The Cowboy's Bride Bet - Holly Rayner Page 0,1

the board aside.

I took a last look around, hoping no one heard me. That was when I spotted a dimly lit parking lot with a dingy sign in the distance.

Does that say ‘motel’?

I narrowed my eyes as I tried to read it. Taking a deep breath, I wrinkled my nose at the pungent smell wafting out of the empty building.

Guess I may as well walk down there and check it out.

I placed the plywood panel back over the opening, leaning it against the building, and headed for the light at the end of the road.

As I got closer, I realized that the sign indicated several businesses in the vicinity; namely, The Spare Tire Repair Shop, The Cozy Dog Motel, and a little dive bar with a crooked sign over it that read Jake's Place. The windows of the motel office beckoned, their florescent lights flickering through the slatted blinds.

Tugging on the door handle, I half expected it to be locked. When it came open, I could hear muffled music playing from somewhere behind the counter.

“Hello?” I knocked on the door as I opened it, my fingers tingling from the sudden temperature change. “Anyone here?”

A girl that looked like she couldn't have been more than sixteen sat behind the front desk, headphones on with her nose buried in a book.

“Oh, sorry.” She put her book on the desk and pulled her headphones down around her neck. Her prominent Southern drawl made me smile. “How can I help you?”

“Sands of Time.” I gestured to her book. “The second one is better.”

“You read Dana Melbourne?” The girl's eyes lit up. “Most of the people in this town don't even know who she is.”

“She's probably the greatest feminist sci-fi writer of all time.” I grinned, shrugging off my backpack. “I have the whole collection back home. Could I get a room, please?”

“How long are you staying?” She swiveled her office chair to face the computer, clicking the mouse to bring it out of sleep mode.

“Just tonight for now.” I rubbed my hands together.

“It’s seventy-five for tonight, with a fifty-dollar cleaning deposit.” She blew a sizable pink bubble with her gum. “No smoking and no pets, right?”

“Right.” I unzipped my pack and reached in to pull out some cash. “Thank you.”

“Do you have an ID?” She looked up at me, and I stopped cold.

“I, uh…” I swallowed hard. “Would it be a deal-breaker if I didn’t?”

The truth was that I did have my ID. But I’d been stressing ever since I’d had to show it when I’d bought my bus ticket. The more invisible I could make myself, the better.

“I’m real sorry, but I’m supposed to take a copy of an ID and a credit card.” The girl frowned. “The owners of the Cozy Dog have had some nasty experiences with a few bad customers, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand.” I nodded, my shoulders deflating as I weighed my options. What was worse, sleeping in a stinky abandoned gas station, or leaving a footprint that Moretti may or may not sniff out?

“Tell you what.” The girl leaned forward, lowering her voice. “Since my good friend Dana Melbourne vouched for you, I’ll skip the ID. But you have to promise not to trash the room.”

“You have my word of honor.” I put one hand over my heart and held the other one up as if swearing an oath. “Thank you so much. I seriously owe you one.”

I shelled out the cash, and the girl—Cassie, according to her name badge—handed me a room key. I thanked again her and headed out.

The motel was shaped like an angular letter ‘U’. I was grateful to find that my room was on the bottom floor, in the very back corner of the building. The key stuck as I tried to let myself in, and I had to lift on the knob and jiggle it to get it to turn the rest of the way.

I closed the door behind me, put the chain lock into its metal slat, and locked the deadbolt. The heater was already on, and even though it looked like the place hadn’t been redecorated since the eighties, it was clean and cozy. Ugly landscape paintings hung about the walls, all in similarly dreary pastels that matched the seafoam-green carpet and pink, plaid curtains.

Peeking through the blinds, I counted the cars in the parking lot, picking up the notepad and pen on the nightstand and jotting down the colors and make of each one. If someone