CHAPTER ONE

    “Bye, Gram.” Tara Jones blew a kiss at her grandmother’s photo, twisted her wet hair into a knot and hurried out the door for work. After studying until three a.m. for her nursing final, she needed a second wind. Her Saturday morning regulars and a full afternoon of teenage angst awaited her at the hair salon. 

   Tara unlocked the faded ‘91 Ford that Gram had left her and climbed in. A loud screech erupted when she turned the key. Worse than yesterday. She winced. Finally, the motor sputtered to life and she began breathing again. 

   The clock on the dash read 6:43, as it had for the past two years. It was actually 7:21. No time to spare. Tara babied the clutch at the only stoplight in town but the engine died anyway. She patted the dashboard. “Come on, Old Blue. Give me six more months. Then I’ll find you a nice junkyard somewhere warm.” 

   But she may as well wish on a star. The car didn’t start. 

   Her head drooped to the steering wheel. Just to be sure, she turned the key one more time. No good. Sal Esposito’s auto repair—the only shop in Pine View—was on this very corner. What were the odds? Tara groaned. She dropped the stick to neutral, opened the door and climbed out. As she pushed it into the parking lot, she replayed Sal’s voice-mails in her head. For years she’d made it clear she had no interest. How long could a guy wait? Now she’d have no choice but to talk to him.

   Sal wasn’t in yet. Tara scribbled a note, left it on the dash and jogged the three blocks to work. Gwen waited beneath the half-lit neon sign that read Hair We Are, a moniker that threatened to bring back the eighties, as did most of the furnishings inside. “Hey, Gwen, you’re early.” Working to catch her breath, Tara unlocked the front door. “Are you ready for the onslaught?”

   Gwen heaved a sigh, shifting her curvy body on feet clad in leopard-print heels that looked too high and too tight for a full day’s work. “Do I have a choice? I deal with fussy toddlers at home, then I come here for a preview of their teen years.” She moved a shock of pink bangs from her forehead. 

   Tara opened the door and flicked on the lights. Gwen strode past the faded sofa and wobbly chairs in the front. Earline, the owner, had purchased new throw pillows several weeks back and they only made the couch look older. Gwen leaned close to the mirror at her station, teasing her hair so it stuck out in the back. “I added the blue streak last night. Do you think it’s bright enough?”

   “Sure.” Tara shrugged. Unlike most stylists she knew, Tara didn’t mess with her hair color. Her dark wavy hair was the one good thing she got from her mother. Tara scanned the room, making a mental list of what needed to be done in the next thirty minutes. “We have to hurry. I need to dry my hair before my eight o’clock gets here.” 

   Gwen had started at the salon two weeks before. The day before Earline told Tara to train Gwen on the management tasks since Tara would be leaving when she finished school. With that in mind, she led Gwen to the supply room. Black metal shelves lined three walls and a small bistro table that looked like it had spent a few decades in Earline’s backyard was crammed in the corner, flanked by two unmatched folding chairs. “We keep all the supplies in here. Don’t take anything home—not even a bobby pin—without paying for it. Earline doesn’t give second chances.” 

   Gwen nodded.

   They headed to the reception area. “There are some toys in this bin for children to play with. Did she tell you her policy on kids?”

   “She has a policy on kids?” Gwen shot her a dubious look. 

   Tara smoothed her hand across the antique oak countertop. Beneath it were several glassed-in shelves filled with hair products, accessories, and a basket of candy bars. “She’s old school, figures they should be seen and not heard. So if they act up, we give them the candy of their choice and add it to the bill.” 

   “No way.” 

   Tara laughed at Gwen’s raised brows. “Last summer, she threatened to give a kid a puppy if his mom ever brought him in here again.” 

   “Does she still come in?”

   “Yep. Alone.” Tara retrieved the cash bag from the small safe beneath the register. She began arranging its contents in the drawer and pointed to a cabinet along the wall between the front door and the counter. “Can you make coffee?”

   “Yeah.” 

   “It’s the one thing I refuse to do around here. Earline buys the most awful stuff.” Tara stopped, embarrassed at badmouthing the boss to a new employee. “Anyway, if you could get the coffee started, I’ve got to check on a few things.” She hurried to the back and pushed aside the flowered curtain leading to the supply room. All of the prep was completed ahead of schedule.  “Can I do your hair?” Gwen asked. 

   Tara pulled the tie from her damp hair and worked out the tangles with her fingers. “No need. You’re going to be on your feet all day. I’ll just dry it really quick.” She didn’t have any reason not to trust Gwen, but old habits were hard to break.  

   Gwen’s face fell and Gram’s words came to mind. Everyone deserves a chance, Tara. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?  Tara sighed. “Do you mind using my station?”

   Gwen brightened. “No. I’ve been wondering what kind of dryer you use. I’m thinking about getting some better stuff once I get caught up on my bills.” She combed Tara’s hair and pulled it up. “You look totally hot with your hair up.”

   Tara instinctively fingered the jagged scar below her left ear. “I don’t like wearing it up.” 

   Gwen glanced at the mark. “If you wore dangly earrings no one would notice it.”

