When your heart has been ripped bleeding from your chest, it leaves behind a dark hole where desire no longer resides. At least that was what Ausha Malone thought right up until the moment Detective Doug Pennington walked into her bar.
Informing Ausha about the death of her ex-husband would be Doug's hardest task of the day, but he was ready for it. What he wasn't prepared for was meeting Ausha face-to-face. Life had dealt her a bad hand. If someone cared to look close enough, they could see exactly how bad in the gunmetal gray of her gaze.
Doug wasn't so sure he wanted to look, and yet he couldn't seem to stay away. He was bound and determined to give Ausha her life back, whether he had to drag her kicking and screaming all the way or not.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Whiskey Girl by Maggie Casper
Doug Pennington spent his whole life as a police officer. He'd seen things bad enough to make even the worst of criminals sick to their stomachs.
It should get easier, he thought to himself. The problem was...it didn't.
Sure, he'd learned to mask his feelings as he watched the finality of a situation cross the faces of those left behind. Sometimes he even felt cynical enough to pretend not to care, but he did.
The constant death and destruction of humanity was the main reason he'd uprooted and moved from Dallas. Being a big-city cop certainly kept life interesting but at the same time it greatly decreased the longevity of that same life. He'd just decided one day he'd had enough.
After putting in a call to close friend and local small-town sheriff Ryder Jackson, Doug had been given a desk in the unassuming brick office building on Main Street in the small town of Memory, Oklahoma. It had taken some getting used to for sure, but at his age, boredom was a good thing. The thought made him grin.
Doug's smile was short lived as he pulled along the curb in front of Malone's bar. He set the gearshift into park then turned off the ignition. The business front was similar to others in town. Kept clean as it was, a passerby wouldn't even realize it was a bar if they didn't take the time to read the wooden sign.
He'd only been in the place once. Nothing serious, his duty had been to escort an inebriated man home to his wife. No damages, no bloodshed. He hadn't caught sight of Ausha Malone at that time. As a matter of fact, he couldn't recall ever seeing her around town in the two years since she'd opened for business. Either they kept vastly different hours or the woman was a loner. Either scenario was completely understandable since Doug himself wasn't overly predictable in either case.
Peering down at the photograph in his hand, he had a hard time picturing the pink-sweater-wearing, perfectly coifed hair woman as a bar owner. It was obvious to him she was a 'burb mom. Her fingernails were probably perfectly manicured. From all appearances, she seemed the type to volunteer her days away while being home in time to have supper on the table by six.
Super mom type, at least on the surface.
Only problem was, in his experience, those types were cold and calculated. The house was immaculate, no smudged faces or hand-me-down clothes for the kids, but neither were hugs and kisses passed freely either.
When the call came in early this morning, Doug hadn't thought much of it. He opened the door and uncurled himself from the driver's seat of his unmarked vehicle. Taking one last look at the picture in his hand, he wedged it into the front pocket of his button-down, business-type shirt.
After crossing the threshold, it took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. The place was closed for business, but Doug had called ahead and been told the door would be unlocked when he arrived.
A woman sat at the end of the bar, her gaze trained on him. Where the woman in the picture was light, all pink pastels and smiles, this woman was dark. Her hair was mussed, hanging down to her shoulders in glistening black curls. He couldn't see the color of her eyes but already knew they were the same gunmetal gray as his service revolver.
Her pink sweater was gone, replaced by a tight black t-shirt that barely reached the waistband of the jeans she'd evidently painted on. It was hard to tell since she was sitting, but she appeared average in height, and although soft in all the right places, there was no doubt in Doug's mind she could give anyone a run for their money. She was athletically built, scrappy even. Although she appeared it from the outside, Doug would bet calm wasn't a word Ausha Malone knew well.
He moved close enough to clearly see her too-pale face and her stone-hard eyes. Instantly he knew. The woman before him had been through something horrific and he'd been way off base in his assessment of her based purely on a picture.
