Handling Love

Chapter One

 

“Go talk to my aunt,” Hannah Frederickson said as she strode into the taproom of the Country Time Bar and Grill.

Her bartender, Deacon Black, looked up with a puzzled expression on his pleasantly rough face. He was standing behind the bar cleaning shot glasses in anticipation of the regular Wednesday night crowd. Well, maybe “crowd” was too optimistic, but they usually had a pretty good turnout when the bowling leagues were playing next door at Murphy Lanes.

“Huh?” he said.

“Go talk to my aunt,” Hannah repeated. She walked behind the bar, slid past Deacon, and headed for the bottle of whiskey sitting on a nearby shelf.

“Now?” he asked, turning to watch her, obviously still confused. “We’re going to open soon, and she lives across town.”

“No.” Struggling to hold onto her patience, Hannah grabbed one of the clean shot glasses he had stacked neatly on the back counter and poured a generous amount of the whiskey into it. “I want you to go to my office, pick up the phone, and talk to my aunt. She’s on hold.”

Deacon narrowed his bright blue eyes and tossed the rag he’d been using on the bar.

“Why?”

Hannah knocked back the shot, sputtered a little, and poured another.

“Because,” she said, “I cannot possibly have heard her correctly. I need you to talk to her, and then tell me I’m having either a nightmare or a hallucination.”

“What’s going on?” he demanded.

“Just go talk to her!” Hannah shouted.

“All right, all right. Jeez.” Deacon turned and stalked down the short hallway to Hannah’s tiny office.

Hannah chugged the second shot, then picked up his discarded rag and began to polish the top of the old wooden bar. She heard Deacon talking, his voice growing louder, and she polished faster. By the time he slammed back into the taproom, the oak bar gleamed as never before. Hell, she’d practically set the thing on fire.

He walked up to stand beside her, and Hannah stopped her manic polishing to look at him. The expression on his face made her heart fall through the soles of her feet, down into the basement.

Oh, God.

She cleared her throat.

“Aunt Hildy didn’t really say that Uncle George emptied my business bank account, took all of my money, and left town with his assistant, did she?”

“Bastard.” Deacon said.

Oh, God. It was real.

Hannah’s knees gave out, and she sank to the floor behind the bar. It was clean, but she wouldn’t have noticed if she’d stuck to the vinyl.

“Is Aunt Hildy okay?” she asked.

“She actually sounded kind of relieved. Except for the whole money thing. She’s sorry about that.”

Hannah nodded. That was nice.

Deacon got another glass and poured himself some whiskey from the bottle she’d left on the bar. “She said when she got home from work—”

“She’s a cashier at the Wal-Mart.”

“—there was a note on the kitchen table telling her George and Crystal—”

“The assistant bimbo.”

“—were heading somewhere warm.”

“Bastard.”

Deacon downed his whiskey. He did not sputter.

“The note said he wanted her to tell you he’d taken your money. He didn’t want you to find out when the creditors started calling.”

“Decent of him.” Hannah dropped her face into her hands.

“Did you check your bank account balance?” Deacon asked. “Maybe George is just playing a practical joke or something.”

Yeah. Because George was such a light-hearted trickster.

“I got online while I was on the phone with Hildy. It looks like he left me fifty dollars,” she said into her hands.

“If you knew that, why the hell did you bother having me talk to her?”

“I didn’t believe it.” But it was true. It was all true. “Why did I let him talk me into being my accountant?” she moaned. “Why? I know what he’s like. It was only a matter of time before he snapped.”

“The bigger question,” Deacon said, “is how he got access to your business bank account.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said, still not looking up. “I gave him signing authority.”

“Uh huh.” He paused. “Why?” His voice sounded strained.

“After my father died, before you came back to town, I was really busy, and it was hard to keep ahead of the bookkeeping stuff. Uncle George said he did that kind of thing for other clients.” She sighed. “And yes, I know I should have started paying the bills again, once you were working here, and I had more time. But I let him keep doing it. It was nice not to have to worry about everything.”

Of course, now she had a bigger issue to worry about than finding the time to write out a couple of checks.

