Whiskey Flight - Violet Howe
Hit men don’t wear name badges, so I didn’t know for sure if the stranger in the corner booth had been sent to kill me or if he was just a lonely out-of-towner who’d happened to pick my local bar.
He sat alone, his beer untouched and his attention focused on his phone. His ankle-length chinos stood out in the sea of denim and khakis, and the loafers he wore without socks were a stark contrast to the cowboy boots, work boots, and sneakers on everyone else.
“Hey, Shannon,” I said to the bartender as she poured a beer from the tap in front of me. “That guy over there, the one in the corner? Have you ever seen him in here before?”
She glanced up at him and then shook her head.
“Nah. Trust me, I would have remembered him,” she said with a grin and a wink. “Definitely not from around here. A city guy, I bet. Probably looking for real estate to scoop up.”
I sneaked another peek at him as she walked away to deliver the beer to the other end of the bar.
He looked harmless enough, but I had learned the hard way that I was a bad judge of character.
I didn’t even realize my own husband was a hitman with the mob until he’d been arrested.
Even then, I hadn’t wanted to believe it was true.
How could the intelligent, sensitive, romantic, and passionate man I’d fallen head over heels in love with be a cold-blooded murderer?
This was a man who would discuss Shakespeare with me until the wee hours of the morning, and then get up early to plant Gerbera daisies in our back garden so my life would have more color. The man who would have a hot bath waiting for me after a long night at the news station where I worked, and who would sit cross-legged on the floor with his niece and her stuffed animals when she invited him to a tea party.
Granted, I’d rushed in. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been swept off my feet, and two weeks to the day after our first date, we got married in a courthouse ceremony and celebrated by dancing barefoot on the candlelit back deck of my house. Two months later, he was behind bars, and I was left alone, numb with shock, grief, and regret.
I rattled the ice cubes in my whiskey and took another sip, allowing the layered flavors of the fiery liquid to open on my tongue.
It had been two years since Victor’s arrest, and in many ways, I was still numb. And damned near destitute.
Between my legal fees and the government freezing my assets, I’d almost been bankrupted. My career had abruptly ended, and my sense of identity had been shattered along with my heart. I’d moved back home to Cedar Creek with my tail between my legs, hoping my small, rural hometown where everyone knew everyone would be a safe place to hide and heal.
No place was safe, though. Not even Cedar Creek. The detective who questioned me after Victor’s arrest had warned me that I’d likely be under two microscopes—the Mafia’s and the government’s. Either might have me followed, but only one would put a hit out on me.
Was that why the stranger was in town?
I’d first noticed him about a week earlier in the grocery store. I’d been smelling strawberries, looking for a pint a tad overripe, when he caught my eye.
He’d worn ankle-length chinos that day as well, gray instead of black. He’d paired them with a white button-down shirt cut so narrow that it hugged his ribs and threatened to burst at the seams across his pronounced biceps.
As if his metropolitan fashion choices weren’t enough to make him stand out in the rural setting, he stood staring at the cilantro and parsley with empty hands, no shopping cart or basket in sight.
When I’d first moved back to Cedar Creek, I’d been jumpy and easily startled, suspicious of everyone and wary of what danger might have followed me home from Chicago.
But after a couple of months with no incidents, I began to relax a little. I convinced myself the Mafia had no need to come after me. I’d proven I didn’t know anything, that I wasn’t any kind of threat. I told myself that they had no reason to kill me.
The stranger brought my paranoia back though, and my instinct that first day I saw him had been to put distance between us.
I left the strawberries