Tourists are pouring into the town of Broken Boot for the annual Homestead Days Music Festival. Opening the celebration at Two Boots dance hall is smooth-talking country singer Jeff Clark, the ex-boyfriend of Josie’s best friend, Patti Perez. When the charming Clark woos Patti onstage in an attempt to rekindle some sparks with his old flame, Josie fears her friend will end up as just one more notch on the singer’s guitar strap.
To impress her editor at the Broken Boot Bugle, Josie and her Chihuahua, Lenny, pursue the singer to Patti’s house, hoping for an interview. Instead, they discover Clark facedown in a bowl of guacamole with a bloodied guitar at his side. With Patti suddenly a murder suspect, Josie must use her reporter skills to find out who had a chip on their shoulder—before the killer double dips....
“Ride ’em cowgirl!”
Diablo lurched, twirled a half turn, bucked his rider, and reeled the opposite way.
“Shut your mouth before I jump off this contraption and belt you one across the kisser,” hollered Patti Perez, her jet-black hair flying in all directions.
We might not be real cowgirls, but living in far West Texas meant we could play the part when the occasion warranted. And there was no better time to talk like characters from an old Western than when riding the mechanical bull at Two Boots on the first night of Broken Boot’s Homestead Days Music Festival.
Patti is the sole proprietor of the Feed and Supply, the only Goth princess in our town of three thousand–plus, and my best friend. With dark-lined eyes wide open, she rode that bull as if she planned to ride it all the way to the weekly livestock show in San Angelo.
Without warning, Diablo shuddered to a halt, causing Patti to slide from the saddle to her feet in the blink of an eye. The crowd near the padded arena burst into applause with a few appreciative whoops from the menfolk. I joined in, though I couldn’t miss the fact she’d barely escaped hitting the mat face-first.
“Come along, Grace,” I said, raising my voice above the wail of an electric guitar. “You don’t want to show up the band.” The festival’s first act was in full swing.
“Just you wait,” she muttered. “You’re up next.”
Ever since a murderous restaurateur tried to put bullet holes in the two of us, Patti and I had forged an unbreakable bond. Tonight, like every other Thursday night, we vented our frustrations with the vagaries of small-town life on the back of Diablo at my family’s dance hall.
“Tall, blond, and handsome at two o’clock.” I gestured with my thumb to a fence post–thin dude in a pioneer costume, sporting a droopy mustache and a scruffy goatee.
When she laughed, the piercings up and down her ears jingled. “Maybe at two o’clock in the morning.” We sat at our elevated table and immediately dove for the basket of buffalo wings, which had arrived during our excursion to the bull riding arena. After our brush with eternity, a strange thing happened. Patti, my not-in-the-least-bit-romantic friend, began longing for a mate. And not just a mate. A husband.
Our weekly excursion to Two Boots was my way of helping her beat the small-town dating blues. In our postage-sized town on the Chihuahuan Desert, if you brought all of the eligible men together in one place, half of them would be older than Methuselah and the other half would look as if they crawled out from under a rock.
I backed away from the wings and wiped my fingers. “When does this Jeff Clark play?” If tonight’s headliner would get his boots onstage, I would avoid giving the enthusiastic tourists the added thrill of watching me tossed through the air onto the seat of my britches.
I was looking forward to meeting Jeff Clark. He and Patti dated for a spell while I was living in Austin, pursuing my big-city journalism career—that unfortunately entailed writing obituaries and classified ads. As much as I wanted to see him face-to-face, I didn’t think the hand of fate had orchestrated his appearance in our Homestead Days Music Festival as much as Patti had. Uncle Eddie simply made some calls, negotiated a price, and wham-bam, we had a band.
This new and, frankly, a bit desperate Goth Girl made me nervous.
She frowned and checked the time on her phone. “His set should start in fifteen minutes, if this hillbilly would ever get off the stage.” With two fingers, she began to pull pieces of straw from her bottle-black hair.
I ignored her remark. Ty Honeycutt was many things, but one thing the fine-looking country singer was not was a hillbilly. Was he a redneck? His neck was so red you could stop traffic with it. But, friends, Texans aren’t hillbillies. After the death of his aunt Dixie, stories of his wild antics faded away. He’d loved her more than his own mother, and I sympathized with his loss. If anything should happen to Aunt Linda, a chunk of my heart would shrivel into dust.
“Is that your way of saying that Ty’s songwriting talent doesn’t hold a candle to your own?”
“Go on,” she said with a disparaging wave of her hand. But when she tipped her head back to take another swig from her longneck, she wore a secretive smile.
