Drake’s cell phone rang and he fished it out of his pocket.
“Hey, man,” the deep voice on the other end of the line said.
“Ol’Cracker. Well, shit, it’s been awhile. How the hell are ya?”
“Good, good. How about you?”
“Listen, I’m gonna be playing in your neck of the woods tomorrow night. Any chance you could make it out for the show? We can have a beer afterward.”
“Absolutely. In fact, I have someone I want you to meet.”
“Oh, damn. This sounds serious.”
“Well…I like her a lot. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Alright, man. I’ll see you tomorrow night then. We’re playing at Bonnie’s.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Drake ended the call and shoved the phone back in his pocket. He hadn’t seen Ol’Cracker in a year. They’d worked together in the past and always made time to shoot the shit whenever one or the other passed through town. He’d never been enthusiastic about introducing any girl to his old buddy but he really wanted him to meet Payton.
He knocked on the cabin door and waited. He thought she’d be happy to know they would go out tomorrow. The floorboard creaked from behind the door and the lock disengaged.
He was greeted by that smiling face that lit his fire and stirred desire. Every time he came in contact with her, he had to fight the urge to throw her on the floor and rip her clothes off. He thought way too much about being inside her but he couldn’t help it.
Payton tucked a stray strand of her blond hair behind her ear and stepped aside to let him in. She was wearing gray sweatpants and a white tank top that showcased her luscious boobs and he stole a glance at her cleavage. They weren’t too big or two small and fit nicely in his hands.
“What ya up to, darlin’?” He leaned in and kissed her cheek.
Her laptop was propped up on the couch.
“I’m going through my work emails. Mostly press releases put out by our P-R-O.”
“What’s a P-R-O?”
“Public relations officer. Policy prohibits officers from speaking to the press directly. So, a couple of higher ranking cops are picked to issue press releases. Every officer in the department gets a copy of every press release. I’m skimming through, staying in the loop for when I get back.”
“What are you up to, cowboy?”
“I just got off the phone with an old friend of mine. He’s putting on a show tomorrow night at Bonnie’s and invited us out to come see him sing. You game, sweetheart?”
Payton nodded her head. “Yeah. That sounds like fun.”
He removed his hat and sat down on the couch. “We can watch the show and catch a late dinner with him afterwards.”
She plopped down beside him and pulled her laptop on her thighs. “What does he sing? What type of music?”
“It’s a mix of country and bluegrass with a backwoods feel to it. He’s a unique guy.”
“That’s an interesting mix up.” She laughed and continued searching her emails.
He noticed the delicate shape of her body and how very much a woman she was. His mind couldn’t grasp her chasing bad guys and tackling them to the ground, fighting with them. The thought of the risks involved in her career bothered him. His instincts told him she should be baking cookies and having his babies, not toting around a .40 caliber Glock in her waistband. He also knew that she was perfectly capable of doing her job, but he realized, in that instance, that he didn’t like it.
What the fuck are you thinking? In general, he didn’t give much thought to a woman’s occupation or what bearing it had on him but he had an overwhelming need to protect this woman and keep her safe. He was developing a need to not let her leave.
Drake told her to dress casual. Bonnie’s wasn’t a black tie kind of place but a mom and pop tavern nestled in the woods. Payton pulled on her standard uniform of late; jeans, t-shirt and boots. Her hair fell in soft waves past her shoulders. She applied a little mascara to highlight her eyes and slicked her favorite lip gloss on. The scoop neck shirt gave a healthy exhibition of her cleavage which wasn’t bad at all. She was kind of proud of her boobs when they weren’t being flattened by her Kevlar vest. Payton definitely didn’t miss the twenty plus pounds of equipment she carried on her person during her ten hour shifts back in Los Angeles. For the first year after the academy, she had permanent bruises on her hips from her Sam Brown belt.
