"Aggie is going to kill me."
Tonya pushed down on the accelerator, driving her little red Hyundai as fast as she dared on snowy Main Street. Despite her best effort, she was going to be late for work-again.
It didn't matter that The Beauty Spot probably had zero customers on this cold Friday morning. Aggie was a stickler for promptness. So Tonya had promised to leave the house much earlier than she did yesterday.
But yesterday it wasn't snowing.
Tonya's tires slipped on a patch of ice, and she let up on the gas pedal. Why didn't Fort Lob clear the streets? They had plow trucks, and this was December in Wyoming for goodness' sake. Main Street was reduced to two sets of snowy tire tracks.
As she passed the buildings in town, the snowfall tapered off. Jim Wilkins stood outside Wilkins Grocery in his green apron, shoveling snow off the sidewalk. He waved at her. She sped past the Cattlemen's Diner and then the Trailblazer Café. Both restaurants were booming with business on this winter morning.
Horace Frankenberg, bundled in an overcoat, black gloves, and heavy boots, stood at the curb, waiting to cross the street. A blue toboggan hat covered his thinning hair. As Tonya's Hyundai approached, it looked like he would attempt the 50-yard dash right in front of her car.
"No, Horace!" She'd never be able to stop in time.
As if he heard her, Horace took a step back and waited. She waved as she sped past. That little wave would cost her on Sunday. The fifty-year-old resident bachelor of Fort Lob would corner her at church and give her a lecture about safe driving habits.
Passing The Scout newspaper office, she accelerated toward Elk Road. A few revolutions of her tires slipped in rebellion, but she pressed on. The clock on the dashboard signaled two minutes to nine. She was going to make it!
A blue light flashed in her eyes, and she glanced in the rearview mirror.
A Wyoming Highway Patrol car, lights flashing, drove behind her. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Tonya turned right onto Bighorn Avenue and stopped, letting the engine idle. The state trooper pulled up behind her.
Tonya expelled a breath. Now she'd be late for sure. She glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror and fluffed her hair. Her gaze roved her face, noting the perfect eyebrows she had tweezed an hour ago, the Twilight shadow that shimmered on her lids and brought out the blue in her dark eyes, and the Midnight mascara that separated her eyelashes perfectly. The state trooper would probably be an old married guy, but even married men gave her face a second glance.
Hopefully she could use her beauty to full advantage and get out of a speeding ticket.
Behind her the patrol car's door opened. Tonya grabbed her purse and rummaged inside for her driver's license. When a tap sounded on the tinted window, she pushed the button to roll it down. A dark green uniform came into view, and she looked up into the homely face of Murray Twichell.
"Murray!" She swiveled left to face him. "Please don't give me a ticket! I'm already late for work, and Aggie threatened to dock my pay if I was late one more day."
He raised reddish-brown eyebrows. "Maybe you should get up earlier, Tonya."
Her face grew warm. "I got up early! But it was really snowing this morning, in case you didn't notice, and it slowed me down. It's seven miles from our ranch into town, and the road was barely plowed."
Murray leaned over, folding his arms on the edge of her window and effectively blocking the cold air that tried to swirl in. "You were going forty-eight in a thirty-five zone. On a sunny day, that would be breaking the law. On slippery, snowy roads, that's downright dangerous."
Clamping her lips shut, Tonya stared at Murray. She had always thought his blue eyes, surrounded by those reddish-brown eyelashes, were much too close together, and his nose was too big for his face. Her sister, Callie, said Murray looked like a leprechaun, but Tonya thought he looked more like a weasel.
"Furthermore," he continued, "you almost hit Horace Frankenberg."
"I did not! You should give him a ticket for jaywalking."
Murray shook his head. "I've watched you speed down Main Street for the past two weeks. I decided this morning would be the last day." He paused. "I need your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance."
She glared at him. "Are you saying this ticket was premeditated? Kind of like premeditated murder?"
He grinned. She had never noticed how white and straight his teeth were before now. "Premeditated? You could say that." His smile faded. "Main Street is a state highway, so it's part of my duty to watch this road. Yesterday, in good weather, you must have been doing at least fifty-five. But I wasn't near my patrol car, so I couldn't chase you down." Murray shook his head. "That kind of speed could land you in court."
Yesterday she was going closer to sixty, and if it hadn't been snowing today... Thank You, Lord, for the snow! But she couldn't afford a ticket; it would increase her insurance payment.