Oddly, when she finally looked at Deacon, he seemed relieved.

“Okay,” he said. “So he paid bills for other clients. That means he must be bonded.”

She hadn’t thought there was anything below the basement, but she could feel her heart bouncing into a dark pit much further down.

She swallowed.

“Um, bonded?”

“A surety bond,” Deacon said. “If he was handling your cash, you made sure that he…was…” His voice trailed off when he saw her expression. They stared at each other in silence for a moment.

Deacon squatted beside her, the material of his jeans stretching across his thighs. “Uncle George wasn’t bonded?” he asked carefully.

She shook her head.

“I thought you said he handled money for other clients?”

“Well,” she shifted on her butt. “Not exactly their money. For the other clients he handled the books, and they wrote the checks. But he said he would handle the money for me. Because I was family. He gave me a good rate.”

“Why didn’t you make him get bonded?” Deacon shouted.

“He was my uncle!” Hannah shouted back. “I trusted him!”

Then, to her horror, she started to cry. Deep, gulping sobs. Before she could turn away or try to hide, Deacon heaved a sigh, sat on the floor next to her, and pulled her up against his chest.

“Come on, now,” he said, stroking his hand down her back.

“I can’t believe Uncle George did this to me! The b…b…bastard.”

“It’ll be okay,” Deacon said, as he held her tighter. His arms were strong and they felt good wrapped around her. Without quite realizing what she was doing, Hannah found herself clinging to him, her fingers knotting in the soft fabric of his dark blue Country Time polo shirt. She hoped she wasn’t getting snot all over him.

“All of my money is gone,” she sobbed.

“I know, Hannah.”

She couldn’t seem to stop crying. His chest was warm and broad, and he smelled good, and he was holding her, and he’d never done that before, not even when they’d known each other in high school.

Of course, he was her employee now, so it wasn’t surprising he never held her. Employees didn’t usually go around holding their employers. It was probably weirding him out that she was crying all over him. She tried to get herself back under control.

Sniffling, she pulled away. He let her go, and they looked at each other. Then he shoved to his feet, reached down, and helped her up. She stood, feeling suddenly awkward, and grabbed a tissue from the box behind the bar, blowing her nose as discreetly as possible.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“Better?” Deacon had backed up a little, but he was still watching her with concern.

He wasn’t exactly a handsome man, Hannah thought, considering him. He certainly wasn’t pretty like his brother, Sam. Yet somehow his face managed to be both hard and sympathetic, framed by receding brown hair kept so brutally short it was little more than stubble. His profile easily could have been stamped on an ancient Roman coin.

“I guess,” she said, suddenly aware of the heat and hardness of his body in the confined space.

When she’d known him in high school, before he’d left home at eighteen to join the army, he’d been young and…soft. The years between then and now, the traveling he’d done, the work on oil rigs and in construction, had added layers of solid muscle to his tall frame and some intriguing lines to his face. She’d heard him say he lifted weights regularly because he didn’t want to get a gut.

Whatever he was doing, it really worked for him. They’d had a sharp increase in female customers since he’d started working at the Country Time.

He was a drifter who wouldn’t stay in town forever, but while he was here he was a definite asset.

Maybe she could get him to go shirtless while he was tending bar to try and attract more women.

A vision of Deacon, shirtless, and maybe dancing and spinning bottles while he made drinks, flitted through her mind.

Yeah. A definite asset.

“You have to revoke George’s signing authority,” he said, pulling her from her admittedly inappropriate thoughts. “You’d better call the bank and do it right away.”

“Sure. Because there’s so much money left to worry about.”

“You want to get him off the account.”

“I know that, Deacon.” Just because she’d cried all over the man didn’t mean he had the right to treat her like she was a complete idiot.

“And you’ll have to report this to the police. You have to tell Chief Kline what happened and swear out an arrest warrant, so George can be found and picked up.”

“I know that, too,” she muttered, wadding up the tissue and throwing it away. “I’m not completely stupid. I know I have to do that.” Her stomach jumped. George might be a thief, but he was still her uncle. It made her a little queasy to think about having her uncle arrested.

Deacon could apparently read her mind. “You have to do this, Hannah,” he said.

