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A Bad Day for Pretty: A Crime Novel
A Bad Day for Pretty: A Crime Novel
A Bad Day for Pretty: A Crime Novel
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A Bad Day for Pretty: A Crime Novel

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



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A New York Times Notable Book!

A Bad Day for Pretty is the thrilling sequel to A Bad Day for Sorry, Sophie Littlefield's award-winning debut featuring Stella Hardesty, one of the most applauded and exciting new heroines in crime fiction today.

Stella Hardesty, avenger of wronged women, is getting cozy with Sheriff "Goat" Jones when a tornado blows none other than Goat's scheming ex-wife, Brandy, through the front door. Adding to the chaos, the tornado destroys the snack shack at the demolition derby track, pulling up the concrete foundation and unearthing a woman's body. The main suspect in the woman's murder is Neb Donovan---he laid the foundation, and there's some pretty hard evidence pointing to his guilt. Years ago, Neb's wife asked Stella for help getting him sober. Stella doesn't believe the gentle man could kill anyone, and she promises his frantic wife she'll look into it.

Former client Chrissy Shaw is now employed at Stella's sewing shop and she helps with the snooping as Stella negotiates the unpredictable Brandy and the dangerously magnetic sheriff.

Release dateJun 8, 2010
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Sophie Littlefield

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. She writes the post-apocalyptic Aftertime series for LUNA Books. She also writes paranormal fiction for young adults. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year's best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sophie lives in Northern California. Sophie loves to hear from her readers via her email: sophie@sophielittlefield.com

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Rating: 3.151898734177215 out of 5 stars

