spare’s not under the car. Let’s pop the trunk.”

He seemed to notice he was still holding her hand and then let go.

He walked back to the driver’s-side door. “Any ideas where the trunk lever would be?”

“What kind of car is this?” Not that it mattered. It wasn’t like she had the location of every car’s trunk-popping lever memorized. She hopped to her feet. She kneeled to no one.

“It’s a Tesla Model X. Hold up, the key fob fell between the seats.” He knelt down and felt under the seat, giving her a nice view of the butt that sold boxer shorts. “Got it.”

She went back to the trunk and waited for it to open.

The hood popped open.

“Sorry, that’s the frunk.” He hit another button and the trunk slowly lifted.

“I guess a frunk is a front trunk?” The only frunk she’d ever seen or heard of was on a VW Beetle. “You know what they always say: two trunks are better than one.”

Dane grinned. “I don’t believe you. No one but you has ever said that.”

“Have you ever read A Tale of Two Trunks? ‘It was the best of trunks, it was the worst of trunks.’ You know what else they say: double the trunks, double the fun. Hey, what do you get when you cross an elephant and a Tesla X?”

He shook his head, still grinning. “I can’t believe I’m going to ask this, what?”

“Triple the trunk space.” It was her turn to shake her head. “Not my best work, I’ll admit.” She launched the flashlight app again and shone the light around the trunk. She pulled up the carpeting, but there was only a little plastic box underneath. She felt around in the trunk. “I don’t get it. You don’t have a spare tire.” She picked up the box. “Maybe it’s a Tony Stark spare?”

“You think Iron Man might be in there and he changes tires?” He grinned like he was having fun despite the circumstances.

“No, you know, a Tony Stark spare—like you push a button and the box turns into a tire.” She pushed the button on the top of the box.

Dane stepped back like he thought it might be a bomb.

The top of the box popped open.

She shone her watch light on it. “It’s a bottle of tire sealant and a small air compressor.” She shone her light on his shredded tire. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to work. Why would this car not have a spare? I’m sure it was expensive. You would think Elon Musk could have forked over the hundred bucks for the spare.”

Dane shoved his hands in his pockets. “I can ask him next time I see him. His house is next to mine in Turks and Caicos. He’s a pretty nice guy.” He didn’t sound arrogant about it—just matter-of-fact.

“At the next neighborhood barbecue you should definitely ask him why he was too cheap to put a spare in this car.” She tossed the tire repair kit into the trunk and closed it. “I don’t suppose you’d let me take your rental car apart and see how it works?” She threw him her biggest smile in case that helped him make the decision.

“Why do you want to take it apart?” He eyed her like she was a potential carjacker who wanted to sell his car for parts.

“I like to figure out how things work.” Now that she said it out loud, that really wasn’t that compelling of an answer. “Um … it’s for world peace?” When in doubt, take the beauty pageant answer and invoke world peace.

“Answer is still no, but I almost let you change my tire, so there’s that.” That was just a consolation prize and they both knew it.

“Let me see your shoes.” She aimed the beam of light from her watch at his feet.

“Why?” He took a step back like she was going to steal them. He certainly was a jumpy. That probably came from living in LA. All that smog and healthy eating must destroy brain cells.

“Because we need to run back to my house and call the rental car company.” She shook her head. It didn’t look good. He was wearing some brown leather loafers that looked expensive and uncomfortable. “Maybe I should go by myself.”

“And leave me here to come up with more trunk puns? I don’t think so. I can run. I run.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. “How far is it to your house?”

“It’s four miles that way.” She pointed to the road in front of him. “Or two and a half miles that way.” She pointed to the field on the other side of the road.

“I vote for door number two.” He bent over and rolled up his jeans. She wasn’t sure why, but if it made those loafers work better as running shoes, he could roll them all the way up to his thighs.

“We’re going to have to jump the fence. I know you’ve done that before. I saw In the Middle of Lovewith you and Rachel Mays. You jumped a fence at the end so you could propose to her.” She didn’t know if she should bring up the fact that he was a movie star. She wouldn’t have minded if he brought up her job.

“Funny thing, I actually had a stunt double for that shot.” He closed the driver’s door, locked the car, and then shoved the fob in his front jeans pocket.

“Why?” It really wasn’t that dangerous. She waited in the middle of the road for him to catch up.

“Insurance. The fence was barbed wire and the insurance company the studio uses wouldn’t cover the damages if I got hurt.” He followed her to the fence. “This one is also barbed wire.”

“Yep, but there’s a gate right over there. You can climb that.” She pointed to the galvanized-wire gate a hundred yards away.

He nodded. “Good idea.”

“So, what other sleights of hand are in the movies?” It was an interesting question. What were the chances he’d come talk to her class about it?

“Just about everything. The better question is, what’s real?” His eyes glittered in the moonlight. Even out in the middle of nowhere, he looked like he’d just walked off a film set.