“I know.” Then she turned and left him before she broke down and cried all over him again.

Back in her office, Hannah dropped into her chair and logged onto her online banking site to check her balance one more time. What if she’d made a mistake? What if she’d somehow opened the wrong account, and she still had all of her money, and Deacon was right, and that note from George was some kind of sick practical joke? It could happen.

Nope, she thought, looking at the numbers. No joke.

If only she’d made George get bonded. Then she’d have insurance.

Insurance.

She sat up straighter, hope suddenly zinging through her.

The Country Time carried liability insurance, right? Wasn’t there a clause in there somewhere about employees stealing? Wasn’t George basically an employee? Maybe she would be covered…?

Fingers scrabbling across the desk, she grabbed the phone and called Chet Hinkle, the local insurance agent who’d been handling their policies forever.

“Hey Chet,” she greeted him when he answered, trying to sound casual instead of desperate. “I need to ask you about the Country Time’s insurance policies.”

“You do?” Chet’s voice brightened. “Want to schedule a review?”

“No!” She realized she’d snapped the word and took a deep breath before continuing. “No. I, um, was wondering if I was covered for, uh, employee theft.”

“Employee theft?” Now Chet sounded confused. “Are you having a problem?”

“Of course not. I’m just interested.” She gripped the phone receiver tighter. “Can you look at my policy?”

“Sure. Now?”

“Yes.” Hannah tried not to grind her teeth. “Now.”

“Sure, okay. Hold on and let me get your file.”

After what seemed to be an interminable length of time he was back, huffing slightly, as if moving from his chair had taken an effort.

“Okay,” he said and she heard papers flipping in the background. “Let’s see what we’ve…huh.”

Hannah’s blood chilled.

“What?” she demanded.

“Huh,” Chet repeated. “Hmmm…uh huh. Oh.”

“For God’s sake, what?” He was killing her.

“I remember this now,” Chet sounded cheery again, happy things were falling into place. “Before your father died, I met with him, and he cut back on the Country Time’s insurance coverage. My note says he wanted to reduce premiums.”

“Okay,” Hannah said slowly. “And what does that mean for employee theft coverage?”

“Well…” More rustling. “According to the file, he reduced employee theft coverage to a thousand dollars. With the deductible, that’s basically nothing.” He laughed. “Guess he trusted his employees more than you do, Hannah.”

Hope no longer zinged. “I guess,” she croaked.

“Hey, it’s all there in the addendum,” Chet told her. “Didn’t you read your insurance policies when you took over the business?”

She hadn’t. She’d been too busy coping with her father’s death and trying to run the Country Time without quite enough staff. Maybe George would have mentioned it to her if George had been a better adviser. But it was pretty obvious now that he’d been following his own agenda.

Chet must have shifted to the computer while she’d been absorbing the new blow he’d just delivered, because the sound of tapping keys had replaced the shuffling of paper in the background.

“Looks like you still haven’t paid your premiums for the quarter,” he said, sounding genuinely concerned for the first time in their conversation. “Better tell George to get that check out. You don’t want them to lapse.”

Right.

“Sure you don’t want to review your policies?” Chet sounded hopeful. “I could come over and—”

She hung up on him.

Running her hands through her hair, she tried to think. Apparently insurance would not be riding to her rescue.

Thanks, Dad.

Of course, maybe she should have actually looked at the insurance policies before now.

Her next step was to call the bank to cut off Uncle George’s access to the Country Time’s checking account. On a whim, she asked the woman who’d answered the phone if they would replace her funds.

Once the woman had stopped laughing, Hannah made an appointment to see a lending officer about reactivating a line of credit her father had taken out a few years ago. She hadn’t needed to use it since his death, but she was going to need it now. Big time.

After the bank, she called Police Chief Jacqueline Kline to see what she had to do to have her late mother’s older brother arrested. Josie Kline, Chief Kline’s daughter and one of Hannah’s best friends since sixth grade, had always said her mother was scary protective when it came to people she cared about. So, Hannah wasn’t entirely surprised when the other woman said she’d be over in a few minutes to personally take her statement.