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  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Great and easy read
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    I enjoyed the first book in the Stella Hardesty series, A Bad Day for Sorry, but I found this book to be a bit harder getting into. So much of the wit and feistiness that charmed me in that first book is missing here, and it's due to the fact that Stella does a lot of soul-searching. It's necessary introspection because many people who read the first book may not have liked the idea of Stella taking the law into her own hands to rehabilitate abusers whom the law couldn't seem to touch. As Stella works her way through lessons she learned during her childhood and on through memories of her marriage and beyond, readers really get to see the type of person she is. Like I said, this is necessary for our understanding of the character even if it does remove some of the sparkle from the story.Chrissy Shaw, the young woman who helps Stella in her sewing machine shop, is turning into a fascinating character in her own right. Stella helped Chrissy out of an abusive relationship, and although Chrissy doesn't have much education, she's all natural-born smarts and sharp edges-- a woman to reckon with who's raising her child and working to make better lives for them both. She's also becoming increasingly important in Stella's life.The crime is a puzzler, but with two women like Stella and Chrissy hard at work to solve it, the killer doesn't have a chance. I'm looking forward to the next book in this series, and I'm hoping there will be less introspection and more smart alecky feistiness.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    This is a difficult book for me to review! A Bad Day for Pretty by Sophie Littlefield is full of humor many times I laughed out loud while reading it. But the use of foul language makes me shy away from reading anymore of the author’s books. I am not used to it. I admit that I grew up in a rather sheltered childhood but my objection to this language is that the book would have not suffered without the language. I am trying to decide whether it is just in character for Stella Hardesty and most of the characters to speak that way. She is after all a woman who takes the law in her own hands. That surprised me too. She draws a line at killing someone unless it is in self-defense but she is open to breaking and entering and pretending to be what she is not. She has ideals and sweet to children and dogs and does says some endearing things something.There is a mystery and I did not guess the murderer until the answer came out in the book so that is good. I really did appreciate the references to how terrible tornadoes can be because I grew up in a state where spring was always tornado season. I think I preferred Sheriff Goat to Stella! The part that I enjoyed most in this book was a demonstration of how “cute” can be overdone.“As Stella sat herself down, setting her notebook and pen on the table, she noted that little had changed in the kitchen since her last visit: a wallpaper border of teapots and strawberry runners still graced the top of the red painted cabinets. A row of porcelain canisters shaped like berry baskets lined the countertops. The theme played out on the red teapot on the stove, the tea towels hung on hooks, the tiles on the backsplash, and the ruffly curtains in the window. Even the magnets on the fridge were shaped like pump little berried.”I wish that the author had played down the foul language some so that I could relax and enjoy this book some more.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    A good read -- solid book. I had a hard time connecting with the characters and to figure out their connections with each other. Took half the book to feel that I cared about what happened to them. Main character, Stella, is strong and no-nonsense. I will read more books in this series.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    I love these books! When I read this author’s, Sophie Littlefield, Aftertime series I was blown away and thought this author gets people and their motivations and writes about them so well. I could not imagine she would top the Aftertime series, but …. I think the Sorry/Stella series is my favorite of Sophie Littlefield’s.Stella, the main character in this series, is a 50 year old widow who likes drinking Jack Daniels before she goes to bed and owns a sewing notions shop in a small rural Missouri town. Stella also runs a side business that scares off abusive men and protects their victims. In Stella’s earlier life she was an abused wife, overweight and insecure. She has redefined her body and her life. She still sees herself as overweight and questions her appeal – but the local Sheriff certainly does not. Have you ever seen someone else you think is more attractive than yourself and it makes you feel less than deserving of affection or attention? What about when you are in a down point in your life (maybe like Stella you have scars on your face from various knife cuts ……no?) and you come across people you think top you in certain aspects of your life? Well Stella has these encounters in Bad Day for Pretty. These interactions are beautifully written and the manner in which Stella changes her actions based on her insecurities and then her later revelations into her own personal value are so well done I think Ms. Littlefield must have studied psychology.So the Sorry/Stella series has interesting side characters that are interesting, quirky and real. I feel awkward saying this but I have to, this series reminds me of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich if Ms. Evanovich had written three dimensional characters living in a richly defined world and a storyline that has progression and character development. I had fun with the Stephanie Plum series, it is fun and sexy fluff but quickly (okay, not so quickly, I read over 15 books in that series if I include the in between books) got frustrated with the lack of character development and the fact that if I blew on the characters they would fall over due to their lack of dimensionality. Ms. Littlefield does not make that mistake. Her characters are rich in personality and background and not predictable but they are consistent with who they are. They have real life consequences. For example, if someone is shot or cut up in a fight there is a recovery period that last months. And the same thing does not keep happening to the characters over and over again. This is an action series but with emotional depth.In case I am portraying this book as all raw and rough, it isn’t. This book is fun to experience and just laugh out loud funny. In book #1, Bad Day for Sorry, Stella is helping out a sort of hapless and helpless victim of an abusive relationship. Now in book #2, Bad Day for Pretty, that former victim - -Chrissy – has become Stella’s partner in crime. She has evolved, Chrissy is more confident and clearly smart. Together they solve crime, help local residents who do not have access to help otherwise, and take care of Chrissy’s young toddler – oh and get involved in sexual and romantic dalliances. There is no explicit sex in this book, but the characters do become involved in sexual and romantic relationships.I cannot say enough about this book. I waited too long to start this series. A book about a 50 year old widow living in rural Missouri just did not appeal to me but I misread what this series was about. I waited too long. If you enjoy stories about real people, who have real life entanglements and responsibilities and you enjoy reading books about people’s lives outsides of the upper crust and urban areas then you will like this book. Ms. Littlefield gets what people are like when you take the pretty stuff away. She writes about insecurities, dependencies and responsibilities that are just so real but she still does it in an entertaining way. Small town rural life is captured so perfectly in this book, having grown up in a small rural Midwest town similar to the one Stella lives in I could relate to the fear of tornadoes and the power they have over the spring and summer. I could relate to the less shiny side of life that seems to exist outside of suburbia. And I gotta say this, Ms. Littlefield captures the love a mother has for her children so well. She did this so on target in the Aftertime series and she does it again in the Sorry series. Kids are not just a throw in this book (or in Aftertime) they actually shape the characters and the storyline.I listened to the narration of this book. The narrator does a decent job. My only complaint is that she is a very slow reader. I listened to the audio on 1.5X speed and it was perfect at that speed.