**Formerly published as ADDICTED TO LOVE.
The last thing Sheriff Brody Carlton expected to find when he wheeled his state-issued, white and black, Crown Victoria patrol cruiser past the Welcome to Valentine, Texas, Romance Capitol of the USA billboard, was a woman in a sequined wedding dress dangling from the town’s mascot—a pair of the most garish, oversized, scarlet, puckered-up-for-a-kiss lips ever poured in Fiberglas.
She swayed forty feet off the ground in the early Sunday morning summer breeze, one arm wrapped around the sensuous curve of the full bottom lip, her other arm wielding a paintbrush dipped in black paint, her white satin ballet-slippered toes skimming the billboard’s weathered wooden platform.
The billboard had been the vandalized before, but never, to Brody’s knowledge, by a disgruntled bride. He contemplated hitting the siren to warn her off, but feared she’d startle and end up breaking her silly neck. Instead, he whipped over on the shoulder of the road, rolled down the passenger side window, slid his Maui Jim sunglasses to the end of his nose and craned his neck for a better look.
The delinquent bride had her bottom lip tucked up between her teeth. She was concentrating on desecrating the billboard. It had been a staple in Valentine’s history for as long as Brody could remember. Her blond hair, done up in one of those twisty braided hair-dos, was partially obscured by the intricate lace of a floor length wedding veil. When the sunlight hit the veil’s lace just right it shimmered a phosphorescent pattern of white butterflies looking as if they were about to rise up and flutter away.
She was oblivious to anything except splashing angry black brushstrokes across the hot, sexy mouth.
Brody exhaled an irritated snort, threw the Crown Vic into park, stuck the Maui Jims in his front shirt pocket and climbed out. Warily, he eyed the gravel. Loose rocks. His sworn enemy. Then he remembered about his new bionic Power Knee and relaxed. He’d worn the innovative prosthetic for only six weeks, but it had already changed his life. Because of the greater ease of movement and balance the computerized leg afforded, it was almost impossible for the casual observer to guess he was an amputee.
He walked directly underneath the sign, cocked his tan Stetson back on his head and looked up.
As far as he knew—and he knew most everything that went on in Valentine, population 1,987—there’d been no weddings scheduled in town that weekend. So where had the bride come from?
Brody cleared his throat.
She went right on painting.
He cleared his throat again, louder this time.
“Ma’am,” he called up to her.
“Go away. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Dots of black paint spattered the sand around him. She’d almost obliterated the left hand corner of the upper lip, transforming the Marilyn Monroe sexpot pout into Marilyn Manson gothic rot.
The cynic inside him grinned. Brody had always hated those tacky red lips. Still, it was a Valentine icon and he was sworn to uphold the law.
He glanced around and spied the lollipop pink VW Bug parked between two old abandoned railway cars rusting along side the train tracks that ran parallel to the highway. He could see a red and pink beaded heart necklace dangling from the rearview mirror and a sticker on the chrome bumper proclaimed: I Heart Romance.
All rightee then.
“If you don’t cease and desist, I’ll have to arrest you,” he explained.
She stopped long enough to balance the brush on the paint can and glowered down at him. “On what charges?”
“Destruction of private property. The billboard is on Kelvin Wentworth’s land.”
“I’m doing this town a much needed community service,” she growled.
“This,” she said, sweeping a hand at the billboard, “Is false advertising. It perpetuates a dangerous myth. I’m getting rid of it before it can suck in more impressionable young girls.”
“What myth is that?”
“That there’s such a thing as true love and romance magic and soul mates. Rubbish. All those fairytales are complete and utter rubbish and I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.”
“Truth in advertising is an oxymoron.”
“Exactly. And I’m pulling the plug.”
You’ll get no argument from me, he thought, but vandalism was vandalism and he was the sheriff, even if he agreed with her in theory. In practice, he was the law. “Wanna talk about it?”
She glared. “To a man? You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Judging from your unorthodox attire and your displeasure with the billboard in particular and men in general, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you were jilted at the altar.”
“Perceptive,” she said sarcastically.
She didn’t respond immediately and he was about to repeat the question, when she muttered, “The Chicago Bears.”
Brody sank his hands on his hips. “The guy jilted you over football?”
“Bastard.” She was back at it again, slinging paint.
“He sounds like a dumbass.”
“He’s Trace Hoolihan.”
Brody shrugged. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
“You don’t know who he is?”
“Hallelujah,” the bride-that-wasn’t said. “I’ve found the one man in Texas who’s not ate up with football.”
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