Leaning toward him, she placed her hand on his arm, hoping Murray would notice her perfectly manicured Dusty Rose fingernails. "Must you give me a ticket? I've learned my lesson." She fluttered her eyelashes, trying to look sympathetic and beautiful at the same time. Knowing the power of a woman's eyelashes, she was confident her charm would persuade even Murray to relent.
His gaze roamed her face a second before he straightened, pulling his arm away from her grasp. "Stop trying to act so innocent, Tonya. In the eyes of the law, you're guilty, and you've been guilty for several days. I really should give you ten speeding tickets, but I guess one will have to do."
The eyelashes didn't work! That man didn't have a romantic bone in his body. "Okay, let's make a deal."
Murray's eyebrows scrunched up. "This isn't a game show."
She spread out her hands. "If I promise to drive within the speed limit, will you let me go? And I do promise. Sincerely, I do." She glanced up at him and tried the eyelashes one more time. "Come on, Murray, you've known me since I was born."
He folded his arms. "I was only three years old when you were born, and neither one of us was driving a car back then, as I recall. Now hand over your license."
With a sigh she complied.
He took it. "You can get your registration and insurance while I process this." He walked back to his patrol car where the lights were still flashing, announcing to the entire town that she had broken the law.
Tonya hit the window button to push it up and turned the heater's fan to full blast. She wished she could blast Murray with a barrage of words. This ticket was another incident in the long list of terrible things he had done to her during her twenty-three years of life.
Well, maybe that list wasn't so long, but it had to be at least the third bad thing. She wasn't going to forgive him either.
* * *
Man, that girl irked him!
With a shiver, Murray slipped into the driver's seat of his black Chevy Impala patrol car. Turning up the heater, he wished he could tell Tonya Brandt what he really thought about her. Who did she think she was-trying to use her beauty to get out of paying a speeding ticket?
Her beauty. Yep, she sure was beautiful, he had to admit that. When she leaned toward him, her face only inches from his own, and batted those thick black eyelashes, he almost relented. Tonya rivaled most Hollywood actresses with her silky black hair, dark blue eyes, and flawless skin.
Murray had never thought much about her beauty before. Having known Tonya since childhood, he always thought of her as Callie's baby sister, the little pest who tagged after them. But now men stood in line to ask for one evening of her company. She must have dated every guy in Niobrara County.
And I can't get a date to save my life.
But what did it matter? He wasn't about to stand in line and grovel at her feet. And he wasn't going to let her get out of this speeding ticket either. She deserved it.
Picking up a clipboard, he positioned the ticket and began filling in the lines with his neat, square printing.
* * *
"Eighty-five dollars!" Tonya sat in one of the two beautician chairs at The Beauty Spot. "Can you believe this, Aggie? Just because I drove a few miles over the speed limit, I have to pay eighty-five bucks. And I can't write out a check-no, I have to get a money order at the bank and mail it to the county courthouse in Cheyenne."
Agatha Collingsworth swept a broom under the other chair, cleaning up after their one and only customer of the morning. "Now, sugar, it's what I've been telling you for weeks." Her gold bangle bracelets clinked together as she continued sweeping. "Get your bod out of the bed when you're supposed to, and the day'll go much smoother."
"I did get up early, but Murray had determined to give me a ticket. It was premeditated."
Aggie let out a throaty chuckle as she smoothed down her pink beehive hairdo. "Premeditated, eh? More likely Murray was just doing his job."
Tonya raised her chin an inch. "I do not appreciate him watching me like that-sitting in his patrol car waiting for me to drive by and hoping I'd go a few miles over the speed limit so he could ticket me."
"Don't take it so personal." Aggie finished sweeping.
"I can't help it. I never liked Murray Twichell."
"What's wrong with him, sugar?" Aggie's dark brown eyes stared at her. "He's a nice boy."
"Nice? He's not nice. He threw a snake-a real snake-at me."
Aggie leaned on the broom handle. "He didn't!"
"Yes he did. It was a garter snake-but still, he threw it at me and it got tangled up in my hair." A shiver ran over Tonya just thinking about it.
"That's awful, hon! When did this happen?"
Tonya tapped her lips. "I think I was seven-"
"Seven!" Aggie placed her hands on her wide hips. "Land sakes, girl. This happened when you two was little kids, and you're still holding it against him?"
Tonya felt her temper flare. "I had nightmares for weeks! If Callie hadn't managed to get that scaly thing untangled from my braids, it might still be there."
"If that don't beat all." Aggie chuckled as she waddled to the back of the store. Her tight jeans puffed out at her thighs, straining the seams.