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    A Bad Day For Pretty is Sophie Littlefield's second book featuring Stella Hardesty, a middle-aged widow who helps women who are suffering from marital abuse. Stella kind of takes the law into her own hands when it comes to abusive husbands. She also owns a sewing machine shop in town. Stella has feelings for the local sheriff, "Goat" Jones, but as the two are having a romantic dinner, there is a knock on the door and it's no other than Goat's estranged (and trashy), soon to be ex-wife, Brandy. To top it all off, there is a tornado in town that unearths a woman's body. Stella's friend Nebuchadnezzar Donovan...a.k.a. Neb, is accused of murdering the woman. Chrissy, a young single mom, is one of the women that Stella has helped escape an abusive husband. Chrissy now lives above Stella's sewing shop and works for her as well. She is helping Stella solve the mystery of the 'mummy' that has been unearthed by the tornado. As the story unfolds, there are twists and turns as Stella and Chrissy try to figure out 'who dunnit'. I liked Stella from the start. She's exactly what you want in a heroine. She's smart, sassy and doesn't take crap from anyone. I also liked that Stella is your average, every day girl, with her own natural beauty. She doesn't look like a barbie doll, nor does she want to. I was rooting for her to win Goat's heart, solve the murder mystery and live happily ever after. I enjoyed the supporting characters as well. Chrissy amused me using her charms as the two women tried to get clues in solving the case. Goat was sweet and couldn't help always trying to save damsels in distress, meanwhile the women in his life are driving him nuts. If you enjoy a good mystery with some humor and romance, grab a copy of A Bad Day For Pretty.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    I'm really torn on this one. On the one hand, the main character, Stella Hardesty, is a likeable tough chick with witty, snappy dialogue. On the other hand, I thought there was more talk than action and both the plot and the characters (especially Brandy) were unbelievable. Everyone in the book seems a little short in the intelligence department. I'll have to call this one only so-so.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    No rest for the wearyOkay, there’s a little bit of rest. Sophie Littlefield’s second Stella Hardesty novel opens about three months after the events of A Bad Day for Sorry. Readers of that novel will realize that Stella was in no shape to rush back into the thick of things, so there was just a bit of rest and recuperation. And it looks like there may be a bit of relaxation in store with the last person Stella should be cozying up to, Sheriff “Goat” Jones. However, this is quickly solved by the inopportune arrival on the scene of Goat’s not-quite-ex-wife, Brandy.Now, Brandy is a pain in the patootie, and she brings a host of trouble with her, but Stella has other concerns. An old friend and client is in trouble. One of the few worthwhile men that Stella has ever had to scare straight is a suspect in a murder. Stella has a hard time imagining the gentle man is a killer, but all signs point to his guilt. Stella launches an investigation in her own inimitable fashion, assisted—you’ll be glad to hear—by Chrissy Shaw, a character far too entertaining to have been left behind in book one. Actually, in this novel we meet several more of the people in Stella’s support network. The mysteries that Sophie Littlefield spins are well-plotted and compelling, but I’ll be honest, it’s these characters and the relationships of this quirky tribe that will keep me coming back for more.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    This is the second book (after A Bad Day for Sorry) starring Stella Hardesty, the 50-something avenger of wronged women. In this adventure, Stella has just started to recover from the events of the first book, when a tornado blows into Prosper, bringing it with it her love interest, Sherriff Goat Jones's, ex, and a mummified dead body at the local fairgrounds. What follows is, in turns, heart-stopping action, dark humor, and further fun with Stella, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite tough girls. Less violent and more funny than the first book, this is a winner. Four stars.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Funny, unpretentious book. A cozy with bite appeal.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    When one visualizes the protagonist of a noir book, one thinks of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade or even Spenser or Dave Robicheaux, but not of Stella Hardesty, a 50-year old former victim of domestic abuse from tiny Prosper, Missouri. I say 'former victim' because Stella, the star of Sophie Littlefield's new series of mysteries, shelved the term 'victim' for good and all when she shot and killed her no-good, wife-beating husband Ollie and convinced a jury that it was self-defense. Once she discovers that she is free of Ollie, Stella takes it upon her self to share her good fortune by guiding other battered wives & girlfriends to the light and sending their abusive men folk to, well, wherever.In the latest installment, Stella’s designs on Sheriff 'Goat' Jones are foiled by the unexpected return of Goat’s estranged wife, Brandy, who had left Goat years before. Brandy has been talking to some of Stella's clients and strongly suggests that tales of her extracurricular activities might reach Goat’s ears if she didn’t keep away from her husband. This becomes hard to do when a tornado uproots the snack bar at the local drive-in revealing the mummified remains of a young woman buried in its foundation. Called on to prove the innocence of the contractor who built it, Stella is again thrown together with Goat, Brandy, and a host of other characters both good & bad. Sophie Littlefield is great at describing characters and their interactions. Despite the seriousness of the subject, she still manages to inject a bit of humor and lightheartedness into her stories.‘A Bad Day for Pretty’ is the second Stella Hardesty book penned by Littlefield and the first that I’ve read. At a recent book signing the author assured me that I would have no problems picking up the series at book two, a statement I found to be only partially true. While I was completely able to follow the story of this book I fear she revealed way more than I would have liked about events that transpired in book one. Because of this, I think it is best to read ‘A Bad Day for Sorry’ first.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    The sequel to A Bad Day for Sorry. Stella is still hot and bothered by the sheriff's attention, which is progressing nicely, it seems. That is, until they are interrupted by his ex-wife claiming that the divorce was never finalized. Stella beats a hasty retreat only to receive a call from a former client about her "rehabilitated" husband. No, he hasn't fallen back into his old ways, but he seems to be the main suspect in the death of a woman whose body was just discovered.In the beginning, I thought this book was falling short of the earlier one. Gone are the humorous touches. But also gone is most of the violence. In the end, I liked it. Chrissy, the client from the first book, is shaping up to be a reliable sidekick for future books. Stella's daughter, Noelle, and several other characters barely mentioned in the first book were also more fully introduced in this one. The mysteries were just a little convoluted, but overall a solid, and fun, read. Looking forward to more.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Stella Hardesty makes her living "convincing" abusive males they really don't want to be abusive any more. Her methodology is best described as extra-legal, and she withholds most of the details from her beau the local sheriff. This episode of her adventures is the sequel to A Bad Day for Sorry, which I have not read, but I don't think that created any problem in understanding and enjoying this one.Stella is called by a former client to help prove that her husband is not guilty of a murder he is suspected of. While she's investigating this, Stella is still recovering from physical wounds suffered in a shooting during her previous adventures, and she is dealing with the sudden reappearance of Goat's ex-wife Brandy. Or is she an ex-wife? She's also breaking in a mysteriously adopted dog, training a new partner, and feeling quite jealous at the sudden arrival of a female forensic team member who obviously has her sights set on Goat also.The plot in this one is somewhat convoluted, but I loved the characters, and I adored Stella's smart-ass take on life. She is not going to let any man get the better of her, having already killed abusive husband #1. Nuf said. I don't want to ruin a solid read. It's not great crime fiction, but it's more than just chick-lit. Littlefield has given us a character who has much potential for future adventures. Think Kinsey Milhone with a chip on her shoulder.
  • Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