I laughed. “I can’t wait until Tuesday. The audience is going to go crazy for your songs.” In a few days, Patti would join a group of hand-selected amateur singer-songwriters in the final concert of the festival. Social media and word of mouth had done their bit in promoting the performers, and the singer-songwriter contest. We were crossing our fingers that talent scouts and record labels from across the state would attend. If nothing else, the five-hundred-dollar cash prize would be a welcome pat on the back.
Still, Patti’s sudden interest in her old beau made my stomach roil. “It’s not too late to slip out the back,” I said. Only last summer she warned me away from serious relationships with professional musicians. With a curl of her lip, she pointed out you could flirt with them, but keeping them faithful was another matter—unless you planned to tie them to your fence post. Intoxicated by my plans, her comments fell to the ground unheeded like grains of rice after a wedding. How was I to know my musician fiancé would abandon me at the altar for the Great Barrier Reef? I sighed.
Her chin rose. “You can leave if you want, but what do I have to lose by giving Jeff another chance?”
“Your dignity, pride, and sense of self-worth.” I touched her hand. “Remember how devastated you were after you caught him cheating the last time?” Why my intelligent, fiercely independent friend didn’t realize he might be planning to add another notch to his guitar strap was a mystery to me.
A funny look crossed her face. She pulled her cell phone from her back pocket. “It’s him,” she gushed. “He says he can’t wait to see me.”
She patted my hand. “I will, don’t worry.”
I found it impossible not to imagine all the negative things that could possibly go wrong as I trailed along behind her. She maneuvered her way through the crowd of locals in long calico dresses and tourists in straw hats and suspenders, around a couple dancing the two-step, and over a woman kneeling on the wooden floor to recover the contents of her pioneer reticule. I tried to tell Patti I didn’t want to go backstage to meet Clark, but Ty’s tenor thundering from the speakers made it impossible.
She halted at a door near the kitchen marked by a short, beefy security guard and a sign that read:
You ain’t in the band!
As she prepared to knock, a blonde with zebra-like highlights, dressed in a cutoff T-shirt, Daisy Dukes, and cowboy boots came giggling out the door. “Bye, Hank.” She gave us the once over, sneered, and walked away whooping with laughter.
The security guard eyed her with a vacant, beatific smile as if the sashaying girl had lobotomized him with her hips.
A deep furrow appeared across my friend’s forehead as she watched her go. Without warning, Patti spun toward the door and grabbed the handle.
The security guard pounced, forcing his body between Patti and the door. “Can’t you read?” he growled, like a bulldog guarding a pile of week-old steak bones.
“Just a minute,” I said, straightening to my full five feet, four inches. “Not only does my family own this place, but Jeff also sent Patti a text message to join him backstage.”
Hank crossed his arms across his rent-a-cop work shirt. “I don’t care if he asked her to marry him. No one goes through the door thirty minutes before showtime.”
“What about that . . .” Patti hesitated. “Lady?”
“She went inside an hour ago.” This time a cruel grin spread across his face. Blocking our entry was the highlight of his day, bless his pea-picking heart. “Not to mention, she’s got to more offer. Goth and boring aren’t on the menu for tonight, girls.”
My temper flared so fast my ears started to burn.
I glanced over my shoulder to discover that Vince Schreiner, our regular weekend bouncer, had joined our little party.
He swaggered over in a Davy Crockett costume complete with coonskin hat, a ready-to-rumble grin across his face. “What’s going on, gals?”
Before I could step away, he gave me a one-armed hug, drowning me in the scent of Old Spice and cigar smoke.
The security guard jabbed the handwritten sign with a pudgy finger. “They forgot how to read.”
Vince dropped his arm from my shoulder. “Don’t you worry about these gals.” Flexing his muscles like a Friday-night wrestler, he gave the other guard a curt nod. “Go take your dinner break. I’m your relief.”
“Says my boss—this young lady’s uncle—who happens to be writing your paycheck.”
After a quick glance at his wristwatch, the security guard nodded. “In case you weren’t briefed, no one goes in the dressing room this close to performance.” He studied me as if I were a stinkbug on the bottom of his shoe. “No matter who they say their uncle might be.”
“Got it.” Vince stepped closer until the guard moved out from in front of the door. “Now git. Your break’s already started.”
For a few seconds, the security guard merely clenched and unclenched his jaw, staring at each one of us in turn. Good sense or hunger finally seeped into his brain and he stomped off toward the kitchen.