   Tara softened at the sincerity in Gwen’s voice and pushed the old memory aside. It had been a long time. The only people who knew what had happened were gone now. Except for her best friend, Rita. Tara shrugged. “Do what you want.”   

   Gwen worked with gusto and had Tara’s hair styled in half the time it would have taken Tara to do it herself. Gwen stepped back and admired her work. “I can see why you don’t color your hair. It’s like dark chocolate.” 

   “Thanks. You’re gonna breeze through today.” Tara used a hand mirror to see the back of her hair reflected in the larger one on the workstation. “It’s perfect. And not overdone for what I’m wearing. When I tell people who did it, you’ll have clients lined up around the block.” 

   “I hope so. I’ve got three other mouths to feed and I’m late on my rent.” 

   “Are you married?” Tara nodded toward the ring on Gwen’s finger.

   “Separated. Just in time for the holidays,” she said in a sing-song sarcasm. “Bobby can’t seem to keep his equipment to himself so he’s spending Christmas alone.”

   The bell above the door jangled. “Well, well, who do we have here?” Tara’s eight o’clock, a rotund bespectacled man with thick white hair and matching whiskers ambled in. He set two cups of coffee and a pastry bag on the front counter. “Floyd Vargas.” He smiled and extended a gnarled hand toward Gwen.

   “Hi, I’m Gwen.” She smiled, returning his handshake.

   “Good morning, Floyd,” said Tara. “Gwen started a few weeks ago. This is her first Saturday.”

   Floyd eased onto the chair at Tara’s station. “If I’d known, I would’ve brought something for you. We’ve got this little ritual. Every time I come in, I harass Tara about her non-existent love life. This is how I soften the blow.” He handed Tara a sack and took a large bite of chocolate frosted donut. Chased it with coffee.

   “That’s okay.” Gwen laughed. “I ate at home. I’ll just listen in.”

   Tara cast a dark look at Floyd. “No change in status since last week. Single and holding.” She pulled a croissant out of the bag.

   He waved a hand. “You’re not gettin’ any younger. Mimi and I had three kids by the time she was your age.”

   Tara shook her head and wolfed down her croissant. “Thank you. That hit the spot.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Ready?”

   “Yep.” Floyd polished off the last bite of his donut and shuffled to the back where Tara waited at one of four black shampoo bowls. 

   “Never seen you with your hair up, missy. Looks great. Do you have a hot date after work?” He whispered the last part behind his hand.

   Tara flashed her eyes at him. 

   “Why, thank you, Floyd, how kind of you to mention it,” he said in a falsetto voice. 

   “Thank you for the compliment. No, I do not have a date.” She tipped the chair back and placed a steaming towel over his face. Floyd was in for a shave. The shampoo bowl and chair were less than ideal for that purpose, but she made it work by padding the rim with a folded towel. Tara picked up her straight razor, sweeping the blade back and forth over the pad of her thumb to sharpen it. 

   Gwen watched, arms folded across her generous bosom. “I thought only barbers did this.”

   “That’s what I used to think.” When the shave was complete, Tara used another hot towel to clean his skin, then applied aftershave. “I learned how to do it after the barber shop closed. Floyd came in and asked if he could get a shave every Saturday. Once I’d shaved him several times without drawing blood, some of his friends started coming as well.”

   Gwen picked up the razor and brought the blade to her thumb. “How did you—”

   “Wait!” Tara lunged for the razor. Blood from Gwen’s thumb splattered on the linoleum floor. “It’s all in the angle.”  Tara pressed a clean towel over the cut. “Hold that tight.” She retrieved a first-aid kit. 

   “How deep is it?” Gwen carefully unwrapped the towel with her face turned away.

   “It’s not bad. A Band-Aid will take care of it.” Tara glanced at Gwen’s pale face and chuckled. “Have a seat before you pass out. Do we need to keep the razors out of your reach?” 

   “I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Gwen whined. “Especially mine.”

 “I can tell.” Tara swiftly cleaned and bandaged the cut. “You should wear gloves when you shampoo people today. That’s going to sting if it gets wet. We’ll work with the straight razor next week when we’re not so busy.”

   Gwen protectively cradled her thumb. “I’m not an idiot. If my blade gets dull, I’ll just replace it.”

A mountain of problems and painful memories have Tara Jones in their grip. The moment she graduates, she plans to escape her small town and make a fresh start. On the way to her nursing final, Tara watches in horror as a car crashes in front of her. The driver is the same man who bribed her for a haircut a few days before. The one she can’t stop thinking about.

 Bo Michaels is not looking for female entanglements. He’s too busy chasing a real estate deal he believes will catapult his career. After totaling his car, Bo wakes up in the hospital with a metal contraption holding his leg together. No walking, no weight bearing, no nothing—for six weeks. Estranged from his family and having no close friends, Bo turns to Tara for help.

Tara reluctantly agrees to care for Bo in her home. The money she’ll make might enable her to pay off a debt to a frightening man who won’t leave her alone. Neither the nurse nor her patient anticipate the lightning that strikes their hearts. Just as a fragile bond develops between them, the town and shadows from the past threaten to destroy it.

Author