    This is the second of Littlefield's mysteries starring Stella Hardesty, a woman who once had an abusive husband until she did something terminal about it, and who now moonlights as a "last resort" for other abused women. Despite that basic premise of Stella's activities, this second book in the series has nothing to do with battered women—Stella is trying to exonerate a friend who is accused of a murder and exploring a romance with the local sheriff.I don't recommend this book. It was readable but I won't remember it a month from now. The plot was pretty shallow and the characters extremely thin. Even the villains in the story failed to evoke any real emotion. Perhaps my biggest disappointment is Stella, herself. Littlefield just didn't manage to convince me that this somewhat bumbling owner of a sewing shop really has the chops to get away with fairly regular and serious felonies. My thought upon finishing the book was that the author tried to take Stephanie Plum down south and make her totally kick-ass...somewhat of a contradiction in terms, and it shows.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Sara Hardesty returns after her adventures in "A Bad Day for Sorry."She had been abused for years and finally killed her abusive husband with a wrench. Now she helps other women get out of abusive situations.She's having dinner at Sheriff "Goat" Jones' home. The two of them have been building up to something more physical and things are just looking good when the Sheriff's scheming ex-wife, Brandy, arrives.Brandy hasn't seen Goat in three years and each claims that the other neglected to sign the divorce papers so they're still legally married.At the same time, a tornado rips theough the town and blows over the snack shop at the demolition derby in the fairgrounds. Under the rubble, the body of a dead woman is found.Neb Donovan had been in charge of construction of the snack shop and he becomes the main suspect. His wife, Stella hires Sara to look into things and clear Neb's name. She had asked Sara to intervene in the past when Neb had been addicted to Oxyconton. It appeared that his recovery had gone well, until now.This is another entertaining novel from the author. There are some laugh out loud moments and the author keeps the reader's attention as layers of the puzzle are peeled away and a possible solution is arrived at.It is refreshing to see a woman who had been abused stand up for herself and Sara along with her new assoicate, Chrissy, show they have the strength to take matters into their own hands.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Avenging angel, Stella Hardesty, is at it again. Stella was introduced to readers in Sophie Littlefield’s debut novel, "A Bad Day for Sorry," a novel that Stella barely survived. Now, in "A Bad Day for Pretty," Stella is nearing full recovery from her injuries and is again ready to take on any man foolish enough to physically abuse his wife. The fact is, Stella has more potential business than any dedicated avenging angel can be expected to handle but she is more than willing to do what she can to help out a sister in trouble.Stella, though, is not your typical vigilante. First, she is 50-something years old; second, she still runs the sewing machine shop she was left with when she ridded herself of her abusive husband in the first novel in the series. The resulting, and rather misleading, image allows Stella to maintain a low profile with local cops (she is even semi-romantically involved with the local sheriff as this new one begins) but, within the closed community of abused women, she is well known - and available to help.In an unusual twist, Stella now finds herself defending, not trying to intimidate, a man. Neb Donovan, whose wife begs Stella for help, is suspected of having murdered the woman whose body is unearthed when a tornado strikes the local demolition derby track. Stella has a history with the man, having already helped him kick a vicious oxycontin habit, and she finds it hard to believe that he could have killed anyone and buried them in a concrete-filled hole. Stella takes on Neb’s case and, with the help of Chrissy Shaw (also a first novel survivor) and a cast of colorful characters, she sets out to prove his innocence."A Bad Day for Pretty" is a wild ride. It mixes hardcore vigilante justice with humor in a way that keeps the reader rooting for Stella and Chrissy despite their easy way with breaking the law - and a few arms and legs if that will get the job done. Stella’s appeal is her ability to see and accept herself for what she is. She is a woman’s advocate who understands that the justice system cannot always protect a woman from the man she lives with - that there is a point, if a woman is to survive, when justice comes from the blunt end of a baseball bat. She also recognizes that, despite what she suffered at the hands of her former husband, she is ready for a new romance - and that the clock is ticking. She is every abused woman’s idea of Superwoman, and that is pretty cool.Rated at: 3.5
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    I enjoyed this one. It's second in the series, but works as a stand alone. It's sort of a cozy (all the elements are there - amateur detective, small town, kooky assistants) but it's a little darker than most cozies. Stella Hardesty's husband abused her. She took care of the fellow, and now earns her living by convincing other men that they shouldn't abuse the women in their lives. Her methods are not exactly legal, but she gets results. That, however, is not the main plot in this book. One of Stella's reformed abusers is now being accused of a murder he didn't commit. His wife asks Stella to find the real killer. Stella agrees, but she's got to work around the town's sheriff - who she's also dating.There are enough twists to keep things interesting and the ending is satisfying. I'm looking forward to hearing more from Stella.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    A great suspense novel! Now I have to go get the previous book. Full review TK.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    Stella Hardesty has learned to be a creative problem solver late in life. The victim of an abusive relationship, Stella solved her first problem with the assistance of a very large wrench applied to her husband's head. Her covert reputation has spread and now Stella runs an illicit business readjusting the attitudes of other abusers. Stella's commitment to her new line of work presents a bit of a problem as she has an enormous crush on Prosper, Missouri's biggest law abider, sheriff Goat Jones. In A Bad Day for Pretty, the sequel to A Bad Day for Sorry, Stella is called in to protect a previous client's husband, Neb Donovan, from an accusation of murder. A tornado has unearthed a mummified body in a foundation he poured years ago while in an oxycontin haze. Stella is convinced of his innocence and with some mild breaking and entering, computer hacking, gossiping, and applied torture she's able to illicit a confession from the true killer and a smooch from Goat Jones.Billed as a crime novel this is really mystery-lite. A fast read with an interesting mix of self deprecating humor, girly gossip, and mothering delivered with a southern drawl and a small quotient of violence and suspense.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    This was interesting. I'm not sure I would call this book a full-fledged cozy. It was minus blood and gore but had more "saucy" language than the typical cozy. Stella Hardesty has a side business where she helps battered women take care of their brutal boyfriends/husbands. She, herself, had taken a wrench to the head of her husband several years ago. Stella's side business is hush-hush, whispered in back rooms of salons or behind closed doors. She wouldn't want her potential boyfriend, the town sheriff, to find out. The series is set in tornado-alley Kansas where Stella still has nightmares about her uncle's death. There's a lot of humor in "Pretty" and every time Stella spoke I was hearing The Closer's Lt. Brenda Lee Johnson's voice in my head. Stella is asked to clear a friend of murdering a woman and burying her in concrete, something the man doesn't remember since he was heavy into drugs the time the woman disappeared. As if she doesn't have enough to do, Stella also is confronted by her boyfriend's not-so-ex wife. There's a cast of colorful characters to round out this enjoyable read.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    In the second of this series Stella is still fighting the cause of abused wives. I am glad there is less graphic abuse and a little less drinking in this one. Stella is a woman with spunk and she fights a righteous fight. The story starts with Stella having dinner with her sort of beau Sheriff Goat Jones only to have his ex. appear on the scene. The next day a tornado touches down at the local track and reveals a dead body, the main suspect is a friend and Stella feels he is not guilty. So starts the story. It is fast paced and good reading. Will Stella win over Sheriff Jones wife, will she be able to clear Neb from a murder charge? You will have to read to find out. And I suggest you do. Don't let the cover fool you, this is not chick-lit. I love Stella as a fifty something real woman with heart.I received this book as a ARC