“Who died and left him in charge?” Patti, always serene and unflappable, adjusted the collar of her blouse, fidgeted with the leather bands on her wrists, and then began running her fingers through the ends of her hair as if we’d walked inside from a Texas windstorm.
“That would be Jeff Clark’s agent. Under his contract, we’re required to provide additional security.”
Vince flexed his muscles and turned to look at me with his good eye. “Don’t know why. I got it handled.” My childhood friend lost the vision in his left eye to a piece of shrapnel while fighting in Iraq.
“How do I look?”
I placed a hand on Patti’s arm. “You’re just as beautiful as you were before that blond bimbo walked out of Jeff’s dressing room.”
“You bet your butt I am.”
I grabbed both her arms and gently shook her. “Girl, you got this.”
“Whoever he is,” Vince cracked his knuckles, “if he hurts you, I’ll break his face.”
Patti laughed, stepped out of my grasp, and threw back her shoulders. “Bring on the pain.”
“Wait a sec.” Holding us back with his outstretched hand, Vince eased open the door.
Angry voices assaulted the air. “Take it back, Clark!”
“You better check yourself, son. Who do you think got you this gig?”
“That doesn’t mean,” a man grunted, as if in the midst of a struggle, “you can take what you want.”
“It’s mine . . . for the . . . taking.” A groaning sound emanated through the door, as if heavy bodies locked in a game of tug-a-war slid across the floor, bumping into furniture on their way.
“Not this time.”
Before Vince could open the door, something large and heavy crashed to the floor. “Everything all right in there?” the bouncer called through the opening.
I shot a glance at Patti and found her gaze riveted to the door and her hands fisted as if preparing to join the fray.
Suddenly the door banged open and a redheaded man in a black leather vest and matching pants growled, “Get out of the way.” We jumped back as he swung toward Vince and raised his arm high like a bear ready to maul.
“Whoa there, Cochise,” Vince said, jumping back before the other man could make contact. After a tense moment and a glare at the three of us, the man in black stomped off toward the bar.
Patti’s brow furrowed. “Who was—?”
Another man, this one in a white hat and a matching, muscle-hugging tee, lunged through the door. He looked every bit the country-music star. Wavy chestnut hair that curled softly along his neck and around his ears. Incandescent blue eyes. A stance both strong and laid back like he was born to embrace the guitar and sing songs of love to adoring women everywhere. No wonder Patti wanted to give him a second chance. Or third or fourth.
He stopped short at the sight of us, but his hostile gaze pursued the other man as he disappeared into the crowd.
“Can’t y’all read?” He slapped his hand on the door, ripping the sign so that it hung precariously from one corner. “I’m not signing T-shirts or cowboy hats or bandannas—nothing. Not until after the show, so beat it.”
“Jeff?” My friend swallowed and pasted on a bright smile, which looked a little funny, as her everyday expression was something between solemn and funereal.
His transformation was awe-inspiring. First, the deep furrows across his forehead changed into solid lines; then his hard, down-turned mouth relaxed; and finally the bite and brawl in his eyes cleared into something bright and shiny. “I thought you’d decided to wait until after the show.” He smiled at my friend as if she were the best dark lager, tastiest apple pie, and smokiest beef brisket all rolled into one.
I hoped that look was genuine because Patti deserved someone who truly cared for her. She’d seen enough hurt in the past few years to last until she was gray. But my stomach filled with dread, signaling a warning that he wasn’t to be trusted.
Ignoring my nauseous reaction, I turned my attention to the room behind him. “Everything okay in there?” I nodded toward the dressing room. I didn’t care if he was country singer Jeff Clark or the governor of Texas. He would pay for any damage caused by their testosterone-laden tussle.
His smile dimmed for a brief moment, and I caught the calculation behind his charm. Dang it. I didn’t want my gut reaction toward him to be correct.
“Jeff, this is my good friend Josie Callahan.” Patti placed her hand on his arm. “Her family owns this place.”
His expression morphed into one of delight. “What a pleasure, ma’am. Can’t tell you how great it is to be playing Two Boots after all these years on the Texas circuit.”
I couldn’t help but notice that he hadn’t answered my question about the state of the dressing room.
“Watch out,” the Two Boots bouncer interjected. “Next thing you know the sun’ll melt your cell phone right through your windshield.”
We chuckled. “This is Vince,” I said. “He keeps things from getting too rowdy around here.”
With a nod, Jeff shook his hand. “Howdy.”
“Head doorman and bouncer,” Vince added. Both men’s biceps bulged as the handshake turned into a test of their virility.