Because the Country Time had just opened, Hannah asked the chief to come to the back door in the hopes of avoiding stirring up the customers. As promised, the other woman arrived fifteen minutes later, a young patrolman in tow. As soon as she stepped into the kitchen, she wrapped Hannah in a tight, motherly embrace before letting her go to study her face, her brown eyes serious.

“What the hell happened?”

Hannah shrugged. “I told you on the phone. George ran off with all of the money.”

Chief Kline nodded, took off her uniform hat and ran a hand through her cap of dark hair. “I need the details. Tell me everything.”

“Okay,” Hannah sighed. “We’d better go to the office.”

She led them to the office through a side door so they wouldn’t have to go into the taproom. But she knew her attempts at discretion had probably been a complete waste of time. Sure enough, when she relieved Deacon at the bar so he could go talk to the chief, she got enough speculative glances to assure her everyone knew something was up.

At least June and Mary Alice, the two servers scheduled for the evening, weren’t there yet. Hannah did not look forward to telling June what had happened. The woman wouldn’t hesitate to let her know she’d been a complete dumbass.

Then there was Grace, the other server. Kevin, her part-time cook. Jason, the second bartender. Billy, the dishwasher. God, what was she going to tell them? What could she tell them?

Maybe she just wouldn’t tell them anything.

Hannah considered that option while she drew a beer from one of the taps for a bowling league guy who’d come in early for a pre-game brew. She frowned into the mug as she filled it, ignoring the way the man watched her with ill-disguised curiosity.

No. She had to tell the staff. Hell, at the rate things were going, they’d hear the gossip before they got to work.

Deacon came back behind the bar and touched her shoulder without speaking. Hannah nodded in acknowledgment, gave the bowling league guy his beer, and went back to her office.

Once Chief Kline and her officer were satisfied they’d gotten all of the information they needed for now, Hannah ushered them out through the kitchen. Thank God Kevin hadn’t been scheduled to work; it was still deserted.

“We’ll do all we can, Hannah,” the chief said, after she’d sent her officer out to the car. “I’ll put out a warrant on George, so if anyone checks they’ll know he’s wanted. We’ll freeze his accounts, flag his credit cards, and that sort of thing.”

“What about Aunt Hildy?” Hannah asked, alarmed.

“I’m going to go talk to her now. We’ll see what we can do.”

“Thanks.” Hannah shook her head. “I just don’t understand why the bank didn’t call me when the account was emptied.”

Chief Kline shrugged. “Why would they? George had signing authority, so he could basically do whatever he wanted. The online records you showed me indicate he transferred the money to a variety of accounts. Your bank probably hasn’t even noticed.”

“Wonderful.” Why the hell was she paying those monthly account fees if the bank wasn’t even looking at her account?

Chief Kline cleared her throat. “The problem is, if he closed the other accounts and pulled out the cash, or if he transferred the money from them to other identities, we’re going to have a hard time finding him.”

“Yeah,” Hannah sighed. For all she knew, Uncle George had set up twenty false identities.

“I have a small department,” Chief Kline said. “I barely have enough people to handle traffic accidents and the occasional drunk and disorderly. I’ll bump this up to the staties, but you’re going to need a lawyer, Hannah. And if you want to find George before he spends all of your money, I think you should consider hiring a private investigator.”

Hannah stared at the other woman. “And pay him with what? My charm?”

Chief Kline nodded. “Good point.” She settled her hat more firmly on her head and patted Hannah’s cheek. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you,” Hannah said, meaning it.

“Just doing my job.” The chief grinned at her, then tapped her on the nose. “Call Josie. If my girl hears about this from someone else, she’s going to be pissed, and I don’t want her bitching at me.”

Hannah’s stomach clutched. “Yes, ma’am.”

Chief Kline chuckled and left.

Hannah went back to her office, closed the door, and sat behind her desk, rubbing at the wicked throbbing in her temples. She considered calling Josie and getting it over with, but she just couldn’t face her friend.

She checked her bank balance again, instead.

Still fifty dollars.

And she was still screwed.

Handling It

Feel-good, small town, romance.

 

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ISBN: 978-1-943725-01-4

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