Book preview

A Bad Day for Pretty - Sophie Littlefield


JUNE 1966

Mama was already down in the cellar with Gracellen and Patches. Gracellen was four years younger than Stella—just a baby, only three—so all she cared about was Mama said they could light candles and make a tent with blankets on the card table. Patches knew something was wrong, though—she whined and paced in circles, her toenails clacking on the floor and her tail between her legs.

Daddy said Stella could stay upstairs for a few more minutes while he and Uncle Horace got ready to go help the trailer park people. It wasn’t part of their regular job—Daddy and Uncle Horace were Missouri Highway Patrolmen—but when a tornado came, everybody had to help each other out, ’specially if it was a bad one. And this was going to be the worst one since sixty-one, Daddy said.

The special radio crackled and buzzed in the front room. Winds up to two hunnert ten, a man’s voice drawled.

Outside, the sky was turning green. The little trees the Marshes had planted in their yard next door looked like they wanted to bend over all the way down to the ground. Jamie Marsh’s tricycle went driving itself down the driveway sideways, then flipped over onto the lawn, where it sat upside down with the wheels spinning.

Daddy and Uncle Horace were loading the big metal box of first aid stuff into the trunk of Horace’s old blue car, along with flashlights and coils of rope. They might have to drive folks from the trailer park over to the high school—that’s where the Kiwanis were setting up coffee and sandwiches and cots. Most people would already have drove theirselves, Daddy said, but you never knew when people were going to get stubborn.

Stella stayed on the porch as hail clattered on the roof. A flash of lightning made her jump, and she counted—one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four—before the thunder exploded like it was right down the street. Stella could feel the crash in the floorboards, up through her feet into the middle of her tummy.

Now you go on down with Mama and Gracie, Daddy said, climbing back up on the porch for a last kiss on the cheek. Rain dripped from his slicker and his cap, but he didn’t seem to care, so Stella decided she wouldn’t either, and she didn’t wipe away the wet kiss from her cheek. Be good.

