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Authors: Curtiss Ann Matlock

Tags: #Women's Fiction/Contemporary Romance

Love in a Small Town

BOOK: Love in a Small Town
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LOVE IN A SMALL TOWN

 

Curtiss Ann Matlock

 

Chapter 1

 

You Don’t Even Know Who I Am

 

When Molly awoke, she knew right away that Tommy Lee hadn’t come to bed all night. She knew, without opening her eyes, because she could feel the emptiness beside her. She had been married to Tommy Lee Hayes for almost twenty-five years. She knew what the bed felt like with him in it or him not in it.

She stretched out her arm and felt with the flat of her hand the cool smoothness of the sheet beside her. Testing at first, seeking a sign of lingering heat, and then simply rubbing her palm across the taut sheet and wishing.

Molly was a quiet sleeper, didn’t hardly mess up a bed at all, whereas Tommy Lee always left the covers looking like he’d wrestled them all night. He couldn’t stand his feet to be cramped, so he tugged the sheet out at the bottom, and he shifted his body so hard that he got the fitted sheet all bunched up. Sometimes he got so rambunctious he would throw his pillow on the floor and then snatch Molly’s right out from beneath her head, and the whole time he never woke from a sound sleep.

Cracking an eye, Molly peered at the red numerals of the digital clock. It read 6:47.

“Oh, Lord,” she mumbled and pulled the pillow over her head.

A moment later she came up from beneath the pillow, her hair a wild nest and her cotton gown hanging off her shoulder. She looked down at the pillow and saw streaks of black—the telltale evidence of a woman who has fallen into the poor habit of not removing her makeup before bed, and then cries off her mascara. She looked at the bedcovers, all neat at the bottom. And then she sat there, listening to the music floating up from the stereo down in the shop. The music was the tip-off that Tommy Lee was out there. He couldn’t do a lick of work without his music blasting.

Not even seven o’clock on a Saturday morning, and Tommy Lee was already working. Molly could count on both hands the number of times in their marriage that her husband had managed to sleep past five. A man with his own successful business kept long hours, and a man who had a passion for what he did kept them even more so.

Tommy Lee certainly had a passion, all right—for engines and cars. He was known for building and rebuilding racing engines, and he was so good at it that people came from Arkansas and Texas all the way to his small shop in Oklahoma, which sat right there on the other side of the driveway from their house and therefore allowed him to be over there any time day or night. One thing about it, Molly always knew where Tommy Lee was. She didn’t have to worry about him being out with another woman.

Sometimes Molly thought she would stand a better chance against another woman. She had never managed to compete well against six-hundred-plus horses harnessed in a hunk of metal.

Thinking about Tommy Lee already up and productive and herself sitting aimlessly on the bed and brooding made her feel guilty, so she dragged herself up and headed for the shower, by way of the double open windows. The first thing Molly always did each morning was to go look out the window.

Their house, which was the house Tommy Lee had grown up in, was one of those big old farmhouses. Eight years ago, when they had moved in, Molly had pretty near hated this house. It had been so stark, everything in it painted white and with white blinds at the windows. But then Molly had looked out their bedroom window and been totally captivated.

At the moment, the spring breeze fluttered her thin cotton gown and caressed her skin. May was at an end and June coming next week. Blue sky stretching forever, a hawk soaring high, the windowsill beneath her fingers covered with fine grit.

To the southwest she could see the town of Valentine: the tall trees, the co-op elevator, the Baptist church spire, the big old silver water tower. Valentine was where she’d grown up, where her mother and eldest sister lived, where she and Tommy Lee shopped and had Mexican food on Friday nights.

Directly south the land rolled away in grass and canyons and patches of trees. In the near pasture she saw her gelding, Marker, swishing his tail, and farther out she could see Mr. Gil’s registered longhorns grazing happily.

Tommy Lee had inherited two thousand acres at his daddy’s death, but he had quit trying to farm it five years ago and rented most of it out to Mr. Gil. Tommy Lee’d had to let his daddy be dead and buried nearly four years before he could bring himself to do it. There never was a thought of selling the land, though, and Molly was glad. Molly was a hoarder of land. Not that she really considered this land hers. She couldn’t somehow; she was of Collier blood, not Hayes. But she did think of it as Tommy Lee’s and their children’s land, and she hoarded it for them.

Turning from the view, Molly went on into the bathroom and into the shower, without glancing at the mirror as she passed. Lately she had felt a strange tightness across her chest whenever she happened to look into a mirror. It seemed like confusing questions leaped out at her from the glass and demanded answers. Molly not only had no answers, she didn’t understand the questions.

But a mirror is not an easy thing to avoid. After Molly had showered and dressed in a soft denim shirt and faded Wranglers and slipped on Keds, she went to brush her teeth and was confronted by the mirror that took up the entire wall above the cultured marble sink.

She stared at herself, and then, slowly, she leaned forward and studied her eyes. The circles beneath them were dark—like she had two black eyes.

Oh, Lord.

Molly swallowed. Lately she had been feeling as if she were holding a ball of tears down inside. Just then the ball was growing and swelling and trying to push its way out. It had done so several times in the past weeks, and each time the tears had come with such force they frightened her. Molly was about the ugliest crier on earth. Even Rennie said so.

Mostly no one had seen Molly’s eruptions of tears, but last Wednesday afternoon, when she had gone to the movies with her mother and her sister Kaye—which was a trying experience in itself, but it had been hers and Mama’s little birthday present to Kaye—she had started crying for the heroine, who’d had a fight with her lover, wrecked her car, and then lost her dog. The movie had had forty-five minutes still to go, and it was a romantic comedy, and Molly had known good and well everything would turn around for a happy ending, but she’d just sat there and boo-hooed uncontrollably into the only tissue she could find, which was a used ragged one from the bottom of her purse.

