Home > Thick as Thieves(13)

Thick as Thieves(13)
Author: Sandra Brown

“I knew who he was, but only because of his reputation,” Lisa said. “His bad reputation. I think he was incarcerated at least once.”

“He must have turned things around at some point. He served in the military for years.”

“So he’s reformed and living in Penton?”

He was living in Penton. Arden wasn’t certain that he’d undergone a reformation. “What was that about a pool hall?”

“You should remember the place. We had to drive past it to get to Mabel’s.”

The family’s Friday night tradition had been having dinner at Mabel’s on the Lake. “All-you-can-eat catfish for twelve ninety-nine,” Arden murmured. “Mabel lost money on Dad. He could pack it away.”

Lisa laughed again. “We had some good times.”

Then their mother had been killed, and all that had changed.

After a short lull, Lisa said, “Anyway, Ledge Burnet. That beer joint that looks like it’s growing up out of the lake? It belongs to Ledge’s uncle. Or at least it did. It may have collapsed by now.”

“Burnet’s Bar and Billiards!” Arden exclaimed with sudden recollection. “He’s that Burnet?”

“He and his uncle lived on the premises.”

“Just the two of them? What about his parents?”

“God knows. I never heard mention of them. Only him and his uncle and that bar. Not exactly a healthy environment for a boy to grow up in, which I guess explains his brushes with the law.”

“He has his own business now.” Arden fingered the white business card with his name and contact information printed in a no-nonsense font in bold black ink. No flourishing logo. Nothing gimmicky. No frills. Very much like the man.

“What kind of business?”

Lisa’s question pulled her from musing over what the right kind of physique could do for a plain white shirt and blue jeans. “Uh, he’s a contractor. Of sorts.”

“Of what sort?”

“Carpentry. Home repairs.” She minimized the scope of the job, needing to work up to suggesting a complete renovation. “He works alone.”

“You interviewed this former jailbird to do repairs on our house?”

“I didn’t know he was a former jailbird when I interviewed him.”

“Well, now that I’ve told you—”

“He told me. He was very straightforward about it.” Less straightforward about how he knew her recent history.

“He sounds like a glorified handyman,” Lisa said, “and he can’t be the only one in Penton.”

“No, but he’s affordable, and he comes highly recommended.”

That was a stretch. She’d obtained only one reference. She didn’t know just how affordable he was because she hadn’t yet seen his estimate. One could wonder then why she was trying to sell Lisa on him when she wasn’t sold herself.

“Arden,” Lisa said in the manner that always preceded a lament. “Please pack up and leave there. Tonight.”

“We’ve been over this. A thousand times.”

“I’ve done as you asked. I backed away and cut you some slack. I’ve tried to be understanding and supportive of your insistence on staying there. If that’s what you thought would make you happy, I wanted it to work out for you.”

“I feel a ‘however’ coming.”

“However, I’m afraid it will be—”

“Another venture doomed to failure.”

“The prospects aren’t looking good. For chrissake, you’re hiring a convict.”

“I haven’t decided on him.”

“What repairs are we talking about? How extensive will they be?”

“Update the plumbing. Replace some light fixtures. He’s going to come back to me with options, so nothing’s been decided yet.”

Lisa hesitated, then said quietly, “I could alleviate your having to decide anything.”

“That sounds like a veiled threat.”

“You could think of it that way, or you could think of it as my providing a safety net to prevent you from making another bad decision.”

“Out with it, Lisa.”

“The house is half mine. Plumbing, rewiring require city inspections. I don’t wish to become ensnared in civic red tape in that crappy town.”

It was as though Ledge had forecast that Lisa might take this position. “For twenty years you’ve ignored this house, but now that I’ve taken an interest in it, you’re up in arms.”

Lisa sighed. “You’re right. Never mind my personal aversion to that place. How costly will these repairs be?”

“I’ve received estimates that were over budget. Burnet hasn’t submitted his yet.”

“What was your budget?”

“That’s my business.”

“Are you dipping into your trust fund from Wallace? Or is your married boyfriend helping you financially?”

Arden saw red. “I’m hanging up now, Lisa, before we say things we’ll regret.”

“Hold on. I’m sorry. That was totally uncalled for.” She paused and took a breath. “I promise not to be so testy, if you’ll not be so hasty.”

“As I said, nothing’s been decided yet. I told Mr. Burnet that I would sleep on it and let him know tomorrow.”

“Do you really think he’s reputable?”

“He hasn’t given me a reason to think otherwise.”

“I’ve given you several.”

“You would judge him today based on what he did as a teenager? You, we, of all people should know how it feels to be looked upon with prejudgment and suspicion.”

“True, but I would feel better if I knew about his present standing in the community. Is he a stable and upstanding member of the community? Is he a member of the Chamber of Commerce? Is he married? Does he have a family?”

Arden didn’t have the answers to those questions.

Lisa was ahead of her. “I’ll see what I can find out about his current status.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“I’ll be discreet. In the meantime, please promise me that you won’t sign a contract with him, or make a down payment, or do anything that will commit you. Not until we’ve had another chance to discuss it. I don’t want you to make another mistake.”

“If you’re referring to my baby, Lisa, she wasn’t a mistake.”

“I didn’t mean—”

But Arden hung up, too angry to listen to any more.

It was a lively place. Happy hour was in full swing. Brooks & Dunn were pumping through the speakers. There was noisy activity at all the billiards tables. Several men were clustered in front of a large-screen TV, watching a baseball game. At a table running along the far wall, a group of senior ladies, wearing feather boas and gaudy tiaras, were having a giggly, grand time.

Arden had to wait for several minutes before a barstool became free. She quickly claimed it. The bartender acknowledged her with a jerk of his chin as he filled two mugs with tapped beer. He swapped a few words with the couple he served, then made his way down the bar to her.

“Hi, there.” With a magician’s smooth skill, he removed the last patron’s glass and swiped the bar clean with a white towel. “First time in?”

“How did you know?”

“Because I’ve never seen you before, and I would remember. Welcome. My name’s Don.”

“A pleasure.” She didn’t give him her name, but she shook the hand he extended.

He slid a cardboard coaster in front of her. “What can I get you?”

She looked over at the table of ladies, who were laughing so hard, several were dabbing tears from their eyes. “Birthday party?” she asked.

He grinned. “Bachelorette party. The one with the spangles on her blouse is the bride. She’s getting married on Saturday.”

Arden laughed. “First marriage?”

“Second. She and the groom have known each other since they were kids. Married, had families, lost their mates a year apart. Found new love.”

“That’s certainly something to celebrate. Pour me a glass of the same wine.”

He winked. “I’ll pour you a better one.”

He removed a bottle of wine from the refrigerator under the back bar and showed her the label. Although she didn’t recognize it, she nodded approval. He poured enough for her to sample. “Light, crisp and very good,” she said. “Thank you.”

He filled her glass, but, after checking to see that he wasn’t needed by another customer, he stayed. “Are you with the naturalists group?”

She shook her head.

“There’s a two-day symposium on ecosystems and conservation going on over at the civic center. I thought maybe you might be in town for that.”


“You live here or roundabouts?”

“I’ve been here for a few months. I’ve considered making it permanent.”

“I hope you do, and that you become a regular customer.”

“It looks as though you don’t lack for—”

She spotted the framed photograph on the back bar, and it stopped her cold. The bartender turned his head, then came back around. “If it was enlarged it would look like a movie poster, wouldn’t it?”

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