Bye-bye now, Stella-Bella, Uncle Horace called from the drive, giving her a little salute.

Come back soon, Daddy, Stella said, her voice small under the sound of the whipping winds. I’m scared.

I’ll be back before you know it, sweetheart, Daddy said. Behind him, Horace sang the silly song he always sang for her: Stella Stella, Bo-Bella. But we have to go help these folks first.

Why do you got to help them?

Daddy laughed, his smoky voice booming and big. Why? ’Cause helpin’ folks is what men do when they grow up.

Stella shut the front door tight like Daddy said, and ran down the stairs to the cellar, where it was warm and cozy and Mama had a plate of pecan sandies and a cup of Kool-Aid ready for her.

By the next morning, Uncle Horace was dead. A shard of metal window casing broke off one of the trailers in the whipping wind, flew through the air, and pierced his heart.


This’ll put hair on your chest," Sheriff Goat Jones said, handing Stella a little spice jar. His legs were so long that his knees brushed against hers under the old pine table, causing a feathery quiver to flutter through her body.

Hot … pepper flakes, Stella Hardesty read, squinting at the label as she accepted the uncapped jar. Her reading glasses were home on the bedside table. She wasn’t planning on needing them tonight. She’d had her eye on the sheriff for just about as long as he’d lived in Prosper, and she figured she had his fine form just about memorized.

Yeah. Really, go ahead. Goat gestured at the steaming plate of chicken and dumplings, silky sauce pooling next to bright green beans tossed with slivered almonds. Whenever dinner seems like it needs a little something extra, that does the trick. Gets the eyes to smartin’, you know?

Stella nodded, but she didn’t know, not really. Her dead husband, Ollie, had never cooked so much as a can of franks and beans, though he’d spent the twenty-six years of their marriage complaining about her cooking. A man in an apron was still a novelty to Stella, but she thought she might be able to get used to it.

Three years, six months, and three days after Ollie died, here she was having dinner with a man who cooked, cleaned, didn’t pick his teeth, and had never hit a woman in his life. Things could hardly get any better, so why was she so nervous?

Stella hadn’t reached the half-century mark without seeing a little of the world. She had been to Kansas City. She’d eaten in a damn four-star restaurant. She knew which fork to pick up when, and she could fake her way through a wine list, and it had been several decades since she’d felt obliged to leave her plate clean.

But closing her fingers around the little bottle, brushing the sheriff’s broad-knuckled, strong fingers with her own, she more or less forgot how to make words into sentences and found herself shaking the jar in rhythm with her own pounding heart, all the while unable to look away from those blue-blue eyes, which even in candlelight spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e in spades.

Damn, Stella. … I guess you like it hot, Goat said, watching the pile of pepper flakes accumulate on top of her chicken.

Stella felt the blood rush to her face and set the jar down on the table with a thud. Goat had been having that effect on her since the first time she laid eyes on him, but the difference nowadays was that instead of giving her a rosy glow, blushing turned the network of scars on her face bright pink.

It had been three months since her last case sent her to the hospital with a couple of bullet wounds and sixty-eight stitches—most of them in her face—but the other guys had fared far worse. Three fewer scumbags polluted Sawyer County, Missouri—four, if you counted the wife-beating husband of Stella’s client Chrissy Shaw, who’d practically died of sheer stupidity. Well, that and a Kansas City mobster in a bad mood.

Stella had healed up mostly fine, and even managed to drop fifteen pounds from eating hospital food, and just last week Sheriff Goat Jones had invited her to dinner to celebrate her return to health.

All of which was great. Except for one little tiny problem: though Goat had done some creative fact-spinning on her behalf to ensure that all the potentially incriminating loose ends were tied up after her bloody bout of justice-wreaking, the fact remained that he was a shield-wearing, rights-reading, example-setting enforcer of the law, which put him just about exact opposite Stella where it mattered.

Stella dealt in matters of crime and punishment, too. Only her methods weren’t exactly endorsed by the Police Union. Her brand of justice was doled out in secret, in back alleys and secluded shacks, in the dead of night, far away from any citizens who might be startled by the screams of the latest woman-abusing cretin who was having his attitude adjusted.

Because that woman was Stella Hardesty, who’d taken her own husband out with a wrench those three and a half years ago—and who never intended to let another woman get smacked around if she could help it.

And usually, Stella could help it. Could help the woman who heard about her in a whispered conversation, who tucked her name away in a far corner of her mind, until the day came when things finally got so bad that there were no other options. When the courts failed, when the restraining order didn’t manage to restrain anything, when the man who promised he’d never do it again at ten o’clock forgot his promise by midnight. When a beaten woman finally picked herself up the floor and washed off the blood and took inventory of the latest bruises and something snapped and she decided this time was the last time—when that day came, she knew where to go, and who to see: Stella was ready for the job.

So… Goat lowered his fork to his plate and regarded her expectantly.