Kaye had been embarrassed as all get-out. “Good Lord, you need to get some hormones or somethin’,” she said. Kaye could be like that, tactless as wallpaper falling down.

Undoubtedly Kaye would have much more to say if she knew the shocking fact that the F-word had crept into Molly’s thoughts. A couple of times the statement,
“I don’t give a fucking damn,”
came clearly across her mind.

Well, Molly had been brought up better than that. She had never used the F-word in her life; the idea appalled her. Aside from several times telling Kaye to “kiss my ass” in a fit of fury, the strongest curses Molly used were “sugar" or “spit” or "dang."

Then, on top of that, the past Thursday she had been barreling by Eulalee Harris’s place, and Eulalee’s chickens had been all over the dusty, rutted road, like they always were, and Molly had not tried to swerve at all. What she thought was, “Get out of my way, you f—— chickens.”

Not that she could hurt chickens. It was nearly impossible to run over a chicken on purpose. But that was not the point. The point was that she hadn’t cared one whit if she mowed them down.

Her image in the mirror started in with those silent, demanding questions again, and the best answer Molly could come up with was that if Tommy Lee would quit falling asleep down in his BarcaLounger in front of the television, she would do a lot better.

Then she straightened herself up, breathed deeply and blinked her burning eyes. She did not intend to do something as stupid as start the day out crying. Lord knew the circles beneath her eyes were bad enough.

She combed her hair up into a ponytail and dabbed on a bit of makeup from the Estée Lauder kit Rennie had given her last Christmas. Rennie would spend $120 like that, whereas Molly would have had to wait for half price—not that she couldn’t afford it, but she was darned near incapable of buying anything when not on sale price. She put on her favorite dangling pewter earrings and her silver-and-turquoise cuff bracelet and decided she felt a lot better, more in her skin where she belonged.

Downstairs in the living room she straightened the cotton throw that was all askew over Tommy Lee’s BarcaLounger and picked up his dirty socks thrown right there beside it, just like it was his bed, and an empty Coca-Cola can from the end table and took the things on into the kitchen. Socks on the washer, Coke can in the recycling bin. She paused at the sink; the window above it was opened and Tommy Lee’s music came loudly through it.

Tommy Lee liked all sorts of music, but his favorite was country, just like Molly’s. He said within the country sound were mixed the seeds of all other music, from classical to blues to rock. Tommy Lee’s mind clicked with details like that. He could tell the artist and the song title of every country song recorded from the early fifties until today, and in the same manner he could glance at any car and tell the make and model and year it was produced, going all the way back to the first assembly line models. He liked his cars fast and his music loud, and Molly was of the opinion that both had pretty much ruined his hearing, which was why he kept the stereo volume up. He also shut people out with the sound of his music and his engines; he’d told her this once.

Through the window she could see across to the shop, could see Tommy Lee in his dark shirt and jeans beneath the fluorescent lights. She watched him a moment and then closed the window and turned on the little black radio on the counter. The sultry country voice of Patty Loveless came out the speaker, and Molly sang along while she made a fresh pot of coffee.

The coffeemaker gave up that final steamy gurgle, and Molly got two mugs out of the cabinet, filled them—sugar for her, black for Tommy Lee—and carried them out the back door and across to the shop. Tommy Lee was working on an engine perched on a stand, working it over with his strong, greasy hands and his biceps veined and bulging and stretching his T-shirt sleeves.

In all truth, Tommy Lee had not changed in looks a whole lot since he was sixteen years old, except to fill out, cut his velvety mahogany hair shorter and have it come in silver on the sides and have crow’s-feet grow out from the corner of his summer blue eyes.

Molly thought he was a lot more handsome these days than when they first had married. He was every inch a man and no doubt about it. He was in her opinion the most attractive man in Valentine, despite his never having kept up with fashion. He still favored T-shirts with hot rods emblazoned across the front and Levi’s that rode low on his lean hips. Women looked at him in those Levi’s, too. Molly had seen that, and she couldn’t blame them. Tommy Lee wasn’t a man to look back, though, at least not so anyone would tell. Tommy Lee was quite proper about things like that. And he was shy. He would blush deep red at the least thing.

He didn’t hear her step or hello, because of the music drowning everything out. Juggling the two cups, Molly went over to turn down the volume. Tommy Lee saw her then.

“Well, good mornin’,” he said. “Sleep well?” He was frowning in deep concentration at the engine before he even finished speaking.

She said, “I brought you a cup of coffee,” and he didn’t notice that she didn’t answer his question.

He said thanks. “You can just set it there." He motioned to the tall red toolbox.

She set his cup where he said and stood there, sipping from her own, watching his hands and forearms.

Molly had always liked to watch Tommy Lee work on anything. There were few things in this world that Tommy Lee couldn’t build or repair, and she had always been amazed at how he could be so strong and gentle at the same time. She kept on staring, watching his strong, grease-stained hands feel all in and around the smooth cylinders. Memories and feelings tugged at her. A desperate longing and a crazy anger all swirled around inside her. The anger embarrassed and scared her.

Quite suddenly Tommy Lee went to wiping his hands on a rag, reached for his cup and looked directly at her.

“It’s an awfully nice mornin’,” he said.

He cast her a grin, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He looked hesitant. That look made Molly mad and sad at the same time, and she got that tight feeling in her chest.

She said, “Did you sleep okay in your chair?”

Tommy Lee looked down at his cup. “I’m gonna have to quit that, I guess. It’s makin’ me real stiff.” He drank deeply from his mug, then looked back at the engine. “I meant to come up, but I got to watchin’ that racing movie with Paul Newman, and the next thing I just fell asleep.” He looked sorry, and that made Molly feel worse.

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