Home > Hosed (Happy Cat #1)(5)

Hosed (Happy Cat #1)(5)
Author: Pippa Grant, Lili Valente

And, as usual, the town’s split on whether the fire was karmic retribution for the shamelessly perverted or simply an unfortunate accident.

I claim a stool far away from Olivia, who’s at the other end of the bar entertaining three-quarters of the single men in town between the ages of twenty and fifty. Probably reading their chakras or adjusting their auras or something.

More power to her.

Them, too. I don’t always understand her and her new-age mumbo jumbo, but I’ve never known Olivia to say a bad word about anybody, or even bless anybody’s heart. Not in the backward insult kind of way, anyway. What she lacks in Southern education she makes up for in sheer enthusiasm, and there are worse ways to while away an evening than with a friendly woman who likes to smile a lot, even if she may have been short-changed in the common sense department. At least she has good intentions, which is more than I can say for some of the other people in this town.

She waves.

I wave back.

And Jace slaps a bottle of Blue Moon on the bar in front of me with more force than absolutely necessary.

I arch a brow. “That aromatherapy spritzer Olivia worked up for your temper seems to be working.”

“It was for my heart chakra, jackass,” he says with attitude that’s over the top, even for Jace.

I lean in, adding in a softer voice, “Whoa, hey. Something happen today?”

“Nothing I want your opinion on.” Jace heads back down the bar to grab an empty burger basket without further comment, and I stifle a sigh.

Jace has been stuck in the same pattern with the same woman since high school, and about every four months, like clockwork, it gives me a nasty case of heartburn. All I’ve ever wanted is to see all three of my brothers happy. It eats at me that I can’t fix Jace’s bad habit. And hooking up again and again with a woman whose favorite form of entertainment is seeing how close she can get to cheating on him before he explodes is a bad habit, not love, no matter what anyone else has to say about it.

The fact that Ginger is a kindergarten teacher doesn’t automatically mean she’s sweet, innocent, or “too good” for my rough-around-the-edges brother. She’s trouble, the sneaky kind that slips under most people’s radar and makes her all the more dangerous because of it.

Why am I the only person in town who sees this shit clearly?

Even Jessie, my chief and a woman whose judgment I admire in most areas, seems taken in by Ginger’s game.

It’s like with Steve, Savannah’s ex. Just because he’s a good-looking high school football star turned banker prodigy, people think he’s the catch of the fucking town.

Or they did until he got caught balls deep in a sheep. But even now it’s clear some people think there must have been some kind of mistake. I’ve heard a few people say that Savannah wasn’t seeing things clearly. Or that she was making the whole thing up. Or maybe the sheep was asking for it, walking around, all freshly shorn and showing off its hindquarters in that field after dark.

No wonder she left town.

Cassie is the first person I’ve met who pegged Steve as fast as I did.

It makes me curious what she would say about Ginger. I’d ask her, but given her cool dismissal this morning, I’m guessing she’s not interested in more than a civil neighborly relationship. Plus, Jace would be pissed. He already knows how I feel about Ginger, and asking an outsider’s opinion won’t help my case.

The door opens, and the savvy brunette herself breezes into the bar.

Cassie’s bouncy brown pigtails are ridiculously cute, and a wayward part of me is instantly dying to know how they’d feel wrapped around my hands. Knowing my luck she’s probably wearing one of those sexy-as-hell tee shirts of hers, and I’ll be fighting to keep my gaze above her neck for the rest of the night.

I cast a subtle glance south of her pretty smile as she waves at Ruthie May, and sure enough—this time she’s wearing a vintage Ms. Pac-Man tee, the character posed seductively on top of chunky letters. And though I’ve never found a yellow ball wearing lipstick sexy in the slightest, I can’t stop staring.

But of course it isn’t Ms. Pacman that gets to me. Or the shirt. It’s the woman in the shirt, the curvy, sweet-smelling, adorably serious woman who has been running through my mind pretty much constantly since I made an idiot of myself this morning trying—and failing—to offer intelligent commentary on her scientific thoughts about the microbial life in the human gut.

I’m no dummy, but I was a welder before I joined the department. I’ve never darkened a hall of higher learning. I was too busy busting my ass to help my parents put food on the table right out of high school to have the time, or the money, to go to college.