Stella smiled wildly, casting about for something clever to say. It was ridiculous; never, during the many times their paths had crossed in a professional capacity, had she had any trouble talking to the man. Even when she was trying to keep him from figuring out exactly what the hell she was up to. Which, now that she thought about it, described nearly all their conversations.

Seems like it’s raining even harder, she settled on, immediately regretting it. Jeez—she couldn’t come up with anything better than that? They’d already discussed the tornado that had come blowing through town earlier in the day. That had seen them through the appetizer—how she’d heard on the radio on the way over that it was a four on the EF scale, enough to pull up trees and toss around cars. In fact, the announcer reported that the twister had taken out some utility sheds and a snack shack out at the fairgrounds.

They didn’t use the EF scale back when she was little. Stella didn’t know what the tornado that killed her uncle Horace had been rated. But the memories from that night stayed fresh—the waiting, the sounds of the winds beating at the house above them … the terrible heaviness of her father’s tread on the stairs when he finally returned.

You okay there, Dusty? Goat said, peering at her closely.

Stella took a breath. The memories still made her catch her breath, made her heart beat a little faster.

I’m fine. Just … I wonder if there’s gonna be another one coming through.

Well, there might, Goat said. They didn’t downgrade from the Tornado Warning to a Watch yet—least, not before I turned the scanner off. They got a wall cloud over in Ogden County, looked to be going almost thirty miles an hour northeast. Guy on the radio said they had a report of a waterspout over the lake, down by Calhixie Cove—that was right before you got here.

Stella’s eyes flicked over to the scanner on the kitchen counter. It was a sleek, compact thing, a far cry from the clunky NOAA weather radio her daddy owned when she was a little girl. Buster Collier turned it on the minute the sky darkened, and listened to the storm reports like other men followed the Cardinals. How many times had her mother scolded her father to turn off the radio when she put dinner on the table? That was her dad, though—especially after Uncle Horace was killed. It was like he couldn’t bear not knowing, like if he turned away from the radio, the storm might rage out of control and snatch away something else dear to him.

Goat’s little house was built snug and tight, but she could still hear the winds whistling outside, the crackle of twigs blown up against the windows.

So another one’s coming our way, she said softly. That happened sometimes; they called it a swarm. I surely don’t like tornadoes.

Is that right? A tough gal like you, Dusty? Goat’s grin quirked up, teasing, but then he seemed to sense her apprehension and the smile faded. He set his fork and knife down and reached across the table for her hand, folding it in his, squeezing gently, and a strange thing happened: on top of the hot-hot gotta-get-me-some-of-that charge that generally accompanied every interaction with Goat, Stella felt something else, an unexpectedly tender something that for some reason caused her eyes to get all teary and her heart to lurch dangerously.

It was almost like … like he was offering her safety.

And safe was something she’d vowed never to take for granted again, something she had decided she’d rather live without than ever be lulled into a false sense of security. Trust was a door Stella had shut forever.

But Goat’s eyes in the candlelight were deep as an indigo ocean, and his fingers stroking hers were warm and strong and rough from hard work. I mean, just because, you know, they’re such a pain …, she stammered. Power failures and trees getting knocked down and all that, you know?

I kind of like tornadoes, Goat said. His voice, always deep and drawly, seemed to have gone a couple notches lower. All that crazy energy? Like a front-row seat to the end of the world or something.

That’s what it had been for Horace, all right. … Daddy’s little brother, good with the ladies. They said he was better looking than Daddy, though Stella knew better. Horace loved to tie flies, but he hated to fish. Came for Sunday suppers, but never quite managed to get up in time for church. Brought Stella licorice and challenged her to watermelon-seed-spitting contests …

Stella realized Goat was waiting for her to say something, but nothing came to mind. Hell, she was quite a head case tonight. She’d thought about canceling, but she’d been looking forward to tonight—so she snapped off the radio once they announced the twister had blazed its path through town without injuring anyone, then gritted her teeth and driven over in the pouring rain, trying to keep her heartbeat under control.

Still, maybe a date was a bad idea. Her body might have recovered from the whole killing-spree thing, but it looked like her emotions might need a little more time in the airing cupboard before she took them on the road.

She hadn’t thought about Uncle Horace in years. And what was with the tears? She’d survived worse—way worse than a wayward little memory—without cracking like this. It was downright embarrassing.

Goat’s dining room suddenly seemed a little too small. She blinked a couple times and pulled her hand away from under Goat’s. Maybe she did want him bad, but she didn’t need his pity, or sympathy, or whatever the hell it was that was causing him to turn on the charm.

He sighed and tapped his fingers on the table. Look, Dusty, you know what you need?

Stella shook her head, helping herself to an oversize sip from her wine glass.

You need a little meat on those bones. You’re looking awful skinny. Come on, now, try the chicken. It was my mom’s recipe.

Stella couldn’t help it—she sat up a little straighter and inhaled a nice big breath that set off her bosoms to their best advantage. Skinny wasn’t a word she’d heard directed her way in a long time. Even shed of those fifteen hospital pounds, she was still on the generous side of womanly.

