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Authors: Marina Adair

Sugar on Top

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To my daughter, Thuy, who always reads the last page of a story first. You remind me it isn’t about the destination, it is about the journey and relationships we make along the way.

Thanks to my editor, Michele Bidelspach, and to the rest of the team at Grand Central for all of the amazing work and support. And to my agent, Jill Marsal, for being more than just an agent, but also my friend, partner, and sounding board.

As always, a very special thank you to my daughter for your giggles, snuggles, and including me in your Teen Wolf marathons, even when you drop the spoiler to end all spoilers. Finally, to my amazing husband for the endless love and support—you are my reason.

E
very Southern belle knows it’s not so much what you do, but rather what you’re wearing while doing it. And when in doubt, always apply more lipstick.

Good thing Glory Gloria Mann had never been mistaken for a belle, because there was no shade of lipstick in the South that matched grand theft auto charges while wearing ducky galoshes.

“Either get on or get out of the way,” Glory said to the stubborn male standing between her and freedom.

Diablo had mammoth thighs, a trunk for a neck, and as Mr. Ferguson’s contracted stud bull, horns that could tear through a steel wall. And right now those horns were pointed at Glory.

But she wasn’t about to let some misinformed male with caveman tendencies and bad breath stop her from doing what was right. Even when doing what was right sucked. Even when it accompanied a brutal summer storm, interrupted the only solid sleep she had gotten in weeks, and landed her smack dab in the middle of trouble.

Even then. Because Glory could live with trouble. But regret was something she never wanted to feel again.

“I know you survived that eighteen-wheeler incident,” she said, wiping at the rain streaming down her face. “And won the county stud-off, but we both know you are no match for the Peach Prowler.” No one was a match for the nine-time Sugar Pull champion tractor—or its owner. Which was why getting it back to the mayor’s house was imperative.

Joyriding a tractor in the middle of the night would have been considered a laughable redneck offense if that tractor wasn’t the shined-up Peach Prowler—pride and joy of Sugar, Georgia.

“The only thing separating you from becoming a pair of boots is my lead foot,” she said, giving Diablo the stink eye. Because the only thing separating her grandma from going to jail was Glory’s ability to return the tractor before someone noticed it was missing.

Glory didn’t know how the tractor ended up in her grandma’s garage, or who put it there. All she did know was that while possession of another man’s vehicle was a serious offense in Sugar County—possession of another man’s tractor was a deadly sin. And between trying to graduate nursing school, and coming off a double shift, Glory was too damn tired to deal with the aftermath of what would appear to be her grandmother calling backwoods jihad on the mayor’s mother.

Not to mention, she couldn’t stand the thought of her grandmother behind bars. Jelly Lou might be a prankster, but she was Glory’s entire world.

“So unless you’re willing to offer up some rocky mountain oysters to the mayor to pay for my grandma’s bail, I suggest you move off the road and let me pass.” She revved the tractor’s engine for emphasis. “You know how much he loves rocky mountain oysters.”

That got his attention. In fact, Diablo made one last snort, his hot breath crystalizing in the rain, and then slowly walked off—down the middle of the highway.

Not wanting to follow him, but knowing time was of the essence since the sun would be up soon, Glory pulled her rain slicker tightly around her, dropped the tractor into first, and drove through the easement between Ferguson Family’s Feed Line and Fertilizer Farm and the highway.

Even before she hit second gear, spinning the tires with enough force to cover her flannel pajama bottoms with sludge, she knew that it wasn’t the easement she’d accidentally trudged through. No, Glory’s good intentions had, once again, landed her in deep—

“Shut off the tractor and put your hands in the air.” The command came through the speaker attached to the top of the sheriff’s car, which was right next to the flashing red and blue lights.

Squinting against the rain, Glory stared in panic at the speed trap up ahead. A floodlight clicked on, blinding her and causing her foot to slip off the clutch. The engine sputtered to a stop.

Determined to see this through, Glory cranked the engine and spun the tires, kicking up loose gravel and a few cow pies. She hadn’t come all this way, spending thirty minutes on the muddy back roads in the middle of the night to right someone else’s wrong, just to get caught now.

“Come on now, Ms. Hattie. Step on off that tractor so we can all get out of the rain.”

Ms. Hattie?

Ms. Hattie was the town busybody and one of Glory’s grandma’s oldest and dearest friends. Which explained how the Prowler ended up in her grandma’s garage.

