By: L.M. Pruitt

“Okay.” Tammy stood, pausing for a moment before leaning over and kissing the top of my head. “Thanks for staying.”

“We’re family, honey.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed. “You do what you have to for family.”


“Why, Jeannie Jackson!”

I had about five seconds to brace myself before Darlene Tibbets, her impossibly black hair piled high on her head and shellacked until it resembled nothing so much as a bowling ball, threw her arms around me and pulled me against her in a smothering hug. She had two inches and two cup sizes on me so when she put her back in to an embrace it truly was like being smothered. A second before I would have had to shove her away or risk suffocation, she pushed me back to arms’ length and raked her gaze over me with the same sort of scrutiny I reserved for tacos.

“Honey, I know you just buried your sister and I’m sure those kids of hers are running you ragged but damn—you could have taken a few minutes to put on some makeup.” She pursed her lips, her brows drawing down and together over her nose until she was all but squinting at me through her spidery lashes. “You and I are about the same shade. Let me get my bag and we can get you fixed up and presentable.”

“Thanks, Darlene, but I couldn’t put you out that way, especially when you’re working so hard to help me out with the housing situation.” You couldn’t really call it helping when she was going to get a nice fat commission but it was nicer than saying the only way we’d be the same shade was if I was trying to turn myself in to one of those things from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Darlene was one of the nicest people I knew but she tanned like it was her ticket in to heaven. I wasn’t exactly Snow White but I might have passed for her cousin. Easing to the side and tucking my arm in hers, I said, “Speaking of houses, I surely hope you have a few to show me because the kids and I are more than ready to get out of that trailer.”

“Oh, I can believe it—I bet y’all are all but sleeping on top of each other.” She steered me toward her office, which was really just a back corner of the room in general. There wasn’t much call for realtors in Cotton Creek so the sign out front proclaiming the little storefront as the home of Tibbets and Associates was actually just referring to Darlene. Settling me in one of the two visitors’ chairs, she bustled around her desk to plop in her own seat with a heavy sigh. “Now, I know you said you were looking at something close to the school.”

“I drove around a bit before I came in and noticed about three or four which looked as if they might do.” I crossed my legs and smiled. “I take it there are a bunch of folks moving out to the new subdivision?”

“You know how it is—people get a wild hair about needing the latest gadget or gizmo and go chasing after it without stopping to think if it’s worth the hassle.” Darlene leaned forward and lowered her voice, even though we were the only two people in the building. “Those houses they built? So-called ‘smart’ houses. Got built in ports or whatever you call them to charge your electronics and you can control the thermostat with your phone and everything.”

“You don’t say.” I tucked my tongue in my cheek in an effort to hide my amusement at her obvious disapproval. “Kids these days, hmm?”

“Oh, shush, you.” She let out a giggle which could have peeled the paint off a car and swatted my hand before sitting back. Turning to her computer, she typed something in using the tried and true hunt-and-peck method, muttering under her breath about stupid machines before flashing me another smile. “Like you said, there are a few which are on the market. Now, you didn’t say how much you had been approved for so—.”

“Right at three hundred thousand.” I couldn’t hold back a smile when her jaw dropped and stayed dropped for a solid ten seconds. “I’m not real familiar with prices here in Cotton Creek but I’m thinking that should be more than enough, right?”

“Oh, honey, with that kind of money you’ve pretty much got your pick of anything and everything.” She leaned forward again, her breasts threatening to spill out of her conservative business woman suit. “It’s not drug money or anything, is it?”

“Yes, Darlene. I’ve spent the last ten years crisscrossing the country, delivering meth wherever I go.” Either the sarcasm was too much or not enough because her eyes went wide and horrified and she glanced at the phone, clearly wondering if she needed to call Sheriff Pete. Sighing, I said, “It’s a joke, Darlene. My business does well and has been doing well for quite some time. You don’t need to worry about selling a house to a drug lord.”