Well—some fellas liked that.

Maybe it would be possible to get this evening back on track after all. She gave Goat her best there’s-more-of-me-where-this-comes-from smile. Why, thank you, Goat.

So—come on, just a bite. Goat’s grin tilted to one side of that broad, sexy mouth.

Um. Stella picked up her knife and fork and carefully cut a dainty bite of chicken and slipped it in her mouth. Immediately a capsaicin-packing burst of heat rocketed across her lips and tongue, and Stella flapped her hands and mewled in pain, swallowing the mouthful and praying that it wouldn’t set her gut on fire. She grabbed her water glass and took a powerful swig, letting the water overflow out the corners of her lips and down her cheeks.

When she finally opened her eyes, gasping for breath, she saw that Goat was laughing.

He was covering it up pretty well, trying to keep a serious expression on his face, but his muscular shoulders were quaking with mirth, and his eyes were all crinkly with amusement.

Darlin’, a little dab of that hot pepper’ll probably do the trick next time, he finally said.

Stella glared and finished off her water. She set the glass down hard on Goat’s dining room table, making the candles jump and skitter in their brass holders. I’ll try to remember that.

You’ve got a… Goat reached out and carefully brushed at her lower lip, his fingertip caressing the tender spot above her chin in a way that caused a little shiver to shoot up from her toes to somewhere along her spine, leaving sparklers lit up all along the way. A flake, I think.

He showed her the tip of his finger, and sure enough there was a tiny little speck of pepper stuck to it. Stella picked up her napkin and dabbed daintily at her mouth.

Oh, she said. Thanks.

She set her napkin back on her lap and Goat kept his gaze fixed on her face and damn if she didn’t find herself staring back, and then a few seconds or maybe it was a few hours went by, Stella couldn’t be sure, and he slowly reached for her hand again, right there on the smooth pine surface of the dining room table, and this time Stella let him, and she had time to remark to herself on just how big Goat’s hand was compared to hers as he ran his thumb slowly over the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrist—and then the doorbell rang.

Stella blinked.

It rang again, three quick blasts, and Goat released her hand and she managed, barely, not to cuss out loud.

Excuse me, he said softly, and pushed his chair back. At least the man had the decency to sound disappointed.

He unfolded himself from the table, all six-foot-four of hard-muscled law enforcement pride of Sawyer County, and as he went to the door, Stella took the opportunity to scrape as much of the hot pepper off her chicken as she could, burying it in a little pool of sauce with her fork.

The ringing had turned to pounding by the time Goat got the door opened, and the rush of the wind and rain splatting against the house drowned out whatever the visitor had to say, though Stella could make out a high and rather desperate-sounding voice.

Stella turned in her chair just in time to see Goat stagger back and send the door banging against the wall.

What the hell are you doing here, Brandy? he demanded.

A generous five feet of womanly curves clattered into the house on ridiculously high heels and stood shaking a fuchsia umbrella out on the hardwood floor, touching bloodred-tipped fingers to a complicated platinum-blonde updo.

I declare, Goat Jones, she said. That’s a fine way to greet your wife.


Your wife?" Stella demanded, pushing back her chair and standing in order to view the full measure of this disturbing turn of events.

Goat’s gaze flicked from one woman to the other and back. He retreated from the front door, still holding a kitchen towel, which he waved in front of him like a matador confronting an angry bull.

Uh, Stella, this is my ex-wife, Brandy Truax—

Not quite, babycakes, the petite party-crasher said. She finished her hair-fluffing with a final pat or two and tugged at the bottom hem of her snug knit skirt. There wasn’t quite enough skirt to go around, and Brandy’s straightening efforts revealed a band of skin around her midriff. Her sweater was knit of thick pink yarn and might have kept her warm and toasty, except for the fact that it seemed to have been designed for a five-year-old and didn’t begin to cover the top half of a decidedly grown-up and almost certainly fake set of breasts. With her skyscraping platform shoes and her top-heavy mass of curls and her sparkly makeup and extra-long lashes, Brandy looked like she’d been hanging around Dolly Parton long enough to pick up some fashion tips. You never quite got around to signing the documents, remember?

Me? Goat paused midshuffle. "It was you that wouldn’t sign, remember? I just paid that shyster Gordy Gates another six hundred bucks to drive the latest copy over to you back in January. He said you told him you needed to talk to your astrologer and figure out the right moon phase for signing, or some such load of crap."

Brandy sighed dramatically and set her purse, a large gold oblong clutch tricked out with studs and metal trim, down on the table with a thunk. She didn’t seem to notice or care that she had nearly knocked over the bottle of wine from which Stella had consumed a mere half glass—a show of temperance that now seemed like it might have been wasted.

You, me, does it really matter who it was? Brandy asked no one in particular. "I swear, that’s what got us in trouble in the first place, Goat, all that finger-pointin’. Never does a bit of good, if you ask

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