The overwhelming urge to pull her into his arms assailed him. It was something Doug fought, not only because he was there in a professional capacity, but also because from the look on her face, he knew she would not be a willing participant in anything even resembling a hug or support. Not to mention the fact he hadn't had the urge to gather a woman into his arms and protect her since Andrea, who had been the wife of his best friend Antonio Parelli. It no longer hurt as much when Andrea entered his thoughts, but now was not the time for reminiscing, so Doug pushed her from his mind.
"You wanted to talk to me?"
Her voice was rough, pulling him from his inner thoughts. It sounded almost as if she'd spent the night in a drunken stupor, screaming concert-style. It skated across his flesh, causing bumps to rise on its surface.
"Yes ma'am." Doug motioned toward the empty stool next to her. She nodded and so he sat. Pulling his ID and badge from his pocket, he showed them to her. "I'm Detective Doug Pennington with the Memory Sheriff's Department. We spoke on the phone earlier."
For the first time he could remember, Doug couldn't quite think of the words to say. He didn't want to add to whatever caused this woman so much grief. She saved him from the need, but he wasn't so sure her doing so was a good thing.
"Is it about my ex-husband? If so, spill it. There's no love lost." Then, as if something had just struck her as funny, she smiled. Only it wasn't really a smile, more like a sneer. "Maybe it'll be my lucky day and you've come to tell me he's dead."
Doug was so taken aback by her words he could only stare. He'd heard bitter people who had been hurt talk. He'd also heard hateful people wish all sorts of bad things on others, but for some reason, those exact same type of words coming from her mouth rubbed him the wrong way. It took everything in Doug not to mention what a bitch she was being, but he somehow managed.
He decided to keep everything businesslike and started his impersonal speech. "I'm very sorry to inform you your ex-husband was found dead early last week. After a preliminary investigation, his death was ruled a suicide. There was a note left at the scene along with some other paperwork. I have it with me. Included was your information as his next of kin."
Her demeanor and expression had not changed once while he was talking. Until he mentioned having a letter for her, she'd not moved even once. When he finished, she climbed off the high barstool to face him.
"I don't want the letter or any other paperwork. Do whatever you want with it. Burn it for all I care. I want nothing to do with that man, dead or alive."
She started to walk away. "Ausha. Mrs. Malone."
He knew people said things out of anger and hurt, but he didn't want this woman feeling those things or regretting what he saw as making a rash decision based purely on emotions.
She stopped but didn't turn to face him. "Being angry and bitter won't make whatever he did to hurt you feel better, sweetheart. Forgive him for the affair or emptying your savings account or whatever it is you think he did and move on with your life."
Before the sentence was free of his mouth, she whirled on her booted heel. The look of wild agony on her face would have brought a lesser man to his knees. As it was, Doug couldn't help but flinch in response. She stalked back to him, her cheeks wet with tears she silently shed.
"What life?" She hung her head for a second then snapped her chin back up, her eyes glaring daggers at him as she poked the middle of his chest with a short, rough-edged fingernail painted black. "It's not a matter of thinking he did something. I know." It was the first time she'd raised her voice. "I know, but you have no fucking clue." The last was tainted with disgust.
Doug knew he should leave, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do so. He watched as she stalked around him. There really was no other way to describe the way she moved. Sleek and quiet like a large cat was the first thought to come to mind. She rounded the end of the bar and didn't stop until her long, tapered fingers closed around the neck of a Jack Daniel's bottle.
He watched as she poured a man's portion into the bottom of a glass then without hesitation swallowed it in one shot. There was no grimace, no coughing or sputtering. It was a taste she was obviously familiar with.
"Ausha." This woman was in need of help. Why Doug planned to offer assistance, he had no clue. Even if all he could do was allow her to vent or use him as her verbal punching bag, he was willing.
"Don't. Just don't." Her tone was once again modulated, not a hint of emotion seeping through the cracks. "It's time for you to leave, Detective."
As any good peace officer knew, there was a time to advance and a time to retreat. Now was the time to retreat, but not for good. Doug would be back, but before he returned, he needed to spend a little time arming himself with knowledge. He needed to find out exactly what had happened to change Ausha Malone from the woman in the picture to the one swigging back another shot of Jack at ten o'clock in the morning.