Most days, that doesn’t bother me much. I love being a firefighter and I’m proud of the sacrifices I made so that my younger brothers could have choices I didn’t have. But sometimes, I wish I’d had more opportunity to stretch my brain and people to talk to who know more about the world outside of Happy Cat.

“I assume you want the chicken sandwich,” Jace says from behind me. He’s dialed down the bitter, but his voice still makes me flinch as I shift my attention his way. “And a side of fries, as usual,” he continues.

I frown. “Am I that predictable?”

Jace sighs through his nose in response, making me frown harder.

“No, thank you,” I say, rolling my shoulders back. Here I am wishing for something more, but sticking to old patterns and habits too. “I’ll have the buffalo wing salad with ranch instead of blue cheese dressing and an order of fried okra on the side.”

“The okra’s not in yet,” Jace says flatly. “But I’ve got fried squash blossoms. They’re good.”

“I’ll take those. And cobbler for dessert, whatever’s freshest.” I point a finger his way as inspiration strikes. “Two orders, please. Send the first order over now. To the brunette at table three.”

Brows shooting up, Jace glances over my shoulder. “Ruthie May?”

I frown. “No. The other brunette. The cute one who’s not old enough to be my mother.”

His brows creep even higher, and the prickly-ass attitude disappears completely. “Cassie Sunderwell?” Jace whistles low, shifting his attention back to me. “Trying to mend fences?”

“What? Why? You mean because of the fire? There wasn’t any water damage. And even if there had been, that’s hardly my fault.”

“No, I don’t mean the fire,” Jace says in a tone that implies I must have already had a few too many. “I mean she hates you. Or she hated you in high school, anyway.”

My frown becomes a full-fledged scowl. “What? No, she didn’t. Cassie and I were friends.”

Jace snorts.

“We were,” I insist. “We had English together.”

Our English project was the highlight of the last semester of my senior year. I looked forward to the afternoons we spent rehearsing our scene from Romeo and Juliet every day, a bright spot in my busy studying, working, keeping-a-younger-sibling-from-killing-himself-until-my-parents-got-home life.

Until we were cast opposite each other, I’d assumed Cassie was shy—she didn’t speak up much in class—but that wasn’t the case at all. She was smart and confident and, once she opened up a little, really funny.

God, she made me laugh. And kissing her was weirdly nice too, even though it was just pretend for the play and she seemed so young back then it was hard to believe she was actually sixteen. With her hair always in a ponytail, big glasses, and oversized clothing, she looked about twelve.

At eighteen, that’d made me a little uncomfortable about our mini make-out scene, but still…there was something there. Something that made me sad when the scene was over, even though we got an A.

“You might’ve had English together, but you didn’t have anything else together,” my brother tells me.

He’s not making any sense. “We got close,” I insist quietly. “We did a project together my senior year. She was so smart they put her in senior English when she was only a sophomore, remember?”

My brother rolls his eyes. “Yes, I remember. I was a sophomore then too, dude. My friends knew her friends and I was there at the softball end-of-season keg party when she got drunk and told everyone who would listen that she hated Ryan O’Dell like festering wart-boils.”

I wince. “Festering wart-boils?”

“No one likes festering wart-boils.”

“Clearly.” My shoulders slump. “Shit.”

“Yeah,” Jace says, his expression softening. “But whatever. Who cares? Everyone knows the Sunderwell girls are a little out there.”

“Do they?” I ask, my jaw going tight. “Don’t you ever get tired of what ‘everyone in this town’ knows? Don’t you ever just want to jump out of the damned Happy Cat mentality and think for yourself?”

Jace’s gaze darkens again, but he doesn’t respond right away. His focus slides to the table behind me, lingering for a long moment, before coming back to rest on my face. “I’ll get the cobbler, but you take it over to her yourself. Look into her eyes while you do it and be honest with yourself about what you see. That’s part of the trouble with this town too, you know.”

“What’s that?” I ask, shocked to get this many words in a row out of Jace, especially when he’s in a foul mood.

“What ‘everyone knows.’” His lips twist in a smirk. “The person in the mirror is part of that too, isn’t it? People in this town like to tell you who you are. Makes thinking for yourself harder than it sounds.”

I nod slowly, impressed. And hopeful. Maybe my little brother isn’t going to stay chained to a woman who treats him like shit for the rest of his life. Maybe he’s going to break out of the mold this town poured him into the day he got arrested for racing dirt bikes through the golf course freshman year and forge a new path for himself.

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