Did her eyes glitter? She didn’t think so. It was probably just a movie star thing.

“Okay then, what’s real?” She’d play along.

“Hopefully, the emotions we try to convey. Everything else … fake.” He finger-combed his hair. Now it looked artfully disheveled.

“Everything? What do you mean?” She ran her hand over her hair. All she got was a sweaty hand. On the plus side, she was able to use the sweat to smooth down the ponytail escapees.

“For starters, the location is usually fake. Like when we’re supposedly filming in China, but really it’s Chinatown in San Francisco.”

“Or like when you tell the audience it’s Dallas, but there are mountains in the background, or worse, tumbleweeds blowing across the road? FYI, the only mountains in Texas are in far West Texas.” She held her hand up. “I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen a tumbleweed.”

“Yeah, you’d think the location scouts could do a little research.” He nodded. “When I got to Austin to start filming, I took a day trip to San Antonio. Unlike in the History Channel miniseries The Alamo, San Antonio isn’t on the top of a mountain overlooking a river a mile below. It’s actually flat as a pancake.”

“Welcome to my world. Most of the shows filmed in,” she threw up some air quotes, “Texas,” she dropped her hands, “seem to be filmed in California. Or New Mexico.”

“Yeah, smoke and mirrors.” He shook his head. “Movies tell a story. Unfortunately, it’s usually told from the wrong place.”

She patted the gate. “Ready to climb your first fence?”

“How do you know I haven’t climbed a fence before?” He put a foot on the bottom rung.

“Call it country intuition. In my experience, city people don’t climb many fences unless they’re running from the cops.” She looked him up and down. “If you’d ever run from the cops, I’m pretty sure it would have been news.”

“You got me there.” He grabbed the top rung and climbed a couple of rungs before hoisting his legs over and jumping down.

She stuck her hand in between the middle rungs and pulled the latch until the gate swung open.

“Hey, why did you make me climb the fence if you could have just opened the gate?” He crossed his arms.

“I felt cheated that you hadn’t really climbed the fence in In the Middle of Love.” She grinned as she walked through the open gate and then closed and latched it behind her. “Besides, everyone needs to learn how to climb a fence. You never know when you’ll need to run from the cops.”

They started walking across the field.

“So you’re just looking out for me?” He shook his head as he laughed. “Is that it?”

“Yep, pretty much.” The fact that she’d gotten to see his fine butt as he’d climbed over the gate was just a bonus. “Since I’m looking out for you, I feel that I should mention that we’re trespassing on old Mr. Milton’s ranch. He’s cranky when it comes to trespassing. And that’s saying a lot, considering this is Texas.”

He turned to look at her. “Cranky how?”

“You want the good news or the bad news first?” She was glad she’d bumped into Greatest Dane, as the tabloids called him. She was having fun. And it was way better than running into an ax murderer.

“You’re scaring me.” He hunched his shoulders. “I guess the bad.”

“Mr. Milton likes to carry a shotgun.” She paused for effect. “But the good news is, I’m pretty sure he’s legally blind. He hardly ever hits anything.” She probably should have mentioned Mr. Milton before they’d hopped the fence.

He stopped. “Is it too late to change my mind? I can go back to the car and hope someone else comes by.

“Good luck with that. Mr. Milton and I are the only people who live on this road. Curtis, our mail carrier, will come by eventually, but seeing as how today’s Sunday, you won’t see him until after two tomorrow afternoon.” She kept on walking.

“I don’t suppose that when you get home, you could come and pick me up. I’ll pay you.” He sounded so hopeful.

“Don’t be silly. I can’t take money from a stranded man.” She grinned from ear to ear. “Besides, the minute I get home I’m calling the National Enquirerand telling them that I saw Dane Bennett climb a fence and trespass on old Mr. Milton’s land. I’m sure they’ll put some sort of spin on it that has you either being abducted by aliens or having a newfound bestiality hobby.” She held up her hand. “Personally, I vote for the alien abduction. Bovine hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.”

He caught up to her. “What are the chances of Mr. Milton actually shooting at us?”

“I’d say they’re fairly slim. I know for a fact that he ran out of shotgun shells last week.” She pointed toward the faint lights off in the distance. “That’s his house. He’s up, but he may not even notice us.”

“That’s good, I guess.” Dane stared at the yellow glow of the faraway house lights.

“This time of day, it’s not Mr. Milton you need to worry about. It’s the snakes.” She glanced down. “The ones who’ve found food are all snuggled up in their hidey-holes, but the ones who didn’t find food are bound to be pretty hungry.”

“Snakes? Did you say snakes?” His voice was at least two octaves higher as he started jump-running like he was doing the high-knees their triathlon coach, Charisma, always made them do to warm up.

It was one of the funniest things she’d ever seen. If her Apple Watch only had a camera.