Tonya followed her boss. "But that wasn't the only time Murray was mean to me. The summer after that, he and my brother were catching toads in the pond down at the end of our property."
Aggie chortled as she closed the storage room door. "I bet he threw a toad at you."
"It's not funny! He chased me with several toads and then stuck one down the back of my shirt."
Aggie's laughter pealed out as they made their way to the front. "He thought you were cute. It was just his boyish way of getting your attention."
"Oh, he had my attention all right." Tonya folded her arms as she dropped into a chair. "I had nightmares about that one, too."
"Don't let it eat at you." Aggie ambled toward the front door. "You have to forgive and forget."
Tonya sighed. "That won't be easy. Do you know that I had warts all over my hands when I was in the fifth grade? I think it was because of that toad." She splayed her fingers and scrutinized them. Sometimes a wart would still pop up.
Aggie looked out the large plate-glass windows. "Don't know if we'll have too many customers today. It sure is snowing." Aggie seemed ready to close the subject about Murray.
Forgive and forget. Why did Tonya still resent what he did those many years ago? Maybe what Aggie said was true-he thought she was a cute little girl and wanted her attention. Tonya had never looked at it from his point of view before.
Joining Aggie at the window, Tonya gazed out at the bleak snowy day. The snowflakes were falling hard, and the wind often swept them sideways. "We might get snowed in and have to spend the night at The Beauty Spot."
"Hope not." Aggie walked behind the cash register. "Course, it's Friday, and I need to do my bookkeeping. A couple bills to pay and your salary check to make out." Her dark eyes twinkled as she glanced at Tonya. "Do you think ya can handle the thousands of customers who'll flock to our beauty shop while I work on the books?"
Tonya smiled. "I've got it covered, Aggie. You write out those checks. Tomorrow I plan to go shopping."
"Now don't spend all your money, sugar. Remember that speeding ticket."
"You had to remind me." Tonya sighed.
The morning and afternoon dragged by with only two more customers. At four o'clock, the bell over the door jangled. Both women turned as Murray Twichell strode inside.
Tonya placed her hands on her hips. "Murray! What are you doing here?" He never came to The Beauty Spot.
Aggie had a sudden coughing fit.
His small, closely spaced eyes widened. "I need a haircut." He shook the snow off his heavy jacket and hung it on one of the hooks on the wall.
Of all the people to want a haircut! The overpowering fragrance of his aftershave wafted toward her, and Tonya resisted the urge to sneeze. He must have just splashed some on his face before he walked in. His reddish-brown hair was growing down the back of his neck, but the top seemed kind of short, almost like a crew cut. He wouldn't look so bad if he let his hair grow in the front. But she wasn't going to argue about cutting his hair. After all, he was a paying customer.
Murray turned around and cracked his knuckles. "Clint's Barbershop is closed today. Must be the snow."
Without replying, Tonya walked back to her workstation. She pulled the vinyl cape off the chair and waited as he approached.
Obviously Murray was off duty. His state trooper uniform had been exchanged for old jeans and a navy T-shirt that stretched across his chest. His biceps bulged out of the short sleeves.
Wow, he's really bulked up. She remembered him as the skinny kid catching toads with Derek. Murray had towered over her back then, but now he seemed short and stocky. Callie said he was only five feet six inches. Tonya was an inch taller.
He took a seat, and Tonya threw the cape around his shoulders. With the slight movement of air, the overpowering aftershave floated toward her. She grabbed her nose so she wouldn't sneeze, taking a deep breath through her mouth. When the feeling passed, she snapped the cape together at the back of his neck. "Don't blame me if I nip your ear or-or accidentally cut off your head."
Aggie had another coughing fit.
"Still upset about that ticket?" Murray's eyes met Tonya's in the mirror. "I'm a professional who did my job, Tonya. Now you need to do yours."
"You could have let me go." She took her spray bottle and doused his hair with water, wishing she could wash the aftershave off his face. "That would have been the Christian thing to do, in my humble opinion."
"Are you sure it's humble?" He closed his eyes against the onslaught of water.
As the water dripped from his head, Tonya's conscience hit her. This is ridiculous. She was a professional, as Murray said, but she was acting like a spoiled child.
It was all that toad's fault.
Forgive and forget. Grabbing a towel, she mopped up some of the water. "Okay, how do you want your hair cut?" She would give Murray the best haircut he ever had, and somehow- but only with a divine miracle-she would improve his looks in the process.