Pushing aside the un-pleasantries of her job, she plucked her jacket off the coat rack and laid it over the back of the couch. Her purse sat on the coffee table. Glancing at the clock, she was ready early and went to the kitchen for a bottle of water. She twisted the cap off and took a long pull. Even though she was expecting him, the knock on the door startled her and she spilled water down the front of her shirt.
“Fuck! Come in,” she hollered and wiped at her chest with a paper towel.
Drake stuck his head inside. “You alright, dumplin’?”
“Yes, I just spilled water on myself.”
“Well, if they have a wet t-shirt contest tonight, you’ll be ready.” He cracked a smile and raised his eyebrows.
“Very funny.” She couldn’t help but laugh when he teased her. She pulled on the front of her shirt trying to dry it a bit.
“Do you want to change?”
“Nah, it’ll dry before we get there.”
He picked up her jacket and held it up for her.
She spun around and slipped her arms into the sleeves and he pulled it over her shoulders and patted her on the ass.
“Let’s roll, babe.” He took her by the hand and led her out the door.
“So, who is this friend we’re going to see tonight?”
Drake chuckled. “Ol’Cracker.”
“No. Drop the ‘d.’ Just Ol’Cracker. When I was riding the rodeo circuit, I spent some time in Florida. He provided the entertainment for most of the venues I rode in and we’ve kept in touch.”
“I see.” She was curious to see how Drake would behave around his friends. In her experience, you could tell a lot about a man’s character by the way he behaved in his natural environment. Her last boyfriend turned deaf and dumb every time he was within a five mile radius of his jackass friends.
“He’s good people. You’ll like him.”
She giggled to herself. What kind of name is Ol’Cracker? A mental image of some scary, countrified dude with no teeth made her shake her head. “I’m sure he is,” she said and looked out the window.
Bonnie’s was exactly what she pictured. A honky-tonk bar with motorcycles and trucks lined up out front. One of the trucks had a huge deer rack in the bed and Payton had to look away. She didn’t begrudge those who chose to hunt but she didn’t want to see the results up close. In fact, if she had to kill her own food, she would most definitely be a vegetarian.
Drake wrapped his arm around her waist as they walked inside. “Stay close to me, sweetheart. This ain’t the kind of place a pretty, little blonde wants to be alone in.”
She rolled her eyes but after taking stock of the room she changed her tune. Maybe Drake was right. The variety of men ran the gamut from bikers in leather vests to cowboys in Wranglers. Being a cop, she had a habit of sizing people up and there wasn’t one guy in this bar that she would relish fighting. Everything really was bigger in Texas. She hooked her thumb through one of Drake’s belt loops and stayed close to him.
Payton recognized the song playing loud in the bar. Her dad had every Conway Twitty album ever released. He would dance with her when she was little, putting her feet on top of his and holding her arms up over her head. She remembered him singing this particular tune to her mother and she it warmed her inside when Drake turned to her and mouthed the words, “Lay you down and softly whisper pretty love words in your ear.”
“I will lay you down later, darlin’. You can count on that.” He grinned and winked. “Let’s find Ol’Cracker and get us a drink.”
They made their way through the crowd. Drake stopped and shook hands with a few people and exchanged pleasantries.
She saw the man sitting at the bar. His smile was more of a smirk and she couldn’t see his eyes for the straw hat with the big feather in the back and the head of an openmouthed snake in front. Payton looked over her shoulder to see if there was something interesting going on behind her that he might be looking at. Nope. He’s looking at you, kid. She averted her gaze and tried not to look at him.
Drake finished his short conversation and led her to the bar, to him. As they approached, the man in the sleeveless shirt stood up and – whoa!- he was a little taller than Drake and built like a tank. Drake stuck his hand out and the other man grabbed it and pulled him into a one-armed hug.
“Man, it’s good to see you.” Drake pulled her forward. “This is Payton Evans…Payton, this is Ol’Cracker.”
He tipped his hat and shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” she answered, smiling. Ol’Cracker was certainly not what she expected at all. He was well spoken, easy on the eyes and she made a concerted effort to keep her mind out of the gutter. When she entertained the fantasy of being tag teamed, well these two men fit the bill. Heat crept into her cheeks and she looked away from them.
