By: L.M. Pruitt

“If that’s what makes you sleep better at night.” Bill sighed, the line filling with static for a brief second before clearing. “I’m texting you the hotel information. Drive safe, boss.”

LATER THAT EVENING, I kicked the hotel room door shut behind me, dropped my bags on the floor, and stumbled over to the bed, falling face down. For five glorious minutes, I allowed myself to wallow. The second I felt myself start to drift off, I slid off the mattress, detouring to retrieve my toiletry bag before heading to the bathroom, peeling my clothes off as I went.

I loved my job. I did. I had built the magazine from the ground—or rather the blog—up and it was, without a doubt, the most important thing in my life.

But Christ Jesus did I miss sleeping in actual beds and not pieces of plywood disguised as mattresses.

I had a vague impression of the bathroom—white floors, white tile, a shower large enough for a tasteful orgy—but nothing really registered. Tomorrow morning, after a full—and sober—night’s sleep, I’d take a full inventory and find out how far Allison had gone over budget this time. No matter how many times I told her I didn’t need even close to the best room in a hotel, she insisted on booking me a suite better suited to the CEO of a small tech company and not the owner/head writer of a still in its infancy travel magazine.

Just because the lean years were behind me didn’t mean there wasn’t the possibility of more in the future. Nothing made you count your pennies quite so much as growing up dirt poor in a rich town.

Annoyed with the direction of my thoughts, I finished rinsing my hair before killing the water and stepping out of the shower. I was in the middle of detangling my hair when my cell started ringing. I ignored it—after last night, I was too peopled out to talk to anybody.

And then I recognized the song.

Kids Say the Darndest Things.

I sprinted out of the bathroom, slipping on the tile floor and catching myself on the doorframe at the last second. By the time I reached my purse, she’d hung up and I cursed, upending the bag and dumping the contents on the floor. I grabbed the phone just as the song started to play again, fumbling with the screen before finally managing to connect the call. “What’s wrong?”

“Hey, Aunt Jeannie.” Tammy—named after my sister’s favorite old school country singer—sounded calm, which oddly enough did not make me feel better. My second oldest niece and sister’s third child was the type of person who could stay absolutely serene while the entire world was going up in flames around her only to lose it completely when faced with something as simple as a field mouse. “I know I’m only supposed to call you if it’s an emergency and maybe I’ve overreacting a bit—.”

“Tammy.” I took a deep breath because whatever she wasn’t telling me wasn’t bad. It was catastrophic. “What happened?”

“Mama and Harold got in another fight.”

That wasn’t surprising. The third time hadn’t been the charm for my sister, which hadn’t stopped her from making Harold husband number four. I took another deep breath, pressing the heel of my palm to my breastbone and wondering if I’d remembered to pack my heartburn medicine. “And?”

“Well, to make a long story short, Mama shot Harold.”

“Oh.” The headache kicking up behind my left eye had nothing to do with the tequila from last night and everything to do with where I could already tell this conversation was going. “Is he dead?”

“Yep.” I heard a crack and I realized Tammy was chewing gum, which only added to the strangeness of the phone call. “Sheriff Pete—you know, he used to be Deputy Pete and then Sheriff Jack died and Deputy Pete became the sheriff—he took Mama to jail.” She paused and I thought she was finished and she started rambling again and I realized she’d only needed to breathe. “Mrs. Burns is staying with me and Dolly and Conway right now but Sheriff Pete said he’s going to have to call Social Services tomorrow.”

“No.” I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “No, tell Sheriff Pete and Mrs. Burns I’ll be there in a few hours. There’s no need to call Social Services.”

“Okay.” There was another half beat of silence and then she said, “Thanks, Aunt Jeannie.”

“Yeah.” I ended the call, dropping the phone on the floor and leaning my head against the edge of the bed. Before I could give in to exhaustion, I picked the phone back up and hit the speed dial for my assistant. When she picked up, perky and perfect even though I knew she’d been awake at least fifteen hours, I almost cried. “Allison—I know you’re off the clock but I need your help. There’s been a change of plans.”

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