Jeff grinned as he disengaged from Vince’s strong grip. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind if I find someone in need of bouncing.” His eyes locked with Patti’s until his gaze lowered briefly, caressing her body from the butterfly tattoo at her ear to the black combat boots on her feet.
From the look on Patti’s face, I could see she’d cast caution to the wind.
I gave myself a mental shake and let go of my worries. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, if only for the sake of my friend’s happiness. After all, I was jaded from my own disastrous relationship. The truth: my BS meter was kaput.
A young man wearing a Jeff Clark Summer Tour tee and tattered jeans hurried over from the direction of the kitchen. “Jeff, where you been?” He ignored the rest of us. “Less than five minutes, man.”
“Right.” Jeff transformed from lover to businessman in the flutter of an eyelash. “See you soon, sugar.” He kissed Patti’s cheek and whispered something that made her blue eyes dance.
“Three minutes.” The roadie shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet.
Jeff managed to grace each of us with his oh so sincere smile. “Enjoy the show,” he said, and hurried off already in earnest conversation with his roadie.
We maneuvered our way back to our table, but after fifteen minutes there was still no sign of the charming Jeff or his band onstage. “I hope my eardrums are still intact after this,” I said, as we waited at our table.
Ty Honeycutt and his band of local musicians were currently playing his boot-stomping, electric-guitar-wailing blend of country rock for a standing-room-only crowd. Though they’d greeted his opening number with enthusiastic applause and his guitar solos with cheers, it was obvious by the disappointed sighs at the beginning of each subsequent song he wasn’t whom the crowd had paid to see. I hoped he didn’t notice the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm for his music.
“Is this a sellout?” Patti made a sweeping gesture. “And is it legal?” With a glance of dismay, she drank a healthy swig of beer.
“It’s an answer to Uncle Eddie’s prayers.” We needed the additional revenue to cover the night’s elevated expenses.
“Huh.” She shook her head at my conservative turn of phrase. “You better pray no one has the fire marshal on speed dial.”
I lifted my cider. “Here’s to paying our debts, expanding our business, and more tourists than we can shake a stick at.”
Her pinched lips relaxed and broke into a grin. “Amen, sister.”
Due to the success of our Wild Wild West Festival and the popularity of the late Dixie Honeycutt’s jewelry designs, Broken Boot was now a slightly bigger blip on the radar. Tourists not only passed through town on their way to Big Bend National Park; they also stopped for lunch and, more and more, stayed the night at the Cogburn Hotel and the Rifleman RV Park.
Nearly giddy with the chance to finally make money and pay his bills, Uncle Eddie searched until he found an up-and-comer for the Homestead Days Music Festival that would draw a bigger crowd. That man was Jeff Clark.
“Good night, Broken Boot,” Ty yelled from the stage with a whoop and a screech of his electric guitar. The crowd applauded with more enthusiasm now that the main event was finally within their sights.
Suddenly Jeff Clark and his band stormed the stage to whoops, hollers, and thunderous applause. From the audience, the singer looked handsome and dangerous. Tattoos decorated his well-formed biceps, trailing down to his wrists. Funny, I hadn’t noticed those earlier. Had he donned tattoo sleeves? With a whiskey-smooth baritone he greeted the crowd, earning another round of enthusiastic cheers.
I joined in, cheering and applauding like a true believer. I pushed aside my own disappointments and clung to hope. As he began his set, he made eye contact with the front row of fans, mostly women, and tipped his hat. They screamed in response like a crowd of eighth-grade girls at a boy-band concert. If anyone else besides my fiercely intelligent friend had decided to make a play for this country girl’s fantasy, I’d have chalked it up to temporary insanity and told them to get back on their medication. I sighed. This wasn’t about me. It was about Patti finding happiness.
I caught her watching him with laser-beam intensity, the corners of her mouth lifted in a huge smile of anticipation.
And, sure enough, within seconds, the sexy musician’s gaze abandoned the front row of adoring fans to lock eyes with Patti. Again, he tipped his hat and widened his million-dollar smile. Heads turned to find the recipient of his attention, but none landed on my companion. It was too hard for them to believe he had eyes for a Goth princess.
“Looks like he’s making his move.”
“You bet your sweet Aunt Fanny he is.” She swigged the final sip of her beer, slammed the glass to the table, and wiped her mouth with her thumb.
From the stage, Clark gave Patti a come-hither wave of his hand, and the ladies in the crowd went wild as if his invitation was meant for them.
Goth Girl jumped from her stool. “Here goes nothing.”
“Be careful,” I hollered as she headed toward the stage and disappeared into the crowd.