“Drinks?” Ol’Cracker looked from Drake to Payton. “What’ll it be?”
“I’ll have whatever’s on draft.” Drake looked at her. “What do you want, babe?”
“I’ll have an Italian margarita with an extra shot of Patron.”
Both men raised their eyebrows at her.
“What?” she laughed. “I can hold my liquor.”
Drake put up his hand. “No one is saying anything, sweetheart.” He kissed her cheek while Ol’Cracker hailed the bartender.
The two men caught up on the happenings over the time since they’d seen each other last.
“I think the General and Miss Martha are close to admitting their affair.”
Ol’Cracker laughed. “It’s about damn time. How is the General, by the way?”
“He’s doing really good. For the first time since Mom died, he seems really happy.”
“I’m glad to hear that. It’s been a long time coming.”
“Yeah, it has.”
Payton intervened in the conversation. “So, you’re a singer and Drake rides horses, how did you two end up running in the same circle?”
Drake looked at her and pointed his finger at Ol’Cracker. “This big son of a bitch bounced a couple assholes with me after a show one night. We were both in the right place at the right time. Been covering each others’ backs ever since.”
“Nothing like delivering a much needed ass whooping to bring two friends together.” Ol’Cracker hit Drake on the shoulder and smiled above his long goatee.
The DJ cut the music and announced Drake’s buddy would be on stage next.
“Hope y’all enjoy the show.” Ol’Cracker left his unfinished beer on the counter and walked around the corner.
The bar went nuts when he took the stage. Everyone was on their feet and the whooping and hollering was deafening. It was actually quieter when Ol’Cracker started singing. His bluegrass type of music wasn’t what she usually listened to but Payton quickly fell into the rhythm and tapped her foot to the beat. The atmosphere was contagious and she really enjoyed it.
She declined Drake’s offer to buy her another drink. She was in her happy place and any more would send her over the edge. By the time Ol’Cracker wrapped up his set, she was on her feet and clapping her hands with the crowd. Before this night, she never would have pictured herself in a place like this with a bunch of bikers and cowboys and that she’d be enjoying herself this much.
Drake whispered in her ear, “I’m gonna run to the little boys’ room. Be back in a flash, darlin’.”
She nodded her head and stood beside her barstool. Glancing over her shoulder, she was careful to be aware of who was around her. When she turned back, she was looking smack dab into Ol’Cracker’s chest. She jumped.
“Whoa, honey.” He put his strong hands on her shoulders. “I ain’t gonna bite you.”
Payton looked up at his smiling face. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to.”
She brought her hand up to her chest. “I know you didn’t. Drake went to the restroom.”
“Yeah, I saw him. I have to say, you must be one special lady, sweetheart. He’s never introduced me to any of his girlfriends. Well, not beyond the occasional woman he’d met the same night.”
She was getting used to being called sweetheart and honey. Down South, it was a term of endearment not a condescending pat on the head like it would be back home.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” Payton corrected him.
Ol’Cracker chuckled. “Could’ve fooled me. As far as I can tell, you’re wearing his brand and it’s still sizzling.”
Before she could respond, Drake reappeared and grabbed a hold of her hand. “You have time to get some dinner, dude?”
“Actually, we gotta hit the road in a half hour. Our set started a little later than we planned tonight and I gotta be in Nashville tomorrow morning for a radio appearance.”
“Well, that’s too bad. Next time, I suppose,” Drake said.
“Most definitely,” Ol’Cracker answered and stuck his hand out to shake Drake’s. “I’ll be back this way in a couple months and you know you’re always welcome in Palatka.”
“Of course. I’m overdue for a road trip down to Florida.”
“Just holler at me when you’re on your way, Drake. Give the General and Miss Martha my best.” Ol’Cracker looked at Payton. “And it was so nice to meet you, sweetheart.” He winked at her, turned on his boot and disappeared behind the stage.