The roadblock of wet and irritated officers obviously had no idea who was driving the tractor. If they had, Glory was certain that their boss would have her butt tossed in jail before she could say, “Morning, Sheriff.”

Plus she was pretty sure the smug-looking guy in the department-issued hat, weighing in at two hundred pounds of bad attitude,
was
Sheriff Jackson Duncan.

“Look, I promise my grandma won’t press charges.”
Yup. Sheriff Duncan.
The entitled drawl was a dead giveaway. And if he thought Ms. Kitty wouldn’t press charges, he was insane. “Heck, Ms. Hattie, as long as the Prowler is back in the bay before she wakes up, she doesn’t even have to know it went missing and we can all go home and back to our respective business.”

“Do I have your word on that, Sheriff?” The second Glory opened her mouth, Jackson realized Hattie McGraw wasn’t behind the wheel because he went from leaning against the grill of his cruiser to reaching for his gun. She also knew that only ten feet and some plywood separated her from a mug shot—a mug shot that was not going to happen. She had enough mascara under her eyes to pass for a linebacker and enough emotion built up that, after one too many double shifts slinging beer and a lifetime of double standards, getting arrested would fill out her already unflattering résumé.

Jackson silently made his way toward the tractor, boots clacking against the slick concrete, cuffs jangling in his hand. Knowing nothing good could come from that, she rested her hand on the gear shift and asked, “I’m guessing by the pissy look on your face that your generous offer is no longer on the table.”

“Sorry to say, but you’d guess right,” he said, not sorry at all.

Jackson Duncan had been sheriff of Sugar County for the past four years, and he’d hated Glory for at least twice that amount of time. He was uptight, by the book, and still blamed her for his older brother leaving town. Not that he had ever bothered to listen to her side of the story. No one really had. But everyone knew that he would love nothing more than to parade Glory around town in cuffs and prove that she was a menace to Sugar’s properly polite society.

“Even if I told you that I wasn’t stealing Ms. Kitty’s tractor? That I was trying to return it?”

“Even then. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

And wasn’t that just great, because in this county possession might constitute only nine-tenths, but being the girl who cost Sugar High their beloved football coach
and
the state championships all in the same year surely made up the other one-tenth. Which meant the odds of her getting out of this mess with a friendly warning were a big fat zero.

There was no way she was letting him take her in. Not dressed in flannel and fertilizer. And sure as hell not when she had a Pediatric Health Theory midterm in six hours. It had taken her the better part of a decade, juggling part-time classes and full-time bar tending, to get to where she was, and she wasn’t about to let one mistake screw up everything. Not again.

“Sorry then, Sheriff.”

Grabbing the edges of her rain slicker, she flipped it up to cover her face and gunned it. The tractor roared as she threw it in second. The gear kicked in, causing the Prowler to pick up in volume and speed—surprising speed for a machine that looked like a giant peach and was built when she’d been in preschool.

“Aw, hell,” Jackson said, racing back to the cruiser. “Let ’em go, boys.”

The deputies scattered to the side of the road and two metal strips with spikes rolled across the slick asphalt, covering both the north- and the southbound lanes.

Heading straight for the road, she vowed that she would drive right through that speed trap, over the metal spikes and all, if she had to. Her grandma was counting on her, and the entry to the Prowler’s parking bay was only a few yards past the sheriff’s patrol car. She could slip in, park the vehicle, and hightail it out of there.

Glory dropped the tractor into third and rain pelted her face. She burst through the wood-slatted fence, cow pies and feed kicking up angrily in her wake, and skidded on to the Brett McGraw Highway. Jackson had his spikes, but according to the flyers hanging around town, the Prowler had all-terrain mud tires and a steel-reinforced undercarriage.

She hit fourth gear right as the Prowler’s wheels cruised over the first set of shredders—tires unscathed, the shredder looking puny and weak as it kicked out behind them. The image made Glory grin and she sank the gearshift even lower. Only before she reached that second strip, Jackson stepped in front of the tractor.

“Dang it, Jackson,” she screamed over the roar of the tractor’s engine. “Move your overentitled, stubborn ass out of my way or I’ll run it down!”

“And miss busting yours for grand theft auto and assaulting a police officer?” he yelled back, smiling as though he’d just won box seats at the Georgia Dome. “No, ma’am.”

Glory looked from side to side, weighing her options. Had she been thinking with her head instead of her heart, she would be warm and snug in her bed, not facing jail time in little more than a pink slicker and ducky galoshes. Instead she was trying to solve a feud that had been brewing since Glory turned seventeen and made the biggest mistake of her life.

Before Glory could react, she crossed the second trap and the back two tires exploded simultaneously. The tractor jerked forward and she didn’t know what was thumping louder, her heart or the deflated tires struggling to roll over the blacktop.

The Prowler decelerated and slowly crawled toward Jackson, who stepped out of the way right as the tractor made its final stop—giving the cruiser a big smacker to the front bumper. The Prowler wasn’t going that fast but the thing must have been made of steel because a loud crunch broke through the night’s air, followed by an awful sizzle and finally steam, which drifted up from under the hood and into the inky sky.

“I guess I can add destruction of city property to the charges,” Jackson said with a smile.

“Damnit, Jackson.” Glory picked up a stray cow pie, which had landed in the back of the tractor during her off-roading excursion, and threw it on the ground. It shattered, splattering right up his department-issued boots and onto his pant legs. “I’m just trying to return it.”

“And I’m just doing my job,” he said as he approached the vehicle and hoisted his smug self up. “Now, do you need me to read you your rights? Or would you like to say them with me?”

And right then Glory understood that no matter how hard she tried to atone for her past, she was never going to be free of it.

  

Glory had never been arrested before, just as she’d never had to spend the night in jail, so she wasn’t sure of the exact protocol, but she knew bullshit when she heard it. And Deputy Gunther’s excuses were starting to smell worse than her manure-crusted pants.

“I bet if you called over to the Sugar Country Club, they’d tell you Judge Holden is somewhere between the third and fourth hole,” Glory said, pinning Deputy Gunther with a glare.

“The sheriff’s on it, Miss Glory,” the deputy said, shuffling nervously from foot to foot. He was built like a bull, only with puppy-dog eyes, a gentle smile, and a soft center. Glory had always liked him. He was one of the few football players who hadn’t made her time at Sugar High miserable.

“So you said. Three hours ago.” When he silently lowered his eyes to the floor, she added, “Come on, Gunther, I’m freezing and tired and you and I both know that the sheriff is just trying to mess with me.”

His ploy was working. She was about two minutes from tears. The ugly kind.

She’d been arrested, booked, and locked in a concrete square. She hadn’t eaten since her second break yesterday, hadn’t slept in over forty-eight hours, and her midterm, which she’d busted her butt studying for, had started over an hour ago—meaning the only way she was going to pass that class in time to apply to be the community outreach manager at Sugar Medical Center was to ace her final.

Gunther looked from the empty front office back to her, and the tips of his ears went pink. “I guess I could let you have another call. Just one, though. And you have to use this.”

He dug through his pocket, handed her his cell, and Glory felt her heart tighten painfully.

“And call who?” she mumbled softly. Not that it mattered. It was already too late.

Gunther’s eyes darted to the floor again.

They both knew that the sheriff wanted to milk the situation, just as they both knew that neither Glory nor her grandma could afford whatever obscene bail he’d convince the judge to set.

Her best friend, Brett, could afford it, and he’d pay it in a heartbeat, which was why in her moment of desperation she decided to call him.

Too bad she remembered
after
she’d left a voice message that he was in California and that she’d promised herself never to put him in a position to choose between his best friends again. She was trying to keep her distance, give Brett and his new wife, Joie, the space they deserved as newlyweds.

Last year Brett had added Sex-Stud YouTube Sensation to his impressive credentials, a title that nearly cost him his career as a professional golfer. The last thing he needed was more people whispering. And anytime Glory so much as smiled at a man, people whispered.

“That’s all right, Gunther.” Glory tightened her arms around her bent legs and dropped her head to her knees. Her body ached to be back at home, in her own bed, with the covers pulled securely over her head—fast asleep.

“Can I at least get you a blanket? Maybe some hot coffee?”

“That’d be nice.”

“All right, then. Sit tight.”

An aching sadness tore through her chest and Glory didn’t answer—couldn’t—afraid of what might come out. She felt her tears coming closer to the surface and the last thing she needed was a public pity party. But she was locked in a cell, facing a possible
F
on a test she was more than ready for. Her only crime being—she was too damn nice.

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